Blood on the Beach: Summer 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 summer 2016 below.
Review by Kate Horsley
“… it was a lovely weekend. Glorious weather and great company, the children getting on like a house on fire and enjoying themselves hugely on the beach… I can’t believe that such a beautiful weekend has ended so badly…”
It’s the house party from hell. The cast is a splendidly drawn collection of rich, pampered people who lead disordered lives and who are used to domestic chaos on a grand scale (“His third wife was there the night his second marriage broke up. His fourth wife found his third wife’s dead body when she came to visit with her parents.”) In The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood displays her remarkable talent for sharp, bitchy, painfully revealing dialogue, and for creating characters whose duplicities, arrogance and casual cruelty keep us transfixed throughout.
The Darkest Secret is one of several recent novels centering on the death or disappearance of a child. Here, however, whilst feeling the torment and the pathos of such an experience, we are involved much more closely in the corrosive relationships and machinations of a collection of grown-ups who “had their friends coming, and…are not people who like their children to interfere with their fun.” Marwood’s novel has at its centre the disappearance of Coco Jackson, a 3-year old twin who vanishes in the night from Harbour View, a luxury property where Sean Jackson and assorted hangers-on are gathered on August bank holiday weekend to celebrate his 50th birthday.
The tense, twisting plot is in large part sustained by the fact that Marwood’s characters change their stories as readily as they replace their designer clothes. When they think, “we will never recover from this,” grief is not, in fact, uppermost in their minds. They are terrified of what will happen should they be blamed: “Everything – we’ll lose everything. Custody, jobs, reputations, liberty…” Sean himself, who epitomizes this mind-set, “is already rewriting his narrative in his head.” Will the lies and treacheries ever end? As we follow Marwood’s suspenseful plot, the truth only gradually emerges. The Darkest Secret is compulsive reading – a darkly, wickedly funny but also moving exploration of loss and desperation in the midst of the most lavish indulgence and self-deception. It is an immensely skillful novel, and one that keeps readers hooked to the very end.
Review by Lee Horsley
Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone is a superb take on the American tradition of tough, witty investigative fiction. Two separate narratives intertwine, only briefly intersecting but sharing the powerfully realized themes of loss, memory, the search for answers and the guilt of the survivor. The point of intersection – Oklahoma City – is vividly evoked, both its changing landscape and its communal sense of a past trauma shared and remembered, “a small town at heart” where, after the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building, “everyone knew someone who had been killed or maimed in the blast or someone who’d descended into hell to help with the rescue.”
The stories of The Long and Faraway Gone are told from the perspectives of two very different investigators, Wyatt and Julianna, each of whom is struggling with traumatic memories that have haunted them for more than two decades. Wyatt Rivers, who more than holds his own in a long line of wise-cracking private eyes, “had yet to figure it out, the central mystery of his life, why so many people assumed, automatically, that he was being a smart-ass. People he’d never met before, who didn’t know him from Adam.” He is hired to investigate a case that takes him – very unwillingly – back to his home town of Oklahoma City, where he cannot avoid reliving and ultimately investigating the far more disturbing central mystery of his own life. In 1986, when he was a teenager, he was the only one to survive a violent robbery at the movie theater where he worked. Again and again, he feels compelled to relive the night of the massacre and to ask himself, “Why am I still here and all the others gone?”
Berney’s other central character, Julianna Rosales, was only twelve years old when her life was transformed by an equally random experience of incomprehensible loss. Having taken Julianna to the Oklahoma State Fair, her older sister, Genevieve, asks her to wait for her briefly. As it grows darker and darker, Julianne continues to wait, but her sister never returns: “Why did Genevieve do it? How could she do it? How could she leave Julianna alone on the curb outside the rodeo arena, dusk falling fast, and never come back? Julianna would never know.” Like Wyatt, Julianna is tormented by the thought of not knowing, and obsessively pursues any leads she can find.
The Long and Faraway Gone is a riveting novel – sharply written, subtle, funny and moving. There are answers to the questions raised, but not altogether tidy and reassuring ones. There is no easy, revealing convergence of the two plot lines. Wyatt and Julianna, who meet twice during the course of their investigations, converse briefly, but only to share fragmentary memories of Oklahoma City in the mid-80s. These are not memories of the mysteries they are trying to unravel but simply recollections of intensely felt moments, like the time they both saw the same tornado – in Julianna’s memory, “so close it was almost on top of us. It was right there. It had been there all along, and we didn’t know it.” The powerfully experienced memory animated in this scene resembles, for both of them, their ultimate realizations about what happened in the long-ago tragedies of their lives – something that was there all along, but not recognized until seen in the mind’s eye with a sudden clarity. The effect of such moments of recall is to realign facts as they had imagined them to be, allowing them to come to terms with the past and with the possibility of moving on, however tentatively and painfully.
