An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas (Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds); The Troubled Man: A Kurt Wallander Mystery by Henning Mankell (Translated by Laurie Thompson); The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock; Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar; A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

April 2011 Crime Round-up

  • Fred Vargas (Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds), 
  • Henning Mankell (Translated by Laurie Thompson), 
  • Mary Horlock, 
  • Domingo Villar, 
  • Robin Blake

An Uncertain Place

By Fred Vargas (Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds)

Harvill Secker 416pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

I opened this book expecting to enjoy it. The author is a successful archaeologist and historian, and has won the CWA International Dagger three times. Reviewers have been passionately enthusiastic and Vargas’s books are bestsellers. But this one is a severe disappointment. The story begins with Commissaire Adamsberg making a short trip to a conference in London. There he learns of a bizarre episode in which shoes containing severed feet were found at the gates of Highgate cemetery. On his return to Paris, Adamsberg must deal with a macabre case in which a murder victim’s body has been chopped into tiny pieces. What connects a one-armed concierge and his new kittens, a corrupt member of Adamsberg’s team, and – for heaven’s sake – an undead vampire in Serbia? In this unpersuasive farrago, Adamsberg operates, as usual, by instinct and intuition and – also as usual – mystifies his supportive team. He escapes death more than once, by luck not judgement, and listens to and spouts an awful lot of guff about vampires, perfectly preserved corpses and inherited evil. Though there are women in the book – witnesses, an innkeeper, some police officers and more important players too – only the men actually do or say anything important. A disappointment.

The Troubled Man: A Kurt Wallander Mystery

By Henning Mankell (Translated by Laurie Thompson)

Harvill Secker 384pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

The Troubled Man is Inspector Kurt Wallander’s last bow, but his fate – unlike Holmes’s at the Reichenbach Falls – is not one from which a remorseful author can ever retrieve him. A foreboding throughout the book prepares the reader for tragedy, as the lonely, ageing, ailing detective spends his summer holiday investigating the disappearance of an elderly couple whose son is the partner of Wallander’s daughter. Their lives, apparently conventional, prosperous and open, prove to have been full of secrets and lies. As Wallander uncovers the truth about his newborn granddaughter’s other grandparents, he finds himself reassessing his own actions and relationships. Although the plot involves postwar politics, Russian spies and American imperialism, the action is centred on Wallander’s solitary life and disappointing memories. This is a fascinating book, beautifully written (and translated), but it conforms uncomfortably closely to clichéd images of melancholy Swedes. Depressed readers, steer clear!

The Book of Lies

By Mary Horlock

Canongate Books 336pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Only in her private diary can fifteen-year-old Catherine Rozier confess to killing her best friend, who fell from a Guernsey cliff. Much as she longs to explain publicly what happened that stormy night, her mother and teachers have all lived with unspeakable secrets and know that some things are best left unsaid; every time Catherine attempts to reveal her deed, they silence her. So Catherine can only write down for herself the events that led to Nicolette's death. The story is interwoven with that of another member of the Rozier family, Charlie, who was a teenager during the German Occupation and watched in impotent fury as daily life, people’s homes and his father's printing press were taken over by the enemy. Charlie’s fate, and that of the whole island, looms like a dark shadow over Catherine’s life two generations later. The stories move forward in parallel, vividly demonstrating the long shadow of past events on later generations. ‘Being a murderer isn’t such a big deal’ on the island brought convincingly and unflatteringly alive here. An interesting and clever first novel.

Death on a Galician Shore

By Domingo Villar

Abacus 384pp £11.99 order from our bookshop

A prize-winning Spanish author, beautiful landscapes and seascapes and a secret from the past are the principal ingredients in this interesting but curiously uninvolving novel. Inspector Leo Caldas finds himself dealing with the death and apparent resurrection of a drowned fisherman. He has a single aide, in marked contrast with the teams of experts and officials who populate British and American police procedurals, and the two men confront locals who are suspicious and obstructive. Caldas also has a family: father, uncle and distant wife from whom he is separated. We learn a lot about them, as well as the details of Caldas’s rushed meals, and a good deal about the work of Atlantic deep-sea fishermen. I found the book something of a trudge, but others didn’t: it has been a bestseller elsewhere in Europe.

A Dark Anatomy

By Robin Blake

Macmillan 304pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Set in 1740, this book includes an interesting description of life in Preston at a time when towns in such remote areas of the country ran their own affairs and kept ‘foreigners’ at a distance. A hierarchy of local dignitaries were responsible for the maintenance of law and order. When the wife of a local landowner is found with her throat slashed in the woods near her home, her magistrate husband must defer to the coroner who, in turn, has to obey the Lord Lieutenant. Coroner and lawyer Titus Cragg, working with his friend Dr Fidelis, doggedly investigates despite local obstructions. As this is the Age of Enlightenment, they dissect the corpse, using primitive forensic science to interpret the evidence. Cragg and Fidelis make a fine pair of detectives, and Robin Baird has written a fine first novel.

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