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Insightful Books Reviews


Our reviews section examines the latest mystery offerings, covering books, anthologies, audio books, and videos.

 

desperate

BLACK SKIES

By Arnaldur Indridason

Translated by Victoria Cribb

London: Harvill Secker, 2012. $15.99

The greatest writer today of international police procedurals is without a doubt Arnaldur Indridason. The Icelandic author recently reached film audiences in Europe and America with his screenplay (co-written with Ëskar Jˇnasson) for ReykjavÝk-Rotterdam, the biggest budget film to come out of Iceland. The film was remade for US audiences as Contraband featuring Mark Wahlberg. But Indridason is at his core the literary crime novelist who hauntingly chronicles the adventures of his ReykjavÝk Detectives as they explore human nature at its basest and most disturbing. The latest novel, Black Skies, is no exception with its timely plot and taut narrative.

Ever since the conclusion of Arctic Chill, Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson has been absent, on “walkabout,” contemplating the gruesome discovery of what really happened to his younger brother when they were children. This has brought the series to an interesting fork in the road. In the previous novel, Outrage (2011), the story was told through the eyes of Detective Elinborg, while Black Skies is told through the eyes of her colleague, the surly US-educated Detective Sigurdur Oli. One contrast is that Elinborg is the more sympathetic of the two. Sigurdur Oli is disdainful of Icelandic policing, has less patience and finesse than Elinborg, and is often prepared to “bend the rules” when squeezed for a result. Interestingly, it is these precise faults that make Oli perfect for Black Skies’s plot, which involves corrupt bankers and hidden motives in pre-recession 2005. The title itself is a metaphor for the coming financial crisis that would engulf Iceland and ripple throughout the world.

The novel begins with the serial-killer motif, introducing a drifter named Anders who is crafting a horrific killing device. Sexual perversity is once again the order of the day (as in the preceding novel Outrage, where Elinborg investigated a series of date rapes), but this time Sigurdur Oli is faced with a case of “wife swapping” that leads to the extortion of a banker, a relative of one of Oli’s former schoolmates. Battling his own marital problems, Oli soon sees beyond the wife swapping and extortion to something far more ominous. He sees the dangers of wealth—a carousel spinning faster and faster so that with each turn the riders are less able to stop.

Evident in all Indridason’s work, and especially in Black Skies, is the author’s brutal economy of words. Yet there is room enough for hypnotic imagery. And this novel, a contemplative read on the whole, leaves us inadvertently comparing our own lives to those of the protagonists whose misfortunes we digest. The tragedy of Anders made this reviewer’s eyes moisten, as did the tragedies of the bankers caught up in the machinations of greed. There is no finer writer currently working the literary police procedural than Arnaldur Indridason, and the melancholia that is Black Skies is evidence of that statement. –Ali Karim

 

THE CUTTING SEASON

By Attica Locke

New York: Harper, 2012. $25.99

The Cutting Season is Attica Locke’s much-anticipated second novel. Her first, Black Water Rising, was one of the most acclaimed debuts of 2009 and received nominations for several awards, including the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, and the Strand Magazine Critics Award. While the scope of Black Water Rising was wider than that of many mainstream crime novels, The Cutting Season—set in Louisiana on an old sugar plantation—runs more along the lines of traditional crime fiction.

Belle Vie has been in the hands of the same family since shortly after the Civil War. Funded by the heritage industry, the house, plantation, and slave huts have been preserved and restored to provide an elegant surrounding for weddings, conferences, and educational visits. In addition to the amenities, visitors are offered a regularly performed play, The Olden Days of Belle Vie, about a plantation where family and slaves work together in peaceful harmony before the upheaval of war. Against this backdrop of warped antebellum nostalgia, the sugar cane is now cut by a new workforce consisting of poor Mexican immigrants—slaves in all but name.

The irony of Belle Vie is not lost on property manager Caren Gray, a descendant of the very slaves who worked the plantation before the war. Her ancestors cut cane in the fields and her great, great grandfather stayed on as a freed slave after the war, working the land until he disappeared in a mystery that has remained unsolved to the present day. But Caren does not have time to dwell on the past—she has a living to earn, an often-uncooperative staff to manage, the homeowners to appease, and her daughter Morgan to raise. Besides, the old slave cabins give her an uneasy feeling she would prefer to ignore.

The book opens with a cottonmouth snake falling from a tree into the lap of the bride’s mother during a wedding, a fitting parallel to the juxtaposition of revisionism and slavery in modern day Belle Vie. On the heels of this bad omen, the body of a female migrant worker is found in a shallow grave along the fence between the plantation and the cane fields. The police investigation into the killing quickly follows the simplest route, pinning the crime on Donovan Isaacs, a young actor who works at the plantation and has spoken out against the revisionist play. As Caren is gradually drawn in, she discovers blood on her daughter’s clothes and realizes Morgan is lying to her about certain events on the night of the murder. Tension escalates when a red pickup truck starts following Caren, the police grow hostile and suspicious, and the Belle Vie staff begins excluding her and keeping secrets that may or may not be connected to the case.

