Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Crime (page 1 of 15)

The one who survived…

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Black eyed susans The ARC I was sent of this stylish psychological thriller came bound in black ribbon with a silk flower of the title.

I was expecting the book, but wasn’t expecting a daisy – it turns out that what is known as Black eyed Susan in the US is Rudbeckia hirta – of the aster family. It is the state flower of Maryland and grows all over North America.  If you look up Black eyed Susan in UK catalogues however, you’re more likely to find a totally unrelated herbaceous perennial, Thunbergia alata, which emanates from Eastern Africa originally.

black-eyed-susan-vine-thunbergia-alata1Thunbergia is a scrambling vine with heart-shaped leaves which I used to grow up a trellis as an annual (it’s rather tender to frost). The simple five-petaled flowers can vary from creamy white to deep orange. I wasn’t going to let myself be sidetracked by these botanical considerations though, so I mentally rebooted and started reading.

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When she was 16, Tessa became famous for being the one who survived.  A group of girls were abducted and their bodies dumped in a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, except Tessie, as she was known then, wasn’t quite dead.

This happened twenty years ago, and Tessa has moved on and got a life as an artist and single mum to Charlie, her teenaged daughter.  Life is good when she can stop thinking about the past, but it is all opened up again when a patch of the yellow daisies appears under her window. They must have been planted there, but by whom? Is the man on Death Row for the murders not the killer? Scared again for her own life and that of her daughter, Tessa agrees to work with the lawyers who believe that the man who is locked up and due for execution is innocent.  Cans of worms are opened, almost literally, for the other victims’ bodies are exhumed. Forensic science has progressed far in the intervening years and experts in mitochondrial DNA are brought in to find new evidence.

Tessa’s present day story alternates with that of Tessie, now 17, in the past. Having survived such a terrible ordeal, Tessie is traumatised and is under the treatment of a therapist as she is prepared for the trial of Terrell Goodman, the man they have put in prison. He is convicted on her evidence, despite the huge gaps in her memory.  Her best friend Lydia is a huge support to her through all the build up to the trial.  The conviction doesn’t make it right though and after the trial, Tessie becomes mute for a long time.

It is clear that she buried things back then and more since, unable to comprehend how they fitted into the picture. Throughout the novel, this information will be teased out in both past and present, with evidence leading one way then another until a startling conclusion is reached. I loved the way that the dual time-frame added to the complexity of what you think was happening at any time, vs what she said had happened then, what she remembered happening then now and what really happened, then and now. This deliberate confusion did diffuse the tension at times but certainly keeps the intrigue going.

Heaberlin has done her research well and blended it into the novel without the details intruding too much – the DNA forensics was fascinating and well presented for example. The other area of her research was into Death Row and the work of attorneys like David Dow (see his Ted talk here) and Brit Clive Stafford Smith (I will never forget his TV documentary from 1987, Fourteen Days in May).  Heaberlin’s young lawyer Bill who took charge of the case when the veteran defense lawyer passed away has his job cut out, but proves a sympathetic character and a good balance to Tessa.

I would have reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books, but it’s one of those books that is best recommended without going into much detail. I didn’t want to write a lengthy review, but believe me, I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Penguin: Michael Joseph. August 2015, hardback, 368 pages.

Trapped in Genteel Poverty…

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Paying guestWhen we chose the second title for the Shiny Book Club, we wanted something totally different to the first (The Bees, which I reviewed here). It had to fit our criteria of being a Shiny New Book available in paperback in the UK. The obvious choice was Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, which came out in paperback in early summer.  (Note: It’ll be out in September in the US, so you can join in the Shiny Book Club discussion which will run until the next issue in October).  I’d bought the hardback last year, and very much enjoyed reading it, although holding it open (I don’t care to crack spines), made my wrist ache in bed!

A very quick synopsis of the basic plot. It’s 1922 and Frances Wray lives in genteel poverty with her mother in Champion Hill, the posh bit of Camberwell, South London. Her two brothers were killed in WWI. After that her father died, leaving them short of cash, they had to let their servants go, and Frances has taken on all aspects of running the house, being careful to keep up appearances for her mother’s sake. However, austerity is not enough, and reluctantly they decide to take in lodgers. Enter a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, who will take the upstairs rooms (excepting Frances’ bedroom). They will have to share the outside lav though.  After their visit to view, Frances is discussing them with her mother:

‘One good thing, I suppose, about their being so young: they’ve only his parents to compare us with. They won’t know that we really haven’t a clue what we’re doing. So long as we act the part of landladies with enough gusto, then landladies is what we will be.’
Her mother looked pained. ‘How baldly you put it! you might be Mrs Seaview, of Worthing.’
‘Well, there’s no shame in being a landlady; not these days. I for one aim to enjoy landladying.’
‘If you would only stop saying the word.’

