Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review of The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman (Anchor, 2015)

Adolf Tolkachev is a senior radar engineer working in an elite Soviet military research institute in Moscow. He’s also very disillusioned with the oppressive Soviet regime and how under Stalin’s years it persecuted his wife’s family. Wanting to undermine the state in February 1978 he taps on the window of a car possessing US diplomatic plates. At first the CIA mission in the Moscow embassy ignores his approach suspecting that the man is a dangle – a KGB attempt identify CIA operatives and to spread disinformation. Tolkachev is persistent, however, making a couple more approaches, and passing on some information. The details, if true, are a goldmine of advanced technical information on weapon and defence systems. After more than a year of dithering the CIA decide that the Russian engineer is genuine and worth running. Managing an agent in Moscow with teams of KGB operatives keeping US embassy employees under heavy surveillance, as well as their own citizens, is not straightforward. The CIA station is taking a risk, Tolkachev is putting his life on the line. Driven to do as much damage as he can, over the next few years Tolkachev photographs thousands of pages of secret military documents and even smuggles out a couple of circuit boards. The intelligence saves the US billions of dollars of research and gives them a distinct advantage in designing their planes and weapons systems.

Hoffman tells Tolkachev’s story drawing on archival research and interviews with CIA Moscow Station agents. He details how the spy was run, including all the anti-surveillance measures and tricks used to evade observation, and the information Tolkachev supplied and the risks he took to procure it fully aware of the consequence if caught. Hoffman manages to create a narrative that balances the technical details with a well-developed character study of the main actors. The end-game is a little bit sketchy, told almost exclusively from the US-side but that perhaps to be expected given limited access to sources. The result is an engaging and gripping account of a driven and brave man (no doubt the Soviets would cast him differently), supported by dedicated agents working deep in enemy territory, whose actions had a profound effect on US military technology.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I managed to forget to bring a second book with me on a trip, so had to duck into the airport bookshop to pick up a new read. Took about ten seconds to spot Tana French's new tome, The Trespasser. Now 150 pages in and enjoying it. A police procedural that focuses on the minutia of an investigation.

My posts this week

Review of Out of Bounds by Val McDermid
Review of Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler
Roses

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Roses

The water was the colour of valentine roses.

The woman shades of Rosemoor.

‘I hate this job sometimes,’ Naylor said. ‘What is she, thirty five?’

‘About that,’ Kinsale replied.  ‘She cut her own wrists?’

‘Well, something’s been cut.’ Naylor hovered over the bath. ‘We better leave it for the tech team. Who found her?’

‘Her daughter. Seven. Had the presence of mind to ring it in. Didn’t touch anything. Said she watches CSI.’

‘Jesus. I was still watching cartoons at seven. Vicious GBH and everyone bounced back.’

‘She says she wants to be a policewoman.’

‘Sounds like she already is.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review of Out of Bounds by Val McDermid (Little, Brown; 2016)

DCI Karen Pirie is still coming to terms with the untimely death of her partner, Phil. Unable to sleep she walks the streets at night and throws herself into her work as head of the Historic Cases Unit during the day. Her latest investigation is a familial DNA match from a joyrider with the perpetrator of a rape and murder twenty years previously. It should be an open and shut case, but there’s a tricky complication. At the same time, Pirie takes an interest in a contemporary case, one she has no right to get involved in: the apparent suicide of a disturbed man. Pirie thinks it’s murder and piquing her interest further is the unsolved murder of the man’s mother twenty five years earlier, a victim of a bomb on a small, private plane. She starts to investigate both, putting herself on a potential collision course with her a colleague, her boss, and an influential third party. Not that this fazes Pirie; all she is interested in is justice and she doesn’t mind ruffling feathers and undermining her own position to get it.

Out of Bounds is the fourth book in the Inspector Karen Pirie cold case series set in Scotland, though I read it as a standalone. In this outing Pirie is investigating three cases, two of them interlinked, and also trying to help some Syrian refugees find their feet in their new home in Edinburgh. None of the cases are straightforward, complicated by messy family relations, and they all have the potential to get Pirie in trouble with her boss and the press. And she only has the jurisdiction to examine one of them. McDermid does a nice job of winding the cases and the refugee thread around each other and keeping the pacing taut and steady. There are a handful of plot devices that felt a little contrived and murderer in one of the cases was well telegraphed despite a couple of attempts at misdirection. But none of that really mattered as the key to the story is Karen Pirie, an indomitable, engaging, driven and wounded spirit who is willing to cut corners and rub people up the wrong way if it gets her a result, and McDermid’s engaging voice. The result is an interesting and entertaining police procedural.




