Death In The Rainy Season – Anna Jacquiery

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I didn’t know much about Cambodia before I read this book, rather than the 40 year old story of the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields (and of that, admittedly, embarrassingly little.) In this book, though, we don’t see a great deal of the Cambodian population, but more of the ex-pat population. But first of all, let me introduce you to our investigator, Inspector Serge Morel. He is on a relaxing holiday in the depths of the countryside of Cambodia when he receives an instruction from his boss in Paris to get to the capital, Pnomh, and aid in the investigation of a French national who has been found murdered. As the victim is the nephew of a government minister, who had been running an NGO in the country, they want this investigation tidied up as quickly and as quietly as possible, and as Morel is in the country, he’s perfect for the job. It’s not just the fact that he’s currently nearby(ish!); his mother was Cambodian and he speaks Khmer, the local language. Already on the case is a local policeman, Sarit, the local doctor, Pran, and a man from the French Embassy, Nizet, who is there to ensure any possible scandal is buried as quickly as possible, in order to save embarrassment to the influential relatives back home. And there is a possibility of scandal: Hugo Quercy, the victim, had booked into a hotel room only 5 minutes from his room – under another name, Jean Dupont. Suspicious in itself. There are no post mortems in Cambodia, so it’s down to the doctor’s best opinion as to his death – a hugely different practice as to what Morel is used to in the West. I don’t think it’s any great spoiler to give away the fact he was beaten to death, as that’s revealed in the first five minutes of the book. To add to his difficulties, Morel finds himself having to work with Sarit, an initially somewhat unmotivated local policeman, who clearly resents the outside interference from the French police and the Embassy, who are adding to his normally easy workload! Then we meet the ex-pat community, containing most of Adam’s circle of friends and colleagues…and possibly the supect(s)? We have Quercy’s grief-stricken wife Florence; his long-time best friend Paul, wife Mariko and their daughter Nora; and the people who work under him at the NGO – mainly Adam and Kate, and also Julia (who appears to be the only character who didn’t regard Hugh as some kind of saint – and wasn’t afraid to say so!) It’s down to Morel and Sarit to decipher the various relationships between them. Who liked and disliked who? Who was sleeping with who? Or was this not about personal relationships at all – had Hugo got mixed up in something dangerous within the notoriously corrupt local politics – for example, the land clearances, which were seeing farmers thrown off their land, and losing their livelihoods, by big corporations, with the government turning a blind eye, for the right price? As he was so committed to human rights, perhaps he’d fallen foul of big companies or the government. There are so many different lines of investigation. Throughout the course of the book, the relationship between Morel and Sarit relaxes considerably, with them even socialising together after Sarit invites his temporary partner to a family wedding. Morel also takes the opportunity to see his mother’s brother and his family, who remained in Cambodia whilst Morel’s mother fled – a visit which is initially difficult, but Morel’s perseverance means eventually a (somewhat reluctant) rapprochement is reached.

So, did I guess “whodunit”? You all know I can’t resist pitting my wits against all the crime authors I review! In this case, I’d have to say, “No chance!” Anna Jaquiery cleverly keeps so many avenues open that really anyone could be the perpetrator. The reveal, when it comes, also makes perfect sense – no “but why on earth would he…”-type stuff I’ve encountered countless times before. The only possible criticism is that all of the investigations is more or less within the ex-pat community – I’d have much preferred a bit more time spent within the Cambodian community. The only taste we get of this is when Morel visits family members, and at the wedding. But of course, had this not been an ex-pat murder, Morel would not have cause to have been called in, so Ms Jaquiery did the best she could in showing us Cambodia. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, this is the second book to feature Inspector Morel. If I tell you I’ve already got hold of a copy of the first in the series, The Lying Down Room, I think that tells you plenty about what I think of Anna Jaquiery and Inspector Morel. It was an easy read, without being at all unintelligent, and hugely enjoyable, with touches of wit peppered throughout the book. All in all, this is a great crime novel, and bodes well for the series. And I’ll be reporting back soon on The Lying Down Room!

