Blog Tour: Blue Night by Simone Buchholz

From the PR: “After convicting a superior for corruption and shooting off a gangster’s crown jewels, the career of Hamburg’s most hard-bitten state prosecutor, Chastity Riley, has taken a nose dive: she has been transferred to the tedium of witness protection to prevent her making any more trouble. However, when she is assigned to the case of an anonymous man lying under police guard in hospital, Chastity’s instinct for the big, exciting case kicks in.

Using all her powers of persuasion, she soon gains her charge’s confidence, and finds herself on the trail to Leipzig, a new ally, and a whole heap of lethal synthetic drugs. When she discovers that a friend and former colleague is trying to bring down Hamburg’s Albanian mafia kingpin single-handedly, it looks like Chas Riley’s dull lifeon witness protection really has been short-lived…”

Aside from a tiny bit of wear on the cover, my copy of Blue Night is pretty much pristine. There are no pages with creased corners from place marking and no cracks in the spine. Why? Because this book did not spend long in my hands. I tore through Simone Buchholz’ novel so fast as to not to leave a mark on a book that left plenty of impression on its reader. So hungrily did I rip through these 180 pages or so of tightly packed, immensely well plotted fiction that I found myself carried forward by such momentum as to be disappointed when it finished.  Not disappointed by the contents in any way whatsoever! No: disappointed that there wasn’t immediately more, more and more!

Blue Night is also deceptive – it might be a short read and require fewer trees than many but it packs in way more into its pages than many a pulp-and-ink-hungrier book manages. Between the covers (another tip of the hat to Orenda – has anyone mentioned just how many great covers come out of this publisher?) is a rich, tightly woven plot that’s brimming with intrigue and with plenty of back story woven in, compelling characters and a great approach to narrative… oh, and it all rips along at one hell of a pace.

As I’m a) an early stop on this tour and b) pretty out of touch with social media of late I haven’t seen all too many reviews for Blue Night just yet (I’m fortunate enough to have been sent a proof copy) but aside from expecting to see unanimous praise for Simone Buchholz I imagine there’ll be plenty of comparisons to other authors as time progresses so I’ll get in there early and say that I won’t draw any: Buchholz’ writing style is original and she delivers a fantastic story in a unique voice that’s a welcome blast of fresh air and a great start to the year’s reading.

I thoroughly recommend Blue Night – thanks, again, to Karen for my copy and do check out the other stops on the blogtour.

38, 39, 40…. 41! Pages Turned

I thought it was going to come down to the wire but I managed to hit my, strictly self-imposed, challenge of reading 40 books in 2017 and even managed to squeeze in an extra for added bonus points.

Oddly, aware of the looming ‘deadline’ I still pulled the hefty Phantom by Jo Nesbo from the the TBR pile to kick off the final stretch. Continuing the Harry Hole saga in chronological progression from The Snowman  I’m enjoying every instalment more than the last and Phantom was a real gripper for every one of its 550 or so pages, taking every element of the Hole saga to date and turning them up to 11. As he develops as a writer, Nesbo manages to take an almost literary-fiction style approach to the thriller genre, layering in so many different sub-plots and factors as to really mark his work out as a leader in the field.

Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Girl Who Wasn’t There is very much a book of two halves, so very distinctly different in terms of narrative style that I had to double check it was still the same story. It had been on the shelves for a year or so after my wife read it with my occasionally eyeballing it and I’m very much glad I decided to read it, if only based on the thinking that it’s slightness would enable me to reach my goal. Instead I discovered that it’s one of those deceptive short-novels, with so much packed in as to feel like a larger read. A beguiling an beautiful slow-burn of a first half coupled to a completely bat-shit crazy, what the fuck is going on, fast paced thriller of a conclusion.

