If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit. Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked […]
When a little free library opened a few weeks ago in my village I absolutely had to take a gander. With shops and libraries closed, this was the only way I could indulge in my favourite hobby of book browsing.
I thought I would come away empty handed but then, tucked away behind the multiple copies of James Patterson and John Grisham novels, I found two slim volumes by M C Beaton.
I’ve never read any of her Agatha Raisin series and probably wouldn’t have been tempted except it just so happened I was in the mood for something not too demanding.
Wit And Humour
And that’s exactly what I got. Book 1, Agatha Raisin And The Quiche of Death, and Book 13, Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate are both delightful escapist novels. I thought I would be mildly entertained but I wasn’t expecting to encounter books that were full of such sharp wit or to feature such an enjoyable non-PC character.
It’s the character of Agatha Raisin, a retired PR queen turned amateur sleuth. that makes the difference in this series. She’s absolutely the star of the show. Without her we’d just have pretty cottages, slightly amusing mysteries (nothing too gory or nasty) and quaint village traditions.
Agatha is definitely not in the Miss Marple mode. Instead of a neatly dressed, quietly spoken amateur sleuth with an acute understanding of human nature we get a brash and prickly career woman.
As the series opens, Agatha has decided to sell up her public relations company and move to a picturesque cottage in the Cotswolds. Accustomed to the buzz of parties and launches, she finds rural life is harder than she imagines. The locals in the village of Carsley are not hostile but don’t go out of their way to welcome her or include her in their social circle. Without friends and work, she quickly becomes bored.
No one asked her for tea. No one showed any curiosity about her whatsoever. The vicar did not even call/ In an Agatha Christie book the vicar would have called, not to mention some retired colonel and his wife. All conversation seemed limited to ‘Mawnin’, ‘Afternoon’, or talk about the weather. For the first time in her life, she knew loneliness, and it frightened her.
To stamp her mark on the village she decides to ingratiate herself with the locals to enter the annual ‘Great Quiche Competition’ . Never having baked anything in her life, she resorts to cheating, buying her ‘entry’ from an expensive London delicatessen. Unfortunately the competition judge dies after tasting her quiche. Agatha’s duplicity is revealed. Shame turns to anger when she is blamed for his death. It spurs her to turn detective and find the murderer herself.
Her methods are unorthodox and she finds herself in more than one scrape before the crime is solved. It’s great fun watching this woman’s inept attempts at detection and all the false trails she follows.
When I caught up with her again in Agatha Raisin And The Case Of The Curious Curate, it was to find that she’d become a fixture in the village. In the intervening years she’d married (twice). Husband number two has just dumped her; the launch she took on as a freelance project turned out to be dull and even her beloved London had lost its sparkle. So it’s back to the Cotswolds and those microwave meals for one.
Bumbling Detective In High Heels
The arrival of a new curate in Carsley is just the tonic she needs. Even though “she swore she would never be interested in a man again” Tristan Delon is a golden-haired, blue-eyed dish. He has all the ladies in Caswell swooning over him. After an intimate dinner for two in his flat, Agatha falls for his charms. she begins to dream of an exciting new adventure with a toy boy. Her dream doesn’t last long – the very next day the curate is found dead.
When the eye of suspicion turns on the Vicar, the husband of her best friend, Agatha sets off once more on the trail of a murderer. What follows is often hilarious as Agatha bumbles around following up on clues, worming information out of people and annoying the local police force.
Just like The Quiche of Death, in The Case Of The Curious Curate, MC Beaton delivers some deliciously funny scenes. Agatha has a penchant for causing mayhem as she lurches from one theory to another. Though she is so often rude and forceful, by the end of each novel, I did find myself warming to her. I loved the image of this champion of justice fretting about her weight before bunging another high calorie meal into the microwave before heading off in high heels and tight skirt, to do battle with the villain behind net curtains.
Would I read another book in the series? I might do if I were ever feeling a bit down in the dumps and in need of a pure entertainment. I have a feeling they would work really well as audiobooks so I’ll have to look out for them via my library’s digital service.
