The Lola Quartet – Emily St John Mandel

This is as gripping as any crime fiction I’ve read but with such powerful themes of innocence undone and lives unravelling, it’s so much more.

Gavin, Jack, Sasha and Daniel play in a jazz quartet at their Florida high school, and the story follows the fallout after they finish and go their separate ways, revisiting them ten years later. The charismatic and wayward Anna is at the heart of it, after she leaves Florida amid rumours of being pregnant and then steals $120,000 from a drug dealer and goes into hiding. 

Daniel helps in the first place, but leaves her to it after Anna meets a musician who helps her escape and get into hiding. Ten years later Daniel, now an overweight cop with a string of failed marriages behind him, helps when they try to deal with the pursuing dealer once and for all.

Gavin is the main character, a journalist in New York who unravels when he realises that his girlfriend Anna was pregnant ten years earlier and he’d somehow ignored the signs in a bid to move away from Florida and on with his life. A decade later he is keen to know the truth.

Jack was a fine musician but he realised early at music college that he ‘didn’t have the music’ and spiralled into a sad dependence on anti-depressants.

Sasha is the strongest character. She has never left Florida, developed a gambling addiction and works nights in a diner. There’s a great scene later in the book when she tries to win some money playing poker at the casino, with her sponsor on-hand to pull her out when she needs it.

The way the book weaves the lives of these rich characters is fantastic, and just as good is the atmosphere of jazz joints, all night diners, drug dealers, casinos and the sad desperation of a group of people who’s lives have not turned out at all as planned.

There’s such a strong theme, too, of small mistakes having big consequences: Anna getting pregnant, Daniel wanting the baby to be his, Anna stealing the money, Sasha falling into gambling, Jack inadvertently telling where Anna was, Gavin seeing a photo of Anna’s daughter….

A fine, fine book.

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Elmore Leonard – Bandits

Another top-notch caper from Leonard; too good to be true, but a brilliant, brilliant read.

It tells the story of ex-con Jack, now working as an undertaker, who meets a Nun called Lucy. Together with Jack’s co-worker and ex-policeman Leo, they confront and double-cross a leader of the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ who is a ruthless and violent killer stealing a load of cash from American donors to the anti-communist government.

As always, the plot is gripping though at times hard to follow, the characters fun and complex but sometimes a little stereotyped, the dialogue consistently droll and cool and Tarantino-like.

There is a strong theme of ridiculing anti-communist right wingers in the US, but in a way that very nicely never gets too deep into the politics, just skirts around the edges highlighting that the bad guys are on the side of the American administration and Nicaragua’s authoritarianism. Good stuff as always.

Stieg Larsson – The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest

This is an excellent conclusion to the Millennium trilogy, more complex and gripping even than the previous two.

The first two books in the trilogy allude to corruption and duplicity among the authorities but focus on the criminal aspects, on corruption in business and Salander and Blomkvist. This book is much wider in its scope, taking in the many layers of corruption in the police, security services, government and social services, that led to Salander’s horrendous predicament. In terms of Scandi-drama, it’s like reading The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen all rolled into one.

It picks up exactly where the last book left off, with Salander in hospital after trying to kill her father, Zachelenco, and half brother Niedermann, at their farm. It then follows the work of Blomkvist, his sister, Berger, Bulanski and others to uncover the truth in the trial. It’s compulsive reading all the way through, particularly Berger’s move to work at national paper SMP and the trial itself towards the end of the book.

The novel is also more noticeably about the relationship between men, women and power than the others. It opens sections talking about historical female leaders and warriors, has a number of powerful female protagonists like Berger, Modig and Giannia – Blomkvist’s sister. Many of the problems experienced by Salander and others like Berger’s harassment come from ingrained, viscous sexism from the authorities. That said, it’s interesting that for much of the book Salander is not much of a player and in fact it is a man, Blomkvist, who is directing so much that happens.

As always there are a bits in the book that are overblown, not least Blomkvist’s near-perfection and his clever, cool heroes and heroines, but these are small things in what is a big and brilliant book. 

