Gil North: Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm (1960)

sergeant-cluff-stands-firm

Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm is the first in Gil North’s Sgt. Cluff crime series, one of the titles in the British Library Crime Classics series. In the 60s, North’s series was very successful and was even made into a TV series, but it’s long been forgotten and out of print. Luckily North’s first two novels, along with a variety of other forgotten British crime classics, are available again. I’ve been following Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations) progress through the British Library Crime Classics series in the last couple of months and was keen on finally trying them for myself. Reading his review of North’s second Cluff novel finally made me pick up one of the books. I liked what he wrote about book two The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, so much, that I thought it was worthwhile to start the series at the beginning. (Of course, he reviewed book one too (here’s the review) but for some reason I never saw that review.)

The series is set in Yorkshire. Descriptions of the bleak landscape, the rough weather, the lonely moors are part of the appeal. And the main character Sergeant Cluff, of course. Cluff is one of those silent, loner type detectives. He mostly keeps to himself, lives outside of the small village, gets in trouble with his superiors. That might not sound all that likable but as soon as I found out that, like Hamish Macbeth, he’s a lover of animals and owns a cat and a dog, I was won over. Sometimes an animal loving character can be depicted as a misanthrope, but while Cluff is wary of fellow humans, he’s a very empathic, compassionate man. And it takes a man like that, someone who observes people, feels compassion, to detect that something’s fishy, when they find the body of Amy Wright.

Amy Wright is found dead, in her bed, in her gas-filled house. She’s a woman in her forties, who, after a life of taking care of her mother, got married to a much younger man. A useless man with the reputation of being a womanizer. It seems obvious that Amy committed suicide. While Sgt. Cluff can’t find proof that it isn’t a suicide, he still thinks she might have been murdered and finds it odd that her husband has disappeared.

When his superior doesn’t want him to pursue the case, Cluff takes a vacation, investigates on his own, uncovers some very dark secrets, and puts himself in danger.

I was so surprised by this book. It starts a bit like a cozy mystery but then quickly turns into a realistic, bleak tale of disappointment and greed. I liked that not the whole book was told from Cluff’s point of view. The points of view of other characters were included which gave the impression the book was far more substantial than it is (it has only 155 pages). The descriptions of the landscape, and the time, Yorkshire in the 60s, was something else I appreciated. This is a old-fashioned, but changing world. Another surprise was that the book which initially felt quite pensive, picked up speed and turned into a real page-turner towards the end.

As soon as I had finished, I ordered book two in the series. I think that tells you how much I liked it. Cluff reminded me of M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. I’m pretty sure, she knew North’s series. Her series is more on the cozy side and Hamish is less of a loner. Nonetheless, there are parallels— the love for animals, the compassion and the strong sense of place. And I will definitely read more of the British Library Crime Classics.

Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad (2016)

when-she-was-bad

I’ve read many crime novels and thrillers this summer. Some of them still make me yawn. Luckily, Tammy Cohen’s novel When She Was Bad wasn’t one of them. On the contrary. I really enjoyed the story, the characters, and the structure. The book is told as a dual narrative, from eight different points of view. This could have resulted in a very disjointed story but it is rounded and convincing. Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize many things— petty jealousies, backstabbing, gossip, toxic bosses, ludicrous team building events, but also daily rituals, after-work drinks, and camaraderie.

If there hadn’t been the blurb on the book cover and the first chapter from the point of view of Anne, a character who is outside of the story, I wouldn’t have considered this to be a psychological thriller at first. That’s not a bad thing, because it is captivating nonetheless. It works just as well as a story about office politics as it works as a thriller.

But the initial chapter is there and tells us that something bad will happen. Anne, the narrator of that chapter, is a psychologist. When she was a young woman she worked with very troubled children. One of these children has committed a crime. She sees the now grown-up on TV and remembers. Her memories, which form the first narrative strand, explain why a horrific crime happened, while the second narrative strand, at the office, tells us the story of the crime.

At the beginning of the story set at the office, the former boss of a group of people has been sacked without forewarning. A new boss, Rachel, has taken over. Initially the group, consisting of six people, is brought closer together because of this. They feel like victims. Not only did they like their old boss, but they are afraid of possible changes and have heard that the new boss is toxic. As soon as Rachel arrives, the group dynamic changes as she’s one of those bosses who play their employees off against each other. But her toxicity doesn’t stop there. She poisons the atmosphere, is openly hostile and offensive, and makes everyone feel inadequate.

