Article published on April 14, 2017.
Crime writing is like football, every nation has its own character and style. It comes from the myths and legends, feeds on literary traditions, (books we now call classics) and draws its influences from the structures of society. Of course as it grows and develops it cross-pollinates with the writing of other cultures. Still the best have a distinctive voice reflective of the locale. I’m a collector of crime fiction, I have to admit, but I don’t collect for value, no rare editions, I collect to read. For me crime is a doorway on culture, on politics, on history, on…you get the point. So here are some I have read so far this year that left an impression. Just so you know, I love dark crime fiction, it seems to me that there is more truth to be had than in cozy crime – I don’t read just for entertainment I want to learn and to feel. For me hard-boiled, noir and foreign novels rock.
The Hit by Nadia Dalbuono, (Scribe, 2017) is the third in Leone Scarmarco series and I am mystified as to why these novels don’t get more attention. I heartily recommend the first two, The Few and The American as well as this one. Detective Scarmarco comes from bad seed, constantly has to prove his mafia connections do not undermine his police career. In The Hit a simple hit and run should fall under the jurisdiction of the traffic division so why are his bosses sending Scarmarco to handle the case? Things take a turn for the worse when the victims are kidnapped from the ambulance taking them to hospital. As with all Scamarco investigations things are set to get a lot more complicated. Dalbuono has an intimate knowledge and understanding of Italy, its criminal underbelly and the often twisted and corrupted state that functions on the back of its relationship with the Mafia. Solid characterisation, intricate plotting and an easy style, what’s not to like? A fresh voice in a well trodden field. Every bit as good as the Castagnetti PI novels of Tobias Jones, Dalbuono has been compared to Donna Leon by Barry Forshaw. This is Euro-noir of the highest order. ****
Blood Crime by Sebastia Alzamora, (Soho press 2016, HB translated from Catalan). This book does its best to defy classification and don’t be fooled by the blurb about the vampire narrator because this is about the very human horror of the Spanish Civil War. At first reading of the blurb this is a strange one but I had a feeling about this novel and it really is something to savour. To dispel some of the rumours of this book – said to be partly narrated by a vampire, this is more allegorical/metaphorical than literal, because the subject of the novel is very dark, we are in Barcelona in the midst of the Civil War and the vampire is a sort of voyeur and our occasional guide. So the sparsely used narrator is a tool to pose philosophical and religious questions that come more sharply into focus at a time of chaos and bloodshed in society, where values and morals are challenged. In Barcelona a Marist monk is murdered and entirely drained of blood, a young boy is also killed. Superintendent Munoz is tasked with finding the killer in the chaos of the city. Yet, Blood Crime is about so much more; the fate of the Marist monks now under even more scrutiny because of the death of one of their number, similarly the Capuchin sisters of Sarria, the threat Bishop Perugorria poses to the young novice, sister Concepcio, all at the mercy of Manuel Escorza who controls the city with a fist of iron and hates the religious orders he associates with the fascists of Franco. Beautifully written, intelligent, horrific and truly memorable. A startlingly original and enduring novel. Worthy of the praise it has received in Europe and America.*****
From the very first lines of Wolf Trial by Neil Mackay (Freight Books, pbk Jun 2017) I had the sense that this would be a great read. Like Adso in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose young Willie Lessinger is assistant to Paulus Melchior and narrates the strange tale of the werewolf of Bideburg. The trial of a local landowner, Stumpf, accused of ‘brutally murdering dozens of people’ is the premise of the novel. The town is up in arms, they want vengeance on Stumpf – said to be a werewolf – and his family. Stumpf, desperate to save his family, wants to be tried as a man not as a device of the Devil. The setting is sixteenth century Munster, Germany, a land ravaged by war, plague and famine. In an age of religious fervour and impending schism the Church defines most aspects of life, yet is still unable to completely supplant superstition. Paulus Melchior represents rational thinking. Revenge, superstition, all feature in this highly literary thriller that remains with you.****
