When Was the Last Time That We’ve Opened a Book*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog on a regular basis, you’ll know that I don’t do book reviews. There are others a lot better qualified than I am to do that. But I do enjoy talking about books, especially with other book lovers. That’s one thing I love about the book blogging community.

Nearly five years ago, the book blogging community lost one of its dear friends, Maxine Clarke. As a way of remembering Maxine, and the contributions she made to the community, Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan made a terrific suggestion. It was his idea that different crime fiction bloggers would contribute reviews of fine crime fiction they’d read to Petrona Remembered, a rich resource for crime novels. I’m proud to say I’m contributing today.

Please pay me a visit at Petrona Remembered, where I’ll explain why I think Maxine would have really enjoyed Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy. Then, if you’re so inclined, please consider contributing a review of one of your own top crime fiction reads. Maxine always liked to hear about the books people were enjoying.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Into it. Over it’s Open a Book.

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Diamonds Never Lie to Me*

There’s something about jewels. In part, it’s their mystique, of course. But they are considered to have a lot of intrinsic value. What’s more, they’re often small, so they can be easily transported, traded, and so on. It’s little wonder, then, that the jewel trade is such a lucrative one. Companies such as De Beers have made fortunes through the years. That alone means that the jewel trade is a very attractive target for all sorts of crime.

That, plus the hold the jewel trade has on a lot of people’s imaginations, means that there are plenty of references to it in crime fiction. Here are just a few. I know you’ll think of others.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Demetrius Papopolous. Based in Paris, he is a highly respected dealer in jewels and valuable antiques. So, he’s aware of it right away when new collections of diamonds, rubies, and other jewels go on the market. This expertise makes him a very useful contact for Hercule Poirot, who’s tracing a valuable ruby known as Heart of Fire. It was purchased by wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin for his daughter, Ruth. But she’s been murdered, and the ruby (along with the necklace that held it) is gone. As one angle of investigation, Poirot tries to determine what’s happened to the jewel. As he interacts with M. Papopolous, we learn a little about the side of the jewel trade that involves exclusive dealers and their clients.

Jewel dealers have played an important role in times of anxiety, when people were scrambling to get as much ready cash as possible. For instance, during the last years of the Weimar Republic, many Germans were desperate for money. Their currency had little value, and the Great Depression of the early 1930’s was in full force. We see a bit of that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. Journalist Hannah Vogel lives and works in 1931 Berlin, not long before the Nazis take power. Everything is scarce, and very few people have money. Hannah herself has been slowly selling her jewelry, as her salary gives her barely enough to keep going. In the main plot of this story, she discovers to her shock that her brother, Ernst, has died. She wants to find out how and why, but she has to move very quietly, so as not to attract any attention. Still, she doesn’t give up; and in the end, she finds out the truth about Ernst’s death. Along the way, she has more than one conversation with Herr Mordecai Klein, the jeweler with whom she’d been doing business. Those conversations shed some interesting light on the way people used the jewel trade to manage during that time of panic.

Because the jewel trade is so lucrative, many governments cooperate with the mining industry to ensure a steady supply of gems. That’s what’s happened between the government of Botswana and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC) in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. The story starts when Professor of Ecology Bengani Sibisi and his guide discover the remains of an unknown man near rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the dead man wandered too far from camp and was attacked by wild animals. But it’s not quite that simple, and Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu begins to look into the matter more closely. There seems to be a connection between this death (and another) and BCMC, so Bengu and his team pay particular attention to the way the company does things. So, readers learn about how diamonds are discovered, how their ownership is established, and how they are bought, sold, and transferred.

Sometimes, of course, the jewel trade has a darker side. In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, for instance, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team are faced with a puzzling case. An unidentified Senegalese immigrant has been shot, execution-style, at one of the city’s open-air markets. The first step in trying to find out who the killer was is to find out more about the victim. So, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello start asking questions about the man. It takes some time, both because of the language barrier, and because the man was in Italy illegally. But eventually, Brunetti and Vianello find the home where the dead man lived. As they look through his possessions, they find a hidden cache of diamonds. Now, the case takes on a whole new complexity as the detectives link this murder to the illegal ‘conflict diamonds’ trade.

