Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Man who Went up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Man who Went up in Smoke is the second book in the Martin Beck series written by husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.  The couple planned the 10 books in the series and then wrote them together.  This book was published in 1969 and was very different from the other crime novels of the time.  Beck does not operate on his own but relies on his team to help him solve the cases.  He is not a handsome hero but an ordinary police officer whose marriage disintegrates as the series progresses.  To quote Val McDermid's introduction to the book, "the Swedish duo demonstrated that there was a different way to write about murder.  Through the eyes of Martin Beck and his colleagues, they held a mirror up to Swedish society at a time when the ideals of the welfare state were beginning to buckle under the realities of everyday life."

Beck is on holiday on an island when he gets a phone call from his chief asking him to investigate the disappearance of a Swedish journalist, Alf Matsson, in Budapest.  Beck agrees to sacrifice his family holiday to go to Hungary to investigate this case.  At this time Hungary is behind the Iron Curtain. The title of the book comes from a comment made by an official from the Foreign Office who says that the man has disappeared "but he can't have just gone up in smoke".  This story is different from Roseanna where there is a body although it takes some time to identify.  In this book there is not even a body.

I really enjoyed this book - there are so many twists and turns to the story that the reader is kept guessing until the end.  Of course, by this time Martin Beck has worked out what has happened to the journalist.  The descriptions of Budapest were so evocative that it is now on my list of cities to visit.  "The Danube was flowing past him on its calm, even course from north to south, not especially blue, but wide and majestic and indubitably very beautiful. On the other side of the river rose two softly curved hills crowned by a monument and a walled fortress."

Although Beck is on his own in Budapest, he does get help from the local police officer, Szluka. This proves to be invaluable as Beck uncovers a drug ring in which Matsson was involved.  Beck returns to Sweden without having found Matsson although he has found his passport, luggage and his hotel key.  He does not seem very keen to go back to the island to complete his family holiday and when his wife asks how he is, he replies "not well."

I am certainly planning to read the rest of the Martin Beck series if I can track down the books.  The next book in the series is The Man on the Balcony.


Sunday, 5 February 2017

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

In Bitter Chill is the debut novel by Sarah Ward and was published in 2015.  It is set in the Derbyshire Peak District and features Detective Inspector Francis Sadler and his team. The story begins with the suicide of a woman in a local hotel in Bampton.  It turns out that the woman's daughter Sophie was kidnapped, along with her friend Rachel Jones, in 1978.  Although Rachel managed to escape, her friend was never found.  Rachel only has vague reminiscences of the kidnapping and has tried to put the event behind her. She now works as a genealogist having done her university dissertation on the female line of her family.

The detectives start investigating the cold case but are taken off this when a woman's body is discovered in Truscott woods. She has been murdered and Sadler is convinced that this murder is linked both to the kidnapping and also to earlier events.

The plotting was very clever and I liked the way that the two stories were intertwined.  I also liked the structure of the book which allowed us to understand what Rachel was feeling as well as following the police as they tried to unravel all the various strands.  The characters are well drawn and believable - Sadler is a relatively normal police officer but we feel he does have a hidden side to him. 

The title of the book was very apt as the descriptions of the weather added to the atmosphere.  "Sadler glanced at the clouds moving quickly across the sky, mimicking the speeded-up images you sometimes saw on television.  No need for artificial trickery in the Derbyshire Peak District though.  That spine of rolling hills and gritstone edges that traversed the middle of England ended in Derbyshire, in a landscape of heart-stopping beauty.  When you could see it, that was."

This is a story of family secrets and what happens both while they are kept hidden and when they are revealed.  This was an excellent first novel and I am looking forward to reading Sarah's second book, A Deadly Thaw, which was published in 2016 and features the same police officers.

I have heard Sarah Ward speak at both Shetland Noir and Iceland Noir where she made very interesting contributions to the panel discussions.   She has a blog called Crimepieces where she reviews crime fiction.   

Thursday, 2 February 2017

The Pickwick Papers chapters 30 - 32

We have now read half of The Pickwick Papers so here is the reading schedule for the remainder of the book. More information about this Read-Along can be found on the Behold the Stars Blog.

XI – January 2017 (chapters 30–32)
XII – February 2017 (chapters 33–34)
XIII – March 2017 (chapters 35–37)
XIV – April 2017 (chapters 38–40)
XV – June 2017 (chapters 41–43)
XVI – July 2017 (chapters 44–46)
XVII – August 2017 (chapters 47-49)
XVIII – September 2017 (chapters 50–52)
XIX – October 2017 (chapters 53–55)
XX - November 2017 (chapters 56–57)

N.B. There's no Pickwick Papers for May 2017: in May 1837 Charles Dickens missed a deadline as he was in mourning for his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth.

