Category Archives: Crime Fiction

Turning Blue – Benjamin Myers

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The first in a detective series marketed as folk crime, Turning Blue is a slight departure for Myers.  He’s never written outright crime before.  However, this is definitely not a police procedural, it is more rural crime noir with flawed but decent heroes at its heart.

Obsessive and antisocial Detective Brindle and ex-hedonist journalist Mace form an unlikely alliance to uncover why a local teenager has mysteriously disappeared.  They expose so much more than a run of the mill missing persons case.  In a work where art often imitates recent real life news stories and police investigations which have shocked the British public, Brindle and Mace wade through sleaze, establishment corruption and cover ups involving the police, close knit silent communities, a grotesque character who seems to be a mash up of Jimmy Saville, Jonathan King and Stewart Hall and a revolting, disturbing loner pig farmer whose behaviour as the story progresses goes from the bizarre and creepy to alarming and sinister.  His pathetic existence invades every page cultivating a feeling of unease from the beginning.

It’s easy to compare Ben Myers’ writing to the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Derek Raymond or James Ellroy – I’ve done it myself before.  Here’s another comparison: There’s a touch of the David Peace Red Riding about Myers’ latest offering; hard Northern men, institutional corruption, sleaze and violence in small, overlooked communities.  Such comparisons are useful to allow those who’ve never come across his books to get a flavour of what to expect, but also slightly erroneous.  Ben Myers’ writing is difficult to define or pigeon hole.  He seems unsure himself of how this new book should be described.  But does it matter?  Do I need to compare it to other work?  Do I need to identify it as writing of a particular genre?  I don’t think so.

Myers has his own style, he is an exciting writer of extraordinary  talent with an ability to weave heart-breaking tales about marginalised communities and individuals with brutal, bleak and stomach-wrenching stories into the evocative tapestry of a landscape setting.  This creates a dichotomy for the reader; admiration for the perceptive descriptions and economy of writing mixed with feelings of revulsion at the violence and horror. Myers has never been for the faint-hearted or easily offended and Turning Blue is no different to its two predecessors in that respect.  It is visceral.  Human beings can be sick, we just don’t like admitting it to ourselves and Myers continues to make no apology for holding the mirror steady so we can’t avoid the myriad of vileness and the depths some of us can stoop to.  This is what I love; honesty in fiction.  I’m pretty sure the stuff Myers writes about in Turning Blue does/has happened, no matter how uncomfortable that makes me feel.

The outdoors is the scaffolding on which Myers overlays the plots of all his recent fiction and Turning Blue continues that trend.  The countryside sometimes feels like an afterthought in some “nature” writing, but Myers has always used it to represent emotion and propel a plot onwards.  In Pig Iron the landscape provided solace and refuge (and there is a lovely nod to John John Wisdom’s green cathedral with its mention in Turning Blue), in Beastings it was a menacing means of escape, in this book, the Yorkshire countryside is brooding, an irritant obstructing the investigation.  It is harsh and bleak, wet or snowbound and difficult to navigate if you are not from the “Hamlet”.  You know the ancient sod and dirt will triumphantly remain long after these characters are dead and buried.  It is the constant.

I am continually excited and blown away by Myers’ awesome writing.  I swallowed down this book with the thirst of the seriously dehydrated.  I suggest you all get the drinks in as soon as you can because Myers is the landlord serving up intoxicating fiction.

Thanks to Ben and Moth Publishing for sending me a review copy and the lovely tin of moss, wire and plastic pig.

Other Ben Myers stuff to read on here:

Q&A with Ben Myers author of Pig Iron

Beastings by Benjamin Myers

Pig Iron – Benjamin Myers

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Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith

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In the forward of this new edition, David Peace describes how, shortly after submitting his latest crime noir manuscript in 1977, Manchette realised that his editors didn’t like it very much.  In anger at their reaction, he requested it be published outside the legendary “Serie Noir” and wrote “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone understand what I do.”  Manchette’s confidence in Fatale is not without foundation.  I haven’t read any other “Serie Noir” or Manchette books, but this one hits hard in its 112 pages.  In fact it feels like a 12 round bout stuffed into 3 rounds, climaxing with a KO; it’s a mini dynamo.

