A Necessary Evil (Sam Wyndham 2) by Abir Mukherjee

Royal shenanigans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the son and heir of the Maharaja of Sambalpore is assassinated in front of him, Calcutta police captain Sam Wyndham quickly manages to catch the assassin, but unfortunately the man dies before he can be questioned. Although the authorities and even the Maharaja are willing to let the matter rest as the work of a fanatic, Sam isn’t so sure, so he manages to get himself and his sergeant, Surrender-not Bannerjee, invited to the prince’s funeral so he can do a bit of investigating. Soon they are both sucked into the skulduggery going on beneath the glittering surface in this fabulously wealthy kingdom…

This is another excellent historical crime novel following on from Mukherjee’s début, A Rising Man, which was one of my top books from last year. The year is 1920, the power of the Raj is in decline and the British need the support of the Maharajas to give a veneer of Indian participation in the rule of the country, so Sam has to handle things sensitively so as not to ruffle any political feathers.

Within Sambalpore, the Maharaja is still the ultimate power – the British police hold no official sway there. But the Maharaja is old and it’s rumoured that he may be dying, so his family and subjects are beginning to look to the future and to jostle for positions of power when the kingdom passes to the next in line. And with three wives, vast numbers of concubines and hundreds of children, there’s plenty of scope for trouble just in the Maharaja’s family alone. Throw in some dodgy politicians, a couple of princes who insist on falling in love with unsuitable women, some diamond mines and an avaricious businessman or two and it’s no wonder I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the bulk of the book! But happily, neither did Sam, and once he finally worked it out it all made sense in the end.

The book is narrated by Sam in the past tense and he’s a likeable character. He has a strong desire to get to the truth and, more than that, to see that justice is done. But, though he may not always like it, he understands that sometimes politics will get in the way. He relies on Surrender-not for knowledge of local customs and religious practices. Surrender-not is more than just a guide though – he comes from a wealthy, high caste family and was educated in England, so he’s often as much of a partner as a subordinate.

Lord Jagganath Chariot Parade, Puri

There’s not quite so much about the politics of the Raj in this one. Instead, Mukherjee gives a picture of what life was like in one of the many small kingdoms that still existed within the country at this time – a curious mix of modernity and tradition. The royals are opulently, ostentatiously wealthy and are revered as godlike by their people. The royal wives and concubines live in seclusion in the zenana – the women’s quarters – but Mukherjee suggests that they had plenty of power to influence things within the kingdom, and the wives, at least, had their own roles to play in the many traditions surrounding the court. Mukherjee also shows some of the religious rituals of the Hindus, especially the cult of the deity Lord Jagganath, all of which adds to the interest.

Abir Mukherjee

For me, this book had a couple of slight weaknesses. In the first book, Sam occasionally indulged in opium – in this book, that seems to have become an addiction, and I got a little tired of being told about his withdrawal symptoms and then about how wonderful he felt whenever he had a hit. I find all the many addicted detectives of current crime fiction tedious, whether their addiction is to drugs or alcohol, so I’m seriously hoping Sam can get himself clean soon. I also felt that there were occasional anachronisms, not in the history or setting, but in the language. Would anyone from that period really talk about someone being “hands on”? Were paper cups so commonplace they would be used as part of a simile? These anomalies weren’t frequent or major enough to spoil the book but they did tend to throw me out of the story for a few moments each time, and a more careful revision and edit could have easily got rid of them.

Overall, though, an excellent second book that assures this series its continued place among my must-reads. It could be read as a standalone, but to understand the relationships among the characters, I’d recommend reading in order.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

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The Follower by Koethi Zan

The tricky second novel…

🙂 🙂 😐

As she is making her way back to university one evening, Julie is abducted. She is kept in a locked room and gradually learns a little about her captors. The man, James, is a fanatic who has created his own distorted religion and for a time had a small group of followers. All have since deserted him except for his wife Cora – a woman he has abused to the point where she is entirely submissive to him. Julie begins to wonder if somehow she can win Cora over, so that she will help her escape.

Alongside the story of Julie’s plight, we gradually learn Cora’s story – the troubled childhood and adolescence that led to her coming under the sway of the evil James. James himself is given no real backstory, so his motivation is left undeveloped – he’s simply a mad monster. The final strand of the book belongs to Adam, an ex-policeman who hunts for abducted women in his own time, as a kind of penance for the loss of his own sister to a predator before Adam was born.

The first third of this book is great and then I’m afraid it all begins to slide downhill, eventually landing with a crash which shatters the last remaining pieces of credibility. The quality of the writing is high and at first it builds a good level of tension. The storyline is very dark – Julie’s treatment in her captivity is horrific with repeated episodes of violence and rape, although happily Zan doesn’t make us watch the latter – it is implied rather than described. Each of the characters is deeply damaged except Julie, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so unlikeable. Despite the traumas she undergoes, I found it hard to empathise with her or, indeed, to care much what happened to her.

Cora’s story is perhaps more interesting and she is rather more empathetic during her teen years, when she is dragged around the country by her drunken father, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots or make friends. But sadly, her story gradually descends from being dark but credible, going straight past melodrama and on down to ridiculous. Adam never really comes to life as a character and feels rather tacked on, as if he exists only so that he can be around for the denouement – a denouement that regrettably becomes somewhat farcical.

The basic idea is good and the quality of the writing makes it quite readable. At first, the characterisation seems as if it’s going to be good too but somehow after a bit they stop ringing true. It all becomes a bit over the top – too many crazy people with poorly developed motivation. I think the problem is that none of it feels psychologically believable, and in the end I’m afraid they all begin to feel cartoonish. A pity, but now that Zan has the notoriously tricky second book out of the way, here’s hoping her next one will replicate the much higher standard she reached in her excellent first one, The Never List.

(PS I realise some people don’t mind a lot of swearing in novels, but plenty of others do, for various reasons, so it seems crazy to me that an author would put off potential purchasers and readers by including the f-word in the first line, exactly where a casual browser would look. Even stranger, given that actually the swearing content in the book as a whole is fairly low, with only the victim being consistently and obnoxiously foul-mouthed (which is a large part of what makes her so unlikeable, quite frankly). It’s up to writers, of course, but I’d assume most writers would want to reach a maximum audience, and putting a considerable number off with the first, in this case unrepresentative, line seems a bit silly…

FF’s Eighth Law: Swearing never attracts readers who wouldn’t otherwise read the book, but frequently puts off readers who otherwise would.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Maigret Takes a Room by Georges Simenon

Street life…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following a robbery, the police are staking out a rooming-house where the suspect had been living in the hopes that he will return. But one evening, one of the police officers, Janvier, is shot outside the house. The police think it may have been the robbery suspect, Paulus, who shot him, so it’s even more vital now that they catch him. Maigret is on his own at the moment as his wife is away looking after her sick sister, so he decides to move into the rooming-house to be on the spot should Paulus return.

I enjoyed this one a lot. We know straight away that Janvier is still alive, so the plot isn’t quite as dark as it would have been had he been killed, but we still get to see the emotional impact of the shooting on Janvier’s wife. The rooming-house is run by the charming Mademoiselle Clément, a lady of middle years and twinkling eye, whose somewhat over-the-top personality provides a lot of fun and humour. As always, Simenon creates an authentic feel of Paris, and the rooming-house setting allows for there to be several characters, each with their own story. Maigret is at something of a loss without his wife though part of him is rather enjoying the adventure of living in the rooming-house, and he doesn’t seem averse to a little mild flirting with his landlady. He gradually chats to most of the people in the street, the shop and café owners as well as the neighbours, and while Maigret is gathering together clues that will lead to the solution, Simenon is building up an affectionate picture of life in one of the less fashionable streets of Paris.

