The Long Way Home ~ Louise Penny. Defying Expectations

abLouise Penny has, for some time now, been one of my favourite crime writers.  I was, therefore, very pleased to be given the opportunity to read her most recent novel, The Long Way Home, in advance of publication in order to write a review of it for Shiny New Books.  You can read that review by following this link.

However, much as I enjoyed this book, it did give me pause for thought.  As you will see from the review, I found myself questioning whether Penny, like the central (though absent) character in this novel, Peter Morrow, shouldn’t be asking herself whether or not she wanted to continue as a crime writer.  The Long Way Home doesn’t need a murder to make the point that Penny is exploring: namely the impetus behind the creative process and what examining that impetus means for the people involved.  But, Penny is a crime writer.  Her readers expect a murder.  Or perhaps, more importantly, her publishers and their publicists demand a murder because they don’t have faith in her readers to follow a writer they love into something rather different.  As I say in the review

there may perhaps be stories to tell about Three Pines that don’t require a death to drive them.

More pertinent perhaps, is the question would her publishers ever allow her to tell them.

What I didn’t go on to to say in that review is that in this novel Penny herself references some of the writers I think she has the skills to emulate.  When I read her more recent books with their insightful dissections of the ways in which people and communities respond in moments of crisis, the authors I think of are Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo and perhaps especially, Elizabeth Strout.  I would love to turn any of these loose in Three Pines and see what they had to tell us about the social chemistry of the village, but I shouldn’t need to because Penny is more than capable of telling us herself.

This isn’t the only crime novel I’ve read recently where I’ve felt there was a rather different type of story fighting to get out.  Val McDermid’s most recent freestanding story, The Skeleton Road, which I reviewed here, is another where I thought the author was much more interested in the background story than in the crime that was the excuse for telling that story.  Would her publishers have been prepared to take the risk, however, on a novel that they couldn’t advertise as the latest McDermid murder hunt?

You begin to understand why, when J K Rowling wanted to break out in a new direction, she was so insistent on doing it under another name.  Maybe it wasn’t simply (or perhaps that should be even) that her original audience wasn’t prepared to try something new, but that, where their best selling authors are concerned, publishers will only accept more of the same.

But, a good writer is a good writer whatever the genre they choose to adopt and to tie someone to the same patterns repeatedly is to deny them the opportunity to develop and grow.  It also denies the reader the opportunity to develop as they follow their favourite authors into new fields.  It might be a vain hope, but it would be good to see the book world taking responsibility and helping both readers and writers stretch their creative wings and, like Peter Morrow, discover that they have more than one type of story to tell, that there is more than one type of story to read.

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All Day and A Night ~ Alafair Burke

Screen-Shot-2014-09-17-at-2.42.32-pmHave you had your flu’ jab yet this winter?  Those of you who know about these things will be aware that it is a different concoction every winter and apparently I am not alone in finding this year’s mix more potent than usual.  It is taking quite a lot of people out for a couple of days.  Consequently, I am very glad to be able to tell you that Issue 3 of Shiny New Books is out and to be able to do just a short post to point you in the direction of my review there of Alafair Burke’s latest Ellie Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night.

I reviewed the first in this series, Dead Connection, some time ago and made the point then that Burke’s work is hardly great literature, but even that book was a rattling good read and this, the NYPD detective’s fifth outing, is considerably better.  Like all good crime fiction, the novel is concerned with a specific situation that is indicative of a current societal issue, in this case, the question of the mistrust between the police and the public they serve, and Burke offers no easy answers to a problem that is as relevant on this side of the Atlantic as it is in America.

If you haven’t yet discovered Burke’s New York novels then you have many happy hours of reading in front of you.  She has certainly gone onto my list of authors whose new books I am looking to read the moment that they become available.

The Winter Foundlings ~ Kate Rhodes

the-winter-foundlingsI was lucky enough to stumble across Kate Rhodes’ work just after the first Alice Quentin novel, Crossbones Yard, was published.  Two things struck me immediately about that book, the quality of Rhodes writing and her knowledge of London.  Rhodes, who is a Londoner by birth, is also a published poet and both these factors are clearly influential in her series of crime novels about a psychologist who reluctantly finds herself working with the police to apprehend criminals who are also seriously disturbed individuals.

