Tag Archives: Crime

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn


When everybody else is raving about a book I do love to prove them wrong, but sometimes that’s just not possible. This was a genuinely enjoyable, thoughtful thriller that kept you guessing right up to the end and was highly original in its execution.

I suppose these questions stormcloud over our marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Nick Dunne awakes on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife has disappeared. He knows they haven’t been getting on. Her diary reveals that she was afraid of him. That he could be cruel. And Nick has secrets to hide. So what did happen to beautiful, amazing Amy?

The novel is beautifully paced and the voices of Nick and Amy are convincing and distinct. Extraneous details act as colour to their relationship and also excellent red herrings, and the narration chillingly paints a convincing picture of the very cruel, very legal things that two people in a relationship can do to one another (emotionally and psychologically, not in a 50 Shades way), before the mystery even occurs. But also, you end up rooting for some surprising people, for some surprising (and sometimes disturbing) reasons. Probably the best thing about it is the way we see two conflicting sides of the story, and knowing that we’re reading a crime novel, our efforts to figure out the twist, to see how or whether he did it, actually leaves us open to easy manipulation.

It’s impossible to discuss the book in too much detail without giving away the ending and the twists, which everybody bangs on so much you’d definitely feel short changed. However, I did feel that towards the end it got a bit too deus ex machina for my liking, especially when it had started off so insidious and domestic. But seasoned thriller readers are probably much happier with the old familiar improbable resolution, so I am willing to let that slide. And crucially, it didn’t get in the way of enjoying what was an excellent, chilling, intelligent read.

In a tweet: Jonathan Franzen meets Donna Tartt. In a good way.


Review: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

It starts with a Click, and George Harvey Bone is walking with no idea of where he is or what he’s doing.

It was a noise inside his head, and yet it was not a noise. It was the sound which a noise makes when it abruptly ceases: it had a temporary deafening effect. It was as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had suddenly become dim and dead. And yet he was not physically deaf: it was merely that in this physical way alone could he think of what had happened in his head.

This confusion, disjunction and disorientation serves as a framework for the novel as a whole. George has fallen in with a bad crowd, and spends his days getting drunk in various Earl’s Court pubs with a variety of shady characters in an effort to impress the beautiful, cold-hearted, slatternly Netta. But Netta is only interested in George for his money (of which he has very little, but more than the rest), his tenuous connections to an acting agency, and the opportunity to use him as dogsbody. The novel’s action is a litany of tiny acts of humiliation, all at ‘poor Bone’s expense. Little does she know that in his ‘dumb moods’, as these fugue states are termed by the gang, George’s sole impulse is to free himself of Netta – by killing her.

Participating so closely in George’s consciousness, we can’t help but desire Netta’s death, too, sharing his desperate idea that if she could only be got rid of, George could leave and go to Maidenhead – the childhood town he holds up as a talisman of better times. Hangover Square toys with our ideas of a thriller, and of a villain. It is also held up as a classic ‘pre-WWII’ novel, capturing the essence of the tension and bleakness of the months leading up to war in 1939. Various characters flirt with fascism including Netta (who is aesthetically attracted to it more than anything else – and in that she has some interesting parallels with Jean Brodie) and her occasional lover Peter. But it is not a schematic metaphor for the failures of appeasement and the advent of war. Whatever George does, whether he follows the path of peacefulness and submission, or violence and anger, he is damned. Maidenhead is a lost idyll, an unattainable ideal, that George will never be able to return to.

It is a hard read, often unpleasant, but it is not the hopeless dirge a novel with this kind of story could so easily have become. The writing is fantastic, atmospheric and encourages you to keep working at the character: one chapter ends ‘He felt his way down the stairs – slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.’ I’ve heard varied accounts of how realistic a portrayal of schizophrenia or split personality disorder Hamilton manages, but I found it singularly realistic in its warped logic and fixation.

What also struck me about is how relevant (is that a horrible turn of phrase?) this book remains to the London of today? Earl’s Court is perhaps not the den of iniquity it once was, thanks mostly to its notorious conference centre that just means that lost-looking tourists are constantly clogging up its incredibly confusing tube station, but this vision of a no-man’s land of a lost, unemployed underclass trying to get on with their lives in the shadow of an impending war certainly rings true in 2012. With the UK’s shocking levels of unemployment, its withdrawal of state support (particularly in areas of mental health) under the guise of Big Society, and the government’s struggle to create a coherent identity for Britain – Olympic good-time city, financial capital, cracking-down on corruption with Leveson while turning a blind eye to the never-ending banking crisis – it seems to have plenty of say about the country’s split personality 70 years on, and the pressures it places on a still unacknowledged, downtrodden section of society.

