After The Party ~ Cressida Connolly

In a previous post I mentioned that I had been exploring the short lists for past awards of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and had been amazed to discover just how many of them I had read, despite considering myself as someone who didn’t read much in that genre.  Well, last week the short list for this year’s prize was announced and again, one of the books on my library shelf, Cressida Connolly’s After The Party, is up for consideration.

The novel moves between two time periods, from 1938 through the subsequent war years, as well as 1979.  In the former, Connolly uses a third person narrative to tell the story of Phyllis Forrester and her family, newly returned to England after the contract her husband, Hugh, had with his employers has expired.  In the later period the older Phyllis gives a first person account of her memories of that time to an unnamed interviewer.

Left very much to her own devices and with three children on her hands, Phyllis is persuaded by her sister Nina to join her in arranging summer camps on the South Coast for local youth.  Nina is full of enthusiasm for the organisation she and her husband have become involved with and is particularly hoping that the group’s ‘Leader’ will come down for the day and speak to the campers.  Apparently, the sun always shines on those days when he makes an appearance.  Gradually, in a way that very much echoes the insidious manner in which any form of indoctrination takes place, Connolly drip feeds the reader with enough information for it to become clear that the Leader is Oswald Mosley and the group to which Nina and Eric belong, the British Union.

Over the course of the next few months Phyllis and Hugh, neither of them with enough on their hands to keep them gainfully employed, become more and more involved with Mosley’s circle, largely it seemed to me, as a way of boosting their own self-esteem.  They are neither of them certain of their place in British society any more and being part of a group helps them to find an identity.  They are convinced by Mosley’s politics because it supports the belief in their own entitlement as part of a British ruling elite.  Interestingly, Mosley’s links with the leaders of the Third Reich are never mentioned. Eventually, and I am giving nothing away here because it is made apparent in the novel’s opening pages, both Phyllis and Hugh are arrested and we follow Phyllis through imprisonment in Holloway and then internment on the Isle of Man.  Holloway sounds pretty awful, but given what a lot of people were suffering through the Blitz, internment was a life of comparative luxury.  Like most of the Union members, they are released before the war ends, but not before real damage has been done to their family circumstances.

Connolly skilfully shows how easy it is for someone to become involved in an extremist organisation without being aware either of what is happening to them or what the real ideology behind the group is. She may be writing about the British Union, but she could just as easily be reflecting on twenty-first century youth being lured into terrorism.  It is a salutary reminder that not all extremism develops out of an anti-establishment background.  Mosley played on the need of the class from which Phyllis and Hugh came to feel that they were still a ruling force in a society that was beginning to challenge the old class structure. Their feeling of entitlement was being threatened and it is this which seems to have festered in Phyllis’ mind over the years and which makes itself felt in the attitude she displays in the 1979 interview.  I quite warmed to the 1930s Phyllis; I was definitely alienated by the later version.

However, Connolly also explores a possible reason for the change in Phyllis.  She questions just how effective imprisonment was as a deterrent.  It’s clear that before she was incarcerated Phyllis really had very little understanding of what the British Union stood for, but her time in Holloway serves almost as a university education in the subject and she comes out committed to the cause in a way that she wouldn’t have recognised prior to her sentence.  Again, it is easy to draw parallels with the indoctrination of vulnerable  youth that apparently goes on in our prisons today.  Told by the establishment that you are a threat to society there is always the possibility that that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After The Party gives the reader a lot to think about, not only in respect of its historical context but also in terms of what it has to say about many current situations.  Connolly is a writer I shall look out for in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Scholar ~ Dervla McTiernan

Dervla McTiernan’s first novel, The Ruin, which introduced Galway based Gardaí sergeant, Cormac Reilly, was published last year to almost universal acclaim.  I very much enjoyed it on a first read, but was less certain a second time round.  I thought McTiernan started too many hares and that as a result the central narrative line got lost. I was also concerned about the number of members of the Galway force who were at best incompetent, at worst corrupt.  I have friends living in Galway and I feared for their safety.  I came to The Scholar, the second in the series, therefore, with a certain amount of trepidation.  Fortunately, this novel is more tightly plotted and, while there are still one or two members of the force who clearly have issues, I suspect that is true of any group of police and this time round there is, thank goodness, a sense that as a whole they do actually want to see justice done.

Cormac Reilly has transferred from Dublin to Galway to be with his partner, Emma Sweeney, who has secured a five year funded position at a medical research lab.  The two met after Emma was charged with a murder from which she was later exonerated and the experience, unsurprisingly, has left scars on both of them.  When, therefore, Emma rings Cormac and tells him that she has found a dead body in the University car park he is concerned not only for her well-being but also that she may be seen as a suspect in what turns out to be a particularly vicious, and clearly deliberate, hit and run.  When it becomes apparent that the victim has links to the facility in which Emma works Reilly’s involvement in the case becomes questionable however, he is determined to hang on to the investigation not only to ensure that Emma is not unduly pressured but also because this is the first real test of his ability in his new posting.

