2 German Crime Ladies: Charlotte Link and Petra Hammesfahr

There are two German crime writers who are more famous than most others in Germany and these are Charlotte Link and Petra Hammesfahr. While Charlotte Link is probably by far the most read German author she has so far not been translated into English. That’s why I was so pleased when I saw that finally it’s going to happen. Her novel The Other ChildDas andere Kind will be published at the beginning of 2012. Here is the blurb:

A suspenseful and atmospheric new psychological crime novel from ‘Germany’s most successful living female author’

An old farm, a deserted landscape, a dark secret from times past with fatal consequences for the present. In the tranquil northern seaside town of Scarborough, a student is found cruelly murdered. For months, the investigators are in the dark, until they are faced with a copy-cat crime.

Charlotte Link is such a good example for another type of genre that German writers excel at and that is historical fiction. The amount of books and authors is amazing.

Link is famous for her psychological novels in the vein of Mary Higgins Clark and for her long family sagas and historical novels. The Other Child which I have not read yet – I wanted to but 700 pages were not feasible for German Literature Month – combines both. The story is set in 1970 – 2008 and during WWII in England. Young women are being killed, the crimes resemble each other and the trace to the killer seems to go back to WWII. One of the themes is the children that were sent to the country during the war.

Link has an easy but very gripping way of writing. I’ve read many of her psychological thrillers of women who are being stalked by ex-lovers. Her world is often one in which men are predators, but her descriptions are great and atmospherical and the pace is appealing. If this is really, as it seems, her first novel in English, I’m not sure how good a choice it is. It’s cunning to test the waters with a genre blend, I suppose, because if this book is loved, chances are high that her psychological thrillers and her historical novels will be equally liked.

For German Literature Month I picked up a slim volume of short stories by Petra Hammesfahr. While these stories have not been translated, Hammesfahr’s novels are slowly available in English and seem as succesful as they are in her native Germany. While Link is strong on plot and pace, Hammesfahr is even stronger on psychology. Whenever I start one of her novels, I don’t want to stop. I had the same experience when reading her short stories. Accurate descriptions, psychological insights and a surprising ending. Good people turn into criminals because the monotony and madness of daily life becomes too much to bear or highly dysfunctional people become delinquent because there was just this one moment that made them snap.

Hammesfahr, unlike Link, combines the very ordinary with the uncanny, the sick, the revolting. The outcast who may not be guilty, the housewife who may be.

The novels available in English so far are The Sinner Die Sünderin and The LieDie Lüge. I would hope that others will be translated. Most of all Der stille Herr Genardy.

Of the three German crime novelists I reviewed, Noll is the most literary, Link, the most mainstream, and Hammesfahr is somewhere in between. For you to choose what you prefer. I like them all, depending on my mood.

The review is part of German Literature Month Week II – Crime

Nicci French: Blue Monday (2011)

I have read a few novels by Nicci French in the past and always thought they were very entertaining. Not the height of the psychological thriller realm but nicely paced and interesting. All of their (Nicci French is the pseudonym of a married couple writing together) novels are stand-alone thrillers. When I read that they had written the first book in a new series I was very interested to read it.

Blue Monday introduces psychotherapist Frieda Klein and Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson. I suppose we will see both of them again in the next novel but Frieda Klein is the more important character of the two.

One of the problems I have with a lot of the mainstream thrillers and crime novels is what I call “dodgy psychology”. You could also call it pseudo-psychology. This type of psychological explanation was the reason why I did not like Nesbø’s The Snowman. With Blue Monday we are on the same terrain but, funny enough, I liked it anyway. This is as much a thriller as a novel about London. The descriptions of the city are very well done. Another reason why I didn’t mind reading the book was that Frieda Klein is an appealing character. At the beginning of the novel she is just breaking up with someone because he will move to the States and she doesn’t want to follow him. She is deeply rooted in London and in her little house that feels like a den to her. Frieda  is a solitary person and likes to spend a lot of time on her own. Sometimes, plagued by insomnia, she will roam the silent streets of the big city at night. I liked these parts. She used to work in a clininc but has now her own practice.

