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Wednesday 30 September 2015

‘The Devil’s Daughters by Diana Bretherick

Published by Orion,
27 August 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-4091-5030-5 (TPB)

It must be a mark of quality writing when there’s a character in a book who annoys me so much that I want to slap him – so Diana Bretherick has clearly brought oddball anthropologist Cesare Lombroso to vivid and infuriating life in The Devil’s Daughters.

Her portrayal is based on the writings of the real-life Lombroso, who is widely acclaimed as the father of modern forensic science. In many ways perhaps he was, but according to Bretherick’s afterword, he also had a lot of rather eccentric ideas, especially about women.

Fortunately several other characters in this well-researched historical are a good deal more congenial. Young Scottish doctor James Murray and his sister Lucy are Lombroso’s guests at his Turin home, and become embroiled in the disappearance of a growing number of young girls in the city. Both James and Lucy set out to investigate in their own ways, and a dark picture emerges, involving prostitutes, a journalist with an eye to the main chance and finally a bizarre scheme which results in abduction, murder and mummification.

Bretherick’s great strength is atmosphere. Turin emerges as a city of contrasts: danger lurks in dark, malodorous alleys and damp ruined abbeys, while the spring sun shines on elegant piazzas and gardens. There’s romance mixed with the mystery, though it doesn’t always work out as you might hope.

James and Lucy are not the only engaging characters. The villains are nicely sinister, though perhaps a little too well signalled, and the two opposing policemen offer yet more constrast. I especially enjoyed Anna Tarnovsky, the scientist who gives the lie to all Lombroso’s misguided views on women, and Miss Trott, Lucy’s chaperone, who is clearly not quite as dowdy and tedious she appears, and eventually proves to have hidden depths.

The plot grows more and more convoluted as James Murray is drawn deeper into a mire of corruption and depravity. As it all races towards a climax, Bretherick ramps up the tension with the use of short scenes and rapid shifts from one viewpoint to another, without ever descending into confusion. All is resolved in a satisfying manner – but not without a hint of a thread left hanging to enable a follow-up. 

The Devil’s Daughters brings James Murray to 19th century Turin for a second time, following the author’s first novel, City of Devils. I’ll be interested to see where she takes him next.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Diana Bretherick is an ex-criminal barrister and now a lecturer in criminology and criminal law at Portsmouth University. She won the Good Housekeeping new novel competition in 2012.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

‘The Enchanted’ by Rene Denfeld

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
2 March 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-7802-2634-7 (PB)

One of the best things about crime fiction is that it’s a very broad category. Self-styled literature experts sometimes dismiss it as commercial and second-rate, but that’s only because their experience of it is very narrow. And sometimes, a novel comes along which is indisputably about crime, but breaks the boundaries and reinvents the definition.

The Enchanted is one of those novels. In many ways it follows a conventional path. It’s set in a maximum-security prison; the main narrator is a prisoner on Death Row; it tracks the progress of an investigation; there’s more than one murder. The ending is right, and satisfying; cosmic justice is served in more than one case; both good and bad characters get what they deserve.

Yet it resembles no other crime novel I’ve ever read. It brings the grim prison to appalling, often stomach-turning life using language and images that are always rich and often poetic. The prisoner-narrator’s  observations, interpretations and descriptions of what goes on around him are imaginative and elegant, although he himself is shrunken, withdrawn and on his own admission an inadequate excuse for a human being.

The other main character – I hesitate to use the word protagonist, since it implies an element of power, and she would be the first to deny that she has any – is an investigator whose job is to find reasons for the reprieve of Death Row prisoners. In this case she is dealing with a man who only wants to die, and has no desire whatever to accept her services. Working through the dilemma this presents has a profound effect on her, and this imbues the narrative with a sense of hope and leads to an uplifting ending despite the inevitable sense of tragedy which surrounds Death Row.

The novel’s chief strength lies in its almost tactile evocation of settings and exquisite use of language, but Rene Denfeld also has a keen eye for characters, and several stand out: the lady herself, the damaged former priest who works with the prisoners, the sensitive prison warden who is living through his own tragedy, the prisoner whose case is under review, the narrator-prisoner’s disabled aunt are only a few. Other stories are threaded delicately through the main narrative, including a young boy singled out for special attention by powerful prisoners, and the machinations of the corrupt chief guard.

It’s one of those books which shouldn’t work but somehow does, gripping and enthralling from the outset. The author is herself an investigator of the kind she portrays, and has used her first-hand knowledge and deeply felt impressions to excellent effect.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Rene Denfeld is an author, journalist, and death penalty investigator. Her debut novel, The Enchanted was recently published to much acclaim, including a nomination for the esteemed Flaherty-Dunnan fiction prize. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Oregonian, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her nonfiction books include the international bestseller The New Victorians, Kill The Body, The Head Will Fall; and All God's Children. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her three children, all adopted from foster care. She loves parenting, gardening and volunteering with at-risk children.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

Monday 28 September 2015

‘In the Name of Love’ by Patrick Smith

Published by Head of Zeus,
13 August 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-781853139, (HB)

Since crime fiction outsells every other genre, it’s hardly surprising that publishers go to some trouble to shoehorn as many books as possible into that category – but sometimes it’s an uneasy fit.

The jacket blurb of In the Name of Love refers to a murder, and a kind of second prologue (the first lasts two pages and works well) hints at a possible identity of the killer, but the murder itself doesn’t happen till later in the book.  