At the heart of the case are two seriously dysfunctional families.  Carline Darcy is the granddaughter of a man who has made billions through the development of medical advances. John Darcy is a seriously nasty piece of work, who has no time for Carline despite the fact that she seems to crave his approval.  To that end she has enrolled on the Bio-Pharmaceutical Chemistry degree at the University and is seeking to prove by her work that she is worthy of a place in Darcy Pharmaceuticals.  Here she encounters and works alongside Della Lambert, the eldest daughter of a family struggling to make ends meet after the financial crash causes her father to lose his business.  On the face of it, the two girls have nothing in common, but there is one thing that Della can apparently offer Carline: a way to gain her grandfather’s approval.

To anyone who has worked in the University sector, Carline’s plan is obviously flawed,  but at eighteen you think you can order the world to run in line with your scenario.  Sooner rather than later her scheme would have come crashing down around both girls heads. However, there is one member of Darcy Pharmaceutical who can’t afford to wait for that to happen and, with Emma Sweeney on hand to be offered up as the obvious suspect, that individual decides to take deadly action.

I think this is definitely a more tightly written book than The Ruin and McTiernan has given greater definition to more of her characters, especially Emma, Cormac’s fellow sergeant, Carrie O’Halloran, and Garda Peter Fisher, who is clearly ripe either for promotion for using his own initiative or dismissal on the grounds of overstepping the mark. While she isn’t yet rivalling Claire McGowan or Tana French in respect of Irish crime writing, I will certainly be coming back for more.

The Scandal ~ Mari Hannah

Over the past several years Mari Hannah has been a prolific writer, sometimes publishing as many as three books in a twelve month. She has three series on the go, that featuring DCI Kate Daniels, the Matthew Ryan books and most recently novels centred around DCI David Stone and DS Frankie Oliver. All of her work is set in the North East and sometimes characters, most notably DCS Bright, Head of CID, cross from one series to another. The Scandal is the third appearance for Stone and Oliver along with Ben, Stone’s nephew and Belinda Wells, that unusual phenomenon in crime fiction, a journalist who can be trusted.

Chris Adams, (another decent journalist, so perhaps I am prejudice) is found dying in a dark alleyway.  His murder hits Frankie hard.  She and Chris had grown up together and because of past experiences in her own family she is only too aware of how this is going to effect his mother, a woman who has already had to fight the demon of alcoholism. Very early on in the investigation the suggestion is raised that the journalist’s death might have been a means of siliencing him in respect of a story he was chasing.  Following this up, however, proves difficult as his editor, Mark Fox, clearly had no time for the young man and refuses to credit the idea that he could possibly have had anything of importance to report. At this point, somewhat reluctantly Stone brings Belinda Wells into the picture, reluctantly because Ben, the nephew to whom Stone has become a surrogate father, is shadowing the journalist and the DCI would prefer to keep the young man out of his policing life.

Gradually, links are made between Adams and a missing woman, Nancy Carver.  The reader already knows that Nancy has made plans to disappear, as the book opens with her attempts to vanish from her job and leave no evidence as to where she has gone. The implication is that she is about to become a whistleblower, but whether or not she has been able to make good her escape, whether her current status as a misper is voluntary or enforced, is something we are left to speculate about.  Whatever her situation, it becomes clear that the institution for which she worked is going to bear close scrutiny; not however, if Stone has anything to do with it, at the hands of his nephew.

Hannah starts a number of hares in this novel: the abuse of a particular section of the public, the plight of those who are forced into homelessness and the effect that staff reduction measures are having on the police.  I can get on board with all of these but I did feel that at times, especially where the latter is concerned, she stood on her soapbox too often and banged her drum just a little bit too hard.  No one who reads modern crime fiction can help but be aware of the difficulties our police forces are facing in the current economic climate and while one of the genre’s most important features is the way in which it draws attention to those aspects of our society that it can be most difficult to acknowledge, I think it is better when the story is allowed to make that point for itself rather than having it over emphasised. Nevertheless, this is as good a read as all of Hannah’s other work and if you haven’t already enjoyed her novels then I strongly recommend her.  If you’re new to the author, however, I would suggest you go back to the beginning at least of this series and possibly to the beginning of her output, to orientate yourself to her world and I envy you having all eleven of her books still to enjoy.

With thanks to the Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel.

