Latest Book Reviews
Crimeculture kicks off with a brand new series of book reviews, covering some of the best recently published crime fiction. Read our recommendations and reviews for 2016 below.
Peter Swanson, The Kind Worth Killing (Feb 2015)
Review by Lee Horsley
In Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, murderous 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.
Review by Lee Horsley
The Swedish crime writer Hakan Nesser is best known for his highly successful police procedurals, the Van Veeteren series – ten novels (1993-2003), all available in English. He has also, however, written numerous stand-alones, only two of which have been translated into English, both in 2015: A Summer with Kim Novak, originally published in 1998, and The Living and the Dead in Winsford, published in Swedish in 2014. The freshness and immediacy of these stories owe a lot to the fact that (unlike the usual police procedural) they are in the first person. Both carry us touchingly and convincingly into the minds of vulnerable characters living through times of extreme uncertainty and change.
A Summer with Kim Novak is a captivating, well-crafted murder mystery, and readers are kept in suspense until the final pages about who was responsible for “that grisly act”. The narrator, Erik, looking back on his fourteen-year old self, relives “the Incident”: it is the reason he remembers the summer of 1962 “more clearly than any other summer of my youth. It cast its dismal pall over so many things.” But there was also “so much more to it” – most importantly, the experience of being young. In spite of the act of violence at its centre, Nesser’s novel has the charm of a gentle, funny coming-of-age story.
With Erik’s whole world overturned by the serious illness of his mother, he spends the summer at the family’s lake-side cottage with his friend Edmund, his elder brother Henry – and, turning up nearby, “Kim Novak”, the very image of the actress, a gorgeous substitute teacher from their school, accompanied by her extremely unpleasant fiancée. The quirkiness of the boys’ adventures and the awkwardness of their adolescence are beautifully conveyed. The pace of the novel captures the leisure of a summer idyll: “On our first few days at Gennesaret, we surveyed our kingdom… In the summertime, there was never any need to rush; time was an ocean one thousand times the size of Möckeln: you did as you pleased.” They seem to float unhurriedly towards calamity and loss of innocence. And, when disaster strikes, we find ourselves completely engrossed by the causes and consequences of “that fateful event”.
Like A Summer with Kim Novak, The Living and the Dead in Winsford is set in an intensely realized landscape and patiently, vividly creates a disempowered character in whose fate we feel very closely involved. Here, we are following a woman on her own, a former TV presenter, Maria Holinek. In contrast to the earlier novel’s poignant tale of the end of innocence, The Living and the Dead creates a tense, edgy account of the dangers confronted by a woman who is far from innocent – the wife of a missing professor who has herself gone missing, fleeing to an isolated cottage in the village of Winsford on Exmoor. She is “writing in order to avoid going mad – the gradual eroding madness of solitude – and in order to outlive my dog.” Maria is at a moral and emotional crossroads, not just in hiding but dislocated from her entire past: “I had gone astray in my inner landscape, and that was due quite simply to the fact that it had been changed. Or erased.” We are only gradually able to piece together the events that have led to her inner turmoil, and we read anxiously to find out what she is escaping from, what happened in a remote bunker on the Baltic coast, and what will become of her.
A Summer with Kim Novak and The Living and the Dead in Winsford are both, quite literally, “blood on the beach” novels, highly recommended as touching, suspenseful, utterly absorbing summer reading.
Review by Kate Horsley
Duane Swierczynski’s Revolver opens in the mid-60s, with two cops, one black and one white, drinking beer in a North Philly taproom when “sunlight blasts into the bar” – along with a man holding a revolver. No one is officially charged with the murder of Officers Stan Walczak and George Wildey, and the sequence of events that unfolded on that spring day in 1965 is only revealed to us at the end of the novel, when the scene of the shooting is recreated in full. For decades after the crime, the pain caused affects the lives of the families of the officers killed, and the unanswered questions drive an obsessive need to find out what happened. Revolver is a complex, compelling account of successive attempts to discover the truth.
