Category Archives: Crime

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

Reko no more

Remember the new crime novel by Marnie Riches that I told you about the other day? I enjoyed it so much, and I was very flattered to be asked my opinion early on. But it’s heartstopping stuff, this being asked. Because what if you DON’T LIKE THE BOOK?

There was a time before Marnie, when I was asked under very similar circumstances, by someone I knew about as well (although someone I hadn’t met in person) as I did her, and whose earlier book I had read and liked, and I was both keen and far too unsuspecting. Both of the book, and of its author. And as I began reading my heart sank and I wondered how I could 1) go on, 2) tell the author anything useful but still sort of truthful.

It was amateurish beyond belief, with wooden characters (although you could tell you were supposed to love one of them) and a pretty clichéd plot. Nice setting, though. I persevered, because this was not a book by a stranger. (Except, of course, it was.)

By some miracle, 11% in (on a Kindle you know these things) it changed for the better, and I mean really good, like someone had clicked their fingers for some magic. Luckily the loveable one died, but you were obviously still supposed to mourn this death.

My feedback was far politer and kinder than what I’ve just said here. But I felt I had to offer my thoughts on the 11% simply to explain why I reckoned this author had yet to interest anyone at all in the book; be it an agent or a publisher or anyone else. If they read what I read, they’d not want to go further, and would never reach even the 11%.

My comments were welcomed and I was encouraged to say more. I did. Well what a mistake that was.

So basically, don’t ask for what you don’t want to hear. And even if you love your character, it doesn’t mean they are the bee’s knees or that everyone else will want to be their best friend.

But the premise for this crime novel was really pretty good, and if a professional editor could get their hands on the 11% without having their head shot off in the process, I could see a future for the book.

What worried me about Marnie’s book [before I read it], were the circumstances of how I was asked, and the fact that the two stories share some basic facts. It was eerie.

(Reko is Swedish for a decent sort. I ceased to be reko as soon as I opened my big keyboard and let the advice flow. Silly me.)

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die

How I have waited to be allowed to tell you about this new book from Marnie Riches! Her adult crime novel has been tugging at me behind the scenes for over a year, and what’s more, it’s so breathtakingly special that I can confidently say I remember all of it, even now.

This digital novel with the very appropriate title The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die (yes, I know what it makes you think of, and it’s not at all misleading), is Britain’s own answer to Scandi crime, a Euro crime thriller with a continental flavour. And to be honest with you, I wasn’t sure it would work. But it does.

Marnie Riches

That’s most likely due to the ‘write about what you know’ rule again. Not that I suspect Marnie of having a criminal background, but she’s got the languages, and the experience of the Netherlands and Germany, as well as the Cambridge student know-how.

Someone is going round Amsterdam blowing people up, for no apparent reason. We meet the victims just as they discover their predicament. And we meet George, an English girl, a student like many of the victims. She knows about crime, and that could make her a suspect. Or perhaps the next victim. We know someone is stalking her. Or are they?

Marnie Riches, The Girl Who Wouldn't Die

George can’t leave things alone. She insists on helping Detective van den Bergen, who is surprisingly accommodating, as well as intelligent. (I like detectives with brains.)

The story has a strong European feel to it, with plenty of sex, drugs, bicycles and canals. Some iffy Germans, naturally. And then there is the English subplot. We don’t know quite what happened, nor how it might tie in with the Dutch explosions, but we sense there is more than meets the eye.

Coming fresh to Marnie’s writing, I didn’t know what to expect, or how many characters would still be alive at the end. However, the novel’s fantastic new title sort of gives a little bit away. Besides, there are two more books planned.

Trust me, you’ll want to read them.

(The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is available on April 2nd. And please give us a paper book soon.)

Murder Most Unladylike

Who doesn’t like a good murder set in a girls’ boarding school in the 1930s? I mean, it ticks a lot of my boxes. What about you?

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

13-year-old students Daisy and Hazel set up detective agency Wells&Wong at Deepdean school, and it’s not long before ‘luck’ strikes, when their science teacher Miss Bell is found dead. Only for a while though, as the body disappears pretty swiftly and no one knows Miss Bell is a bit more dead than the head teacher makes out she is.