The Truth About Lies ~ Tracy Darnton

Once, long ago and probably in a land far away, I used to lecture in Children’s Literature. For the best part of forty years, if you wanted to know what was current on the children’s/YA book scene I was the person to whom you turned.  However, over the last decade I have gradually left that existence behind and very much lost touch with what is being published in a field that dominated my reading for most of my adult life.  Then, a couple of weeks ago Waterstones sent me one of their regular emails announcing the short lists for their Children’s Book Prize for 2019 and just out of curiosity I glanced through it to see if there were any names I recognised. What I wasn’t expecting was to see my own surname there.

Now, if your name is Smith or Jones coming across someone with the same surname as you must be pretty much a daily occurrence, but when you share that name with less than two hundred people world wide it rather takes your breath away.  So, out of sheer nosiness for the first time in over ten years I found myself ordering and reading a YA novel and, thank goodness, very much enjoying it.

Jess Wilson is a relatively new student at Dartmeet College in Devon. Like many of the other students there she has been traumatised by the fate of her roommate, Hanna, who has fallen to her death from the window of the room they shared.  The relationship between Jess and Hanna had been fraught, not the least because Hanna had started a romance with Ed, the boy that Jess fancied, and Jess, when we first meet her, is clearly concerned that her subsequent behaviour towards Hanna was responsible, in one way or another, for her death.  However, Jess has far more to worry her than that, because she carries secrets from her past life that isolate her not only from the other students but from the wider world as well.  Blessed or cursed (take your pick) not only with a photographic (eidetic) memory but also with hyperthymesia, the type of memory that allows an individual to recall everything that has ever happened to them, Jess has run away from a programme led by one Professor Coleman where she has been more or less used as a lab rat to find out whether or not it is possible to erase traumatic memories from people’s minds.  No more PTSD – or at least that is the more anodyne of the possible outcomes of the Professor’s research.  Of course, if you want to test a theory like that then the subject involved has to have a traumatic memory for you to erase and Jess’s memory of her mother’s death in a road traffic accident fits the bill perfectly.

Or does it?  As Jess finds herself, however unwillingly, becoming more and more involved in the life of the College and her fellow students she, and the reader, begin to question the accuracy and the completeness of her recall. If there is no one against whom you can test your memory how do you know what you remember is what actually happened; how can you be certain that there aren’t things that you have forgotten?  This is a first person narrative.  When I am being told that the narrator is as reliable as it is possible to get, perhaps I should be asking if really, however unwittingly, Jess isn’t the ultimate unreliable narrator.  Was she involved in Hanna’s death?  Is Professor Coleman actually the monster she makes out?  This is what Jess and the reader have to explore.

The Truth About Lies is an extremely interesting exploration both of how our memory can define us and how it can deceive us as to who we truly are.  Coming immediately after my reading of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, where memory is set against thought, Tracy Darnton’s book pits it against feelings, suggesting that while it may be possible to wipe out recall of events, erasing the feelings attached to those events is neither possible nor desirable.  This is an excellent first novel and if I baulked a bit at the dénouement I pulled myself up short and reminded myself that many an adult thriller has an ending that seems a bit too neat.  Will it win the Waterstone’s prize?  I don’t know.  Maybe I should return to my roots and read the other contenders. This book has made me recall why I chose to specialise in Children’s Literature in the first place.

 

Bellman and Black ~ Diane Setterfield

At a time when everyone else in the blogging world seems to be reading Diane Setterfield’s latest novel, Once Upon A River, I found myself picking up her previous offering, Bellman and Black, it being this month’s choice for one of my Book Groups. I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, even though it was such a commercial success, and the fact that it was promoted on the cover as a ghost story didn’t do anything to attract me to this second volume – I haven’t read ghost stories since I was fourteen.  But that’s the whole point of a Book Group, isn’t it?  Or at least it is of the two to which I belong.  We read books we would otherwise never have picked up because we trust the instincts of the other group members.  I find it very hard to believe, but this particular group is now in its seventeenth year and during that time I have discovered several authors whose books I would never normally have picked up but who now feature regularly on my reading lists.  So, remembering that the person who had chosen this also introduced me to David Mitchell and Kamila Shamsie, I dived in.

When William Bellman is ten, cheered on by his cousin Charles and friends Fred and Luke, he takes up his catapult, pulls off a remarkable shot and kills a rook.  This is the novel’s opening scene and the reader is encouraged to believe that this incident will colour everything that happens to William from that day on.  Although a grandson of the local Mill owner, it is not William who is in line to take up the business but his cousin, Charles. However, Charles has no interest in the business, indeed no interest in living in England.  His love of painting takes him off to Italy and it is William who joins Paul, his uncle, in the family concern and whose fresh eye and keen brain soon transforms the Mill and all the associated trades.  When his grandfather dies and Paul takes over there is nothing left to stand in the way of William one day succeeding his uncle and not only running, but substantially expanding and innovating the Mill himself. Happily married and with four small children everything seems to be going William’s way until an unnamed epidemic (we speculated either typhoid or diphtheria) hits the village and his wife and three youngest children die while Dora, his eldest, is left both disabled and disfigured.

At each of the funerals he is called upon to attend William is drawn to a shadowy figure in black, someone he feels he should know but just can’t quite pin down in his memory. Memory is something that William avoids, even though Dora tries to recall the family life that they had once known.  William is all to do with thought and as the book reminds us,

[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.

In giving himself over entirely to thought and neglecting to remember his family and all those who were important to him, William cuts himself off from the people who love him and who might have saved him as he becomes more and more obsessed with meeting what he sees as an obligation to the black-coated, shadowy figure from the graveyard.  And yet, ironically, it is memory which is at the root of his next great business success as he goes on to found the magnificent London emporium, Bellman & Black, where everything you need to commemorate your recently departed loved one can be found under one roof.  It was the description of the building and the fitting out of this store (one bound to bring almost unlimited success at the height of Victorian mourning traditions) that I enjoyed  most.  Bought up in trade and with a love of ordering and organising, I was fascinated by the minutiae of how William builds this new business from quite literally the ground upwards.  But, although his name is over the door and on all the carriages and letterheads, the mysterious Black is never seen and gradually his absence begins to build in importance in William’s mind and brings about the novel’s conclusion.

We had a really good discussion about this book, mainly because although we had all found it eminently readable, we none of us thought that it quite held together. Our main complaint was that Setterfield had started too many ideas and not really developed any of them sufficiently. Too often we felt we were having to search for an explanation as to how a particular incident fitted into the overall scheme of things and as a result the ideas, if not the narrative itself, seemed disjointed and not fully developed.  Our estimation of the character of William, however, differed. While some found his obsession with his work disturbing and difficult to understand, others felt it chimed with the experience of trying to build a career in a challenging climate. Ulitimately, of course, William fails because to be obsessed with death in life is to deny living, until all that is left is death itself, those things which make living worthwhile having never been enjoyed.  The book begins and ends with William’s death.  Whether or not he can be said to have lived in the interim is for the individual reader to decide.

Sunday Retrospective ~February 10th 2019

So, on to Twelfth Night this week for my online course.  I am much happier studying this play than I was with Macbeth.  It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage and was as responsible as anything for lighting in me the muse of fire (Henry V  next on the list) that has never since dimmed for a moment.  Actually, that first performance was staged by an all-girls’ school which, when you think about it, adds all sorts of interesting dynamics to the gender complexities that are at the heart of the play. Whereas Shakespeare had a boy playing a girl dressed as a man and being wooed by a girl who was also a boy while falling in love with a man who really was a man, that production had a girl playing a girl dressed as a boy being wooed by a girl who was also a girl but falling in love with a girl who was playing a man. Get your head round that, if you can. The last theatre production I saw played around with any number of homosexual innuendos but I’m willing to bet that that first staging, at the beginning of the 1960s and in an eminently respectable grammar school, didn’t have a lesbian overtone to be seen.  The focus of our study this coming week is the question of gender both on the Elizabethan stage and in the society in general.  I might bring that early staging up and see what others have to say about it.  Stirring again, you will notice.

Where my personal reading is concerned I have just finished Jo Spain’s latest book, Dirty Little Secrets. Spain is a writer I discovered last year through her Tom Reynolds’ series which, like this standalone novel, is set in the Irish Republic. I’m not a great lover of standalone thrillers, but I have enjoyed this author’s work so much that I thought it would be worthwhile giving this one a go; I wasn’t disappointed.  This may be in part because although it is a not one of the series, it is very much along the lines of a police procedure. It is, however, also due to the writers ability to unwrap mysteries slowly in front of her audience and allow them to play along with the detection game as well.

Olive is dead. More to the point, Olive has been dead for three months and none of her neighbours, in a small gated community, have noticed. It is only with the blue bottles and the smell become overpowering that the police are finally called in. They were community, however, is something of a misnomer, because the residents of Withered Vale have never exactly bonded. Each home keeps very much to itself, much to the annoyance of Olive, who would like to be part of the lives of her neighbours.   But would you want Olive involved in your life? As the story unfolds, told partially in flashback and from multiple perspectives, it becomes apparent that Olive has a way of ferreting out details of each household’s past and, whatever the circumstances, turning them into the dirty little secrets of the title.

