The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost

Variation on a theme…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Following the death of her boyfriend, Hannah’s life is spiralling out of control. She’s behaving recklessly and drinking too much, and her friends and family are getting very tired of her. So when she receives a reminder about a booking she and her boyfriend had made to stay for a few nights in a guest-house in Ireland, she decides to go. But as soon as she arrives spooky things begins to happen, while bad weather and storms means she and her fellow guests find themselves cut off from the outside world. And then the deaths begin…

There seems to be a little trend of books at the moment taking the premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – a group of people carefully collected together in an isolated spot by someone with a grievance who then sets about bumping them off one by one. It’s certainly an excellent set-up and the trick is to do something original within the overall structure so that it doesn’t just seem like a copy of the great original. Frost’s basic story isn’t particularly original – after all these years of psychological thrillers it would be hard to find an angle that no one else had used – but she handles it well and uses the general spookiness of the house to good effect to create an atmosphere of enjoyable tension.

I must admit I groaned a bit at the beginning. A few years ago I got so fed up with the identikit misery-fest thriller sub-genre that I wrote a joking pastiche of it, involving a hungover alcoholic woman whose family and friends all hated her and whose life was a mess because of something unspecified that happened “that day” in the past. The first several pages of this book read almost like a pastiche of my pastiche, up to and including the obligatory drunken vomiting scene. Happily, while it continues to tread fairly well-worn ground throughout, Frost writes well (and in past tense – hurrah!), and makes the excellent decision to remove the opportunity for getting drunk from Hannah as soon as she arrives at the guest-house. Once she sobers up, she becomes a much more interesting and enjoyable lead character – a lesson all drunks, fictional or otherwise, could learn from!

Abbie Frost

The underlying story is dark and again perhaps too well-trodden to really surprise, but although I guessed parts of the plot and saw some of the twists coming, it’s done well and, once the rather slow start is out of the way, the pacing picks up so that it becomes a page-turner. The characterisation is a bit patchy – some of the characters are very well done, others less so, but happily I lost my initial antipathy to Hannah herself and gradually found myself on her side.

It’s not one to think too hard about or to analyse too deeply. There are, perhaps, too many bits that require a hefty suspension of disbelief. But the pacing and spookiness make it an entertaining read overall and it all culminates in an exciting and nicely over-the-top thriller ending. Once I got into it I enjoyed it a lot, finding myself reluctant to put it down, which is exactly the effect a good thriller should have.

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

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Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

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

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The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

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

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The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new neighbour moves into the long vacant Cloomber Hall, our narrator John Hunter West and his father and sister are keen to make their acquaintance, since their estate in Wigtownshire, in Scotland’s southwestern corner, doesn’t afford much in the way of society. But they soon discover that the new tenant, Major Heatherstone, has an almost morbid aversion to company, preferring to keep himself and his family safely behind the new fences and gates he has installed all round the property. Youth finds ways to overcome these problems, however, and John and his sister, Esther, are soon romantically involved with the Major’s daughter, Gabriel, and son, Mordaunt, respectively. John soon learns that the Major’s reclusive habits are because he lives in constant fear, but of what he won’t reveal. However, his children tell the Wests that the Major’s fears intensify every year on October 5th, and then lessen once that date is safely past. This year, however, just a few days before the 5th, a terrible storm blows up and a ship is wrecked off the coast. The survivors include three mysterious men from the East – Buddhist mystics – and when Major Heatherstone hears of this, his fears reach new heights…

The narrator is writing this as a kind of statement to explain the events that follow, and includes various accounts given in the words of witnesses. This gives Conan Doyle the chance to use some Scottish dialect and he does it very well, making it sound very authentic while keeping it clear enough for non-Scots to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him in Scots mode, since mostly, like most Scots authors, he wrote in standard English to please the much larger English reading public. Most of this is in standard English too, but the dialect and locations give it a Scottish appeal.

In structure, it’s reminiscent of some of the longer Sherlock Holmes stories, in that it tells firstly of what happens in the present and then takes us back to the past to explain the reasons behind the events. It’s pretty clear from early on that the Major’s fears relate to something that he did when he was a serving officer in the Army. Conan Doyle was writing for a contemporary audience who would have been familiar with the campaigns the Major was involved in, but I must admit it took me a bit of time to work out where exactly he was. The Buddhists and the references to Sanskrit scholarship convinced me we were in India, as did the fact that the Major was leading troops including Sepoy soldiers. But there are references to Afghanistan too and John West tells us that the earlier events took place during the first Afghan War. It appears that they took place just over the border, where it was geographically Afghanistan but culturally still very similar to India, and the Indian troops were serving as part of the British Army in that war.

Conan Doyle was always interested in the mystical side of life even before he became so heavily involved in spiritualism, and this book is a real example of the then prevalent opinion of Eastern peoples as having mystical powers unknown to us in the West. There are lots of racial stereotypes and some unfortunate terminology, including use of the n-word, but if you can see past this, in fact Conan Doyle is expressing an admiration for a culture which he portrays as far more spiritually advanced than our own. He doesn’t overtly criticise the behaviour of the Brits in general, but he does show that the imperial belief in our racial superiority led some to commit acts that he in his time, like we in ours, would see as atrocities. His portrayal of the Buddhists is an intriguing insight into the mixture of fascination and fear that the mysterious people of the Orient held for Victorian Britain.

There’s mystery here, but there’s also a generous dollop of horror and very effective it is too! The start is a little slow, but once it gets going it becomes a real page-turner, full of tension as we see the Major haunted by his fears, and then drama as we reach the climax. The concluding section where we learn of the earlier events has its own different kind of horror, as we read the Major’s own diary account of what happened in Afghanistan. Great stuff, up there with the level of the Holmes’ long stories, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known. Perhaps the outdated racial terms have made it fall out of favour, but I do think it’s worth making the effort to see them in their context and look more deeply at the underlying criticism of British imperialist attitudes implied in the story. Another example of wonderful storytelling from the master – highly recommended!