Provincial politics can be corrupt and nepotistic and if you are an outsider it is difficult to gain access and favour, but Aimee Joubert (a woman with dodgy motives) capitalises on the inevitable secrets in Bléville’s society and outwits the sweaty bourgeois fat-cats by extorting huge amounts of cash in a spectacular double bluff which involves her offering her services as an assassin.  She appears from nowhere, is disciplined in her research and training, infiltrates the community with her charm and good looks, then smacks the crooked officials between the eyes during a dizzyingly violent final scene.  I rooted for her from the first page when she confronts a woodland hunter in a spectacular and astonishing fashion.  This is more than just a cruel melodrama though, there is a political commentary undercurrent surging through this perfectly formed piece of crime fiction. I love it when a book surprises me like this and it only took a couple of hours to read.

Serpent’s Tail have just released this edition along with several other world literature titles, all with similarly retro pulp jacket artwork and I found it at my wonderful local library.

 

11 sentences – must try harder!

The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Anthea Bell)

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For German Lit Month 2012 I read Ferdinand von Schirach’s collection of crime short stories Crime & Guilt largely based on his experiences as one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyers.  The Collini Case  is Schirach’s first attempt at slightly longer fiction (although it is still short at only 182 pages) and as with the stories in Crime & Guilt Schirach manages to portray the perpetrator of a vicious crime in a humane light by explaining his back story.  The investigation into a seemingly motiveless attack on an elderly industrialist goes nowhere.  This, plus his client’s unwillingness to talk, explain himself or defend his position, causes up-and-coming defence lawyer, Casper Leinen some sleepless nights.  Casper’s personal connection to the victim provides the emotional conflict and personal angle to this story.

Schirach cleverly reveals the moving yet horrifying back story of both killer and victim with such dignity that I could not help but feel some sympathy for the defendant and his decision to commit such a brutal act (in fact my face streamed with tears reading parts of this book as my train chugged through the Belgian countryside towards Bruges last week).  This is a tense and gripping yet precise courtroom drama with a bittersweet ending.  And despite its brevity it packed a punch in Germany; the shame associated with the very specific piece of German law featured and highlighted in this novella led to a review of the marks left on the Ministry of Justice by its past connections to the Nazi party.  Worth reading for that alone.

I read this for German Literature Month

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Jackson Brodie and Me

Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write my thoughts on the four brilliant Kate Atkinson books featuring her private investigator, Jackson Brodie, so I thought I’d write about him instead trying to keep to my “10 sentences or less” rule!  His back story and antics are the central feature of all four books, so at the end of this rambling brain dump you should have a better idea of how his character complements the plot of each volume and helps bring the stories off the page.

Jackson Brodie; former soldier and police officer, private investigator of marital and other every day misdemeanors is an enigma to himself and this is what makes him so attractive to a reader like me.  He is a character full of contradictions.  He is tender, yet grumpy; he has a keen sense of social justice, yet makes some dubious decisions; he is able to sniff out the bad eggs, yet often doesn’t see personal trouble coming.  He can be irritatingly dim in that respect.  Jackson goes about his investigation of the sometimes gruesome, sometimes odd crimes with an unwilling intensity that only someone brilliant at what they do can.    For all these contradictions and especially the mastery with which he begrudgingly plies his trade, he is utterly adorable.  I want to mother him and sleep with him at the same time – an odd situation mirroring the paradox of the character.

Although I am writing this primarily about Atkinson’s main character, I wouldn’t want you to think these are books without substance, self-indulgently developing Brodie into the swoontastic anti-hero he is, because that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The world Jackson inhabits is real and vivid on the page, the cases intricately developed and, unlike other crime fiction, the stories are often wrapped up through chance connection or coincidence  – sound cliché? It isn’t.  So my advice is, go seek out these books as an alternative to run-of-the-mill crime fiction and I dare you not to fall in love with Jackson Brodie.

I’m writing this ahead of attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival where I will be seeing Kate Atkinson talk about her newest book A God in Ruins

p.s. I broke the 10 sentence rule with this one – but only just!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

David Peace – Red Riding 1974

imgresRelentless, uncompromising, unyielding, fierce, harsh.  I could add many more one word superlatives to try to describe David Peace’s writing.  I had a brief conversation about Peace with a writer who described his writing as “dazzlingly oppressive” which sort of hits the nail on the head, and explains why he’s the writer and I’m not.  wpid-2013-03-24-21.08.51.jpgIn fact, this is all I scribbled in my notebook once I’d finished his book, much less than my normal lengthy notes about plot, character, structure and lots of quotes.  This is not a book to read if you are feeling a little fragile or you are easily shocked, but despite its brutality it feels like such an honest novel.  It left me quite speechless (as is evident from the one word write up in my notebook) and I had a sleepless night once I’d finished it, but I look forward to reading the second book in this quartet like I look forward to picking a scab; you know there’s going to be a certain amount of pain involved, but you can’t help yourself because it sort of feels good.