The Winter Foundlings is no exception to the established pattern.  Alice has taken a six month research placement at Northwood, a high security hospital where she is hoping that she will have time to recover from her last assignment with the Metropolitan Police Force.  However, a series of child abductions which has so far resulted in three murders, proves to have links to one of the Northwood inmates, Louis Kinsella, and although it is impossible that he can have been physically involved it is clear that in someway he is inspiring the current kidnappings.  Reluctantly, Alice agrees to try and interview him in order to seek information that might lead to the arrest of whoever is responsible and the rescue of the latest victim, Ella.

Northwood proves to be a place where many of the employees are damaged individuals themselves, which forces both Alice and the reader to ask questions about the nature of those who choose to work in such an environment and the harm that such employment can do to people who take it up.  It also, of course, provides Rhodes with a plethora of suspects.  It very soon becomes apparent that there is a connection between the crimes and the Foundling Museum which commemorates the Hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1739 where mothers who could no longer care for their children could leave them to be raised.  Kinsella, who at the time of his arrest was headmaster of a school, had always taken a particular interest in children from troubled backgrounds and the theory that emerges is that he has influenced at least one of these damaged minds to the extent that in adulthood they have followed him into a life of crime.  But which one?  It was only twenty pages from the end when I felt confident that I could predict the villain of the piece and even then the way in which the final scenes would play out was unclear.

One of the structural features of this novel is a narrative split between the main aspects of the story as they feature Alice and the events as they are seen from the point-of-view of ten year old Ella, the most recent victim.  Normally, I find this method of story-telling very difficult to deal with.  It often seems to have been adopted only as an excuse for introducing gratuitous violence and I tend to agree with the Ancient Greek playwrights that such actions are better kept off stage and reported to the audience via a convenient messenger.  Here, however, the second narrative is a vital part of both the story and the psychological phenomenon that Rhodes is exploring.  Ella may be a child, but she is mentally very mature for her age and capable of thinking clearly and understanding the situation she is in.  Her captor, on the other hand, though physically adult, is still, in many respects, the damaged youngster who fell under the influence of Kinsella before he was caught and committed.  What I found interesting was that while such individuals might most commonly be thought of as still being a child, when you observe them in the company of an astute child like Ella you can see that that isn’t an accurate description at all.  The damage that has been done to them may have in some way retarded their emotional and psychological development but they are nothing like a child and I wonder how much more damage society inflicts by not realising the difference.  Perhaps this is something of which professionals who work in places like Northwood are well aware, but this book certainly made me stop and think about my own perceptions.

Kate Rhodes is fast becoming one of my favourite crime writers and certainly one I can recommend to you if you haven’t already encountered her work.  I’m very grateful to Mulholland Books for sending me a copy of this latest novel for review.

The Skeleton Road ~ Val McDermid

51FXygpW68LOne of the most horrific features of the war that raged across the lands previously know as Yugoslavia during the 1990s was the scant attention paid to it in the rest of Europe.  Yes, we were aware that something was going on, probably because our holidays to the region had had to be cancelled, but if challenged to say anything about the reasons behind the conflict or to distinguish between the warring parties most of us would have been silent.  I am still at a loss to understand quite why that was the case, but Val McDermid’s latest standalone novel, The Skeleton Road, does, perhaps, go someway towards explaining the West’s blinkered response.  As we get deeper into the back story of Dimitar Petrovic, an officer in the Croatian Army, and his partner, Professor Maggie Blake, it become clear that so much of what happened was the result of generations of bitter infighting and acts of sectarian revenge.  It brought to mind something that I once heard said about the Northern Ireland conflict: if you think you understand what is going on in Northern Ireland then you don’t understand what is going on in Northern Ireland.  I suspect the same is true of what was happening in Eastern Europe at that time.  You had to be part of it and to have the cultural memory of the region to have any hope of even following, let alone understanding, what was going on.

However, McDermid’s story doesn’t begin on the streets of Dubrovnik but on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh building where, tucked away out of sight, a skeleton is found: a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull.  The investigation falls to DCI Karen Pirie, head of a Cold Crimes Unit, along with well-meaning but rather less well intellectually endowed, DC Jason Murray, predictably known as the Mint. Their enquiries lead them to Oxford and to the College set of Professor Maggie Blake, a lecturer in Geopolitics, where they hear for the first time the story of General Petrovic, the lover that Maggie thought had left her eight years previously to return to his Balkan roots.