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The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Wilderness adventure…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Wini, our narrator, isn’t an adventurous type but she’s persuaded by her group of friends to go white-water rafting in the wilds of Maine. Pia has always been the leader, the one who holds the group together and who pushes them to step out of their normal routine once a year and take risks. This time she assures them their guide is experienced and knows the river well. It turns out Ryan is a twenty-year-old student with the looks of a Greek hero and enough confidence to persuade the more reluctant members of the group to trust him. Big mistake. Soon enough they run into trouble when their raft is lost and one of their party is killed. You’d think that would be the bad part of the trip, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong… you’re forgetting that fictional wildernesses are always home to the strangest people…

There are so many books and films about wilderness adventures going horribly wrong that it must be difficult to bring anything original to the table, and Ferencik doesn’t try. We have the usual group of people with pre-existing tensions that will come to the fore when danger threatens. There’s the traditional mix of peril from nature and man – there’s always some kind of weirdo around when an adventure holiday goes wrong, right? We have the ubiquitous current trend of women discovering how strong and resilient they truly are under adversity. And in line with modern adventures, there’s plenty of blood, vomiting and unplanned urination to ensure that reading during mealtimes is not advised.

There’s nothing wrong with writing to a formula, of course – thriller writers have been doing it for at least a century. Ferencik relies on the quality of her writing and characterisation to carry the thing off, and on the whole she succeeds pretty well. The four women are well drawn, each with a distinct personality, and the dynamics of their friendship rings true, with the little petty annoyances and resentments that build up in any small group over time but underpinned by genuine affection and a history of mutual support in bad times. Ryan, the guide, is also reasonably believable, though at every point I felt he came over as older than his supposed age of twenty – he felt too mature and adult to be that age (but that may be a sign of my own age!). The baddies, on the other hand, are ridiculously over-the-top, and their back-story left me totally unconvinced. Sadly I thought they were a real weakness in the plotting, neither credible nor realistic.

Erica Ferencik

Ferencik writes well, both in the slower passages when she is revealing her characters to the reader and in the fast-action sequences which grow and escalate as the book goes on. Too much swearing, of course, none of it necessary and adding nothing to either story or character.

So a mostly good example of a fairly formulaic thriller, let down a little by the unbelievability of the baddies. I enjoyed reading it, but hope she does something a little more original next time – I believe she has the talent, she just needs to find a better plot. Recommended, though, as an entertaining read overall.

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The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

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

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Compare and contrast…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Rowan Caine spots an advertisement for a nanny position, she’s staggered by the huge salary that’s being offered. So she’s willing to overlook the little detail that it’s a desperate bid by the potential employers to find someone who doesn’t mind that the house is reputed to be haunted. Because obviously ghosts don’t exist, right? The last four nannies who’ve all left in the last year must have been mistaken. Off she goes, way up to the north of Scotland to a house set in splendid isolation, to take on a family of four girls: two small children, one baby and a bratty teenager. Their parents are busy architects running their own business so are often away from home, leaving their brood in the hands of the nanny, with only a hot handyman and a grumpy old daily help for company. And then the strange noises begin…

The title is a give-away that this is based to some degree on Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. The isolation, the nanny who may or may not be a reliable narrator, the children who may or may not be sweetly innocent, the absence of parents, the suggestion of evil and the doubts over whether the odd things that happen are human or supernatural in origin, are all there.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again – if an author deliberately sets out to remind a reader of a great classic, she needs to be sure her own work will stand the comparison. I wasn’t a wholehearted fan of The Turn of the Screw, finding it a rather unpleasant read overall, but I admired James’ technique and ability to create a deeply disturbing atmosphere. He had, I assume, worked out that horror is exceptionally hard to sustain over lengthy periods, hence the novella form, and used ambiguity to great effect to unsettle the reader, never letting us know whether we could trust what we were reading. Ware has gone for novel length, meaning that there’s much repetition of not particularly scary stuff and far too much detail over the “joys” of childcare – do I need to know what the children have for breakfast every day? The framing mechanism is that Rowan, in prison, is writing a letter to a barrister begging him to take her case, so we are told from the beginning that a child has died and Rowan is accused of murdering her. A 384-page letter. The barrister knows the case from the papers, so Rowan repeatedly says things like “You’ll know why they think that I…” without letting the reader in on it. As always, I found this technique utterly annoying, although I know many people enjoy it.

Having got my grumps over with, there are some good things about it. After a far too slow start, it does become a page-turner, and the quality of the writing meant that even during the excessive details about everything I was never tempted to abandon it. The house is well done – a nice mix of Gothic overlaid with ultra-modern, again, I felt, a nod to the fact that this is a modern version of a classic story. It’s a “smart” house with everything controlled remotely by apps, giving plenty of scope for spooky things with a contemporary feel, but it also has traditional touches like the closed-off attic and the poison garden in the grounds. The house has a history of a dead child and a father who was either an evil murderer or a heartbroken bereaved parent – depends which gossip you listen to. The handyman is either a lovely guy who wants to be helpful or a weirdo with an obscurely evil agenda. Rowan herself isn’t clear-cut either – mostly it’s easy to sympathise with her, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to like children much and we quickly learn she has secrets in her background (of course), though (of course) we won’t learn what they are until the end.

Ruth Ware

The last quarter or so is the best bit, when the suspense begins to build towards a chilling climax, where all the hints finally become clear and everything is explained. And that brings me back to The Turn of the Screw, where the effectiveness of the story – and the reason it’s a classic – is precisely because all does not become clear! The reader is left to decide for herself what happened, and thus, in a sense, becomes complicit in the creation of the story. I finished my review of it by saying “Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams.” With this one, although I quite enjoyed reading it, because everything was neatly tied up and presented to me as a finished story I was left with no shivery after-effects and slept like a log.

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

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The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

Ends and means…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Alec Leamas is the head of the West German office of the British Secret Service – the time is the early 1960s, just after the building of the Berlin Wall. His main adversary, Hans-Dieter Mundt, has been successfully eliminating all of Leamas’ agents one by one, and Leamas has just witnessed the death of the last double-agent he had in East Berlin. Called home, Leamas expects he will be retired, but he is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down Mundt. But first he must establish a convincing cover story for himself, one that will make the East Germans believe that he is willing to betray his country…

This is my first le Carré novel, although his books have been adapted so often and he’s been so influential on the genre I felt I had a good idea of what to expect – a bleak, cold portrayal of the work of spies far removed from the glamour of James Bond and his like. And that’s exactly what I got in this slow-burn but engrossing thriller. Le Carré shows a moral equivalence between the agents on both sides of the wall rather than the good Brits/evil enemies portrayal that was more standard in fiction before his time. Both sides are shown as using methods that are murky at best and the question that underpins it is the old one of whether the ends justify the means.

