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.

 

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.

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.

Sincerely,

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.

Burnt Island ~ Kate Rhodes

Like many readers I first came to Kate Rhodes’ work through her London based novels featuring psychologist, Alice Quentin.  While I enjoyed these in respect of both plot and character development, there was as much pleasure to be gained from her sensitivity to setting.  Already a published poet when Crossbones Yard introduced us to Quentin’s world, Rhodes brought her talents as a wordsmith to bear on the way in which she described the London locations in which the early books in the series were primarily set.  There were times when reading her work was like looking at one of Whistler’s remarkable sketches of the Thames’ waterside.  Latterly, Rhodes has moved her focus to the Scilly Isles, where DI Ben Kitto, newly returned to his home on Bryher after ten years in the Met’s Murder squad, is trying to come to terms with the loss of his partner in undercover work.  Describing the stark beauty of these islands has, if anything, given Rhodes even more scope for her talents and in this, the third book in the series, it is the wild landscape of St Agnes that forms the backdrop for Kitto’s latest investigation.

St Agnes supports a small community, but one which is augmented at certain times of the year both by tourists and visitors from the other islands in the archipelago.  Bonfire night is one of the latter occasions, when islanders from the other Scilly communities come over to St Agnes in order to enjoy both bonfire and fireworks.  However, before the celebrations can begin, the remnants of another fire are discovered and in them the burnt remains of a man.  It transpires that the body is that of Alex Rogan, an incomer  married to one of the island women, who is now pregnant with their first child.  A Professor of Astronomy, Rogan was drawn to the islands because of the purity of their night skies and to St Agnes in particular, where he hoped to set up an observatory that would allow both important observations to be made while encouraging visitors to an island struggling to keep its economy afloat.  At first, despite his Sargent’s reservations, Kitto’s suspicions centre on Jimmy Curwen, a local man suffering from severe psychological damage following a childhood trauma, who is only really happy when surrounded by the island’s wild life.  However, a series of threatening messages, written in the little used Cornish language, suggest that whoever is behind the attack is targeting incomers in an attempt to keep the island as it has always been and fighting against any change.

The threats raise a concern in Kitto’s mind for another recent arrival on the island, Naomi Vine.  Vine, a sculptor of some renown, has not fitted into the St Agnes’ community as well as Rogan.  Her plans to site a series of figures on the westerly beach, reaching out towards the boundary between land and the Atlantic, have been rejected and she is not slow to make her displeasure felt. Whereas the astronomer had worked hard to make friends among the islanders, Vine has stirred up considerable controversy with arguments both for and against.  When the artist goes missing, Kitto can only fear the worst.

While the descriptions of St Agnes bring the island vividly to life, they are not the only strong characteristic of the novel.  The plot is well thought through with just sufficient  indication of where it is going to make the final dénouement completely believable and the characters are persuasively drawn.  Furthermore, Rhodes is allowing the recurring characters to develop in a convincing manner. By the book’s conclusion both DS Nickell and DCI Madron, Kitto’s immediate superior, have developed a more realistic appreciation of the DI’s capabilities and of his working methods.  Kitto himself has not, perhaps, developed quite so much, although there are signs at the end of the novel that he is beginning to see his long term future in the islands and that his family life is going to become more complex.

Having read a really poorly written and badly plotted crime novel over the weekend, with character development so inconsistent with reality as to make me wonder if the book was eventually going to finish with the words and then I woke up and it was all a dream, Rhodes’ Burnt Island was just the corrective I needed.  It reminded me of how good our best crime writers are and that for the majority it is the case that just because they work in genre fiction their narrative talents should not be underestimated.

Sunday Retrospective ~ June 23rd 2019

I suppose this is really another catch-up post, which is disgraceful. One of the aims I set myself for this Summer was to get back to writing full reviews again but for some reason I am finding that very difficult.  Perhaps it has been because I have had too much else on?  Well, that won’t be a viable excuse after this week, when teaching other than a few seminars, finishes until the beginning of September.  So, maybe more luck then.