Arnaldur Indridason – Reykjavik Nights (2012, trans 2014) and Into Oblivion (2014, trans 2016)
Review by Lee Horsley
“His thoughts shifted to the Reykjavík nights, so strangely sunny and bright, yet in another sense so dark and desperate.”
Reykjavik Nights (2012, trans 2014) and Into Oblivion (2014, trans 2016) are powerful, brooding prequel novels that provide readers with a compelling introduction to the “dark and desperate” world of Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik-set Inspector Erlendur novels. The series first appeared in English in 2004, with the translation of Jar City, and continued through eight more novels following (in the main) Erlendur’s later career, from his mid-50s on. After the haunting finale, Strange Shores (trans 2010), carried the Inspector’s career to its end, Arnaldur took his readers back to meet Erlendur in his late 20s and early 30s, when he’s just starting to work with the police force.
Erlendur’s abiding obsession is with understanding the fates of those who have been lost, whether in howling blizzards and avalanches or in treacherous terrain of Reykjavík nights. Taciturn and introspective, he is a man of utter integrity. He is driven in part by a childhood tragedy, his younger brother’s disappearance in a blinding snowstorm when the ten-year old Erlendur let go of his hand, but the personal roots of his compulsion are inextricably bound up with his stubborn, honourable, humane commitment as a detective to investigate the cases of those who have been “left behind” and to find answers for “those left behind to mourn.”
In Reykjavik Nights, Erlendur is not yet a detective but just a young officer working in Traffic. The things he learns as he patrols the city at night lead him to investigate on his own time an unexplained death that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone else. A tramp called Hannibal was found drowned a year ago – a man with whom Erlendur had spoken with from time to time, sympathising with “his loneliness and mental anguish” and “the uncompromising fact of his existence.” Hannibal’s death has been officially closed with little investigation – dismissed as an accident. Erlendur, doggedly refusing to relinquish his conviction that there are unanswered questions, continues to seek the truth of what happened in “the ugly tumult of the night.” Was Hannibal a victim of the crimes of “Reykjavík’s rather half-baked underworld” or are there other forms of brutality to be considered? Whilst examining the circumstances surrounding Hannibal’s death, Erlendur is also pursuing the unexplained disappearance of a well-to-do young woman named Oddny, and as he pushes forward with his enquiries he begins to wonder whether there might be a connection. For readers, the gradual accumulation of details in the course of Erlendur’s patient investigation of both cases creates a gripping and affecting sense of how “people could just as easily lose themselves on Reykjavík’s busy streets as on remote mountain paths in winter storms.”
Into Oblivion, which brings Erlendur’s story to 1979, again weaves together the investigations of two counterpointed cases. Here, Erlendur’s enquiries reach back to take in the mystery of a young girl named Dagbjört who disappeared on her way to school a quarter-century earlier. The investigative consensus was that she had taken her own life, and yet – characteristically – Erlendur is unable to accept this verdict: “she would not leave Erlendur alone, no matter how hard he tried to push her away and forget the case. She haunted him like a ghost risen from the grave…” At the same time, he is investigating a current case involving the broken body of Kristvin, an Icelandic mechanic who worked at the American military base at Keflavík and who appears to have fallen – or perhaps been pushed – from a great height. It would seem to present “a stark contrast” to the mystery of the long-vanished girl, and yet Erlendur’s mind plays over strange connections, in particular to do with the relationship of both cases to America’s troublesome military presence in Iceland.
Written in spare, moving, quietly authoritative prose, both novels make apparent the qualities that have given Arnaldur’s work its growing reputation. In interview, Arnaldur talks about the influence of the Icelandic sagas, with their forceful, direct story-telling and their themes of revenge, honour and family loyalty. His work integrates a deep feeling for Icelandic landscape, tradition and history with a compassionate sense of the divisions and injustices of contemporary society. In contrast to some of his fellow Scandi crime novelists, he doesn’t move towards revelations that detail the macabre murders committed by serial killers, but instead follows the lives of ordinary men and women who have strayed into hardship or danger – the victims of domestic brutality and unpremeditated murder, people who have mysteriously disappeared in the harsh landscape or the indifferent cityscape.