Trace and Eliminate Review: Inspector Stark Is Back And Better Than Ever

trace and eliminate

After having interviewed author Keith Wright I was excited to check out the second in his Inspector Stark series. I had to wait a little while but eventually I received a copy and was keen to check it out.

Set in the 1980s, this latest in the Inspector Stark series sees the dogged detective battle against both his own demons and the seemingly motiveless murder of a solicitor.

A hard-working family man seemingly with everything going for him, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to kill him. As Stark and his team race to find the killer a second, equally motiveless murder occurs, and the team has to work even hard to prove themselves to be ahead of this evil killer.

This is only the second in the Inspector Stark series, yet somehow he feels like a long established character with his own quirks. Yet, despite this, he doesn’t feel like a tired caricature; Stark is as individual as it gets, and his team all work together well, interacting in a natural way that makes this book exciting, thrilling yet at the same time completely believable.

The characterisation is the real selling point for this novel, with the core detectives, their suspects and witnesses all perfectly crafted so as to be both suspicious and at the same time believable. Many obvious but often-overlooked traits, such as pride, envy and intuition are all shown here in all their glory, making readers sympathetic to the character’s and their situations.

One thing I would say, and it’s literally my sole criticism, is that at times the language is a little clunky. There’s a lot of hedging that goes on, with phrases like ‘a bit’ used with alarming regularity at times. At others, the novel is exceptionally witty and intense, with the author taking control of the narrative and driving it towards intense conclusions that leave readers guessing with every new clue discovered and every new lead followed.

In all, this is a great historical novel, and as such if you’re a fan of old school detectives then Trace and Eliminate is the book for you.

Advertisements

Crime Fiction Treats For Summer

reading in summer

In the heat (if you’re lucky enough to actually get some) it can be fun to read escapist fiction and whisk yourself away to some distant land.

Many of my friends are taking away cheap, trashy romance novels, or books about travel when they go away on holiday.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for something a bit different but still as enjoyable, you could spook yourself and take a thrilling trip into the dark underworld with some great crime fiction.

In the summer, when we’re lucky and get some nice weather, which isn’t mad often because I live in the UK, I’m a big fan of grabbing the latest thriller and settling down for a read. After all, thrillers and detective novels are as escapist and, in many cases, as easy to read as most trashy romance novels, but many also incorporate really good writing techniques in as well.

Therefore, you can easily get through a good thriller and still be reading something well crafted and creative, rather than one of those awful cheap romances everyone seems to take to the beach.

August and the summer months are also a great time in the world of book buying, with many authors bringing out exciting new titles. Ian Rankin, Peter May and, everyone’s favourite, Stephen King, all have new releases out this summer, and as such there’s something new for everyone to try.

There are also some ace new thrillers and true life crime books out there right now, including Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, which is a really gripping book for fans of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

In all, thrillers and crime fiction books are a great way to go if you want something interesting, gripping but easy to escape into this summer. While you’re away lounging on a beach you can lose yourself in the latest murder case and let your imagination run free.

Violence Against Women Doesn’t Have To Be A Staple In Crime Fiction Today

the staunch prize

Just to remind y’all, it’s 2019. We shouldn’t really be debating the legitimacy of offering a prize for crime fiction that praises books for avoiding the portrayal of the death, mutilation and general violence against women.

Recently the Guardian highlighted the growing upset amongst crime writers who are unhappy about comments that fictional portrayals of rape can hinder trials. Whilst this is a sad fact, it also should be noted that anything to stop the decriminalisation of rape in law courts should be embraced wholeheartedly.

I understand the other side of the argument: that men continue to commit these crimes, so writers should continue to write about them. And I actually agree. Write about them all you want.

However, the crime fiction and thriller genres have, for decades, been heavily focused on portraying women as victims, with many lazily plotted books centred exclusively on the gruesome depiction of the violence committed by a man against a woman or women.

