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.
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…
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.