Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: OBLIVION by Arnaldur Indridason

OBLIVION by Arnaldur Indriðason (Vintage, 2015)

Reviewed by Grant Nicol

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia was the first Icelandic crime novel I ever picked up and read. I can’t remember exactly when that was but it feels like an awfully long time ago now and it's hard to believe that this is the eleventh book in his Reykjavík Murder Mysteries series. The eleventh translated into English anyway. When he first started writing crime fiction in the late 90s many people here in Iceland laughed at him as it had never really been done before and wasn’t taken at all seriously by the literary crowd on this little island.

My how times have changed.

In 2003, he had five novels on the Icelandic best-sellers list for a week and is the only author other than J.K. Rowling to simultaneously hold the top three spots. In 2004, his books were seven of the 10 most popular titles borrowed in Reykjavík City Library. He single-handedly launched Icelandic crime fiction as a legitimate international entity and since then it has not only joined the ranks of its Scandinavian counterparts but in many ways overtaken them with the hugely successful Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and the much more recent phenomenon Ragnar Jónasson. Other Icelandic crime writers to have been translated into English include Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson and Árni Þórarinsson who I am sure will be joined by the likes of Sólveig Pálsdóttir and Lilja Sigurðardóttir (no relation to Yrsa) in the not too distant future, such is the depth of talent here now.

In Oblivion we are once again heading back in time as we did in Reykjavík Nights. It’s 1979 and Erlendur and Marion Briem, his mysteriously genderless boss, are investigating the discovery of a body found sunken in a remote milky-blue pond that sounds suspiciously like the predecessor of today’s internationally famous ‘Blue Lagoon’ spa. The unlucky chap didn’t drown in the warm run-off water from the nearby Svartsengi power station though but rather died elsewhere after a fall from a great height before being dumped in the blue soup in an awkward attempt to hide his body from the world.

And if it hadn’t been for an imaginative psoriasis sufferer trying to relieve her itching arms he might just have stayed there until the recent tourist boom when he would have been charged retrospectively for all those hours spent lolling about at their precious resort. He is soon identified as one of the local contractors who work at the American Naval Air Station at Miðnesheiði where he had access to the enormous Hangar 885 that was designed to be large enough to hold even the mighty B-36 bombers.Iceland’s relationship with their American ‘friends’ is strained at the best of times and this really puts their ability to work together to the test. A number of conspiracy theories emerge as motives for the murder involving America’s intelligence agencies, illegal movement of weapons, nuclear deterrents and an airbase in Greenland. Hangar 885 seems to be the most exciting and dangerous place in the whole country and with the help of an outsider on the inside Erlendur and Marion are determined to get to the bottom of it all.

As if he doesn’t already have enough to do Erlendur is also obsessed with a cold case that dates back to the days of the American barracks on the site of the modern day Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pools. Once the Americans abandoned the barracks they became ghetto housing for impoverished locals known as Camp Knox (Kamp Knox was the original title of the book). When he’s not chasing shadows at the secretive air-base he’s reopening old wounds with questions about the disappearance of Dagbjört on her way to school past Camp Knox one day. There’s a creepy connection reminiscent of a scene in ‘American Beauty’ with her oddball neighbour Rasmus but no real leads of any sort to go on apart from an alleged boyfriend from the ‘Camp’. This doesn’t deter Erlendur in the slightest because he’s not the sort of guy who gives up on anything. Elsewhere in the country two men are lost in a blizzard bringing back painful memories of Erlendur’s childhood for him. A theme that is revisited in the later books and which plays a central role in the detective’s psyche.

Indriðason’s writing is short and clipped in the same way that Ellroy’s is but without the alliteration and epoch-defining colloquialisms. It’s simple, sometimes disarmingly so, and that is why it works so well. Good crime fiction needs straightforward ideas and short sentences. There are very few writers in this genre who deliver such consistent quality as this guy does and this book is no exception. I used to read his books so that I would learn something about Iceland until the day came when I would finally make the place my home. I’m living here now and I’m still learning about the history of the place from him. Just another reason why I love this guy’s books so much.

