Andrea Camilleri: The Shape of Water – La forma dell’aqua ( 1994) Inspector Montalbano 1

Andrea Camilleri is an Italian crime writer, famous for his long-standing Inspector Montalbano series. Camilleri was born in 1925 in Sicily, where the series is set. I’ve been aware of him for ages, but for some reason, I never felt tempted to read his books. I thought this was a cozy crime series and while I occasionally enjoy them, I’m rarely willing to read a whole series. After reading a few reviews recently, I realized, I was wrong and that this wasn’t a cozy series at all.

Thanks to Stu, who dedicated March to Italian literature, I finally picked up the first in the series,  The Shape of Water – La forma dell’acqua.

The Shape of Water, like all the other novels in the series, is set in the fictional small-town Vigàta, in Sicily, which was inspired by Camilleri’s hometown Porto Empedocle, near Agrigento. On the outskirts of Vigàta, there’s the Mannàra, an open-air brothel. And it’s exactly here that the body of the dead engineer Luparello is found. The verdict is – natural causes – something that’s almost unheard of, in a region where the mafia drops body after body. Luparello was a prominent political figure and a lot of people profit not only from his death but from its unsavoury circumstances. Montalbano who is anything but obedient, demands to conduct an investigation. There are too many things that do not add up. Why would someone like Luparello go to a place like the Mannàra? Who is the woman who lost an incredibly expensive bracelet close to where the body was found? Who did Luparello meet with at his love nest?

Montalbano’s investigation introduces us to many striking and colourful characters. We get to know him, his girlfriend, his boss, his subordinates and friends very well. The book also introduces us to a place where corruption and violence are all too common. A place, where the mafia reigns and the police have a hard time keeping up with the crimes that are committed daily.

In his unorthodox way, Montalbano discovers more than one criminal act. And he decides to “play God” as his girlfriend calls it.

I’m so glad I finally read Camilleri because I enjoyed it so much that I have already started book two. This is such a perfect series for so many reasons. It paints an accurate, if somewhat embellished and exaggerated, picture of Sicily, its people, and customs. And its food. Montalbano enjoys good food, and for many readers, discovering all the dishes he eats in the books, is part of the appeal. While the descriptions of the place and its mores is part of the success of the series, the biggest reasons for loving it, is the character of Montalbano. He’s unorthodox, funny, dry, doesn’t suffer fools but has a big heart when it comes to “little people”. Montalbano’s name is an homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. It’s no surprise then, that the inspector reads one of Montalban’s detective novels in this book.

Another aspect that won me over is that this isn’t the kind of police procedural, that most UK or US authors write. The police in this book are chaotic, a bit useless and the investigation isn’t conducted very rigorously. At times it reads like a satire, which I enjoyed very much.

People often wonder, why an author chooses a fictional town. In an interview Camilleri gave a very good reason. While he used his hometown and its surroundings to make the descriptions in the books more authentic, they aren’t particularly violent places and definitely not places where so many people get killed.

I’m not at my most eloquent today. Possibly because I loved this so much. I often find it difficult to write about favourite books. I’m very fond of Sicily and this brought back memories, but even if this hadn’t been the case, I would still have loved it. It’s so colorful and original and Montalbano is one of the greatest fictional inspectors I know.

The Frozen Woman by Jon Michelet

I found The Frozen Woman at a local book shop and because I was in the mood for crime in translation, I got it. I’d never heard of Norwegian crime writer Jon Michelet before. He seems to be highly popular in Scandinavia, where he’s been publishing for five decades. We all know that this doesn’t guarantee a translation and so it’s not surprising that this is one of the first of his novels that has been translated into English. It’s part of a series and has won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian crime.

The story can be summarized very quickly. A murdered woman is found frozen in the garden of a notorious lawyer. The police suspect him immediately, although it seems highly unlikely that he killed her. But why was she found in his garden, since she wasn’t killed there but somewhere else? Retribution? It complicates matters that the police can’t find the woman’s identity. Nobody is missing her. She looks foreign, so possibly she’s an illegal immigrant?

That’s as much as I can say about this book without giving away too much.

What a peculiar reading experience. I don’t think that this has happened to me very often. At first I really liked this novel. Then I didn’t. Then I liked it again . . .  And so on and so forth. Funny enough, once I read the last page I thought – hmm . . . I might read another one of his novels after all.

Looking back it’s easy to say why I reacted like this. The plot is rather thin and not very suspenseful. While it starts like an ordinary police procedural, with the point of view of the police, it then suddenly shifts to the POV of possible suspects and from there to a business man, who is somehow linked as well. This made the book uneven but at the same time, it’s also its strength because the characters are so well done. They are complex and quirky, each with a distinctive voice. I especially liked the detectives Stribolt and Vaage. Stribolt is a very cultured, laconic man. A bit sarcastic, very dry but not too hardened. His thoughts made me smile quite often. Vaage, his partner, is equally unusual. The book ends with her and Thygesen getting to know each other better. Since this is a series, these three characters will return in other books or have already been in other books.