The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was the beginning of the end for one of the world’s most repressive intelligence and secret police agencies. For decades the Stasi spied on the population of East Germany using a vast network of informants to infiltrate every aspect of their lives and root out dissidents.
David Young provides a sinister reminder of this organisation and its methods in Stasi Child, the first title in a crime series set during the era of the Cold War.
On a cold winter morning in 1975, Oberleutnant Karin Müller, senior detective with the East German police force, is summoned to the Wall where the mutilated body of a young girl has been discovered. The official Stasi line is that the girl was shot trying to escape to the West but Müller quickly realises all is not as it seems. She’s particularly troubled to be told her inquiry should focus on discovering the identity of the girl rather than the identity of her killer.
Truth is Impossible
Müller’s quest for the truth takes her on a clandestine trip into West Berlin, up snow-laden mountains and down into a secret tunnel running under the East-West border. At every turn she feels the dark and sinister presence of the Stasi. Their interest in her activities not only threatens to derail her investigation, it makes her fear for her future.
With tremendous attention to detail, Stasi Child shows the near impossibility of uncovering the truth in a society determined at all costs to prevent certain secrets ever being discovered.
Karin Müller is a savvy operator and a forceful character – you have to be pretty darn smart to become the highest ranking woman in the Volkspolizei. But she is not immune to the reality that in this society, her job, her security and her life are at risk if she is seen to over-step her authority or persue unhelpful lines of inquiry. Her vulnerability increases still further when her schoolteacher husband, is arrested after surveillance showed him meeting a a church pastor suspected of anti-communist beliefs.
Question of Trust
This is a world where your neighbour can be ‘persuaded’ to become state informers, citizens are sent for ‘re-education’ in Communist values and young people made to endure the harsh regimes of state reform schools.
The bleakness of life in East Germany permeates the entire novel. For the citizens of East Berlin, the west is tantalisingly close but they’re not sure it is necessarily better. Can they trust what they have been told or is this yet another example of distorted truth.
As they entered the checkpoint, Muller glanced up the road past the barriers to the bustle of West Berlin beyond. She wondered if it really was as glamorous as the adverts on western TV made out. Or were Der schwarze Kanal’s accounts of strikes, homeless unemployed begging on the streets and ruthless greedy bosses nearer the truth?
One night in West Berlin opens Karin Muller’s eyes to the realities of life in the west. As part of her investigation she’s required to go shopping and to spend the night in a hotel. She relishes the variety and quality of the clothing available though is horrified by the cost. Once that geni is out of the bag it’s difficult to put it back in again.
In the office, she allowed herself one reminder of the West. She piled the shopping bags on the long table, under the noticeboard, and then lifted out the large shoebox that contained the boots. She opened it, and peeled back the protective tissue paper. Then she removed one boot, and caressed the fur-lined top, as though stroking a cat. A small touch of luxury. Then she looked up at the photographs pinned to the noticeboard. The dead, nameless girl without teeth. The girl without eyes.
Müller dropped the fur-lined boot as though it was infected.
The ambiguity of attitudes plus the atmospheric setting of the novel make Stasi Child stand apart from the thousands of police procedurals published ever year. The plot is satisfying enough, with plenty of twists and revelations though it’s not overly complicated. There’s added interest via another narrative strand from nine months earlier in a reform school where a teenage girl plots how she and her friend can escape. Karin Muller is a character whose vulnerability yet determination is engaging. But it’s really the dark portrayal of a society controlled by fear that was utterly gripping.
Stasi Child: EndNotes
Stasi Child is the debut novel by David Young which won the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Endeavour Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2016 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. He explains the origin of his series in this interview
There are now four novels in the series with a fifth, Stasi Winter, due to be published in January 2020.
David Young became an author after a career in journalism and broadcasting. He now writes in his garden shed and in his spare time supports Hull City football club.