As you probably realise, I am always on the lookout for new authors of police procedurals.  This week I have rejected one (flat, clichéd writing; I didn’t get far enough in to find out whether the plotting was any good; I couldn’t read another page) and enjoyed another.  Critical Incidents is not Lucie Whitehouse’s first book by any means, but it is the start of a series featuring DI Robin Lyons.  When we first meet Lyons she and her thirteen year old daughter, Lennie, are on their way from London to Birmingham following Robin’s suspension from the Met.  Her refusal to charge a seriously nasty piece of work just because he is a seriously nasty piece of work with a murder she doesn’t believe he has committed has brought her into conflict with her superiors and when he then goes AWOL it looks as though her time with the London police has come to an abrupt end.  Unable to meet her financial commitments she is forced to return to her parents’ home and face her mother’s long-standing disapproval of the way in which she has insisted on bringing up Lennie as a single mother.

At least she has a job to go to.  Maggie, a family friend of long-standing and an ex-cop herself, employs her to work in her private investigative firm and they are both soon embroiled in the case of a missing girl, Becca, whose disappearance (not a child, not vulnerable) the local police don’t feel merits a full enquiry.  Also, she has her lifelong friend, Corinna (Rin), whose support during the months after Lennie was born was the only thing that allowed Robin to complete her degree and retain her sanity.

And then Rin’s house is set on fire.  She dies in the conflagration, her ten year old son, Peter, is seriously injured and the police are hunting for her husband, Josh, convinced that he is behind what has happened.  Robin, shattered by all that has occurred, refuses to believe this and so sets out to try and discover both what has happened to Josh and who is really behind the fire.

Inevitably, the two cases come together but not before Robin has alienated both Maggie and the West Midlands Police by her interference and inability to work as part of a team.  There is no doubt that she has an incisive brain and excellent intuition, but her lack of forethought and failure to see the bigger picture to my mind, at least, make her something of a liability. If the book has a false step then for me it comes right at the end when suddenly, against all indications to the contrary, she is in line for a promotion that will allow her to stay on Birmingham.  Not only is this unlikely given her previous behaviour, but also definitely not what she has apparently wanted for herself, and not what her daughter, Lennie, also desperate to get back to London, is likely to greet with any enthusiasm   It was too neat for me and not in line with what had gone before.

One point I must make about this novel is to do with setting.  As far as I can see Whitehouse has no links with Birmingham. According to the blurb at the back of my edition she was born in Gloucestershire, went to University in Oxford and now lives in New York.  If this is the case, then as someone who, until a year ago, had lived in the city all her life, I can only congratulate her on her research; I could have walked round all the locations she mentions without any difficulty.  I think the only thing she makes up is the name of the road where her parents live, and even then I’m fairly sure which road she has in mind.  For the moment, Whitehouse is a keeper.  I’ll see how the next book progresses Robin’s story.

Reviews ~ Catching Up

I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life.  She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place.  “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously.  I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”.  At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst.  Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.

An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris

This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list.  It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself.  Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book.  As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s.  I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent.  Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down.  Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair.  What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.

This is a chilling story extremely well told.  It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.

 

A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers

This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion.  It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed.  The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit.  Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience.  Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand.  I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.

 

Black Summer ~ M W Craven

Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here.  As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time.  Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton.  As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder.  If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe.  Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book.  However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw.   When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon.  Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do.  Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction.  Her incisive mind cuts through everything.  I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation.  Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it.  What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion.  Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series.  If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.

High Rising ~ Angela Thirkell

It would not have been possible to hang around the particular corner of the blogging world that I have inhabited for the past decade or more without coming across reference to the works of Angela Thirkell.  Born in 1890, Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones and the goddaughter of J M Barrie.  She was also closely related to both Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin.  Following her return to England from Australia in 1929, after the failure of her second marriage, writing provided her with a source of income and she produced a series of novels collectively known as the Barsetshire Chronicles.  The reference to Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire is neither accidental nor inappropriate.  A more modern reader might also wonder about her ongoing influence in respect of the everyday stories of the good people of Borsetshire.

Despite the pleasure that Thirkell’s work has so obviously given to many of my blogging friends, I’ve never felt particularly drawn to her novels.  However, while I was nosing around the library last week, looking for something undemanding to relax with over the bank holiday weekend, I came across a copy of the Virago Modern Classics reprint of High Rising, the first of the Barsetshire series, and thought, “why not?”.  I have to say that I didn’t get off to a particularly good start.  The introduction is by Alexander McCall Smith, another writer whose works have never appealed, and I don’t think he does the book any favours.  It sounded too twee for words.  I came away with the impression of someone trying to be a female Wodehouse (whom I do enjoy) and failing.  I very nearly went no further.

Well, that would have been a shame, because although by the end of the book I felt I had possibly had sufficient of the doings of the worthies of High and Low Rising, especially the stereotypical young lovers, Adrian and Sybil, who really do deserve each other, there was enough wit in the writing along the way to make me smile and just occasionally to laugh out loud.  Central to the story is widowed novelist Laura Morland.  I assume that this is a thinly drawn portrait of Thirkell herself.  Certainly, Laura would agree with Thirkell’s often quoted remark that it is very peaceful with no husbands even though this means that she has been left to bring up four sons by herself and has taken up writing as a means of paying for their education.  At the time we meet her (presumably in the early 1930s) only the youngest, Tony, remains at home, although Laura is still concerned about money; after all she only has a London flat, a cottage in the country and a ‘middle-class car’.  (I would hate to hurt my car’s feelings but it is definitely working class.) Add to this her servant and fur coat and I found it hard to be convinced of her poverty but I suppose it’s all relative. Nevertheless, Laura is good company and she is also good hearted, determined to support as best she can her friend Anne Todd, who really is in a financially parlous state, bringing in a little money through typing manuscripts as she looks after her ailing and elderly mother.  She is also determined to save her friend and fellow author, George Knox, from the conniving wiles of Miss Una Grey, at present his secretary, but intent, by whatever devious ways necessary, on becoming something more.

The main thrust of the story is the unmasking of the aforesaid Miss Grey and the bringing together of Laura’s publisher, Adrian Coates, and George’s daughter, Sybil, not to mention providing life long security for Anne Todd. However, there are also some wonderful vignettes along the way, including the boxing competition at Tony’s school  and the evening Laura and George share at the first half of a production of King Lear.  (They get to the point at which Gloucester’s eyes are put out and Laura can take no more; part of me understands where she was coming from. Mind you, given that this was published in 1933, a Lear seen in London in the years immediately prior to publication  would have been John Gielgud’s first shot at the part and I refuse to believe that the verse was handled as excruciatingly as is suggested. If there was one thing Gielgud excelled at, it was handling verse.)

It was round about the Shakespeare incident that I began to feel I had possibly had enough of the worthies of the Risings.  If George really does think that none of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during Elizabeth’s reign then it is probably a good thing that he is having second thoughts about writing a biography of the Queen and while Laura might be happy to listen to his never ending over-blown opinions, I would have bopped him one.  There are, too, inevitably, I suppose, given when it was written, a number of attitudes quite frequently expressed that are uncomfortable today and which were beginning to really put me off the characters giving voice to them.  So, would I read another of Thirkell’s works?  Possibly, after a decent gap and in circumstances where I wanted something that wasn’t going to tax me in any way, but I don’t think I am ever going to be a great fan.  Still, at least I now have some idea of what draws those readers who are.

The American Agent ~ Jacqueline Winspear

The American Agent is the latest in Jacqueline Winspear’s novels centred around her private investigator, Maisie Dobbs.  This series, which begins in the late 1920s, has now reached September 1940 and, the so-called ‘phoney war’ over, London is being hit night after night, by the bombing raids of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.  Maisie and her friend Priscilla Partridge, both of whom served in France during the First World War, are now working during the hours of darkness as an ambulance crew, ferrying the injured to hospital through the blackouts and the chaos caused by the falling munitions.  On one such night a young American reporter comes out with them.  Catherine Saxon, the youngest child of influential parents, has defied her father’s wishes (girls, after all, are only good for dynastic marriages) and come to Europe in the hope of finding herself a regular spot as a wireless correspondent.  After time spent in Spain and Berlin, she is now writing pieces designed to encourage America to enter the war in support of those opposing the rise of Nazism and one such has been commissioned for the medium she hopes to conquer.  However, the next morning Maisie finds herself being approached by her old friend, Robbie MacFarlane, currently working in a rather more secret branch of law enforcement, with the news that Cath has been murdered and seeking her help in tracking down the killer.  Maisie’s task is complicated by the involvement of American interests in the shape of Mark Scott, clearly working within a rather different remit to hers but nevertheless the US State Department’s man on the spot.  She and Scott have run into each other before, in Berlin, and there is tension between them not only because there is an obvious physical attraction, but also because Scott seems never able to be open about just who he is working for and what his precise purpose might be.  This is certainly the case here.  While he definitely wants to know what is going on in the investigation, that is clearly not his main reason for being in London and both Maisie and the reader are left guessing just what his presence in the city is really all about.

I have read very mixed reviews of this, the fifteenth book in the series.  It is longer than most of the others and some reviewers have felt that it was slow to get off the mark, one suggesting that it could well lose the first hundred pages, which mainly deal with the terrors of facing the blitz night after night.  While I concede that the main storyline is perhaps not as clear cut as it might be, the investigation into Cath’s death and Maisie’s concern as to just what Scott is up to and whether or not he can be trusted don’t mesh well together, I thought this book was excellent in the way in which Winspear’s novels so often excel, namely in painting a picture of what life was like for the ordinary individual, especially the poor of London’s East End, during the difficult years of the 1930s and on into those early years of the war.  I wouldn’t have lost a word of those first hundred pages because they capture the terror of events and the resilience of the general populace in the months from September through to the end of the year, magnificently. Furthermore, they are essential to the main historical point that Winspear is addressing, namely the pressure being put on American correspondents by influential Isolationists to minimise in their reporting, the devastation facing not just London, but many other towns and cities throughout Britain, and the true threat of the Third Reich to world peace.  In many instances these people were driven not so much by a desire to keep their countrymen out of a European war but by entirely more personal reasons to do with their stock holdings in German companies.  Chief amongst these is a character only peripheral to Winspear’s narrative but in no way peripheral to what was happening in respect of the Isolationist cause, the American Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy.  I was still in primary school when his son, John, was elected President and, like many young people, I was won over by the charisma, but my parents were always very wary of him. For their generation, the name Kennedy was still pretty much a dirty word.

As usual, Winspear also explores the way in which larger events impact on her main characters.  Will Maisie’s eldest godson survive his time as an RAF pilot and what will happen to the youngest when he reaches an age where he will have to publicly defend his pacifist standpoint?   It is clear, too, that she is looking forward to later wartime events; her assistant, Billy Beale, is at the moment pleased that his eldest is stationed in Singapore.  That isn’t going to last. I hope that when/if she does tackle the horrors of what happened to those who were present at the fall of Singapore she acknowledges that there were prisoners other than those who were sent into Burma to work on the railways, prisoners who suffered just as much.  It always amuses me when commentators talk about how little we know now concerning North Korea. My father could have told you quite a lot about it, having spent three and a half years in the country after being shipped out of Singapore to the carbide factories there by the Japanese in the summer of 1942 .

So, perhaps not the greatest of Winspear’s crime novels, but I think still very well worth reading and one that will spark a lot of memories for those of us who have some personal connection with the events that form the backdrop to the main narrative.