It was fascinating to read how the different members of the group experience her and where they stand in their personal lives. The characters are all so different and for each of them something else is at stake.

There’s plenty of conflict from the beginning of the novel and there’s the second narrative which explores a story of child abuse, but what made this really suspenseful is a series of things that happen that show there’s someone among the group who wants to harm people. So, with the exception of Anne, everyone, even the former boss, is a suspect of foul play and the reader is led to belive that each of them would be capable of doing something dreadful.

There was  a manipulative element that bugged me a bit, once I found out who was capable of committing a crime, but the book as a whole, especially as a story of office life, was so entertaining that I’m willing to forgive that. I would also happily read another of Tammy Cohen’s novels. Tammy Cohen has also written as Tamar Cohen and, next year, Transworld Books will publish a novel written under her pen name Rachel Rhys. When She Was Bad has just been optioned for TV.

Matthew Frank: If I Should Die (2014)

If I Should Die

I’ve seen so many rave reviews of this crime novel, that I had to pick it up. It’s a police procedural, set in London. I’m not sure whether this is a first in a series but it’s possible. The main character is trainee detective, Joseph Stark, a twenty-five-year-old Irak and Afghan veteran, dealing with heavy PTSD. He’s still recovering from an ambush that cost the lives of his comrades and has left him scarred and wounded.

When Stark begins his work at the precinct, repeated attacks on homeless people are worrying the police. When one of the victims dies, the investigation intensifies. Things get chaotic when a homeless man confesses that he’s murdered someone. How are these attacks linked and who are the perpetrators? Only when the police find out that the homeless man is a veteran (Falkland), do they make progress, as Stark is able to communicate with him.

The book offers some interesting insight into what happened and what happens to veterans in Britain. It also explores youth gangs and homelessness. The characters are realistic and likeable. The writing’s tight, the social commentary pertinent. But – I was the wrong reader for this. The book is more than just a crime novel, it’s a character study of a young veteran with PTSD. All the reviews I read, praised that aspect, called it new and gripping. Unfortunately I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve come across the same character in books, movies, and TV series. Admittedly, more movies than books but nonetheless, the PTSD Afghan or Irak veteran has almost become a cliché. This novel adds nothing new. The worst parts for me were those dealing with the ambush in Afghanistan. I’ve seen too many movies dealing with this to find it of any interest. Maybe it’s unfair, but I felt I had to say this because I’m sure, there are others with my interests who might not find this part of the novel original.

So, if you’ve never watched a film about recent wars – this novel could be for you. It doesn’t only show what PTSD means, but it makes it very clear that even decorated veterans may very well end up homeless because nobody cares what happens to them once they have done their duty. I still enjoyed parts of this book because the writing is assured, the investigation and the social commentary are interesting and the characters are appealing. However, I found it was too long (460 pages). Did I find it gripping? No, but sometimes, interesting is enough.

A Bunch of Mini Crime and Thriller Reviews

The Ice TwinsCop TownChemistry of DeathUntil It's OverDisclaimerMurder on the Orient EXpress

I went over my stacks of read books during German Literature Month and was startled when I noticed how many books, especially thriller and crime novels, I had read but not reviewed. I could probably write longer posts but decided to write a few very short reviews instead. That way, you might still hear about a book worth reading or one you should avoid and I don’t have to post every single day until the end of the year.

Disclaimer

Renée Knight’s Disclaimer is possibly the thriller disappointment of the year. The premise was interesting – a woman receives a novel in which the authors describe something that happened a long time ago and that she never told anyone. I think the book has two major flaws. One is that it’s not believable. I hate it when plot relies on one character suspecting another without questioning things. That alone would have annoyed me but I also thought the story was highly unbelievable. Sometimes a book can be salvaged through great atmosphere and description. Not so this novel. In my opinion that’s the second flaw of Disclaimer. While it’s said to be set in London, it might as well have been set on the moon. Not once did I see the city. Unbelievable story, wonky psychology, and zero atmosphere.

