The Clocks by Agatha Christie

Time for murder…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Sheila Webb is sent out by the secretarial agency for which she works to the home of a blind lady, Miss Pebmarsh, to take some dictation, she is not expecting to find the corpse of a dead man in a room filled with clocks of different styles, but all pointing to the same time – 4:13. In a state of shock, she runs screaming from the house, straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, who is in the street on secret business of his own. Colin is involved in the spy business, and will get together with Inspector Hardcastle to try to discover the identity of the dead man and of his murderer. And along the way, Colin will seek the help of an old friend of his father, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, written in 1963. Although nearly all of her books are well worth reading, there’s no doubt that by this period she was no longer producing novels of the same standard as in her own Golden Age, roughly the late ’20s to the end of the ’50s. In this one, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, I found I enjoyed the journey considerably more than the destination.

The set-up is great – the idea of the clocks is a suitably baffling clue, and the scene of the discovery of the body, where blind Miss Pebmarsh nearly steps on it by accident sending poor Sheila into a state of hysterical shock, is done with all Christie’s skill. There’s all the usual fun of interviews of the neighbours, and Christie creates a bunch of credible and varied characters, who each add to the enjoyment of the story. We also get to see life in the secretarial agency, a career that I assume has more or less died out now, certainly in the sense of girls being sent out on brief assignments to take dictation and so on.

It’s also a pleasure when Poirot becomes involved, though that doesn’t happen till almost halfway through the book. Poirot is elderly by now, so doesn’t take an active part in the investigation, instead relying on Colin bringing him information. It works quite well, and Colin is a likeable character, but my preference is for the books where Poirot is more directly involved. There’s a nice little section when Poirot lectures Colin on detective fiction, referencing a mix of real and fictional authors. I suspect Poirot’s views give an insight into what Christie herself though of the various styles.

Perhaps it was because I was listening rather than reading, but I didn’t find this one as fair-play as her earlier books – it seemed to me rather as if Poirot summoned up the solution based on instinct rather than evidence, leaving me rather unconvinced in the end. It feels as if Christie ran out of steam somewhat, and having thought up an intriguing premise, couldn’t quite find an ending that lived up to it. The ending left me feeling a bit let down but, as I say, I enjoyed the process of getting there.

Agatha Christie

What worked less well was the secondary story – Colin’s search for some kind of spy. Again some of this is down to preference – I’ve never been so keen on Christie’s occasional forays into spy stories as her straight mysteries. But I also again felt that Colin reached his solution out of the blue, and the tying together of the two plots contained too much coincidence for it all to feel wholly credible.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Fraser, who does his usual excellent job of giving all the characters subtly different voices and suitable accents, without distracting from the story by overacting any of them – i.e., no falsetto women, etc.

Overall, then, not one of Christie’s best, but still well worth a read or re-read for fans. It wouldn’t be one I would suggest as a starter to her work, though – there are glimpses of the old magic, but it doesn’t show her off as the genius of plotting she undoubtedly was in her prime.

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The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

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Death on Dartmoor (Dan Hellier 2) by Bernie Steadman

The bodies in the bog…

😀 😀 😀 😀

DI Dan Hellier thought life in Devon would be quieter than his old job in the Met, but suddenly he finds he’s running two major cases simultaneously. First, enthusiastic amateur archaeologist Elspeth Price fulfils her lifetime ambition by discovering a body in one of Dartmoor’s bogs. But when the forensic expert checks it out, it turns out it’s two bodies and they’re fairly recent. And the fact that they have no heads or hands makes the deaths look a little suspicious! At the same time, some young lads buy some drugs to take at a party. The effect of the drugs is not what it should be though, and instead of getting high, the boys become seriously ill, and one dies. It’s up to Dan and his team to find who’s making and distributing the drugs before some other young person suffers the same fate…

This is a straight police procedural with an authentic feel to it. Dan is the main character but we get to know all of his team through the course of the book, including his superior officer. To my joy, they are likeable, professional and understand the need for teamwork – not a maverick to be seen! We get to know about Dan’s personal life and newish relationship with Claire, whom, as far as I gathered, he met during his last case; and we also get occasional glimpses into the lives of some of the other team members. But the vast majority of the book concentrates on the investigations and I can’t tell you how refreshing I find that after so many books where the crime comes a poor second to the traumas, addictions and abuses of the unrealistic detectives.

The bodies in the bog storyline provides the central mystery. Before they can start working on whodunit, first the team have to find out who the victims were. Steadman shows the painstaking process of checking old missing person reports, using forensic clues, and sifting through the many tips received from the public. The reader is given a clue early on about a connection the police don’t make till much later, which I found a little odd – it rather took away some of the surprise element at the end. However, on thinking back afterwards, I felt that again it made the thing feel more authentic – a sudden twist out of nowhere at the end can often leave me feeling that everything is just a little too convenient.

The second storyline, about the drugs, is less of a mystery. We know pretty quickly the main thrust of who’s running the operation, as do the police, so this part concentrates on how they go about getting the evidence to make charges. Occasionally I felt we got a little too much detail here – again authentic, but it perhaps slows the story down too much. However, there’s still a lot of interest in it, as Steadman shows how vulnerable people can be sucked into criminality against their will and then be unable to find a way out.

The story centres around an animal rescue centre where some of the major characters work, so just a quick reassurance to my fellow squeamish people – no animals are harmed in the making of this book. They’re not even put in peril, so I had no problems with reading about this aspect at all. In fact, there are a couple of fun scenes regarding one of the cats which brought a smile to my feline-loving heart.

Bernie Steadman

The book is told in the third person, past tense, has, if I recall correctly, no swearing whatsoever, and although there is some fairly strong violence, it’s not gruesomely graphic and fits with the story. All of which proves, if proof were needed, that it’s perfectly possible to tell a gritty story without disgusting or offending your audience, or normalising language that would make a docker blush.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it would have undoubtedly got the full five stars from me had the pace not got bogged down from time to time by including a little too much detail on procedures. It’s somewhat gentler in style than much of contemporary crime, but far too gritty and realistic in plotting to fall into cosy territory, all of which works well for me. Dan is an excellent lead character, his team are likeable and well enough drawn to develop their own individuality, and there’s a good deal of gentle humour in their interactions which helps to lift the tone and keep the book entertaining. I shall certainly be looking forward to seeing how this series progresses.

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

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Slender indeed…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The May of Teck Club in London’s Kensington is a place for “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” The book tells of the lives of the crop of “girls” in residence just as the war in Europe had ended in the summer of 1945. These girls may be somewhat impecunious, but they are not from the poorer classes of society – rather they are the daughters of the genteel and the minor upper-classes, and for most of them, their main occupation is to seek a suitable husband. While the rules state an upper age limit of thirty, a few women have stayed on, becoming almost surrogate matrons to the younger girls and desperately trying to stop the bright young things from allowing standards of behaviour to fall.

There’s a bit of time-shifting in the book. As it begins, we’re in the ‘60s, when we learn of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, a man who used to be a frequent visitor to the club in 1945. He was in love with the beautiful, slinky Selina, who not only had slender means, but also hips so slender she was able to slither out of a small upstairs window for the purposes of having illicit sex on the roof. We see the story mainly through the eyes of Jane Wright, a resident of the club in the ‘40s, and now a journalist in the ‘60s, who wants to determine why, twenty years later, Nicholas should die a martyr in Haiti where he had gone off to be a Jesuit missionary. This is not out of any concern or warmth for him – she merely thinks she may be able to make a story for her paper out of it.

In truth, though, the plot is negligible – for the most part we simply observe the girls as they go about their lives in the club, and we rarely step over the threshold into the wider world. The club is very much like the boarding schools as depicted in so many school series of that era – these girls may be older and sex may have replaced midnight feasts as their method of rebellion, but there’s the same kind of dynamics of different types of people having to learn to rub along together, and the same kind of loyalty to the club as schoolgirls show to their schools (in fiction).