Athenian Blues by Pol Koutsakis, (Bitter Lemon Press, Jan 2017 pbk, translated from Greek). An unlikely trio of righteous avengers, hitman, Stratos, homicide detective, Draga and transgender sex worker, Teri, are a team. A crazy gang that sort of makes sense in the post crash Greece, friends since childhood. A gang reminiscent of Alligator and his friends in the novels of Massimo Carlotto. This doesn’t quite reach that height but it is a fast paced quick fire read, darkly comic occasionally running to farce. Underpinned with elements of Greek tragedy and a sort of nihilistic logic. There is a tradition of crime writing in Greece as a way of reflecting the political from Z by Vassilis Vassilikos, to Markaris and Gakas. The beautiful Aliki wants Stratos to kill her husband, Vassilis, because she says he is trying to kill her. Vassilis says the attempts on his wife’s life are nothing to do with him and he wants Stratos to find out who is trying to kill the woman he loves and wants to protect. As Stratos and his friends try to find out who is telling the truth events spiral and plot races to a revealing, deadly and explosive end. Strong characters, stylish easy prose, a strong noir.***
With a Russian heritage and a name like Pasternak I had high hopes for Death Zones by Simon Pasternak, (Vintage, April 2017 pbk, translated from Danish) and I wasn’t disappointed. This is dark territory, set in the hell on earth that was Nazi occupied Eastern Europe, this novel explores the nightmare with the calm dispassionate approach of Schindler’s Ark (Keneally), that allows the story to speak for itself. The horror is as real as anything portrayed in The Kindly Ones (Littell). At the heart of the novel is the psychopathy of Nazi rule in all its banality, cruelty and hypocrisy. Order as chaos, Teutonic virtues as petty criminality and greed. This novel stands as a literary work about Nazism but is also a very decent thriller. A German general is slaughtered and the hunt for the killers launched but who did it and what was the real motive? The hero of the novel, Heinrich Hoffman, can only be called such in relation to his SS counterfoil, Manfred, the brother of Eline the girl left behind by Heinrich – the woman he struggles to write to every night because what can he tell her about the nightmare he is a part of? A circle of hell. The writing flows, interspersed with letters that enhance the style. Well translated from Danish. Spectacular denouement in Hamburg that seals a classy thriller.****
Jericho’s War by Gerald Seymour (Hodder and Stoughton, hbk Jan 2017, full review on nudge). A first rate thriller set in largely forgotten Yemen. Jericho is assembling a team for a mission to take out ‘The Emir’ a high value target for the west, and his compatriot ‘The Ghost’ [as] they are developing a plan to strike at the west with devastating consequences. This is Jericho’s War, unsanctioned, highly dangerous and reliant on ‘Belcher’ the insider, Henry, the inveigled archaeologist, and a rag tag bunch of has-beens desperate to prove themselves and get back in the game. Seymour is a master of the undercover, the covert, the infiltrator. As usual this is well researched, topical and strongly plotted. Jericho’s War is a slow burn that draw you in and then explodes over the last 100 pages. An intelligent thriller.****
Tretjak by Max Landorff, (Hans, 2013) is the only psychological thriller in this list although it is not like the current novels so popular, such as The Girl on the Train. I found a reference to this novel in Barry Forshaw’s Euro-Noir, (Oldcastle books, 2015), and it was a great find. Set in Munich it is the story of fixer, Gabriel Tretjak. A man who has pretty much everything he wants in life. His job involves helping celebrities and the rich rebuild reputations and lives after something has brought their world tumbling down. Following the discovery of the body of a brain surgeon in a horsebox, Tretjak’s own life is turned upside down. Someone is framing him. Initially he is confident of solving the problem for himself, sure of his superiority to the police but events keep overtaking him and he must figure out by whom and why he is being targeted. Tretjak must confront his own past. A man who believes he has a strong moral code, is intelligent and enjoys playing with others lives is now thrown into a maelstrom in his own life. Initially he cannot react but eventually gets his act together. The story develops in complexity and excitement. Written in a detached style that suits Tretjak, intelligent, original and fresh, a thrilling read. Sadly the sequel, The Hour of the Fixer is yet to be published in English.
And these are some of my favourites recently reviewed on nudge; Rupture – Ragnar Jonasson (Orenda, 2016). Conclave – Robert Harris (Hutchinson, 2016), Rather Be The Devil – Ian Rankin (Orion, 2016) and The Good People – Hannah Kent, (xxxxxx,2017).
Finally, it is worth mentioning some box sets, not the manufactured series designed to go on series after series but the kind that tell a complete crime story over several chapters and unfold like a novel, has the complication of plot and storyline and characterisation that elevates it. Personal favourites are ‘Case’, ‘Tony’s Revenge’ and ‘Mafiosa’ (all channel four), ‘The Lava Field’ (Netflix), ‘Quarry’ (Sky), and ‘Hinterland’ (BBC). Of course, if you like a little humour with your thrills and have some time to spare there is always ‘Kacak’ on Netflix – season one has 50 episodes and no resolution at the end of it.
The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel