Thursday, 13 December 2012

Fatal Frost

The late R.D. Wingfield's famous scruffy detective lives on again in this the second book featuring the early investigations by Frost. It's 1982 and Frost is currently a Detective Sergeant though due to the absence of most of the higher ranks at Eagle Lane he's doing the job he'd eventually rise to in Wingfield's books. James Henry is the working name of a duo of writers attempting to capture the beloved character. It always seems to me that the character has had as many negative habits pinned to him as possible but with the mission of making the detective still likeable. He smokes so heavily even the smokers feel ill, he hardly changes his clothes even in a heatwave, rarely goes home, drinks on the job, though to be fair so does the rest of the squad-room and he's cheating on his wife. Really he's the only fully formed character in the book along with the heavily caricatured Mullett. They're polar opposites, equally disdainful of each other but the two of them are stuck together. It's a situation that sort of underpins the whole series and generates most of the amusement. The other characters don't really have a lot to them, which sadly includes the new guy, DS Waters, Denton's first black policeman. It's a strand that had potential but it never really goes anywhere and pulls its punches when touching on racism within the force during the 80s.
Fatal Frost is a very readable and entertaining police procedural, with several cases ongoing which sort of overlap in places. Looking in on a younger Frost is a great idea. The little touches of period detail tend to pop out of the narrative unexpectedly. It's a bit like driving over unseen speed bumps. They jolt you out of the story because they don't quite blend into the contemporary perspective. Two quid would have been two quid, and bins would have been bins, with no mention of what material they were both made out of. As someone who was thirteen at the time I can appreciate the nostalgia evoked but it does seem to have a slight retrospective feel to it that probably doesn't compare to books actually written in the 80s. It's not a big problem though. I'd certainly read any more books in the series. So crack open a can of Harp lager, reach for a pack of Rothmans (maybe not), stick Alison Moyet on the record player and dive into the 80s with that scruffy bloke with a dead cat in his car.
Review from an advanced reading copy.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Dracula's Guest

Victorian Vampire Stories! Well I don't know about you, but I'm sold already. Michael Sims begins his collection by making excuses. Not all of the stories are Victorian, either by era, locality or the holder of the pen that spawned them. I'm still sold. And this is despite Sims' efforts to shake me from my purchase with a stumbling beginning to the collection. To get to the good stuff we have to climb over the scattered rough debris of several supposed true accounts preceded by  Sims' introduction, filled with personal asides and  an unconscionable concluding paragraph, which seems to hold up Stephanie Meyer as some kind of guru and ultimate literary culmination of the genre.
Each story begins with a short essay from Sims that include some biographical information of the authors and an examination of their story's place within the literary development of the Vampire genre, particularly in how they might have influenced Bram Stoker.
Byron's incomplete effort, conceived on the same famous night that would birth Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, gives way to his friend John Polidori's story featuring his Vampyre, a bloodsucker hardly indistinguishable from Byron himself. The vampire as a seductive parasite is prevalent throughout the collection, the main plot being generally either the victim's struggle to free themselves from their wasting doom as in Tieck's Wake Not The Dead or Gautier's The Deathly Lover, or the same scenario featuring the victim's friends trying to break the spell as in Anne Crawford's A Mystery of the Capagna.
Limits of the genre aside, there are some excellent stories here, like the unattributed The Mysterious Stranger, without which Stoker's Dracula would surely have turned out differently; Mary Elizabeth Braddon's challenging atmospheric Good Lady Ducayne; M,R,James' Count Magnus, finding a more comfortable home here away from the ghosts and demons of his anthologies and Aleksei Tolstoy 's doomed Family of the Vourdalak. Sometimes it's just a moment in the story that sets it above other stories like the nightmarish slow invasion of the room by the long fingered blood sucker picking the lead from the window glass in Augustus Hare's And The Creature Came In.
Not all the stories are of such high standard though. The first chapter of Rymer's Varney the Vampire is included here, hugely popular in its day and even influential, but whose peculiar style reads often like an extended list of stage directions. Thankfully we are spared the remaining 108 instalments. Aylmer Vance and the Vampire by Alice and Claude Askew, a sort of supernatural investigator hybrid of Holmes and Watson crossed with John Silence but without much flare, wit or invention. Other stories score high on the creep-o-meter but are questionable as true vampire stories e.g. What Was it? & Let Loose.
The anthology concludes with the title story,  billed as an omitted chapter from Dracula, though I would surmise that it was more of a false start by Stoker before he committed to the epistolary format.
I recommend this book for all connoisseurs of the vampire story and its literary evolution, vampire lovers or just seekers of chills before bedtime.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Con Man

