Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

I’m an avid reader of thrillers. I read both ‘stand-alone’ novels but also the increasingly popular format of a primary character that features in a series of books.

I am particularly keen – once I have found a character I can empathise with – to read them all, but the main proviso has to be that I read them in the correct order! So, it was with some trepidation that I read “Persons Unknown” as it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t starting off with a new series – Missing, Presumed had already been published featuring the main character Manon Bradshaw.

Most of the time though, even if you start out of sequence it doesn’t really matter as authors have a tendency to hark back to previous cases or anecdotal information that brings you up-to-date on past relationships and any prior connections through historical cases.

CoverI had just started the first chapter when serendipity arrived in the guise of a library borrower wanting a reserve placed on the same book. The customer started telling me what a great book the first one had been and how she was looking forward to receiving/reading this next one. Well, you can’t get a higher recommendation than that! Actually, you can, as when I went to check out the first book Missing, Presumed I found every copy was out on loan!

Persons Unknown has a contemporary UK setting with several well-defined characters investigating a murder in Cambridgeshire which in turn leads back to the ‘wheeling and dealing’, bribery and corruption of high finance in London with its attendant pimps, high-class prostitutes and assorted recreational drugs adding inducements to major players in these corrupt dealings.

As if all of the above were not intricately woven into the complicated plot, Susie Steiner also manages to integrate a number of social issues via her main protagonist, Manon, a middle-aged woman who has adopted a pre-teen black kid but still wants to experience motherhood first-hand and meet, if not Mr Right, then at least Mr ‘I’m happy to be with you whatever the circumstances’.

Manon’s professional and personal life implode when both her adopted son, Fly and her sister, Ellie, are found to have known the murder victim and become police suspects themselves.

This is very much a character-driven novel – Manon’s personal and professional problems, hopes and fears resonate with the reader and you want her to succeed — not only in solving the case but also salvaging her precarious relationship with Fly, who is experiencing racial and institutional injustices and will no doubt be defined by these hugely negative experiences.

After such a riveting read I’m now going to go back to when it all began a few years earlier…

Persons Unknown
by Susie Steiner
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 978-0-00-812334-5

Fife-ing it up with Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin was born in Fife. I was born in Fife. Ian Rankin studied at Edinburgh University. I studied at Edinburgh University. Ian Rankin writes successful, suspenseful and gritty crime fiction. Nope, nothing. But I am most affirmatively a mahoosive fan-lassie for his thrillers set in the Athens of the North a.k.a. Edinburgh and featuring Mr Booze John Rebus.

Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin
Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0127

Last night Christchurch played host to Ian Rankin as the opening event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season and it was a full house at the Charles Luney Auditorium of St Margaret’s College. It was also a slightly more blokey audience than most book events attract, albeit it in a very metro, groomed and grizzled with grey fashion. Marcus Elliott, the Christchurch coroner, was asking the probing questions.

Rankin claims most crime writers would rather be rock stars than writers. Aged 12 he created a band called The Amoebas. With no musical ability himself – and no friends who actually wanted to be in a band – The Amoebas were entirely fictitious, but Rankin still managed to create world tour itineraries, lyrics for top 10 hits and music press interviews.

Writers are shy, nerdy kids who create worlds

he said, and while for most people the adult world draws a halt to childish imagination, for writers it keeps going. Rebus is his imaginary friend, but one who wouldn’t like Rankin in the real world. Rankin claimed Rebus would label him “a wishy-washy liberal”.

The first Rebus novel, Knot and Crosses is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Rankin said the character of Rebus leapt “fully formed” into his head. He didn’t entirely realise he was writing a crime novel and was a little perturbed to see what he thought was the next great Scottish novel appearing in the then “not sexy” crime section of his local bookstore.

He was aware early on he needed help with creating an authentic police world and wrote to the then Lothian Police to get some advice. He was also briefly a suspect in a missing person/murder case!

Asked if he counted policeman amongst his fans, Rankin said “weirdly yes”. Everyone likes a maverick and Rebus is his own man but also on the right side. His novels represent authentic investigations but with all the boring bits taken out, a streamlined version of a real investigation.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin: Writing Rebus. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0140

Rankin added that keeping the series fresh wasn’t too challenging as Edinburgh, Scotland and Rebus had all changed. Rebus has retired, and after years of booze, fags and fried food, his body is starting to wind down. Rankin has recently gifted Rebus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) but added he needs to work hard at remembering new story elements, for example he forgot he’d written in a pet dog for Rebus and then had to re-write and add the pooch in later!

Rankin said he likes to explore different social issues and each novel starts with a theme: immigration, people trafficking, xenophobia, banking crisis or business scam – but he is mindful that he also needs to create an exciting read. He says he doesn’t plan too much and sometimes the ending changes because the narrative knows better and he has to “trust to the muse”. All his books end before the criminal trial because, he says, he knows nothing about the Scottish criminal system and is too lazy to do the research.

