Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake (USA)

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake (Faber & Faber, 2016)

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Opening paragraph: “When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another man’s death. I wish I could tell you that we mourned the boy who died, but we did not. He was the one with murder in his heart and, sure enough, death found him that night. Funny how that works”.

I couldn’t resist quoting the first few lines of Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, as they constitute one of the best openings I’ve read in a while. How could anyone not want to read on?

Wilde Lake was my first book of 2017, which I found while browsing Crime Time‘s Top 20 of 2016. One of the reasons I was drawn to it – aside from the opening – was my enjoyment of another Lippman novel, After I’m Gone. Wilde Lake is a similarly engrossing, high-quality crime novel, whose key strength is the depth of its characterisation, and its ability to draw a portrait of family and community life in rich, convincing detail.

The novel is set in Columbia, Maryland, and in some respects pays homage to the author’s childhood home – Lippman grew up there and attended Wilde Lake High School. The narrative has two timelines: the present, in which 45-year-old Luisa (Lu) Brant takes on a murder case in her capacity as the state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland, and the past (1980 onwards), narrated by Lu herself, which may or may not have a link to present-day events. We’re given an intimate portrait of Brant family life, and in particular the dynamic between Lu’s father, a distinguished attorney, her older brother AJ, and Lu as the only girl and the youngest in the family. There are shades of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Go-Between, where we see child narrators trying to interpret complex adult events to the best of their ability.

Wilde Lake was a thoroughly enjoyable way to start this year’s reading. I found myself being pulled equally into past and present events, and particularly liked the depiction of the capable and complex Lu. There was perhaps one reveal too many in the second half, but the ending was perfectly calibrated and provided plenty of food for thought.

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Tomorrow’s going to be a tough day for many Americans. Hands across the pond, and remember to take care of yourselves. I’ll just leave this here: ‘Self-care tips for those who are terrified of Trump’s presidency’. It’s a good one to read if you’re going quietly mad about Brexit in the UK too.

I’m off to Berlin for a week, and am looking forward to enjoying spending time in a country that has competent politicians, a grown-up media, and excellent cake. Bis bald!

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Stop to smell the flowers (here are some from Hadrian’s Wall)

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Mother knows best? Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (USA) and Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian (Spain)

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2006) and Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian (2013) are quite different in style, but have a number of features in common, not least their challenging depictions of mother-daughter relationships.

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Both crime novels begin with the murders of a series of young girls or teenagers. The killings take place in or around a small town or village, and are investigated by a young woman who grew up there, but who left as soon as she could. In Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker is a Chicago journalist whose mother, stepfather and half-sister live in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri. She returns there for the first time in eight years when her editor sends her to report on the killings of two young girls. In The Invisible GuardianInspector Amaia Salazar is ordered to lead the investigation into the murders of two teenagers, and returns from Pamplona to the village of Elizondo in the Basque country, where her mother and sisters are still based.

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In the course of their journalistic and criminal investigations, Camille and Amaia are forced into close proximity with their families and to confront repressed childhood traumas. In particular, the novels portray abusive mother-daughter relationships in ways that are both unflinching and disturbing. In one, we are shown how abusive mothering is transmitted from one generation to the next. In the other, no rational reason for the abuse is ever shown, which is perhaps even more unsettling. In both novels, the daughters have to accept and somehow deal with the corrosive effects of their mothers’ extreme behaviour.

While both of these crime novels are excellent, they won’t be to the taste of all readers. Gillian Flynn, as I’ve noted in previous posts, is one of our most daring contemporary crime writers, who repeatedly takes on uncomfortable or taboo subjects such as self-harm. She often writes in the first person – as we see with Camille in Sharp Objects – and her protagonists are prickly and unconventional, or even downright unlikable. In this novel, Flynn creates an atmosphere dripping with Gothic menace, and piles on vivid physical detail to unsettle her readers. In the process, she dissects the suffocating, conservative nature of Wind Gap’s small-town life and shows how girls are pressurized to conform to gender norms in order to be accepted by society. Her other crime novels, Dark Places and Gone Girlare equally challenging and rewarding reads.