With two weeks remaining in the year I thought I’d round out the 40 with the only non-fiction of the year (something of a rarity in itself) – Robert Leckie’s Helmet for my Pillow. As a big fan of HBO’s Band of Brothers and having read the material that informed that show too, I thought I’d do the same with 2010’s The Pacific. While not as absorbing, to me at least, as Band of Brothers there was an intensity about The Pacific which meant I quickly bought the books that had informed it…. and let them sit on my shelf as I never got round to them. Having been left aghast at the perception of his war by South Pacific – Robert Leckie put pen to paper to give an unflinchingly honest and occasionally harrowing description of his experience as a Marine during the Second World War. What I look for in such a book isn’t the “guts and glory” – that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to my near-pacifist mentality – it’s the accounts of normal people who find themselves in an extraordinary situations unimaginable to those of us who live in a sheltered, comfortable world (due, thinking about it, to their actions).

Helmet For My Pillow, clearly the work of a literary man, makes for a shocking read at times but I found it compelling throughout and deeply human. It certainly ranks up high in the list of those memoirs of this era I’ve read*. Leckie manages to find the humanity in what were deeply dehumanising circumstances. Particularly striking for me was this passage:

But, with the festive break from work affording more reading time I managed to clear Leckie’s book with time to spare and got started on book 41 of 2017, a gift from my wife, The Book of Mirrors by EO Chirovici, a Romanian author. Turns out this one was something of a big deal in the publishing world back in 2015 – this is Chirovici’s first novel in English and was snapped up by publishers in 23 countries, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals ahead of its actual publication in 2017. After all that hype is it any good? Yes, in short. I thoroughly enjoyed it even if, for the first session or two with it I was still feverish and ended up with it going round in circles in my head. It’s a simple enough whodunit that explores the reliability of memory but Chirovici delivers it with a lot of narrative play, a lot of psychological twisting and turning and a nice leaning on good old mystery and thrill.

I’ve hedged my bets for 2018 and not extended my aim beyond trying for 40 again.

 

*Iron Coffins by Herbert A. Werner ranks as my favourite and Alan Deere’s Nine Lives probably rubs shoulders with the U-Boat commander’s account.

Night Blind

Ragnar Jónasson knows how to get a reader hooked. The first chapter of Night Blind finds police inspector Herjólfur following up a tip off at a house on the edge of town. It’s got all the classic ingredients in place for one hell of an opening- the house itself is not only remote and isolated but it practically hangs over a cliff, even its walls are “leaden and foreboding”, it’s dark and the rain is pouring, beams of torchlight peer out from inside. Only the edge of your seat will be needed before the chapter’s finished and it’s all too late for the inspector; “that was when he heard the shot, deafening and deadly.”

IMG_7059I’d been gripped by this opening chapter for close to a year before I got to read any further. It was included at the end of Jónasson’s first class début Snow Blind. The next instalment in the Dark Iceland series, Night Blind takes the reader back to the remote Siglufjörður, catching up with Ari Thór Arason five years on from the events of the first book. While it’s not essential to have done so before picking up Night Blind, I’m aware that not everyone will have read Snow Blind (and why not?!) so I’ll do my utmost not to drop any spoilers.

Ari Thór has settled somewhat since last we met- he and his girlfriend Kristín now have a young son – yet Siglufjörðu still holds plenty of discoveries for him. Preparing to return from an extended paternity leave and a battle with the flu, Ari Thór receives a concerned call from the new Inspector’s wife and soon discovers the likely-fatally wounded Herjólfur. Finding himself alone in the police department and unable to investigate the attempted murder of his boss, assistance soon arrives in the form of Ari’s former boss Tómas and we’re very quickly back into a taut, gripping and beautifully crafted murder investigation.

All the ingredients are in place for a great detective story. Yet Night Blind goes beyond the confines of any simple whodunnit. Layered within the mystery are sub-plots involving local political corruption, drug dealing, the opening up of a small community to the outside world (and its increase in crime), relationship challenges, a decades-old mystery and domestic assault; all of which Jónasson handles brilliantly, creating some genuinely memorable and affecting scenes that go beyond the slow-burning detective story of Snow Blind and show a talent that can cross genres.

The issue of domestic assault in itself is a tricky one, in a lesser-writer’s hands this could be so easily clumsily written and riddled with clichés. Not here though. Jónasson handles the subject deftly and manages to show a real ability when it comes to victim psychology. He can also write a bloody good action piece – the climatic scene between Elín and her ex had me gripped like a Jack Reacher action sequence yet with a genuine concern and sense of fear for the outcome.