By turning women in a commodity which authors can then use as plot devices, the crime fiction genre has highlighted the deep-seated misogyny that underpins not only the foundations of the genre, but also society itself. There’s nothing wrong with including violence against women, but make them at least two-dimensional characters, not just objects to be killed and hurt.

Also, writers should consider having even more women in more dynamic roles, not just as detectives but also as suspects, witnesses and people with their own agency.

For those who are true mavericks, the idea of creating a book with no violence against women at all should be considered. It’s a great idea and I applaud the prize that is aiming to showcase those books that do not portray women merely as objects and murder victims.

Consider, for one fucking second, the people who have very little say in this but who are the most important: the women who are real-life victims of male violence. They deserve to be able to find books that don’t trigger them but are thrilling, exciting and adventurous. They deserve to be more than just plot points.

Books can be triggering and cause readers trauma, and as such I think its great that a prize is trying to showcase the books that are reducing the amount of violence against women they portray. Whilst I understand that it is a real part of life (I’m a woman, I get catcalled about four times a month and groped at least once every six weeks, it’s a sad reality), there’s something to be said for calling out crime fiction and thrillers as the genres that showcase it the most and highlighting those writers who have written books that do not use women simply as plot points.

So in all, what I’m trying to say is that crime fiction writers who want to continue writing about violence against women should go the fuck ahead. But don’t dismiss so easily a prize that is aimed at those who, deliberately or not, have no women being raped, murdered, stalked or mutilated. It’s that easy.

Subverting The Form: Crime Fiction Can Either Be Perfectly Parodied Or Decidedly Destroyed

the happytime murders

Recently, during my trip to Dubai, I had the blessing of several hours peace and quiet in the form of a long-haul flight. Six hours on a plane each way, plus the time at the airport where you get to while away the hours people-watching, reading or browsing through the insane array of shops these places always seem to have.

On the flights themselves I made use of the in-flight entertainment system to catch up on all the latest cinema releases. Two of the half a dozen movies I watched during my travels stuck out to me, for different reasons.

Whilst both films subverted traditional crime fiction narratives and made parodies of the formulas they use, one did so incredibly successfully, and the other failed miserably.

The Happytime Murders was the film that impressed me in its parodying of the hardboiled detective. Whilst critical reviews have been poor, audiences have received the film better, and I personally enjoyed it.

Unlike something like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or other sit-coms or films that simply use the police as a space to keep their characters, The Happytime Murders combines comedy with crime fiction. The film adapts certain aspects of the crime fiction genre and combines them with the use of puppets, swearing and sex to create a funny version of a crime fiction narrative.

“The city of angels; a dirty sun-drenched beauty contest at the edge of the pacific.” This is the film’s opening line, and it could have been a opening from a Raymond Chandler novel.

Another good example of parody is the new Murder Mystery film Netflix created, in which Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler take a trip to Europe and are caught up in an adventure on a yacht. The movie offers both laughs at the expense of the hapless American couple, as well as thrills in the form of a number of car chases and a murder mystery plot that revolves around some very hilarious yet implausible killings.

Both of these films parody the crime fiction perfectly and offer funny examples of how the genre can be mocked and showcased at the same time. One example of a film that does not parody the genre properly is Holmes And Watson, the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly vehicle that is so deeply unfunny it is almost painful. The film is neither funny nor does it exhibit any of the exhilaration and thrills of a traditional crime fiction film.

Its titular detectives are lame and bawdy, whilst the plot itself is slow and not remotely gripping. There is no real danger, and the jokes simply make the plot worse, if anything. By making the detectives randy, raunchy idiots and the villain a cackling fool surrounding by goons, the writers create a truly boring and pointless film.

Parody is, in my opinion, best showcased on screen, although obviously crime fiction as a genre is incredibly open to parody, and indeed entire sub-genres, such as Golden Age crime fiction, arose as a means of altering and parodying the established form of the genre. On screen, however, this technique can really be bought to life and comedy is more easily portrayed.