Marcus Elliott asked about the TV versions of Rebus, and Rankin said there was early interest from the actor Leslie Grantham better known as Dirty Den of Eastenders’ fame. Later the BBC wanted the rather rotund Robbie Coltrane to play Rebus, and Rankin was like “Jesus you know he (Rebus) was in the SAS”! He recently got the rights back and would like to see them filmed in a more leisurely Scandi-style rather than the breakneck a-novel-condensed-to-an-hour speed of the ITV series. Writer, and fellow Fifer Gregory Burke is involved and the actor Ken Stott may even reprise his role.

There was time for a few questions from the audience, and it was the usual mixed bag with questions that aren’t questions and some sneaky self-aggrandisement. Rankin was asked about his love for the music of the late Jackie Leven, a prolific Scottish singer-songwriter, who he collaborated with on a CD and series of stage performances. He was also asked how he researches and makes authentic the criminals that appear in his fiction. He has spent time in prisons particularly through literacy in prison programmes, but was recently shocked when a fan described his recurring crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty as a “big, huggable, loveable bear of a guy”. He fears he has perhaps over-identified with Big Ger and is going to make him horrible again.

The session started to wind up but Rankin still had time to apologise for Donald Trump being half-Scots and to warn us of the seething rage and stabby darkness carried inside romantic fiction writers. This was a witty and polished session with truck loads of well-executed anecdotes and crime fiction insights.

Ian Rankin signs book
Ian Rankin. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0150

Sleuths and Spies day

sleuths and spies

Put on your gum shoes, trench coat and fedora and come along to our Sleuths and Spies fun day on Saturday the 29th of October at Central Library Peterborough!

Get your magnifying glass ready to crack our secret codes and puzzles, follow clues to solve a mystery, test your dexterity on the laser beam course and discover how crimes are solved at our forensics station. Science Alive! will also be there with “Science Snippets: Spies and Secret Messages” between 1.30 and 2.30pm, so come as your favourite spy or detective and follow the clues to 91 Peterborough Street.

But don’t worry: if you’ve misplaced your deerstalker hat then you can use our photobooth to create a disguise on the day!

In the meantime check out some of our favourite spy and mystery fiction for kids and teens:

Cover of Precious and the MonkeysCover of A Pocket full of MurderCover of Liar & SpyCover of A Spy in the House

It’s not vegetating, it’s enriching – honest! Binge watching TV

I’ve recently become a convert to ‘binge watching’ television series. Instead of the days where you had to watch an episode a week of your favourite drama, waiting desperately for Sunday night to roll around again,  there are so many ways you can set some time aside and watch episode after episode. The Guitar Man and I like to watch 2-3 at a time for a few nights in a row. Three such series we’ve watched recently that you can get from Christchurch City Libraries in boxed sets, are Peaky Blinders, Outlander and Hinterland.

Dinosaurs relax watching TV
Dinovember display at New Brighton Library, November 2014. Flickr CCL-2014-11-05-DinovemberNB-DSC.JPG

These are all very different and interesting in their own ways:

Peaky Blinders is a tale of gangs on the gritty streets of Birmingham after the First World War. It stars not only Cillian Murphy, he of the startling blues eyes and chiselled features, but our own Sam Neill, with a very impressive Northern Ireland accent. It’s a fascinating watch and one thing I enjoyed was the lack of ‘Game of Thrones’ gratuitous violence and random sex scenes. It’s gritty all right, but not excessive. There are strong women together with men both damaged by war and desperate to make better lives, in any way possible.

You think I’m a whore? Everyone’s a whore Grace, we just sell different parts of ourselves.

Outlander is a television adaption of the Diana Gabaldon series of books of the same name.  I’ve not read the books, as romantic history is not usually my bag, but it proved to be quite a riveting series, full of Scottish highland scenery, intrigue, romance, fights, and enough hearty men in kilts to keep anyone into hearty men in kilts happy. I also find you can never go wrong with a Scottish accent.

Hinterland is a gritty bleak murder mystery series, set, not in Scandinavia as all my favourite ones have been lately, such as The Killing and The Bridge, but in Aberystwyth, Wales. Interestingly, it is the first series to be filmed in both English and Welsh, with two different versions made. Each scene was done in English, then immediately in Welsh for the first time ever. Sadly, my Welsh leaves a little to be desired, so I only saw the English version. Wales does bleak very well and Tom Mathias, is a troubled DCI with a mystery past. It’s tightly scripted with great characters, but some of the crime scenes were a little bloody and graphic, just a heads up if you’re not into that sort of thing.

With the winter dragging on, perhaps a little binge watching is in order. Do you have some favourites?

In praise of the cuddly detective

Cover of The Lewis manHow do you like your detectives?  These days you have a choice – and it boils down to full cream and frothy or black and bitter.

That is: fat or thin.

For some time now the lure of the thin, fraught, whisky drinking, cigarette smoking, dark and brooding detective has held sway. Their love lives are a shambles, they have few friends, long memories for cold cases and, coincidentally, they almost always work in bleak, sleety climates and in landscapes that feature a lot of rocks. Like Inspector Lewis in Peter May‘s Lewis Trilogy, or Michael Connelly‘s Harry Bosch (tough, complex and unflinching) and Karin Slaughter‘s Will Trent who has: more issues than you can shake a stick at.

