Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Black Feather

This my first short story featuring Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy, the lead character in The Rule Book and The White Gallows. I wrote the piece in response to Seana's comment to a post I put up a couple of days ago about my sense of being out of place in Roskilde, suggesting that my observations might make the basis for a short story. I think it might be the first piece I've written that contains no dialogue. I drafted the piece in Copenhagen on Saturday.

A Black Feather

The sky and water were sheet metal grey, the horizon a thin line where the two near identical panels met. The wide fjord was bounded left and right by dark, low lying headlands; a single, small sailing boat was tacking from right to left, its white sail billowing with the light, chilly breeze.

As the first fat drops of rain began to fall, Superintendent Colm McEvoy pushed himself off the railing and headed to the shelter of a wooden-clad workshop, part of the Vikingskibsmuseet, The Viking Boat Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. The glum faced, local detective acting as his chaperone had been convinced that the place would be of great interest to a visiting Irish man.

In the small boatyard the Danes had built a Viking longboat, using authentic tools and materials, that they had named The Sea Stallion of Glendalough in honour of the ancient monastic site in County Wicklow. In 2007 they had sailed it across the North Sea, around the top of Scotland, and down through the Irish Sea to Dublin, replicating the journey that countless Nordic invaders had undertaken a thousand years previously.

Normally, McEvoy would have been fascinated by the history, the archaeological finds, and the master craftsman recreating the ancient boats, but instead of curiosity and wonder, he felt listless and useless. He had arrived the previous morning and been met at the airport by two policemen dressed in dark grey suits. They had proceeded to Roskilde where the men had briefed him on the abduction of Annelise Snedker, a twenty year old philosophy student who lived with her parents and younger brother, who had seemingly been snatched ten days previously from her downstairs bedroom at the back of a suburban house in the town. They had no real leads except for a black feather and a lock of her hair that had been left on her pillow.

One of McEvoy’s colleagues, Detective Inspector Barney Plunkett, had a European-wide alert issued for immediate notification if any black feathers were discovered at crime scenes. Ever since the Raven, Ireland’s most notorious serial killer, had gone to ground, Plunkett had been trying to pick up his trail. So far, four such feathers had been found; two in Ireland and one in South West France. And now in Eastern Denmark. McEvoy had arrived in Plunkett’s stead because his junior officer was on annual leave and he didn’t want to disturb him from a much needed break. The man was edging towards obsession; he would have abandoned his wife and kids to ten days in Tenerife, and flown to Denmark at his own expense to follow the lead.

McEvoy had spent an hour that morning with Annelise’s parents. They looked haggard from exhaustion; consumed by the shock of the nightmare they were now living and their fears. They seemed resolute in their belief that their daughter was still alive, but his presence had undoubtedly undermined their faith. The mother had visibly wilted as the conversation unfolded. It had been a disheartening meeting that had led to much upset, but no new insights.

The parent’s gloom had transferred to him and his darkening mood was being fuelled further by a sense of alienation, of feeling out of place in the town. Roskilde was everything an Irish town was not – prim and proper; ordered, planned, managed and controlled. All the buildings were well maintained and the gardens perfect. The landscape had the feel of being a kind of unnatural nature – every tree, bush and blade of grass had been carefully positioned and pruned. And there was a notable absence of people. The bar he’d spent an hour in the previous evening had been all but empty and on the walk back to his hotel he was the only soul wandering the town’s streets. He literally had the place to himself. He’d only been there a day and he was already missing the messiness and busyness of Irish towns – the bustle and hustle and vaguely patterned chaos.

Even during the day the town seemed curiously quiet; only a few pedestrians and cyclists on the main thoroughfare. In the suburbs it was even more pronounced. On the five kilometre drive from his hotel to the unassuming university on the town’s edge to talk to Annelise’s course tutor, they had only passed half a dozen cars, two cyclists and one jogger. The place was like a model town or a film set once all the actors and crew had gone home. Beautiful, but empty.

