Latest Book Reviews

Crimeculture continues its series of book reviews, covering some of the best recently published crime fiction. Read our recommendations and reviews for 2016-17 below.

The Haunting Landscapes of Nordic Noir

Reviewed by Lee Horsley

Some of the most riveting Scandinavian crime fiction torments its characters with the disorienting effects of an isolated, threatening landscape. Crimeculture highly recommends four of the best recent Nordic noir novels (translated into English 2014-16), each of which enthrals readers with the peculiar power of such a setting: Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Why Did You Lie? and Antti Tuomainen’s Dark as My Heart.

Other countries can, of course, provide crime writers with similarly inhospitable terrain – environments so remote and hostile that they inflict their own kind of psychological damage. Crimeculture has recently, for example, reviewed Jane Harper’s The Dry, a powerful novel in which human greed and hatred play out amidst the devastating effects of a drought that is destroying an entire Australian community. In the UK, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s literary thriller, His Bloody Project, brilliantly represents a brutally controlled crofting community in the nineteenth-century Scottish Highlands, a place so cut off that escape seems impossible.

Scandinavian crime writers, however, have proven themselves exceptionally adept at fictionally exploiting the rich resources of their native landscapes. A few years ago, a piece in The Economist (Sept 2012) ascribed the success of the Nordic crime-writing boom in part to the novelty of the locations, to writers’ ability to provide “a sense of place—the more distinctive and unusual the better.” But in truth the strength of Scandinavian locations is less to do with novelty than with sheer evocative power – with the pressure of the elements and the extremities of experience endured in places far removed from conventional society. The novels reviewed here – from Norway, Iceland and Finland – give us harrowing dramas enacted in darkly mysterious forests and secluded estates overlooking spectacular fjords, on rocky stacks in a raging sea, or on the sea’s edge in a fishing village made inaccessible by blizzards, mountains and avalanches. In all four novels, the drama is intensified by the claustrophobic sense of entrapment somewhere so isolated that the conditions of ordinary life no longer apply.

Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal 

In Agnes Ravatn’s dark, mesmerising novel, The Bird Tribunal (published in Norway 2013, trans 2016), the natural world both surrounds and drives the tense human drama. Escaping her past life, Allis Hagtorn takes a job housekeeping and gardening for Sigurd Bagge – a strangely silent man living on the edge of a silent forest above an isolated Norwegian fjord. As she sets about trying to bring his disorderly garden under control, she begins to believe that she might also transform herself, that “there was salvation to be found.”

But salvation is no simple matter, and Ravatn’s taut, haunting prose generates a mounting sense of dread. She draws together several strands of myth and gothic archetype, with hints of Bluebeard and Rebecca. But most of all, emanating from the landscape itself, there are the themes and emotions of Norse mythology – salvation and transformation, death, guilt and retribution. The fjord and forest are beautiful but increasingly charged with sinister meanings.

As Allis walks into the “silent forest of roots and pinecones”, she feels almost entirely separated from the outside world: “living here was like ceasing to exist,” except in an increasingly menacing world of shared stories. Bagge recounts his dream of an ominous bird tribunal convening in the depths of the forest, a vision of twelve judges in bird masks sitting in silence and condemning him, charging him with “skemdarvig”, a crime so vile that no atonement is possible. Allis in turn tells him the story of Balder and Loki, of violence, revenge and the potential for evil: “Old guilt… destroyed by fire and swallowed by the sea,” a dragon that “sweeps through the air…with human corpses nestled among its feathers”.

Who are Bagge and Allis in this mythic world? Our sense of foreboding grows as the story is ever more strongly infused by the threatening, hallucinatory imagery of the ancient Eddas. The Bird Tribunal is a fascinating novel that lingers in readers’ minds long after they have finished reading.

Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind 

The five novels of Ragnar Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, which debuted in Iceland in 2010, have received much deserved critical acclaim since the first English translations began to appear: Snowblind and Nightblind in 2015, Blackout, Rupture and Whiteout in 2016-17.

