Editors’ Choice: reviews of Harriet Lane, Her, Amanda Jennings, The Judas Scar, and Daniel Woodrell, The Maid’s Version
The protagonists of psychological thrillers are very often in thrall to the dark secrets of the past: characters go through their lives imprisoned by the past; or they take flight from it, imagining they can escape; or, just when they least expect it, someone from a former life resurfaces and threatens to destroy them. Harriet Lane’s superb, chilling novel Her begins with a chance meeting between two women whose lives were intertwined in the distant past. In Amanda Jennings’ gripping thriller The Judas Scar, the central relationship from the past is male rather than female, and, from the disturbing prologue on, the reader knows that male brutality and violence are at the core of both past and present narratives. Daniel Woodrell’s extraordinary piece of Southern noir, The Maid’s Version, gives us a past secret that is a communal tragedy rather than a private torment, and we hear the voices of an entire town as we try to untangle the lies and evasions that have proliferated in the decades following a dance hall explosion decades earlier. Read our reviews of Harriet Lane, Amanda Jennings and Daniel Woodrell.
Crime fiction has often been accused of indulging in the clichés of the dangerous and the endangered woman – the femme fatale, the female victim. The degree to which such generalisations oversimplify the genre is apparent if one reads the steadily growing number of women crime writers who, from the 1940s on, have created subtle, diverse explorations of a great range of female protagonists – from damaged children and wilful teenagers to deceived partners, oppressed housewives, guilty mothers, tough businesswomen. Increasingly in the twenty-first century, psychological thrillers have given readers a chance to enter into the subjective perceptions of non-stereotypical women in ways that subvert and reappropriate some of the most familiar and time-honoured generic conventions.
Our focus here is on teen-centred crime fiction. Some of the most highly regarded contemporary female crime writers have written compellingly about teenage experience – Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French. They represent transgression, resistance to constraints on female agency, dawning sexuality, and, above all, female friendship – being best friends and also, of course, betraying and destroying those friendships. Amongst recent novels, two of the outstanding examples of teen-centred psychological thrillers are Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Tana French’s The Secret Place. Read our reviews of Megan Abbott and Tana French.
Editors’ Choice: reviews of Christobel Kent, The Crooked House; D.D. Johnston, The Secret Baby Room; Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train; and Liane Moriarty, The Last Anniversary
A mark of good crime fiction is that readers can intensely experience the spaces through which the characters move or in which they are trapped. Whether they are in urban mean streets or small towns, buildings are more than background or setting. They can generate the fears and desires that drive characters to commit crimes; they conceal secrets and retain the impress of crimes committed; protagonists may dread to enter them or feel a false sense of security when they lock the doors. Three excellent recent crime novels construct gripping narratives that centre on the manifold ways in which buildings are perceived, experienced and remembered. In Christobel Kent’s atmospheric novel, The Crooked House, the house of the title is a gothic embodiment of past terrors, containing the lost narrative of a murdered family; in D. D. Johnston’s forthcoming The Secret Baby Room, an almost equally gothic building, a derelict tower block, summons up the protagonist’s worst fears; and in Paula Hawkins’ tense thriller, The Girl on the Train, what we’re led to reflect on is the deceptive uniformity, the apparent interchangeability of suburban houses, so blank that it is easy to miss their role in concealing disastrous and violent acts. Also reviewed is a novel first published a few years ago (2006), Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, a playful, enthralling mix of romance and mystery, in which houses stimulate desire and feed the imaginative hunger for enigmas. Read our reviews of Christobel Kent, D.D. Johnston, Paula Hawkins, and Liane Moriarty.