The people had the same kind of quality. He’d only met a handful so far – a couple of cops, hotel and bar staff, the university professor and his administrator, the missing girl’s family – and they had all been well dressed and mannered, formal and reserved. He was too used to the gregariousness and unpredictability of the Irish. Though to be fair, with the exception of the distraught family, he had detected a hint of mischief hiding under the surface; a twinkle in the eye and the playful curve of an occasional smile. Once the guard came down, the Danes might well be quite fun. How often that was, McEvoy wasn’t sure. Given the cost of the beer, probably not often. Half a litre of Carlsberg had cost him nearly twice as much as a pint of the same brew in an Irish bar, and Ireland was not a cheap country when it came to its pub prices. It would be cheaper for the Danes to leave the country and then re-import their primary export, than to drink it at home. It defied logic for a country that seemed to run on calculated rationalism.

McEvoy watched the dour craftsman plane a length of wood, the floor at his feet littered with curled shavings. Beyond place and family names, whatever the Irish had inherited from the Danes it had seemingly been lost somewhere along the way, he reflected. That or the Danes had been civilised in the intervening years.

The rain had turned into a light drizzle and he left the craftsman to his solitary labour, wandering through the sheds, starting back to his hotel. On the skyline, up a slight slope the two, red brick square towers of Roskilde Cathedral, topped by slender copper green spikes, rose above the tree-line. If the Raven had committed the abduction he was almost certainly long gone. And he would have left very little of himself behind except for some vague traces of a shifting mirage. The man was a chameleon. McEvoy knew he was wasting his time here, even if it was a performance he needed to act out to satisfy both the Irish and Danish authorities. And it would be at least two days before he would be able to return Dublin and its familiar sense of place.

He sighed, knowing that he’d been enveloped in a sober funk. That self-realisation wouldn’t be enough to tip him back out of it either; rather it would lead to further existential musing on the state of his life and a slow slide into a familiar condition of depressed, self-loathing. He needed to get out of this town. It was too unsettling. It felt too perfect. No, not perfect. It was too much of a simulacrum for what a town should be; a slightly unreal imitation of an urban utopia. He would check out of the hotel and head into Copenhagen. Perhaps the large city would be more ... more alive.

Which was probably more than could be said of Annelise Snedker. Or indeed Colm McEvoy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review of The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidsen (Arcadia Books, 2007, original in Danish 1996)

The Danish newspaper, Politiken, has invited Sara Santanda, an Iranian author hiding in London from a death threat issued by fundamentalist clerics in her home country, to Copenhagen, Denmark. Their Arts editor, Chair of the Danish branch of PEN, Lise Carlson has been assigned the task of chaperoning and interviewing her, and liaising with the police with respect to her security. Carlson’s marriage to Ole is on the rocks and spending all her time preparing for Santanda’s trip is putting extra pressure on the relationship, as is her infatuation with the cop assigned to lead the security detail, Per Toftlund. Toftlund is ex-navy and happy-go-lucky when it comes to women. The Danish government want nothing to do with Santanda’s visit for fear of upsetting the Iranians and damaging economic relations. For the Iranian government, Santanda surfacing represents an opportunity to exact revenge for her critical and blasphemous writing. Aware of the diplomatic fallout if they carry out the hit, through a Russian intermediary they hire a young Bosnian Serb who grew up in Denmark before returning home just before the conflict in the Balkans erupted. After Vuk’s family was brutally slain he trained as an elite assassin, leaving a bloody trail in his wake. Now the war is coming to a bitter end, he's looking for a new life and hunting a Muslim woman for Muslim masters might just provide it.

The Serbian Dane is a straightforward thriller centred around three principal characters – Lise, Per and Vuk. The plot essentially revolves around all three preparing for Santanda’s visit to Denmark, and exploring their past and present circumstances. The strength of the book is the character development, which Davidsen patiently builds up. The plot is competent, but unsurprising, with no major twists and turns and, as a result, lacks real tension. It’s fairly clear from a long way out how the book is going to climax, even if the exact ending is more open. The writing is workmanlike, with a nice balance of description and action, and a nicely framed sense of place. Overall, a fairly standard political assassin thriller that was an okay, if unsurprising, read.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Last day in Denmark. Acting on Seana's comment on Thursday I spent a bit of time yesterday drafting a piece of flash fiction set in Roskilde. It is Colm McEvoy's first outing in a short story. I'll post it either tomorrow or on Tuesday once I've given it a quick polish.

