Sunday Retrospective ~ June 23rd 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reviews ~ Catching Up

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

An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris

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

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

 

A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers

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

 

Black Summer ~ M W Craven

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

 

Crime Round-Up

I was listening last night to an edition of Radio 4’s Front Row about the positive influence of immersing yourself in reading fiction if you are plagued by forms of mental ill health.  Well, the same holds true for me when I am physically unwell and so this past week, when I have had a really bad flare-up of a chronic complaint, I have simply buried myself in three recently published crime novels and spent time in their fictional worlds as a way of escaping my own.

The first was Helen Fields most recent instalment in her Edinburgh based series featuring DI Luc Callanach and DCI Ava Turner, Perfect Silence.  It is a particularly gruesome tale in which successive murder victims, all young women whose lives have, in one way or another, fallen apart, are found with the silhouette of a doll carved into their skin.  If this isn’t stomach churning enough, the skin thus harvested then begins to turn up formed into the shape of a doll and left in a location relevant to the next victim.

Previous novels in this series have tended to focus more on Luc, but I felt that this was Ava’s story, which somehow seemed the right progression.  Luc, who has come to Edinburgh after a tortuous personal history while serving with Interpol, has finally begun to find his feet in the Scottish force and it seemed appropriate in this, the fourth novel in the series, that he and his colleagues have become comfortable enough with his presence that the author could turn the main focus of her attention elsewhere.  I also felt that Fields toned down the sharper edges of some of her other recurring characters who might occasionally have stepped a little near the line of caricature, and made them more realistic.  Even DS Lively and the dreaded Detective Superintendent Overbeck seem more believable as serving police officers.

I discovered Sarah Ward’s Derbyshire based DC Connie Childs books three Christmases ago and have read each successive novel pretty much as soon as it was available.  She has a remarkable skill of being able to convey the psychological truth of what is happening to each of her characters, often at the expense of the stereotypical expectations of the world in general.  In The Shrouded Path, also the fourth in the series, she skilfully juxtaposes two time periods, the present day and November 1957, as Connie and her boss, DI Francis Sadler, are forced to open an investigation into a number of apparently natural deaths when a seriously ill woman, who has never before mentioned her childhood, feverishly asks her daughter to find a particular friend.  What comes to light is a story of teenage spitefulness, only too readily believable, which culminated in the mental scarring of more than one young mind and then ultimately leads to cunningly concealed murder more than five decades on.

I think Ward just gets better with each book.  There is nothing salacious or outstandingly gory about her work and I find her depiction of the police force as a working unit more believable than almost any other writer in the genre.  As I say, it is her ability to portray the psychological truth of whoever and whatever she is writing about which makes her novels stand out in the memory.  If you haven’t read her then you have four remarkable books to look forward to.

And then there was the latest Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) publication, Lethal White. My goodness can that woman tell a story.  600+ pages, it kept me completely engrossed for almost two days solid. I have seen various press reviews which have likened it in scope to a great Victorian novel and I would have to agree as characters of all strata of society are brought together in a plot which encompasses murder, blackmail and political intrigue, not to mention the tortured personal complications for the two main protagonists, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, brought about by Robin’s failure to act on her impulse, three or four days into her marriage to the creepy little Matthew, to tell her new husband precisely where he can put himself.  Like many a Victorian heroine, Robin can be just too nice for her own good.

One of the things I like most about these novels is the glimpses we get of Strike’s peculiar childhood and the families it brought him into contact with.  One such family, the Chiswells, (pronounced Chizzle, about as Dickensian as you can get) is at the heart of this particular story.  Long standing members of the Tory upper classes, they are now reduced to penury (i.e, they can no longer afford the upkeep of the London home, the country estate, the nine horses etc) and further disaster threatens in the shape of the Socialist Worker son of the old family retainer who knows their deepest and most shameful secrets.  Cormoran and Robin are dragged into this both by the appearance of the mentally troubled Billy, who turns up in the office one day asking for help in investigating a killing he believes he witnessed as a child and by the Chizzle Pater Familias, who wants his blackmailers caught before his political career goes completely to pot.   Murder mystery though it is, it is all great fun and just the thing to help you get through a couple of days when life is getting you down, even if only because the descriptions of the pain Strike undergoes as a result of his ill-fitting prosthesis make anything you are suffering seem slight by comparison.