The girls have survived the war, but seem to have been relatively untouched by it. Some have worked in administrative and secretarial roles as part of the war effort, and are wondering what they will do now that peace will soon remove the need for them. We hear about how some have lost young men of their acquaintance, but their ghosts are not allowed to darken the tone. The girls are rather proud of the bomb that narrowly missed the club – they like to point out the damage to visitors – and there’s a rumour that another bomb is buried somewhere in the garden, unexploded.

Muriel Spark
Photo by Frank Monaco/REX (502449b)

This is rather an odd little book and I’m not at all sure if it has some deep and profound meaning that was lost on me. From my perspective, to be honest, it read like a bit of well-written and sharply observed fluff. I know that sounds rather harsh and dismissive, but I kept waiting to be startled by great insights, to be blown away by the depth of the characterisation, as I was with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But it never happened with this one. I enjoyed it – there’s a lot of humour in it and the girls were an entertaining bunch to spend time with. When I finished, however, I felt it had been something of a sorbet – delicious but hardly satisfying.

I think I felt this way partly because the ‘slender means’ of these girls seems to relate as much to their shallow lives as to their financial status. In some ways, I felt Spark’s depiction of them was rather cruel, though undoubtedly amusing. I found myself laughing at the girls for the most part, rather than with them. Again, this was very different to my reaction to the girls and women in Miss Jean Brodie, who had my complete sympathy even when they were behaving rather badly.

Juliet Stevenson

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Juliet Stevenson, which was something of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed her straight narration of the narrative and her delivery of the girls’ dialogue, but I found her accents for two of the male characters, one Russian, one American, overdone and distracting.

Perhaps I missed something in this book, or perhaps there’s not much there to be missed. In summary, an entertaining read that I enjoyed as it was happening but felt rather underwhelmed by in the end. I do recommend it for the writing, the observation and the humour, but I feel that anyone who loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie should lower their expectations a little before embarking on this one.

For different viewpoints of this and other Spark novels, don’t forget to visit Ali’s blog, Heavenali, where she’s running a year-long #ReadingMuriel2018 feature in honour of the centenary of her birth (Spark’s not Ali’s!), and rounding up links to the various reviews of participants around the blogosphere.

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Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

Causes and effects…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On 26 April 1986 the no.4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded. In this book, Plokhy sets out to explain why and how this disaster occurred, and to look at the fallout, both actual and political, that followed. Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. The book begins with him visiting the present-day Chernobyl site, now a kind of macabre tourist venue, with the destroyed reactor buried in its own specially designed sarcophagus.

He then takes us back in time, to the Soviet Congress of 1986, when the newly elected Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the direction of the USSR from military might through the long-standing arms race to becoming an economic powerhouse. This led to dramatic increases in targets for the building of nuclear power plants and for the amount of energy to be produced, all on ridiculously short time-frames. Plokhy goes even further back to show the early slipshod development of nuclear power plants in the USSR. While some people already had safety concerns, they were living under a regime that didn’t welcome dissent, and so mostly these were not passed up the line or were ignored when they were.

Having set the technical and political background, Plokhy then recounts in detail the events that led up to the disaster – a series of technical and management failures, mostly caused by the time pressures and targets forced on the plant. He gives a vivid account of the immediate aftermath, when it was unclear how devastating the accident had been, and when men were sent in to investigate without adequate equipment to protect themselves or even to accurately measure the radiation. Denial became a feature of the whole thing – both official denials by the government, trying to hide the scale of the accident from their own people and from international governments; and the more human denial, of people caught up in the disaster, unable or unwilling to believe that they couldn’t somehow put the genie back in the bottle – that things had spiralled beyond their control. Plokhy shows clearly how the regime’s culture of holding individuals culpable as scapegoats for systemic failures led to a lack of openness, which in turn delayed necessary actions like evacuation which would have saved at least some lives.

The sarcophagus built over the destroyed reactor

Plokhy goes on to show the political aftermath, suggesting that the disaster played a major role in the break-up of the Soviet Union a few years later. And he finishes with a heartfelt plea to the international community to act to prevent such disasters in the future by monitoring and rigorously inspecting nuclear facilities, especially in countries with authoritarian governments where there is a culture of blame that prevents people expressing safety concerns.

I found this an interesting and informative read, and felt Plokhy handled the technical side of the story well. He simplified it enough for my non-technical brain to grasp the main points, but there are plenty of facts and figures in there for those with a greater understanding of the science of nuclear power. In terms of style, he tries to get a balance between the politics, the technological aspects and the individual people caught up in the events, and to a large degree he manages this well. However, I did find the book occasionally got bogged down in giving too much biographical detail about some individuals – more than I felt was necessary for the purpose of the book. In contrast, I found as the book went on there was a tendency to deal in numbers rather than people, so that the book didn’t have quite the emotional punch I was expecting. Regulars will know I’m not one for a lot of emoting in factual books, but I did feel with this one that I began to view the outcomes as statistical rather than as a tragedy with a human face.

Serhii Plokhy

And I found the somewhat polemical chapters at the end rather simplistic, in truth. While I wouldn’t at all argue with the need for monitoring, I’m not convinced that, firstly, authoritarian states would welcome international interference and, secondly, that we in the oh-so-superior democratic west have a much better record in either safety or encouraging openness. Seems to me we do a pretty good line in “blame culture” ourselves. However, I agree with Plokhy’s basic argument – that this technology with such vast potential for disaster should be subject to international scrutiny, since radiation respects no borders.

Overall then, despite a few criticisms, I found this a well-presented and worthwhile read that shows clearly the links between policy and technology and the dangers when the two are not working in synch. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane, via Amazon Vine UK.

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The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

Channelling Greene…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Having retreated to a remote country hospital following the messy break-up of his marriage, Doctor Frank Eloff is in a reasonably contented rut. The hospital is in a town that was briefly the capital of a newly set-up homeland in South Africa. But politics move on, and the homeland ceased to exist when apartheid ended, so that now the town is sparsely occupied and the hospital has very few patients and only a tiny staff. But one day a new doctor shows up – young Laurence Waters, who has chosen to do his year’s compulsory post-qualifying service in this remote spot. Idealistic and somewhat naive, Laurence wants to do good, and his presence becomes a catalyst for change. This is a story of disillusionment – of a man and of a country.

In both style and subject matter, the book reminded me very much of Graham Greene. Galgut has that same spare precision with words, that ability to conjure a pervading air of menace and decay, that empathetic insight into the fallibilities of human nature. His main character and narrator, Frank, also has all the attributes of a Greene protagonist – somewhat passive, without the strength of character to be either fully good or fully bad, an observer forced to become an unwilling participant. His marriage ended years ago, but he is treading water, unwilling to finalise the divorce – symbolic of the end of apartheid not yet having produced the hoped-for change. The lives of all the hospital staff are in limbo, each waiting for a change that seems increasingly unlikely – the head of the hospital waiting for promotion back to the city, Frank waiting to fill her shoes when – if – she goes, a married couple from Cuba, one wishing to return, the other wishing to stay, and their marriage slowly disintegrating under the strain.

Along comes Laurence, fresh and full of hope, forcing the others to recognise the lethargy they’ve sunk into. The question seems to be – will Laurence change them or will they destroy his idealistic optimism? The answer never seems in doubt.

