The German Messenger: Review

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Quick, slick and exciting, David Malcolm’s riveting thriller is a lesson in first person narrative. Modelled on a traditional hard boiled detective, Harry Draffen is sharp, witty and occasionally funny, offering a bleak but believable depiction of later end of World War One.

Peppered with brief asides which show an acute understanding of human nature and an eye for small drama, the narrative showcases a real flare for empathy.

Characterisation is executed primarily through dialogue, a technique which is underused but not unappreciated; it lends the novel a believability that is often difficult to come by in historical crime fiction.

Set in 1916, the novel centres around Draffen, a secret agent working for the British Government. Grumpy and tired of the war, his life is clandestine in every sense; both his job and his private life, including his relationship with a desperate widow, are swathed in secrecy.

Everyone throughout the novel is differentiated primarily through dialogue or description, all deployed to the reader through Draffen’s curt prose. The one thing the novel lacks is any hint of an unreliable narrator- Draffen is nothing if not trustworthy. His enigmatic persona is somewhat comprised by his unwavering consistency, but ultimately he is a rounded, relatable character who acts as a bridge between the reader and a world which is completely alien to them.

Setting is also depicted primarily through Draffen’s speech and unique descriptive powers, and the murkiness and deception is mirrored in the protagonist: he is an enigma to everyone he encounters, both kind and cruel in equal measure.

Overall this is an enjoyable book, and one which does not ram history down your throat. If you are looking to learn more about the war, this is not the book, but for hardboiled fans this is perfect, offering an innovative spin on the genre.

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The Troubled Man: Review

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With the recent broadcasting of Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Inspector Wallander, played as an emotionally crippled, intense man who relies on his extraordinary intuition, Mankell’s excellent novels are once again in the spotlight. He’s not a patch on Krister Henriksson’s brooding and detached version, but so far Branagh has stayed true to Mankell’s truly inspiration novels, which is a bonus.

Branagh’s version of The Troubled Man is soon to be shown, therefore I thought I’d review the book that inspired it and encourage anyone who can lay their hands on a copy to read it as soon as possible.

This is a truly exceptional book, and one which I cannot recommend highly enough. Packed with excitement, adventure, politics and human drama, the novel is a great way to learn about Swedish history (to get in with the cool kids who all think they’re great because they watched the Daniel Craig version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).

It is also a great read by itself, and is a fantastic example of the superb writing style that made Mankell a household name throughout Europe long before Larsson. Whilst other of Mankell’s attempts to combine human stories with politics (such as the confused The Man from Beijing) suffer from poor human drama and ridiculous plots, The Troubled Man is an excellent example of a narrative woven around a political plot which could have dramatic consequences.

The plot centres around Wallander and his new father in law, Haken von Enke, a disguised formal navel officer, who goes missing following his birthday party, at which he revels to Wallander a story from his past. Wallander, officially suspended after an incident which threatens to destroy his life, conducts an informal investigation which draws him into the heart of an international conspiracy.

Like many of the previous novels, this is a thrilling read, although luckily it does not suffer as some do from overactive plotting (the ridiculous ending to The Man Who Smiled springs to mind).

Everything, from the characterisation of Wallander and the new family his daughter has married into, down to the portrayal of Ystad and the use of the novel’s setting as an additional character, are pure perfection. If you only ever read one more book, make sure it is this one.

The Curious Corpse: Review

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The Curious Corpse by Nick Wilgus is a strange, beguiling and oddly compelling novel featuring Wilgus’s established monk/ detective, Father Ananda.

Ananda is a superb character: well cultivated, with a genteel manner similar to that of P.D James’ Adam Dalgliesh, he flourishes as he searches for the killer of a foreign woman with mysterious links to the Russian Mafia.

Set in Bangkok, the novel focuses little on Ananda’s vocation. Rather like the Christian clergy members seen in many older detective stories, the protagonist’s job is used more as an explantation for his calm and authoritative demeanour, which contrasts perfectly with the flapping, chaotic colleagues he has to contend with. His past as a police officer seems to provide the character with the incentive and reason to undertake the investigation.

Despite the excellent characterisation of Ananda and a handful of the book’s other characters, the flow of the novel is disrupted by the writing style, which is at times difficult to follow. Sentence structures seem to be used in groups; either the author breaks an entire paragraph down into needless three word sentences or he fills a page with sentences that are several clauses long.

The tone is equally difficult to follow. The novel fluctuates between a smooth, semi-formal tone and a more relaxed one, where phrases such as “She’d been bashed about the head right and proper” are interspersed within the narrative, making the writing awkward at times. The dialogue also feels a little stilted and unrealistic, with many of the central characters speaking in ways contrary to their descriptions. For example, Abbot Worathammo is described as being a wise and highly spiritual man with limited organisation skills: despite this, he speaks constantly in panicked prose and asks unintelligent questions. As soon as Ananda arrives he demands to know what is going on, despite the fact that he been at the scene longer.

