Monday, July 28, 2014

Review of Casual Rex by Eric Garcia (2001, Villard)

Vincent Rubio and his partner, Ernie, are private eyes, working in Los Angeles.  Whilst their cases are often quite similar to other PIs -- infidelity, missing persons, etc. -- they often differ in one large respect.  Under their costumes, Vincent and Ernie are dinosaurs, part of a small but significant number that, now much smaller than their forebears, hide amongst the greatest threat to their survival by looking, living and acting like humans.  But not all dinosaurs are happy with this arrangement.  Over the preceding couple of decades a new cult, calling themselves the Progressives, has slowing grown in number, advocating that dinosaurs should shed their guises and reconnect with their true nature.  The brother of Ernie’s ex-wife is a member of the cult, sinking his income and whatever else he can scrounge into their coffers.  When Ernie's ex asks them to extract Rupert from their clutches and to organize getting him deprogrammed they take on the case.  Their approach is to try and join the Progressives, which soon brings Vincent into contact with Circe, a femme fatale who’s intoxicating scent drives him wild.  Soon, what seems like a relatively straightforward case soon takes a more sinister turn and Vincent and Ernie are deep into conspiracy territory.

Casual Rex is a hardboiled PI tale with a twist -- the PIs are dinosaurs dressed in human costumes and they mostly deal with cases related to their brethren.  Like the ancestors of humans, a handful of dinosaur species survived the major extinction event 65 million years ago that wiped most of them out.  Over time they reduced in size and decided the easiest way to survive was to pass themselves off as humans, wearing realistic suits involving lots of straps and buckles.  It’s a premise that kind of works as long as you don’t press on it all -- a whole series of logical questions would quickly bring the whole edifice down.  The way Garcia keeps the illusion intact is to play the story pretty much straight-up, at least for the first half of the tale.  Vincent and Ernie are two LA PIs, acting like fictional LA PIs alia dozens of such Chandler-inspired tales, albeit their clients tend to be other disguised dinosaurs.  By centring the case around a cult, the Progressives, that advocate that dinosaurs shed their human guises, Garcia allows the premise to be explored a bit, though he still plays it quite straight.  Indeed, the story is more quirky than funny, with the humour element quite underplayed until near the end and the final showdown.  It took me some time to get in fully vested in the story, and it is only once it shifts to location to Hawaii that it really finds its groove.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining tale that gets better as it progresses.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday I went to listen to talk by Declan Burke on 'emerald noir' at the Boyle Arts Festival.  As always he gave an entertaining presentation involving a couple of readings and giving his take on the development of Irish crime fiction over the past twenty years or so.  There was plenty of food for thought in his observations.  I particularly liked his discussion on 'value for time'.  Most readers, I think, would recognize that a book provides good value for money - several hours entertainment for €8-15.  But do books provide value for time?  That is, do they sustain their entertainment over those several hours given that there are lots of other things competing for one's attention, including other books, but also television, cinema, games, theatre, sports, etc.  Most of us have gotten some way into a book and started to lose interest, perhaps due to a weak plot or poor writing or the pace has become glacial.  We either soldier on stoically to the end or abandon it.  One of things Declan strives to do in his writing is to keep the reader's attention throughout, providing value for time that could be spent on something else.  It a valuable tip, I think.  And you can find out how good Declan is at achieving value for time by checking out his books.  Absolute Zero Cool was my top read of 2011.  His latest is Crime Always Pays, published by Severn House.

My posts this week
Review of Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich
Review of Summertime, All the Cats are Bored by Philippe Georget
There's a new sheriff in town

Saturday, July 26, 2014

There’s a new sheriff in town

McDermott watch the two torch lights dance.  Then one disappeared, accompanied by a cry.

He switched on the outside light and exited the farmhouse.

A boy was hanging from the old chestnut tree by one leg.  His friend was cowering behind a wall, unsure whether to stay or run.

The old man held up his phone and snapped a picture.

‘I could prosecute you for trespass. Get you locked up.  Or ...’ 

McDermott pulled a hunting knife from a sheath.

