THIRTY DAYS OF DARKNESS by Jenny Lund Madsen (Orenda Books; 300 pages; ₹1,805)
An acerbic middle-aged award-winning literary fiction writer with a minuscule, yet dedicated set of readers, isn’t getting anywhere with her new novel. She asks: “How the hell do you plot out the early stages of two people falling in love? How are you meant to portray those emotions without sounding like a knock-off version of Goethe, or worse: a way-too good Barbara Cartland?” Fed up, she decides to attend a book fair and please her editor and friend. But once there, the angst surfaces—“These are people she’s going to have to talk to. Christ alive, kill me slowly.” Even worse, Jorn Jenson, the world’s worst crime writer and the primary object of Hannah’s loathing is being interviewed on stage. When he talks about writing as if it was nothing more than a day job — she throws a book at him. Somehow it escalates into a challenge, and the next day a reluctant Hannah is on a plane to Iceland, having pledged to write a crime fiction novel in a month. Her long-suffering editor finds a place for her to stay in a fishing village in the middle of nowhere, and Hannah finds herself hanging on for dear life in a decrepit jeep driven by Ella, her sixty-something landlady who “speaks broken Danish with Icelandic and English influences.”
On the first day she meets Eva’s teenage nephew Thor, playing football. That night, his father finds Thor’s dead body in the icy seawater. Is it a murder, Hannah wonders? Though she doesn’t speak the language, she blunders about and speaks to the locals about Thor. Initially, this real-life mystery provides the grist for her plot. But it is not simply about taking facts and turning them into fiction, she realises. Much to her surprise, she has come to care for Ella and the local policeman’s wife with whom she has begun an affair. As she delves deeper, she realises that exposing the dark secrets of the community may endanger her life. A blizzard descends on them just when she thinks she has found the answers, and to survive, she must find a way through her own emotional attachments.
Hannah is truly a memorable character—an alcoholic, politically incorrect, and cranky; her caustic wit propels the story. Her peppery and unfiltered bursts are deliciously funny: “People who lecture others about things they have absolutely no knowledge of should die slow and painful deaths.” Or this: “Hannah knows it’s a taboo thought, but sometimes she fantasises about a life where her sister, her sister’s husband, their two children and her dad didn’t exist.”
The lodger is a Jack the Ripper story unlike any other. Written in 1911, it is the story of the bunters, a butler and a head housemaid who marry, and run a failing boarding house in London. They are down to their last penny, and desperately need a lodger, when one appears at their doorstep. A gentleman with strange habits and no luggage, who takes the entire upper floor and asks them not to take in any more lodgers
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The tongue-in-cheek cracks at how to write mysteries are just as droll. “Isn’t it the case that a simple murder is no longer enough to make a good crime novel these days? Shouldn’t there be at least four to five distractions along the way, diverting the reader’s attention? And then some kind of shift between the various viewpoints and timeframes in the text, tricking the reader into thinking it’s more exciting than it actually is.”
This book is full of heart and humour, as we follow Hannah’s journey from a solitary curmudgeonly-ness to friendship and love.
THE LODGER by Marie Belloc Lowndes (Hachette Yellowback; 264 pages; ₹399)
This is a Jack the Ripper story unlike any other. Written in 1911, it is the story of the Buntings, a butler and a head housemaid who marry, and run a failing boarding house in London. They are down to their last penny, and desperately need a lodger, when one appears at their doorstep. A gentleman with strange habits and no luggage, who takes the entire upper floor and asks them not to take in any more lodgers. They are only too happy to agree. Ellen Bunting cooks him his meals and cleans his room. His only reading material is the Bible, which he reads out loudly to himself in his room. Outside on Marylebone Road, the Ripper strikes terror in the neighbourhood. Little by little, Ellen begins to suspect her lodger. Never is it mentioned, or uttered, yet she is full of dread as she watches the lodger creep out of the house at night and waits for his return in the early hours of the morning. He conducts strange experiments, and sometimes a terrible smell comes from his room. We learn about the murders from the newspapers and from their family friend, a young Scotland Yard detective sweet on Bunting’s daughter by his first wife.
This is a masterclass of psychological fiction in how to slowly bring suspicion and dread to fever pitch. Unlike other Ripper novels, which focus either on the killer’s perspective or the victims’, this one focuses on the effect such killings have on the main cast of characters. We readers inhabit the psyche of a good, god-fearing, morally upright couple who cannot fathom such evil in a fellow human. We view the lodger’s peculiarities from the viewpoint of Mrs Bunting and like her, ask: Is he the Ripper? Is he driven by some sort of religious mania? The Bible seems to indicate it as do the passages Mrs Bunting overhears as she approaches his room with the lunch or tea tray. She is desperate to find out if he is the Ripper, but at the same time she doesn’t want him to be; the public ridicule would sink their fortunes utterly and for good.
It is a gripping tale, where the suspense never lets up, and has a finely calibrated unveiling of human emotions: the growing weight of dread, suspicion, relief, then back to anxiety that rachets up to suspicion and terror. The setting is highly atmospheric—gaslit London, eerie streets, the yellow fog, the cries of newspaper boys on the streets, the avid curiosity of the crowds scrambling to see the bodies and attend the inquest. No wonder Alfred Hitchcock chose it for his first thriller film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.
Truly a masterfully told tale and a terrific read.
A GAME OF LIES by Clare Mackintosh (Sphere; 348 pages; ₹1,099)
A Game of Lies is the second in Mackintosh’s police procedural series. Set in the Welsh countryside, it stars Ffion Morgan and Leo Brady, two detective constables from either side of the England-Wales border. When one of the contestants in a reality game show being filmed in the Welsh mountains goes missing, the duo are put on the job. The contestants had signed up for a survivor type show but once they are locked into the premises, they discover that it is a different reality show. They are told that the producer has uncovered a terrible secret about each of them. If another player guesses the truth, the contestant’s secret will be exposed on live TV before being eliminated. Not surprisingly, some develop cold feet, and one of them disappears into the Welsh wilderness. Since it is being filmed near Ffion’s village, she is called in, and when the contestant’s wife shows up and demands answers, Ffion’s on-again, off-again love interest, DC Leo is sent from the English side to lead the investigation. Then a dead body shows up. With a murderer on the loose, and the fact that all the suspects have secrets they could kill for, Ffion and Leo have a difficult case to crack. Ffion and the readers are asked to examine their own viewing tastes for reality shows where lives are ruined, and the worst faces of humanity are on display.
Ffion and Leo have an interesting dynamic, and as readers, we are invested in their relationship. However, when compared to The Last Party, which was very well constructed and had a lot of emotional depth, we don’t warm up as much to the flighty characters in the Game of Lies. Fans of Clare Mackintosh will enjoy this book.