Crime Fiction Doesn’t Get Much Better Than This
Craig Robertson was a new writer to me, and this was one of those serendipitous discoveries for which you thank the fates. I can’t remember what led me to this book, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in any genre for a considerable time and certainly the best in crime fiction. Grace McGill’s job is deep cleaning and disinfecting rooms, flats and houses after someone has died there and not been found for long enough that they have decomposed. Robertson leads us step-by-step through a series of undiscovered and apparently natural deaths of old people before plunging us into the mystery of a young woman’s disappearance decades earlier. What happened to her? Was she murdered? If so, who by? Robertson unravels that mystery with great skill – and equally great humanity. Strongly recommended.
It’s a broccoli book – and I hate broccoli
If, like me, you were raised in a book loving family, one of the things you were taught at an early age was that books, once started, should be finished. You should read to the end, even if you don’t want to. I’ve no idea why we were taught that as children – I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I was taught all sorts of stuff that I had to disabuse myself of before I could even dream about a happy life. One of those things was eating broccoli. I did it for years. Why? Because people told me I should. It was good for me. And I hated it. And then, one day, maybe ten years ago, maybe a little less, I was in mid chew and I thought, “Why am I doing this? I don’t care how good it is for me – I hate the stuff.” I haven’t eaten it since. I’ll never eat it again.
The Darkness is like that. It’s very well written and, although I don’t speak a word of Icelandic, I can tell that Victoria Cribb’s translation is first class. And I read 80% of the book before I thought, “Why am I struggling on like this? I’m bored to tears. I couldn’t care less about the characters or what happens to them. My time has been woefully imposed on.” And I stopped. I didn’t finish it. I never will.
I know from looking at the reviews that there are people who think The Darkness is a wonderful book. I’m very pleased for them. I’m also very pleased for people who like eating broccoli. But both sets of people are deluded.
This is a very clever book on a number of levels. Peter Swanson has pulled off two very difficult tricks in one book:
- He has made us care about a character who, if not actively dislikeable, has nothing to commend him. The protagonist makes a point of telling us that he finds it easy enough to make someone’s surface acquaintance but almost impossible to move beyond that to real friendship, and that is exactly the way the reader feels about him
- He has written a new version of a very well-known book – probably one of Agatha Christie’s best-known and most written about – without our realising that that is what we are reading until quite late in the book. We know something is going on and Swanson nudges us in that direction with a cleverly inserted musing on the history and current popularity of the unreliable narrator – but it isn’t until the final two chapters (which closely parallel the final two chapters of the Christie book) that we completely understand what the author is up to.
This is not really a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense, because the unravelling does not come from a series of clues – instead, as is normal in mystery fiction today, the killer is simply introduced to us at the appropriate point. The reason I’ve taken half a star if you’re reading this on my blog and a full star if you’re reading it on Amazon from something that is otherwise five-star perfect is that there is no “Of course!” moment – you don’t think, as you do with the very best mysteries, “How did I miss that? It’s been staring at me almost from Page 1.”
Nevertheless, it’s an excellent book and I recommend it.
You have to have a genre
There’s a question that every writer has to answer about every book. The question is: What genre is it? Readers want to know, because readers have firm opinions about the genres they like and those they don’t. If you ask me, for example, I’ll tell you I don’t like dystopian fiction although it isn’t really true because Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. But it isn’t just readers – whoever is responsible for marketing your book also wants to know what genre it is because that’s the central plank in the marketing platform they build.
So I have been asked the question: What genre is my new book, Darkness Comes? In fact, I’ve been asked that question rather a lot. And I always try to give some sort of answer because that’s what you do. But the fact is: I haven’t a clue. I don’t know what genre you’d call it.
Usually, I do know
When I wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I was pretty clear that I was writing a coming of age novel. And when I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly, I knew it was essentially a book about the criminal classes and two contract killers, so if anyone asked I’d say it was a crime novel. But this one? Darkness Comes? I can’t place it in a genre. Which wouldn’t bother me, except that it makes selling the book to readers difficult. Before they buy a book, readers want to know what kind of book it is. And I suppose that’s a reasonable wish. So let me try.
Horror it is not
When I first uploaded Darkness Comes to Amazon, I was shocked to see that they put it in the Horror genre. Shocked because, however much trouble I have saying what genre it IS in, I find it easy to list a whole bunch that it isn’t in. And it isn’t Horror. It isn’t Romance, either, or mystery, or crime (although there is a lot of crime in it).