And then there’s Faye Kellerman’s Sanctuary. In one plot thread of this novel, LAPD Detective Peter Decker and his police partner, Marge Dunn, investigate a strange disappearance. Wealthy Los Angeles jewel dealer Arik Yalom and his family have disappeared. Later, the Yalom parents are found dead, and their two teenage sons are suspected. But they’re still missing. So, Decker and Dunn follow leads through Los Angeles’ diamond district, all the way to South Africa, and eventually to Israel, the Yalom family’s original home. Along the way, readers learn something about the diamond industry and its worldwide reach.

Diamonds and other jewels really do have a fascination for a lot of people. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see that industry showing up in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Barry and Don Black’s Diamonds Are Forever.

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Spendin’ All Our Money on Brand New Novels*

About a week ago, I asked for your opinions about the book formats you prefer. Thanks very much to those of you who got involved in the conversation. I learned a lot, and it was really interesting to discuss how we read, and what we like and dislike about the different reading formats. Thanks to those of you who voted in the poll, too. I thought it might be interesting to take a bit of a closer look at your responses. Let’s see what you had to say.

Here’s what you told me about your reading preferences:
 

 

As you can see, of the 18 of you who indicated a specific preference, 14 (78%) told me that you prefer paper books. And there is a lot to recommend them. A few of you commented about the special feeling of a paper book. Others of you had other reasons for liking paper format the best. Three of you (17%) told me that you prefer ebooks, and there are some good reasons to do so. They’re convenient, often less expensive, and so on. One of you (5%) said you prefer audio books. There’s nothing like that format for taking a walk, getting chores done, and that commute. But the majority of you said you prefer paper books.

On the surface of it, then, it would seem that publishers and self-publishers should focus on the paper format if your opinions are representative of the wider community of book buyers. But it’s not that simple. If we look a little more closely at your preferences, we can see that it isn’t a matter of everyone preferring a particular format to the exclusion of all others. You’ll notice here that the number of responses is a bit higher here. I would say that’s likely because of the number of you who told me you don’t have a reading preference, and the fact that you were free to make multiple choices (e.g. ‘I prefer paper…’ and ‘I have a preference, but I buy other formats.’). That said, let’s see what more you told me about your preferences:
 

 

As you can see, of the 23 of you who told me something about your reading preferences, 17 of you (74%) told me that you have a preference, but that you buy more than one format. That makes sense, too, if you think about it. You may, for instance, read mostly paper books at home, but take an e-reader when you travel. Or, you may prefer e-books, but buy paper books when it’s a special edition, an author you love, or for some other particular reason. Two of you (9%) told me that you have no format preference. That flexibility gives the reader access to a wider selection of books from more places. Four of you (17%) told me that you have a very strong preference, and won’t buy other formats. What that means to me is that most of you (83%) buy more than one format, whether or not you have a preference.

And that’s an important thing for authors, publishers and publicists to keep in mind. As I see this, if your opinions reflect the opinions of most book buyers, then you don’t confine yourself to just one format. So, if a publisher or author wants to get books into as many hands as possible, it makes sense to have them available in different formats. That’s particularly true for authors and publishers who want to do business in other countries. That means more time and potentially more cost. But if it also means a wider audience, it may be worth it.

That said, it seems that, at least among you folks, people really do like their paper books. What do you folks think of all of this? If you’re an author, do you make your work available in multiple formats?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Moxy Fruvous’ My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors.

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We Were Ready For Adventures and We Wanted Them All*

As this is posted, it’s 134 years since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was published as a novel (it had previously been published in serial form in Young Folks magazine). Even now, the story is popular, although our lives are, in many ways, so much different.

There’s just something about adventure stories such as Treasure Island that can capture the imagination, and keep readers turning or swiping pages. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that there are so many adventure stories in crime fiction. Readers get to take part in the adventure without really undergoing the actual dangers. These stories can be fun, too.

