Slowly We Die

Slowly We Die by Emilie Schepp is just the latest in a long(ish) line of Scandinavian crime novels that I am seemingly unable to resist. I have mixed feelings about this one, but before we get into that…… to the plot!

A tragic incident on the operating table leaves a patient damaged for life and leads a young surgeon to abandon his profession as a physician… Now, years later, a series of senseless, gruesome murders are rocking the same medical community.

I picked up this book following a recommendation on Twitter, I think, though I can’t remember from whom (sorry for that – I really do have to get better at recording where I find out about books to read) and started to read it when I hit a bit of a slump in my #20booksofsummer reading list. I have found in the past that crime fiction will almost certainly help me get my reading mojo back.

So, as the quote above says, we have the Swedish medical profession represented mainly by an ambulance crew who unfortunately keep on turning up at the scene of horribly gruesome murders. We have the police who are investigating the cases while also looking for a dangerous criminal who escaped from hospital. And last but not least we have Jana Berzelius, the investigating prosecutor with her own set of secrets. But why are these people being killed?

I do enjoy a good medical thriller and this seemed promising but, for some reason, I stalled about a third of the way through and set it aside for several weeks. Looking back I think it was mainly because I finally twigged that this was actually the third book in a series featuring Berzelius, which explained why some of it didn’t quite make sense.

Some reviewers have suggested that you don’t need to have read the previous books to enjoy this one to the fullest, but sadly that wasn’t my experience; the significant subplot involving Jana kept getting in the way of my working out what was going on.

And it was the desire to find out the solution that took me back to the book. It was an interesting story and I failed to work out who the killer was so that’s par for the course.

In one sense I wish I had read the previous books as those would have added some useful context, but as I didn’t actually like Jana very much I can’t see me searching them out.

Not at all a bad book, just not for me.

The Man From the Train

Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewellery and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villisca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.

Bill James, who is a statistics whizz and baseball writer, became fascinated with these cases and applied his skills to work out which of the crimes were linked and which were standalone, and ultimately to identify the killer. He enlisted his daughter Rachel McCarthy James as a research assistant and she is identified as a co-author of the book.

You will know by now that I cannot leave true crime stuff alone, and I came across this book when reading through a list of best non-fiction crime reads and was intrigued by the premise, mainly because of the timeframe. Intellectually I know that what we now call serial killers have been around forever, but the idea that it would be possible to identify that type of criminal from before the First World War just called to me.

I won’t go into detail about the solution because the point of the book is to explain how it was arrived at and we don’t get given a name until the very end, but it seemed plausible that the named individual rode the rails and killed when e had the opportunity, which is the best that anyone could hope for at this distance.

The Man from the Train is written in a distinctive style which the reader will either love or find annoying; I don’t think there is middle ground 🙂 James approaches this in the same way that he would write about baseball I guess. He is very much in the thick of the narrative; no detachment here. I must admit that I really liked the way in which he makes his arguments, justifying why he has included something or why he disagrees with the assessment of others, sometimes coming across as quite defensive. He can also be a bit rude about other writers, but you get such a sense of James explaining all of this to you in person that I found it very entertaining.

James doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the murders, the poor quality of many of the investigations, and tragically the lynching of a number of suspects. Awful. He also provides context on what forensic measures were available at the time (hint – not much).

It reminded me a little of They All Loved Jack (which you can read about on my old blog) but without the unfortunate opinions.

Siren Song

When the luxury yacht Helen Brooks was last seen on is found abandoned amid the treacherous marshlands of the Humber Estuary, foul play is suspected. However, in the absence of a body, nothing can be proven. The owner of the yacht, ambitious businessman Simon Fowler, seems unprepared even to offer any sort of explanation as to what Helen was doing on board. A year later, Hull private investigator Leo Rivers is approached by Alison Brooks, Helen’s mother, to investigate both the background to this disappearance and Fowler

Siren Song is the second in Robert Edric’s Song Cycle featuring Leo Rivers; I bought this and indeed the third novel after finishing Cradle Song which I reviewed here. I’ve read some of Edric’s other work and enjoyed it and it is interesting to see how he approaches the crime genre given his more “literary” background (I hate that phrase but what can you do?). When reviewing books I tend to focus on my own reading experience but I will occasionally go off and have a look at what professional reviewers are saying. It is always interesting to see what others think, especially when, in this case, the response is negative (dull and pedestrian seemed to be the keywords) or at best damned with faint praise.

