Friday 29 October 2010

Forgotten Book - Six Dead Men

Xavier Lechard, a great expert on Golden Age detective fiction, alerted me to the book which I have chosen to feature today in Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books series. It is certainly forgotten – in fact, I’d never even heard of it. The title is Six Dead Men, and the author Andre Steeman.

The author was Belgian; he was born in Liege, and he was only 23 when this novel was published in 1931. It won the Prix du Roman d’Aventures that year, and was promptly translated by Rosemary Benet and published in the US. The blurb hails Steeman as ‘the Continental Edgar Wallace’. He never became as prolific, but research on the internet suggests he was pretty successful, and several of his books were the subject of screen adaptations.

The premise is appealing. Six young men have agreed to spend five years seeking their fortunes all over the world, before returning to Paris to share equally their gains. But one by one, they are murdered. Who will be next?

Does this remind you of And Then There Were None? I don’t know whether Agatha Christie read this book, but suffice to say that apart from a few similarities, the books are very different in mood and theme. I enjoyed Steeman’s pacy story, and the tension is built up very well. The plot is full of twists and cleverly done. Of course, there is much that is implausible, but it’s a book that deserves to be much better known. Arguably a real landmark in the genre.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Hallowe'en Party

Hallowe’en Party is the latest instalment of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, due to be shown in the UK at 8 p.m. tonight, and as I’ll be away, I’ll be setting my recorder with a view to doing a review soon. For although the original book is one of Agatha’s least impressive, in my opinion, I am told by John Curran that the TV adaptation is excellent. And John, as the author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, is a very good judge of these matters.

This brings me to the question of whether TV adaptations can actually improve on the original book. The acting is crucial, of course, and David Suchet is always good value as Poirot. Much also depends on the quality of the screenplay, and Hallowe’en Party is written by Mark Gatiss, whose many credits include Sherlock and Doctor Who, as well as previous Christie stories. He’s a talented writer, to put it mildly, and more respectful, I think, of the source material than some other TV writers. But with Hallowe’en Party, the challenge unquestionably is to improve on the original, since Christie was nearing the end of her life when she wrote it, and I recall my disappointment as a teenager when I read the first edition. It simply wasn’t a good mystery.

Of course, only a major writer is ever likely to have his or her unsuccessful books adapted for TV. With Christie, the name is a brand, an assurance of enjoyable mystification, and such a strong brand that the quality of the original isn’t the key issue. Several of her masterpieces have been butchered by others over the years (The Sittaford Mystery was one of the most dismal recent examples) and so it will be a pleasing irony if Hallowe’en Party proves to be a triumph.

Good as Colin Dexter’s books were, I think the TV versions did improve upon them, and the same is true of some of the later and weaker Sherlock Holmes stories. On the other hand, the consensus seems to be that the first DCI Banks show did not live up to the standard of the books, while Tim Heald, Liza Cody, Marjorie Eccles and Frances Fyfield were not especially well served by the TV versions of their books. It’s all the luck of draw, I guess.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Thorne: Sleepyhead and Wallander: The Joker

Thorne: Sleepyhead reached a very grim conclusion in the third and final episode. I thought this was a very good new series, with David Morrissey leading a dynamic cast. The pace seldom faltered, even if there were occasional over the top moments. The finale wss deeply depressing, not my idea of cheery Sunday evening viewing, but even so, I'd guess Mark Billingham will be very pleased with the outcome, and so would I be in his shoes.

I've been catching up on one or two episodes from the first Swedish TV version of Wallander, the one featuring his daughter Linda, very well played by the late Johanna Salstrom. Ola Rapace is also excellent as her colleague Stefan. I'd missed The Joker the first time around, but I read good things about it, and they were certainly justified.

The story is cleverly plotted. I thought I'd figured out the twist early on, but the script had a good trick in store. This was a story about the murder of a woman outside her failing restaurant. The reason for her death can be traced back to events some years before at another restaurant, called The Joker.

Again this was a bleak story, if not quite as dark as Thorne. Much as I enjoyed both shows, I found myself longing for a bit of light relief by the end of them, so I may delve back into the Golden Age now. Apologies, by the way, for delays in responding to comments etc. I'm experiencing a few pc problems which are slowing me down at present.