Murder on the Orient EXpress

Murder on the Orient Express was another disappointment. I picked it because I was in the mood to read a locked-room mystery and because I haven’t read any Agatha Christie in a long time. So far I’ve only ever read her standalone novels and one or two Miss Marple novels. While they might be formulaic, I still really enjoyed them. This was my first Hercule Poirot. I never picked them up because for me, as a native French speaker, the name is so silly. It sounds like poireau – leek – or poivrot – drunkard – . Plus Hercule? Really? I expected him to be on the boring side and that’s what he is. I wasn’t fascinated by his deductive skills. Still, it was a quick read and I loved the setting. I only found the murder and the way it was solved a bit lame. Still, if you like a great setting – a train in winter – and are in favour of cozy crime and whodunnits – especially locked-room mysteries – this might be for you.

The Ice Twins

The Ice Twins had a lot to offer. Stunning descriptions and atmosphere. After the death of one of their twin daughters, Angus and Sara Moorcroft move to a remote Scottish island. Such eerie, creepy descriptions and certainly not a place I would have chosen to live in, after the awful loss of a child. It gets creepier when the surviving twin begins to claim that she’s the other one. The part that affected me the most and which is the creepiest is the favouritism. While the father openly preferred one kid, the mother preferred the other. What does it mean, when you suddenly think that it’s not your favourite who has survived?  The Ice Twins was psychologically compelling. The descriptions are great. Unfortunately the end was a bit of a disaster. Not only was it disappointing and far-fetched, I also found it misogynistic. When I bought the book, I thought S.K.Tremayne was a woman but after finishing, I started to doubt that. And indeed, S.K. Tremayne is a man. I’m not surprised. The ending leaves no doubt.

Cop Town

With Karin Slaughter’s standalone novel Cop Town I finally enter the territory of the books I loved without reservations. Like Nicci French or Sarah Bolton, she is one of my favourite mainstream crime writers.  I’ve been reading her series for years, but when I heard she’d written a standalone novel, set in the 70s in Atlanta, I was interested immediately. What sounded particularly great was the research she’d done for this book. The period details are amazing. Her choices of two female protagonists make this a very feminist novel, as it’s in part a murder mystery – there’s a shooter killing cops – and a book about women on the police force, a workplace that’s dominated by white males who are sexist, racists, anti-Semites, homophobic . . . you name it. Into this explosive environment comes Kate, a rookie cop. She’s recently widowed, her husband died in Vietnam. Kate comes from an upper-class, Jewish family. The Vietnam angle, is another well-done angle.  Her first day is a shocker, but to the surprise of everyone, even her partner Maggie, she doesn’t give up. Maggie comes from a cop family. Her uncle and her brother have joined the force. They both didn’t want her to follow them in their footsteps and the aggression and violence she has to endure, are appalling. Notably her uncle Terry is the prototypical male white homophobic sexist racist. The shooter’s been active for a while, which infuriates the cops and even leads them to plant false evidence.  Maggie and Kate decide to take matters into their own hands. A dangerous idea. Slaughter’s writing is tight, as usual, the period details so well captured, the story is gripping. A remarkable achievement. It works as a crime novel and as a novel on the 70s, Atlanta, gender issues . . .  It’s shocking to think what women had to put up with to fulfill the dream of working in a male dominated  job. A word of warning—I’m not the most squeamish but there’s some violence in this book that was very hard to read and get out of my mind again.

Until It's Over

Everyone reading this blog knows how much I love the author duo Nicci French. I’m slowly reading my way through their novels. Surprisingly I wouldn’t have heard of Until It’s Over, if it hadn’t been mentioned by one of my readers a year ago (I’m really sorry I can’t remember who it was). I got it back then and kept it for later. A while ago, I read a review of it and that’s how I remembered I had it on my piles. I’m glad I read that review before reading the book because, with the wrong expectation, I might have been disappointed. They did something very unusual here. They wrote two distinct parts. Part one is told from the point of view of London Cycling Courier Astrid, part two from the point of view of the perpetrator. It wasn’t easy to adapt to part two because I loved part one so much. Astrid lives together with a group of friends in an old house, in an area of London that hasn’t bee gentrified yet. Suddenly people around her are murdered. What has it got to do with her? While the story is suspenseful, it’s not what I liked best. I liked to read about this group of friends who share a house. Loved the setting, which Nicci French captures so well- the bars, the parks, the houses. London is as much a character as the people. Part two is very good too, but I would have loved to go on reading from Astrid’s point of view. Once I had gotten used to the new narrator, I liked part two almost as much. I’ve read a lot of Nicci French’s novels. Some I loved, some I found OK; this was one of the best.