Gradually, both women piece together the story of what has happened to Petrovic and why; Karen because it is her job and Maggie because she is now faced with the knowledge that there are things in her partner’s past about which she has had little, if any, understanding. As it becomes clear that the reason for the murder must lie somewhere in the maelstrom of the earlier conflict, the two women journey to the small village that was Dimitar’s childhood home and come face to face with what it means to be caught up in the centuries of revenge killings that mock the very concept of civilisation.

I normally very much enjoy McDermid’s standalone novels and certainly this one begins with real promise.  However, the further in I got the more I started to feel as if what I was reading was a draft that still needed working on.  To begin with, there are simply too many strands to the narrative.  As well as those associated with Pirie and Blake there is also the Professor’s written account of her earlier time in Dubrovnik and a further story attached to two members of the war crimes tribunal who are tasked with finding out who is killing people about to be indicted before they can be brought to justice.  This fourth strand never really gets integrated into the rest of the story and just adds characters and plot lines that confuse rather than elucidate the main thrust of the tale.  It is redundant and what information it does contribute could have been included far more economically elsewhere.

This would then have given more narrative space to developing the main characters and their relationships, especially DCI Pirie.  Karen Pirie has potential.  She is a likeable character, her work is interesting and could easily have been developed into a series and the relationship between her and the Mint has the capacity to grow into one of fiction’s great investigative partnerships.  But we simply don’t get enough page time with her and in what we are allowed narrative threads are started which then come to nothing.  For example, the animosities between her and her immediate superior which ends one chapter on a very obvious cliffhanger is subsequently ignored.  Why is it there?

Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that Pirie was little more than a means of allowing McDermid to make a point about the capacity that all humans have within them to respond viscerally at times of crisis.  And it’s a fair point but in the end the way in which it is given voice left me unsatisfied and feeling that this is not one of McDermid’s best crafted novels and has perhaps been rushed out before it was really ready.

The Devil in the Marshalsea ~ Antonia Hodgson

TDitMarshalseaLittle Dorrit has always been amongst my favourite Dickens’ novels and so I approached Antonia Hodgson’s first novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea, with a mixture of caution and anticipation.  I didn’t want to read anything that would detract from my vision of London’s notorious debtors’ prison but equally I was looking forward to revisiting its precincts.

In fact, Hodgson’s Marshalsea is a very different place from that which Dickens describes, both in real life and fictionally.  Her novel is set in the Autumn of 1727, almost a hundred years before the 1820s’ setting given to Little Dorrit.  The prison that she describes, although still located on Borough High Street, was not on the same site and the conditions in which the prisoners were kept were very much harsher.  This latter fact is all the more apparent if you come to this novel after reading Dickens’ work and one of the things that I very soon began to realise as I read what is an excellent piece of historical crime fiction, was just how much I had romanticised the existence that those imprisoned in this goal were forced to endure.  Mr Dorrit may lack his freedom and his self-respect but he does not spend each day worrying about whether or not it will be his last and, if he is to die, what horrible torments will precede his final moments.

The same is not true for Hodgson’s protagonist, Tom Hawkins, a young man whose family has destined him for the cloth but whose own plans for advancement are somewhat different.  Confined to the Marshalsea after he has been robbed of the money that would have paid off his debts and allowed him to start over, Tom finds himself lodged with the notorious Samuel Fleet, in a berth previously occupied by one Captain Roberts, a prisoner who officially is said to have committed suicide but whom many are certain was murdered – possibly by the infamous Fleet himself.

Roberts’ death has left a sense of unease in the Marshalsea, all the more noticeable because daily so many other deaths go unremarked.  His widow still haunts the prison in the hope that someone will help her to prove that her husband was not a suicide and thus enable her to regain custody of their son who has been taken from her by her family.  And, those who have power within and over the controlling prison regime are anxious to have it shown that they had nothing to do with a deliberate killing, despite the fact that they are responsible for the conditions and punishments that regularly bring about the deaths of so many others.  So, Tom Hawkins is offered a flickering light in the darkness of his despair.  If he can find out who did kill Captain Roberts his debts will be paid and he can go free.  But, is it possible for him to make such a discovery on his own and in the few days that he is allowed for his inquiries?  If he does ask for help then whom can he trust in a society where personal gain is always going to trump communal needs?  Loyalty, as he soon discovers, lodges in unexpected places and those on whose support he ought to be able to depend can prove less than steadfast.