There was much I loved about this – the writing, the characterisation of Frank, the creation of an air of uneasy melancholy and later of menace and fear. I was totally involved for well over half of the book. And then, and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason, it fell away and rather lost me towards the end. I felt the plot wasn’t developed well enough – it all seemed contrived to deliver an ending. (Yes, I know all plots are contrived to deliver endings, but the good ones don’t feel as if they are.) The drama all takes place off the page, which does stop it reading like a thriller, which it isn’t, but also somehow stops it from delivering an emotional impact. When the major event finally occurred, I found I didn’t much care. And that made me realise that, although Frank is fully and excellently realised, the other characters hadn’t come to life for me, not even Laurence. In a sense, I think that’s part of the point – Frank is detached from emotional involvement, and therefore so are we. But even when he is finally jarred out of his apathy, his efforts at playing a more active part are half-hearted and soon over. Again, I think this is meant to be symbolic of the failure of the hopes of the new South Africa, but whatever, it left me shrugging a bit.

Damon Galgut

I also developed the impression, rightly or wrongly, that this feeling of utter depression about the state of post-apartheid South Africa was terribly white. Galgut doesn’t romanticise the past in any way – quite the reverse – but he also gives no feeling for the immense hope that surely existed among black South Africans, finally free from the yoke of subjugation. Even when things didn’t improve as dramatically as people hoped, I found the idea of apathetic acceptance unrealistic. I’d have expected continued hope, anger, possibly despair – not apathy. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps in the rural areas things went on much as they always had.

I certainly enjoyed Galgut’s writing and found the book thought-provoking if not entirely convincing. I’ll be looking forward to reading more of his work and, despite my reservations, I do recommend this one – although it tailed off for me at the end, I found it an absorbing and worthwhile read up to that point.

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Detecting the Detection Club…

😀 😀 😀 😀

During the Golden Age of crime fiction in Britain – between the two world wars – some of the leading authors got together to form the Detection Club, an organisation that’s still going strong today. At the time of writing this book, Martin Edwards had been elected to membership and was the archivist of the club, although he has since become President, following in the prestigious footsteps of such luminaries as GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and, more recently, HRF Keating and Simon Brett.

Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.

Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties.

The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It’s written in what I’ve come to see as Edwards’ usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.

Detection Club Dinner 1932

Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I’ve said this before, but I’m not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)

Two important Club members – Dorothy L Sayers and Eric the Skull.

To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the ’30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather argues against the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to be a little dismissive about anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book. I’m sure if I knew anything like enough to write a similar book, Christie would appear just as often.

Martin Edwards (left) taking over from past President, Simon Brett, 2015

Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there’s quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.

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Downfall (Joel Williams 4) by Margot Kinberg

Did he fall or was he pushed?

😀 😀 😀 😀

While playing truant from school, a teenage boy climbs the scaffolding on a nearby construction site, and falls to his death. The police investigate, but there are no suspicious circumstances and no apparent motive for anyone to have wanted to harm Curtis, so it’s filed as a tragic accident. Two years later, Joel Williams, ex-cop turned University professor, is carrying out research along with two colleagues into a for-profit organisation that provides schools for young people viewed as at-risk. This organisation, Second Chance, runs the school from which Curtis truanted that day. As Joel and his colleagues dig into the organisation’s records, they notice some odd discrepancies that start them wondering if there might have been more to Curtis’ death than had been thought…

I shall start with my usual disclaimer: 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.

This is Joel Williams’ fourth outing, so his character is well established by now. His police background means he still has contacts on the force, so when he finds himself involved in investigations, his old colleagues are generally happy to have him help out. As a result, the books have a good mix of being part police procedural, part amateur detective, while still feeling realistic and credible. Joel is no maverick – he works with the police, handing over any information he finds promptly, and leaving the serving officers to carry out formal interviews, arrests, etc. Joel is also pleasingly normal, with a stable home life, and a job that he enjoys.

In this one, there are two connected strands. At the same time as Joel is researching Second Chance, another organisation is offering to make a substantial donation to the University of Tilton where he works, in return for being allowed to set up a permanent research facility on methods of providing services designed to keep troubled young people from ending up in jail. So we see Joel struggling to decide whether such organisations can really be run with the best interest of students at heart, or whether corners will be cut in pursuit of profit. His research into Second Chance and the events of the story will feed into his eventual decision whether to support the new initiative. I found this aspect of the book particularly interesting because I worked for some years in a not dissimilar for-profit organisation and struggled with some of the same questions, though fortunately none of our pupils or colleagues were murdered!

Because of the research angle, the book takes us off campus this time, giving us a wider picture of Philadelphia with its mix of affluent and more deprived neighbourhoods. As Joel and his fellow researchers look into Second Chance, we get some insight into how organisations like this are funded and monitored, and Kinberg gives an even-handed picture of the benefits and potential pitfalls of these kind of semi-detached facilities. And she doesn’t lose sight of the fact that at the heart of the story is the tragic death of a young boy, allowing us to see the effects of this on his mother and friends.

Margot Kinberg

Another interesting story from Kinberg that, partly because of the age of the victim, felt a little darker to me than her last book. In truth, I had a good idea of whodunit from fairly early on since the pool of suspects isn’t large, but the interest of the book is more in watching how Joel and the police go about getting enough evidence to prove that Curtis was killed and to make a charge stick. One that has enough of the police procedural about it to appeal to fans of that genre, but with the added element of Joel’s amateur involvement allowing it to retain a feeling of the traditional mystery novel too. Recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Joel’s investigations in future novels.

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The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Light entertainment…

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William Boyd is one of my long-time favourite authors. Although I’ve always found him a bit hit or miss, when he’s on form he’s one of the best. As a novelist he tends to write long books, full of layers and depth and detail, and with wonderful characterisation. But I’ve never come across any short stories by him before, so was intrigued to see how his style would work in that form.

The stories in this collection are largely unconnected, though many of them have a common theme of artists who have experienced some form of failure in their professional or personal lives. To some degree, they’re mainly character studies, though each has a plot. They vary in length from quite short up to novella length and, for me, the longer they were, the better they were, so I guess that answers my question about his style suiting the format. There’s a lot of humour in them, some of it mildly black, and truthfully, not much depth. I found them enjoyable enough to read but rather disappointingly light – although I’m sure my disappointment is mainly a result of my expectations of him based on his novels.

However, the characterisation is great. Even in the shorter ones, he creates fully formed individuals, with enough background for each to explain why they are as they are. He also shows a lot of originality in both subject matter and structure – everything from a UN soldier in the Congo to an out-of-work actor carrying a mysterious substance on a trip to Scotland, and from a love story told backwards to a series of unsent letters. Here’s a flavour of some that I enjoyed most…

The Road Not Taken – the story of a love affair that begins with how it ends. It then jumps back through time, giving snapshots of the relationship at various points, and ends on the day the lovers met. The ending felt a little too much like a neat ‘twist’, perhaps, but otherwise I found this one very well told and quite moving.

Humiliation – One to frighten all of us reviewers, professional or amateur! A novelist’s career has foundered after a prominent reviewer trashed his second book. Having run off to France to lick his wounds, the novelist is at first horrified to find the reviewer is staying in the same place. But then he begins to see the possibility of taking a little revenge… Lots of humour in this one, and a feeling that Boyd might be taking a tongue-in-cheek pop at some reviewers who’ve been less than enthusiastic about some of his books…

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – the title story is novella length and tells of a young woman who is determined to do something creative in her life, but she’s not sure what. We follow her as she tries but fails to write a book, to act, to become a professional photographer, and so on. Again I didn’t feel there was much depth to it, and it just faded away at the end with no real resolution. But again humorous, and great characterisation – Boyd is one of the few male authors who I think creates really convincing women.

The Vanishing Game – an out-of-work actor is offered £1000 to take a jar of holy water to a church on the west coast of Scotland. But he quickly discovers he’s being followed, and begins to wonder what’s really in the jar. By far my favourite story, this is an old-fashioned adventure in the style of The 39 Steps – indeed, there are similarities as the hero takes to the wilds of Scotland in a bid to throw off his pursuers.

