Crime Fiction News Break


Links You’ll Want 


Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Novel of the Year

Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel


Le French Book

Sue Coletta



In Memoriam…

This episode of Crime Fiction News Break was recorded before news came of the death of Henning Mankell, talented author and the creator of the iconic Kurt Wallander. The crime fiction world is smaller without him. This episode is dedicated to his memory.


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In The Spotlight: Leonardo Padura’s Havana Red*

>In The Spotlight: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last RitualsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels and series are at least as much literary fiction as they are crime and mystery fiction. In those cases, we don’t just read the story of a crime and its investigation. We also get a close look at life in a certain place among certain people. Many literary crime novels also explore themes, sometimes at greater length and in more depth than you might see in a ‘purely’ (Is there such a thing?) crime novel. Such a series is Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde series, so let’s turn the spotlight on one of those novels today. Let’s focus on Havana Red, the third novel in this Havana Quartet.

Mario Conde is a Havana police detective who’s been ‘sidelined’ to the Information Bureau at Police Headquarters. The official reason is that Internal Affairs is investigating an incident in which he had a very public dust-up with Lieutenant Fabricio. There are hints that more is at stake than that.

During the full heat of the summer of 1989, Conde’s ‘exile’ is temporarily ended when his boss, Major Antonio Rangel, assigns him to a new case. The body of a man dressed in a woman’s red dress has been found in Havana Park. At first, it seems like a not-very-surprising hate crime against a transvestite. But there’s more to this case than that. For one thing, the victim turns out to be Alexis Arayán, son of powerful and well-connected diplomat Faustino Arayán. So the investigation will have to be quiet and careful, and the family will need to be protected from publicity. For another thing, it’s not immediately clear whether this is a murder or a suicide.

If it is a suicide, it wouldn’t be shocking. Some evidence suggests that the victim was contemplating taking his own life. And in Havana at that time, being homosexual, especially in such an obvious way, carries terrible social consequences. Arayán wouldn’t be the first to succumb to the urge to give up on life.

Conde begins by talking to those closest to the victim: his family members and friends. From them he gradually develops a portrait of the dead man. He also narrows down possible leads as to how and why he died. One possibility, of course, is that it was the hate crime it seems on the surface. Another is that it is connected to the Catholic Feast of the Transformation, which took place on the day of his death. There’s also the connections that Arayán had with the Havana arts community, in particular the Centre for Cultural Heritage. There are avenues there to be explored, too.

In the meantime, the internal investigation at the police department has widened in scope; several people are now in the proverbial crosshairs. So Conde has to deal with that disruption as well as with the murder investigation. And there’s a very real chance that he could be specifically targeted. That could have dire consequences for him. In the end, though, he gets to the truth about Alexis Arayán’s murder.

As I mentioned, this is as much a literary novel as anything else. In it, Padura explores several themes. One of them is of course bigotry and homophobia, and their impact on people. Conde himself confronts and struggles with his own prejudice as the story goes on; it isn’t always a winning battle for him, but he does at least admit his bias. There’s also bias on a larger scale, as we learn about the Cuban government’s views of homosexuals, at least during that era.

Another theme is arguably hypocrisy. At the same time as homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric (and worse) are common, there are plenty of people who have secret gay relationships. At the same time as people are urged to

‘‘…purify myself by contact with the working class,’’

and forgo luxury, those in power have access to fine houses, the best food, wine and cigars, and so on. So there is real cynicism about the government’s aims.

We also get a close look at life in Havana during the late 1980s. With the advent of Soviet policies such as glasnost and perestroika, there is a slightly more open attitude towards capitalism and towards more open communication with the US and its allies. Still, the Cuban government remains firmly Communist and firmly in control of the press, the arts and so on. All of this impacts daily life in Cuba. It’s a place where things like coffee are rationed, and where housing is hard to find unless you happen to have a lot of money. It’s also a place where saying the wrong thing can still get you in trouble, despite the slight relaxation of government policies.

And yet, it’s not an entirely dismal place. Even in the heat, it’s visually beautiful, and life goes on there and even goes well. There are friendships, birthdays, love affairs, and all the rest of the stuff of life. Despite the sometimes very unpleasant undercurrent, there isn’t a sense of complete bleakness.