Cover of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective AgencyAnd then along came Alexander McCall Smith‘s Precious Ramotswe and her The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Set in hot, dry Botswana, Mma Ramotswe (fuelled by tea and biscuits), runs a cheerful establishment in pursuit of Botswana’s criminals. With a happy home life and a healthy appetite, she was the forerunner (in 1998) of a  whole slew of fat, happy detectives.

Like Dr Siri, the plump State Coroner in Laos, who solves exceedingly grisly murders with the help of a motley crew, a wife, a best friend and a good supply of favourite foods. Colin Cotterill has won numerous crime writing awards; his most recent offering is The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die.

Still in the Tropics: Tarquin Hall‘s Vish Puri solves multiple cases in between Cover of The Case of the Deadly Butter Chickenepisodes of gluttony. The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken would have you believe that is all there is to his writing, but like any good Indian meal, there are a number of accompanying side dishes and perplexing red herrings.

Finally there is Inspector Singh, a fat Sikh who works in South East Asia. The parallels are all there: the heat, the food, the marriage. But Inspector Singh is quite a prickly gent who  hasn’t endeared himself to his superiors. So he is allocated all the cases in far-flung outposts in Cambodia, Bali and Malaysia. And of course, he hates to fly.

I hope you never have to choose a Detective Inspector in real life. But, when you are cosied up in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night with a good murder mystery, will your detective be cuddly or sinewy?

Take your pick.

 

Curling up with a good murder

coverWe’re a bloodthirsty lot if our TV viewing and reading habits are any indication. A recent survey of British crime novels found that the average body count per book last year was 8.38 and it seems to me that they get through that many in a CSI episode (with plenty of .38s floating around in the form of spare hands and feet).

What is it that draws us to murder and mayhem as a form of recreation? There have been all sorts of theories. These range from the Freudian idea that we need to sublimate our own violent impulses to the more obscure idea that we want to assign motivations to other people. Kate Summerscale, author of that wonderful exploration of the origins of both real and fictional detection The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, sees it as a comforting genre in which the detective goes into a scene of chaos and lays it to rest.

I’m in agreement with her. It seems to me that the more chaotic and threatening our environment becomes, the more TV crime shows fill our screens, and crime novels fly off library shelves. Deep down we want to believe there is someone out there of superhuman intelligence/terrifyingly clever technology/obsessive dedication, who is battling to sort it all out for us.

Perhaps that is why I can think of nothing better to do in the coming winter days than to curl up in front of a roaring fire (ok a whirring heat pump) with a good mystery. Vying for my attention at the moment are, the fast paced and entertaining Surrender by Donna Malane and set in Wellington, Ice Princess by Swedish writer Camilla Lackberg and a traditional British police whodunnit Water Like Stone by Deborah Crombie.

I have some more lined up on my “for later” shelves in the new BiblioCommons catalogue and I have my eye on these lists to keep me going till spring:

Why do YOU read detective fiction?

Siri Paiboun and the case of the dire author photo

I’m in the midst of an obsession.. with a fictional 73 year old Laotian, the star of Colin Cotterill’s mystery series set in post-1975 revolution Laos. Dr Siri Paiboun is the national coroner, kind but cynical, dedicated but often disillusioned. With no budget or lab equipment and no previous experience either in forensics or detecting, Siri and his loyal assistants Nurse Dtui (Fatty) and Mr Geung have prevailed in a number of tricky cases featuring murderous evil spirits, corrupt Communist officials and a virgin-slaying serial killer.

These titles have been marketed in America as being in a similar vein to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana based Mma Ramotswe novels. Like Smith, Cotterill’s tone is humorous and his characters warm and engaging; Siri however is clearer eyed than Precious Ramotswe. He recognises the deficiencies in the new Laos and being a natural-born rebel and risk-taker he delights in subverting the system. These titles are also less static; Siri and his cronies spend lots of time bouncing about in rustbucket trucks and death-trap motorbikes on the sub-standard roads of Laos tracking down dirty, rotten criminal-types.

Now on title six in this series, The merry misogynist, Cotterill’s book jacket author photos have also been an evolving delight. The Coroner’s lunch featured Cotterill in what look like Thai silk pjs and a highly dubious moustache. The tashe remained in varied forms through the next few titles but his latest photo shows him clean shaven and clad in non-silky garments…whew. Rubbish author photos aside, these novels are a delight. Fast and funny, and with a novel locale they are well worth a read.

“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive”

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes

With these immortal words the public were introduced to the most famous of double acts: that of Mr Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H. Watson. They remain as popular as ever with the Victorian setting enhancing rather than diminishing their appeal.

 Since their appearance in 1887, they have been portrayed by formidable actors. Many swear by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, although the latter’s portayal of Watson as a bumbling, aged idiot has its critics.

A more impressive couple on Granada TV were Jeremy Brett with firstly, David Burke and then Edward Hardwicke. Unfortunately, Brett became too obsessed with the role and along with the demands of work made him severely ill. The need to shoot around his later absences made some of the later TV episodes disappointing and confusing. However, it must be stressed that they are still more than watchable.

The definitve pair  has to be (and I will brook no opposition) …

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