William Boyd

So in conclusion, for me, the collection doesn’t have the depth that makes his novels stand out from the crowd, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. A lighter read than I expected, very well written, of course, with the emphasis on humour for the most part and with some excellent characterisation, so despite my slight disappointment, I’d still recommend it for those times when one just wants to be entertained.

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

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The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell

Small town secrets and lies…

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Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan has just been appointed to head up the CIB in the Southern Lakes district of New Zealand’s South Island, when the body of a woman is found in the frozen water of a river near the small town of Queenstown. The fact that the body is naked makes accidental death unlikely, so suddenly Malcolm finds himself with a murder investigation on his hands, and to make matters more complicated, he soon discovers he has a personal connection to the case. Being new to the area, Malcolm is happy when a local cop is seconded to his team – Sergeant Magda Hansen, transferred from Traffic. Their first task is to find out the identity of the dead woman…

This is a début novel, and was nominated for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel in 2017. It’s a police procedural, well written in third person, past tense, with a strong plot and some excellent descriptive writing that brings the small town, set amid rugged landscape, to life. Both Malcolm and Magda carry some personal baggage, but neither is the tedious angst-ridden maverick of so much current crime fiction. Malcolm had previously served in the armed forces including tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is still affected by events that happened there. Magda is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her ambitions for her career – ambitions which her husband doesn’t support. They are both likeable characters in this initial outing, and each have plenty of room to develop and grow further in sequels, if this is to be the first in a series.

As the plot develops, we discover that the dead woman was well known around town and had links to several of the prominent businessmen and local politicians. What’s not so clear is what was at the root of these links and why so many people seem to want to deny knowing her. Malcolm soon finds that this small community has many secrets, and it’s his job to get past the wall of silence and lies that the townspeople have thrown up. This is where Magda’s local knowledge is essential – as a police officer, she knows many of the people involved and understands the power structures within this small society.

I found this an intriguing story with an excellent setting. Queenstown is full of tourists in the summer months, but now, in the heart of winter, only the permanent residents are around, nicely limiting the potential suspects to a manageable number. Although this is his fiction début, Ell has apparently been a nature writer and photographer and this shows through in his excellent descriptions of the landscape and weather, and the isolated feeling of some of the scenes that take place in more remote parts of the territory. The underlying motive is interesting and stays within the bounds of credibility, and the police procedural aspects feel believable and convincing. As well as the two main characters, we meet the rest of the small team and again they have plenty of potential for future development.

Gordon Ell

The one weakness for me was that I found the ending a bit messy and not altogether clear. It felt a little rushed and, after all the convincing detective work throughout the book, relied a bit too much on luck in the end. There were perhaps too many extra strands, probably put in to provide some misdirection which indeed they did, but it meant all the various solutions were kind of delivered in a surge at the end, leaving me feeling a bit bewildered – all the answers are given but in a way that meant it took me a bit of time to work out which parts fitted together and which were separate from the main plot. But this was a small issue that didn’t have a big impact on my overall enjoyment of the book.

So in conclusion, a strong début that introduces some characters and a setting that I’ll be more than happy to revisit in the future. It’s not yet been published in the UK or the US, but hopefully it will be at some point. I’m indebted to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for sending me her own copy – she was on the judging panel for the Ngaio Marsh Award and it was her spotlighting of the novel that first drew it to my attention. Thanks, Margot – greatly appreciated!

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

The weak and the mad…

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Guy Haines is on a train to Texas, hoping that his estranged wife Miriam will finally give him the divorce he needs so that he can marry his new love, Anne. When another passenger, Charles Bruno, begins to chat to him, Guy little thinks that this is the beginning of an odd relationship which will eventually spiral into murder…

First published in 1950, this is one of the early examples of what we’d now call “psychological thrillers”. Bruno has a difficult relationship with his rich father who controls the purse strings. He suggests to Guy that they swap murders – that Bruno will murder the inconvenient Miriam if in return Guy will murder Bruno’s father. Guy tries to brush him off, but Bruno goes ahead with his part of the scheme. The thrust of the book is Bruno pressuring Guy to hold up his side of the bargain – a bargain Guy never agreed to, although he didn’t explicitly refuse it either. We see the psychological effect on Guy and eventually on Bruno too, as the plot plays out.

Two things combined to give me perhaps overly high expectations of this book. The first is its stellar reputation as a masterpiece of the form and as an influence on later generations of crime writers; the second is Hitchcock’s wonderful film adaptation, one of my favourite movies of all time. Having recently read quite a few of the books that Hitchcock adapted, I’ve realised that he often changed the plot almost out of all recognition, so I wasn’t surprised to find that that’s the case with this one too. While Hitch’s story is of a good man hounded by a crazy one, Highsmith’s version of Guy is of a weak and distinctly unlikeable character whose innate lack of moral strength is as much of an issue as Bruno’s possible insanity. Oddly, it reminded me far more of Hitch’s other great classic, Rope, in terms of the moral questions it poses.

Guy’s inability to deal with the moral dilemma and subsequent descent into a state of extreme anxiety is done brilliantly, and the psychology underpinning Bruno’s craziness is well and credibly developed. His unhealthy relationship with his mother in particular is portrayed with a good deal of subtlety – lots of showing rather than telling and, because we see it almost entirely through Bruno’s eyes, it’s handled with a good deal of ambiguity. However, the unlikeability of both characters made it hard for me to get up any kind of emotional investment in the outcome, especially as we don’t really get to know the potential second victim, Mr Bruno, Senior.

Challenge details:
Book: 95
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1950

Miriam is given more characterisation, but not much, and there’s a kind of suggestion that she brought her fate on herself by her sexual promiscuity. But she’s bumped off too quickly for the reader to develop any depth of feeling for her either way. Anne, Guy’s new love interest, is a cipher for most of the book – there merely to give Guy a motive for wishing to be rid of Miriam and, later, to give him something to lose. For the most part we see Anne solely through Guy’s eyes, as a kind of idealised opposite to Miriam, which makes her come over as rather passionless and insipid, and almost unbelievably trusting of this man that she clearly barely knows or comprehends (or she wouldn’t dream of marrying him). In the end stages, we do get to see things from her perspective briefly, but she never really comes to life as a distinct character in her own right.

Patricia Highsmith

The writing is very good, particularly when showing Guy’s increasing loss of grip on reality, but I found the pacing of the first half incredibly slow. Partly that may have been because I knew the story from the film, but the book seems to cover the same ground over and over again, with Guy angsting over his moral dilemma to the point where I didn’t care what he decided to do so long as he finally did something! However, the second half seems to flow much better and the tension ramps up, so that in the end I was glad I stuck with it.

As you’ll no doubt have realised by now, I’m not joining the legions of readers who have praised this unreservedly. For me, the unlikeability of the characters made it an intellectual rather an emotional read and, as I’ve said, the first half seemed to drag interminably. However, there’s plenty to enjoy in it, especially in the later stages when it picks up pace, and it definitely deserves its reputation as a classic for its originality at the time. So I certainly recommend it, both as a good read overall and because it’s always interesting to read a book that has been so influential on the genre.

Book 21 of 90

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The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

Surprisingly contemporary…

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When the British Foreign Secretary decides to push through a law which will allow the enforced return of political refugees to their countries of origin, he becomes a target of the Four Just Men – a group of vigilantes who set out to right what they perceive as wrongs that the normal systems of justice can’t touch. The story is a kind of cat-and-mouse game where the reader, along with the entire British public, waits to see if the Four Just Men succeed in carrying out their threat to assassinate the Foreign Secretary.