So, in all, parodies are a great way to enjoy a genre, especially crime fiction, but when they’re done badly they really do suck. Good parodies of the genre need to combine comedy with the thrills and make their jokes about the ways in which the formula falls down. Parodies also need a good plot to succeed, and well-rounded characters, and all of the general characteristics that go into making a good crime fiction piece in the first place. Only once the building blocks are in place can filmmakers and writers start to toy with the formula and create something that will make their audience sit up and take notice.

Full Talking Bodies Paper: 1990s Male Detective Fiction and the Objectification of Women

talking bodies 2019.jpg

As I’m sure you’ll have noticed if you follow me on social media I’ve just return from an amazing time at Talking Bodies 2019 at my former University the University of Chester. Massive thanks to all the organisers for hosting us all, giving us an amazing experience and for letting me speak, something which I’m proud to say went off pretty much without a hitch. 

My paper is an offshoot of my Master’s degree work I undertook a few years ago, and I’m very proud to be able to showcase it here, so if you missed it or just fancy a read, please do, and feel free to comment or drop me a line if you’d like to explore some of the topics. 

Two of the key detective series of late 1980s and early 1990s crime fiction, Inspector Morse written by Colin Dexter and Inspector Kurt Wallander, written by Swedish Writer Henning Mankell, were both deeply ingrained with misogyny, and I intend to explore this by looking at two key texts.

The Last Bus To Woodstock is the first Inspector Morse novel, and depicts the rape and murder of a young woman who is later found in a pub car park. Throughout the novel, the characters and, I will argue, the author, believe that the woman cannot have been raped because she was promiscuous, despite the fact that one of her sexual assaults occurred after she died.

My second text is Mankell’s The Fifth Woman, which tells the story of the murders of a series of deplorable men in gruesome ways, all of which have been committed by a woman who ran a support group for the other women hurt by her victims, and whose own mother was murdered by one of them. The novel succeeds in othering the female perpetrator and sympathising with the male victims, showing them both as those who have done wrong but also not being deserving of their punishment, whilst she is reduced, at the end of the novel, to the spectre of a grim reaper fleeing from punishment.

Exploring these two texts and their use of women and portrayal of sexual assault, I will argue that Mankell and Dexter were both setting the tone for a host of crime fiction books that degraded and objectified women and which, ultimately, paved the way for the patriarchal society we live in today.

These two white, male writers helped shape a generation of crime fiction authors who would use the rape, murder and degradation of women as mere plotlines. From TV shows such as Frost and Taggart, through to books such as those written by Stuart McBride or even female writers such as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, Mankell and Dexter’s works influenced the entire 1990 and early 2000’s detective genre. Their work, as shown here, portrayed women simultaneously as helpless objects and calculating temptresses, allowing the authors to blame them for the crimes of their male counterparts.

The Last Bus To Woodstock, Dexter’s first Inspector Morse novel, centres around the investigation into the murder and rape of a young woman found partially clothed in a pub car park. Her body is found by her date for the evening, and it is later discovered that she expected payment for her sexual services.

Frequently throughout the novel Dexter’s characters debate whether or not the victim was raped, due to the scanty nature of her clothing and her reputation for demanding payment for sexual favours. For example, one of the conversations in the book goes like this:

“’Raped too, was she?’

Tompsett drained his glass. “So they say. But I’ve always been a bit dubious myself about this rape business.’” (Page 58).

Throughout the book the reader is given the impression that there is the possibility that the sex was consensual. This is despite the fact that it is concluded by policing bodies around the world that you cannot consent to sex when you are not conscious, including in death, and the pathologist confirms to the detectives early in the book that one of the assaults took place post mortem.

This idea that the sex could’ve been consensual begins when Morse and Lewis initially visit the dead girl’s bedroom, where the following exchange takes place:

“’We’re not making very rapid progress then.’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ said Morse. ‘Miss Kaye was wearing a white blouse, wasn’t she?’

