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Brian R. Martin (London, UK)
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The Dinner Club
The Dinner Club
by Saskia Noort
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.36

2.0 out of 5 stars A Dutch Mills and Boone 'thriller'., 20 July 2014
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This review is from: The Dinner Club (Paperback)
In my continuing quest for good European thrillers in translation, I turned to Holland and this book, although frankly I wish I hadn't. It's the story of a small group of rich couples that live in a village outside Amsterdam. The wives spend most of their day drinking coffee in expensive cafés, playing tennis, shopping for expensive clothes and gossiping about each other, the full yuppie menu in fact. Into this claustrophobic atmosphere comes Karen, a self-employed graphic designer, who has moved to the country with her husband and two young daughters. At first she finds it difficult to makes friends, but later forms a `dinner club' with the families of four of the other residents.

All goes well until one of the husbands dies in a fire that destroys his house and almost kills his wife and two children. He has recently suffered a psychotic breakdown and there is some evidence that he started the fire deliberately. This tragedy is quickly followed by the death of one of the wives, who falls from a hotel balcony. These two events allow existing simmering suspicions and jealousies within the group to surface. There are accusations of adulterous relationships and dubious business dealing between some of the husbands, amongst other things. Many dull, uninteresting pages are devoted to the resulting squabbles and soul searching amongst the wives, which add precious little to the story. They are made worse by the very pedestrian style of the writing, rather Mills & Boone. One could read this as a satire on the rural yuppie life, but I suspect that was not the author's intention.

Karen, based on what she thinks she knows about the characters of the deceased pair, becomes convinced that both deaths were not accidental and is sucked into a rather desultory police investigation, which is tied up with an investigation of the tax affairs of one of the husbands, an amoral odious character who is an obvious `bad un', and who seems to have a financial hold on the other husbands. Karen's amateurish blundering around, helped by a woman police officer who has a personal interest in one of the suspects, eventually leads her to the correct conclusion, and the murderer is confirmed in a final violent scene in a hotel room. The picture is completed and `tied in a pink ribbon' with the reconciliation between Karen and her husband.

Although this book sold 300,000 copies in Holland, I could find little to recommend it. A substantial fraction of the book is devoted to the pointless lives of the group, but I found the details of their jealousies and petty betrayals of little interest. Incidentally, although there are at least four children around, they play no significant role whatsoever. It only becomes a thriller late in the book, and even then the action is all too obvious. Finally, about the only thing remotely Dutch is the fact that everyone smokes cigars and some ride bicycles, hardly unique characteristics.


Brother Kemal (Pi Kemal Kayankaya 5)
Brother Kemal (Pi Kemal Kayankaya 5)
by Jakob Arjouni
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.88

4.0 out of 5 stars Not Chandler, but still pretty good, 16 July 2014
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A book about a Turkish-German private investigator was not an obvious first choice to expand my reading into modern European crime fiction, but in no way do I regret my choice. The central character is Jakob Arjouni, a private investigator working in Frankfurt. He is intelligent, with a sardonic demeanor, and is no respecter of rank or wealth. Unusually for a fictional detective/investigator he has a happy home life as the partner of a former prostitute, but now the owner of a successful restaurant.

The book starts with a request by a distraught socialite mother to find her teenage daughter who the mother believes has run away to be with her lover, allegedly a photographer, but who is also suspected of being involved in drug dealing and child prostitution. Arjouni has been hired, one suspects, because his background might make him `fit in' with this shady scenario. He quickly finds the girl, but in rescuing her we find that his methods include physical violence if he deems it necessary. As a result he becomes a suspect in a murder and an assault on the abductor.

A soon as the girl is returned to her mother, a second job starts, which is to be a bodyguard for a well-known Muslin author who is visiting the Frankfurt book fair and who may, or may not, have been the subject of threats from religious extremists because his book features homosexuality. This turns out not to be the simple task that Arjouni thought it would be and links to the first case via the abductor of the girl, who is seeking revenge. Inevitably there is violent climax, but Arjouni survives and, with the help of a friendly local detective, the police `back off' pursuing him.

