The Bad Place ~ M K Hill

Twenty-six years ago six children were taken, only five came back. One of them, Becky Haskell, was cruelly murdered by their abductor, Jerry Swann, who was then shot dead by an armed police officer.  Present was a young WPC, Sasha Chancellor, who in her first week on the job dared to challenge decisions made by the officer in command, Peter Carrington, a hard drinking DI who would later be drummed off the force for the mistakes he made during the investigation. Now, married and with a troubled family situation, DI Sasha Dawson finds herself investigating the abduction of another child, Sammi Manning, a teenager who turns out to have a connection with one of the five original survivors.

For twenty-six years, Karin, Lydia, Michelle, Simon and Paul have gathered on the anniversary of Becky’s death to remember their lost friend. None of them has ever truly recovered from their ordeal and you sense that these meetings are more of a penance than a help.  When Sammi is taken their fragile lives come under scrutiny again from both the police and the media and it becomes apparent that someone is manipulating their weaknesses to draw attention to the original case and point the finger of blame for Becky’s death at one of them.

Struggling with a family situation which requires a firmer hand and far more time than she has to give, Dawson finds herself being repeatedly distracted from the main inquiry by the crimes that some of the original five have been drawn into and which come to light as attention is once more focused on their actions.  With both the public and the press on her back, when a second child is taken she is lucky to have the support not only of a strong team, DS Ajay de Vaz, DC Lolly Chambers and DC Craig Power, but also in DCI Vaughn (don’t mention the Claude) a more humane boss than most fictional DIs seem to possess.

Supportive though her team are, however, when a third child is taken Sasha is forced to go off the grid and face the abductor accompanied only by Karin McCarthy who, it gradually becomes apparent, knows more about why it was that Becky alone failed to survive the original ordeal than she has been admitting and who is now very much the focus of the new kidnapper’s attention.

Hill’s book has been very well reviewed and rightly so.  For a first novel it catches the attention in terms of both plot and character far better than many other initial episodes of crime series that I can think of.  I shall certainly by looking out for whatever comes next.  However, I hope that future books will come to the public better edited than this.  The first time we meet Sasha I got totally confused because in my copy her encounter with Carrington reads:

‘What’s your name?’

‘Chancellor, sir’. She swallowed. ‘WPC Chancellor’.

‘I like your attitude, Dawson, very admirable’.

Why does the DI’s attention suddenly turn from Chancellor to someone called Dawson?  I’m not yet far enough into the book to know that this will become Sasha’s married name and Carrington is definitely too drunk to be credited with miraculous prescience.  Very confusing.

And then there is Craig Power.  I think he’s a DC, but I’m not sure because at least half a dozen times he is referred to as Sergeant or DS. This is pure carelessness and Hill deserves better.   However, you’re all sick of my jumping up on my poor editing soapbox, I’m sure and if police procedurals are your ‘thing’ don’t let such slips put you off and do add Hill to your reading list.  I think he’s going to be worth following.


Café Conversation ~ Sunday September 15th 2019

What do you do when a book you have really been looking forward to not only fails to live up to expectations but also leaves a sour taste in your mouth?  This is the situation I find myself in this weekend.  The offending item?  Kate Atkinson’s latest Brodie Jackson novel, Big Sky.  In fact, the book is, at the moment, sitting on my small side table only one third read, because I can’t bring myself to go any further with it.  I normally love Atkinson’s work (although, to be fair, I wasn’t overly impressed by Transcription) but in this case I am deeply troubled by the subject matter she has chosen to work with.

