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.

Nicci French: Saturday Requiem (2016) Frieda Klein Series 6

Those who follow this blog know how much I like the books of writer duo Nicci French. Their standalone novels and their Frieda Klein series.

I still think that the first two in the Frieda Klein series are the best but I did enjoy some of the others, even though Frieda’s life often took up much more space than the mystery itself. Not so in this book. From a mystery point of view, Saturday Requiem is one of the best in the series. Sadly, I liked it less than the others before because Frieda’s turned into a bit of a cypher. Her life took up minimal space. There was zero development on the personal front. That was a bit disappointing. In the last two books, the personal life was almost too much in the center and here, we got only glimpses.

The book starts when Frieda’s asked to visit Hannah, a patient in a psychiatric ward. The woman has been there for 13 years, ever since she was found guilty of savagely killing her whole family. The detective who had been working on the case back then, is under investigation and it’s possible that he made mistakes with this case. That’s why Frieda’s asked to try and talk to Hannah and tie up loose ends.

When Frieda visits Hannah, she shows every sign of being mad, but Frieda doesn’t think that she was always like this. It rather looks as if being charged with the murder and sent to a psychiatric hospital for life, may have caused her “madness”. Clearly, Hannah spends a lot of time in solitary confinement. Since the police do not want to reopen the case, Frieda, who doesn’t think Hannah is guilty, begins to investigate on her own.

Like in the other books of the series, there’s the shadow of the perpetrator from the first book looming in the shadows. Possibly he even enters Frieda’s house.

Overall, the book is suspenseful. Not unputdownable, but very readable.

It’s pretty obvious, the series is coming to an end, not only because it’s logical, given the titles of the books, but because this one ends with a major cliffhanger, something none of the other books in the series do. Nicci French is definitely gearing up for the finale.

If it wasn’t for this cliffhanger and the overarching story, I might not have picked up the next one. There are just too many great crime series out there that I still want to read. But then again, I want to see how it all ends and so I’ve already got Sunday Morning Coming Down waiting on my piles.

Here are the other reviews of the series

Blue Monday

Tuesday’s Gone

Waiting for Wednesday

Thursday’s Child

Friday on My Mind

Frédéric Dard: C’est toi le venin (You’re the Poison) (1957)

I have no idea why I haven’t read any Frédéric Dard novels so far. Possibly, because in France his standalone novels are a bit overshadowed by his San-Antonio series, which never tempted me. Or because he was so prolific that I had no clue where to start. He wrote at least 280 novels, twenty plays, and sixteen adaptations for the cinema. There was one novel, however, I always meant to read because it has been made into a movie (Toi, le venin – Night is Not For Sleep aka Blonde in a White Car), of which my dad was very fond. He even had a single of the film music. That’s why I chose this book over all the many others that sounded just as good and also over all those already translated into English.

Ces’t toi le venin, which I would translate as “You’re the poison” tells the story of Victor Menda. Victor Menda, a young man of twenty-eight years, is down on his luck. He has no job, no money, no relatives, no friends and serious dept at the casino. The story’s set on the Côte d’Azur and at the beginning we see Menda walk along the sea, contemplating suicide. He eventually decides against this drastic measure and takes a walk along the water. Suddenly a car stops. A woman’s at the steering wheel and demands that he join her. Menda does as he’s told. He’s intrigued and wants to see the woman’s face but a scarf hides it. She finally stops again and wants to have sex with him. Although he finds this openly demanding behaviour a tad intimidating and even revolting, he still accepts. When she finally boots him out again, there’s nothing else he can do but write down her number plate.

Don’t worry, I haven’t given away too much of the plot, as what I just summarized doesn’t take up more than a few pages. The story as such begins when Menda finds the owner of the car. The car belongs to Hélène, the older of two very beautiful and rich sisters who own a huge villa near Nice. The younger sister, Ève, sits in a wheelchair since the age of thirteen. The young girl develops a massive crush on Menda and so the older one begs him to stay with them. Unfortunately, Menda falls in love with the older one.