In recounting Tom’s story Hodgson shows that she can weave a really convincing plot, including catching the reader out at the last moment, without ever once stretching the bounds of credulity.  She held me in the grip of her story telling and carried me relentlessly along with her narrative drive.  However, the real strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to recreate the horrors of the world in which Tom finds himself confined and I for one will never see the Marshalsea in quite the same way again.  The evils that were perpetrated on men, women and children who, in many instances through nothing more than ill-fortune, found themselves incarcerated in conditions that were worse than in-human are nothing short of demonic.  And, once individuals found themselves imprisoned in this den of iniquity they were very unlikely to ever make their way out.  The cost of living in the Marshalsea was far higher than it was outside the prison walls, the rents and prices paid for food going, for the most part, straight into the pockets of the governor and his trustees.  Rather than being able to pay their debts off the prisoners were more likely to find them growing exponentially.  It would seem that the basic strategies employed today by pay-day loan companies are nothing new at all.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is as good a first novel as I’ve read in a long time and I am very grateful to Hodder for having sent me a copy for review.  I understand that there is a sequel in hand and I am now looking forward to what I hope will be a continuing sequence of stories from a time in England’s history that has not always been as well served by historical fiction as it might have been.

Abattoir Blues ~ Peter Robinson

51lKGyzeImL._1I came rather late to the Peter Robinson party, which I think was probably something of an advantage.  Having gone back and read the earlier books it’s very clear that as his DCI Banks novels have progressed he has made great strides in both his characterisation and his plotting, so much so that Stephen King’s puff on the back of his latest,  Abattoir Blues, claiming that the series is the best…on the market, doesn’t seem substantially overblown.

Set, as most of the novels are, in the Yorkshire Dales, this latest instalment sees Banks and his Inspector, Annie Cabot, in pursuit of a gang of thieves involved in a rather more sophisticated form of rustling than that which we associate with farming tales of earlier years. While animals are vanishing, the more substantial items on the missing list are farm vehicles valued in at least five figures, which are being whisked off to destinations in Eastern Europe.  The latest of these is a tractor belonging to incomer John Beddoes and shall we say that he is not best pleased.

When Michael Lane, the son of a nearby farmer, goes missing it is inevitable that he becomes a prime suspect in the robbery, especially as there is a history of bad blood between him and Beddoes.  However, the discovery in a deserted building of evidence that points to a murder, alongside indications of some sort of large machinery having been stored there, raises questions as to whether or not Lane has been involved in much more than theft and despite the protestations of his girl friend that he would not have been associated with anything illegal, an all out manhunt begins.

Like a good number of crime novels at the moment, one of the questions this book raises is whether or not there are people involved in illegality who are so high up in the echelons of society as to be untouchable by the law.  There are certainly a good many who think that is the case and I’ve read several novels this year that take the line that this is now how the world works.  I won’t spoil the conclusion of this particular story for you, but simply say that it was more satisfactory than certain others, some of which have left me spitting feathers and despairing of a justice system seen as hidebound by the greed of people in power.

One characteristic of Robinson’s novels that I really appreciate is that he offers me a complete experience with each book.  While there is the on-going story of Alan Banks’ private life and the slow development of the characters that surround him, the core of each narrative is the specific crime that he and his team have been called upon to investigate and there is rarely any sense of being left in limbo having to wait a year for the next book to see how a particular storyline is going to play out.  I can’t say that it doesn’t ever happen – I’ve just remembered being left uncertain as to whether or not Annie Cabot would recover from a shooting incident – but it is rare.  It isn’t that I think a secondary on-going crime narrative can’t be made to work, but if it takes over from the primary case without being resolved then the novel becomes unbalanced.  It takes a really good writer to bring it off.*   There is no such problem with Robinson, although, ironically, perhaps he has the skills to make it work.

So, while I will have to wait a year to see if Winsome’s love story is going to have a happy ending (I do hope so!) I do know what happened to John Beddoes’ tractor, have discovered whether or not Michael Lane lived up to his girlfriend’s confidence in him and have seen at least some of the baddies get the comeuppance they deserved.  All in all a satisfactory couple of days reading.

*The best example I’ve come across recently has been Jane Casey in The Kill in which she brings her on-going story to the fore and makes it the central crime, thus eliminating any possible narrative conflict.

