Tag Archives: crime fiction

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire: A crime novel for those who don’t read crime

Cover imageI spotted An Isolated Incident on Twitter and liked the look of it but thought it might be too much of a crime novel for me. My appetite for crime fiction is more than sated by TV. Then it turned up in the post, sent by Eye Books the tiny publisher who’ve released it here in the UK, which sealed the reviewing deal for me. Set in smalltown Australia, Emily Maguire’s Stella Prize shortlisted novel begins with the discovery of a body but it’s about very much more than that.

Chris’ beloved sister Bella has been missing for almost two days when she opens the door to a young policeman, confirming her worst fears. Both sisters were brought up by their drunken mother with a string of violent boyfriends, a grim childhood from which Bella emerged unscathed. Whereas Chris earns a little on the side, taking truckers home from the pub where she works, Bella’s reputation is pristine. Chris is soon besieged by media and rubberneckers, held at arms’ length by her protective ex-husband. One young crime reporter arrives ahead of the media posse, desperate to flee an unhappy break-up. May sniffs around Strathdee, picking up snippets of gossip and weaving them into a narrative that fits her angle. As the month between the discovery of Bella’s corpse and the trial of her murderer wears on, May becomes closely involved with Chris, at first determined to nail an exclusive interview then offering support as Chris’ fragile mental state unravels. By the time the novel ends, May will have understood that what may have been one case amongst many for her has devastated Chris’ life.

Set against the backdrop of a misogynistic society in which violence against women is almost routinely perpetrated, Maguire’s novel explores the effects of a murder on the family of the victim and the community in which they live, and it’s riveting. Both Chris and May are strong, expertly drawn characters. Intense pressure from the media, opportunists keen to exploit Bella’s case as part of their cause and plain old smalltown gossip is stitched through Chris’ first-person narrative balanced by May’s investigations and examination of her own motives. Maguire neatly avoids the prurient, reflecting what’s happened to Bella through Chris’ shock and grief rather than feeding her readers graphic details. Apparently, An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Prize for Best Crime Novel in Maguire’s native Australia but it seems to me to be much more than a crime novel, putting a mirror up to society and finding it sadly lacking rather than simply solving a murder. Come to think of it that’s what the best TV crime drama does. Maybe I should explore the genre a little more.

Blasts from the Past: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (2002)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I first heard about The Cutting Room when I began what turned into a decade-long stint as the reviews editor for Waterstones Books Quarterly. It was one of those books that everyone seemed to talking about. I was a little out of touch having suffered a prolonged bout of ill-health but suspected it wouldn’t be for me, more in my crime fiction loving colleague’s neck of the woods. Not for the first time, nor the last, I was completely wrong: it’s a strikingly assured debut which immediately had me in its grip.

Bowery Auctions is close to bankruptcy when its auctioneer is offered an opportunity that will pull it back from the brink – clearing a house stuffed with precious objects. Rilke agrees to do the job despite the owner’s insistence that it must be completed within a week and that only he must deal with the attic which he finds full of rare pornographic books. He’s not a squeamish man – his own habits are somewhat promiscuous – but the discovery of photographs depicting sexual torture and what may be a murder committed many years ago appalls him. He begins an investigation that takes him into the murkiest areas of Glasgow in search of the truth. Welsh’s novel explores the depths of human depravity as it draws towards a shocking and sobering denouement.

I’ve said this so many times before about so many authors but Welsh never quite matched her first novel for me and is now launched on a dystopian series which does not appeal one jot. Never mind, I’m sure The Cutting Room would stand up to a reread.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Bit of an uncharacteristic choice for me, this one: not only is it a piece of crime fiction but it’s extraordinarily gruesome in places. It was the idea of an alienist brought into to apply newly developed psychological ideas and techniques to the case that fascinated me – a nineteenth-century Cracker, if you will.