It soon becomes obvious that things are not as they should. There’s someone using the car at night but it doesn’t seem to be Hélène. Other strange things happen, which alert Menda.

The atmosphere and the mood in the novel get darker and darker. At first Menda thinks, he’s struck gold, but soon he can’t shake off the feeling of being trapped and used. Someone is playing cat and mouse with the people living at the villa. Is it one of them or someone from outside?

I absolutely loved this novel. Some of it is predictable but there are still enough surprising twists and the end is chilling.

Like Simenon, Dard relies heavily on dialogue. There are just a few descriptions here and there to create a mood and atmosphere. That’s why reading the book feels a lot like watching a movie. It has immediacy and a pretty brisk pace.

I’m a sucker for books set on the Côte d’Azur, but even if Dard had chosen another setting, I would have enjoyed this book a lot.

I hope to watch the movie soon, until then, I’ll listen to the score. It’s captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

While C’est toi le venin hasn’t been translated yet, some of Dard’s other novels have been published by Pushkin Press in their Vertigo series.

 

 

On Friedrich Ani’s Naked Man, Burning – Nackter Mann, der brennt (2016) German Crime at its Best

I discovered Friedrich Ani on the list for the German Book Prize. Several years, until 2016, he occupied the second place. Last year, finally, he won the prize with his novel Der namenlose Tag – The Nameless Day. If I’m not completely mistaken, that will be his first English translation. It’s due out in December.

I’m surprised he hasn’t been translated earlier as he’s published so much. If Nackter Mann, der brennt Naked Man, Burning – is anything to go by, this was a huge omission. He’s fabulous. This novel reminded me a lot of Pascal Garnier’s novels, only I’d say, Ani’s better; his writing is more original. The way he plays with words, uses quotes from songs or films, his interesting sentence structures and the way he combines words is unique.

Naked Man, Burning is a dark tale, a real noir. Coelestin fled his home village at the age of fourteen. Forty years later, under a fake name and looking nothing like he used to, he returns. The book opens with Ludwig getting ready for a funeral. This is how the novel begins (my translation)

Praised be Jesus Christ, I thought, crossed myself and opened the door to the storeroom, where my guest was hatching his fear. He stared at me and I closed the door again. This was going to be a day to my liking.

Soon the reader understands that Ludwig doesn’t only hold someone captive but that he might have had something to do with the death of the person being buried.

Why did Ludwig disappear? Why did he change his name and looks? And why is he threatening older men? The reader knows very quickly that they are responsible for a  lot of ugly things that happened a long time ago. Bit by bit we learn what that was and then we watch, with uneasy fascination, how Ludwig illustrates the old saying – revenge is a dish best served cold.

I hope this book will be translated. It’s chilling, original, dark, and has a pretty unexpected ending. And the strong voice and language are so amusing, eloquent, and fresh. I can assure you, there aren’t many crime writers like Ani.

I picked this book because the premise appealed to me and because it’s a standalone. Most of his other novels are part of  a series.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (2017)

Emma Flint’s debut novel Little Deaths is among the novels on the Baileys Prize Long List 2017. The Baileys list is one of only a few prize lists I’m interested in. Usually I read three to four of the novels on the list. I hadn’t heard of Emma Flint’s book before seeing the list and it immediately caught my attention.

Set in 1965, in New York, it tells the story of Ruth Malone whose two children, Cindy and Frankie, disappear and are found dead a few days later. The book begins with Ruth’s voice. She’s in prison, thinking back. This is the only part written in present tense, from then on the book stays in past tense and is told by Ruth and Peter Wonicke, a journalist.

We know from the beginning that Ruth is found guilty of the murder of her children but we will only find out at the end how that happend and whether she did it. In a way it’s not even that important because this book isn’t as much about whether Ruth is guilty or not as it is about the vilification of women.

Ruth Malone is glamorous. She loves to dress up, uses make-up, is separated from her husband, has affairs and lovers. She dresses provocatively, loves sex, and drinks too much. Not the way the other women in the neighbourhood behave. Definitely not the way the policemen’s wives behave. Everybody seems to have an idea of how a woman and especially a wife and mother has to be and that definitely hasn’t anything to do with the way Ruth conducts herself.

