Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Pyramid by Henning Mankell

Published: Harvill Secker, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-846-55098-0

When Kurt Wallander first appeared in 1990 he was a senior police officer, 42 years old and divorced. The five stories in this collection fill in Wallander's back story, from his first years in the police force until the beginning of that first book, Faceless Killers.

The stories begin when a 21 year old Wallander finds his elderly neighbour shot dead. He is still a uniformed police officer in Malmo, but with a transfer to Criminal Investigation pending, his future boss encourages his involvement in the investigation of the apparent suicide.

A routine call on his way home on Christmas Eve 1975 turns into a terrifying couple of hours for Wallander in ‘The Man with the Mask’. In this suspenseful short story Wallander is held hostage by an armed and desperate man. Despite the circumstances, Wallander’s compassion and social conscience are evident.

By the third story, ‘The Man on the Beach’, and after a gap of 12 years, Wallander is settled in Ystad as a Chief Inspector, and all the familiar supporting characters from the books are there. When a taxi driver finds his passenger dead in the back seat, tests reveal he had been poisoned. Wallander discovers the long-standing obsession that led to the man’s death.

A man is found bashed to death in his studio in ‘Death of the Photographer’. Why someone who led such an apparently dull and routine life would be subject to such a brutal attack is mystifying, but the investigation reveals that the man had a secret life.

The last story, which gave the collection its name, is novella length, and takes place in December 1989. It leads right up to the beginning of Faceless Killers - literally. In a clever touch, Mankell brings the beginning of Faceless Killers into the last page of The Pyramid. In this complex story, Wallander and his team are stretched to the limit investigating several seemingly unrelated crimes: the crash of an unidentified small plane, drugs, and several apparently unconnected murders.

I found The Pyramid an extremely satisfying collection of stories. All the elements that helped form the Wallander we have come to know from the novels are here: Mona, the woman he married; his eccentric father, and their difficult relationship; and Rydberg, his mentor. And throughout is the theme common to the books, of a changing society – what was happening to Sweden?

These are typical Wallander stories, with the longer stories demonstrating the complex plots Mankell is known for. From that first case, Wallander displays the investigative style he will manifest throughout his career: the intuitive leaps, doggedness, tendency to make mistakes, and go it alone, often putting himself at risk in the process.

The stories chart the progress of Wallander’s seemingly always doomed relationship with Mona, first as girlfriend, then wife and ex-wife. The conflict between his career and the relationship is clear from the beginning. Even when Wallander is married to her, Mona’s role in the stories is insignificant, and she remains a shadowy figure in the background.

Rydberg, the mentor whose wisdom he constantly refers to in the novels, is likewise hardly any more fleshed out. Wallander’s early years in Ystad, when Rydberg’s guidance would have been most evident, are not covered in any of the stories. Rydberg spends a lot of the time off sick, so we see only a little interaction between them.

According to Mankell’s Foreword to The Pyramid, this collection came into being when he realised that he had started writing stories in his head that took place long before that day in January 1990 when the Wallander series began. Two of the stories have not been published before.

Most short story collections lend themselves to being dipped into, picking a story here and a story there. However, The Pyramid is better read as a whole from beginning to end. The Pyramid is essential reading for fans of the Kurt Wallander series, but reads well on its own, and it would work well as a first introduction to Wallander for newcomers to the series.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Anthony Award winners

It seems to be award season at the moment. The Anthony Awards are presented annually at the Bouchercon mystery convention, which is being held in Baltimore this year. This year's winners are:

Best novel:
Laura Lippman - What the Dead Know

Best first novel:
Tana French - In the Woods

Best paperback original:
P.J. Parrish
- A Thousand Bones

Short story:
Laura Lippmann - Hardly Knew Her (story available in PDF)

Critical work:
Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley - Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters

Special Services:
Jon and Ruth Jordan - Crime Spree Magazine

Web Site:
Stan Ulrich and Lucinda Surber - Stop, You're Killing Me!

A list of all the nominees can be found at the 2008 Anthony Awards site.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Davitt Award Winners

The winners of the Davitt Awards which were presented last night have already been announced on other blogs, and if you head over to Karen of AustCrime's post you'll find links to further information about all the winners:
  • Best crime novel - Katherine Howell for Frantic.
  • Best young adult - Mandy Sayer for The Night has a Thousand Eyes.
  • Best true crime - Janette Fife-Yeomans for Killing Jodie.
  • Readers choice award - Lindy Cameron for her editing of Scarlet Stiletto: the First Cut.
Congratulations to all!

