The American Agent ~ Jacqueline Winspear

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Born in a Burial Gown ~ Mike Craven

I wish I could remember who put me onto Cumbria based The Puppet Show by M W Craven.  I owe them.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how much I had enjoyed this first novel by the writer under this name, especially the chance to meet the analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, with whom I felt a certain kinship.  So much did I enjoy it that I went in search of other novels by the same writer and found Born in a Burial Gown, the initial  book in an earlier series, also set in Cumbria, featuring DI Avison Fluke as the lead protagonist.

Craven’s leading men share certain characteristics.  To start with, they have wonderful names.  On balance I think I prefer The Puppet Show’s Washington Poe, but Avison Fluke is good too.  They both live isolate lives in the Cumbrian countryside and, when we first meet them, they are both recovering from traumatic incidents which mean that neither of them should be working.  They are also instinctive coppers, with little time for the administrative niceties. This may make each of them something of a cliché, but clichés are clichés because they work, because they make for a good story.

And, Born in a Burial Gown is most definitely a good story.  It begins with an anonymous note, left on a building site, tipping the police off about a body dump.  Without the note the body of the unnamed young woman would have been buried deep in the construction foundations and lost forever.  Also, given that she is not only without any means of identification but also appears to have gone to extreme lengths to make sure that she cannot be recognised, she might not even have been reported missing. The investigation, handed over to Fluke and his team of FMIT misfits by his superior officer, DCI Chambers, looks as if it might never get past first base.  They don’t know who the victim is, they have no idea as to where she was killed and given the fact that she has changed her appearance they can’t rely on a public appeal to put a name to a face.  And then, they get a break, when a fellow officer recognises her as a woman who a few days earlier reported a rape but failed to follow through with the allegations. Has her rapist caught up with her and ensured that she cannot go through with her allegations in the most permanent way possible?  Or are the rape and the murder unconnected? Is it rather that whatever actions caused her to feel the need to drastically alter her appearance have finally come home to roost and her death has been some sort of revenge killing?  Fluke has to find out before his ever vigilant specialist drags him back into hospital and forces him to submit to the medical treatments necessary to save his life.

I very much enjoyed this book and will certainly be reading Body Breaker, the second in the series.  If it didn’t engage me quite as much as The Puppet Show that’s probably because it didn’t have a Tilly Bradshaw equivalent. I thought for a time that Lucy, ‘the bug lady’, might be going to fill the role, but it wasn’t to be.  Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a new go to crime writer and haven’t already read Craven’s work you could do a lot worse than spend a couple of hours in the company of either of his disfunctional DIs.

Meeting the Second

Tonight is the second meeting of our new book group and it will be interesting to see if the enthusiasm has carried over and we get as good an attendance this month as we did last.  I’m also looking forward to seeing whether people will be a little less conservative in the choice of books they bring for discussion.  The whole idea is that you talk about what you have read since our last meeting, but I was aware last time that some members of the group had selected on the basis of what they were prepared to admit to having read rather than what their real preferences might have been.  With that in mind, I am going to take along two very different books in the hope that it will encourage wider tastes to emerge as the group grows in confidence.

One of these is the first in a new crime series, The Puppet Show, by M W Craven, a writer who has previously published as Mike Craven.  This is one of the best police procedurals I have read this year and I am already looking forward to Black Summer due out next June.  His chief character, who goes by the wonderful name of Washington Poe, is called back from suspension from the National Crime Agency to help in the investigation of a series of particularly nasty killings in the Lake District, an area of the country he knows well.  Prominent people are being burnt alive in prehistoric stone circles, but other than their standing in the community nothing else appears to link them.  With no evidence left after the immolations and without any obvious connection between the victims, it is difficult for the police to get a lead on who the murderer might be or to predict where he or she might strike next.

Poe has many of the features readers have come to expect in the protagonists of crime fiction.  He has little regard for authority, the rules or those who stick too closely to them when he feels a short cut might catch the villain of the piece sooner, so I suppose you could say he is a bit of a cliché.  But, you know, clichés are clichés because they work and I liked Poe’s style.  I also loved Tilly Bradshaw, the young statistical genius, who has never been out of the office before but who, finding herself carted off to the Lake District to crunch the numbers and try to predict the killer’s next move, comes good in a big way.  Tilly does literal like nobody else and given my Aspergers I really appreciated that. Reassuring her after a particularly nasty occurrence in a bar, Poe praises her reaction and advises her to look on the whole incident as a glass half-full kind of thing.

Bradshaw removed her glasses and polished them with a special cloth she kept in her bag.  When they were back on, she tucked some hair behind her ear and said, ‘The glass isn’t half full, Poe. And neither is it half empty.’

‘What is it then?’

She grinned. ‘It’s twice as big as it needs to be.’

Oh yes, Tilly Bradshaw is my sort of person.

The other novel, I’m taking along is very different; it’s Pat Barker’s Costa nominated The Silence of the Girls.  What with moving house and bouncing in and out of hospital over the last few months, I’m late coming to this, but managed to give it my full attention over the weekend and I have to say that I am in two minds about it.  I’m sure anyone reading this will be aware of the premise behind the book.  It is a retelling of the same time period as is covered by The Iliad, but in this instance narrating the story of the last two years of the Trojan Wars from the point of view of the women involved, with Briseis, the nominal source of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, as their mouthpiece.  It highlights the way in which women were treated as spoils of war and passed out to their conquerors like any other captured asset.  And, although I’ve used the past tense there, as I read it always in the back of my mind were those instances where school girls in various parts of the African continent have been kidnapped and taken captive by militant forces opposed to the education of women.  What happened in Troy should not be seen as history.

The point that Barker appears to be trying to make is that that is precisely what the Trojan War always has been – his story and that this is her attempt to set that straight.  My trouble with the novel was that despite her foregrounding of the horrors that Briseis and her fellow captives face what moved me most was still the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and the horror of the killing of Hector.  I simply didn’t engage to the same degree with any of the women.  Is this a fault in me?  Is it because if Barker had written in the same sort of detail about the evil handed out to those women the book would have been unbearable?  I don’t know.  I just know that for me, while the book allowed the women to have a voice it still wasn’t the voice that came through loudest.  As soon as this is available in paperback it will be up for discussion in one of my other book groups, probably both, and I am looking forward to having a reason to give time to read it again and to the opportunity to discuss it with others who have read it in detail.