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.

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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)

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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.

Gil North: Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm (1960)

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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.

Ursula P. Archer aka Ursula Poznanski: Five – Fünf (2013)

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Last year I read Ursula Poznanski’s YA thriller Erebos and liked it a great deal. When Lizzy mentioned that one of Poznanski’s crime novels for adults had been translated, I knew I had to read it. Not that I read it in English, of course not, but it’s always nicer to review books that have been translated.

Five – Fünf, the first in a series, introduces detectives Bea Kaspary and Florin Weininger of the Landeskriminalamt in Salzburg, Austria. They have been called to an unusual crime scene – a cow pasture. A woman has been found dead. Her hands tied in the back. She has been thrown from a small mountain overlooking the pasture. On the soles of her feet, they find a tatoo of strange numbers, which turn out to be coordinates. Those will lead them to a severed hand and more co-ordinates, which lead to another body part and other coordinates. The second set of coordinates aren’t added in the same straightforward manner as the first. They can only be found after the detectives solve a riddle for which they need to find someone. As if finding body parts wasn’t bad enough, the people who are the clues to solve the riddles, get killed as soon as they have been found by the police.

Five is very well done. It’s extremely suspenseful and, like in her YA novels, Ursula Poznanski/Archer uses a type of game or hobby – in this instance geocaching. I’d never heard of it but it seems that the author herself is a dedicated geocacher. Geocaching uses coordinates and hiding places. On a website you find coordinates and can then hunt a hidden object. The objects are often hidden in beautiful places. So it’s a bit of a mix between hiking and some sort of treasure hunt. It’s a trademark of Poznanski’s writing to use such modern-day games/technology as a base—computer games, live role-playing, drones . . .

I can’t say too much but although this sounds like a serial killer story, it’s not. Nonetheless, it’s quite gruesome in places.

Since this is the beginning of a series, the characters are very important. The detectives are very likable and well drawn. Bea is a mom of two, newly divorced from a bullying husband and still deeply traumatized by something that happened in her past. Florin is single but just started to date someone. That’s important because Bea clearly has a bit of crush on him. They work very well together, are almost friends. Bea is rather unconventional and gets into trouble with her superiors while Florin looks out for her and defends her.

One could call Five a crime novel with thriller elements. It’s very suspenseful and should appeal to many different crime readers – those who prefer thrillers, those who like a mystery, and those who love police procedurals. It has Poznanksi’s trademark mix of likable characters, impeccable pacing and contemporary feel. None of her novels could have been set at another time. I like that. She explores many themes in this book but they are tied so closely into the motive for the murder that I cannot say too much. If you’re looking for a suspenseful page-turner and love crime series, give this one a try.

If you’d like to find out more about geocaching – here’s a link.

Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad (2016)

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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.