I've only read Katherine Howell's book, and I can say it was a very well-deserved win. Frantic was a terrific read, and in the reading notes I made at the time I said:
Paramedic Sophie Phillips's life falls apart when her police officer husband, Chris, is gunned down on their doorstep, and their baby son is taken. The police believe the attack was motivated by Chris's involvement in, or knowledge of, police corruption. But Sophie thinks it may be a result of her own actions. With her husband in intensive care, Sophie cruises the streets trying to find her son. As the days wear on, an increasingly desperate Sophie enlists the aid of Chris's partner in a daring and dangerous plan to discover what has happened to her baby. The pace of this thriller was exhausting, and the sense of urgency kept me turning the pages at an ever increasing speed. Excellent first novel from an author to watch.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The 8th Davitt Awards

The Davitt Awards are presented annually by Sisters in Crime Australia for the best crime novel by an Australian woman published in the previous year. This year there are 41 nominees in three categories, adult, young adult and true crime. There will also be a readers' choice award.

The awards will be presented on Friday 10th October at the Celtic Club Restaurant in Melbourne.

This year's nominees for best crime novel are:
  • Sydney Bauer, Gospel (Pan Macmillan)
  • Joyce Berendes, The Fourteenth Day (Zeus)
  • Robin Bowles, The Curse of the Golden Yo-Yo (The Five Mile Press)
  • Lindy Cameron, Redback (Mira)
  • Lindy Cameron, ed., Scarlet Stiletto – The First Cut (Mira)
  • Lauren Crow, Bye Bye Baby (HarperCollins)
  • Kathryn Fox, Skin and Bone (Pan Macmillan)
  • Liz Filleul, To All Appearance Dead (Bettany Books)
  • Leah Giarrantano, Vodka Doesn’t Freeze (Random House)
  • Jane Goodall, The Calling (Hachette Livre)
  • Alison Goodman, Killing the Rabbit (Random House/Bantam)
  • Kerry Greenwood, Trick or Treats (Allen & Unwin)
  • Kerry Greenwood, A Question of Death (Allen & Unwin)
  • Sheridan Hay, The Secret of Lost Things (HarperCollins/4th Estate)
  • Katherine Howell, Frantic (Pan Macmillan)
  • Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost (HarperCollins/4th Estate)
  • Dorothy Johnston, Eden (Wakefield Press)
  • Wendy Laing, Cock of the Walk (Writers Exchange E-publishing)
  • Wendy Laing, Severance Packages (Writers Exchange E-publishing)
  • Gabrielle Lord, Shattered (Hachette Livre)
  • Pat Noad, Rockhound (Zeus)
  • Susan Parisi, Blood of Dreams (Penquin/Viking)
  • Dorothy Porter, El Dorado (Pan Macmillan/Picador)
  • Leigh Redhead, Cherry Pie (Allen & Unwin)
  • Mandy Sayers, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (HarperCollins)
  • Felicity Young, An Easeful Death (Fremantle Arts Centre Press)
A full list of nominees in all categories can be found at the Sisters in Crime website.

The Bloomsday Dead by Adrian McKinty

Published: Serpent’s Tail, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84668-631-3

First line: State LY Plum P. Buck Mulligan.

In hiding from his old enemies, Michael Forsythe is working as head of security in a big hotel in Lima, Peru. Returning to his room one night he is ambushed by two gunmen who, instead of killing him, hand him a phone. The voice on the other end is that of his old girlfriend, Bridget Callaghan. Twelve years ago Michael killed her mob boss fiancé, and ever since Bridget has been trying to settle the score.

However, now she needs his help. Her eleven year old daughter has gone missing in Belfast, and she needs his local knowledge and contacts in the Belfast criminal world to find her. She begs him to help her, promising that, if he gets Siobhan back, the slate will be wiped clean.

Unsure whether he should trust Bridget, Michael nevertheless returns to Ireland, and, from the moment he lands it seems he is a marked man. With Bridget swearing she isn't behind the attacks, he is left trying to work out what other old enemies he left behind him in Ireland all those years ago.

The Bloomsday Dead is the third in the Michael Forsythe trilogy, and again the theme of revenge is strong. Michael is torn between trusting Bridget and protecting himself, but it is clear he still has feelings for her. It is as much for this reason as the chance to rid himself of his nemesis (or one of them anyway) that he goes to Belfast to help her.

Michael is not someone who moves unobtrusively through his world. Whether he is looking for it or not, trouble seems to find him and he leaves a trail of mayhem wherever he goes. He is not a nice person, hurting and killing people without compunction, and is not a character you can warm to easily, yet I somehow found myself liking him anyway. Michael is seemingly indestructible as he overcomes villain after villain in often incredible circumstances. He not only survives being severely beaten up more than once, but bounces back with enough strength to best the next assailant.

