Category Archives: Other European Crime Fiction

Non-Nordic, non-British, non-Irish European Crime fiction

Review: The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel

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TheMurderFarmThe Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (2014, Quercus)

Blurb: The Murder Farm begins with a shock: a whole family has been murdered with a pickaxe. They were old Danner the farmer, an overbearing patriarch; his put-upon devoutly religious wife; and their daughter Barbara Spangler, whose husband Vincenz left her after fathering her daughter little Marianne. She also had a son, two-year-old Josef, the result of her affair with local farmer Georg Hauer after his wife’s death from cancer. Hauer himself claimed paternity. Also murdered was the Danners’ maidservant, Marie.

An unconventional detective story, The Murder Farm is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file that will keep readers guessing. When we leave the narrator, not even he knows the truth, and only the reader is able to reach the shattering conclusion.

 

As soon as I read this book’s description, I knew I wanted to read it. However, I found the book itself to be a bit of a letdown. While the description uses words such as “exciting” and “shattering,” for me the book was a short, bare-bones, sparse narrative, somewhat fleshed out by the eyewitness accounts, that didn’t have the emotional impact I’d been expecting, given the nature of the crime.

The story is set in 1950s, in a rural German village. The setting was, for me, by far the best part of the book; I got a real sense of the isolation of the village and the impact of the war on its inhabitants. The Danners’ neighbors sense that something is amiss on the Danner farm, and upon further investigation discover that the entire family has been murdered. The narrative isn’t always linear and was a bit confusing in places, but bit by bit the reader learns about the family and its secrets, of which there are many. The focus on the characters’ flaws backfired a bit for me; rather than making each of them the possible target of the killer’s anger, it made them all unlikeable and distant—the book is so short and the characters so undeveloped that it read more like a case file.

There isn’t a lot of detail about the exact nature of the crimes—it’s not a gory book. The impact is intended to be more psychological. However, this approach didn’t really work for me because the murderer is revealed in the same matter-of-fact narrative approach as the rest of the book, without any real insights, and ultimately I felt a bit let down.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

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Review: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

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ATraceofSmokeA Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell (Forge Books, 2009), Hannah Vogel series

Blurb: Even though hardened crime reporter Hannah Vogel knows all too well how tough it is to survive in 1931 Berlin, she is devastated when she sees a photograph of her brother’s body posted in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead. Ernst, a cross-dressing lounge singer at a seedy nightclub, had many secrets, a never-ending list of lovers, and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble.

Hannah delves into the city’s dark underbelly to flush out his murderer, but the late night arrival of a five-year-old orphan on her doorstep complicates matters. The endearing Anton claims that Hannah is his mother… and that her dead brother Ernst is his father.

As her investigations into Ernst’s murder and Anton’s parentage uncover political intrigue and sex scandals in the top ranks of the rising Nazi party, Hannah fears not only for her own life, but for that of a small boy who has come to call her “mother.”


The premise of the book was too intriguing for me to pass up. Hannah Vogel is a journalist, a crime reporter. During her weekly visit to the Hall of the Unnamed Dead, she is stunned to see a photograph of the body of her cross-dressing brother, a lounge singer whose lovers gift him with fine clothing and jewels. Although she has connections within the police department, Hannah cannot make use of them: a Zionist friend and her son have used Hannah’s and Ernst’s identity papers to escape to America, and until Hannah knows they are safe, she cannot allow anyone to know her brother is dead.

A Trace of Smoke is wonderfully evocative of interwar Berlin: the precarious financial position of city’s population, the uncertainty regarding the Nazi party, the growing intolerance of and discrimination against the city’s Jewish population. Cantrell incorporates actual people and events into the story, which infuses it with a strong sense of time and place. The book is well plotted and well paced.

As capable as the author is with description, she has a tin ear for dialogue. The lack of contractions made the characters sound stilted and overly formal, and this coupled with the lack of variety in the characters’ speech patterns took away from their individuality. This is Cantrell’s first book, so I am hoping the dialogue improves as the series progresses.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review: Of Fever and Blood by S. Cedric

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OfFeverAndBloodOf Fever and Blood by S. Cedric (2013, Publishers Square)

In this supernatural thriller, a killer uses ages-old dark magic to stalk young women with stealth and cunning—so much so that the police have no idea just how many young women have died in the French countryside.

