The Last Refuge by Craig Robertson

the last refugeDamning it with faint praise…

🙂 🙂 🙂

John Callum has moved to the Faroe Islands to get away from his past and make a new start for himself. At first things go fairly well – some of the Islanders are welcoming and he soon finds a place to stay and a job. But the nightmares from his past continue to haunt him. And one drunken night, he wakes up on a fish-slab in the harbour to find that he has a bloody knife in his pocket. Next day, he hears that a man has been stabbed to death – the jealous ex-lover of the girl with whom Callum has begun to fall in love. The worst thing is that Callum has no memory of what happened after he left the pub the night before, but he does know he’s been violent in the past – so even he isn’t certain that he’s not the murderer…

Where I’m struggling with crime novels these days is that, if I can’t like the main character, why would I want to spend time in his/her company? It used to be that the main protagonist was the good guy, or at least a likeable bad guy, and that therefore the reader was with him in the quest to find the culprit, right a wrong, clear his name, etc. This even applied to noir – damaged heroes like Laidlaw or Sam Spade were still ultimately on the side of the angels, however cynical or corrupt their actions might have been. Occasionally a real bad guy can be fun to read about if he’s presented cleverly and entertainingly – A Pleasure and a Calling, Summer House with Swimming Pool, etc. But Callum is just a violent drunk, who is on the side of himself alone. I wouldn’t spend ten minutes with him in real life, and I would hope that justice would catch up with him and that he’d spend a good long time in prison. No, this isn’t a spoiler for the main event – I am not implying that he either did or didn’t do this murder. But what we learn about his past and how we see him behave in the present leaves me feeling that he’s not fit to be wandering around free anyway.

Tórshavn old town, Faroe Islands "Tinganes 57" by Stig Nygaard
Tórshavn old town, Faroe Islands
“Tinganes 57” by Stig Nygaard

Which leads me to another thing that I find incomprehensible in contemporary crime. Given that Callum is a violent drunk with a shady past, living in a shack, suspected of murder, penniless and with no obvious future prospects, why are we supposed to believe that an intelligent, successful professional woman would be interested in him? If an author wants me to believe that, then he must be shown to be charming, fascinating, a great conversationalist, someone who saves kittens from being run over by trucks – something to make him seem attractive – but Callum is none of these things. We’re not talking about 17-year-olds here, where ‘bad boy’ syndrome might apply – we’re talking about mature, nearly middle-aged adults. But with Callum we are supposed to believe that not one, but two, women find him attractive – standards on the Faroe Islands must be pretty low.

Craig Robertson
Craig Robertson

Having got that out of my system, there are some positives. The descriptive writing is great – Robertson brings this isolated weather-beaten community to life. In fact, the writing overall is well above average standards for current crime fiction. From the start, when Robertson describes the flight over and Callum’s first impressions of the islands, I thought I was in for a real treat, and the sense of place that he creates kept me hooked even after I had grown to dislike Callum himself. While many of the characters are unlikeable, they are well-drawn and credible (if you exclude the women’s strange romantic proclivities). There is a good deal of laziness in the plotting at points – unlikely, even near-miraculous, things happen and the how of them is never explained. I’m not suggesting a mystical element, there’s none of that, thank goodness. Just “and then he escaped” type of thing, with no explanation of how. But while the plotting leaves much to be desired in terms of credibility, the story flows along and holds the interest for the most part.

So, despite the unlikeable protagonist and the plot problems, the quality of the writing and excellent sense of place still lifts it above the average contemporary crime novel. Though I appreciate I’m damning it with faint praise…

Book 13
Book 16

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40 thoughts on “The Last Refuge by Craig Robertson

  1. I’m sooo glad you pointed this out, FF. It boggles the mind to think of spending time with someone unlikable in real life; what makes a publisher think we’d choose to spend time with someone unsavory in fiction? I think even the “good guys” need a flaw to make them more realistic; equally so, the “bad guys” need redeeming traits to make them palatable. Thanks for reviewing one I know I won’t be spending time with!!

    • I don’t know, Debbie, but more and more new releases star these unlikeable or dreary protagonists – and often in the first person so you have to spend the whole time inside their heads. Beats me! Yes, I don’t want perfect characters either but I want their flaws to be interesting rather than off-putting…

  2. Oh, I know just what you mean, FictionFan, about improbable attractions. I’ve read some of them, too, and they always take away from the story for me. You can’t easily convince me that a woman like that would fall for Callum. The premise (man wakes up with a murder weapon – did he commit the crime?) is interesting, and that sort of thing has been done quite well a few times. But as you say, unless the guy’s appealing in some way, it’s hard to care. Well, at least you have the setting and writing style. Still, I think my TBR is safe…

    • The premise is interesting and the setting is really well done. But I’m soooo tired of having to sepnd hours with someone so unlikeable – the problem is I suspect we were supposed to be on his side, but why would we be in the side of someone whose answer to everything is violence and drink? And I always feel if the reader can’t find the guy attractive in some way, then why on earth would the female characters? It’s got to be credible…

  3. Do you think that some of that attitude has to do with the culture? I mean, have you looked at this generation’s super heros? Sometimes I’m hard put to remember which of them are the good guys and which are the bad guys.It sounds to me as though it was lazy writing as well.

