Monday, July 13, 2009

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo

Published: Harvill Secker, 2005 (English translation: 2009)
ISBN: 9781846550409

First line: She was fourteen years old and sure that if she shut her eyes tight and concentrated she could see the stars through the roof.

It's nearly Christmas and a Salvation Army band is playing in one of Oslo's busiest streets. Suddenly, there is a shot and one of them falls down dead. It's obvious from the start that it is the work of a professional hit man; but why would anyone want to have a member of the Salvation Army murdered?

The hitman, a Croatian known as “the little redeemer”, a nickname he earned as a boy during the war against the Serbs, has his escape plans go terribly awry when bad weather delays his flight home. By the next day he has realised that he's killed the wrong man.

The police, in the meantime, have been able to discover both the gunman's identity, and his actual intended victim. The Redeemer, now a hunted fugitive, with no money, unable to use credit cards or mobile phone, and with just six bullets left, is determined to make good on the contract. There are many twists and turns as the police close in on the increasingly desperate gunman and the person who hired him.

The Redeemer is another wonderfully multi layered book in the Inspector Harry Hole series. The story is told partly from 'the little redeemer's' point of view, and through his eyes, we see the impact of the Croatian War of Independence which took place in the early 1990s . The Redeemer is both a product, and a victim of this terrible time in the history of the region. As we learn more about his background, our preconceived notions of good and bad are challenged. Are people who do bad things necessarily bad people?

Nesbo expertly juggles the various points of view, often using an intentionally confusing juxtaposition of the various characters' stories – cutting between them at similar points in the narrative. Nesbo cleverly misleads the reader again and again, but it is so well done that rather than feeling annoyed, you find yourself marvelling at how he does it.

Harry Hole goes about the investigation in his usual lone wolf style, using a combination of dogged police work and intuition that tends to put him at odds with his superiors. As the book opens, Harry's old boss and protector, Bjarne Moller, is transferring to a less stressful job in Bergen as a prelude to retirement. His new boss, Gunnar Hagen, has a military background and a fascination with Japanese military tactics. It's obvious he's not going to be happy with Harry's usual method of working.

Harry is one of the most intriquing characters in current crime fiction. He could be seen as just another in the long line of dour alcoholic loners who seem to populate fictional police forces worldwide, yet somehow Harry never seems like a cliché. Still struggling with his alcoholism, not always successfully, and not yet fully over the loss of a good friend and colleague in an earlier book, he is beginning to allow people into his life again. He still has warm feelings for his ex-girlfriend, and an almost fatherly attachment to her son.

This is the sixth in the Harry Hole series, although only the fourth to be available in English (the first two books are yet to be translated). As often happens, the books have been translated out of order, but newcomers to the series can now read books 3-6 in order, starting with The Readbreast. I would strongly recommend reading in order because of ongoing story elements.

Jo Nesbo has a very cool website that is worth a visit.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

THE COLOUR OF BLOOD by Declan Hughes

Published: John Murray, 2007
ISBN: 978 0 7195 6841 1

First line: The last case I worked, I found a sixteen-year-old girl for her father; when she told me what he had done to her, I let her stay lost.

After receiving some compromising photos of his missing teenage daughter, Emily, along with a ransom demand, wealthy Shane Howard employs Dublin private investigator Ed Loy to find her. This task is no difficulty for someone with Ed's knowledge of Dublin's darker side. However, disentangling himself from the Howard family proves more difficult.

When Emily's ex-boyfriend is found murdered in his flat things start to get very messy. Ed finds himself enmeshed in a complicated web of pornography, blackmail, gangsters and murder; not to mention a family with some deeply buried secrets that they would very much like to stay buried. The key to the current events lies long in the past, and as Ed starts making the connections that draw all the threads together, the story moves along at a rapid pace until the final dramatic scenes.

The Colour of Blood has an extremely complex plot, and it's a sign of Hughes' skill that he was not only able to keep track of all the various threads, but to untangle them so neatly by the end. The story revolves around the Howards – and a more dysfunctional family you'd never want to meet. On the surface they appear to have everything – money, success and social position, but underneath they're sinking in a veritable cesspool of deceit and secrecy. Ed's involvement in the case is further complicated by his attraction to Shane's sister, the beautiful and sexy Sandra Howard.

Ed is tough and resilient in the noir PI tradition. He has a strong moral core that compels him to search out the truth, even if that truth is sometimes an uncomfortable one. His past, particularly the death of his daughter, and his subsequent broken marriage, continue to haunt him.