Today marked yet another attempt to bring some order to the chaos of my book collection. Thanks to a mini cull I can see some space on the bookshelves which is just as well because the piles on the floor are in danger of toppling.
Every time I do this exercise I make a discovery about my stock of “owned but unread” books. Today’s discovery was that I own a load more crime fiction novels than I expected.
It’s a surprise because, though I’m partial to a little crime fiction from time to time, I’ve never considered myself a huge fan.
I view them as entertaining, something I enjoy at the time, but not the kind of book that makes me think or that lingers in my mind long after I’ve got to the final page. Most of them are so forgettable that, were you to ask me to describe a particular book, I’d be in difficulties.
Those I do recall are memorable because the characterisation is sharp, the setting evocative and the narrative deals with interesting issues. Hence why I enjoy Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series so much.
Given all this, how have I ended up owning 22 crime fiction books?
Fortunately I can turn to the spreadsheet where I record all my purchases and acquisitions (gifts, donations, ARCs etc) to find some answers.
Completing A Series
A few are parts of a series I’ve been following. That accounts for my copies of Nature Of The Beast and Bury Your Dead which are part of the series by Louise Penny I mentioned earlier.
It also accounts for In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. It’s the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series and I enjoyed the first None So Blind so much I had to get the follow up. I do need to read this soon however because there is a third book Those Who Can due out in May 2020.
Earlier this year I started reading a series by Abir Mukherjeeset in India at the time of the Raj. I must have been convinced this would be good because even before I read book one, A Rising Man, I had already bought books 2 and 3 and have an ARC of the fourth.
Who Can Resist A Bargain?
I can’t, at least not when it comes to books.
I volunteer at a National Trust property which runs a second hand bookshop as a way of raising funds. So of course every time I report for duty I just have to have a peek at the most recent donations.
The prices are ridiculously low – just £1 will get you a paperback in good condition (the volunteers who run the shop vet everything before it goes on the shelves). So hard to resist…..
Which is how I acquired two books by Jane Harper: The Dry and The Lost Man, both of which a friend had highly recommended.
A “two for the price of one” offer at The Works brought me Stasi Child, a debut novel by David Young which has won several awards. What attracted my interest was that it is set in the former East Germany during the time of the Cold War. I also bought the follow up Stasi Wolf.
I have a set of three books by Alexander Wilson that came as a discounted bundle from The Book People. Wilson was one of the pen names of Alexander Joseph Patrick “Alec” Wilson, an English spy and MI6 officer. I’ve no idea about the quality of the books; maybe their plots won’t be as interesting as the real life story of the author. After his death in 1963 he was discovered to have been a serial bigamist but then questions began about the true nature of his intelligence work.
There are some books I bought purely on the strength of reviews from other bloggers, mentions in social media and the occasional newspaper review. Unfortunately I failed to record the exact source of the recommendation – something I shall try to remedy with any future purchases.
Into this category falls Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama which revolves around the disappearance of two teenage girls 14 years apart. It was published with considerable buzz in 2018. It’s a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.
I also have Lewis Man by Peter May which is clearly a mistake because it’s book number one in a trilogy and I don’t have book one. So now I have to decide whether to go back to the beginning and add yet another title to my shelves…..
It’s going to take me a few years to work my way through all of these because I’ll space them out among other genres. If you’re a crime fiction expert maybe you can help me decide which of these to read first? And if there are any titles here that I could maybe give away…..
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee
A Rising Man is the tremendously absorbing book that opens Abir Mukherjee’s vivid crime series set in colonial era India.
Mukherjee astutely delivers all the features you expect in a crime novel; (the carefully constructed plot, multiple false leads and dramatic incidents. But it’s the strong political and historical dimension that makes this murder mystery a highly entertaining read.
A Rising Man is set in 1919; a time when the splendour of the British Empire is beginning to fade in India. Political dissent is rising, the Quit India movement is gaining ground and a Hindu lawyer called Gandhi is advocating mass disobedience against new, more repressive British laws.