What follows is less an inquiry than a witch hunt. A witch hunt that leads to a trial. People – the neighbours, the police, the press – want Ruth to be found guilty. They want her punished for her life style and would do anything to break her and see her in prison.

I guess it’s easy to understand that this was an upsetting book. Two children are dead but what people really seem to be interested in is seeing their mother behind bars, just because she’s different. It made me think of the last book I reviewed here, Asking For It. While the two books are very different, they have one thing in common – women are punished for their behaviour.

I think it was a good idea to tell large parts of the story from the point of view of a journalist. Like everyone else, Wonicke wants Ruth to be guilty at first because that would make a great story. He writes a few short pieces about her and they all make her look suspicious. Why would a mother whose children have disappeared bother to dress up and put on make up? Why would she buy a new dress after finding out her kids were murdered? And since sex sells, Wonicke emphasises that she’s  very attractive. Ultimately though, Wonicke is a good guy and after a while he realizes that he doesn’t help finding the culprit. On the contrary, he helps clouding people’s judgement and enforces their belief in Ruth’s guilt.

By the time he realises what he’s done, it’s already too late. Not because of his articles but because the police and the neighbours have seen to many things they consider suspicious and because Ruth is withdrawn and haughty. People expect her to be broken, to stay in, but she goes out, drinks, and has sex like before.

Wonicke falls for her and swears he will help her find the perpetrator. Thanks to his sympathetic look, the reader interprets Ruth differently.

He felt like he was seeing her in a different light today. However this played out—whether Devlin made an arrest or not, whether they got a conviction or not—how could this ever end for her? Surely she’d never be the same woman again. She’d never be able to sit in the sun for the sheer pleasure of it, or walk into a store and pick out a dress just because it was pretty. No one would ever be able to look at her and not remember.

Ruth’s story is inspired by a true crime – the Alice Crimmins case. I didn’t know that when I bought the book. I found out when I started reading because Emma Flint mentions in the bio section that she’s always loved true crime. I then skimmed the acknowledgement section where she mentions which case inspired her. I’m not so keen on books inspired by true crimes because I can’t stop wondering how much is really true.

While it’s not a depressing book, it’s extremely upsetting. To think that something like this happened. For some reasons it made me think of the poet Anne Sexton. Ruth stands for all of those women, like Anne Sexton, who didn’t have a lot of choices. Who got married and had kids and felt trapped. It’s never said but Ruth’s behaviour lets us assume that there’s at least a masked depression underneath it all.

I liked this book a lot. I wish I hadn’t read it so quickly because it has many amazing passages. The writing is so strong. It’s definitely more literary than crime. The focus is on the way Ruth is hunted, not so much on whether or not she did it. Highly recommended.

Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief – Suri (2009)

the-thief

I’ve seen people call Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura’s novel The Thief crime or thriller but I don’t think that’s doing it any justice. What The Thief really is, is a Japanese noir. I think that’s important to know because there are big differences between these genres and frustrated expectations have a tendency to spoil books. Of course, expecting a traditional noir, in the vein of some US or European authors, could lead to a similar frustration.

The protagonist of this story is a talented thief. So talented in fact that he can steal wallets from inside pockets with zippers. At the beginning of the novel, he introduces us to his art and to his code of honour. He only steals from the rich and often gives to the poor. He’s just returned to Tokyo. Where he’s been and why he was gone, will only be explained later. Coming back proves to be a very bad idea as one of the reasons why he left was that he had to go into hiding after a robbery with a Yakuza gang. Those gangs are notorious for getting rid of people who helped them.

The thief is a loner. He had a lover and a friend but both are gone. He doesn’t have a family. When he meets a small kid whose mother uses him to steal things in shops, he takes pity on the boy and shows him some tricks. The kid who is as lonely as the thief, soon begins to follow him and wait in front of his apartment. The thief tries to shake him off but the kid keeps on returning and finally the thief decides to help him. The readers senses that the kid must remind the thief of his own childhood.