‘Yes.’

‘What colour bra would your wife wear under a white blouse?’

‘A lightish-coloured one, I suppose.’

‘She wouldn’t wear a black one?’

‘It would show through.’” (Page 17).

The implication here is that the pair have discovered a core factor in Sylvia’s character by finding out that she wears dark bras under her white blouses.

At the end of the novel, Morse reveals to Lewis that Sylvia’s date sexually assaulted her corpse, which he does not charge him for, although the boy ‘promised to see a psychiatrist’ (p167). This blatant disregard for what is, in fact, a serious crime shows Dexter’s lack of interest in the actual rape, and his belief that only the death is the only true crime. As such, he effectively dehumanises her by completely removing any control she may have over who enters her body simply based on her clothing and fact that she is a prostitute (she also has another job).

The second novel I would like to look into is Mankell’s The Fifth Woman which is, at first glance, supposed to showcase the malice and violence inherent in patriarchy, with the book depicting the murders of a group of men who have sexually and/ or physically abused women. They are all killed by a woman in an act of rebellion and retribution. However, the novel’s underlying message is far more sinister and misogynistic.

Each of the murder victims is killed in a horrific manner, for example one falls into a Japanese style trap of sharpened sticks and left to bleed to death, another is held captive and tortured.

Throughout the novel Mankell and his team uncover evidence that these men who, on the surface were quiet and respectable business owners, each had a secret. Each was heavily linked to the disappearance of a woman, including a Polish girl who had been missing for decades and whose body is discovered on the land of one of the male victims at the end of the novel. It is discovered that one of the men murdered a woman in South Africa many years previously. She was the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Yvonne Ander, who seeks revenge by murdering him and a number of other men who were abusing women.

At the end of the novel the female murder goes on the run with a rape victim and her baby. No sympathy is shown for their situation, and the killer’s motives are not used to justify her violence, which is much less than her own victims exacted on the women they abused. The killer herself is portrayed by Mankell as a monster only really interested in violent vengeance, as shown in a number of instances such as:

“She was driving through the night, feeling very tired. She had listened to Katarina for hours. She often wondered about the weakness of these women [referring to the abused women]. They let themselves be tortured, abused, murdered. Then if they survived, they sat night after night moaning about it. She didn’t understand them. As she drove through the night she actually felt contempt for them. They didn’t fight back.” (p583).

Here Mankell separated female victims of male abuse into two broad categories: those who complain and those who ‘fight back’ AKA those who inflict as much abuse as they received in return. Neither of these types of women is shown anything short of contempt by the characters in the novel, with the detectives viewing the killer as sad more than anything else and paying limited attention to the other victims once they are ruled out as suspects. Towards the end of the case, as they close in on Yvonne Ander, the protagonist Wallnder discusses her with a colleague:

“’I believe she’s a lonely person’ Wallnder said. ‘And she thinks her purpose in life is to kill on behalf of others.’” (p554).

Later, after he catches her, he also states:

“Yvonne Ander is the first person I’ve ever met who is both intelligent and insane”. (p560).

When being apprehended, Ander shoots and wounds the only female member of the team charged with bringing her in. The officer in question was left alone to lie in wait for Ander, as the male members of the team did not realise until too late that she had picked up a gun earlier when they had first tried to apprehend her. As such, the shooting of the female police officer can be seen as partially owing to the incompetence of her colleagues, and this is the view shared by Wallander, who constantly blames himself for the shooting and refuses to leave her bedside as she recovers.

“Every day during this period Wallander went to visit Ann-Britt in hospital. He couldn’t get over what he was convinced was his responsibility. Nothing anyone said made any difference. He regarded the blame for what had happened as his alone. It was something he would have to live with.” (p560).