Georges Simenon

I listened to the Audible version, narrated by Gareth Armstrong. He speaks more quickly than most narrators and I rather liked that and felt it suited the tone of the book – kept it going at a rattling pace. He gives different voices to the various characters, using English accents throughout and suiting them well to the class and position in society each holds. I prefer the use of English accents when “foreign” characters are supposed to be speaking in their own language – it sounds more natural than having the characters speak English in a faux foreign accent. His portrayal of Mlle Clément is a little caricatured, which works for her character and adds to the lightness in tone of the book. All-in-all, I think it’s an excellent narration.

The solution is more complex than it seems as if it’s going to be, and Maigret gets there by a nifty little piece of detective work. And the story behind the crime gives us a glimpse into darkness, so that in the end the tone is nicely balanced. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s smooth and flawless. Most enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of Maigret’s adventures, or listening to them.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

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Penance by Kanae Minato

Survivor guilt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Five young girls sneak into their school playground on a holiday to practice volleyball. While there, a workman arrives and asks if one of them will help him do a small job in the changing room. It’s a while before the other girls notice that Emily hasn’t returned, and when they look for her, it’s too late – all they find is her body. None of the girls is able to describe the man well – they are young, they weren’t paying particular attention, they are suffering from shock. As time passes without an arrest, in her grief Emily’s mother tells them they must either give the police enough information to catch the killer, or do something that she will accept as appropriate atonement. She gives them a deadline – the statute of limitations on the crime will run out in fifteen years…

In Minato’s earlier excellent book, Confessions, she looked at the motivation for crime and at revenge. In this one, she takes a fascinating look at how a crime affects not only the direct victim, but the people touched by it in other ways. Each of the four surviving girls, now women, tells her tale in turn. We see how their immediate reactions to the crime were affected by their own personalities, and then Minato takes us into their families so that we can see how each of those personalities was formed. This provides a base for taking us forwards from the crime, seeing how it affected each child as she grew up – not just the horror of the day itself, but the guilt of knowing that they had neither protected Emily nor helped bring her killer to justice, and the fear of knowing that the killer is still at large knowing they are the only witnesses.

As the deadline for the statute of limitations approaches, we see how for each girl this leads indirectly to a kind of crisis. Minato doesn’t forget the grieving mother in all this – years on, does she still feel the same? Does she still require the girls to do penance, or has time enabled her to see that the girls were victims too? And lastly, almost as a minor story, will time allow the girls to recognise small clues that they missed in their youth, in time for the murderer to be caught?

When reading Japanese fiction, I often find the society so different from our Western one that it’s almost incomprehensible to me. I’ve commented in the past that there seems to be a huge disconnect between the generations, that young people seem to have rejected the values of their parents but haven’t yet found anything to replace them with, leaving a dangerous moral vacuum. Intriguingly, that isn’t the case with this one. Perhaps because it’s set in a small town rather than in Tokyo, the family structures seem stronger and more traditional, though we see clearly how sons are still more valued than daughters. Some of these families have problems, indeed, but the kind of problems we would be familiar with in our own society. I also noted that Minato mentioned in passing that there seems to be a slight move away from driving the children quite so hard towards educational success at the expense of all else – a small recognition of the harm that can be caused by the excessive stress that was being put on young people. And this is one of the reasons I enjoy her books – she always provides intriguing insights into society, especially family life and education, in modern Japan.

Kanae Minato

But she also tells a great tale! I was completely caught up in each girl’s story and, while there are moments that stretch credulity, it never goes past the breaking point. The characterisation is excellent, and though we see the murder again and again, each voice and perspective is original enough to stop it feeling repetitive. After the murder, the girls’ lives go off in different directions, so Minato has room to cover a lot of ground with four very different stories, but all linked to the central event so that with each telling the reader learns a little more about the lead up to and aftermath of the crime. And in the final chapters she manages to bring it all together, so that there’s a real feeling of resolution – not a slick happy ending, but a sense of closure for some of the characters at least. Another excellent novel from Minato – my tentative love affair with the strangeness of Japanese crime fiction continues…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mulholland Books.

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The Dry (Aaron Falk 1) by Jane Harper

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-dryKiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

I’m in the highly unusual position of being unable to find a single thing to criticise about this book! So get ready for a dull review – or here’s a better idea, skip the review and read the book instead.

The writing is great – Harper conjures up this drought-ridden and anxious community brilliantly, showing the deep connection between man and nature in a town that relies on its farmers for survival. There’s are some dark descriptions right from the start, with blowflies being the first to find the bodies of Karen and her little son, Billy, but Harper stops well short of being gratuitously gruesome – the balance is just about perfect.

Jane Harper
Jane Harper

I liked Falk as a character very much, so am rather glad to see that the book is listed as the first in a series. Although he had to face a terrible incident in his past, he hasn’t allowed it to make him either embittered or angst-ridden. He’s professional and intelligent and is someone I’d happily spend more time with. The new local policeman Raco, too, is a refreshing character – a happily married man looking forward to the birth of his first child, he treats people with respect and uses his brains rather than his brawn to get to the truth. And the characterisation is just as good of the other townspeople – from Luke’s grieving parents, to Aaron’s childhood friend Gretchen, to the people who still hold Aaron responsible for what happened back in the past – a whole range from nice to nasty, and each equally convincing.

The plot is strong and well-executed; the familiar device of a crime from the past resurfacing in the present feeling fresh because of the skill in the telling. Raco also has doubts about Luke’s guilt, because of a couple of things that don’t make sense to him. His main issue is that little baby Charlotte survived, and he’s convinced that if Luke had decided to destroy his family out of desperation, he’d have killed the baby too. So Raco and Falk team up, and as they investigate the current crime, the shadows of the past loom ever larger. Harper plants false trails all the way through – I freely admit that I suspected everyone in turn, but was still surprised by the solution. And yet it feels totally fair – all the clues are there and, when the reveal comes, it’s completely credible. Add to all this one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and you can see why I’m at a loss to find anything to grumble about.

I part read this book and part listened to it on the Audible audiobook version narrated by Stephen Shanahan. Annoyingly, I can’t fault it either! Shanahan’s narration is the perfect complement to the book. He has a lovely Australian accent, but not at all broad enough to be difficult for non-Australians – it reminded me a little of Pat Cash’s voice (*brief pause while FF swoons*). He doesn’t exactly “act” all the parts, but he manages to differentiate between the different voices. There is one Scottish character, and I was impressed by the accuracy of his Scottish accent.

the-dry-audioOne thing I really liked was that Shanahan used a “younger” voice for Aaron in the sections set in the past – a little quicker and lighter than the voice of adult Falk in the present. And, whether intentional or not, Harper also made this an easier listen than some audiobooks, by calling the young version Aaron and the present version Falk throughout, which was a huge help in clarifying which period we were in. On the printed page, the past sections are in italics, but of course, this is no help when listening. It would be great, now that audiobooks are becoming such a big thing, if more authors thought about how to differentiate for a listening audience as well as a reading one.

