Norwegian, Scottish and English crime … with a hint of Hitchcock

My crime reading has been quite varied recently. I’m picking books more or less at random, depending on my mood and what crosses my path courtesy of publishers or charity shop finds. My last three have been about as different from one another it’s possible to be, but all have been excellent (if sometimes unsettling) reads. I’ll start with the most recent one and then move back in time.

Hans Olav Lahlum’s The Human Flies (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Mantle, 2014 [2010]) sounds like a horror film that’s best avoided after a large meal. However, it turns out to be something quite different: a well-constructed and witty homage to the classic crime fiction of Agatha Christie, set in 1968 Oslo, which has some interesting historical depth. Featuring ambitious young police detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen on his first big case – the murder of a former resistance fighter – readers are treated to an apartment building of intriguing suspects and a page-turning investigation, as well as the considerable intellect of Kristiansen’s wheelchair-bound partner Patricia. I hugely enjoyed this ‘contemporary classic’ and look forward to reading the other novels in the K2 series soon. (Something a little different for us to consider for the 2015 Petrona Award as well…)

Thanks to the good people at Canongate, I’ve now been properly introduced to the work of Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney, who’s highly regarded by luminaries such as Ian Rankin and Denise Mina. The first in the ‘Laidlaw Trilogy’, named for its engaging lead investigator, maverick policeman Jack Laidlaw, was originally published in 1977, and paints a detailed picture of Glaswegian society through its exploration of a young woman’s murder. The novel’s characterisation is complex and sensitive, and shows tremendous sympathy for those marginalised by their social status or sexuality in a less enlightened era. I imagine it would have broken new ground in the 1970s, and it’s stood the test of time extremely well. McIlvanney, who’s a versatile writer and poet, is appearing at this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival.

Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley Cox), was a Golden Age crime writer whose novel Before the Fact appeared in 1932 (republished by Arcturus in 2011). There’s no genial private investigator in sight, however. Instead, we’re plunged into an unsettling psychological thriller, narrated by Lina McLaidlaw, a plain but wealthy woman married to the charming but worryingly amoral Johnny Aysgarth. As time goes by, Lina’s suspicions that Johnny is capable of murder grow, and she fears she’ll be next on his list. But is she just being paranoid? While dated in some respects, the novel holds good as an astute dissection of power relations and abusive relationships, and has one of the most unsettling endings I have ever read. Alfred Hitchcock used it as the basis for his 1941 film Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, but softened the ending, presumably for commercial reasons. If you’re interested in classics of the genre, this is a must read.

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17 thoughts on “Norwegian, Scottish and English crime … with a hint of Hitchcock

  1. Mrs. P – These are quite different, but all of them do sound terrific. And you’ve reminded me that I absolutely must do a spotlight on McIlvanney’s work. So glad you found such good reads!

    • Yes, sometimes the random approach brings unexpected rewards! I’m really glad that McIlvanney’s work has been brought to the attention of a new generation. I’d heard lots of good things about Laidlaw and wasn’t disappointed. Will be interested to read the next two, which were written quite a while after the first. I will look forward to your spotlight!

  2. So lovely to hear from you again Mrs P. I really like the sound of the 70s Glasgow crime novel and also the 1930s thriller and was amused to see Laidlaw was a character in the former and McLaidlaw in the latter…are you now only reading books featuring certain surnames? A novel method of novel selection. Bxx

    • Hello Blighty! It’s been a while! I hadn’t spotted that surname connection (will have to muse on that). You either have eagle eyes or I’m getting more short-sighted … let’s go with the former.

      Both are really good and interesting reads, but as noted in the post, very different to one another. That’s one of the things I love so much about the crime genre: infinite variety.

  3. The Human Flies sounds very interesting. I have been wanting to read the first Laidlaw books for a while, I hope I get to one this year. And it would definitely be interesting to read Before the Fact and compare it to Hitchcock’s movie. I do like to do book to movie comparisons. A great group of books here that you have highlighted.

    • Thanks, TracyK. They’re all great in their different ways. I love looking at film adaptations too, to see how closely (or not) they have kept to the original. Often it’s the ending that changes, after pressure from the studio (as seems to have been the case with Suspicion). A shame when the impact of the original is diluted…

  4. Katharina, my reading plan is just as you described it, I pick a book at random simply because it please me at that moment. Ocassionally I read on a last in, first out basis, the expression coined by Bernadette

    • We’re reading twins! I prefer to read randomly if I can, perhaps because so much of the rest of life has to be planned. It’s nice to have some spontaneity mixed in there. I also think that you get the best of out of a book when you’re in the right mood to read it (and the book gets the best of you too). I sometimes spend a while making up my mind: important decisions such as these should not be rushed! Happy random reading, Jose Ignacio! (I do the last in, first out thing too sometimes, especially when a Simenon has arrived in the post…)

  5. Ahhh, the Lahlum-books are amazing. All of the books are extremely amazing and equally exciting… A must read for Agatha Christie fans!!

    • I loved this first one, Tina, and it’s good to hear that the others maintain a high standard. I agree that Agatha Christie fans would love the K2 series, though I liked the way that the classic formula was developed further in The Human Flies through the plot’s historical dimension and the knowing references to Golden Age crime. Lahlum pulls it all off beautifully and with great skill.

  6. Thanks for reminding me of ‘Before the Fact’ – a real Golden Age classic. And through buying a new copy, this has alerted me to Arcturus Crime Classics – a gem of a series! Happy reading days ahead!

    • You’re welcome, Angie – and you’re absolutely right – it does look like a gem of a series. I do like it when publishers reissue older crime novels that contemporary readers might otherwise miss. There’s a lot of quality crime from the past that’s in danger of being overlooked.

  7. I haven’t read The Human Flies, and I’ve heard mixed reports about it, but you have encouraged me to read it. The Laidlaw books are excellent, and all three Francis Iles novels are fascinating. Arcturus have republished some great classics by the likes of Henry Wade and Francis Beeding.

    • Thanks for your comment, Martin, and sorry for the delay in responding (I was away on my hols).

      I’ll definitely be following up on Laidlaw, Iles and Arcturus. I haven’t read enough earlier British crime, so it’s great to have found a publisher/series that points me in the right direction.

      I’ll be interested to see what you think of The Human Flies!

  8. The Human Flies and Laidlaw are on my TBR lists. However, I find myself looking at the avalanche of books that crowds that list, and often am flummoxed about what to read. Book reviews at blogs often help to resolve that constant dilemma. If the library system would cooperate and purchase newer global books, then I’d be happy.
    However, I’m now in a happy mood because the library has the dvd of “Hinterland,” so all I have to do is patiently wait for it (!).

  9. Pingback: Iceland Noir 2014: volcanoes, glaciers and crime | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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