Chapter 30 opens on Christmas morning with Sam informing Mr Pickwick that there are a couple of Sawbones downstairs.  Mr Pickwick was not quite certain whether a "sawbone" was a live animal or something to eat.  Sam enlightens him by explaining that these are surgeons whom Mr Pickwick is introduced to at breakfast.  Mr Benjamin Allen and Mr Bob Sawyer are actually medical students who proceed to discuss medical procedures over breakfast. 

After lunch the party decide to go skating as the weather continues to be fine and frosty.  Mr Winkle is persuaded to put on a pair of skates but needs Sam's help to get going as he can't skate.  Mr Pickwick calls to Sam that he wants him so "with a violent effort, Mr Weller disengaged himself from the grasp of the agonised Pickwickian, and in so doing, administered a considerable impetus to the unhappy Mr Winkle.  With an accuracy which no degree of dexterity or practice could have insured, that unfortunate gentleman bore swiftly down into the centre of the reel, at the very moment when Mr Bob Sawyer was performing a flourish of unparalleled beauty.  Mr Winkle struck wildly against him, and with a loud crash they both fell heavily down."  Mr Pickwick instructed to take Mr Winkle's skates off, calling him "a humbug."

The comedy continues as Mr Pickwick joins the others in going down a slide. "The sport was at its height, the sliding was at the quickest, the laughter was at the loudest, when a sharp smart crack was heard.  There was a quick rush towards the bank, a wild scream from the ladies, and a shout from Mr Tupman.  A large mass of ice disappeared; the water bubbled up over it; Mr Pickwick's hat, gloves, and handkerchief were floating on the surface; and this was all of Mr Pickwick that anyone could see."  Fortunately, the water is not too deep, so Mr Pickwick is able to get back onto dry land. 
The party broke up the next day with Mr Sawyer issuing an invitation to Mr Pickwick and his friends to visit him at his lodgings in London.

Chapter 31"is all about the law".  In this chapter Mr Pickwick's friends are given subpoenas by Mr Jackson from Dodson and Fogg.  Mr Pickwick asks Jackson is "it is the intention of your employers to seek to criminate me upon the testimony of my own friends."  Jackson does not reply.  Sam too is served with a subpoena but not before asking what that is in English.
The next day Mr Pickwick and Sam set off for Gray's Inn Square.  Sam points out that the 14th
of February, the day set for the court case, is a "reg'lar good day for a breach o' promise trial" as it is Valentine's Day.  Mr Pickwick does not think this is funny! Mr Pickwick tries to assure his lawyer, Mr Perker, of his innocence but Perker asks "who is to prove this?"  It becomes clear that Sam has been called to prove that Mr Pickwick was trying to make some offer to Mrs Bardell.  However Mr Perker does not think that "many counsel could get a great deal out of Sam."  Mr Pickwick is horrified to find out that if the action goes against him he will have to pay damages.  He says, "I beg to announce to you, my unalterable determination to pay no damages whatever."  The chapter ends with Mr Pickwick demanding to see Serjeant Snubbin who is going to defend him in court. The Serjeant does not seem particularly interested in Mr Pickwick's case, dismissing him "and was once more deeply immersed in the case before him: which arose out of an interminable lawsuit, originating in the act of an individual, deceased a century or so ago, who had stopped up a pathway leading from some place which nobody every came from, to some other place which nobody every went to."
Chapter 32 describes "a Bachelor's Party, given by Mr Bob Sawyer at his Lodgings".  These lodgings are in Lant Street which Dickens describes as follows: "the chief features of the still life of this street are green shutters, lodging-bills, brass door-plates, and bell-handles; the principal specimens of animated nature, the pot-boy, the muffin youth, and the baked-potato man.  The population is migratory, usually disappearing on the verge of quarter-day, and generally by night.  His Majesty's revenues are seldom collected in the happy valley; the rents are dubious; and the water communication is very frequently cut off."

As has already been hinted at, many people living in this street are in debt and often do not pay their debts.  Mr Sawyer is in debt to his landlady, Mrs Raddle who becomes upset when his friend calls her "an unreasonable woman" when she asks for the rent.  At this point Mr Pickwick and his friends arrive, followed by some other visitors.  There is drinking and card playing and the company become more and more boisterous as the evening progresses until the landlady tells Mr Sawyer to "turn them wretches out".  On seeing Mr Pickwick, she informs him that he was old enough to be his grand-father and was worse than any of them.    
Although this is a funny chapter, it also highlights the common practice in Victorian times of living "on tick" with no regard to how this affected the tradespeople who also had bills to pay.  This instalment introduces two themes which were to feature frequently in Dickens' later writing - the law, especially the time many cases took to be resolved, and the problem of debt.