The writing issues aside, this is a really interesting and well plotted book. You would do well to read it just for the protagonist: with a little sculpting Father Ananda could easily be the next Father Brown. The plot is devilish and exciting, with the reader drawn into a thrilling plot that is pure escapism.

Overall, this book is exhilarating and fiendishly plotted, if not well written. There is excitement to be had and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you like traditional style crime fiction, which is what the author is clearly imitating.

Top Ten Women Crime Writers

Den svenske forfatter Karin Alvtegen. Portrætter, nærbilleder.

Crime fiction is a varied genre that is often shunned by book scholars and academics, which is a shame because the vast number of books published in this genre are often fascinating and well crafted. Although crime fiction is a genre often accused of being formulaic, this is not necessarily a negative quality, as within the constraints of a tight set of characteristics skilled authors shine. Here are ten top female crime writers of varied styles.

  1. Gillian Flynn

            Gone Girl is Flynn’s most famous novel, but not her best. The first person perspective used to ramp up the tension is better showcased in her first novel Sharp Objects, which also uses the vaguely gothic small town America setting that Flynn is famous for to provide the subtle eerie quality which makes her narratives so compelling.

  1. Camilla Läckberg

            The influx of Scandinavian crime fiction has helped a new style of crime writing to emerge in recent years, one which Camilla Läckberg pioneers. The dialogue is clipped, the plot tight and the pace fast. Her novels are brilliant examples of how to describe without simply stating. The Ice Princess is a superb novel to begin with if you are new to Scandinavian crime fiction.

  1. Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, whilst a fairly bland television drama, was originally a masterfully crafted and fundamentally scary novel. There is a brusque, matter of fact quality to Summerscale’s prose which lends it the feel of a text written during the period in which it is set, as opposed to the modern novel it actually is.

  1. Ngaio Marsh

            A key figure during what has often been dubed ‘The Golden Age’ for women crime writers, Marsh’s novels are both quintessentially quaint and yet ultimately unsettling simultaneously. Her detective, Inspector Alleyn, is a complex character that never falls into caricature despite the immense number of novels he appears in. Black as He’s Painted is one of her best.

  1. Sophie Hannah

            Although in some respects more thriller than crime fiction, Hannah’s novels are skilled pieces of prose with great emotional depth. The atmosphere Hannah creates is unnerving in an uncanny way, in part because of its superficial domestic feel. Little Face is an excellent example of this.

  1. Karin Alvtegen

            Another novelist from Scandinavia, Alvtegen’s novels forground women characters and her novels are focused on the darker side of human nature, a theme which can lead novels to become unrealistic, but which is masterfully manipulated by Alvetegen. Shame is her best novel and well worth reading.

  1. Dorothy L. Sayers

            Another ‘Golden Age’ writer, Sayers used wit and linguistic skill to make these novels the perfection they are. The novels have not aged as badly as may be expected and some of the moral messages are still relevant. Have His Carcase is the best novel, but the short stories are defiantly worth seeking out- the collection Lord Peter Views the Body is superb and a great place to start.

  1. P. D. James

            James’ novels are an exercise in how write crime fiction without the overuse of gore- James creates interesting and menacing characters and is an expert with a red herring. Many aspects of her novels, such as her sometimes remarkable plots and her sensitive poetry writing police detective, would have counted against a less experienced and skilled novelist but in the hands of James the novels are surprising masterpieces. Shroud for a Nightingale is a must read.

  1. Ruth Rendell

            Rendell’s novels are exemplary examples of police procedurals and the psychology employed is both scary and intriguing. Rendell’s characterisation is immediate and her use of genre tropes is skilled and exact. End in Tears is one of the best examples of this.

  1. Agatha Christie

            Known of as ‘The Queen of Crime’, Christie became the defining figurehead for ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction and a pioneer among women crime writers. Her three main detective franchises, Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence, as well as her play The Mousetrap, are all still widely and highly regarded today. Her knowledge of everything from architecture to culture and food enhance her already gripping narratives and her quirky characters shine under her linguistic brilliance. Her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the best place to start.

The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu: Review

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A snappy thriller with strong characterisation and witty dialogue, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is an entertaining read with as many plot twists as it has droll one liners.