The year turns and another 87th Precinct book breezes through. It's April in Isola. The cruellest month? Cruel enough anyway as the con is well and truly on. McBain relishes in his chosen theme. The con and the conmen themselves get a thorough going over by McBain's philosophically edged examination. The detectives of the 87th are trying to reel in a couple of tricksters who are working their way through the confidence trick handbook, fleecing the rich and poor for a fortune or a dime. Arthur Brown and newly promoted Bert Kling are hitting the streets trying to luck out for a lead on the pair. But it's Steve Carella who discovers a far more sinister and deadly conman at work. The river deals him a woman, dead for some time, a tattoo of a heart encircling the word MAC almost hidden on the flesh of her hand and a mysteriously emptied bank account. As ever the characters are great and becoming more familiar by the book. With the investigations waiting for that one killer lead, McBain revels in dangling them in front of the wrong eyes at the wrong time. Some of it gets dangled by our eyes too through print outs of missing persons reports, Criminal identity cards and, somewhat indecipherably, dental records. Carella is recently back from his honeymoon with new wife Teddy who is deaf-mute. This one works up to a particularly suspenseful finale with Teddy aiding in the investigation.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Cold Dish

Walt Longmire is the Sheriff of Absaroka county in Wyoming beneath the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains. He's marking time until his retirement, mourning the loss of his wife while he drinks himself to sleep each night in front of a tv with a speciality for static in a half built cabin.
When the body of Cody Pritchard is found, seemingly shot by an antique rifle, Walt has to shake off his doldrums to discover the killer. Because Cody Pritchard was one of four boys who raped a young Cheyenne girl and then got off almost unpunished. With most of the population of the county in the suspect frame, including Walt's best friend and most of his colleagues this wasn't the retirement run he was looking for.
I'm definitely going to be checking out the rest of this series. Absaroka is, according to Walt, one of the places people plan all their life to retire to... and then pack up for Florida after feeling the bite of their winter. The cast is largely of a certain vintage with Walt himself being a big guy with a long history behind him. The sense that the characters have all lived a life with plenty of stories to be told is one of the constants throughout the narrative with the author (Craig Johnson) filling us in with Walt's wry wit and self deprecating voice as the plot pushes forward. The natural and sometimes treacherous beauty of the region mixed with both real and fictional local history, Cheyenne culture and spirituality makes for a very palatable tasty feast of a crime novel.
I knew nothing of the tv series when I first picked this up but I'll probably have to add Longmire to my to watch list.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Necropolis Railway

Andrew Martin's The Necropolis Railway introduces the character of Jim Stringer onto the Edwardian mystery stage. Stringer starts out as a fairly wet behind the ears young bloke fresh out of Baytown (that's Robin Hood's Bay to us tourists). He's dead set on making a life and a career for himself on his beloved railways. His head is full of the romance of the railways, the rose coloured ideal straight out of the Boy's Own Paper or his revered Railway Magazine. His first job as a porter at the sleepy little station at Grosmont is a severe disappointment, being both the completely wrong career line  with no prospect of crossing over to engine driver, and seemingly no more exciting duties than primping the flowers or cleaning out the khazies. One day he meets a mysterious stranger who promises to get him onto the right track among the bustle and prospect of London, cleaning the engines that ply the funeral run from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery . Before long he's summoned down south to begin his new life but all is not quite as it seems. He steps into the shoes of a predecessor who was very likely murdered. Suspects abound and his life is made doubly difficult by being labelled a company spy by his workmates. With most of his dreams shattered Jim tries to unravel the mystery before he ends up as dead the last bloke, while trying to woo the girl of his dreams (his landlady).
Andrew Martin's writing is crammed packed with period detail and the day to day minutiae of the railways, colourful characters, a complicated mystery that doesn't seem to want to lie down with the other corpses and a coming of age character piece. The obvious glamour of steam engines clashes with the harsher realities of Edwardian London. It's probably not going to be everybody's cup of tea and some of the vernacular is probably going to annoy some folks but if you love anything to do with steam locomotives, Edwardian England and mystery stories you just might enjoy it as much as I did.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

British Robin

Camera Critters

Ok so it isn't Christmas yet but Robins just make me think of that time of year, so when rustling up a quick ditty to accompany this picture I couldn't avoid mentioning Christmas.