The Girl who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

More gripping again than the first, the second in Stieg Larsson’s series is an enjoyable novel of corruption that hones in on the story of its protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

After three murders – of a couple investigating sex trafficking and Salander’s guardian Burjman – she becomes the subject of a major national murder investigation. Blomkvist is one of the few people who don’t believe her guilty, and makes the connection between them all, and battles with the police and criminal gangs to help her. As always, though, Salander saves herself and is the strongest character throughout.

What’s nice about this book is it is really about Salander – how she became who she is, and we meet her father in particular who is deeply involved in trafficking.

The book is obviously pretty unbelievable. It relies on a high degree of coincidence and the unlikely physical and mental abilities of Salander. But at the same time it tackles big subjects like power and corruption, upbringing and agency – and it’s a fantastic read.

Walter Mosley – Little Yellow Dog

The eponymous dog belongs to femme fatale Idabell and appears to be the cause of many of the problems in this, the fifth novel in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

It’s set in JFK-era US and deals characteristically with the reality of racism and race relations. Easy is a black private investigator who’s had a hard upbringing, spent time on the street and is now trying to live straight. But his skin colour, and his difficult past, keep getting in the way.

He’s now working as a supervisor in a school overseeing the building’s maintenance, but after the brother of Idabell, one of the teachers, is discovered on the school he quickly gets himself involved in unearthing what is going on. The plot as always thickens inexorably, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing even after you’ve finished the book, and Easy finds himself stuck between the police, gangsters, city officials – and the small dog he ends up looking after – all of whom want him gone.

The plot is good, like his other Easy novels, but the reason I keep reading Mosley is in part the hard boiled style and, more than anything, Mosley’s understanding of racism and poverty, of how the two are intertwined, how they define the way so much in the US works, and of how circumstances can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.

“I used to live on the edge. I used to move in darkness.

I was excited about Hannah coming out and taking me to her late-night haunt. She liked my jokes and my promise of wealth. I wondered why I had ever left such a simple and honest life.

I wondered if there was a place for me that could be like this and still allow me to hear children’s laughter in the morning.”

Walter Mosley, Little Yellow Dog

Cocaine Nights – JG Ballard

Ballard’s nightmare version of our world is as astute as ever in Cocaine Nights.

Charles Prentice has gone to Estrella de Mar, a British expat resort on the Spanish coast, where his brother Frank, who runs the resort health club, has pleaded guilty to an arson attack on the Hollinger’s house that killed five people. Charles can’t believe hid brother’s guilt and begins to investigate to find the truth.

What he discovers is a resort that appears on the surface a model of middle age Britains abroad – all tennis clubs and amateur dramatics societies – but underneath is a sordid world of drugs, petty violence, prostitution and rape about which nobody speaks.

He becomes more and more involved in the world, and discovers the ambiguous figure of Bobby Crawford is behind much of it. Ostensibly a tennis coach, he had worked with Frank and a group of others to bring life into the town. What Crawford saw was that the resort was dull and desolate, populated by people just waiting to die, but that he could inject life into it with crime. Through ongoing petty crimes – from vandalism to horrific porn – Crawford provoked an enthusiasm for life that made Estrella de Mar such a thriving place.

Charles becomes more involved with and enthralled by Bobby Crawford – part gangster, part messiah figure – until he himself begins running a resort, his brother Frank’s plight almost forgotten.

What Ballard portrays through a cast of corrupt professionals and a characterless expat backdrop is the dark side of the ideal of the ‘leisure society’, a much discussed concept that many in the West have at different times seen as the consequence of technology and capitalism creating a world where work becomes a small part of our lives. What replaces work has always been the question: poetry, arts, personal relationships, fun, debauchery, laziness…?

Ballard offers a psychoanalytic critique of the leisure society, pointing to how there is always something unknowable repressed and smouldering underneath apparent order, and this repressed element will always find ways to manifest itself. We will always find the ‘return of the real’ as Lacan might say and it is this which we’re seeing ignited by Crawford, as the repressed desires of the expats are provoked and spill over, creating a criminal underground that makes life both deadly and worth living once again.

The characters – Charles, Frank, Bobby, Paula, Sangar, the Hollingers – might be unlikable but the ideas, the imagery and the unfolding dram in which they are cast make this an excellent piece of fiction that is at once dystopian and eerily accurate.