To point this up, le Carré introduces an innocent into the story – Liz Gold, a woman with whom Leamas has an affair while building up his false story. She’s an idealist – a communist at a time when the Communist Party in Britain is so minor and insignificant that it’s more like a social club than a revolutionary political force. As the story progresses, she will have to face the reality of communism under a totalitarian government, and Leamas will have to face the consequences of having accidentally put her in a position of great danger. His world weary cynicism contrasts with her naive belief in humankind. Her love for Leamas and faith in him will force him to reconsider the methods and morality of the organisation of which he has been a part for so long.

Book 49 of 90

The writing style is in line with the character of Leamas – unemotional and somewhat cynical. It takes a long time to work out quite what’s going on, not just for the reader but for the characters too, since it’s full of bluff and double-bluff. There’s a distinction between characters who are doing what they’re doing out of ideological conviction and those who are simply out for power and advancement, but one senses that eventually the believers will in turn become the old cynics – it’s the job that does it to them in the end. This causes you to realise that once upon a time Leamas too was probably an idealist, making him more sympathetic than he first appears. We catch a glimpse too of how some join not through patriotism or belief, but because the job allows them to exercise a natural cruelty. And finally, we see how those at the top see agents as pawns on a chessboard, valuable up to a point, but sometimes worth sacrificing in the pursuit of victory.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.

It’s a bleak tale and a complex one that requires concentration to follow the twisting maze of plot. Le Carré trusts his readers to read between the lines, in terms both of the action and of the motivations of the characters, and ultimately that’s what makes it so satisfying. There’s enough ambiguity in it for each reader to decide for herself exactly what the ending tells us, but there are also clues for those who were paying attention. For those of us who might have missed one or two(!), my Penguin Modern Classics edition has a short but insightful introduction from William Boyd, no slouch himself when it comes to espionage fiction, in which he discusses the impact of the book and his own interpretation of the underlying meanings. This intro must be read as an afterword since it gives away the ending, but it does have a warning to that effect.

John Le Carre
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

It’s a little more bleak than my taste usually runs to and it took me a bit of time to feel involved in the story, but by the end I was totally absorbed and emotionally hooked. The writing is excellent and le Carré remains totally in control of the complexities of the plotting at all times. There’s an almost noir feeling to it, certainly dark grey anyway, and a kind of despairing cynicism of tone, but there are also small shafts of light and the occasional unexpected humanity that remind us that these people do what they do so that we can live as we choose to live. But at what cost to themselves and, ultimately, to us? Thought-provoking, intelligent and engrossing – no wonder it’s considered a major classic of the genre.

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Book 12 of 20

Conviction by Denise Mina

And… action!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As Anna does all her usual early morning tasks, she’s expecting this to be a routine day. But then her best friend, Estelle, turns up at the door, and her husband, Hamish, comes downstairs with a suitcase and an announcement – he’s leaving Anna and going off with Estelle, taking the kids with him. Left alone and feeling shattered, Anna looks for something to distract her mind, and begins listening to a true-crime podcast. She’s amazed to discover that an old friend of hers, Leon, is at the centre of the story – as victim, or murderer, or perhaps both. With nothing better to do and not wishing to dwell on her broken life, Anna sets off to look up old acquaintances and do a bit of digging. Along the way she acquires a travelling companion – Estelle’s abandoned husband, Fin…

There are some dark elements to the story – rape, murder, suicide, anorexia – but the tone is surprisingly light. In the hands of someone less skilled I might have said too light – the handling of the anorexia in particular veered close to being a bit too jocular at times, even though I thought it was a quite realistic portrayal. But Mina keeps the book rattling along as such a pace that there’s no time to dwell on the bleaker themes – this is very much an action thriller. We soon learn that Anna is a woman with a past, one that has damaged her but made her strong. She’s a survivor, and since she quickly decides she’s not going to wallow in misery over her marriage, the reader is happily saved from wallowing with her.

Like all thrillers, the less you know going in the more you’ll enjoy it, so I won’t go too deeply into the story. Anna’s past soon erupts into the present and, as she and Fin hunt for the truth about Leon’s death, she in turn becomes hunted by the people she has been hiding from for years. It becomes a dangerous race across Europe as they begin to suspect that past and present might be connected in some way. Anna and Fin are an unlikely pairing (as Anna would be the first to point out) and their interactions add a lot to the humour and give the book its warmth. There’s an enjoyable mix of excitement and humour, with some serious moments to keep it grounded, and the tension gradually builds to an excellent (if improbable) and totally unexpected dénouement.

Denise Mina

OK, credibility got thrown overboard fairly early on and, after struggling to the surface a couple of times, finally sank without trace. If you’re looking for deep and meaningful, this isn’t it, despite it touching on some of the themes of the moment. But I found it thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced and fun, and very well written. This is only the second Mina I’ve read, the other being the darkly realistic The Long Drop, and I find it hard to imagine two books more different in tone and style. I’m looking forward to getting to know her work better and, meantime, happily recommend this one. If Hitchcock were still with us, he could make it into a great film…

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

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Book 9 of 20

Three Bullets by RJ Ellory

Camelot revisited…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the summer of 1964 and the Democratic Convention is on the horizon, when they’ll have to decide whether they will support President Jack Kennedy as their nominee for another four years. Scandal is beginning to swirl around him, though – over vote-rigging and corruption in the last election, over his increasing health problems and questions about his mental stability, over the many women with whom he is rumoured to have had affairs. When young journalist Jean Boyd is found dead, her mother can’t believe the official line that Jean committed suicide. So she asks Mitch Newman, an old lover of Jean’s, to look into it. Mitch’s investigations will soon take him to Dallas where, back in the previous November, Jean had been following a lead relating to the President’s visit there…

If you’re confused, don’t be. This is an alternative history, based on the premise that JFK did not die in November 1963. Ellory speculates as to how the Presidency would have played out if Kennedy had remained in office – would the scandals of which we’re all now aware have become front and centre during his re-election campaign? Was he fit, physically and mentally, for another four years? Would the Democrats have stuck by him if he lost the Camelot glamour that inspired a generation? Would Jackie have been able to tolerate another four years of his blatant philandering? All interesting questions, and Ellory’s research felt solid to me so that, although he perhaps takes some aspects a little further than my credibility was wholly willing to follow, it nevertheless felt mostly chillingly possible.

The other strand of the story is Mitch’s investigation into Jean’s death, and unfortunately this worked less well for me. Mitch has never got over Jean although they split up when they were barely adults, and we are treated to endless descriptions of his feelings of guilt, loss and self-loathing, all of which bored me to distraction. Ellory even chooses to include several of the love letters Mitch sent to Jean after their break-up, all of which reveal nothing more startling than that he was sorry and still loved her. (Poor Jean – if she was anything like me, she probably only read the first three…) Ellory repeats and repeats how Mitch feels today, how he felt back then, how he felt when he was in Korea during the war. The book could have lost ninety per cent of all this, and been considerably better for it.

