Reviews

‘an intriguing read . . . keeps the reader guessing . . . a lot to enjoy in this romp through the Cambridge Commons . . . a strong sense of place and a narrative style that is both energetic and engaging.’ [Dead Letters]

- Margaret Murphy, SHERLOCK

Thin Ice by Quentin Bates

Posted on Mar 22, 2016 in Iceland, Quentin Bates, Thin Ice | 2 Comments

craig jacketIcelandic crime is big at the moment, what with Trapped reaching its tense conclusion on BBC 4 the Saturday before last. But I have been a fan of Icelandic crime for quite a while – ever since I read Quentin Bates’s first novel, Frozen Out, published around five years ago. I’ve read everything he’s written since then, and I’ve interviewed him on the blog, so I was delighted to be sent a review copy of his latest, Thin Ice.

For my money Officer Gunnhildur is one of the most appealing detectives currently on the scene. Gunna is an appealingly down-to-earth figure, middle-aged, not exactly chic, working hard to do a good job as a police officer, while managing a rather complicated family life. In Thin Ice, a couple of crooks rip-off a drug dealer and are dismayed to find that their getaway driver has disappeared. They highjack a car containing a wealthy woman and her daughter and end up snowed in at an off-season holiday resort. It soon becomes clear that the villains have made a serious error of judgement and that one of their hostages has more than one trick up her sleeve.

Meanwhile Gunna and her colleagues are investigating the disappearance of the women and the death of a thief in a house fire, unaware that they are related. The different threads of the story are woven skilfully together. It’s a good pacy read, well constructed, with some very unpleasant characters that you really hope will get their comeuppance – and there’s a nice sting in the tale. Quentin Bates writes about Iceland, the food (sheep’s head, anyone?), the weather, and the social mores with an unshowy confidence that comes from ten years living there. Well-written, satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable. I’m looking forward to the next one.

 

Two new crime novels

A few post ago I wrote about reducing my TBR pile by culling those novels that I decided not to read. Well, here are a couple that made the cut. I read both on my e-reader, where unread books were also accumulating: fatally easy to buy them and just as easy to forget you’ve got them. I’m glad I didn’t forget these.

51-0XR5JYVL._AA160_The Chessman is Dolores Gordon-Smith’s new Jack Haldean novel, one of a series set in the 1920s. She has quite a following and deservedly so. In the first chapter, we are introduced to Sir Matthew Vardon, such a deliciously unpleasant character that I was delighted when he kicked the bucket in chapter two, and not surprised that there are rumours that he was helped on his way. It is just the first of several deaths and soon Jack Haldean is brought onto the case. The period detail is deftly handled and the plot kept me guessing. Every time I thought I had worked it, another twist showed me that I had got it wrong. A rattling good read.

51D3pkaS2iL._AA160_Snowblind is the first novel by Icelandic writer, Ragnar Jonasson. He has translated sixteen of Agatha Christie’s novels, and the set-up here is one that Christie herself might have employed. It is a classic closed community plot. Ari Thor is a young policeman who takes up his first job in  Siglufjorour, a fishing village in Northern Iceland. It’s the middle of winter, it’s dark all the time, and snow has blocked the road tunnel that is the only way in. When young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and close to death, and a famous local writer is found dead in the local theatre, the tiny police force are on their own. Great stuff! Everyone, it seems, has a secret and I have to say, I did guess one of them. No matter: it was an engrossing read and a very promising debut. Snowblind is ably translated by Quentin Bates, no mean crime writer himself.

It’s got to stop!

9781910124048At least for a while. Maybe I’ll take June off. Go cold turkey. Only thirty days in June, so it might not be too bad. Or maybe wait until August when I’ll be in France for some of the time, so (mostly) out of the reach of temptation. Or should I perhaps just STOP RIGHT NOW. But something must be done, because my study looks like a second-hand bookshop, there are books all over the house, and if I’m not careful I’m going to end up like those people who have so much stuff that they have to tunnel through it to get from room to room. And then there are all the unread books on my e-reader. It is so fatally easy to download with just one click – and often so cheap. I have reluctantly concluded that it is all getting out of hand.