And so it is that upper middle class Frances and her mother, become landladies to a working class couple on their way up. Quite a reversal.

Frances initially finds it difficult having a man in the house again, with his ‘jaunty whistling’ and ‘loud masculine sneezes’.  Len also has a habit of going out into the yard for a fag late in the evening, and stopping to talk to Frances on his way back through the kitchen.  He asks her about the garden and volunteers to help, telling her about his guvnor’s garden:

‘He even has cucumbers in a frame. Beauties, they are – this long!’ He held his hands apart, to show her. ‘Ever thought of cucumbers, Miss Wray?’
‘Growing them, I mean?’
Was there some sort of innuendo there? She could hardly believe that there was. But his gaze was lively, as it had been the night before, and , just as something about his manner then had discomposed her, so, now, she had the feeling that he was poking fun at her, perhaps attempting to make her blush.

Everyone settles down; Lilian puts her personal touch on their rooms with shawls and ornaments; Len goes out to work. Lilian gives Frances the rent money, and Mrs Wray gets hopeful about it:

‘I did just wonder, Frances, whether we mightn’t be able to afford a servant again.’

It is clear that there are tensions in Lil and Len’s relationship. This is obvious to Frances, who had begun to strike up a friendship with her lodger.  Then, one day, Frances lets out her big secret – she’d had a relationship with another woman, Chrissy, and was found out as the two of them had planned to set up home together. Far from scaring off Lilian, it switches something on in her and the pair become intimate, starting a secret affair.  Things soon come to a head though. It’s deeply stressful for all concerned in every which way. What happens next?  There are shocks and twists aplenty, but I’m not going to get more spoilery here. If you have read the book though, the discussion at Shiny Book Club does go into detail.

I thought that Waters nailed the situation of Frances and her mother in their enforced austerity perfectly. Mrs Wray was obviously perpetually mortified by it, and hated the idea that anyone might spot Frances cleaning the front doorstep or the like. Frances is hemmed in by it all, but throws herself into the chores to escape from her mother, except on those days she has trips into London to see her old flame Christina which is her only real relief from drudgery and the spinster life she has had to settle for.

Lilian at first appears flighty with Frances the dominant one, but as the novel progresses there is rather a role reversal. Frances falls so hard for Lilian it unnerves her, whereas Lilian gets strength from her large supportive family (who never find out all the secrets). Frances has been hardened by what happened before and regrets losing Christina, she thinks she’ll never find another lover and can’t believe it when Lilian reciprocates.  Their secret relationship is so intense and claustrophobic. At the beginning of the novel I really felt for Frances; I know she couldn’t help it, but the pressure she put on Lilian made me feel less for her and more for her partner in crime.

Topping just  over 560 pages in hardback, I did find this novel hard to put down, reading it in three long sessions. Once you get towards the closing stages, there is no way you’ll want to stop reading if you don’t have to, it’s so intense and gripping.  It feels very real in its post-WWI world (as The Night Watch did with WWII). It’s the 1920s, but there’s not a flapper in sight, this is suburban South London (and believe me it doesn’t change much!)

The Night Watch
remains my favourite Waters novel, but I preferred The Paying Guests to the slower-burning The Little Stranger (review here). The Paying Guests pulls you into its world right from the start. It is a complex morality tale that I enjoyed reading very much.

See also Harriet’s review and Simon’s at Vulpes Libris.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Virago, paperback, 608 pages.

Meeting Commissaire Adamsberg

Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas

Translated by David Bellos

Adamsberg 2Although not my first read of French author Fred Vargas (that was The Three Evangelists – reviewed here), this was my first encounter with her detective Commissaire Adamsberg. SWHMD is the second novel featuring him. I prefer to read a series in order, but don’t have the first, The Chalk Circle Man, and in this case I don’t think it really mattered in introducing me to Adamsberg who, until well over halfway into this novel is peripheral to the action!

I was intrigued by the English title of the novel, which I found comes from the bible:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.

1 Peter 5.8

What is stranger is that it contrasts so much from the original French title: L’Homme à l’envers – The inside-out man – which is not such a good title in English.

The novel is set in SE France, amongst the villages nestling near the alpine foothills surrounded by sheep farms and where life conforms to a rural idyll.  Le Parc National du Mercantor is a forested region bordering Italy, and wildlife experts are closely monitoring the wolves who have crossed the Alps from Italy. One of the experts, a taciturn Canadian called Lawrence Johnstone, is obsessed by the wolves,  he even looks after one that is too old to hunt by leaving him rabbits.  Johnstone lives with Camille, an enigmatic musician, who when not composing soundtracks for TV programmes, does plumbing.