RJ Ellory

It’s a pity because otherwise this strand is interesting too. Basically, it’s the story of the real assassination, only changed to reflect the fact that in the book the assassination doesn’t come off. But real people show up – Jack Ruby, Lee Oswald, etc. – and Ellory treads a line between the official account and the various major conspiracy theories. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about the details of the event, but it all seemed to tie in well with what is known as far as I could tell.

It all leads up to a satisfying thriller ending, which again teeters precariously on the edge of credibility but doesn’t quite fall off. The whole presents a dark, dark picture of the Kennedy clan, exaggerated in places (I assume) to achieve a thriller effect, but sadly mostly only too believable. If you can put up with all Mitch’s endless regrets or, like me, skim read past most of them, then the what-if? features make this an interesting and enjoyable read.

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

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Book 3 of 20

Twisted by Steve Cavanagh

The clue’s in the title…

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JT LeBeau is a hugely successful author who specialises in the twist. He, or could it be she, hides his or her identity from the world, and this mystique of course only adds to the hype around her or his books. She, or is it he, will do anything to keep his or her secret…

OK, every review I’ve read of this has started in basically the same way and now I’m adding to it – this is one that’s impossible to say much about without giving away too much, so this review will be short and not very informative!

It’s all in the title – this is a book full of twists about an author who writes books full of twists. It’s clever and amusing and a bit self-referential, in that it’s lightly mocking what it itself is. Cavanagh has fun with the twists and plays with the idea of authors using secret identities, not shying away from referencing the likes of JK Rowling, aka Robert Galbraith.

It’s very well written and the plot holds together pretty well despite the twists. However, it’s light on characterisation – it has to be really, so we can continually be surprised. This makes it a light read despite some dark moments. There’s no feeling of depth, nor does the reader get the opportunity to care much about the characters. The only one I built up any kind of feeling for was the local Sheriff who was investigating the… oh, sorry, can’t tell you what he was investigating. And not surprisingly, as twist piles on twist, credibility is the chief victim.

Steve Cavanagh

One minor irritation is that Cavanagh, clearly feeling that constant repetition of he/she, her/his, etc., would be irritating, chooses to use they/their instead – grammatically tooth-drilling to my pedantic soul. We really need to create a gender-neutral word. So, since the fault lies with the inadequacy of our language, I bit the bullet and forgave the author. Just.

Overall, I found it a fast-paced page-turner that kept me amused while reading, and will almost instantly be forgotten. That’s fine, though – sometimes entertainment is all that’s wanted, and this delivers well on that score. Recommended as a well written bit of fun.

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

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Deadland (DS Alex Cupidi 2) by William Shaw

Ramping up the tension…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a severed limb turns up inside an urn on loan to the local art gallery, DS Alex Cupidi and the team have a real mystery on their hands. First they have to try to work out to whom it belonged and if the owner is dead, and why it was left in a place where it was bound to be discovered, all before they can even begin to investigate who put it there. At the same time, two local lads, Sloth and Tap, are starting out on a life of petty crime. They decide to steal a mobile phone, but unfortunately for them they pick the wrong victim, and soon find themselves being hunted by someone who seems willing to go to any lengths to recover his property, so they run off into hiding. While Alex is tied up in the possible murder investigation, she can’t help being worried for the safety of the boys – criminals they may be, but they’re also victims, of difficult homes, of substandard schools, of a society that doesn’t seem to care. And they’re the same age as Alex’ own daughter, Zoe…

Alex Cupidi is a great detective. She isn’t an angst-ridden maverick, but there are enough complications in her personal life to make her interesting, and her relationship with her daughter is entirely credible. Zoe is seventeen, mostly adult but still part child, and Alex is finding it difficult to get the balance right between protecting her and letting her find her own way in life. The situation is complicated by Zoe’s zealous championing of causes which sometimes bring her into confrontation with the forces of law and order. Shaw handles this excellently, never taking it too far, and there’s plenty of love in the relationship to help smooth over any areas of conflict.

The police procedural aspect is just as good. Shaw lets us know about the painstaking detail that goes into an investigation without allowing the story to get bogged down in it. Alex’ colleague and friend, Jill, has got herself into a tricky personal situation, and this lets us see another side of Alex, trying to juggle loyalty to her friend with the professional demands of the job.

One thing I particularly loved was that Shaw includes people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations without making a big deal of it. I’m so tired of authors feeling they have to write “about” diversity – until we start treating diversity as normal, it never will be. So hurrah for an author who makes it unremarkable…

(This is the second time I’ve made a comment like this recently, the other being in relation to the entirely believable, positive background portrayal of racially diverse Birmingham in Lucie Whitehouse’s Critical Incidents. A new trend, perhaps? If so, a very welcome one.)

The plotting is great – complex and fast-paced, but never to a degree where the reader feels lost. It takes Alex and Jill into the rich and shady world of art-trading, where vast amounts of money changing hands provides opportunities for all kinds of dodgy dealing, and the wealthy shelter behind their security fences and sense of entitlement. But through Tap and Sloth we also see the other end of the social spectrum, where a meal in a burger bar can seem like a feast. There’s no faux “that day” suspense in this one. Instead, Shaw makes us care so deeply about the two boys that the tension level ramps ever higher as the story unfolds, with some real heart-thumping moments along the way. And there’s no cosiness about it, so that there’s a real feeling of fear that one or both of them may pay the ultimate price for their stupid crime. But equally their story is not too grim or gritty to be enjoyable. There’s a lot of warmth and humour in their friendship – two misfits who’ve each found someone they can rely on, even love.

Shaw makes excellent use of his Kent setting, both in town and out on the wild and forbidding marshland landscape of Dungeness. He lets us see all the contrasts in wealth in this area, the secluded and luxurious homes of the rich, while the old seaside hotels and boarding houses along the Kent coast are now hostels housing many of the refugees and migrants recently arrived on our shores.