Stieg Larsson – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m not sure what makes the perfect crime novel, but gripping writing, strong characters and deeper themes must be a mix that comes close. The first in Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl’ trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have all this.

The story is sophisticated and summarising it is tricky, but the essence is that an investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, is hired by Henrik Vanger, the CEO of a large Swedish family business and head of the big Vanger family, to investigate a girl who went missing over thirty years ago. Lisbeth Salander is a strong but emotionally troubled investigator and hacker who ends up helping Mikael. In the process they get close, discover a host of horrific secrets within the Vanger family’s history and then uncover headline-making criminal business dealings from a rival business leader, Wennerstrom.

It’s an excellent plot, as much international thriller as crime fiction.  And the main characters are very well drawn. Lisbeth, with her inner-determination but difficult life and social problems, is  particularly interesting. The fact that it was translated from Swedish make it all the more remarkable.

But what elevates the book, I think, is what it says about abuse, journalism and business.

The most prominent theme of the novel is the abuse of women by men in positions of power. Heads of families abusing daughters, business leaders using their money and status to exploit vulnerable girls, carers abusing those they are caring for… It makes for grim reading, but this is at the heart of the book. The book’s chapters are peppered with facts about sexual abuse in Sweden. And most interesting is Lisbeth’s attitude towards abuse: she experiences abuse from men on a number of occasions, never blames herself, and always seeks revenge.

We see, as well, as very idealised view of investigative journalism, with Blomkvist and the magazine he works for, Millennium, struggling to make ends meet but battling on and stopping at nothing to uncover the truth behind Wennerstrom’s activities.

And Larsson draws a strong contrast, which he makes explicit toward the end of the novel, between the valuable role of businesses in the ‘real’ economy that make things and create jobs, and the rent extracting role of the stockmarket, which simply enriches a few at the expense of the many.

The vitriol against those abusing their power is present throughout the book, both through the rage of the main characters but also in the narrative as a whole. Sometimes this makes the novel seem a little simplistic: investigative journalism is useful but perhaps not as saintly as Larsson depicts it, and the distinction between the stockmarket and the real economy is far from so easy to draw.

But these are small gripes. This is a top quality book that gripped me and got me thinking.

Touch – Elmore Leonard 

At the heart of Elmore Leonard’s novels is the combination of a fast-paced plot and the  rolling patter of a bunch of low lives on the make and ordinary Americans trying to find their way. Touch delivers all this, but adds a remarkable insight into the weird place of evangelical Christianity in the US.

Written in 1977 though not published until 10 years later because it was not a crime novel in Leonard’s typical sense, it tells the story of Juvenal, a humble man who for some reason has the ability to heal the sick and, when he does so, experiences stigmata.

As his gift becomes public he is surrounded by people wanting him in some way – part time record promoter, Bill Hills, wants to market and profit from him; right wing religious zealot August Murray wants to use him to convert people to his brand of traditionalist Catholicism and elevate himself to the position of an inflammatory religious leader; TV presenter Howard Hart wants him on TV so he can cut him down and humiliate him in front of millions; and Lynn wants him because she’s genuinely in love with him.

What Leonard brilliantly highlights is the human, all too human, concerns of the protagonists. None are interested in what it means for someone to experience stigmata, in the spiritual questions it raises. Even Juvenal himself is uninquisitive about the origins of his gifts. Instead, everyone is focused on the material and largely self-interested consequences of Juvenal’s condition.

Lynn and Juvenal are the only likeable characters in the novel, and this largely because they are not on the make, are clearly happy with one another and try hard to see Juvenal’s condition as just one element of his personality.

The fact that this was written in the 1970s adds an additional dimension to it: evangelical Christianity, particularly in the form of the Southern Baptists, has become more prevalent in the forty years since, and so what Leonard presciently describes is how the spiritual dimension of religion is subsumed by the petty concerns of everyday life, from basic survival to the media circus.

Mr Majestik – Elmore Leonard

It’s surprising, but there’s no one else quite like Elmore Leonard. His stories are gripping, his style pared down and his characters likeable and mean in equal measure. If his novels had a soundtrack I’d guess Curtis Mayfield, probably.

