Green Review: The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell (Vintage)

The Saltmarsh Muders by Gladys Mitchell
Out now in paperback from Vintage

The Saltmarsh Murders is one of six books reprinted (so far) in the Mrs Bradley Mysteries series by Gladys Mitchell. I’m not sure what made Vintage decide to do it but I’m glad they did. These books have been the inspiration for a short-lived 1998/9 TV series featuring Diana Rigg totaling a woeful five episodes. I guess they were too expensive to produce. There are 66 books featuring Mrs Bradley all written by Mitchell. I have a feeling that some are going to be more successfully than others. But I suspect that Vintage is presenting the cream of the crop and after reading The Saltmarsh Murders I think they are.

Anyway back to the book itself. The first surprising thing is the narrator. If you’ve watched the TV series Mrs Bradley turns and talks directly to the viewer so I was wrongly expecting this would be a first person or a third person story focusing on Mrs Bradley. But no the story is told by Noel Wells, the curate of the sleepy village Saltmarsh, who finds himself the sidekick of sometime detective and full-time Freudian Mrs Bradley.

Together they get to see into the lives of several key members of the village. And that is a clever device as Well’s gives all the connections to everyone who matters and can also report his own thoughts on the investigations as well as giving Mrs Bradley’s insights. He also acts as a buffer between what we suspect and what Mrs Bradley is thinking. There is an added touch at the end with an extract of Mrs Bradley’s Notebook for the period, which makes some of her actions a little more understandable, and if you thought she doesn’t care enough about what happens you might think differently after reading it.

I’d expect that Mitchell herself had several notebooks when writing this tale as the plot is complex for such a narrow cast. The complexity comes from the examination of human nature and the way we think and act. She unravels the means, motive and opportunity of the murder. And as she pulls and follow the threads as the suspects mount up as  there are plenty of motives for murder here.

It’s not all serious though Mitchell is having fun through Mrs Bradley you can tell as not only is she a wonderfully colourful she is sharp and humourful even if it’s a morose at times. She is presenting larger than life characters for her to examine and analyse and she makes references to other writers and their characters offhandedly.

Now this is a novel of its time. It was published in 1932 and it’s setting includes servants and one of these servants is black. He plays an important part of understanding of the crime. The reason I mention it is that I’m glad that one part has been left uncensored. The part has strong racist remarks from one character to another but they are a reflection of the characters that make them. I must admit to be a little shocked at their inclusion in the original but it would have been wrong to change them now because they may cause offensive. I hope it’s not just me that thinks that. And it’s more eye-opening moment for how far we’ve come rather than something that overshadows the novel.

I guess it does illustrate why books are reflections of the time they are written. Even if they are larger than life they do show a mirror to the thinking of the time on certain thought and feelings that might not shared now. There is a strong moral tone especially as we’re seeing things from a curate but he and the vicar are both practical when thinking of  the actions of their flock. For example if a girl gets caught with child the couple end up marrying after the fact. And that is where the trouble starts here. She doesn’t marry but has the child and no one knows who the father might be.

There is much to love in this novel. The characters. The plot. The read hearings. The nostalgia for simpler times. And the knowing that there are several motives that can be found if one looks hard enough for murder even from people who wouldn’t go as far as to actually kill.

But most of all it’s Mrs Bradley that makes this worth reading. She makes a unique and intriguing detective. I’m looking forward to reading When Last I Died next then hopefully Tom Brown’s Body then only another 64 to go… well the other thee reprints… for now at least.

Green Review: Killer by Dave Zeltserman (Serpent’s Tail)

Title: Killer
Author: Dave Zeltserman
Pages: 214
Genre: Crime
Standalone/Series: Standalone
Release: Out Now in Paperback
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail

Synopsis

Leonard March walks free from jail after fourteen years, served after turning state’s witness against Mafia boss Salvatore Lombard. But it was only after Leonard was sentenced that the public learned that he was a Mob (Lombard’s) hitman with eighteen deaths to his name.

Released to public outcry and media furore. Leonard spends his time working as a janitor and looking over his shoulder. But instead of constant threats he finds Sophie, who wants ghost write his life story, she also seems to be in the right places at the right time.

Then an act of public bravery confuses those that are meant to hate and loath him.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

You’d think that being in the head of a serial cold hearted killer would be an unpleasant and disturbing experience. Well it is and it isn’t. Leonard’s life is told by alternating from the present to key points in the past.

Zeltserman’s writing is a wonderful example of show don’t tell. He doesn’t tell us to be sympathetic you just start to feel for March as he’s released to live on the breadline in a grubby apartment with minimum wage job cleaning.