    • The problem is that I feel it feeds into the culture as much as growing out from it. I see people all over the blogosphere who would never dream of swearing in writing or thinking that beating people up is OK, or that corrupt police can be the good guys – and yet they accept it all in books as if it’s the norm. I’m baffled as much as anything else…

      • This proliferation of this stuff really began a relatively recently – seemingly in my perspective. It’s part of the feeling that a human in front of you talking can be dispensed for a phone that is glued into one’s ear canal. In my opinion, common curtsy is no longer common. I’ve seen young couples in restaurants eating lovely meals and talking to someone who is not there.

        • Yep, it’s a different world, that’s for sure. I think the whole attitude of constant praising of kids, (while it doubtless is better than beating them!) means they don’t necessarily learn what we old-timers think of as manners. Still, maybe they’re happier than we were…

          • I can tell you that it took a long time figuring out who I am underneath of the parental expectation. And a while after that to be comfortable being me. And a little more later not worrying when other people felt they needed to correct me.

  4. Thank you for such a descriptive and expansive review, which shows me just why I would not like this book, despite the Faroe Islands being a an interesting setting, as I know almost nothing about it.

    I will expand a bit on the theme of the review: that one really wants to like the “detective” in some way, to be on his side. Sam Spade is one whom I did not admire, but in a minor quibble, I don’t think he is damaged, or corrupt. Well, he does carry on an affair with the wife of his partner. But everything he does in the tale unfolding is aboveboard. He wants the “bad guys” to think that he is corrupt, but he really isn’t. So ultimately he is admirable in that regard.

    Philip Marlowe was described as a knight-errant by his creator. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer is an empathic person; world-weary to some extent, but always trying to do the most humane thing. But then we have had in the last thirty years or so, a number of protagonists of mysteries who are not admirable, not likeable. Most of them seem to be alcoholics, for some reason. I do not like books about alcoholics (I have never been drunk in my life, for better or worse!). I do think I understand the psychology of it, but to me it is a rather unappealing fictional theme. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux is a good and brave person; but his alcoholism makes me uncomfortable; he is always going to AA meetings, sometimes he relapses. I imagine, from the various reviews, that there are many more alcoholic detectives being featured in newer crime novels.

    I wonder if there is a kind of authorial nihilism in th novels like this one, where the lead character is not only unappealing but even condemnable. Or is it not politically correct, particularly in Britain, to have a male character, particularly a detective of sorts, be admirable and even likeable as a person? I am wondering as to what was the last time that someone encountered someone like that? Ah, Foyle, of course; but those aren’t novels, and they are set in an earlier time. I love noirs; and I love the theme of the somewhat, but not tatally, flawed protagonist who learns more about who he is through the twists and turns of the story. But I think that a crime novel, even a noir, needs to have some kind of moral compass by which the characters are perceived. If the main character is a jerk, then an ultimately dreary cynicism pervades the novel.

    • I don’t mind the chief protagonist being flawed but he has to be interesting. These violent drunks are just as off-putting in fiction as in real life. I don’t think it’s to do with political correctness in truth – I think it’s just that a lot of writers don’t actually realise how uninteresting their ‘flawed’ characters really are. And in a culture of perpetual praise, probably no-one ever tells them…

  5. Love it! Your review that is. Good gravy, the bad boy syndrome even got old at 17. I’d crack a empty bottle over his head. Or maybe I should just damn him with faint praise.

    Is this one of the books we voted for?

    • Thank you! Haha! Yes, I fear this was a People’s Choice Winner – but from way back before you were around, so I won’t hold you responsible! 😉 But, to be fair, I picked it for the shortlist – based I must say on a couple of glowing reviews. It must be me…

  6. I’m with BigSister. Goody. Another one with absolutely not a snowball’s chance in hell of getting anywhere near the TBR. Keep it up, FictionFan! And I THINK my current recommendation won’t be one for YOUR TBR, either, even though I’m recommending it. And one of the reviews (very positive) I still have to write is one I picked up from YOUR ‘currently reading’ so I’m also a bit of a safe haven at the moment.