If you’re not looking for a crime novel whose main appeal is suspense and if you like crime writing duo Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and your crime to be on the political/social commentary side, this book, or another one of the series, might be for you. 

Elina Hirvonen: When Time Runs Out (2017) – Kun aika loppuu (2015) Finnish Crime

I’m glad I stumbled across this book on Raven Crime’s blog at the end of last year because I liked it so much. One could say it’s less a crime novel than a novel about a crime and a study of the ways we deal with the many global problems we’re facing. Ultimately, it’s also an exploration of family dynamics and responsibility.

The story is set in contemporary Helsinki and Mogadishu and told from several different points of view. Laura, an expert in climate change, Erik, her husband, and their son Aslak live in Helsinki. Their daughter, Aava, is a doctor in Mogadishu, where she’s helping the poorest of the poor.

Right from the beginning we know that something’s wrong with Aslak. He hardly talks to his parents, doesn’t always show up when he’s invited, doesn’t seem to work. He’s drifting. While it worries his mother, it doesn’t come as a surprise as he’s always been difficult. Laura isn’t sure, where that comes from and in several chapters, telling the back story, she tries to analyze why Aslak is the way he is. Should she have stayed a single woman and not had children, like she originally intended? Was Aslak born different? Or is his character the result of a traumatic experience? As a young boy, he vanished for several hours and nobody ever found out what happened to him.

When a young man begins to open fire on passers by, in the center of Helsinki, there’s no doubt who the shooter is.

While the book is about the reasons for such a drastic act, it’s also about more than that. Each of the three major narrators – Laura, Aslak, and Aava – respond to the world around them, to consumerism, overpopulation, animal abuse, climate change and many other global problems in a very specific way. I absolutely loved the way Elina Hirvonen explored the very different ways to find solutions to global crises.

The character I found most interesting was Aava. In an attempt to help the poorest people of Somalia, she risks her life and health. Very often with very little success. At times, she manages to save a child, only to see it die a few weeks later of some ailment that wouldn’t be of any consequence in Europe. The struggle and futility of it all often lets her lose faith. According to a short biographical notice I found online, Elina Hirvonen has travelled a lot and knows Africa very well. One can sense that. The parts set in Africa felt just as authentic as those set in Finland.

As I said before, the book is about a crime. About why a young person would commit it and how this will end for him and his family. One of the central themes is responsibility, responsibility for children, other people, animals, the planet. It shows the many contradictions we face, how, even when we try to do well, we might still fail on some level. And, it also shows that it’s often easier to help strangers than your own family members, easier to communicate with someone one hardly knows than with a brother, mother, sister or husband.

When Time Runs Out is an engaging, thought-provoking book that tackles major themes of our time and looks at them from different points of view. And it’s also an analysis of the struggles of family life, missed communications, missed opportunities. It’s biggest strength however, is that it allows us to understand people whose choices are very far from those we make. Another reason this was so engaging and readable is the structure and the narrative techniques. It’s so well constructed and balanced.

It’s not often that a crime novel would make an excellent choice for a discussion group – this one certainly would.

 

Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

Would you believe it – there’s finally a psychological crime novel whose premise is so original that it isn’t constantly compared to Girl on a Train/Gone Girl  . . . The book in question is Laura Marshall’s début Friend Request. I’d been aware of the novel since last year when it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2016, and was runner-up in the Bath Novel Award 2016. The premise sounded so great, I knew had to read it as soon as it was out, even though I’m a bit tired of psychological crime with a major twist. I’m certainly glad that didn’t keep me from reading it because I thoroughly enjoyed Friend Request. The premise, which you see summarized on the cover, is pretty simple but arresting—Louise gets a friend request on Facebook, from a former classmate, Maria. But Maria has been dead for over twenty years. Or hasn’t she? Fact is, nobody really knows. All they know is that she disappeared at the end of the leavers party and was never seen again.

Louise is shaken by this request. Not only because Maria is said to be dead but because Louise has done something very bad, something that seems to be linked to Maria.

As the novel unfolds, more requests are sent and Louise even feels that she’s followed. We learn who Louise is and who Louise used to be and why she’s so guilt-ridden. In 2016, Louise is a self-employed interior designer. She’s divorced from her highschool crush, Sam, and has a little boy of four. Back in 1989 Louise was an insecure schoolgirl who desperately wanted to be friends with the cool kids. So much in fact, that she wouldn’t shy away from letting others down or even betray them.