The Colour of Blood is a worthy sequel to The Wrong Kind of Blood, the first in the Ed Loy series, and I look forward to reading the next book, The Dying Breed (The Price of Blood in the USA). The fourth in the series, All the Dead Voices has just been released in Britain and Australia.

For more information go to Declan Hughes' website

Monday, April 13, 2009

BLACKOUT by Gianluca Morozzi

Published: Bitter Lemon, 2004 (English translation: 2008)
ISBN: 978 1 904738 32

First line: Ferro washes the knife under the tap, whistling 'Don't Be Cruel', and the blood drains away, a pale, washed-out red.

Bologna on a holiday weekend in August is deserted. It seems as if everyone has headed to the beach to escape the oppressive heat of the city. Three people who haven't been able to escape, arrive in the foyer of their apartment building at the same time and wait for the one working elevator. Claudia, student and part-time waitress, sixteen year old Tomas, and Ferro, nightclub owner, Elvis lookalike ... and serial killer.

As the elevator rises, all three are lost in their own thoughts, each with a pressing need to reach their apartment. Claudia is desperate to get out of the skimpy uniform she hates, have a cold drink and a long shower. Tomas is thinking about his girlfriend and their plans to run away to Amsterdam that night. Ferro is anxious to collect some things from his old bachelor apartment and get back to his latest victim.

Then the elevator stops between the 11th and 12th floors. The lights go out, the alarm system doesn't work, mobile signals are strangely unavailable, and no one responds to their shouts. The trapped passengers are like “three wasps in an upturned glass”. As time goes on and there is no rescue, tempers fray and tension mounts to an unbearable level.

Blackout opens with one of the most chilling first chapters I've ever read and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. As we see Ferro with the young man he is holding captive it becomes clear he is a sadistic killer who likes to torture his victims, physically and psychologically – and he's very very good at it.

Most of the book takes place in the broken down elevator. As the focus shifts amongst the three trapped people, we see the same events from each character's point of view. The tension comes from our knowledge of Ferro. To the others he is annoying, selfish, and full of himself, but only the reader knows what he is capable of and what he is thinking. Will he be able to control his urges? As the thin veneer of normality he presents to the world begins to crack, our fears for the others heightens.

Morozzi brilliantly creates an oppressive claustrophobic atmosphere, where the heat, the sweat, the lack of air, the despair, and the fear are palpable. There are a couple of twists along the way, but the completely unexpected ending is ultimately a disturbing indictment of today's society. Blackout is a tautly written and chilling psychological thriller and I found it impossible to put down.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Fat, Fifty & F***ed by Geoffrey McGeachin

Published: Penguin, 2004
ISBN: 978 0 14 300257 0

First line: A three-quarter moon sat low in the night sky, its pale glow illuminating the lumpy puddles of vomit dotting the deserted forecourt of Burrinjuruk's two-star Truck-On-Inn hotel/motel.

Martin Carter, manager of the only bank in the small country town of Burrinjuruk, is not having a very good day. His marriage is a farce, his stepchildren are indifferent to him, the bank is closing and he's been retrenched. To top it off, it was his 50th birthday yesterday and no one remembered. Yes, he's fat, fifty and his life's, well and truly f***ed.

On his last day at the bank, a million dollar payroll proves too tempting, and after locking up the bank staff (along with a good supply of banana cake and cheap sparkling wine), and tying up the local policeman, he goes on the run in the police 4WD.

His day starts to look up when he saves a gorgeous woman from a nasty bikie. With Faith riding a vintage motorbike and Martin tucked up in the sidecar with the bags of money, they set out on a road trip to find an old school friend of Martin's. Known as the Mad Major he lives in a fortress-like compound in far North Queensland. Along the way they encounter a bikie gang with a difference - who are "somewhere between the Hell's Angels and the Double Bay Mid-Life Crisis Motorcycle Club"; a most unusual retirement home; and a powerful and very wealthy businessman.

But unbeknownst to him, Martin has come to the attention of a mysterious and dangerous man who works for a shadowy government department. Too late, he and Faith realise they are caught up in the middle of something much bigger than armed robbery.

Fat, Fifty and F***ed has a large cast of quirky characters, all seemingly trying to 'out-quirk' each other, but there is a depth and genuineness to the main characters that makes you care about them.