Just as Snow Blind was interwoven with a narrative from the past and the question of how it connects to the present, Night Blind is interspersed with the diary entries of a young man held in a psychiatric hospital against their will for a seemingly violent incident – who is this young man and how does this relate to the shooting of  Herjólfur?

The final reveal and the connection between the two is, as with Snow Blind, a gob-smacker. The number of times I thought I’d sussed the answer out only to be shut down by the next chapter is too many to count, the reveal catching me so off-guard I had to go back and wonder how I’d missed the breadcrumbs. I’m not sure I’d like to play Mr Jónasson at chess, clearly a man who thinks more moves ahead than I.

One of the most wonderful things about Night Blind to me is just how many doors are so subtly opened, how many potential focus points for other stories are gently hinted at, but leave enough of a question mark, a hook in your interest as to leave you wanting more, much more of the Dark Iceland series. There’s the “wait, what?” moments of revelations including why the Siglufjörður police department is now under-staffed, the opening up of political influences on the department – and the interfering of shady locals, characters that are begging for larger roles in scenes to come and, of course, the thought that Ari Thór does his best to ignore; with Herjólfur shot, does this mean he’ll now be in line to become Inspector?

It’s here in these sly peeks at the depth of potential in the Dark Iceland series and the sheer number of elements at play in Night Blind that Jónasson excels; the subtle crafting of the story, with it’s intricate and overlapping plotlines and detailed characters coupled with a slow and genuinely surprising, out of left-field-reveal demonstrate a supremely confident and talented writer clearly revelling in his art.

It’s rare that I get quite so invested in the personal lives of characters in crime stories (often times they’re painted almost as side-shows and cursory / obligatory scene padding) but I was genuinely gutted (perhaps as my own son is still so young), though not entirely surprised, by the departure of Kristín  – yet even here Jónasson lays teasing ground-work for future developments. It’s also testament to Jónasson’s ability to create such genuine and fully-realised characters – it helps not only in keeping the reader hooked but adds a real depth and sense of community to these fictitious inhabitants of Siglufjörðu.

Snow Blind was one of my favourite reads of last year and Night Blind, an even stronger novel, will no doubt sit high atop the list of 2016’s best reads. To expand a little upon my original summary…..

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….. Night Blind is a compelling, multi-layered masterpiece that breathes fresh life into the genre. Breaking beyond the confines of the traditional whodunnit, Ragnar Jónasson has delivered an intriguing, intelligent crime novel that leaves the reader open-mouthed wanting more (well, this one at least). Clearly an author to follow, he seems to have pulled off the not-so-easy task of creating a series that only gets deeper and more interesting as it goes.

A translation can make or break a book and here the translation is, again, in the very capable hands of Quentin Bates. There is no point at which Night Blind feels like it was written in anything other than English; the flow, pace and charm of the book are all captured perfectly. A cracking job.

I was delighted to take part in this Blog Tour for Night Blind and my thanks again go to Karen at Orenda Books (which has nothing but quality bearing it’s logo on the spine). Do check out the rest of the tour and today’s other, eye-opening, instalment at Mrs Peabody Investigates.

Nightblind Blog tour

 

The Defenceless

There’s a statement on the cover of The Defenceless, Kati Hiekkapelto’s second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete: “Best Finnish Crime Novel 2014”. I’ve not read a Finnish crime novel before nor have I yet read this book’s predecessor, The Hummingbird, but, and let’s get straight to the point here: The Defenceless is one hell of a good book. Great, in fact.

CMd78rFWgAEcd-vAt the centre of The Defenceless lies a mystery – an old man (Vilho Karppinen) dies, presumably, at the hands of a drug dealer, only for his death to be pinned on an Hungarian au-pair. Two girls stumble onto an alarmingly fresh crime scene in a forest – snow soaked in human blood, tyre tracks leading from the trees and a knife found at the scene – but missing the vital ingredient; a body. Then, one of Karppinen’s neighbours, goes missing. Is there a connection? Is it her who’s body is missing from the murder scene? Is a killer prowling the streets of this Finnish town?