We see events primarily through the eyes of Stan Walczak and his family – beginning with the Polish cop’s police work and his growing friendship with his black partner in the months leading up to their deaths. Thirty years on, in 1995, the unsolved case is still tormenting his son Jim, now himself working as a policeman; and the investigation is carried further by his granddaughter Audrey, who returns to Philadelphia in 2015 for a memorial service held on the 50th anniversary of her grandfather’s death. Focusing on these three years – 1965, 1995 and 2015 – Swierczynski teases out the interconnected traumas of private and public life – the guilt, the tangled secrets and long-hidden connections. Audrey reflects that “all this drama in her life and screwed-up family began at that corner of Seventeenth and Fairmount, in a dive bar. And maybe she’s holding on to this foolish dream that if she can figure out what happened back then, she can try to understand what the fuck is happening to them now.” And that is ultimately, of course, not just a personal but a historical question. What happened then to make things the way they are now? How have past wrongs created the calamities of the present?
Swierczynski first thought of writing Revolver when he read a Philadelphia Inquirer piece about the 1963 murders of two police officers and realized that “the bitter anger of their families, even after all these years, was palpable.” It is a novel that movingly captures the ramifications of hurt and anger over the years, amongst the Walczak descendants in particular, but also in terms of the wider and ongoing racial conflicts within Philadelphia. Revolver is based on impressive historical research, ranging from newspapers and academic studies to archival material on the civil rights movement in Philadelphia, establishing a vividly realized sense of the city over a fifty year period.
Within this carefully established historical context, Swierczynski creates powerful images of the conflicts that tear apart both cities and families. A commitment to honourable action persists over the decades, but so does the will to deceive and corrupt, and all of the characters in the novel are mired in the consequences. People long to keep alive the memory of what happened: it is important that Stan’s descendants hear the story of the 1965 shooting because “what happened here needs to be remembered.” But there can be no uncomplicated identification of the guilty party, and there have been many different motives for keeping secrets. What ultimately must be uncovered are personal treacheries, family betrayals and public lies. The public dimension ranges from unprincipled union bosses and gangsters to politically ambitious people anxious to conceal past transgressions on the way to the top – because “the mayor wants to be America’s mayor,” because there might be “a run for the governor’s office, maybe even the White House…” Revolver is an ambitious novel, and one that succeeds in its aim of giving readers uncomfortable insights into a half-century of urban turmoil. It is a story told with great warmth and humour, but also with a dark sense of the ironies and contradictions underlying generations of violence and misunderstanding.
Review by Kate Horsley
In Kevin Wignall’s A Death in Sweden, his protagonist, Dan Hendricks, thinks “how strange it was to be talking in such a measured way, surrounded by the visceral wreckage of all this violence.” As in his earlier novels, Wignall very skillfully combines interludes of conversation and reflection with breathless action scenes and a steady accumulation of efficiently executed murders that leave behind a high body count. Dan is a former CIA agent whose special skill is finding those who have gone into hiding: he has been paid “to track people down and make them disappear… dangerous people, people who’d done despicable things.”
Now, however, in the post-Snowden and WikiLeaks world, the CIA has a different agenda. There are political careers to protect, and deniability is of the essence. The Agency has mounted a clean-up operation aimed at taking down everyone who worked on the dark side, and Dan himself is a target. But there is also a new ODNI office established to clean up the CIA itself – “charged with tackling some of the more . . . troubling elements that have grown up within the CIA and other agencies in the last few decades.” Behind the scenes, shadowy controlling figures are working to protect their own positions and to conceal the crimes of those closest to them, and Dan, as he embarks on a mission to Sweden, has very little idea who he can trust – and who might, with a single shot, leave him as part of the “visceral wreckage”.
Dan is trying to save himself but also to protect other field operatives he’s worked with, “good men” who have “all done bad things”, but who are nevertheless far less morally tainted than the slick corporate figures who pull the strings. As in novels like Who is Conrad Hirst?, Wignall is writing within the traditions of espionage fiction, but his recurrent focus is on the iconic figure of the hitman and on the morality of such a figure – a killer, but one who is carefully distinguished both from the political manipulator and from the torturer (he neither schemes behind the scenes nor involves himself in interrogation). He is also a man who is constantly thoughtful about the personal and moral implications of the position in which he has placed himself.