I enjoyed this book. I like Leo Rivers as a character, perhaps because he is something of a cypher and we don’t really get a feel for his private life and circumstances, which is offputting to some. I do sometimes get irritated by crime novels being more about the investigator than the crime itself, and although Rivers does get intimately involved with on of the other characters it is part of the general theme of manipulation which underpins the plot. there was an added pleasure in that one of our friends is called Simon Fowler and every time I saw the name it gave me a little jolt.

I didn’t work out the solution which is something I can’t help but try to do when reading a crime novel, but I don’t think that’s the point here; the focus for me was on the moral ambiguities involved in the various relationships. There is quite a high body count for a story that isn’t about a serial killer though.

I thought this was a complex and satisfying tale about seeking the truth, finding peace and taking revenge. It’s fair to say that some of these aims are achieved more successfully than others but that reflects life I guess. I’m looking forward to reading the third volume soon.

This was my third read for 20 Books of Summer.

My Week | Out & About & Mini-Reviews

This time last week we were celebrating the Book God’s birthday, and those celebrations extended into the Monday when we travelled to Brighton so that we could visit the Royal Pavilion. Now we’re back to old clothes and porridge as they say (in a stronger Scottish accent) where I come from. More on Brighton later, but first – the books

I had a really good reading week, finishing three books, starting with Siren Song by Robert Edric, which I’ll review in a day or so.

As for the other two:

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark – so I am fascinated by true crime as I have gone on about here ad nauseam, and one of my favourite sources is the podcast My Favourite Murder hosted by Karen & Georgia, the authors of this book, which is basically a joint memoir expanding on the stories they have told about their lives during the non-murdery parts of their broadcast. I love them and thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Private Life of Elder Things is “a collection of new Lovecraftian fiction about confronting, discovering and living alongside the creatures of the Mythos.” This is a bit patchy as all anthologies tend to be, but there are some very good stories included. A quick read with one of my favourite things, author’s notes.

This week’s new books:

  • The October Man * Ben Aaronovitch – A Rivers of London novella. Trier is famous for wine, Romans and for being Germany’s oldest city. So when a man is found dead with, his body impossibly covered in a fungal rot, the local authorities know they are out of their depth. Fortunately, this is Germany, where there are procedures for everything. [Pre-order]
  • The Paper Wasp * Lauren Acampora – An electrifying debut novel of two women’s friendship, a haunting obsession and twisted ambition, set against the feverish backdrop of contemporary Hollywood. [Pre-order]
  • 1913: The Defiant Swan Song * Virginia Cowles – It’s the eve of the First World War. One era ends as another is set to begin. Before life is changed forever in the maelstrom of war, the excess and extravagance of European high society blazes its trail. Acclaimed historian Virginia Cowles paints a picture of the glamour and scandals within the upper echelon of society of seven major cities, through rich prose and lively anecdotes.
  • Just One Damned Thing After Another * Jodi Taylor – Chronicles of St Mary’s Book 1 – When Madeleine Maxwell is recruited by the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she discovers the historians there don’t just study the past – they revisit it. But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And she soon discovers it’s not just History she’s fighting…

I’m currently reading The Man from the Train by Bill James which is an early twentieth-century true crime murder mystery. I’m still considering my fiction read.

Back to Brighton. We had a super day walking around the Pavilion before having a delicious meal in a local Italian restaurant, all of this despite the best efforts of two railway companies and rain that was at almost biblical levels. Seriously, it was running down the streets. But we still had fun.

Have a great reading week!

Archie & Gretchen | Books 4-6

I have finally finished the hugely enjoyable Archie Sheridan & Gretchen Lowell series by Chelsea Cain with the last three novels discussed below.

First, a quick overview – Archie Sheridan is a police officer based in Portland, Oregon who, while hunting the serial killer known as the Beauty Killer was kidnapped, tortured and ultimately released by said serial killer, the beautiful, intelligent and extremely manipulative Gretchen Lowell. Their dysfunctional relationship is explored over six novels. Unsurprisingly, there is a very high body count.

If you would like to know what I thought about the first three then you can find the relevant blog post here.