    What are friends for, after all, if not to kindly lay off threatening each other’s TBR

    • I’m delighted to say I’m nearly at the end of my stock of contemporary crime, so hopefully not many more moaning reviews to come! Yes, it’s always an added bonus when one can meander round the blogosphere and not pick up recommendations! I shall look forward to your reviews of books I won’t want to read with great enthusiasm…

  7. You know that makes me sad that you don’t like contemporary crime 😉 I could recommend some? 😉
    I do like some crime novels where the main character is the bad guy. I seem to have have gone through a phase of reading novels from the PoV of the killer. Robertson’s debut, Random, being one of them, but he wasn’t a drunk and you knew he was the killer as you were there with him. I enjoyed Random. I absolutely Loved Normal by Graeme Cameron which is from the point of view of a serial killer but he makes him not exactly likeable because he is genuinely killing because that’s what he wants to do, but he’s odd and mildly funny and he strikes up this weird friendship you watch blossom and grow and because he’s such a social outcast it’s fascinating stuff. I also enjoyed Fergus McNeill’s debut, Eye Contact, again from the point of view of the killer.
    Why did I like them? Do I have a skewed moral compass?
    They were well written, engaging and entertaining. Everything I want from fiction. It’s not reality. And I love crime fiction so I’m leaving my disbelief at the door and I’m allowing myself to be in the head of the serial killer. My moral compass is safe and well. (Picked up in the comments I think, not the review). But, books and reading are subjective, we all like different things, it’s why there is such a wide choice out there and I’m glad there is. 🙂

    • It’s not the POV that bothers me exactly – it’s being expected to want to spend time with an unenjoyable character. Occasionally bad boys or girls can be fun, but it has to be done well. And yes, in the past, there was a fundamental morality that is missing in some modern crime. Good v evil – there’s a reason it’s the root of stories since time began – because it’s more enjoyable than the idea that everything is bleak and hopeless. If it is in real life (and I don’t accept that either) then all the more reason for us to tell ourselves stories that show we can change it. People say noir always ended with nothing being made better – true to a degree, but there was still a good guy trying to make the world better. Now when the hero is as despicable, or more sometimes, as the villain, I couldn’t care less who wins. And if everyone is miserable all the time with no hope of happiness ever, then the book is simply depressing. I’ll be interested to see how many of this year’s superhyped, blog-toured, misery fests are still being read in 10 years much less 100. There’s still good stuff out there, of course, but it’s getting harder to find them and I’m tired of kissing frogs only to discover they stay frogs! 🙂

  8. I am also a contemporary crime fiction fan, but I too am a tad tired of reading crime novels from inside the twisted head of the killer, especially a killer who is wholly evil. Aristotle once said (in that book of all books about story writing, The Poetics) that in stories we readers will empathise with any character as long as we think he or she has some goodness in him or her, no matter how deeply hidden or how little. And, still according to Aristotle “Goodness is possible in every type of personage, even in a woman or a slave, though one is perhaps an inferior and the other wholly worthless” Ha ha! Don’t you just love him? 😉 Laughing and insults aside, and in other words, we readers can empathise with even very horrible fictional characters like Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter if we think he or she has some sort of sense of justice and/or goodness on his side at some point, and even if only a little bit – in real life, of course, we wouldn’t have anything to do with such people! From what you say, it sounds as if Craig has not read Aristotle and gone and created a nasty character who is, in fact, wholly nasty. Ah. While Aristotle may have said some silly things, I think he has a point about this, at least I know I won’t enjoy reading a book about a truly evil character who does truly evil things.

    PS: I just love your reviews. You never shy from saying how it is is – which is the point, of course – and they also make me chuckle. That said, I am tad anxious should you ever chose to review one of my books ;o)

    • Haha! Good old Aristotle! Wouldn’t it be great to be able to have him over for dinner? Yes, much of it is to do with the writing, and I may be confusing the issue by calling the characters unlikeable – really I mean unenjoyable. An entertaining bad boy, or girl, is fine, but there’s nothing remotely entertaining about violent drunks, unless they are written in a way that gives them charm. I know some people read crime to find out about aspects of contemporary society – I must admit that, as both a political and history junkie, I get enough of the real misery of the world through the news and factual books – fiction can touch on these things, of course, but primarily it should entertain. It’s like the old Lord Reith thing for the BBC – educate, inform, entertain. And I do want a moral aspect to the books – not overt and not with good always winning necessarily, but there ought to be at least a recognition that not all people are fundamentally bad or corrupt. Haha! I’ll get off my hobby-horse now!

      Thank you! The bad news is I’ve already added one of your books to the TBR. The good news is it’ll be a while before I can get to it… 😉

  9. Based on your review I probably won’t read The Last Refuge, but the photo you used inspired me to Google the Faroe Islands. I’m intrigued by the remoteness and beauty of the place, but after checking the temperatures (record high, 22 degrees Celsius), the internet is the closest I will ever get to visiting. If the main character hadn’t been drunk, he could have frozen to death after sleeping outside all night!

