Crime Fiction Alphabet: R is for Ian Rankin

letter_RThis week the letter in the Crime Fiction Alphabet Community Meme is R, so of course it just had to be Ian Rankin, who is fast becoming my favourite crime writer.

I’ve previously written a bit about Ian Rankin after I went to a talk he gave in January – see here.

R is also for Rebus. There are 17 Inspector Rebus books (a a book of short stories) and I’m reading them in sequence starting with the first one Knots and Crosses. Currently I’m reading the tenth book, Dead Souls. As well as the Rebus books Rankin has written a few others, the latest being The Complaints, featuring a new cop Inspector Malcom Fox. The complete list of Rebus books is on Ian Rankin’s website and on Wikipedia. Both places give more information about the man and his books. Just as a taster the author details on the latest book I read  The Hanging Garden reveal that after graduating from the University of Edinburgh he  had been employed as

a grape picker, swine-herd, taxman, alcohol researcher, hi-fi journalist and punk musician.

The Hanging Garden is full of characters, sub-plots and plenty of crime from the local gang leader Tommy Telford, vying for supremacy over crime boss, Big Ger Cafferty, currently imprisoned in Barlinnie but still in control of his empire through his second in command, the Weasel, to Chechian and Yakuza villains. Then there is Mr Pink-Eyes, a Newcastle gangleader to contend with. It’s a mix of prostitutes, drug running, money laundering and attacks on Cafferty’s territory and associates, with retaliations on Telford’s strongholds.

Rebus is struggling to keep off the alcohol, aided by his friend Jack Morton, when his daughter, Sammy is the victim of a hit and run. Who is trying to warn off Rebus and is he in the pay of Big Ger?  At the same time he is investigating a suspected Nazi War Criminal and helping a Bosnian prostitute, Candice who looks so like his own daughter and who pleads with him for safety. Added to all this his ex-wife Rhona and his lover Patience meet over Sammy’s hospital bed.

It’s grim and tough and as Rebus involves Jack in an undercover operation it all goes wrong – dramatic and tense right to the end.

Catching Up with Reviews

Some of January’s books – two quick reviews:

Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan is a beautifully written and moving book about David, a parish priest in a small Scottish parish and as I read it I gradually became aware of just how naive he is. The prologue foreshadows the problems he encounters when his mother comments that he has been through such a lot and that in her experience “nothing is ever behind anyone.” He tells her that he is looking forward to

Just working in an ordinary parish and greeting the faith of ordinary people.

What follows is a troubling story of what happened and what he did in that ordinary parish full of ordinary people. It’s a very sad and nasty tale, about prejudice, religious bigotry and it’s full of regret and despair.

Information about Andrew O’Hagan is here. I would like to read his earlier books, maybe The Missing, which is part autobiography and part looking at what happens to communities when people go missing.

That, quite coincidentally brings me on to another book I read in January:

Losing You by Nicci French is a fast paced, take-your-breath-away book about Nina whose teenage daughter, Charlie goes missing. I read it a break-neck speed, switching between being completely engrossed and desperate for her to find her daughter before it’s too late and being annoyed by her attitude to the police.

It’s set on Sandling Island, off the east coast of England and the feelings of isolation and oppression fill the book. Nina is a newcomer to the island and is not really accepted as “one of us”. She struggles to get people, friends, neighbours and the police to take Charlie’s disappearance as anything serious. It’s the portrayal of the police as inept, inefficient and casual that bugged me – would that really be the case? Anyway, even if some of it was barely believable it is a real page-turner and I will be reading more of Nikki French’s books.

‘Nicci French’ is the pseudonym of wife and husband Nicci Gerard and Sean French. More information is on this website and they have a blog.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Q is for Quintin Jardine

letter QThis week in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise we’re up to the letter Q. My contribution is:

Quintin Jardine. I found his books in my local library – the one in Scotland, which is most appropriate as Quintin Jardine is Scottish. He was born in Motherwell, Lanarkshire and has homes in both Gullane, East Lothian and Trattoria La Clota, L’Escala, Spain. He has been a journalist, government information officer, political spin-doctor and media relations consultant before becoming a crime fiction writer with two  series of detective novels – the Bob Skinner novels set in Edinburgh where Skinner is a Deputy Chief Constable and the Oz Blackstone mysteries, in which Oz is a movie actor trying to forget that he was ever a “private inquiry agent”.

For more biographical details and list of books see his website.

