Prague Spring ~ Simon Mawer

F9F2A25A-543F-4899-9866-D8DF120D57ECWay back in the early 1990s, just before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the College at which I worked entertained three Czech secondary teachers for a month and I was given the pleasurable task of showing them round the country and taking them to various music and theatre events.  Their English was perfect (I took them to an Oscar Wilde play and they laughed in all the right places – a lot of native English speakers don’t get Wilde’s humour) so we were able to have really interesting conversations about the different ways in which we had been brought up and educated.  One evening we were talking over coffee in the foyer of Symphony Hall and the subject of the Prague Spring and its aftermath came up. “I remember that,” I said. “I remember I had just bought a rucksack made in Czechoslovakia and wondering if we would be getting any more imports from your country.”  “Yes,” said one of our visitors.  “I remember it too. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the Russian tanks rolling through our village”.  There is remembering and remembering.

Simon Mawer’s new novel, Prague Spring, memorialises the weeks immediately before the Russian invasion from several different points of view. The book opens in Oxford where two students, Ellie and James, having both been let down over holiday plans, join forces to hitchhike across Europe during that summer of 1968.  Ellie, from a seriously middle-class background, has already been involved in student politics including the ‘riots’ in Paris the previous year.  James is a northern working-class lad who is nowhere near as politically inclined. Making decisions pretty much on the toss of a coin, they bumble their way across Europe, ending up in a Prague heady from the new freedoms that the Czech people have been demanding for themselves.

Once in the capital they encounter both politically involved Czech citizens and Sam  Wareham, a first secretary at the British Embassy who is observing developments from a professional and personal point of view.  Professionally he ought to be maintaining a level of detachment, but personally he is involved with a young activist, Lenka  Konecková, who isn’t the slightest bit backwards at coming forwards whenever she gets the opportunity of challenging those who are meant to be leading her country towards increased independence from Soviet interference. Through Lenka we learn something of the depredations that the Czech people have suffered over the two decades since the take-over by the Communist Party in 1948 and of the humiliations they have been forced to endure in order to forge any sort of life for themselves at all.

The reader meets Sam and Lenka long before the young British couple arrive in Prague, theirs is the second point of view we encounter.  There is, however, a third commentator,  what I would have to call ‘an intrusive narrator’ although I didn’t find him/her worryingly so.  This is a voice that clearly comes from the future and knows what is about to happen to these people who are so desperately fighting for their independence.  I did wonder at first if it was going to turn out to be one of the characters looking back with hindsight, but in fact it is more abstract than that.  It is the voice of each one of us, inevitably reading this book knowing what is about to happen, experiencing the vitality of these young people while aware of what the outcome is going to be and powerless to anything to prevent it.

It is this sense of inevitability which drives the novel and the reader forward.  There is no real suspense involved, because we know what brought that Prague Spring to an end.  We worry about certain characters, but nothing the writer nor the reader can do will stop those Russian tanks rolling into Wenceslas Square.  What it seems to me that Mawer is most concerned about is the way in which the outcomes for ordinary, everyday people are so randomly decided; how little say they have in their own destiny. We come across this in several ways.  There is, of course, the tossing of the coin that I have already mentioned.  Ellie and James abnegate their decision as to where they are going to travel and hand their future over to fate. They are lucky they have the option to renounce personal choice of their own free will.  Those under Soviet domination will not be so lucky. Unless, of course, they happen to have money and influence.  If you are a world renown conductor then don’t worry, someone will get you out to the West.  An ordinary citizen, like Lenka, however is going to have to stay and, if you will excuse the pun, face the music.  Most telling however, are the constant reminders of how James and Ellie met, taking part in what is described as a sub-Beckett play in which their two characters, Fando and Lis, are searching (fruitlessly) for the city of Tar.  Reading about the Czechs’ attempts to exert free will, knowing that they are not going to make it, is very like watching the characters in a Beckett play delude themselves that they are in charge of their destinies when all the time the world is conspiring to reduce them to ashes.

This is not the first time that Simon Mawer has written about Czechoslovakia’s troubled history.  His 2009 Booker shortlisted novel, The Glass Room, explored the years between 1930 and the country’s annexation by the Nazis in 1938 through into the post-war period.  Perhaps there is some family connection, I don’t know.  What I do know is that he appears to have a real sense of empathy with the Czech people and the turbulent times through which they have lived and I strongly recommend this book.

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Circe ~ Madeline Miller

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3When I was ‘learning to read’ at primary school (i.e. crawling my way through a reading scheme designed to put children off books for life) the light at the end of the tunnel was a series of books called Wide Range Readers, which contained ‘proper stories’ rather than a  sequence of unrelated sentences about how much I loved (loathed) Dick and Dora.  I think there were twelve of these books altogether and each one included at least one tale from the myths of Ancient Greece and Rome.  This must be where I first encountered Circe, who I have to say did not impress herself on me anywhere near as much as Jason searching for the Golden Fleece or Theseus defeating the Minotaur.  I suspect she cropped up only as an appendage to the story of Odysseus. I certainly remember something about his sailors being turned into pigs ; it’s the sort of detail that stays in your mind.

