Monday, 4 March 2013

Five Sherlock Holmes Stories

The Case of the Tell Tale Hands.
A rather dull and pedestrian story to begin an anthology with, Watson uncharacteristically documenting the intricacies of finger printing rather than injecting any excitement or urgency into the proceedings. At the half way stage I was almost hoping for the introduction of a Pygmy or two. Holmes seems perpetually on the verge of calling all and sundry, including Watson, blithering morons. The only lighter moment in the whole affair is the alacrity that Watson displays in choosing Ilfracoombe over Tenby as a holiday destination.
The Case of the King's Evil.
This one was much more to my liking. The plot, though not too murky in it's complexity, is still interesting enough to hold the interest, mainly due to how Holmes handles affairs, maintaining a teasing attitude with Watson throughout, which all stems from how the case initially requested aid from the good Doctor and not the better than good detective. The case takes the pair to Norfolk to discover what happened to two brothers, lighthouse keepers both, who have gone missing after a witnessed fight. There are good descriptions throughout of the estuary, the mudflats and the treacherous tides and quicksand under foot. There is a particularly suspenseful sequence out on the mud flats, the tide rushing in, as Holmes pushes bullishly toward a solution with Watson in reluctant tow, the latter seemingly with more mind to the danger the environment poses than the other. I must admit to a fairly rabid fetish in myself for lighthouses, so combining my Holmesian obsession with such is a double whammy. Good stuff.
The Case of the Portuguese sonnets.
Back to more dull ramblings among the murky doings of forgers and extortionists. Too much time is spent with the mechanics and history of forgery, which reads sometimes like a light skimming session on Wikepedia. Hired by Robert Browning's son Holmes travels to Venice, which as a location is largely ignored in favour of dusty rooms filled with poetry, documents and manuscripts from a whole host of figures from Byron to Whitman, as he immerses himself in the dubious art of the forgerer. Yes I chuckled several times at some of Holmes' stock put-downs as Watson and Lestrade so obligingly set themselves up but beyond that my main state of mind, despite being doubly armed with a hot Nespresso and a box of Jaffa Cakes, was boredom. Holmes needs an adversary to outwit or a problem to solve, lives to save or judgement to fall.
The Case of Peter the Painter
This one is jam packed full of the things that make a good Sherlock Holmes story one of the all time high marks for cosy reads. It's got a little of everything. Holmes has a visitor and he can't resist showing off his 'method' for Watson by applying it to the woman who calls. The woman in question tells a story of a sick daughter, yellow canaries and foreigners up to no-good. Holmes is on top note. Watson not so much. Unfortunately, at this point it becomes apparent that Donald Thomas' schtick has turned up wearing Doc Martens; Thomas loves to tie in the story with some historical incidence - in this case the clashes between police and Russian Anarchists notoriously remembered as 'the Houndsditch Murders' in which three policemen were gunned down dead and several more wounded and the Siege of Sydney Street in which Winston Churchill was at hand leading armed police and a detachment of Scots Guard against a heavily armed group of robber/anarchists. Watson gets heavily side-lined as the two Holmes brothers get pally with Winston but at least it gives him time to get some quality reading done in the form of Scott's Heart of Mid-Lothian. Although this is one of the better stories by Thomas I still think it had potential to be better without being diluted by the author's little history essays. 'The Siege of Sidney Street' also appeared in Barrie Roberts' 'Sherlock Holmes and the Railway Maniac', the first of nine Holmes novels which I heartily recommend.
The Case of the Zimmermann Telegram.
The title is all you really need to know. If you have an interest in the Zimmermann Telegram then google some bibliography and save yourself having to read some historical commentary masquerading as a Sherlock Holmes story. Taking place during the 'His Last Bow' era, the story features Sherlock as our secret master decoder and Watson as a secret agent. Sound good? It isn't. No narrative whatsoever, just a very potted spotty history of the exploits of Room 40's codebreakers during the Great War but with Holmes as the prime mover. It occurred to me that the whole story might be another coded message which I eventually managed to decode. It reads thus: FEEL FREE TO SKIM THIS RUBBISH. Unfortunately the message revealed itself too late.
I do like a good anthology. But I do much prefer a mixed author anthology. In a mixed author anthology Donald Thomas might have been represented by the very agreeable 'The Case of the King's Evil', whereas here, in a single author anthology, his faults are highlighted by their repetition and by the inclusion of stories that are of variable quality. Many of these single author anthologies by authors attempting the Holmes pastiche have their highlights but are also of variable quality. It really underlines just what Doyle achieved to maintain such a high level of consistency throughout all 56 of his Sherlock Holmes short stories.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Kindness Goes Unpunished