The Bloomsday Dead is a brutal and violent book, but with a liberal dose of black humour. The level of over-the-top violence is more than I’m normally comfortable with, but I found myself sucked into the story, and McKinty's writing kept me reading until the thrilling conclusion. This book necessarily refers to events and characters from the first book in the series, so you should definitely read Dead I Well May Be before tackling this one.

Adrian McKinty was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, and lived in the USA for a number of years before moving to Melbourne.

(If you’re wondering about that cryptic first line, it’s code used among the hotel security officers. It’s also a clever reworking of the first line of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

Published: Quercus, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-84724-366-9

First line: I spent the first summer after the end of the war with distant relations in the country.

On a remote farm in Germany, the Danner family and their maid are found brutally murdered with a pickaxe. Old man Danner was a cruel and overbearing man who ruled his family with an iron fist. His wife, a deeply religious woman, was cowed by his brutality. Their daughter Barbara, also a victim of his abuse, had a daughter from a brief marriage. Several years later she gave birth to a son and although she never revealed her son’s paternity, a neighbouring farmer has always claimed he was the father.

The story of what happened on the farm is interspersed with transcripts of interviews with the local villagers and neighbours of the victims, as well as prayers. This might sound a little odd, but the effect is quite stunning and it creates a hauntingly atmospheric book. The narrative is told from numerous points of view including the victims and the murderer. The interviews give us different perspectives on the Danner family and the other people in their sphere. The prayers are a poignant full stop to events in the story.

The Murder Farm is set in the early 1950s, but based on a true unsolved crime from the 1930s. Schenkel has woven a compelling story around the events, and produced a brilliantly plausible solution. The clever thing that she has done is to write it in such a way that the reader is the only one who discovers the solution.

The writing is beautifully spare, and although The Murder Farm is only 181 pages, it says almost as much between the lines as it does on the page. It is an enthralling story, and one you will want to read in one sitting.

Andrea Maria Schenkel lives in Germany, and THE MURDER FARM is her first novel. It won first place in the German Crime Prize as well as the Friedrich-Glauser Prize.

Andrea Schenkel appeared on a panel with Adrian McKinty and Michael Robotham at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year. I picked this book up after the session and had it signed, which Andrea did with a fountain pen - and that’s something you don’t see much these days! I watched Karen devour this book while travelling on the train to and from MWF that day. She kept looking up at regular intervals to say 'you're going to love this'. And, well, what can I say - she knows me, or at least my reading tastes, too well. happy smiley

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Broken by Karin Fossum

Published: Harvill Secker, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-846-55061-4

First line: I see them in the porch light.

A middle-aged woman awakens one night to find a man sitting in the chair by her bed. She is a writer and the man is Alvar Eide, one of her potential characters. He has been waiting his turn to have his story told, but has become impatient.

Alvar is a contented man with a comfortable flat, an old car he rarely uses, a modest nest egg, and a good job at an art gallery. He has no family or friends, but that's the way he likes it. He is alone but not lonely. This quiet self contained existence has suited him for his 42 years, and he neither expects nor wants anything more than to continue in the same way. Then two things happen to turn his ordered life upside down.

Firstly, Lindys, a young homeless heroin addict, comes into the gallery. Instead of following his usual instincts and sending her on her way, he gives her a cup of coffee. She returns a few weeks later and begins to worm her way into his life.

Secondly he becomes obsessed with a new painting in the gallery. It is called 'Broken' and its breathtaking image speaks to Alvar in a way no other painting ever has. He desires it and can just afford it, but like most things in his life, he is frozen with indecision.

Broken is a fascinating book and it kept me engrossed as it examined the odd relationship between Alvar and Lindys, and explored the 'broken' theme. Although in quite different ways, Alvar and Lindys are both outsiders, social misfits, whose lives can be seen as broken in some way.

Alvar is not equipped to handle this headstrong young woman, and as she insinuates herself into his life, making greater and greater demands, he feels powerless to resist. He sees himself as a 'good person', and so buckles time and again in the face of Lindys' demands.

Lindys challenges everything Alvar has ever believed about himself and his life. They are polar opposites, and yet they are drawn to each other. At one point Alvar confesses to actually liking Lindys, to admiring her approach to life, her devil-may-care attitude, whereas he has order and control but is 'trapped inside myself'.

As his story unfolds, Alvar continues to visit the author, usually in a fairly anxious state, asking what is going to happen and making suggestions. There is something a little surreal about their conversations, and it made me think of the number of authors I have heard speak of their characters as having a life of their own.

The tension builds as you wonder where and how it can end until the shocking and unexpected conclusion is reached. Broken is an extraordinary and poignant book, and one that stayed with me for some time after finishing it. It is not one of Fossum's excellent Inspector Sejer series, and is not really a crime book, but it is certainly suspenseful.