All-in-all, a brilliant read and an excellent listen! I’m enjoying the read/listen experience in general – a good narration adds another level to the characterisation and for books set elsewhere it also means you get the correct pronunciation of place names and so on. Expect to see this one turning up in my annual awards at the end of the year, but don’t wait till then – grab it if you can!

Since I couldn't track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here's a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead...
Since I couldn’t track down a pic of Stephen Shanahan, here’s a gratuitous Pat Cash pic instead…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., and the audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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Maigret and the Tall Woman (Maigret 38) by Georges Simenon

The mystery of the missing corpse…

😀 😀 😀 😀

maigret-and-the-tall-womanOn a hot summer day in Paris when most people are on holiday, Maigret receives a visit from a tall woman who says he once arrested her. Ernestine tells him she is now married to a well-known safe-breaker, nicknamed Sad Freddie, who has been in and out of prison for years. On his latest job, according to the woman, Freddie discovered the body of a murdered woman in the house he was burgling, and has fled and gone into hiding, fearing he’ll be suspected of killing her. Ernestine wants Maigret to find the real killer so her husband feels safe to come home. The only problem is no murder has been reported…

It’s been many years since I last read a Maigret novel, but the recent Penguin re-issues in new translations have led to a spate of reviews around the blogosphere that piqued my interest in re-visiting him. Also, Inspector Maigret is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for his Top Ten Golden Age Detectives. This is the 38th in the series, so the character is well-established, and Simenon doesn’t spend much time in this one filling in details of his personal life. It works perfectly as a standalone, as I believe most if not all of them do.

Simenon creates an authentic picture of a semi-deserted Paris sweltering in a summer heatwave. Partly due to this, and partly just because he seems to like to drink, Maigret spends an inordinate amount of time popping into cafés for a little glass of wine, or beer, or Pernod – lots and lots of Pernod, in fact. I had to stand back in awe at his sheer capacity – not many men start the day with a glass of white wine before heading off to work, and it must surely be a French thing for the police office to have an account with the nearby café to have regular supplies of Pernod sent round during an investigation. One can’t help but feel Rebus would have been in his element over there…

Maigret's unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfevres, Paris.
Maigret’s unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfèvres, Paris.

However, joking aside, happily none of this constant imbibing leads to Maigret being a drunken detective – if anything, it all sharpens his brain. He is shown as doggedly persistent, worrying away at small clues until by sheer force of will he squeezes their meaning from them. The first thing he has to do in this case is establish that there has actually been a murder, and Ernestine helps by explaining how Freddie selects the houses he burgles. Even with this information, Maigret can find no victim and eventually begins to suspect that Ernestine is lying, or at least mistaken. But then he comes across a small inconsistency in the story of one of the people he has interviewed, and from there on it becomes a matter of breaking his suspect down through some pretty dodgy interviewing techniques – he’s not averse to a bit of mild psychological torture to achieve his ends. The eventual solution is not quite as straightforward as it seems as if it’s going to be, though, and along the way Simenon creates a chilling atmosphere of evil at work, and family dynamics gone horribly wrong.

Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret...
Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret…

Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read. It falls somewhere between novella and short novel in length, which again I think is standard for the Maigret series, so perfect to read in one evening. To contrast with the darkness of the crime, Maigret himself is rather laid-back and we get a great feeling of the delightful café culture of Paris. He loves his wife, and they regularly meet up (for drinks!) during the case – Maigret is quite capable of working all night if he has to, and making his men do the same, but he doesn’t let work absorb him to the extent of neglecting his family life. In truth, the detection element relies on little more than guesswork and it all works out a little too easily perhaps, but the story is interesting for all that. It’s well written with some humour to lighten the overall tone, and I found the translation by David Watson excellent. I’ll certainly be keen to read more of the series and happily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried Maigret before.

(This novel has been published in previous translations as Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK.

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Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus, via MidasPR.

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Murder, She Wrote: Design for Murder by Jessica Fletcher, Donald Bain and Renée Paley-Bain

Danger alert: Jessica Fletcher’s in town…

😀 😀 😀 😀

design-for-murderDuring a catwalk show in New York’s Fashion Week, a young model collapses and dies. Rowena Roth had been an unpleasant girl, arrogant and rude, so few people other than her mother could truthfully say they grieved for her loss. It seems like one of those tragic things that happen sometimes – perhaps a heart condition that she had never been aware of. But then a second model is found dead. The question is: are the deaths connected? Fortunately for the NYPD, Jessica Fletcher is in town, ready to offer them as much advice as they can take…

I love the TV series of Murder, She Wrote. It’s my go-to cosy for winter afternoons, and I’ve been known to binge-watch several shows one after the other. This is largely because I think Angela Lansbury is fab in the role, plus the style of the show means that, despite the phenomenal murder rate, nothing distasteful ever really happens, and Cabot Cove still looks like a wonderful spot to spend some time. Would the books work as well without Lansbury’s presence?

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 1…

The story is told in the first person (past tense) from Jessica’s perspective, so we get to see the thoughts inside her head. Jessica is all sweetness and charm on the outside, and full of some rather waspish thoughts on the inside. I kinda liked that – I always assumed on the TV show that, behind that ultra-friendly exterior, an astute and clear-sighted brain must be ticking away. Like Miss Marple (from whom she’s clearly directly descended), Jessica must be an ‘expert in wickedness’ if she’s to see through the façade the villain erects to cover his/her crimes. I found I could easily imagine Angela Lansbury speaking her lines, and the marvellous facial expressions she would have used to convey the unspoken thoughts.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 2…

I was rather disappointed that the book was set in New York rather than Cabot Cove. But Seth and Mort both appear during phone conversations, so I didn’t have to do without my two favourite men completely. The description of Fashion Week felt thoroughly researched – though given, of course, that Murder, She Wrote spin of cosiness that means it doesn’t feel quite authentic to real life. The plot covers the lengths to which young girls will go to succeed in the cut-throat world of modelling, touching on subjects like extreme dieting and cosmetic surgery. The jealousies are shown too, but it’s all done with a light touch. And, of course, we don’t care about the murder victims, so no dismal grief or angst to contend with.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 3…

Jessica is just as irresistible to men as she is in the show – this time it’s Detective Aaron Kopecky who’s badly smitten by her charms. Got to admit, this was the one bit of the book that I found tedious – Kopecky’s admiration became repetitive and his attempts to woo Jessica by dangling information about the case in front of her became laboured and annoying in the end. But it wasn’t enough of an issue to spoil the book for me overall.

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 4…

The plot is quite interesting, and stays more or less within the bounds of credibility. Jessica is at the show because of her friendship with the designer’s mother – she and her son both hail from Cabot Cove originally. And it’s not long before Jessica is nosing around amongst the models, publicity people, cosmetic surgeons, et al, coming up with stunning insights long before poor Detective Kopecky is even close. I don’t think it could really count as fair-play, though maybe that’s just sour grapes because I didn’t work out the solution. But it’s well written – a nice cosy, with the genuine feeling of the show and enough contact with the familiar characters to prevent me missing the Cabot Cove setting too much. I’ll cheerfully read more of these, and recommend it not just to fans of the show, but to cosy lovers in general. Good fun!