William Shaw

This is one of those rare masterclasses in crime writing that should be made compulsory reading for all aspiring authors. I loved everything about it, especially the sections of the boys on the run, and raced through it because I needed to know whether they would make it. Did I come out of it smiling or sobbing though? I’m afraid you’ll have to read it for yourself to find the answer to that question. One thing I will tell you – I’ll be backtracking to read Shaw’s earlier books, and adding him to my read-on-publication-day list for future ones…

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

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Death In Captivity by Michael Gilbert

A locked tunnel mystery…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1943, and the British officers held in a prisoner-of-war camp in north Italy take their duty to escape seriously, so the camp is riddled with tunnels. The biggest and most hopeful of these is under Hut C, elaborately hidden under a trapdoor that takes several men to open. So when a body turns up in the tunnel the question is not only how did he die but also how did he get into the tunnel? The dead man is Cyriakos Coutoules, a Greek prisoner who was widely unpopular and whom some suspected of having been an informer. When it begins to look as if his death was murder, the camp authorities quickly fix on one of the prisoners as the culprit, but the Brits are sure of his innocence. So it’s up to them to figure out how and why Coutoules died, and who did kill him…

Well, this is a very different take on the classic “locked room” mystery. In fact, to a degree the mystery becomes secondary to the drama of what’s happening in the prison camp as the Allies approach and it looks as though the Italians may surrender. The prisoners doubt this will lead to their release – they anticipate the Italians will hand them over to the Germans before the Allies arrive – so it’s all the more important that they get their plans for escape ready urgently. The Italians meantime, facing almost certain defeat, know that the Allies will be looking to hold people responsible for any war crimes that may have been committed, so they have an incentive to destroy evidence or get rid of witnesses who might be used against them. So tensions are rising all round, and some people are driven to rash actions.

There is a bit of the gung-ho British heroism attitude in the book, unsurprisingly given that it was first published in 1952 when the war was still fresh in people’s minds. But Gilbert actually gives a fairly balanced picture – not all the Brits are heroes and not all the Italians are evil, and the relationships of the prisoners to each other are shown as complex, with everything from close friendships to rivalries and dislikes. As the men begin to suspect that there’s a spy in the camp, suspicion leads to mistrust, and we see how the officers in charge have to deal with that. Gilbert doesn’t pull any punches regarding either the treatment of the prisoners or the dangers associated with their various escape attempts, so the book is hard-hitting at points. But the general camaraderie and patriotism of the prisoners also give the story a kind of good-natured warmth and a fair amount of humour which prevent the tone from becoming too bleak.

The officers in charge delegate the task of investigating the murder to “Cuckoo” Goyles, a young man whose experience of detection is restricted exclusively to having been a fan of mystery novels. He has to try to sift through the little evidence that is available without revealing anything that might alert the Italians to the existence of the tunnel. He uses his knowledge of how the camp works and of some of the weaknesses in security the escape committee has observed while making their plans. And he has to work quickly – the cruel camp commander, Captain Benucci, has a man in custody and no one has any illusions but that he’ll be found guilty.

Michael Gilbert

However, I was far more interested in whether the men would escape safely than in the solution of the murder mystery, in truth. I felt Gilbert’s portrayal avoided the pitfall of being overly dramatic to the point where it crossed the credibility line, but this still left him plenty of room to create genuine tension and suspense. In his introduction, Martin Edwards tells us that Gilbert himself was a prisoner in Italy during the war and had personal experience of both failed and successful escape attempts, which no doubt is why the story feels so authentic. As the Allies draw ever nearer, the book takes on aspects of the action thriller and I found myself reading into the small hours, desperate to know how it would turn out.

This is so unlike the only other Gilbert I’ve read, Smallbone Deceased, but both are equally excellent in entirely different ways. I’m so glad the British Library has brought these books back into print and I now can’t wait to read the third one they’ve republished so far – Death Has Deep Roots. You can count me as a new Michael Gilbert fan, and if you haven’t already guessed, this one is highly recommended.

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

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Cruel Acts (Maeve Kerrigan 8) by Jane Casey

A thriller, a chiller and a serial killer…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Leo Stone was convicted of killing two women and sentenced to life imprisonment. But now one of the jurors has revealed that the jury broke the rules and as a result his conviction is certain to be overturned when it comes before the Appeals Court. There will be a retrial, but Superintendent Godley wants to make certain that he’s convicted again, so Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan and Detective Inspector Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case and to find more evidence if they can. Maeve quickly discovers in the files that there was a third woman who may have been a victim of Stone’s too, but he was never charged with her murder for lack of evidence. Maeve’s sense of empathy for this victim makes her determined to find out the truth of what happened to her too. In the midst of the investigation, after Stone has been released, another woman goes missing…

Well, it’s been a long wait for this latest instalment in Jane Casey’s excellent Maeve Kerrigan series, but this is well worth waiting for. As always, it’s told in the first person (past tense) by Maeve, so that we get her often humorous take on the people around her, especially Derwent. Their relationship has settled into a rather more equal friendship now that Maeve is more experienced, but that doesn’t stop Derwent from lecturing her about her personal life, being over-protective, embarrassing her at every opportunity and generally winding her up. For all that, she knows there’s no-one she’d rather have beside her when things get dangerous.

The other regulars are back too. Una Burt, Maeve’s boss, still doesn’t much like her and the feeling is mutual. Liv appears a bit more in this one – another colleague and Maeve’s best friend. Godley is back, though he plays only a small role. Maeve still looks up to him, but in a more mature way than the hero-worship she felt for him in the early days. And the new girl on the team, Georgia, is back too, just as obnoxious, and just as jealous of Maeve’s success. Followers of the series are doubtless thinking, yes, but what about Maeve’s love life? Is Rob back? Or is there a new man on the scene? Or are Maeve and Josh…? You don’t really expect me to tell you though, do you? 😉

In general, I’m not wild about serial killer stories and helpless females being tortured and killed, but I was right to trust Casey to handle it with her usual sensitivity and good taste. Although women are killed, the reader is not put in the room with them as it’s happening – there’s nothing prurient or gratuitous in the writing; no lengthy descriptions of torture scenes designed to titillate. That doesn’t stop it from being heart-in-mouth thrilling and chilling at points, though. The prologue is wonderfully scary and the thriller ending is tense and dramatic, with several scenes dotted throughout that also had my anxiety levels rocketing.

When it turns out that Leo Stone has an alibi for the time of the latest disappearance, Maeve and Derwent have to consider whether he was innocent of the earlier murders or if there’s a copycat out there. I thoroughly enjoyed the plotting in this one. I didn’t work it out – I rarely do – but all the clues are there. I always think that Casey plots like a Golden Age author, giving the reader a fair chance to do a bit of armchair detecting, although in every other respect her stories and characters are entirely modern.

