historical fiction · mystery · review

The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag

Trigger warning for extreme violence and sexual sadism.

About two years ago, I heard someone say that they didn’t like a book because it put thoughts in her head that she didn’t want polluting hear brain. After reading The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag, I now know exactly what she felt like. This novel is almost relentlessly vile, as character after character is shown to be violent, duplicitous, or sadistic. There are almost no good people in this book and lots of very bad things happen to just about everyone. It is as if someone took the author aside and said, look, people like dark books, so go and write the darkest, grimmest, nastiest things your brain can come up with. That’s what reading The Wolf and the Watchman is like.

The novel begins with two children hauling Stockholm watchman, Mikel Cardell (violent), out of his drunk and take him to a body found in an open sewer. Cardell retrieves the body, only to find that it is entirely limbless, with its eyes, tongue, and teeth removed. When dying former lawyer-turned-detective Cecil Winge (manipulative) finds out about the case, he wants to solve it and asks Cardell to be his partner. Once Cardell is beaten up in a sure sign that the pair are on to something and they both discover the incredibly awful fate of their murder victim, we are taking on a long side trip to learn about the last months of Kristopher Blix (a naive coward who really will do anything to save his skin) and learn how Anna Stina Knapp became a woman willing to do shockingly awful things to stay out of the workhouse.

The side trips are relevant, but it takes a while to understand how they’re related to the overall plot—especially Anna Stina’s story. It’s only in the last quarter of the book that we rejoin Cardell and Winge for a series of hairpin plot twists and even more appalling revelations as they finally discover who their victim was and how he came to be floating in sewage.

I was drawn to The Wolf and the Watchman because of its setting. I clearly am a sucker for places and times I haven’t yet visited in fiction. This book was also described as The Alienist in Sweden and I just couldn’t resist. I wish I had. This book is not among the best of the Scandinoir tradition; it’s not even among the second best. The characters give unnatural speeches. The motive behind the main crime is implausible and convoluted. And all of this is on top of almost 400 pages of relentless inhumanity. I don’t recommend it at all.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

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mystery · review · thriller

The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths

One of the most repeated pieces of anecdata I hear in higher education is that English majors are highly employable in all sorts of fields. I’m sure most of us end up as teachers, librarians, editors, and writers. But, after reading The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, I’m wondering if English majors might not also make very good detectives. We’re taught to read between the lines of what people are telling us and to recognize that everything is a narrative with an agenda behind it. Plus, it’s sure handy to be able to spot the source of literary quotes left by a multiple murderer.

The Stranger Diaries is narrated by three women who are all keeping secrets from each other and who all, more or less, distrust one another. Clare Cassidy is our first narrator. She teaches English at a comprehensive school in Sussex that also happens to be housed in the same building as a Victorian author (fictional) she loves. Then, after Clare’s friend is brutally murdered, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur takes over. Kaur doesn’t care much for Clare—not only does Clare strike Kaur as a bit self-centered but Kaur also knows (and so do we) that Clare is hiding useful information. In spite of her initial dislike of Clare, Kaur is a very good detective who remembers her English literature and, more importantly, how to stay suspicious when people tell their stories. Our third narrator is Clare’s daughter, Georgia. Georgia, like all teenagers everywhere, believes that she knows enough about the world that she has to shelter her mother from her burgeoning coven and unsuitably older boyfriend.

The three take turns telling an increasingly complicated—and very well-plotted—mystery. There are plenty of plausible suspects. There are red herrings that may or may not be red herrings, each ratcheting up the tension another notch. Best of all (at least for me and bookish readers) there are metafictional elements and quotes from The Tempest and The Woman in White to enjoy. Plus, Griffiths includes passages from the Victorian writer’s best known story, “The Stranger,” to make things even more spooky.

I really enjoyed The Stranger Diaries. I didn’t mind bouncing around from prickly narrator to prickly narrator. I loved using my English major skills to work out what all of them were doing and thinking as they all followed different agendas and different breadcrumbs of clues: it’s a lot of fun to be the only person with perspective. I would definitely recommend The Stranger Diaries to readers who like literary mysteries with complicated-but-ultimately-logical conclusions.

P.S.: The dog lives.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

mystery · review

In the Dark, by Cara Hunter

In the Dark is the second novel in Cara Hunter’s DI Adam Fawley series, but I was able to dive right into this twisty, fiendish mystery. The mystery is definitely the thing here. The novel kicks off with a bang as an impatient new home owner takes his frustration out on a damp-damaged wall between his house and his neighbor’s. The man gets the shock of his life when he discovers that a dehydrated, hungry young woman and her toddler son have been imprisoned on the other side.

In the Dark is, as I mentioned above, a series entry. The name of the series led me to expect that I would be in DI Fawley’s head for most, if not all, of the novel—but that is far from the case. Instead, Hunter includes scenes featuring the other detectives in Fawley’s team, BBC and local news stories, texts, police interviews, and witness statements. I loved the way this novel is told because a) I enjoyed being a detective in my own right and b) it added even more twists and turns to an already complicated (but always plausible) mystery.