The book is short, but with sufficient detail to keep the reader's interest. The linking of the two cases is well done and not completely predicable, with the descriptions of Frankfurt's seedier areas and its local characters excellent. Arjouni is in the tradition of the hard-boiled investigator, with clipped, often witty, speech and a strong sense of justice, regardless of what the law says. The style and general quality may not be as good as the very best of the genre, such as Chandler and others, but is nevertheless good enough.


Silence
Silence
by Jan Costin Wagner
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.07

5.0 out of 5 stars Finnish thriller with a twist, 14 July 2014
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This review is from: Silence (Paperback)
This book has an unconventional background. It is set in Finland by its Finnish author, and features the Finnish detective Kimmo Joentaa, but it was originally written in German and then translated into English, which has been well done.

The plot starts with the reported disappearance of 14 year-old girl called Sinikka, and the discovery of her bicycle together with blood stains on a track near her house. Disturbing as this is, it is made more so by the fact the bicycle was found very close to the spot where 33 years earlier another girl, Pia Lehtinen, of a similar age disappeared, also leaving a bicycle. Some months later she had been found in a nearby lake; she had been raped and strangled. The murderer was never found, although his identity is revealed to readers early on. Is it conceivable that the killer has returned, or is this a copycat crime?

The detective in charge of the earlier case, called Ketola, is haunted by not having solved the crime and feels he has failed the parents. Although retired only a few days, he is keen to help and is called in to assist. He becomes rather obsessed by the new case, and his rather odd behaviour and the fact that he sometimes acts without police authority, annoys his former superiors. Of necessity, old wounds are reopened as Pia's parents are re-interviewed to try and find any links between the two girls. The author sensitively describes these interactions and those with the parents of Sinikka. The interactions between the various detectives involved in the case are also very realistically portrayed.

In parallel with the details of the investigation of Sinikka's disappearance, there is a description of the life of someone who was involved in Pia's murder and the psychological strain he suffers as the investigation starts to involve him and the effect on his unknowing family. He even contacts Pia's killer for the first time since her murder, but this is fruitless and only increases his desperation. The final solution of Sinikka's disappearance is unexpected, but from it the police apparently solve Pia's murder and Ketola achieves some sort of satisfaction. Needless to say, things are not all they seem.

I enjoyed this relatively short book. It has an interesting plot with a good twist at the end. I look forward to reading more of his work.


The Laughing Policeman (The Martin Beck series, Book 4)
The Laughing Policeman (The Martin Beck series, Book 4)
by Maj Sjowall
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars A good Martin Beck thriller, 11 July 2014
This is one of a series of thrillers by the Swedish writing duo of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that feature the detective Martin Beck. It starts with an attack on the driver and passengers of a double decker bus by a man with a sub machine gun. Eight are left dead and one other is critically wounded. Obvious questions are: is there a link between any of the victims, did the wounded victim recognise the gunman, were there any witnesses etc.? One of the dead is ke Stenström, a young detective colleague of Beck, who was found to have a gun in his hand. So others question are: why was he on the bus and why was he carrying a gun when off duty? Initially, the team gets nowhere, but after a few weeks a link is established with a very old unsolved sex murder of a Portuguese woman. This is the breakthrough they need, because it establishes that the slaughter was not a random act, but the murderer had targeted at least some of the victims. There follows more detailed detective work, which slightly loses its way in complexity, during which they eventually discover what it was that Stenström was working on. This provides the evidence that points to the murderer. He is apprehended in a tense scene at the close of the book, but on the last page there is a final twist that shows that Beck is not perfect.

Interwoven with details of the professional work of the detectives, there is much about their personal lives and those of their families. Beck, as usual for the main police character, is not a happy man. He has long since grown apart from his wife and only seems to have a near normal relationship with his daughter. His work is his life. This is very different to that of his closest friend, Lennart Kollberg, who has a very good and sensual relationship with his partner. The other detectives are a varied bunch, but the dialogues between them, often in a laconic style, and the interactions they have with the people they interview, seem realistic.

