Newsletter: A MIXTURE OF THRILLERS by Jack

Monday Oct 05 2015

The books keep rolling across the desk in the store. Most of them are not terrible, but few are truly memorable. This month we will do a quick survey of some of the titles that struck us as out of the ordinary. Readers be warned: there are few police procedurals or hard-boiled private eyes in this batch of books; there are simply too many formulaic titles in these genres.

Spain in the 20th century. Spain is a country that spent most of the century fighting a fierce civil war and then recovering from it. Mark Oldfield’s The Sentinel (Head of Zeus, $15.95) is an ambitious book which attempts to portray this reality. It is set in three periods: 1936, in the middle of the war’s carnage; Madrid in 1953, the war over but not quite; and 2009, the war wounds supposedly healed and only the history of the carnage remaining. The picture Oldfield presents is one of unremitting and senseless violence, featuring a man as monstrous as any in recent fiction. Commandante Leopoldo Guzman is head of Franco’s secret police. His job is extermination, and he is very good at it. More than fifty years later a group of female scholars’ attempts to retrace Guzman’s violent path across the country, and gets bogged down in their own problems, sexual and otherwise. Frankly, I found this a hard albeit fascinating read. If you just skip the violent bits, there isn’t a lot left. But the picture of Spain is illuminating.

Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt are well-known in Sweden as TV writers as well as the authors of the Sebastian Bergman print series. It is not clear where the new title The Man Who Watched Women (HC $27.99) falls in that series. We do have another title, Dark Secrets in stock (TP $16.50). Readers of Jo Nesbo remember that the Harry Hole series was not published in English in the order that the books were originally published. The Man Who Watched Women is a 500 page masterpiece of Scandinavian murkiness and psychological complexity, featuring a crime profiler whose personal life has somehow or another gotten mixed up with that of a serial killer – or is it two serial killers? The publishers have chosen to present this as one of the heftiest books in the shop. The picture it gives is of a Sweden with an unhappy climate and an even unhappier psyche. These guys and this book have apparently been very big in Europe, but readers should be warned that it does not fall within the Steig Larsson tradition.

When I started Elsa Hart’s Jade Dragon Mountain (HC $29. 99) I knew absolutely nothing about 18th-century China. The book offered a painless introduction to a fascinating society and culture. Interestingly, Hart does not take us to imperial Peking, but rather to a remote city on the eastern frontier about to have an imperial visit. Foreigners from far and wide have gathered for the occasion. Even the East India Company is present, bringing packing boxes full of rich gifts. The detective is an attractive one. Li Du is a scholar/librarian who has been exiled from the capital and is on his way out of China. Why he stops to solve the murder of an old Jesuit is not well explained, but the crime calls for classic detection and that is what we get in this highly attractive debut novel. The experienced crime fiction reader may spot the solution ahead of most readers, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Contemporary China does not seem much different from anywhere else in the world, at least not in Lisa Brackmann’s Dragon Day (HC $25.95). The main character is Ellie McEnroe, a female American veteran of the Iraq war living in the People’s Republic. And as if that premise is not outlandish enough, she works as the representative of dissident Chinese artists. The book is a bit schizophrenic. The artists are persecuted but the foreigner roams free to solve the murder. If one can buy into all this, the book is quite an easy read and an interesting glimpse into China today. This is the third in the Ellie McEnroe series.

Hollywood in 1937. To her credit, Renee Patrick does not give us the glitzy world of the stars, but rather the seedy world of those trying to get on the ladder to stardom. In Design for Dying (HC $28.99) the narrator is Lillian Frost, a beauty queen winner who works as a sales clerk in a department store and lives in a sleazy boarding house. When her ex-roommate is found murdered, she becomes involved in the investigation, which seems to centre around Paramount Studio’s costume department presided over by the designer Edith Head, who never quite comes alive in this book. That is actually okay, since the interest here is in the world of the hopeful, not the studios of the successful. I have to wonder what really happened to those many star struck immigrants to Hollywood who didn’t make it. Did they go back to Ohio, or did they settle in LA as a permanent underclass? In any case, I appreciated the spare prose with which this tale was told. It matched the theme, somehow.

Peter May has long since been one of my favourite writers. I especially loved his “Lewis Trilogy” and so I looked forward to his latest book, curiously enough, set in Canada. It is a police procedural set in Entry Island, one of the Magdalene Islands of Quebec, and entitled Entry Island (HC $26.99) Entry Island is an English-speaking island, with a population of about 100 people, who live there year-round; there are no summer cottagers. The island actually exists, its population employed in the fishery, mainly the lobster fishery. The book could do with a map, and its British publisher could do with a lesson in geography, since the jacket blurb locates the island “850 miles from the Canadian mainland”—it is actually 12 miles offshore from Quebec. The central character is the police detective Sime Mackenzie, one of the greatest emotional messes of recent fiction. Sime is suffering from a marital breakup which has left him with a bad case of insomnia. His illness only gets worse on the island, since he becomes emotionally entangled with the wife of the murder victim (she is also the chief suspect). He begins having graphic dreams that echo a diary kept by an ancestor that was read to him years earlier, and we are soon off into paranormal land. This device offers May the opportunity to fill the novel with a fictional 19thcentury diary interspersed with his contemporary crime plot. May is a good enough writer to keep this farango somewhat credible. Sime’s emotional state goes from bad to worse, and the reader soon becomes less concerned with the crime than with the hero’s decreasing ability to hold it together. I suspect that not all readers will be thrilled with the paranormal bent of this book: I know I wasn’t. But there is enough suspense to keep you reading to the last page, and a surprise denouement which partially redeems it.

Bruce Holsinger’s The Invention of Fire (HC $26.95) takes us to fourteenth-century London, where poet John Gower confronts a mass murder, the corpses of which bear wounds of a sort never before seen. We soon learn that Gower suspects they have been killed with a new weapon – a ‘gonne’ – and we are off on a search that takes us across the country, including to Geoffrey Chaucer’s bucolic Kent. Holsinger is a noted scholar who knows his fourteenth century and writes in a faux breezy style that seems a little bit out of place here. Finding acceptable and appropriate voices for both narration and dialogue is one of the major challenges of writing historical fiction, especially of the more distant past. This is the second book in this series. The first is called A Burnable Book.

Contemporary Belfast is the home territory of Stuart Neville, whose Those We Left Behind (HC $22.95) completes this survey of the latest books in the shop. This book is a standalone and not a part of his John Lennon series. Neville’s stylish prose offers a glimpse of the violent and lesser salubrious side of life in the Northern Irish capital, places where there is little hope of redemption. In fairness, Neville offers us two women who do their best to do something positive, but in both cases their hopes are dashed by the brutality of the circumstances around them. Gloomy, gritty, and memorable.



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