Through it all moves Mario Conde, who is, as his creator has said,

‘…a metaphor, not a policeman.’

He represents the ordinary Havana man trying to negotiate his life as the city he remembers from his youth moves towards the end of the 20th Century. The story is told in third person, from his point of view, so we follow along as he lives his life. This perspective allows Padura to hold up a mirror to the society of that time.

The pace of the story is unhurried, as the story focuses on everyday life as much as it does the mystery. Readers who prefer a fast pace and a focus only on the case at hand will notice this. Readers will also notice that the novel isn’t really linear. There are several places where we learn about the past experiences of various characters, including Conde. They are presented as reminiscences, rather than separate chapters or sections. This also impacts the pace of the story, as does the narrative description. Readers who enjoy descriptive detail will be pleased.

Conde arrives at the solution to the mystery through evidence, through interviews, and through his own deductions. And the truth he finds is reflective of the society in which he lives. So is the character of the sleuth who discovers it.

Havana Red is a literary journey through Havana in the hot summer of 1989. That journey’s focus is a case of murder, but it’s by no means limited to that. It features a detective who is quintessentially Cuban, and takes place at a time of great change in the country. But what’s your view? Have you read Havana Red? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 12 October/Tuesday 13 October – Crossbones Yard – Kate Rhodes

Monday 17 October/Tuesday 18 October – Double Indemnity – James M. Cain

Monday 24 October/Tuesday 25 October – Long Way Home – Eva Dolan


Filed under Havana Red, Leonardo Padura

This is My Quest*

QuestsOne of the timeless of plot contexts in literature is the quest – the purposeful journey. That journey may be literal or figurative; the purpose of it may also be literal or figurative. Either way, quests promise rewards that, at least for the protagonist, make the journey worth the effort. And they pose great risks. That combination can make for suspense, conflict and character development, all of which are elements of a high-quality crime novel. So it really shouldn’t be surprising that there are quests all through the genre. You could even argue that investigating a crime is a quest, and you’d have a solid basis for that argument. But even leaving that aside, many crime novels involve quests.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murders of Enoch Drebber, a recent arrival to London from the US. At one point, his secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected. But when he, too, is killed, it’s clear that someone was actually targeting both victims. And so it proves to be. As Holmes and Watson learn, this case has its roots in the past. Both Drebber and Stangerson had something to hide – something for which the killer wanted revenge. And it all has its start in a quest for a place of safety.

Agatha Christie’s short story Manx Gold also involves a quest, this time for a treasure. Engaged couple Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has died. They travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will, only to learn that he’s arranged a competition. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island. Each of the possible heirs to the fortune will receive the same clues to the treasure’s location. The one who finds the treasure first gets to claim it. Very soon several potential heirs are off on the quest for the treasure. Then there’s a murder. Now Fenella and Juan begin to wonder whether someone might be targeting the heirs in order to be assured of a win. Interestingly, Christie wrote this story on commission to increase tourism to the island. Visitors were given copies of the story, which was printed in instalments. Their quest was to find four identical snuffboxes, each of which contained a Manx penny. The prize for the person who could succeed on this quest was to be £100, but no-one was ever able to claim it.

Jonathan Gash’s The Judas Pair introduces readers to antiques dealer and expert Lovejoy. The last thing on his mind is to become a detective (other than hunting down antiques), but everything changes when he meets George Field. Field is looking for a particular pair of antique dueling pistols called the Judas Pair. They’re the stuff of legend among antiques dealers and collectors, and most don’t even think the pistols exist. Certainly Lovejoy doesn’t. But Fields says they do; in fact, one of them was used to shoot his brother Eric. Fields believes that if he can find the Judas Pair, he’ll find his brother’s killer. So he asks Lovejoy to track down the pistols. Lovejoy isn’t overly drawn to the case by the thought of catching a killer, but the pistols themselves are another matter altogether. So he agrees to start looking. The quest for the pistols takes Lovejoy through the antiques and collecting communities, and puts him in very grave danger.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s series features Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur and his team. Fans of this series will know that Erlendur is haunted by a tragedy that occurred when he was a boy. He and his brother Bergur were caught in a blizzard one day. Erlendur survived, but Bergur was never found. No-one has even discovered his body. On one level, Erlendur feels a powerful sense of guilt over not protecting his brother, and over surviving when his brother did not. On another level, he wants to know what happened to his brother. So, in one story arc in this series, Erlendur goes on a quest to find out anything he can about that day and about what might have happened to Bergur