On turned earth,
or handy perch,
a garden friend
til end of year.
A flash of red,
an evening song,
the poster boy
for Christmas cheer.
                    Michael Finn

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Magistrates of Hell

You wait 15 years for a new vampire laced James Asher book and then two come along almost at once with Magistrates of Hell following on neatly from last year's Blood Maidens. Retired spy James Asher sails to China in 1912 to investigate the discovery of a body very like the mutated vampires he encountered in St Petersberg. Accompanied by his wife and Dr Solomon Karlebach, Asher bases his investigation within the cosmopolitan confines of the Legation Quarter in Peking under the blind of a purely academic interest in philology and folklore. Keeping an even lower profile is Asher's ancient Spanish vampire ally Don Simon Ysidro. Usually these books have Ysidro treading on the territorial toes of the local nest of urban vampires but China's vampires are something different. Incredibly ancient and not altogether sane they mostly remain aloof and hard to pin down. With Ysidro hampered by their elusiveness, Asher has to rely more on his human allies, the Van Helsing like vampire hunter Karlebach and the Japanese Samurai Count Mizukami. Asher and the Count actually make quite a dynamic pairing out in the wilds among the swarming rabid rats and equally the double dealings and murder within the city and the Legation. Barbara Hambly dishes up a more b-movie action based script than usual but it remains faithful to the series tone, is well researched and  maintains the levels of threat and anxiety common to Hambly books.  As ever Hambly know how to entertain.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Sparrowhawk Close

Camera Critters
Our neck of the woods sees quite a bit of sparrowhawk activity. There always seems to be one lurking about, checking out our little birds. And the not so little birds. We've seen them take out wood pigeons on the front lawn and magpies on the back field. These guy really do punch above their weight. Unfortunately they still haven't worked out what glass is. We've seen many a sparrowhawk fly straight into our windows front and back. Mostly it's the juveniles though not always. Sometimes they are killed instantly. Sometimes they are just stunned. And sometimes they do themselves an injury. This chap didn't have an audience for his mishap so I can't be sure what happened but when we got him some professional help it seems his wing was damaged.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Anvil Gate

The third book in the Gears of War series by Karen Traviss follows on directly from events at the end of the last book Jacinto's Remnant and is still building up to the finale of the video game Gears of War 3. Delta Squad and remaining Cog Forces have settled alongside the inhabitants of a sheltered naval outpost at Vectes. They maintain an uneasy truce with a group of Indie refugees who hold a valuable source of Imulsion. The two sides struggle to bury an enmity that burned for generations during the Pendulum Wars. Bands of Stranded pirates nibble at the order that both sides crave. And if that wasn't enough, boats are going missing or found bereft of crew, mysterious holes punched through the hull.
For all you lovers of Damon Baird (there must be someone out there...don't all holler at once) you'll love this one as Traviss has a good go at poking around in Baird's uber-cynical smarty pants noggin.
Possibly less effective are the flashbacks featuring a young Adam Phoenix pining over lost reliquaries while fighting in an urban hell of war theatre. In the same timeline a young Hoffman commands the defence of Anvil Gate and resorts to questionable though pragmatic tactics that will haunt him forever. I did love the story of Bai Tak, the Pesanga volunteer with his team of grinning machete wielding hill men. You'll remember him from the Aspho Fields flashbacks in book one.  The main timeline moves along a bit more with the CoG learning how to combat Lambent and that data disc from Gears 3 finally turns up to wallop an even bigger wedge between Hoffman and Prescott.As ever the characterisation is superb, with great dialogue alongside more introspective examinations of the main players and the effects of war on human morality.   Oh and there's a fair bit of backs to the wall Gear on Glowie action... and with Lambent involved that means plenty BOOOOOM!!!!  Enjoyable stuff.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