In the midst of this political maelstrom Captain Sam Wyndham arrives to take up a new position with the Imperial Police Force. It’s meant to be a fresh start for the former Scotland Yard detective. He survived the trenches of World War 1 but his hopes of a happy life were destroyed when his wife of only a few weeks, died from influenza.. Now the only way he can get through life is with a dose of morphine or opium.
Almost immediately on arrival in Calcutta he is plunged into an investigation into the brutal murder of a British burra sahib. It appears to be a politically motivated crime. For stuffed into the mouth of the dead man is a note: “No more warnings. English blood will run in the streets. Quit India!”
The Conflict Of A Good Man
As his investigation proceeds, Wyndham, described as “a good man upholding a corrupt system”, is forced to make a choice between the necessity of maintaining law and order and his belief in the primacy of justice.
This is a man who is thoroughly disillusioned with the Empire and its assumption of moral superiority. What he sees in India is how the assumption enables third-rate business men and pen pushers to become wealthy and powerful while ignoring the poverty and filth of local inhabitants. “[T]he days were empty,” Wyndham says at the beginning of A Rising Man, “and the nights populated by the cries of the dead, which nothing could extinguish.
His second in command, Digby, is typical of the attitudes Wyndham encounters among fellow guests at his lodging house or in the military intelligence community. Digby has no qualms about the right of the British to rule and has nothing but disdain for the Indians. He is dismissive of the third member of the team – Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee – as “apparently one of the finest new additions to His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force … God help us.”
Fresh Take On Fictional Detective Team
The relationship between Wyndham and “Surrender-Not” is one of the reasons A Rising Man is such a delight to read. They are an odd pair. Wyndham is a somewhat jaundiced, hard drinking man of action while Banerjee is a shy, earnest man who looks “more poet than policeman”. But they are united in their discomfort about the Empire and its future in India.
Through these two individuals Abir Mukerjee explores the complex dynamics of colonial Anglo-Indian relationships and the interaction between the oppressor and the oppressed. Surrender-Not forces Wyndham to realise that no matter how much he tries to shake off the British sense of superiority, he still falls short. After Surrender-Not saves his life he reflects:
I felt embarrassed. I was indebted to him, but somehow found it hard to say “thank you.” That was the thing about India. It’s difficult for an Englishman to thank an Indian. Of course, it’s easy enough to thank them when they do something menial, like fetch a drink or clean your boots, but when it comes to more important matters, such as when one of them saves your life, it’s different. The thought left a bitter taste in my mouth.
The relationship between Mukerjee and his assistant is a clever spin on the usual cop and side-kick formula. By the end of the novel they have moved into an apartment together (an arrangement that will surely raise eyebrows among the British) but you still sense that clashes of opinions lie ahead.
A Rising Man is an impressive first novel. Mukerjee’s colonial world is very well drawn contrasting the silver domed splendour of Government House and impressive buildings of Calcutta’s White Town with the open sewers and crowded alley ways of its Black Town district.
This vivid portrayal of a city combined with the fascinating historical background and some enticing flesh and blood characters, made this a completely absorbing book. I’m really looking forward to the next in the series.
A Rising Man: Fast Facts
Abir Mukherjee grew up in the west of Scotland. His love of crime fiction began when a friend introduced him to Gorky Park.
His debut novel, A Rising Man , was inspired by his desire to learn more about the India of his family. It won the Harvill Secker / Daily Telegraph crime writing competition in 2014. Since its publication, Abir Mukherjee has gone on to publish three more novels in the Wyndham and Banerjee series.
A Necessary Evil, set in 1920. It won the Wilbur Smith Prize for Adventure Writing in 2018. You can read part of the opening chapter here
Smoke and Ashes published in 2019 was chosen by the Sunday Times as one of the 100 Best Crime & Thriller Novels since 1945. Read the opening here
Death In The East will be published on November 14, 2019. It takes Captain Wyndham to Assam where he hopes time at an ashram will cure his opium addiction. He encounters a face from the past, a man he thought was long dead. Wyndham believes his life is in danger.