Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sunday Salon: Fine South African Crime fiction

Do you belong to reading groups? Either internet or face to face? I do. And isn't it fun when a book sparks more than just the usual standard debate. One such book this past week is Deon Meyer's DEVIL'S PEAK.
Here's my review.

Devil’s Peak
Author: Deon Meyer (translated from Afrikaans by K. L. Seegers)
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN: 9780340822654 (hardcover)
Published: 2007
408 pages

What makes a book special for you? For me it’s when the characters and the story stays with you after you’ve closed the book. All too often once the book is finished, The details begin to fade almost immediately. Not so with DEVIL’S PEAK by Deon Meyer.

DEVIL’S PEAK begins with a prostitute telling her story to a clergyman. On her lap is a shoe box. What’s in the box?

Inspector Benny Giessel has just been thrown out of the house by his wife. She has given him an ultimatum. Choose either the booze or his family. He has six months to get sober and stay that way or he won’t see his kids again. Benny is a veteran of the South African police. He is one of the very few left from the days of apartheid. In a force where the majority are young and inexperienced, a wise Superintendant realises the the value of a talented and experienced detective. With the support of his boss, Benny begins the slow, painful process of getting sober and staying that way.
Someone is killing people with an Assegai (tribal spear). Many on the police force aren’t that bothered because the victims are child killers. Benny is assigned to lead the investigation. Realising this may well be his last chance to save his career as well as his marriage, Benny puts everything into finding out the identity of the killer.

The alcoholic detective is something of a staple in crime fiction; to the extent that it frequently becomes a cliché. Not so Benny. Meyer writes about Benny’s struggle , self-recrimination and the realisation of the full impact of his drinking on his life, his family and his colleagues with a great deal of sensitivity . We feel Benny’s pain, guilt and despair as struggles through “one day at a time.”
DEVIL’S PEAK was written in Afrikaans and translated by K.L. Seegers. Not only is the translation spot on, but Seegers has retained enough of the Afrikaans slang and dialect for the reader to easily imagine an Afrikaans accent.

The sense of place and culture are also very strong. There is no way this book could be set anywhere but South Africa. DEVIL’S PEAK is not only well written with a nicely honed plot, but the author has also seamlessly incorporated a history lesson, a clear idea of diverse cultures and characters you won’t forget in a hurry. These all combine to make DEVIL’S PEAK a memorable read on many levels.
The second week of 2009 isn’t over yet and already I feel I’ve read one of my top books for 2009.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

SUNDAY SALON: Six things I want in my fiction

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise kicked it off. Barbara's Scandanavian Crime Fiction picked up the ball and ran with it. The challenge was also taken up by Uriah's Crime Scraps

What six things do I want in my crime fiction? (this could apply to any other type of fiction).

Here are mine.

1. No Femjep. You know the type of thing. Our heroine (usually amateur) has been threatened. She hears a noise coming from the basement. The electricity has been turned off, so she totters downstairs in her short, tight skirt and stilletos without either a weapon or a flashlight and gets donged on the head ... Oh pulease.

2. A mystery where the clues aren't bleeding obvious to everyone but the investigator.

3. Authors who know less is often more. Peter Temple is a prime example of saying a great deal with a few words.

4. Authors who are happy to be crime writers and don't have pretensions to be "literary" at the expense of this little thing we crime readers like which is called a plot.

5. Characters that I can become engaged with. I'm not a huge fan of the short "puzzle mystery" where the characters are merely the vehicle to deliver that puzzle. I like to get to know my characters.

6. A story that keeps me guessing. I hate working out very early on whodunit and then spending the rest of the book waiting for the protagonist to catch up with me. I love twists in the tale at the end as well.

So there are my six . What are yours?

Sunday Salon: Best and worst of 2008

I read some very fine books in 2008. Many of which were Australian. I
read my way thorugh a good percentage of the Ned Kelly long list
Here are some of my tops


SHATTER - Michael Robotham
Winner of the 2008 Ned Kelly Award.
See Barfly's accidently posted review.
Fabulous edge of seat stuff. Couldn't put it down.

Other tops of the year.

EXIT MUSIC - Ian Rankin 5 stars
Possibly the last in the Inspector Rebus novels. A Russian dissident
poet is found beaten to death just days before Rebus' retirement.
Siobhan Clark is put in charge of the case.
Rebus is advising. He uses his last few days on the job to try and
finally put "Big Ger" McCafferty behind bars.

FAN MAIL. P.D. Martin
One of Sophie Anderson's last jobs before leaving Quantico for the field
office in Los Angeles is to give a guided tour of the facility of a
popular crime fiction writer.
When the writer is found murdered in a gruesome manner which mirrors the
method used in her yet-to-be published latest book, Sophie realises
there are only a limited number of suspects.
I always enjoy Phillip's books. Enjoyable cross between Medium and
police procedural.

It's Reginald Hill. It's Dalziel and Pascoe. Is there anything else that
needs to be said to explain why it's on my tops list?
Dalziel is in a convalescent home recovering from injuries sustained in
a bomb blast. Part of his therapy involves him recording his thoughts
into a mini-recorder which he names Muriel.
A murder happens in the seaside town where the home is. Peter Pascoe is
in charge, but with an increasingly tetchy Dalziel straining at the
leash to become involved, Peter is feeling the pressure.