Daisy is rather bossy, not to mention fearless, while Hazel, who comes from Hong Kong, is more conventional and careful. A good detective agency needs both to succeed.

And you know, it’s rather hard to check people’s alibis when you are not the police and when there is no body or even a public acknowledgement that the corpse is indeed a corpse. But Daisy ferrets out where everyone was, and they work out what the motive might have been. Would you kill for the post of deputy head?

The detecting isn’t made any easier when you are a relatively innocent young girl, who doesn’t quite understand the undercurrents between the adults. Wells&Wong do work out who did it, and it puts them in more danger than expected.

As for me, I kept thinking it was turning out a little Midsomerish. When you deduct the number of dead people and the murderer, you’re not left with a whole lot of characters for a sequel. And I hope author Robin Stevens won’t kill more teachers and students in every book. Even a fairly dim parent would surely take their child out of a school like that?

Bookwitch goes to a conference

Some people didn’t look anything like I’d imagined them. But then why should they? I went to a conference at the University of Edinburgh yesterday. Along with some similarly minded colleagues, Son has spent some time organising the Nordic Research Network conference, and the embarrassment factor of having your mother there was one I didn’t want to deprive him of. Both parents, actually, as the Resident IT Consultant had been roped in to chauffeur the sandwiches for lunch.

Ian Giles

And I did feel that this was my kind of thing; language, literature, translation. As I said, I’d been in contact with or heard of some of the people before, and you have a mental image of them, but they were generally less blonde than I had expected. Being realistic, I decided not to go to everything (it’s on today as well), but swanned in towards the end of the day when Son chaired the Translation session.

Charlotte Berry

Charlotte Berry talked about Chatto & Windus and their British Translations of Maria Gripe. It was based on notes the publisher had kept on how they discussed and decided what to translate, and that was really quite interesting. Basically, it was all down to networking, with an editor chatting to the right person somewhere else, trying to interest them in their book. And after that it was a case of organising the translating. One translator had been judged likely to be all right, because she was a mother herself… Charlotte said it was a hard topic to write about, since she didn’t want to offend anyone.

Agnes Broomé

Agnes Broomé talked on the subject of In the Wake of the Crime Wave – How to Publish Scandinavian Fiction in Translation in the New Millennium. Swedish books account for something like just over 1% of translated fiction in the English speaking world of books. Of 2000 fiction titles a year, 600-800 are translated, which is pretty good. The Nobel prize and the Astrid Lindgren award raise Sweden’s profile. (Astrid has been translated into 98 languages, coming after Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, but before Dickens and Plato.) In the past Swedish books went abroad via Danish or German, but now it is all through English. In the 1970s most translations were of children’s books, while in the last decade it’s been mostly crime. The risks with crime possibly becoming less popular are that because people have concentrated so heavily on crime fiction, other genres have suffered and are less active.

Nichola Smalley

Finally, Nichola Smalley told us about Contemporary Urban Vernaculars in Swedish Literature, and what translators do to make it work. The ways to do it are Compensation, Replacement, Representation, Adaptation or Standardisation. And the advice is not to translate dialect, though of course some do, as it’s integral to the plot in certain cases. Nichola’s conclusion was that translators work hard to avoid standardising texts, and that the finished work is often down to more than the named translator, who has probably discussed solutions with many people. She gave examples from a couple of recent Swedish novels.

There was a Q&A afterwards, with questions of the kind you’d expect from a more expert kind of audience than I usually encounter.

After coffee the first day ended with a keynote speech by Mads Bunch from Copenhagen, on the subject of North Atlantic Literature in a Scottish Context – Iceland, Faroe Islands and Orkney. (Privately I wondered what dear old Shetland had done to be excluded, and as though he’s a mind reader, Mads began by explaining why not.)

Mads Bunch

I was surprised that he mentioned fairies, until I worked out that they sound much the same as the Faroes. The Faroese are descended from seasick Vikings; those who felt so bad on the way to Iceland that they asked to be allowed to stay on the Faroe Islands.