Friday 22 October 2010

Forgotten Book - Trent Intervenes

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley, is certainly not a forgotten book, even nearly a century after its first appearance. It is a real landmark n the history of detective fiction, much admired by Christie, Sayers and the critics, and it paved the way for the Golden Age. But Trent Intervenes qualifies for inclusion in Patti Abbott’s series. It is a collection of stories that was published in 1938, although I think the stories were actually written over quite a lengthy period before that date.

Bentley had published Trent’s Own Case, co-authored with H.Warner Allen, a writer of fairly nondescript mysteries, but this was a far less memorable book than his brilliant debut. But several of the stories in Trent Intervenes are pretty good, and quite a number have been anthologised over the years, sometimes a number of times.

My favourites include ‘The Genuine Tabard’, ‘The Inoffensive Captain’ and ‘The Clever Cockatoo’. Philip Trent is an amiable character, an artist, journalist and urbane man about town – where are his modern equivalents?! He investigates rather languidly at times, but Bentley was a capable writer, and even the slighter tales are perfectly readable.

Trent didn’t appear again in a book of his own, but Bentley did turn out a ‘thriller’ some years later. It was called Elephant’s Work, and it was a story featuring amnesia. Which was fitting, really, as it probably does deserve to be forgotten!

Wednesday 20 October 2010

The Anatomy of Ghosts

I've written before about my enthusiasm for the work of Andrew Taylor. The appearance of another historical mystery from Andrew, The Anatomy of Ghosts, is therefore a real treat. Bleeding Heart Square was one of my favourite crime novels of 2008, and while that book was set in the 1930s, here he writes with equal assurance about murky events in a Cambridge college in the late 18th century.

Taylor's fictional Jerusalem College is splendidly and atmospherically evoked. A map is provided at the start of the book, and it turns out that the layout of the college buildings and grounds is relevant to the unravelling of the mystery. I do like maps in books, and I'm actively thinking of trying to draw one for my next book. Only snag is, I'm not at all artistic...

The book opens in dramatic fashion, with the proceedings of the Holy Ghost Club, a secretive and sinister group based at Jerusalem, and a shocking initiation ritual ends in tragedy and death. Attention then switches to the misadventures of John Holdsworth, who suffers terrible double bereavement when first his young son drowns and then his wife commits suicide. Angered by the fact that his wife had been exploited due to her belief that her son's ghost was seeking to make contact with her, Holdsworth writes The Anatomy of Ghosts, debunking ideas about the spirit world, and comes to the attention of a wealthy woman who dispatches him to Jerusalem College to assess the state of mind of a student who was traumatised by events at the last meeting of the Holy Ghost Club.

The first half of the book is sedate, far removed from the quickfire style of many modern serial killer thriller, but is none the worse for that. Taylor establishes character and setting with equal care, and the period detail is very well done. In the latter stages of the story, the pace quickens and a number of plot threads are pulled together with the dexterity that we have come to expect of this highly accomplished author.

Monday 18 October 2010

Thorne: Sleepyhead - review of episode 2

Thorne: Sleepyhead raises an interesting question. How long should a TV adaptation of a crime novel be? It's not really an academic question - it can made a great deal of difference to pace and suspense. The definitive TV tec show of recent times remains Inspector Morse, which began with each book turned into a single two hour show. Lewis follows the same pattern to this day, even though the screenplays have been original since TV ran out of Colin Dexter's originals many years ago.

Sometimes a novel may be squeezed into an hour - less if there have to be commercial breaks. Some years ago, one of the various TV deals relating to my books that never made it to the screen was based on the premise of 60 minutes per novel. It seemed a bit tight to me, but in the end it never got beyond the realm of theory.

Recently, DCI Banks turned a Peter Robinson novel into two hour-long episodes. The first seemed better than the second, which became a bit melodramatic. Thorne, however, turns Mark Billingham's book into three hour-long episodes. A bold move. The danger is that the story becomes very padded out if you aren't careful.

So far, however, so good. The second episode was fast-moving and pleasingly complex. It managed to hold my attention from start to finish, no mean feat on a somnolent Sunday evening. It's a good story, well translated to TV, and I'm enjoying it. Let's hope the final episode reaches the same standard.

Friday 15 October 2010

Forgotten Book - The Layton Court Mystery

I’m back after a day off! Thanks again for all your messages of support. I really do value your feedback and it's reassuring to know that regular readers have not become weary of these posts. Anyway, now for today’s forgotten book, and it’s a minor classic, Anthony Berkeley’s The Layton Court Mystery, first published in 1925 Berkeley published it anonymously at first – he was a strange man, who liked to hide his identity whenever he had the chance.

