Category Archives: Crime

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.

Never Odd or Even

Eliot in Never Odd or Even probably has Asperger Syndrome. And I reckon this book will appeal to children with similar fondness for prime numbers and palindromes and stuff like that. It even appealed to me, although I had feared it might not, what with all the numbers and things to begin with.

As with other aspie books, it’s about being bullied at school and about solving a crime. The two are obviously connected.

John Townsend, Never Odd or Even

We never learn all that much about the main character, who has to be called Eliot or his name wouldn’t fit in with the palindromes and all the rest. I’m thinking John Townsend likes stuff like that too.

I didn’t set out to learn all those prime numbers, nor to decipher the anagrams, but was happy to let Eliot guide me. But I have to mention that it’s difficult to have Friday the 12th of July any time soon after a Friday the 13th. I couldn’t help checking this. And if the word for fear of Friday the 13th really is Paraskevidekatriaphobia, it will never be able to score you 44 or more in Scrabble, because the word is too long. (I might also have some doubts about the length of Summer term at Eliot’s school…)

Sorry.

It’s a short and entertaining book about a boy with special interests and his interactions with the villain of the piece, Victor. Victor is vile. Evil.

I was a little surprised by the crime, as well as its solution. I won’t say more.

Montmorency on the Rocks

The second of Eleanor Updale’s novels about Montmorency begins five years later, which means there are definitely no young people in it, apart from a few incidental babies. Much more of a 39 Steps setting, this book appears to be about drug use, and how to get off the drugs if you’ve been stupid enough to start.

Eleanor Updale, Montmorency on the Rocks

And it’s our hero, Montmorency, who is the addict, and it is horrible to behold. Perhaps that’s the idea. His aristocratic pal George does his best to help, even when he doesn’t want to be helped. They go to Scotland to recover, narrowly missing a bomb at King’s Cross. (This is the late 19th century, but it feels much like today in some ways.)

In Scotland another mystery introduces itself, which seems to be totally separate from the bomb. Both mysteries only get tackled by our heroes after some time, but it certainly gets exciting.

The drug problem, the poverty and the violence could be part of life anywhere, but maybe not the seemingly charmed existence led by the titled and the rich. It’s very wrong, but so charming and thrilling at the same time.

I’ll be interested to see where Montmorency will go from here. He’s not all nice, and he is clearly not getting younger. Or more law-abiding.

The Door That Led To Where

Whenever there is a new Sally Gardner book out, I just know it’s the best she has written. Same this time, with The Door That Led To Where, which features time travel, and is set in the part of London where Sally grew up. Thanks to the time travelling, she also manages to fit in almost-Dickensian London, which is something she knows a lot about.

Both these factors explain why the novel works so beautifully, on so many levels.

It begins with, if not bullying at home, then some serious discord between poor AJ and his single mum. He has achieved exactly one GCSE (but at least he got an A*) and his mum is fed up and sends him out to get a job. And what a job! He ends up as baby clerk at a law firm in Gray’s Inn.

Sally Gardner, The Door That Led To Where

And that’s where the trouble starts; AJ discovers a key with his name on, and it leads to London in 1830, and it’s a fascinating place. Dangerous, but no more so than AJ’s modern London. He and his two best friends are forever getting into serious scrapes with people, and being able to escape to an older London seems ideal.

Except, that also has its problems. The three of them need to decide where to stay, and they must sort out some time travelling problems that have escalated over the centuries.

Sally deals with both modern social problems and 19th century crime as though she was born to it. And that’s the thing. She is the most wonderful of storytellers, and she spins fantastic yarns and makes it all appear totally plausible. I believe I’ve finally worked out how she does it; Sally is a time traveller. She has been to old London, as well as living in the city we know now. It’s the only explanation.

This is one of the best books I’ve read.

And the cover in its simplicity is fiendishly clever and attractive.