‘I was in the army for twelve years.  I know fifty ways to make people disappear.  Understand?’

The boy yelped.




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Review of Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956)

Spring 1943 and the Germans are slowly retreating across the Kuban peninsula, east of Crimea.  Steiner and his platoon are left as a rear-guard whilst the rest of the regiment fall back to take up new positions.  Their job is to try and delay the Russian advance, then rejoin their comrades, sneaking through enemy lines if need be.  It’s pretty much a suicide mission, but if anyone can navigate through the swamps, forests and enemy soldiers it’s Corporal Rolf Steiner.  Since the death of his girlfriend in a mountaineering accident just prior to the war, Steiner has had little regard for his own life or others.  It makes him an excellent soldier, but one that is essentially a loner who doesn’t care about rank, protocol or medals.  His platoon look to him for guidance.  His superiors like his can-do attitude, but not his insubordination.  In general, both are prepared to tolerate his prickly personality because of his inherent leadership, cunning and bravery, especially in difficult and dangerous situations.  And if Steiner succeeds in leading his platoon back to the frontline, they’re still two thousand kilometres from home, facing a Russian army determined to destroy them.

Cross of Iron is considered one of the classic combat novels about the Eastern Front in World War Two.  First published in 1955 (German) and translated in 1956, it is written by Willi Heinrich, who served with the 101st Jäger Division from 1941-45 and was wounded five times.  The 101st Jäger Division took part in the Battle for Kharkov and Caucasus campaign, then after the defeat at Stalingrad retreated along the Kuban peninsula toward Crimea, up into Ukraine, through Slovakia, Hungary and ending the war in Austria, suffering seven hundred per cent casualties.  Heinrich’s intimate knowledge of warfare and the terrain of battle, the personal dynamics between comrades, and the politics and ambitions of military leaders are clearly evident in narrative.  The story follows Corporal Rolf Steiner, a classic anti-hero, and members of his platoon and their immediate superiors.  The setup is very nicely done, tracing Steiner’s personal and collective battles, especially his relationship with his platoon members and Captain Stransky, his aristocratic battalion commander who desires the coveted cross of iron but does not want to earn it.  Rather than glorifying the war action, Heinrich instead delivers gritty social realism -- the daily grind of staying alive, everyday encounters with wounds and death, petty and class politics and personal rivalries, the formation of bonds between men who would never otherwise associate with one another, and the brutality of close quarter fighting.  The result is a compelling, sometimes harrowing, read, with a strong storyline and characterisation.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Review of Summertime, All the Cats are Bored by Philippe Georget (Europa Editions, 2013, French 2009)

It’s the height of summer in the French Mediterranean town of Perpignan.  A young Dutch woman is found bludgeoned to death on a beach and shortly afterwards another disappears in the city, along with a local taxi driver.  Inspectors Sebag and Molino are tasked with trying to locate their whereabouts.  Neither cop has much appetite for the case - they are hot, bored, distracted by family matters, and prone to extended breaks.  But Sebag used to be a good detective and he senses that there is more to the case than meets the eye.  When an attempt is made to snatch a third Dutch woman on her way home late at night the investigation shifts up a gear, with a hotshot from Paris seconded to the case.  In response, Sebag regains some of his old sparkle, determined to find the missing Dutch woman, but at the same time he’s worried about the fidelity of his wife and drifting apart from his kids.  He sacrificed his career to spend time with his family and just as he rediscovers his verve for the job they seem to be slipping away.  The life of a young woman though lies in the balance and that has to take precedent.