With massive thanks, as ever, to Sophie Orme at Mantle Pan MacMillan for the review copy and inclusion in the blog tour, and for my copy of The Lying Down Room too.

The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths

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I feel a bit stupid. Actually, very stupid. I’ve had this book for ages (in fact, I have it as an e-book too!) but I haven’t got round to reading it until now – despite all my favourite bloggers telling me how great the series is. If you’re a fan of Elly Griffiths (and I’m aware many of you are!), it won’t surprise you to learn that once I was about 100 pages in, I couldn’t stop reading and stayed up late (as usual!) to finish it. The one good thing, though, about having waited so long before discovering her wonderful character, Ruth Galloway, is that I have the other six books still to read (I already have the seventh of the series, The Ghost Fields, to read and review) – as well as her well-received other book, The Zig-Zag Girl.

Dr Ruth Galloway is first approached by DCI Harry Nelson when the skeleton of what appears to be a child’s body is discovered in the salt marshes, which cover the area in front of her remote cottage. Nelson wants Ruth, in her role as a forensic archaeologist, to examine the bones and give him an idea of old they are. He is privately holding on to the hope that they will belong to a girl called Lucy Downey, a case Nelson was involved in investigating ten years previously, and which ground to a halt – no body, and no arrest. But Ruth is quickly able to confirm that that the body in question is from the Iron Age, by the torque around her neck.

So, you would expect this to be the end of dealings between Ruth and Harry – but not so. Beforehand, though, Ruth goes out on the salt marshes, to continue digging, and has to be rescued when the tide comes in by her neighbour, David, who’s warden of the bird sanctuary on the marshes. Seeing the path David brings her back along, she thinks it is the Causeway to their previous dig, the path which her mentor and previous boss, Erik, was so keen to find, and she calls to tells him of her find (or David’s, to be fair! – which made me think that David, really, should be the archaeologist as he seemed to find with great ease this path that SO mystified Erik, guru of all things archaeological.) This is when Nelson pops up again, to ask Ruth to look at some letters. He’s been receiving them since the girl, Lucy Downey, disappeared, and some of them mention things about which she is knowledgeable: ritual, myths and legends, the Bible. He also refers to another recently missing local girl, Scarlet Henderson, although it’s news to Ruth, who apparently doesn’t read the newspapers/watch TV/listen to the radio/discuss local missing children with colleagues in a, “Oh, isn’t it terrible, I do hope they find her. Do you remember the other one? That’s about ten years ago now – what was her name again…?” way. The fact that he has received a very similar letter since Scarlet’s disappearance makes him – tentatively – think the two cases could be linked, although he is careful to stress that the letter writer may be no more than a mischief-maker, who could throw the whole investigation off track – rather like Wearside Jack did, quite incredibly, in the Yorkshire Ripper case. In them, Ruth finds a number of references that she thinks could refer to the Saltmarsh. Nelson asks if she recalled anyone specific hanging around the original dig 10 years before,when the first disappearance occurred.  She particularly recalls a New Age-type who called himself Cathbad. When she tells Erik she mentioned him to police, Erik doesn’t seem happy, but Ruth knows he’s never been a fan of the police. When they track Cathbad down, he reveals that he was previously a student in Manchester under Erik – which is the first Ruth’s heard of it! Why wouldn’t Erik mention this? And, to top that, he now works at the same university as Ruth, unbenowst to her, as a lab assistant. Then here he is again – closely involved with the Henderson family, that of Scarlet, the second missing child!

Ruth’s involvement in the enquiry steps up a level, though, when she returns home to find one of her cats, Sparky, on the doorstep with it’s throat cut – presumably, someone knows she is helping the police, and is warning her off. Ruth is devastated, and instinctively calls Harry Nelson. He appears, reassures Ruth, and takes the cat away for forensic testing, as obviously it’s death could be linked to the disappearance of the girls.