A beautiful woman lies in the middle of the road stabbed through the heart, an eighteenth-century book clutched in her hand and  wrapped in a bloodstained hand-stitched silk shawl.
Franck Guerin of the Brigade Criminelle is soon on the scene, making a welcome fourth outing in David Barrie's intricate Parisian and decidedly noirish detective series.
 In the past the novels have been characterised by  Franck having to immerse himself in a specialised aspect of Parisian society that he knows absolutely nothing about. Previously he's had to become an unlikely student in the rarefied worlds of lingerie connoisseurs, luxury perfumers and elite ballet dancers but in Hard-Hearted the author breaks the formula.Which is a good thing considering the main suspects are deeply imbedded in the world of high finance. Franck's very deliberate refusal to engage or try to decipher the mechanics of the trading machinations going on is the source of some of the more humourous exchanges. A scene where Sylvie boils it all down for him in a room wallpapered with diagrams is a standout.
In contrast the other area that Franck's investigation leads is one of academia, specifically French eighteenth-century literature and even more specifically the ancient book found in the victim's hand; The Tales of Madame de Villeneuve, Volume one. It's the first part of a story that would eventually be rehashed and made famous by another writer and renamed Beauty and the Beast. David Barrie gets lots of mileage thematically and philosophically from some of the symbolism that can be drawn from the ancient fairy tale, weaving them through his plot, the characters and even perhaps Paris itself, as Franck's investigation, in between the posh frocks and lavish soirees, takes him to the city's seamier side. 
I like Franck. He's got a wry sense of humour, he's very easy to relate to and best of all he's ever present in the narrative. He's still a man without much in the way of history though, beyond his previous employment fighting eco-terrorists, so it was a bit of a shock to finally meet his father, though the youth of Franck Guerin remains heavily veiled. 
With everyone scrambling to be the one who discovers the next big euro-noir these days you could do worse than give Franck Guerin a try. They also have the benefit of not being fed through the literary tea strainer of translation as they 're written in English. And they keep on getting better as the author hones his style. I look forward to the next one.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace

In Kate Summerscale's previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher the author demonstrated that if you are going to try marketing what was essentially an extended essay you could do worse than find a subject that included a notorious Victorian murder, family secrets and a celebrated Scotland Yard Detective. It was a massive bestseller. If you expected Summerscale to choose another such mystery, perhaps another murder and another dashing detective then you might be a little disappointed that this time the focus is on one of the most notable of the early divorce trials of the 1850s.
Henry Robinson is a middle class businessman who discovers his wife's secret diary, the contents of which form the basis of his legal attempts to divorce her. The case hinges on whether the illicit affair detailed within the pages is truth or some elaborate fiction. Also on trial is the professional and personal reputation of the object of Mrs Robinson's obsession,  Edward Lane, respected by the great and the good as a brilliant practitioner of hydrotherapy working from his clinic/spa at Moor Park. The verdict is less important, to the reader at least, than the study of a period of history focusing on social aspects like the law, marriage, health, class, family, sex, the psyche, morality, science and religion. Lane and Mrs Robinson have a large and eclectic circle of contacts and friends that reach deep into British literary circles and the Victorian scientific intelligentsia; Darwin is one of Lane's patients and George Combe, a  proponent of phrenology, is a frequent correspondent of them both.
Sumerscale melds the different sources into the essay with care and the proper focus for the themes explored. The tone is certainly engaging and never dry. As a slice of  social history the book works very well. It might be the case that some people might be more inclined to read the diaries in question and make their own mind up without Summerscales commentary but as a fuller snapshot of the times Mrs Robinson's disgrace would be my choice. Divorce case aside the book also celebrates the early history of diaries, their place in the British home and like the crux of the trial, the line between factual journal and their place among fiction as entertainment.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Ghost Writer

Gerrard Freeman is a young Librarian living in Australia with his secretive mother. As a child he found a mysterious photograph and a strange ghost story written by his great-grandmother Viola Hatherley. The discovery causes his mother to abandon any mention of her former life in England, a life until that point lit up by sunlit tales of an idyllic country house named Staplefield. Gerrard believes there is a dark secret to be discovered which he shares with his only confidant and object of near obsessive devotion, pen friend Alice Jessell - a woman he has never met. Discovering more stories by Viola, Gerrard soon becomes aware of strange similarities and portentous detail.
John Harwood's The Ghost Writer is a complex puzzle of a story within a story with an unclear distinction between truth and fiction. It's very hard to keep the two separate and at times I tended to let Gerrard try to figure things out for me, which probably wasn't the wisest of actions on my part. Some aspects are much more clearly false to the reader than they are to our questing librarian which makes you rather want to give the poor guy a slap. Harwood switches styles pretty effortlessly between Gerrard's uncomplicated though bewildered narrative and the evocation of a hybrid chimera of  Sheridan Le Fanu,  Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James to breath style into Viola's macabre stories. The only real gripe I'd have is the rather abrupt ending, though in defense of Harwood there is very little left unresolved. The lack of any real concluding end-note had me holding up the blank end-pages and considering the possibility of hidden passages in lemon juice.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Thursday, 3 May 2012

