Review: Fear Not by Anne Holt

We all have our secret rooms.  That’s the way it should be.  That’s the way it will always be.

The snow-covered streets of Oslo are the very picture of Christmas tranquility.  But over the tolling bells for Christmas Day, a black note sounds.  As first light breaks, Bishop Eva Karin Lysgaard is found stabbed to death in the quiet city centre.

DI Adam Stubo heads up the police investigation, but it is Johanne Vik, criminal profiler, who infers and unlikely pattern from this shocking murder, and who suspects that a bitter and untempered hatred has been unleashed upon the city of Oslo.  A hatred that is not yet satisfied…

I picked up Fear Not from the ‘Scandi-Crime’ stand in my local chain bookshop on a whim, having previously read 1222, the last in Holt’s other series, about a female police officer, which I’d really enjoyed – it’s a great example of a locked-room murder mystery in a snowy setting.  Again, my it’s-not-the-first-in-the-series curse struck again.  This is in fact ‘Vik and Stubo #4’, according to Goodreads.  Never mind, I thought, I might as well give it a try.

In fact, I didn’t feel I’d missed out on previous installments when I began to read.  The characters of Vik and Stubo were drawn so clearly that I felt I was the beginning, even though they’d had three prior outings. I think one of Holt’s strengths is her details characterisation; Johanne was so well described as to seem completely rounded and believable, as a profiler, as a mother, and a woman.  Adam also seemed totally real, doing his best under difficult circumstances, and I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed during the narrative, with all the tensions of modern family life as well as working to solve crimes.

I thought Holt picked up on an interesting idea in this book too; rather than a traditional revenge or money motivation, there’s a strong theme of religious extremism leading to victimisation of minorities, in this case Norway’s gay and lesbian community.  It was an interesting conceit to explore whether liberalisation can in fact prompt extremism, and of course Holt has more insight into this than most, given her time in the Norwegian government.

Despite my enjoyment of the journey with Fear Not’s main characters, the novel didn’t grab me in the way that 1222 did.  The plotting is not as tight, and key clues and revelations were a very long time coming, compared to a lot of cold crime.  Vik and Stubo, while very real, are far less gritty than Nesbo’s Harry Hole, less charismatic than Mankell’s Wallander and less dramatic than Falck and Hedstrom in Camilla Lackberg’s Fjallbacka series.  Perhaps, despite my liking for them, they’re a bit too real! I found myself longing for something a little more gruesome, or a little more fast-paced, with a little more mystery and tension.

I wouldn’t say than Fear Not has put me off going back to book one of the series, but I think perhaps I won’t be trying it any time soon.  I’ve got a Mankell on the shelf that’s calling my name, and I don’t think I’ll be able to resist for long.

Fear Not is published by Corvus, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Kate Neilan

YA Review: Crusher, by Niall Leonard

The day Finn Maguire discovers his father bludgeoned to death in a pool of blood, his dreary life is turned upside down.  Prime suspect in the murder, Finn must race against time to clear his name and find out who hated his dad enough to kill him.

Trawling the sordid, brutal London underworld for answers, Finn exposes dark family secrets and faces danger at every turn.  But he’s about to learn that it’s the people who trust who can hit you the hardest…

I’m not sure where to start with this colander of a young adult ‘crime’ novel.  The back of the review copy yells “The most talked-about debut thriller of 2012” but that might not be for the reason you think.  Niall Leonard is in fact the husband of E L James, of Fifty Shades fame/infamy; he wrote Crusher in response to a challenge from his wife to write a book, during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an American initiative to encourage people to write creatively).  The clue’s in the name there, I think – if you write a whole novel in a month, there has to be a reason it takes such a short time.  Crusher illustrates this in abundance.

Let’s start with the narrator, 17-year-old Finn.  We learn, later in the book, that Crusher is his nickname, due to his boxing abilities.  Well, I’m pleased he’s good at boxing, because he seems to have a talent for precious little else.  Leonard paints a picture of a hopeless drop-out to the point where it’s a little hard to sympathise with this young man.  A lot of Finn’s problems seem to have come from the fact that he’s dyslexic – he is portrayed, at times, as almost illiterate and it’s implied this is why he’s stuck working in a burger bar, with zero in the way of qualifications.  What lazy stereotyping here.  It’s really anachronistic to write about dyslexia as such a crippling problem in 2012; a quick chat with any teacher would have told Leonard that young people can now use computers, have readers and scribes to enable them to get the grades they deserve at school.  Finn seems like an intelligent boy so why he wouldn’t have taken advantage of these things is inexplicable.