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Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian can be categorised more straightforwardly as a police procedural and is written in the third-person. It creates a different kind of atmosphere, using the mists and forests of the Basque region along with the mythical figure of the basajaun to suggest that other-worldly forces are at work. (In this respect, the novel reminds me a little of Fred Vargas’ ‘Inspector Adamsberg’ crime novels, albeit without the quirky eccentricity that marks her narratives.) Like Sharp Objects, The Invisible Guardian is a hard-hitting novel whose depictions of gender and power relations will stay with you long after the story ends. It’s also the opening novel in the acclaimed Baztan Trilogy – the second novel, The Legacy of the Bones, is out now, and the Offering to the Storm is hopefully on its way.

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Book 2 in the Baztan Trilogy

Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009 [2006]).

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian, trans. by Isabelle Kaufeler (Harper, 2016 [2013]).

#48 Mette Ivie Harrison, The Bishop’s Wife (USA)

Mette Ivie Harrison, The Bishop’s Wife (Soho Crime, 2014). Set in Utah, this crime novel provides a fascinating insight into Mormon everyday life and its religious beliefs. 4 starsHarrison

Opening line: Mormon bishop’s wife isn’t an official calling.

Some happy book browsing in Foyles led me to a rather unusual American crime novel a few months back. Mette Ivie Harrison’s 2014 novel The Bishop’s Wife is set in present-day Utah, whose capital Salt Lake City is also the centre of Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). The novel’s primary investigator, as the title indicates, is the wife of a Mormon bishop: Linda Wallheim lives in the city of Draper, and leads a busy life looking after her family and supporting parishioners. When neighbour Jared Helm arrives at the bishop’s house in a distressed state early one morning, claiming that his wife Carrie has left him, Linda is drawn into a complex case that she suspects may involve domestic abuse…or even murder.

Undoubtedly, one of the most satisfying aspects of this novel is the insider view it offers of everyday life in a Mormon community. The novel explores key Mormon beliefs (such as the importance of family members being ‘sealed’ to one another so that they can be united for eternity), the way Mormon children are raised and educated, and the importance of community service. At the same time, the novel acknowledges that aspects of the church are open to criticism, such the obstacles it places in the path of those who wish to leave. It’s also very open in its consideration of the highly gendered roles Mormonism assigns to men and women, and the possible abuses of power that its traditional patriarchal structures invite.

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Statue celebrating the role of the mother in front of the Salt Lake Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City

Linda herself is a very appealing figure. She is a strong, devout woman, who thinks critically about the Mormon community and her place in it as a wife, mother and individual, rather than simply accepting the status quo. She falls into the role of amateur detective by chance, and, while guilty of some misjudgments and mistakes, has a moral compass that’s true. She reminds me a bit of Faye Kellerman’s feisty investigator Rina Decker, whose cases are typically linked to the life of her Jewish community and allow their author to explore modern Jewish life.

The Bishop’s Wife is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Linda Wallheim, and I’m keen to read more (the second, His Right Hand, has just appeared).  If you like fast-paced crime novels, then this kind of novel is probably not for you, but if you prefer crime fiction that makes space to explore complex religious, social and moral issues, then The Bishop’s Wife is an absorbing and fascinating read.

Author Mette Ivie Harrison is a member of the Mormon church and lives with her husband and five children in Utah. She also blogs for the Huffington Post on religious issues and has written a number of interesting posts (for example about the accusation that the LDS church is a cult). She holds a PhD in German literature from Princeton (ausgezeichnet!).

#42 / Gillian Flynn, Dark Places

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places (ebook; London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) 4.5 stars

Opening line: I have a meanness in me, real as an organ.

I’m working my backwards through Gillian Flynn’s works after reading the incredible Gone Girl (see review here). Dark Places is the author’s second novel, and confirms my impression that she’s one of the most talented and original voices in crime today. Her novels are not necessarily perfect, but they’re extremely well written and have a narrative energy that makes them a red-hot reading experience. In the case of Dark Places, Flynn also takes on a very difficult subject and does so in a way that is both sensitive and groundbreaking. There is an authorial bravery at work here that I very much admire.