The Cutting Season explores the Old South through the context of new social orders, pitting the pressure to rewrite or redress the past against corporate greed and the need for identity. It is a compelling novel, slow-moving, and beautifully written. It also contains all the elements of a traditional mystery: murder, a growing list of suspects, and an investigation heading inexorably in the wrong direction. If the denouement is less satisfactory than the novel on the whole, this is probably because the author has great expectations of the genre and asks it to carry more weight than most traditional genre writers ask of their work.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising is a hard act to follow and The Cutting Season does not disappoint.

—Danuta Reah

 

 

A DARK AND BROKEN HEART

By R.J. Ellory

London: Orion Publishing, 2012. $11.95

R.J. Ellory hit it big with his 2007 zeitgeist work, A Quiet Belief in Angels, and successive works have further highlighted his skill as a literary crime novelist. The author seems to prefer exploring theme, characterization, and human fallibility rather than following the conventions of any genre. It is therefore difficult to pigeonhole him. He has written police procedurals (Saints of New York, 2010), prison melodramas (Candlemoth, 2003), conspiracy thrillers (A Simple Act of Violence, 2008), and gonzo-southern gothic chase thrillers (Bad Signs, 2011). Ellory’s versatility is evident again in his tenth novel, A Dark and Broken Heart. This time, the focus is on how flawed characters gain redemption for past transgressions.

Like most of Ellory’s work, A Dark and Broken Heart is peopled with unlikeable characters, however the author makes sure they are well drawn and multidimensional. This attention to detail is most evident in the main character, Vincent Madigan, a cop with sociopathic tendencies who is in serious debt to New York drug baron Sandia, a.k.a. “The Watermelon Man.” Vincent has one chance to sort out his life by participating in a shakedown of a crew that has stolen $400,000, but things go awry when he is forced to kill his colleagues, and a young girl is shot accidentally in the gun battle. This might be termed collateral damage by others, but not Vincent. He then discovers that the stolen money is also tagged and therefore useless to him. This results in the rogue cop going to ground, with cops and mob, led by Sandia, on the hunt for him.

The reader soon realizes that Vincent Madigan is now a full-blown psychopath—a darkly charming liar, druggie, and user of people in the Machiavellian mold—but with a contrasting streak of humanity. The conflicting sides of human nature are areas that Ellory excels in revealing and here he renders them with tremendous insight and compassion.

So, finally cornered, Vincent Madigan embarks on a curiously reckless and risky journey to resolve his problems. This tale is a microcosmic examination of his life—a search for context and an understanding of why he is the way he is. This all sounds very worthy, but the beauty of the novel is that it can be read as a page-turning thriller about a bad cop with a henhouse of chickens coming home to roost, or as an existential meditation in the vein of a Jean-Patrick Manchette story. A Dark and Broken Heart owes more to the French new-wave than to its setting in the shadows of New York. In this disturbing thriller, Ellory magnificently illustrates the most dangerous side of human nature. Highly recommended!

—Ali Karim

 

DARK ROOM

By Steve Mosby

London: Orion Publishing, 2012. $22.99

British writer Steve Mosby often challenges our view of reality, and his latest thriller, Dark Room, is no exception. Mosby’s work seems to explore the nature of evil itself, so readers with a nervous disposition should be warned that at times it can get ugly. Perhaps British readers are not averse to these forays into the dark side, as Mosby was the 2012 recipient of the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library Award.

Opening along the well-worn path of a police procedural, the novel features detectives Andy Hicks and Laura Fellowes investigating the murder of a woman who seems to have been assaulted by her ex-husband. But when more bodies appear in close succession, the detectives’ original theory of a domestic incident comes into question. All the victims seem to be unrelated. And apart from brutal beatings, no pattern emerges to give any indication of the killer’s modus operandi—though talk of a serial killer is soon in the air. Even Hicks’ faith in a logical solution for every problem is starting to shake.

Written with divergent plot strands that weave together toward an unexpected climax, the book offers little that can be taken at face value, including Hicks’ own relationship with the killers. His already strained existence—investigating the worst excesses of human nature while anticipating the birth of his first child—is far from clichÚ. But it grows even more bizarre when he begins receiving letters from the killers and begins contemplating secrets from his own past.