A little boy is abducted in a way that reminds Detective Karlsson of another abduction twenty years ago. At the same time a man is seeing Frieda because he is suffering of panic attacks and nightmares. The nightmares circle around a little boy whose description reminds Frieda of the one who has been abducted. Frieda cannot put her finger on it but she has a feeling that there is a connection. She reports what she has found out to the police who do not belive her in the beginning.

I’m not going to write anything more about the story, the reader knows soon enough in what direction it goes (another weakness of the book, by the way). Frieda and Karlsson will work very closely together from then on. If you want to find out who abducted the little boy and whether they will find him alive, you will have to read the book.

As I said, despite it’s flaws I found Blue Monday readable because I liked Frieda and the descriptions of London. I’m often not interested in the mystery or the solution to it and enjoy all sorts of other aspects in crime novels and thrillers but if you are someone who loves a mystery, stay away from this book. The solution is very lame, to say the least, and the explanations are far from convincing. The end however is surprising.

This was my fourth and last book contribution to  Carl’s R.I.P. VI challenge. I’m still joining the group read and have planned on doing a post for Peril on the Screen. If you want to visit the review site, you can find it here.

Louise Doughty: Whatever You Love (2010)

Two police officers knock on Laura’s door and her life changes forever. They tell her that her nine-year old daughter Betty has been hit by a car and killed. When justice is slow to arrive, Laura decides to take her own revenge. 

Whatever You Love is a book of raw emotions. And that from the first moment on when we read about the police knocking on Laura’s door to inform her that her daughter Betty has been killed. Laura is a very emotional woman, she feels everything that happens to her intensely, her reactions are very physical. There are many elements in the book that made me feel uneasy.

The loss of her daughter hits Laura like a cutting knife. The pain is sharp and unbearable. And she is all alone to deal with this as her husband has left her for another woman. After Laura has seen the body of her dead little girl, we go back in time with her to the days when she first met David, Betty’s father.

The early days of their relationship are very passionate, very sexual. David is a strange man, withholding feelings and caring at the same time and also with a love for dangerous behavior like on the day when he holds Laura over a cliff. He might have slipped at any moment or let her fall. Laura is shocked and fascinated at the same time, revolted and attracted.

While  she is pregnant with their second child, David meets Chloe. At the time when Betty is killed, he is married to Chloe and they have a baby boy. The end of David’s and Laura’s marriage is ugly. There are fights and jealous outbreaks by both women. Laura gets anonymous phone calls and letters. She never tells David but she is sure they are from Chloe. Once she threatens Chloe and it stops but when Betty is killed, it starts again.

Struggling to overcome her grief, Laura relives the loss of her husband and when she finally hears that the man who killed her daughter in a hit-and run has been let go by the police, she freaks out and decides to take revenge.

From that moment on I thought I knew what was going to happen but I was quite wrong. Things turned out very different from what I expected.

I read this at super speed. I was very captivated. It is well written and has a nice pace that drags you along. There is a lot to identify with even if you have no children. It makes you think about relationships, the end of infatuation, adultery, family, raw and contradictory feelings and emotions like guilt, loss, jealousy and passion. What I liked best about the novel is the fact that there are no easy answers and the characters are complex with some very contradictory traits.

Jenn Ashworth: Cold Light (2011) Crime and Social Realism

An unsettling, darkly humorous tale of teenage girls in a predatory adult world, and a cocktail of lies, jealousy and unworldliness that leads to tragedy.

I have been looking forward to Jenn Ashworth’s new novel since I read A Kind of Intimacy at the beginning of the year (here’s the review). I had a bit of a problem not comparing the two books but once I let go of that I really liked this novel, it’s disturbing and chilling and you only find out at the very end what really happened.

Cold Light is a very appropriate title for this novel, although – as will be explained towards the end – it refers to bioluminescence.  It is a cold world in which today’s girls move and a predatory one. But is this really all that new? There is a lot that reminded me of my own coming of age. Not for anything in the world would I want to be 14 again. The competitions, the jealousy, the insecurity and the constant fighting off of boys or hoping to be noticed by them – depending on where on the good-looking scale you were positioned – was by far too upsetting. It’s all very horrible and can damage you for life. But there are other things young girls have to cope with nowadays that were not even thinkable 10-20 years ago. And today’s Britain (I’m just finishing Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion and it echoes Cold Light) seems to be even worse than many other places.