Olive is dead, but is it a natural death, a terrible accident or was she murdered?  Frank Brazil, shortly to retire and happy just to put in a day’s work and go home, is called in with his partner Emma to try and find the answer.  But Frank and Emma each have their own secrets and as the investigation continues they, like the residents of Withered Vale, will find that by turning something into a secret you give it a power over you that it doesn’t necessarily merit.  It is the power that those secrets have, and the way in which they are coloured by the mind of the individual who either hoards them or discovers them, which lies at the heart of the book.  You may, as I did, realise who killed Olive some time before you get to the end of the novel, but that won’t stop you reading on because you will be as eager as I was to discover whether or not the other residents of the Vale will find the courage to face their secrets, acknowledge them openly and thereby deny them the power to continue controlling their lives.  Jo Spain is an excellent storyteller and if you haven’t yet discovered her work, then I seriously recommend her to you.

I don’t know how much personal reading I will get done this week because my first assignment is due in on the 19th.  It’s only 500 words long but that in itself makes it more difficult than if I could be expansive. I do have to find time to start Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black for my next book group.  Am I going to enjoy it?

Hagseed ~ Margaret Atwood

I have made it very clear over the past few years that I don’t approve of the Hogarth Press’s retelling of Shakespeare. For me the playwright’s works stand (or sometimes fall) on their own merits and I don’t see the point of attempting a rewrite.  I’m aware that this is perhaps not always a defensible position, given that nine times out of ten what Shakespeare himself was doing was rewriting the works of other people, but nevertheless  it’s my position and I’m sticking with it.  I wasn’t, therefore, best pleased when my Book Group selected Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest, Hagseed, for February’s meeting. The more so because Atwood isn’t exactly one of my favourite writers either.  Well, we must all be prepared to hold up our hands from time to time and admit that we were wrong and this is my time to do exactly that, because I have to say that I loved it.

Atwood’s starting point is the Shakespeare festival in the Canadian town of Makeshiweg, I suspect a thinly disguised Stratford Ontario, where the director Felix Phillips is planning his production of The Tempest, a production he will never get to stage because he is just about to be forced out of office by Tony and Sal, two self-seeking associates who have taken advantage of the fact that Felix has concentrated solely on his creative work and given no thought to the other aspects of running a theatre company such as where is the money going to come from.  In this, Felix is just like the character he is preparing to play, Prospero, who is forced out of his dukedom because he has devoted himself to the Liberal Arts and neglected the duties of a ruler. At one point a character remarked that Felix makes crime easy and it is certainly true that he contributes as much to his own downfall as do those who depose him.

Deserted by his erstwhile friends, Felix takes himself off to a tumbledown countryside shack, presumably the cave of the island, where for eight years he thinks of little but survival, his daughter Miranda, now dead but still with him in his imagination and the possibility of revenge.  However, salvation of a sort comes when he is approached about running a Literacy Through Literature programme in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute.  Here he introduces the medium category prisoners to the works of Shakespeare, exploring those plays that he thinks will speak to their lives, their situations, in ways that enable them to identify with the characters involved. They start with Julius Caesar and we know that they have also explored Macbeth and Richard III. And then Felix’s moment comes.  Tony and Sal, now influential politicians, are to pay the Institute a visit and thus present Felix with the opportunity to exact his revenge.  Like Prospero, his enemies will be present on his turf and he will be in a position to manipulate them and bring about their downfall.  But how to persuade his ‘actors’ to perform The Tempest?  After all, there are fairies!

Something we were all agreed on was that Felix is a brilliant teacher.  The first thing he does when embarking on a new production is to ban the use of any swear words that aren’t in the play itself.  The prisoners can give free rein to any oaths that Shakespeare included but are ‘fined’ for modern equivalents. Can you think of any better way to get a group of mainly poorly educated men to do a close reading of a text?  He also encourages them to reimagine the characters and their situations for their own times and gives them  relative freedom to re-write areas of the play in their own words. Some of the raps they come up with for Caliban are superb.  I absolutely loved the way in which these men brought the text to life in their own terms.  It also means that if you come to the novel not knowing the story of The Tempest it really doesn’t matter because you will pick it up along with them.

Whether or not Felix is successful in his bid to revenge himself on Tony and Sal you must find out for yourselves. I was more interested in how successful Atwood was in reimagining the play for the twenty-first century and as far as I’m concerned she manages this on two levels. Firstly, I think her recreation of the actual story itself is, if not wholly believable, certainly as believable as the original and thoroughly entertaining. Felix manipulates his actors every bit as effectively as does Prospero and his enemies are made to rue the day they turfed him out of his ruling position. However, I also think she picks up on the theory that in writing The Tempest, Shakespeare was saying farewell to the theatre himself.  Although that isn’t going to happen immediately, I get the feeling that by the end of the novel Felix is realising that his time working on the stage is limited and that he will have to hand over the reins to people such as 8Handz Anne-Marie and Freddie, who follow him from the Institute back to Makeshiweg.  Is it a coincidence that the place where he creates his joint productions with his company of felons is called Fletcher, given that the only plays that Shakespeare would offer the King’s Men after The Tempest were written in collaboration with his successor as company playwright, John Fletcher?

(An aside: did he jump or was he pushed?  The times in the theatre world of the 1610s they were a changing. Tragicomedy was all the rage, a genre in which Fletcher excelled, but which was not really Shakespeare’s forte.  Were takings falling?  Was it suggested to Shakespeare that a structured retirement plan might be a good idea?  I simply ask the question.)

Anyway, you will have gathered that I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone. However, I did go off and have a look at the reviews and found something that I thought was very interesting indeed. While the press reviews that I found were all positive, in fact ‘positively’ glowing, there were a number of very scathing reviews from what I will call more academic sources. These criticisms centred around the fact that the reviewers expected Atwood to offer a more positive view of First Nation characters and those who would normally be seen as the underdogs in society.  They really objected to the way that she presented the prisoners. I found this very worrying. It was as if they felt that having brought Atwood onto the syllabus precisely because many of her novels do indeed address such subjects, they now had the right to dictate that she should only write to their expectations.  An academic’s role is to offer insights into a writer’s work, not to own it, not to control it.  My other book group numbers among its members several such academics. I think I might just put this on next year’s schedule and see what sort of a discussion ensues. Nothing like having a good stir now and then.

Someone You Know ~ Olivia Isaac-Henry

When Tess Piper is thirty five she receives a message from her father that she has been dreading for the past twenty years: you need to come home, this time it really does look as if they’ve found her.  Tess is the younger and sub-dominate half of non-identical twins but when they were fifteen, ebullient and popular Edie went missing and despite an extensive police search and various false alarms over the years, the family is no nearer knowing what happened to her.  Tess, at least on the surface, has always hoped that Edie is still alive and that at some point she will decide to come home, but now it looks as though this is never going to happen.  So, Tess takes leave from her London based job and walks out of the flat that she is sharing with Max her now ex-partner of nine years and travels back to the West Midlands to be with her father, Vince, as they await the pathogist’s report.  When the news comes through that it is indeed Edie’s body that has been found and that there can be no doubt but that foul play was involved, the police re-open the inquiry and the family, including Vince’s brother Ray and his wife Becca come under renewed scrutiny.

Told in alternate chapters from Tess and Edie’s point of view, with Edie’s narrative taking us from the twins’ tenth birthday to the moment of her disappearance, the story not only of what happened to her, but also to Gina, the girls’ mother, gradually unfolds.  Are the Vickers, the oddly matched next door neighbours on the rundown estate where the family lives when we first meet them, somehow involved?  Or is Max, once besotted with Edie and possibly only in a relationship with Tess as second best, to blame for what happened?  Maybe Michaela, the older girl that Edie tags after when the family fortunes alter and they move to a ‘better’ neighbourhood had something to do with the disappearance? The police, both twenty years earlier and now, clearly think that someone in the family is behind the death and Vince and Ray’s attitudes towards staging an appeal or a reconstruction do nothing to assuage that view.  Or what about Tess herself?  She and Edie had argued that afternoon and their relationship, once so tight, had been strained for sometime as Edie fought for independence and Tess struggled to keep her twin close.  Certainly Edie’s erstwhile friends, now eagerly engaged in the vicarious ‘pleasure’ of social media mud-slinging, are sure that the ‘creepy’ twin was somehow involved.  Is it possible that Tess was responsible and has blanked out the memory?

I am going to ‘come clean’ on this.  I was asked to read Someone You Know as a favour to a friend (not the author).  However, although I love police procedurals, thrillers are not really my cup of tea, so I am probably not the ideal reader to judge the novel;  I’m not well enough versed in the genre to know how it rates against the considerable opposition out there.  It’s certainly well written and the dénouement when it arrives is plausible, although I think the subsequent conclusion is hurried through and some loose ends are left floating.  The structure, although it is one which is frequently used (Sophie Hannah, for example, manipulated it to considerable effect in Little Face) I found less satisfying.  I think this was because the chapters were so short, sometimes hardly a page in length, and I felt that I was having to switch focus too often and not being given the opportunity to really get to understand what was motivating either twin’s actions.  And, I never really appreciated how the teenaged Tess became the Tess of the present day action; there was a disjunction there I felt needed addresssing somewhere in the course of the narrative.