The principal narrator of Dark Places is thirty-one year old Libby Day, who in 1985, at the age of seven, survived a night-time massacre at the family farm that left her mother Patty and sisters Michelle and Debby dead. Her brother Ben, a teenager at the time, was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life imprisonment. Twenty-four years on, Libby is living alone, and has used up most of the $300,000 fund set up in her name after the murders. Petulant about the public’s dwindling interest in her, she resembles a former child film-star who can’t comprehend why the offers have dried up. So when she gets a call from a young man called Lyle, offering her money to appear as a ‘special guest’ at his none too subtly named ‘Kill Club’, she agrees to go. There she encounters a group of obsessives who have pored over every detail of the murders, and who are convinced that Ben is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. They offer her more money to talk to others close to the case – effectively positioning her as an investigator into her own family’s murders – and she accepts, partly for the cash and partly due to her own desire for closure. Her often darkly humorous account of events in the present is interspersed with sombre flashbacks to the day of the murders, narrated from the point of view of her mother Patty and brother Ben.

One of the key strengths of this novel for me was its characterisation. Libby, the sole survivor of the massacre, is clearly not depicted as a traditional tragic victim. She is spiky, surly, obsessed with money, and appears to have alienated everyone around her. But at the same time, hers is the voice that is the most moving in the novel, because through her, Flynn vividly realises the themes of grief, trauma and loss. Patty and Ben are also brilliantly portrayed: the thirty-two-year-old single mom trying to look after four children and keep the family farm going during a recession, and the troubled teenager struggling with the transition into manhood. All three characters give a sobering insight into the long-term effects of grinding poverty. Class is a big theme and is deftly handled.

There are some graphic descriptions of violence in the novel that readers may find upsetting. However, my own feeling is that Flynn uses these descriptions to convey the reality of the massacre as a violent and traumatic event, rather than with gratuitous intent. Crucially, we are told the physical details of what happened early in the novel, thus avoiding an excessive build up of readerly curiosity or their use as part of the narrative pay-off. There were perhaps just a few small details at the end of the novel that didn’t ring entirely true to me – a dash too much rural noir – but these don’t obscure the novel’s genuine strengths. Libby and Patty’s voices have stayed with me in particular.

In terms of larger literary influences, Dark Places surely reaches back to In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s seminal 1966 account of the massacre of a farming family in Kansas (Libby tells us firmly that her farm is near Kansas City, Missouri rather than Kansas City, Kansas, which I read as a neat in-joke that both acknowledges Capote’s influence and asserts an authorial distance from him). I’m also reminded of Andrea Maria Schenkel’s novel The Murder Farm (see my review here), which is very different in style and length, but is another successful literary re-imagining of this kind of case.

By coincidence, an article by Sarah Weinman recently appeared in Book Beast entitled ‘The Original Gone Girls: Dorothy Salisbury Davis and Other Forgotten Pioneers of Crime Fiction’. It focuses on earlier contributions to the psychological thriller by women writers and is well worth checking out.

Mrs. Peabody awards Dark Places an accomplished and memorable 4.5 stars

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#22 Tom Franklin / Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Tom Franklin, Crooked, Letter, Crooked Letter (London: Macmillan, 2011 [2010]). A compelling crime novel that explores the far-reaching legacy of an unsolved crime in America’s Deep South 4.5 stars

Opening line: The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a complex, many-layered novel that explores the relationship between an impoverished black boy and awkward white boy in the 1970s, an unsolved crime and the cumulative effect of its poisonous legacy over twenty-five years, and the intricate workings of small-town prejudice.

When Cindy Walker disappears in 1982, suspicion falls on oddball teenager Larry Ott, the last person seen with her at a drive-in movie that fateful night. While nothing is ever proved, the 500 residents of Chabot in Mississippi draw their own conclusions, condemning Larry to a lonely life of almost total social exclusion, waiting for out-of-town customers at the family garage who seldom come. When college student Tina Rutherford goes missing twenty-five years later, negative assumptions are once again swiftly made, placing Larry’s life at risk. It’s up to Silas Jones, who escaped the rural black poverty of Chabot through baseball, but is now back as its sole law enforcement officer, to investigate the truth of what happened to Cindy and Tina. This process is one that will lead him to examine his own uneasy friendship with Larry during their childhood, and to confront the complexities of their unresolved past.