Mr Majestik is classic Leonard – a focused tale of crime, injustice and comeuppance.

Majestik is a hard working melon farmer who is visited by Kopas, a local small time crook. They face off and Majestik is mistakenly jailed. In jail he meets crime boss Renda organises an escape that involves Majestik who takes advantage of the situation, tricking Renda and turning him into an enemy intent on killing Majestik.

Renda keeps coming for him through the book but all Majestik wants to do is harvest his melons before they go bad.

It’s an implausible story – Renda gets too obsessed, while Majestik and his girlfriend Nancy are too good to be true – but nevertheless it’s a fantastically entertaining read, like reading a Tarantino film.

Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

Raven Black is a solid British police procedural – well drawn characters, quality dialogue and an almost believable plot. It is in the realist tradition, aiming to draw readers in through its likeness to real life.

The story is set on the isolated island of Shetland, and uses the murder of two young girls over a long period to explore the tensions on the island.

After a teenager, Catherine, is murdered, and another goes missing, suspicions fall on Magnus Tait, an old local loner suspected of killing a child twenty or so years ago for whom there was never justice. 

The local police officer, Perez, leads the investigation, vying with outside police forces for control of the case and discovering a lot about the people of the island on the way. 

The spoiler is that Tait didn’t kill either girl, though is covering for his mother who killed the first, and Catherine’s murderer and the kidnapping is in fact the work of her best friend, Sally, who envied and disliked Catherine equally.

The high quality writing and the exploration of island life make this a strong piece of crime fiction. 

Jo Nesbo – The Bat

The Bat is the first Jo Nesbo novel I’ve read, and in fact among only a few Scandinavian crime fiction books. It tells the story of Harry Hole, a Norwegian detective sent to Sydney following the brutal murder of a Norwegian there. He, of course, is a troubled cop dealing with alcoholism and the past mistakes his condition caused (particularly, the death of a fellow officer). But he is also a brilliant detective. You know the type. It’s a cliche but works when written well (I’m thinking of Lawrence Block in particular).

They track the killer down , eventually, but we meet a host of unfortunate people on the way, many of whom appear for brief periods, to be the killer – including Andrew, a high functioning drug addict and fellow police officer and Otto (the bat), a troubled gay man, Joseph an alcoholic aboriginee, drug dealer Evans White. And we meet Birgitta, a fellow Scandinavian, with whom Harry has a brief and tragic affair.

I enjoyed it, in an Ian Rankin kind of way. It was a cut above a lot of conventional page-turner crime fiction in that the characters were largely believable, the plot was interesting and credible, and, importantly, it was very easy to read. The most compelling parts were not the tracking of the criminal but the troubles of the main protagonist Harry Hole.

But, for all its entertainment, it is the kind of book that is largely forgettable. Hence the need for this blog post!

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Like its contemporary Girl on a Train, Gone Girl is part of a supposedly new genre of ‘psychological thriller.’ 

It tells the story of a couple who start off happy but end up with disappearances, accusations and murder. It alternates between each of their stories – Amy a rich New Yorker, Nick from parochial Missouri. Both out of work, they move back to Nick’s Missouri hometown and their relationship unwinds.

We see his chauvinistic tendencies first and then her controlling insecurities. The story twists and twists some more until the bizarre, if slightly far fetched truth, emerges. The end is strong in its ambiguity, revealing one of them as a dangerous murderer; yet they stay together because they need one another, despite everything.

Whether the label of psychological thriller describes anything new or not I don’t know – probably not – but Gone Girl, like Girl on a Train, works. What they in common is alternating first person narratives from unreliable narrators that gradually reveal what has happened. And what they both share, too, is a sophisticated understanding of our inner-minds that goes beyond the average crime fiction novel. Girl on a Train’s particular insight is into alcoholism and the psychology of being alone. Gone Girl’s is into relationships, what we know and don’t know about people we are close to, and how we can choose something because we need it, even if it is no good for us.

A strong novel worthy of it’s acclaim.

Hakan Nesser – The Hour of the Wolf

The Hour of the Wolf has a great premise and an excellent opening.

The premise is that a man accidentally kills a boy when driving home drunk. He hides the body and then embarks on a series of murders in order to cover up the original one. He ends up being blackmailed by a neighbour. He is not a nice guy, but you’d don’t get the sense that he’s a sadistic serial killer.