Chemistry of Death

The Chemistry of Death is another book that has been lying on my piles almost since it came out. For some reasons, I didn’t think I would like it because I got a bit tired of serial killer novels. In theory I would like them, because, for me, a great serial killer novel is like a realistic ghost or horror story. That’s why setting, atmosphere and mood are so important in this subgenre. Sadly, many authors just use the trope to avoid to have to dig for good reasons for murder and many of those “products” are as far from psychologically compelling as can be. However, there’s one thing I don’t like even in the best serial killer books —the showdown ending. All these books get frantic towards the end and there are recurring elements that are frankly annoying – e.g. hero/heroine tries to avoid killer and runs right into his arms. While The Chemistry of Death does have a formulaic ending, the rest of the book is so astonishingly well done, that it hasn’t only become one of the favourites of this year but I think it’s possibly one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. I loved the mourning, depressed narrator, loved, the almost gothic descriptions of murder scenes and locations. The atmosphere is brooding, haunting. Don’t be put of by the serial killer thing— this is so well written and atmospheric, it would be sad to miss it.

Have you read any of these? Does anyone know a good locked-room mystery?

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train (2015)

The Girl on the Train

Sometimes a negative review entices me to read a book. To be fair though, in the case of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, there were also a fair amount of positive reviews that made me want to read it. What I didn’t expect was that I would like it so much. I basically gobbled it down in a couple of sittings. For sure, the writing is very simple—present tense + short sentences + split narrative, short chapters, three narrators. Not exactly sophisticated writing. And, yes, the three women who tell this story have only one voice. Without chapter headings indicating when it’s Rachel’s, Megan’s or Anne’s turn to tell the story, we would hardly be able to guess. Their lives are different, some of their dysfunctions are different, but the tone and vocabulary is pretty much the same. And all three of them are not exactly role models.

There’s Rachel, the girl on the train. Every day she commutes to London, guzzling cans of pre-mixed gin and tonic, although she’s been unemployed for some time. The train always stops at the same place and she gets a good view of one of the houses. The young good-looking couple living there fascinates her. They remind her of herself and her ex-husband Tom with whom she used to live only a few houses farther down. While her obsessive interest in the couple is strange, it is far stranger that she’s willing to enter her fantasy world when she thinks she sees something shocking. I’m not going to write more as it’s a book that’s easily spoilt.

Why did I love it, you wonder? There are books that do nothing more than exploit an idea or an image. In this case: looking at people from a train and imagining their lives. I liked this idea a great deal. I would never spy on people with binoculars – a habit I find positively disgusting-, but I’m fascinated by the tiny glimpses of other people’s lives we can catch when we are on a train. I often wonder what kind of life they have, those people, frozen in a single moment of their lives, while I rush by. I could relate to Rachel’s fascination and understood how someone as dysfunctional and lonely would get caught up in her fantasies.

I also loved the novel because I found it very gripping. And very realistic. I’ve had the misfortune of meeting a Megan and an Anna. Also women like Rachel, only without her alcohol problems. One of the characters in particular reminded me of a girl I used to work with for a while. The moment a guy showed interest in someone else, had a girl friend or a wife, she had to fling herself at him.

The Girl on the Train is a page-turner that depicts certain aspects of our society like isolation, commuting, envy, and narcissism in a realistic way. It’s a bit like Gone Girl’s little sister, although the writing isn’t nearly as good. Still,  if you’re in the mood to gobble down a book and share my fascination with the small glimpses of other people’s lives you can catch while rushing by on a train – get it. It’s flawed but entertaining. Just one word of warning – the end is a bit disappointing.

After finishing it I picked up Renée Knights Disclaimer and was amused to see that the sticker on the book doesn’t say “The new Gone Girl” but “If You Liked The Girl on the Train“. I suspect in a few months it will say “The new Disclaimer“. I’m eager to find out which I will like better.

