Recommendations from the SMSA Crime & Mystery Book Club

This month the theme was debuts and we managed to collate about 9 books that we recommend: 

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The Devil's Playground by Stav Sherev
This debut novel by Englishman Stav Sherev was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger in 2004.  The plot starts when a body of a tramp, Jake Colby, is found in a secluded park in Amsterdam.  The Dutch detective on the case, Ronald Van Hijn, believes the tramp is the ninth victim of a serial  killer stalking the city, even though the the previous victims were young and female. The corpse has contact details for an Englishman, Jon Reed, who befriended Jake in London shortly before the murder. Van Hijn calls Jon to Amsterdam and this begins Jon's own journey into Jake's identity and his and his family's past.  The novel delves into the stories family members tell each other about their past.  It is a tough story with a fascinating take on a family's history and the impact it has for those living here and now.  

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Clea's Moon by Edward Wright
In 2001, Edward Wright won the CWA Debut Dagger for his first chapter and synopsis of what would become Clea’s Moon. The story is set in the late 1940s in Los Angeles behind the scenes of the changing Hollywood system.  John Ray Horn was a big B western movie star in the 1930s before he went to jail for beating up the son of an owner of one of the studios for causing the death of his horse.  When John Ray left jail he found himself blacklisted in Hollywood and divorced from his wife.  The story begins with John Ray working as a bag man for his old co-star Joseph Mad Cow who now runs a casino.  John Ray becomes embroiled in the dodgy side of nightclubs, casinos and local government in LA when he is asked by his old friend Scotty to find out about the photos Scotty had recovered from his father's desk at work after Scot Bullard Sr's death.  The photos are child pornography taken at least 10 years prior and one of the subjects is John Ray's stepdaughter, Clea, who is now 17 years old and has run away from home.  John Ray sets out to find Clea and who was involved in the taking of and participating in the photographs.  This is a well written novel with a film noir tone.  It is well worth a read.


The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid
This is not exactly a debut, but it is the first book by Scottish writer, Val McDermid, featuring Forensic Psychologist, Dr. Tony Hill, and DI Carol Jordan. It is set in the fictional town, Bradfield, in northern England. Dr Hill is asked to consult by the police after the bodies of young men are found dead after they were abducted and tortured.  Detective Inspector Carol Jordan is assigned to work with Dr Hill and their relationship becomes complicated. Dr Hill also has to juggle his patients with becoming increasingly involved in the investigation. The Mermaids Singing won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year in 1995. Val McDermid is still writing the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series in addition to her Lindsay Gordon series and Kate Brannigan series.  The Hill/Jordan series was adapted for TV, Wire In The Blood, which follows the plots of most of the Hill/Jordan series until an actor change caused the novels content to split from the TVs. Val McDermid is a great writer with intricate plots, but they are a bit gruesome, with quite a bit of violence.


Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
This is the first Inspector Rebus novel from Ian Rankin, published in 1987.  There have been nearly 20 stories since then featuring Rebus.  Rankin was a post graduate student at the University of Edinburgh when he wrote this book, and little did he know that this character would become one of the most beloved in modern crime fiction.  Go back to the beginning and see where Rebus and Rankin started.  The plot revolves around the abduction and killing of two young girls and the role Rebus' brother Michael plays.  Welcome to the dark underbelly of Edinburgh and enjoy the great world building and fantastic character sketching of Rankin's writing.  It is a page turner.


March Violets by Philip Kerr
This is the first novel in a trilogy commonly known as Berlin Noir.  Good Reads describes the plot and tone by saying "Ex-policeman Bernie Gunther thought he'd seen everything on the streets of 1930s Berlin. But then he went freelance, and each case he tackled sucked him further into the grisly excesses of Nazi subculture."  This is true.  The noir tone and styling of the novel is apparent and it evokes a 1930s Berlin under the National Socialist Party that is on a slow boil.  People turn a blind-eye to disappearances and the loss of human rights.  Corruption is rife and the 1936 Olympics are taking place in Berlin.  'March Violets' is the derisive term by which long-time Nazis referred to new party converts. Converts who are jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck or just to survive.  Bernie Gunther is deliberately written like a character in a Raymond Chandler novel, and his wry disgust what is happening in Berlin and Germany is palatable.  This is well written and offers up an idea of what day to day life in Berlin in this time could be like.  Quite a different approach from the history books.

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Lonely Road by Nevil Shute
This is the closest to a crime novel written by Nevil Shute.  It was first published in 1932 and is done in an experimental writing style.  Shute was an aeronautical engineer and a pilot who attended the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, UK.  He started writing novels when he was in his 30s while working as an engineer for the de Havilland Aircraft Company, and keeps his day job as an engineer up to and through the Second World War.  In the 1950s, Shute is well-known enough as an author to do it full time and he immigrated to Australia in 1950.  His post war novels are set in Australia and are what he is most known for, but this experiment he wrote back before the Second World War, focuses on Commander Malcolm Stevenson and how he came to be waking up in a hospital after a car accident.  The book opens with Stevenson narrating and describing a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes.  This structure is way ahead of its time, and understandably the novel did not sell as well in the 1930s.  It is well worth a read to see the flexing of a relatively young author as he weaves a plot that will keep you guessing.  

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The Sands of Windee by Arthur Upfield
Arthur Upfield is the father of Australian crime fiction.  He created Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), a mixed race policeman in the Queensland Police Force who is the central character in over 20 novels spanning from 1928 to 1968 (published posthumously).  Upfield was born in England and moved to Australia in 1910.  Following his World War One service he travelled through Australia extensively learning about Aboriginal culture and the geography of the country.  The creation of an Aboriginal protagonist and the depiction of outback Australian life in the 1930s through into the 1950s sets Upfields books apart.  The Sands of Windee was published in 1931 and is seen as one of Upfields best novels.  It was not his debut (it is his fourth novel), but it is highly regarded.  The plot is about the disappearance of Luke Marks near Windee Station. The local police believe he wandered away from his car and been overwhelmed in a dust-storm.  But Bony feels there is more to it and he comes down from Queensland to work at Windee to find the answers.


Crime by Ferdinand Von Schirach
Ferdinand Von Schirach is a German criminal lawyer who began practicing law in 1994 and became a successful and prominent defense attorney.  Crime is a collection of stories is based on cases from his chamber and was published in 2009.  Amazon describes the short stories as "by turns witty and sorrowful, unflinchingly brutal and heartbreaking, the deeply affecting."  Von Schirach looks into the grey areas of guilt and innocence and offers and insight into why people commit crimes. This book is highly recommended and so is the follow up, Guilt, written in 2010.  


The Anatomist's Wife by Anna Lee Huber
This debut historical crime novel came out in 2012. It is set in Scotland in 1830 and it centres on the r
ecently widowed and notorious Lady Kiera Darby, who seeks refuge at her sister's house following the death of her husband. The scandal part is due to her late husband, a Doctor and Lecturer who was writing an anatomy book, and used her as an illustrator for his book. An unseemly occupation for a lady of her station.  At a house party at her sister's house in Scotland, Lady Darby is asked to assist in the investigation due to her knowledge of anatomy when there is a death and the closest help is at least two days away due to weather and distance.  This is a well written debut with interesting characters and a tight plot.  It sets up the series (and I am sure there will be a series) featuring Lady Darby, who is called on to 'help investigate' in future adventures.  I imagine the publishers were torn between marketing this as a romance or a crime novel.  But as the novel structure is not traditionally in the romance genre form, I can see why they erred on the side of crime.  

Next month, the theme is colour.  It can be in the title, the plot, the theme.  Whatever.  See you then.