The novel is a good look at how a terrible mistake and terrible judgement sets in motion horrendous consequences.
In fact, there is an interesting theme running through it, of people feeling they have no choice but to act in particular ways, though in fact they always do – at how people feel the dice are stacked in one direction but in fact it’s not so simple.

There’s a nice twist, too, with one of the victims being related to Van Veeteran, the retired police officer who Nesser’s series of novels has focused on.

The opening of the book is particularly good. Nesser introduces the man as ‘the man who is about to murder someone’, and the boy as ‘the boy who is about to be killed’. And the following pages draw out how it happens.

Strangely, though, I didn’t love this book. In part, that’s because the plot – the hunt for the killer – kind of just runs out. As opposed to a dramatic ending, it was a bit of an anticlimax. And more importantly, the banter between the police officers, which is a big part of the novel, is a bit like other ‘hyper-realist’ crime fiction I’ve read – too obvious, too banal, somehow too much, to such an extent that it takes away from the novel. 

So … an interesting and sometimes gripping book, but a few elements that make it less than it could be.

The Switch – Elmore Leonard

Read Feb 2016

Elmore Leonard is a brilliant crime writer. Reading him is like reading a Tarantino movie. Great dialogue. Great plot. Menacing and fun characters. It’s surprising how few people write like him. Early George Pelecanos, maybe, but few others capture the reckless and entertaining violence of his books.

The Switch is the best of his novels I’ve read so far. *Spoiler alert* He tells the story of Mickey, an overlooked wife of rich but corrupt husband, Frank. Newly out of jail, Ordell and Louis decide to kidnap her and hold her to ransom. They are dodgy, but relatively harmless criminals, though unfortunately enlist the help of Richard, a psychopathic Nazi.

The kidnap itself goes as planned, but less so when they contact Frank to demand $1 million as ransom.Frank has just decided to divorce Mickey, and so doesn’t want to pay up. Eventually the blackmail fails and they let Mickey go, though not without crazy Richard causing problems that result in a shoot-out with the police.

But when Louis says she is free, Mickey doesn’t want to go home! In the best scene of the book, she hangs out for the day with Louis, drinking and smoking grass, letting herself go in a way she never does and determining to not go back to being the brow-beaten tennis mom Mickey.

After confronting Frank she ends up back with Louis and Ordell and – the final twist, the final switch – together they plan to kidnap Frank’s mistress, Melanie, and hold her to ransom ….

The Switch, more than anything, is great reading, great entertainment. But having said that, the characterisation is so strong. He captures, through dialogue rather than introspection, Mickey’s sense of being trapped and squashed by Frank, and Frank’s utter indifference to Mickey, in a way that many more ‘literary’ writers would struggle to do.

First class.

Little Green by Walter Mosley

Read January 2016

Another classic in the Easy Rawlins series, in Little Green we join Rawlins as he comes out of a coma caused by an alcohol induced crash at the end of the last book.

He immediately ends up on a case brought to him by his hard-man friend, Mouse. It’s a typically twisting Mosley plot, with racism and justice, capitalism and hippies, drugs and lowlifes. The lot.

As well as a really great idea – a young man wakes from a five day acid trip with hazy memories of violence and brothels, and a bag full of money next to his bed – what Little Green gives us is more insight into Rawlins and Mouse’s characters – their friendship, their histories, their worries.

Rawlins remains the cool PI but with more depth, and that makes Little Green one of Mosley’s best novels. 

Walter Mosley – Little Scarlet

Read Oct 2015
For such a plot-driven genre, often the most interesting elements of hard boiled crime fiction tend are the characterisation and social critique. 

This is absolutely the case with Little Scarlet, one in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels – a hard boiled private detective series with the fundamental twist that Rawlins is black.

The twisting plot, as always in this genre, is constantly shifting. It’s the LA riots, it appears that a white man killed a black woman at the tail end of the riots, and the police ask Easy to look into it. It gradually transpires that the white man was not involved and it’s a serial killer called Harold who is killing young black women, driven by his Mum’s history as a black woman who tried to to pretend she was white.