Editors’ Choice: reviews of Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters; Lynn Kostoff, Words to Die For; and Paul Johnston, The Black List
The noir thriller has proven itself capable of powerfully depicting the breakdown of society and the human consequences of political evils, lies and betrayals. Contemporary urban disintegration, violence and economic collapse are at the heart of Lauren Beukes’ complex novel, Broken Monsters. Equally fascinating – and equally relevant to the political experiences of our own time – are two pieces of historical noir, both of which anatomise the treacherous political decisions, the crimes, guilts and corrosive allegiances of earlier eras. Lynn Kostoff’s Words to Die For, set in the deregulated corporate world of the Reagan era, plays out at an individual level its compromises and cynical deceptions; Paul Johnston’s The Black Life, which partly takes place in modern-day Greece, also encompasses the horrors of Nazism and the holocaust. All three novels stand out in my recent reading and exemplify the best qualities of the outward-looking crime story, which, as Andrew Pepper argues (Unwilling Executioner, forthcoming from OUP), “remains the most politically-minded of all the literary genres.” Read our reviews of Lauren Beukes, Lynn Kostoff’ and Paul Johnston.
Summer 2014 offers some great conferences, festivals and crime-related events. There are, of course, two excellent annual events scheduled in Bristol and Harrogate, the Crimefest convention and the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. In addition Crimeculture particularly recommends the Manchester ‘True Crime’ Conference (Call for Papers deadline 18th April), an inventive ‘Crime Story’ weekend in Newcastle, and, in Ohio, the Crime Studies Network’s ‘Evil Incarnate’ conference.
Now established as one of the best annual crime events, the international crime fiction convention, Crimefest, has a Programme that includes panels on locked rooms, women as victims, the modern thriller, the paranormal, political thrillers, the hired gun, Euro noir, psychotherapists and psychiatrists, plus interviews with Nicci French, Lars Kepler, Yrsa Sigurdardottir – and much else.
Spend a weekend getting under the skin of a fictional crime with top crime writers, criminologists, lawyers, police and forensics experts. See also the link on this page to the Northern Crime Competition.
David Schmid is the keynote speaker at this fascinating interdisciplinary conference which will explore the genre in its myriad incarnations. The programme is now online at http://www.hic-dragones.co.uk/true-crime-programme/
David McWilliam, who is presenting at and co-running True Crime: Fact, Fiction, Ideology, is interviewing Jean Murley on the Twisted Tales site. Jean Murley’s first book was The Rise of True Crime: 20th Century Murder and American Popular Culture and she is currently working on a book about wrongful conviction in America, tentatively titled Collateral Damage: The Outrage of Wrongful Conviction: Eight Families’ Stories.
Since the 1920s, women have been among the most prolific and influential authors of crime fiction. Some of the best-known heroes and anti-heroes of fiction are also women. This conference will address the relationship of gender and genre, past and present, and the known and the unknown. Keynote speakers: Val McDermid and Dr Lee Horsley.
The Crime Studies Network is a group devoted to the interdisciplinary study of representations of crime. In 2014, it is holding its first conference outside the UK. With keynote speakers from the disciplines of Religious Studies, Justice Administration and Film Studies, the conference asks what defines villainy and how villains are represented.
“For one long, sultry, summer weekend the temperature in Harrogate rises whatever the weather as the world’s hottest celebration of crime writing swings into town.” This year’s festival has a stellar line-up, including Ann Cleeves, Robert Galbraith, Sophie Hannah, John Harvey, Lynda LaPlante, Laura Lippman, Peter May, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and S. J. Watson.
As is traditional, Bristol was bathed in gorgeous sunshine just in time for its annual international crime fiction convention, CrimeFest: lovely weather for a bit of murder and mayhem!
I arrived on Saturday because of work, so I missed a few of the panels I’d been looking forward to, but I thought the ones I did manage to see on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were fantastic. Many intriguing insights into crime writing partnerships emerged from Maxim Jakubowski‘s interview with Nicci French and Lars Keplar. “Ideas for our books come out of our marriage…sometimes literally,” said Sean French of Nicci French, “When collaboration works, it’s a bit like folie à deux.”
I thought this was a wonderfully evocative (if somewhat scary) description of the collaborative writing process! We’ve long been fans of Nicci French’s stand-alones and were excited to hear more details of her/their series detective novels as well as Stalker, the latest offering in Lars Keplar’s Joona Linna series.