It’s the way that he talks about his family and their alienation that is probably most striking. You get to the outside affect the hits he’s committed on those around him. Not directly but his distance and last minute change of plans. Oh and not to mention the unknown source of this money, which is too much to be unpacking boxes.

That’s not the heart of the tale. It’s about seeing how an ex-Mob hitman reacts in his new environment. How he deals with attention of Sophie. Seeing the reactions of those who recognise him. And waiting for the revenge of his confession 14 years ago.

And comparing that to how he was shaped and seeing the turning points in his life. Zeltserman’s choices and the way he links them feel exactly right. He times the revelations and the peeling away of the past to enhance events happening in the present.

I can’t think of anything that didn’t feel like it couldn’t have happened. Yes it feels heightened and enhanced but nothing that’s going to make you think that you are in a TV gangster movie.

Summary

It’s thin but no less powerful. Though only point I did feel rushed was the final section. I can see why it was and why we don’t linger but the tone is a bit different from the rest. The ending will leave you in no doubt that prison has made March reevaluate his life and he’s expected his lot.

Highly Recommended.

Review: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny (headline)

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The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
Published by headline and out now in hardback

I think The Brutal Telling is my first murder in Canada. A body is found in the bistro of the picturesque Three Pines. There is no sign of a weapon, a motive or a even who the man is.

The challenge for C. I. Gamache is to find answers to all those questions and find the killer.

The thing that threw me at the beginning was that G. I. Gamche had been here before. Not surprising as it is Book 5 in the series but there is a long shadow from the events of the The Cruelest Month that feel slightly too intrusive to this new reader. I’m sure it makes more sense to people that have already read it. That wasn’t me.

This sense of missing something didn’t last too long as we are introduced to various members of the Three Pines family. As it such a small rural place Penny does make it feel like a family, which makes the fact there has been a murder and the body placed at the heart of the community all more shocking.

Penny reminds me of all the European crime I’ve been reading. They aren’t up against the clock so it gives time for the layers of society to be stripped away removing all the lies that we tell each other until the truth is at last reviewed.

And there are a lot of lies that need to be discovered. As a detected C. I Gamache is quite a patient, thoughtful and human character. He makes friends of his suspects and witnesses and lulls them into a sense of security but as is continually pointed out they are interrogations of a sort. Not that he stays within the boundaries of friendship as respectful as he seems he has no qualms in upsetting them by searching their homes without permission or bringing up those things that are best left unsaid to true friends.

Penny plays with this closeness bringing her narration into the heads of several of the characters and letting us into there thoughts and feelings. This transition isn’t always successful. There is more than one occasion when she has her narrator tell us too bluntly something she is more than skilled enough to show in the actions of her characters.

And she really is quite skilled. She keeps the play between getting close and personal with all the people that surround the investigation and the tensions caused by slowly finding more and more clues and putting more and more pieces together. There is some holding back needed but it didn’t feel  like cheating. There is no other way when you could be in the mind or presence of a killer than it wouldn’t take too much for them to give themselves away.

Penny also does a great job of keeping a good rota of suspects as the focus and the following of the clues changes. It could be quite a few of them for a number of reasons.

That isn’t to say that The Brutal Telling is realistic or natural. There is a sense of unreality about the whole set-up. I can’t see detectives getting that cosy like staying in the B & B of one of the prime suspects. And the living quarters of the victim still strikes a bit odd – but those don’t intrude really as there is too much to enjoy in Louise Penny’s writing still that allows you to slip happily into her world.

Overall, another fine addition to my growling growing list of crime writers.

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas (Harvill Secker)

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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas
Published by Harvill Secker and out now

The Chalk Circle Man is my first French crime novel in translation and it’s also the first appearance of detective Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg although, strangely, it’s not his first appearance in the UK.

And what an entrance to make. It starts innocently enough when a series of chalk circles start appearing on the streets of Paris. At the centre of each is an increasing bizarre selection of objects. That is until a body is found. After that it is no longer a curious sight but the anticipation of another body that surrounds their arrival.

Adamsberg isn’t what I’m used to in a detective. And by the way the atmosphere in the station alters in the months after his arrival his methods aren’t what his detectives are used to either.

He’s a gatherer. He sits back and waits. He follows his feelings. He doesn’t shout, control, or interrogate. That’s not to say that questioning isn’t going on. He leaves that to people like Danglard  who has no qualms about being more direct and upsetting.

Vargas seems to be interested in people and the story centres around a small group of including- a blind man, a record-keeping stalker and a serial dater to name the most focused on trio. But we focus on their lives we find out through them more about the mystery of The Chalk Circle Man.

