TagGreat Transworld Crime Caper

Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003)

My second choice for the Great Transworld Crime Caper, and one that was always going to be on my list. I enjoyed Christ Fowler’s seventh Bryant & May mystery last year, and was interested to find out what the earlier ones were like. Now I’ve gone back to the beginning with Full Dark House and… well, perhaps I’m just being difficult, but now I wonder what it would have been like had I read this one first!

But there is a sense in which reading the first book out of order makes a difference to how one perceives it, because Full Dark House begins with Arthur Bryant apparently dying in an explosion that destroys the offices of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Except there are more books (set in the present day) featuring Bryant & May and the PCU following on from this, so something more than meets the eye must be going on. Knowing this meant that a certain amount of suspense was inevitably lost to me, or at least turned into something else. This was also, of course, the book that had to introduce the characters of Bryant & May, and establish their partnership – but I already knew them from Bryant & May On the Loose, and felt that I didn’t appreciate all this as much as I might have. Of course, it’s impossible to say; but it does highlight how my opinion of this novel might be affected simply by what I’ve read previously.

The main plot of Full Dark House takes place not in the present day, but at the time of the Blitz, when the rational, nineteen-year-old John May joins the PCU, partnering with Bryant – three years his senior, and of a mindset much more befitting the Golden Age of detective fiction, seeking elaborate and fanciful explanations that draw on obscure knowledge. The two investigate a series of strange murders in a London theatre which is preparing to stage a production of Orpheus in the Underworld. The cast are being picked off one by one; does it have anything to do with the faceless figure rumoured to haunt the building?

One of the things that struck me most about Bryant & May On the Loose last year was the interplay between the Golden-Age and more modern styles of detection (as exemplified by the contrasting approaches of the two protagonists): it wasn’t a case of one triumphing over the other; both were given their chance to shine. It’s the same in Full Dark House: appropriately enough for the time and place (though Bryant fears the time of Holmesian detection has passed, wartime London is presented as somewhere that could still believe in the extraordinary, because the times were extraordinary; and the theatre itself is a kind of luminal space between the outside world and the inner ‘reality’ of the stage), resolving the mystery requires a combination of both approaches. Once again, I’m intrigued by Fowler’s series, and will be reading more.

Links

Full Dark House blogged elsewhere: Fleur Fisher; Ms Bookish; The Book Jotter; Mel’s Random Reviews.

Christopher Fowler’s website

Book notes: Preussler, Glattauer, Bauer

Otfried Preussler, Krabat (1971/2)

First published in English under the title The Satanic Mill, this German children’s classic (translated by Anthea Bell) has now been reissued under its original title as part of the Library of Lost Books. It is the story of Krabat, a boy in 16th-century Saxony, who investigates a strange mill and finds himself compelled to become the miller’s apprentice, working alongside his eleven journeymen. The Master teaches his journeymen dark magic, but at a price: every New Year’s Eve, one of them will die.

Some children’s books can, of course, be well appreciated when one reads them as an adult; but I find myself wishing that I’d read Krabat as a child, because I can imagine how much stronger the sense of discovery and excitement would have been. Even so, I very much enjoyed Preussler’s crisply-told tale. What’s particularly striking is how much the book doesn’t reveal; there’s very little about Krabat’s life before the mill, and much about the miller and his powers is also left open to interpretation. As a result, the air of mystery and strangeness around the book never goes away; I was left guessing what would happen up to the very last page – there is no sense in this novel that a happy ending is guaranteed.

Links
Otfried Preussler’s website
Publisher Scott Pack blogs about the book

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (2006/11)

It starts simply enough: Emmi Rothner tries to cancel a magazine subscription, but mistypes the address and her email ends up in Leo Leike’s inbox. He notifies her of the mistake, and all is forgotten until, months later, Leo receives Emmi’s automated Christmas message and yet another email meant for the magazine. So begins an intimate email correspondence underpinned by something that may yet turn out to be love.

Love Virtually is told entirely through the medium of Emmi’s and Leo’s emails (in a nice touch, the novel uses  two translators – Katharina Bielenberg and Jame Bulloch, who are a married couple  – each working on the messages of one protagonist). At first, I was unsure of this device, as, by their nature, such correspondences are always going to be more interesting for the participants than for outside observers. And, sure enough, there were times when the tone of the emails – enticingly drawn-out for Leo and Emmi, but rather long-winded for this reader – tried my patience.

But, as I got further in (and the novel was swift and snappy enough that this didn’t take long), I warmed to the ebb and flow of the exchange, which is a kind of courtship dance that creates personae for the two correspondents whilst occasionally offering glimpses of the real characters underneath. Both protagonists could gain or lose from the dialogue: Leo is single, though the sparks of his recently-ended relationship have not yet burnt out entirely; Emmi is married with children, but seems to drive the correspondence more than Leo, as it provides her with something that her existing relationship does not. Whatever reservations I might have had towards the beginning, by the end of Love Virtually I was gripped, wanting to know what happened. The ending is judged perfectly, and paves the way for the sequel, which will receive its English-language publication later in the year.

Links
Publishers’ interview with the translators
Love Virtually reviewed elsewhere: Vulpes Libris; Book Monkey; The Complete Review.

Belinda Bauer, Blacklands (2010)

My first choice for the Great Transworld Crime Caper – not that there’s much of the caper about this book – I first came across Blacklands as one of last year’s TV Book Club choices. I didn’t read it at the time, but I should have, because I missed a gem. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb is preoccupied with finding the body of his uncle Billy, assumed to have been murdered as a child. Steven keeps digging on Exmoor, but without success; in desperation, he writes a letter to convicted child-killer Arnold Avery (one of whose victims is thought to be Billy)) asking where his uncle’s body is – and a game of cat and mouse begins.

What makes Blacklands work so well is Bauer’s sharply observant eye, and the careful positioning of Steven’s and Avery’s correspondence (and the search for Billy’s body) in her characters’ lives. Steven’s Nan – Billy’s mother – is forever scarred by the loss of her son (‘underneath she would always be Poor Mrs Peters’, [p. 8]) , which she refuses to accept. This has translated into a fractured household; Steven’s quest to find Billy is partly an attempt to patch up his family, but also his way of bringing purpose to a life beset by troubles at school as well as home.

For Avery, Steven’s letters also bring a sense of purpose and hope, though a much more chilling one – particularly after an inadvertent reflection in a photograph taken by Steven reveals to Avery that his correspondent is a child. Bauer opens enough of a window on to Avery’s mind to make our visits there deeply disturbing, but not so much that we lose sight of the monster he is. The author also builds tension very effectively as the novel progresses. Blacklands is a difficult read at times, but ultimately I found it a rewarding one.

Links
Belinda Bauer’s website
Blacklands reviewed elsewhere: It’s a Crime!; Petrona; Catherine, Caffeinated.

The Great Transworld Crime Caper

Following on from last year’s Summer Reading Challenge, Transworld are running another book bloggers’ challenge over the next couple of months, this time focusing on debut crime novels. Everyone chooses three books from a list of twelve, and mine are:

1. Belinda Bauer, Blacklands

2. Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House

3. Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death

That should give an interesting mix of approaches and settings. (The above titles will, as ever, become links as I blog about the books.)

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