WINTER’S BONE by Daniel Woodrell

This week’s much-loved crime fiction is a novel that Irish academic and crime writer Rob Kitchin loves, and he’s shared it here because Maxine commented on his review that she loved the book as well.

A UK cover of the novel

A UK cover of the novel

Ree Dolly is sixteen and old beyond her years, living a hard life trying to make ends meet in a beat up house, deep in the rural Ozarks of Missouri, where every neighbour within thirty miles is also some kind of relative who live by their own code. Her father comes and goes, her mother has slipped into her own hazy world, and her two younger brothers aren’t yet old enough to look after themselves. Not long after her father wanders out to spend a few days doing who knows what, a local deputy comes to the house and tells her that if he doesn’t show up for a court date in a couple of days time the rest of the family will be turned out to fend for themselves and the property handed over to the bail bond company. Determined that his won’t happen she sets out to try and hunt him down, only her suspicious, clannish, extended family seem equally as determined to thwart her.

WINTER’S BONE is a powerful tale, exquisitely told. Woodrell expertly immerses the reader in the rural, clannish society of the Ozarks, creating a multi-textured sense of place populated by authentic familial and social relations. And immersion is the right word; one doesn’t simply read a description of Ree’s world, one is plunged into it, living it with her, experiencing all her anxieties and frustrations. The characterization is excellent and Ree and her close and extended family are full, complex characters which radiate emotional depth and whose interactions and dialogue resonate true. Whilst the story is sombre and bleak, it also has hope, and it quickly hooks the reader in, with the narrative taut and tense, and the prose beautiful and lyrical. Indeed, one of the strengths of Woodrell’s writing is that it is so rich and yet so economical. I sense that WINTER’S BONE is a story that will stay with me for a long time and I very much look forward to reading more of Woodrell’s work.

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Here’s a part of Maxine’s own review of the book

…I kept wondering why Ree let herself suffer so. We know she dreams of joining the US Army, but why does she stay in this closed community – closed to the assistance of education, medicine and the law? I was answered by the end of the book, when Ree’s Greek tragedy is played out: like Frodo, she has played by the only rules that can matter for her, and she receives her reward. A desperately sad book, brilliantly conveying the histories and culture of these people, and one that won’t leave you in a hurry.

Rob Kitchin’s review was first published at The View From the Blue House, The quote of Maxine’s is taken from her blog archive.

Book Details:

author: Daniel Woodrell
original language: English
publication date (UK): 2006 [Sceptre]

Contributor Details:

Rob Kitchin is Director of a social sciences Institute at an Irish university, has published 21 academic books (soon to be 22), a 12 volume encyclopaedia, 3 crime novels and a collection of short stories. He discusses his crime reading and shares his short fiction at The View From The Blue House

Ed McBain

English cartoonist and author Colin Cotterill discusses his ‘friendship’ with Ed McBain

I love my dogs, my wife and my mother, although not necessarily in that order. On visits to the States I’m always astounded that people can love toothpaste, cars and pop stars they’ve never met. Although I am fond of my bed and my computer, the strongest emotion I can summon up for them is ‘like’. The same applies to books. I was brought up in a non-bookish environment and gravitated to sport. In a London comprehensive school, that meant making an early decision as to which ‘types’ you hung out with. Bill and Charlie and Chopper would no sooner be seen with a copy of Black Beauty open on their desks than Mr. Heatly, the R.E. teacher be seen browsing through his Penthouse collection, (Although he was later dismissed for doing just that.)

So it is with trepidation that I begin this short essay in honour of a marvelous lady who truly loved the books she reviewed. Maxine had many a kind word about my little mysteries and her enthusiasm went a good way towards encouraging me to continue writing when all hope of super-literary-stardom had passed me by. I wanted so much to join this parade of book lovers but I had no banner to carry, no flag to wave, no float to appear half-naked upon covered in glitter. I didn’t have a champion to hold up to the crowds and say, ‘This is the tome that made me what I am today’. I didn’t have a book to love.

But do not feel sad for me, gentle readers. I have had a long and passionate affair with the cinema and the silver screen has taught me much about extreme plotting, rapid character development and how to reach a climax in a hurry. But I began to wonder whether movies alone could be credited with turning me into the tepid crime writer I am today. Surely books had influenced me somewhere along the line. One does not become a competent tuba player by practicing on the violin. While I wracked my brain searching for an armoured auteur in the dusty corridors of my history, I did stumble over one gem that might have sparkled upon my career.

An early cover of the first 87th precinct novel

An early cover of the first 87th precinct novel

I was in Laos in a distant rural teachers college setting up a library. Upon hearing of my search for books in Thai language (There were no books in Lao) some expatriates decided to clear out their libraries and send me packing cases full of English discards. There was not much to entertain a boy in the Lao bush so I began to read the type of books in which I had erstwhile shown no interest. Many of these were crime novels. With a ho and a hum I opened the first Ed McBain. Surely television could do such dramas more efficiently. When I regained consciousness I had reached the denouement of book fifteen and lusted for more.