THIS IS THE NORTH.  WE DO WHAT WE WANT!

Eddie Dunford has recently returned to Yorkshire, revelling in the opportunities his new job as North of England Crime Correspondent with the Yorkshire Post has to offer, but still dreaming of a Brighton flat with sea views and southern girls called Sophie or Anna while mourning the death of his father.  He has a lot to prove to himself and his work colleagues who all think he is still wet behind the ears; working in the south doesn’t count for anything in their eyes and his father’s words are still ringing in his ears.

The South’ll turn you bloody soft it will

He is naive and a bit big for his boots but the story of a missing 10 year old girl is his opportunity to make a big impression in his first week on the paper.  The story turns out to be more complicated than one missing girl and involves corruption and depravity within the newly formed West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police, the local council, local business and at the paper.  As Dunford begins to uncover some of the nastiness surrounding this case, he feels conflicted and confused, getting himself into more and more trouble because he can’t turn a blind eye.

The horrors in this book run deep but what Peace does so brilliantly is to show the transformation of Dunford from one of the vulture reporters at the initial press conference for the missing girl, all of them desperate for her to be dead because that makes a much more interesting newspaper story, to a man frantic to uncover the truth at any cost, but with little success other than to send himself into a spiral of crazy behaviour.  He’s not much better than the rest of them, but deep down he does care.

David Peace manages to portray the Yorkshire of the seventies as a lawless, wild west frontier type place, where normal rules don’t apply and men are tough, mean and in charge.  Where you find

..the Strafford Arms, the hardest pub in the North

…Uncle Eric holding court, proud the only time he ever left Yorkshire was to kill Germans.

…a four hour tour of local hell…Hard towns for hard men.

and Zulu, Yorkshire style.

A long way from God’s Own County.

Peace’s writing is lyrical, with a sing-song quality that keeps the pace moving at the same high speed Dunford drives his father’s Viva along to roads of West Yorkshire.  It is incredibly visual (“that face and that hair, up close and near, a melted black plastic bag dripped over a bowl of flour and lard”) which is hard to bear at times considering the violence contained in the 300 pages, but makes the story so much more hard hitting and goes some way to explain why the quartet was adapted by Channel 4.  There is an honesty to his writing.  He is not afraid of the whole spectrum of emotions including graphic descriptions of the physical reactions to those emotions – it is reality, so why is it not seen more often in fiction, despite its disgustingness (is that a word?)?

I read an interview with David Peace in the Guardian where he says “if you want to write the best crime book, then you have to write better than Ellroy.”  I think he’s up there with Ellroy; this work is part genius, part insanity, like riding a waltzer at the fairground and my family knows what happens to me when I do that.  I feel sick yet dizzyingly light-headed at the same time – it’s ever so slightly addictive.

More Beer – Jakob Arjouni (trans. Anselm Hollo)

I don’t remember buying this book, but I was reminded I owned it when my good friend, the reader of True Blood (!) who I’ve mentioned before, pointed me in the direction of a BBC Radio 4 programme called Foreign Bodies.  In this programme Mark Lawson  presents a history of modern Europe through literary detectives and one of the episodes showcased Jakob Arjouni (still available as a podcast).  The name rang bells, so with an ear on the radio I ran upstairs to one of our bookcases and found More Beer hiding on my German lit shelf (more half a shelf than a full shelf).  I’m not sure how it survived several book culls, but it did, and I’m glad.

More Beer is a crime story written in 1987 and set at that time in and around Frankfurt, featuring private detective Kemal Kayankaya, a German of Turkish origin.  The story revolves around a group of 4 ecological activists accused of and standing trial for the sabotage of a waste pipe belonging to a major chemical plant and the murder of its Managing Director.  Although their lawyer realises there is no doubt of the sabotage charge, he is sure the group did not commit the murder.  There is evidence that there was a fifth member of the group, but no one will talk about this person, least of all the 4 accused, but the fifth saboteur may hold the key to the murder.  Kayankaya is engaged by the lawyer to investigate the case and to find the elusive eco-activist.  Of course, it’s never as straight forward as you might think and his snooping uncovers political and police corruption, as well as family lies and shame.