Now, to be clear, it isn’t the generality of the subject matter. A hundred odd pages in it is apparent that she is concerned with the truly shocking cases of sexual abuse brought to light in the past decade, which have been perpetrated by people in positions of power.  I have absolutely no problem with what is a scourge on our society being challenged through fiction.  Indeed, one of the best crime novels I have read in recent years, Isabelle Grey’s The Special Girls, did precisely that.  But, as far as I am aware the case around which Grey centred her story was entirely fictional, focused, as it was, on a specialist working with young women with eating disorders.  Atkinson, on the other hand, has only very lightly fictionalised a real situation.  I don’t think she has actually named the resort, but there is only one town on the North Yorkshire coast between Whitby and Filey with a North and South Bay.  Couple that with the fact that she has given the historical perpetrators names which are very similar to those of two local men accused of involvement in such crimes and exactly the same positions in the town’s economy and for me, at least, she is walking too fine a line.  Perhaps I feel more strongly about this than other readers might because my family had business dealings with both men and also knew people who had made complaints which were then ignored by the powers that be, in some cases for decades.  Maybe it is too close to home.  But, if I feel that way about the book, how is anyone who is still struggling with far worse memories going to feel?  For me, this is a mis-step on Atkinson’s part and one which could so easily have been avoided by altering just a few of the more specific details.

So, I turned instead to Ben Aaronovitch’s latest Rivers of London outing. Although in this case, it is more like the Rivers of Germany as The October Man is set in the wine growing region of that country and features an entirely new set of characters.  It is advertised as a novella positioned between last year’s Lies Sleeping and the forthcoming False Value which, according to advance publicity, has, like the previous novels, the familiar Peter Grant as main protagonist. Consequently, I’m wondering if, now that the Faceless Man has been finally dealt with, this book is working as an introduction for a new storyline, one which will pick up on Nightingale’s experiences during World War II, which so far have only been sketchily hinted at.  To be honest, I can’t see the point otherwise.  Oh dear, I’m not having a good weekend, am I?

The Last Detective ~ Peter Lovesey

I have recently been given a monthly book subscription as a gift.  I look on these as something of a two-edged sword.  It’s lovely to have a ‘free’ book dropping through the letter box each month but, however much information you provide the bookseller with, there are still times when opening the parcel leads, either immediately or subsequently, to a disappointment.  The first book I received, in August, fell into the former category, it was one I had already read, although I didn’t own it and wasn’t averse to reading it again. When I opened September’s parcel it was to reveal the first in Peter Lovesey’s series about DS Peter Diamond, The Last Detective, and I have to say that for some time I thought it was going to fall into the latter.

As most of my reader friends and acquaintances well know, I am more than happy to be introduced to a new (to me) police procedural series and a quick check on the Fantastic Fiction site showed me that if I enjoyed this there were another seventeen titles available, so I set about the book pretty much as soon as it arrived. Having just finished it, I have to say that I am in two minds as to whether or not I shall read any more.  Perhaps writing about this first instalment will help me decide.

I call the main character DS Peter Diamond, but in fact, circumstances force him to resign part way through the story, so I have no way of knowing whether or not he will ever resume his role within the official ranks of law and order. The case that leads to his departure begins with the discovery of a woman’s body which has clearly been floating for some time in a lake near Bath, where the novel is set.  Because of its condition identifying who the victim is takes time, especially as numerous callers ID her as a character in a soap opera. However, those callers are not so far wrong as the body turns out to be that of one Geraldine Jackman née Snoo, the actress who played the role and wife of Peter Jackman, an English Literature professor at the local university. Jackman has already achieved some local ‘notoriety’ both as a result of his rescue of twelve year old Matthew Didrikson from the weir near Pulteney Bridge and because of an exhibition about Jane Austen staged at the Assembly Rooms. When Diamond and his colleagues start to look into the troubled circumstances of the couple’s marriage it seems as if he is going to become even more notorious because he immediately becomes the chief suspect. However, a rock solid alibi forces the police to look elsewhere and attention turns to Matthew’s mother, Dana, whose gratitude, it is suggested, has turned into stronger feelings and who has already had a number of run-ins with Geraldine, an unstable woman at the best of times.

Written and set in 1991, the novel very much reflects the changes that police investigations were undergoing at the time.  Computers and new forensic techniques, such as genetic fingerprinting, are beginning to play a large part in any inquiry and Diamond, a copper of the old school, resents this and isn’t slow to make his displeasure apparent.  He treats those who think differently from him with disdain and this was my main problem with the book: I really didn’t want to spend time with someone I initially saw as inherently unlikeable.  Removed from a position of power, his tendency to bully and browbeat those around him is inevitably diminished and once he had resigned from the force I found I was getting on better with him. If I do read on in the series it will be to discover how Lovesey, whose most recent Diamond novel was published earlier this year, has set about bringing this curmudgeon forward almost thirty years.  If he found the technology of the early 1990s difficult how much more so must that be the case now?  I suspect that what I will find is that time has not flowed quite as fast for the ex-policeman as it has for the rest of us.