After Maria receives the friend request, she receives an invitation to a school reunion. Scared and intrigued, she contacts a former friend, who was the center of the group of cool kids, Sophie. She too has received a friend request and an invitation to the reunion. I’m not going to say much more or the book would be spoilt.

Friend Request is told in chapters that alternate between 2016 and 1989. A lot of the suspense comes from the first person narrator’s withholding information. That’s a narrative device I’m not too keen on and it annoyed me here as well. It just feels a bit artificial and not always believable psychologically. That said, the novel still works and feels realistic. Anyone who has gone to school was either part of the cool crowd, despised by them or just a neutral bystander/observer. In any case, we’ve all experienced or witnessed similar things – bullying, shunning, shaming -, so this was very relatable. Louise is a likeable, interesting character and to some degree I could understand, why she kept what she did a secret.

The final twist was surprising but not far-fetched. It really worked for me. Yes, I would have wished that the writing had been a bit less manipulative, but overall it was gripping and so entertaining that I was sad when it was finished.

Laura Marshall’s certainly an author to watch and while her début has a few flaws, it also has a killer premise, a lot of suspense and a very satisfying ending. That’s more than one can say about most contemporary psychological thrillers.

The Nameless Day – Der namenlose Tag by Friedrich Ani (2015) Jakob Franck Series I

Last May I read my first Friedrich Ani and was extremely impressed (here’s the review). I knew I would read another one of his novels before long. This time I chose the first in the Jakob Franck series, The Nameless DayDer namenlose Tag. The novel was published in Germany in 2015. The English translation will be published by Seagull Books next month. This is Ani’s fourth series. He also writes standalone novels.

Jakob Franck has been retired for two months. He’s lonely and can’t shake off the dead. They haunt and visit him. When he was still working, Franck used to be the bringer of bad news. Most other police men hated nothing more than telling people that a loved one had died in an accident or been murdered. Ani never thought about it. He did it and he was good at it. He knew how to calm people, knew how to say the right words or was just there for them without saying much. In one case, the suicide of a seventeen-year-old girl, he even held the dead girl’s mother for over seven hours without speaking.

Holding the relative of a dead person for seven hours was unusual, even for Jakob Franck, and so, even twenty years later, he has never forgotten the death of Esther Winther. Still, he’s surprised when the father of the dead girl contacts him. Esther had been found hanging from the branches of a tree. Why the secretive teenager had killed herself had never been found out. There were many rumours. Rumours of an affair with an older man, rumours of abuse, rumours of depression. The father never believed it was a suicide. He always suspected foul play. The mother, the woman Franck had held, killed herself exactly one year later.

Winther knows that Franck wasn’t the investigator at the time and he also knows that he isn’t working anymore, but because he knows that he’s a compassionate man, he hopes he’ll help him find out the truth, track down the murderer.

Franck embarks on a journey of darkness and loneliness. He goes through case files, interviews people, friends and relatives, travels from Munich to Berlin and finally applies his own special method of “Gedankenfühligleit” – which can best be described as some sort of sixth sense analysis. What he uncovers is a web of dark secrets and many lonely people who would do anything for attention and possibly love. Many of the people he meets remind Franck of his own loneliness and trigger profound feelings of empathy and compassion. The ending is surprising.

I liked this novel very much. Ani is the kind of writer even people who don’t normally read crime novels appreciate. His writing and his characters are unusual. He always tries to say things in a fresh, original way. Occasionally that goes wrong. There are a few wonky metaphors and expressions that were a bit odd, but at least the writing’s never tired, always fresh.

While I liked this book, I still found it could have benefitted from a few cuts and more editing. There are some repetitions. And while I love ghost stories, I didn’t feel like it was necessary or brought anything to the story that Franck talks to ghosts of dead people and sees them in his living room. There are only a few instances of those and they are meant to underline how emotional and empathic he is, nonetheless, the book would have been stronger without these element.

The biggest strength of the novel is the exploration of its main theme. There is more than one suicide or suspected suicide in this book, and so it’s fair to say, that suicide is the main theme of the novel. The book shows how devastating it is to lose someone this way, how hard it is to move on, especially when the reasons aren’t clear. And also how cruel it is when someone goes without forewarning. Ani describes both sides well— the side of the person who finally sees no other way and the side of those left behind.

If you like literary crime that uses innovative language, crime that explores the darker aspects of the human condition – suicide, loneliness, guilt, family secrets, resentment, hate -,  crime that’s very character-driven, then you’ll like Ani’s book.