The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5...
The fabulous face of Angela Lansbury 5…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group.

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Past Tense (Joel Williams 3) by Margot Kinberg

The sins of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

past tenseWhen the foundations are being dug for a new performing arts building at Tilton Univerity in Pennsylvania, the building crew are shocked when they discover a skeleton buried there. Forensic tests show that it belonged to a young man and dates from around forty years earlier. Back in the early ’70s, Bryan Roades was a student at the University. Inspired by the great Woodward and Bernstein investigation into the Watergate affair, Bryan hoped to emulate them by becoming a campaigning journalist. He was preparing a story on women’s issues for the University newspaper, focusing on the Women’s Lib movement and how some of the debates of the time were impacting on the female students. Some of the people he approached, though, didn’t want to see their stories in print, but Bryan was more interested in the greater good (and his own advancement, perhaps) than in individuals’ rights to privacy. When he disappeared, the police could find no trace and most people thought he’d simply done that fashionable thing for the time – gone off to ‘find himself’…

This is Margot Kinberg’s third Joel Williams book, but the first I’ve read. Regular visitors will be well aware that Margot and I are long-time blog buddies, so you will have to assume that there may be a level of bias in this review, but as always I shall try to be as honest as I can.

Joel Williams is an ex-police detective now working as a Professor in Criminal Justice in the fictional university town of Tilton, PA. He still has lots of contacts with his old colleagues in the police department and can’t resist using his inside knowledge of the University when a corpse turns up on campus. But he’s not one of these mavericks who works it all out on his own – we also see the police procedural side of the case through the two detectives who are investigating it, and Joel promptly hands over to them any information he finds. I like this way of handling the ‘amateur detective’ aspect – too often, the reasons for amateur involvement stretch credibility too far, and many authors fall into the cliché of having to make the police look stupid in order to make the amateur look good. But here Joel’s investigation enhances the police one rather than detracting from it.

As someone who is tired to death of the drunken, dysfunctional, angst-ridden detective of fiction, I also greatly appreciated Joel’s normality and stability. He has a job that he enjoys and is good at, he stays sober throughout and has a happy marriage. But he also has a curious mind, especially when it comes to crime, and an empathetic understanding of the people he comes across in the course of his investigation.

margot-kinberg
Margot Kinberg

The small-town setting and the rather closed society of the University within it gives that feeling of everyone knowing everyone else’s business – a setting where privacy is harder to come by than in the anonymity of a big city, and is more treasured for that very reason. Kinberg uses this well to show how people feel threatened when it looks like things they’d rather stay secret might be about to come into the open. The time period adds to this too, and Kinberg makes excellent use of the changes we’ve seen in society over the intervening period – many of the things people were concerned about being revealed back in the ’70s don’t seem like such big scandals today, but could have destroyed careers and even lives back then. And as we learn more about the people Bryan was proposing to write about in his article, the pool of people who may have been willing to take drastic action to stop him grows…

In style, the book mirrors the Golden Age crime – a limited group of suspects, clues, red herrings, amateur detective, etc. And, of course, the second murder! But it also has strong elements of the police procedural, with the two detectives, Crandall and Zuniga, sharing almost equal billing with Joel. There’s a little too much grit in the story for it to fall into ‘cosy’ territory but, thankfully, it also steers clear of the gratuitously gruesome or graphic. I’m not sure how well it will work for people who enjoy the darker, more brutal side of crime fiction, but an intriguing and interesting story for those who prefer the traditional mystery novel. Just my kind of thing, in fact, and I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Recommended – and well done, Margot!

NB I won a signed copy of the book in Margot’s competition. Aren’t I lucky? 😀

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Himself by Jess Kidd

Original and intriguing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

himselfThere’s an unusual heatwave going on when Mahony arrives in Mulderigg, a “benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless”. But then everything about Mulderigg is unusual, not least the fact that dead people are wandering all through it. Ghosts, but very human ghosts, looking and acting much as they did when they were alive. Mahony has been in Mulderigg before, when he was a baby, though he has no memory of it. Now he’s back to look for his mother, Orla, and to find out why he ended up in an orphanage in Dublin. But most of the people of Mulderigg don’t seem to want to talk about Orla, and those who do have nothing good to say about her. The story they give is that she left the village and must have abandoned Mahony – but Mahony won’t accept this, and nor does Mrs Cauley, an old woman who used to be an actress and now fancies herself as something of a Miss Marple. This unlikely duo set out to discover the truth, with the dubious assistance of the dead…

The book starts with a strangely off-kilter prologue in which we see a brutal murder carried out, but told in language that reads more as if what we are witnessing is a scene of beauty. And this sets the tone for the whole thing really – the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant. It’s executed superbly for the most part, with a good deal of humour, some of it of the black variety. The setting is somewhere in rural Ireland – I’m not sure that we’re ever really told where – and the time is split between a “present” of 1976 and a past in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But the time is pretty irrelevant – this village doesn’t feel as if it exists in normal space and time. It has a Brigadoonish quality to it and, although there are references to the outside world, it seems almost cut off and entirely self-sufficient.

The plot, such as it is, is very stretched out and becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes along. After I’d reached the end, I was left with a whole slew of unanswered questions and a general feeling that the author had got so carried away with the creation of her setting and quirky bunch of characters that she’d lost interest somewhere along the line in the actual story. There’s no doubt Kidd brings this odd, mystical village to life, though I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it slipped from being Irish into Oirishness – I found myself thinking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet a leprechaun with a shillelagh at any corner, though I hasten to add that she stopped short of that. Personally, I could also have lived without the constant rather childish swearing and vulgarity – to have one fart joke is unfortunate, but to have several smacks of carelessness, or a need for dietetic advice. (FF’s Third Law)

Jess Kidd
Jess Kidd

I enjoyed the early part of the book a lot but gradually found that the style began to grate on me – somehow it feels overworked, every word polished and placed too carefully, giving the language itself precedence over the storytelling. The whimsical idea of the dead characters gains too much prominence in the end, so that every piece of dialogue or action is interspersed with endless descriptions of one or other of the ghosts doing something supposedly amusing in the background. And the extreme brutality of parts of the book feels like too great a contrast to the almost lyrical style in which they are told. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but one that I felt Kidd took too far, passing the point of acceptable shock to become distasteful.

Having said all that, I think this début shows more originality than anything I’ve read this year and the quality of the prose is extraordinary. It suffers a little, I feel, from a hangover from “creative writing” classes, but I’m certain Kidd has the talent to find a better balance between style and substance as her writing matures, and will learn the art of what to leave out. Despite my relatively low rating of 3½ stars, I would still recommend this one as an intriguing introduction to an author of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the years ahead, and one whom I’ll be keenly watching.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

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A Rising Man (Sam Wyndham 1) by Abir Mukherjee

Murder in the Raj…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

a rising manThe corpse of a white man is discovered in an alleyway in an unsavoury part of Calcutta, and Inspector Sam Wyndham is assigned to investigate. It is 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in India after recovering from injuries he received during the war, so he will have to depend for local knowledge on his two colleagues – Sergeant Digby, an Englishman with all the worst attitudes of imperial superiority and a grudge against Wyndham for getting the job he felt should be his own; and an Oxford educated Indian from a well-to-do family, Sergeant “Surrender-Not” Banerjee, so called because Digby finds his real name too difficult to pronounce. Back in England, Wyndham had worked in the CID and Special Branch, and had been recruited into the intelligence service during the war. It is his wartime boss, now posted to Calcutta, who has persuaded Wyndham to come to work for him there.