Ultimately, this wasn’t a bad read and the bookseller’s choice has certainly introduced me to an author I might not otherwise have considered.  I have to say, though, that I am hoping for a more successful surprise when October’s book sails through the letterbox.


Nothing To Hide ~ James Oswald

Nothing To Hide is the second book in James Oswald’s new series featuring DC Con Fairchild.  When we first met Con in her previous outing, No Time To Cry, she was a member of the Met’s undercover squad fighting to clear her name after the murder of her boss, Pete Copperthwaite.  Now, technically innocent, although still responsible in the eyes of many of her colleagues, Con has returned to London after spending time in the Highlands, to await reinstatement and reassignment.  Coming back to her flat one evening she notices a movement near the dustbins and upon investigation discovers a seriously injured young man.  Calling the incident in brings her into the sphere of DCI Bain, in charge of an NCA investigation into a series of murders where the victims have died as a result of having had certain organs, including the heart, removed.  (Various other bits have gone as well, but you might be male and you might be eating and I wouldn’t want to upset you.) While Con would love to be involved she is still pretty much persona non grata and to make matters worse, with the trial of Roger DeVilliers (the villain of the previous piece) coming up, she is being hounded by the press.  Filling in time and reacquainting herself with the local situation she becomes aware of the existence of a group of young people claiming to be from an organisation called The Church of the Coming Light.   They appear to be concerning themselves with drug addicts but at the same time give off that air of menace with which anyone who has been cornered by a cult convert will be familiar.

Desperate to get away from the press attention, Con takes herself first to her ancestral home (being Lady Constance doesn’t help with press or colleagues) and then North to Edinburgh to visit the mother of the young man she found so seriously injured.  There she stays with a family friend, a ‘woman’ who also turned up in the previous book, one Madame Rose, and suddenly all long-standing Oswald fans find themselves on familiar, even comforting territory, we all know that if Rose is around everything will eventually be all right. When Con then proceeds to find herself involved with DC Janie Harrison, forensic expert Manda Parsons and, best of all, Grumpy Bob, somehow the air lightens, even though it is becoming increasingly obvious that the killings the NCA are investigating are tied up with the sort of ritual evil that we have become accustomed to in Oswald’s Edinburgh centred novels and that it is possible that Con’s mother is in thrall to the leader of the cult responsible.

Like all Oswald’s novels Nothing to Hide explores the idea that evil exists not just in the hearts of those who commit crimes of murder, torture and mutilation but as a sentient entity capable of manifesting itself in human form and then manipulating those around it who seek power and are willing to get it at any price.  Although this is publicised as a separate series it is clear from both the subject matter and the gradual introduction of characters from the Tony McLean mysteries that all that is really happening is that Oswald is widening the landscape for his story-telling and the fact that the novel ends with Con joining the NCA (National Crime Agency), with it’s wider geographical remit, simply reinforces this.

Fans of the earlier series need have no worries that the author has abandoned his Edinburgh based characters; there is a new McLean novel advertised for February. Neither should they shy away from these new works.  The Fairchild books are every bit as well written and well plotted as their northern counterparts and if this means that we are going to get two Oswald novels a year in future, I, for one, will rejoice.

Café Conversation ~ September 1st

Somehow, I seem to have lost my blogging mojo for the moment.  I suspect that as much as anything this is to do with the time of year.  I apologise to all my on-line friends who are having to face going back to work tomorrow with the beginning of the new academic term, but I am really glad to see the back of August, which is never a good month for me.  Writing September at the top of this post is truly a relief.  My own limited teaching starts again on Friday, I have two book groups this week and the steady routine that my Aspie self needs is about to be re-established. Hallelujah!

