Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Melbourne Writers Festival - the first weekend Part One

After arriving in Melbourne on Thursday and successfully rendezvousing with Sunnie from Launceston and Sally from Darwin, Karen from AustCrime drove us to her place in the hills. After a riotous welcome from the dogs, and a slightly more subdued one from Karen's other half (we were pleased he didn't also leap all over us with muddy paws!) we got down to the serious business of having fun. We spent Friday wandering around the local area, visiting a few bookshops, and, er, um, acquiring one or two - ish.

Melbourne Writers Festival started for us on Saturday when we attended two sessions. The first was a non-crime event called 'Getting Personal' with David Sedaris, Judith Lucy and Nam Le. They spoke on using their personal lives as material for their books. David Sedaris and Judith Lucy had us in stitches, and Nam Le, although competing with a professional humourist and a comedian, was able to keep us interested with some amusing anecdotes, and thoughtful comments.

The second session was 'Reading the Landscape' with Barry Maitland, Nick Gadd and David Francis discussing how they used landscape in their mysteries to evoke a mood and create tension. In their latest works they have used a shard of rock rearing out of the southern ocean, a Melbourne suburban level crossing, and the icy splendour of Moscow, respectively. While I only knew of Barry Maitland's work, they were all fascinating to listen to.

Between sessions we wandered up town, and, er, somehow stumbled across a couple more bookshops, the wonderful Readers Feast, and of course, what would a trip to Melbourne be without a visit to Kill City. I think a few more books may have found their way into my bag.

After many years at the Malthouse, MWF moved to a new location at Federation Square this year. So far I've found Fed Square to a rather cold and impersonal environment. It's lacking a central social space to gather between sessions. There is nowhere to sit except in cafes and bars where you are obliged to buy something. I can't help feeling that MWF has lost its soul.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Crime by Irvine Welsh

First line: She’d wanted to tell Momma that this one was no good.

Burnt out Edinburgh cop Ray Lennox is on holiday in Miami with his fiancĂ©e, Trudi. He’s on stress leave after his latest case, the abduction, sexual abuse and murder of seven year old Britney Hamil. He is physically and emotionally wrung out and has begun to slip back into his alcohol and cocaine addictions. Trudi is completely focussed on planning their wedding, only seeming to take her attention from Perfect Bride magazine long enough to chide Ray for his lack of interest, and for his drinking.

After an argument with Trudi, Ray goes on the town seeking the alcohol and drugs he craves. In a bar he meets two women, Robyn and Starry, and goes with them to Robyn’s place, where the cocaine flows freely. When two men arrive to join the party, things start to get ugly. After the ensuing altercation, Ray finds himself alone in the apartment with Robyn’s ten year old daughter, Tianna. Next morning, an obviously frightened Robyn phones and asks him to take Tianna to a friend where she will be safe. So Ray and Tianna embark on a road trip across Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ray and Tianna's story is interspersed with chapters which follow the course of the investigation into Britney's death. Ray is still haunted by the case and he feels responsible for not being able to save Britney. As the story unfolds we begin to realise that there is something personal behind Ray’s crusade against the paedophiles.

CRIME’s main themes are paedophilia and the sexualisation of children. Some of the most disturbing scenes are when we see the world through Tianna's eyes. Old beyond her years, with experiences no ten year old should ever have had, her shifts from child to ‘woman’, with accompanying seductive behaviour is confronting and quite shocking. It makes Ray even more aware that, by being with Tianna, he has put himself in danger of being cast in the role of the people he despises.

Ray is drawn to dark side of policing, but it gets to him, and he uses cocaine to help him forget, “to make him not think about dead children.” The trip to save Tianna becomes a personal journey for Ray. He is an extremely complex character, not particularly likeable at first, but as we learn more about him we begin to understand what drives him, and to see just how precarious his mental state is.

One light spot in this rather dark tale is the incongruous image of Perfect Bride magazine which Ray carries with him throughout, determined to return it to Trudi. This beacon of hope and happiness makes a cameo appearance in some of the most sordid scenes, and the contrast is always jarring.

CRIME is not your usual crime story, but then Welsh is not your usual crime writer. It’s an exceptional, if somewhat disturbing and confronting tale, part police procedural, part lone crusader; but mostly it’s Ray’s story, superbly told by a master storyteller.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Voodoo Doll by Leah Giarratano

Published: Random House, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-86325-614-8

First line: Face mashed into the carpet, Joss concentrated on breathing.

Joss Preston-Jones, his wife Isobel, and their young daughter Charlie are spending the evening at the home of Isobel’s boss when they are caught up in a vicious home invasion. Terrorised by the machete wielding, balaclava clad gang, Joss is horrified when he recognises one of them, and even worse he’s certain the moment of recognition was mutual. Joss has his own reasons for not telling the police of his suspicions, but he knows Henry Nguyen, nicknamed Cutter, will not rest until he has hunted down Joss and his family.