Agatha Christie wrote more than one adventure-type crime novel. For instance, in The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with no real family, and little in the way of money. She decides she doesn’t want to stay in London, but isn’t sure at first just what she does want to do. Then one day, she happens to be on hand when a man falls, or is pushed, under a train. She finds a piece of paper that had been in the dead man’s pocket, and soon works out that it refers to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, she books passage and prepares for an adventure. And adventure is what she gets. She discovers that the man’s death (and another death) are related to international intrigue, stolen jewels, and a crime syndicate.

In Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide, we are introduced to Brisbane police officer Chayse Jarrett. He’s been assigned to work on the investigation of the murder of a deckhand, Ewan McKay. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton, captain of the trawler Sea Mistress, has been accused of the murder, and it’s believed that it all might be connected to the drugs trade. Jarrett is instructed to go undercover on Sea Mistress and find out whether Bretton is involved in the drugs trade, and whether he killed McKay. As it happens, Bretton broke his leg in the incident that ended in McKay’s murder, so he’s not able to skipper Sea Mistress. His daughter, Samantha ‘Sam’ wants to take his place, so that the family’s income won’t be in jeopardy. Bretton doesn’t like the idea, but he also sees little choice if the family is to keep going. So, he gives his consent, and Sam takes the wheel, with Jarrett on board as the new deckhand, and her other crewmate Bill Marvin rounding out the team. The crew soon finds that the sea isn’t their only danger. For one thing, Melbourne drug lord Stefan Kosanovos is trying to make inroads by sea into Brisbane, and does not welcome any interference. For another, both Sam Bretton and Chayse Jarrett are determined to find and bring down McKay’s murderer, and that presents its own risks. In the end, we learn who killed McKay and why, and how it’s connected with the long-ago voyage of another ship. This is a crime novel, but it’s also an adventure story, with narrow escapes, nasty villains, and so on.

Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night sends octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz on a series of adventures. He’s recently moved to Norway to be nearer his granddaughter, Rhea, and her Norwegian husband. The plan is for him to settle into life as an older man, living out his final years peacefully. That’s not what happens, though. One day, Horowitz inadvertently witnesses the murder of a young woman. He rescues her young son, and the two of them go on the lam, since it’s very likely that the killers will go after the boy next. As the police look for the killer, Horowitz and his travel companion go on all sorts of adventures, including on a tractor. In the end, they help to catch the killer.

Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series is the story of Sister Thomas Josephine. It’s 1864, and Sister Josephine is making her way across the western United States from her convent in St. Louis to a new life in Sacramento. Sister Josephine is intelligent and quick-thinking, and she’s not so naïve as to believe that everyone she meets is going to be pleasant and helpful. But she’s not prepared, at least at first, for the adventure and risks that she’ll encounter. Theft, murder, arson, and more are a part of life in what’s often been called ‘the Wild West,’ and Sister Josephine runs into more than her share of those dangers. She learns quickly, though, and becomes, if I can put it this way, a little tougher as time goes by. In the end, she adapts to this very adventurous life. Holbern has set up this story as a series of short (novella-length) books, some of which end on cliffhangers. That sort of story ending isn’t to everyone’s liking, but it reflects the fact that this is an adventure series as much as it is anything else.

There’s also Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty, and F***ed. In that novel, we meet Martin Carter, a banker who’s just been made redundant. As if that’s not enough, his marriage has fallen apart. On his last day of work, Carter gives in to temptation, and makes off with a million-dollar payroll. He makes his escape in a stolen police-issue 4WD, and takes off on what turns out to be a series of adventures.

Adventure stories can require more suspension of disbelief than some readers want. But they can be exciting and fun, too. Little wonder so many people love them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jim Steinman’s Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are.

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In The Spotlight: Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crimes don’t impact just the victim and the perpetrator. They also impact the victim’s family, and that effect can last for a very long time. To see how this works, let’s turn the spotlight today on Belinda Bauer’s debut novel, Blacklands.

