Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Crime Travel: Scotland

I will return to Scotland with another author because it is unfair to review A. D. Scott's A Small Death in the Great Glen as I read half of it and skimmed the rest. But it would also be wrong to pretend I didn't read it and not critique it because it's too hard to write about a book that didn't enthrall me. So here goes. 

A Small Death in the Great Glen takes place in the 1950s, soon after World War II, in a small town in the Scottish Highlands. A wee boy is found dead in what at first looks like an accident, but is soon discovered to be a molestation followed by murder. An easy target for the police to pin the crime on is a Polish man who has gone missing from a Russian ship docked nearby and who can be placed in the proximity of the crime. The suspect has been protected by a local Polish man who is engaged to a local Italian girl and by a group of Tinkerers -- all in their own way outsiders to the insular world of the small town. But in the end the crime hits much closer to home. 

The real investigators of the book are not the local police but the staff of the town's weekly newspaper. Halfway through the book, these people are well-established. Joanne, the newspaper's typist who is an abused wife and whose children are the last to see the small murdered boy alive. The editor McAllister who figures out the crime. Reporters Don and Rob who play a part in unraveling the mystery. The history is interesting: emigres from war-torn countries who are welcomed into the community but are mistrusted and easy scapegoats. And all the things that are unusual to an American reader: the Tinkerers and their chaotic way of life, and words like bairn and hoodie crow. 

So, why didn't I like the book? Or why did I skim half of it? I've been trying to figure that out, but here's my best guess. For one, there is not a central character. Joanne's life is the most explored, but it's McAllister who figures it all out. The book is not really from any one person's point of view. In the same way, the crime isn't really the focus of the book. The Tinkerer's and the local emigre community storyline tie in nicely to the crime plot, but a large portion of the book focuses on Joanne's domestic life, which has nothing to do with the crime except that her children provide an important clue. Then her husband's work brings in another plot, which it would be unfair of me to judge as I skimmed most of that, although from what I could glean it had nothing to do with the main crime. 

Finally, the book straddles a fence between cozy and crime that I found discordant. The crime and the background to the crime is gruesome, as is Joanne's battering and some other social mores of the times, such as the treatment of unwed mothers. But it's all told in sort of a cozy style, with flowery language and leisurely scenes and slow-moving plot lines. I sometimes felt trapped inside a wrapped package trying to rip my way out. I started skimming after the tenth reference to hoodie crows still had not resolved anything. 

Anyway, I hate giving a bad review to a book which shines a light on interesting history and is populated by mostly likable and believable characters. And readers of this review should take it all with a grain of salt since, as I've mentioned several times, I read half the book and skimmed the rest. But there you have it. 

I'm off to the library, hopefully to find another mystery set in a far-flung land.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Starring Ciarán Hinds

There is an ITV show based on Lynda LaPlante's Above Suspicion series starring Ciarán Hinds. The third season starts in January and may or may not be available online. (When I click on the ITV Player I get nothing. That may be because it's only available to British or Eurpopean IP addresses, or may just be that I'm not savvy or tenacious enough to figure it out.) Anyone see Hinds in Persuasion? Loved it, loved him. And the inimitable Prime Suspect series starring Helen Mirren is enough to recommend LaPlante

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Crime Travel*

I love mysteries set in foreign lands. And I love to travel. So to give this blog a new focus for the new year, I am going to attempt to travel the globe by reading mysteries from every country for which I can find a book. Some will be easy; I am now reading a book set in Scotland. I'll write a brief review when I'm done. It will be easy to complete the British Isles with Wales and Britain. But other countries might be impossible. Mongolia? Chad? Who knows. I hope to find out and be pleasantly surprised. 

My first priority will be to find a book written by a native of the country where it is set. If I can't find such a book, then I'll settle for a mystery set in the country written by a non-native.

One of the advantages of armchair traveling is you can jump from one side of the globe to the other. Who knows, after my Scottish mystery I may travel to Peru. Or Botswana. Or Poland. 