This is just the most recent in a series of increasingly violent home invasions in Sydney’s western suburbs. A police taskforce has been set up to investigate the crimes, and the newly promoted Sergeant Jill Jackson is transferred to Liverpool to be part of the team. When the attacks escalate to murder, the pressure is on to try to stop this dangerous psychopath before he can kill again. Jill finds herself partnered with the enigmatic Federal Police officer, Gabriel Delahunt, as they reinterview previous victims in the hope of uncovering a clue to the identity of the gang members.

Voodoo Doll is told from three different points of view: the police, Joss, and Cutter. We know who the killer is from the start, so the tension comes from Joss’s very palpable fear; our knowledge of Cutter’s growing need for violence; and not knowing if the police can stop him before he strikes again.

It is the strong characterisation that really makes Voodoo Doll stand out. Giarratano, a clinical psychologist, brings her experience of working with trauma survivors to her writing.

With the events of the previous book, Vodka Doesn't Freeze, now behind her, we see a more secure, more optimistic Jill in this book; a Jill who sometimes experiences “spontaneity, joy, hope”. Although she still has a long way to go, she is beginning to let people into her life. One of those people is her new partner, Gabriel Delahunt.

Delahunt is an intriguing character with his slightly bizarre manner and unorthodox methods. During interviews, Jill finds his seemingly disinterested attitude irritating, but soon realises it is merely a cover for a very keen observer of human behaviour. He manages to get under Jill’s defences and she is shocked to find herself relaxing in his company after only short acquaintance. It will be interesting to see if this relationship develops in future books.

Joss is an ex-soldier who is still haunted by the horrors he witnessed as part of the peace-keeping force in Rwanda. As the story unfolds we find out more about Joss’s childhood connection with Cutter. Cutter is a very disturbed individual who is largely the result of some terrible lessons he learnt from his grandfather.

Vodka Doesn't Freeze was an exceptional first novel, but Voodoo Doll surpasses it. It is best to read the books in order as there are several mentions in this book of events that occurred in the first.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Recent reads - July

These are just some brief notes on a few books from my personal TBR and non-review pile that I've read in the last month.

El Dorado by Dorothy Porter. Picador, 2007.

First line: The little girl's / dead hand / is sticking stiffly / up / as if reaching / to grab an angel's / foot.

A serial killer who calls themself El Dorado, is murdering children, leaving a gold thumbprint on the victims' foreheads. Unusually, the children are not subjected to any abuse, and they are killed almost gently. This is a killer who cares about children and the innocence of childhood.

Melbourne DI Bill Buchanan calls in his childhood friend Cath, now a Hollywood special affects expert, to help him. He's hoping she can provide a fresh perspective on the case. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the solution to the case lies in Bill and Cath's childhood. As they reminisce, they slowly uncover the identity of the killer.

El Dorado is a wonderful book, extraordinarily beautifully written, and it grabbed me from that first stunning sentence. Alongside the investigation of the murder, it explores the themes of adult and childhood friendships, outsiders and betrayal, as it races to its dramatic climax.

Rough Trade by Dominique Manotti. Arcadia, 2001 (originally published in French, 1995)

First line: There's a girl sitting naked on the edge of a vast white bed in the middle of the room, with mirrors all around.

A young Thai girl is found dead in a fashion workshop in Paris' Le Sentier district. This is the heart of the city's rag trade, an industry which survives with the use of illegal labour, mostly Turkish. The investigation into her murder takes Superintendent Theo Daquin into the murky underworld of Paris.

Set in 1980, against the backdrop of the Turkish workers' fight for legal rights, this complex but realistic plot takes in drug trafficking, illegal immigrants, sweat shops, police corruption, paedophile rings, and pornographic and snuff videos. Rough Trade is dark, gritty and uncompromising and is a gripping read.

Rough Trade won the French Crime Writers' Association Award, and Dominique Manotti won the Crime Writers Association 2008 International Dagger for her more recent work, Lorraine Connection.

I had never heard of Manotti before finding this by chance at the library only a short time before her CWA Dagger award was announced. If her other books are anything like as good as Rough Trade I can well see how she won this award.

A Deadly Business by Lenny Bartulin. Scribe, 2008.

First line: It was perfectly clear to him now, dangling in the wet tussock cleavage of a broad hill that slid towards the headland cliffs.

Sydney second-hand book seller, Jack Susko is barely scraping a living, so he jumps at the chance to make some real money when the wealthy Hammond Kasprowicz offers him well above market value for as many copies of the books of poetry written by Edward Kass that he can find. What he doesn’t realise is that in doing so he’s going to get himself mixed in one seriously dysfunctional family.

Written in a delightfully wry style reminiscent of the classics of hard-boiled crime fiction, A Deadly Business has everything you could want - a reluctant hero, a femme fatale, nasty bad guys, corrupt police, violence, twists aplenty, and dry humour. Bartulin is currently working on the second book in the series, and I for one, can’t wait.