I have a feeling  Adamsberg’s character and his detection-style is going to continue to intrigue and delight. Plus Vargas has a way of storytelling that masks the mystery until the final unveiling and then you think, why didn’t I see that before!

Highly Recommended

I’ll definitely be reading more especially after reading the blurb for:

SeekingWhomHeMayDevour

Seeking Whom He May Devour

In this frightening and surprising novel, the eccentric,wayward genius of Commissaire Adamsberg is pitted against the deep-rooted mysteries of one Alpine village’s history, and a very present problem: wolves. Disturbing things have been happening up in the French mountains; more and more sheep are being found with their throats torn-out. The evidence points to a wolf of unnatural size and strength. However Suzanne Rosselin thinks it is the work of a werewolf. Then Suzanne is found slaughtered in the same manner. Her friend Camille attempts, with Suzanne’s son Soliman and her shepherd, Watchee, to find out who, or what is responsible, and they call on Commissaire Adamsberg for help.

Review: Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason (Vintage)

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Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason
Published by Vintage and Out Now

Silence of the Grave is the second in the Detective Erlendur series by Arnaldur Indridason , though forth in the series Sons of Dust and Silent Kill came out before Tainted Blood but I don’t think have been released in the UK.

It’s also the third book I’ve read having read The Draining Lake, the fourth UK release, and then the first UK release Tainted Blood.

The only reason I’m mentioning it is that I’m working back towards The Draining Lake so it’s nice to see the subtle character development that Indridason  weaves into each book for Erlendur and his two other detectives, Elíborg and Sigurdur Óli and just to save any confusion Elíborg is female and Sigurdur Óli is male. Together they have to solve the mystery of a skeleton that is found in the Millenium Quarter as building work extents to Reyjavik

The story is in two parts. One is the discovery of the bones and investigation set in the modern day and the other is the story of the area where the bones were found and the family who lived there around time of World War II.

Indridason  is a becoming a master of combining these two views. The historical events leading up to a murder and the investigation after a body is found.  Each gives a fuller understanding and an emotional connection that would be lost without seeing the flip-side to the coin.

And this fits the character of Erlendur, who is on the side of the missing and the lost, after a tragedy in his own life, and he extends those feelings to victims of similar circumstances.  That tragedy creates a scene of its own when a woman offers information that should soothe Erlendur but seems to just upset him more.

Indridason  delves into the life of the major and minor characters and gives them the sense of life outside the scenes they are in. This makes for a rounded and emotionally connecting read. Indridason  plays with the reader as we move slowly to the discovery the owner of the bones and seeing how they were killed.

I must admit the story of the family is harrowing and distressing and a good reminder how we’re more supported in the present than we have been in the past and that male dominance needs tapering.

I’m definitely reading the next one, Voices, and it’s sitting on my Sony Reader right now. Indridason  has carved out his own niche and that’s made him one of my favourite crime writers.

Review: The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason (Vintage)

Title: The Draining Lake
Author: Arnaldur Indridason
Publisher: Vintage
Published: 7 August 2008
Review Copy

Synopsis

A skeleton is exposed in a drying out lake. The skeleton has an old Russian listening device tied to it. This leads detective Erledur with Elinborg and Siguraur Oli into an investigation into the cold war and what happens to those that are left behind.

Analyse/Comments/Thoughts

I really should read more crime stories, especially if they are anything like The Draining Lake.  Indridason mixes the past and present easily and the effect is quite powerful as you trace the story of the murderer from the events that led to the crime and the solving of the crime itself. This isn’t a fast paced thriller. It’s more reflective and lives up to its tag line of, ‘What Happens to those Left Behind?’ especially when we visit the relatives left behind when people go missing.

The process of detection keeps you reading as Erledur’s obsessions with small details leads to some interesting places. We get to find out about Erledur’s complicated relationships with his son and daughter, his work colleagues, and a woman who hasn’t left her husband.

I enjoyed the mix of flashbacks and present day. In some ways the flashbacks were more insightful as they explored the characters involved in more detail as Erledur is left a bit more of a mystery from beginning to end. Though this could be that this is a part of series and more would be revealed in reading the other books. Not that this spoiled anything as it seems part of his character to be aloof.

It was a bit of a slow read as I’m a little rusty when reading books in translation especially when it came to the names of characters and it took a while to grasp who was who and if they were male or female. The other quirk is some of the more emotional angry scenes that had swearing in them didn’t quite ring true though this is more a quirk in the language/translation rather than something that ruins the scene.