This is the book that introduced Roger Sheringham, who became Berkeley’s regular series detective. He was conceived as an antidote to the classic superman detective, and his behaviour is reprehensible in a number of respects. More than once in his career, he displayed a fallibility that would have made Poirot wince – in one book, his tendency to get it wrong is a crucial part of the murderer’s plan. Over the years, Berkeley toned down his portrayal, and he became a more conventional figure, less offensive, and more of a good guy.

Here Roger is a house guest at Layton Court when his host, Victor Stanworth, is found dead. Was it murder? The answer, in a Berkeley story, cannot be taken for granted. If it was murder, whodunit? The final revelation is clever and surprising, and you might say that it paved the way for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which appeared the following year.

This book was once very rare, so I was delighted when House of Stratus reprinted it a few years back. I wasn’t disappointed with the story, which in most respects has worn rather better than some other mysteries of the same period. For a debut, it was very impressive. No wonder that Berkeley went on to become one of the stars of the Golden Age.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Three Years On...

This blog started life on 13 October 2007, and since then I’ve managed (more or less) a post a day. It’s been a real joy, and an exhilarating experience, and has brought me into contact with many marvellous people, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet in person. I’ve learned a lot. Even more important, your kindness and enthusiasm continues to be a real source of delight and motivation as far as I’m concerned. I am truly grateful.

I never intended to be so prolific as a blogger, and didn’t expect to keep it going so long. But I most certainly plan to continue the blog. From now on, though, and at least until Christmas, I shall be posting less frequently. What I have in mind at the moment is to post on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week, while from time to time making additions to the schedule, for instance on topical issues.

I'm also wondering about filling in some or even all of the days when I don't write longer posts with things like crime related quiz questions and other snippets. I'd be interested to know if this appeals to my regular readers, or not.

There are several reasons for this adjustment of approach, most of which are linked to time pressures. Above all, though, I want both to keep the blog fresh and enjoyable for you and for me, and to strike a slightly different balance between blogging and my various other activities. Not least reading and writing more fiction!

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Making Mistakes

All writers make mistakes, much as they strive to avoid them. I have certainly been guilty of a few in my books over the years. Very often the mistakes are of trivial significance – I know one eminent writer who confessed to me that he kept forgetting the colour of his hero’s eyes, and therefore changed them from one book to another. This kind of thing may irritate some readers, but it hasn’t harmed that author’s high reputation at all, thank goodness. His view is that story is more important than pedantic accuracy, and I agree.

But there are limits. I read a new book recently that contained mistakes and implausibiliites so significant that they did spoil my enjoyment of the story. It was a pity, because the book and the author seem to me, in many ways, to have a lot going for them. The story was one I really wanted to like. But it contained a key courtroom scene that struck me as so hopelessly unbelievable that I lost faith.

I wondered if this was partly because I’m a lawyer, and people with specialised knowledge often become frustrated when the exigencies of the story take precedence over factual accuracy and credibility. Novelists have to cater for the majority of their readers, not just a niche audience. But I don’t have any expertise in criminal law and procedure, and I’ve certainly never attended a major trial.

On reflection, it seemed to me that what happened in that courtroom would strike most readers, not just me, as implausible. A shame, because this was a book with real potential which, ultimately, didn’t work for me. So because I don’t like writing negative reviews, I’m not going to say any more about it. Especially as I feel pretty optimistic that the author is good enough to get it right next time.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Thorne: Sleepyhead - review

Thorne: Sleepyhead is a three-part crime show introducing Mark Billingham's cop Tom Thorne to the small screen. This was Billingham's first book, and it's a striking start to a TV series, just as it was a striking fictional debut.

David Morrisey, whom I best remember as the dodgy politician in State of Play (TV version, not the film) plays Thorne. He's confronted with a serial killer, who specialises in giving his luckless victims strokes. One young woman who succumbs does not die, though, and as she lies helplessly in hospital, Thorne tries to communicate with her. But is he playing the killer's game?

The episode ended in dramatic fashion, and I'll certainly be tuning in next week. Mark Billingham has not had as long to wait for TV success as Peter Robinson, but there are some similarities with DCI Banks. A tall, moody cop with a troubled private life, falling for a glamorous blonde professional. A series of savage murders. And so on. It really is quite hard to do something new in television crime, but Thorne made a good stab at it.

