Saturday, 29 March 2008

Scandinavian Crime Stories

I received a very nice surprise in the post this morning. My agent has very kindly got hold of the latest issue of the Norwegian magazine Vi Menn (which I'm told translates as Us Men). The reason she has sent it to me is that my crime story A Hunch Based on Bagels and Coffee is in there. Except it seems to have a completely different title. I think it might be Undercover, but I can't be sure (not being a speaker of Norwegian). I did try using an on-line freebie translator but it didn't seem to recognise the word Spaneren. But I did have a little fun typing in the opening paragraph of my story in Norwegian and seeing how the on-line translator converted it back to English . . .

It's weird that the Norwegian magazine should arrive today as this week I have been reviewing a couple of Scandinavian crime novels. The first is the latest English translation of a Jo Nesbø novel. There really should be a health warning or spoiler alert printed on the cover of Nemesis. It is the third of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series of detective novels to be translated into English. The first was The Devil's Star, but actually The Devil's Star turns out to be the third in the series and very much the sequel to Nemesis. For some reason, the novels have been translated and published in the UK out of sequence (I guess the reason is they published the best one first to test the water . . .). Unlike most detective series novels, you really do need to read Nesbø's Harry Hole books in the correct order to get the most from them. While each novel stands alone to a certain extent, there is a thread running through them that is best followed chronologically. So if you haven't read the first in the series, The Redbreast, maybe you should do so before you read this book!

You can read my full BookBag review here.

Also new on the BookBag site is my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. There was a lot of pre-publication hype about this book, the first in a trilogy about the Editor-in Chief of a Swedish magazine (Millennium) written by the real-life Editor-in Chief of a real-life Swedish magazine. Stieg Larsson died shortly after delivering The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two books in the Millennium series to his publisher. The books became hugely popular in Scandinavia and the publication of the first instalment here in the UK was heralded as the arrival of a masterpiece of crime writing. Well, for once the hype is not entirely unwarranted. It may not be a masterpiece, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very good read.

My full BookBag review is here.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Website v Blog

I mentioned last week that the gumption and sheer determination of the pulp writer Stephen Frances (a.k.a. Hank Janson) put us modern writers to shame. Following on from that, a small group of novelists from my writing group met here at my house to discuss the whole idea of self-publishing and possibly even setting up a co-operative publishing house. Our discussions continue, but in the meantime we also debated the merits of having a website.

I used to run my own consultancy business that had a pretty good website, the sole aim of which was to attract customers. Now, while potential customers may have used the site to check me out, I received not one single new piece of business through the site. But that was a few years ago - I'm told things may be different now. We certainly attracted a number of new members to Deal Writers partly because of our website (which until recently I maintained). And in the past I joined a running club purely because they had such a comprehensive and useful website. So maybe my thinking is out of date . . .

Anyway, now that I no longer have the responsibility of maintaining the writers' group website I've finally begun to build one of my own. It will be interesting to see what difference (if any) it makes - especially in terms of getting my publisher to get cracking with publishing The Belfast Boy . . .

Monday, 17 March 2008

Review - Hell's Fire by Chris Simms

Three local churches have been torched in as many weeks. Evidence of satanic rituals have been discovered in the smoking remains of each one. The Christian community are outraged and media interest reaches national levels. When the fourth church is burnt down the Greater Manchester Police pass the case to DI Jon Spicer and his colleagues in the Major Incident Team. The priest of this particular church tells DI Spicer about several other recent incidents, possibly involving homeless people and youths. When the smoke has cleared, a charred corpse and satanic symbols are found in the ruins of the church, and the series of arson attacks take on an even more sinister angle – suspected human sacrifice.

At the same time, Spicer’s younger sister Ellie announces that she has started to follow the Pagan way of the Wicca, despite their Catholic mother’s assertion that Wiccans are actually witches, and Wicca was a religion that would lead followers straight to Hell. Ellie, it seems, has been introduced to Wicca by a friend who works at a New Age shop and is determined to join her new friend’s coven.