Unfortunately, our hero bumps into someone from his past who wants him to steal several things for him in exchange of his and the boy’s life.

Large parts of the story are told chronologically, but there are many flashbacks that tell us a lot about the thief’s past.

I called this a noir as the book contains a lot of typical noir themes. It explores loneliness, fate, and angst. The main protagonist is a loner with a pessimistic outlook on life. The similarities to other noir novels I’ve read stop there. What I missed most was the typical atmosphere of  traditional US/European noir. This book was so cold. Like a polished chrome surface. Never melancholy or moody. Unfortunately, those are some of the elements that make me love noir and their absence prevented me from loving this.

I’ve seen a few reviews in which people complained about the ambiguous ending. I didn’t mind it because I felt it worked.

What I liked a great deal was the way the theme of freedom was explored. Freedom of choice and action. I’m afraid to spoil the book, so I’ll only say there’s a sinister character in this story who likes to play with people tricking them into believing the choices they make are their own. The results are chilling.

The Thief was fascinating and readable and offers a unique look at Japanese gangs. I didn’t love it but I enjoyed it a lot.

 

Seicho Matsumoto: A Quiet Place (2016) – Kikanakatta Basho (1975)

matsumoto-a-quiet-place

Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place is the second Japanese crime novel I’ve read this month. While it is very different from Keigo Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X, they have one thing in common – they are both unusual and full of twists.

However, the similarities stop there. Higashino depicts a modern Japan, while Matsumoto shows us a very traditional Japan. Of course, Matsumoto’s book is much older. It was originally published in 1975. The world it depicts, the world of government officials, still exists, but the society as a whole has undergone changes. It’s a ritualised, rigid, and restrictive world with strict hierarchies and rules. There isn’t a lot of freedom and losing face is something that can happen all too quickly and always has devastating consequences.

This world is the backdrop of Matsumoto’s novel. Tsuneo Asai, a government bureaucrat, is informed of his wife’s death while he’s on a business trip to Kobe. The way he handles this situation, more afraid to inconvenience his superior than to rush home and find out what happened, is typical of his mindset. Unlike most others at the department of agriculture, he doesn’t come from a good family or a prestigious university. He’s not automatically promoted but he has to work hard for every step he wants to climb. His fear, not to get promoted or to displease his superiors is so great that it overshadows every single decision.

Back home in Tokyo, Asai learns his wife died of a heart attack in front of a boutique. He knew she had a weak heart but it is still a shock. She was so careful to avoid exertion. Even though he was fond of her, to find himself widowed again, is more an inconvenience than true heartbreak. What puzzles him the most is the question what she was doing in that neighbourhood. She wasn’t someone who went out much. He knew she attended haiku classes, but other than that, she mostly stayed at home. It isn’t entirely clear why he suddenly gets so obsessed with his wife’s doings but he does. Soon he finds out that he didn’t really know her. He was sure that her haiku writing was mediocre and now he learns she had great talent. When he discovers a hotel near the boutique in front of which she died, he begins to suspect she might have visited that hotel with a lover. He’s wrong but that doesn’t stop his suspicions.

As soon as he begins to suspect his wife, he starts an investigation and even hires a private detective. Asai is as obsessed as he is tenacious. At the same time, he knows that people at work shouldn’t find out what he suspects and what he is doing. The longer he investigates, the more he entangles himself.

I followed this character with great fascination and astonishment, but for the longest time I didn’t understand why this was called a crime novel. It’s clear from the beginning that Asai’s wife wasn’t killed. So why was this labelled crime? I can assure you, it’s labelled correctly but I won’t tell you why.

Apparently Matsumoto was called the Japanese Simenon. While I enjoyed this book a lot – especially for its depiction of Japanese society and certain neighbourhoods in Tokyo – I don’t see a resemblance. Matsumoto was very prolific, so possibly other novels led to that comparison. Luckily, quite a few of them are available in translation.

I came across Matsumoto’s book on Guy’s blog here.

japanese-literature-challenge-x

This review is my third contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.