This year I will be running five book groups.  This isn’t as restrictive as it might sound. Only two of them are the type of group where we discuss a book we have all read. The other three are what I call Readers Groups, where we meet to talk about what we are currently reading and to swap ideas for the next month.  Four of these groups have been established for various lengths of time, but the fifth is having its first meeting in just under three weeks.  I wasn’t looking to add another to the ‘portfolio’ but the library came to me and asked if I would do an afternoon group as they were becoming aware of just how little they offered for adults during the day.  There’s plenty for the under fives, but nothing really beyond that.

So, what do I have to talk about tomorrow, at the first of these meetings?  Well, several of the group were at the Summer School, so I shall leave it to them to discuss the novels we read there.  During the past week as well as recapping Cressida Connolly’s After The Party for one of the discussion groups, I’ve also read the new Louise Penny Gamache novel, A Better Man and Naomi Wood’s latest book, The Hiding Game.  I’m not sure about the Penny.  I certainly don’t think it’s one of the better novels in the Gamache sequence.  It reads to me like a bridge between what many readers assumed would be the final book in the series and a way forward without Gamache’s righthand man and son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, in the picture.  Perhaps I was too tired last week to appreciate it, but it definitely came as a disappointment.  The Hiding Game, on the other hand, is a much better book, although again I think I might need to come back to it and re-read it to truly appreciate what the author is exploring. In recognition of the fact that it is the centenary of the establishment of the Bauhaus, Wood begins her novel in the early years of that art school and focuses on the relationships between six of the students during the next decade.  In particular, she is concerned with the triangle of Paul (the narrator), Charlotte, a Czechoslovak national, and Walter, destabilised by his love for a man who cannot return it.  Ultimately, I think what the writer is concerned with is the difficulty we have in seeing objects, people, situations, actions in a new or unusual way and how easy it is, as a result, to misread events and respond in a totally unwarranted manner.  However, I found that I didn’t know as much about this period in Germany’s history as I thought I did and so kept going back and forth to fill in the gaps and especially to explore the paintings that Wood kept referencing. I can see me putting this onto one or other of the discussion group lists just to give myself an excuse to read it for a second time.

Where September’s reading is concerning I am trying not to think too far ahead.  My next discussion group novel is Aminatta Forna’s most recent book, Happiness.  I haven’t read anything by her, so I have no idea what to expect. I’ve also got the latest James Oswald, Nothing to Hide, sitting in the bookshelf and I shall almost certainly read that next, once I’ve finished re-reading Tightrope, Simon Mawer’s sequel to the Summer School selection, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky.  I had wanted to read this before we discussed the earlier book but it took four weeks to get transferred to our branch from a library only ten miles away.  After it had been in transit for two weeks I went in and asked if it was actually walking, after three I suggested it might have lost its map and that we should send out a search party, after four I don’t know who was more surprised, me or the library staff, when it actually turned up. Goodness only knows where it has been.  I can only say that the book itself is not talking.

Café Conversation ~ August 25th

Well, that’s the Summer School over for another year.  In some ways I think it was probably the best ever, although it was also the most tiring ever too.  When I came home on Friday evening I was more exhausted than I can remember being in a long time.  Fortunately, I now have a week with almost nothing in the diary, by accident rather than intent, so I can put my feet up and for the first few days, at least, read what I want to rather than what I need to.  I do have a book group meeting to prepare for a week on Monday, but it’s a re-read and I’m not leading the discussion so a quick skim will probably suffice.

I think the reason the Summer School went so well this year was because both the subjects and the themes that the books dealt with were all so closely integrated. Some years the novels have been much more loosely linked, say with just the setting being the same, but the three texts we discussed this year were all to do with the victims of war, justice and narrative truth and so by Friday we were tossing around ideas that came from all of them and conversation got very deep indeed.  It’s going to be a hard act to follow next year.

Now I’m looking forward to getting back to reading through the pile of books that have amassed while I’ve been so singularly focused.  Each of the Summer School novels was part of a series and so I felt obliged to read much more widely than usual in order to be able to fill in necessary background.  I don’t seem to have had a free choice of what I picked up since the middle of July.  I had a trip to Oxford (for Oxford read Blackwells) a couple of weeks ago and came back with Anna Hope’s Expectation and Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game, so both of those are near the top of the list.  I also have a copy of the new Louise Penny Gamache novel, A Better Man, from which, very resolutely, I have been turning my eyes for the past three weeks.  Such fortitude deserves to be rewarded, so I shall probably start there.

Preparing For Summer School

Tomorrow sees the start of this year’s Summer School and we will be reading and discussing three novels grouped together under the title Paying the Price.  The books, A Whispered Name by William Brodrick, Rennie Airth’s The Reckoning and The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer all clearly share a wartime theme but they have other features in common too and when I kick things off at the start of our first meeting I shall want to draw attention to those as well as pointing out differences in the way in which war is treated. Coincidentally, I came across an essay, The Literary Response to the Second World War by Damon Marcel Decoste, in which he argues that literary responses to the two major conflicts of the Twentieth Century, both those contemporaneous and those written retrospectively, take contrasting approaches.  Put crudely, those which describe the actions of the First World War tend to concentrate on what we might loosely call ‘the pity’ of the situations in which combatants on all sides found themselves, while those which take the Second World War as their subject are more likely to focus on the lack of preparedness of a world which really should have seen it coming.

Of the three books chosen the first, A Whispered Name, is solely concerned with events that took place between 1914 and 1918 and, I think, falls neatly within the parameters of DeCoste’s argument.  Airth’s novel deals with the aftermath of both wars and, with its emphasis on the long term damage suffered by those who fought in either conflict, for me is still focused on the ‘pity’. However, Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is not so neatly pigeonholed. Personally, I don’t feel that the author is taking any particular moral standpoint in the way he writes about the events that overtake his heroine, Marion Sutro.  Perhaps distance has lessened the satirical edge that characterised novels written in the years immediately after World War II. Perhaps others attending the School will think differently.

The concentration on wartime events is not the only feature these three novels share.  Each of the books also draws our attention to what I like to call the uncertainty principle as it applies to narrative.  As Mawer comments

as with so many matters, the full story is complicated and appears different depending on how you look at it.

A narrative is a recounting of events inevitably given a personal spin by the individual  doing the recounting.  Either deliberately or through no fault of their own that person may omit events, misinterpret them or even falsify them.  And that is before we come to the whole question of the influence of choices to do with such things as tense, person and vocabulary choices.  In the first two novels, both of which are generically classified as crime fiction, the main protagonists start from a position of relative ignorance and have to repeatedly attempt to reconstruct a narrative that accurately reflects the original events.  Both emphasise how difficult it is to come to an understanding of what occurred and how the narratives we tell are influenced by what we believe/want to believe the truth is.  Mawer’s book is more concerned with the creation of a narrative as Marion Sutro develops the legend behind which she will hide as an SOE agent in France.  But, if everyone is dissembling and has been trained to do it well, then how do you know who you can trust?  And how easy is it to live according to a personal narrative that bears little resemblance to the truth of who you really are?

I am sure that as the week develops other commonalities will emerge and if I have the time then I will report back.  It might, however, have to be an overall round up at the end of the week.  If any of you know the books and have any points that you would like to make the do leave a comment and I will feed your views (duly acknowledged) into our discussions.


Between Silk and Cyanide ~ Leo Marks

When in 1969 Helene Hanff finally managed to get to London her beloved bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, had closed.  However, as she recalls in her memoir, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, waiting for her at her publishers was a letter from a man I never knew existed.

Dear Miss Hanff,

I am the son of the late Ben Marks of Marks & Co. and want you to know how delighted I am that you are here, and how very much my wife and I would like you to dine with us.

I do not know where you are staying so could you please ring me at the above telephone numbers? The second one is an answering service and any message left there will reach me.

We are both looking forward to meeting you.


Leo Marks

The Leo Marks that Hanff then goes on to describe is a writer best known for the script of the 1960 film Peeping Tom and for a number of plays that appeared in the West End.  Not once, in either this or in subsequent books, does she mention his wartime role as the man who completely restructured the codes used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents sent into Occupied Europe and further afield between 1942 and the end of hostilities three years later.  To some extent this silence isn’t surprising.  Given that Between Silk and Cyanide, the book in which Marks records his time with SOE, was not allowed by the powers that be to be published until 1998, despite having been written over fifteen years earlier, in 1969 Marks almost certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to discuss his wartime role. Apart from anything else, he would probably have had more than enough to say about the bloody-minded incompetence of many people still with a finger in the pie of government to put several cats among a whole flock-load of pigeons.

Having been fascinated by codes since the age of eight after he cracked the one used by his father to indicate what 84 had paid for a book, when he is called for war service he applies to work as a cryptographer.  Rejected by Bletchley Park, (who later recognise him as the one that got away) he finds himself installed with SOE training FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) to decrypt those messages that have been garbled in transmission.  If the wireless operators in Occupied Europe have to be asked to repeat a message then there is a far greater chance of their being captured and so the decryption of indecipherables is a unit priority.  Marks is horrified by the codes that the agents are being asked to use.  Based on a poem chosen by each individual agent anyone intercepting a message and working out key words has only to flick through a volume of best loved poetry to gain access to the code and thus read any future messages sent by that particular agent.  Consequently he devises a number of more secure codes, one of which involved a series of non-repeating keys printed on silk for ease of concealment.  Hence the book’s title: he saw the executive’s choice as being between providing either the silks or cyanide.  In fact, each of the agents did carry a cyanide table with them and despite Mark’s best efforts too many had to resort to using them.

Ultimately it became clear that agents would still have to have a named poem that they could use if their silks, and later their ‘one time pads’, were not immediately available to them and so Marks and his decoders set about writing original and often scurrilous verses that would be difficult to predict. The most famous of these is the one that Marks wrote after the death of a woman he had hoped to marry and which he later gave to Violette Szabo, the agent whose story is told in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.  

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Szabo was eventually executed in Ravensbrück in 1945.

Three things scream out from the pages of this book.  The first is the incredible bravery of the men and women who risked, and all too often lost, their lives in an attempt to free their homelands from occupation.  The second, the devotion to duty of the (mostly) women who struggled to decode the messages sent back, sometimes at the eight or nine thousandth attempt. And the third, the sheer stupidity and egotistical search for power of many of the people who commanded them.  Why Britain was not overrun in the early 1940s is beyond me.  The ordinary people may have been pulling together, but those at the top were definitely not.  I can only assume that the same was true of the German High Command and that one set of narcissistic idiots cancelled the other out.

Re-reading this book in preparation for the Summer School it seems clear to me that Leo Marks had Asperger’s and at quite a high level too.  Not only is this apparent in his fascination with codes but also in what we learn of his relationships and in his style of writing.  He assumes his reader is going to be able to follow all the minute detail he includes about the way in which the codes work and even though I am minded in much the same way as he was, I soon recognised that I didn’t need all the information he was giving me to get the gist of what was really important.  If you decide to read the book don’t be put off by all the coding information; you can manage perfectly well without it. And I would strongly recommend that you do read it.  The sacrifices of the SOE agents and those who supported them in the U.K. and elsewhere, deserve to be commemorated in the minds and hearts of those who came after.  And, as book lovers you will also relish all the mentions of 84 Charing Cross Road, the shop that Leo was intended to take over from his father and a place that he loved with a passion that Helene Hanff was replicate a decade or so later.

WWW Wednesday ~ July 31st 2019



WWW Wednesday is hosted by Taking on a World of Words

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading

Almost everything I’m reading at the moment is a re-read in preparation for either the Summer School or for one of the five book groups I now find myself leading.  Thank goodness three of these are groups organised very much like this meme, in as much as we talk about what we have just read and are intending to go on to read so no specified  texts are involved.  With a new library group starting in September, I’ve just put up a second blog site where I can record those books recommended at each meeting to encourage what might be called cross-fertilisation.  If you’re interested you can find it here. For the groups where we discuss a particular book, however, I am re-reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.  I normally love Barker’s work and I was intrigued by her stated subject matter: the Trojan War as seen from the point of view of the women involved.  First time round, however, I was very much underwhelmed by the novel.  I thought that those passages that were focused on the men came to life and involved me as a reader so much better than those from the women’s point of view.  I am going to be interested to see if I have the same reaction on a second reading and also how the rest of the group respond. We had a very positive discussion on Madeline Miller’s Circe a couple of months ago and inevitably comparisons are going to be drawn.