Summertime, All the Cats are Bored is a police procedural set over a few hot weeks of early summer in Southern France and the local police’s attempts to save a young woman who has been kidnapped and two murders.  The strength of the story is the sense of place and characterisation.  Georget firmly places the reader in the Perpignan region during tourist season and captures the team dynamics and interactions of the investigative team.  The narrative mostly focuses on Inspector Gilles Sebag, a cop who’s slipping into a midlife crisis as the case starts - he’s prioritised his family over his career, but now his teenage kids are making their own way in life and his wife is spending increasingly more time with friends and holidaying on her own and he suspects she’s having an affair, and his boss wants him to apply for promotion.  His basis of his sense of self seems to be on shifting ground and now he’s trying to deal with a case where the life of a young woman is under threat.  The intertwined scenarios of Sebag’s crisis and the perplexing investigation provide a nice hook and plot.  However, the telling unfolds at a too leisurely pace, with a little too much unnecessary explication.  The cats might be bored, but the reader veers towards that state a little too often until the final third of the book.  Overall, an interesting character study and investigative case that too often lacks pace and edge.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I fancied trying something a little different reading-wise and decided to give Eric Garcia's Rex series a go.  The premise is a relatively straight-up, hardboiled PI setup, but the lead character is a dinosaur dressed up in a human costume.  In fact, there is a whole dino community seeking to pass as human to avoid conflict with people and possible extinction.  It was much cheaper to buy a two-in-one omnibus that contained the first two tales - Anonymous Rex and Casual Rex - than to purchase just one of the books on its own, so took that option.  I'm presently about 150 pages into the first story printed in the book and I've just realised that it's the second tale in the series.  I usually like to read a series in the right order and I suspect most people do as well.  It seems odd to have reversed the order in the omnibus.  I'm assuming there's a logical reason for this, such as the second book being a prequel to the first, but if not it's going to be annoying.  So far, it's an interesting enough read and I'll post a review in the next week or so.

My posts this week
Review of Washington Shadow by Aly Monroe
Review of The Carrier by Preston Lang
Blowing hot and cold

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Blowing hot and cold

‘She promised.’

‘People are always making promises they can’t keep.’

‘Sometimes I just can’t work her out.  What she says and does are two different things.  And you never quite know where you stand.  One minute you’re the best thing since sliced bread, the next the devil incarnate.’

‘And you’re surprised?  She’s been like that since you met her!’

‘I know, but ... I just thought ...’

‘Stop trying to make sense of it; there is no sense.  People are complex, messed up contrarians.  They cheat, lie, moan, and conniver.  And you better get used to it now you’re married!’




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review of The Carrier by Preston Lang (280 Steps, 2014)

Cyril works part-time as a web developer and the rest of time as a illicit courier carrying drugs and dirty cash.  His rule is to always play it straight -- no guns, no speeding, no skimming, no company, and be cool with everyone.  When a young woman, Willow, hits on him at a bar he ends up in his motel room facing a gun and demands for money he doesn’t yet have.  But she’s not his only problem - two men are shadowing him with the same intent.  Meanwhile, Duane, his older brother and a more senior member of the same drugs gang is having his own problems with his half-deranged boss, who has a canny, scheming Puerto Rican girlfriend.  Despite their initial encounter, Cyril and Willow form an uneasy alliance and start to plot a new life together, but first they have to collect the package and then disappear.

The Carrier is a road-trip, crime caper that follows the travails of a laidback illicit courier as he travels from Massachusetts to Iowa to pick up a payment for drugs.  From the get-go Cyril is in trouble, having met and been held up by a sultry young woman intent on grabbing the money for herself, but who strikes before he’s collected the package.  They continue the trip together, but quickly come to realise they’re being tracked by two losers looking for an easy payday.  The plot thus unfolds as a cat and mouse game, both for Cyril and his brother, Duane, who is finally coming to realise that his place a little higher up in the drugs gang has become somewhat tenuous.  The story rattles along at a nice pace and has some nice noir touches as the caper unfolds into a lethal game of pass the parcel. 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review of Washington Shadow by Aly Monroe (John Murray, 2009)

After spending time in Spain and Germany as an agent in the Economic Warfare Unit in the summer of 1945 Peter Cotton is sent to Washington DC.  John Maynard Keynes and a British team of negotiators are in the city trying to secure a loan to keep a bankrupt Britain afloat.  A new world order and the cold war is emerging and the city is full of intrigue and spies who circulate through endless embassy parties.  The Americans are reorganising their intelligence agencies and seem intent on destabilising British imperialism and growing their own spheres of influence.  Cotton’s job is to circulate the parties and to try and pick-up useful information, and to build a relationship with an African-American scholar interested in the fate of Africa post-war and a former Soviet tank commander who seems to be his equivalent appointment in the Soviet embassy, reporting the results to his abrasive boss, Ayrtoun.  Whilst he tries to find his feet he meets Katherine Ward, a beautiful analyst who works in the State Department and they start a tentative relationship.  All the while, Keynes is struggling to get a workable financial deal. 

Washington Shadow is the second book in the Peter Cotton series following the exploits of an economics graduate who works as an intelligence officer (here are my reviews of books 1 and 3).  Whilst the first book was set in Spain, the second sees Cotton move to Washington DC after his old unit is wound up and he waits to find out if he’s going to be demobbed.  Despite winning the war, Britain is on its knees financially and is severely weakened politically with respect to its empire.  The nice hook to the story is John Maynard Keynes presence in the city, trying to negotiate a loan from the Americans.  The first half of the tale is atmospheric and evocative, and the historical contextualisation concerning the relationship between the US and Britain is interesting.  Cotton is a little out of his depth and struggling to work out his role in what seems a fluid situation as the Americans re-organise their intelligence agencies and prepare for a new world order, and he hesitantly starts a relationship, his first serious one since the death of his fiancée to a blitz bomb.  However, in the second half the storyline becomes a little disjointed, bitty and opaque, and rather than Cotton being at the centre of the action with respect to the Keynes negotiations, which might have provided a stronger hook, he’s hovering around the edges with an uncertain role.  Perhaps Monroe is projecting the uncertainty and haphazardness of the British position onto Cotton, but it means the plot fizzles rather than sparkles.  This was a shame as the first half was excellent.  Nevertheless, it’s still an interesting read, with an engaging lead character and intriguing context.



Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I've had my reading attention diverted away to academic material somewhat in the last week, but I have managed to work my way through most of Phillipe Georget's, Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored, which is making me pine for a trip to Southern France, though probably not at the height of the summer given the books depiction of fights with an air conditioning unit, heavy sweating,
and the endless need for cold showers.

My posts this week

Review of Long Way Home by Eva Dolan *****
Review of Dog On It by Spencer Quinn ****
Stumped - publisher announcement
Review of Nice Try by Shane Maloney ***.5
The distant shore
Five years old today

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Five years old today

The View from the Blue House is five years old today.  When I started blogging I wasn’t quite sure what I was taking on and was worried about whether I’d be able to sustain writing posts given other commitments.  In the end, I needn’t have worried.  This is the 1578 post on the blog.  537 of them have been reviews of books written by 409 different authors, set in 52 different countries.  87 of the books reviewed are by Irish authors.  Nearly all of them fall into the genre of crime fiction, with a smattering of non-fiction.  Being part of the crime fiction blogging community has certainly widened and improved my reading and I’ve made some great friends.  I’ve also published 149 drabbles (stories of exactly 100 words) and 29 short stories.  Reading was always one of main hobbies.  It’s been joined by blogging and I’d now be surprised if The View from the Blue House didn’t meet the ten year mark.  We’ll see.  Now it’s time to get back to reading.

The Distant Shore

The yacht struggled up the face of a wave, cold grey-green water tumbling over the deck, stinging spray driving across the sails.  To the east a fork of lightening zipped across the darkening sky, followed by a rumble of thunder; the heart of the storm edging nearer.  The helmsman adjusted his footing and fought the tiller, getting ready to change tack.  All the while he stared resolutely at the distant shore, which remained stubbornly out of reach.  It would soon disappear as the night closed in.  Then it would be just him and a compass against the sea and wind.



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review of Long Way Home by Eva Dolan (Vintage, 2014)

Detective Inspector Zigic and Detective Sergeant Ferreira of the Hate Crimes Unit have been called to a shed fire in a section of Peterborough that is dominated by recent immigrants.  The house is owned and occupied by the Barlows, who failed to call the fire brigade, letting the shed burn to the ground.  In the wreckage is the charred body of man.  It’s assumed to be a Latvian national who’d been dossing there for a few weeks.  The Barlows claim they had nothing to do with the fire, but their actions suggest otherwise.  Zigic and Ferriera start to pursue two lines of investigation, the first into the fire and the second into the identity of the dead man.  One path heads into the poor, white working class and British nationalism, the other into the underbelly of indentured immigrants working on farms and building sites and as waitresses and prostitutes.  Meanwhile, Paolo, an immigrant from Portugal, has found himself working sixteen hour days on building sites and fearing for his life.