As well as this problematic backstory, Finn’s a very cold fish.  Early in the book, he discovers his (step)father, murdered, in the living room of the house they share.  His response is basically to shrug.  As the story progresses, he decides to find out who murdered his dad but his motivation isn’t fury or revenge but apparently a sort of lazy curiosity.  Surely this would be a highly traumatic event but Finn just carries on, emotionally unaffected.  He stays living in the house where his dad died, gets romantically involved with a girl without any qualms, bluffs it out with gangsters… It just doesn’t ring true.

This isn’t helped by the impression that most of the other characters are cardboard cut-out stereotypes: the Lahndan East End hard-man gangster, the bent copper, a smarmy jobsworth boss, a slutty school girl.  At one point, his ‘real mum’ pops up from nowhere with a cartoon Latino-American criminal in tow, and hovering in the background is a psychotic ex-social worker; we know she’s crazy because she’s a redhead.  I don’t think Mr Leonard likes women very much.  Plus there’s even a celebrity chef thrown into the mix.  Did Leonard have a Character-Pick app when he started writing this book?

My final big problem was the language Leonard uses; the prose is leaden, to say the least.  Occasionally, there are flights of metaphorical fancy so bizarre as to be laughable.  Finn’s boss at the burger bar coming out of his office is likened to a hermit crab emerging from its shell, and later he is described as waving his “little crab antennae”.  Hmm.  Some of the slang Finn uses is really incongruous for a 17-year-old – he calls someone a “wag” for giving him the nickname Crusher, and describes being hit as getting “clobbered”.  I can’t think of any teenagers who use words like that.  Finally, he swears.  All the time.  For no apparent reason.  A lot of teenagers, contrary to popular belief, are capable of speaking without swearing all the time.  Finn’s constant profanities mark this book out from a lot of other YA fiction, and not, I think, in a good way.  It’s another example of lazy stereotyping, and a lot of teen readers, and their parents, may not appreciate it.

“At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement”

Having read quite a bit of young adult male-protagonist thriller fiction, this falls well short of my expectations. At no point did I feel any particular sense of thrill, of peril, of suspense or excitement.  There was a big action ‘set-piece’ involving a car-crusher, but I’ve read a vastly superior version of that scene in an Alex Rider novel.  Equally, in YA, I tend to look for a subtle moral steer by the writer; here, the lesson seems to be, if you are the hardest hitter, and the faster runner, that’s all there is.  The character who seems to be the big villain at the outset never gets his comeuppance, and the twists at the end are frankly ridiculous.  If Leonard wants Finn Maguire to make another appearance, he really needs to think about how he’s going to engage his readers more effectively.

Crusher is published in hardback and ebook by Doubleday, from 13th September 2012

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: Cold Grave by Craig Robertson

A murder investigation frozen in time is beginning to melt…
November 1933.  Scotland is in the grip of the coldest winter in living memory and the Lake of Menteith is frozen over.  A young man and woman walk across the ice to the historic island of Inchmahome which lies in the middle of the lake.  Only the man comes back.
In the spring, as staff prepare the abbey ruins for summer visitors, they discover the unidentifiable remains of the body of a girl, her skull violently crushed.

Present day.  Retired detective Alan Narey is still haunted by the unsolved crime.  Desperate to relieve her father’s conscience, DS Rachel Narey returns to the Lake on Menteith and unofficially reopens the cold case.
With the help of police photographer Tony Winter, Rachel discovers that the one man her father had always suspected was the killer has recently died.  Risking her job and reputation, Narey prepares a dangerous gambit to uncover the killer’s identity – little knowing who that truly is.  Despite the freezing temperatures, the ice-cold case begins to thaw, and with it a tide of secrets long frozen in time is suddenly and shockingly unleashed.

Despite my penchant for Scandicrime, I rarely read British crime fiction, classic or modern, so I was interested to see what Craig Robertson had to offer in Cold Grave.  The cover is very striking, in black, white and blues, plus it’s set in Glasgow, somewhere I’ve visited, so my first impressions were good.  I was also intrigued by the story synopsis, as the crime in question was a ‘cold case’ – I was hoping for lots of mystery and intrigue.

By the end of the book, I wasn’t disappointed, as I found the story had good pace, plenty of action set in and around the seedier sides of ‘Glesga’ as well as up in the Highlands, and some quirky, interesting characters, particularly Tony Winter.  Whereas Rachel, nominally the protagonist, is sketched a little thinly, I got a really strong impression of Tony, with his ghoulish delight in gory crime scenes and his photographs of the best deaths he’d snapped displayed in his spare room.  