One night, some sheep are killed. The toothmarks seem to indicate a giant wolf. Johnstone believes that it may be a large wolf who has not been seen for a while, whom he names Crassus the Bald.  More sheep are killed and their owner Suzanne thinks it is a werewolf:

Camille tried to make out Johnstone’s face in the dark, to see whether he was having her on, or what. But the Canadian’s expression remained stony and serious.
“Are you talking about the kind of guy who turns into a monster at night with claws that grow and hair that sprouts all over and canines that stick out over his lower lip? The sort of guy who goes around eating people lost at night in the woods and then stuffs his hairy chest inside his suit jacket in the morning before going into the office?”
“You got it,” said Johnstone, seriously. “A werewolf.”

…which explains the French title.  But Suzanne is brutally murdered in similar fashion the next day.  When a local man, Massart, a misfit who lived alone goes missing, and a map is found in his hut with crosses where the sheep were killed and a route going through the region marked on it, Suzanne’s friends decide it must be him and form a posse to catch him. Johnstone heads back into the park to track the wolves.

Soliman is Suzanne’s adopted son. Presumed to be African, he was abandoned as a baby, and being the only black person around stands out amongst the locals. Watchee is Suzanne’s ancient shepherd. Neither of them can drive, so they persuade Camille, who it turns out has an HGV licence, to ferry them in a converted sheep truck.  They set off on the chase through the perilous mountain roads, living in the back of the lanolin-steeped old lorry. They’re always one step behind though, there are more sheep killings and two more men are murdered. This always playing catch-up gives the trio time to talk, bicker and bond. They are a likeable band, but you do wonder what they would actually do if they caught up with Massart.

What of Commissaire Adamsberg?  He has been following the sheep murders on the news back in Paris where he has his own problem, living in hiding as a woman stalker has vowed to kill him for putting a bullet in the gut of their gang leader:

Adamsberg could see her now, standing on the other side of the street. […] when she came out in the open, like today, Adamsberg did not know whether she had a weapon on her or not. She often kept visible watch on him like that – to try his nerves he reckoned. Adamsberg’s easygoing nature kept him at a steady rhythm, which was always slow, almost detached. It was not easy, therefore, to know whether he was taking a genuine interest in something or whether he didn’t give a damn. More out of indolence rather than courage, Commissaire Adamsberg did not know what it was to be scared.
His imperturbable low key had an almost magical calming effect on other people, and brought about genuine miracles in the interrogation of suspects. People like Inspector Danglard, who felt all of life’s big and little bumps in his bones, like a cyclists for ever riding a new leather saddle, despaired of getting Adamsberg to react to anything. Just to react? That wasn’t asking for the moon, was it, now?

The trio need help, and Camille knows a flic who can – Adamsberg; they used to be lovers.  She makes the call. Adamsberg is happy to be drawn into the investigation, and to see Camille again. With him on the team, the quartet should surely be able to find the killer, whatever or whoever they are…

Like the other Vargas book I read, SWHMD was an unconventional crime novel, but always fascinating. It has brutal crimes within its pages, yet managed to have an engaging, wry sense of humour that drew me in, due to the strength of her characters.  Camille is such a strong woman, I have to hope that she might crop up again, but Adamsberg himself is enigmatic and, in his considered manner, reminded me a lot of Maigret!  It is a brave author that doesn’t bring her detective into the fray until page 162 out of 263, although he does follow the crimes from the start of the book.  I also liked the way that the superstitious villagers could believe in the old werewolf legends, building up the tension. More Vargas novels are definitely on the cards after reading this one. (9/10)

witmonth15Don’t forget that August is Women in Translation Month – hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
Seeking Whom He May Devour (Commissaire Adamsberg) by Fred Vargas (1999), trans David Bellos (2004). Vintage paperback.

Maigret #3

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Georges Simenon

Translated by Linda Coverdale

maigret 3

A rather seedy, nervous traveller waits for his train in the station buffet, watched by another…

The second man studied him, calmly, almost implacably, puffing on his pipe.
The nervous traveller left his seat for two minutes to go to the toilet Without even leaning down, simply by moving a foot, the other man then drew the small suitcase towards him and then replaced it with one exactly like it.
Thirty minutes later, the train left. The two men took seats in the same third-class compartment, but without speaking to each other. (p3)

The man reaches his destination in Bremen and books into a hotel. He opens his suitcase and realises it’s not the right one. Later, after an unsuccessful search he returns to the hotel and commits suicide with a revolver.

The pipe gives it away to the reader that the second man is Inspector Maigret. But, why is he following this man? Why has he swapped the suitcase?

