Saturday, December 27, 2008

Switzerland: "And Then There Was No One" by Gilbert Adair - Review

And Then There Was No One
is the third and possibly last book to feature Gilbert Adair's Agatha Christie pastiche caricature, Evadne Mount. She first appeared in the Boxing Day country-house mystery The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, which I read, and then A Mysterious Affair of Style, which I didn't.

This novel is written as a first person narration in the persona of the author 'Gilbert Adair' – a writer, who could be mistaken for David Hockney, who has written two Agatha Christie pastiches featuring a detective called Evadne Mount….. get the idea?

We are presented with the facts of the murder – who, when, where – on the first page of the prologue (a necessity, really, since the first body doesn't turn up until two thirds of the way through the book) – a prologue which exists as a wily chunk of exposition about the dead man's backstory. The victim – Gustav Slavorigin –was a Rushdie-esque figure, the author of a highly controversial polemical essay denigrating the American experience on 9/11 who has been pursued by, amongst others, the backwoods followers of a rabid neo-con Texan zillionaire.

The narrator, Slavorigin and several other ill-assorted authors meet in the Swiss town of Meiringen, site of the Reichenbach Falls, for the first Sherlock Homes literary festival. Meiringen is a real town with a real Sherlock Holmes Museum, proud of its literary associations and the Sherlock Holmes Hotel, though it sports the SportHotel (it must be catching…) branding is actually, I understand, one of the Hilton portfolio, though for some reason they keep this quiet.

Bravely, the Adair-narrator recites complete a piece from his "Unpublished Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes" to the audience at the convention – the completely new story 'The Giant Rat of Sumatra' as referenced in Conan Doyle's tale 'The Adventure Of The Sussex Vampire'.

Self-references abound, and real people are mixed with fictional creations: the real-fictional and the fictional-fictional worlds are dizzyingly interwoven, and the climax left me grinning with admiration.

The book is full of sly allusions to Christie's stories (Adair rents a house in the Cotswolds and travels down to it weekly on the 4:50 from Paddington) and to other crimewriters' works, for example the Martin Beck stories of Sjowall & Wahloo. But any jokes in German – and those in many other languages also – will have flown unnoticed right past me.

And that's really the problem I had with this book. This reader felt frustrated that she was probably missing more than half the jokes; it was frequently unclear whether the "author's" mocking tone was directed at himself, his story, or – most probably – at me. Although I enjoyed the romp and the worthy ending, I was left with the feeling that I'm not clever enough to fully appreciate the dazzling virtuosity on display in And Then There Was No One. And that, dear reader, is not a comfortable realisation!
The bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes outside the museum at Meiringen, Switzerland

Iceland: "Arctic Chill" by Arnaldur Indriðason - Review

Arctic Chill
is the fifth book featuring Reykjavik detective Erlendur Sveinnsson to be translated into English – the first two in the series, Sons of Dust and Silent Kill, are still not available to the English reader.

The bitter cold of an Icelandic January sees Inspector Erlendur and his team - Sigurdur Oli, struggling with the concept of adoption as his wife desperate for a child, and Elinborg, whose own infant is sick – investigating the death of a ten year old boy found stabbed and abandoned in an icy garden.

His mother is a Thai incomer, and Erlendur must consider a range of suspects from teachers and classmates to neighbours and local racists. Matters are complicated further when it seems that a dangerous paedophile might be living in the area. At the same time Erlendur is preoccupied not only by the disappearance of a local housewife but also the questions raised during a visit from his daughter, Eva Lind, which he does not wish to answer.

This is a compelling police procedural which I can thoroughly recommend: Erlendur is in the mould of depressed Scandinavian detectives Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander, but is his own man, and the gradual unravelling of his personal tragedy from novel to novel is intriguing, as is the insight into Icelandic society and the finely drawn characterisations and spare prose style.

The next Erlendur novel, Harðskafi, promises much. It apparently takes the detective back to his childhood home (see below) deep into his soul and the defining trauma of his youth, the loss of his younger brother. Released in Iceland in 2007, it is due to be published in English in the Autumn of 2009 under the provisional title Hypothermia.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sweden: In the footsteps of the first police series - up the Göta Canal with 'Roseanna'

The second stop on WhereDunnit's crime fiction tour of Sweden: the Göta Canal at Lake Boren.