The second half of the series comprises:

  • Book 4 – The Night Season – the one where Portland suffers major flooding, there is another serial killer on the loose and Gretchen doesn’t really appear at all
  • Book 5 – Kill You Twice – the one where Gretchen is locked up in a psychiatric unit but merrily manipulative almost everyone else, while another another serial killer is on the loose, this time with potential links to GretchenBook 4 – The Night Season – the one where Portland suffers major flooding, there is another serial killer on the loose and Gretchen doesn’t really appear at all
  • Book 6 – Let Me Go – the one where Gretchen is on the loose again and creating havoc, though there is another another another serial killer carrying out crimes in the area. This looks like its the last in the series though I think the ending is left sufficiently open so that the characters could be revisited in future.

As I said above I really enjoyed this series; the books are well-written and tightly plotted and the psychological makeup of the main characters is troublingly effective. But as with every other almost-omnipotent serial killer (looking at you Hannibal Lecter), each entry in the series has to really up the ante. This often means that situations becoming increasingly gothic, almost to the point of absurdity, so suspension of belief is essential. There were a couple of WTF moments in the final book where I really thought it had all gone too far, but I let that thought go and just went along for the ride.

If you like your psycopaths astonishingly beautiful in a head-turning way who can kill with impunity and, despite being infamous, still manage to move around freely without anyone noticing, and if you don’t mind a lot of gruesomeness and quite a bit of explicit sex, then this series is for you.

Catching Up – The Crime Edition

The first in an ongoing series, where I attempt to catch up with books read but not reviewed.

Convent on Styx by Gladys Mitchell

The nuns of the Order of Companions of the Poor summon eminent psychiatrist and sleuth Dame Beatrice Lestrange Bradley to investigate a series of anonymous letters, but when she arrives the prime suspect has just been found drowned in the convent school pond, with, appropriately enough, her own massive Family Bible. Dame Beatrice leads a fine cast of eccentric characters as she gradually unravels the truth from the sniping gossip of the convent’s paying guests and the rumours of ghosts among the school children.

I am a huge fan of Gladys Mitchell and am slowly working through all of the novels. This is a very engaging story even though (or perhaps because of) Dame Beatrice not making an appearance until halfway through the story. That allows the life of the convent and the key characters to be well established before we get to the investigation. Thoroughly enjoyable. Trying to decide which one to read next.

Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon

On a fine autumn weekend, Lord Aveling hosts a hunting party at his country house, Bragley Court. Among the guests are an actress, a journalist, an artist and a mystery novelist. The unlucky thirteenth is John Foss, injured at the local train station and brought to the house to recuperate – but John is nursing a secret of his own. Soon events take a sinister turn when a painting is mutilated, a dog stabbed, and a man strangled. Death strikes more than one of the houseguests, and the police are called.

I actually started reading this book back in 2018 but for some reason just wasn’t feeling it and set it aside. I picked it up again in February this year and really enjoyed seeing the mystery unfold at the second attempt. I do love a country house weekend murder.

Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert

Horniman, Birley and Craine is a highly respected legal firm with clients drawn from the highest in the land. When a deed box in the office is opened to reveal a corpse, the threat of scandal promises to wreak havoc on the firm’s reputation – especially as the murder looks like an inside job. The partners and staff of the firm keep a watchful and suspicious eye on their colleagues, as Inspector Hazlerigg sets out to solve the mystery of who Mr Smallbone was – and why he had to die.

I had come across Michael Gilbert’s name in my reading about the history of classic crime but hadn’t come across any of his work, so was really pleased to see the British Museum publishing what’s often been considered his best novel. I’m a sucker for legal thrillers and this is a wonderful example. Didn’t work out who the killer was but liked the solution very much. I’m definitely going to read more of Gilbert’s work.

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

You shouldn’t be here. It’s too late…’

These, heard over the phone, were the last recorded words of successful celebrity-divorce lawyer Richard Pryce, found bludgeoned to death in his bachelor pad with a bottle of wine – a 1982 Chateau Lafite worth £3,000, to be precise. Odd, considering he didn’t drink. Why this bottle? And why those words? And why was a three-digit number painted on the wall by the killer? And, most importantly, which of the man’s many, many enemies did the deed?