This was a rather odd read for me, in that I hated the premise – vigilantes are not my cup of tea – and yet found the storytelling compelling enough that I found myself racing through it. It’s well written and the pacing is excellent. Wallace sits on the fence himself as to the rights and wrongs of it – he shows both sides, but doesn’t take too strong a stance in favour of either. I believe in later books he chose cases that weren’t quite so murky, where it was clearer that the victims of the Just Men deserved their fate, and I suspect I might prefer those.

This one, however, despite having been published way back in 1905, has a surprisingly relevant plot. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent political agitators from using the safety of foreign countries to stir up revolutions back in their own nation. With my recent Russian Revolution reading, it made me think very much of those Russians, like Lenin, who spent their time in the safety of exile encouraging their countrymen back home to commit acts of terrorism against the state. But I also couldn’t help thinking of the West’s current moral struggle over the question of allowing in refugees at a time when the fear of terrorism is high, or the difficulty of expelling people even when it’s known they are attempting to radicalise others.

Challenge details:
Book: 2
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

It’s a quick read – somewhere between a long novella and a short novel. There is a mystery of sorts over how the Just Men plan to carry out the assassination. Martin Edwards tells us in the introduction that, as an advertising ploy, Wallace offered cash prizes to readers who could work out the solution. Apparently, so many did that it nearly bankrupted him. I wish I’d been around at the time, because I thought it was blindingly obvious. I suspect, though, that might be because the key is more commonplace now than it would have been back then. Forgive the vagueness, but to say more would be a major spoiler.

The rest of the plotting works much more effectively. There is a real sense of the building tension as the deadline approaches. The Foreign Secretary is not physically brave, but shows a good deal of moral courage in the end. The police are shown as competent and vigilant, good men determined to protect the Secretary even at the expense of their own lives, if necessary. The press get involved and we see their dilemma of being ordinary good people who don’t want to see murder done but also journalists who do want a huge front page story! Wallace handles all these ethical questions well and believably, I thought. The Just Men themselves are more shadowy, with no real background given as to why they’ve set themselves up as judge and executioner or how they got together. I found them far less credible. But I was pulled along in the need to know whether the Secretary would survive.

An intriguing read that provoked more thought than I was anticipating. I don’t think I’m sufficiently enthusiastic to want to read more of the adventures of the Four Just Men, but overall I found this one interesting and entertaining enough to be glad to have read it, and to recognise its claim to be a classic of the genre. And, on that basis, recommended.

No Amazon links, since I downloaded this from wikisource.

The Linking Rings (Eli Marks 4) by John Gaspard

“To see oursels as ithers see us…”

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When his uncle Harry is invited to perform at the Magic Circle in London, Eli Marks takes the opportunity of turning the trip into a holiday for himself and his girlfriend, Megan. But things take a dramatic turn when one of the magicians slated to appear with Harry dies on stage – killed by a “magic” contraption. As Harry falls under suspicion, Eli and some of Harry’s magician friends must try to find out what happened…

I love this series so approached this book with high expectations and it has a lot of the elements that make the series so enjoyable. Eli is a first person narrator (past tense) and it’s always fun to listen in on his thoughts about the people he meets. Gaspard always presents the stage magic interestingly, without breaking the magician’s code of not revealing how tricks are done. I love the interaction between Eli and his elderly uncle and, by extension, the older generation of stage magicians he knows from the days when stage magic was still bigger than TV magic.

But the transplanting of the characters to London didn’t work so well for me. Thankfully Gaspard doesn’t go the funny accent route, but he does keep suggesting that perfectly commonplace English expressions are actually American in origin and therefore hard for us old-fashioned throwbacks to use confidently. And when Eli began to refer to his hotel as Fawlty Towers, it set my teeth on edge somewhat. It’s such a cliché. I also can’t help but get picky about factual or cultural inaccuracies that could have been sorted by a little research: for example, the suggestion that magistrates are responsible for charging people with crimes, or a police officer using the term ‘capital crime’ in a country that abolished capital punishment back when the Beatles still had short hair. Irritating errors like these, and there were several more of them, tend to throw me out of the flow of the story. I strongly suggest that if American authors want to write books based in Britain and publish them in Britain, they should hire a British editor to give them a final look over before sending the proofs to the printers.

However, I doubt any of these things would annoy American readers, who will make up the bulk of Gaspard’s audience, so hey ho! But I personally will be glad when Eli returns to Minnesota for his next adventure.

John Gaspard

Otherwise, the plot itself is quite fun with its origins back in Harry’s past, leading to enjoyable reminiscing among the entertaining group of magicians who’ve assembled for the performances at the Magic Circle. It seemed to me to cross the credibility line more than is usual in this series, and perhaps not to be quite as “fair play”. But there’s plenty of humour in it and Eli is as likeable a hero as always.

I know this review has been quite critical but I did enjoy reading the book overall, although it certainly isn’t my favourite in the series. However, it was good to see the personal stories of the main characters move forward, and I look forward to meeting up with them all again in their next outing.

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

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Goblin by Ever Dundas

A unique life, uniquely told…

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Goblin is an old lady now, working as a Reader in an Edinburgh library. But when the newspapers report that a strange pile of objects have been unearthed – bones, bits of a doll, a shrew head and a camera – she is thrust back into memories of her early life as a street urchin in wartime London. The camera still works and when the police develop the pictures they determine they could only have been taken by a child, and now they want Goblin to come in for an interview.

Although there is a mystery around the photos and why the police want to interview Goblin, this is rather secondary. The book is really the story of Goblin’s life – the events in it, but also her inner life, her imagined reality. This gives it the feel of some kind of magical realism though, in fact, there’s no actual supernatural element to it. It is a strange book, dark in places and with some truly disturbing aspects, but because of the beautifully drawn central character it has a warmth and humanity that helps the reader to get through the tougher parts. There’s also kindness here, and love, so while some parts are distressing, the overall effect is of compassion rather than bleakness.

Goblin’s mother disliked and neglected her daughter, calling her Goblin-runt, hence the nickname that stayed with her throughout her life. As a result, she ran almost wild, spending most of her time outside playing with her friends and her beloved dog Devil. Dundas evokes this childhood superbly, showing how important imagination is in childish games, how children form little societies of their own with their own hierarchies, detached from the adult world, and how they view the lives of the adults around them from a unique perspective, sometimes only half-comprehending, sometimes perhaps seeing more clearly than older people who have wrapped themselves in society’s conventions. She also shows how scary the world can be and how children build their own mental defences from things they can’t properly process. Goblin the child is a wonderful creation.

When war begins, Goblin is sent off as an evacuee to the country. Dundas presents a dark view of evacuation, with some of the children being used as no more than unpaid workers – one could almost say slaves – and subject to various forms of cruelty and abuse. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, so I’ll skip ahead to say that a later point Goblin finds herself working in a circus, and later yet, as a woman, she spends time in Italy before ending up in Edinburgh. Each part of her story is told well, although for me adult Goblin never became as beguiling a character as the child.

As she grows, we hear far too much graphic detail about her sexual experiences for my liking, with the emphasis firmly on anatomical mechanics rather than emotion. There is also an unfortunate descent into repetitive foul language, sexual and otherwise, including frequent and entirely unnecessary use of the ‘c’-word. (I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – in years of reading thousands of reviews, I have never once seen a reviewer complain that a book would have been better if only there had been more foul language in it.) There’s also a not entirely successful stream-of-consciousness or experimental section in the middle, but fortunately it’s not too long. I admit I came near to abandoning it at this point, which would have been a shame because it returns to a high standard in the latter parts.

Goblin is an animal lover, her life filled from childhood with various creatures she has rescued. For those sensitive to the treatment of animals in fiction, there are some difficult scenes, a couple of which have left me with images I’d prefer not to have. But these are essential to the book and not presented in a gratuitous way. They go towards explaining who Goblin is, and they are grounded in the truth of wartime; aspects we may have chosen to sanitise or forget over the years, but which deserve to be remembered as much perhaps as the effects of war on humans.