Given that we’re witness to Karppinen’s demise you may be forgiven for wondering where the police investigation into his death is going at first, chiefly because it looks as though, to all intents and purposes, he died at the hands of a drug dealer in an argument over noise. It’s almost a case of waiting to see how long it takes for the Hungarian au-pair to be cleared. Yet as the story develops, Hiekkapelto skilfully weaves in more mystery and plot twists, adding intertwining sub-plots involving gangs, corruption, drugs and social commentary into an addictive, compelling novel with more questions building with each page turn; are the killings related to the violent gang that’s trying to establish itself in Finland that Fekete’s partner, Esko, is trying to snuff out? How is that gang related to the drug dealer? Are they behind the murder scene? How are the Hell’s Angels involved? Is the au-pair all that she seems?

There is a lot going on in The Defenceless, a world of story lines packed into less than 300 pages. Rubbing ink with the main case and Esko’s investigations (not to mention the ticking-clock of his health) is Anna’s own sense of isolation and removal from a homeland that no longer exists, her brother’s battle with alcohol, family illness and, of course, Sammi.

Sammi is a refugee from Pakistan, now in hiding and living rough following the rejection of his asylum claim and facing deportation to a country in which he faces persecution and death for his beliefs. Desperation leads him to increasingly extreme measures in his attempts to remain in Finland. There’s no heavy hand here, no resorting to the didactic in telling Sammi’s side of the story and the futility of his fight against blind bureaucracy, just a talented author using her art form to affectively shine light on an increasingly absurd system (one not unique to Finland) that differentiates between people and their rights to basic human existence according to the particular piece of this Earth that chance happened to place their birth. The message couldn’t be more pertinent given the humanitarian crisis facing the world today and it’s the conclusion (or non-conclusion) of that story which will stay with you beyond the final page.

With The Defenceless you’re so caught up in the characters, the sub plots and the hunt for what appears to be a brutal killer that when the killer’s identity and motive are revealed it comes like a bolt from the blue. It brings to (my) mind the reveal in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. I do hope that doesn’t serve as a spoiler, more as a nod to another gripping Scandi-noir detective series.

There’s a growing number of crime novels with a conscience out there and this ranks up there with the best, leading the charge with a heady blend of mystery, suspense and social drama that hooks from the off and doesn’t let go even when the last page is turned.

A sign of a good novelist is not seeing them in the text, if you follow me. A writer needs to disappear, to allow their characters to take centre stage, become real and express themselves rather than parroting the views and sensibilities of the author. It’s not the easiest of tasks but it’s one which Kati Hiekkapelto pulls off nicely.  The Defenceless is populated by characters who are not only engrossing and fully realised but, when the narrative shifts to them, tell the story in their own way without filter – especially so in the case of the oh-so-politically-correct Esko who’s passages are so vociferous with their racial hate as to be at polar-like odds with those of the empathetic Fekete.

The translation – by David Hackston – should also receive the strongest nod of approval; at no point in reading The Defenceless was there any indication that this was anything other than the language the novel was written in and the deft translation ensures that the novel’s momentum and feel flows uninterpreted across the language transition.

While The Defenceless is the second Anna Fekete I’ve not yet read  The Hummingbird and I don’t believe it’s essential to have done so to enjoy this novel – another plus – which manages to stand brilliantly on its own. That being said, it does mean that, for me, The Hummingbird is an essential ‘to read’ and I’ll now go about getting my hands on it while eagerly awaiting the next instalment from Kati Hiekkapelto – clearly an author to watch.

I was, again, delighted to be sent this book by Karen at Orenda Books (a publisher who’s first year has certainly cemented it as a purveyor of quality, original fiction) and be asked to take part in the Blog Tour. Check out the other stops and keep an eye on Crime Thriller Girl for tomorrow’s stop and – of course – read The Defenceless.

Defenceless Blog Tour

Nothing Ever Happens Around Here

Careful; the smallest whiff of a spoiler is contained fleetingly herein.

Iceland.

If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago what I associate with that country I’d have suggested a few bands like Sigur Rós, múm, Of Monsters and Men, Olafur Arnalds and that woman called Björk , Reykjavik 101, unpronounceable (by me) volcanoes and geysers. Oh, and the chap who sang “Ég á líf” at Eurovision a couple of years ago.

