Expert Reviews | Authors | Book Talk

Book Reviews by Paul Bergen and Barry Hammond

Paul and Barry are two 'crime geek' book reviewers based out of Edmonton, Alberta, and can often be found prowling the aisles of local independent bookstores.

You Write Like a Girl
A Sense of Place
Armchair Travelling

The Devil is in the Details
Stop it! You're Killing Me! Loving the Bad Guys


Barry: Here in Canada, the two most common mysteries or procedurals are American and British. Anything else, even Canadian, seems exotic by comparison. Reading crime and mystery fiction from Europe or from Japan, such as Out, is quite different because not only is it about a locale I'm not familiar with, but the procedures of their police departments are so different.

Paul: I like the idea of Canada as foreign turf for Canadians and it sure is whether I am reading L.R.Wright and her rural friendly RCMP officer in contrast to the typical pistol-packing hardcase detective or watching characters who actually resemble and behave like real people on DaVinci's Inquest. I am so used to American procedurals that despite my joy in recognizing familiar places, I find our own police operations unusual and intriguing. And apart from that Anglophone dominance, its a traveller's paradise these days when almost every nationality has representation in this genre.

Barry: I first became aware of how much fun it could be exploring other possibilities back in the 1970's with the Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and their books like The Laughing Policeman, The Abominable Man, and The Locked Room. They were interesting because they took a very socially conscious attitude toward crime, when that just wasn't done at all in American crime fiction outside of Noir.

Paul: For me it was the discovery of Van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries set in the Tang dynasty in China where the judge was the investigator, judge and executioner (none of this presumption of innocence nonsense). With Dee, you get not only an entirely different culture, but another era, and a whole different political sensibility. There have been many books since then but the most remarkable of recent Asian-based mysteries has to be John Burdett's Thai mysteries.

Barry: I really like Burdett as well with his comments on the culture and the central involving figure of the half-European half-Thai policeman, who's a devout Buddhist but whose boss is a drug dealer and whose mother runs a brothel. That really causes him some soul-searching! I also like Henning Mankell, who writes the Kurt Wallander mysteries set in Sweden and Norway’s Karin Fossum, who we also feature in BOOKED. Unfamiliar locales and different customs make foreign mystery novels a nice change of pace for readers. You learn something while you're having a great read.

Paul: I agree. Well written mysteries set in other countries function as great travel writing. Mysteries have often placed an emphasis on setting and here this tendency serves them well. Crimes often take place because of a given situation and the method is often tied to the environment. And this resonates and makes a book richer when all the elements are part of this other place.

Barry: Yes. The setting becomes another character in the story. We can bond to characters that are familiar to us but there is a certain frisson attached to characters at home in other cultures such as Nadel's Turkish Inspector Ikmen. Ikmen is always investigating crimes that couldn't have taken place in any other culture; the killing is familiar but the reason is not.

Paul: And that's really the draw. With these imports I find you have the comfort of the familiar genre but with everything else up for grabs. You know where you are going but you have no idea what you are going to see around the next bend.


Barry: One of the major trends today is Forensic Crime Fiction. It relates to hard-boiled crime fiction, I think, in that it grew out of the writers wanting a greater sense of realism in their work. If they were going to write police procedurals, they wanted the details to be correct. In this day and age, there's a lot of forensic analysis of evidence and that has to be reflected in the books. I think the guy who started the trend and really put it on the map was Thomas Harris in 1981's Red Dragon. He not only got the forensic detail correct but brought us into the world of the FBI profiler, which has been used so much now it's almost a cliché.

Paul: I think you are right as far as the modern era goes but what about Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, the first clue-obsessed detective that I remember reading. There were always references to his encyclopedic knowledge, to the fact that he had written whole books on things like the marks one's occupation left on the hands, or on how to trace footsteps.

Barry: Very true! There's also the writers that come from that world. Both Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs had day jobs that were located in the day to day science before they became writers. The serial killer is very much part of that world as the science of profiling and forensic analysis are part of the tools with which they're usually caught. Its interesting that though forensics can be applied to most any crime, "forensic" crime novels, like the Thomas Harris novels, tend to deal with serial killers. It may be because with killing, the body is a big bag of clues to work with and with many other crimes, the obvious thing, as in larceny, is what is missing.

Paul: I think that though it's nice to bring reality to the table, it can be trying when you couple extreme acts with realistic detail and good writing. John Connolly's books (starting with Every Dead Thing) are really hard to handle because he is a gifted and lyrical writer who manages to come up with the most horrific images married with deep emotional resonance that literally have you putting the book down and backing away from it. And then on the other hand, the concentration on details can obscure the fact that the book lacks everything else. I find this with a lot of the CSI shows in that so much airtime is spent on close ups of test tubes and bullets burrowing into bodies with little on much else.

Barry: The problem with the serial killer - forensic novels is that, if you're not careful, you can wind up glorifying the criminal act in a way that's both sensational, distasteful, and disrespectful and detrimental to the victims. It's also the thing I disliked about Birdman, the serial killer novel by Mo Hayder.

Paul: I agree about the danger of glorification. Merely by concentrating on the details, and especially in the evil versus good genius novels like Jeffrey Deaver's The Bone Collector. The detail work gets away from the idea of victims and often has the protagonist admiring his or her opponent for their cleverness. Then the "forensic" writers have to up the ante to an even smarter and crueler villain. Its not often that cruelty and detail work part company. Though I can enjoy the trickiness of these books, I tend to enjoy the messier, more humane books.

Barry: I agree. In real life most criminals are caught by following the big blood stains on the street up to their door, or simply by polling the people the victim hung out with. Forensic novels both deny the spontaneity of many crimes and speak to our wish that the application of science and logic will solve every crime. I think that we like these novels and shows like CSI because they make us think that evildoers, no matter how clever, will not get away with it.