Earl's Court: still kind of a shithole.

In a tweet:
 Slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.

The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan

The Dinosaur Feather

Great jacket, (only a) good book

I sat down to read this book wanting to love it. I liked it. But what could have been a completely absorbing debut fell just wide of the mark.

The premise is fascinating. Anna Bella Nor is a postgraduate student struggling to juggle the pressures of her impending PhD viva and caring for her young daughter, Lily, only to find these compounded when her supervisor is murdered and herself a suspect. The University of Copenhagen’s Biology department is likewise a great setting for a thriller, with oddball academics, underfunded projects and cut-throat internal politics providing a potentially explosive combination.

The narration is shared between three characters: Anna, Superintendent Søren Marhauge – the brilliant detective with a troubled past assigned to the case, and Clive Freeman – the murdered professor’s academic nemesis. Anna’s thesis, a scientific review on the evidence for and against the theory that dinosaurs have evolved from birds, puts her in direct competition with the increasingly unhinged Freeman, who holds fast to the increasingly discredited theory that dinosaurs evolved separately.

The novel is really more interested in the backstories of these 3 characters than in the resolution of the murder. This makes for a more gradual unravelling of the plot, and adds an extra dimension to your by-numbers whodunnit as you delve deeper and deeper into the stories that brought each of the characters to this point. You learn a lot about scientific method and review process, as well as dinosaurs, understandably given Gazan’s background in university biology.

There are some brilliant moments in the novel:

Søren was Denmark’s youngest police superintendent, he could identify a murderer from the mere twitching of a single, out-of-place eyebrow hair, he could knit backwards, and everyone he had ever loved had died and left him behind.

But there are also some terrifically stilted ones:

Anna knew perfectly well she hadn’t bumped into the World’s Most Irritating Detective in the supermarket by accident. […] She hated him! Since he had entered her life, less than a week ago, everything had started to unravel. How dare he buy a loaf of bread for Maggie, how dare he carry her daughter? She wanted him to leave her alone and she didn’t want to hear what he had come to say. […] Tears started rolling down her cheeks. The steamy mashed potatoes were in a bowl in the sink, and suddenly she slumped forward as if she had been stabbed.

This kind of frustrated outrage is characteristic of Anna’s tone, and while pop-psychologists might be able to explain it through some of her subsequent discoveries (I won’t spoil them here), I found a lot of her reactions were pretty unbelievable, and rang kind of hollow. Maybe this is partly down to issues of translation, but I get the sense it runs deeper than that.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel. The science is well done, the characters interesting, and the narrative propels you forward making this ultimately very entertaining. But that propulsion is brought about by promises that the book seems about to deliver, and then shies away from. For example, the novel opens with a dream sequence about the discovery of the first feathered dinosaur fossil. It sums up Anna’s ambition, it gives us a bit of background to what is at stake in this academic debate, but it’s the last time we ever see into somebody’s subconscious, and as we get dragged into the petty squabbles of a university department and the characters’ apparently unsurmountable past traumas, we totally lose sight of it.

Likewise, Freeman had the potential to be a phenomenal character, bringing out as he does the uncomfortable truth that the academic’s single-mindedness is often closer to mania. But this, and his fraught relationship with Jack, is never quite brought to the fore. We are supposed to believe that Anna must, must defend her thesis at all costs, rather than postponing it another month in light of a series of horrific murders (I have done my time as an academic, and can tell you that another month is never, never an unwelcome prospect – grizzly murders or no).

I wanted to start SecondShelfDown’s reviews with The Dinosaur Feather because it contains a lot that I love about good commercial fiction: it puts a unique spin on a time-honoured genre, and doesn’t shy away from the science either (incidentally, in this it reminds me a bit of The End of Mr. Y – I’ll do a piece on Scarlett Thomas in due course as she’s a very interesting hit and miss writer). It was well-packaged, well-conceived, and in parts, well-written. And that’s why it was so infuriating when it didn’t deliver. But it was – as I hope all the books on my second shelf will be – worth reading.