Mankell’s reference to other characters trying to reapportion the blame for the incident, and his use of the word ‘convinced’, allows him to draw the reader to believe that the blame is actually squarely on that of Anders. Whilst Anders pulled the trigger, it was Wallander and his team who forgot to tell their colleague that she was armed and left her in a vulnerable position, but in the same way that Mankell does not view her murders as justified in any way or driven by the abuse she and the women she supported had suffered, he also clearly exonerates his protagonist from any blame in favour of levying it entirely on Anders.

Whilst I appreciate that blame is a complicated issue, Mankell effectively uncomplicates this for his reader by showing that although the men in his novel have committed a series of violent murders, rapes and serious abuses of power, they were themselves violently killed by a woman who was, in his eyes, as bad as them. The final chapter of the novel focuses entirely on Anders and her crimes, with the reasons behind them an afterthought rather than any sort of justification. She commits suicide in the end, which is reported to Wallander in the context that he learns there will be no trial, giving the impression that he and the male victims have been robbed of their justice rather than that she’s been robbed of her life.

In the end Mankell focuses more on his protagonist’s feelings of having not uncovered the full truth of why she committed these horrific crimes than the fact that all of these women felt they had been failed by the justice system, which was why they turned to a vigilante in the first place. Anders herself was given painkillers whilst in custody, but this is again viewed more as a tragedy for justice than for Anders herself.

At the end of the day, whilst the examples used here are only two texts, they are written by authors who influenced a generation of crime fiction writers; their works are key to the genre. From Stuart McBride through to Jo Nesbo, plenty of male white writers are writing crime fiction filled with women being murdered, raped and abused thanks to the foundations the genre was built on by writers such as Mankell and Dexter. Their misogyny helped define the crime fiction and thriller space as one filled with mutilated women and made it, for many years, a male dominated space.

That’s now changing with the introduction of female detectives, and writers, but it is a slow process, and the market is still heavily populated with male authors writing about murdered prostitutes and abducted young girls.

Ultimately, whilst this may seem like a small issue- it’s only crime fiction, it’s only one genre- but actually, it’s a drop in the huge ocean of the mistreatment of women. From tiny things like women being policed in what they wear, such as the recent incident of the woman who was bullied into changing out of a crop top on a flight home from holiday through to ‘incel’ attacks around the world motivated by men who believe that women are unfairly denying them sex and every injustice in between, it is clear that every tiny act of sexism has its influence, and these texts showcase and attempt to justify horrific acts of violence against women. We’ve got a president in the USA who thinks it’s acceptable to ‘grab women by the pussy’ and reduce their reproductive rights, and men worldwide who believe it’s acceptable to traffic and objectify women because of a collective consciousness built on work like this.

Written by authors who influenced an entire genre, these books showcase how interpretations of violence and the mistreatment of women spiral and fuel a society that often, as in the case of many rape trials where men are given a free pass because of their athletic prowess or perceived potential, completely allows the degradation, humiliation and dehumanisation of women. This is the legacy that books like these have left, and it’s not a great one.

I’m always keen to hear people’s thoughts on my research so feel free to drop me a shout if you’d like to discuss! 

The Top Five Best Detective Sidekicks

dr watson

Recently someone wrote a comment on my blog about the ‘random topics’ I write about, which got me thinking about how far I’ve come away from a detective and crime fiction focused site through to a general book blog.

Seeking to get myself back on track, I decided to do a top five on my favourite sidekicks who accompany some of the world’s best detectives and how they keep readers interested even when the protagonist exhausts the reader’s patience.

After all, detective accomplices often serve the same purpose in the narrative as they do in literarily: they act as an interpreter between the detective and the reader. Usually they are in same position as the reader: they don’t have the insight and detective capabilities of the protagonist, and as such have the detective explain their processes. At the same time, they usually understand them and as such the author uses them as a tool to share information with the reader without just dumping it on them in big pieces of description.

So, to get back to my crime fiction roots, I showcase five of my favourite detective accomplices and explore the important role they play in their series. I hope it allows you to find a new read or to learn more about an old favourite.