Walt Longmire, Wyoming's Absaroka County Sheriff, is visiting his daughter in Philadelphia, killing two birds with one stone as he keeps his best friend Henry Standing Bear company setting up a cultural exhibition. Dog comes too. Walt has hardly had time to raid the freezer for a few bottles of Yuengling before he gets the news that his daughter has been in an incident that leaves her with a serious head injury. Investigating the incident seems to trigger a chain reaction of violence and dead bodies, along with a series of cryptic notes.
Walt also gets to meet Vic's family, though in typical Walt fashion, you know that old fashioned guy sort of fashion, it's Vic's mother who gets the most invitations to dinner. The mystery degenerates into a bit of Treasure Hunt following those notes and Walt really needs to take more care with his physical wellbeing and stop getting run over or having bits shot off. Even among all the city folk he manages to keep a hold of his wry humour, along with the cowboy hat. It's not all about the fisticuffs and firearms though; there's a well played running theme about friendship and the love between father and daughter with a touching little pay-off set up in the first chapter and cashed in during the epilogue.
This is your classic fish out of water escapade. It's Tarzan's New York Adventure, Sherlock Holmes in Washington,.... well maybe not but maybe it could be an episode of McCloud. "There ya go!"

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Contract

Taking a last minute protection detail from a colleague, ex Indianapolis cop and former P.I. Frank Behr doesn't know what he's letting himself in for. Now working for the Caro group , a security firm, Frank spends most of his working days at a desk, compiling security checks for contracted firms and organisations. He's bored to tears but circumstances and a pregnant girlfriend don't leave him too many other options. The security detail turns out to be a lot less routine that it should have been and he's ambushed in an underground car park by a lone shooter with some very fancy weaponry. Frank foils the hit but the shooter gets away... and beyond a lot of pats on the back nobody seems to want to investigate. Now this is where I have my only quibble with the book. Motivation. Frank's motivation. Usually the plot dictates that the protagonist has to take the case or bad things are going to happen to them as a result. This one has nothing of the sort. In fact it's quite clear from the outset that poking your nose into things is going to cost you at the very least your job, and it's going to paint targets on your back, your girlfriend's back and one for that little unborn life too. He's confronted several times and asked just what are his motivations and the best he can offer are vague notions of things being personal and even just outright boredom. Maybe, as somebody suggests, he's just a glory hound.
Other than that the book is very entertaining; a twisty corporate shenanigans plot, a lethal Welsh hitman, lots of action and a hero who won't lie down. This is the third in David Levien's series featuring Frank Behr and my copy was titled The Contract even though it's previously been published as 13 Million Dollar Pop, though I guess that doesn't translate too well outside the States.
 Review from an advanced readers copy.

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Memory of Blood

Christopher Fowler's wonderful creations, elderly detectives Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit are called in to investigate the brutal killing of a young baby taken from its cot in a locked room, shaken to death and callously thrown out the window. And on the floor next to the cot lies a life size Mr Punch doll. As ever Bryant dives into the esoteric aspects of the case while May employs solid police work. The book kicks off with some documents detailing the history and function of the PCU complete with personnel files, and all seemingly compiled and perused by shadowy government types bent on closing down the unit.
Generally Bryant usually states that he doesn't do multi-tasking so he's severely hampered this time by being distracted by the suspicious death of his biographer. Luckily DS Janice Longbright agrees to help him get to the bottom of it so that he can get to grips with the main investigation. London's theatrical history and our own peculiar fascination with Punch and Judy over the centuries certainly give the old detective plenty of food for thought.
Fowler manages to pull of his own brand of alchemy that blends the outright absurd with hard reality but no matter how dark it gets there is always room for humour.
My only slight niggle is that opening chapter. It's one of those 'let's lift a weird and exciting chapter from the end of the book and put it right at the start so the reader doesn't get put off by the sedate start.' I love all the slow build up so I don't think it was needed.
Prequel chapter aside I still had a good time with Bryant and May again.
Review from an advanced readers copy.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Off the Rails

Christopher Fowler's brilliantly conceived British detective series continues. This one has quite a lot of mess to clean up from the previous book. Mr Fox is back on the loose after his escape from custody and the Peculiar Crimes Unit is reeling from the death of one of their own. Bryant and May must use every resource available to bring the killer in or it's curtains for the unit.
London bleeds from these books. With so many writers setting their story in London these days, many of them having never set foot on either bank of the Thames, it's a breath of fresh air to read about the place from a proper resident devotee. Bryant's fascination for all the minutiae of urban history and myth, that esoteric soup he draws on to fuel his investigations and which is served up with such a relish, it's obvious Fowler loves all this stuff as well. The other half of the ageing duo, May, is the procedural side of the operation. Fowler somehow manages to write quirkily with great humour but also maintains real atmosphere, threat and suspense which is no mean card trick.
Off the Rails takes the PCU down to the London Underground as they try to track the seemingly faceless killer. Bryant is in his element sifting through the wealth of ghost stories and history that a bunch of Victorian tunnels can accrue in a century and a half. When one line of enquiry leads the unit to a bunch of students things become even more chaotic as the clues get obscured by Bryant's achilles heel - technology. 
Review from an advanced reading copy.