Madeline Miller’s most recent novel, Circe, redresses the balance. While Jason, the Minotaur and most especially Odysseus make their appearance, this first person narrative is centred solely around the nymph herself.  Daughter of the titan, Helios, Circe finds herself caught in the middle of the continuing struggle between her father’s people and the Olympian gods.  In a move to retain the delicate balance between the two sets of immortals, Circe is exiled to the island of Aiaia as punishment for having turned Scylla, her rival in love, into a truly hideous monster. However, in the process of achieving this Circe has discovered her vocation as pharmakis; the problem being, that then, as  throughout history, a woman working with the produce of the natural world to create even the most harmless of remedies is labelled Witch.  And this opens up Miller’s exploration of the story of Circe and the way in which she has been portrayed through the ages into a more far reaching feminist consideration of the way in which women thought the ages have been suppressed by men.  The titans have always treated both wives and daughters as nothing more than toys available as and when for their sexual pleasure and Circe turns Odysseus’ sailors into pigs because she has reason to know how even human men will treat her if she doesn’t take steps to protect herself from their sexual appetites.

It would be wrong, however, to see this book as simply a feminist tract. Miller is, I think, much more concerned with the question of what it means to be human, or more particularly, what it means for Circe not to be, but rather to be cursed with the ‘gift’ of immortality. This isn’t something that has troubled her father, Helios, who believed the world’s natural order was to please him and who had never been able to imagine the world without himself in it, but Circe is both fascinated by the humans that she encounters and increasingly aware that her own eternal life condemns her to repeatedly lose those,  such as the inventor, Daedalus, with whom she finds a commonality. This comes to a head when she bears Odysseus a son, Telegonus, and, as he sets out to find his father, fully realises the fragility of human existence.  Perhaps ironically then, it is Odysseus’ son by Penelope, Telemachus, who finally brings about a resolution to her inner conflict and also offers her a way of escape from her island exile.

Initally, I found the novel rather slow, but once I was into it and, most particularly, once I had become attuned to the very clear music that dictates the patterns behind Miller’s writing, I had a hard time putting it down.  I really enjoyed her earlier novel, The Song of Achilles, but this, I think, is the more thoughtful book and I am impatient to see what she offers us next.

The Dark Angel ~ Elly Griffiths

IMG_0001Just what do you do when the 2000 year old skeleton you are in the process of excavating rings you up and, when you fail to answer, sends you a text message?  You send for Ruth Galloway, of course.  The Dark Angel, Elly Griffiths’ tenth novel featuring the Norfolk based forensic archeologist, begins in the Liri Valley in Italy where Professor Angelo Morelli, an old acquaintance of Ruth, is clearly as concerned about his television presence as he is about ‘Toni’, the skeleton he is unearthing.  When his phone rings in the middle of shooting, the skeleton suddenly gets all his attention.  The television moguls are not, however, amused and so, in a bid to save his media career, Angelo invites Ruth, who much to her dismay he sells to them as an international bones expert, to come over to Italy and give her opinion about Toni’s provenance.

Ruth is not in a good place.  The Dark Angel takes up from exactly where The Chalk Pit ended, at DS Clough’s wedding.  As we follow Ruth and her six year old daughter, Kate, to the reception, it is clear that she has been stunned by the announcement of Michelle Nelson’s pregnancy.  Michelle is the wife of DCI Harry Nelson, who is Kate’s father, and the forthcoming birth of this unexpected child makes it very clear that any future that Ruth might have hoped for with Nelson is not going to materialise. When the call to Italy comes, with the promise of accommodation for her and Kate and the chance to stay on for a few days holiday afterwards, she welcomes the opportunity to get away.  Accompanied by her friend Shona and Shona’s four year old Louis, Ruth takes herself off to sunnier climes.

Although two murders are committed, one in Italy and the other in Norfolk, they are not the focus of this novel which is actually about the concept of family and the legacy of grievances which can resurface from one generation to another.  This manifests itself not only in the complications of Ruth’s relationship with Nelson but also in the history of Angelo’s family.  To some Angelo’s recently deceased grandfather is a hero, others are not so sure.  A member of the Italian resistance, he brought aid to the wartime partisans as they fought against the Nazis.  Some people, however, argue that such individuals only made matters worse for the populace in general, bringing the wrath of Mussolini’s black shirts down on everyone, regardless of their involvement.  Angelo and his mother Elsa defend his reputation vigorously but the undercurrents of ancient grievances are clearly there.