Nicci French: Thursday’s Child (2014)

Thursday's Children

I’ve been waiting to read Thursday’s Child, the fourth in the Frieda Klein series, until it came out in paperback. That happened just a few months before the fifth Friday on my Mind was published. It’s one of the rare series I’ve followed since the beginning. Here are the first three reviews Blue Monday – Tuesday’s Gone – Waiting for Wednesday

I think what surprised me the most, is that this book was so much better than the last and that it felt very fresh, and added a lot on Frieda’s private life and backstory.

Due to the nature of the crime she investigates, we learn a lot about Frieda’s past. Since Frieda is a psychotherapist, an old school friend contacts her because her daughter shows signs of distress. At first, Frieda is not willing to see the girl. For one, she wasn’t all that keen on her mother all those years ago and she’s not sure how she can help. In the end she accepts to see the girl anyway and what she hears is extremely shocking. Not only because something awful happened to the girl, but because what happened sounds exactly like something that happened to Frieda when she was the girls’ age.

Although Frieda’s left her hometown twenty years ago, hasn’t stayed in contact with any of her friends, and never spoke to her mother again, she decides to leave London and investigate what has happened to the girl – and maybe to herself. I’m one of those people who would never go to a school reunion and reading how Frieda went back and had to face her past, was an intense read. I also had a very complex relationship with my mother, and so, reading about her reunion with her mother was intense as well.

Unlike in most other Frieda Klein novels, London isn’t as important in this book as in the others, but it still plays a role. Frieda’s love life takes a surprising turn and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I wonder if it was necessary to handle it that way and I’m very curious to see where she goes from here.

While the crime element is solid and gripping, it’s not the only interesting narrative strand. Following Frieda as she faces her troubled past was well worth reading. That one of the perpetrators of the first books is still following Frieda, added another, creepy layer.

Something I don’t like in crime novels is when there’s a final showdown. It’s a typical element in most psychological thrillers and Nicci French has used it before. Not in this one. That’s why it felt fresher. Frieda also didn’t put herself as much in harm’s way as she did in other books. That was always an element that annoyed me because I felt it had less to do with Frieda than with creating suspense.

If you like the series, you shouldn’t miss this. It’s the second best so far. However, I wouldn’t recommend to start with this one. You would maybe still enjoy the crime story but the part about Frieda’s life would not be as interesting.

Elly Griffiths: The Crossing Places (2009) Ruth Galloway 1

The Crossing Places

Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places is the first novel in her Ruth Galloway series. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist, who lives and works in Norfolk. Ever since she participated in a dig ten years ago, she’s loved the marshes and is, since then, renting a cottage that overlooks an empty, wild landscape, and the North Sea.

This is a novel with a leisurely pace and Elly Griffiths takes a lot of time to introduce Ruth Galloway. I liked her right away. She’s a single woman, a bit on the clumsy side, and not exactly slim or very attractive. But that doesn’t make her a beggar when it comes to men. She doesn’t need anyone to feel whole and rather lives alone than in the wrong company. This was one of many character traits that made me like her instantly. And of course she’s an expert in her field.

The second main character in the series, DCI Harry Nelson, is likable in a gruff kind of way. The two complement each other rather nicely.

They first meet when human bones are discovered on the marshes and Nelson asks Ruth to identify them. Ten years ago, a little girl went missing. She was never found, but Nelson never gave up hope that they still might find her one day. Naturally, he assumes that these are her bones, but Ruth tells him they are over two thousand years old.

Shortly after this another small girl goes missing and Ruth is threatened. It looks as if she’s somehow roused the murderer and got in his way.

If, like me, you love your crime novels with a strong sense of place, then Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series is for you. It’s one of those, in which the setting is a character in its own right. The saltmarshes, the weather, the loneliness of the place, and the fauna, are all intricate parts of this book. But that’s not all this atmospheric book has to offer. Ruth is a great character and I’m curious to see how she will develop. Since she’s a forensic archaeologist, we learn a few things about archaeology, which I found interesting, although the way we learn about it, is a tad clumsy at times. But that’s really my only reservation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s not edge-of-your-seat gripping and, in spite of the many suspects, I thought it was pretty clear who was the bad guy, but that didn’t diminish the story one bit.

I have to admit that I’m partial to Elly Griffith’s choice of setting. I’ve been in Norfolk and loved it and the way she captures it is great.

I discovered the novel thanks to a review on Crimeworm. If you love crime and mystery it’s worth checking out her blog. You’ll discover some great books.