5. Dr Watson: You might think that Sherlock Holmes’ accomplice would be a contender for the top spot, but as a basic copy of the original by Edgar Allan Poe and the template for hundreds of future detective sidekicks he is basically a caricature. However, he’s still an important part of the crime fiction space, and he has become a beacon for all future detective accomplices: loyal, determined, and unbelievably ordinary. He doesn’t have the supreme intellect of Conan Doyle’s famed detective but he has the military background to make an ideal bodyguard and the education to be useful at a crime scene.

4. Captain Hastings: Agatha Christie’s Poirot was not always accompanied by his sidekick, Hastings, who is a clear rip-off of Watson, but he is the best of all of Christie’s myriad of sidekicks. He is just as loyal and determined as Watson, without the intellect but boasting the military background, physical strength and social knowledge that his friend lacks.

3. Bunter: Lord Peter Wimsey’s valet, former army sergeant and closet confident, Dorothy L. Sayer’s character is, at first glance the epitome of a Watsonion detective accomplice. However, when you consider his personal love of photography and skills in that area, as well as his willingness to answer Lord Peter back and his, until the later books, almost complete lack of life outside of his work, you see that Bunter is in fact an innovative incarnation of the traditional model.

2. Sergeant Lewis: Colin Dexter’s sergeant, who is Welsh in the books and a Geordie on TV, is a typical example police character but he changes the model for detective sidekicks. Whilst many are younger and less experienced than the detective themselves, in the books Lewis is older than his boss, and he is infinitely more professional. What he lacks as a former boxer and uneducated man is the education and class to easily mix with and uncover the secrets of Oxford’s elite, which is where his boss comes in. Together the pair make a formidable team.

1. Pommes Frites: The cutest detective sidekick I’ve ever come across is Pommes Frites, Michael Bond’s bloodhound who assists Monsieur Pamplemousse, an undercover gastronomic reviewer who often gets into sticky situations and has to sleuth his way back out. This quirky duo work well together to create a perfect unique combination in a series of heartwarming and dastardly tales by the creator of Paddington Bear.

Crime Fiction: It’s Not All About Sequence

folio society

When reading detective stories, or any kind of series featuring a recurring character or characters, it seems sensible to start from the beginning and work towards the end. But does it have to be that way?

This idea came into my mind recently when I was talking to a friend about lending her books for her holiday. She is going snowboarding and has a lot of gear to take on a small luggage allowance, and as such I was thinking of small, short books I could lend her (spoiler alert: she said no to all my mad offers).

I was desperately scouring my brain for short books, but the majority were Maigret novels (Simenon’s books are all around 200 pages in length), but I suddenly thought that she had never read the first in the series. Which got me thinking: is that really necessary?

After all, most crime fiction novels, whilst following a certain pattern with regards to characterisation, usually have stand-alone plots, and as such it doesn’t make sense that people feel the need to read them in order. Also, feeling the need to read books in a set order may put people off: for example, there are around 75 Maigret novels, and if you read them in order it would take you ages to get to a specific book you might have started specifically for. I myself haven’t read them in order and have lost no understanding or enjoyment because of it.

Another series I didn’t read in order was the Frank Merlin series by Mark Ellis, an exceptional historical crime series set in London. I actually read the third book, Merlin At War, first for a review, and loved it so much I went on Amazon and immediately ordered the first and second to fulfil my love for this dogged, roguish yet honourable detective. Had I felt the need to stick rigidly to the series I probably wouldn’t have bothered reviewing the third book and simply left the lot alone, which would have been a real shame.

In all, I think that whilst it is often advisable to start at the beginning, it doesn’t have to become your mantra. You can always go back to the start if you feel the need, but at the end of the day don’t restrict your reading for anything, not even the sense of order you feel when you read a series in sequence (I still remember finishing the Harry Potter books in sequence and feeling incredibly triumphant). Reading should always be a pleasure, not a chore, so you do you, and try to read as widely as possible!