Several minor characters striate the narrative of the book before becoming integral at the close. The setting, a vague northern British city in the near future, also seems minor at first. But perhaps the author is drawing a larger parallel to the seeming randomness of life and death, and the idea that the connection between the two is simply hidden from view. Dark Room is a superb thriller for those who eat with their mouths closed and enjoy the existential musings of people who operate on the edges of society.

—Ali Karim

 

DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE:

A Guide to Scandinavian

Crime Fiction

By Barry Forshaw

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. $28.00

In Death in a Cold Climate, veteran British crime fiction critic Barry Forshaw explores the fascinating “Nordic noir” phenomenon. This eruption of Scandinavian crime novels, mostly police procedurals, began in 1965 with Roseanna, the first of the Martin Beck series published by Swedes Maj Sj÷wall and Per Wahl÷÷. The genre gathered popular momentum in the late nineties with Henning Mankell’s somber Kurt Wallander series and its English-language television version starring Kenneth Branagh. Nordic noir exploded internationally with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2008, US), The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009, US), and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010, US).

Forshaw wisely divided Death in a Cold Climate into chapters according to nationality, since he believes the most effective authors from each of the Scandinavian countries demonstrate the respective country’s idiosyncratic approach to social and psychological problems in the crime novel context.

After a useful general introduction, “Crime and the Left,” Forshaw devotes six chapters to Swedish crime fiction before, during, and after the work of Sj÷wall and Wahl÷÷, Mankell, and Larsson. His “Criminals and Criminologists” section contains especially intriguing reflections on novels just now appearing in English translation, such as Three Seconds (2011), a searing indictment of government corruption by Anders Roslund and B÷rge Hellstr÷m. Forshaw also highlights Norwegian author Jo Nesb° while discussing how Viking legacy continues to impact Norway’s crime literature. He similarly deals with authors—mostly translated, but some not yet available in English—of Danish, Icelandic, and Finnish crime novels in their national, historical, and cultural contexts. The closing chapter discusses film and television adaptations of crime works from all five nations.

Besides Forshaw’s generally illuminating mini-critiques of translated novels most likely to be found in US and UK bookstores, he directly quotes not only Scandinavian authors but also their publishers and translators. The remarks from the translators in particular are helpful in understanding the challenges of making Nordic noir accessible to English-speaking audiences. Overall, Death in a Cold Climate, with its comprehensive bibliography, respect for national literary traditions, and level-headed evaluation of a complex and thought-provoking literary phenomenon is a most worthwhile addition to any reader’s library.

—Mitzi M. Brunsdale

 

 

GONE GIRL

By Gillian Flynn

New York: Crown Publishing, 2012. $25.00

Gillian Flynn burst onto the literary scene in 2006 with Sharp Objects, a disturbing novel that won two Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards, which she followed up with Dark Places (2009). Her works feature unreliable narrators as unsettling as any convention-weary reader could wish for. If Patricia Highsmith were writing today, she would have fierce competition from fellow American Flynn, as they share a common strand in their stories—understanding the amorality that lies just a few millimetres beneath the veneer of humanity.

Gone Girl, Flynn’s third novel, is a very tough book to review because it reads like a bad drug experience, or a lucid dream that one wakes from in sodden sheets. Told from the viewpoints of Nick and Amy Dunne, the story follows a marriage that is less One Day (2009) by David Nicholls and more Full Dark, No Stars (2010) by Stephen King. It is in fact a dark romance about two lovers undergoing change.

The backdrop is the economic crisis impinging upon an affluent and educated couple. Forced to relocate from New York to Carthage, Missouri, they downsize to look after Nick’s sick mother, and Nick uses up a slab of Amy’s inheritance to set up a bar with his twin sister Margo (a.k.a. “Go”). There is subtle subtext behind their move as the narrative makes mention of how tough the economy is for people, including Amy’s parents, who once made a reasonable living from writing.

The narrative is difficult to detail, since it’s not the tale but rather the storyteller that makes Gone Girl such a joyous discovery. The plot is simple enough: following Amy’s disappearance on their fifth wedding anniversary, the shadow of suspicion falls upon her husband Nick. And in small town America, this proves troubling because there is no hard evidence, just whispering. Then the small town whispers hit the press and the police begin to hound Nick, waiting for the facade they believe he has built to crumble. Just when we seem to know what has happened to Amy, we are confronted by diverging accounts—Nick’s recollections of his relationship with Amy versus that of his wife’s diary. The climax will make you go back to the start and question everything, even your own reality.

In Flynn’s world, all reality is the artifice we build around ourselves; but when one person’s artifice clashes with another’s, the ugly truth is revealed. This is a thriller that will appeal to readers fascinated by the sinister side of human relationships. If you are looking for the heir to Patricia Highsmith, crack the spine of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Such unsettling entertainment will no doubt feature in all the awards for 2012.

—Ali Karim

 

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