Recently Finished

Putting aside my re-reads, the most recent book I’ve finished is Stone Cold Heart, Caz Frear’s second novel in her series featuring DC Cat Kinsella. The first book, Sweet Little Lies, won the Richard and Judy search for a best seller competition and deservedly so, in my opinion.  Frear not only plots well – a must for genre fiction – but she also creates well-defined, believable characters and has a real feel for the rhythm of language.  The first book centred around a murder that proved to have links to Cat’s own family and as a result of her covering this up, her own career prospects are over shadowed by the possibility of her father’s criminal associates revealing her personal involvement.  This threat is very peripheral in Stone Cold Heart, which more centrally is concerned with the murder of a young Australian woman working in London as a PA to one Kirstie Connor, a woman whose family all ring alarm bells when the police start to investigate.  Chief suspect, however, is Kirstie’s brother-in-law, Joseph Madden, a man you really, really want to be guilty.  A complete narcissist, who believes the world owes him whatever and whomever he wants, there is ample evidence that Joseph can turn very very nasty when his demands aren’t met.  But the contradictions in his wife, Rachel’s, behaviour hamper the police as they try to build a case against him and when their eighteen year old daughter, Clara, also proves to have been lying, Kinsella and her colleagues, DS Parnell and the formidable but likeable, DCI Steele, have their work cut out to finally bring about a resolution.

Frear is definitely a writer to be watched.  I would put her up there with the likes of Jane Casey and Sarah Ward, which is high praise indeed.

Reading Next

The re-reading will continue, I’m afraid.  Thank goodness they are all such good books.  This week I have Simon Mawer’s Tightrope on my list and by the beginning of next week I want to be well into Leo Marks’ From Silk to Cyanide. Both of these are in preparation for our discussion focused on Mawer’s earlier novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, about a young woman, Marian Sutro, who served with the Special Operations Executive during World War II. Tightrope is a continuation of Marian’s story.  I hope those taking part in the Summer School don’t actually discover that this exists, as the earlier book ends on something of a cliff hanger which could be spoiled by knowing that there is a sequel.  From Silk to Cyanide is a factual account of what those young men and women went through, written from the point of view of someone who devised the codes by which they were able to send messages back to the UK.  Some of you may have ‘met’ Leo Marks through the pages of Helene Hanff’s accounts of her time spent in London. He was the son of one of the proprietors of the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road and he and his wife became great friends of the American writer.  Hanff portrays him as something of a dreamer, almost a bumbling P G Wodehouse type of character. There is no indication of the vital work that he carried out during the war nor of the suffering that he endured as agent after agent failed to return. You meet a very different man in his own book.

If I have time, as something of a light relief, I hope to get round to James Oswald’s latest book in his new crime series featuring Constance Fairchild, Nothing to Hide.  I’m a great fan of Oswald’s Tony McLean novels and the Fairchild stories, set in London rather then Edinburgh, are shaping up to be every bit as good. In the first there was one rather unexpected cross over character and so I’m intrigued to see if there is going to be any further interaction between the author’s two worlds.


Catching Up – Again!

I’m afraid I have been severely negligent of both my own blog and those of all my friends during the past couple of weeks.  Once again I have what I consider to be the excellent, if unwelcome, excuse of further dental surgery.  In the first stage towards correcting the damage that was (necessarily) done back in April, last week I had a bone graft and a pin inserted into my jaw.  This was every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds and not to be recommended as a recreational pastime.  My distress was only added to by the fact that the surgery was scheduled for the week after Wimbledon. I couldn’t even comfort myself by curling up and watching tennis all day long.  What I have been doing instead is blitzing on a re-read of the earlier books in the series from which two of the Summer School novels are taken so that, if necessary, I can fill in on back story.

