Monday, May 30, 2016

Review of The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey (1929, Penguin)

Waiting in line to catch a theatre show a man falls to the floor dead, a knife in his back.  Those around him claim to have little recollection of the man or if anyone approached him. Inspector Alan Grant is assigned the case, which quickly proves difficult to solve.  Even identifying the man is not straightforward.  Slowly, however, Grant makes progress, but it’s not at all clear he’s on the right trail.  

The Man in the Queue was published in 1929 with Josephine Tey using the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot.  It was her first published crime novel.  It’s a somewhat curious book being highly uneven in its telling (with some overlong descriptive pieces that little move the story on, as well as quite astute observation), utilising some fairly clumsy plot devices (e.g., no labels on or identifying material in his clothes), and some parts making little sense (e.g., not re-interviewing an actress, using description of victim rather than circulating a photo or sketch of his face, not arresting the prime suspect at first opportunity when cornered).  Moreover, the book has some fairly racist undertones (e.g., Grant knew … the Dago’s rat-like preference for the sewers rather than the open’; as well other assignments of characteristics on the basis of appearance).  The ending, in particular, is very weak with a hurried denouement which feels contrived and awkwardly staged.  All of this was somewhat of a surprise given the high regard in which Tey is held by crime fiction aficionados (in 1990 the CWA selected The Daughters of Time as the greatest crime novel of all time and The Franchise Affair came in eleventh).  However, reading other reviews the consensus seems to be that The Man in the Queue is her weakest outing and is definitely not the one a new to Tey reader should try first. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week was exhausting, especially the trip to the Netherlands.  I barely got to see The Hague, but did manage to explore Rotterdam a little and really took to the place.  An old industrial, port city that was flattened during the Second World War and is still being re-developed, especially around the old docks.  It has some very striking modern architecture.  I stayed in the Hotel New York, the old offices of Holland Amerika Lijn building, and had a great room full of character and a view of the harbour (with a bathroom that was in the old service elevator).  When I wasn't busy meeting people or giving talks, I spent time reading Benjamin Black's Elegy for April, an atmospheric tale set in 1950s Dublin.

My posts this week:
Review of Stalin’s Gold by Mark Ellis
Review of A Killing Winter by Tom Callaghan
Review of The Blood Strand by Chris Ould

Questions and doubts

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Questions and doubts

The young woman was lying on her side, clutching a worn teddy bear.  On the bedside cabinet were an empty bottle of vodka and two pill trays, their capsules popped. 

Carter sighed and left the room.

‘Was she depressed?’ he asked the woman’s tearful flatmate.

‘Yes.  No.  She just seemed lost most of the time; like she didn’t know what life was for.’

‘I guess most of us don’t know the answer to that.’

‘But we still want to stumble through it; we fear death more than life.’

‘Maybe she’s found peace now?’

‘Or new questions and doubt.  Poor, Susie.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Stalin’s Gold by Mark Ellis (Troubador, 2014)

1938 and during the transfer of gold bullion and treasures from Spanish republicans to Russia a couple of crates go missing.  Stalin orders Beria to track it down and recover the haul.  Two years later the Battle for Britain is raging and London is experiencing the full force of the blitz.  Along with their other duties, DCI Frank Merlin’s team has been instructed to get a grip on the looting of bomb sites.  In addition, Merlin has taken on the task of finding missing Polish RAF pilot Ziggy Kilinski, who seems to have some connection to the Polish government-in-exile.  That government has been funded in part by gold bullion transferred out of the country, bullion that a Russian émigré has a keen interest in.  With the bombs falling on a burning city, Merlin tries to get to the bottom of a case that involves common thievery and political intrigue.

Stalin’s Gold in the second book in the DCI Frank Merlin series set in London during the Second World War.  At one level there’s quite a bit going on in the tale which entangles Polish aristocratic exiles and RAF pilots, Russian gangsters and political agents, local criminal looters, and the police, centred around some missing gold bullion.  At another, the whole story is quite strongly telegraphed, meaning that there is not much mystery or surprise to the tale.  Moreover the tale is held together in a web of coincidences, such as Merlin finding some gold in a bomb site and the looter’s also being connected to the Russians, and there are a number of scenes that do not move the story forward.  To a degree these don’t really matter as it’s still an enjoyable read, Merlin continues to be a likeable character, the tale is interesting, and the context with respect to the war is nicely done, but I felt they took the edge off what could have been a more intriguing story with respect to how the mystery is revealed to the reader. 



Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review of A Killing Winter by Tom Callaghan (Quercus, 2015)

In the depths of a freezing winter in Kyrgyzstan a young woman is found lying in the snow, sliced open to reveal a foetus.  Inspector Akyl Borubaev of Bishkek Murder Squad is appalled at the crime, which takes a political turn when the woman is identified as the daughter of the Minister for State Security, a powerful and lethal man.  Borubaev is tasked with finding the woman’s killer quickly and discretely and canons into the Kyrgyz underground seeking answers.  Using threats and violence it’s hardly subtle policing, but he picks up a trail and discovers that the woman is not the only victim and that others are also searching for the killer.  Talking to Borubaev, however, is a costly business, his witnesses also becoming victims. Even if he succeeds in finding the killer, he might not have a case, and there’s a good chance he won’t survive either.

It would not surprise me in the slightest if A Killing Winter has been banned by the Kyrgyzstan tourist board as it paints a dismal picture of the country – high-levels of state corruption, strong criminal gangs and a crime-ridden society, crippling poverty, wide scale drug and alcohol abuse, and terrible, freezing weather.  From a crime fiction perspective, it’s certainly an interesting setting, however, especially with a protagonist who believes in law, order and justice, and utilising intimidation and violence to achieve those ends.  Inspector Akyl Borubaev of Bishkek Murder Squad is a complex character with a moral compass pointing in roughly the right direction, though he turns a blind eye to the worst excesses of his colleagues and to the criminal elements of his family.  Recently widowed, his sense of self-preservation is also a little skewed.  It needs to be to solve a series of brutal murders – this is not a book for the squeamish or faint-hearted – and take on the killer.  Right from the start Callaghan employs vivid violence and then counterpoints it with pathos in a series of quickly moving switchbacks to create an engaging police procedural thriller.  The plotting is nicely done, with the investigation constantly shifting gears and direction as Borubaev chases shadows and motive, leading to a nice denouement.  Beyond some sentences designed to shock rather than simply tell the story, my main issue was I couldn’t work out why Borubaev was alive at the end of the book; it made no real sense when witnesses and others were being killed not to also dispose of him.  Otherwise this was an evocative, pacey tale and the start of what I think should be an interesting series featuring Borubaev.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Review of The Blood Strand by Chris Ould (Titan Books, 2016)

Jan Reyna left the Faroes as child when his mother fled from his father.  A couple of decades later, Reyna is a British police detective, his mother is long dead, and his father is found unconscious in a car, along with a shotgun, a large sum of money, and someone else’s blood.  Reyna is persuaded by his aunt to head to the Faroes to see about reconciliation before it’s too late.  Reyna arrives with a stack of unresolved questions about his parent’s past and rift, but he’s soon drawn into a more contemporary mystery with the discovery of a young man’s body on a beach.  The case is being handled by local detective Hjalti Hentze, who turns to Reyna for help, and the prime suspect is Reyna’s father.  Together Reyna and Hjalti stoically investigate the case, while Reyna also seeks to find out more about his family and past.

The Blood Strand is the first in a new police procedural series set in the Faroes.  It very much has the feel of Scandinavian crime fiction, with its low key and realist telling and emphasis on place and family.  The tale tells the story of British detective Jan Reyna’s return to the islands he left as a child and his contribution to a murder investigation in which is father is a suspect.  Reyna’s outsider status enables Ould to introduce both the character and reader to Faroes landscape and community, with local detective Hjalti Hentze and his cousin Frida Solsker, a counsellor, acting as guides.  The characterisation is nicely done, with Reyna and Hentze both being strong, thoughtful, silent, pragmatic types, who cut through politics to get the job done.  The story unfolds at a steady pace, with Ould carefully stitching together the two main plot lines – Reyna’s reluctant quest to find out more about his family and the investigation into the murder of a local man – and working in plenty of clues and doubts, and feints and twists towards the end, and a nice denouement.  I was never quite convinced that the Faroes police would engage so thoroughly with a visiting British police officer whose father is heavily implicated in the death, but Ould makes the premise just about plausible.  Overall, a strong start to the series and I’m looking forward to reading the next, The Killing Bay, due for publication in 2017.



Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm off to the Netherlands again this coming week for a couple of days to give two talks and two workshops, all on smart cities.  I've not got any Dutch crime fiction on my reading pile, which is shame.  Has anyone got any recommendations for some for future trips?

My posts this week
Review of Murder in the Marais by Cara Black
Review of Billy Boyle by James Benn
Review of Murderer in the Ruins by Cay Rademacher
Hellhole

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Hellhole

The skinny dog was cowering in the furthest corner of the dingy shed.

Henny was down on her haunches, her hand outstretched. 

‘There, there.  It’s okay, boy.’ 

The dog tried to bolt, but his back legs failed and he whimpered.

‘Well?’ Tom asked from the doorway.

‘He’s in a bad way.  Soaked in urine and shit.  Can’t walk.  I’d like the owner to suffer the same.’

‘He has been.  You should see the house.’

‘All I care about is this poor boy.’

‘Shame nobody cared for the old fellow either.  Could have saved both of them from this stinking hellhole.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Review of Murder in the Marais by Cara Black (Soho Press, 1999)

Paris-based Aimée Leduc and her business partner, Rene, specialise in technical investigations, hacking into systems to discover the truth.  After losing her father to a terrorist explosion she has vowed to avoid more traditional cases.  However, given their dire finances and the pleas of one her father’s oldest friends she takes on a case to discover the whereabouts of an elderly Jewish woman’s relatives deported fifty years previously.  When she arrives at the woman’s home in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter of Paris, she finds her dead with a swastika carved into her forehead.  Vowing to seek justice for the dead woman she is soon tangling with far-right neo-Nazis, trying to keep herself alive, and attempting to work out how the past has resurfaced with deadly effect in the present.

Murder in the Marais is the first instalment in the Aimée Leduc series, a sassy female PI operating in Paris.  The story very much fits into the mold of a crime thriller, with Leduc raising against time and fighting a set of baddies as she tries to determine who has killed an elderly Jewish woman.  The pace is high from the start, with a couple of intersecting plot lines concerning historical events during the war and relations between Jews, collaborators and Nazi officials, the return to Paris of one of those officials in his new role as a high-ranking German government trade delegate, and the politics and antics of present-day neo-Nazis.  Leduc careens through these threads, creating much havoc as she seeks to undo and quite happy to break the law in numerous ways for greater justice.  As long as one can suspend realist sensibilities with respect to the plot then it’s an engaging ride that leads to a suspenseful denouement – though the resolution was a little telegraphed.  I was happy enough to go along with the ride and enjoy Leduc’s brand of investigation. 


Thursday, May 19, 2016

What might have been ...

Just found a box file of old job application materials, including a whole bunch of rejection letters. The file shows I applied for at least 37 jobs before I got my first and I interviewed 9 times (starred below), never being ranked as the first candidate (I ranked second for my first post in QUB). Most of them are for jobs in the UK - Aberdeen, Anglia, Belfast*, Birmingham, Bristol(2), Cambridge, Cheltenham/Gloucester*, Dundee, Edinburgh, Exeter, Hull, Kingston, Kings College, Lampeter, Leeds, Leicester*, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester Met, Newcastle*, Northumbria, Oxford, Royal Holloway*, South Bank*, St Andrews(2), Strathclyde*, Swansea(2)*, UCL. A handful are elsewhere: Cork*, UCD, Otago, Hawaii, Victoria, Auckland, Minnesota. I've always said I applied for 55 jobs before I got my first and there are certainly places not in the file that I'm fairly confident I did apply to - Penn State, San Diego, Portsmouth, Manchester, Sheffield, Sussex, Glasgow - but maybe I got an email or no response rather than a letter. I wonder where I'd be now if I'd actually managed to get one of these other than QUB?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review of Billy Boyle by James Benn (Soho Press, 2006)