This book won much praise when it was first published in 1968 and deservedly so. It is a model of the police procedural, where a team of detectives painstakingly finds clues, sift evidence, and go down many false trails, until they finally home in on the perpetrator. But is also a novel about status and power and the interactions of people from different classes of Swedish society. Incidentally, there are several instances where the authors insert dialogue and actions that make clear their life-long Marxist beliefs, but this is not done in an intrusive way.


The Redbreast: A Harry Hole thriller (Oslo Sequence 1)
The Redbreast: A Harry Hole thriller (Oslo Sequence 1)
by Jo Nesbo
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars "The next Stieg Larsson"? Probably not., 9 July 2014
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This is a long (over 600 pages in the edition I read) complex thriller by one of Norway's leading crime writers. It starts in a confusing way with a series of short interleaved chapters describing two apparently totally unrelated sets of events. One is about a group of fascists, or nationalists as they describe themselves, fighting in the trenches on the Eastern Front towards the end of World War II as a volunteer Norwegian unit with the German army. The second is set in the late 1990s and features the activities of detective Harry Hole. This is the third book featuring Harry Hole, but because it's the first published in English, readers have to piece together Harry's colourful history from `clues' in the current volume. This is not difficult because he has a full set of the usual characteristics: hard drinking, stubborn, grumpy, intuitive, ignores the orders of his superiors, and with an unfulfilled love life. Early on he mistakenly shoots an American secret service agent, but is promoted to Inspector in a deal with the Americans to suppress a possible scandal, but the price is that he is transferred to a desk post in surveillance, where his first job is monitoring neo-Nazi activities.

The link between these two themes does not emerge until about 150 pages into the book (by which time I suspect many readers will have given up) when Harry follows up the discovery that a special sniper's rifle, favoured by assassins, has been smuggled into the country. This leads him via a trail of dead bodies, including that of his work partner Ellen Gjelten, to a bizarre serial killer pursuing a personal agenda and seeking vengeance for imagined betrayals, whose origins date back to the events on the Eastern Front described earlier. There are still `flashbacks' to the scenes in the trenches, but now at least the reader begins to understand their significance. The ending is rather abrupt and leaves a major plot line unresolved. This is the identity of "The Prince', who is implicated in the import of the rifle and the murder of Ellen, but whose actions are independent of the assassin. Implausibly, Harry does not pursue this, but I suppose this may be because it is planned to be the plot of another book.

The writing in this novel is very good and the story line is well paced. However, it is disjoint for far too long and only comes alive once the two themes are joined. There are also many interesting sub-plots, but they do not detract from the main narrative. The minor characters are well described and for the most part believable, but the credibility of the plot is questionable. Would Nazi sympathisers choose to seek violent revenge against those they considered traitors 55 years after the end of the war? And would the assassin, about 80 years old and in great pain from terminal cancer, be capable of the strenuous actions he performs?


Last Rituals
Last Rituals
by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Dark Icelandic thriller, 4 July 2014
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Yrsa Sigurdardottir is one of the few Icelandic writers whose work has been translated into English and this is her first adult book, having previously established a reputation as a writer of books for children. It's a thriller with a rather unusual plot that revolves around the murder of a rich German postgraduate student, Harald Guntlieb, who has been undertaking research into the treatment of witches in late medieval Iceland. The killing is particularly gruesome as his eyes have been gouged out and strange symbols carved on his body. The police quickly arrest one of his student friends on suspicion of the murder and there is plenty of evidence about his guilt. However, for reasons that are not really explained, Harald's family refuses to believe in the suspect's guilt, and hire a local lawyer Thora to assist the family security adviser, former German policeman Matthew Reich, to investigate the case.

They quickly find that Harald was obsessed with satanic matters and torture and was the leader of a small group of dysfunctional fellow students who indulged in witchcraft rituals laced with drugs and sex. The accused was one of the group and has no alibi for the time of the murder. Their investigations lead them into the dark medieval world of the persecution of witches, and there are long (probably overlong) sections detailing historical events and documents, that although doubtless well researched, are rather distracting. Eventually they of course solve the mystery of who killed Harald and how and why he died. Finally Thora meets Harald's mother and learns the sad history of the relationship between her and her son.

