The Game: Crime Fiction – The Result: Scotland 1 Sweden 0

I’ve not read as much crime fiction as usual lately. It’s been quite deliberate, because I was aware that I was reading books because they caught my eye in the library, and because they might not be there the next time I read them, when I had other books that I wanted to read more at home.

I haven’t given up, I’m just trying to be a little more selective.

The first contemporary crime novel that I really wanted to read in a while was Black House by Peter May. I read so much praise, and there was a queue at the library even though there had been multiple copies in stock for months – always a good sign.

And it is a very good book: setting a crime story built on classic lines against human stories that would have made interesting reading even without a crime.

I knew that I was in safe hands from the opening scene: a young couple, looking for privacy, take shelter in a disused building and notice first blood, and then a corpse. It played out perfectly.

That happened on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Edinburgh policeman Fin McLeod grew up there, but years ago he left and he never went back. But he was sent back, even though he was still recovering from a terrible loss. Because the death there had many similarities to another that Fin had investigated in Edinburgh.

He didn’t want to go, but he did want to escape.

Fin had known the dead man, the elder brother of a classmate, and so, as he reinvestigates the cases and reinterviews witnesses – many of which he knew years earlier – he also recalls his life on Lewis, as a child and as a young man.

The narrative moves  between past and present, between first and third person. At first the shifts jarred a little, but as the story moved forward I appreciated that I could see how children had become adults and that memories and past events might prove to be very, very significant.

Unsurprisingly, the crime in the present had its roots in the past, and Fin was forced to deal with unhappy memories that he has repressed for a long, long time.

It works though, it works very well, because the characters and relationships are so well drawn, because questions about loss, in all of its senses, are considered so well and bind everything together, and most of all, because the setting is so well realised.

Peter May evokes the sea, the wind, the wildness so very well. And, crucially, he understands how isolated communities work, and that makes the story utterly real.

The resolution was unsurprising, but it didn’t matter. What did matter was understanding what happened and why, and that I did.

And now I have the sequel – the second part of a trilogy – on order.

I also looked more carefully at the new crime novels the next time I went to the library. And I picked up She’s Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel.

I nearly put it down again when I saw that it was the story of a woman imprisoned in a basement – it brought more than one real story too mine – but there was an interesting twist in this tale in that the woman was able to see her family home.  And this was, according to the cover, a story that had gripped Scandinavia for a year ….

The structure was there:

  • A woman abducted and held captive as a terrible revenge.
  • A man who thinks his wife is late – that maybe she is having another affair – and then realises that something is very wrong.
  • An investigator who thinks that he has a domestic case: a woman who has abandoned her family or a jealous husband who has killed his unfaithful wife.
  • A journalist who discovers that three members of a group of school bullies are dead and the fourth is missing…

It could have been great. But it wasn’t.

Nothing in the motivation for the kidnapping, or the abuse that followed, rang true. And there was far too much focus on that abuse rather than the psychology of the characters.

Drama at the expense of insight.

I began to think that I was reading a rough draft of a screenplay that needed a lot of work.

There was what could have been an interesting twist half way through, but it didn’t come off because the psychology of the characters was wrong: their attributes and their actions didn’t add up.

And of course there was big dramatic denouement with all of the characters converging on the same spot.

I could write more but I’m not going to. I don’t want to think about it and I don’t want to spend any more time writing about it.

I’m just going to be more selective in the future. And put my trust in recommendations and past experience, not words on a cover.

11 responses

  1. I have to say the May book does sound far superior to the Koppel. I love most of the Scottish crime fiction I’ve read and I’ve heard so many good things about May. I, strangely, don’t read as much crime fiction as I used to so whenever I hear about good novels in this genre I make a note because I would like to get back to reading it some day.

    • The May book really is good, as a human story as well as a crime story. Definitely one to track down when you hear the call of contemporary crime fiction.

  2. I loved Peter May’s book too and am looking forward to reading the sequel. I have to say I was a bit surprised by the ending. It is interesting that you had already worked it out.
    I bought the Hans Koppel at the airport without reading the blurb. Big mistake but I thought I would give it a go anyway. I found it boring and didn’t finish it. I thought it that horrible mix of distasteful and dull.

    • I didn’t figure out every detail, but the broad strokes were as I thought. And you were wise to discard the Koppel!

  3. What a shame about She’s Never Coming Back – I must admit that I also thought this should have been a great book from what you said.

    I haven’t read the Peter May book yet even though I do have a copy – not sure what I’m waiting for really as I have seen great reviews about it. OK, note to self: read the damn thing!

    • The potential was there for She’s Never Coming Back, but the author made so many bad choices. Wipe it from your mind and read the may – you will love it1

  4. I would agree with your verdict, even though I have not read the Swedish book. I enjoyed The Blackhouse very much, and don’t understand why I put off reading it for so long (for some reason I thought it would be like The Wicker Man, but it wasn’t). Based on a friend’s review and flicking through a copy in the library, I decided not to read She’s Never Coming Back, even though I do try to read all translated Scandinavian crime fiction each year. Two things put me off it – the awful-sounding plot (as the Inde put it, “when you can’t sink any further, there’s always the basement”) and the fact that when I looked at the book it seemed to have been written for a reading age of about seven years old. (But obviously, the content most definitely not). I wonder, sadly, just who this type of book is aimed at – in this case, dumbed-down prose about a woman being kidnapped and abused. yuk. (the author is apparently a well-known children’s book author under a different name).

    • I hadn’t heard of the Koppel until I saw it in the library. The idea was interesting but the execution terrible, and I have to applaud your sentiments.

      The May though is a class apart, but maybe the title and the cover are a little too generic? I wouldn’t have picked it out if I hadn’t read so many great reports.

  5. I have heard a lot about Peter May but have never read a book, maybe now is the time.

    I have been sent some translated fiction but not by this author, but have yet to pick it up which I will do soon. I have a lot of crime and thriller books on a pile at the moment waiting and wanting to be read!

    • Most of the translated fiction I’ve read I could happily recommend, but not this one. And the may is definitely worth a try.

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