The human isolation of the hitman is one of Wignall’s strongest themes. Dan Hendricks is a man who has inflicted and suffered loss. He has reconciled himself to the absence of children and family ties, separating himself in essential ways from the human community. The hitman’s resolution to protect others by absenting himself is not, however, without huge inner cost, and Wignall establishes a sense of intense conflict between the desire for attachments and the recognition that you can keep loved ones safe only by denying yourself any close connection with them.
A Death in Sweden immerses its readers in the violence and danger of the hitman’s life. Dan has skills that give him an edge, but so do his opponents, placing him in almost constant peril. Wignall offers us pacy action and some wonderfully cinematic sequences of flight and pursuit. One of the most striking is a solo assault on a well-guarded house in the dark as snow falls rapidly, with his enemies using thermal cameras to guide their fire, anticipating what his next move will be: “He had no choice but to make that move, though—all he could do was play it fast.” The whole of this utterly absorbing novel “plays it fast”. As we follow the vicissitudes of Dan’s hazardous life, Wignall’s vivid scenes and crisp, economical prose keep us in suspense throughout.
Review by Kate Horsley
Megan Abbott says that when she was reading the great hard-boiled writers of the ‘30s and ‘40s she became “intoxicated with the way the books appear very simple, but are not simple at all.” (New Statesman) Her first few novels – Queenpin in particular – have notable affinities with this earlier tradition. In her more recent novels, from The End of Everything (2011) on, she has turned to more contemporary subject matter. But she has at the same time moved ever closer to that intoxicating sense of apparent simplicity combined with depth of meaning and the treatment of serious themes – most of all in her stunning 2016 novel, You Will Know Me.
In these last four books, Abbott’s narratives recurrently probe the psychic wounds of the post-1980 American suburbs – the hidden desires and fierce ambitions, the bouts of hysteria and the heedless self-absorption, the competition-cursed relationships. Each novel gives readers a gripping combination of mystery and suspense, but with so many layers of culpability and denial that every step towards resolution leads us to see the whole idea of ‘resolving things’ as delusory.
You Will Know Me centers on a young gymnast, Devon, who is precociously aware that any slip could change her entire life. If this is true of a slight slip at the end of a spectacular vault, how much more true of slips in the endlessly tricky business of relating to other people, of loving and hating them without destroying the dream of flawless success: “To imagine a darkness at the center of that bright-lit, summer-skinned, effortless girl was very hard.” A different kind of dream – a lean-hipped, impossibly beautiful young man – threatens to unbalance the perfect equilibrium. When he is killed in a hit and run accident, there is more than one suspect, and Abbott’s satisfying narrative twists keep us on the edge of our seats until the novel’s end. She ultimately gives her readers a clear, uncontestable answer to the question, Who was driving the car? But almost every main character is caught in the tangled skein of carefully concealed guilt. Even the most innocent has lied, and there is little prospect of moral and emotional closure. As the novel ends, choices – probably not very good ones – are still being made.
Abbott has created in Devon a moving portrait of a girl so shaped for her role as a champion gymnast that her life has almost no give in it. She has trained so uncompromisingly that her physical presence is imaged in terms of air-to-air missiles, ships’ masts, oak beams; she is as stony-faced as the virginal huntress Artemis. For her family, she is an extraordinary extension of their collective will, their love and desire concentrated in her tiny form: “her body, their body, one body – and all the exceptional talent contained within it.”
Devon is not in the habit of divulging the thoughts and feelings under this toughened exterior (“’You never want to hear what it’s like being me,’ she whispered…”). But then, in Abbott’s suburbia, she is scarcely the only character who keeps things to themselves. Others chatter relentlessly – about looks, clothes, gymnastics, carpooling – but seldom with the aim of communicating either their real thoughts or their knowledge of the truth. And this, it seems, is just as well, because it is deception that binds together both community and family, that gives them strength: “That’s what families were, weren’t they? The strong ones, the ones that last. Not supporters or enablers so much as collaborators, accomplices, co-conspirators.” You Will Know Me is wonderfully disturbing and compelling – a remarkable novel, highly recommended.