It is soon discovered that the victim is Alexander MacAuley, one of the many Scots working in the Colonial government. His eminent position there means that it is likely the murder was a political act, carried out by the terrorists seeking to achieve independence for India. Wyndham agrees this is the most probable motive but, being a conscientious officer, he is also determined to keep other options open and to look into MacAuley’s personal life. But this isn’t the only case on Wyndham’s plate – a train has been held up by a gang of men, again probably terrorists, who killed one of the guards. When it appears an infamous terrorist leader is back in Calcutta, Wyndham has to ask himself if the two events could be related.

According to the brief author’s bio on Amazon, Abir Mukherjee, I assume of Indian heritage, was born in London and grew up in the West of Scotland. I was intrigued to see how these different influences would play out in a book about India under the Raj, especially given the huge Scottish involvement in colonial India. The answer is brilliantly! Mukherjee knows his stuff for sure, and the picture he paints of Calcutta and the Indian political situation of the time positively reeks of authenticity. His British characters are equally believable and there are many references to Scottish culture that again have the ring of total truthfulness, and are often very funny. The dialects of the Scottish characters are excellent – they give a real flavour of regional Scottish speech patterns without being in any way hard for non-Scots to understand.

Abir Mukherjee
Abir Mukherjee

In truth, I feared in advance that the book might turn out to be something of a fashionable anti-Empire rant, but actually he keeps it very well balanced, steering a careful course between showing the iniquities of the colonial system without being too condemnatory of the individuals operating within it. Through the terrorist aspect of the plot, we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. Wyndham is an enlightened man, but not anachronistically so. He is aware of the relatively tiny number of Brits in India, meaning that the co-operation of Indians at all levels is essential to the maintenance of the colonial system. So to him, fair play and even-handed justice are more than just desirable for their own sake, they are necessary tools in the struggle to maintain Indian support for the colonial government. Surrender-Not gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.

But, lest this make it all sound like a heavy political snorefest, let me hastily say that all the historical and political stuff is done subtly, never feeling that it’s wandering into info-dump territory or veering towards the polemical. Mukherjee uses it to provide an authentic background, but the focus of the book is on the investigation and the development of the characters of Wyndham and Banerjee. The excellence of the writing means that the tone is light and the story entertaining, even though it touches on some dark aspects of life. And the personal outweighs the political – in the end, as with all the best detective novels, the motives lie in the murky depths of the human heart.

A great novel – hard to believe it’s a début. And I’m delighted that it’s apparently the first book in a series. I will be queuing up for the next instalment in Wyndham and Banerjee’s adventures – Mukherjee has leapt straight onto my must-read list!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Oliver Twisted (Ivy Meadows 3) by Cindy Brown

Please, sir, I want some more…

😀 😀 😀 😀

oliver twistedIvy Meadows is an actress part of the time and a private detective the rest of it. So when her PI boss, her Uncle Bob, is hired to investigate a series of thefts aboard a cruise ship, Ivy puts both her talents to use – detecting when she’s not playing Nancy in the Dickens-themed cruise’s production of Oliver! At Sea! But things take a serious turn almost as soon as she steps on board, when she finds the body of the girl she was due to share a cabin with stuffed into the wardrobe. It’s not clear how she died, but Ivy and Bob suspect murder and that in some way her death may be tied in to the thefts.

This is a fun romp, with a very likeable lead character in the shape of Ivy. Her career as a detective is just beginning, so she’s not what you’d think of as slick at it. Her technique is mainly to blurt out questions at people and hope they don’t wonder why she’s asking! But she’s intelligent and perceptive, curious about people in general, and endearingly aware of her own deficiencies. Fortunately she’s also attractive, both physically and personality-wise, so she soon builds up some on-board friendships that help her with her enquiries, while adding to the general fun.

The Dickens theme is done well, without taking itself too seriously. The cruise ship sounds frighteningly realistic with Boz’s Buffet, the Drood Deck, and fancy-dress parties where everyone dresses up as Dickens characters. The actors double as ‘ambient’ characters when they’re not on stage, so that Oliver wanders around picking the pockets of guests, while Madame Defarge knits scarves and an Eastern European Bill Sykes is mean to our Nancy (when he’s not flirting with her).

I must admit that, as has become one of my regular whines, I felt the book was a bit too long for its content, especially in the first half. It seemed to take forever for the investigation element to get underway, and I had to suspend an awful lot of disbelief that no formal investigation of the death seemed to be taking place. But when a second death happens about halfway through, things hot up, and the plot is actually rather darker than it seems as if it’s going to be. However, the general feeling is one of a well-written cosy.

Cindy Brown
Cindy Brown

There’s lots of humour in the book, and I appreciated this more as the book progressed and I found Ivy had won me over. If murder and theft aren’t enough, she also has to contend with the fact that her Uncle Bob seems to have fallen for a woman whom Ivy suspects of being a fortune hunter or worse. Oh, and then there’s the little matter that no-one thought to warn her of when she took the job as Nancy – that part of her task would be to perform aerial acrobatics 40 feet above the stage! The production of Oliver! At Sea! is largely ‘borrowed’ from the musical Oliver, with some strategic changes – songs such as Gruel, Glorious Gruel have an eerie familiarity! There’s also a touch of romance, but this isn’t allowed to overwhelm the book.

A very enjoyable cosy, better written than many in that genre, with a decent plot and some great characters. I can only echo Oliver himself… “Please, sir, I want some more!” It’s apparently the third in the series, each of which has a theatre theme, and I’ll be adding the other two to my list for those days when only something light-hearted and fun will do.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Henery Press.

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Book 7
Book 8

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Champagne and chameleons…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the other typistIt’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her.

The movie rights to this début novel have apparently been grabbed by Keira Knightley in conjunction with Fox Searchlight, and I can see why. Knightley would make an excellent Odalie – all Twenties It Girl on the outside, but underneath, chameleon-like, ambiguous, secretive and perhaps wicked. Or perhaps all these attributes are merely inventions of the obsessed Rose, a narrator who is profoundly unreliable. She lets slip quite quickly that she’s telling us her story from an institution, where she has ended up as a result of the events she is about to narrate, and it’s fairly clear that the doctor whose care she is under is of the psychiatric rather than the medical kind.

The book is not unflawed. In common with so much current crime writing, it is grossly overlong for its content, with huge stretches where nothing happens to move the plot forward at all. After a good start, I really struggled to maintain my interest level through the seemingly endless middle – it could easily have lost 100-150 pages and been a better book as a result. There are frequent digressions and little bits of side stories that never go anywhere, and far too much foreshadowing of the “but that would come later” variety in a not very successful attempt to hold the reader’s attention. I suspect the author’s intention was to give a fullness and depth to her carefully recreated world of speakeasies and bootleggers, but I felt she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler.