Chloe is dead. Chloe will be 14 forever, 14, pretty and romantic. Since her presumed suicide 10 years ago she has become something like a cult figure. A symbol for young love and innocence. Now, ten years later, her former best friend Laura sits in front of her TV in a shabby little apartment and watches the groundbreaking ceremony for her memorial. The ceremony comes to an abrupt and macabre end when human bones are found in the damp soil. Laura nows whose bones they are and from this very first scene in the novel we know that some things must have gone seriously wrong ten years ago and we also know that there is a lot to be found out about Chloe, her ex-boyfriend who died with her and everyone else who was involved.

Laura will be watching TV all night, later joined by Emma with whom she is still in contact. They will be smoking and drinking until the early morning. Through flash backs and parts of their discussion the truth is slowly revealed. It’s the story of three friends who are jealous of one another, an older boyfriend who seems weird, a town in a state of alarm as a flasher who is getting more and more violent is chasing young girls. The three girls are only 14 yet they smoke, drink and have sex. We also hear a lot about innocent Chloe, how she exploited the obsessive best friend feelings of the others, how narcissistic and bullying she was, her delinquency and how she always got away with everything just because she was so pretty. Reading the story from Laura’s point of view we discover a lot about her family, the sadness of her childhood, about her father who seems to suffer from some kind of mental illness, her controlling mother and her obsession with Chloe that turns her into a stalker.

It’s an excellent book, disturbing and accurate and reminded me a great deal of the movie Fish Tank. I also thought of Harry Brown. Both movies paint a bleak picture of British youth. The first one also focusing on young girls being as well prey, victims and perpetrators.

Thanks again to Hodder and Stoughton who send me a review copy.

Araminta Hall: everything and nothing (2011) Social Realism and Psychological Suspense

Ruth and Christian are – just – holding their marriage together, after Christian’s disastrous affair a year ago. But chaos beckons, and when the family are suddenly left without any childcare, Agatha comes into their lives to solve all their problems. But Agatha is not as perfect as she seems and her love for the children masks a deeper secret.

I read a review of this book on Lizzy’s Literary Life and something told me I might like it. And I did. It was one of those super fast reads, a book that I could hardly put down. Really riveting. The only complaint I have is that this is labelled as a psychological thriller. Although there is a part of it reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, it is like a background story and not really very gripping. At least not for me. Still I consider this to be a real page-turner for the simple reason that it captures chaotic family life in so much detail and explores some of the questions and problems parents who work full-time would face. I often enjoy descriptions of domestic life although I don’t live anything that is even remotely comparable.

Ruth and Christian both not only work full-time but overtime many days of the week. They both have careers that seem to absorb all of their energy and when they come home in the evening they face total chaos. The place is dirty, sticky and disorderly, the little girl is screaming constantly and throws one temper tantrum after the other. The little boy, at three, still doesn’t eat properly and drinks from a bottle. The nights are nightmares too. Ruth and Christian fight and when they finally go to bed, the girl starts to scream again. She always wakes at midnight and never goes back to sleep.

At the beginning of the novel Ruth knows she isn’t capable of going on like this. She needs a new nanny. And in comes Agatha. We know from the start that something is wrong with her. She lives in daydreams and lies to her employers and to herself constantly. Something bad has happened in her past, a trauma that she cannot overcome and tries to repress with her imagination.

Family life improves considerably after she has started working for Ruth and Christian. She is super organized and makes Ruth feel deficient. To make things worse, Christian accidentally meets the woman he has had an affair with and starts seeing her for drinks.

Something bad, coming from Agatha, is lurking in the background and we know things will go very awry. But as said, this is completely toned down. I was fascinated by Ruth. Christian was not particularly interesting. Just one of those guys who thinks he has the right to have an affair when his wife is pregnant for the second time and is not that much into him during that time.  Ruth shows every sign of a severe depression and what I found interesting is the fact that this did not start right after she had the first baby but several months later. As if the bubble of enchantment that the little baby brought burst suddenly. From that moment on she struggles. I could feel the exhaustion of that woman and I know that this is very realistic. Women around me have mentioned it. If you are unlucky and have a baby that doesn’t sleep well and you need to go to work every morning… Ruth is a journalist and her work is very demanding. There is always someone waiting to jump into her position should she show signs of weakness.

