Some Progress

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Last time I moved I swore never again.  Now, three weeks into the process of downsizing, I am remembering just why I was so vehement eighteen years ago.  When those that know about these things claim that it is one of the most stressful thing that anyone can undertake they are definitely not joking.  I think I have psoriasis on my eczema although if someone was to argue that it was the other way round I wouldn’t contend against it.

Actually, I have been comparatively fortunate.  I got a buyer the first day the house was on the market and she now has a first time buyer, so within a fortnight a reasonably short chain is in place.  However, I think her buyer is a game player, so chickens are not yet being counted.  The Estate agents are projecting a move around the beginning of May but again I’ll believe it when it happens.  Anyway, when I look at all that has to be done between now and then, the beginning of May 2019 seems like a better option.  The Bears vacillate between excitement and trepidation, with the exception of Jolyon Bear, who controls the purse strings; he just looks distraught all the time.  In fact, as long as they have their sofa, a nice warm fire and a plate of marmalade sandwiches they will be all right wherever they end up.

All this has done my reading progress no good at all.  When I ought to be concentrating on the book in front of me, I find my mind wandering off into room measurements and lists of people who will have to be contacted and worst of all, how to get rid of everything that I can’t take.  So, the only book I’ve finished these last two weeks has been Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for book group and that was a re-read.  We had an interesting discussion about that, however.  Most of us have teaching backgrounds of one sort or another and so as well as the parallels being drawn between what happens in the novel and the conventions of Greek drama we also had much to say about the responsibilities of teachers for their pupils, whatever age those pupils might be.  Julian Morrow came in for some harsh words.  At least this gave me an excuse not to talk about my friend’s husband’s new book when we met on Thursday.  Fortunately, we had so much business to get through on the agenda that the subject didn’t come up, but thanks for all your advice.

I have spent the weekend making lists of what has to be done and when. I always feel better when I have a list. I’m hoping that this means I can get back to more of a routine and start reading and commenting again.  I think my own posting will still be sporadic but I’ll pop in here every now and again and keep you updated.

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A Moral Dilemma

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Briefly today as life becomes no less hectic.  I need advice.  Tomorrow I have to go to a meeting which will be chaired by a friend of mine whose husband has just published his latest novel to what can only be described as something less than critical acclaim. I haven’t had time to read it yet, so I can’t pass my own opinion on it (which may not turn out to be any more favourable than that of the critics), do I mention it at all?  All thoughts on the matter gratefully received.

The Dark Angel ~ Elly Griffiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back-Cataloguing: Ghostwritten ~ David Mitchell

100345897916916239_K9VLdzu9_fHaving decided to make a real effort this year to read the back catalogues of some of my favourite writers I jumped in at what might be thought of as the deep end (that’s certainly the way I found myself thinking of it) and picked up David Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten.  The first Mitchell novel I read was The Bone Clocks and I then went back one when The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet turned up on a book group list.  I also read the novella Slade House as soon as it was published.  What struck me about all of those books, each of which I really enjoyed, was the way in which the intertwining which is characteristic of each individual novel was extended between the texts themselves.  Characters, and more importantly, ideas, slip and slide between one volume and the next.  Consequently, I’ve had it in mind for some time to go back to the beginning and try and trace the intricacies of Mitchell’s thinking throughout the entire sequence.

Well, this would have been an excellent idea if I hadn’t then decided to read Ghostwritten at a time when I was very definitely suffering from post viral fatigue.  It is not a book to read when the little grey cells are refusing to fire at even fifty percent of normal capacity (and that is assuming that normal capacity is anything to boast about in the first place).  So, what follows is more a collection of thoughts sparked by the reading than any attempt at a cogent review, which would require me to bring those thoughts together and link them into a coherent whole.

The first thing that I was aware of was that I would have read this book very differently if I hadn’t already encountered Mitchell’s later works.  In fact, if this had been the first of his novels that I’d read, the only thing that would have kept me reading would have been my research interest in the way in which writers organise their narrative material.  The book is structured as a sequence of episodes (not short stories – they are definitely episodes from longer narratives) and at first the evidence of any link between those episodes is very tentative.  Indeed between the first two for a long time the only link I could pinpoint was the use of the term ‘quasar’.  However, because this wasn’t my first encounter with Mitchell’s style I was primed to be looking out for links, even if they only appeared at the level of the word.  And also primed to be aware that something as structurally emphatic as the first of those links would be of great importance as the novel developed.   ‘Quasar’ clues us into the world of science and latterly, more precisely, the world of quantum physics, which moves us onto what I think is Mitchell’s chief concern, embodied in the title.

