I’ve read two thrillers today: The Heights by Parker Bilal and The Seven Doors by Agnes Ravatn. The two covers couldn’t be clearer in their different intents: red lights as a London tube train whizzes away, and a doorway opening onto a single chair, all blue and grey and lonely and empty. But each book brings an additional character the personality of which seeps into the novel and which raises the content above the norm. So for the first time on this blog, a double review.
We start with The Heights, a private detective procedural. Crane and Drake are a kind of team: they don’t really rub together brilliantly yet. Drake works better with his former colleagues at the Met while Crane, a forensic psychologist has her own contacts. But I want more from these characters: they are flawed and in ways that are different from the norm. I like the mix of secondary characters some of which will be recurring in the series. At times I’m confused as I assume flashbacks refer to the previous instalment (having looked it up, I no longer think this). There’s a severed head wrapped in an Ikea bag and found on the Northern Line, which is a helluva beginning. There’s a huge amount of energy and action and incidental detail some of which I’m not sure is right (there’s no direct train from Walthamstow Central to Clapham Common nor does the supposed action of Fender at Walthamstow make sense operationally). But part of what is brilliant about The Heights is its portrayal of London: the city’s energy, its vitality and its malice provide more than a backdrop – a character in itself. The moral underpinning of the book and Bilal’s anger at differences in power is tempered by an understanding of the ambiguities and compromises that need to be made if nine million people are to rub up against each other without the whole thing falling apart. There’s a worldliness to the whole thing which manages to be appealingly uncynical.
The Seven Doors is relatively unworldly: the seven doors are a reference to the Bartók opera, Bluebeard’s Castle which is discussed at length in relation to the central mystery. There are lots of references to literary scholarship (this novel’s additional character), including a rather fun self-deprecatory set piece. Again we have a fast start: this one sets us up with the main protagonist, teacher Nina, and her obnoxious daughter Ingeborg. A young woman, the tenant of Nina and husband Mads, goes missing. Improbably and implausibly, Nina sets out to find out what has happened. She isn’t very good at it but that is hardly the point: her home life is in turmoil and Nina needs an adventure and an opportunity to try something new. Nina explores Jung, Freud and folktale to get to the bottom of the tenant’s psychological state, yet there’s a lightness to the book which is testament to Rosie Hedger’s fine translation from the Norwegian original. There are moments of huge tension, but Ravatn also explores the nature of long-term relationships, between spouses, between friends, and across the generations: how they wax and wane, how trust is involved, and – like The Heights – what compromises might be necessary. Just like Ravatn’s previous novel, The Bird Tribunal, water plays an important part.
The Heights has grenades and helicopters and The Seven Doors has a power cut and a fainting on the stairs. But for all their differences in style, tone and pace, the two novels seem to complement each other well, sharing an interest in the people who inhabit their hugely contrasting but largely convincing worlds.
Thanks to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitations, and to Black Thorn and Orenda Books for the review copies.