As the book begins, Inspector Alexandre Vauvert (of Toulouse) is joined by Inspector Eva Svärta in the hunt for the Salaville brothers, two particularly vicious serial killers. Vauvert is intrigued by Svärta, with her white-blond hair and her red eyes—unusual even for an albino—and with her skill as an investigator. From the beginning, he senses a kinship with her: He knew how to spot real cops. Eva Svärta was one of them. A predator hunting predators. When the case is closed after the brothers are killed in a standoff with the police and Inspector Svärta returns to Paris, Vauvert is unable to get her out of his thoughts, even though he knows it is unlikely they will work together again. But then a year later, the murders begin again. And once again they are linked to the Salaville brothers—which is utterly impossible.

Of Fever and Blood has a Stephen King or X-Files feel to it, with that same combination of horror and the supernatural in a world where police tend to look to human perpetrators for the answers. While I found the characters interesting, particularly Inspector Svärta with her mysterious background and her nighttime visions of a white-blond wraith, this is very much a plot-driven novel. The action is fast and furious; with the viewpoint shifting between the murder, the victims, and the investigators, there’s a sense of urgency in almost every scene. The descriptions of blood are quite graphic, and although they’re essential to the story that’s being told, they could be distressing for a lot of readers. If you don’t like scenes of torture, this is not the book for you.

The translation is a bit rough in places, but not enough to be distracting from a pretty good thriller. There is a sequel—The First Blood—and I’m just intrigued enough by this book that I will likely check out that one as well.

This book was furnished by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars

Review: Safe as Houses by Simone van der Vlugt

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SafeAsHousesSafe As Houses by Simone van der Vlugt (Canongate Books Ltd., 2013)

Blurb: A single mother stands in the garden of her isolated house, hanging out the washing, when suddenly a man appears. When he grabs at her, Lisa runs, but she is not quick enough. Suddenly Lisa and her young daughter find themselves held hostage in their own home. In the following hours and days, Lisa will do the unimaginable to protect her child—all the time wondering why the only witness has not come back to help her…
Simmering with tension and lust for revenge, 
Safe as Houses is a terrifying story of every woman’s worst fears.

 

Lisa is home alone with her young daughter, who is ill, when there’s a knock on the door. A man forces his way inside—and decides to stay awhile with his new “family.”

Senta is lost, and when she comes across a house, she stops to ask for directions. Nobody answers her knock, and when she walks around the house and looks in the window, she sees a woman, a child—and hiding in the corner, a man with a knife. Knowing she has to notify the authorities, Senta runs back to her car and drives away, only to crash her car into the nearby canal.

The setup is fantastic: it’s an intriguing premise with sympathetic characters and a lot of suspense. Unfortunately the book didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than feeling closer and more connected to the characters as the story progressed, I felt more and more distant. The book is written in the present tense, which can bring a sense of immediacy, but for me it just didn’t work in this particular instance. While I knew exactly what was happening to each of the characters, particularly Senta—a good part of her story takes place inside her own thoughts—I didn’t feel like I really got to know the characters or get a sense of what they were thinking and feeling because of the focus on the events rather than on their impact. It’s a psychological thriller that doesn’t quite get far enough into the psychology.

 

This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

My rating: 3 stars

Review: The Square of Revenge by Pieter Aspe

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SquareofRevengeThe Square of Revenge by Pieter Apse (Pegasus books reprint, 2013)

 

Blurb: The beautiful medieval architecture of Bruges belies the dark longings of her residents. When the wealthy and powerful Ludovic Degroof’s jewelry store is broken into, nothing is stolen, but the jewels have been dissolved in jars of aqua regia, an acid so strong it can even melt gold. In the empty safe is a scrap of paper on which a strange square has been drawn. At first, Inspector Van In pays little attention to the paper, focusing on the bizarre nature of the burglary. But when Degroof’s offspring also receive letters with this same square, Van In and the beautiful new DA Hannelore Martens find themselves unraveling a complex web of enigmatic Latin phrase and a baroness’ fallen family and Degroof’s relationship with a hostage grandchild, ransomed for a priceless collection of art.

 

This is a promising beginning to this series of police procedurals set in the gorgeous city of Bruges, Belgium. The primary characters, Assistant Commissioner Pieter Van In and Deputy Public Prosecutor Hannelore Martens, are engaging both individually and as a team. There’s no shortage of humor in this book, the characters are likeable, and the plot winds and twists and finds its way to a satisfying conclusion.

In many ways this book reminded me of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. There’s the same undercurrent of old money, backroom politics, and widespread corruption; the same enjoyment of food and drink; and the same sense that tourists are seeing an entirely different city from the one the residents live in.

There are some issues with language, and I’m not sure whether those are the author’s or the translator’s. At worst this is a mild annoyance, though, and because this is the first book in a successful series, it’s easy to overlook the occasional clunker in the hopes that the writing will improve as the series progresses. I’m looking forward to more.

 

This ARC was furnished by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 3 stars