Maigret had seen the first man wrapping and sending a bundle of 1000 Franc notes, and had followed on a whim buying the same suitcase, sensing a wrong-un.  He’d followed the man all the way to Bremen, got an adjoining room and watching through the keyhole between the rooms had witnessed the suicide.

Maigret was not far from – indeed quite close to – thinking that he had just killed a man. (p7)

Maigret felt so troubled – indeed, almost remorseful – that only after painful hesitation did he reach for the suitcase. (p11)

What the tramp had been keeping so protectively in his suitcase, a thing so precious to him that he’d killed himself when it was lost, was someone else’s suit! (p13)

Maigret owes it to the man, who had been travelling on a forged passport as Louis Jeunet, to investigate. At the mortuary, a businessman comes to view the body; Joseph Van Damme takes Maigret to lunch, where his volubility just makes Maigret even more curious. How are the two men linked? Maigret’s investigations will take him to Rheims and Liège and to find others connected to Jeunet, including a graphic artist who is obsessed by drawing a hanged man.

The clues lie in the past, as usual it takes persistence to unravel them. Maigret will be in danger too, escaping death not once but twice before the denouement. As he uncovers more information about Jeunet, his family and his acquaintances, the tension increases as the threat of exposure of the real circumstances surrounding the man draws nearer, everyone involved gets nearer and nearer to breaking-point making this story a real psychological thriller.

As with many of the Maigret stories, this one has its basis in real events. The church of Saint-Pholien exists in Liège, and a friend of Simenon had hanged himself there ten years before this book was written. Simenon and his late friend had been a members of a group of former students known as La Caque, after a tightly-packed herring barrel, who presumably met to drink, philosophise and put the world to rights. I won’t explain any more for fear of spoiling the story.

I enjoyed this Maigret mystery a lot, but am slightly worried about Maigret’s tendencies to push buttons to escalate situations! His substitution of the suitcase on a whim is surely ethically suspect for a police inspector, non? I was interested to see at‘s page for this novel that although its title in French is Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien, the first English translation in 1933 called the story The Crime of Inspector Maigret. Linda Coverdale’s new translation restores the original title. (8.5/10)

I’m looking forward to the fourth in Penguin’s new editions The Carter of La Providence next.  For more of my Maigret reviews, visit here and here (scroll down).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien: Inspector Maigret #3 by Georges Simenon. New Penguin edition, 2014 trans Linda Coverdale. Paperback, 144 pages.

Ronning and Stilton return

Third Voice by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind


I had the good fortune to give out copies of Spring Tide, of which Third Voice is the sequel, for World Book Night back in April. I enjoyed Spring Tide so much that Third Voice had a lot to live up to, but it didn’t disappoint. The husband and wife team, the Börjlinds, have succeeded in delivering another multi-stranded and complex crime thriller that continues in much the same vein as their first.

I should add that you ought to read Spring Tide first, there is little recapping of earlier events; Third Voice assumes you know the basics of what happened before. This gives space for much character development for the two leads, Olivia Rönning and Tom Stilton.

Olivia, coming towards the end of her police training isn’t sure she wants to join the police force proper – confused about her heritage, she thinks she might go off and study the history of art, taking her birth mother’s surname too. However, when out for a walk with her adoptive mother, they encounter the police at a neighbour’s house – a government employee who appears to have committed suicide. His young daughter found him. Olivia and Maria look after the girl until her aunt can arrive – and we know that Olivia’s curiosity will ensure that she seeks to investigate the case.

Whereas Tom, the former DI, former homeless person, now sharing a barge with an equally enigmatic landlady is dragged off to Marseilles by his friend Abbas to investigate the death of a woman called Samira.

These two threads seem initially unconnected, but gradually they start weaving together and it is Mette, the DCI, who has problems of her own to contend with, that will bring everything together. Old foes will reappear and new ones come into play in a plot that twists and turns all over the place. There are some gruesome moments as you might expect, but the clever plotting, wonderful characterisation which goes beyond the two leads, and a real sense of justice prevail once again to dominate the violence.

I do hope the Börjlinds (and their translator Hilary Parnfors) continue to write more Rönning and Stilton books, for these are the real deal. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Third Voice (Ronning & Stilton 2)by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind, pub Hesperus, March 2015, paperback original, 464 pages.
Spring Tide (Ronning & Stilton 1)


Simenon's most autobiographical roman dur…

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

three bedroomsLast month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character  – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.

John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.

Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:

What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.

Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)


Nightawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Art Institute of Chicago

‘You’re French?’
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’

They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.

The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:

She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’

Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom,  Combe will eventually succumb.  It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.

The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for.  That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.  The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman.  For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here

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The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

galletSpace here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).

Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks.  He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?

In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself,  there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.

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