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

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)

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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.

 

Agnes Ravatn: The Bird Tribunal (2016) – Fugletribunalet (2013)

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Agnes Ravatn is a Norwegian journalist, essayist and short story writer. The prize-winning crime novel The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet) is her second novel.

Allis has done something terrible. What it is we’ll only learn later in the book. We only now it’s something shameful and it made her leave her life and her husband behind. Since she was a public figure, many people know about it and she’s scared of being recognized in the streets. That’s why she applies for a job as a housekeeper and gardener for the summer in a remote house on a fjord.  To her surprise, her employer, Sigur Bagge, isn’t elderly but a 44-year-old man. He says that he needs help while his wife is away.

Sigur’s age isn’t the only thing that surprises Allis. She’s also puzzled by the way he wants them to live together. Strictly apart. She’s to prepare his food but eat on her own, after he’s finished. She is not do disturb him or talk with him.

Allis isn’t used to so much isolation but at first she plays along. In a way, it’s even soothing. She’s too glad he doesn’t know her or her story and that his way of life allows her to stay hidden. As much as Sigur may want them to stay apart, it’s difficult when you share a house and they finally get to know each other anyway. Allis is glad but at the same time there are so many things that make her uneasy that she’s not sure the new situation is really a blessing.

This book is so eerie. It made me feel uncomfortable from the beginning. The last thing I would want, is to share an isolated house with a brooding, taciturn stranger. Not even the descriptions of the beautiful fjord made me ever forget what this would be like. And in Allis’ situation at that. She’s really done herself a huge disservice in doing what she did back home. Her life is shattered and the things she did has left her very vulnerable. While she hopes things can only get better, the reader senses from the beginning that the house on the fjord might not be a safe haven. There are too many sinister indications that something’s wrong, and that Sigur might be hiding a secret of his own.

fugletribunalet

Agnes Ravatn does a great job at creating an eerie atmosphere. I also liked how she uses foreshadowing and the way she infuses her story with dream segments and stories of Nordic mythology.

The Bird Tribunal is a claustrophobic story, dark and mysterious, and held me captivated until the end.

I discovered The Bird Tribunal on Raven Crime’s end of year list, which is a list I look forward to every year. As he focusses on crime, his list is dangerous. It always makes me buy books.

Keigo Higashino: The Devotion of Suspect X – Yôgisha X no kenshin (2005)

the-devotion-of-suspect-x

Every year I want to participate in Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge but most of the time I miss it. This year I thought I won’t make plans but if I happen to read Japanese literature, I will join spontaneously. Towards the end of December I felt the urge to read Japanese literature. I enjoyed my first book so much, that I’ve already read two other Japanese books. One is nonfiction, one is literary fiction, and this one, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, is a crime novel. I’d bought the German translation of this book a year ago, but only remembered it when I came across the review of another of Higashino’s novels, Malice, on Guy’s blog. I’m so glad, I finally read it. What a fantastic novel. Unusual and surprising and with such a special atmosphere. I was almost sad when it was finished.

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The premise is original. For once it’s not a “whodunnit” nor a “whydunnit” but rather a “will they get away with it”. We know from the beginning who is the murderess and why she committed the crime. Yasuko, who works in a bento shop, has killed her violent ex-husband. The only witness is her twelve year old daughter. Or so she thinks. Soon she finds out that there’s another witness – her neighbour Ishigami. She knows Ishigami by sight. Every morning, before work, he buys a bento in the shop where she works. The owners think it’s funny. They are sure he’s got a crush on her. Yasuko never even thought about it. She’s happy she’s left her ex-husband behind and doesn’t work in a bar anymore. Her life with her daughter, her work at the bento shop, fulfill her. She’s not interested in men. Ishigami has heard the fight through the thin walls and interpreted correctly that Yasuko killed her husband in self-defence. Because her daughter is in part responsible for the killing, she doesn’t want to go to the police and Ishigami tells her that he will take care of it. He will provide her with the perfect alibi.

When the dead man’s found near a river, the police soon question Yasuko and her daughter. For some reason they suspect her. But almost every element of the alibi holds up. The police also find out about Ishigami and his infatuation, and so the two are scrutinized even more closely. The detective who is in charge of the murder investigation is friends with a famous physician Dr. Yukawa. When he tells him of the investigation, they find out, that Yukawa and Ishigami used to be friends. Intrigued, Yukawa contacts Ishigami. At first he wants to renew their friendship but then he starts to suspect something and starts his own investigation.

The story is multilayered and told from different perspectives. It’s also psychologically complex. This complexity is part of the mystery. Yasuko meets Kudo, someone from her days at the bar, and begins a relationship with him. As soon as this happens, everything shifts. There’s the fear Ishigami may betray her out of jealousy. The police suspect her again because they think maybe her new lover helped her get rid of her ex-husband. And Ishigami is afraid that she might tell Kudo something.

The whole time, the reader wonders how Ishigami did it. How could he provide them with such an alibi? The end was very different from what I expected. It had two twists I didn’t see coming. While the book works as a crime novel, it’s just as good on many other levels. The characters are unusual and well-rounded. The relationships are complex and interesting. Ishigami, who’s the first narrator, is by far the most intriguing protagonist. Not only because he helps Yasuko, but because of everything else we find out about him. Not an everyday character by any means. It feels like they are all trapped in a web, and every tiny movement, affects them all. Even the police. The possible outcome, the course of the investigation is much more important for the detective than it usually is in a crime novel, because his best friend begins to investigate as well.

The Devotion of Suspect X is a very clever novel. It’s as subtle as it is complex, told in a cool tone and infused with a gentle, melancholic mood. I absolutely loved it.

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The review is my first contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.