    • Haha! See, that temperature is just about as high as I can possibly stand! In fact, at 22 degrees, I’m reaching for the ice lollies. Give me a nice pleasant 20 degrees with no rain and I call that a perfect summer day. When I hear about other places going up into the 40s, I can’t believe it’s possible to survive… 😉

  10. This is the way crime fiction is going, FF. Have you read Thomas Mogford’s Sanguetti series? Sanguinetti commits a murder per book. I think the reason for this trend is that (some, not all) crime fiction is blending into thrillers, with a TV series in mind, and aimed at men, whereas cosy crime, which tends to generate more likeable detectives (Wexford, Adam Dalglish) is aimed at women.

    • No I haven’t read them and I must say they don’t appeal. I’m a traditionalist – I want a nice clean murder with a “normal” motive – money, jealousy etc – and a detective and clues. I enjoy the odd cosy but really I’d rather have meatier stuff like the ones you mention or Reginald Hill or Ian Rankin. There’s still good stuff out there but it’s drowned under all the over-hyped so-called “gritty” crime fiction – i.e. full of swearing, sex and violence, and usually with graphic desciptions of vomiting and toilet issues to brighten it all up! Yuck! 😉

    • This is the only book I’ve ever come across set on the Faroes, and the descriptive writing was great. Just a shame about the hero! It would be a great setting for crime though – enclosed society etc. A bit like Peter May’s Lewis trilogy…

  11. *laughs* Love it! Now, if I found a knife in my pocket, I’d clean it, then deposit it into the collection. Imagine getting a free knife!

    It is horrible when the MC is just horribly unlikeable. Might have something to do with authors having pointed heads!

    • This was a knife for cutting up whale meat – imagine living in a place where everyone has their own whale meat knife!

      It is! *laughs* Very wicked! But you may have a point…

  12. I really appreciated your review. I also don’t mind a damaged hero(ine). But I’ll spend my reading time elsewhere if I find the character repellent. So I’ll probably skip this one.

    “Given that Callum is a violent drunk with a shady past, living in a shack, suspected of murder, penniless and with no obvious future prospects, why are we supposed to believe that an intelligent, successful professional woman would be interested in him?” I have to wonder if authors present the scenario, because they’re thinking about a future movie deal, one that would attract a beautiful actress to the role, despite how unlikely the scenario.

    • Yes, I think I’ve confused the issue by talking about unlikeable characters – really I mean unenjoyable. Bad guys can be fun if they’re written entertainingly.

      You could well be right there, L Marie! In fact, now you mention it I can see this one making quite a good film – though I’m guessing they’d cut some of the worst aspects of Callum’s character. Somehow bad guys in the movies can seem more attractive (if they pick a yummy actor!) whereas in books they have to be written very carefully if they’re not just going to come over as one-dimensionally nasty.

  13. This was the central problem with Anna Karenina. There is just no way on earth that anyone as brilliant as her would have fallen in love with the vacuous Vronsky. And, frankly, no way anyone would want to read those extended tracts about Russian farming, but I suppose it takes all sorts.

    …and hello!

    • Hello! We seem to have been missing each other recently! Must synchronise our watches…

      Yes, but dull though patches of AK are the book is sooo much better than a radio dramatisation I was forced to listen to once, where they all spoke with cutglass English accents but used American pronunciations – MosCOW! etc. And Anna sobbed… and wailed… and screeched… and then sobbed some more. The last line of my review went something along the lines that I had never in my life been so glad to see a train finally arrive…

  14. Great review as always and I loved the comment on the standards in The Faroe Isles being low!! Like you I enjoy the occasional crime story from the point of you of an outright ‘bad guy’, especially the two books you mention, but there does have to be some credibility not only to the lead character’s actions but the response of others to them.

    • Thanks, Cleo! Yes, sometimes the bad guy thing can work really well – it all depends how it’s written. I’ll be reviewing one next week with a central bad guy that I found absolutely fascinating, even though he was pretty repellent. Probably the fact that the author didn’t make every woman fall in love with him helped…

  15. I’ve come to almost gag at the detective with the addiction of one sort or another, troubled past, lost loves … and, come to think of it, doctors who are like that, too. (As in the “House” main character, or even Clive Owen in “The Knick”). Pleeeeease! And I get the feeling, too, that if I can’t remotely even like the main character, why do I want to spend 300 or more pages with him or her?! At least in the Dragon Tattoo trilogy I kind of liked the protagonist and the journalist…..

    • Yep, I’m so bored with mavericks or health quirks! I reckon I like my heroes to be kinda normal but heroic – and I just find all these successful women throwing themselves at drunken losers incredible. Oh dear, I think I must be getting old and sensible… how awful! 😉

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