If you ask me the same question today I’ll add fjords, the herring boom, and great Nordic crime fiction to that list.

For in the last week I had the utmost pleasure of reading Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson.

The fist novel in Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series – almost up to its sixth installment in Iceland – has now been translated into and published in English by Orenda Books.IMG_4357

Snowblind introduces us to Ari Thor Arason – finishing his police training (after starting and dropping other pursuits including Theology) on-the-job having spontaneously accepted a posting in the northern town of Siglufjörður. It’s a posting that takes him hundreds of kilometres away from his home, his partner and his comfort zone. Plunging him into a small town where things aren’t quite as tranquil as they seem and a killer is on the loose.

Quiet and remote, Siglufjörður is a small fishing town only accessible via perilous mountain roads and a small tunnel seemingly carved out of the rock without a millimetre of excess width for as Ari Thor takes his first journey through the sense of a trap being sealed begins to sneak in – “it was a narrow single track…. carved through the mountainside more than forty years ago” with water dripping in the darkness from a ceiling unseen. Even on the other side the weather is starting to turn grim and oppressive (“every winter is a heavy winter in Siglufjörður”).

Still, what could go wrong?  Siglufjörður is an idyllic little community set amongst the mountains and fjord where – according to Police Inspector Tomas “nothing ever happens”.

Nothing that is except murders, manslaughter, literary theft, adultery, fugitives in hiding, drunk locals stumbling into the wrong house at night and seemingly not a character in the story without a history of loss and tragedy and, of course, the politics of local am-dram.

Having visited such small towns at the foot of a fjord (albeit in Norway not Iceland) in summer when the majesty of the scenery will steal your breath, I often wondered how different those imposing mountains would be when winter sets in and the calm of such detached living is replaced by a sense of being cut-off and encircled by thousands of metres of impenetrable nature. I need wonder no more; Ragnar Jónasson perfectly creates an atmosphere of dense, stifling claustrophobia, an impenetrable trap tightening with every falling flake, using geology to form a locked-room style setting with the imposing mountains and heavy snow falling in like a heavy, stifling blanket:

Claustrophobia had sneaked up on him, a feeling that had deepened as the snowfall around the station had become increasingly heavy. It was as if the weather gods were trying to construct a wall around the building that he would never be able to break through. He saw things around him grow dim and suddenly he found himself fighting for his breath.

 

Siglufjörður beset by snow

Siglufjörður beset by snow

The fact that Ari Thor – like the reader – is the only one not used to such environs deftly adds to the fish-out-of-water feeling, almost a “am I the only sane person here?” element adding to the tension.

Just as the winter snow falls gently at first but builds, the plot unfolds slowly; each of the character arcs expanding at their own pace, gently but intractably linking to each other and interspersed with snippets of a knife-point burglary so obviously doomed to a bad end that no matter how tranquil that which follows may be, a sense of foreboding and danger pervades.

For a debut novel, Snowblind is startlingly confident and sure-footed. The characters and dialogue all ring true, the plot is original and packed with plenty a surprise. Perhaps most pleasingly of all, Jónasson steers clear of hackneyed plot devices and reveals; while Ari Thor possess a talent for his work he’s no ‘instant wonder / super cop’ – in fact his inexperience lands him in a very dangerous position as he enthusiastically blunders into a confrontation with a killer, preventing any real chance of justice being served and only solves the novels main “who dunnit” by chance.

It’s clear that Ari Thor is a character that has plenty of space and potential to grow and that the sequel is currently in-translation by Quentin Bates (who deserves very positive praise for his translation of Snowblind) can only be considered great news. The first sliver of NightBlind is enough to have me hooked while confirming that Ragnar Jónasson is a writer with plenty more up his sleeve.

From it’s opening prelude, Snowblind steps back a couple of months to put the pieces in place, then assuredly and calmly expands into a compelling thriller that keeps you gripped throughout and delivers a final 1-2-3 punch of revelations that will leave your gob on the floor.

Get a hold of a copy today and check out the other stops on the blog tour.

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