The novel is an extremely well-written and satisfying read, with chapters switching between the present-day investigation and the past, and alternating between Larry’s and Silas’s points of view. Both of these characters are skilfully drawn, as is the setting of Chabot and the steamy landscape of the Deep South (‘he smelled the hot after-rain and listened to the shrieking blue jays, alone at the edge of a wall of woods, miles from anywhere…’). Most impressive, however, is the dissection of the repurcussions that one set of events can have down the years, and the central question the novel poses of how far individuals and communities can make amends for past errors or moral failures.

Of the crime novels I’ve read recently, Crooked Letter forms part of a loose trilogy in my mind with Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die (reviewed here) and Peter May’s The Blackhouse (not yet reviewed). Each has a wonderful sense of place (the Deep South, South Africa and the Isle of Lewis respectively) and successfully depicts small but socially complex communities. While Franklin and Nunn’s novels both explore tensions within racially-divided communities, Franklin and May’s novels can be viewed as coming-of-age stories, whose investigators are forced to re-examine pasts they had long packed away. Of the three novels, Crooked Letter is the one I enjoyed most fully: although the other two were fulfilling reads in a number of respects, they were slightly let down in my view by excessively melodramatic endings.

Further information about Tom Franklin (who was born in small town very much like Chabot) is available here. You can also read the first three chapters of the novel here.

Mrs. Peabody awards Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter a highly satisfying 4.5 stars.

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Would the real Finland please stand up?

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Finland, Finland, Finland
It’s the country for me

You’re so near to Russia
So far from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
Lots of miles from Vietnam

Monty Python, ‘Finland Song’

My first youthful awareness of Finland came via the affectionate musical tribute by the Monty Python team. A keen ‘Fin-o-phile’ ever since, I’ve very much enjoyed reading crime novels set amongst its ‘mountains so lofty’ and ‘treetops so tall’. Along the way, via the novels of Jan Costin Wagner, I’ve developed an image of the country in line with Nordic writers such as Indridason (Iceland): freezing cold, austerly beautiful, and as melancholy as can be. This brief excerpt from Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions illustrates the point: ‘Then he got to his feet, walked down the dimly lit corridor and through the driving snow to his car. He drove to Lenaniemi. As the ferry made the crossing, he stood by the rail in the icy wind’ (… before visiting his wife’s grave and keeping a late-night appointment with a bottle of vodka). 

However, I’ve just had an interesting reading experience that’s challenged this romantic-melancholic view of Finland. Having finished – and very much enjoyed – Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions (see review here), I embarked on James Thompson’s Snow Angels (HarperCollins 2010), another police procedural, set in northern Finland (Lapland), which presents a much grittier image of a country characterised by high rates of violent crime: ‘Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The over-whelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages’. The kaamos, the ‘darkness’ that falls over the land for long winter months, is shown to trigger high levels of depression, drinking, violence and suicide, and the way that it’s depicted here moves well beyond melancholy to something altogether darker.   

These divergent depictions of Finland ‘clashed’ for me as a reader, particularly as I read the novels more or less one after the other. Much of that sense of disjunction lay in the very different tone of the novels, which in turn reflected the contrasting literary traditions in which the authors had chosen to locate themselves. Costin Wagner (German with a Finnish wife) draws heavily on the model of Nordic crime established by writers such as Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and Indridason (which reveals the underbelly of society, but has a highly controlled, pared-down style, and an introverted and melancholic feel). In contrast, Thompson (American with a Finnish wife) has channelled the grit and tone of the American thriller to create a hybrid text which his publicity blurb describes as ‘nordic noir’. It’s an often engaging, but very hard-hitting first-person narrative with frequent, extreme depictions of violence (a topic for another post another time).

The contrast between these texts and their depictions of Finland acts as a useful brake for those of us who might unquestioningly accept the portrait of any given country in a crime novel – or indeed any novel – as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (literature as travel guide). It’s a timely reminder of an obvious point: that authors provide representations of countries in their novels, which are often very beguiling or sell well in the literary marketplace, but which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of their citizens. And it’s not necessarily a case of ‘would the real Finland please stand up’: some Finns might identify more strongly with Costin Wagner’s portrayal of Finland than Thompson’s, or vice versa, or even think that both have validity. 