Thora is divorced and bringing up two children by herself, a rather surly 16-year old son and a younger daughter. Her professional life is interwoven with her private life, although it's somewhat peripheral to the main story and does not add much to developing her character until near the end, when we already know a lot about her. In many ways it suggests that she is rather nave for a mother of two children. Her interactions with Matthew, whose private life is a bit of a mystery (we are not even told if he is married) at least have an element of humour, coming mainly from his dry whit, not always immediately understood by Thora. Overall the two main characters are a bit formulaic. The language grates in a few places, probably due to the translation, but for the most part sounds authentic, as does the occasional briefly described aspects of modern Icelandic life.

I have not yet read the author's later books, but this one is not in the class of some other Scandinavian writers, although still a reasonable first thriller.


The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers
The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers
by Joanna Bourke
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.60

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pain: prayers to painkillers, 2 July 2014
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The central theme running through this book is that "pain does not arise naturally from physiological processes, but in negotiation with social worlds". Thus, pain-events are embedded in the patient's life and can only be understood, and through that understanding pain alleviated, by interpreting the "interpersonal relationships and environmental interactions between the `person-in-pain' and the people around him or her". This thesis is examined in considerable detail from the earliest times to today, starting with a chapter on how people-in-pain use metaphors to describe their condition and how this influences pain narratives, whose importance as a diagnostic tool has waxed and waned over the centuries. Similarly, there is a chapter about how physical expressions of pain, such as facial gestures, have fallen in and out of favour as useful aids to diagnosis, and another on the role of sympathy, both from friends and doctors.

A major influence in understanding and treating pain has historically been religion. In earlier centuries, and still today for many people, it was widely believed that pain was sent by God to test the faith of believers and to remind them that they were essentially sinful creatures. Enduring pain in this life would guarantee a pain-free existence in the afterlife. This belief was severely shaken by the discovery of analgesics and anesthetics. No longer did patients have to bear the distressing effects of long-term pain, or the brutal horrors of operations. The very role of pain was questioned. For example, if it was a warning sign that something was wrong, why did it have to continue long after its `usefulness' was established?

The final chapter is a discussion of modern pain relief and why, despite its effectiveness, many people-in-pain still suffer unnecessarily. The reasons often have their source deep in historical beliefs about the moral benefits of pain, as well as racial, social and sexual stereotyping, although rarely stated explicitly. These lead to women ("women can bear pain better than men"), working class patients ("the working class are less sensitive than higher classes") and others often receiving less pain relief than men and the more articulate members of society. History has shown that it will be difficult to overcome these prejudices.

We all experience pain at some time in our lives, and so this book has an intrinsic interest. It is well written in an academic, but far from dry, style but it is not always a comfortable read. Although not about the science of pain, about which there is still much to be understood, it explains well the phenomenon in an historical and social context, although there are sometimes a little too many similar examples to make a point. It is meticulously researched, with over 1000 references cited and listed in the Notes. A criticism I would make about the latter, which is common to many recent books that have an academic origin, but are written for the general reader, is whether more than 100 printed pages, close to a third of the book, should be devoted to listing all the references, which will rarely be followed up even if they could be located. A website for the book should be the place for these, as some books now do.


Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film & TV (Pocket Essentials)
Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film & TV (Pocket Essentials)
by Barry Forshaw
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful introduction to European thrillers, 25 Jun 2014
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Writers such as Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson established the reputation of Scandinavian thrillers in the UK, but the rush to exploit readers' enthusiasm for the genre has lead to the translation and publication of the work of other writers who are far below the standard of those earlier authors. The result is that more readers are now turning away from Scandinavian authors to examine the thrillers from other European countries, which are slowly becoming more available in translation. This book is a great help in finding one's way around this relatively new territory. It contains brief digests of the works of leading authors in this field from Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, The Netherlands, Poland, and Romania, plus an update on Scandinavia, as a supplement to the author's previous book on this area, `Nordic Noir'. There are also a number of brief Appendices on publishers, crime films and other topics, including an interview with Sofia Helin, star of the TV serial The Bridge. Some readers may find them interesting, but with the exception of a short list of the recommended books for each country, I found they added very little and were more in the nature of fillers for this short book. Nevertheless, even ignoring the Appendices, this is a very useful, well-written, volume that enabled me to compile a list of potentially interesting thrillers that I will certainly start to explore.