This is the second Daniel Hawthorne novel in which the author features as one of the main characters, acting as a sidekick to the former policeman turned private investigator. This series is really good fun, especially the references to Horowitz’s other work, especially Foyle’s War which my husband absolutely loves. Hopefully, there will be more books in this series.

Recent Movies | Jan-Feb 2019

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A round-up of a few films seen in the first couple of months this year, and which I haven’t reviewed so far. I will leave Glass to the end because I have Notes.

Searching

Searching is directed by Aneesh Chaganty and stars John Cho.

After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her.

And of course what he finds is a whole side to her life that he didn’t know she had, and which has some bearing on her disappearance though not in the way I at least first thought. What could have become a gimmicky film actually delivers a really involving story and is clever about the way technology is accessed and used to move the plot forward. I thought John Cho was very good indeed as the single dad and the supporting cast is also great. I didn’t see where the story was going at all until the end was on top of me and I like that; I spend a lot of my TV watching time correctly guessing who the murderer is and I was way off here.

But the best thing about the film is the stuff in the background which the directors talked about after the film was released – I won’t spoil it (though there are articles out there giving an explanation), but I will be re-watching this specifically to spot the stuff they’ve dropped in.

Bad Times at the El Royale

This was a film that we missed in the cinema but which the Book God in particular wanted to see, so we got a hold of the DVD on release.

Circa 1969, several strangers, most with a secret to bury, meet by chance at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one night, everyone will show their true colours – before everything goes to hell.

It has a cast of well-known faces and a twisty plot which I enjoyed, but it was the non-linear structure in the first part of the film which really made this for me. I also liked the fact (not a spoiler) that although The Greater Hemsworth is front and centre on the poster he doesn’t really turn up until about halfway through the story, but boy when he does he’s in full Manson mode and very very watchable.

Sorry for going a bit fangirl there 😀

I really enjoyed it. I particularly liked Cynthia Erivo’s character and Jeff Bridges is reliable as always. One that I will definitely be watching again.

And now…..

Glass

OK, so I will say first off that this was much better than it had any right to be but that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic. This is the last in what we are apparently now calling the East Rail Trilogy (who knew?) but I don’t think it has provided us with a satisfying conclusion.

For the record, I absolutely love Unbreakable, but I checked back on my old blog and found I had this to say about Split:

M Night Shyamalan’s latest is a multiple personality horror thriller thing with an amazing performance by James McAvoy but which in the end is pointless and confusing. I couldn’t work out where it was headed and became quite impatient. The much-lauded cameo at the end was a real blink or you miss it event. Annoyingly disappointing.

So I went into Glass with very mixed feelings. IMDB says:

Security guard David Dunn uses his supernatural abilities to track Kevin Wendell Crumb, a disturbed man who has twenty-four personalities

Which tells you absolutely nothing about the story. So Sarah Paulson (for it is she) is a psychiatrist investigating those who believe they have abilities in order to demonstrate that they are actually delusional. After a variety of plot devices she manages to bring together Glass (Samuel L Jackson), Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and David Dunn (Bruce Willis at his most laconic) so that she can study them, and of course things don’t go according to plan (or do they?) and all hell breaks loose.

McAvoy is brilliant and you can really see him transform into his character’s various personalities, but his very physical performance is in such marked contrast to Willis, who spends a lot of the film looking pained and confused that they could almost be in different films. There is the obligatory awful cameo from the director and if you think about it too much the ending makes No Sense At All.

It also made me think of a post my blog friend Jenny made about ableism in horror, which I quote a bit of here. You can find the whole post on her blog and is really worth reading. I say this as a massive horror fan who won’t stop reading the stuff but will certainly pay more attention to this sort of thing

Once someone gets you to notice the trope of the pure innocent disabled character (who dies! how poignant!) or the trope of the evil disabled character whose soul is as twisted as their [insert body part here] (who also dies! how inevitable!), you start seeing those tropes everywhere. I wish we had grown past them. Failing that, I want at least to not let them pass me by in silence.

This was about her experience of horror fiction but is equally applicable to film, and is similar to Anne Billson’s observation on the tendency for action films to have a woman kidnapped and/or killed so the hero has a reason to do the thing that he shouldn’t but knows he must.

Once seen, impossible to forget.

A bit like Glass really, but not necessarily for the right reasons.