And this is definitely a twisty novel. The early evidence leads us to believe that the owner of the house where the girl and her child were imprisoned had kidnapped the woman two or three years before the novel opened. The owner of the house is suffering from dementia and it’s impossible to get much out of him except verbal venom. His social worker didn’t have a clue and he had no family. Even though Fawley and Co., have enough of their plates in trying to figure out who the young woman is and what really happened, Fawley notices that the accused’s house is directly behind the home of a woman who went missing two years earlier and was never found.

Saying any more would definitely ruin this dark, fascinating mystery. I didn’t see any of the twists coming but, in the end, it all made a terrible kind of sense. The only thing I can safely say is that this book ends up in a completely different place from where I expected. The more I read, the deeper In the Dark got its hooks into me. I really, really liked it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

historical fiction · mystery · review

Evil Things, by Katja Ivar

Some settings seem tailor-made for sinister plots. Mid-twentieth century Finland, as portrayed in Katja Ivar’s series debut Evil Things, is clearly one of them. The small towns near the Soviet border are economically and emotionally depressed; cold, dark, and wet; and full of people who definitely want to be left alone. It’s not the sort of place to welcome one of the country’s first woman detectives. 

Prickly Hella Mauzer has been exiled to remote Finnish town for unclear but definitely sexist reasons. Every time she tries to do something more than the most boring police work, Hella is shut down. It’s only through clever manipulation that she gets a reluctant okay from her boss to investigate the disappearance of an old man in an even more remote village closer to the Soviet Border. The village priest’s wife had sent in a letter to the station, asking for someone to come out. Not only is a man missing, but his young grandson is without a guardian and has refused to ask questions about what happened.

Evil Things shifts between Hella’s perspective and that of the priest’s wife, Irja. Not only do we get a few clues and a few red herring to keep the plot ticking over, we also get to dive deeply into Hella and Irja’s psyches. Hella is angry at the pervasive demeaning sexism, so much so that she attempts to act brusque and matter of fact when what she wants to do is shake people until their teeth rattle until they admit that she’s right. Irja is quieter, but no less of a chameleon. While she’s attempting to be the perfect priest’s wife, Irja is hiding heartbreak over her own lost child and her subverted ambitions.

It’s fortunate that there is so much character development, at least for the protagonists, because the plot goes in weird directions as Hella investigates. I don’t exactly like it, because I really wanted the book to go in a more traditional, Scandi-noir direction instead of the thriller-ish direction it ultimately takes. If nothing else, I appreciated that character development and the author’s attention to detail in creating the tiny village where most of the action takes place.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

alternate history · mystery

Golden State, by Ben H. Winters

Laszlo Ratesic, the protagonist of Ben H. Winter’s thought-provoking alternate history novel, Golden State, has a strange ability. Like other members of the Speculative Service, he can sense lies. He reacts to anything more than a figure of speech or a little white lie as though he has an allergy. Lies make him physically ill. This ability makes him an important law enforcement officer because his post-Apocalyptic state depends on every citizen telling the truth all the time. But, humans being humans, there are still liars and they are about to seriously bruise Laszlo’s sense of reality.

After a chapter that is a marvel of efficient world-building, in which Laszlo arrests a young man who lies to cover for his drug-stealing brother, he is saddled with a partner he doesn’t want and is dispatched to check for anomalies at the scene of what appears to be an accidental death. Laszlo’s new partner, Aysa Paige, urges him to look deeper. She tells him that something isn’t right. And, once he starts looking, Laszlo starts to see anomalies. The dead man wasn’t supposed to be at work that day. The house where he died belongs to a judge who is up to something. The more he digs, the more Laszlo starts to wonder if this death is somehow linked to his brother’s death years before.

The Golden State is a fascinating social experiment. residents exchange facts when they greet each other, everyone fears being exiled outside of the State, and no one is permitted to lie above minor metaphors. What would it mean if no one could lie? If they were always caught and punished for it? It seems like a good thing. Lies, misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, willful mucking around with the truth have made our current society an appalling mess. Slowly, however, we and Laszlo learn what we’re missing when a) we give up the right to imagine something different and b) the fact that some humans will always try to cheat the system.