Alex Cross (Alex Cross Novels)
Alex Cross (Alex Cross Novels)
by James Patterson
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 5.83

3.0 out of 5 stars Yet another Patterson thriller, 19 Jun 2014
This is the twelfth book of the series about Alex Cross and many of the characters from previous books are here. The former police detective and FBI agent has now seamlessly started to work as a psychologist (doesn’t this require some years training?) as well as working freelance helping the police. From earlier books in the series we know that Cross’ wife was shot and died in his arms and he was left to bring up three very young children, helped only by their formidable grandmother. All this, plus his other commitments, has been criticized as an unbelievable workload, but it is no more unreal than numerous other thrillers. When he is asked to help catch a brutal serial rapist/murderer and hired killer for the mafia, Cross agrees. The death of his wife is still foremost in his mind, so when during the investigation it emerges that the killer may be the man who murdered his wife, the sense of urgency increases as the pursuit becomes personal.

There then follows a series of extremely brutal events when the suspect, nicknamed the Butcher, carries out contract murders, unpaid revenge killings of mafia members, as well as engaging his ‘pastime’ of raping young women. At the same time he lives what appears to be a quiet, stable home-loving family life, although when the investigation closes in on him he effortlessly moves his family around the East Coast (another unbelievable part of then plot?). Finally, of course, the confrontation occurs and Cross has to face his nemesis.

When you start any James Patterson thriller you know exactly what to expect: a formulaic style of fast- moving action presented in a huge number of absurdly short chapters to encourage the reader to keep turning the pages. It may not have even been written by Patterson himself because, like the great painting masters of old, he apparently operates a ‘studio’ system, where assistants work up outlines and plots he supplies (how else could you produce so many books each year?). It not does produce great literature and is not always successful (I thought ‘Private London’, for example, was dire) but it suits this book. Ultimately trash, it is good trash and fine for a mindless read when you have nothing better do. If you've enjoyed the series so far then you will probably enjoy this one too.


Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life
Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life
by Lawrence Hill
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A scientific and cultural history of blood., 16 Jun 2014
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Unlike the organs of the body, heart, liver, etc., blood, the fluid that all these organs need to function, so guaranteeing our continued life, always had an air of mystery about it. This was true even after William Harvey's classic brutal experiment on a live dog in the seventeenth century showed the circulation of the blood around the body. We now know a huge amount about blood and the vast amount of important information about our bodies that can be obtained from it. Nevertheless, contrary to unambiguous scientific evidence, blood has continued to be ascribed almost mystical properties, which have been used to define important cultural concepts such as race and nationality, leading to definitions of kinship and citizenship. In extreme cases decisions about who lives and who dies have rested on such spurious blood distinctions. It is a supreme irony that the substance that unites everyone on the planet has been, and often still does, divide us in ways that often have tragic consequences.

In this excellent book, Lawrence Hill provides a scientific and social history of blood, a biography as he calls it, and discusses many areas where blood has played a central role in determining our actions and shaping our ideas about who we are. These range from discriminatory racial laws and customs based on mistaken beliefs about the nature of blood, to more mundane topics such as the use of `blood doping' to improve the performance of athletes. Examples both from real life and fiction are drawn from history as far back as the Old Testament all the way to modern times. The author himself is of `mixed race' and sometimes gives moving examples from his own experience.

This is a brilliant, original, provocative book full of interesting facts and ideas that along the way forces us to examine our own prejudices, particularly about the question of race. It is superbly written and well worth reading.


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