So, the second thing which struck me was the various possible meanings of the title. We ignore a title at our peril.  We used to give the students a text, a list of instructions, with the title removed and ask them what they thought they were being asked to do. If they ever did get the right answer it was more as a result of a wild guess than through any clues they picked up from the text itself.  Without the title they were floundering.  So what does Ghostwritten mean?  Well, the first clue, (for me, at least) came in the episode where the narrator is a free floating consciousness that moves from body to body and directs the behaviour of those individuals that it inhabits.  Our lives are controlled by a force outside ourselves?  They are written by a ghost?  That would certainly link back to the first episode where ‘Quasar’ has given over his life to the machinations of a cult leader.  Then we have an episode set in London in which the main character, Marco, is ghostwriting the memories of the ageing Alfred.  Surprisingly, I hadn’t so much as given the practice of an author ghost writing for someone else a thought.  However, I think Mitchell’s real concern makes itself felt when we reach the section of the novel that deals with quantum physicist, Mo.  Against all she has been promised, Mo has seen her research put to military use and knows that the hundreds of people who have already died as a result are but the tip of the iceberg.  She tries to resign from her job only to be told that she can’t, that she, her current research and anything that she might develop in the future belong to the American Government.  Her life, the way she tells her own story, is being written by someone else.  She no longer has control of it. She embodies what Alfred has already made clear to Marco, that

we all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.

Intending always to make her way back to the small Irish village that is home, she goes on the run for long enough to allow her to develop the ultimate ghost writer, the zookeeper, a piece of technology that can take its own decisions and override the commands of its political overlords. It’s a nice thought.

Another question which seems to concern Mitchell is the difficulty of pinning down realities. This crops up in the discussions around quantum physics:

Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty. You can know the position of an electron but you cannot know where it’s going, or where it is by the time you register the reading. Or you can know its direction, but you cannot know its position.

and again when exploring the nature of chance and fate.

Does chance or fate control our lives?… If you’re in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside … it’s fate all the way.

Talk about cerebral overload.

But, for me the really interesting discussion is the one to do with story and memory. Let’s take memory first.  The notion that memories are actually only stories that we tell ourselves, embellishing what really happened as we go, is nothing new.  In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy Fowler explores what she calls screen memories: the memories we superimpose over the reality of our experiences. Here Mitchell suggests that the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting and that memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present.  I’m sure if we’re honest we can all remember occasions when we have polished up a memory to make a better story in the telling and once we do that there is always the possibility that we will begin to believe the tale that we have created and replace the original events in our own minds with the enhanced version.  But that would suggest that the teller is in control of the story. Mitchell doesn’t seem to agree with that.

The human world is made up of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.

I have to admit that I don’t completely follow that. Story is essential to who we are.  I absolutely believe that. Barbara Hardy once wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind and for me it is one of the things which distinguishes us from other creatures. But this seems to suggest that story writes us. I need to think more about that when the little grey cells are functioning on a higher level.  Or perhaps I need to read the next book.

So, as I said, not a review, just a set of responses to what is clearly a very complex book.  Will I go on and read Number9dream?  Definitely, but not immediately and possibly not before I have read Ghostwritten a second time.  There are some seriously interesting ideas being explored here and I’d like to get a better grasp of them before moving on.

Burn The Evidence ~ Keith Nixon

IMG_0093Burn the Evidence is the second in Keith Nixon’s South Coast based series featuring DS Solomon Gray.  Working with his colleagues, DS Mike Fowler and DI Yvonne Hamson, Gray is called in when three bodies wash up on the shore line near Ramsgate.  At first it looks like an attempt by immigrants to cross the channel which has gone radically wrong, but the discovery that one of the men has died from stab wounds and another is actually the son of Jake Armitage, a prominent local business man, suggests that there is more going on than mets the eye. Regan Armitage has always had a reputation for trouble and so the possibility that he has somehow been involved in smuggling immigrants into the country is not unlikely, but when the toxicology report shows him to have had ketamine in his system the search for person behind both the smuggling and the deaths widens.