Initially, however, I wasn’t grabbed.  The book starts a little slowly for my liking; there is a prologue which sets up the disappearance of the girl, but I felt perhaps it could have been a little more sinister, and when we then meet Rachel and Tony in the next chapter, I found them, at first, a bit bland.  They appear to be off on a weekend away, there’s a lot of focus on issues in their relationship which then seem to be forgotten about, and there was something about the dialogue between them that didn’t always ring true.  This was something I noticed occasionally throughout the book, in fact.  I didn’t always feel the characters had distinctive ‘voices’, and every so often there was a little bit of Dan-Brown-esque telling of information that just didn’t strike me as the way in which people really speak.  I could be wrong, of course – before he became a novelist, Robertson was a journalist for 20 years with a Scottish Sunday newspaper, so he’s probably had more experience with Scottish detective sergeants than I have.

Am I glad that I kept reading, though?  Overall yes; once the wheels of the plot were turning at full speed, Cold Grave was a fun read for the summer holidays – I can imagine reading this on a lounger by the pool, basking in the sunshine while getting my teeth into the grimy, icy action.  This is a book on enjoy on its own merits; it’s not poetic literary prose, although it’s full of fascinating descriptions of blood, but it’s a pacey, well-plotted cop-drama, and sometimes that’s good enough.

Cold Grave is published by Simon & Schuster

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

Review: Some Kind of Peace, by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff

Siri Bergman is terrified of the dark.
She lives alone, an hour outside Stockholm where she practices as a psychotherapist, her nearest neighbour far away. Siri tells her friends that she has moved on since her husband died in a diving accident. But when she goes to bed at night, she leaves all the lights on, unable to shake the feeling that someone is watching her.
With the light gone, the darkness creeps inside.
One night she wakes to find that the house is pitch black, and the torch by her bedside has vanished. Later, the body of one of her young patients is found floating in the water nearby. Thrown headlong into a tense murder investigation, Siri finds herself unable to trust anyone, not even her closest friends. Who can she turn to for answers?
The truth is hidden in the darkness.

Some Kind of Peace is the debut offering from Swedish pair Camilla Grebe, an audiobook entrepreneur, and Asa Traff, a psychologist specialising in CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), and is translated by Paul Norlen. From the first sentence, I found myself immersed in the world of the Swedish countryside – the description of the landscape, and the summer, around Siri’s cottage was beautiful and very intricate, and I was immediately drawn in, wondering what could go wrong in this idyllic setting.

Of course, I know exactly the sort of things that could go wrong. I’m a big fan of Scandinavian crime writing. My first experience was the Martin Beck series, by Sjowall and Wahloo, then I worked my way through the works of Mankell, Nesbo, Holt and Lackberg. As a result, I know only too well that the pastoral scenes of Sweden and Norway can hide the most appalling, bloody and baffling crimes. Luckily, these countries seem replete with dogged, imperfect but determined policemen and women, who can’t rest easy until they have caught the perpetrator.

However, Some Kind of Peace presents the reader with something a little different in Siri Bergman. Siri is a psychotherapist, not an investigator. She is a victim, not only of intimidation, stalking, threats, but also of her own damaged psyche. She cannot understand why anyone might want to hurt her in this way, does not want to be a burden to her friends and family by talking about what has happened, doubts her own perception, wondering if she has imagined the whole thing… She is by no means a reliable narrator, making the novel tens and mysterious.

Siri is accompanied by an array of friends trying to help discover who is out to get her: her friend and colleague, Aina, Marcus, the very friendly policeman, Vijay their university contact who specialises in criminal profiling. She’s also surrounded by her patients, who display more or less disturbing thoughts and behaviours, and her lecherous practice-mate Sven. As the plot thickens, Siri starts to wonder who she can trust – who really does have her best interests at heart? And her own insecurities multiply too, as she dwells on her husband’s death. Was it an accident? Siri is forced to reevaluate, and gradually loses control over her life.

I found Some Kind of Peace a really fascinating read, with great insights into the psychology of the criminal mind, as opposed to the traditional police procedural a la Beck or Wallander or rogue-cop of the Harry Hole books. I also found the characters extremely well-drawn, particularly Siri herself. Finally, I found the prose style highly engaging; this is not always the case with books in translation, but I think Paul Norlen has done a very good job expressing the finesse and intricacy of the original. This book has already been a great success in Sweden and I hope it makes a big splash here very soon.

Some Kind of Peace is published by Simon & Schuster

Kate Neilan @Magic_kitten