I'm assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be...intriguing...
I’m assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be…intriguing…

However, this is one where the positives very definitely outweigh the negatives. Rose is an excellent creation. She tells her tale in a rather stilted language, rather like the voice of someone pretending to be a social class higher than she is, or pretending to a level of education she doesn’t properly have. It’s sustained beautifully throughout the novel, giving her a very definite personality – one that shouldn’t be likeable but somehow manages to get the reader onside anyway. I think it was a risky and brave decision to use such a distinctive and stylised voice in a début, since I certainly spent the first few chapters wondering if it was the author’s own voice that felt stilted, but once I’d become confident that the voice was Rose’s, I greatly admired the skill with which it had been done. (Of course, if her next novel turns out to be in the same voice, I shall delete this… 😉 )

Because we only see through Rose’s eyes, the other characters are somewhat nebulous, changing depending on Rose’s opinion of them at any given point. Rose tells us she was brought up by nuns in an orphanage, so starts with a strict moral code and a prudish, judgemental attitude about the behaviour of all around her. Under Odalie’s influence, not to mention the champagne cocktails, her morals might slip a little but her feelings of moral superiority never do. In some ways she’s clear-sighted about her own weaknesses, but she’s a mistress of the art of self-justification. She’s jealous of Odalie in both senses – jealous of her easy charm and sophistication, and also jealous of her showing favour to anyone else. Rose assures us so often that her feelings towards Odalie are not “unnatural” that it seems as if perhaps they must be…

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

From about the halfway point, it becomes fairly clear where the book is heading, but this isn’t a weakness. The fun from there on is that the reader knows something Rose doesn’t know and, again, I feel the way Rindell handles this is extremely skilful. There’s enough humour in the book to keep it entertaining (except through that middle portion), but the plot at the heart of it has both darkness and depth. Rindell says in her afterword that she had deliberately nodded to Gatsby in places as a kind of homage to her favourite book. Yes, she has, in terms of the parties and lifestyle, but she has wisely made no attempt to cover the same subject matter nor pretend that her book comes from the same mould. This is historical crime, well written, cleverly plotted and with great, original characterisation, and I very much look forward to seeing how Rindell develops in future books. I hope that film gets made…

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PS Last night I was European. Today I’m British. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I’m going to bed now and I may be some time. If they announce another referendum, don’t wake me… 😉

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

The joys of ageing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

moon in a dead eyeWhen their city neighbourhood begins to change and all their elderly friends gradually retire to quieter places, or die, Odette and Martial decide it’s time to buy a little retirement home in a gated community. Odette is keen to move, Martial less so. The community is newly built and Odette and Martial are the first couple to move in. Early impressions are hampered by the constant rain while, until more people move in, the swimming pool and clubhouse remain closed. But there is a caretaker, though given his creepiness that’s a bit of a mixed blessing. However, things perk up a bit when another couple and then a single woman move in, and the clubhouse is finally opened complete with a social secretary to provide a bit of fun. Thrown together in this isolated place, all the residents quickly become friends. But then the gypsies arrive…

I’ve had a bit of a mixed journey with Pascal Garnier so far. I enjoyed Boxes, loved The A26, and sadly wasn’t very taken with this one at all. It follows the same kind of format as the others – set up the characters, put them in a slightly odd, isolated situation, then make some terrible things happen to them. The writing is as good as ever, the quirky characterisation is great and there’s the same vein of humour, growing increasingly blacker as the novella progresses. Perhaps I’ve just read them too closely together, but I felt this one was rather like painting by numbers.

The first bit of the book is great. The description of this couple trying to settle into their new lives rings very true. Martial in particular misses the busyness of his old home, where he knew everybody and only had to walk down the street to meet acquaintances. Now he finds it hard to find anything to fill his days. The story of their trip to the beach is a glorious piece of blackly comic writing – the wind at their back as they walk giving them a sensation of energy and vitality, till they have to turn and come back against the same wind whipping away their breath and leaving them shattered and exhausted. It’s a great picture of people trying to come to terms with the fact that ageing is taking its toll on what they’re physically able to do, and nicely satirical about all those pictures of happy, energetic retirees in the sunshine that populate brochures for these kinds of communities.

Unfortunately, when the horrors begin, they simply didn’t ring true for me. The actual events didn’t justify the paranoia and, avoiding spoilers, the character change of the person who does the deed was too sudden and not well enough supported. The whole thing also turned on a plot device that I couldn’t believe in – namely, that if the electricity got cut off the electric gates to the community couldn’t be opened manually. There is also a piece of totally unnecessary and gruesome animal cruelty, which never works for me. And finally, the ending depends on such a hugely unlikely coincidental event that it lost any remaining credibility.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

I know many people have loved this as one of Garnier’s best, so I’m certainly willing to assume that the problems I encountered with it are a result of too recent comparison with the others I’ve read. Certainly his writing, aided by an excellent translation by Emily Boyce, is as good as ever and I did enjoy the early part of the novella a good deal. But the plot didn’t work for me this time round, I’m afraid. I have two other novellas of his on my Kindle, but I think I’ll leave a good long gap this time to try to avoid that feeling of sameness that I found with this one. Tricky, when I’m being rather negative, but I do still recommend this – I suspect with these novellas everyone will find they have different favourites, but all the ones I’ve read so far have been well worth the reading, especially if you’re more skilled at suspending disbelief than I am.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.

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In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad 1) by Tana French

A good debut…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

in the woodsIn 1984, three children went into the woods in Knocknaree. Only one returned, with blood – not his own – in his shoes, so traumatised he is never able to remember what happened. The other two children have never been found. That traumatised child is now a detective on the Murder Squad, Rob Ryan. And when another child is found murdered in Knocknaree, he and his partner Cassie are given the case.

I’ve heard so many people rave about Tana French that my expectations were very high going into this, and to some degree they were met. I freely admit that I might have given up within a few pages though, if I had heard nothing about the book. The prologue is one of the most overblown, over-written pieces of pure purple I’ve come across in crime writing, and I barely made it through. Happily, however, having got that out of her system, her writing settles down for the most part to a consistently high standard, only occasionally reverting to purple.

The plot is complex, with several possible motives for why Katy Devlin was murdered. Something about the family seems a bit off, leading the detectives to wonder if there are hidden secrets there. Katy’s father is leading a protest movement against a new road and has been threatened by unknown people if he continues, so it looks like there may be a thread of political corruption there. Katy seems to have left her house in the middle of the night, so there’s a question of whether she knew her murderer and if so how. Or is it possible that the crime is somehow linked back to the earlier tragedy in the woods? Rob knows he should make his boss aware of his links to the earlier crime and step down from the investigation, but he is desperate to be involved, hoping that somehow his memories will return and he will finally know the truth about what happened back then.

begorrathon 2016

The characterisation is excellent on the whole, not just of the main players, but of the team around Rob and Cassie, and of the various people they come across during the investigation. The one exception, and it’s an important one, is the character of Rob himself. Unfortunately, his voice sounded irredeemably feminine to me, not just in his constant focus on emotions and poetic descriptions of his partner Cassie’s many perfections, but in actual use of words. (The thought of a straight male Dublin police officer describing one of his straight male colleagues as looking ‘adorable’ actually made me laugh out loud.) However, the quality of the writing and plotting was high enough to mostly carry me over this weakness.