There’s a different sort of quest in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). Gundar Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He is no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable. He’s also hardworking and reliable – the steady kind. So he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be able to find a wife. His sister Marie is shocked when Gundar tells her that he is going to travel to India to find a bride. He goes to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai, who works in a café there. The two are soon taken with each other, and it’s not long before Poona agrees to marry him. The plan is for Gundar to return to Norway, where Poona will join him soon, after she finishes up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Marie is involved in a terrible car crash, and Gundar cannot leave her. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport. The two miss each other, though, and Poona never makes it to Gundar’s house. When her body is found in a field not far from the house, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. They find that they have to penetrate a proverbial ‘wall of silence’ in order to find out the truth about that day.

And then there’s Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom. British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is given a very difficult assignment. He’s told to go to Thailand and recover a lead-covered black box from the Andaman Sea. Apparently the box was on board a ship that was sunk, and is still under the water. This is going to be an especially challenging quest for Swann. The last time he was in Thailand, he was involved in another operation where he had a dangerous encounter with powerful crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Although he saved Tuk-Tuk’s life that day, he ended up killing Tuk-Tuk’s son Arune, and wounding his ‘right hand man’ Choy Lee. So he will not be welcomed warmly in Thailand. He can’t avoid Tuk-Tuk, either because the man is too powerful. If Swann is going to launch the kind of operation he’ll need to recover the box, he’ll need people, material and support that only Tuk-Tuk can guarantee. So he’s going to have to make his peace with the crime boss. This quest takes on a whole new dimension when there two attempts on Swann’s life. Then two of his friends are brutally murdered. Now he’s up against an enemy he didn’t really know he had, and whom he can’t even identify.

And that’s the thing about quests. They can get very dangerous at times. But they do add suspense to stories, and they are an important part of the human experience. They’re a part of our literary heritage too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s The Impossible Dream.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Gash, Karin Fossum

You Take Your Pension in Loneliness and Alcohol*

Dysfunctional DetectivesWe’ve all read and talked about them: fictional sleuths who can’t seem to get (or keep) their lives together. Because of trauma or something else, they don’t seem to be able to manage their lives.

Dysfunctional sleuths may show that dysfunction in any number of ways (e.g. drugs/alcohol, a series of ruined relationships, psychological instability). None of this means that these characters can’t solve crimes; some are brilliant. And many (I’m looking at you, Inspector Morse!) are beloved. But they have blind spots, if you want to put it that way, that they just can’t seem to overcome.

Some people don’t mind severe dysfunction in their sleuths. Others dislike such sleuths, or are at the very least tired of them. It all got me to wondering just how prevalent this dysfunction is. So I decided to take a look at this question.

I chose 278 books from among those I have read. For each book, I noted whether the protagonist was or wasn’t functional. People define functionality in different ways, so I admit that my thinking may be different from yours on some cases. But I also think there are enough clear cases (I’m thinking of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, for instance, who is dysfunctional; and of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache, who is functional) that I might get some meaning from this data.

Here’s what I found.

Functional vs Dysfunctional Detectives

Overall, 68 of the books I looked at (25%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. Overall, 210 (75%) feature functional protagonists. So on the surface, it looks as though most of the protagonists have their lives together.

If that’s true, then why does it seem that so many protagonists aren’t functional? I decided to look at my data a little more closely to get at that question. I divided the books in the data set into four categories based on year of publication: Classic/Golden Age; 1950-1990; 1990-2000; 2000-Present. In doing this I was hoping to see whether the proportion of dysfunctional protagonists has increased over time. Here’s what I found.

Functional vs Dysfunctional Protagonists Over Time

As you can see, the proportion of dysfunctional protagonists in the Classic/Golden Age books in the data set is very small (2 of 38, or 5%). Things change quite a lot in the period between 1950 and 1990. Here, we have 13 of the 54 books (24%) featuring dysfunctional protagonists. Why the change? I’m no psychology expert, but there was a great deal of increasing knowledge about and interest in psychology and psychopathology during these years. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be reflected in the books of the time.