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Grant Nicol is a New Zealand crime writer living in Reykjavik, Iceland. 
You can follow him at his blog 'My Little Pile of Rocks' or on Twitter: @GrantNicol1

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: CONTAINMENT

CONTAINMENT by Vanda Symon (Penguin, 2009)

Reviewed by Kerrie Smith

When the container ship the Lauretia Express runs aground near Dunedin and spills containers across the Aramoana sands the city's normally staid and law abiding denizens turn out in force to apply their own rules of salvage. Detective Constable Sam Shepherd can't believe the pillage she is witnessing. Nor does she expect to be walloped when she intervenes in a squabble between two looters. To complicate things Sam's assailant very nearly dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and Sam saves his life.

One of the containers held a well-documented antique collection, now widely dispersed, which the owner is anxious to recover. The discovery a week or so later of a body in the sea off Aramoana, with all the signs of foul play, adds another complicating element.

And if work is not complicated enough, Sam's personal life hypes up a notch when her boyfriend announces he has applied to come to work in Dunedin, and she's not at all sure she wants him that close.

Containment is the third instalment in Vanda Symon's Sam Shepherd series. I thought there were elements of humour in this one that I had not noticed in the earlier novels, Overkill and The Ringmaster. Sam Shepherd is a likeable, feisty character who doesn't always make the wisest decisions. She is constantly in trouble with her section boss DI Johns, but then she often causes headaches for him.

I must admit there were times when I wondered if a detective constable would really behave that way, would really  take that action on herself, but those slight stretches of credibility aside, Containment is a well plotted page turner. I like the way the character of Sam Shepherd is developing and I think New Zealander Vanda Symon is an author well worth keeping an eye on. There is a fourth book in the series, Bound.

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Kerrie Smith is a renowned Australian crime fiction reviewer and the creator of Mysteries in Paradise, an outstanding online crime fiction resource where this review was originally published. She also runs the Global Reading Challenge. Kerrie has been kindly agreed to share her New Zealand crime fiction reviews here with the Crime Watch audience.  

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

9mm interview: Stephen Booth

The Peak District is a gorgeous national park a few hours north of London, picturesquely desolate in parts, filled with an assortment of stark rock formations, verdant scenery, intriguing caverns, quaint historic villages, and a very different kind of life to that of the crushes of humanity in the UK's larger cities. I recently had an opportunity to visit, and similarly to when I've travelled elsewhere, from Buenos Aires to Bangkok, Istanbul to Iceland, I hunted down some locally set crime fiction.

Recently, Sarah Ward has deservedly been getting attention for her debut IN BITTER CHILL, a classic intriguing mystery set in the Peak District. But there is another local author who has been setting some outstanding crime novels in what is a lovely region for more than a decade: Stephen Booth.

A former journalist (he started as a rugby reporter), Booth debuted his acclaimed series starring young Derbyshire detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry back in 2000, with BLACK DOG. In that book Cooper, a local, teams up with Fry, and outsider recently moved into the area, to solve the death of a young woman whose body is discovered by a recalcitrant miner. The book was widely praised, won the Barry Award for Best British Crime, and the famous Reginald Hill hailed it as the birth of a crime writing star.

This year, Booth released the fifteenth title in the Cooper and Fry series, MURDER ROAD. Over the years the series has earned Booth the CWA Dagger in the Library, as well as further wins or short-listings for the Barry, Anthony, Gold Dagger, and Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Awards. But for now, Stephen Booth becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.

