Cozy mystery leads to rediscovery

My sister has just written her first novel, a romance novel set in medieval Scotland.  We’ve been discussing genre writing, and she introduced me to the concept of the ‘cozy mystery‘. I love crime fiction, but I tend to like my protagonists flawed, my settings dark and my crimes a bit twisted. I love novels that have a political message and reveal something of the human condition. My favourites by a long shot include Andrea CamilleriJo NesboHenning MankellMaj Sjowall & Per WalooArne DahlGianrico CarofiglioMichele Giuttari and Ian Rankin. I do occasionally read books that fall under the ‘cozy mystery’ banner – by Alexander McCall Smith or Colin Cotterill, for example – but most of the books I read in this genre are blisteringly dark.

rebusmontalbanonesbo (from Heather's Macbook Air)

When I sit down to write something non-academic, though, I can’t write like this (and not just because I have barely a whisper of the talent that these writers have!). I get through my ‘darkness’ through my academic writing, which is about the darker side of state-society relations, and when I’m off-duty, this girl just wants to have fun. And so my sister introduced me to the cozy mystery.

moon spinners

I read very little American fiction nowadays, despite having spent the first 25 years of my life in the US, and I don’t have any favourite US crime writers. I toured the cozy mystery section of Barnes & Noble as a complete novice, sure only that I have my limits when it comes to ‘cozy’. I definitely didn’t want Christian and cozy. I didn’t want peach pie baking and cozy. I didn’t want poodle-breeding and cozy. I mean, seriously. I finally settled on Sally Goldenbaum‘s Seaside Knitters series. Set in the North Shore of Massachusetts, just south of where I was born and where I lived very happily for five years before moving to the UK, the series follows a group of women of a range of ages who meet up once a week for a knitting club and end up solving murders. (yes…I am perfectly aware that there’s the finest of lines between knitting books and pie baking books…) I like all of the characters, and the murders are often pretty dark, if not graphic. But the cozy comes through in the setting, which takes me right back to my own time living in a little cottage on the North Shore. The characters are fairly affluent, and so there’s an appeal in their gentle, middle-class lifestyles, filled with good food, original art, charity work and beautiful wraparound decks for drinks parties, particularly as – in good New England fashion – no one is very ‘showy’. And then there’s the knitting. Sometimes the knitting metaphors get in the way and have clearly been placed in order to fit the genre, but I closed the first one that I read (‘Moon Spinners’, third in the series) and went straight away to get my plastic tub full of yarn from the garage.

crochet

I like crocheting, not knitting, but the effect is the same, at least in terms of well-being. In the last month, I crocheted a scarf for my daughter, and am about a quarter of the way through an absolutely gorgeous blanket. Instead of spending the last couple of hours at the end of the day in front of the tv flicking around on my iPhone, I’m crocheting my beautiful blanket, something that will hopefully become an heirloom. I’ve made my way back into the local yarn shop, and I’ve not been able to resist buying yarn already for my own winter scarf, which will come after this blanket is done. As far as hobbies go, crocheting is tactile and soft and warm and colourful and soothing and, let’s face it, cozy.

I may be no closer to penning my own first novel, but at least if I do continue on with it as a winter project, I’ll be able to do it lying under my own handmade and very cozy blanket.

The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie

I wanted to read something light and funny while on holiday and picked up The Gun Seller, by Hugh Laurie, at the Red Cross Bookshop. I almost gave up on it within the first three chapters or so, because Laurie’s voice comes through very strongly (very strongly…), and it’s not entirely plausible for his main character. I’ve never met any ex-military, potential assassin types, but if I were to, I doubt very much whether ‘By golly!’ is a key part of their vocabulary. Still, I stuck with it, and I’m glad to have done so.

Despite the ‘By gollys’, the main character, Thomas Lang, is compelling – likeable, brave, honest and violent – a difficult combination to pull together, but Laurie has managed it here. The plot is big, dealing with high politics and corruption, but doing so in a way that is personal. The triumph here is that the conspiracy around which the plot rests, which I won’t go into to avoid spoilers, feels like it could actually happen in real life, and that is very scary.

Jo Nesbo’s ‘Headhunters’

I’m a huge fan of Jo Nesbo’s. As a writer, he manages to deliver consistently excellent plots with deeply real characters and the kind of writing that both makes your heart race and leaves you spitting through your teeth with envy. There’s a scene in The Leopard where he’s trapped in a mountain cabin that’s been buried by an avalanche, and I swear my own breathing stopped, and I had to whip the duvet off to avoid the crushing claustrophobia that came over me. *That’s* good writing for you.