Wartime feuds are recent history, however, compared with the debate raging in academic circles as to the relative importance of the Romans when compared with the even older tribes who populated the region at the time when the smart phone savvy Toni was buried.  The Volsci (remembered mostly in Britain for their role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) have had little attention paid to them but their descendants are determined that the ‘family’ will not be forgotten and are prepared to go to some lengths to prevent further excavation of Roman sites, pushing instead for investigations into the other Italic tribes.

Into this mix is introduced Samir, a Catholic Syrian refugee, who is separated from his family and has risked life and limb in order to try to meet up with them in Italy where he hopes to be able to build a new life for them all.  There is an uncomfortable passage in the middle of the novel where his background is explained.  Uncomfortable, because of what it is describing, but also uncomfortable because the writing is suddenly different from the rest of the text and as consequence it sticks out as a polemic rather than being better integrated into the story.

But then the whole novel is something of a polemic about the complexity of family and the difficulties that defence of family brings with it and as a result for me, at least, this undermines the overall structure of the story.  The notion of the family is relevant to both crimes but the focus of the book is on neither and so they seem almost peripheral to what is happening.  This really isn’t a crime novel; it is a novel about Ruth and Nelson’s relationship and as such I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I have the earlier books in the series.  Its saving grace is that, Samir’s exposition apart, it still maintains the rather quirky narrative voice which presides over the action and lets no one get away with anything even so much as resembling a half truth.  Ruth packing for Italy asks What else does the conscientious mother need?  Antiseptic cream? Nit comb? Gin? and paying their respects to Sunday as a day of spiritual significance Nelson and Michelle are in the modern British equivalent of church: a garden centre. And it has Kate, a far more active presence than in previous books, who, with her Paddington hard stares is ever bit as effective as the narrator when it comes to deflating adult egos.  So, not a complete disaster, but not what I was looking for when I picked this book up.  I hope when we next meet Ruth it will be in a more crime focused context and that her personal life will be a little less to the fore.

With thanks to Quercus Books and Net Galley for making a copy of this book available.

The Lying Kind ~Alison James

IMG_0093Six year old Lola Jade Harper has been missing for seven months after disappearing from her mother’s home in Eastwell, Surrey.  A child likely to be at the heart of a bitter custody battle, she appears to have been abducted to order and inevitably her father, Gavin, is a major suspect.  Now Gavin has also disappeared and given that there have been reported sightings of Lola Jade on the continent, the National Crime Agency, once better known as Interpol, has been tasked to assist in finding him.  DI Rachel Prince and her Sergeant, Mark Brickall, are handed the file and told to liaise with the Surrey force in an attempt to discover whether the little girl has been taken abroad to keep her from her mother.

However, Michelle Harper may not be all that she seems.  While most of the social network comments are supportive of her, there are other indications that she is seriously unstable and very early in her involvement with the case Rachel finds herself questioning just how sincere Lola Jade’s mother is wanting to find the child. Making sure that her husband takes the blame appears to be much more important. When Gavin is eventually tracked down and it becomes apparent that his daughter isn’t with him attention turns back to the UK and Michelle Harper’s movements come under closer scrutiny.  Why has she moved out of the family home to live with her sister and what is happening to the money that has been collected on a just giving site to help with the search?

The Missing Child raises a number of interesting questions about the dynamics of family life.  If a marriage starts to go wrong how do you deal with the growing awareness that you have made a mistake?  Rachel herself has a failed relationship behind her: one from which she has withdrawn without allowing either herself or her husband any form of closure.  What happens when husband and wife have different views not only about having children but also as to how any children should be brought up?  How much can one sibling ask of another and what are the consequences when sibling bonds are broken?  And, most pertinently, what are the consequences when love for a child is subverted by love of oneself.  Alison James successfully manages to integrate each of these different strands into both the central plot and the background material she provides about her main characters in this her first novel.  At the end of the book the reader is left not only with a satisfactory storyline but also with sufficient detail about Rachel, her Sergeant and their personal and professional histories to feel that they are real people with real lives.

This is an accomplished first novel, well plotted, with convincingly drawn characters and also stylishly written.  It isn’t that often that the first in a series is strong enough to make me automatically put a writer on my go-to list of authors but I shall definitely be on the look out for Alison James’ next novel.  I think she may be a writer to watch.

With thanks to NetGalley for making this available for review.

The Only Story ~ Julian Barnes

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI think I came at this, the latest novel from one of my favourite authors, Julian Barnes, from the wrong direction. No one who knows me will be the slightest bit surprised to hear that I latched on to the word ‘story’ in the title and assumed that the key element here would be a tying of the concept of story to the way in which we live our lives.  And, to a certain extent that is a concern addressed by the narrative that Barnes relates.  However, when Barnes talks of the ‘only’ story what he is specifically referring to is a love story.

Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real… Everyone does. It’s the only story.