The strongest point for me was not only seeing another country, Iceland, but also getting a small insight into the cold war and its affect.

Summary

The Draining Lake is a reflective and strong crime novel with a clever and thought provoking use of flashbacks, which takes the reader on a journey of a crime from both sides. It also keeps you guessing about who the person in the lake actually is and who killed them. Highly recommended. I’m looking forward to catching up with Erledur’s next investigation.

8/10

Debut Review: In the Woods by Tana French

In The WoodsTitle: In The Woods
Author: Tana French
Publisher: Hodder
Published: 14 November 07
Price: £6.99
Bought It

You can never escape your past or so they say. And Tana French plays with this idea in her debut novel, In The Woods. Rob Ryan retells the investigation into death of a small girl found in the same woods where he, but not his two friends, had a lucky escape twenty years ago.

French hasn’t created a conventional detective novel. Ryan’s past comes back to haunt him during this investigation. She pitches it right. Ryan unravels as the case gets tougher. And as you read you wonder if he can solve it before he unravels too far.

It’s a very emotional read. French keeps you reading by playing with you. She builds the connections between the main characters and sparks them off each other. It’s a small world after all.

The strengths of this novel is how well French sets everything up. As I was reading I thought I had a good idea of who did it, if not why, and I was wrong. French, through Ryan’s eyes, gives a lot of leads and clues but these are muddied by Ryan own biases and obsessions. Another strength is how she explores the effect the investigation has on the relationship with his partner DI Cassie.

French foreshadows a lot of the major events, sometimes a little too heavily, and this gives a drive to find out the truth. And it is truthful and a bit brutal in its honesty. It’s an interesting balancing act between keeping plot moving in terms of finding the killer and showing us the emotional tensions surrounding it.

In The Woods keeps you reading as Ryan recounts and explores this investigation from beginning to end. French has created a well-crafted story with a believable, if highly fictional set events, told with strong compelling voice. A strong performing and haunting debut. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan)

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Title: Case Histories
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Black Swan 2005

Case Histories is one of those novels that you want to start again as soon as you’ve finished it so you can go back and find out all the bits you’ve missed. Kate Atkinson has interlaced all the lives of the characters so tightly that you don’t see all the connections until she turns over the tapestry and shows you the knots.

From the first three opening chapters, which present the details of three open cases that land at Mr Brodie’s door, Atkinson’s relaxed, warm and straight talking style drags you into the lives of the characters and keeps you needing to know what happened so that you can say ‘case closed’ at the end.

For an ex-army, ex-police and current private detective Jackson Brodie is quite a lovable character, maybe a little soft, but definitely in the British Bumbling Detective mould.

The story flips from one character’s view point to the next all being held together with a connection to Jackson though that is rarely the only connection. As it flips, it sometimes rewinds events so you can see that part of the story from the other side. Atkinson is an excellent storyteller and keeps all the elements moving along even when she seems to be going back to tell the reader something they think they already know.

For all its emotion there is lots of humour that comes from Atkinson’s narration and Brodie’s whit. Though there is one thread that border on the ridiculous and I’d like to have seen it treated more seriously. But that might be because Atkinson is such a good writer that I’d love to read her going darker.

Both moving and tightly packed this is a wonderful novel to read when all the gritty crime novels get too much. I’m itching to get on with the next one to see what web Jackson ends up entangled in next.

Review: Dark Hollow by John Connolly (Hodder)

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Dark Hollow by John Connolly
Hodder Published 2000

Charlie Parker isn’t a lucky man. A simple job of getting child maintenance for a client turns into a hunt for a killer that’s linked to an old lady’s fear of a man called Caleb Kyle and  pile of money that a lot of people are eager to get there hands on. It’s a mess that Charlie can’t avoid stepping in.

Connolly puts you in the action from the very first page as he sets up the events that snowball throughout Dark Hollow. The plotting is tighter than a washing line on a windy day. Just when you think you know what is going on the action snaps in another direction.

Added to that, Connolly is a well read and intelligent writer who doesn’t shy away from the details and doesn’t dumb down for the reader. This can make for a challenging read, not because it’s complicated in anyway, it’s more the depths of darkness he descends as he explores the more disturbing parts of human nature.

Parker’s world isn’t one you’d see on your average cop show on TV. It’s one where you kill or be killed and that’s another thing that is different about Connolly’s detective. He isn’t pure and greater than the criminals. He’s only just about on the right moral side.

This first person-tale is well worth reading. I’d suggest reading Every Dead Thing first as it explains why Parker is so haunted by the dead and what fuels his actions.