My posts this week:
Social housing vacancy and turnaround time and the Social Housing Investment Programme
Tantuple - save a word
Review of The Saints of New York by RJ Ellory
Something is strange in the state of Denmark
Review of The Brush Off by Shane Maloney
The librarian thief

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The librarian thief

A day in Copenhagen wandering around. The Serbian Dane (Leif Davidsen) and Mercy (Jussi Adler-Olsen) take on a slightly different shape in my head now I've located myself in the books. I visited the Royal Library in the early afternoon, where the old building has been extended with a new modern front, and was delighted to find nine of my books in the collection. The Royal Library was founded in 1648 and in 1989 was merged with the university library (founded in 1482) and is the largest collection in Denmark with over 32 million items. A quick browse of Wikipedia has thrown up this interesting snippet.

"Between 1968 and 1978, the library saw one of the largest book thefts in history. Someone had managed to steal some 1,600 historical books worth more than $50 million, including prints by Martin Luther and first editions by Immanuel Kant, Thomas More and John Milton. The theft remained undetected until 1975. Between 1998 and 2002, the thief succeeded in selling books worth some $2 million at various auctions. The case was finally solved in September 2003, after a stolen book had surfaced at Christie's auction house in London. The thief, a head of department of the library's oriental department named Frede Møller-Kristensen, had died in February 2003. His family then became careless in selling the remaining books. At a coordinated raid of the family's homes in Germany and Denmark in November 2003, some 1,500 books were recovered. In June 2004, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and a family friend were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 3 years; the friend was acquitted on appeal. In April 2005, a daughter of the thief was also found guilty."

I don't think I have to worry about any of my books being caught up in this kind of theft! Pesky librarian.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review of The Brush-Off by Shane Maloney (Text Publishing, 1996)

Murray Whelan is political advisor to Angelo Agnelli who has just been reshuffled out of the Department of Ethnic Affairs to the portfolios of Water and the Arts. Whelan knows next to nothing about both and fears the worst. Agnelli though sends him off as the advance party in the Department for the Arts and straight to a function with party politico and committee stalwart, Lloyd Eastlake, a financial wheeler-dealer and self-made man. Whelan has his eye on Salina Fleet, another Arts committee member, but the night ends on a sour note, not with Fleet in his bed, but fishing her dead financee, struggling artist Marcus Taylor, out of the moat in front of the National Gallery accompanied by a suicide note bemoaning how the state has treated him. Twelve hours after being handed the reins to his new department Whelan’s boss is faced with a front page story. Whelan has a nose for political trouble and intrigue and pretty soon he’s putting it where it’s not wanted, just as his son arrives in Melbourne from Sydney for a weekend break. Trying to juggle spending quality time with his son and investigating Taylor’s death, Whelan pings from one calamitous event to the next.

The Brush-Off is well plotted and paced comic-crime caper, with some very good set pieces and nice observational touches about politics, the art world, family relations and the city of Melbourne. Maloney writes in an easy, engaging and witty style and he clearly knows the political world which he satirizes. Murray Whelan is a great creation and totally believable as a kind of hapless schemer and general feck-up who manages to scrape by with a mix of charm, bluster and luck. Indeed, the characterisation and the interaction between characters is first rate, each well-penned, with credible dialogue. The book won the Ned Kelly Prize for Crime Fiction in Australia in 1996. It’s not hard to understand why. I thought it was a great read and I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Nice Try.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Something is strange in the state of Denmark

Blogger has finally let me log on. Arrived in Roskilde yesterday, despite the threat of the ash cloud. I spotted two Irish literary 'heavyweights' in Dublin airport - Anne Enright (Booker Prize Winner) and Colm Toibin (Costa and IMPAC prize winner). No doubt off to collect more deserved plaudits. Roskilde is a pleasant but very quiet town. When I walked through the streets last night at midnight I was the only person on the main thoroughfare in the town. In fact, I've seen very few people at all since I arrived. I'm not sure where they are hiding, but the place is a little bit spooky with its perfect streets and houses and very few people. Everything feels planned and managed and controlled. It's all very orderly. I'm definitely feeling a little out of place - I'm too used to the messiness and busyness of Irish towns; the bustle and hustle. Roskilde feels like the inverse of Maynooth, despite the fact that they are both university towns. Strange.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review of The Saints of New York by R.J. Ellory (Orion, 2010)