This is not a long book, but it is fast paced and despite the complexity of the plot, it is fairly straight forward to follow.  If you visit this blog regularly you will have noticed the banner at the top depicting the Chandler novels bound in ribbon, further reading will reveal the story behind the photo, but suffice to say, I love a bit of crime noir and this book is jet black.  I was reminded of the Marlowe books when I re-read More Beer.  Kayankaya is an outsider and like Marlowe, a loner, not only because of his job, but because of his ethnicity.  I have to admit that I was a little sickened at the level of racism the Kayankaya character encountered – I thought Germany in 1987 was more tolerant, but clearly not.  Like Marlowe, Kayankaya gets himself so involved with the case that nothing else matters, even when he is thrown off the job or beaten up, he has a dogged determination to see it through and to find out the perpetrator, even if knowing the answer is for his own satisfaction.  It is almost as if he wants to feel the pain, both physical and mental, that goes with finding out the truth.  He also trusts no one, not even his client and rightly so.  He’s seemingly the only character who treats the women in the story with respect – probably out of fear for what they may do to him more than anything else, but still he keeps them at arm’s length without being disrespectful.  He is a heavy drinker (cognac for breakfast anyone?) and smoker and once on the trail of an answer works and thinks about it 24/7.  Very Marlowe.

Jakob Arjouni has written a few other books featuring Kayankaya, but I haven’t read any of them, and unfortunately this one isn’t currently available from No Exit Press, but if you stumble upon it in a second-hand shop or at the library, it’s worth giving a go. Pacy, engaging and surprisingly not that dated.

If you would like another view of More Beer here’s what Guy over at His Futile Preoccupations had to say about it last year.

I read this as part of German Lit Month (officially finished on 30th Nov, but we were all given an extension – which feels like being let off your homework).  The extension worked quite well for me as although I finished More Beer a while ago, I felt a bit ropey last week and so didn’t get this posted.

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I have only one more book review to post this year – a book I finished some time ago and really should have posted a review of by now.  I think I will then have a December break from reviewing before hitting 2013 nice and refreshed!

Crime & Guilt – Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Carol Brown Janeway)

Ferdinand von Schirach is not unfamiliar with crime or guilt, as one of Germany’s top defence lawyers he has spent years representing people in trouble.  He also grew up in a family living with the guilt of his grandfather, a senior Nazi in charge of the Hitler Youth who stood trial at Nuremberg.  But that is not what this book is about.  Originally published in separate volumes, Crime & Guilt is a collection of fictionalised stories based on some of the cases he worked on.

The variety of crimes and characters depicted in these volumes is amazing and a testament to the breadth of von Schirach’s experience.  What links all the stories is von Schirach’s resolution to portray even the vilest of criminals in the most humane light as possible (with the exception of “The Funfair”).  I think he manages this by showing the reader the back story and the events leading up to the crime all in 3rd person narrative.  I sympathised with many of the characters because of this approach – I felt I was allowed to form my own opinion about guilt.  Part way through most of the stories, von Schirach inserts himself into the scene and switches to 1st person narration.  He explains the German legal system and how he goes about defending his clients, but never gives his opinion on what they have done – he never judges them himself.

Some of the stories are heart breaking; the story of “Fähner”, a village doctor married to a cruel and violent wife.  After many years of mental and physical abuse, he finally flips and finds himself in trouble.  Or “The Cello”, a story of a brother and sister subjected to cruelty by their rich father, once free of his vice like grip, a sad accident leads to one of them committing a crime.  Some of the stories are clever – The Hedgehog made me wonder at the lengths people will go to, to protect their family and how inventive they can be.  There are also a couple of mad-cap stories, like “The Key”,  which would make good Tarrantino or Guy Ritchie scripts.  There is not a duff story in this double volume and Carol Brown Janeway has done a fantastic job with the translation.  This is a great collection for readers who like true crime or bite sized crime stories.  Ferdinand von Schirach has also recently written his first novel, The Collini Case, if you want to read a review, here’s a great one from Caroline.

I read this for German Literature Month (should have reviewed it last week during genre week – sorry about the delay!)