At the same time as we are being brought up to date with current events another strand of the narrative takes us back ten years to a boarding house fire which resulted in several fatalities.  Despite rumours that Jake Armitage was behind the fire, the official reports indicate that it was the result of an accident.  Very early on, however, we know that that was not the case and one man is still smarting over this, the journalist William Noble, who was ruined when his paper was forced to close after he made allegations about Armitage’s involvement.  These two stories come together in The Lighthouse, a refuge for the homeless, where a survivor of the fire is confronted by a survivor from the smuggling operation. Adnan Khoury has fought his way from Syria only to see his travelling companions betrayed at the last hurdle by those they had trusted to bring them into England.  The only witness to what really happened on the boat, he is now being sought both by the police and by those who need to silence him before he can tell anyone else what happened.  Attacked by two thugs who force their way into the refuge, Khoury escapes, but not before heavily pregnant Rachel, one of the Lighthouse’s assistants, is injured.

Solomon Gray finds himself involved in these cases not only professionally but also personally.  He and Jake Armitage were at school together and so even though he is well aware of Regan’s reputation, Gary feels obliged to go the extra mile.  However, Armitage also has other strings that he can pull within the ranks of the local police: strings that bind not through the ties of friendship but through the more murky connections of corruption.  Gradually, the reasons why the fire was labelled an accident become chillingly apparent.

Running through the novel is the theme of parents who, for various reasons, have been separated from their children. Khoury has left his wife and sick child behind in Syria, members of the family caught up in the fire have been estranged and there is a background of domestic upheaval to Gray’s story.  And this is where, for me, this novel falters.  I picked it up for review because it was recommended by a friend who is actually much more heavily involved in the world of crime fiction than I am.  I wondered about reading the first book in the series first but because time has been short this month decided against it.  That has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, a blessing because I have been able to judge how well Burn the Evidence works in its own right and a curse because actually it doesn’t.  There is clearly something amiss with Gray’s family life.  What I have been able to pick up is that his son Tom is missing and has been for some considerable time.  I think he was last seen when he was six and the possibility that he was abducted is floating around.  It is also apparent that Solomon is estranged from his daughter, but I have no idea why that might be, what her name is or how old she is.  From half a sentence I gather that his wife is dead.  I assume that all this was explained in the first novel and I know how difficult it is to get the balance right in respect of including such information in subsequent books, but it is a balance Nixon fails to find.  As a result I felt that I was being locked out of a lot of what made Gray the person he is.  Couple this with the fact that in general character development gave way to plot and I found it very difficult to feel that I had any understanding of the main players let alone be in a position to empathise with them.  The story runs along nicely but for me it lacks the texture and depth that would have bought it to life.  If I find myself with a spare afternoon I might go back and read the first book and see if that helps to bring the series to life, but if not then I’m not sure that I shall be looking out for the third.

With thanks to Netgalley for providing this book for review.Burn

The Years of My Life

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DAt some point over the last month or so I have read about a blogger who is deliberately reading books published in each of the years of her/his life. Unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of who that was, so if it is you or if you know who it might be, please let me know, because I think it is a great idea and if you don’t mind I am going to join you.  One of the things I prize most about reading is the insight it gives into the time in which a book was written.  Even if it is an historical novel or a piece of science fiction it still reflects to some extent the values of the society out of which it has developed. Selecting a certain number of books from each year, and working through those years chronologically, should, in theory, offer a developing insight into the world in which I have grown up and the literature that it has given rise to.

But how to select?  When you think of all the books which are published every year where do you begin? Plus, there have been rather a lot of years of my life. I have a certain amount of catching up to do. My initial thoughts are that I shall pick just one novel from each of the genres that I have been most concerned with, namely, contemporary fiction, crime fiction and children’s literature and fit them into my reading over two or three months, depending on length and what else has to be read over that same period.  As far as possible I shall choose books that I haven’t read before, although with the children’s fiction for the early years that may not be so easy as far less was being published and I was a voracious reader from an early age.  I also think that I am going to stick just to British publications.  If I try and spread my net too wide then the whole thing will become just completely impractical and besides it is the reflection of the society I grew up in that I am interested in and that is British society.

So, where do we start?  The year is 1949.  (Don’t bother to add up on your fingers – at some point this year a sixty-eighth birthday has been or will be celebrated.)  You see what I mean about the catching up?  A quick look at Wikipedia’s 1949 in Literature page offers me all sorts of possibilities.  Just picking out those that meet my criteria in adult fiction and which also take my fancy there are:

  • Agatha Christie ~ Crooked House
  • Graham Greene ~ The Third Man
  • Marghanita Laski ~ Little Boy Lost
  • Nancy Mitford ~ Love in a Cold Climate

I feel thoroughly ashamed at having to admit that I haven’t read the Greene and as I have a sneaking suspicion that I do know the Christie but have just forgotten all about it, I’m going to push the boundaries a bit and class The Third Man as crime.  I am also remiss on the Mitford front but would have to read The Pursuit of Love presumably in order for the second volume to make sense.  I shall ponder that for a few days longer before making a final decision.

In children’s books, Enid Blyton seems to have started three different series that year. (She must have known I was about to appear on the scene and would be needing copious amounts of reading material.)  Noddy Goes to Toyland and The Secret Seven were both published as was The Rockingdown Mystery which is the first of six books about the same group of children and a small monkey.  It was also the year that we first met the Moomins but they don’t meet the British criteria.  Neither, unfortunately, does Ruth Park, whose name I was amazed to see on the list.  In my mind, this New Zealand born but Australian author belongs much later in my career when she was publishing such superb books as Playing Beatie Bow. I had no idea she was writing so much earlier.  I thought I might try Geoffrey Trease’s No Boats on Bannermere but I can’t find a copy that I can afford, so it is going to have to be a re-read, I’m afraid.  A quick look round the book selling sites has unearthed a volume with the first three of the stories in the Rockingdown series and I shall quite enjoy going back to spending time with Barney and Co. I always liked them better than the Secret Seven or Famous Five.

When I’ve made a final choice for contemporary fiction I’ll try and fit these into November and December.  Fortunately my book groups go quiet as we get closer to Christmas and so I should manage all three.  Then we’ll hit the fifties and who knows what there will be to be found there.

 

La Belle Sauvage ~Philip Pullman

IMG_0245I want it recorded here that I did not deliberately catch a cold on the day La Belle Sauvage was published just in order to give me an excuse to spend two days curled up in front of the fire reading Philip Pullman’s long anticipated return to the world of Lyra Belacqua.  In fact, I would much rather have read it with a clearer head.  Nevertheless, it certainly made those difficult first forty-eight hours easier to bear and the need to make sure that I haven’t missed anything gives me the perfect excuse to go back and read it through again as soon as the opportunity arises.  I may need to anyway if we have to wait as long for the next volume as we have for this, simply to satisfy my appetite for almost perfect story-telling.

Because, if there is one thing Philip Pullman knows how to do it is tell a story.  From the first page you know that you are in the hands of a brilliant raconteur.  His characters come to life in front of your eyes, the settings are picture perfect in your mind and the story begins to unfold with a logic that seems irrefutable.  We are back in Lyra’s Oxford, a city which physically doesn’t seem to be that much different to the one we know ourselves, but which, in terms of its social structure and the forces which motivate that structure, is very different indeed.  Ten years before the events unfolded in Northern Lights, the power of the Magisterium is just beginning to really make itself felt and when eleven year old Malcolm Polstead is confronted in school by a group calling themselves the League of Alexander, who are there to recruit the local children to be the ears and eyes of Holy Church and report on those in their community who suggest that there may not be a God or who mock the Church, he recognises this as something he wants nothing to do with.

Malcolm is the son of the local innkeeper and has as good a life as a child could wish for, helping out in the Trout Inn, running errands for the nuns in the local priory, and spending time on the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.  And, like most eleven year old boys he is naturally curious, so when he picks up gossip in the inn about a baby being brought to the priory he hightails it off to see if this is true.  Sure enough, there is Lyra, just months old, left with the nuns by her father, Lord Asriel, to protect her from Church forces who are seeking the child as a result of a prophecy about her future.  Malcolm, like pretty much all of us who have met Lyra over the years, is entranced by her.  Given the scrapes she will be getting herself into on a regular basis ten years down the line, she is a remarkably good baby, which is fortunate, because when circumstances change and Malcolm is forced to flee with her, through horrendous floods and tracked by the Consistorial Court of Discipline, silence on her part becomes a necessity.