What has brought this on is my trip to Crimefest at the week-end. I decided to limit myself to two new books – not least because I had to carry them home on the train. One was the eagerly awaited The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (soon to be reviewed here) and Jorn Lier Horst’s newly translated The Caveman, both signed by their authors. But it didn’t stop there. I came home with a whole bag of books, because I correctly guessed that Len Tyler’s Crooked Herring would win the Last Laugh Award for the best humorous crime novel. The prize was the shortlist of six. I already had Len’s book, so I gave that to a friend. But it still means that I came home with seven new books. No, make that eight, because I kept one that came free in the goody bag.

And in spite of all that, have I still bought another book today? Why, yes, I have. I met a writing chum, Quentin Bates, at Crimefest and that reminded me to download his new novella, Summerchill.

The rate at which I am acquiring books is far, far outstripping the rate at which I read them – and I am a byword among my friends for the number of books I get through. The gap is getting bigger and bigger. So maybe Quentin’s should be the last for a bit. Just a temporary measure, you understand. But I think I’d be the better for it – and so would my credit card statements.

Crime-writer Quentin Bates guests

Crime-writer Quentin Bates guests

Posted on May 5, 2014 in Cold Steal, Frozen Out, Iceland, Quentin Bates | 2 Comments

I’ve been a fan of Quentin Bates’s Icelandic mysteries since the first one, Frozen Out, came out in 2011. His latest, Cold Steal, was published on 1 May so this seemed an ideal time to interview him for the blog. I began by asking him to tell us a little bit about his new novel.
Without giving too much away, it involves some of Reykjavík’s immigrant community and some of its criminals, both local and imported varieties. A businessman is murdered in the country cottage he keeps for getting to know his secretary better and as a murder is rare in Iceland, a full scale investigation starts, with Gunnhildur tasked with investigating the dead man’s murky business affairs. With everyone busy on this enquiry, the hunt for a particularly skilled housebreaker who never leaves clues is shelved, although the burglar carries on with his activities and one night gets the shock of his life when he breaks into the wrong house. Of course it all links together before Gunnhildur gets to the bottom of it.
How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
This can be a problem, as a I have a day job that’s also writing. It has taken a while to get used to it, but I’ve had to get used to working in shorter bursts of a couple of hours at a time instead of the longer stretches that I prefer but can’t find much opportunity for. Half a day, or more, is great but doesn’t happen often. I actually do most of my day job work in the shed and other stuff at the kitchen table. So moving from day job mode to fiction mode means unplugging the laptop and carrying it upstairs.
What comes first for you. a theme, plot, characters?
Characters, I think. With Cold Steal it was certainly the characters of the three immigrant women, the Reindeer Cleaners, who started the ball rolling. Then there was the solitary burglar who became quite a fascinating character to write, with a peculiar set of skewed values all of his own. Writing the criminals is becoming more interesting than the regular characters and I was at least a third of the way into writing Cold Steal before Gunnhildur even made an appearance.
Gunnhildur Gísladóttir is a beguiling heroine. How did she come into being and does she have a real-life counterpart?
That would be telling, I’m afraid. She is an amalgam of a whole group of people, with aspects of her from all over, plus a large dollop of imagination. To begin with in the first draft of the first book she was the sidekick of the original male protagonist. He didn’t last long as I figured out that he was too many clichés rolled into one, while his sidekick was a far more interesting character, so he was rapidly retired and Gunnhildur was promoted to centre stage.
Her name comes partly from my late mother-in-law, Hildigunnur, who died many years ago and far too young. Although we had plenty of disagreements, I was very fond of her. So I switched around the two halves of her name for my rotund heroine and there’s undoubtedly an element of the old lady in Gunnhildur’s character.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
There are so many and they tend to change all the time, but the ones I keep coming back to are Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Simenon. Sjöwall & Wahlöö were the forerunners of Nordic crime fiction and in spite of all the excellent stuff that has followed, I don’t feel they have ever been bettered. I have a liking for Simenon, and Maigret in particular, that goes back a very long way. His stories are straightforward, very character-based and they conjure up atmosphere beautifully in a few words, although the translations vary in quality. What’s noticeable is that his stories work effortlessly, and without any gimmicks or twists.
     Other favourites are Dominique Manotti (why are there so few of her outstandingly excellent books in English?), Edward Wilson, Donald Westlake, Belinda Bauer and John le Carré. But there are many more, although normally if I’m scanning a shelf of books I’ll go for something I’ve never heard of rather than something familiar and comfortable.
     A man after my own heart! Do you have a favourite bookshop?
That’s a sore point these days. There used to be a couple of very decent bookshops near where I live in England, but online shopping killed them both off. Now I have to travel a few miles to get to the nearest Blackwells, run by the excellent @booksellerjo. So the bookshop I always head for is the one run by Bragi Kristjónsson on Hverfisgata in Reykjavík. It’s called Bókin (the Book) but referred to by everyone as Bókabúð Braga (Bragi’s Bookshop). It’s a second-hand shop and a chaotic wonderland of the weird, the wonderful and the mundane all rolled into one, plus the old chap himself behind the counter taking snuff and telling stories, not that he’s there as often as he used to be. Then there are the bookstalls in the Kolaport flea market that are always good for a browse for something obscure in English or Icelandic that’s been out of print for decades.
    
