In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

bitter chillIn Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

Minotaur Books, September 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

There is so much I liked about Sarah Ward’s debut novel In Bitter Chill. I’m fond of police procedurals, which this is in part. I liked following the team of police investigators (solo detective stories are not my favorite right now). I’m also a fan of the central character of Ruth Jones, a professional genealogist. She’s curious but not a careless investigator. Her life has problems, but it isn’t overly messy. But overall, what I liked was the tone: it could have easily become a melodramatic or sensationalistic story about child abduction, and instead the story is very matter-of-fact about a series of strange events.

The book opens with the suicide of the mother of a young girl who disappeared nearly thirty years before. Ruth Jones enters the story because she disappeared at the same time but returned. She remembers very little about her disappearance, and I’m thankful that the book doesn’t rely on too many flashbacks to the abduction. It’s much more unsettling to have gaps in the story, I think. This is a story full of gaps and strangeness because of the length of time between the abduction and the suicide and because of the secrets the police and Rachel uncover during the story.

In Bitter Chill is one of my favorite reads of the year: it’s suspenseful, I like the array of characters, and I am very much looking forward to book 2.





The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

fire engineThe Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
Originally published as Brandbilen som försvann, 1969
Sphere Books, 1973
I bought my copy of the book
Martin Beck book 5

I’ve arrived at the halfway point in the Martin Beck series and I’m still surprised by the books.

  1. They feel contemporary, despite the references to late 1960’s political crises and the Vietnam War.
  2. The plotting, even when the pace mimics the first installment, Roseanna, was still shocking.
  3. I’m surprised that I can keep so many detectives straight. It’s not just Beck and his team that’s made up of distinct characters: the investigation calls on a detective or two in another city and those characters are distinct as well.
  4.  I appreciate a few homages to the series that I see in Henning Mankell and Leif G.W. Persson now. Persson’s Bäckström is an extreme version of the character Gunnar Larsson in this book. The neverending car smuggling ring that Wallander investigates is central to this particular episode of the Beck series.
  5. I’m taken aback by how young the sex workers in this book are.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared focuses on a horrible fire that kills a number of people in an apartment building as well as someone’s suicide that happened around the same time. It’s not surprising that the two events are related: it seems especially obvious in a book as short as this. There’s no room for plot digressions. The arson scenes and explanations of the fire investigation are incredibly vivid and harrowing. The actual investigation is slow in parts and then incredibly fast in others, and the fact that the arson was so extreme amps up the tension throughout the story. Finally, I’m particularly fond of this installment because we actually get some of Beck’s backstory- why he became a policeman, his childhood, and his family life today. It’s about time.

On a side note, I thought of Moira’s blog during a description of a particular blue corduroy suit that is very 1969.

I continue to be a huge fan of this series, and I’m inclined to finish reading this series soon. It might not make for the most varied blog fodder, but reading a few authors in bulk seems to be my latest reading pattern.

The Fiend by Margaret Millar

fiendThe Fiend by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1964

This edition: International Polygonics Library of Crime Classics, 1984

Source: I borrowed this from the library.

I’m continuing my haphazard tour through Margaret Millar, and this is a really good one though not my favorite. It’s a haphazard tour because most of her books are out-of-print so I’m reading what I can find for now.

Margaret Millar is getting lots of press lately because of her inclusion in Women Crime Writers of the 1940’s and 1950’s from the Library of America, and I’ll admit it’s one of the reasons I decided to try her in the first place.  I’m approaching her stuff as a crime fiction fan who’s not an expert in the history of the genre, but I will say that it’s obvious that her focus on psychology and suspense has influenced lots of the contemporary writers I read. Millar gets into the minds of her characters without writing chapters in alternating first-person narration, and it makes me like her books more. I tend to be very picky about first-person narrators. All of her characters are given depth, which is quite a feat. And she is pretty damn good at plotting, though that’s not the focus of this particular story.

If you can’t already tell from the on-the-nose-cover of this particular edition, The Fiend spends a lot of time with a character, Charlie Gowen, who is a convicted sex offender who is released from a psychiatric facility and appears to be close to re-offending. There are quite a few other fiendish or at least extremely unhappy characters in this novel, which happens to take place in the same San Felice (a stand-in for Santa Barbara) as part of the last Millar I read, How Like an Angel. Millar has a great deal of sympathy for Charlie, and she doesn’t sensationalize him or his brain’s workings, which is quite impressive. There are so many distressing things happening in the lives of these characters that it’s just one sad part of the story. Charlie discovers Jessie Brant, a nine-year-old girl, and her best friend Mary Martha Oakley on a school playground during his lunch hour. Mary Martha’s parents’ protracted custody battle, the Jessie’s parents’ marital troubles as well as the troubles of their next-door-neighbors frame this story. Millar obviously had marital discord and how young children interpret such discord among grown-ups on her mind, and it provides a fertile background to the story.

