Right, amongst a few New Year’s resolutions (join a choir, stop smoking, read more, exercise more, eat less crisps…) is to actually update this blog from time to time. So here’s a post I’ve felt like doing for a while.
I’ve been lucky enough to do a fair bit of travelling over the last couple of years, and much to my girlfriend’s chagrin the spare room in my suitcase is usually taken up by a good few paperbacks, and my travel reading is carefully chosen. In a well-set crime novel, the story grows out of the setting, and the location isn’t just background, it’s a character in its own right. I love to read books set in the location I’m travelling to – it not only adds to the experiences of both reading and travelling, it’s also a great way to discover new authors and series.
So here’s a selection of books I’ve picked up on location, so to speak, but what’s more they’re all fantastic reads which I encourage you to check out if you haven’t yet.
1. Irene – Pierre Lemaitre – Paris, France
We had just three days in Paris and a long list of everything we wanted to see – the Latin Quarter, the Pompidou Centre, the Musee d’Orsay. But Irene, the first in the Commandant Verhoeven series and the prequel to the better-known Alex, was so gripping that I spent much of this precious time reading it in cafes or wishing we could get back on the Metro so I could get it out again. Verhoeven, four-foot-nine and brilliant, is on the trail of a serial killer who stages murders from classic crime novels. That sounds a little clichéd, perhaps, but Lemaitre’s psychological and physical brutality destroys any semblance of self-indulgence from the premise. Verhoeven’s cast of supporting detectives are particularly well-characterised and memorable, as is his relationship with his wife, the titular Irene, who becomes appropriately imperilled as the net closes on the killer. Both the seedy underbelly and the cultural magnificence of Paris shine in the novel, but what makes Irene particularly memorable is the twist ending, which had me open-mouthed for a good minute when it hit.
2. Purple Cane Road – James Lee Burke – New Iberia, Louisiana, USA
Like many, I was first introduced to Louisiana as a crime location by the masterful first series of True Detective, and last year I fulfilled a long-held dream of a road trip across the Deep South. I quickly asked my editor if she knew any Louisiana-set crime series, and was happily introduced to Dave Robicheaux, the sherriff’s detective/private eye created by James Lee Burke. New Iberia, a small town in the bayou, oozes death and mystery, and the organised crime and vice of New Orleans is never far away, nor is the political corruption of Baton Rouge. Both play their part in this tale, as a small-time pimp tells Robicheaux his long-lost mother was in fact a prositute drowned in a puddle by two corrupt cops thirty years earlier. What follows is an odyssey through Robicheaux’s past, in which James Lee Burke expertly pulls apart the human and physical geography of one of America’s most fascinating state. I’ve learnt a lot from Burke, and reading Purple Cane Road as we took a cruise on the bayou, spotting alligators in their nests, was one of the best experiences of my trip.
3. Hypothermia – Arnaldur Indridason – Reykjavík, Iceland
Indridason’s surly and depressed Detective Erlendur is one of the greatest imports of the Scandinavian crime wave, and I had already bought two of his series to read during our winter trip to Iceland. I devoured them and picked up this in a bookshop, which I was pleased to see was the busiest in the street in Reykjavík. Icelanders read seriously, it would seem, and with Indridason’s books, it’s easy to see why. Reading it in a snow-covered city with three hours of daylight only adds to the mood. A woman is found hanged in her holiday cottage by Lake Thingvellir, a national park outside Reykjavík that is as breathtakingly beautiful in the book as it is in reality. Erlendur is not assigned the case, being called upon merely to inform the woman’s husband of her death, but he cannot help investigate when he learns of the victim’s obsession with contacting her late mother, Leonora, and receives a tape of a seance she recently attended. The case has difficult assocations for Erlendur, still haunted by the death of his brother in a blizzard when he was a child. No-one writes character and motivation better than Indridason, full stop. The bleakness is beautiful, like a minimalist sonata, and we suffer with Erlendur too. I followed this with the most recent entry, Strange Shores, which had me in tears.
4. Devil’s Peak – Deon Meyer – Cape Town, South Africa
I spent the summer on my medical elective in a hospital in South Africa, and picked this up in a bookshop there. Suffice to say on finishing, I immediately downloaded the rest of the series to my Kindle. The complex miasma that is modern-day South Africa is expertly presented by Meyer through the eyes of three characters: Benny Griessel, an Afrikaner Cape Town murder detective and the most realistic depiction of the stock alocholic cop I’ve seen in many a read; Thobela Mpayipheli, a former freedom fighter on a revenge mission after the meaningless murder of his son; and Christine van Rooyen, a prostitute whose role in events does not become clear until much later. Meyer weaves the stories of these three tortured souls together into a beautiful canvas, pulling no punches [Griessel in particularly gives the impression of a man left behind by the times, insisting that less-competent black officers have been promoted ahead of him due to affirmative action] and addressing the brutal reality of crime and inequality in South Africa whilst still allowing the light to shine through of this country and its people. Probably the best book I read in 2016.
5. Child of God – Cormac McCarthy – Sevier County, Tennessee, USA
This 1973 work, one of McCarthy’s earliest, was one of two I brought with me on the aforementioned Deep South road trip. The other, of course, was the timeless No Country for Old Men, set in the barren wastelands of West Texas, but this lesser-known novel takes us to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Today, Sevierville is a tourist hub, but in the 50s world of Child of God, it is a much harder world. A number of nameless narrative points of view introduce us to Lester Ballard, a ‘child of god much like yourself perhaps’, and charts his descent from forest-dwelling hermit to necrophiliac serial killer. This is McCarthy at his best, disturbing and poetic, with the second-person invective making you examine everything you hold true about existence. One paragraph near the end, describing Ballard crossing a surging stream whilst fleeing the authorities, is perhaps one of the best-written pieces of prose of the 20th century. And it made me never want to leave our log cabin in the Smoky Mountains.