The ten books by Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo
featuring Detective Martin Beck of Sweden's National Homicide Squad, which together form one work consisting of ten individual instalments, have been called the first true police procedurals, and the first great series of police thrillers. As a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction for several years, I felt it was about time I went back to this source.

It's perhaps difficult now to appreciate quite how revolutionary the concept was - a series with a protagonist detective who was an ordinary man, not a hero or Lord or ratiocinative genius, but instead which demonstrated the day-to-day slog and tedium of a protracted investigation.

It is clear where Henning Mankell found some of his inspiration for Kurt Wallander - in fact, so many European policemen can trace their lineage back to Sjowall & Wahloo's creation, an introspective, wise, philosophising man with an unhappy home-life. In this very first novel, Beck reminds himself: "You have three of the most important virtues a policeman can have – you are stubborn and logical and completely calm."

The strange thing about these books is that there is so much that is familiar and up-to-date that it's easy to forget that the first one, Roseanna, was first published in 1965. It's only when the policemen have to wait for weeks and exchange letters and crackling telephone calls with their counterparts in Lincoln, Nebraska, that the reader is pulled up with a start, to realise that this was a world without mobile phones, computerized records and internet searches.

Roseanna begins with a dead body, specifically located in date and time and place, being pulled out of the water at the western edge of Lake Boren, where a series of five locks steps the Göta Canal up to Lake Vättern. (See map - the starting point of the plot is indicated by the green circle). The investigation into the death of the girl - eventually identified as the eponymous Roseanna - develops slowly through the following seven months until Beck finally arrests the killer.

It is wonderful to discover that the cruise ship which features so vividly in the story in 1963 – the MS Diana – still operates the route today: you can take the same cruise along the Gota Canal on the same ship as the ill-fated Roseanna! The scene of the crime was cabin A7: the MS Diana was refitted in 1987, and Cabin A7 is still on the main deck, but not quite in the correct position for Roseanna's cabin as described by Sjowall and Wahloo.

To travel on the cruise Stockholm to Gothenburg costs about £3,600 for two, although as Roseanna only made it to Boren Locks (Borenshult) a few miles east of Motala before her body was dumped in the water, you can get the experience in a two-day cruise from Soderkoping to Motala for £800 for two people in a (tiny) double cabin - a bargain, then! To see for yourself, visit the Göta Canal webpage in English.

I highly recommend the edition I read, published by Harper Perennial in 2006. It features an interesting introduction by Henning Mankell, and articles and interviews at the back by Rick Shepherd. The only criticism I have is that the jacket designer clearly hadn't read the book, as Roseanna on the front has blonde hair and much make-up and bears no resemblance to the girl in the story. I intend to collect them all in this edition, if I can get hold of them – while I'm saving to to take that cruise up the Göta Canal from Stockholm to Gothenburg……..

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sussex: Peter Guttridge - 'A Ghost Of A Chance'

I've thoroughly enjoyed this week reading 'A Ghost Of A Chance' by Peter Guttridge (pub.1998, Headline) featuring his self-deprecating and witty series protagonist Nick Madrid.

As the story opens, Madrid is huddled on a South Downs hillside near Ditchling Beacon. He has been persuaded by his domineering and lubricious editor Bridget to spend Walpurgis Night, 30th April, camping beside a supposedly haunted prehistoric burial chamber where occultist Aleister Crowley - aka the Wickedest Man in the World, and the Great Beast - tried to raise the devil.

All Madrid manages to raise is a girly-scream when, after a bottle of beaujolais and an attack by rampant cows, he discovers a man hanged by his ankles in a nearby graveyard.

Madrid books a room in the local pub to investigate the death and the goings-on at the local mansion, Ashcombe Manor, which has been turned into a New Age conference centre full of dubious characters. Add to the mix an old friend of Madrid's who is shooting a movie about Aleister Crowley in Brighton Pavilion accompanied by various egomaniac method actors, and you have a highly-readable romp. The only thing that's serious here is the craft of the writer!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sweden: Henning Mankell's Wallander comes to BBC 1 on November 30th

The first stop on our crime fiction tour of Sweden: Ystad

'Wallander', the BBC series based on Swedish author Henning Mankell's series of detective stories featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander is scheduled to begin on 30th November. The first episode (of three) is entitles 'Sidetracked', and stars Kenneth Brannagh as the eponymous cop.

The stories are set in Ystad in Skane, on the southernmost coast of Sweden - which Mankell has compared to Texas: "It runs along the border. I feel that in border countries there is a special dynamism that I use in my stories."