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves (2006) The Shetland Series 1

Raven Black is the first in Ann Cleeves Shetland Series. It has been on my piles for ages and when the first cooler days arrived – they are already gone again, temperatures are back to 20° – 25° C – I felt like reading it finally. I always meant to read Ann Cleeves as I had heard good things about her. While I wasn’t blown away, I still enjoyed it very much and can see why people praise her.

On a morning walk, back from school, where she dropped off her daughter, Fran Hunter discovers a dead girl in the snow. Fran has moved to Shetland because her ex-husband lives here and she wanted to give her small daughter the opportunity so see him more often. She doesn’t really fit in, and if it wasn’t for Cassie, she’d rather live in London. Cassie has adjusted better but she has some difficulties with her teacher who doesn’t like that she’s so self-assured. The teacher’s daughter, Sally, is the opposite—shy and submissive. At least until Catherine Ross arrives in Shetland. The two girl become unlikely friends. Catherine is confident and rather rebellious. And now she’s dead. Someone murdered her.

Years ago, a young girl disappeared. Her body was never found but the community suspected that the loner Magnus Tait had something to do with her disappearance. He was never convicted, but with Catherine’s murder, the old suspicions reawaken.

The two detectives in charge of the case, local Perez and Taylor from Yorkshire, aren’t convinced of Magnus’ guilt. At least not in the beginning.

Raven Black is suspenseful but the suspense wasn’t the book’s chief appeal. I really liked the characterisations and the sense of place. Ann Cleeves takes a lot of time to introduce us to her characters. Most chapters are written from a different perspective. That could have taken away a lot from the suspense but it didn’t. We got to know the characters well, but most of them still stayed suspicious.

Perez was by far one of my favourite characters. He’s become a bit of loner after his divorce, possibly always was, since his family, as the name indicates, isn’t from Shetland originally. He used to be Fran’s ex-husband’s best friend but nowadays, they don’t really see eye to eye.

As I said, this was my first Ann Cleeves novel. I wouldn’t mind reading her again. I liked the care with which she described her characters, the plotting is well done, and the writing is assured. The reader senses immediately that this is an experienced writer.

I could also imagine, that this series gets better because the main character, Perez, is interesting and likable and he’s left at a point in his life where a lot of changes could be expected.

The Shetland Series has been made into a BBC 1 TV series. It’s available on YouTube.

Have you read Ann Cleeves? Which books would you recommend?

 

 

Flynn Berry: Under the Harrow (2016)

I’m so glad I came across Under the Harrow on Danielle’s site here. I knew right away I would love it and I was right. Flynn Berry received the Edgar Award for her début and she certainly deserved that. It’s one of the most convincing and surprising psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time. Think “Gone Girl” or “Girl on a Train” but much, much better and tighter, in spare, convincing prose, and with a literary quality.

At the beginning of the book, Nora’s on a train from London to the English countryside where her sister Rachel lives and works as a nurse. Rachel doesn’t pick her up at the train station, which isn’t too strange because she’s very busy, but when Nora approaches the house she senses something isn’t right. And then she finds Rachel’s dog brutally murdered and her sister savagely killed.

We ate dinner together every night in Cornwall and had an endless number of things to say. She was my favourite person to talk with, because what caught her attention caught mine too.

The police investigate and soon Nora finds out she might not have known her sister as well as she thought. Because she’s not happy with the investigation and thinks she knows who did it, she starts to investigate on her own. Her emotions complicate things considerably. Her grief is so raw, so palpable, and very complex. Nora misses Rachel so much and often forgets that she’s dead. It’s absolutely harrowing.

She had so much left to do. It isn’t that she had something grand in mind, at least not that I know of. It is worse than that, she has been taken away from everything, she lost everything. She likes red lipstick, and will never again stand in the aisle at a chemist’s, testing the shades on the back of her hand. She likes films, and will miss all the ones coming out at the holidays that she planned to see. She likes pan con tomate, and will never again come home from work and mash tomatoes and garlic and olive oil, and rub it onto grilled bread, and eat it standing in her kitchen.

The reader finds out that there was a dark element in their relationship and begins to wonder whether what Nora’s saying is really true. So does the police.

And then there’s an incident from Rachel’s past that casts a shadow over everything. As a teenager she was brutally attacked and ever since then had tried to track down the man who did it and was never found by the police.

All these different plotlines come together in the end. The ending is one of the best I’ve come across in a long time. It’s a huge twist but it’s entirely plausible.

Flynn Berry is very good at creating great characters. Both Rachel and Nora feel very real. Full of contradictions, a mix of darkness and light. The secondary characters are equally convincing.

Under the Harrow is atmospheric and suspenseful but it’s much more than a simple page turner. It explores the often complex relationship between sisters, devastating grief, and the way the past can haunt us.

I know I’m raising the expectations of future readers but I have to say it— This book is stellar.