x2 Pinkness

A friend of mine bought a new camera recently. He does this from time to time. He tells me how much zoom it has, and all the features, delighting in the numbers, the higher the better. I suggested he take some pictures of the cherry blossoms that are in fine bloom all over the place at the moment... and there's even been some sunshine in patches to bring colour to the usual Blackburn greyness.
"What's cherry blossom?" he replied.
I give up.
Anyhow, the next time he disappeared into another grey building to gaze in awe at some more mechanical monstrosities with outrageously large specification numbers adorning their shininess, I stayed in the car in the car park, stuck my little camera out of the window (zoom x2) and clicked it hopefully at the nearest pink blossoms.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Dead Detectives

Being a massive fanboy of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) for the last four decades or so, a book featuring a dead detective should be an attractive prospect for me. I'm not comparing them though as they are two quite different beasts when all is read and done. Peg Herring's Dead Detective is a guy called Seamus who operates from a limbo between life and death cunningly incorporated as a swanky ocean liner. At the behest of the newly dead he takes on cases that resolve the recently deceased's unfinished business, in this case the suspicious death of a rich business man called Dunbar. This time he has to take along a headstrong female rookie called Mildred to help in his investigation. Dead for the Money is solidly written with well fleshed characters but is sabotaged from within by its own format. The Dead Detective goes about his business by hiding in the minds of the likely suspects or witnesses. In a way he inhabits the same sort of perspective as the reader and he's almost as helpless to influence events. In fact ninety percent of the time it's easy to forget Seamus and Mildred are part of the narrative at all. Ghostly gumshoes aside, the story still has a lot going for it; Dunbar's grandchildren Bud & Brodie are engaging and the story does build up to a thrilling finale.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Uninvited Guests

In a large though crumbling country house the Torringtons prepare for the twentieth birthday of their eldest daughter Emerald, while their youngest daughter, mostly known as Smudge, prepares her own Great Undertaking. But during the preparations a train derails and the family are entreated to look after the survivors. 
I'm tiptoeing around spoilers here, even though the marketing for this book left great muddy footprints all over the cover. I can't really complain too loudly though as I probably wouldn't have even read the book if they hadn't been so indiscreet. The likes of Oscar Wilde and E.M.Forster are the the sorts of literary heritage this aspires to live up too. It's not quite consistent enough to pull it off completely and it suffers from having to hit its targets so far removed from the period of history it satires. It achieves on other levels though. It's engagingly written with many little impressionistic flourishes, entertaining throughout and did manage to put this reader on edge at times. It gave me pause to wonder that faced with a kitten neglected in a box (a present for Emerald) at the same time that the wretched train wreck survivors are similarly neglected, starving and cold in their own little box (the morning room), that the only forceful thought in my mind was: "Let the damn kitten out of the box!!!".

Monday, 2 April 2012

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

The de Luce family have suspended their usual Christmas preparations in order to try to generate some much needed cash, hiring out Buckshaw to a film company. Usually Christmas is the one time of the year that the warring sisters declare a temporary truce for the celebrations but that seems unlikely amongst the uproar of visiting film royalty. It's not long before things start going wrong and most of the population of Bishop's Lacy is camped out in the halls, pretty much snowed in and trapped with a killer at large amongst them. Much as Flavia de Luce loves a good murder to keep her 12 year old deductive skills finely honed, even she has to admit that juggling vital scientific experiments (proving the existence of Father Christmas) at the same time as digging into family history, while making sure the local police are suitably impressed with her cleverness and creating the firework display to end all firework displays, might be a little too much for even her array of skills.
This one is possibly as good as the series debut. Flavia and co just dance off the pages which seem to evaporate under your fingers and into your brain. If you can get it into your reading schedule over the Christmas period then all much the better. Flavia is as fascinating and captivating as ever, straddling the line of cleverness and hopeless naivety and brought to life by Alan Bradley with lots of wit, cheekiness and flashes of surprising depth of feeling. Whether you buy into his somewhat Ealingesque image of 1950s rural England doesn't really matter - it's just too much fun to give a damn.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Frogs that smile