In the gripping Snowblind, he creates the setting that defines the essence of his vision of “Dark Iceland” – the tiny, isolated fishing village of Siglufjördur, “at the edge of the northern ocean,” as stunningly beautiful as it is claustrophobic, surrounded by a ring of mountains and inaccessible for much of the year except via a small tunnel. The protagonist, a young outsider and rookie policeman, Ari Thor, proves himself capable of patient investigation and sharp insights, but is hampered throughout by his sense of not belonging to this alien environment: “He felt like a stranger… a traveller who had forgotten to buy a return ticket.”

A translator of Agatha Christie, Jonasson is skilled in the construction of an absorbing mystery story. Snowblind, like the later novels in the Dark Iceland series, is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of classic detective fiction, with the enclosed space of Siglufjördur providing a circumscribed cast of characters, harbouring secrets and concealing hidden connections that must be uncovered if the mystery is to be solved. What most distinguishes Jonasson’s series, however, is an environment that throughout the novel applies its own frightening and unpredictable pressures.

Iceland has provided some of the most haunting and life-threatening landscapes of contemporary crime fiction. Even the Reykjavík-set novels of Arnaldur Indridason’s are shadowed by memories of lives lost in the mountains and frozen fjords. In Jonasson’s Snowblind, the destructive depths of the Icelandic winter – freezing darkness, blizzards, avalanches – all reinforce the sense of dangerous entrapment. When a murder is committed the scene of the crime has a perverse beauty: the “blood-red snow that formed a halo” around the body of the victim. The mysteriousness of the scene adds to our sense of the inhuman otherness of a savage natural world that thwarts Ari Thor’s investigation at every turn: “This peaceful little town was being compressed by the snow, no longer a familiar winter embrace but a threat like never before.”  Read more, including our reviews of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Why Did You Lie? and Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart.

Jane Harper, The Dry (2016)

Review by Lee Horsley

Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry (2016), is an unusually taut and engrossing novel. In many ways, it is a traditional investigative crime narrative. The protagonist, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to the Australian country town of Kiewarra, a place he left twenty years ago, to attend the funerals of three members of the Hadler family – his childhood friend Luke, Luke’s wife and young son. The police and press have judged it to be a murder-suicide, explained by a struggling farmer having gone off the rails: “With the drought, who knows? Everyone is so desperate.”

Pressed by the Hadler family to challenge this verdict, Falk reluctantly takes leave and agrees to investigate unofficially. He soon realizes that past crimes and secrets from his own earlier life seem to be inextricably entangled with the horrific murders. The accusations made against him may prove to be unfounded, but he nevertheless feels that he carries some of the blame: “It was a cry that had come from too many lips since he’d returned to Kiewarra. If I’d known, I would have done things differently. It was too late for that now. Some things had to be lived with.”

Harper very skilfully creates suspense. Small pieces of evidence accumulate, misleading clues come to light and townsfolk provide false leads, propelling the investigation towards a gripping conclusion. What really sets The Dry apart, however, is the integration of plot and setting. The town of Kiewarra is so small that it is analogous to the self-contained world of classic detection, but the hostile landscape itself remorselessly shapes past and current events, affecting every strand of the plot. Characters who engender fear seem to share in the cruelty of the landscape, and no one is untouched by “the barrenness and the scale and the sheer bloody hardness of the land”.

The blowflies that swarm over the prologue “didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.” Harper’s opening horror film close-up of the indifferent flies feeding on “unblinking eyes and sticky wounds” conveys the pitiless effects of the worst drought conditions in a century: ‘”It’s a pressure cooker round here, mate. Little things become big things faster than you expect.”’ People who struggle to survive under such conditions are psychologically deformed in an environment that magnifies every feeling of anger, bitterness and desperation. Brutal crime and the savage natural world become inextricably linked in this expertly constructed narrative, making it intense and disturbing throughout.

Jason Pinter, The Castle (2017)

Review by Lee Horsley

Jason Pinter’s The Castle is a tense, fast-moving thriller, a nightmare journey through a contemporary political world that is all too alarmingly familiar to us. Having written the book during the bizarre electoral circus that culminated in the victory of Donald Trump, Pinter “wanted people to be able to read it now right in the wake of the election” (Hudson Reporter), so opted to avoid the delays of conventional publishing by creating a new company, Armina Press, which was able to bring the novel out in June 2017.