Tana French
Tana French

A more serious weakness is the sheer length of the book in relation to its content. At over 600 pages (according to Amazon – I had the unnumbered Kindle version myself), the book is seriously overpadded. I reckon it could have lost 200-300 pages and been the better for it. While the story of Rob’s attempts to regain his lost memories is intriguing, it becomes repetitive after a while, with great swathes of the book devoted to discussing the same event again and again with very little, if anything, being added each time. No matter how well written these digressions may be, they merely serve to make the thing go at a snail’s pace – an elderly snail, at that. Even when the main solution is revealed, the book goes on for a further nearly hundred pages tying everything up, or not, as the case may be. And, as many reviewers have pointed out with varying degrees of dissatisfaction, the resolution is partial, with a bit of spooky woo-woo not really providing a satisfactory reward for 600 pages worth of reader perseverance.

However, the strengths – quality of writing, plotting, characterisation – undoubtedly outweigh the weaknesses – excessive padding, occasional drifts into purple prose, failure to resolve a major plot line. As a debut it is good, and I look forward to reading more of her work to see how her style develops as she progresses.

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The Caves of Steel (Elijah Bailey 1) by Isaac Asimov

caves of steelJehoshaphat! It’s tremendous…!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the far distant future, Earth has become vastly overcrowded and the strain on resources has forced humanity into living cheek by jowl in massive closed in cities – the caves of steel of the title. They no longer ever venture into the outside world, having basic robots to do any outside work that’s needed. Living accommodation is small – meals are taken in huge communal kitchens and bathing and toileting facilities are all contained in the Personals, again communal and with strict social rules to preserve some semblance of privacy. The Outer Worlds are inhabited by Spacers, the descendants of people from Earth who colonised some of the planets thousands of years earlier. Spacer worlds are the opposite of Earth – underpopulated and disease free. Spacers no longer allow immigration from Earth, guarding the comparative luxury of their lives, along with their health. Naturally, they are resented by the people of Earth.

Spacers have developed much more advanced robots and, with the agreement of the government of Earth, are introducing them into Earth society. The robots are hated since people see them as a threat to their jobs, and loss of a job can mean loss of the few privileges that people can still have – their own washbasin, the right to an occasional meal in their own home. So when a Spacer robotocist is murdered, it seems obvious the culprit will be an Earth person. Elijah Bailey, C-Class Detective is called in to investigate and, to his horror, is partnered with a Spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, so advanced that he can easily pass as human.

Now, for you non-sci-fi-fans out there – yes, it’s sci-fi… but it’s also a great murder mystery. Proper crime with all different kinds of motivations at work, clues, detection, departmental politics, the works! Asimov wrote it after someone challenged him by saying sci-fi and mystery were incompatible genres. Asimov’s own view was that sci-fi can incorporate any literary genre (I agree), and this is his proof. Lije Bailey and R. (for Robot) Daneel Olivaw are one of the great classic detective duos, and this is your opportunity to sample sci-fi without ever having to leave Earth!

Which one is the robot?
Which one is the robot?

Along with the mystery Asimov creates a fairly chilling view of a possible future if Earth’s population continues to increase. It’s fairly easy 60 years on to pick holes in some of the things he foresaw, and didn’t, and personally, doing that is one of the great pleasures for me. I love that he could create something as sophisticated as the positronic brain – still being used by sci-fi writers as the basis for robots and androids today – but didn’t think of the mobile phone, so that poor Lije has to go out to phone boxes in the middle of the night. I love that he claimed that women still stuck to traditional clasps on their purses rather than adopting new-style magnetic catches. (We finally made it, Mr Asimov! We advanced that far!) I love that he came up with a kind of method for information retrieval that sounds not unlike the old punch-card system, but couldn’t take the extra leap that would have led him to computers. I love that people happily use all kinds of nuclear devices, cheerfully spraying radiation around as they go. He almost comes up with an e-reader… but not quite…

But the basic idea of an over-populated world where every human activity is carefully regimented and controlled to make best use of dwindling resources is very well done, and the resentment of humans over machines taking over their jobs has proved to be pretty prophetic. The Medievalists who look nostalgically back to a time not unlike the 1950s have more than a little in common with our more fundamentalist back-to-the-earth green groups of today.

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov

One of the other things I love about the Elijah Bailey books is that, although the world is thousands of years older, all the people are stuck in a ’50s time-warp. Gee, gosh, the language is simply tremendous! Lije’s favourite exclamation is “Jehoshaphat!” – I always find myself using it for weeks after I’ve read one of the books. The women stay at home, try to look pretty for their husbands, and bring up the children, which is all their limited brains and talents are really fit for, while the men go off and do manly things, like science and running about the streets with blasters and such like. So you not only get a look at how Asimov saw the possible future, but you get a real picture of ’50s American attitudes thrown in for free.

The plot is great and totally fair-play. Lije’s detection methods are a bit on the slapdash side, I admit – basically, he decides whodunit, accuses them, is proved wrong, and then decides it was actually someone else… and so on. But each accusation adds something, both to his future guesswork, and to the reader’s understanding of the society he’s operating in. And Jehoshaphat! When the solution finally comes, it’s a good one!

Golly gee, I hope you read this book. It may be a bit dated, but it’s still loads of fun and with plenty of interest to either sci-fi or mystery fans. Jeepers, you’ll be sorry if you don’t…

(Now, I know that Data was inspired by R Daneel Olivaw, but d’you think Neelix might have been inspired by Asimov’s sideburns…?)

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Even the Dead (Quirke 7) by Benjamin Black

even the deadDisappointing…

🙂 🙂 😐

A young man is killed when his motorbike crashes into a tree. Quirke, a pathologist, is on sick leave, suffering from memory problems and attention lapses due to an injury he received some years earlier. But when his assistant begins to think that the young man’s death was not due to either accident or suicide, he asks Quirke to come in to check his conclusions. Quirke agrees – it looks like the death was a murder. The victim is Leon Corless, son of a Communist politician, and the police don’t know whether Leon has been killed for something he has done or to get at his father, a man notorious for annoying people.

I recently read and loved The Blue Guitar, written by the same author under his other name of John Banville, and wondered how his writing style would transfer to the crime novel. The answer, I fear, is not terribly well, at least not as far as this book, the seventh in the Quirke series, is concerned. To be fair, looking at other reviews suggests this is not having universal praise heaped on it by even fans of the series, so I probably picked the wrong one to start on.

The basic writing, as I expected, is excellent. But the balance is totally wrong between the crime and all of Quirke’s personal baggage, of which he has more than plenty. His daughter resents him for him having given her away at birth to his adopted brother and his wife to bring up. He has had many broken affairs, including with the aforesaid brother’s new wife. His daughter is going out with his assistant, with whom Quirke doesn’t get on. Quirke is a drinker, currently on the wagon, but with a history of going in and out of rehab. And so on and on. His memory problems, which we hear about at excessive length for the first half of the book, are completely forgotten in the second half. (Ha! Forgive the unintentional joke.)

The other thing that irritated me was that I had no real idea of when the book was supposed to be set. For a while I wasn’t even sure if it was before or after WW2 – eventually I decided after, but still couldn’t pin it down to ’40s, ’50s or possibly even ’60s. Presumably some indication was given in previous books, but in this one it’s all very vague. Again, other reviews from people familiar with the series tell me it’s the ’50s. Dublin also failed to come to life. Street names and locations are mentioned but I got no feel for the life of this vibrant city.

Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black

There were points when I actually forgot what the crime was, and writing this review two weeks after finishing the book, I’m struggling to recall much about it. The vast bulk of the book is grossly over-padded with filler and the solving of the crime is rushed into the last section. Coincidentally (without spoilers) Quirke, his family and friends all seem to have a personal link to one aspect of it or another, and it appears to relate back to crimes in previous books. And, just to put the icing on the cake, the whole evil Catholic church cliché gets yet another outing.

Add in a ridiculously unlikely love-at-first-sight affair, and all in all, this fairly short book felt very long indeed. In truth, I began to skip long passages of musings about life, the universe and everything, in the hopes that I might finally get to the promised thriller climax. Sadly, I found the ending as flat as a pancake. I’m sure this will work better for people who have been following the series and have an emotional investment in the recurring characters, but as a standalone it left me pretty unimpressed. I’m still looking forward to reading more Banville, but I think I’ll leave Benjamin Black on the shelf in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books (UK).

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The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the a26The wounds of war…

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Brother and sister Bernard and Yolande have lived together all their lives. Yolande remains permanently holed up in their house, every door locked, every window covered, her only viewpoint on the world a small hole in one of the blinds. And for Yolande, the world she looks out on is still in the grip of WW2, a period that traumatised her so completely she has never recovered. Bernard has been the functional one, his job on the railway providing their income. He has given up his own chance of a personal life to look after his older sister. But now Bernard has been told that he is dying, and suddenly all the missed opportunities and disappointments of his life erupt into violence…

Given the novella length of this book, it packs a mighty punch. Ink-black noir, there are no gleams of light or humour to lift the tone. On the surface, Bernard and Yolande are a pair of extremely dysfunctional and disturbed siblings, each with their own streak of madness, and with the potential for violence simmering not far below the surface. The book has a thriller format, seen from the perspectives of the perpetrators of the various crimes that take place.

But it seems to me (though I may be over-analysing it) that the entire novella is a metaphor for a France still bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it in WW2 – the wounds of defeat, collaboration and betrayal – wounds that eventual victory may have covered, but with the thinnest of scar tissue, easily scratched away. The book was written in 1999, and is set perhaps a couple of decades before that, when many people were still alive who had lived through the war. And Garnier shows this couple as having been damaged even before the war began, much as France still reeled from the horrors inflicted upon its landscape and people in the First World War.

‘Row upon row, their white tunics stained with blood like that bastard of a butcher. “I kill you, you kill me.” And the more they killed, the more of them sprang up again, it was truly miraculous! That’s why there’ll never be an end to the war – anyway, it’s always been here, it’s that kind of country, there’s nothing else to do but go to war. The only thing that grows is white crosses.’

Verdun-17

Yolande had committed the crime of having an affair with a German soldier and had paid the price when her countrymen shaved her head to display her disgrace to the world. But Garnier’s description shows that this episode was as much to do with lust and cruelty as justice and patriotism. The world may have forgotten Yolande’s shame but she has never forgotten those who shamed her. There is the chance for Yolande to throw the past aside and go back out into the world, but she carries her prison with her in her mind. She’s not a weak woman, far from it. Her selfishness makes her monstrous and it’s hard to see her as having been a victim. She is a fact, a piece of history, a hidden scandal, France’s shame. And that unresolved shame is shown metaphorically to be still shuddering through the later generations.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

Bernard has watched the woman he loved marry another man – a cruel, boorish man who treats her badly, and when he receives his death sentence his pent-up frustrations and anger boil over into a murderous spree. There are some shocking scenes of violence and horror, but they’re not written in an overly graphic way – Garnier is painting impressionistic images rather than drawing detailed pictures. His descriptions are full of craters and mud, and when he describes places he does it in terms of their association with battles and war, this modern landscape scarred still with reminders of France’s violent past. The A26, being built in the book, runs through or past many of the great battlefields of France and close to those of Belgium – Arras, the Somme, Ypres – and Garnier plays darkly with the conjunction of the digging of the road and the history of its bloody surroundings.

To say I enjoyed this would be a total misuse of the word. It is too dark, too upsetting, to enjoy. But it is powerful and gut-wrenching, with Garnier’s compelling writing enhanced by an excellent translation from Melanie Florence. I may have made it sound more metaphorical than it is, though that’s how it struck me. But it works too on the level of being an extremely dark thriller, leading up to an ending that shocked me and left me feeling completely conflicted as to the morality of the tale. Despite the awfulness of their actions, there was some part of me that empathised with each of the dreadful siblings, and that was the most unsettling aspect of all. As entertainment, I enjoyed Garnier’s Boxes more, but for me this one is the more powerful and meaningful, and therefore better, of the two.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.

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Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay

broken promiseEnd of Part One…

😐 😐

When David Harwood visits his cousin Marla, he’s astonished to discover her nursing a baby that she claims is her own, because Marla’s baby died at birth, ten months ago, leaving her emotionally fragile and mentally unstable. She tells him a wild tale of how an angel brought the baby and asked her to take care of it. David’s worried enough by this story, but when he spots blood on the doorframe, he’s even more concerned. And when the mother of the baby is found, knifed to death, things look bleak indeed for Marla. So David, an unemployed journalist, agrees to see if he can find out the truth…

The book reminded me of losing at a game of snakes and ladders. It starts off very well – both writing and story flow along easily, David is a likeable character and at this early stage the plot seems intriguing. But then another plot is introduced, and another, and another… and suddenly I felt as if I was sliding down that pesky snake hoping for someone to throw the dice and get me back on the ladder. Sadly that didn’t happen. By a quarter of the way in at the most, the solution to the main plot is blindingly obvious – not just the who, but also the why and the how. So obvious I felt it must be a clever double-bluff, but it isn’t.

In the meantime, sub-plots keep developing exponentially. Barclay sets them up, always very interestingly – I have no quarrel at all with the quality of either his writing or characterisation, both of which are excellent throughout (though I could have lived without the tediously unimaginative and constant swearing). But then he forgets about them for ages, before suddenly bringing them back into the narrative, long after I’d either forgotten or lost interest in them, merely serving to slow down and break the flow of the main plot. At first, I thought they might all come together in some incredibly complex solution and looked forward to seeing how he’d achieve that. But it gradually becomes clear that, while there are some tenuous links between them, mostly they are completely separate strands. I still hoped they would be resolved or at least explained though – I don’t feel that’s too much to ask. It’s not as if the cover says “Part 1”…

Linwood Barclay
Linwood Barclay

…and yet, that’s precisely what this is. While the main plot is resolved (exactly as had been obvious for almost the entirety of the book), the other ones are left hanging, like the old Saturday Matinee cliffhangers… To Be Continued! But unlike them, we’d have to wait considerably longer than a week to find out what happened. If we care, that is. Personally I don’t. I don’t mind reading a trilogy, or even a Harry Potter-esque 7 book series, if someone tells me in advance that that’s what I’m about to read. But if they sell a book as a complete novel, then that’s what it should be. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here, but I’m not talking about the kind of continuing background story arc that happens in many series – these are actual unresolved plots, murders left unexplained, investigations left halfway through, etc.

I’m sorely tempted to give this 1 star but, despite my real annoyance at being left hanging, I enjoyed the writing style enough to consider reading one of his other novels some time. But I’ll check the reviews first to see if it has an ending. And less swearing.

And, in the meantime, I’ll only recommend this if you don’t mind knowing early on how the main plot will work out, and never finding out how the sub plots do.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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