Dead Connections ~ Alafair Burke

47148Recently I was sent Alafair Burke’s latest crime novel, All Day and a Night, to review.  However, as it is one of a series with which I’m not familiar, I thought I would be well advised to read at least one of the earlier books to acquaint myself with the characters and the general background in which the stories are set.

Dead Connection is the first novel featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher, relatively recently appointed to the rank from street patrol and, much to her surprise, suddenly assigned to homicide only a year into her post. As we gradually discover, Ellie’s presence in homicide has been requested as much because of her past as because of her policing skills.  Detective Flann McIlroy is convinced that he has a serial killer on his patch and serial killers feature large in Ellie’s family history.  As a child, in Wichita, she watched her father, also a cop, drive himself relentlessly in his attempt to catch the College Hill Strangler.  Convinced that the murderer was still at large despite the fact that the killings appeared to have stopped, Jerry Hatcher alone pursued the case and, when he was found dead in the driver’s seat of his car with a single bullet from his own revolver through the roof of his mouth, the verdict was suicide as a result of depression at his failure.  The Hatcher family, and in particular Ellie, have never accepted this and her own attempts to have his death investigated as murder have made the press.  Ellie Hatcher is a name that says serial killing. This makes her perfect for what McIlroy has in mind as he sets out to prove that three apparently unconnected killings are in fact the work of one man.

As Ellie soon discovers, the connections between the three women are tenuous at best.  The first and second are linked through the weapon that killed them, the second and third through their membership of an internet dating site, First Date.  However, because McIlroy is (in)famous for his unorthodox reliance on hunches that always seem to bear fruit, he is being allowed to work the case as if there was more evidence of serial involvement than there is and he and Ellie set out to investigate the men that Caroline and Amy, victims two and three, had both had contact with through the dating site.

Let me warn you now, that if you had ever thought about using one of these sites this novel will put you off the idea for the rest of your life.  It isn’t so much that Ellie meets only one person (male or female) who hasn’t lied themselves blue in the face while creating their profile, but the possibilities that exist for fraud, both identity and financial, which will really make your hair stand on end.  As Ellie and Flann dig ever deeper into the background of First Date it becomes apparent that the killer has motives that transcend the usual sexual deviation associated with serial offences.

I am not going to pretend that this is a novel of any great literary merit.  However, it was well plotted and a darned good read.  Burke knows how to create believable characters with whom the reader will empathise and, as a result, at one point I had a really good weep.  I have to say that she does make use of some of the best known American crime tropes.  I’m not sure how any villains are ever apprehended in the US given that their various forces of law and order always seem to be odds.  Here it is the NYPD and the FBI who have to learn to work with, rather than against, each other and even when they do you’re fairly certain it is through the most gritted of teeth.  Personally, I think the author’s work would be stronger if she avoided such stereotypes, but maybe they are so true to life that she needs to include them for verisimilitude.

All in all, I am glad to have made Ellie Hatcher’s acquaintance and I look forward now to meeting her again in her latest manifestation.

The Silkworm ~ Robert Galbraith

18214414On a similar Saturday to this last summer, having read a tempting review of a crime novel by new writer Robert Galbraith, I was half way through The Cuckoo Calling and throughly enjoying it.  I was also, however, extremely frustrated because I knew that Galbraith was a pseudonym and with every page I was becoming more and more certain that this was no first novel.  Furthermore, I was certain that in one guise or another I had encountered Galbraith before.  I took myself through just about every other crime writer I had ever read but I couldn’t place what it was about the style of writing that was nagging away in the lower depths of my mind.

Fast forward twenty-four hours and the puzzle was solved.  I opened my Sunday paper to discover that Robert Galbraith was none other than J K Rowling.  Of course, within days The Cuckoo Calling had added a couple of noughts to its sales figures and the world and his wife had their noses buried in it but I have always been proud of the fact that I read Robert Galbraith rather than Rowling and that I’d made my judgement about the book before I knew who the author really was.

Where the second Cormoran Strike adventure is concerned no one is going to be able to read it with such innocent eyes but fortunately that really doesn’t matter because Galbraith/Rowling is such a consummate storyteller that within half a dozen pages I was completely engrossed and I would imagine the same would be true for anyone who enjoys quality crime fiction.