Martyn Waites‘ interview with Mark Billingham was an entertaining event, full of banter between the two former roommates and lively discussion of everything from police procedurals to seafood slaughterers and dachshund detectives. There was a good deal more easygoing banter mixed in with quantities of hard liquor as the evening progressed and it was lovely to get a chance to catch up with old friends and chat to writers I’ve read or known on social media but never met in the flesh before.
As hangovers abounded on Sunday morning (causing some writers to don their sunglasses indoors), I went to watch Kevin Wignall interview special guest author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Crimeculture are long-time fans of Kevin’s writing (both as a crime writer and as YA author K J Wignall), but neither of us had read Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s work before. I don’t know why, because it sounds brilliant and just our sort of thing. I hugely enjoyed this event – which careened from the bloodcurdling to the hilarious and back again – and was fascinated to hear about the influence of The Handbook of Infectious Tropical Diseases on Yrsa’s writing… not to mention Struwwelpeter, Father Christmas’s scary mother and “the charm of horrible things”.
I haven’t been to CrimeFest for a couple of years and was amazed at how much the convention has grown, with standing room only at many of the events. Despite the swell in numbers, I was happy to see that CrimeFest hadn’t lost the intimate, convivial atmosphere and easygoing vibe that made it such an enjoyable event when it first began.
Increasing numbers of contemporary books, articles and conference papers have been devoted to analysing crime and detective fiction within a wide variety of cross-cultural contexts. Critics focus on the diversity of the genre and on the manifold ways in which generic tropes are being transformed as they take on different cultural and national identities. Studies such as these shed light on one of the main reasons for the genre’s durability: as Kate Horsley writes in “Contemporary African Crime Fiction”, “Detective fiction has remained a resilient and versatile genre because of its capacity to raise difficult questions about corruption and moral failure. It represents the investigation of individual crimes but can also work to expose the failures, traumas and brutalities of political and social life.”
This Autumn Crimeculture is featuring some of the best of the 2012-13 publications on cross-culture crime and detective fiction. The following books and articles are reviewed and highly recommended:
Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya Horeck (eds), Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction, Palgrave Macmillan, October 2012
‘The Problem of the Overtired Undergrad’, Ari Scott-Zechlin
‘Iustitia’, Tara Coffin
‘A Study in Iron’, Thomas Pinder
‘Nuremberg’, Ros Ballinger
‘Golden Blaze’, Rhys Barter
‘The Undead Detective’, Rhys Barter
‘Paul Wallace’, Sarah Borroum
‘Desert Island Dicks’, Paul Chiswick
‘One-Way Sherlock’, Dennis Mombauer
‘Dear Mr Spade’, Charles Rzepka
‘Ideal Holmes’, Alex Watts
The Sherlock Holmes Flash-Fiction Competition received over a hundred entries. We greatly enjoyed reading all of the stories submitted. Our judge, Sean Cregan, writes:
There are some good ones there! I had a hard time picking between ‘Iustitia’, ‘A Study In Iron’, and ‘The Problem Of The Overtired Undergrad’. I’m going to say ‘Undergrad’ just about takes it though.
It was very, very tight, but ‘Undergrad’ just edged it for me on the style and quality of the writing – there’s a couple of lovely turns of phrase in there. The conceptual switch is a nice one too, like a modern (and more grown-up) update of ‘Young Sherlock’ minus the ambulatory cream cakes, told from an outside point of view (and you can’t go wrong with a sly Mrs Hudson reference). Very tight field, very hard to pick, but this one shaded it.
The Competition: Our Sherlock Holmes Flash Fiction Competition was part of an AudioGo promotion. We asked that stories be no longer than 400 words and that they should feature Holmes in another time and place or in a different genre, e.g. gothic, hardboiled, cyberpunk or sci-fi. The Crimeculture editorial team shortlisted a group of stories and Sean Cregan, author of explosive and brilliant cyberpunk novels The Levels and The Razor Gate, judged the overall winner and the runners-up. The shortlisted and winning writers will have their work published on the Crimeculture website during July. The winning writer will be interviewed, published on Crimeculture and presented with a set of BBC Sherlock Holmes audiobook CDs; our two runners-up will also receive AudioGo prizes.
In May – July, Crimeculture is featuring Sherlock Holmes and classic detective fiction. See our front page links to some of our past articles on detective fiction, and our new contributions: Aysegul Kesirli’s “Reading House M.D. as a Detective Drama,” which considers Gregory House in comparison to Holmes and to hard-boiled detectives; and Ashleigh Prosser’s ‘’The Genius Detective’ in classical detective fiction,” which discusses Poe’s Three Tales of Ratiocination and Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet.
About Roger Morris
Born in Manchester in 1960, R. N. Morris now lives in North London with his wife and two young children. His series of St. Petersburg novels revolving around the character of Porfiry Petrovich include A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, which was shortlisted for the 2008 CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Best Novel and was Highly Commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Prize for Best Historical Crime Novel in 2008. A Razor Wrapped in Silk was publsihed in 2010, and his fourth book, The Cleansing Flames, was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger in 2011. He also wrote Taking Comfort which was published by Macmillan under the name Roger Morris in 2006. His latest novel, Summon Up The Blood, is published in April 2012. (see Faber and Faber Authors)
About Michael and Daniela Gregorio
Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio write together as Michael Gregorio. Daniela teaches philosophy; Michael is interested in the history of photography. They live in Spoleto, a small town in central Italy. They have created a series of crime novels whose central charater is the Prussian magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis. The series includes Critique of Criminal Reason, Days of Atonement, A Visible Darkness and Unholy Awakening. (Faber and Faber Authors)
Michael and Daniela: Did you always think that you would be a writer, Roger, and, if you did, what sort of a writer did you think that you would be?
Roger: Pretty much, yes. Writing stories was always my favourite activity at school. Even the way I played was story-based, making up convoluted scenarios for myself and my friends to act out. Telling stories is one of the ways we make sense of the world. We’re encouraged to do it as children and then at some point we switch to a more academic way of writing. Essays – based on facts. For me at least, at the school I went to, the imaginative, creative approach to writing – making stuff up – was discreetly put to one side. So it became something I pursued in private. For many years. Quite early on I took hold of the misguided idea that being a writer would be a great job. The misguided part was that it was a job at all, when actually it’s an obsession. You don’t turn up to work, work for a certain number of hours and get a pay cheque at the end of the month. In fact, you’re doing well if you’re getting paid at all. To answer the second part of your question, all I can say is that I didn’t particularly see myself as a crime writer. That came quite late on. If there is a spectrum with storyteller at one end and literary writer at the other, I have always thought of myself as being at the storyteller end. Fundamentally, that’s what it’s about for me, telling stories.
How about you two? Did you always see yourselves as writers, and if so what sort?
Michael: I was a kid who always wrote smart formulaic essays in school. English and History? No problem. I read English at university, and fell in love with long novels. They were more fun than Anglo-Saxon, which I also studied. I always fancied writing a novel, but I never had the time. When I came to Italy in 1980, I started worrying about forgetting my English – I was trying so hard to learn Italian – and I began writing short stories, then novels set in Italy as I got more ambitious. Pretty soon Daniela was at it, as well. She’d always been a scribbler. She still has pre-school notepads covered in incomprehensible hieroglyphs! By the mid-1990s, Dani was teaching philosophy and reading horror – Stephen King, James Herbert – and she tried her hand at the genre, too, while I was diddling about with the Victorians and crime. One day she came up with an intriguing idea for a short story set in Prussia featuring her favourite philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and our joint ambition took off. Could we write a novel set in Königsberg in 1804, and if so, what kind of novel would it be? Read more…
About Mark Billingham
Mark Billingham was born and brought up in Birmingham. Having worked for some years as an actor and more recently as a TV writer and stand-up comedian his first crime novel was published in 2001. Sleepyhead was an instant bestseller in the UK. It has been sold widely throughout the world and was published in the USA in the summer of 2002. The series of crime novels featuring London-based detective Tom Thorne continued with Scaredy Cat and was followed by Lazybones, The Burning Girl, Lifeless, Buried, Death Message, Bloodline and From The Dead. The latest in the series – Good As Dead – is published in August 2011. Mark is also the author of the standalone novel In The Dark as well as a series of children’s thrillers – Triskellion – written under the pseudonym Will Peterson. An acclaimed television series based on the Thorne novels was screened on Sky One in Autumn 2010, starring David Morrissey as Tom Thorne. The second series is now in production. Mark lives in London with his wife and two children. He is currently writing his next novel.