Tom Vater’s novel centres around a group of friends, Dan, Fred, Tim and Thierry, and a shared incident in their pasts which unites them in both fear and greed. Featuring magnificent and often superbly described settings, spanning around the globe and including the Hindu Kush foothills in the 1970s, which are so lavishly depicted that an air of culture and sophistication is lent to an essentially sordid road trip filled with sex, drugs and a battered Bedford bus, through to Kathmandu in the early 2000s, where the violence reaches fever pitch as the protagonists try to unravel a 25 year old mystery.

Rich with accurate cultural and religious references, the book also features intriguing characters with complex relationships and cultivated back stories. No detail has been overlooked in the narrative, and everything from plot to characterisation, dialogue down to the description of the most minute detail is sculpted to ensnare the reader and drive them further into the madness.

If I had to criticise anything about this book it would be the intermittent over reliance on adjectives; whilst some descriptions are clever and intriguing, others are just too long, disrupting the narrative rhythm which is a key feature of the novel. An early description of Dan, for example, features the clause: “his thin, wasted and sunburned face, crowned by black curly hair, black bags like small, crumpled bin-liners under his dark eyes, rough stubble, the razor several days overdue.” Whilst painting a graphic picture of one of the book’s main players, such a long description does hamper the flow and could have been spared, considered that Vater’s skill is evidently characterisation through action.

However despite the occasional descriptive overindulgence, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is exhilarating and well paced, taking its readers on a thrilling journey around the world and through the catastrophic experiences of the main characters. The dialogue is particularly spectacular, providing a realistic representation of speech which also characterises both the protagonists and the settings they occupy.

That is what makes this book truly stand out: the novel’s heavy reliance on setting. Like many of the great thriller writers, Vater incorporates his settings as a supplementary character, and uses them as a device to convey danger, drawing both the reader and the characters deeper into jeopardy until the exhilarating finish, in which nature itself intervenes to bring the novel to a climatic end.

Inspector Morse and the Case of the Altered Ending

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This article was first published in the Official Inspector Morse Society Newsletter.

The Jewel That Was Ours was one of the few episodes in the television series of Inspector Morse to be adapted from one of the novels by Colin Dexter, although, in a strange juxtaposition, the novel was written after the television episode. The adaptation is faithful unto the end, when the devilish and confusing ending Dexter provides for his readers is substituted for his red herring, as with The Last Enemy, the televised adaptation of the novel The Riddle of the Third Mile. In both cases, Dexter’s red herring is substituting for true ending, which is often much more confusing.

In the case of other adaptations of the novels, such as The Service of All the Dead, the ending from the novel is used, whereas in these two particular shows the ending is altered to make it simpler. ‘Morse was brilliant but he was not always right. He often arrested the wrong person or came to the wrong conclusion.’ A major aspect of Dexter’s story telling and the characterisation of Morse is that he draws the wrong conclusion, before finally reaching the correct, often baffling conclusion after a small detail is revealed to the detective.

The issue of adapting the endings of the novels to suit television as a medium, and the idea of a more intense ending to a televised version of Dexter’s novels can be seen in the adaptation of The Way Through the Woods, where the novel’s convoluted and not- so climatic discovery that the woman pretending to be her sister did not have a scar on her knee, which takes place in the woman’s sitting room, is replaced by a scene of Sergeant Lewis digging his own grave at gunpoint and pleading for his life before the gun woman is talked out of murder by Morse. The plot remained the same, with the ending altered only to improve the dramatic effect for a television audience.

However, the issue here is the altering of the novel endings, not for dramatic televised purposes, but in order to make the plots simpler for a wider audience. The televised adaptation of The Jewel That Was Ours finishes with Cedric Downes, a professor giving lectures on the American tour, having murdered his wife and her lover, Dr Theodore Kemp, because of their infidelity. In Dexter’s novel, this option is offered as a theory by Morse for a large part of the novel, before being highlighted as a red herring by the survival of Mrs Downes, and the finding of her suitcase under her hospital bed which actually contained curtains, instead of the murder victim’s bloody clothes. The true perpetrators are revealed to be the irritating Mrs Roscoe and her husband, Phil Aldrich, whose daughter was killed in the car crash that crippled Kemp’s wife.

This entire scenario is constructed throughout the novel: the constant referral to the car crash but the lack of emphasis on the other victim, the intense nature of the performance of ‘Mrs Roscoe’, whom Dexter calls ‘well-read, eager, humourless (insufferable!)’, and the way in which Dexter constantly references Stratton’s mild nature. An identical scenario is constructed within the TV adaptation, with Mildred Shay portraying Mrs Roscoe as a neurotic and generally obnoxious character, whilst John Bloomfield’s Aldrich is mild mannered. So, with this set up complete it is understandably surprising that Dexter’s red herring is substituted for the real ending.