As the story begins, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his Nan, Gloria, in a small, working-class house in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. But this isn’t a typical working-class family. Nineteen years ago, Steven’s uncle (and Gloria’s son), Billy Peters, went missing and never returned. It’s always been believed that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s now in prison for other child murders. But Billy’s body was never found, and the family has been left bereft and without answers.

Steven feels the family’s pain; it plays out in many different ways. And he wants his family to be whole. So, he decides to dig on the moor and see if he can find Billy’s body. At least then, he thinks, he’ll get some recognition, and be able to put his family together. He doesn’t have any luck, but then he gets another, more daring idea. He decides to write to Arnold Avery in prison, and try to find out from him where Uncle Billy is buried.

Thus begins a correspondence between Steven and Avery. As time goes on, it becomes almost a sort of ‘cat and mouse’ game, with each of them trying to stake out a position of power. Steven doesn’t tell anyone in his family about what’s going on, thinking that he can manage it on his own, and that he doesn’t want to hurt, especially, his grandmother any more than has already happened. As the story moves on, the stakes get higher and higher. And in the end, we see that Steven’s choice to try to find out the truth about his uncle’s death will have a real impact on everyone.

The two main characters in this novel are Steven Lamb and Arnold Avery. So, the story is told from their perspectives (third person, past tense). We see how each one reacts to the exchange of letters, and we learn about what life is like for each.

Steven never met his uncle, but Billy Peters’ death has had a profound effect on his life. His family is fractured; and, although his mother does try to take care of him and Davey, she’s got her own issues. And his Nan is still grieving her son’s loss. That loss has affected Lettie, too. She’s felt ‘second best,’ since all the attention was on her brother. And, perhaps without being aware of it, that plays out in her relationships with her own children, as she prefers Davey over Steven. There’s certainly not a lot of joy in the house, and little affection. And, with both Gloria and Lettie preoccupied with their own grief, the two young boys don’t get a much loving attention.

The family also faces harsh economic realities. There’s not much money, and very few treats. The house is adequate, but not particularly nice; and there’s little left over for new things. Steven doesn’t get a lot of support at home, and has few things that the other boys at school would envy. So it’s not hard to imagine how he’s become the target of bullies. That, too, makes his life miserable. Steven is a brave boy, and his ability to stay tough becomes important. But he is still just a boy who would very much like a loving mum.

For his part, Arnold Avery has become accustomed to prison life. Through his eyes, we see what daily life is like in a contemporary men’s prison. It’s not a pleasant place, and Avery has an especially difficult time of it, because he’s in for raping and killing children. In the world of prison, nothing is lower than that; in fact, he’s assigned guards to escort him to meals and so on so that he won’t be attacked or killed. Still, he’s working on being a model prisoner, because he has plans for after he gets out – plans that he has no intention of sharing with his psychiatrist. Avery has contempt for just about everyone else, seeing them all as his intellectual inferiors. He is not in the least bit sympathetic, but he does have a way of getting people to talk to him and believe him, and it’s possible to see how he could get his victims to relax around him.

The story takes place in Dartmoor and Exmoor, and that moor setting is an important element in this novel. Moors can be beautiful. But they can also be bleak, lonely, and subject to very unstable weather patterns. There are bogs and sometimes very dense fogs that can completely disorient even someone who lives nearby. That context adds to the atmosphere of the novel.

There isn’t a lot of ‘onscreen’ brutal violence in the novel. But readers who do not like stories in which children come to harm will want to know that they have in this novel. Bauer doesn’t give detailed descriptions, but she doesn’t gloss over what’s happened, either.

Blacklands is the story of a family struggling to cope, even years after the tragedy that devastated them. It offers a look at the crime from the perspective of a brave young boy who wishes he were a lot older and more mature than he is, and who just wants to have a real family. And it takes place in some of the UK’s more beautiful, and more dangerous, natural settings. But what’s your view? Have you read Blacklands? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 20 November/Tuesday, 21 November – Dead Lemons – Finn Bell

Monday, 27 November/Tuesday, 28 November – Days Are Like Grass – Sue Younger

Monday, 4 December/Tuesday, 5 December – The Student Body – Simon Wyatt

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