A young Irish-American Boston cop, Billy Boyle’s family has a unique strategy to see him serve out the Second World War safely state-side – get him assigned to the staff of his Washington-based Uncle Ike.  However, by the time Billy has gone through basic training his uncle, General Eisenhower, is in London in charge of the Allied forces.  Billy arrives in the city to work as a personal detective for his uncle and is immediately put to work to find a spy in the Norwegian government-in-exile before a planned Allied invasion of the country takes place.  Aware of his shortcomings, but determined to make his mark, Billy travels to Beardsley Hall in Norfolk, accompanied by his acerbic, doubtful boss, a beautiful and ambitious British WREN, and an aristocratic Polish officer who has a gift for languages.  All is not well in the Norwegian government, which is strained by in-fighting, and shortly after his arrival an attempt is made on Billy’s life.  Soon he is investigating murder and putting his fledgling detective skills to the test.

Billy Boyle is the first book in a series of Second World War mysteries featuring the Irish-American cop turned war detective.  The premise behind the series is a good one – knowing that he’s likely to be called up to serve, a family uses it network to find a cop an easy, safe ride through the war, not anticipating that their plan is going to back fire when Uncle Ike is transferred from Washington to London.  Billy’s role is to act as the personal detective for General Eisenhower, solving crimes that might harm the war effort.  Benn’s strategy is to tell the tale as a kind of boy’s adventure for adults, with lots of dare-doing and mystery.  It works quite well, especially since Billy is reasonably self-depreciating, knowing his limitations.  The plot is a little fanciful, as one might expect, and sometimes it’s a little stilted.  And certain bits do not make a lot of sense, for example, a Norwegian living with other Norwegians leaving a suicide note in English.  Moreover, the first person perspective can get a little tiring at times, with an over-use of I, we, us, etc.  But otherwise it’s quite good fun, mixing adventure with pathos.  I’ll no doubt try another in the series at some point.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Review of The Murderer in Ruins by Cay Rademacher (Arcadia 2015, German 2011)

Hamburg, 1947.  The destroyed city is overseen by the British and in the grip of a freezing winter.  Shelter, food and fuel are scarce and the black market is thriving.  Chief Inspector Frank Stave, a career policeman who didn't join the Nazi party, is mourning the death of his wife in the fire storm of 1943 and searching for his teenage son, who left for Berlin in the dying days of the war and has not been seen since.  When the body of a naked young woman is found in the rubble, Stave is asked to head up the case and assigned the help of his colleague Maschke from the vice squad, and Lieutenant MacDonald from the British military.  Soon after, the naked body of an old man is discovered.  It seems as if there’s a serial killer at work.  There are no clues as to who the victims are or why they’ve been murdered and Stave struggles to make any headway as the pressure to find the perpetrator grows and the temperature plummets.

The Murderer in Ruins is the first book in a trilogy following the work of Chief Inspector Frank Stave in post-war Hamburg.  The tale does a good job of situating the reader in the apocalyptic and freezing landscape of the city, filled with people struggling to make ends meet, find missing relatives, and to rebuild their lives.  Stave is one of them, haunted by his dead wife, searching for his missing son, and struggling to solve a handful of murders.  Rademacher provides a sympathetic and engaging portrayal of his lead character, and populates the tale with other interesting characters.  Where the book struggles, however, is with respect to its plot.  There are too many elements that do not add up – a major murder spree is being investigated by a team of three and one secretary as opposed a large dedicated team of inspectors, sergeants, constables; the murder book goes missing and Stave does nothing about it; a witness very clearly signals evidence and Stave ignores it – and there are a couple too many plot devices.  Moreover, the ending is well telegraphed.  The result is a tale that has a good sense of place and time and an interesting set of characters, but felt somewhat clunky and staged at times.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week was busy, with Monday to Wednesday spent travelling to and from Paderborn, Germany, where I took part in a reading seminar and presented a talk, and Thursday consisting of back-to-back meetings. Between engagements I managed to draft a paper and also read three novels and make it through a chunk of a fourth. Insomnia is useful for something it seems.  I didn't find time for writing reviews, however, so need to pull my finger out on that this coming week.  Expect reviews shortly of books by Cay Rademacher, James Benn, Cara Black and Chris Ould.