Visit his website: http://www.markbillingham.com/
About Paul Johnston
Paul Johnston was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1957. His father Ronald was a successful thriller writer. Paul attended state primary school in Berwickshire and private schools in Edinburgh. He subsequently studied ancient and modern Greek at the University of Oxford, then added an M.Phil in comparative literature to his M.A.. After leaving Oxford in 1982, Paul worked for shipping companies in London and Belgium. He moved to Greece in 1987, working on a newspaper, in shipping and then teaching English. His daughter Silje was born in 1988. He started writing seriously in 1989 when he went to live on the small Aegean island of Antiparos. Paul returned to Edinburgh to do another master’s degree in 1995 and then started studying for a doctorate. Paul remarried in 2005. His wife Roula is a Greek civil servant. Their daughter Maggie was born in Athens in January 2006 and their son Alexander in January 2008. Paul has come through (touch wood) two unconnected bouts of cancer in the last five years and underwent chemotherapy until November 2008. That hasn’t stopped him from writing or from studying for a PhD in creative writing.He still divides his time between Scotland and Greece – having left Athens, he and his family now live in the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. His next project is The Green Lady, the fifth Alex Mavros novel.
Visit his website: http://www.paul-johnston.co.uk/
PJ -You worked in children’s TV and stand up before becoming a crime novelist? What nudge you towards the genre?
MB – I was really not enjoying the work I was doing for TV where scripts tend to be developed by committee. I’d taken my name off several projects before I finally decided I’d had enough, but even though I’d written all sorts of stuff before that (terrible poetry, bad plays, my own stand-up material) I was wary about trying my hand at a novel. Once I took the plunge, however, it was always going to be crime. Put simply, crime fiction had been my passion from a very early age. Once I’d discovered Sherlock Holmes, aged eleven (me, not him) I was hooked. I’ve talked in many interviews about how the work I’d done up to that point influenced and helped me. From TV writing I learned the discipline of deadlines and delivery and the importance of dialogue, which, as a TV writer is pretty much all you have to work with. Stand-up taught me about engaging with your audience quickly and keeping them engaged. A crime novel contains many similar elements to a stand-up routine. It is full of punchlines (though usually very dark ones) and, of course, timing is everything. I firmly believe that a novel is a performance…
What about you? Your background is rather more academic than mine. How does a classicist come to murder so many people on the page? Was it all that Greek tragedy?
PJ – No, I think it was Homer’s Odyssey, which I read in English when I was about seven (precocious, moi?) – plenty of crimes in there. Although I read classics for a couple of years at Oxford, I then changed to Modern Greek and did a Masters in comparative literature, much of which involved analysing that well known crime writer DH Lawrence. I’m really an academic manque, whence my studying for a PhD in creative writing at this advanced age. You mention Greek tragedy, which I read a lot of – no shortage of crime, murder etc in that either, but the biggest classical influence on my early writing was Plato. My Quint Dalrymple series, set in an independent Edinburgh in the 2020s, had more to do with the Republic than science fiction, though Orwell and Huxley are also presiding deities and there’s a hefty Blade Runner homage in the last book. I think I’d describe my approach to crime writing as intellectual rather than academic, actually, even though I know that will lead to endless mockery. I start a book with ideas – I don’t mean plot or character ideas, though they’re there too, but political or even philosophical concepts. Body Politic and its successors raise all sorts of issues about totalitarianism, education, the environment (especially the energy and water supplies), censorship, cloning and so on. I like a crime novel that asks the reader to think…..Read more.