There is more about Quentin and his books at his website: Graskeggur.com. And we’ll both be at Crimefest in Bristol from 15-18 May if you want to meet us there: crimefest.com.

Don’t you hate it when . . .

Posted on Sep 21, 2012 in COLD COMFORT, Quentin Bates | 3 Comments

our hero doesn’t call for back-up, but just goes straight in to tackle the bad guy. This happened in a novel I read in the summer (I won’t name names). There was no good reason why she (yes, I am afraid it was a woman) should not have waited, but she didn’t and one of her men got shot and she asks herself, ‘Why did I do this, putting my deputy’s life in danger?’ Yes, why did you, I found myself asking, even I know why. The author feels they have to crank up the tension and put their heroine in jeopardy, but it irritates the hell out of me when a female professional behaves so, well, unprofessionally. That’s the point at which I stop believing in the story. It definitely annoys me more when it’s a woman behaving in this way. I felt the same another crime novel that I read on holiday, except that this time it was a middle-aged female lawyer: I found it hard to believe that someone so disorganised and even at times downright silly could ever have become a partner in a law firm. I know it was supposed to be make her seem more human, but would a man be depicted that way (I should add that the writer was a woman)? A relief then to turn to Quentin Bates’s new novel, COLD COMFORT, and Sergeant Gunnhildur, who may well make mistakes, but is never downright foolish and doesn’t waste time worrying about whether she’s packed the right clothes. This was a good solid read and I enjoyed the Icelandic setting. I recommend it.

Crime Fiction Round-up

I’m hoping to get round to blogging more frequently in a few weeks when the renewal period for CWA subscriptions is over. I haven’t been blogging, but of course I have been reading.
I was gripped by CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER by Tom Franklin, a worthy winner of the CWA Gold Dagger. It’s sent in rural Mississippi, has a terrific sense of place and is beautifully written. A great opening sentence too: ‘The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.’ Larry Ott has lived a life of extraordinary isolation and loneliness for over twenty years since he was suspected as a teenager of murdering a local girl, who disappeared after a date with him. Nothing was ever proved and now a second young woman is missing . . .
Last year at Crimefest I chatted to new author Quentin Bates and bought his debut novel, FROZEN OUT. I got round to reading it a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s set in Iceland and features female police sargeant, Gunnhildur, an appealingly down-to-earth figure. It’s a pacy read, well constructed, with some nasty characters that you really hope will get their comeupance. I was reading with bated breath towards the end.
One last recommendation: in film this time. LE TROU, from 1960, Jacques Becker’s last film is terrific: it’s the story of a prison break, based on a true story, and it grips from beginning to end. Just great.