But, this is a first novel and it may be very good of its type. It’s certainly very readable but it didn’t make me want to go rushing out and look for more thrillers.  That is probably  more my fault rather than the author’s. Perhaps some of the triller readers out there could try it and let me know what they think.

Someone You Know is Olivia Isaac-Henry’s first novel and it will be published on February 4th.

Three Short Christmas Reviews

A Snapshot of Murder ~ Frances Brody

This is the tenth in Frances Brody’s series set in 1920s Yorkshire and featuring Kate Shackleton, a war widow who has drifted into the world of the private investigator.  It is 1928 and Haworth Parsonage is just about to be given to the nation for use as a Brontë Museum. Kate and five of her fellow photographers set off on their society’s first ever outing to record the event and to take photographs of the surrounding countryside, especially that associated with Wuthering Heights. Among the party are troubled husband and wife, Carine and Tobias Murchison. Theirs is a marriage that should never really have come about and one which has been placed under severe pressure both by his drinking and the fact that Carine has never stopped loving Edward Chester, her fiancé who failed to return from the trenches.  Also among the group are Derek Blondell, a teenager besotted by Carine, and Rita Rufus, another of Carine’s admirers. The photographers stay at Ponden Hall and it soon becomes clear that Tobias has history with the family there, who have no cause to welcome him into their home.  Thus, when he is stabbed in the crush of spectators gathered to witness the handing over of the parsonage, there is no shortage of potential suspects.

Aided and abetted by the ever reliable Jim Sykes, her niece Harriet and the intrepid Sergeant Dog (otherwise known as failed bloodhound number two) Kate sets out to solve yet another mystery. Despite the fact that there are some really very nasty people populating this novel, the overall tone remains that associated with crime fiction of the Golden Age rather than of contemporary examples of the genre and although I don’t really get on with the books actually written in that era, I do enjoy Brody’s work; this is one of the better books in the series.

 

Body Breaker ~ Mike Craven

Mike Craven, whether writing in this persona or as M C Craven, has been one of my discoveries of the year.  This is the second in his series featuring D. I. Avison Fluke a member of the Cumbrian FMIT.

When a body is found scattered all over the tenth hole of a local golf course it is Fluke and his team who are initially called in.  However, almost before they have got past the first stages of the investigation they are elbowed out of the way by a squad from the Met.  For whatever reason, the dismembered corpse is on their radar and they are intent on taking the case over.  Neither Fluke, nor any of his team, are happy about this, the less so when it becomes apparent that the name assigned to the victim is a false one and he is, in fact, Mark Bishop (Bish), an old friend of the Inspector, someone with whom he served in the marines. Characteristically, they are determined to continue with the investigation. Fluke’s personal involvement deepens when Jinx, a young traveller, turns up at his door claiming that she is Mark’s wife and that he told her if he was ever to disappear she should appeal to Fluke for help. Loathe to let the Met officers know of her existence, Fluke turns to the last person he should really involve, Nathaniel Diamond, the local criminal kingpin and asks him to find a safe house where Jinx can hide.

The plot twists and turns as Fluke gradually uncovers the reason why Bish had taken up the travellers’ way of life and why the Met are so interested in him.  Craven lays a number of red herrings and I fell for most of them.  However, I wasn’t as convinced by the ultimate reveal as I have been in the other two books of his that I’ve read and the final sting in the tail, the hook that is supposed to draw the reader to the next in the series, just annoyed me.  I don’t like these cliff hangers.  If an author’s work is good enough I am going to come back anyway.  And, in this case, I wonder if Craven hasn’t gone over the top and left his main character in a predicament too hard to write his way out of.  Is this why he has started to write under another persona, with a new protagonist? I shall have to wait and see.

 

The Ruin ~ Dervla McTiernan

The third of these short reviews is actually of a re-read.  I am just about to start the second of Dervla McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly novels, The Scholar, but, having read The Ruin at a time when I wasn’t really giving my full attention to what I was reading (moving house can be like that!) and not having reviewed it at the time, I thought I had better go back and renew my acquaintance with her characters and the setting first.

Cormac is a D.S. with the Irish Gardaí, based now in Galway, having just transferred from an elite squad in Dublin to be with his partner, Emma.  In his new posting he meets with considerable hostility and is pretty much consigned to re-examining cold cases.  Used to leading high powered investigations, Reilly is uncertain whether his reception in Galway is due to professional jealousy or, more worryingly, that there is a level of corruption among his new colleagues they are concerned he will pick up on.  However, one of the cases assigned is of personal interest to him.  Two decades earlier, as a rookie on the force, Cormac was sent in response to a call about, seemingly, a minor domestic.  What he discovered then has now resurfaced due to the apparent suicide of twenty-five year old Jack Blake. Jack’s sister, Maude, newly returned from Australia, demands that the investigation is re-opened, convinced that her brother was, in fact, murdered and pursuades his partner, Aisling, to join forces with her.  Reilly is ordered to reinvestigate the original call out and associated death and in doing so unearths a web of evil that has cast a pall over the lives of many of the novel’s characters.