Then Ruth gets other visitors from the past. It seems as though a number of people attached to the original dig – which was going on when Lucy Downey disappeared – are now reappearing, straight after Scarlet Henderson’s disappearance. Is this just coincidence? Or has Lucy’s abductor returned – perhaps because he’s just abducted Scarlett too, and wants to be around the investigation, as we’re often told perpetrators do? Or as he, or she – let’s not be sexist! If we want equal rights it has to be as murder suspects too, ladies! – been in the area, unnoticed, all along?

So, what makes Elly Griffiths’ book so special? First of all, the writing is simple but effective – Griffiths’ is a wonderfully fluid writer, whose style is incredibly readable. You think you’ve been reading for 10 or 15 minutes, then you realise it’s an hour, and your tea’s cold. In Ruth, she’s created a character who, to me, came across as incredibly real – she’s dedicated to her career, possibly at the expense of her love life. She moans slightly about being overweight, but I don’t think it bothers her that much – she’s a “take me as you find me” type of person. She appears to be happy, living alone, with her cat(s), and her books – she isn’t one of these women who would rather be with any man than be alone (I know so many women like that, and I can’t help feeling they could do so much better in life – even if it did mean living alone! What’s so awful about that? You actually get control of the duvet all the time, and the remote, not just when he’s out! You’ll never hear the bloody Champions League self-important theme again!) In short, she’s normal – and not an incredible, heart-stopping beauty (yawn! Male writer’s cliché alert – stop living life vicariously through your books!)

She and Harry make a good partnership, which, like all such partnerships in books, start out with a bit of misunderstanding – he’s a bit clueless about her job, and it’s value to society, whereas he feels comfortable with the value of his, and enjoys the closure, and feeling that his job is like a giant ledger where the books are balanced, to the best of his ability at least. That’s why, he would tell anyone who asked, that the Lucy Downey case bothered him – because it left a debt to society, unpaid. That’s probably how most of us feel. But even for professionals there’s also an elemental, emotional feeling that someone must pay for an evil act committed. It obviously affects beyond a family, a street, a class, a school, a Brownies group or a pony club – it affects a community, and all our society is, is these microcosms of communities multiplied to the nth. So it impacts all of us, and 24 hour rolling news and newspaper front pages, of heartbreakingly pretty blondes – and they ARE all pretty at that age – with gappy teeth in a school photo, and the internet, and radios playing, makes it impossible to ignore (unless, of course, you’re Ruth…) So Harry’s contribution is easy to quantify. But when he realises that Ruth holds knowledge that may help decipher those letters, that to him, looked nonsensical, she gains new respect from him. And the growing closeness between the brusque, slightly flash Northerner, and the studious, quiet, methodical (yet tough and determined and brave) academic is demonstrated when he is the one she phones when Sparky is killed and left on her doorstep. She doesn’t call him because she’s thinking of evidence, or a perpetrator still nearby, or whatever – he’s simply the first person she wants to see. But Harry’s married – so surely she’s just looking for a friend, isn’t she? Like anyone would after a shock? They’d certainly be an odd romantic partnership. And crimeworm frowns on adulterous relationships, Ms Griffiths, especially with characters she likes (Ruth) and is growing to like (Harry). Even if his wife does seem a tad bimbo-ish, they have a family, and you don’t go there, as that would be naughty. Although not as naughty as abducting young girls. Obviously.

I admit, I did guess the baddie, and how he’d managed to get away with stuff, but this is a game I play against myself, and purely a symptom of WAY too much crime fiction. Remember, too, that this was Elly Griffiths’ debut novel, and I imagine her storylines have got a whole lot more sophisticated since then. THAT is something I greatly look forward to finding out. Anyway, as I’ve always said, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey – this was a wonderful one. And, my fellow bloggers, as regards your encouragement to get reading this series – you were right. As, of course, you always are. Thank you for that, and for everything else!