Fallen Gods is the 13th in the Bob Skinner books. It’s set in both Scotland and  America. The beginning of this book is quite confusing, which is down to me and not the author as I’ve jumped into the Bob Skinner books mid-stream as it were. It’s confusing because at the beginning of the book it appears that Bob is dead, ‘dropping in his tracks’ at his wife’s parents’ funeral. Sarah, his wife, says

His heart stopped, just like that. Makes you think, doesn’t it. There is no Superman; there is no Planet Krypton. Not even the great Deputy Chief Constable Bob Skinner was invulnerable. (page 6)

I had to double check.  I’d  read  the blurb before I started to read Fallen Gods and that stated that Bob’s career is ‘hanging by a thread’; that his brother’s body has been found in the detritus of a flood – a brother whose existence he has kept a secret for many years;  and that a valuable painting was burnt in the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. Whilst he and his team are investigating these events, his wife, Sarah is left in America with their children, recovering from the death of her parents. She finds comfort in the arms of an old college lover and then is faced with ‘a seemingly inevitable murder conviction’.

So how could Bob Skinner be dead? All was revealed as I read on and what a tangled web Quintin Jardine has woven (as Sir Walter Scott would say).

So, I have found another detective series to read. This is a complex book, with believable characters and it switches seemlessly between the crimes in  Scotland and America with ease. I was never unsure where I was or who I was with and there are a lot of characters to get your head round. It kept me guessing throughout as to the culprits and is really more about the characters and their personal lives than about the crimes.

I enjoyed this book and will be reading more of Bob Skinner in the future – there are 19 in total so far.

Invisible by Paul Auster

I read Invisible by Paul Auster in January and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I feel  may understand it more if I reread it, but I have little inclination to do so.

The story opens in New York City in 1967 when student Adam Walker meets a Swiss professor, Rudolf Born and his girlfriend Margot. Born is a visiting lecturer at Columbia University, where Adam is studying literature. He is drawn into their offbeat world, then caught in a triangle that soon descends into violence that shocks and disturbs Adam.

There are three different narrators and the story moves both in time and place, between 1967 and 2007, in New York, Paris and the Caribbean. It also moves between writing in the first person to the second and third person. Like other Auster books, it is multilayered containing stories within stories, which I always enjoy.

From the book jacket:

It is a book of youthful rage, unbridled sexual hunger and a relentless quest for justice. With uncompromising insight, Auster takes us into the shadowy borderland between truth and memory, between authorship and identity, to produce a work of unforgettable power that confirms his reputation as ‘one of America’s most spectacularly inventive writers’.

It’s about writers and writing, how they deal with expressing themselves, and overcoming their writer’s block. One of the narrators comments on a problem he had when writing a memoir:

By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself) and therefore I returned to the beginning of Part Two and began writing it in the third person. I became He, and the distance created by that shift allowed me to finish the book. (page 89)

It started well, but as I read on it became dreary and cringe-making. But strangely I found it  compelling reading and had to read on to the end.  After the first part, it became harder to distiguish who was narrating.   None of the characters are very likeable, some are downright unlikeable (Born for example) and the book slips between truth and  fantasy so you don’t know whether to believe anything the narrators say. It’s a puzzle and a tiresome one.  Overall I didn’t like it. If I hadn’t read any of Auster’s books before I wouldn’t bother reading one again after this one.

Not everyone agrees with me  – both Gaskella and Reading Matters loved this book and recommend it highly.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: M is for Mortal Causes

crime_fiction_alphabetThis week’s letter in the Crime Fiction Alphabet series is M and I’ve chosen Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes, which is the one book I finished reading in December.

Mortal Causes is the sixth book in the Inspector Rebus series. In his introduction Ian Rankin explains that ‘mortal’ in the Scots vernacular means ‘drunk’ so Mortal Causes

 evoked, in his mind, the demon drink, just as surely as it did any darker and more violent imagery. (page xii)

And there is a fair amount of violence in this dark book, starting with the discovery of a brutally tortured body in Mary King’s Close, an ancient Edinburgh street now buried beneath the High Street. It’s August in Edinburgh during the Festival.

Next time I visit Edinburgh I’d like to see Mary King’s Close. It’s open to the public and according to this website you can “experience the sights, sounds and maybe even smells of an amazing street that time forgot.  Where everyday people went about their day to day lives and where you can now walk in their footsteps.” Just the place for a murder, away from the busy streets, undisturbed by the festival goers and soundproofed so no one would hear any gunshots or screams.

