Christmas reading: 61 Hours by Lee Child; The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay; The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø
To conclude this week’s mini-run of Christmas reviews I thought I’d turn from the screen to the printed page. In my efforts to get into the festive spirit I had decided to read three books over the holidays with a common theme of Christmas and/or snow and ice, but all of them featuring murder of some kind or another…
61 Hours by Lee Child
A bus accident results in Jack Reacher being stranded in the snowbound South Dakota town of Bolton, where the police force is preoccupied trying to keep a crucial eyewitness to a drug deal from being murdered. But how is this linked to a nearby abandoned army base and a deadly Mexican drug lord?
Believe it or not, this is the first Jack Reacher book I’ve ever read. That’s despite the fact I bought the first of the series nearly 20 years ago when I was in Auckland, New Zealand! Annoyingly on the evidence of 61 Hours it turns out that the series actually lives up to the hype and is as good as I could have hoped for or expected: it’s a proper action thriller but it’s written with considerable style that effectively evokes the icy setting, and has admirable pace and energy to make sure you keep turning the pages. There’s also a solid whodunnit to keep you on your toes as you try and work out who is the inside man in the police department who is helping the would-be killers. Published in 2010, it’s the 14th Reacher novel although they’re entirely stand-alone and jumping in mid-run didn’t make me feel I’d missed anything. As you’d expect the central character is now well bedded in and feels completely believable with enviable expertise and skills, but Child also makes sure there is progression and development to ensure that his hero doesn’t feel stale or appear as though he’s just going through the motions, and his long-distance telephone ‘romance’ is rather sweet even as it means we learn more about his past in the military. All in all it’s made me a believer of the Jack Reacher series and I’ll be back for more.
The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay
A wealthy family’s Christmas gathering at their large country home results in the murder of the unpopular patriarch who was just about to change his will. And it appears that the culprit is none other than Father Christmas…
This is one of the British Library Crime Classics, a series that resurrects stories from the Golden Age of Crime for modern readers seeking an old fashioned, traditional detective story free of today’s dark angst and unsettlingly modern gore. You’ll find no blood here, just a tastefully restrained reference to a bullet wound. Written by Mavis Doriel Hay in 1936 this is a rather unremarkable entry into the annals of cosy crime with nothing of the panache of her contemporaries Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and the like, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a perfectly pleasurable and undemanding read. Initially it seems as though it’s going to be an epistolary novel from mixed sources, but in fact the majority of the story is a straightforward account told from the perspective of the investigating officer. There are endless chapters spent detailing the comings and goings of the large cast of characters during the time of the murder which we’re expected to dutifully track using the plan provided of the ground floor of country house. Most of the characters lie and deceive the police at least once during the story as they misguidedly attempt to cover for someone else they believe might have done it; no one has a solid alibi and almost everyone has an motive because of the business of the will. Ultimately however most of this is just distracting noise and if you can cut through to the nub of the matter – who could have got hold of the duplicate Santa Klaus costume and pulled off the disguise – then the guilty party is disarmingly simple to deduce.
The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø
In the days before Christmas, a gunman targets a group of Salvation Army carol singers on the streets of Oslo. Inspector Harry Hole soon realises that the assassin shot the wrong man – unfortunately, the killer realises it too and sets out to make amends. But what and who is behind it all?
I read my first Jo Nesbø novel The Bat only a couple of months ago, and have since followed that up with the second Harry Hole story Cockroaches. Both those stories were set in far-off locations (Australia and Thailand respectively), but the remaining eight entries in the series return Hole to his home in Oslo. The Redeemer is actually the sixth Harry Hole story and I chose it because of its conspicuous Christmas setting, but series continuity means that by jumping ahead I’ve managed to spoil the ending of at least this book’s immediate predecessor, The Devil’s Star. No matter, I got the Advent feeling I was after: The Redeemer is a strong novel that combines the raw energy and excitement of the hunt for a hitman on the streets of Oslo as described from both sides, with a more complex story about the people involved and the reasons behind in the assassination attempt, with an unusual climactic revelation about who ordered the murder in the first place. It’s well written (and decently translated with only the odd false note here and there by the generally reliable Don Bartlett) with some decently complex plotting working along multiple directions and levels which include time for Hole himself to confront some life-changing developments. However, Nesbø does have an annoying tendency to be ‘clever clever’ with his writing: he’ll set up a scene and then cut to several others without revealing character names or locations so it’s impossible to know whether he’s writing about the same people or not; and he’ll go to great lengths to describe someone’s appearance or possessions and then use that to make you think he’s still talking about that character when it’s actually a complete red herring. Of course mystery writers have a duty to misdirect and deceive the reader – Christie was infamous for it in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for example – but here it’s used so often (multiple times per chapter in some cases) that it becomes rather wearing, and in the end you can rather lose faith in the authorial voice when it is clearly working so hard to deceive the reader all the time.
That brings us to the end of our little Christmas celebration, and just in time for 12th night. Time to pack away such festive frills and get back to normal fare, beginning tomorrow with a dose of new Nordic Noir…
All the books reviewed here are available from high street book shops, and online as e-books.