Long Way Home is the antithesis of the classic English cozy.  Rather than the amateur detective solving a dastardly crime in some middle/upper-class idyll, Dolan presents the rotten underbelly of modern Britain -- everyday racism, anti-social behaviour, poverty, and exploitation -- investigated by a police force under resource constraints and media pressure, who are mistrusted and little respected.  The story is set in Peterborough, a place where there is an uneasy relationship between locals and new immigrants, many of whom are indentured to gang bosses, are poorly treated, and are kept in line with the threat of violence.  The tale itself focuses on the investigation into the torching of a shed in which an immigrant slept by Detectives Zigic and Ferreira.  The former is a second generation immigrant who worries he’s not spending enough time with his wife and two boys, the latter a feisty, headstrong young woman with a chip on her shoulder, who moved to Britain when she was seven.  The real strength of the book is the plot, which is a cleverly worked police procedural with a couple of nice twists and turns, and the contextualisation and gritty social realism with respect to working class neighbourhoods and the treatment of some immigrants to Britain.  There’s are fine lines between hectoring, moralising tale and searing, gritty social realism, and between lived lives and criminal/immigrant stereotypes and caricatures.  Dolan understands the difference, managing to find the right balances and letting the injustice and morals of the tale speak for themselves.  Overall, a gritty, thoughtful read with a compelling plot.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Stumped - publisher announcement

My new novel 'Stumped' is to be published by 280Steps in November 2014.  I signed off on the cover yesterday and this morning the details are up on their website, along with some very nice advance review snippets.  I'm really pleased with the cover, which has a nod to the work of Saul Bass and is inspired by the old screwball noir comedies.  The publisher has done a great job on the editing the book and I'm looking forward to it hitting the shelves latter this year.  To my mind, Stumped is by far my best work to date, so it'll be interesting to see how its received.  Regular readers of the blog will know that the book was nameless for a while and I asked for suggestions.  Cian O'Callaghan supplied the title, so many thanks to him.  Roll on November!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Review of Dog On It by Spencer Quinn (Pocket Books, 2009)

Chet, a K-9 trained dog who failed his final examine, lives and works with Bernie, a divorced, ex-army, ex-cop, private investigator.  Together they toil in an unnamed desert city in Arizona, barely making ends meet, Bernie struggling to make childcare payments to his ex-wife. When a local mother calls after her fifteen year old daughter has disappeared they take the case.  The father is certain that the daughter has run away, but Bernie thinks differently, though the lack of a ransom note seems to rule out kidnapping.  Then their car is vandalized and Chet tasered and nabbed.  But Chet is no ordinary dog and once he and Bernie vow to find a missing person they stick to the task whatever the risks.

Dog On It is told entirely from the point of view of Chet, a well-trained dog with a great sense of smell, an intuitive ability to read humans, who’s loyal and brave, and is easily distracted by food and the prospect of some fun.  The narrative voice is engaging and well pitched and anyone who owns a dog will recognize his canine mind at work.  The result is the reader is soon rooting for Chet the Jet and Bernie, his world weary, laconic private investigator owner, who can handle himself in a tight corner when needed.  Indeed, the book thrives on the equal partnership.  There’s a cozy sensibility to the tale, with a gentle humour running throughout, but Quinn doesn’t shy away from tough and dangerous moments, building the tension at a number of points in the story.  The plot of tracking down a missing fifteen year old is relatively straightforward, with no major surprises, but it’s interesting enough.  The real strength of the book, however, is the characterisation and the relationship between Chet and Bernie.  Overall, an entertaining read that will appeal to all dog lovers, or those looking for a mystery with a novel point of view.