Jane Casey

I also love that Maeve tries hard to stay within the rules. While her personal life might be a bit complicated, she’s no angst-ridden maverick. The same goes for her colleagues, in fact – they’re probably the most realistic police team I can think of, and while there are petty jealousies and squabbles, they behave overall like the kind of professional force I’d like to think we actually have. The women are not always struggling to be taken seriously by sexist bosses, which delights me since I think it’s such an out-dated image in most of our public services now, and completely overused in crime fiction. Casey simply has men and women working together as a team as if… gasp… it’s normal! But she still allows room for a bit of banter and the occasional flirtation, and she doesn’t feel the need to make the women superheroes or the men weaklings.

While this could easily be read as a standalone, I do recommend reading this series in order to get the full nuances of all the various relationships within the team, and especially to understand Maeve and Josh’s complicated friendship. For existing fans, you’re in for a treat with this one – isn’t it great to have Maeve back? Highly recommended, and I sincerely hope Ms Casey is hard at work on the next one…

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

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The Man With No Face by Peter May

Hold the front page…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.

This is one of Peter May’s earliest books, first published in 1981 and now being republished. In the introduction, May says he carried out a “light revision” of the text, but made only minor changes. When I learned it was such an early novel and long out of print, I lowered my expectations going in, but was intrigued to see how one of my long-term favourite authors started out. Well! No need to make allowances – this is a great thriller, right up there with the best he’s ever done!

Mostly we see the story from Bannerman’s perspective though in the third person, but there are also chapters throughout where the perspective shifts to Kale, the hired assassin who carries out the killings. This doesn’t in any way diminish the mystery, since Kale doesn’t know who has hired him or why – he’s simply doing a job. These chapters give an extra edge of darkness to the story. Kale is a damaged man, unsurprisingly given his profession, and a cold, clinical killer who doesn’t make mistakes. Until this time. Unknown to him, Slater’s young autistic daughter, Tania, has witnessed the killings, but her condition makes her unable to speak. She can draw however, and she draws a detailed picture of the killer, with just one thing missing… his face.

Bannerman is an excellent protagonist – hard, uncompromising, relentless when he’s on the track of a story, but with his own vulnerabilities and troubled past. He is drawn towards Tania, and she, sensitive to others’ feelings and starved of affection, finds herself equally drawn to him. So when it seems she might be in danger because of witnessing the crime, Bannerman has an extra reason to find the killer. Tania has a regular babysitter, Sally, who provides a love interest for Bannerman, but she of course also has a troubled past! I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with all these damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak.

In the introduction again, May says that the portrayal of Tania’s autism is “a reflection of prevailing opinion at the time”. I must say I think it’s stood the test of time very well, and still reads to me as far more authentic and less sensationalised or mawkish than many of the more recent fictional portrayals of people with autism. The reader is occasionally allowed inside Tania’s mind where we see her frustration at her inability to express herself, and that helps to explain her sometimes extreme behaviour. It’s a sympathetic and somewhat understated picture, and I found her entirely credible.

Peter May

The plot is complex and Bannerman’s search for the truth is again very credible, well within the realism of investigative journalism. May, of course, was a journalist himself back in the day, so it’s hardly surprising that the aspects surrounding the newspaper business ring true. The book is set in 1979, so no internet or mobile phones, and it reminded me how much I preferred thrillers back in the days when the protagonist was a real old-fashioned gumshoe, always on the move, dealing with people face to face. There is some violence, but nothing that felt overly graphic or out of place, and there’s a real and increasing sense of danger as the story unfolds, all leading up to an excellent thriller climax.

I must say I loved this as much as any of his later books, and am now hoping that Quercus dig out his other early thrillers and dust them off. A special treat for fans, but would work just as well for newcomers to his work. Highly recommended! It’s left me wanting to go back and re-read all his China thrillers, too…

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

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The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Britannia rules the waves?

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Our narrator, Carruthers, finds himself having to stay on at his job in the Foreign Office while all his fashionable friends depart for country house parties, apparently managing to cope with his absence with less difficulty than he’d have liked. Released at last for his annual holiday, he finds himself with nowhere in particular to go, so when an old friend writes inviting him to spend some time on his yacht duck-shooting in the Baltic, he decides to take him up on the offer. He’s expecting a well-appointed leisure yacht complete with crew, so is taken aback to discover that the Dulcibella is tiny, strictly functional and manned only by his friend, Davies. Throwing off his initial grumpiness, Carruthers settles in to learn the art of sailing under Davies’ expert tutelage. But he soon discovers that Davies has an ulterior motive for wanting him there – Davies suspects that there’s some kind of German plot being developed along the Baltic coastline, and wants Carruthers to help him investigate…

The beginning of the book is a lot of fun, filled with self-deprecating humour as Carruthers first realises that his fashionable world can survive quite happily without him and then discovers that, rather than swanning about on a nice, clean deck in his natty sailing outfit, he’s expected to share a tiny cabin with Davies, eat off a paraffin stove, and work for his passage. He’s very likeable – the archetypal patriotic gentlemanly hero beloved of English fiction of that era. (And still beloved by this Scot today, I freely admit.) Davies is a little rougher around the edges, but is also entirely decent and honourable.

When they start to sail, the book doesn’t stint on nautical facts and terminology. My Oxford World’s Classics edition contains a glossary of terms as well as the usual informative introduction and notes, which tell a bit about Childers’ life – an intriguing story on its own account – and the literary and historical background to the book. There are also charts! Sea charts! And charts of the various coastlines. I know some people will find it a little odd, but I can’t resist a chart, map or plan in a book, so to have an abundance of them added immensely to the fun.

A sort of buoyant fatalism possessed me as I finished my notes and pored over the stove. It upheld me, too, when I went on deck and watched the ‘pretty beat’, whose prettiness was mainly due to the crowd of fog-bound shipping — steamers, smacks, and sailing-vessels — now once more on the move in the confined fairway of the fiord, their baleful eyes of red, green, or yellow, opening and shutting, brightening and fading; while shore-lights and anchor-lights added to my bewilderment, and a throbbing of screws filled the air like the distant roar of London streets. In fact, every time we spun round for our dart across the fiord I felt like a rustic matron gathering her skirts for the transit of the Strand on a busy night. Davies, however, was the street arab who zigzags under the horses’ feet unscathed; and all the time he discoursed placidly on the simplicity and safety of night-sailing if only you are careful, obeying rules, and burnt good lights. As we were nearing the hot glow in the sky that denoted Kiel we passed a huge scintillating bulk moored in mid-stream. ‘Warships,’ he murmured, ecstatically.