Faith is my new favourite fictional librarian . What a role model! And how could I not love a character who holds my exact views, almost word for word, on coffee (has McGeachin been eavesdropping?!). McGeachin won over this librarian with lines like “'How do you know all that stuff?' ... 'it's my job.' ... 'I'm a librarian'”, and “The history books are full of our outlandish escapades, erotic adventures and deeds of derring-do”.

Fat, Fifty and F***ed is very Australian in character and language, without being over the top. The plot may stretch credibility to its limits, but that doesn't really matter as you find yourself just going along for the ride in this fast fun read.

Fat, Fifty and F***ed is McGeachin's first novel, and he has followed this with a series featuring special agent Alby Murdoch. I have a couple of these in my TBR pile and look forward to reading them. More information can be found at McGeachin's website.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

FAN MAIL by P.D. Martin

Published: Pan Macmillan, 2008
ISBN: 978 1 4050 3826 3

First line: The voice is deep and smooth. 'Agent Sophie Anderson?'

Australian FBI profiler Sophie Anderson, on her last day at FBI headquarters at Quantico before transferring to the Los Angeles field office, is given the task of showing crime author Loretta Black around the facilities. She finds Black to be rude and overbearing, and is glad when the tour is over.

Within days of Sophie's arrival in Los Angeles, Black is found murdered in bizarre circumstances. She has been killed in exactly the same way as the victim in her latest book. It doesn't take long for Sophie to link this crime with the murder of another crime author several months earlier in San Francisco. She too had been killed in the same manner as one of her fictional victims.

When another author disappears in circumstances similar to the plot of her most recent book, Sophie is involved in a desperate race against time to catch the killer before he can kill again.

FAN MAIL is the third book featuring psychic FBI profiler Sophie Anderson. I have to admit that I don't normally like woo-woo in crime fiction, and Sophie's psychic ability initially made me wary of this series. However, thankfully Martin has resisted the temptation of having Sophie have a convenient vision and voila! - crime solved. Actually there was one such moment, relating to a side plot, but I didn't mind that instance as I'd already figured it out for myself some time before without any psychic intervention!

Rather Sophie's visions help provide her with a better picture of the victim and the crime scene, and she combines this with the more usual profiler techniques to build a better picture, more quickly, of the perpetrator. She chose to transfer to a field office so she could make better use of her psychic abilities at crime scenes when the details are likely to be fresher and her visions stronger.

Alongside the main plot, the finalisation of the investigation from the previous book, THE MURDERERS' CLUB continues. I would recommend reading the earlier book before starting FAN MAIL as it contains significant spoilers. As we follow the course of the investigations, a lot of detail about investigative and forensic procedures is included and, while mostly interesting, it sometimes gets a bit tedious and has a tendency to slow down the story.

It takes a brave crime author to write a story about a serial killer murdering crime authors! But luckily Martin had no such qualms because FAN MAIL is good fast paced thriller with an interesting and unique character in Sophie.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Carnival of the Criminal Minds #31

I have the pleasure of hosting this episode of the Carnival. The brainchild of the esteemed Barbara Fister, the Carnival has travelled to many corners of the world. After it's recent return season at Julia Buckley's Mysterious Musings, it's setting up here at It's Criminal for the first time.

As I'm sitting here sweltering in the middle of a hot hot hot Australian summer, and especially as I'm in Newcastle, where fab beaches abound, I thought I'd have a surf carnival theme. This also gives me the opportunity to rectify what appears to be a shocking oversight in previous Carnivals - a distinct lack of buff Aussie blokes!

If you are thinking that this means the following will be a tour of bright summery crime fiction, then you'd be wrong. Maybe it's to counter all that sunshiny cheeriness, but my taste in crime fiction veers to the dark and dreary, much of which seems to take place in the colder regions of the Northern hemisphere. So I find myself looking at blogs like International Noir Fiction where Glenn Harper talks about and reviews mostly translated crime fiction. In his latest posting he talks about a forgotten pioneer of Swedish crime fiction, Kerstin Ekman. He places her in the context of the more well known Sjowall and Wahloo, and the later Swedish writers.

At the wonderful Euro Crime, a survey of their reviewers favourite books of 2008 found Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out at number 1, and I learned that the DVD of Jar City based on the book by Arnaldur Indridason has just been released in the UK. (Amazon here I come!) Apart from the blog, the Euro Crime site includes reviews, bibliographies, awards and one of my favourite parts, the Future Releases, where I can add to my wishlist well into the future. At least it gives me time to save up!

Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders always seems to have something interesting to say about crime fiction set in foreign climes. This week he had an interview with Mehmet Murat Somer; discussed Matt Rees' views on the difference between fiction and reality and on the difficulties of being a journalist in the Middle East; and linked to an interview with Stephen Sartarelli, Andrea Camilleri's translator.

A new entrant into the blogosphere is Reg Keeland, Stieg Larsson's translator. Reg welcomes comment on Larsson's books, but also provides insight into translating, and how he got started. He notes that generally, he forgets a book as soon as he's finished with the translation, but the Larsson books stuck in his head. He calls this "the mark of a genius writer".

A fairly recent blog discovery for me is DJs Krimiblog, where Danish blogger Dorte H writes bilingual posts and reviews (as a monolinguist, I'm seriously in awe!). Here I found out that an old favourite of mine, Sara Paretsky now has a blog and has been publishing chapters of a new VI Warshawsky story. So far she is up to chapter 3.

Another of my newish finds is Mack Captures Crime. In a recent post Mack brings one of his favourite podcasts to our attention at the site, where podcasts of authors reading their own short stories are available for download. I'm definitely planning on spending a bit of time over there.

Of course, this is just a smattering of posts that have caught my eye this week, but I can't pack away the surf skis, reels and flags, and shake the sand out of my cossies without mentioning my favourite site for all things relating to Australian crime fiction - Karen's wonderful AustCrime. The latest news there is about the filming of author Leah Giarratano's new 8-part true crime television series due to screen here around March. Another recent post is an interesting summary of early Australian women crime fiction writers. Apart from the blog, the whole AustCrime site is a treasure trove of information about Australian crime fiction and true crime.

The Carnival next moves on to Barbara Fister's own blog.

Photos courtesy of rodc and Roger OZ

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

Published: Quercus, 2009
ISBN: 978 1 84724 557 1

First line: She lay on her back fastened by leather straps to a narrow bed with a steel frame.

Lisbeth Salander has been travelling the world after abruptly leaving Sweden a year ago, soon after the events of the previous book, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. She cut her ties with her erstwhile lover, Millennium journalist Mikael Blomqvist, and simply disappeared. When a cyclone interrupts her stay at her most recent destination, Grenada, she decides to return home. Having left Stockholm without saying goodbye to anyone, she slips back in just as quietly.

Millennium magazine is about to publish freelancer Dag Svensson's explosive book about the sex trade in Sweden, in which he exposes a number of prominent and powerful people. While Svensson completes the final chapters of his book, Mikael Blomkvist and his colleagues work on a special edition of the magazine to coincide with the publication.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth's guardian, the sexual predator Nils Bjurman, who has never forgiven her for the revenge she exacted on him, has spent the year gathering information and plotting his own more permanent revenge.

Then Svensson and his girlfriend are found murdered in their flat, and Lisbeth is linked to the scene of the crime. When a third murder occurs she becomes an even stronger suspect in all three deaths. She goes into hiding and uses her singular computer skills to not only keep tabs on the police investigation, but to follow her own leads as she tries to prove her innocence.

This is the eagerly awaited sequel to fabulous THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and it doesn't disappoint, in fact it is even better. Not to put too fine a point on it, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is utterly brilliant – enthralling, compulsive and mesmerising. I would strongly recommend reading the first book before starting this one, however, as it contains a lot of the background to this story.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is Lisbeth's story, and what a story it is. We find out how she came to be the person she is, and in the process learn of her horrific childhood, and what happened in 'All The Evil'. Lisbeth is a fascinating character and one of the most unusual you will ever meet in crime fiction. Intelligent, prickly, intensely private and with a strong moral core, even if that morality is not one that always makes sense to others, she may not seem to be an obviously sympathetic character, but I know I'm not alone in liking her a lot.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE has a large cast of characters and is told from multiple viewpoints, but at no stage does this become confusing. In a book like this, it can be easy to lose track of who is who, but the characters are all so real and individual that this never happens. Larsson moves smoothly between characters and points of view to create a story that is complex, dense and detailed, and the result is spellbinding.

The last chapters are a breathtaking race against time, and the ending leaves you counting the days until the next book is published (unfortunately not for another 12 months). THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is a riveting story that will keep you reading long past your bed time.