Spicer thinks his sister’s decision is some form of retaliation against their mother for making Ellie and her other brother go to Sunday school as kids (Spicer himself was excused Sunday school thanks to rugby practice). Of the three siblings, it is only Spicer – the one who didn’t go to Sunday school – who has turned out relatively normal. Their brother has disappeared into the world of the homeless.

Meanwhile, Spicer’s wife is trying to persuade him that they should send their daughter Holly to the happy clappy Church of England nursery because of its links to the better primary and secondary schools in the area. In case you hadn’t guessed, this a book that has a lot to say about religion, and about Christianity in particular.
I could not believe this was written by the same person who wrote Killing the Beasts and the subsequent DI Spicer books. Read my full review at the Bookbag.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Review - Killing the Beasts by Chris Simms

Detective Inspector Jon Spicer is working on Operation Fisherman, investigating a gang of car thieves, when he responds to a call for help from a Community Support Officer. A woman has been murdered and, because there is a prologue, we already know pretty much how, but we don’t know why. And, despite the prologue, we don’t know whodunit. As the first detective on the scene, Spicer (or ‘Jon’, as Simms prefers to call his leading man) is made Senior Investigating Officer – it seems a straightforward enough case. So far, so bog standard you might think.

But when Jon gets home at the end of the day, things begin to take a turn for the slightly different. Jon is not an embittered alcoholic loner but a happily almost-married man. Instead of lighting up a cigarette, he chews a stick of gum. Instead of unscrewing the whisky bottle, Jon goes out for an after-work run with his pet boxer. He is career minded, but slightly concerned about being tied down by marriage and by the looming prospect of parenthood. It’s Ian Rankin crossed with Nick Hornby.

Over supper, Jon’s partner Alice tells him some gossip about his friend Tom Benwell, whom he used to play rugby with (it was Tom who gave up; Jon still plays). Alice has heard that Tom’s wife has walked out on him after he lost his job. By all accounts, Tom has become a complete wreck.

The novel then follows Jon’s investigation of the murders (for the first is rapidly followed by several more killings of young single women) in parallel to a series of extremely well-handled flashbacks showing why Tom lost his job and his wife, and cataloguing Tom’s slow but terrible descent into psychotic mental illness.

Killing the Beasts is the first of the Jon Spicer series of novels, and very good it is, too. See my full review at the Bookbag.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Golden Age

One of my colleagues at Deal Writers has given me a book charting the career of the great British pulp writer, Hank Janson. His cheap detective novels were notorious in the 1950s for their portrayal of sex and violence. I’ve never knowingly read a Hank Janson book (although I may have done in my youth). But Stephen Frances, the real-life writer behind the books, churned out a best-selling novel every three months in his heyday. That was before the Home Office crackdown on lurid gangster novels, issuing destruction orders under the Obscene Publications Act. The banning of the Hank Janson books caused an uproar and, according to Steve Holland, the author of The Trials of Hank Janson, led directly to the infamous Lady Chatterley case.

What really grabbed my interest, though, wasn’t the legal trials of Stephen Frances but the writer’s sheer determination to get his words into print. We modern authors tend to complain that it is so much more difficult to get published these days. Publishers generally won’t even consider a novel unless it has been submitted to them by a literary agent. Literary agents are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts. Apart from women’s magazines, there is no market for the commercial short story. We look back nostalgically to the ‘Golden Age’ when everything was so much easier.

Stephen Frances, aka Hank Janson, began his writing career during the second world war by setting up his own publishing company. This was a time of massive paper shortages here in Britain. But rather than see that as an insurmountable problem, Frances saw it as an opportunity. ‘Due to paper rationing and shortages,’ Steve Holland quotes him as reflecting, ‘the bookstalls had little reading matter to display and eagerly snapped up anything on offer.’ Frances was so determined to offer reading matter to these bookstalls he spent most of his time ‘running around’, going from printer to printer, searching for paper. All this despite day-long electricity cuts during one of the worst winters on record. ‘Everything was in short supply . . . Bombs fell, disrupted deliveries and destroyed premises.’

Ah, the ‘Golden Age’.

Friday, 7 March 2008

The Rising Tide of Crime

I’ve been reading a lot of crime novels lately. Too many, probably. I need to let off a little steam.