Frank Parrish is a police detective living with his own demons – his failed marriage and strained relations with his children, his perilous position at work, the death of his police partner, and the legacy of his corrupt father, a legendary cop and one of the original so-called ‘saints of New York’. Under investigation by Internal Affairs he has to attend daily sessions with a psychotherapist whilst also running his workload of cases. Fresh onto the pile is the death of Danny Lange, a small time heroin dealer and user. Danny is no great loss, but when Parrish arrives at Lange’s apartment he finds his younger sister dead. Investigating the case, Parrish’s gut instincts are telling him that she is not the only victim. Routing through old cold case files cements his suspicions. Given the circumstantial evidence, rather than appraising his boss, Parrish sets out on a solo run to find what he believes is a serial killer. All the time he attends his therapy sessions. Whilst he doesn’t appreciate his daily interaction with the therapist, the discussions are nonetheless opening up feelings and emotions that he’s long kept tightly boxed up. The case and the therapy are leading Parrish on a personal journey of discovery and redemption, but his chosen path and methods of investigation is unlikely to endear his colleagues and Internal Affairs to his cause.

This is the second Ellory book I’ve read. The other – A Quiet Belief in Angels – I found a rather extraordinary and emotionally exhausting read. The Saints of New York feels somewhat of a lesser book all round, but then it had a lot to live up to. The story is still a bit of an emotional ride as it tracks Parrish’s fragile state of mind and psychological transformation and the unfortunate lives of young girls being grabbed for snuff movies, but it doesn’t quite plumb the depths of the A Quiet Belief in Angels. And given the subject matter I’m not going to say it was an enjoyable read. It was certainly engaging in parts, but the more the book progressed the more ambivalent I became. The story felt stretched out and from a long way it out it was clear as to how the narrative would unfold – this is after all a story of a fall from grace and redemption. Parrish is the archetypal solo, me-against-the-world, drinks to forget cop, who breaks every rule and pisses all his colleagues and family off, and constantly teeters on the edge of being drummed out of the force, all in the name of justice. There is no denying, however, the quality of the writing. Ellory can certainly string sentences together and produce a multi-layered read. The start is as gripping as they come. For those who like a psychological inflected police procedural, The Saints of New York will be a welcome tonic.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tantuple - Save a Word

The English language is remarkably flexible and innovative with new words entering the lexicon all time. At the same time, words fall out of favour and use. Oxford Dictionaries have set up a website to try and save those words that are dropping out of use - Save the Words. It encourages you to adopt a word and to try and keep it alive by using it in writing and speech. Having had a look at the site I've decided to adopt the word tantuple, which means a number multiplied by itself. So one hundred is a tantuple of ten. An example of use - With the present government policy sovereign debt is likely to tantuple by 2014. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. I wanted to pick a word that I actually might use and tantuple seems a likely candidate.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

A week of administrative messing and meetings followed by a weekend of marking exams and coursework ahead of setting off for Roskilde, Denmark on Wednesday morning. I've the Leif Davidsen's Serbian Dane and Jussi Adler-Olsen's Mercy for the trip. I've interspersed reading scripts with The Brush Off by Shane Maloney, the second Murray Whelan book. Very welcome light relief from Australia. Whilst searching for a copy of the cover I discovered that the first book Stiff and The Brush Off have both been made into movies. I'd quite like to watch both of them at some point. I'm wary of buying a US or Aus import because of the DVD regions malarky, but will investigate.