So let’s take a look. The hero is Ted Bailey. Something bad happens to Ted Bailey when he’s still in his teens. Then something else bad happens to him when he’s just out of them. There’s no question that those bad things affect him in his later life, but really Ted’s problem is that he goes with the flow. He lets things happen. And the things that happen include fraud, and selling drugs, and living in Marseille with a woman who has sex with other men for money, and working for the French security services, and setting up a company to sell goods at an immoral profit margin to people who should not be allowed to buy them. Not infrequently, those goods are arms and, when he sells them, he’s breaking an embargo. Oh yes – and he kills one or two people. Well, more than one or two when you come down to it.
But while he’s doing those things, he also does other, more normal things. The sort of things that I do and you do. He falls in love – sometimes he doesn’t choose the woman he falls in love with very well, but there’s nothing unique in that. He helps people facing bad times and he tries not to let them know who it is that helps them. And when he has someone he thinks of as his daughter, he gives her all the love and all the care that the best human beings among us could come up with.
But that stuff – all of that stuff – is, in a way, beside the point. Because the story opens when Ted has an out of body experience after a heart attack. And what follows is a trial for his immortal soul. You might think, after what I’ve told you about his life, that he has no chance – but Saint Peter has enough doubt about that to send Alex, who was Ted’s fiancée and was murdered for it, back from heaven to conduct his defence. And we learn some things about heaven, and about God, that are nothing like the things humans have been taught for the last 2000 years.
There’s More! The Chat Show
Is that it? Not quite. For reasons best known to my imagination (an imagination that has landed me in trouble many times in the past), the trial takes the form of a chat show. And chat shows have guests. In this case, the guests include Peter Sellers, Barabbas, Henry Blofeld, John Betjeman, Ras Tafar, the one-time Emperor of Ethiopia, and a few other people. Some of the guests are still alive; most of them are dead. When you put all that together, and you say we HAVE to have a genre, you end up (and I did end up) saying that the book is about the supernatural.
So there you are: Darkness Comes is a novel about the supernatural. But this, for me, is the difficult bit. Because what seems supernatural to you is probably what seems quite normal to me. I’ve always been aware of another world on the edge of this one, shading into it and sometimes letting itself be seen. When Ted is in his suspended state on the edge of death, he sees things he’s never seen before – but they’ve always been there. They simply aren’t visible to most of the living most of the time.
The book is available in paperback and for Kindle. If you read it, and if then you know what genre it is, tell me. I really would like to know.
When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth. I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses (and in fact a senior practice nurse is what my daughter became, and I’m proud of her); my problem was with people who limit a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I wrote The Making of Billy McErlane before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Shazza was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Billy Mac is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
Like so much else, it’s learned behaviour
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of having him for lunch when he’s served his purpose.
Sharon: I’m a woman, and I’m blonde. Well, men think I’m blonde
She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says, ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says, ‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?
Find Sharon Wright: Butterfly here.
I came to this book, the first in the Professor and Mrs Moriarty Mystery Series, because I so much enjoy the author’s Francis Bacon historical fiction series. The Moriarty books are different from the Francis Bacon books, as you would expect from such an accomplished writer, and it’s a mark of just how accomplished she is that – with just a couple of niggles, which I’ll come to – she manages so well the switch from Tudor times to the late Victorian age.
This book turns on its head the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. In Anna Castle’s version, Moriarty is an upright citizen of impeccable moral standing and honesty, while Holmes is a conceited, self-regarding bungler. Holmes is out to get Moriarty and to pin on him a series of murders, the unravelling of which is at the heart of this book. As with her Francis Bacon books, Castle brings us an outstanding heroine who would inspire in any man the thought, “My dear woman, just say the word.” And she does say the word (to Moriarty) and he responds as any red-blooded man might be expected to.
The niggles? They are not enormous, but they do matter. Anna Castle is American and writing a book set in Britain among British people is no easier for American writers than the reverse is for British writers. All the big, important stuff she gets right, but I found myself unwilling to believe that a London club of the quality Moriarty belongs to would serve its members American whiskey – and, sure enough, a few lines later she confirms that he is, in fact, drinking Scotch so it’s whisky and not whiskey. There are a few similar examples and, while they don’t detract from the quality of the book, they are there. There’s also a tendency, when her characters get into a real mess and you are wondering how on earth they are going to get out of it, to resort to the “With one bound she was free” solution. Finally, as a long-time fan of AE Housman, I was delighted in the early stages to discover that – like Housman and the object of his unrequited love, Moses Jackson – Moriarty is employed in the London Patent Office. Sure enough, Jackson turns up quite quickly and Housman immediately afterwards and I had great hopes that they would feature prominently in the novel, but that doesn’t happen. Perhaps in later books? We shall see.