9MM INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN BOOTH

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective, and what is it you love about them?
I suppose everyone mentions Sherlock Holmes? He was my introduction to crime fiction as a reader. Holmes is such an enduring character that he’s gained a kind of immortality and is open to continual reinterpretation. As an author, there’s nothing better to hope for than having your characters live on for many years after you’re gone. More recently, my favourites have included John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick, Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks, Aline Templeton’s Marjory Fleming, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. I like any strong, believable central character with the potential to drive a series.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Strangely, the first novel I can remember reading was George Eliot’s ‘Silas Marner’. That was mostly because it was the only novel we had in the house when I was a child. But it made a big impression on me, and encouraged me to seek out more and more books from my local public library. I became a big science fiction fan at an early age, and adored the books of a rather forgotten British SF writer called Eric Frank Russell, particularly ‘Wasp’ and ‘Next of Kin’. Unlike most of the science fiction being written then, they were wry and funny. They’re probably rather dated now, though.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Far too much! I began writing at a very young age – pretty much as soon as I could read, I think. I started with short stories, then wrote my first novel when I was about 13 years old. It felt so satisfying that I knew it was what I wanted to do when I grew up. But I knew I couldn’t just leave school and become a novelist, so I went into newspaper journalism because it was a way of earning a living by writing. I was happy doing that until the newspaper business changed, and I wanted to get out. Even so, I produced six unpublished manuscripts before I wrote the first Cooper & Fry novel ‘Black Dog’ - and that changed everything. So I’ve actually earned my living by writing and editing for over 40 years, and I’ve never done anything else. I think I’m very lucky to be able to say that, especially as I’m now living my childhood dream of being a full-time novelist.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
My main leisure activity has always been walking in the countryside. It’s great to get outdoors when you work on a screen all day, and I’m lucky to live near some beautiful and inspiring landscapes. In fact, this is how I first fell in love with the area I write about, the Peak District, which has become such a feature in the Cooper & Fry series. Many readers will also know that I used to breed dairy goats as a hobby (it still appears in my bio on some book covers as one of those quirky author details). I always found them fascinating and productive animals, with great personalities. At one time, I was at shows every weekend during the summer, and became a judge myself. When I was a journalist, it was so relaxing to come home after a stressful day in the office and milk the goats. I think everyone should have a hobby that is as far away as possible from the day job. It helps to keep you grounded.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I live in a small rural village, which you could walk through in a few minutes. But the area I write about, the Peak District, has lots of hidden places off the beaten track. Not far from my fictional town of Edendale, there’s a place called Castleton, which sits on top of a huge cave system. For something unique, I’d recommend an underground boat ride through the tunnels to reach the Bottomless Pit. You do need to descend 105 very steep stone steps down to the caves, though. And preferably you shouldn’t suffer from claustrophobia.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Heart throb Aidan Turner (of ‘Poldark’ fame) could definitely play the younger me. But the older me is a role for an ancient character actor like Bernard Cribbins (or so my wife says).

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite, and why?
Of course I have a big soft spot for the first Cooper & Fry novel Black Dog, because it literally changed my life. But as writers we like to think we improve over time. I tend to put a book out of my mind as soon as I start writing the next one, so it’s always the latest book I feel closest to. Right now, that’s The Murder Road, which I really liked the ideas and characters for when I was writing it. It’s also moving the series in a new direction, which is a great feeling.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form?
It took me a long time to accept that it was actually happening. It all felt so unreal. My agent ran an auction in the UK for that first book, and she had three publishers bidding against each other. I was still working at my day job on a local newspaper while it all happened down in London, so it seemed to have nothing to do with me. My boss at the time was the kind of guy who was always talking about the novel he was writing – though we all knew he would never finish it. But I said nothing until the day I could walk into work and say “Oh by the way, I’ve just signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins.” That was a good feeling!

But I’m not sure I really believed it until I got the finished book in my hands 12 months later. Holding that physical book with my name on the cover was an enormous thrill, and I’ve never got over that feeling. It’s still the most exciting thing in the world, even after 14 more books.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
There have been many! I once agreed to auction myself for charity at the Bouchercon mystery convention in the USA and ended up taking two ladies out for lunch who’d bid the highest amount for me. They seemed to enjoy themselves, because they said I was worth every cent!


Thank you Stephen. We appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch 

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Have you read Booth's Cooper and Fry series? What do you think of the Peak District as a crime setting? Share your thoughts in the comment section. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Win a personally signed copy of a cracking Kiwi novel


Readers from around the world have the opportunity to win personally autographed copies of this year's Ngaio Marsh Award finalists, as the "Reading Kiwi Crime" competition kicks off for 2015. 

Going into the draw to win is simple: all you need to do is take a picture of yourself reading any New Zealand crime, mystery, or thriller title - from old classics like Ngaio Marsh, Fergus Hume, Elizabeth Messenger and Laurie Mantell, to the latest from award winners like Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, and Neil Cross. Then share it with the Award organisers by:
  1. Tweeting the pic and tagging @ngaiomarshaward; OR
  2. Posting the pic to the Ngaio Marsh Award Facebook page; OR
  3. Emailing the pic to ngaiomarshaward@gmail.com. 
If you follow the Award's twitter account or like the Facebook page, you'll get a bonus entry in the draw.