My posts this week
Review of Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel
The Queen and I
Review of One of Our Thursday's is Missing by Jasper Fforde
Review of A Stone of the Heart by John Brady

Friday, May 20, 2011

Review of A Stone of the Heart by John Brady (Penguin, 1988)

Jarlath Walsh is a naive and idealistic student at Trinity College Dublin who dreams of becoming a journalist. His ambition is cut short when his head is bashed in with a cobble whilst walking across the college grounds. Inspector Kilmartin decides it is just the case to bring Sergeant Matt Minogue back into the fold of the murder squad. Minogue has been convalescing after surviving the bomb blast that killed the British Ambassador over a year previously. Even before the incident that nearly ended his life Minogue seemed to exist somewhat apart from his colleagues; thoughtful, perceptive, unflappable, thorough. As he starts his investigation it’s immediately clear that something doesn’t sit right. The evidence suggests that Walsh’s death might be drug related, but Minogue’s instinct says otherwise. As he picks away at the case, the Troubles from the North visit the city, and policemen start to lose their lives. Then someone tries to kill Minogue.

A Stone of the Heart is the first book in the Matt Minogue series. It’s a credit to Brady that it feels mid-series. Minogue is a well developed character that has depth and resonance. Brady provides sufficient back story and family context without dwelling on it and slowing the story. The social interaction between characters is keenly observed and the dialogue is spot on, capturing the colloquialisms and banter of Irish brogue. Brady does an excellent job of capturing the political atmosphere in the South and the tensions between a somewhat political ambivalence and benign republicanism and an active support for the IRA. Well written with a nice pace, the story is carefully constructed, although the end tailed off a little. Whilst I didn’t have a problem with the ambiguous and unresolved nature of a couple of elements of the case, I was left with some questions concerning motivations and back story of three of the principle characters, which are dealt with in a cursory way. That said, A Stone of the Heart is very fine police procedural and I’m looking forward to catching up with Matt Minogue again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review of One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

The BookWorld has undergone a transformation from Great Library format to Geographic format. Hanging on the inside of a globe, all forms of writing are organised into clusters of islands that are divided into genres. Related genres are located near to each other and trade text, plot devices, metaphors and so on. All is not well, however, with a genre war about to erupt. Jurisfiction agent Thursday Next is due to chair peace talks in a week’s time only she has vanished in suspicious circumstances. Worried about the consequences of the impending battle Jurisfiction turns to the written Thursday Next who is living in a small corner of speculative fiction, maintaining her four book series and trying to keep her readers and fellow characters happy. She is asked to investigate the mysterious break-up of a vanity book that was being transported across BookWorld, leaving a trail of narrative debris in its wake. Soon the Men in Plaid, agents of the Council of Genres, are trailing after her, her understudy is upstaging her, and her Designated Love Interest is revealed to have a murderous back story. Written Thursday has to live up to the reputation of her real world counterpart and save the day or risk being erased from the BookWorld.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing is a very clever book. In some senses too clever. As usual, Fforde’s playfulness with language and intertextuality is in full flight. However, the construction of the BookWorld, and Fforde’s explanations as to how it is organised and works, seemed, to me at least, to get somewhat in the way of the story. It is only in the few pages where Thursday is sent into the ‘real world’ – Outland – that the narrative flows in the same way as previous books. In those stories, the cleverness and inventiveness of Fforde’s imagination comes through loud and clear without it overly clogging the story. The plot then is smart and witty, but the storyline is more a witty observational piece rather than a compelling page turner. Despite these gripes, One of Thursdays is Missing is an enjoyable read. One has to admire the sheer cleverness and playfulness of Fforde’s writing, but sometimes less is more.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Queen and I

I've spent the whole of this afternoon in Trinity College. Its a quite historic day for Ireland, with the head of state of our nearest neighbour, the Queen, visiting the country. It's the first time the UK's head of state has visited the Republic of Ireland since it gained independence. The last royal visit to Dublin was 1911. I was one of 120 guests in the Long Room in Trinity to meet her and Prince Phillip. The mix of attendees were mainly representatives of academia and the arts. We were divided into 12 groups of ten. I was in a group of social sciences and philantrophists. They worked different sides of the room, passing each other at the far end, where they took a look at the royal charter of the college, to head back to complete a loop. Both swapped a few words with just about everybody. I'm not really sure why I was picked to attend, but it was an interesting experience to see how these events work, the protocols and security. The whole thing was broadcast live on the national television station, which is where I've grabbed this image (I'm the guy, second from the right).