This is in fact a thoughtful, well-written and engrossing piece of literary fiction. Ninety percent of the narrative explores the nature of grief: how it leads to a sense of dislocation and isolates the sufferer, and how, gradually, he or she returns to the world and begins to rejoin it. I suspected a large element of autobiography in the storyline: middle-aged man, widowed suddenly and too soon, shuts himself away on a sparsely populated island in a country which is not his own, and slowly allows his frozen feelings to thaw.

There’s a lyrical quality to the descriptions of the passing seasons and the way the slow slide of winter into spring reflects the protagonist’s emotional state. His house, which was to be a summer retreat and wasn’t really designed for year-round living, falls victim to heavy snowfall, and the extensive repairs form another effective metaphor.

A variety of well-drawn characters cross the protagonist’s path: a careless, selfish friend from his previous life; a neighbour who is terminally ill but determined to squeeze the last drop out of his remaining months; a family of immigrants with a tragic and somewhat ambiguous past.

The main female character is a young woman whose flippant, almost brazen front doesn’t quite conceal inner hurt and insecurity: exactly the kind of victim crime writers love. And since her murder is flagged up in the cover blurb, it’s no spoiler to say what she turns out to be. Various  people have a motive for killing her – but nonetheless I was left feeling that the author had set out to write another kind of book altogether.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Patrick Smith was born in Ireland. He has spent most of his life as a translator in Sweden and, having published novels and short stories in Swedish, began his first novel in English at the age of seventy.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

‘The Truth and Other Lies’ by Sascha Arango

Published by Simon and Schuster,
4 June 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-4711-3970-3 (HB).

Henry Hayden’s mistress has just announced that she’s pregnant, and he’s agreed to leave his wife... except that his wife is actually the writer of the novels that have made him world famous.

This absorbing tale is told mostly through Henry’s eyes, so we accept his character and dilemma before the author gives us the shock of seeing him as others see him: the policeman, Jenssen, who believes he’s a murderer, and Gisbert Fasch, the man he bullied as a child, who’s compiled a dossier of Henry’s past. Henry is charming, plausible and amoral, capable of ruthless evil and great generosity, and driven by his own demons, which manifest in the form of a marten scratching in the roof. His wife, Martha, is also a convincing character, modest and reclusive, with her daily routine of swimming and rest, and her nightly writing, yet able to take the initiative when her world is threatened. The other bit characters, fisherman Obradin and his wife, Helga, dying publisher Moreany and his jealous secretary Honor, and the voluptuous Betty are all intertwined in a complex plot with a satisfying ending. The novel is set in Germany, but place names are rarely mentioned, and the translation is aimed at an American market, so I kept thinking it was set in the States, until a character saying ‘Herr Hayden’ reminded me. The prose is smooth and quick to read, with flashes of vivid description.

A compelling crime novel about a man whose life begins to unravel. Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Marsali Taylor

Sascha Arango is one of Germany’s most prominent screenplay writers and a two-time winner of the Grimme Prize, a prestigious award for German television, for his work on the long-running detective series Tatort. His first novel, The Truth and Other Lies, will be published in more than thirteen countries in 2015. He lives in Germany.

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

Sunday 27 September 2015

'Raiders of the Nile' by Steven Saylor

Published by Constable,
2 April 2015.
ISBN 978-1-4721-0197-6

Steven Saylor was one of the first to write a series set in Ancient Rome.  He published Roman Blood in 1991 and followed it with about a dozen books taking the series from 80BC to 46BC.  In 2012 he wrote a prequel about the eighteen year old Gordianus (his detective known as Gordianus the Finder).  Raiders of the Nile  follows on that prequel and is set in 88BC when Gordianus had reached the age of twenty two.  He is living in Alexandria with his Egyptian slave Bethesda with whom he is besotted.

On his birthday Gordianus takes Bethesda out into the town and she disappears while they are at a play, where they have seen an actress, Axiothea, with an uncanny resemblance to Bethesda.  The actress's patron receives a ransom demand for her from the gang of the Cuckoo's Child who are presumed to be keeping her in their lair in the dangerous Nile Delta - the Cuckoo's Nest.  In fact they have kidnapped the wrong girl - Bethesda.

Gordianus's desire for a quiet life is thwarted, he must track down the kidnappers to get her back before they realise that she is not who they think she is.  The book begins with our hero participating in a raid to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great - not because he wants to but because he has joined these brigands in order to find Bethesda.

The rich tapestry that Saylor provides really illuminates the world of Egypt at that time when civil war seemed imminent.  All the small details of life help one's understanding of the era - Bethesda and Gordianus speak Greek together as that is the only language they have in common, breakfast is hot farina cooked with goat's milk and mashed dates eaten with bread,  The ambience is very much a Geek and Egyptian one not Roman.

As always there are many twists and turns on Gordianus's quest making this an exciting adventure story in which things are not always what they seem.
Reviewer: Jennifer S. Palmer
As I have already indicated there are many other stories about Gordianus the Finder and there are other novels about Rome.

Steven Saylor was born in Texas in 1956 and graduated with high honors from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied history and Classics. He divides his time between homes in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas. "If I could have another home," he says, "it would definitely be in London, my favourite big city in the world." When not using his brain, he likes to keep in shape running, swimming, and lifting weights.
Steven's books have been published in 21 languages, and book tours have taken him across the United States, England, and Europe. He has appeared as an expert on Roman life on The History Channel, and has spoken at numerous college campuses, The Getty Villa, and the International Conference on the Ancient Novel.

Jennifer Palmer Throughout my reading life crime fiction has been a constant interest; I really enjoyed my 15 years as an expatriate in the Far East, the Netherlands & the USA but occasionally the solace of closing my door to the outside world and sitting reading was highly therapeutic. I now lecture to adults on historical topics including Famous Historical Mysteries.