Ever Dundas

Except for the section in the middle that I’ve already mentioned, the writing is of a very high quality and altogether this is an intriguing début. I enjoyed some parts of it hugely, some less so, and some not at all, but I thought that overall it shows immense promise and a refreshing originality. The author is clearly someone willing to take a risk, to avoid following the herd, and I am interested to see where she heads in the future. I suspect she may go to places too dark or too graphic for me to want to follow her, but I also think she has the talent and intelligence to develop into a major novelist of the future. This book won the Saltire Society Literary Award for First Book of the Year (2017) – a well-deserved winner in my opinion. Despite my somewhat mixed feelings, I recommend it not just for what it is but as an enticing introduction to an author with great potential.

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

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Behind the Night Bazaar (Jayne Keeney 1) by Angela Savage

A visit to the dark side… 

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Jayne Keeney is an Australian woman working as a PI in Bangkok in Thailand. While she is recovering from an injury she received in the course of an investigation, she decides to visit her best friend Didier in Chiang Mai. After a rather strange and disturbing evening in the gay bars behind the Night Bazaar, Didier’s Thai lover, Nou, is found dead and horrifically mutilated. Worse still, Didier is accused of the crime by the police, who shoot him dead, claiming he was resisting arrest. Jayne is determined to clear her friend’s name, so must try to find out who really killed Nou, and why.

I shall start with my usual disclaimer – I know the author, Angela Savage, via our blogs, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible. Although Angela has written three novels in this series, this one was her début and is the first one I’ve read.

Despite the PI set-up, the book isn’t really a mystery – we find out who and why quite early on. The real story is about how Jayne navigates her way through the corruption at all levels of society in an attempt to force the authorities to clear Didier’s name. It’s set amid the seamy side of Thai life – prostitution, including child prostitution, police corruption, and foreign sex tourism. Savage pulls no punches, making it something of a grim read, grittier than my personal taste normally runs to. There is also some graphic sex and a sprinkling of strong language.

Didier has been doing outreach work to try to minimise the spread of AIDS not only in the gay community but in the wider Thai society. This has led him to become involved in a project to look at the underlying causes of the massive sex industry in the country and it’s here that the motivation lies. Savage raises some interesting questions, especially around the subject of foreign involvement in the sex industry, as both providers and users, and the attempts of foreign law enforcement agencies to intervene.

To be honest, the little I know about Thailand comes from the various horror stories surrounding sex tourism by sad old perverts and revolting paedophiles that have hit the British news over the decades and I had been hoping that I might get some insights into other aspects of Thai life (I assume there must be some!), but because of the focus of this plot, that wasn’t the case here. So to an extent it reinforced my existing impression of Thailand as a place that I would avoid like the plague. I will be interested to see if the later books in the series will widen the focus to let us see a more enticing side to the country.

It feels very well researched and the picture of this aspect of Thai life feels unfortunately all too believable. The character of Jayne is well developed – she’s strong without having superwoman tendencies, independent but not a loner and, while she’s courageous, we are also allowed to see her fear, which keeps her human and likeable. The writing is very good – happily it’s written in third person, past tense. The story flows well, never dipping into ‘soggy middle’ territory, and Savage manages to keep Jayne’s grief over Didier’s death feeling real without wallowing in the angsty morass so beloved of some of our contemporary crime writers.

Angela Savage

The book paints an excellent picture of how corruption in the police force allows child prostitution and other forms of sex slavery to thrive, but Savage also highlights that not all sex workers are forced into it – many choose the life because they can earn more that way. Without getting overly preachy, Savage through her characters suggests that poverty is the root cause – while I don’t disagree, I felt she took a rather more forgiving approach than I can to parents who sell eight and nine year old girls to the highest bidder, whatever the reason. The foreign sex tourists and the police come off as the baddies – personally I struggled to spot any “goodies”. I was a little disappointed that even Jayne seemed more concerned about Didier’s good name than about the abuse of children, although I do think that’s more realistic than if she’d been portrayed as a moral crusader – a foreign white knight riding to rescue the Thai people from themselves.

The subject matter meant that for me it was more of a thought-provoking read than an enjoyable one. As you may be able to tell from my review, it inspired me to rant about the sexual exploitation – no, let’s call it what it is – the rape of children (even though I’ve edited out about five hundred words of the worst of my frothing at the mouth – kind of me, I’m sure you’ll agree). But on the whole, Savage gets a good balance between the examination of the social issues and the telling of an interesting story, and none of the grittier elements feel gratuitous or voyeuristic. A well-written and intriguing look at the seamier side of Thai culture that will appeal to those who like their crime fiction dark. Recommended, and I look forward to seeing how the series develops.

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

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Our narrator, D-503, is a cipher in the utopian One State. He is the Chief Builder of the Integral, a rocket ship that is to be sent out into the universe, bringing uniformity and happiness to all alien species who may be out there still messily living with free will. All ciphers have been encouraged to prepare something for inclusion on the mission – poems of praise to the Benefactor who serves as a replacement for God in this society. D-503 decides to keep a journal of his daily life – this journal that we are reading – as his contribution. But D-503 is about to meet a woman – I-330 – who will disrupt his contented existence and lead him to reconsider just how utopian life in the One State really is…

First a word on translations. I started with the Momentum publication of this which as far as I can see doesn’t credit the translator by name. It’s dreadful – so bad I found it almost unreadable and was about to abandon the book completely at the 30% mark. However, I then changed to the Vintage Classics edition translated by Natasha Randall, which is excellent – like reading a different book. So if you decide to read this, make sure you check the translation first.

Even given the much better experience of the good translation, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to be as fulsome in praise of this as I’d like. D-503 is a mathematician, so his narration is full of mathematical metaphors and everything is described in vaguely mathematical terms. It’s well enough done, but I found it tedious. Zamyatin also has a technique of leaving sentences unfinished and uses ellipses even more than I do… This gives a sensation of the speed of events, of the increasing confusion D-503 is feeling, but again I found it got pretty tiresome after a bit.

Book 18 0f 90

It also has an issue that I think may be really more my problem than the book’s, an issue I’ve found with other early dystopian fiction: namely, that I think the societies they describe sound considerably more attractive than the savage societies they hold up as the better alternative. What exactly is so wrong with being happy? I get it – I really do – that they achieve their happiness at the expense of free will, that their lives are unexciting because everything is decided for them, that art and literature have no real place in such societies; and no, I don’t aspire to that kind of society. But the flaw, if it is one, is that the characters are happy in their lives until they discover how much better it is to be miserable, chewed up by desire and jealousy, living lives that are nasty, brutish and short. In We, the savage society has reverted almost to chimp lifestyle – I don’t aspire to that either! Current dystopian fiction is much more likely to have the characters be fundamentally unhappy in their regimented societies, to be aware of how restricted and unfulfilling their lives are, and to have something more appealing to aim for. This works so much better for me. I had exactly the same issue with Huxley’s Brave New World when I read it at school – the characters liked their lives and were happy, until savagery burst in to make them realise what they’d been missing – unregimented sex, mainly, which is pretty much what sets D-503 off too…

This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft. Personally, I’m a bit baffled by the timing – I wouldn’t have thought Bolshevik Russia had reached anything close to this kind of society as early as 1920, while the civil war was still being fought. Zamyatin was either very prescient or he was writing as much about the general philosophical zeitgeist of the time as about the realities of his society – I suspect probably a bit of both. Marxism was on the rise, some authors were presenting utopian societies as a good thing, and Zamyatin references Taylorism more than once – something I wasn’t familiar with but which seems to have been an extreme form of regimentation within the workplace; what in my youth we called ‘time and motion studies’ – the desire of management to turn workers into unthinking, exhausted drones or human robots. (That’s not necessarily how management would have described it, but I was a worker bee back then… 😉 )

Yevgeny Zamyatin

The book therefore feels as if it’s arguing against philosophical ideas about utopias rather than reality, as does Brave New World from what I remember. 1984, on the other hand, while using the same basic story, is very specifically arguing against the actual rise of totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, and Orwell’s characters give no impression of being in any way “happy”. This makes it by far the more powerful book of the three from my perspective and it’s also much better written (though obviously Zamyatin is at a disadvantage with me on that score because I have to rely on translators). In fact, We feels to me much more like North Korean style totalitarianism than the Soviet version – both may have been aiming for the same, but possibly North Korea’s smaller size and more uniform population has enabled the Kim clan to more fully achieve and sustain a completely regimented society entirely dependent on the whim of its God-like “benefactor”. And I doubt anyone thinks the North Koreans are actually happy, however much they’re forced to appear to be.