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review of Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel (Quercus, 2005)

Whilst waiting for her married lover to turn up Samantha Mack (Smack) is called in to cover for a sick colleague. To make things worse she has been teamed up with her former patrol partner, who she feels betrayed her by getting married and swapping shifts. Having met a snitch they proceed to a deserted house to try and arrest a paedophile. They enter without waiting for back-up and walk straight into a trap. She is knocked unconscious and her partner shot dead with her gun. None of the investigating officers believe her story, with the exception of her married lover, a homicide detective. They want her to plead it was an accident. Mack wants to clear her name and catch the real killer. Nobody else though wants a rogue cop running her own investigation.

Officer Down has two key strengths. First is the character development. Samantha Mack has a spiky persona - emotional, impulsive, insecure, confrontational, needy, with a dose of self-loathing. A woman operating it an environment dominated by testosterone-fuelled men, hyped up on stress and sexist banter, she fronts up to any challenge. Her love life is a mess and she’s developing a drink problem. She might not be the most lovable of characters, but she's well penned. The other principal actors are keenly observed. Second, the story is well plotted and told. Schwegel does a good job of portraying the unsettling, doubt and paranoia of Mack’s world as it is turned upside down and she becomes less and less sure of who to trust. There is no sudden revelation and as the truth slowly dawns on her and the reader, Schwegel manages to maintain the tension and work in a couple of nice twists. The pacing has a nice tempo and the dialogue credible. Some of the police procedural elements didn't quite seem right, and Mack makes some dubious decisions, but I'm no expert on Chicago police procedure and the poor decisions were in character. Officer Down is an uncomfortable read at times as Mack crashes about somewhat wildly given her state of mind, but I nevertheless enjoyed it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I met Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise in Dublin on Friday afternoon and had a very pleasant chat. When I got home that evening I picked up the novel I was reading - A Stone of the Heart by John Brady, and only one page further on from where I left the book at breakfast the characters start to discuss the hotel we met in. An uncanny coincidence.

My posts this week
Planning in Ireland during the boom and possible reforms
Review of Stratton's War by Laura Wilson
The kindness of strangers
Omar Yussef in Arab Spring in Syria
Review of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Pers Wahloo
Hucksters and bogmen

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hucksters and bogmen

I've just finished reading A Stone of the Heart by John Brady. It's a very fine police procedural set in Dublin and published in 1988. I was struck by the following passage in which a couple in their fifties bemoan the changes in the city in the late 1980s. Little did they know what was coming once the 'hucksters and bogmen' really got going in the 1990s and the city became one big building site.

Dublin had gone to pot in Mary's estimation. Where was the polite and decent society she had grown up in? You'd be run over by cars and you on the footpath even, she had concluded. The clerks in the shops didn't so much as look at you these days. People eating in restaurants and houses being knocked down for shops and offices.

"It's them Johnny-Jump-Ups from outside of Dublin has the place gone to hell. What do you call them, entrepreneurs and the like. Hucksters and bogmen. They take the money and run," Mick said.

The thing was, it was happening all over the world. Like Father O'Brien said in the pulpit; things were changing too quickly. We didn't have our priorities right, he said. That's it, Mary thought, we don't have our house in order, we don't have our priorities right.

We didn't have a priorities right indeed.

Ireland entertained a lot of people with lunatic ideas. Some were even elected to promote those ideas.

Difficult to argue with that given the evidence. I also liked this description:

A face on her like a plate of mortal sins, Minogue thought.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (1969, Harper)

Detective Martin Beck manages one day of holiday with his wife and two children on the Stockholm archipelago before he is called back to the office and asked to investigate an unusual case. A Swedish journalist has vanished in Budapest and the authorities want to travel to the city to see if they can discover what has happened to him. Beck arrives in the sweltering city to find himself trying to track a ghost. Despite the Hungarian police being suspicious about his presence, he methodically pieces together various clues, seemingly to little benefit. The journalist was clearly involved in criminal activity, but he’s as difficult to grasp onto as a wisp of smoke.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is a curious book. The edition I read is 198 pages long and for the first 80 or so very little happens. The narrative focuses on mundane, everyday life – Beck’s increasingly distant relationship with his family, his ambivalence towards his job, getting to know a new city. There are no dramatic events, no sudden revelations or twists and turns, no quickening of the pace. In this sense, the pacing and observations mimic Beck himself, who finds it difficult to summon any interest or enthusiasm for the case. And yet the story is captivating. Sjowall and Wahloo’s prose has a calm but insistent cadence as they immerse the reader in Beck’s world and the cities of Stockholm and Budapest. They portray a terrific sense of atmosphere and place. In the second half of the book, there is a shift in pace as the clues start to be aligned and people start to react to Beck’s investigation. A wonderfully under-stated police procedural.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Omar Yussef in Arab Spring in Syria

Matt Beynon Rees has written a short story set during the Arab Spring in Syria and published it today on his blog. Omar Yussef - the principal character in his series of novels set in the middle east - is visiting the country for a reunion of his university alumni class when the the popular uprising starts and the government officials try to reassert the old order. It's his response to the anti-government demonstrations in several Arab countries and how those states have responded with violence. Well worth checking out. As are his novels. Omar Yussef is a wonderful creation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The kindness of strangers

Last week I posted on the Friendfeed Crime and Mystery Room that I was trying to buy Leif Davidsen's The Serbian Dane. The cheapest copy I could find on the Internet, either new or secondhand, was £18 (a little steep for a book only published in 2007). A couple of days later, I was contacted by a Friendfeed reader who said he'd just seen the book in his local charity bookshop and offered to buy it and post it to me for cost. The power of the internet at work. The book arrived this morning, and my two novels and a cheque will head back the other way tomorrow. I now have at least one Danish book to read on my trip to Denmark in a couple of weeks time. Many thanks, Tim. Much appreciated.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Review of Stratton’s War by Laura Wilson (2008, Orion)

In London 1940 the body of an aging silent film star is found impaled on street railings. It is ruled as suicide, but Detective Inspector Ted Stratton is not convinced, especially when a short while later her room is turned over and her friend beaten up. Ordered to move on to other cases, Stratton keeps digging, looking for clues as to why the woman had fallen to her death. Meanwhile, the young, upper class Diane Calthrop has been recruited by MI5 and directed to infiltrate the Right Club, a group of high powered socialites that advocates appeasing Nazi Germany. Unbeknownst to each other, Stratton and Calthrop are working on intersecting puzzles and slowly they are drawn into each other’s orbits around a plot that threatens national security just as Germany starts the blitz.

Stratton’s War is part of the burgeoning number of crime novels using the Second World War as its backdrop. The intersection here of MI5, police and London underworld makes for an interesting story, and the double, intersecting plot lines of Ted Stratton and Diana Calthrop is for the most part well constructed. Wilson has managed to capture the class divisions and social order of London, and the sensibilities and lives of those working and living in the city. The book recreates the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of the time and portrays a strong sense of place. However, for all its positive attributes, there were a few things about the novel that undermined my reading experience a little. First, the character and role of Ted Stratton felt somewhat dislocated from his status, especially in the first half of the book where the way he acts and the role he plays seem incongruous. He effectively acts as a sergeant – out and about making enquiries, working for the most part as a lone detective. There is little to indicate he is a Detective Inspector in CID, where he would be running a large team, directing several others to do the kind of basic work he’s doing. This status is also missing in his dealings with his brother in law – he lays out the law to hardened criminals, but is a meek as a mouse to his bullying family member. Second, the workings of the police are extremely simplified in terms of station organisation and dynamics. Several dozen people would be working out of a London city centre police station, but the impression given is just a handful do so. Third, there is a significant subplot that ultimately goes nowhere at all and is left hanging, and the coincidence with respect to a family member was unneeded and unlikely. Finally, the book is too long. Certainly a good fifty or more pages could be cut out, which would serve to increase the pace and dramatic tension. Overall, an entertaining read, but a little undermined by some flaws in the realism of character and context, and unnecessary length.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Just back from three days in 'stab city' (Limerick) at the conference of Irish geographers, hence blog silence. Good to catch up with people and hear what research they've been doing. The city seemed quite quiet, no doubt a reflection of the recession. Limerick has been labelled as the crime capital of Ireland given it's violent gang feuds, but somewhat surprisingly I can't think of any crime fiction set there off the top of my head, although there are a few true crime books about the city. A nice opening for someone if that's the case.

My posts this week:
April reviews
Access to data held by state agencies
Review of Agent X by Noah Boyd
NAMA only has loan book on 1o percent of the worst unfinished estates
Books and journal launch

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Books and journal launch

Three of my books and the new journal I edit are going to be launched today at 5.30pm - Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, The Map Reader, Key Thinkers on Space and Place (2nd Ed) and Dialogues in Human Geography. I'm not a great fan of book launches; they can be a bit scyophantic and uncomfortable and I always feel oddly out of place at them. That's why I've decided to bundle these up into one gig. Great for me, but I forgot about the person launching them - Audrey Kobayashi, who's the incoming President of the Association of American Geographers - who has been busy reading them all. Having to read one book for a launch is a big enough ask. Reading four deserves a medal. We'll see how it goes. I better get composing my list of thank-yous.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review of Agent X by Noah Boyd (William Morrow, 2011)

Someone has tried to kill FBI assistant director, Kate Bannon, trying to make it look like suicide. Her sometimes lover and former agent, Steve Vail, arrives in Washington for a New Year’s Eve party as her escort. Within a few hours of arriving he has solved two child kidnappings. However, rather than being given time to rest on his laurels, he’s immediately asked to investigate the claim of Calculus, an officer from the Russian embassy who has been recalled to Moscow, that there is a major network of Americans selling secrets to the Russians. Calculus seemingly only left one clue to make a start, but it promises to lead to further clues, and Vail and Bannon set off to solve them and unearth the agents. Only someone seems to be one step ahead, killing them before they are revealed.

I like a good spy thriller novel every now and again. In my teens I read pretty much nothing else – Len Deighton, John Le Carre, Ted Allbeury, Graham Greene, amongst others. So I was quite looking forward to Agent X. In my view it was the literary equivalent of a Steven Seagal movie. The prose was workmanlike and flat and the dialogue wooden, lifeless and corny. The characters have no depth and their back stories are practically none existent. There is barely any chemistry between the leads, despite their supposed attraction. The plot is totally unbelievable, both in premise and its unfolding, with Vail solving a whole series of very difficult puzzles in a matter of seconds, undertaking James Bondesque escapes where the baddies really should have finished him off several times, and relying on a couple of unlikely coincidences. That said, the plot and pace is what got me to the end of the book. If you can suspend your sense of reality and just enjoy this as a corny spy blockbuster then this might be for you. Personally, I'm still with Deighton, Le Carre, Allbeury, Greene and co where plot, prose, atmosphere, characters, sense of place and so on are paramount.

Monday, May 2, 2011

April reviews

April was a big month of reading and reviewing with twelve books. And it was a good reading month as well with three five star reads. After a bit of reflection, my book of the month is Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston. A very accomplished debut novel that rattles along like a tilt-a-whirl.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis ***.5
Still Life by Louise Penny ***.5
The Swiss, The Dead and The Gold by Jean Ziegler ***
The Cutting Crew by Steve Mosby ****
Devil Red by Joe Lansdale ****.5
Slow Burn by G.M. Ford ***
30 For a Harry by Richard Hoyt ***.5
The Rainy City by Earl Emerson ***.5
Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston *****
Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell *****
Beyond Hitler's Grasp by Michael Bar-Zohar ***
Secret Dead Men by Diane Swierczynski *****

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Another nice day today. Making steady progress through Laura Wilson's Stratton's War. There are a couple of elements that don't quite sit right, but overall an enjoyable read so far.

My posts this week
Review of Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston
Review of Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell
Danish crime fiction
What will be the fate of architectural heritage in Nama's portfolio?
Review of Beyond Hitler's Grasp by Michael Bar-Zohar
Review of Secret Dead Men by Diane Swierczynski
The Map Reader published