The love story that Barnes goes on to relate is that of Paul and Susan, a couple who meet during one 1960s summer when nineteen year old Paul, home from university, decides to kill some time at the local tennis club.  He is paired with Susan for a mixed doubles tournament and the friendship that develops between them quite quickly blossoms into a much more serious relationship. However, to Paul’s nineteen Susan is forty-six and married with two adult daughters. The much older Paul, who narrates this story, recognises that to the reader this might seem problematic, even an error of judgment (the tennis club committee, which blackballs them both, clearly has even stronger feelings about the matter) but asks for a more sensitive understanding of the situation.

Perhaps you understood a little too quickly; I can hardly blame you. We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre-existing category. We see what is general or common about it; where as the participants see – feel – only what is individual and particular to them. We say: how predictable; they say: what a surprise!

Well, however we may categorise Paul and Susan’s relationship, it not only continues, it absolutely thrives, even under the grumpy and sometimes violent auspices of Susan’s sexually estranged husband and eventually, Paul having completed his university course, they move into their own property as he begins his training to become a solicitor. But, while Paul is content with the situation, Susan begins to show signs of strain.  Her health, both physical and mental, starts to crumble and Paul is forced to question how wise, how stable, their relationship is. He is even forced to question its very foundation – the love which he believes to be the basis of everything else.

The older Paul who narrates the story would, I am sure, maintain that his love never falters, but it certainly changes and one aspect in particular that changes is the way in which he positions himself in relation to his actions as he retells his ‘only story’. At one point he asks

do all these retelling bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away.

In narrative terms he certainly distances himself further from the story of his and Susan’s relationship the further he moves from that initial attraction.  Thus, the story is split into three sections.  The first tells of those early years and the narrative choices reflect Paul’s observation that

first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense:

the narrative voice and tense of that initial section echo that.  The older Paul, however, is astute enough to recognise that it takes us time to realise that there are other persons, and other tenses and as the relationship begins to alter so, in the telling of the second and third sections, he distances himself further and further away from the both the action and from Susan, moving through a well controlled second tense in the middle of the text and then into third person, past tense in the final part until, as an elderly man, he can reflect on their time together from the distance of a limited third person narrator, who is well aware that in his recall of their relationship he may also be an unreliable narrator.

There has been much discussion in the press as to the merits of this novel, in particular in comparison to his award winning The Sense of an Ending. I thought that that was a magnificent work and while I find much in this new book to admire, it didn’t affect me in the same way as the earlier novel.  In part this may be because I didn’t agree with his basic premise.  If we do each only have one story to tell (and this is a proposition that Elizabeth Strout also puts forward in My Name is Lucy Barton) then I don’t think it is always a love story.  My primary story would be about me as a teacher because teaching pretty much defines who I always have been and who I still am.  Teaching is as natural an activity to me as breathing is to most other people.  The Only Story feels to me like a very personal response on the part of the author, possibly growing out of his own experience. Nevertheless, it is an extremely well crafted novel with many of those beautifully turned phrases and astutely authentic observations which are the hallmark of Barnes’ style as, for example, when he speaks of an English silence – one in which all the unspoken words of perfectly understood by both parties. So, while for me, this may not be quite his best work, it is still Barnes writing at the top of his game and I very strongly recommend it.

With thanks to Random House and NetGalley for making this available for review.

Perfect Death ~ Helen Fields

IMG_0245What drives someone to commit murder?  This has been a question raised in a number of crime novels I’ve read this year and it is certainly true of Perfect Death, the third in Helen Field’s Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanch and DCI Ava Turner.  Luc is still finding it difficult to settle into the Edinburgh set-up having been forced out of his job with Interpol following a false accusation of rape.  His gallic good looks don’t make the situation any easier and he remains the butt of DS Lively’s old school sense of humour.  The MIT squad are brought together, however, by the unexpected suicide of their old chief, the now retired DCI Begbie.  What on earth could have induced him to drive his car out to a solitary cliff edge, leave the engine running and feed a pipe in through the window?  Visiting his grieving widow, Ava finds unexpected evidence which links back to a certain Louis Jones, an informant, who has himself disappeared in very suspicious circumstances.

While trying to uncover the mystery in her old Chief’s past, Ava is also under pressure to discover who has been responsible for the death of teenager Lily Eustis.  Initially thought to be an accidental, if questionable, death, it becomes apparent that someone has fed her a high concentration of cannabis oil and left her die on a cold Edinburgh hillside.  Detective Superintendent Overbeck (or Detective Superintendent Evil Overlord as DS Lively prefers to call her) is not impressed when Turner wants to turn the case into a full scale murder enquiry and even less pleased when it is suggested that a second death, that of charity worker Cordelia Muir, might have come about at the hand of the same killer.  Serial killers play havoc with a force’s statistics and have a nasty habit of pushing up the overtime budget.  It is DC Tripp (clearly marked for rapid and well deserved promotion) who makes the connection between the two cases and from that point the race is on to find out who the killer is before they are able to strike again.