With only a local teenager, Alice, for company, Malcolm, having rescued Lyra from the devastated priory, sets out to find somewhere she will be safe from the machinations of her mother, Mrs Coulter, and of the Church.  His first thought is to get her to Jordan College, where she might be given sanctuary, but the floods don’t allow this and so swept ever southwards in the valiant La Belle Sauvage, the children aim for Chelsea in the hope that they will be able to deliver the baby to her father.

Pullman has said that this novel should not be seen as a prequel to His Dark Materials but as an equal and in some ways I could be pushed to agree with him.  As I’ve made clear, this is a rattling good story which engages the reader completely, just as the earlier books did.  However, for the most part, I can only see this as a forerunner of what is to come.  Most obviously, of course, it tells about events which precede those in Northern Lights. It reveals to us not only how Lyra came to be living under the protection of the scholars at Jordan College, but how the alethiometer found its way there as well. Furthermore, it is also a prequel in terms of what it asks of the reader.  Ideas which had to be given serious thought in the earlier novels, such as the concept of Dust, the relationship between a human and their daemon and most importantly, the question of Grace, are barely touched on here.  And, then there is the question of the underpinning of the story’s structure.  In His Dark Materials the debt that Pullman owed (and acknowledged) to Milton’s Paradise Lost was easily apparent.  If there is such a debt here it would seem to be to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen, which is quoted on the novel’s final page.  However, not only is this work’s influence not immediately obvious throughout the book, but those episodes which it might be seen as having given rise to are, for me, the weakest parts of the story. Their purpose is so unclear that I could happily have lost them altogether.

Of course, there are two other books still to come and it may well be that when we have the completed trilogy more will be made apparent and that cohesive links which seem to be missing now will become obvious.  Nevertheless, La Belle Sauvage reads as a far less complex work than any of the books in His Dark Materials and as much as I enjoyed it I hope the forthcoming volumes of The Book of Dust will ask more of me as a reader.

A Patient Fury ~ Sarah Ward

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Searching around for something to read over last Christmas I was fortunate to discover not one but three crime authors all relatively new to the game and each of them not only good storytellers but also excellent writers. As the two don’t always go together, this was a bonus. Two of them, Matthew Frank and Rob McCarthy, were writing about the experiences of army personnel returning to civilian life, the third, Sarah Ward, offered a police procedural set in Derbyshire, which, although I am better acquainted with the Dark Peak than the actual area she is writing about, is still somewhere I know well. Through In Bitter Chill and later A Deadly Thaw, I got to know and like the tightly strung DI Francis Sadler and his headstrong DC, Connie Childs.  In this, their third outing, they are faced with an inquiry which asks them and the reader to challenge various assumptions about family life, including the strength of the love of a woman for her children.

When the local Fire Service are called out to a house fire they find the bodies of Peter, Francesca and Charlie Winson in the ruins of their home. However, it rapidly becomes clear that all three died before the fire took hold and it appears that Francesca has killed her husband and small child before laying the fire and then taking her own life. Connie, recently returned to work after injury, argues against this on the grounds that most familial murder suicides are perpetrated by the father and that it is very rare that a mother would take the life of her child. Sadler is not convinced. The case is complicated by the fact that Peter Winson was considerably older than his wife and has an earlier family, a son George and a daughter Julia, from his first marriage to Elizabeth, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances when the children were still pre-teen. Sadler wants to concentrate just on the current case, Connie is convinced that the two tragedies must be linked.

My question (although it’s a question to life, not to the author because I know such things do happen) is why one, let alone two, women ever married Peter Winson in the first place. He is one of those nasty individuals who must have everything their own way and who constantly puts down others, including their own family, with nasty snide remarks. Whether George has grown up like him because of his own childhood experiences or whether it runs in families we can’t tell, but he really isn’t much better. Julia, on the other hand, is still haunted by her mother’s disappearance and has never quite given up hope that she may still be alive. This second loss, of her father and much loved half-brother, is made all the worse by the fact that someone appears to be watching her home after dark and when an attempt is made to poison her beloved dog, Bosco, it is clear that her safety is under threat as well.