In the months following Trump’s election, many have echoed the question posed by the journalist and thriller writer, Jonathan Freedland:  “How could any fiction come up with a drama as lurid and compelling as the nightly news from the US?” When the highest office is gained by a chaotic, ignorant, paranoid narcissist, wielding his power with no apparent moral compass, how is it possible to incorporate such a reality into the fictional world of the political thriller?  How does a novelist give urgency to his plot when all taboos seem already to have been broken, all lines crossed?

The approach of The Castle to this formidable task is bold and effective. An action-packed thriller can’t really afford to wade into the sort of political quagmire that has been created by the real-life model for Pinter’s man of power. In constructing The Castle, Pinter’s key move is to excise some of the more repetitive and exhausting aspects of the politician represented – the childish petulance, wild inconsistencies, insecurity, absurd lies and weak excuses. Instead, Rawson Griggs, the billionaire arch villain of The Castle, is sharply intelligent and focused – a far more competent and altogether more coherent adversary: “Rawson does what it takes to win. It’s not always pretty. But it’s effective.” There is abundant common ground between actual and fictional worlds: Griggs is bullying, self-centred, hubristic and paranoid. But although this utterly unscrupulous manipulator habitually deceives people, his lies are cunning rather than transparent. His deceptions are the Machiavellian manoeuvres of a strong, determined political operator who, behind the scenes, threatens everyone around him.

The protagonist drawn into this arrogant, aggressive world is Remy Stanton, a young corporate strategist who, in a moment of rash daring, intervenes to rescue two strangers being attacked by a gunman. When it turns out that the lives he has saved are those of Griggs’ daughter and son-in-law, Remy suddenly finds himself a central figure in the third-party political campaign of the powerful business magnate. He is a useful hero of the hour, with a clear role to play in the supporting cast of a populist, nativist bid for the presidency.

It is a far more hazardous and unpredictable role than Remy bargained for. With his talk of unleashing “the Beast Within”, Rawson Griggs is spiralling out of control, and there is no one he won’t sacrifice should they threaten to undermine his cult of personality or to interfere with his rise to power. By turns credulous, appalled and terrified, Remy gives us increasingly alarmed insights into this surreal political landscape, and Pinter creates an unfailingly suspenseful encounter with the underlying brutality of political ambition on this scale:  “…it seemed that Rawson had grown unhinged, bolder. And if what Remy Stanton had said was true, Rawson was capable of truly frightening things.”

So many different ways of disappearing: five of the best missing person novels

Reviewed by Lee Horsley

When someone goes missing, Megan Miranda writes, the realization that they’re gone “grows into a hollow terror… a void that gets filled with all the horrible possibilities existing all at once.” Unlike mystery stories that begin with some version of the corpse on the library floor, the missing person narrative keeps us in suspense with a multitude of “horrible possibilities”, and at the same time with the tormenting hope that the missing person might still be found alive and well. Here are some of Crimeculture’s 2015-16 favourites – a selection of five tense, beautifully crafted and very different stories about people who disappear, and about those who might (or might not) succeed in finding them: Megan Miranda’s All the Missing GirlsLisa Jewell’s I Found You, David Swinson’s The Second Girl, Lisa Ballantyne’s Redemption Road, and Rachel Abbott’s Stranger Child.

Megan Miranda, All the Missing Girls (2016)

AlltheMissingGirls”People slipping away right before your eyes”: It happened ten years ago and now it has happened again. In this slow-burning, suspenseful tale another girl has gone missing in the small southern town of Cooley Ridge, and Nic Farrell has been drawn back to a place she thought she had long ago left behind. In order to work out what’s going on, we have to “go back in time”, a recapturing of the past embodied in the novel’s intricate structure, with the central chapters in reverse chronological order. As we move backwards, we come gradually to understand how things have, over the years, slipped away, faded and disappeared – girls, identities, memories, grainy photographs, once-familiar paths through the woods. The mysterious events of the novel keep us guessing to the end. Disappearances are ultimately explained, but at the same time we become increasingly attuned to the narrator’s sense that parts of herself are also missing, perhaps irretrievably: her own lost self is one of the things she is trying to discover, and there are so many “different versions of me”. Is Nic’s lost self innocent or guilty? Will her quest bring closure or will she one day “walk through the woods, fade to nothing”? A teasing, compelling, thoughtful and very cleverly plotted novel.