Had I read this first, the ideas in it would have felt more original, as indeed they were when it was written. So although I didn’t find it the most pleasurable reading experience, I still highly recommend it as a classic that has helped to shape so much later literature. Maybe the secret is to read all the world’s literature in strict chronological order. Now isn’t that a nice dystopian thought to end on?

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Unplayable Lie (Josh Griffin 1) by Caleigh O’Shea

A strong début…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Thirteen-year-old Lexi Carlisle is already famous in her home state of Texas. A budding golf player, she looks set to be a future champion. When she goes missing, the police and even her parents think at first that maybe she’s just off doing something she doesn’t want her parents to know about – she’s a good kid but she’s at that rebellious stage. But when time goes on, worry turns to fear – and then the ransom note arrives. Meantime, local journalist Josh Griffin is hanging onto his job by his fingernails – he needs a big story and he needs it soon. So when he gets a tip-off about Lexi’s disappearance, at first he’s thrilled. But Lexi’s mother, Amanda, was Josh’s college sweetheart and he soon finds himself torn between getting the scoop and helping Amanda find her daughter…

This is Caleigh O’Shea’s début novel and before I begin I shall make my usual disclaimer – under her real name, Caleigh is a long-term blog buddy of mine, so you should assume that there may be some bias in my review. However, as always, I’ll try to be as honest as possible.

The book is a traditional thriller – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – and O’Shea has used this format very effectively. The pacing is excellent – the story keeps moving along, with time for us to get to know the main characters but without too much back story holding up the flow. Although the series title suggests Josh will be the main character, in fact Amanda is the character we spend most time with.

Truthfully, I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing in the early chapters. Josh seems deeply unsympathetic to Amanda’s worry over her daughter, getting quite huffy when she makes it clear that giving him a good story isn’t her primary concern. Equally, Amanda seemed quite cold and controlled considering the circumstances, reacting too calmly and almost unfeelingly to major events which should, I felt, have upset her hugely. I also felt that while Nee-Hi, Amanda’s little dog, brought a lot of warmth into the story, humanising Amanda’s character, there were perhaps too many repetitions of the day-to-day stuff of dog-caring – letting him out to pee, feeding him, putting him in and out of his carry box, etc.

However, I warmed to both of them as time went on. (Josh and Amanda, that is. I didn’t need to warm to Nee-Hi – I fell in love with him immediately!) Josh gradually begins to get his priorities right, and in the later chapters especially we see more deeply into Amanda’s feelings. By the halfway point I had grown to like them both and was therefore fully invested in their welfare as the action ramped up in the second half. I wondered, as I often do with débuts, whether the book had been written linearly – the second half feels much more skilled in showing emotion realistically than the first, as if O’Shea’s style and, perhaps, confidence had been developing as she went along.

Caleigh O’Shea

The plot is more complex than it first appears – this is no random kidnapping of a rich kid. There’s a motive here, and a mystery which gives Josh a chance to use his journalistic skills to uncover what’s really going on. The police are involved but their suspicions are centred on this being some kind of domestic thing between Lexi’s divorced parents, so Amanda and Josh have to do their own investigating. And in true thriller fashion, eventually all the strands come together in a dramatic but credible denouement, in which I was delighted that neither Amanda nor Josh suddenly turned into unbelievable superheroes. For my liking, the body count was a little high, with a couple of events that I didn’t feel were necessary and which made the story rather bleaker than my taste runs to, but that’s a subjective point.

Overall, then, a strong début with a good plot, great pacing, an exciting and believable climax, and main characters whom I grew to care about. I’m looking forward to seeing how Caleigh, Josh (and maybe Amanda?) develop as the series progresses.

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Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Predicting the future…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the far distant future, mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, inhabiting countless planets. All are ruled from Trantor, the administrative centre of the Galactic Empire. Hari Seldon is a psychohistorian on Trantor. He has calculated that the Empire will collapse in 500 years time, resulting in millennia of chaos and barbarism. But he has a plan to shorten this to 1000 years, ostensibly by gathering all scientific knowledge into one massive Encyclopaedia Galactica. The Empire sees Seldon’s predictions as a threat but nevertheless they agree that a Foundation to prepare the Encyclopaedia should be set up, based on two uninhabited planets on opposite edges of the galaxy. Published in 1951, this, the first volume in what was to become an extensive series of Foundation books, tells the story of one of these settlements, on the planet Terminus, and gradually reveals that Seldon’s plan is more drastic than he let on…

The Foundation series is considered one of the great classics of science fiction and, as with much of Asimov’s work, its influence can be seen on many later books, films and TV series. I loved the early books in the series as a teenager many years ago, though I didn’t like the way Asimov developed it in later years, when he was more or less driven to write more by his fans. It’s several decades since I last read this one and I came away from this re-read with mixed feelings.

The basic idea is interesting. Psychohistory is a bit like what we now call social science – the study of how society in the mass shapes and reacts to events. In this time period, the science is so well developed that these things are precisely measurable and can therefore be used as a method to predict the future. It must, I think, have been one of the earliest science fiction novels to be looking at the mass of people as the driving force of history, rather than at princes, presidents, warriors or even specific scientists as “heroes”. However, Asimov doesn’t carry this idea forward too well – at various points along the way, there are what are known as “Seldon crises” – moments predicted by Seldon (now long dead) where a particular path must be chosen. In each of these crises, a leader arises who drives and determines the outcome. So Asimov, having made the argument that progress is driven by mass historical movements, quietly drops that idea and brings out one far-sighted individual – a hero, in all but name – as required. He gets round this by suggesting that Seldon’s plan is so detailed he was able to predict and manipulate the future so that the right person would be available to deal with each crisis, but it all seems too pat to be credible.

Hari Seldon, long after he’s dead…

The spreading out of the story over hundreds of years also means that each crisis requires an entirely new cast of characters. Apparently the book was originally developed as a series of short stories, and that’s how it feels – episodic. The result is that it’s hard to get emotionally invested in any of the characters – they appear, play their brief part, then are long dead before the next chapter begins. It’s really more about the ideas that Asimov plays with at each episode, many of which are quite interesting, but this reader needs more of a human angle to feel truly involved. Again because of the format, sometimes things happen too quickly to be credible – for example, at one point a new religion manages to convert billions of followers within a period of a decade or so.

One of the more amusing aspects of reading this kind of future-of-humanity science fiction is seeing how the predictions sound sixty-six years on. Poor Asimov couldn’t guess at the internet or Wikipedia – the idea of people working for hundreds of years to collect all human knowledge seems odd to us, used as we are to Googling anything we want to know from how to make an exciting cheese sandwich to how to build an atomic bomb. However, he did foresee the development of the automatic washing machine – an invention that personally I think ranks as at least as important as the internet.