The story gradually takes on a more serious tone, though, once Davies reveals his suspicions. The book was first published in 1903, and I thought it casts a fascinating light on the attitudes of the British ruling classes to their counterparts in Germany at that point in time. Were we more European then than now? Perhaps. Our public service was populated with the younger sons of the lower aristocracy, all public school* educated and many of them well-travelled in Europe and passably fluent in more than one language. Our Royals across Europe were all related to each other, and I imagine the same was probably true of a lot of the aristocracy. Today Germany is our friend; in my childhood, it was still perceived as our enemy; back at the time of this book, there’s a perception of it as being a kind of family member, a cousin perhaps. Not altogether surprising, given that our Royal Family is German, as was Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert (and hence all their thousands of offspring).

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But Germany was growing and becoming more powerful at this time, and while Carruthers and Davies feel goodwill towards it and admire all the Kaiser is doing to advance his country, they also see it as a potential opponent in the future. There’s an odd sporting edge to this – they rather look forward to meeting Germany in war one day, as if it were some form of jousting contest fought for honour and glory. (One can’t help but hope neither of them were in Passchendaele or the Somme twelve or thirteen years later.)

The emphasis of the book is on the growth of Germany as a naval power, and it becomes ever clearer that Childers’ real purpose in writing it was to send a warning to the powers-that-be in Britain that we shouldn’t take our naval supremacy for granted, especially in the North Sea. Unfortunately, as the rather polemical message grows stronger, the entertainment side of it gets somewhat sidelined, and I didn’t enjoy the second half quite as much as the first. Childers goes into far more detail on the potential naval threat and how Germany might use this bit of coastline to launch a future attack on Britain than makes for a good adventure story – at points it feels more like a report to the Foreign Office. And, since his purpose was to warn of a growing threat, it couldn’t have the kind of enemies-destroyed-rip-roaring-success-hurrah-for-good-old-England ending that this type of novel normally goes for.

Erskine Childers and his wife Molly sailing in the Baltic in 1910

However, there is plenty of adventure along the way, danger and derring-do, and a rather understated (and unnecessary) romance element, which the introduction informs me was more or less forced on Childers by his publishers. All-in-all, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Carruthers’ development from fashionable young man-about-town to patriotic amateur spy, and the intriguing look at the British-German relationship of the time more than made up for the shortcomings of the adventure story in the second half. This one undoubtedly deserves it status as a classic of espionage fiction.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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*Public school means posh private school in Britain, just to be confusing.

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

Strangely satisfying…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In modern, democratic South Korea, governments can no longer get rid of political enemies as easily as they did under the military dictatorship, but fortunately there’s a whole hierarchy of assassins willing to do it for them, for a price. Not to be left out, the world of big business finds this a convenient way to rid itself of competitors too. So, up until recently, there’s been plenty of work for our lead assassin, Reseng, and his employer, Old Raccoon. But now there are new kids on the block, using modern business methods to attract all the customers. Things are about to go very wrong…

I doubt there’s anybody in the world who knows less about South Korea than me, so I can only hope this book doesn’t give an entirely realistic picture of life there, especially given it’s the bit of Korea we’re all supposed to like! Part satire and part surreal, this is one of the oddest books I’ve read in a while, and one of the most violent, but the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me totally intrigued and absorbed. It reminded me a little of Haruki Murakami, in that the world seems almost real but a little off-kilter – not quite the world we live in but close. However, unlike Murakami, there’s no overt fantasy or supernatural element to it. It’s told in the third person (past tense), but exclusively from Reseng’s point of view, so everything we see is filtered through his clearly abnormal outlook.

Reseng was taken in as a child by Old Raccoon to live in the library which provides cover for the real business of assassins for hire. With no formal education, he has picked up everything he knows from the books on the library shelves, so is full of little snippets of information but has no grounding in normal life. Brought up to be an assassin, he sometimes wishes he could do something else but when it comes to the bit, he acts without remorse, though occasionally with a passing pity for his victims. Oddly, he feels like a rather sympathetic character despite this, with just enough ambiguity about his morality to keep the reader more or less on his side. He seems to be a symptom of the problems in this society rather than the cause.

Basically, this is a tale of turf wars among the assassins, and we are restricted to their small subset of society. When Reseng carries out a contract, he doesn’t know the reason the victim is to be killed or who wants the job done. The plotters are the middlemen – someone who wants a person killed hires a plotter, who plans the details and then in turn hires an assassin to carry it out. Assassins are expendable and have a short life-expectancy, and they all accept this. But when assassins begin to be killed by competitors, this seems to go against the code and things get personal. Plus assassins aren’t quite so easy to kill as ordinary victims. And then things get more complicated when Reseng becomes the target of a woman who seems to have an agenda of her own…

Un-Su Kim

The satire element seems to be saying that the major difference between the old dictatorship and the new democracy is merely the need to do the same old dirty deeds secretly rather than openly. It also pokes a little fun at modern business methods creeping into a profession that is as old as time. There’s a surprising amount of humour in it, and the violence, while frequent and extreme, is largely kept this side of graphic and has an almost cartoonish quality to it, or maybe a stylised feel like the violence in a Tarantino film. And Reseng’s naivety about the world beyond the business has an unexpectedly endearing quality – I found myself hoping for some kind of redemption for him.

The translator, Sora Kim-Russell, deserves special mention – the translation is smooth and seamless, never jarring, and allows the excellence of the writing to come through. I could easily have forgotten it was a translation, which is the best praise any translator can earn.

I’m not sure if I’ve made this sound as appealing as it deserves. I found it compulsively readable and, despite the apparent bleakness of the subject matter, full of humour and emotional warmth. I highly recommend it as something different from the usual run of things – well written, well plotted and ultimately strangely satisfying.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate.