VODKA DOESN'T FREEZE - Leah Giarratano
Leah Giarratano is a trauma psychologist based in Sydney. Among her
clients have been victims of sexual abuse and men serving sentences for
child abuse. VODKA DOESN’T FREEZE is her first novel. I had the good
fortune to hear Giarratano speak last year. She talked about the book
being cathartic for her. She regarded it as an exercise to purge herself
of bottled up emotions. She never expected a publisher to accept it.
It isn’t an easy book. It is a very dark subject Giarratano writes
about. A subject that is difficult to explore. However, the reader who
can make it through is rewarded. It offers some insights in ways perhaps
not expected by the author or the reader. Yes, it does demonstrate how
different people deal with being sexually abused, but what I found was
that perhaps inadvertently the author has shown something of the
emotional toll taken on professionals who deal with sex offenders in
their working life.

A CARRION DEATH - Michael Stanley
Set in Botswana, the book introduces superintendent David Bengu of the
Botswana Police Department whose nickame is Kubu (hippopotamus). As the
name implies Kubu is very overweight.
He's a delightful man (He reminds me a bit of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri
Paiboun) .

WHITE NIGHTS - Ann Cleeves
The 2nd in the Jimmy Perez Shetland series. Jimmy's girlfriend is having
her first art exhibition and there is an unexpectedly poor turnout.
One of the visitors to the exhibition stands in front of one of her
paintings, head in hands and begins sobbing. He later races off. Next
day he is found murdered.
Cleeves writes about a small isolated community beautifully. Strong
sense of place and a protagonist you can't help but like.

True Crime
KILLING JODIE - Janet Fife-Yeomans
About the disappearance of a part-time prostitute, Jodie Larcombe and
the determination of the detectives to bring to justice her killer. They
knew who he was, but just couldn't gather enough evidence to prove it in
court. Their investigation spanned a decade .

LIVES OF CRIME - Tippet & Munro
A series of chapters looking at the lives of people whose lives are
touched by crime. Victims, perpetrators, police, lawyers, judges,
paramedics and a host of others.

Latta is a psychologist who specialises in treating sex offenders and
their victims. Latta is a no-nonsense man, with a wicked sense of humour
and a talent for using profanity
"I swear because I like it and it get's their attention". Fascinating
and unexpectedly entertaining journey into the minds of some very nasty

I read a few that were so-so that didn't really grab me. This year
there weren't many at all that I thought were really awful.

There are just 3 this year that I would put on my bottoms list.
In order of awfulness from worst to least worst.

GOSPEL - Sydney Bauer.

Tom Bradshaw is the perfect Vice-Presidential candidate. He had a
difficult time in college, but overcame drug addiction and now leads the
fight against illegal drugs. The nation is stunned when he is found dead
in a hotel room of an apparent self-administered drug overdose after
being clean for over twenty years. Just as the public is coming to
terms with the death of the much-respected politician, it is announced
that it wasn't an accidental death, but murder.

There is a chief suspect who is the stereotype of chief suspects. He's
arrogant and unpleasant, and widely disliked. His wife happens to be
the hero's ex. She left him for the richer doctor, thereby establishing
that she is shallow and not worthy of him. There's a conspiracy at a
high level and a lot of characters introduced in the first chapters
which is confusing and takes forever to sort out.

A large part of the ending involved a dramatic overblown court scene.
"'Cavanaugh is a liar,' he yelled, his voice rising over an astonished
crowd. 'A simple-minded show pony who, in his desperation to win
exoneration for his murderous client, has rallied this group of
geriatrics, has-beens, teenagers and drug addicts in a pathetic attempt
to sully my good name,'*". S*peeches like this abounded and I felt that
any resemblance to a real courtroom situation was purely coincidental.

It is blurbed as a fast-paced thriller but the author's excessive use of
adjectives and long-winded descriptions slowed the whole thing down .
"She took two of the upturned glasses standing on the crisp white
towel on the black marble counter and poured them both a drink before
gliding across the room, extending her long slender arm and handing him
his water.' It was a very minor detail. She gave him a glass of water
would have sufficed.
The book was 487 pages. Way too long.
There was a clever twist but it came too late to save this one from my
bottoms list.

Also ran bottoms
Biggest disappointment.

UNDER ORDERS - Dick Francis
A Sid Halley novel. There were a couple of things about this one that
failed to endear itself to me.
There seemed to be a great deal of over-explaining which slowed the pace
down. There was a lot of detail about the racing industry and online
betting; more than I felt I needed to know. Nor was it really necessary
to know the detailed back-story of nearly every major character who
appeared in the book.. There was also much made of the fact that Sid
has an artificial arm. We were told the history of how he lost his arm
and his battle to come to terms with it. Not needed in light of the
fact that it was the 5th or 6th in the series. There was also quite a
bit of Sid's opinions on things that we didn't really need for the plot.
It had been a while since I read any of his books and I don't know if
I've become much more picky or if this one wasn't quite as good as the
others. Either way,it was a major disappointment.

Most cliched:

The book based on the movie of the same name. The movie was based on an
article that appeared in New Yorker magazine yonks ago. Based on real
people and events. Set in the 70's it tells the story about an honest
cop who makes an arrest and discovers 1 million in the back of the car
and turns it in.This makes him a pariah among many of his colleagues. He
is then seconded to the DA Department to do an investigation into the
drug scene. He discovers a hitherto drug lord who has flown under the
radar because he imports his own heroin from Vietnam .

If you are interested in this at all, either read the original article
or see the movie, which wasn't too bad actually. I suspect the writer of
this book was told to write the book using only the script as a
reference. It was totally predictible and had every cliche going. The
movie had the saving grace of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe to
flesh out the characters and make them interesting. The book didn't. I
put off seeing the movie for a long time because of the experience I had
with the book.