This dumbing down of the plot for television is a strange idea. Dexter’s novels revolve around a ridiculousness which borders on implausibility. As Dexter states himself ‘I suppose I must be categorized as a whodunit writer rather than as, the kind of writer who concentrates on the motivation of crime.’ Dexter is more interested in the story of the crime than the social or moral obligations which law makers face, and so his stories are based around confounding and absurd plots rather than the moral messages often found in modern crime writing.

As such, the plots of his novels are among the most important features of his writing. There is not one of his novels which does not contain a convoluted plot, and therefore to alter such an integral part of the novel for the sake of television is a very drastic change. As already highlighted, the changes are not warranted merely for the medium of television, but offer the viewer a highly simplified version of the novel on which the episodes are based.

In this case, it would surely follow, then, that the novels on which the episodes are based are too outlandishly written for the television. It is certainly true that arguably Dexter’s most nonsensical Morse novel, The Secret of Annex Three, which depicts a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party and involves numerous people dressed as Rastafarians, was never made into an episode of the TV series, and the novels in question here are certainly fairly outlandish in their plotting. In The Jewel That Was Ours the real perpetrators are not considered as suspects at all, by either the reader or the detectives, until their unmasking at the very end of the novel by Inspector Morse. Dexter constructs a narrative within which there is no space to consider a pair of ageing and as yet unconnected American tourists, and it is this that makes the final revolutions so utterly genius. The TV episode The Wolvercote Tongue runs its plot along the same narrative, thereby setting itself up for the same conclusion. However, the larger span of the novel and the greater ease of weaving small details repetitively through the narrative allow for the surprise conclusion to seem less abrupt than in a television programme, where viewers can easily overlook small plot points and dialogue can easily become forced.

The Riddle of the Third Mile and its televisual counterpart The Last Enemy also face similar problems. The Riddle of the Third Mile is by far more complicated than The Way Through the Woods, with even Sergeant Lewis still completely baffled as Morse summarises the events which have lead them to so many dead bodies, and with much of this summary being pure conjecture on Morse’s part. Because of this, a large amount of the plot of that particular novel occurs without the presence of either detective, as their role is largely assigned to the donkey work of identifying the corpses. In this example it is perhaps more obvious why the novel required altering before being televised, as Dexter makes the valid point that police work is perhaps not what is shown on TV within his narrative and this is not a point which can be easily televised.

In conclusion, the potential for the endings of Dexter’s complicated novel The Jewel That Was Ours and the equally fiendish The Riddle of The Third Mile to be misinterpreted on television were responsible for the alterations the producers and writers made in order to televise them. It could be argued this diminishes from his work. Dexter’s novels are often shown to be complex remodellings of a stagnant genre, and by removing and altering key features of them did the TV episode creators in fact miss something crucial and deny Morse’s television fans a key aspect of his work? When it is considered Dexter’s entire body of work is based on his assiduous attention to detail and his classical references more than the alterations he makes to the genre of crime fiction, and that Dexter himself had a hand in the creation of the television series and wrote The Jewel That Was Hours based on the screenplay of The Wolvercote Tounge, this writer would say not.

Sidney Chambers and The Forgiveness of Sins: Review

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I’ll admit it: I’m in love with Robson and Jerome. It’s a legitimate thing, and although I don’t like everything they’ve done (oh the songs, oh the extreme fishing!), I am a huge fan of Ripper Street and I enjoyed Grantchester on ITV- with its twee facade giving way to some serious discussion on emotive topics.

So I jumped at the chance to read one of the more recent sets of stories, which involves a set of tales with conventional settings which, I thought, promised the thrill of some reasoned argument and inciting, intricate plots.

I was wrong. Whilst the stories are not bad, and have strong echoes of traditional golden age crime fiction (there is a definite attempt to emulate Dorothy L Sayers in the depiction of the upper classes), the writing lacks any real wit and plotting seems to have been completely abandoned in favour of brief forays into ecclesiastical musing.

Despite this there is still no real depth to the stories, which give the reader little cause for questioning and seem devoid of any real knowledge of human nature. A particular failure is the story of a battered housewife, portrayed as a whiney woman whose friendship with the snobbish Amanda Kendall is perhaps less believable than the notion that her alcoholic, philandering husband would suddenly take his own life upon confrontation. The story gears the reader up for a twist that never comes, leaving the reader unsatisfied and frankly, a bit bored.

To summarise, anyone looking for an easy summer read will find this book ideal- for those expecting the deft plotting and exhilarating dialogue of the TV series, you’d be better off binge watching it than reading this. At least that way you can ignore the faults and enjoy watching Robson Green snarl at bloodthirsty housewives.