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler (Penguin, 2016)

In 1920s Germany cocaine and heroin were available to purchase in pharmacies without prescription, fuelling the hedonistic Weimar Republic. When the Nazis came to power they set about clamping down on such drugs and ushering in an era of sobriety. However, their place was replaced by methamphetamines, marketed as Pervitin, a wonder drug that offered energy and euphoria; today known as crystal meth. When the Nazis turned to war, Pervitin was issued to all troops, providing an upper that negated the need for sleep and providing fortitude – a contributor to blitzkrieg being the soldiers were blitzed. Also a factor in the war effort was drug taking among the Nazi elite. Goring was addicted to morphine, and Hitler had regular injections of vitamins, steroids and opiates. In fact, Hitler took over 80 different kinds of supplements and drugs and towards the end of the war became addicted to oxycodone and cocaine. Hitler’s personal doctor, Dr Theodor Morell was also treating other high ranking Nazi’s and Wehrmacht high command, as well as trying to build a pharmaceutical empire. 

Blitzed details the extent and effects of drug taking in Nazi Germany, focusing in particular on its use within the armed forces and by Hitler. Drawing of archival research, especially with respect to the documents left by Dr Morell, Ohler's thesis is that drugs played a more predominate role in armed combat, and were much more of a critical element in Hitler’s demeanour and decision-making, than previously acknowledged. Ohler makes a convincing case that a pharmacological reading of Nazi Germany helps cast light on some of the military actions and political decision-making. The narrative is engaging and the story told fascinating. However, there are a few issues that detract from the argument being made, namely context, balance, structure and conjecture. The book claims to be about drug use in Nazi Germany. In the main it is about Hitler’s use of drugs, with some but limited coverage of drug use in the armed forces. Drug use in the pre-Nazi era is rather quickly covered, and drug-use among the wider population is cursorily dealt with. There is no discussion about the immediate aftermath of the war, when presumably there were millions of methamphetamine addicts going cold turkey. In addition, there is quite a bit of conjecture and speculation in the analysis. The result is a skewed and partial analysis that overly concentrates on Hitler’s drug use, as interesting as that is. Nonetheless, Blitzed is an intriguing and engaging read that raises some interesting questions and speculation.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Having just spent a day lying in the field reading Out of Bounds by Val McDermid, I find that my to-be-read pile has a distinctly Scottish flavour. I'm now working my way through Gordon Ferris' Pilgrim Soul. Waiting in the wings are Ann Cleaves' Dead Water and Craig Russell's The Deep Dark Sleep. Looks like it'll be a summer of tartan noir.


My posts this week
Review of A Savage Hunger by Claire McGowan
Diva

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Diva

‘Was that necessary?’

‘What?’

‘The way you berated that poor man.’

‘He was being an idiot.’

‘No, he wasn’t. There’s a difference, Cassie, between being confident and being a bitch.’

‘Are you calling me a bitch?’

‘I’m saying that girl power is about standing up for one’s rights, not trampling over others.’

‘You know that I employ you, right?’

‘I thought we were friends.  You asked me to help you, not the other way round.’

‘So, I’m a diva now?’

‘I think the fame has gone to your head.’

‘Who’s the bitch now?’

‘Bye, Cassie.’

‘Karen! Get back here! Karen!’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review of A Savage Hunger by Claire McGowan (Headline, 2016)

Alice Morgan has seemingly been abducted from an isolated church. There is blood on the floor and a holy relic is missing. The young student had been studying at a small third level college dedicated to educating troubled students. In Alice’s case she’s an anorexic who has spent much of her time at boarding school or in a rehab clinic, sent away by her government minister father and unloving mother. Neither her fellow students or the college seems concerned about Alice’s absence and there appear few clues as to Alice’s fate. And to add to mystery she vanishes on the anniversary of the disappearance of another woman thirty two years before. The former missing person’s unit of Ballyterrin’s police force is asked to investigate, including forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire. Maguire is due to be married in a couple of weeks, but she is no fan of weddings and is obsessed with finding missing people since the disappearance of her mother when she was a teenager.  To make life interesting her former boss and lover has been drafted in by Alice’s father to help with the case. With the pressure rising at work and at home, Maguire struggles to make sense of the disappearance and to track down the missing student.

A Savage Hunger is the fourth book in the Paula Maguire series set in Northern Ireland’s borderlands. Maguire is a forensic psychologist who specializes in finding missing people. In this outing Maguire helps the PSNI try to find a young university student, Alice Morgan, who is anorexic and is studying at a small third level college dedicated to educating other troubled students. Competing for Maguire’s attention is her upcoming wedding, which she’s been dreading. To add to unease, her ex-boss and possible father to her two-year old child is flown over from London to help with the case at the request of Alice’s father, a government minister. What follows is a soap opera held together with an endless parade of plot devices, both with respect to Maguire’s person life and Alice’s disappearance. While the resultant story is okay on its terms – McGowan is clearly aiming for a soap opera – neither Maguire’s home life nor the case is particularly satisfying given all the plot devices. In addition, the running commentary from Alice is a bit of a distraction and at the start of the novel especially takes away some mystery. For me this is the weakest book in the series so far and I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing on with book five or not yet – personally, I’d like the balance of focus to shift back from Maguire’s personal life to the procedural elements and the case under investigation but given the setups for the next book that doesn't seem likely.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've finally got round to reading Norman Ohler's 'Blitzed', which details the regular use of drugs by both the Nazi leadership and the armed forces. It's basically a pharmacological reading of the German side of the Second World War and it makes for fascinating reading, since various addictive drugs were common place, especially Pervitin, a methamphetamine, used to combat fatigue and increase aggression and lower inhibitions. I'm about a third of the way in and the phoney war is ending and I imagine folks are going to become even more 'blitzed' as the war progresses.