Those are the reasons why I give this book four stars and not five, but I repeat that they do not detract from the enjoyment. I recommend this book without reserve to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, the unravelling of a crime, characters who emerge alive from the page and have completely believable motivations, a good love story, and/or first-class writing.
I very nearly missed this. First of all, Susie Steiner used to work for the Guardian and I haven’t knowingly read anything by an inmate at that home for the differently sane since the days of Saint Mugg. Then, when I read a positive review of Steiner’s latest book in the Sunday Times, I followed my usual practice of ordering the author’s first book, The Homecoming. All I can tell you about that is that the first third is very well written but not my sort of thing. I didn’t get further than the first third, so I can’t tell you any more – except that it is not a crime novel, and crime novels were what the Sunday Times review had led me to expect. I’m still not sure why I persevered. Perhaps it was because The Homecoming, though not for me, was so well written and the characters so clearly understood by the author. Anyway, persevere I did, and I bought her second book, Missing, Presumed. This IS a crime book and it’s one of the best I’ve read for some time.
This is a heavily oversubscribed genre and writers are giving us every kind of dysfunctional nutcase as a copper in the hope of triggering interest from a TV company. And many people would call Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw a dysfunctional nutcase – but, if she is, she is an exceptionally well realised dysfunctional nutcase. In fact, in many ways, this is a novel about dysfunction. What Susie Steiner gives us is:
- A whole cast of well realised, fully understood characters
- A well worked out plot
- A satisfying ending that matches both plot and cast.
There are some really tasty attractions. The missing woman, Edith Hind, is a stunning model of self-absorption reminiscent of the “hero” of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Her chap is another. And as for the lonely detective sergeant’s idea of wooing, if I thought she had my address, I’d turn out the lights and lock the doors.
Steiner is at home, whether writing about the upper crust or the underclass. On the one hand, we have a surgeon to the Queen who thinks nothing of calling his old school friend and Bullingdon co-member, now Home Secretary, to get the police moving in his preferred direction. On the other, we have a mother struggling (and failing) to give her 10-year-old son even the most basic survival tools (food. Warmth. Shelter). And we don’t hesitate to accept either portrait.
An excellent book, which I warmly recommend.
The Nature of the Beast is the 11th book in Louise Penny’s books about Chief Inspector Gamache. I’ve read all of them. I was delighted when I found the first, and I went on to read subsequent books in the series with pleasure. But the pleasure has been fading for a while, as Louise Penny reached the point that all crime writers eventually reach when they write repetitively about one detective – the point at which readers know that the series should have stopped at least two books ago.
And that is The Nature of the Beast. Penny has done the little village of Three Pines to death, and she’s flogged the life out of all of the main characters, too. I believe that another book is scheduled. I won’t read it, and I hope with all the warmth I feel towards Louise Penny as a writer who has given me immense pleasure that she will realise that her hero’s time is done and that she should write no more about him.
Two stars. Failure. In the name of God, desist.
I read a lot of fiction other than crime fiction, but I do read a lot of crime fiction. For the most part, I don’t review the crime fiction I read, because more than 50% of it does not merit at least three stars and – with certain exceptions – I’m not prepared to review a book if I can only give it one or two stars. The fact is that a huge amount of published crime fiction is simply not up to scratch. It isn’t well edited, it isn’t well proofread, the grammar is appalling, the characters are wooden, the plot is completely unrealistic – the reasons are legion.
In the case of The Crimson Shore, none of those things is a problem. This is the first book in the Gold Detective series and the question I had to answer at the end was: is it three stars? Or is it four stars? I’ve gone for four.
The story is set in Anglesey, and it’s always good to read a book set in a place where not many books are set. The boss Detective is Amanda Gold (hence the name of the series), she has working for her a Detective Sergeant Dara Brennan who is – as the name suggests – Irish (we never find out, at least in this book, what an Irish cop is doing in Anglesey), and then there’s Detective Sergeant Kelly Jones. Kelly Jones is the sort of woman one would like to see more of <Cough> – and Brennan does.
Brennan makes a pig’s ear of his assignment, which is to lead an investigation, not least because he’s a bit of a twat, and Amanda Gold covers for him more than any reasonable boss should be expected to. If he gets there in the end, it’s as the result of a team effort and not because of individual brilliance. I appreciated the lack of that irritating cliché, the hunch-driven detective who follows wild leads because he’s a genius. Hamer doesn’t treat us with that sort of contempt.
If I had a problem with the book, it was only that the personal antipathy between DI Gold and her DCI, who would really like to see the back of her, has become another cliché of the genre, but that’s the only nit I could pick. A good solid four-star read.