It’s a strong plot, written in classic hard boiled style. But what matters most is the characterisation and the social critique.

Easy Rawlins is a powerful protagonist. He does everything you want from a PI in a novel like this – he’s terse, he’s a loner, he’s prone to violence, and he struggles between the woman and family he loves and his desires for others.There is a moral ambiguity to Easy, who wants to do the right thing, but often that clashes with his desires on the one hand, and with what society – and the law in particular – thinks is the right thing, on the other. Hard boiled heroes are often drawn with this kind of stereotyped masculinity, and although Easy fits the category, it’s hard not to like him. 

The social critique in the Rawlin’s series is what makes Mosley stand out. Easy is black and the ongoing theme running through the series is the inequality and injustice experienced by African Americans in mid-twentieth century US. It’s present in the police force, of course, and their treatment of people, but also evident in the politics and social life throughout the novels.

What Mosely does really well in Little Scarlet in particular is highlight the anger and emotion that racial inequality leads to, and the way it manifests itself as major events like the LA riots and ongoing incidents of ‘resentiment’ – where suppressed and sometimes unarticulated feelings occasionally burst out – that are part of the everyday lives of many of the African Americans that feature throughout the book.

Racial injustice plays a causal role in everything from the race riots and the killer’s motives right through to the way Easy is treated by the police and the life chances of a young woman that Easy falls for.

It’s this – the combination of plot, character and critique – that makes Mosely a powerful novel.

George Pelecanos – Right as Rain

right as rain

Read Nov 2014

The story: private detective Strange is asked to look into the death of black cop (Wilson) who was killed off duty; he hooks up with the white cop (Quinn) who killed him and they end up working together, uncovering a drug operation that resulted in Wilson’s sister (Sondra) becoming an abused drug addict. Quinn did kill Wilson but it turns out that he was a pawn in bigger game. In the end Strange and Quinn take down the drug killers and rescue Sondra in a big showdown.

Right as rain is a good book as far as it goes – it’s kind of like The Wire, but without the depth, and a Quentin Tarantino film, but without the cool. The story is good, kind of makes sense, and as always George Pelecanos does dialogue and realism really well. And he tackles big issues like inequality, racism and drug use.

But, but, but . . . I can’t help feeling it’s all so formulaic now. Not just the plot but the characterisation, the heroic but flawed main character who saves the day but is plagued by insecurities stemming from a dark and difficult past that he tries to overcome everyday. Pelecanos’s Nick Stefanos novels and the DC Quarter felt fresh, but the more recent novels, less so.

PD James – Death in Holy Orders

death in holy orders

Read May 2014

It’s an ITV drama! In fact, I think it might have been!

This is a classic middle England detective story. An isolated Church of England retreat house with a small number of trainee clergy is the scene. First a trainee commits suicide and then, when a senior clergy person visits with news that it must be closed, he is murdered. A number of other murders follow, apparently to cover up the first.
A senior Scotland Yard inspector, Dalgleish (the protagonist of many PD James novels), knows the place from his youth and so agrees to visit. Eventually it transpires that the murderer is one of the senior clergy there who has a secret adopted son who will benefit from the centre’s swift closure.

It’s quite a gripping book but left me a little cold: not only didn’t I care about the people (that’s hardly a requisite of a good book) but I couldn’t relate to the whole set-up. It felt far-fetched, fabricated and like the book was giving us an upper middle class rural England that never existed before telling us that morally there’s something very wrong with it. Zizek would have a field day!

Elmore Leonard – The Hunted

the hunted

Read May 2014

It’s hard to read Leonard without thinking about interviews with him saying that the reason he writes books is to get a film deal. It spoils it a little, whilst also making you visualise it in the style of Quentin Tarantino. But once you put that behind you – and the fact that it’s no literary revelation – The Hunted, like other books of his, are great: interesting characters; ridiculous, but not too ridiculous, plots; engaging dialogue; very readable. It’s about a guy who had done witness protection being tracked down by people wanting to kill him. They pursue him around Israel, where the book’s set. The guy teams up with an ex US marine and a female ex Israeli Defence Force as they try to defend themselves, all ending of course in a big violent showdown. Utterly gripping at the time; almost instantly forgettable.