The Ruin was published to great acclaim and I remember thinking when I first read it that it lived up to the hype.  After this second reading I am not quite so sure.  McTiernan’s over-riding concern is a particularly nasty type of child abuse and, to some extent, the use of religion as a means of covering up what is happening. I think at times she lets her desire to push home the message get in the way of plot coherence.  There is a side story about the rape and murder of young women on both sides of the Atlantic, which is vaguely thematically linked, but which can distract from the main narrative line.  Second time round, I also felt that the amount of hostility and indeed corruption that Cormac encounters in the Galway force is just too much.  I have friends in Galway and I am loath to think that their safety is being overseen by a set of Gardi who, with a couple of low ranking exceptions, are a darned sight worse than the criminals they set out to apprehend.  This isn’t going to stop me reading The Scholar because there is still a lot about McTiernan’s writing that I did enjoy, but I hope that in a few years time we will look back on this first effort and see it as just that, an apprentice piece from an author who has gone to become a master.

Transcription ~ Kate Atkinson

There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kinds strangers around her, as sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere of the road, to satisfy the need for pump and circumstance. Union Jack straight everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.

‘This England,’ she murmured.

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription, like her previous two books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, shifts deftly through a series of different time frames.  In this instance, quite literally bookending the story in 1981 and internally moving between 1940 and 1950.  Like its predecessors, it is also primarily concerned with the Second World War and raises questions about earlier women who might possibly have been seen as sacrificial victims in the name of patriotic duty.

In the world of 1940, eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, is recruited by MI5 to work under the auspices of a number of men as a transcriber.  It is her job to make a copy of the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, supporters of Hitler, hiding in plain site and making plans to welcome the Third Reich should its troops manage to cross the Channel.  As Juliet becomes further integrated into the Service, she is also sent to infiltrate The Right Club, a group formed initially to rid the Conservative Party of perceived Jewish control but later boasting that its main objective was to oppose and expose the activities of organised Jewry more generally.  The names of the members of the club are inscribed in the Red Book and it is Juliet’s task to get access to a copy of this.

As an author’s note makes clear, not only did both such groups exist, but the former were tricked into revealing their intentions in just such a manner as Atkinson depicts; the transcripts of their conversations are still in existence.  However, as anyone who has worked extensively with transcription knows, it isn’t always easy to be entirely (or even moderately) accurate. It’s difficult enough when your recording is being made in the same room as the conversation takes place and with the agreement of the speakers.  When you are working from hidden equipment, trying to listen in to people who won’t obligingly target their comments in the direction of the microphone, errors and omissions will abound. In such a situation it is understandable that misunderstandings as well as mis-hearings will occur and questions will be raised as to just who can be trusted.  Are the fifth columnists and the Right Club the only non-patriots hiding in plain sight?

Moving forward to 1950, Atkinson takes us into another bastion of the British Establishment, the BBC.  I loved these sections of the novel, mainly because Juliet now works for Schools Broadcasting and I am of a generation who was brought up with regular radio programmes providing a welcome break from the typical Maths before playtime, English after, routine that was such a part of a 1950s primary education. Armstrong’s apparent fear now is that she will never be able to escape the legacy of the war years.  The secret service will keep popping back into her life with their requests for just one last job and people she thought she had left behind forever develop an annoying habit of turning up and threatening her peace of mind, both mentally and physically.  Hitler may no longer be a danger, but there are other forces at work trying to undermine the British way of life and Juliet is well aware of the role she is expected to play in relation to them.

I have been relatively late coming to this novel, given that I would normally read a new Kate Atkinson as soon as it hit the bookshelves, so I am aware that it hasn’t received the general acclaim normally afforded to her work.  I have to say that I found the book eminently readable, gulping it down in just two sittings, but I can perhaps understand why there has been less praise than normal.  While the author appears to be intending to deal with the same sort of ideas as in her previous two novels, ideas to do with the deepening perspectives offered by time and the shifting viewpoints a greater understanding of events can bring about, I don’t think she makes this as clear in Transcription.  Neither do I think she gets the tone quite right.  There were times when I felt that I was more in the world of Jackson Brodie than in that of Ursula Todd. However, none of that stopped me enjoying it immensely.

As a footnote for anyone who hasn’t seen the announcement:  there is a new Jackson Brodie to look forward to.  The fifth in the series, Big Sky,  is due for publication next June.