The end of Golden State is surprisingly poignant. I wasn’t expecting it after a mash up of mystery, alternate history, science fiction, and thriller. I enjoyed Golden State very much, though I did spot a few places where the thought experiment threatened to take over the plot. Readers who like a bit of philosophical and emotional depth to their alternate history/science fiction will enjoy wondering, as Laszlo does, about what truth really is, what it means to try and create a an objective reality everyone can agree on, and what happens when a true believer finds the worm in the apple.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

historical fiction · mystery · review

Innocents to the Slaughter, by H.P. Maskew

In their first outing, journalist Ambrose Hudson and Edgar Lawes tackled a corrupt workhouse. In this novel, set in 1839, Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes take on new evils of the Victorian era. This time, it’s child labor and baby farming. Child labor at this time was illegal. Children under the age of nine could not be employed in factories, mines, etc. But because poverty is endemic and large employers want every scrap of profit, there are a lot of blind eyes turned to the practice. On the other hand, baby farming is perfectly legal. There’s no law against paying someone to care for one’s child. But again, poverty tends to relax some people’s inhibitions and it isn’t long before the practice is turned to brutal profit. The two crusaders certainly have their plates full in this episode—especially when an old enemy turns up. 

At the beginning of Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes seem a bit bored with their day jobs. Hudson is eager to go undercover again to dig up material for a new exposé. Lawes isn’t far behind in his enthusiasm to set aside running his estate for a bit and return to being a detective. A letter sent from the north of England to Hudson—one detailing the abusive practices at a textile mill and hinting at possible infanticide—is like a bugle call for the pair. 

Unfortunately for us readers, Hudson and Lawes take a frustratingly long time answering that bugle call. Long chapters are devoted to planning. We are treated to descriptions of travel routes, cover stories, and the like and it’s only in the last third of the novel that things start to get exciting. I suppose, for a journalist and a lawyer, all that groundwork is necessary. After all, Lawes needs to be able to make a case in court if there really is something illegal afoot and Hudson needs to be scrupulous in his research if he wants to affect real change. There were several places were I skimmed over the dialogue because I was getting a bit bored. 

Even though this book isn’t a barnstormer from cover to cover, Innocents to the Slaughter does sterling work in re-creating the grinding poverty of the Industrial Revolution. The descriptions of miserable, cold, dangerous labor; degrading housing conditions; and despair of the working poor seem to come straight from the pen of Henry Mayhew himself. Like Hudson, I was outraged on the behalf of the people who have no recourse to unfair working conditions and no way out of their terrible situations. I was so relieved when Hudson and Lawes were able to get a little bit of justice for the wronged, even if they did have to pay a dreadful (really, really dreadful) price for it. 

Innocents to the Slaughter is, barring some of its slower passages, a rewarding read for people who want historical fiction that brings a time and a place back to life. Maskew is a deft hand at doling out research in such a way that it doesn’t feel like attending a seminar, even if she could have moved things along a little faster than she did. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Hangman’s Secret, by Laura Joh Rowland

I arrived late to the party for this series. The Hangman’s Secret is the third book in Laura Joh Roland’s Victorian Mysteries series. Fortunately, there are enough callbacks and exposition for me to feel like I wasn’t missing too much to understand the characters in this fair to middling mystery. There are problems with the writing in this book that almost put me off (discussed below), but the mystery itself was interesting enough that I just had to keep reading. 

Protagonist Sarah Bain, with her partners Lord Hugh Staunton and the very-much-ragtag Mick O’Reilly have become semi-official investigators by The Hangman’s Secret. Sarah has been hired to provide crime scene photos for the ambitious owner of a London newspaper, Sir Gerald. Hugh helps as bodyguard and investigative partner, while Mick keeps his ear to the street to sniff out gristly murders and useful information. Neither Sarah nor Hugh is very happy with this arrangement, but it does pay the bills. As The Hangman’s Secret kicks off, Sarah and Hugh have been summoned to the particularly messy death of a local pub owner and hangman. It might look like the man hanged himself if not for the fact that everyone knows that he was a consummate professional who would never have botched his own hanging. (The details of the botching are definitely not for the squeamish.) 

Sarah et al. are not allowed to treat the hangman’s death as just another job. Sir Gerald, in a fit of inspiration, declares that Sarah’s team and his new hire, a sexist reporter, will solve the mystery before the Metropolitan police. Sarah doesn’t want to be a detective. Her policeman lover definitely doesn’t want her to be a detective, either. But when the man with the purse strings gives an order, it has to be obeyed. Fortunately for Sarah and her partners, the people she interviews are generally willing to cough up all kinds of useful information. The ones who don’t go straight to the top of the list of suspects. 

The way witnesses repeatedly give up information so easily was one of the things that bothered me about this book. It didn’t seem realistic to me the way that characters in late 1880s London would trust Sarah or that they all had such good memories. I was also bothered by Rowland’s missteps in the dialogue. There are a lot of too-modern phrases and sentences that a British English speaker would not say. The wrong notes irritated me. I stuck around because I had my own theories about what happened that I wanted to see confirmed. If nothing else, after reading the complicated Vita NostraThe Hangman’s Secret was a chance for my brain to cool off. 

I’m not interested enough to go back and read the first two books in the series and I doubt I will be keeping an eye out for future entries. I feel let down by The Hangman’s Secret because I know Rowland is a better writer and researcher than this. I really enjoyed her Sano Ichiro series, which is set in Shogunate Japan. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.