The Ystad Tourist Office has a page on their website about Kurt Wallander, and they run an official Wallander tour called 'In The Footsteps Of Inspector Wallander'. I don't yet know whether the tour is offered in English, but even if it isn't, you can download a useful pdf guide in English. The local paper, the Ystads Allehanda, has a flash movie about Wallander's Ystad. (There is an English translation!) It also includes an interactive map of the Skanes area.

Filming for the BBC series took place in Skane, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how Mankell's spare prose and somewhat bleak vision have been interpreted for television, and set in a landscape that I've only previously experienced through his books.

Now if only I could afford to go there.......

'Sidetracked' won the CWA's Gold Dagger award in 2001, and the other two stories which will be shown are 'Firewall' and 'One Step Behind'. Mankell's stories have been filmed before, but not in English.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Madly reading Sussex, Surrey & Kent!

This half-term week I have been madly reading crime fiction set in the South-East of England, as I am working on a WhereDunnit book proposal.

I have read:

MAD ABOUT THE BOY? by Dolores Gordon-Smith (Sussex)
BLACK COFFEE by Agatha Christie & Charles Osborne (Surrey)
MAXWELL'S CHAIN by M J Trow (Sussex)
SAVAGE TIDE by Glen Chandler (Brighton)
A FOREIGN FIELD by Margaret Mayhew (Sussex) - which turned out after all not to be crime fiction
FATAL LEGACY by Elizabeth Corley (Sussex)

and for fun, AN ENGLISH MURDER by Cyril Hare, which I took with me to my annual check-up at Guy's Hospital. Lucky I did, too, as I had to wait over an hour to see the consultant.

I am currently reading THE END OF SOLOMON GRUNDY by Julian Symon (Surrey) which I am not remotely enjoying. I hope I find more pleasure in the two stories of his set in Kent which I will get to shortly.

Monday, October 20, 2008

An Exmoor mystery: 'He Should Have Died Hereafter' by Cyril Hare

Whilst doing research on crime fiction in the South West of England I stumbled upon 'He Should Have Died Hereafter' by Cyril Hare, set mainly on Exmoor.

This book was published posthumously in 1957, and is a slim 140 pages - crime and mystery fiction could get away with being considerably shorter for much of the 20th century, it seems. Bannered as an Inspector Mallett mystery ( of which there were a further four) this story is in fact told mainly from the point of view of Hare's other series protagonist, Francis Pettigrew, a retired lawyer of the Queen's Bench.

This is a mystery of the old school: Hare was known for his ingenious plots, and as a lawyer and judge himself, his description of the legal process and finer points of law upon which his plot turns is clear and well-integrated.

The Exmoor setting is richly evoked and creatively employed, though he points out himself in an author's note that Exmoor is a real place but he has invented the specific localities in the story.

Hare deploys a couple of huge coincidences early on in the plot, but they are deftly introduced and did not trouble this reader over-much. 'He Should Have Died Hereafter' (despite the title, the plot owes nothing to 'Macbeth' - or his Lady) was an intriguing afternoon's read, and I have already ordered from the library two of Hare's other classic stories: 'Tragedy At Law' (one of H.R.F. Keating's 100 best crime and mystery books) and 'An English Murder' - apparently a twist on the isolated country-house murder.

Hare only wrote nine crime novels, but it's always pleasing to discover a 'new' writer of mystery puzzles of the classic kind - even if I am fifty years too late!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Northumberland stands in for Peak District & East Anglia: "Place Of Execution" by Val McDermid

Val McDermid's "A Place of Execution" - the first of her novels I ever read, nearly ten years ago - has been powerfully brought to life for ITV, starring Juliet Stevenson and Lee Ingleby.

The echoes of the Moors Murders, present in the novel, are absent in this dramatisation, and the location has mysteriously moved from the Peak District in Derbyshire to Northumberland, but nevertheless this is a compelling piece of drama.

Interestingly, Lee Ingleby also stars in another transplanted crime drama set in the 1960's - BBC's 'George Gently' series, based on the books by Alan Hunter. Norwich author Hunter set his many George Gently stories mainly in his home region of East Anglia, but for reasons best known to themselves the BBC located the stories several hundred miles north in Northumberland, and Lee Ingleby stars as Gently's brash sidekick DS John Bacchus. Ironically, the star of the show, Martin Shaw, is now based in Norfolk.