Lisa Jewell, I Found You (2016)

Jewell“I don’t know what my name is”: I Found You opens with a man in a fugue state sitting in the rain on a Yorkshire beach. He doesn’t know who he is or where he has come from. A woman who lives near the beach takes him in and looks after him, but no amount of kindness can cancel out his sense that life has gone badly wrong: “‘The longer I’m here, the more I know that I’ve done something really bad…Someone was ringing about me… And maybe it was someone who loves me. Or maybe it was someone who wants to kill me. Or maybe it was someone I’ve hurt.” A second storyline introduces us to a young woman in Surrey desperate to know what has happened to her new husband, who has failed to come home from work. We initially assume, of course, that these mysteries are related. And indeed, in a way, they are, but the complexity of the connections begins to become apparent when a third storyline takes us back to a family holidaying in the same Yorkshire seaside town in the early 1990s. The deaths and disappearances of that earlier decade are brilliantly interwoven with the search for a lost identity and a lost husband twenty years later. The editors of Crimeculture were pleased to read that, the older Lisa Jewell gets, the more she loves writing psychological thrillers (Independent). I Found You is an excellent example of the quirky, nuanced qualities she brings to the genre – the taut, suspenseful plotting of a good thriller combined with an exceptional ability to create relationships imbued with the warmth and humour of domestic drama and romance.  Read more, including our reviews of David Swinson, Lisa Ballantyne and Rachel Abbott.

Peter Swanson, The Kind Worth Killing (Feb 2015)

Review by Lee Horsley

The Kind Worth KillingIn Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killingmurderous plans are initiated in the relaxed, detached atmosphere of an airport lounge: “the rules are different in airport bars”, and it seems much easier to let go of normal conversational inhibitions “in that peculiar bubble known as air travel.” Ted and Lily get to talking in the business lounge at London’s Heathrow as they await a delayed night flight to Boston. When Ted jokingly confesses that he sometimes feels like killing his cheating wife, Lily says “I think you should.” Ted expects some indication that she is joking, but Lily appears to be entirely serious, and, as they cross the Atlantic, she prompts him to play a game of telling the “absolute truth” in which, Ted reflects, she “was suddenly giving me the moral authority to act on my desires.”

Swanson’s indebtedness to Patricia Highsmith is clear, particularly to Strangers on a Train.  Like Highsmith, he uses a meeting ‘in transit’ as a temptation scene in which an accidental acquaintance seeks to draw out hidden thoughts, and we, as readers, are teased into reflecting on the self-justifications of the murderer. The scenes in which Lily coaxes Ted to commit murder are very reminiscent of a famous moment in Hitchcock’s film version of the Highsmith novel, in which Bruno Anthony says to Mrs Cunningham, “Everyone has somebody that they want to put out of the way. Oh now surely, Madam, you’re not going to tell me that there hasn’t been a time that you didn’t want to dispose of someone. Your husband, for instance?” Lily’s function, like that of Bruno, is to give expression to unconscious desires – and to the conviction that there are, surely, some people who deserve to die.

Once the plane touches down on the East Coast, the seductive thought that one might commit murder begins, of course, to seem less abstract and more fraught with complications. A somewhat prosaic tech entrepreneur, Ted is besotted with Lily but increasingly uneasy about the course of action to which he is committing himself. Lily sees herself as “special”, as having been “born with a different kind of morality”, and we soon discover that she in fact inhabits a moral universe in which rather many people qualify as deserving murder victims.

Swanson’s plot is deftly and intricately designed, with numerous twists that genuinely take us by surprise. In comparison to Highsmith’s work, this is a novel very much driven by plot rather than by nuanced psychological portraits or morally probing explorations of the choices that people make. But Lily is a strong central figure, and Swanson grips our attention with the deadly cat-and-mouse games being played by several of the main characters. There are two or three murderers or potential murderers, all of whom have their own secrets and their own reasons for wanting to dispose of people. Swanson makes nerve-racking use of the uncertainties this generates. We are kept in suspense about who will survive and who might stand a chance of turning the tables. What will happen as others engineer killings of their own? How far will Lily get with her freedom intact? Does she deserve to be punished? Will she be? Swanson is not unwilling to sacrifice characters to whom we have grown attached, and he keeps us on the edge of our seats til the end. A thoroughly enjoyable and addictive thriller.