The prize winner(s) will be drawn following the announcement of the Ngaio Marsh Award winner, likely on or around 4 October 2015. The more entries we get, the more winners there will be. 

Just to clarify: the book in your photo doesn't have to be set in New Zealand, just written by an author connected to New Zealand (citizen, resident, grew up here, etc). If you're scratching your head for choices, here's a long list of possibilities.

So grab something from your shelf or hit your local bookstore or library, and get snapping.

Ngaio Marsh Award on Twitter

Rather belatedly, the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel now has a Twitter account, so if you want to keep up with the news and happenings in relation to Kiwi crime, mystery, and thriller writing that's a great place to do so. Look us up on Twitter: @ngaiomarshaward. 

Crime Watch will continue to publish and curate great content about New Zealand crime, mystery, and thriller writing, but moving forward there will be more of a focus on analysis and reviews, features, and op-ed columns like last weeks's "10 Kiwi Crime Writers Who Should be Chained Up..." piece.

Breaking news, awards, and events news will feature more on Twitter and the Ngaio Marsh Award Facebook page in future. Although as Crime Watch evolves (a new look is coming) there will be Facebook or Twitter feeds of such news in the new sidebar.

Click here to go to the Ngaio Marsh Award Twitter page, and here for the Facebook page. Join the discussion! And say kia ora, hi, gidday or hello to New Zealand crime writing on social media.

Monday, July 27, 2015

9mm interview: Alan Carter

While the United States and the United Kingdom are the traditional powerhouses of crime writing, in recent decades booklovers have slowly become more aware of the cornucopia of talented authors from other countries.

Plenty has been written about the Scandinavians, while the likes of France's Fred Vargas had a lock on the International Dagger for a while, but it's not just novels in translation where gems are found. Friends, look to the antipodes: Australian and New Zealand authors are penning tales amongst the best in the world. We're often the harshest critics of that with which we're most familiar, but stepping back a little, I'm continually impressed by the depth and breadth of the crime, mystery, and thriller storytelling from both countries.

So today, I'm very pleased to welcome Alan Carter, a crime writer who calls both Australia and New Zealand home, to Crime Watch. Alan was born in Sunderland (northern England), but immigrated to Australia twenty-five years ago. He announced himself on the crime writing scene in 2011, with PRIME CUT, which introduced fascinating investigator DS Phillip 'Cato' Kwong, an Australian of Asian heritage. Kwong's on the outs with his superiors, demoted to the Stock Squad, digging into animal deaths on farms in Western Australia. He discovers a juicier case when an unidentified torso washes up onshore - no one else cares, they're too caught up with all the troubles in a mining town.

The book went on to win the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel, and Alan has since continued the series with GETTING WARMER (2013) and BAD SEED (2015). I recently met Alan at Crimefest Bristol, and today he becomes the 125th author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.

9MM INTERVIEW WITH ALAN CARTER

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?  
DC Paul Winter from Graham Hurley's Portsmouth-set 'Faraday & Winter' series. From the moment he's introduced in Turnstone, one of the best character introducing paragraphs I've ever read, I was hooked. He's amoral, funny, resourceful and very effective. But no matter how far over the line he steps you know he's ultimately on the side of the angels - even if they'd prefer it if he wasn't.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?  
Alistair MacLean's When Eight Bells Toll. I read it when i was about 11 or 12 and saw the movie with a very young Anthony Hopkins in the lead role. Thrown straight into the thick of things from page one with a bloke describing in detail the history of the big gun being pointed at him.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?  
Nothing.  Although in my day job I'd been writing narration for two decades worth of TV documentaries, some cheesy, some less so.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?  
I do a fair bit of ocean swimming, not fast but dogged, and I'm recently cycled from Lands End to John O’Groats - it's a mid-life crisis thing.  A Dwight Yoakam song comes to mind, "a thousand miles of misery".

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?  
Hometown?  Home in WA is Fremantle: take a six-pack or a nice bottle of red up on to Monument Hill and watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean and glance off the dockside cranes of the port. In New Zealand, it's Havelock - get an inner tube and jump into the Wakamarina River and float down to the Trout Hotel at Canvastown.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?  
It'd be pretty tough, they'd have to pull off a Geordie (Northeast England) accent, but I hear Sir Ian Mckellen is quite good. He might need to buff up a bit though.  And eat a few pies.