Against a New York backdrop – that, of course, was the other draw – The Alienist follows the investigation of a set of murders on Manhattan’s Lower East Side thought to be the work of a serial killer. Dr Laszlo Kreizler and the team set about putting together a psychological profile of the murderer, investigating his victims in an attempt to understand what he has done to them and what motivated him, a revolutionary idea given the prevalent belief at the time that killers were born not made. The novel is peopled with historical figures, from Theodore Roosevelt who takes an active interest in the case to J. P. Morgan, and is replete with period detail reflecting Caleb Carr’s scholarly training. It’s a gripping atmospheric novel. I remember being absolutely riveted by it although I never did get around to reading Carr’s sequel, The Angel of Death.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1985-6)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy used to be a handy bellwether for me when talking to bookish acquaintances not yet friends. Enthusiasm might well lead to friendship, blank looks or – worse – annoyance might make me think twice. Of course, this doesn’t always hold true – H can’t stand it and we’re still together. The first thing you should know is that it’s a piece of metafiction and if you’re one of those readers who thinks that kind of thing is too tricksily clever for its own good, best move on.

City of Glass is the first of the three novels. Its protagonist is a crime writer who becomes a private investigator, later driven mad by his inability to solve a crime. Ghosts is about a private eye bored to the point of insanity by his surveillance of his writer subject while The Locked Room, whose title refers to a literary device in early detective fiction, is about a blocked writer who discovers his old friend’s unpublished fiction and not only publishes it but takes his missing friend’s place in his family. Each of the novels is closely interconnected with the others. It’s all about identity, writing and the many-layered nature of reality: Paul Austers abound in the first novel – a particular bugbear of H’s – and the second’s protagonists are all named after colours.

I’ve read all three novels several times over the years but not for a while, it has to be said. Writing about them now, I wonder if I’d feel quite so passionately as I did all those years ago although I still have a very soft spot for metafiction as my reading of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 last year reminded me.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Arab Jazz by Karim Miské (transl. by Sam Gordon): Razor-sharp observation in the 19th arrondissement

Cover imageRegular visitors to this blog might be surprised to find me reading a crime novel let alone reviewing one but Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz seemed so prescient given the shocking events in Paris last month that it piqued my interest, as did Marina’s excellent review at findingtimetowrite. The title is, of course, a nod to James Ellroy’s White Jazz – even I can work that one out. So here it is: what may well be my first crime fiction review.

Set in the 19th arrondissement – home to the Charlie Hebdo assassins – with the odd foray to Brooklyn, it opens with the murder of Laura, an air stewardess with a passion for orchids looked after during her many absences by Ahmed who lives in the apartment below. Ahmed becomes aware of something awry when a few drops of blood fall on to his balcony, then he notices a foot at an odd angle. Using his keys, he enters Laura’s apartment to find a particularly grisly murder scene which looks like a ritual killing. Ahmed knows what to do – he’s a man who buys crime fiction by the kilo from the Armenian second-hand book dealer just around the corner. He makes sure any evidence of his presence is expunged, destroys his blood-spotted djellaba and reports the murder. Soon he’s being questioned by two police lieutenants – one an absent-minded Breton, the other a particularly attractive Jewish woman who reminds him of his first love. Neither of them thinks he did it but it’s their job to find out who did.

I may be a rookie crime reviewer but I’m well aware that too much plot is a no-no. Suffice to say the hunt for Laura’s murderer takes in a Muslim/Jewish rap band, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Rastafarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, bent coppers, illicit sky-blue pills and the beginning of a love story. Miské takes a well-aimed pop at religious fundamentalism, wrapping up all three Abrahamic religions in the big fat metaphor of Godzwill, a drug that makes you feel positively divine. The Parisian police force also comes in for a severe bashing balanced by the two thoroughly likeable investigating detectives, in particular Rachel who is determined to see that justice is done. Clues are strewn along the way, clicking the scattered parts of the plot pleasurably into place. At times a little cartoon like in its depiction of the various villains, the novel has a nice vein of sly wit running through it. It seemed to me to stand up well as a crime novel but its forte is its sharp social observation, taking a scalpel to modern society and its many disparate elements. Sadly timely – there’s even a throwaway comment about Charlie Hebdo – this is Miské’s debut and it’s already won an English Pen award. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a few more accolades heading its way.