The mild winter has messed with our wildlife. We are already seeing a whole mess of frogs. Debbie stumbled on a whole gang croaking like an orchestra of TT racers revving up for the off. She says they were all giving her the beady eye glare as if to say: 'op it - this is our pad. Get yer own!!!!
By the time she got her camera fired up though there were only three frogateers left to guard the rear. Oh I missed one - that must be d'Artagnan.
And then there was one. I think he hung about because he was the only one who knew frog Karate. Beware ninja frogs who smile.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Elisabeth Sladen

Ninety-nine out of every hundred people reading this book are going to be dyed in the wool Doctor Who fans. Lis knew this quite well. Which is probably one of the reasons the bulk of the book is taken up documenting the short period of her life working on the show. She's giving the target audience what they want. I'm a hardcore Doctor Who fan myself. I love all her insights and observations about the show. But I would also have liked to read more about the real Elisabeth Sladen behind the Sarah Jane Smith parade. There are glimpses of it of course but not enough. Her parent's history is just a short prelude and her childhood rushes by in a confusingly unchronological blur of Elvis posters and tomboy hi-jinx. Her early career on stage and tv bring more structure to the book as the various productions provide a set of hooks to pin her years on. There are some fascinating insights into the many famous faces she worked with or encountered - names like Michael Crawford, Robert Morley and Alan Ayckbourn. Here she also meets her soon to be husband and apparent soul mate Brian Miller . There is a sort of embarrassed reluctance though to let the reader get under the surface of their relationship, whether in defence of their privacy or insecurity about how much personal detail a fan of a tv show would want - I don't know. There is an opinion, probably accurate, expressed by her daughter, that Lis didn't really fully realise just how much she was loved by the fans of the show.
It's no use denying that most fans of the classic show are pretty hard-core nostalgia junkies. I am one of them so I lapped up all the stories about her time on the show. All the stuff about her love hate relationship with Jon Pertwee are priceless, the utter Doctor Who legend that was Barry Letts, Tom Baker, the lovely but tragic Ian Marter. There are also names that she was less impressed with allowing her grumpier aspects to have a bit of page space. Her time on the show comes to an end and the book almost fast forwards to the finish, stopping briefly to describe some of her later involvements on specials and spin-offs, conventions, missed career opportunities, the birth of her daughter and the eventual resurgence of the show that would lead to The Sarah Jane Adventures.
We live in a media age where it seems that not a day can go by without someone familiar passing away but I can honestly say I have never been shocked so badly as the night I found out we'd lost Lis Sladen. This book was completed only at the last and it has been a sad pleasure to hear her voice in my head again.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The White Lioness

After the underwhelming Dogs of Riga I was hoping for a big fat Swedish murder investigation this time. The White Lioness is a far superior animal by far but it's also not entirely that big fat dose of Wallander I wanted. Written just before South Africa would throw away the worst of its horrific identity, Mankell once again writes a book that is so very rooted in the time of its writing - here the early 90s leading up to the eventual free elections in 1994. The first segment of the book is excellent. Wallander is still not quite on an even keel after his ordeal in Latvia. He throws himself into the mystery of a missing woman. A woman with no reason to disappear.
My biggest problem with this book is the way this promising opening is just cut off in mid flow. We turn a page and leave Wallander behind. For a chapter we think. Well maybe two chapters. Any time now. 50 pages. Can't be long now. 80 pages. Please. 100 pages... you've got to be kidding me!!! Don't get me wrong. The narrative here is still excellently written and Mankell gives us a very creditable, though Swedish filtered attempt at showing Afrikaner society through the eyes of de Klerk, the secret service and a shadowy organisation dedicated to preserving apartheid by assassinating Mandela. Is it Wallander meets The Day of the Jackal? Oh very definitely, though the assassins here aren't really in the Jackal's class, though why they decide to train in Sweden is beyond me. Any half decent assassin would probably conduct his preparations in a neighbouring country.
Eventually the action returns back to Sweden and the book starts to burn again. Wallander skips the rails even more spectacularly than usual, which gives Svedberg an opportunity to step out of the shadows thrown by Mankel's previously sketchy characterisation, joining the very small cast of fully drawn players.
From a political standpoint the book has become a bit of curiosity, a set of Swedish tinged views on a long dead social system, separated by a couple of decades from today's contemporary incarnation. As a thriller and a detective story the book does eventually redeem itself, though the way the two threads are woven together could have been much better.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Cop Hater (87th Precinct #1)