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?  
While I'll always have a soft spot for my first, Prime Cut, I have to choose my latest – Bad Seed. As well as digging deeper into my hero's character and getting kinda deep, I've also had a whole lot more fun with some of the support characters, So much so that I’m thinking of a spin-off series based on one of them.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?  
It was a blast hearing first of all I was to be published as I'd never written it with that expectation.  And then seeing it on the bookshelves in the shops, I still have to check myself from doing something really sad and pathetic like going up to the shop assistant and saying - hey, that's me!  Celebration? I think alcohol might have been involved, in moderation.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?  
Like many authors, I draw some of my inspiration from real life people or events so inevitably that's going to come home to roost at some point. For both Prime Cut and Getting Warmer I've had people come up to me and say they know the person upon whom the fictional killer is based, and I’d thought the original cases had been pretty obscure. The Bad Seed killer is a complete fabrication so fingers crossed.


Thank you Alan. We appreciate you taking the time to chat with Crime Watch

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Have you read Alan Carter's Cato Kwong novels? Please share your thoughts with a comment. 

Bloodied in Scotland


Congratulations to the six authors whose books have today been announced as the shortlist for the Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year. Add these to your TBR pile; fantastic storytelling.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Review: A MAN LAY DEAD

The first edition cover of Ngaio's first novel,
published by Geoffrey Bles in 1934
A MAN LAY DEAD by Ngaio Marsh (1934)

Reviewed by Kerrie Smith 

This is Ngaio Marsh's debut novel, a classic country house party murder mystery, where the reader is tempted to map the location of all of the characters at the location of the murder. Nigel Bathgate, with his cousin Charles Rankin, is attending his first houseparty at Frampton. He has heard these houseparties hosted by Sir Hubert Handesley are both "original" and unpretentious. There will seven or eight guests, and, upon arrival, he learns that the main event will be a Murder. Sir Hubert has his own rules for the Murder Game, and eventually a murder there is, but not the theatrically staged one they have anticipated.

This is not Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn's first murder case, although it is Ngaio Marsh's first novel. Alleyn is already a seasoned detective, with a reputation for thorough and careful sleuthing. His reputation preceds him. He arrives at Frampton from Scotland Yard the morning after the murder. The body has already been moved, and the local constabulary and the police doctor are already in attendance.

In essence what Marsh does in this first novel is establish some of the characteristics which will become Alleyn's "signature" in subsequent novels. Alleyn does not appear as the other characters expect a detective to be. He is tall, cultured, detached, thorough, and objective. He professes to have a poor memory and keeps a small note book of important facts, with an alphabetical index. We learn that Alleyn is an Oxford man who initially became a diplomat, before turning to policing. He likes to inspect things first hand, and likes to reconstruct events until he gets them right. He may also lay traps for suspects. In A MAN LAY DEAD he decides one of the characters is innocent, and then uses him as his "Watson", not only involving him in some of the sleuthing, but also as a sounding board for his deductions. Thus we see the action often through two sets of eyes, both Alleyn's and the other characters.

This is an interesting novel as Marsh has included the element of "the Russian threat". First of all there is the Russian dagger with which the victim is stabbed, then the Russian butler who disappears, the house guest who is a Russian espionage agent, and then the Russian secret society that binds them all together. A MAN LAY DEAD was published in 1934 and is indicative of the fear of Russian communism that had had Europe in its thrall for the previous decade or so.

Ngaio Marsh is a New Zealander but this novel puts her right into the vein of the Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. It is a British cozy murder mystery through and through. In A MAN LAY DEAD she is exploring a classic scenario, and bringing a new sleuth onto the crime fiction scene. There is no hint of her Antipodean origins. The language, the slang, the setting are thoroughly British.

From a 21st century point of view A MAN LAY DEAD has survived eight decades pretty well. We wouldn't put it at the top of the tree these days, because there are things that date it. Marsh was more concerned to write a carefully constructed whodunnit, and not so taken with "why". Nevertheless it is very readable.

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Kerrie Smith is a renowned Australian crime fiction reviewer and the creator of Mysteries in Paradise, an outstanding online crime fiction resource where this review was originally published. She also runs the Global Reading Challenge. Kerrie has been kindly agreed to share her New Zealand crime fiction reviews here with the Crime Watch audience.  

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