Headhunters is the first of Jo Nesbo’s books that I’ve read that hasn’t featured Harry Hole. I decided to put aside the rest of his books and take this one on face value. Having said that, it is not quite as good as the others, but I suspect that’s because you don’t have time to grow to love the characters. And, it has to be said, not a single character is loveable. But it is funny, and it is suspenseful, and it has to have the best outhouse scene since Slumdog Millionaire.

Roger Brown is a headhunter specialising in CEO-level jobs. He’s very good at what he does, which is a good thing, because he leads a very expensive lifestyle. His beautiful wife runs an art gallery, and in additional to providing the financial backing for this, he makes sure that he gives her a big house, a flash car, and everything her heart desires, except for the baby that she wants and he doesn’t.

Roger makes a good living, but it isn’t enough, so he has a sideline in art theft. It’s the combination of his day job and his night one that gets him into big trouble when an exciting prospect for an executive job is introduced to him by his wife at her gallery.

I’ll leave it there, as I don’t want to give away spoilers, but it is a cracking read. Nesbo has little time for the sort of high-octane, materialistic, yummy mummy, Range Rover driving, designer posers that his Oslo seems to be full of, and his Roger Brown is their king. There’s a scene where he’s trying to figure out the background of a man by guessing his aftershave. He’s sure it’s a particular brand. ‘Or something in that price range anyway.’ Little snippets of interior monologue like this help to build up a sense of a man who judges others solely by their net worth, and expects others to do the same to him. Everything that Rogers gets in the book, every horrible, painful, freaky thing,  you can imagine is what Nesbo would love to see happen to Oslo’s elite (of which he clearly also is…). It makes for a highly entertaining read, where the baddies all get their grotesque comeuppance (or at least most of them do), and there’s even a clever twist (or two, or three…). I’m still waiting patiently for the next Harry novel to be translated into English, but no one does crime as well as Nesbo, including here.

And he’s not half bad to look at, either.

A Spot of Holiday Reading?

As my son is often fond of saying, we have ‘Buyingbookitis’ in our family.

This was my hoard find today from the Oxfam bookshop. I was so good in Waterstones, leaving 3 fantastic books in the 3 for 2 deal on a table, but for the same price, I got all of these. In the olden days (i.e., BC), I probably would’ve taken 3 novels and 3-4 magazines with me for a week away, and I probably would’ve finished the lot. Nowadays (i.e., AC…After Children), I’ll take away my Shape magazine, the book I have half finished (Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö‘s The Locked Room), and one other, likely to be Håkan Nesser‘s Borkmann’s Point. I’ll hopefully come back with both books finished…you never know!

 

Hallelujah! ‘The Killing’ is back!

**contains spoilers**

The unsurpassable drama, ‘The Killing’ is back on BBC4, which is playing all 20 episodes before series 2 arrives in the autumn sometime. We were gripped by it the first time around, completely sucked into Theis and Pernille’s personal hell. This time around we’re better able to watch for clues that we missed the first time around, subtleties of expression. In episode 1, we didn’t notice the first time around how happy and sensual their relationship was at the beginning. The pleasure of watching two people, with jobs and mortgages and children, show such love and passion for each other. It then makes their terror when Nanna first goes missing that much more poignant, that much more choking. Theis arrives at the site where the police have discovered Nanna’s body, and he screams out, ‘Is that my daughter? Tell me, is that my daughter?’, with Pernille on the end of the phone hearing this. She collapses onto the table with a guttural scream of despair, and I was in floods of tears. The humanity and realism they bring to those roles is phenomenally good, something that the US version doesn’t come close to touching, I’m afraid. Despite the police drama and the political intrigue, this is ultimately a show about a family’s devastating loss, and you are never allowed to forget the dead girl around which the drama unfolds. This is as it should be.

We also noticed this time around how Troels visits his wife’s grave before going back to the office. When we first saw it, we thought it was providing background material to show how this attractive, successful politician has a recent loss with which he’s trying to cope. This time around we know that he’s visiting her grave on the anniversary of her death, after he’s tried to commit suicide with the pain of her loss. It makes his transformation from grieving husband to scheming politician that much more unsettling, rather than simply impressive.

Can’t wait for episode 2 tonight!