I first met Mark Billingham about ten years ago, at a crime convention in Manchester, when we sat next to each other at a gala dinner. He was charming and witty and very keen on the genre - I recall he collected Ian Rankin first editions. At that time, he was still unpublished, but he struck me as someone determined, and likely, to succeed. He's certainly done that, and I am sure he must be delighted to see Thorne on the box.

The Murder and Mr Akroyd

Last Monday evening, I hosted my Victorian murder mystery at Akryod Library, Halifax. It was an enjoyable occasion, and I found the venue especially fascinating. The library shares premises with Bankfield Museum, and the building is in a park – unfortunately, it was too dark for me to look around much outside.

But there were some treasures inside, including information about the long defunct Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society – a name that greatly appealed to me. The exhibits included the Halifax Gibbet, a truly fearsome means of execution. I was told it was a precursor to the guillotine. I’m not sure about the historic details, but I did wonder if gibbets had featured much in detective fiction – I imagine so, but can’t call any example to mind.

Bankfield Mansion was once home to a leading Yorkshire worsted and wooleen manufacturer – Edward Akroyd. He developed it into a palatial Italianate-style home. The original Library is one of the most impressive of the rooms. It still retains original oak bookcases, and a great marble fireplace. At one time Akroyd had a staff of 25 servants working at the house. But business problems forced him to sell Bankfield, and the Halifax Corporation took it over, creating the public museum and library. I’d never have gone to Bankfield had I not been invited to host the mystery evening. Yet another example of the unexpected pleasures that can come a writer’s way.

One more bit of news, by the way. Take My Breath Away will make its appearance in a US edition, published by Five Star, next June. I’m really pleased, as it is a book I remain proud of.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Writers at Work

I am always fascinated to see the places where other writers live and work. When – twenty years ago, I can hardly believe it! - I first visited Greenaway, where Agatha Christie lived, I was greatly intrigued, and I mentioned a while back my pleasure at visiting Margaret Yorke in her delightful cottage, with a study crammed with books. And Eileen Dewhurst, now retired but a Wirral based writer of note, has a great set-up in her flat in Birkenhead.

Closer to home in Cheshire, Kate Ellis has for many years worked out in the garden in a specially designed garden room. But now she’s moved her study and workplace indoors. She is a gifted plotter, and it’s fascinating to see how she maps out her intricate mysteries in a very visual way. This is something I don’t do, but it’s a method that has a good deal to commend it, I think. And the success of Kate’s ingenious puzzles shows that it works very well in accomplished hands.

What Kate and I do have in common as writers is that we both know the solution to the main mystery from the outset. My own starting point is almost invariably an interesting motive for murder. And that is why I am not one of those crime writers who does not know where the story is going to wind up when they begin writing. But all methods are valid – they are simply a means to an end. What really matters is the quality of the end product.

Friday 8 October 2010

Forgotten Book - The Complete Curious Mr Tarrant

My entry today for Patti Abbott’s series of Forgotten Books is a collection that updates a book of short stories that is fondly remembered, I think, by a fair number of Golden Age fans. This is The Complete Curious Mr Tarrant, a Crippen & Landru ‘lost classsic’ which expands The Curious Mr Tarrant, first published in 1935.

The author, C. Daly King, was a psychologist, who wrote on his professional subject as well as venturing into detective fiction in half a dozen novels, some of them now fabulously rare in first edition. I’m still trying to trace Careless Corpse – in any edition. His plotting was labyrinthine, and occasionally eccentric. Obelists Fly High, which I’ve discussed before, is a truly remarkable mystery novel, well worth seeking out.

The original book of stories about Trevis Tarrant were not published in King’s native US until the 70s, but they deserved a better fate, and the expanded book, dating from 2003, contains four additional tales – fascinating finds, making the collection a true cabinet of curiosities. There is a nice introduction by the late Edward D. Hoch, who speaks fondly of King’s ingenuity, and his penchant for impossible crime stories.

The book offers ‘headless torsos, a haunted house, a vanishing harp, a museum mystery and other delights’, as Hoch says, along with a story about a murder solved only by the absence of a fish. ‘The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem’ was admired and anthologised by Dorothy L. Sayers, who knew a clever writer when she saw one. These stories are dated and sometimes quite barmy, but for me they have an irresistible appeal. What a shame that King’s one and only novel about Tarrant never saw the light of day.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Finding a new author

I knew nothing of Gunnar Staalesen until I read Yours Until Death, which I reviewed for Tangled Web UK, and more briefly for this blog the other day. But he is certainly an interesting writer. Born in 1947, he published his first book at the tender age of 22. His titles include At Night All Wolves are Grey – terrific title! An author I shall look forward to revisiting.