I had developed a relationship with detectives that no television had ever afforded me. And it was because television and film had done the thinking for me. They had made me a voyeur. But there is something far more satisfying about imagining what your neighbour’s wife looks like in the bath, than putting up a step ladder and seeing for yourself. She could never be more beautiful than in your imagination. And that’s what Ed had done for me. He had hinted at the nose and hair of the femme fatale and allowed me to fill in the rest of her in my mind. He had walked a potential victim down a dark lane and given me permission to paint the sounds and smells, to hear the footsteps, to sample the tension without background music. In a book, you are an active participant. You may choose to skip a description of a thick-piled Persian carpet or re-read beautiful prose that touches you. In a cinema you are outside looking in. In a book you are a participant.

Before Ed, I’d read in bytes, picking up a book only when there was absolutely nothing better to do. Then I read fifteen books in quick succession and had the time of my life. I don’t know what it was that sucked me in. There are better writers. There are more thrills to be had in thicker books. But Ed McBain had taught me how to read. As reviewers and educators, that’s what we should be focused on; teaching young folk how to read. We can do that through our enthusiasm, the type of passion that came through in the Petrona reviews.

And where does that leave me and Ed? Well, I still don’t love him but we have become very good friends.

Book Details:

author: Ed McBain is the most well-known pseudonym of author and screenwriter Evan Hunter which, in turn, is the legally adopted name of Salvatore Lombino. His best known work is the 55-book 87th precinct series which began with 1956’s COP HATER and ended with FIDDLERS published in 2005! This series is generally thought to have launched the sub genre known as the police procedural (and strongly influenced the authors discussed in last week’s essay). There are 15 standalone novels, numerous short story collections and another series featuring a lawyer which all bear McBain’s name and we haven’t touched upon the output under Hunter’s own name and his other pseudonyms.

Contributor Details:

Colin Cotterill is a cartoonist, illustrator and crime writer who has published nine novels set in 1970’s Laos featuring a reluctant septuagenarian coroner as the hero and recently started a new series set in present-day Thailand.

The Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

This week’s much loved crime is an homage from crime writer Quentin Bates to one of the world’s great series of novels

A pair of weird names stood out from the bookshelf. This was a long time ago, some time in the middle of the 1970s and I was a schoolboy with my nose almost permanently in a book. The two odd names were on a row of paperbacks on my Mum’s bookshelf among the Ed McBains and the collections of Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith that still fill the old lady’s bookshelves today.

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

The odd pairing was too much to resist. With only a vague idea of idea how to pronounce the two names, I was hooked within a couple of pages. There was no internet then, no easily googled information, but the scant blurb inside the books indicated that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were a husband-and-wife pair of crime writers from Sweden. That was it. It was years before I found out any more about them and the books that opened a whole new world.

The lives and attitudes of Martin Beck, Gunvald Larsen, Einar Rönn, Fredrik Melander Lennart Kollberg and their wives, girlfriends superiors and colleagues, not least the boneheaded patrolmen Kvant and Kristiansson (plus Kvastmo, who stepped in after Kvant was killed), were a revelation to this spotty, bookish teenager.

This was proper gritty crime, like the American stuff, but it was so much better, set in Europe and somehow it was just more believable. There was something entirely credible about the lives of these flawed Swedish coppers and it was a world away from comfy drawing rooms and hard-bitten fedora-hatted gumshoes.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

Sweden was a distant country then, a byword for blondes and skinny dipping, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö showed a seamier, more realistic side to this Scandinavian utopia, still with a level of permissiveness and freedom in spite of its flaws that was a world away from English suburbia. There was a subtle undercurrent of social commentary in the books that was missing from other crime fiction and gave the stories a hard edge. It was only years later that I discovered the authors had been committed Marxists and that the Martin Beck novels had been written as a social commentary on the ills of Swedish society.

The writing is still as fresh today as it was then. It’s spare prose with no wasted space. If you disregard the fact that there are no mobile phones and that Martin Beck and his colleagues travel by bus, then they could be set today.

Once I found that there was a series of ten, the gaps in Mum’s shelves were plugged with visits to the library and before long I had read the lot. Then… nothing. There wasn’t any more Scandinavian crime to be had in English. Apart from a few oddities that turned up that weren’t easily found in a pre-internet age, it wasn’t until Miss Smilla and her unique feeling for snow appeared on the scene that we Brits had a similarly insightful peek into Scandinavia’s nuts and bolts.

The rest is history and these days we’re spoilt for choice. But I still have a row of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books, one or two of them much-thumbed copies that never did find their way back to Mum’s bookshelves all those years ago. Almost fifty years on, the Martin Beck novels still hold their own among the flood of Nordic crime now available in English, and practically every Nordic crime writer (the small group of Nordic pretenders included) is indebted to to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Book Details:

author: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote a total of ten novels in the Martin Beck series which is collectively known as The Story of a Crime. In publication date order they are

  1. Roseanna,
  2. The Man Who Went Up In Smoke
  3. The Man on the Balcony
  4. The Laughing Policeman
  5. The Fire Engine that Disappeared
  6. Murder at the Savoy
  7. The Abominable Man
  8. The Locked Room
  9. Cop Killer
  10. The Terrorists

original language: Swedish
translators: varied
publication date (UK): Roseanna was first published in 1966, The Terrorists in 1975.

Contributor Details:

Quentin Bates was born in the UK, spent a gap year decade in Iceland and is now a journalist and crime fiction writer with a series of novels featuring a widowed police sergeant serving on a rural Icelandic force. For more visit his website or follow him on twitter.