I also hear the type of questioning very often that Ruth utters. Is it OK to work full-time and have children? Is it OK to have someone else looking after them? I think in the book the problem isn’t only that Ruth works full-time but that both work overtime and that she tries for too long to cope with everything else as well. She is afraid that having a nanny means defeat. And she thinks that women like Nigella Lawson are an example for the fact that it is possible to have and do it all yourself.

There is a strange fascination in seeing people at their most vulnerable, when their masks are down. That’s what made this book so riveting for me. And I think the questions it asks are very important.

I would be curious to hear from anyone who has read it.

This was Araminta Hall’s first novel. I really wouldn’t mind reading the next one too.

Ruth Rendell: The Tree of Hands (1984)

Once, when Benet was about fourteen, she and her mother had been alone in a train carriage and Mopsa had tried to stab her with a carving knife. It was some time since Benet had seen her mad mother. So when Mopsa arrived at the airport, looking drab and colourless in a dowdy grey suit, Benet tried not to hate her. But the tragic death of a child begins a chain of deception, kidnap and murder. Domestic dramas exploding into deaths and murders …threads are drawn tightly together in a lethal last pattern.

I read and reviewed A Judgment in Stone last year and have mentioned how much I liked it. It was one of my favourite reads of 2010. On one of the comment thread’s Guy Savage suggested another book by Ruth Rendell, The Tree of Hands, and that is how I discovered this novel.

I have to emphasize once more what a great writer Ruth Rendell is. This book is different from A Judgment in Stone but also very engrossing. After having read The Tree of Hands I can also see why A Kind of Intimacy was compared to Rendell’s books. The description of the streets and their inhabitants shows a lot of parallels plus the people are equally deranged.

In the Tree of Hands the stories of at least 6 people are interwoven but it is skillfully done and they are all linked together in a logical way. The novel works like those rows of domino stones that have been set up in order to see them fall one by one. The falling down of the first stone makes the others follow. One action in the novel triggers another action and they are all equally fatal and catastrophic.

I was a bit wary at the beginning as Mopsa, Benet’s mother, is said to have a mental illness. Using mental illness as an explanation for a crime is often insufferable to me. But fortunately Mopsa is just the first domino stone. Being totally irresponsible she steals a child without ever thinking of the consequences but then she leaves and lets all the other people deal with the aftermath of his kidnapping.

The book really has a chain reaction at its core and one bad decision leads to another. And it also describes quite a lot of negative, selfish and frankly bad people. What struck me, even though Mopsa is mentally ill and on top of that clearly not a good person, she is by far less deranged than some of the other nasty characters in this book.

One of the main stories is the story of Benet, a young mother and extremely successful writer who lives in a beautiful house in Hampstead. At the beginning of the book her mentally ill and very unstable mother, Mopsa, comes to visit her and her little boy, James. Benet is a very loving mother and James is the most important person in her live.

The second main story revolves around another young mother, Carol, her son Jason and her young boyfriend Barry. Carol is a superficial and unrestrained woman with a flaming temper. At the age of 28 she is already a widow and has three children from different men. Two have been taken away, only the smallest, Jason, is living with her and Barry.

At first the two strands of the story run in parallel until a tragedy happens and Mopsa steals Jason.

I am tempted to write a lot more as there are a few aspects that I find interesting but unfortunately it isn’t possible, it would spoil too much. I can however say that the novel also explores the concept of parenthood and if someone who loves a child dearly might not be a better parent than a biological parent.

Something that struck me in this book is the overuse of the sedative Valium. This dates the book. Surely nowadays people in novels don’t pop pills like sweets and they might not use benzodiazepines as often anymore. This constant use of downers and alcohol is of course symbolical and just underlines that the people in the novel do not want to face any problems or consequences of their actions.

Ruth Rendell’s writing is suspenseful, her characterizations are psychologically plausible and the descriptions of different social milieus spot-on. Do I have to mention that I will certainly read another Ruth Rendell or Barbara Vine very soon?