Sadler and Connie clash badly over this case.  Both of them get an idea lodged in their minds and refuse to explore the other’s point of view.  But, as their boss, Superintendent Llewelyn, says to Sadler, it is better to see some honest mistakes than rigid certainty and one of the questions which this novel explores is the point at which such certainty of one’s own ‘rightness’, one’s own entitlement, passes over into an obsession which denies the rights of others.

This is not a novel with nice pat answers.  It certainly isn’t one with a ‘happy’ ending, or even an ending where you are left convinced that justice has been done.  And it definitely challenges a number of easy assumptions about family relationships.  Like the best of crime fiction, it looks at the society out of which it grows and forces the reader to question rather than endorse those assumptions.  Crime Fiction should not be about easy answers and Ward is showing herself to be amongst the best when it comes to reflecting the hard truths about the world in which we live.

 

State Secrets ~ Quintin Jardine

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI have been reading Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner novels for so long now that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the crusty Edinburgh detective. I have seen him rise though the ranks to the position of Chief Constable of first Edinburgh and then Strathclyde, applauded him as he turned down the post of Head of the new Police Scotland force and then followed him into a retirement which still manages to bring him into contact with many of his old colleagues as well as exercising his remarkable skills of detection. This, his twenty-eighth outing, sees him in London paying what really amounts to a courtesy call on the great and good of the Labour Peers who want him to consider joining their ranks to whip their presence in the Lords into shape.  It isn’t a role that Skinner wants but with almost uncharacteristic consideration he decides to at least meet with them and discuss the proposition. However, his morning is interrupted by a call from his old friend, Amanda Dennis, Head of the Security Service, asking him to join her immediately but without letting anyone realise where he is going and whom he is meeting. The exposition is over and the plot has begun.

Plot is what Jardine is best at. It may not always be entirely believable but it carries you along at such a pace that you rarely stop to question the likelihood of what is happening, even when that includes that assassination of Emily Repton, Tory Prime Minister of the day, by means of a letter opener forced four inches into her brain. Dennis has been called in because that very afternoon Repton was due to make an announcement on defence matters which would set not only the country back on its heels but the entire world and the very few of her colleagues who are in the know are frightened that there may have been a leak and deliberate sabotage by forces unknown. A report is given out that the Prime Minister is ill and Skinner has just forty-eight hours to discover who was behind the attack and bring them to justice.

But, what sort of justice? A crime has been committed and it has not been reported officially to the police, which is, in itself, a crime, a crime in this instance which is being supported by the head of the police, the Home Secretary himself.  When Bob Skinner insists that he needs support if he is to do the job and goes on to demand the assistance of Neil McIlhenney, his erstwhile colleague and now a Commander in the Met, Neil, ever one of  the more cautious members of Skinner’s team, is very uneasy. This, as far as he is concerned, is a job for the police, not the security forces.  Nevertheless, he agrees to come on board and I for one cheered because I have missed McIlhenney’s clear thinking since his marriage took him south.

Well, the solution to Repton’s death is eventually discovered but it proves to be almost ancillary to the plotting going on in relation to the defence statement and this is where the story wanders off into realms that ask a lot of the reader’s powers to believe six impossible things before breakfast. I assume Skinner’s dislike of Tory politicians is an echo of his creator’s views, but while I am no apologist for right wing policies myself, I have to say that I found it difficult to give credit to what turn out to be the machinations at the heart of the novel. It is to the author’s benefit that the plot moves as fast as it does.  The reader doesn’t have much time to think things though.

In addition events have not treated this book kindly.  I would imagine that it was pretty much completed before this summer’s General Election was called.  As a consequence the political scene has moved on a pace and certain of the comparisons that are inevitably going to be made between particular characters and real people don’t necessarily any longer ring true.  This isn’t a novel to linger over in quiet contemplation but take it at a gallop and you’ll enjoy the ride.

With thanks to Headline who kindly made a copy of this book available.