A final thought: how intriguing that neither author is Finnish by birth. Given this, one could argue that neither has a true ‘native’ insight into Finnish society, although the counter-argument that the ‘outsider’ can often see you more clearly than you see yourself could equally be applied. In the case of Costin Wagner and Thompson, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a complex ‘insider-outsider’ status, as foreigners who have married Finns, lived in the country for a number of years and learned the language (respect!). This dual status grants the authors a highly valuable perspective from which to write about Finland, albeit in strikingly different ways.

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#17 Sam Hawken / The Dead Women of Juárez

Sam Hawken, The Dead Women of Juárez (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2011). An outstanding crime novel set in the corrupt Mexican border city of Juárez, infamous for its high rate of ‘feminicidios’ (female homicides)  5 stars

 Opening sentence:  Roger Kahn wrote, ‘Boxing is smoky halls and kidneys battered until they bleed,” but in Mexico everything bled in the ring.

The Dead Women of Juárez is one of those crime novels that transcends genre and can be thought of, quite simply, as an excellent piece of writing. Set in the Mexican border city of Juárez, just across from El Paso, Texas, it draws on the legacy of American writers such as Hemingway to explore in succinct, precise, but highly evocative language the brutalising nature of life in Juárez, and the violence and corruption that pervade its politics and policing.

Ciudad Juárez is arguably the perfect place to set a crime novel, given its dubious real-life distinction of being the murder capital of the world. But Hawken chooses to focus on one specific group of the city’s murder victims, namely the 400 women killed there since 1993, and the estimated 3000 (that’s three thousand) women who have simply disappeared and are presumed dead – the victims of sexual attacks and ‘femicide’.

The novel explores the abject failure of the authorities to deal with the feminicidios, and the toll that the murders take on the women’s families, from the perspective of two highly damaged individuals: Kelly Courter, a washed-up American boxer reduced to the role of punchbag for talented younger fighters in the ring, and Raphael Sevilla, a narcotics investigator jaded from his many years on the police-force, who is hiding a serious drink problem. The link between the two is Paloma Esteban, Courter’s on-off girlfriend, the sister of a local drug dealer Sevilla is trying to nail, and a campaigner for the group Mujeres Sin Voces (Mothers without Voices), which seeks justicia (justice) for Juárez’s victims of femicide. When yet another woman goes missing, Courter and Sevilla find themselves drawn into an investigation that will radically change both of their lives.

As well as being a hard-hitting crime novel, and a scathing critique of power, corruption and misogyny, The Dead Women of Juárez offers readers an eye-opening depiction of contemporary Mexican society, whose impoverished majority endure punishing and poorly-paid working conditions in the maquiladoras – factories that turn out consumer goods for American companies. While only a stone’s throw away from America, the workers of Juárez may as well inhabit a different planet, given the disjunction between their lives and those of more affluent U.S. citizens living a few miles away. On another level, the novel also functions as a study of failed masculinity, through the symbolic figure of the boxer who undergoes a series of highly bruising rounds with life. The characterisation of Courter is superb, as is that of Sevilla, and the novel is worth reading for these two nuanced and very human portraits alone.

I especially like the way this book openly identifies itself as a campaigning crime novel (one of its key sources is Teresa Rodriguez’s journalistic study The Daughters of Juarez). In his afterword, Hawken states that his aim was to ‘shine a light on these femicides’ and the state’s failure to respond adequately to the epidemic of violence against women. Only a handful of cases have ever reached court, which is extraordinary given the scale of the murders and disappearances. (Imagine for a second how we would feel if the same were happening in the British city of Birmingham, which like Juárez has a population of around one million people…). An additional problem is that the murders have been overshadowed by the drug wars in the area, in spite of the work carried out by Amnesty International  and women’s groups such as Voces sin Echo (Voices without an Echo) and Las Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black). Hawken emphasises the importances of securing justice for the women before the law (providing an interesting contrast to the way that justice is depicted in the narrative), and his novel is a great example of how the crime genre can be harnessed to raise awareness of real crimes and miscarriages of justice.

The Dead Women of Juárez was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger 2011, which means that this highly accomplished piece of work is – remarkably – Sam Hawken’s debut novel. Beautifully written and with a tremendous sense of place, it stands head and shoulders above many others in its field. Along with Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, it is one of my stand-out crime novels of the year.

Mrs Peabody awards The Dead Women of Juárez a superlative 5 stars.

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