CrimeFest, the prestigious international crime fiction convention, is a gathering of writers, readers, journalists, bloggers, and publishers staged every year in Bristol. Over four days, a series of author panels discuss crime writing, their novels, contemporary and historical issues, other writers and a host of book-related issues. You won’t be surprised to hear that most authors are pretty good at talking about their own work. The authors here managed to talk me into buying their books with the descriptions they gave. The basic descriptions below are drawn from the respective blurbs, but I’ve added comments on what attracted me. Maybe you already know some of these authors, but I hope a couple arouse your interest.

 

G.D. Abson

Motherland (2018). The first in a new series with a contemporary feel set in modern-day St. Petersburg. Captain Natalya Ivanova is smart and resourceful. After a night out on the town, Zena Dahl, a Swedish student and daughter of a millionaire, goes missing. There’s a lot more to the case than meets the eye in this violent thriller that gets under the skin of the city.

Black Wolf (2019). To be fair, I didn’t buy this one, I asked the publisher for a review copy. When the body of a young woman turns up on the outskirts of the city during the height of winter, any trace of the killer is lost in the overnight snowfall. Captain Natalya Ivanova soon finds out that the victim is linked to the Decembrists, a dissident group opposed to President Putin and his cronies. The security services jump in and close down the investigation, the victim is smeared in the press – clearly the authorities have something to hide. When a second activist goes missing, it’s not just Ivanova’s career that at stake, but maybe her life and her family are too.

PB: I like the sound of the female detective as the main protagonist in the stories and the political setting. St. Petersburg is a fascinatingly exotic location. Abson gave us a little flavour of his adventures in research with a police officer, vodka and a failed attempt to infiltrate a Russian police station. Both novels sound like a healthy mix of action and intelligent plotting.

    

Guy Bolton

The Pictures (2017). First in a series. Jonathan Craine is an LAPD detective, he’s a bit jaded, he’s spent his career as a fixer, cleaning up the mess for the film studios. Making crimes disappear and protecting the image of the billion-dollar industry. The death of one of the executives on The Wizard of Oz is highly suspicious. Craine’s job is to smooth things over and protect the reputation of rising starlet and widow, Gale Goodwin. Craine knows better, but he’s drawn to Goodwin. A tale of conspiracy involving the mob, prostitution and stolen photos.

The Syndicate (2018). June, 1947. Jonathan Craine got out of LA and the Hollywood cesspool, but he is summoned to Las Vegas when gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel is shot down at his girlfriend’s house in Beverley Hills. Craine has five days to find the killer or his family will suffer. His only ally is a reporter with an agenda of her own.

PB: This is a fascinating period and Hollywood/Vegas make for a great background. People did literally get away with murder because the system protected them. Bolton emphasised the power the studios had at the time. The fact that the first novel is set in 1939 but isn’t actually dominated by the onset of WWII is interesting. Bolton says he is meticulous with detail and history and acutely aware of the need to be fair to the many characters who really existed. Hollywood was the kind of place where conspiracies didn’t only exist on the screen. I was totally intrigued.

   

Will Dean

Dark Pines (2018). See no evil – the victims’ eyes have been removed from the two bodies found in the forest near a remote Swedish town. Hear no evil – a local reporter is looking for the story to make her career, Tuva Moodyson is deaf. Speak on evil – lies and secrets lead all the way back to a murder twenty years earlier. If Tuva doesn’t find the killer, she could become the next victim. If she is ever to escape Gavrik, she is going to have to face her own demons and the darkness of the forest.

Red Snow (2019). Two bodies – one a suicide and one murder, but are they connected? Is there something going on in Gavrik? Two coins – the locals start stockpiling the ammunition as #Ferryman starts to trend on social media after it emerges the murdered man had black Grimberg liquorice coins on his eyes. Two weeks – Tuva has a fortnight to investigate before she starts her new job down south. Tuva investigates the Grimberg factory as a storm settles in further isolating the village.

PB: Dean, a kind of clean version of Jon Snow, also comes from the north, he lives in the north of Sweden. Tuva is a unique-sounding investigator, Dean says Tuva’s deafness is not a gimmick but colours the way she investigates the case (l was reminded of Emma Viskic’s deaf character). He made the vast, open landscape of northern Sweden the setting for the novels, which sounds very appealing (you can walk through the forest for more than a day without reaching the other side). Yet, it sounds like both of these books are claustrophobic tales of small town life.

Dominick Donald

Breathe (2018). London, 1952. Dick Bourton is a probationary policemen in Notting Hill. He’s from Cotswold farming stock, ex-services in Korea, a bit older than the others. His girlfriend is a Russian émigré, Anna. A colleague is shot by a petty gangster in the middle of a chase during a pea souper. When Bourton starts to make connections to other murders in the fog, his superiors don’t want to see where he going.

PB: I don’t actually remember the pea soupers, but they are the stuff of legend for those who were there. Imagine a fog that suddenly comes into the building and prevents you seeing the screen in a cinema or outside prevents you finding your way home. This city, this time, is intriguing. Donald just happened to drop the fact that his grandfather was a spy into the talk. In fairness, Donald was actually making the case for Gavin Lyall as a writer to remember and not talking about his own book, but I was swayed by the way he clearly understood the politics/history of the metropolis.

 

Indrek Hargla

Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church (2015). First in a series. Set in 15th century Tallinn, on the edge of the Christian world. St. Olaf’s Church is being built, the tallest building in the known world. Apothecary Melchior is a divisive figure in the town: respected for his arcane knowledge and scientific curiosity, but also feared for his mystical witchdoctor aura. When a murder is committed in the castle Melchior is called in to investigate, the city has a killer on the loose. Uncovering a secret that has been hidden for many years places Melchior in danger.

Apothecary Melchior and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street (2016). Tallinn, Estonia, 1419. A prostitute, a painter and a watchman all claim to have seen a ghost; within hours they are all dead. Melchior Wakenstede, apothecary and assistant bailiff, must find the killer or expose the supernatural forces at work in the city.

PB: The blurb mentions C.J. Samson’s Matthew Shardlake and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, two completely different kinds of detectives, two different kinds of writing (confusing). I hope these books are more like the former. What struck me the most about what Hargla said was that these books are set in the fifteenth century, a century of peace in Estonia, there were no wars or major upheavals. The point being that every violent death had more significance. The clash of logic with superstition is irresistible.

 

Vanda Symon

Overkill (2018). First in a series set in New Zealand. The apparent suicide of a young mother shocks the small rural community on the Mataura River, but is everything as it seems? Constable Sam Shephard soon realises it’s murder. The dead woman was the wife of Shephard’s former lover. She takes matters in her own hands when she is suspended, a potential suspect in the killing. Shephard needs to clear her name.

Ringmaster (2019). Sam Shephard is in the dog house and her boss has got it in for her. A student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens, but it’s not the only murder. There’s a killer on the loose in Dunedin. What has it all got to do with the visiting circus?

PB: I read crime from all over the world and there’s a rich history in New Zealand going all the way back to Ngaio Marsh, but I got the impression from listening to Symon talk that her novels could be original. The exotic location helps, as does the circus, but I’m also drawn to the female detective because I think we have been getting more radical crime fiction with female protagonists recently.

Paul Burke
May 2019