It’s always a good feeling when you find an author new to you whose books really appeal. It’s even better in a way if they have been around for a long time, since then you know that there are plenty of other titles to devour. Of course, they may not all be of the same standard, but most good writers are worth reading even when below their best.

Over the years I’ve made plenty of such discoveries. Among those I remember with great pleasure are Cornell Woolrich, whom I first encountered in the early 80s, and the great Frenc duo, Boileau and Narcejac, whom I first read about four years ago, though I’d seen Vertigo many years earlier. And reading Ruth Rendell for the first time was another great experience - I started with A Judgement in Stone, still one of the best novels of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read. I can even remember reading some of it in Kew Gardens, of all places...

Equally, I must admit that I get a kick out of reviews where someone has come across my work for the first time, and expresses enthusiasm for reading more of my work. This means a lot to a writer, and such a response always puts me in a good mood for the rest of the day! On the subject of reviews, by the way, I have now updated the Lake District Mysteries page on my website which contains reviews of The Serpent Pool. Reaction to that book has exceeded even my expectations, and I’m truly delighted by the critiques. The publishers tell me the paperback is due out in January - looking forward to it!

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Unpleasant characters in a mystery

It’s fair to say that a good many modern crime novels seem to be populated with an array of unpleasant characters. But even where you have a book with (say) an appealing detective, it’s quite common to find that the characters you dislike are in the great majority. But is this inevitable?

In a whodunit, you need to have a range of people who might conceivably have committed the murder. Years ago, common motives were inheritance, and the difficulty of obtaining a divorce. Plenty of books featured people who seemed amiable, even though they turned out to be murderously inclined. The culprit in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders is but one example.

But nowadays, motives are (I suggest) more often rooted in character flaws than perhaps was the case in the past. And perhaps this means that the characters themselves are unlikely to be attractive, at least below the surface.

It’s an issue that vexes me with my own books. One of my recent novels therefore was based on the premise that an appealing person might have a good reason to commit a terrible crime. But more often, I find that almost all my suspects have their dark side. This is true of The Serpent Pool , for instance. And I do wonder about the views of readers. Is it enough to have a small number of appealing characters? Or do you like the (seemingly) nice guys to be in the majority – and, if so, how do you respond when one of them turns out to be a murderer? Or does it really not matter, as long as the story holds your interest?

Tuesday 5 October 2010

DCI Banks - review of Aftermath, part 2

DCI Banks Aftermath concluded last night and having had a look at other reviews, I’m a bit worried that I seem to be in something of a minority in having enjoyed the opener for this new series starring Stephen Tompkinson as Banks and Andrea Lowe as Annie Cabot. But despite widespread reservations about the portrayal of Banks as a bit of a wimp, I found the second and concluding episode fairly entertaining and a bit different from many TV cop shows.

However, there was a heavily melodramatic element to the material and its presentation, and here perhaps there were too many concessions in the script to the perceived requirements of a TV audience. I’ve read many of the Banks books, but not Aftermath, so I can’t comment with authority, but even so I’m confident the novel is a good deal subtler than the screenplay.

Of course, it is in the nature of TV adaptations that they lose something of the flavour of the original. If the writer is lucky – think Colin Dexter – they add a lot, too. But Liza Cody, Tim Heald and Marjorie Eccles are among those who arguably were not well served when their books made the transition to the small screen. And even Reg Hill had to endure Hale and Pace as the original Dalziel and Pascoe, before his work moved to the BBC.

John Harvey, in a rather scathing assessment of the first episode of Aftermath, mentioned that Tompkinson was once briefly considered for the role of Charlie Resnick. It’s also the case that he was mooted for a TV version of Harry Devlin, and a script of All the Lonely People was written by one of the scriptwriters for Taggart. Alas, it never got made. Would I have minded liberties being taken with my masterpiece? Believe me, I could have coped!!

Monday 4 October 2010

Abney and Agatha

English Heritage week-end saw Abney Hall’s interior opened for visitors, a rare event that attracted crime writer Kate Ellis and her husband Roger, who live nearby, and who invited us over to have a look at this fascinating place. The trip was, in fact, a few weeks back, but it's taken me an age to get used to downloading photos from my new camera!!