I’ve always enjoyed American hard-boiled novels. I quite like ‘tartan noir’ – or at least, I quite like Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. And I’ve been a fan of Elmore Leonard for as long as I can remember (I met the great man at a BBC Book Club event a couple of years ago and now proudly possess a signed copy of Rum Punch). There are other writers I could list who I admire for their more literary approach to the genre.

But there are a lot of not-very-good writers out there making a killing in crime fiction. It was ever thus, I hear you sigh.

There are three things that particularly irritate me about a lot of modern crime novels, especially far too many modern British crime novels. First, the prologue. Unless the author is Geoffrey Chaucer I don’t like prologues. They are cheap and nasty things and I don’t understand why crime writers like them so much. They seem to be the fashionable accessory of the moment and as far as I can see serve no purpose other than as an artificial ‘hook’ to draw the reader into the story. Finding a prologue at the front of a novel always makes me think either (a) the author isn’t good enough to get this information into the body of his story or (b) the author isn’t sure where their story should begin. Either way, I think there must be crap writing ahead. (And the fact that some really good writers use prologues doesn’t stop me thinking that!).

Second, I don’t like it when authors allow their research to show – for example, I don’t need to know in great detail all the things the author has researched about the HOLMES computer system used by the British police. I don’t care what the acronym actually stands for. I don’t need to know when and why it was set up, how it does what it does, and so on. All I need to know is that the detectives use the wretched thing. It’s called HOLMES, for heaven’s sake – it speaks for itself. Don’t you agree, Watson? Here’s an acronym for you: RUE. Resist the Urge to Explain!

Finally, I get annoyed with crime novels that have an omniscient narrator, when the narrator tells the reader everything about each of the main characters – even taking us inside the characters’ heads to show us what they are thinking or worrying about, their hopes and fears. Then suddenly we find ourselves inside the head of the murderer as he commits his crimes, and the narrator’s descriptions become darkly vague and sketchy. Suddenly we have no idea whose head it is we are trapped in. That strikes me as nothing less than cheating the reader. And putting the whole thing in italics is no excuse!

Okay. Rant over. I’m off to take my medication.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Review - The Stranger from Home by Frederic Lindsay

Betty Meldrum, escaping the turmoil of her life back in Edinburgh (a turmoil presumably described in previous books in Lindsay’s Jim Meldrum series), is now living in the United States. She shares an apartment in Washington DC, where she quickly forms a bond with one of her flatmates, a sharp-featured blonde in her early thirties. The blonde invites Betty to her wedding in a small town in Texas. It is at this wedding that she meets the eponymous stranger from home: a blue-eyed man with a Scots accent. By page six of the novel they are married.

Betty, it now turns out (although if you were a Frederic Lindsay fan you would already know this) is the daughter of Detective Inspector Jim Meldrum. Meldrum is an Edinburgh cop who even when at home eats his fish and chip suppers with his fingers, straight from the paper wrapping. He lives alone in a mouse-infested garret in a run down area of the city. A place where a man in a heavy cloth coat looks out of place. When his ex-wife phones to tell him of Betty’s marriage Meldrum is bruised at how distant his daughter has grown from him, and yet he seems more concerned with an altercation he sees from his kitchen window. The man in the expensive cloth coat has just brutally attacked a loitering youth. It is this attack, rather than his daughter’s sudden and unexpected marriage, that plays on Meldrum’s mind that night.

Back in the states, the scene has shifted to Phoenix, Arizona. Betty’s new husband (and newcomers to Lindsay’s books) are finding out a little more about her chequered past. But we find out very little about the husband. He is a man of mystery, and no sooner has he arrived in Betty’s life than he has disappeared. The sympathetic woman detective who initially deals with the disappearance is quickly replaced by two male officers, men who may or may not be police officers. The mystery deepens when the woman detective phones Meldrum in Edinburgh to tip him off about the disappearance. ‘Your daughter gets in contact, tell her to come home,’ she says. ‘She’ll be safe at home.’

This is the first Frederic Lindsay book I’ve read. To see my full review, why not pop over to The Bookbag? It's a great site for booklovers!