So, if you know of a good mystery set outside the United States, especially in countries like Trinidad or Tajikistan, please let me know. Leave the suggestion in comments or drop me an e-mail.

I'm calling the series Crime Travel* and may or may not change the name and design of the blog to reflect that. 

Happy New Year! And safe travels! 

* I originally planned to call this Crime Traveler, but after I posted that I discovered there is a sci-fi detective show produced by the BBC of the same name. 

Monday, December 20, 2010


Finished Stuart Neville's Ghosts of Belfast. Enjoyed it very much. For those unfamiliar with it, the book follows Gerry Fegan, a former IRA hit man, who is drowning in alcohol and guilt, as he tries to appease the ghosts of his victims who haunt him day and night. That involves killing the men who ordered the hits. It all sounds a little crazy at first: a man tormented by hallucinations committing murder to make up for other murders, all with a sort of Jason Bourne invincibility. But Neville doesn't hit a false note, at least to this reader, who admittedly is hardly an expert on the IRA or Belfast. I look forward to the second in the series, Collusion, which sounds like it continues with several characters, although not Fegan. And now I want to read Ken Bruen, another Irish writer, starting with The Guards. Next, though, I am reading P.L Gaus's Blood of the Prodigal, set in Ohio Amish country.

Now for a handful of interviews: David Suchet talks about playing Poirot and Murder on the Orient Express, which already aired on Masterpiece Mystery here in the U.S.; Joseph Wambaugh discusses his Hollywood Hills series, which may be made into a TV series; and an interview with Brad Thor about his latest book, The Athena Project. 

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 6, 2010


Mystery writer Simon Brett talks about five of his favorite 'whodunits.' I'm adding Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square to my to-read list.

Another 'best books' list, this time from an Oregon bookseller. All sound good, especially Six Suspects and A Small Death in the Great Glen. You can support an independent bookseller by buying directly from Sunriver Books & Music.

New Zealand's inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel was awarded to a mysterious author, "Alix Bosco, the anonymous author of Cut & Run whose pseudonym has never been breached." The awards were created by Craig Sisterson, a local journalist who writes a blog focusing on New Zealand crime writers.  

Thrillers: 100 Must Reads offers essays on what the author considers to be the best thrillers for those who like to ruminate on the books they read.  It was published in July but I just fell upon it and it might make a good gift.

Finally, if you like criticism that pulls no punches then read David Thomson's review of Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile. If you don't know him, Thomson is the author of the much admired The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. For reasons that can only be ascertained by reading Thomson's critique, the review is as much about The Town, the Ben Affleck-directed movie released this summer, as it is about Lehane's new novel. I haven't read Moonlight Mile so can't comment on the criticism, although I have read other Lehane books and have a hard time calling any of it "feel good noir," as Thomson does. But I understand where he's coming from. As for The Town, I agree with a lot of what he says: the boy-meets-girl storyline is facile and the Ben Affleck character is romanticized, even glorified. Not sure why Thomson focuses on the sex, in both the movie and Lehane's novel. Sex is often used as shortcut for intimacy, nothing new here, and he has something much bigger to say about the portrayal of the down-and-out in America. I do agree that little of what goes on film reflects reality and that includes portraits of the poor.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

More 'best books'

The New York Times best books of the year lists now include 25 books chosen by Marilyn Stasio, the newspaper's crime fiction reviewer, and it's an eclectic mix. 

I haven't read any of the books and have heard of only a few. I'm glad to be reminded of Walter Mosley's The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey with its 91-year old protagonist. I'm really intrigued by her descriptions of two books: Colin Cotterill's Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, which features the national coroner of Laos, and Simon Lelic's A Thousand Cuts, in which, Stasio says, "a teacher goes berserk, shoots three students and kills himself — for reasons that will floor you."  I've already heard good things about Stuart Neville's Collusion set in Belfast during the Troubles. There are several other historical mysteries and what Stasio calls "weepers," including John Harvey's Far Cry. And Stasio includes the latest from my new favorite author.

Did you have any favorite books this year?