I came across Helen Fields first DI Callanach novel early last year and was immediately drawn into the world that she has created.  Her first two novels showed her to be  excellent at both character and plot development; Perfect Death only confirms my initial impressions.  Psychologically scarred by his experiences in France, Luc still finds it difficult to trust the people with whom he works and his obvious differences make it hard for his colleagues to settle with him.  However, there is a realistic growth of mutual respect as he not only brings about resolutions to some seriously nasty crimes, but also shows that he is willing to put his own life on the line when necessary.  Even Lively is prepared, by the end of this story, to go on the record with the opinion that he’s not a complete tosser. From Lively praise indeed.  Fields also deals well with the difficulties faced by newly promoted DCI Turner, exploring the problems which a change in rank, responsibilities and subsequent relations with colleagues can bring.

In respect of the plot elements of the novel Fields judiciously seeds her tale with slight indications of which way the story is going to develop.  Her choice of vocabulary is often very telling, for instance the use of a single word suggesting that a character who is apparently submissive is actually completely in control of the interaction in which they are involved.  This is clever writing.  There is no way that a reader can argue that they have been misled about someone, but equally they are going to have to read very carefully indeed to pick up on the clues that are dropped along the way.

Thematically, as I have indicated, the author is concerned with motive: what is it in a character’s past that compels them to behave as they do? She explores this not only in respect of the two criminal cases that are being pursued but also in regard to the relationship between Luc and the mother who seemingly abandoned him to his fate once the charge of rape was levelled against him.  When she turns up in Edinburgh to try and explain herself to him Luc, not unexpectedly perhaps, wants nothing to do with her.  However, what she subsequently reveals to him might well be seen as motive enough for her behaviour; I suspect that it will become a driving motive for Luc’s actions in future novels. A second developing theme is police corruption.  It is the driving force behind the investigation into Begbie’s death and the disappearance of Louis Jones and the indication is that even when the known rotten apples have been dealt with, there is still another in the barrel who remains to surface at a later date.  This is the second novel I have read this week which explores the less savoury elements to be found in modern policing.  It is a useful plot device applied sparingly, used too often it could be seen an easy way out of a narrative hole of the writer’s own digging.

Helen Fields began strongly and has continued to improve with each successive novel.  If you haven’t already discovered her work then I recommend going back to the beginning and starting with Perfect Remains.  If you do know her previous novels then you will be pleased to know that Perfect Death is every bit as good as what has gone before, if not better.

With thanks to Avon Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.

This Is How It Ends ~ Eva Dolan

IMG_0093Four years ago I read Eva Dolan’s first novel Long Way Home.  Set in Peterborough it was the beginning of a series focused on a Hate Crimes unit and featured DI Zigic and DS Ferreira.  I remember writing at the time that I was impressed not only by the quality of the writing but also by the rather harder than usual edge that Dolan gave to her main characters.  My only concern was whether or not centring her novels around hate crime would limit the variety of stories she would be able to tell.  Well, four years on, Dolan has moved away from her police procedural series and now offers a one off tale set on the other side of the law, among a group of anti-gentrification protestors who are attempting to stop developers making a fortune at the expense of those people who are forced out of their homes to enable the building of apartments that will sell for seven figure sums.  Whether this change has come about as a result of running out of ideas for the Hate Crime series, I have no way of knowing, but I suspect not.  This novel, every bit as well written and almost as well plotted as the earlier books, has an even harder edge to it; it emanates anger from every page.  It feels like a very personal response to an emotion deeply felt and it reflects well on Dolan’s ability to control that emotion that it works as well as it does for as long as it does.

Ella Riordan is making waves.  Brought up in a police family, Cambridge educated and recruited into the Force, she then walks out part way into her training and joins the ‘other’ side.  Researching for her doctorate, she gradually makes her way into the confidence of many of the women who have been the backbone of protest movements since the days of Greenham Common.  Given her background, gaining their trust isn’t easy but, when she is clearly the victim of police violence during a kettling incident, she is taken up by a protest veteran, the photographer, Molly Fader.  Molly is one of a number of tenants holding out against developers who want to pull down the apartment block where she lives and so, when Ella manages to raise the money for a book paying tribute to the people who are being displaced, Castle Rise seems the perfect place to hold a celebration.

And then everything goes wrong.  Ella kills someone.  She immediately calls on Molly for help.  It was an accident; he attacked her; she struck out in self defence and he hit his head as he fell; given her history the police would never believe her. This is what Ella tells Molly as she gets her friend to help her carry the body to the nearest lift shaft and drop it down.  This Is How It Begins.  From this point the narrative line splits. We move forward with Molly as she gradually begins to recognise the consequences of their actions.  Her world is disintegrating around her.  More and more people are accepting the developers’ offers and moving out.  Her closest friend, Callum, is questioned about the murder and as a result his past catches up with him. Worst of all she doesn’t seem to be able to communicate with Ella any more.  Meanwhile Ella’s narrative moves back in time as step by step we are shown what has brought her to this point: how she has extracted herself from the difficulties she faced at the Police College and built a new life among the very people she might have expected to oppose.  How she has managed to gain their trust.

And that is the word that echoes repeatedly through this novel – trust.  I lost count of the number of times it is used.  Molly questions whether Ella trusts her any longer and then finds herself asking whether or not she can still trust Ella.  Ella equally expresses doubt as to whom she can trust.  Trust, something that is central to any relationship, becomes a gift that sometimes felt like a burden. And when it is lost the sense of betrayal is another punch to [an] already pummelled old heart.  Ultimately, the question that Dolan is asking in this novel, and the force behind the anger that appears to drive it, is just who can we trust?  Who can we trust in our personal lives, but more forcefully who in society can we trust?  Who can we trust to protect us against those forces who are out for their own profit at the expense of everyone around them?  Her answer is bleak.

I don’t normally read one off thrillers but in many respects this is much more than an off the shelf thriller. It is a response to a serious societal concern that is being raised by many people and, although the anger which propels the writing is apparent throughout, Dolan manages to successfully walk that fine line which keeps the work on the side of a good novel rather than tipping over into a polemic.  My only concern is the ending, where I think her plotting lets her down.  To me it is the easy option, the quick way out of a situation which has become so complicated that any other conclusion would have taken away from the narrative drive, but it is an option that doesn’t ring true.  Perhaps the problem is that in real life there would be no such easy solution.  In all other respects this is another fine book from a fine author.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy for review.

Hell Bay ~ Kate Rhodes

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Over the past six years Kate Rhodes London based crime series featuring psychologist Alice Quentin has given me considerable pleasure.  Now she opens 2018 with a new series set on Bryher, one of the smaller of the Scilly Isles, and featuring DI Ben Kitto.  Kitto is home on extended leave from the Met. The trauma of his undercover partner’s recent death, a death he feels he should have prevented, has pushed him into handing in his resignation but rather than accepting this his DCI has asked him to take a break and give himself time to reconsider.  With no desire to stay in London, Ben returns to the island where he grew up and to the cottage that has always been home.  With a population of less than a hundred, life on Bryher should be as far from the chaos and suffering that have marked his recent life as could be imagined.  However, within days of his arrival, accompanied by Shadow, the Czechoslovakian Wolfhound that he has inherited, his anticipated peace is shattered by the disappearance of sixteen year old Laura Trescothick.  It is Kitto who eventually finds her body, marred by wounds which make it clear that she must have not simply known, but also trusted, her killer.  When DCI Madron, the officer in charge of policing on the islands, is called in, Ben offers his services as SIO, on the grounds that not only does he have the murder investigative experience, but also that everyone who could possibly be concerned is known to him.

What follows is the modern day equivalent of the country house murder.  Ferries have not been running in the time between Laura’s disappearance and the discovery of her body, which means that the murderer must still be on the island.  A curfew is enforced, no one is to leave and mercifully, no journalists to be allowed in, and with the help of PC Eddie Nickell, Kitto sets out to interview each of the islanders.  That many of these are lifelong friends and some of them relatives doesn’t make the process any easier.  Nor does the fact that it is not long before it becomes apparent that there are tensions running below the surface of island society and numerous personal guilty secrets, all of which might provide a motive for murder.

Chief among these is the animosity felt between many of the established island families and the incomers Jay and Patty Curnow.  Millionaire Curnow is intent on buying up as much of the island as he can and is not above using aggressive coercion as a means of getting his own way.  Laura, intent on leaving the island for a life of show business, has been planning her escape with their son, Danny.  Both disapproving families hold the other’s child accountable and the Trescothicks are not the only people who would like to lay the blame for Laura’s death at Danny’s door.

However, running alongside Kitto’s narrative is that of Rose Austell, whose son Sam, a previous boyfriend of Laura’s, has also gone missing.  Through these third person segments of an otherwise first person narrative, it very soon becomes apparent that Sam is mixed up with drug smuggling and when a chunk of cannabis resin is found amongst Laura’s possessions her possible involvement has to be questioned as well. Have they crossed the couriers bringing the drugs into the island and is that the reason behind the crimes which have even the best of friends and neighbours looking askance at each other?