This book reminded me a great deal of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children in its focus on unhappy couples and a sex offender living in the neighborhood: the same sort of disappointment and paranoia suffuse this story. I think it’s probably uncommmon to write a book about sex offenders in the first half of the 1960’s. Because both Beast in View and How Like an Angel were so ingenious in their plotting, this book paled in comparison plot-wise. I didn’t mind though because the characters and their paranoia were so vivid.

I heartily recommend this book. Three Millars down, 24 more to go!

Other reviews appear in Tipping My Fedora and Ohlman’s Fifty.


Mini-Rant: Thrillers That Aren’t Thrillers/ Mysteries That Are Not Mysterious

Insomnia for me means time to try out a lot of books, and I’m a little irritated by books described in the jacket copy as being thrillers or mysteries when they clearly aren’t. Just because a character has a secret past involving a crime doesn’t make a book a thriller or mysterious. Just because a more literary author is branching out into something bit more mysterious doesn’t make the resulting book a mystery. There has to be a little forward momentum, there has to be investigation or some sort of search for truth, and it would be nice if there could be some cliffhangers.


A sleep-deprived mystery fan.

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

rubberneckerRubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’d been eagerly looking forward to reading Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer because the concept sounded out-of-the-ordinary: college student Patrick, who has Asperger’s, becomes convinced that the body he is dissecting in anatomy class was murdered. Bauer plays with atypical characters: a man emerging from a coma, a young man with Aspbergers. And Bauer plays with time: there are some flashbacks as well as flashforwards. Ultimately, unravelling the story about the man on the coma ward and the body in in the anatomy class are less important than the of Patrick coming to terms with people around him and his family, including the death of his father when he was young. I wanted the mystery of why or how the anatomy subject was murdered to be more mysterious, but ultimately it took a backseat to the story about Patrick coming to grips with his family. I think it’s hard to get buy-in into Patrick’s head. The plot elements just felt a little not gelled with the characters, and the villain, specifically, just felt unreal.

Other reviews appear in The Game’s Afoot and The Life Sentence.

Eva’s Eye by Karin Fossum


Eva’s Eye by Karin Fossum, translated by James Anderson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Originally published as Evas øye, 1995
Inspector Sejer, book 2

I bought my copy of the book.

I backtracked in my reading of the Inspector Sejer series to read the first installment, Eva’s Eye, also published as In the Darkness, and I really liked it.  The book begins with two unsolved crimes: a stabbed man’s body is found in the river, and it is determined that it’s the body of Egil, a man missing for six months. He disappeared around the time that a prostitute named Maja was murdered, and Sejer investigates these semi-cold crimes for the first third of the book. Then Fossum shifts to Eva Magnus, a struggling artist and single mother who was one of the last people to see the murdered Maja alive and was the person who discovered Egil’s corpse.

I appreciate that Sejer is not as troubled or depressed as lots of other detectives in books I read, though his penchant for working alone is pretty typical. I’m not sure I’ve ever read about such an experienced skydiver, though: over 2000 successful jumps is quite impressive.

Fossum has a great deal of sympathy for Eva, and she also knows how to write creepy and thrilling setpieces. Or maybe I’m especially susceptible to scenes that happen in remote mountain cabins at night: they automatically frighten me.  This book felt juicy in terms of characters and the slide into criminality: there’s much to discuss. Finally, I liked the way Fossum talked about Eva’s artistic process more than I like Louise Penny in the Three Pines series. I could picture Eva’s paintings more vividly than I could Penny’s character’s works.

Other reviews appear in Euro Crime, Reactions to Reading, and Crime Fiction Lover.


Death in Oslo by Anne Holt

deathinosloDeath in Oslo by Anne Holt, translated by Kari Dickson

Vik and Stubo book 3

Sphere, 2009

Originally published as Presidentens valg, 2006

I bought my copy of the book.

Death in Oslo is kind of a misleading title: this book is about the disappearance of the United States’s first female president during her first state visit of her presidency, which happens to be in Oslo. Holt alternates perspectives in every chapter, and it’s a pretty large cast of characters, including the return of Hanne Wilhelmsen, who still remains my favorite Holt character.

I bought this book because I’m an Anne Holt completist, not necessarily because I was interested in the disappearance of the first female president of the United States in Oslo. I tend to prefer books that aren’t in the broad-government-conspiracy/ international-conspiracy realm, and I liked the character through-lines in the Vik and Stubo and Hanne Wilhelmsen series a lot more than I liked the investigation in this particular book. Holt wrote the book in 2006, imagining a world where George W. Bush was not reelected in 2004. It’s a bit hard to read because the criticisms of the US Patriot Act and government surveillance feel old now (and they haven’t hanged much since this book was written).

Holt knows how to serialize: I get just enough tidbits about Vik and Wilhelmsen to keep me reading these books, as difficult as they can be to find. Ultimately, the conspiracy storyline wasn’t my favorite because the antagonists were sketched pretty broadly, but I liked the pacing and I liked most of the characters. I’m looking forward to The Lion’s Mouth and Dead Joker in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series.

Other reviews appear in Scandinavian Crime Fiction and DJ’s Krimiblog.