This is the first book in Ed McBain's long running police procedural series 87th Precinct. McBain would continue writing the ongoing series for half a century until 2005, the year of his death.
Someone is killing cops with a 45 calibre handgun. Steve Carella and the rest of the precinct have to find the killer before he kills again. Carella and Teddy are unmarried still and between the exhaustive investigation the pair try to snatch enough time together to decide on a date for the wedding.
As with quite a few of his books McBain makes good use of the weather conditions. You can almost feel the heat throughout. The last time I read one of these it was to the other polar extreme, with the city literally freezing in the depth and dark of winter. What really makes 87th Precinct books work though is the to and fro between the cops, the banter, some of it digging into the investigations or just the mix of everyday talk of a bunch of guys doing a day to day job, friendships, rivalries - real dialogue. McBain doesn't let the plot rule him. He takes time to develop characters and aspects of the city that sometimes have little or nothing to do with the central plot line. It's all canvas for big the picture. Don't expect summarised forensic reports either. For example if Carella gets a lab or ballistic report expect to hear it line for line. With this being the first book there's quite a lot of technical and scientific stuff to cover too. Fingerprints - here comes a breakdown of the chemical process that results in finger prints being created. It's just one of those signature elements that makes the series what it is.
Cop Hater isn't going to be the best book in the series but it does serve as a great introduction. The book was adapted for a 1958 movie of the same name starring Robert Loggia in the Carella/Carelli role.

Monday, 30 January 2012


I would echo another reader's opinion that Peazy Monellon's writing does bring to mind early Stephen King. Meany has that dark playfulness that King was so adept at. A young girl called Jenny and her cohort of brothers and sisters (mostly sisters) are growing up on a farm under the increasingly cruel rule of their dictatorial father. The place is also awash with spooks. For a first book this is pretty well written though at times I felt it did get a little tangled up in the different angles and ideas thrown up by the narrative. One of the farmhands provides confessional interludes that mainly injects frequent doses of foreshadowing into the read. The author doesn't pull any punches with the horror angle, throwing a fairly disturbing scene into the story in the first few chapters. I mostly enjoyed the sequences from the POV of the younger kids; Jenny's first encounter with benevolent spook Emma being one of the highlights. Other bits don't quite work as well; a surreal overly detailed game of Mouse Trap is a pretty audacious inclusion though it pretty much swamps the creepiness and tension with the nostalgia of children's games. It's not a long read, the generously spaced bold typeset makes the pages fly by. Basically a nicely written début.
Review copy from Goodreads giveaway.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Betrayal of Trust

The sixth book from Susan Hill to feature the inhabitants of Lafferton. The two main characters are siblings Dr Cat Deerbon and top cop DCS Simon Serrailler. The plots and themes explored usually feature the family's ongoing story and topics and situations thrown up by the pair's respective professions; health or lack of it, crime in society - all sensitively addressed in Hill's brilliant prose and her thoughtful insights into human emotions. Crime fiction? Well yeah, but not really comparable to much of the genre's staples and conventions.
In this one flooding in Lafferton has unearthed the bones of a young girl missing for 16 years, a mystery from the past that caused a big splash on the national consciousness. But alongside them are the bones of another young woman whose disappearance contrastingly caused not even a ripple. Serrailler is tasked with the cold case but is hampered by severe budget restrictions and he's just met the love of his life. Cat Deerbon deals with financial problems directing the local hospice, calling on the expertise of a newcomer to the town who is setting up a new care home for Alzheimer sufferers. In her general surgery she is consulted by a woman called Jocelyn with the early symptoms of Motor Neurone Disease, which leads to the thorny subject of assisted suicide. I think Hill tackles the subject as objectively as possible, though of course her characters are more swept along with the emotions of the terrible choices they face. Age, mortality, memory, lives lived and lives cut short, all played out in the setting of a Cathedral town and tied together with the lines of synchronicity within a cold case murder inquiry. I would add the advisory that this one is probably going to have more resonance with older readers or folk who have had their lives touched by terminal illness.