Before turning her hand to crime fiction Kate Rhodes was a published poet and it shows in the quality of her writing.  Time and again I stopped in my reading just to savour lines such as that which describes the sea as a restless sleeper, eager to shrug the night’s weight from its shoulders.  She also invokes place better than any other crime novelist I know.  Crossbones Yard, the first of the Alice Quentin novels, drew a portrait of London which frequently had me going back to Whistler’s magnificently detailed etchings of the area round the River Thames, each artist in their very different ways conjuring up a whole landscape with just a few masterful strokes.  Now Rhodes does the same thing for the island of Bryher and not just for its physical landscape, but for the complex nature of its small and heavily inter-related society as well.  First and foremost, however, she is excellent at creating character.  It isn’t easy to change tack having already established an audience for a particular group of individuals, especially when they have each had a vibrancy that meant readers felt they knew them as friends and I will admit that I am going to miss Alice and Don and Lola and will go on worrying about Will, however, so completely has she created the character of Ben Kitto that I am already invested in him and it is good to know that a second novel in the series, Ruin Beach has been announced for June.

I have read a number of new crime novels over the Christmas period, some good, some not so.  Hell Bay has definitely been the best of the bunch and if you haven’t yet read Rhodes’ work then I very strongly recommend you start here before returning to enjoy her back catalogue.

With thanks to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for making this review copy available.

Close To Home ~ Cara Hunter

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Eight year-old Daisy Mason is missing.  The initial assumption is that she has vanished during the course of a summer barbecue given by her parents in their home near the Oxford canal.  However, it soon becomes apparent that she and a friend exchanged fancy dress costumes and it is the other child people have reported as attending the party. No one has seen Daisy since she left school that afternoon.  DI Adam Fawley is detailed to head up the enquiry.  The reader is soon aware that some type of tragedy has befallen Fawley’s own child, Jake, and all eyes are on him to see how he will cope with this, his first child-centred case since his son’s death.

As the Press and social media watch on with more self-indulgent interest than concern, Fawley and his team begin to uncover a web of lies at the heart of the Mason family.  None of them is quite what they seem, not even ten year old Leo, Daisy’s solitary and much bullied brother. Neither is the happy family unit that they would like the world to perceive anything more than surface dressing.  Layer after layer of deceit and mistrust is revealed as old family histories come to light and current tensions explode in the faces of all concerned.  It isn’t so much a question of who could possibly be responsible for Daisy’s disappearance as who can safely be ruled out.   The one person who apparently has been aware of much of this unease is Daisy herself.  In a series of flashbacks we see her not only unpicking elements of her family’s own back story far more effectively than the police manage, but then reflecting the anger against her parents which her discoveries provoke in an anti-fairystory she writes for her teacher.  As someone who has spent four decades in primary education and three of those actively researching the stories that primary children write, I don’t know what surprised me more, the story that this eight year old is supposed to have written or the response of the teacher who read it.  It is hard to say more without giving too much away, but that was the point at which even my well known ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast gave way and I read on simply to see what Cara Hunter would pull out of the hat next but not believing a word.

I have to say that I find it very hard to critique this novel.  In many ways it reminds me of a child’s story itself.  There are so many twists and turns that in the end I viewed it simply as an exercise in cramming as many social and family deviances into a book as possible: an adult equivalent of how many dragons, witches and haunted castles can I squeeze into one tale.  It also has a final dénouement that would give the ubiquitous and then I woke up and it was all a dream a run for its money any day of the week.  These features alone would have been annoying enough, but the author compounds the irritant by doing the same thing with narrative devices.  Sometimes it is a first person narrative, sometimes third.  We are in the present, we are in flashback, although not a simple flashback, but one that goes further into the past each time.  Extensive stretches of dialogue vie for attention with transcripts of interviews and facsimiles of twitter streams and Facebook pages.  If I had been the editor I would have sent it back and said for goodness sake, just trust the story; let it tell itself. My initial thoughts were that I would begin by saying that I believed Cara Hunter had it in her to write a really good novel at some point because every now and again there is a quality in the writing that suggests someone who has a real feel for language.  It seemed to me that this was a young writer who had yet to find a measure of control; who needed to learn that very often less is more.  I was going to jump up and down again on the soapbox marked ‘insufficient editorial input’ and say how this hampered writers just setting out.  Then, checking on the Fantastic Fiction site to see if this was indeed a first novel, I read this:

Cara Hunter is the pen name of an established British novelist who lives and works in Oxford. She also studied for a degree and PhD in English literature at Oxford University.

Now I am floored.  Apparently we have another J K Rowling on our hands.  Except Rowling would never get in the way of a good story in this manner.

I know that the book has attracted great interest and large sums have been paid for it and for the next two in the series.  I fully expect the book world in general to tell me that I am wrong and that this is a masterpiece, but as far as I am concerned this is a novice piece of writing and if it really is the work of an established novelist then I simply don’t know what is going on here.

With thanks to Penguin and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of the book. (Although whether they will thank me for the review is another matter!)