Now, let’s consider the period between 1990 and 2000. I chose this decade deliberately, because I had the feeling that that’s when the rise of the modern dysfunctional detective became more marked. As you see, 11 of the 34 books in that data set (34%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. It’s important to note here that this doesn’t prove a whole lot; there aren’t enough books in this set to make that much of a leap. But I did think it markedly interesting that this is when we see a lot of such detectives making their entrances.

Finally, there’s the last fifteen years (2000-present). Of the 142 books in this category, 42 (30%) feature dysfunctional protagonists. It’s interesting that there are still plenty of unhealthy protagonists out there. But if you notice, the proportion seems to be dropping, at least among the books that are in my data set.

Admittedly, as ever, this set is limited. By no means have I read all of the crime fiction out there. The books in this set don’t include every book I’ve read, either. So in those important ways, we don’t see the whole scope of what’s happening on the crime fiction scene.

But I think this data may suggest a few things. One is that the mentally stable, functional protagonist is still alive and well, thank you very much. Such protagonists certainly have their share of trouble – even tragedy. Once in a while they drink more than is wise; or, they may stray in their relationships. No-one is perfect. But overall, they have their lives in healthy places. I wonder if this data also suggests that the dysfunctional protagonist, who cannot make a wise decision, or who never stays sober, is becoming less popular. This is a tentative conclusion, of course. I haven’t researched people’s opinions. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the definition of what ‘counts’ as functionaal or not varies. But I do wonder whether that is a trend we’re seeing.

What do you think? Do you think we’re seeing fewer dysfunctional detectives? Do you see that as a positive trend?

ps. A special thanks to FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews. You definitely want this excellent blog on your roll if you enjoy crime fiction. Top-notch reviews, wit, porpentines and little green men await you there. And Mr. Darcy. It’s a must-visit for me. It was an interesting comment exchange with FictionFan that got me thinking about this whole question.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Squier’s Everybody Wants You.


Filed under Uncategorized

I Thought You Were Nice*

Håkan Östlund författareDiscovering a ‘new-to-you’ author is one of the real privileges of reading crime fiction. Those great new finds add zest and interest to one’s reading life (I know, and books to the TBR…). That’s why I’m so pleased that Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has created a terrific New (to me, anyway) Authors meme. Each quarter, crime fiction fans are invited to share blog posts about authors whose work they’ve discovered for the first time. Sound good? Do join in if you’d like! And while you’re at Kerrie’s excellent blog, have a look around. It’s a top source of great crime fiction reads, and one of my must-stops.

This quarter, my choice is Håkan Östlundh. Östlundh was born in Uppsala, and raised in Stockholm, where he still lives, except for summers, which he spends in Gotland. His background is in journalism and television, and he’s written for Sweden’s most well-regarded paper.

Östlundh is the author of the (thus far) seven-novel Fredrik Borman series. I first got to The Intruderknow him through The Intruder, the fifth in that series. Borman is a police detective based in Gotland. Unlike many modern sleuths, Borman is functional, and has stable, loving relationships with his wife Ninni and his two sons, Joakim and Simon. In this novel, he and his police partner Sara Oskarsson investigate a bizarre case involving professional blogger Malin Andersson and her husband, photographer Henrik Kjellander. When they and their children travel for two months, they sub-let their home to temporary residents as a way to make some extra money. But they regret that choice very soon when they return. First, they find several dishes and utensils missing. There’s trash everywhere, several sticky messes, and much worse. At first, they put it down to sloppy, rude tenants. But then, Malin finds that one of the family photographs has been mutilated. Others are missing. Now it seems clear that this is some sort of personal attack, so Borman and his team are called in. As they look into the case, other, more frightening, things happen, and it’s clear that the police are going to have to find out who’s responsible very quickly, before worse happens. In the end, it’s all connected to past events, and to a complex family history.

This is a series that hasn’t all been translated into English. I know that Fredrik Borman #4 (The Viper) has (at least in the US), and I am hoping that more of this series will be available in English.


Want to know more about Håkan Östlundh? His website is here. His Goodreads author page is right here.

Want to know more about The Intruder? It’s right here.

Want to know more about The Viper? Here it is.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Softies’ About You.


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