When I chatted with Dom about crime/mystery novels I suggested that such writing is often underestimated. I’m not proposing that a Nobel Prize for Literature is imminent but unquestionably writers such as John Le Carre, James Lee Burke and Alan Furst, among others, are first-rate writers. Reading crime/mystery can also be quite an education as the authors often do enormous background research. So in being entertained by a good mystery we might learn a great deal about a period or event in history, a great deal about a particular place and time or, as is the case for one of the books I reviewed, a lot of interesting facts about a wide range of subjects.
Dom immediately picked up on this by remarking how much he had learnt about and how interested he had become in Botswana after reading Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Detective Lady’ books. A listener rang after I mentioned ‘Gorky Park’ by Martin Cruz Smith to say that when travelling he had immediately recognised a harbour which Cruz Smith had described in another of his books ‘Polar Star’.
The three books I reviewed all give the reader much more than a mystery.
Siberian Red (Sam Eastland) is set in Stalin’s Russia in 1939 but refers back to previous times as well. The essence of the story is that Stalin wants to find a hidden stash of the Tsar’s gold to help finance the war which he knows is coming with Nazi Germany. Pekkala, Stalin’s special investigator, has to return as a ‘prisoner’ to a Siberian gulag where he really was imprisoned years before to track down information and solve a murder. It is a fascinating mystery made more so be the historic background and other tidbits. Through it we learn of Stalin’s paranoia and personal habits, about the Czech Legion which roamed the Siberia-Moscow railway for years, Colonel Kolchak who was the ‘Supreme Ruler of All Russia’ and how private compaies made gruesome profits from the gulags. Eastland helpfully gives us a 17 page appendix titled ‘What Really Happened in Siberia’ which is absolutely fascinating.
I also reviewed ‘The House of Silk’. This is a new Sherlock Holmes mystery written by Anthony Horowitz – and it is very,very good. Horowitz is an established writer having worked on many top TV series and is the author of the hugely popular Alex Rider series of books for teenagers. But ‘House of Silk’ is NOT for teenagers. It is is very much an adult mystery which takes us back to the streets and atmosphere of Victorian London so well that you can see and smell and feel at is you were there. In it Holmes and his faithful friend Dr Watson are drawn into a mystery which gaslit London, the underworld of Boston, opium dens and much more. Holmes himself is imprisoned by the police and has to engineer a typically inventive escape. Sherlock Holmes must be the most enduring of detectives in fiction. The original books by Conan Doyle still sell well and now we have a 21st Century Holmes on TV using text messages. Dom loves the TV series!
The third book I reviewed was ‘The Chalk Girl’, a contemporary mystery set mostly in New York City, by Carol O’Connell. I would rate this as the best crime/mystery book I have read in the last three years! O’Connell is a terrific writer and her main character, Detective Sergeant Kathy Mallory, is a wonderful creation who I first met, and loved, in ‘Mallory’s Oracle”. Mallory is ultra intelligent, ultra tech savvy and very, very prickly. As the publishers say, ‘ Before Lisbeth Salander there was Kathy Mallory’. So if you loved Stieg Larsson’s Millenium books I suggest you try Mallory! ‘The Chalk Girl’ is a quite complex but totally compelling story filled with fascinating characters. Three bodies are found suspended from trees in the thicket of Central Park. A young girl who exhibits many of Mallory’s personality and psychological traits has witnessed one of the murders and needs protection. Is there a connection with a much older murder? The background information about how influence and corruption work, about New York the place and its people, about rats (perhaps more than you ever thought you wanted know) is fascinating.
So there we have it. Three really good crime’mystery novels which bot entertain and inform!