According to Mads the peripheries (I think that’s the above islands) don’t tend to influence each other in literature, as they are sufficiently similar, and have less to give. The good stories come from the contrasts between modern westerners and the isolated islands. Mads told the story of Edwin Muir from Orkney, who travelled 150 years in the two days it took him to leave Orkney and arrive in Glasgow in 1901.

These days there are plenty of new things in Icelandic and Faroese literature, whereas Mads reckons there is little change in Orkney. They continue with their sagas, while the Icelanders write about the economic collapse, and the Faroe Islands have a thing about Buzz Aldrin…

In the Q&A session, an Icelandic reader pointed out how tired she is of hearing only Laxness mentioned all the time, and talked at length about her own favourite author (whose name I didn’t catch) who is quite excellent. And apparently they have a lot of bookshops in Iceland.

After suitable thanks, Son sent us upstairs to an evening reception with music and Lidl rye bread and cheese and olives, washed down with wine and IrnBru. Thinking of today, I made my excuses and hobbled in the direction of my train home (the sandwiches need chauffeuring one more day), instead of joining the others for dinner somwhere.

Dead Men’s Bones

You just know there will be bones, even though it doesn’t seem like it to begin with. James Oswald’s Dead Men’s Bones starts off with one of his trademark inexplicable deaths, while his lovely, and convalescing, detective is off to solve a domestic killing. Or rather not solve, so much as confirm that a wealthy MSP who seemingly murdered his wife and children and then killed himself, had done just that.

James Oswald, Dead Men's Bones

Tony McLean knows he did it, but for him the important thing is to work out why this successful politician did such a dreadful deed in the first place.

And it’s worrying, but two of the men he dislikes most at work start behaving almost decently at times. What’s come over them? (It’s almost funny.)

But, I do take exception to the way James picks women characters to suffer when things go wrong in an investigation. I know that Tony McLean can go all manly and caring, but I would actually like to see more male characters hurt! (If that doesn’t sound bad, I mean.)

In Dead Men’s Bones we have another of these impossibly rich and seductive, not to mention fabulously wealthy, black widows, that you often get in fiction. This one is wonderfully menacing and McLean is far too susceptible, and I can recognise a witch when I see one.

So can those cats…

As always it’s good to see Edinburgh in a different light, although I hope I never will in real life. And somebody please show this helpless detective how to dress in cold weather. It’s enough that the baddies are dangerous; he doesn’t need to die of hypothermia.

Fife farmer tours Scotland!

Attention please! James Oswald’s fifth crime novel, Prayer for the Dead, is out today. And no, I’ve not read it. Yet.

But I was happy to see that James will be doing a whirlwind tour round Scotland to meet the fans. He blogged the dates, and I happened to see the link on facebook. Now, I would have liked more notice for the launch in Edinburgh this evening. I don’t believe I will be able to make it. Probably. But it’s good to know that James will cover a decent number of Waterstones all over Scotland.

One of his facebook friends pointed out that there are bookshops in London too. There obviously are. But I’m really glad that the list is Scotland only, and not because I want to deprive anyone. I just feel it’s useful for Londoners to see that there is literary life up north. And that James isn’t being flown in to appear at Waterstones Piccadilly, or anything. They have enough going on as it is.

And as James points out on his website, he actually needs to do some farming as well. Those animals don’t look after themselves, or at least, I don’t think they do. I’m guessing they want feeding and watering, or whatever it is sheep and cattle require.

At Bookwitch Towers we are busy catching up. The Resident IT Consultant was unpacking my books (yeah, I know I already mentioned this), when he got to the ominously labelled Last Books box. What that means is they are the books I read as we were packing last March/April, which didn’t make it into the other boxes.

I’d already forbidden him from reading James’s third Tony McLean novel, because he hadn’t actually read the second, and I said the spoilers were such he’d thank me for it. But recently he was finally able to tackle The Book of Souls as it was unpacked along with most of the adult fiction. Number three only emerged yesterday, so I rewarded the Resident IT Consultant for his hard work on children’s fiction by saying he could read The Hangman’s Song now.

Meanwhile, I hurriedly claimed Dead Men’s Bones, number four, for myself, in case he has designs on reading it before me. And then, before I even got started, I found out about number five…

This post was brought to you by the letter F.