The Rennie Airth novels are relatively straight forward.  So far I’ve re-read the first two in his series featuring John Madden, River of Darkness and The Blood-Dimmed Tide. In the first, set just after the Great War, Madden is still in the police force, but in the second, ten years on, he has been persuaded by his wife, Helen, to retire and go back to his farming roots, and is only caught up in the investigation when a local girl goes missing.  If memory serves me correctly, in the next two he continues to ‘flirt’ with the service in investigations which span the years on either side of the Second World War.  I chose the fourth book, The Reckoning, for the Summer School because it raises issues to do both with those men who were shot as deserters between 1914 and 1918 and with the women who served in the SOE in the later conflict and thus acted as a bridge between the other two novels.  What I had forgotten, however, is the extent to which Airth is concerned with the terrible psychological damage done to those men who came back from the First World War. In both these early books it is the prime motivating force behind the crimes that are committed, so I shall be interested to see if that is the same in The Dead of Winter when I get round to it at the end of the week.  Sometimes a concentrated re-read like this can throw up links between books that you wouldn’t necessarily notice just reading them as they are published.

William Broderick’s early novels, The Sixth Lamentation and The Gardens of the Dead also share certain characteristics, although in this case it is more to do with structure and style than with thematic content.  Brodrick writes beautiful prose.  I moved from the first of these to a novel by a much better known crime writer and very nearly threw their book away in disgust, so pedestrian did the language seem after The Sixth Lamentation.  From that point of view reading Brodrick is easy, but goodness do you have to keep your wits about you where the intricacies of the plot are concerned. Nothing is straightforward in a Brodrick novel and no one is what they seem on first meeting.  It works well enough in the earlier book, which was highly praised when it first appeared – one of those books that everyone was reading – but I found The Gardens of the The Dead a less satisfactory read when it was published and I felt the same about it this time round.  It may be to do with the fact that other than Father Anselm (the main ‘investigator’) I really couldn’t summon up sufficient interest in any of the characters to care what happened to them. Fortunately, A Whispered Name, complex though it isis even better than The Sixth Lamentation.  I think I had better leave enough time to read it twice, however, if I am going to lead a detailed discussion on it.

The only other book I’ve read over the past couple of weeks has been Tom Rackman’s Costa shortlisted novel, The Italian Teacher.  From the opening chapters you could be forgiven for thinking that the work is about the mid twentieth century artist Bear Bavinsky, so dominating is his presence both in the book and in the life of his wife, Natalie and their son Charles, otherwise known as Pinch, however, what the novel really focuses on is the effect that being Bear’s son has on Pinch, the Italian Teacher of the title.

Bear Bavinsky is a middle rate artist whose works consist of paintings of parts of his numerous muses’ (lovers’/mistresses’) bodies.  He is also a complete monster who believes that he can do whatever he likes, expecting the world to revolve around him regardless of who else is hurt in the process. Why nobody calls him out is beyond me.  He moves from wife to wife, leaving women and children pretty much abandoned around the world with no thought for anyone other than himself.  Even when they are in dire financial need he refuses to help them by selling any of his paintings, which he is determined will only go to museums and art galleries where his greatness can be widely appreciated.  But Bavinsky is no Picasso, and the public institutions don’t particularly want his works.  Their stores are full enough of mediocre art as it is.

The people who suffer most from this are Pinch and his mother, Natalie.  Both of them subjugate their own talents and ambitions to Bear’s demands. Every attempt that Pinch makes to establish himself – as an artist, an academic – his father undermines.  Bear may claim that what he wanted was for his son to push against his criticism and become stronger for it, but in their final confrontation he tells the truth when he shouts:

Do you honestly think I’ll be tagging along to gallery openings of my own kid? Listen to me. Hear this. You work for me. Get it? You always worked for me. … Get this: I win. You hear? I fucking win.

Ultimately, however, Bear does not win and neither does the institution that I take to be the author’s real target, which is the commercial art world itself, with its pretensions and its self-regard.  This was rather apt reading with a new series of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune due to start on Thursday.