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Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The evolution of the rippling bicep…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lord Greystoke and his young wife Lady Alice are on their way to take up a new colonial appointment in Africa when the crew of the ship they are on mutiny. The mutineers drop their passengers off on a wild coast, far from civilised habitation, but close to the jungle. For a while they survive, long enough for Lady Alice to bear the son she was already carrying. But when disaster strikes, leaving the baby all alone in the world, he is adopted by a tribe of apes and grows up learning their ways, unaware of his own heritage. However, when he discovers the hut his parents built and all their belongings including their books, he realises he is different from the other apes. And then more white people are marooned in the same place by another bunch of mutineers, and he sees the lovely Jane…

Johnny Weissmuller played the role many times…

Basically, this is simply a romping adventure story that is as enjoyable now as when it took the reading public’s imagination by storm back in 1912, when it was first published in the pulp magazine The All-Story. There’s something about the way Burroughs tells stories that makes them great fun despite all the many ways he transgresses modern sensibilities. It’s a sort of innocent charm – I feel sure he’d be amazed and appalled if he thought he’d offended anyone. He so truly believes that white Anglo-Saxons are the pinnacle of evolution and that women will forgive any little character flaws (like cannibalism, for example) so long as a man has rippling biceps and the ability to fight apes single-handed. (Both jolly good attributes in a man, I admit – I wonder if Rafa fights apes…)

Evolution was still a relatively new idea when Burroughs was writing this, and many authors were exploring the subject in different ways. Burroughs’ ideas may seem pretty shocking to us now, but they were fairly mainstream at the time. He shows a kind of pyramid of evolution starting with real apes that we would recognise as such. Then there’s the tribe that adopt Tarzan, who are a kind of link between ape and man, with the beginnings of a verbal language and some basic forms of ritual, such as…

the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.
….From this primitive function has arisen, unquestionably, all the forms and ceremonials of modern church and state, for through all the countless ages, back beyond the last, uttermost ramparts of a dawning humanity our fierce, hairy forebears danced out the rites of the Dum-Dum to the sound of their earthen drums, beneath the bright light of a tropical moon in the depth of a mighty jungle which stands unchanged today as it stood on that long forgotten night in the dim, unthinkable vistas of the long dead past when our first shaggy ancestor swung from a swaying bough and dropped lightly upon the soft turf of the first meeting place.

Burroughs’ depiction of the ape society is great – he humanises the apes just enough so that we see them as individuals and like or dislike them accordingly, but he ensures that even the “good” ones never stop being wild, brutal beasts. I found them utterly believable as a type of proto-human.

Next on the ladder are the black “savages”, along with Jane’s black maid. Oh dear, this is where you have to keep reminding yourself that it was the times! The maid is the traditional figure of fun – the black mammy who continued to appear in American culture well into the ‘50s, or maybe even later, so poor old Burroughs can’t be condemned too harshly. The savages – well, it’s not so much their savage lifestyle that’s the problem; many writers from Kipling to Conrad via Rider Haggard et al have depicted the indigenous African tribes just as problematically to modern eyes. It’s more the suggestion that they’re actually another link in the evolutionary chain – less intelligent, less resourceful, a lower form of life altogether than the white man.

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Tarzan is the zenith of the evolutionary heap. Not only is he a perfect physical specimen of rampant manhood, but he’s so intelligent he actually manages to teach himself to read and write without ever having heard a human speak. But also his prime pedigree as an English aristocrat can’t be hidden for long…

…and so he rose, and taking the locket in his hand, stooped gravely like some courtier of old, and pressed his lips upon it where hers had rested.
….It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.

Christopher Lambert in the 1984 movie version, Greystoke

It goes without saying that women aren’t quite so evolved, though obviously white women outrank black women. But frankly, girls, when you have Tarzan looking out for you, how evolved do you need to be?

….Jane Porter – her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration – watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman – for her.
….As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

The racist and sexist aspects are so overblown and unintentional that personally I found them hilarious rather than offensive. And while many aspects of the story are a bit ridiculous if you stop to analyse them too deeply, it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun. Highly recommended!

* * * * *

(I reckon Rafa should play Tarzan in the next film. I shall of course be auditioning for Jane…)

….He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses.
….For a moment FictionFan Jane Porter lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment – the first in her young life – she knew the meaning of love.

Ooh, I say!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Folklore and gothic horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1857, and Audrey Hart has arrived on the Isle of Skye to assist an elderly lady, Miss Buchanan, to collect the old folktales before they are lost forever. The issue has become urgent because the Highland Clearances are underway, with landowners driving people out of their homes and crofts to make way for more profitable use of the land. With communities being broken, the old traditions are disappearing fast and with them the stories that have been passed down through the generations. But Audrey has another reason for going to Skye too – she spent some time there as a child with her beloved mother, who died on the island when Audrey was still very young. When young girls begin to go missing, the crofting folk believe it’s the work of the fairies. Suddenly Audrey finds herself caught up in a mystery full of folklore and gothic horror…

It took me a long time to get into this book, largely because I’m not an enthusiast for fairy and folk tales, and they play a big part in the story. Audrey is initially sceptical but seems very easily won over to the crofters beliefs, which made my inner cynic curl her lip and sneer a little, I’m afraid. However, the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me turning pages and gradually I found myself becoming absorbed. Audrey is torn – part of her is increasingly falling under the sway of the supernatural explanation, but her more rational side is still wondering if the reason for the girls’ disappearances might have more to do with humans than fairies.

Mazzola shows the cruelty of the Clearances well, although (and I could easily be wrong here) I felt her portrayal of the crofters as being still quite so steeped in superstition at this relatively late date might be a little anachronistic. It was as if they felt that everything that happened was down to the intervention of the fairy folk – no consideration was given to any other possible cause. The fairies here are of the evil kind and the folk stories tell of changelings and stolen children, and cruel punishments for those who don’t show proper respect to them.

Anna Mazzola

Anachronistic or not, though, Mazzola gradually builds up an excellent atmosphere of growing horror, and Audrey’s descent towards an insanity born of fear is very well done. There are lots of nice Gothic touches – a big old house with empty wings and rooms shrouded in dust-covers, strange noises and tunnels, dark nights and graveyards, and mysteriously threatening flocks of birds appearing at unexpected moments. The islanders are initially hostile towards Audrey, seeing her as connected to the landowners who are behaving so cruelly towards them. Since she has cut herself off from her family, Audrey finds herself isolated and alone, dependent on the goodwill of her employer. Mazzola uses this to show the still subordinate and precarious position of women without means of their own, and we gradually learn of the circumstances that have driven Audrey to leave the home that may not have offered her much in the way of love but at least gave her security from poverty.

By the time I got to the second half I was fully caught up in wanting to see how it would all be resolved. I had a pretty good idea of who were the goodies and baddies so the suspense really came from how it would be played out, and I found the ending quite satisfying. Considering all the folklore stuff isn’t really to my taste, Mazzola did an excellent job of gaining and keeping my interest and I’ll be interested to read more from her in the future.

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

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