Late in the Day ~ Tessa Hadley

At some point a friend out there in the great blogging universe must have recommended Tessa Hadley’s previous novel, The Past, to me.  Either that, or it was one of those novels that kept turning up on end of year lists as a book that you really must read.  Anyway, I did as I was told and read it and although it didn’t set my reading world alight, I do remember being very impressed with the quality of the writing.  Now, everywhere I turn, reviewers are speaking of her new novel, Late in the Day, as one of the great books of 2019 and having read it I have to say I am not inclined to disagree.

Coming to this latest work, I suspect that the reason I didn’t immediately engage with The Past is because Hadley’s work is very much character driven rather than being propelled forward by the plot and I am very much a plot driven reader.  Perhaps I engaged so much more thoroughly with this novel because the four main characters are all involved in the world of the arts and/or in teaching and so it was easier for me to appreciate their environment, even if I couldn’t always identify with their motivations and consequent behaviour.

Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary are two couples with a complex intertwining back history.  The two women have known each other since schooldays, as have the men, and, as becomes apparent fairly early on in the novel, initially the pairing was the other way round with Lydia pursuing Alex, who had just published a volume of poetry, obsessively.  Now grown into middle age and each with a daughter in her early twenties, they are established in their ways.  Christine is a moderately successful artist, Alex, having written no more poetry, is the head of a primary school, Zachary runs an extremely successful gallery and Lydia enjoys the fruits of his labour.  While I have no doubt at all that Alex would see himself as the fulcrum around which the group revolves, in fact the true lynchpin is easy going Zachary and the book opens with his sudden death.  What happens, Hadley asks, when the individual who has been responsible for maintaining a group’s equilibrium, its very understanding of its identity, is suddenly no longer there?

Ironically, perhaps what happens is that Zachary’s passing allows the others to show more clearly who they really are.  In the cases of Lydia and Alex, both of whom are intent on getting what they want, this means imposing on and abusing Christine’s friendship and trust.  (I may be biased here; I really did not like either of these characters.) Ultimately, however, it is Christine who gains most from the shift in perspective, as she comes to understand the extent to which Zachary’s interpretation of her art and her development, however well intentioned, has distorted her view of who she is as an artist and who she might become. Visiting his last exhibition, staged posthumously at the gallery and featuring the work of an artist with whom he had predicted she would identify, she discovers that the pictures bore her.

[T]hat possibility hadn’t occurred to her, it really was a surprise.… It wasn’t that she thought they were false or pretentious exactly: she could imagine the very authentic journey the artist had made towards these big pale canvases with their silver and grey and white colours, the painstaking exact grids and geometries, fine as quilting.  In pursuit of some truth of the spirit she had refined away every intrusion of ugly life: all the dirty marks it made, all its aggression and banally literal languages…She was disappointed – and indignant, too, that Zachary could have thought these works were anything like hers, or these colours.

Despite the self-seeking behaviour of her husband and friend, it is Christine you feel is going to be most capable of redefining herself in a world without Zachary; in fact, of redefining herself in her own terms, as an individual and not in relation to other people. Hadley seems to be particularly concerned with how people influence and are influenced by their partners; the extent to which we define and are defined by those with whom we chose to couple.  This is picked up in respect of both daughters, Lydia and Zachary’s Grace, who when we first met her seems only to be able to give meaning to herself through a series of disastrous one-night stands, and Isobel, who, speaking of the man whose child she is expecting, tells Christine,

I know I’m the right person for [him] … I’ll save him from himself, he needs me. We balance up perfectly. Because without me he’s in danger of becoming quite stuffy, such an old fogey… I’ll be good for him.

I found myself reading this novel much more slowly than would normally be the case.  I think in part this was because the plot is of minimal importance; it is plot which normally has me saying “just one more chapter”.  However, just as important, I would suggest, was the quality of the writing, which simply made me want to savour each sentence.  Hadley has not been particularly prolific, but there is a back catalogue and I am very much looking forward to exploring it.