Strike, an ex-army private detective, is now on a rather firmer financial footing  than he was when we first met him, having attracted a good many clients on the back of the murder he solved in the previous novel.  This doesn’t mean, however, that he can afford to take on a case where there seems little likelihood of his ever receiving so much as a penny piece in recompense.  His secretary (cum assistant if she has her way) Robin, points this out to him in no uncertain terms after Leonora Quine asks Cormoran to find her errant husband, the novelist, Owen Quine.  It is clear that Leonora herself hasn’t the money to meet the detective’s fees and given the fact that Quine has not been noted for his Rowlingesque sales figures it doesn’t seem feasible that his agent will foot the bill as his wife has suggested. Nevertheless, something about the case sparks Strike’s interest and he undertakes to find the missing writer even though, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that he might be better left lost.  For it seems that Owen Quine is not the nicest of people to know, certainly not if his forthcoming novel, Bombyx Mori is anything to go by.

In The Cuckoo Calling Galbraith held the worlds of celebrity status and the paparazzi up to scrutiny, in The Silkworm the author focuses fairly and squarely on the world of publishing and offers the reader a plot built around a series of petty squabbles and spiteful rivalries grown to such a magnitude that when they find voice in Quine’s unpublished novel it is perfectly feasible that they might drive someone to murder. And, given that said murder reflects the ending of Quine’s magnum opus, the pool of suspects is pretty easily defined. Easily defined, but not necessarily therefore easily narrowed down.  I had reached the last thirty or so pages before I felt confident about who the killer was and even then I thought I had got in wrong ten pages further on.  I have said this from the earliest days of Harry Potter, this writer can plot.

One of the aspects I like best about these books is the way in which Galbraith deals with the fact that Strike is not a member of the police force.  Given the way in which so much crime fiction now relies on the sort of specialist services to which only the police have access there has to be a limited range of cases that a private detective can handle.  In fact, most of Strike’s business entails establishing marital infidelities and Leonora comes to him about a missing person case which only later turns out to be a question of murder.  However, Strike recognises this and as far as possible works with the police, only launching out on his own when it becomes apparent that the official guardians of law and order are proving to be less competent than we might hope; there are some features of private eye literature that will never change.

This is a really good and, I would say, literary novel.  In fact, it is literary in more than one sense of the word.  It is, I think, good literature.  It is certainly crime fiction of the highest quality.  It is also about the literary world.  And, it is studded with references to other literary works including a tiny nod towards Harry Potter himself when Robin asks if no one has ever tried to give Strike the nickname of Lightning.  If you enjoy detective fiction and haven’t yet read Galbraith then you really should but I think anyone who revels in a good story, well told, would appreciate this and I very much hope that there will be more to come.

The Severed Streets ~ Paul Cornell

SeveredStreets.jpg.size-230-188x300In the dog days at the end of last year I stumbled across London Falling the first of Paul Cornell’s novels about DI James Quinn and the other members of his team of London police personnel involved in investigating a series of events that no self-respecting DI would really want to admit were happening.  Cornell, a scriptwriter from Doctor Who, had taken the supernatural elements from his televisual existence and blended them with the well loved formula of the police procedural and come up with a hybrid that is perhaps only comparable with the Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch.  That first outing for DI Quinn and his colleagues had its scary moments but it also had a light touch that had me laughing as often as holding my breath.  Now, in The Severed Streets, the second book in the sequence, Cornell turns his attention to much more serious affairs and compels us to look deeper into the forces at work behind those financial and governmental institutions that control our lives whether we like it or not.  You can read my review of this excellent second novel in the latest edition of Shiny New Books by following the link below.

http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/fiction02/the-severed-streets-by-paul-cornell/

Sorrow Bound ~ Indeed

imagesTwo years ago I came across a review for a first book by David Mark, a journalist trying his hand at crime fiction.  The review was excellent, the novel set in Hull, a city I used to visit as a consultant and which I know to have very specific social problems that might make a police procedural located there interesting, so I added a copy of Dark Winter to my library list. After I’d read it, while I thought it drastically overwritten (stylistically, less is so often more), Mark’s ability to communicate character and setting as well as a tightly organised plot had me enthused enough to ensure that I reserved his second, Original Skin, as soon as it was available.  I wasn’t quite as enthused about that but I still wanted a copy of number three, mainly because I liked the central character, DS Aector McAvoy, a gentle giant of a man who is tortured by the inadequacies of the police system to deliver true justice. Unfortunately, Sorrow Bound left me even less satisfied than Original Sin for several reason, but most especially because, like a number of crime novels that I’ve read recently, the author is not content with one crime or series of linked crimes but also feels the need for a second, ongoing, investigation that arches across a number of books.