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Mile ~ Margery Allingham

37788084343093605_97fQ9uva_fEarly in the year I half seriously set myself the task of re-reading the Albert Campion novels of Margery Allingham.  I read them originally when I was in my twenties and thirties and haven’t been back to them since, but I have always thought of them fondly because one of them taught me something interesting about myself which I shall reveal when I come to the appropriate book.  (Like Albert himself, I am all for a bit of teasing to keep the troops guessing.)  Then, I read them in a piecemeal fashion, dependent on whatever was in the library and, as I am fairly certain that the library didn’t have them all, this time round there will be some that will come as a pleasant surprise, however, Mystery Mile, the second novel in the series, I had read before, because I remember sorrowing for Albert over his lost love, Biddy Paget.

Biddy and her twin brother, Giles, live at the aforementioned Mystery Mile, but the upkeep on the decaying building is becoming impossible, so when their old friend Albert sends a message to say that he has found someone to take on the tenancy they are much relieved and makes plans to move into the dower house.  Albert’s proposed tenants are the Lobbetts, an American family he has encountered on an Atlantic crossing. The paterfamilias, Judge Crowdy Lobbett, has become the target of the Simister gang because, rumour has it, he has discovered the carefully guarded secret of the identity of Simister himself.  There have already been several associated deaths in the States and Campion foils yet another on the sea voyage.  Judge Lubbett hopes to protect his grown children, Marlowe and Isopel, by bringing them to England and the offer of a house buried deep in the countryside is therefore welcome.  When the four young people meet up there is an immediate attraction and pairing off, to the quite distress of Albert, who very clearly has a soft spot for Biddy himself.

Unfortunately, the Lubbett family has little time to enjoy the bucolic quiet of rural East Anglia.  They are visited by a travelling fortune teller, Anthony Datchett, whose message so disturbs the twins’ old confident, the Rev. Swithen Cush, that he goes home and commits suicide.  From that point on it is a race against time to keep one step in front of the villains, protect the Judge, uncover the identity of the scoundrel in chief and ensure that justice prevails.

When I wrote about The Crime at Black Dudley, which I hadn’t read before, I ‘complained’ that the Campion I encountered there was not the one I recalled.  He wasn’t the central character and there were very few signs that he wasn’t the complete ass that he appeared to be.  There has been a significant shift between the two novels.  This is much more Albert as I remembered him, perfectly capable of appearing as an ass when he wants to, but deadly serious and competent underneath.  We also begin to learn more of his background, albeit in a roundabout and rather unresolved way.  No one seems to know his true antecedents and Giles remarks that

the last time I saw him we walked down Regent Street together, and from the corner of Conduit Street to the Circus we met five people he knew, including a viscountess and two bishops. Each one of them stopped and greeted him as an old pal.  And every single one of them called him by a different name.

However, when Swithen Cush says of him,

our very good friend Albert is a true son of the Church.  In the time of Richelieu he would no doubt have become a cardinal

Allingham is surely hinting at the habit practised by European royalty of sending younger sons into the Church to make their way (often through intrigue and manipulation) to the top of an institution every bit as powerful as any temporal monarchy.  This is then picked up on in the final pages, when a down at heart Campion is revitalised by a letter crested with the arms of a famous European Royal House, inviting him to take on an impersonation that would have given joy to many a nineteenth century novelist looking for an intriguing plot twist. As I recall, this is a riddle that is never completely answered by Allingham, but it is interesting to see beginning to build a definite legend for her character as if she has decided she rather liked this young man she dropped into the middle of Black Dudley and that he is worth running with.

We also make our first acquaintance with the wonderful Magersfontein Lugg, who is definitely not out of the same school of butlers as either Jeeves or Bunter.  Goodness only knows what his antecedents are at this stage in the series, but his pretensions are there for all to see in the letter he writes to Biddy and which she then cites to Albert

Lugg tells me you’re allowed out, in a really marvellous epistle which begins ‘Dear Madham’ and ends ‘Well Duckie, I must close now’.

I look forward to knowing more of his background.

Something that I did find myself wondering about was just why, given how irritated I was by the characters in The Pursuit of Love and their life style, I didn’t feel the same irritation for Allingham’s cast, who are from a similar milieu and share very much the  same way of life.  I think the answer is that while Mitford takes that life absolutely seriously, Allingham is well aware of the less than twenty twenty vision with which the upper classes viewed the world and is constantly poking sly fun.  Recommending the fortune teller to Judge Lobbett, Giles comments

He’s an extraordinary chap.  Apparently he turns up after dinner at country houses and shells out the past and present for five bob a time.  Anyway, that sort of thing.  Rather funny: he told Guffy Randell that a beautiful creature was going to throw him over and he was going to be pretty seriously hurt by it.  Guffy was quite rattled.  He didn’t ride to hounds for a fortnight, and it wasn’t until Rosemary Waterhouse broke off their engagement that he realised what the chap meant.  He was awfully relieved.

Those last four words make all the difference.

Mystery Mile confirmed me in my resolve to return to Allingham’s Campion novels and I anticipate considerable pleasure in reading those still to come.