My posts this week:
Review of A House of Knives by William Shaw
Review of Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File by Alan Levy
A hint of death

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A hint of death

‘Can you smell that?’

‘What?’ Tom said.

‘Like something’s died,’ Sarah said, her nose twitching.

Tom sniffed.  ‘No.’

‘It’s just a whiff.’  She headed upstairs.

‘That smells of what?’

‘I told you, like a hint of death.’

‘What does a hint of death smell like?’

‘Like this!  Tom!’

He pounded up the stairs.  ‘Where are you?’

‘The back bedroom.’

‘Well?’ he said, entering the room.

‘There.’  She pointed at a dead bird, covered in maggots.

‘It must have come down the chimney.’

‘While we were on the beach, she was starving to death!’

‘But at least the maggots aren’t.’

‘Tom!’

 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review of Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File by Alan Levy (rev ed, 2002, Robinson & Constable)

Simon Wiesenthal was born in Galicia in Poland on New Year’s Eve 1908.  He lived in Vienna as a child until seven, then returned to Galicia which was ‘liberated’ six times in the First World War as it constantly swapped hands.  In the late 1920s he trained as an architect in Prague and then returned to Galicia to set up practice. In the mid-1930s he spent time working in Odessa before returning to Lvov to marry in 1936.  In 1939, Lvov was annexed and occupied by the Soviets. After the German blitzkrieg in 1941, Wiesenthal and his wife were moved in the Lvov Ghetto, then late 1941 were transferred to Janowska concentration camp, undertaking forced labour. Wiesenthal was then moved to a satellite camp from which he escaped in October 1943, returning to Lvov where he was recaptured in June 1944 and returned to Janowska. Shortly after he was transported to Przemyśl, then in September to Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp.  In October he was moved to Gross-Rosen concentration camp, then in January he was marched to Chemnitz. From there he was moved to Buchenwald and a few days later in mid-February to Mauthausen. The camp was liberated in May 1945, his ninth ‘liberation’.

As he recuperated, Wiesenthal vowed to seek justice – not revenge – for all those murdered by the Nazi regime.  Within three weeks of liberation he’d prepared a list of war criminals and started to work for the US Army in amassing evidence tracking them down and followed the US army to Linz when eastern Austria was placed in the Soviet zone.  He was reunited with his wife in 1946, the only other survivor of the 89 relatives in their respective families.  He set up his own document centre and also took depositions from survivors, passing on relevant evidence to various authorities.  He also aided refugees.  After the initial trials, the allies desire to pursue war criminals dimmed, the focus shifting to rebuilding Europe.  Wiesenthal, however, vowed to continue tracking them down, helping to bring 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice, including Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl, and kept in pursuit of Josef Mengele.  He also tangled with Austria’s post-war politicians, notably Bruno Kreisky and Kurt Waldheim.  His single-mindedness and determination to pursue justice often meant he ended up in political dogfights and at different times he fell out with many former collaborators and institutions.  He died in 2005 aged 96.

Alan Levy first met Wiesenthal in 1974.  Over the next 28 years they met frequently to discuss Wiesenthal’s work and that of his document centres.  The first edition of Levy’s biography was published in 1993 and subsequently revised nine years later.  It is a sympathetic account of Wiesenthal’s life and work, but importantly it is fair in its treatment setting out both sides of his various political battles with other Nazi hunters, politicians and institutions and also critiquing his thoughts and actions where merited.  Levy’s account highlights both Wiesenthal’s compassion and humanist stance, but also his contradictions and ego.  Rather than map out in chronological detail Wiesenthal’s life, Levy’s strategy is focus on key events and strands to highlight what made and drove the man.  The portrait created reveals Wiesenthal to be a quite clearly a complex person, one who experienced a varied life that was full of personal tussles and conflict throughout.  While the book provides a fascinating read, the strategy taken does leave plenty of gaps, most notably around his family and his dealings with and feelings about Israel.  Filling them however would have led to a very long narrative.  Overall, an interesting book that details the work of a fascinating man and the crimes for which he sought justice.