I’ve mentioned Abney before. It was once the home of Agatha Christie’s sister. She married into a very wealthy Mancunian business family, the Watts, and Agatha was a frequent visitor. The house made a huge impression on her – she featured a fictionalised version in stories like ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ – and one can see why. Even though the building was until recently occupied by a computer firm, which has now moved out, giving it a rather bare feeling, it remains impressive.

There is plenty of stained glass window, and many fascinating features of decor – the fact it’s so noteworthy is perhaps not surprising when one knows that A.W. Pugin was primarily responsible for the design. One can easily see how Agatha’s imagination was fired by the excitement of staying in such a place.

Out in the garden is a tree under which Agatha is said to have sat for hours, dreaming up stories. Needless to say, Kate and I paid due homage to the great tree. We are both huge Christie fans, and you never know – the magic might rub off!

Sunday 3 October 2010

Inspector George Gently: Gently Evil - review

Inspector George Gently is back, and I recorded the first episode of the new series, Gently Evil, catching up with it last night. Martin Shaw is again the gruff cop with a heart, and his irksome sidekick, Bacchus, is played very well by Lee Ingleby. The series is based on the late Alan Hunter's novels, and written by Peter Flannery.

In this episode, a youngish woman is found battered to death at her home. Her ex husband is a suspect, and her rather odd brother is too. And what about her daughter, who seems both precocious and naive? The story takes an unexpected turn, moving into the realm of child abduction, and a mystery about a young girl's death a year earlier.

The story moved along well, and there was also some worthwhile discussion about the nature of evil. The series is set in 1966, and the atmosphere was pretty well done, though did people really talkl about the mentally ill being 'sectioned' back then? I'm not sure.

The relationship between the cops is very well done, and Bacchus's hapless love life is an interesting plot strand. An attractive lawyer with a conscience (yes, they do exist) featured, and I suspect she may well return in future shows. Definitely worth watching.

Saturday 2 October 2010

The Party and Vicious Circle

My recent TV diet has included a couple more Tales of the Unexpected, both of which are agreeable time-passers. The Vicious Circle, from a story by the American writer Donald Honig, offers the neater twist at the end. This is a story which involves an elderly lady catching a young man who tries to burgle her. He injures his ankle, and she takes him home and tries to encourage him to reform. Her well-meaning efforts don’t succeed, but before long, he receives an unexpected surprise.

The Party is based on a story by Doug Morgan. It features a long-serving manager of a company which is about to be taken over. His career is under threat, and it seems that the younger generation is about to overtake him. When he over-reacts in response, fate takes over.

The Party is notable less for its story than for its cast. Robert Morley stars as Mr Knox, the grumpy manager, and his wife is played by Irish actress Joyce Redman. And in a smaller part as a young girl in the office is Joyce’s niece – Amanda Redman, nowadays a very big name indeed. This must have been one of her very first TV roles.

These episodes were made almost 30 years ago, and by the standards of today, they seem a little slow, even though they are short. But as amiable and undermanding pieces of light entertainment, they remain worth watching.

Friday 1 October 2010

Yours Until Death

I’ve read a few crime novels by Norwegian writers, but this Euro Crime paperback of a book first published as long ago as 1979 was my introduction to the work of Gunnar Staalesen. Yours Until Death is set in Bergen and features private detective Varg Veum, Staalesen’s main series character. And I thought it was excellent.

Credit must go to translator Margaret Amassien for an attractive piece of work – she renders Staalesen’s prose in a very appealing way. This is a well-written novel, which makes very good use of the Bergen backdrop, and it’s a much cleverer mystery than I anticipated after the early pages.

The story begins with a young boy, Roar, asking gumshoe Varg to help his mother, who is being menaced by a teenage gang which hangs out near their flat. Varg lends a hand, and quickly falls under the spell of the mother, the lovely Wenche Andresen. He finds himself embroiled in Wenche’s rather unfortunate private life, and when a man is found dead on the premises, Wenche is the obvious suspect. She is arrested, but Varg is determined to help her prove her innocence.

One unlikely feature of the book is the way so many characters confide very extensively in Varg, but Staalesen just about managed to get me to suspend my disbelief. The revelation about the main culprit comes as a genuine surprise. This is a very enjoyable private eye story, distinctive and memorable.