Isaac Asimov

Asimov never made much effort to see how people’s habits and attitudes might change in the future, so what you always get are a bunch of mid-twentieth century people doing mid-twentieth century things set in the far future. In this one, his characters all smoke incessantly, while talking in that instantly recognisable American language of the 1950s where everything is “tremendous”, etc. It’s a wonderful throwback which always makes me chuckle. His attitudes to women are usually strictly mid-twentieth century too – closer to neanderthal than new man. He treats them with 1950s respect, as valued pretty pets, for the most part. However, that’s not so noticeable in this one since he just doesn’t bother having any women characters at all! (Slight exaggeration – two minor female characters make brief appearances: one a maid, naturally bedazzled by shiny jewellery, and the other a harridan of a wife.) Sad news, sisters – apparently even in the distant future all scientists, politicians and even criminals will be men. Still, at least we have automatic washing machines…

So a mixed bag, but some of the ideas are original and interesting, Asimov’s writing style is always effortless and entertaining, there’s some welcome humour, and a mystery surrounding what Seldon’s real plan is and how it will play out. Add the book’s influential status and this is one that, despite feeling somewhat out-dated, is still well worth reading.

Book 17 of 90

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The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4) by Elly Griffiths

Staging a murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold and snowy December in the Brighton of 1953, and magician Max Mephisto has top billing in the variety show at the Hippodrome, along with his new stage partner, his daughter Ruby. Ruby’s fiancé, DI Edgar Stephens, has to put his plans to see the show on hold when a girl is found murdered in one of the many boarding houses in this seaside resort. Nineteen-year-old Lily Burtenshaw has been found strangled, with her body carefully posed to resemble a famous event from history. This makes Edgar think of one of the other acts at the Hippodrome – a troupe of showgirls called Living Tableaux, who appear almost naked on stage in recreations of historical or artistic scenes, their blushes covered by a few strategically placed feathers and some unobtrusive flesh-coloured pants. Artistic, young DS Bob Willis thinks – or sleazy, in the opinion of his colleague DS Emma Holmes. The first task the detectives face, then, is to see if they can find a connection between Lily and the troupe…

After the last book in the series took us off to London and America, I was pleased that this one returned to the theatre world of Brighton. Griffiths evokes both time and place convincingly, especially the itinerant life of the performers and the boarding houses they make their temporary homes. She’s very good at showing how the paths of the show people cross and re-cross as they travel round the theatres of Britain, so that relationships are always being renewed or broken as bookings dictate. She shows the contrast between the seediness of backstage life and the glamour of performance, and how some love the travelling life while others see it as a short-term thing until they find something more settled.

In both her series, Griffiths tends to concentrate on the romantic lives of her lead characters more than is usual in police procedurals. This is something that a lot of readers particularly like about her books. Personally I don’t mind a bit of romance, but I find it’s often given too much prominence for my taste in Griffiths’ books, although I prefer the way she’s handling it in this series. But in this book, it all becomes a little too much, with every main character being in love or lust with someone, relationships starting and ending and lots of low-level romantic angst. It might actually be quite a realistic portrayal since most of the leads are youngish and single, but it gives the book a cosy-ish feel which somehow takes away from the story of the crime.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

However, the plotting is strong and the story flows well so that it held my interest all the way through. It’s more of a traditional length for a crime novel, thus avoiding the dreaded sagging middle – hurrah! And all three detectives are well-drawn and likeable – I enjoyed seeing Bob getting a bigger role in this one, and I was relieved that Emma didn’t spend too much of her time battling sexism (a theme with which I’m bored rigid). I did feel that Griffiths had to stretch a bit to make Max relevant to the plotting – if the series continues, it’s going to get progressively harder to work him in believably each time. Much though I like him, I’m kinda hoping that the development of Emma and Bob as stronger characters might allow Max to fade out a bit, leaving this as a more traditional police-based series, focused on Edgar and his team.

So overall, another strong entry in this enjoyable series – well researched, well plotted, well written. My criticism of the romantic angle is, I know, entirely subjective – Griffiths does it very well, and while it’s a weakness for me, I’m sure it will be strength for people who enjoy that aspect more. And otherwise, I like these characters very much and love the post-war Brighton setting. I hope there’s more to come…

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

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Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

Thought-provoking…

😀 😀 😀 😀

African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews is on suspension when a colleague asks him to look into a case in the small town of Lark in East Texas. Two murders have been committed – a black male lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, and the racial tensions which were already simmering in the town look like they might explode. It’s up to Darren to try to find out what happened before more violence erupts… but there are people in the town who don’t want old secrets disturbed and will go to any length to stop him.

The book is very well written and the plot is interesting, revolving around the various relationships, open and hidden, amongst the people of this small town. Fundamentally, it’s a book about racism and veers towards being too overt in its message-sending, but for the most part the excellent characterisation and sense of place carry it over this flaw. It has something of the feel of an updated version of In the Heat of the Night, with Darren mistrusted and almost ostracised by the white power-brokers of the town, having to act as a lone hero standing up for the black residents against an institutionally racist system and a bunch of terrifying white supremacists. However, Darren is no Virgil Tibbs – he’s on suspension for acting as a maverick, he has a drink problem and his marriage is on the rocks, surely proving convincingly (and rather tediously) that there’s very little difference between black and white detectives in contemporary fiction.

Had I read this a year ago, I’d have been saying it dramatically overstates the racial divide in the US. But after the last few months of sons of bitches and very fine people, I found it frighteningly possible. However – and I’m going to get polemical myself here – while I understand why people who are victims of any form of oppression are likely to develop opposite prejudices, I can’t say I’m much fonder of anti-white racism than anti-black. There is not a single decent white person in this book, and conversely there are no bad black people. When a black person occasionally does something morally dubious, it’s made clear that they’ve been more or less forced into it by society’s racism against them. The white people however are simply racist with no real attempt to consider why this might be so. Of course, sometimes this form of exaggeration can work in literary terms to highlight an issue, but I can’t feel that it moves the debate on – it’s more of a simple protest, maybe a howl of pain. I can see it feeding into both black outrage and liberal white hand-wringing, but I have to ask, given the state of America as seen from distant Scotland, do either of those things really need feeding at this point? Personally, I feel something more nuanced – more perceptive of the underlying reasons for the polarisation of American society – would be more useful. But then, I’m not a black American and Attica Locke is…

The result of this was that I began to find the portrayal of the town less credible as the book went on. The action takes place mainly in two places – a café where the black people hang out, and a bar where the white supremacists gather. Where are the other townsfolk? Even if they were irrelevant to the plot, I’d have liked to feel that they existed – to see them at least out of the corner of my eye. Maybe all white people in East Texas really are white supremacists, and maybe all black people do spend all day every day in a café scared of being killed, but I found myself progressively less convinced.

Attica Locke

This might all make it sound as if I hated the book, but I didn’t. The quality of the writing and the flow of the story kept me engaged, and if I weren’t a political animal I probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of what I saw as a lack of nuance in the portrayal of the racism. It’s all down to timing – at another time, say, a year ago, I would probably have been saying this makes for an excellent wake-up call for people who, like me, had come to think that America was finally getting over the legacy of slavery. But we’ve surely all woken up now and therefore it feels somehow redundant, or perhaps even part of the problem, as each side continues to stand on the moral high ground throwing rocks at the other side.

I realise this has been more of a political statement than a book review. But perhaps if the book serves a purpose beyond entertainment, and I’m sure Locke intends that it should, it’s to stir rational debate. I certainly recommend it – as you can tell, I found it thought-provoking even if I’m not convinced my thoughts are the ones Locke intended to provoke. But stripping my political venting out, I also found it an enjoyable and well written read.

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

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