There is nothing new about series fiction having narrative lines working at two different levels at the same time.  Last summer, while I was recuperating from a particularly nasty infection, I re-read all of Quintin Jardine’s Skinner novels, mainly because I wanted to spend time with his central group of characters and watch again their personal story lines develop over a sequence of twenty plus books.  However, for the most part, it is only those personal stories which occupy that overarching narrative.  The central crime is completed within each novel and thus it is perfectly possible to read each of those novels as a standalone and not feel frustrated because you are missing part of the story.

Recently, however, there has been a spate of works where at least part of the novel has been concerned with a crime that has been under investigation for a number of books and if you’ve missed the first episode in the narrative, that is the book in which the grounding for that enquiry has been laid out, then you can find yourself floundering as you try to pick up clues to a tale that began before you joined the audience.  If it were an ongoing comic strip then each new segment would be prefaced by a section labelled the story so far, unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across the novelistic equivalent.

In several instances this overarching investigation has to do with police corruption. I wrote about one such series earlier this year after I read How the Light Gets In, the ninth in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels.  I really like Penny’s work but in this instance I not only felt that a reader new to the sequence would have difficulty appreciating what was happening in large sections of the book, but also that the author had got the balance wrong between the resolution of the corruption story and the investigation that was specific to this particular novel.  Nevertheless, this was the first time that I had felt that way and each of Penny’s books had offered the reader a feeling of conclusion where the main story arc was concerned.  In Sorrow Bound this is not the case.

Right from the off we have known that DS McAvoy has a police past.  He is shunned by some of his colleagues because he has been instrumental in bringing to light the corruption of a much liked senior officer.  What we haven’t known are the details behind that corruption, nor what McAvoy’s part was in revealing it.  In the first novel it is simply referred to as a reason for the uneasy atmosphere that prevails when McAvoy is assigned to the team investigating a series of apparently unrelated murders. By the time we reach book three, however, there is a suggestion that this story of corruption is an on-going one as we not only recognise that there are members of the force still in the pay of a local criminal gang but watch as one of the officers we have come to know and like makes a simply false move which lays her open to blackmail and the panicked compliance that comes with it.  This moves the corruption story into a much more prominent role than is usual and it runs alongside the crime specific to this novel pretty much on equal terms.  Where it differs, however, is in the resolution.

The book specific crime deals with the murders of a number of people each of whom have been instrumental in saving the life of a man someone certainly considers society could well do without.   This narrative has its complete arc within the confines of the book’s 300 odd pages and I have no problem with it at all.  However, the corruption narrative thread is not a complete arc; it is simply one episode in a much longer tale, or rather it is part of an episode because the novel ends at the episode’s, quite literally, explosive climatic point and we are left not knowing what the dénouement of this particular section of the overarching story will be.  Don’t miss the next exciting instalment.

Well, that is alright when that next instalment is going to be available next week, whether that be in the comics of our childhood or the soap operas which currently litter our television screens, but for me, at least, it isn’t alright when that next instalment is, at best, a year away.  Furthermore, it is a hundred or so books away, a hundred plus story lines, a hundred different narrative arcs that will populate my mind in the interim and make it difficult to recall the information that I’ll need to make sense of the next book in the series.  The only other time I have come across anything quite as blatant as this was in Ariana Franklin’s A Murderous Procession where a major character is stabbed in the final scene and we have no knowledge of whether he will live or die.  I got annoyed about that as well.  You may not feel as strongly about this type of ending, but I think it is cheap.  If you need to try and catch me with that sort of hook as a way of getting me to come back and read your next novel then you aren’t doing a good enough job in the current one.

I warn you now, that I think I am going to have quite a lot more to say on the ways in which crime fiction series are developing, not all of it, thank goodness, quite as vitriolic as this, but I would be really interested in what you think about it and whether it enhances or detracts from your pleasure in the individual novels.  Perhaps we might get a conversation going and deepen our appreciation of the levels of narrative at which these stories work.