There are links to the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’, the IRA, the Catholic/Protestant conflict, the Secret Service and organised crime. Rebus works his way through this mix, seconded to the SCS (the Scottish Crime Squad) because he’d been in the Army and had served in Ulster in the 1960s. The relationship between Rebus and Big Ger Caffety, Edinburgh’s gangster boss, develops in this book as the victim is none other than Big Ger’s son and he insists Rebus finds his killer. He tells Rebus he wants revenge. His men

… are out there hunting, understood? And they’ll be keeping an eye on you. I want a result Strawman. … Revenge, Strawman, I’ll have it one way or the other. I’ll have it on somebody. (page 74)

Rebus’s personal life is no better, his relationship with Dr Patience Aitken is  difficult. They quarrel, she tries to civilise him, giving him poetry books and tickets for ballet and modern dance:

Rebus had been there before, other times, other women. Asking for something more, for commitment beyond the commitment.

He didn’t like it. (page 81)

Their relationship is also threatened by Rebus’s involvement with Caroline Rattray, from the Procurator Fiscal’s office, who ‘is mad about him’.

This book, like the other Rebus books I’ve read, is more than crime fiction. It’s a complex story exploring the psychology of guilt, revenge and fear.

My Best Crime Fiction Reads in 2009

Kerrie is asking for people’s top ten crime fiction reads of this year from which she will collate the books and come up with the best crime fiction reads of 2009.

The rules are

  1. it is about crime fiction you’ve read in 2009. Year of publication doesn’t matter.
  2. about 10 titles in the format of title, author (no need for description etc).
  3. any order will do. If you think one was so much better than the others, you might like to put it in your list twice.
  4. You have until Jan 7 to do it.

I’ve read a lot more crime fiction this year than in previous years (for example I read 16 in 2008 compared to 47 this year) so it’s really difficult to decide which to list as my top ten. Here they are in alphabetical order of title (tomorrow I could just as easily come up with another ten titles).

If you want to contribute your own list pop over to Kerrie’s blog.

Alphabet in Crime Fiction: J and K

Whilst I’ve been busy moving house Kerrie’s A-Z Crime Fiction meme has featured the letters J and K. Now that I have the computer up and working (well D actually did that for me) I’m having a little break from unpacking boxes to add to the series. I’ve written about the following books earlier in this blog and have adapted my reviews for this post.

the letter JJ is for A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell.

This portrays Eunice, an illiterate woman and a psychopath who does anything to stop anyone from finding out that she can’t read or write.  Her ingenuity and resourcefulness is amazing. She blackmails people and killed her father. I found the whole premise of such a damaged person apparently functioning normally in society scary.

She is employed by the Coverdales as their housekeeper and in the interests of having their house kept clean and tidy they tried to make her comfortable. But part of the problem was that they looked on her as little more than a machine, not as a person. They meant well, wanting to make other people happy, but they were interferers and things went from bad to worse. Then Eunice met Joan, who was completely unstable, in fact she was insane. Joan is a religious fanatic, a sinner who delights in telling people of her past sins and wanting them to seek God’s forgiveness.  Their friendship ends in tragedy.

I felt helpless whilst reading this, desperately wanting the Coverdales to realise Eunice’s problems, but they were blind to the fact that Eunice was illiterate and although they tried to prevent her meeting Joan they were unaware of the danger they were in.  This inflamed Eunice and pushed her into taking the actions she did.

Although Eunice’s crime is known right from the start, that does not detract from the suspense. It actually makes it worse – you know that the murder is going to happen and as  the reasons why it happens become clear, the tension builds relentlessly.

letter Kis for King of the Streets by John Baker.

I read this over two years ago. It depicts violent murder in graphic detail, which I found hard to stomach and the subject matter of the abuse and murder of children is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate, but it’s a quick read. This was the third book I’d read by Baker, all set in York and featuring the private detective, Sam Turner and his assistant Geordie (naive, but street-wise). Sam is investigating the murder of a blackmailer and the death of a teenage runaway, hampered by a gangster and his “minders”.

It’s well written, giving insight into the minds of both the detective and the criminal characters. I particularly liked the nickname ‘Gog’ for one of the ‘minders’, who trashes Sam’s office. Gog is, as the name suggests, a huge giant of a man, with little reasoning power, but plenty of brawn, looked after (not very successfully) by his brother, Ben. Baker also refers to Gulliver’s Travels in describing Gog as ‘Brobdingnagian’. At times I even felt sorry for Gog.

I enjoyed this book immensely, despite the violence it portrays.