My posts this week
Review of Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher
Review of Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
More to life


Saturday, June 10, 2017

More to life

‘There has to be more to life than this.’  Stan put his head in his hands.

‘Like what?’ David asked.

‘I don’t know. Just more. You live, you die, shit happens in between.’

‘Life’s what you make it. Isn’t that what the song says?’

‘That’s pish. You think you can control your own destiny?’

‘I think we have a say.’

‘Life’s conditioned. There’re rules, structures, limits – money, power, violence, ability, connections.’

‘You still have choices. Opportunities. Come-on, let’s go to the pub; see if we can score.’

‘With people as desperate as us.’

‘With people who want more from life.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Review of Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher (Sandstone Press, 2016)

Berlin, 1929. After a shooting incident that the press will not drop, Detective Inspector Gereon Rath has been transferred from Cologne to the capital facilitated by his well-connected father. He’s placed in the Vice Squad, but has ambitions to transfer to the Homicide Division. When a Russian searching for the former resident of Rath’s apartment is dragged out of a canal, Rath sees an opportunity to impress his new bosses. Running his own parallel investigation in secret he is soon in over his head grappling with the underworld, Russian emigres, and Nazi sympathizers and organizers, none of whom are happy with Rath asking awkward questions, and rubbing his new colleagues up the wrong way. And to complicate matters, the communists are using May Day to foment unrest. If Rath isn’t careful he’ll wind up dead rather than a hero.

Babylon Berlin is the first book in the Gereon Rath series set in Berlin. The book takes place in 1929. The city is a cauldron of political unrest with the communists, social democrats and Nazis vying for power, and a bohemian lifestyle rubs shoulders with Prussian values and a criminal underworld thriving in the aftermath of the First World War and hyper-inflation. Kutscher captures something of the place and times through the investigation of Inspector Rath as he tries to identify a man who has been tortured and dumped in a canal and to locate his missing friend. The plot is reasonably complex involving a fairly large cast of characters and a handful of intersecting threads and it takes a bit of work to track them all. The main shortcomings of the story are, however, that the central plotline seems somewhat far-fetched, the plot is kept moving forward by an endless succession of plot devices, there’s a fair amount of telegraphing that removes some of the mystery and tension, and Rath isn’t particularly a likeable character with his scheming and dubious morals (and like his girlfriend I soon tired of his antics). The result is a story with plenty of action, but lacks realism and credibility, and could have benefitted from the maxim less is more.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch (2011, Gollancz)

Detective Constable Peter Grant is the first new addition to ESC9, Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9, of the Metropolitan Police in fifty years. His new boss is training him to become a wizard capable of handling the magical crimes in the city. When Dr Walid at the morgue notices that jazz men keep dropping dead in trios, Grant is asked to investigate. It seems that something is feeding on the special talent that separates great musicians from others and it is hanging around Soho. Grant has some knowledge of jazz – his father being Richard ‘Lord’ Grant, a virtuoso trumpet player – and he recognizes the signature sounds of ‘Body and Soul’. When he’s not being distracted by his new girlfriend, he’s soon on the trail of a rogue magician. And where Grant goes, trouble is usually waiting, quickly joined by the murder squad.

Moon Over Soho is the second book in the Peter Grant series set in modern day London, which slots into the genre of urban fantasy police procedural. I was intrigued by the first book, but not bowled over by it. However, I loved the sequel from start to end. Aaronovitch manages to create all the elements of a good story – plot, voice, sense of place, context, characterisation – and make them work together in harmony. I was particularly taken with the voice, the little asides about London’s history and jazz, and observations about modern policy. The trick with good urban fantasy is to make it seem completely natural so the reader suspends disbelief without effort and the magical elements don’t jar or throw the reader from the story and Aaronovitch executes this very well. For an added bonus there’s a nice streak of humour running throughout.  The end is a little telegraphed, but not in a way that undermines the pleasure of the read. I'm now firmly hooked on the series and I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Somewhat unusually for me, as I like to mix up the geography of my reading, I've just read four novels in a row set in London, all of them police procedurals of a kind: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor set in 1666, The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth set in 1944, After the Fire by Jane Casey set in 2014, and Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch set in 2010. Despite all have a very good sense of place, each portrayed a very different London. As a site for fiction it seems to have infinite possibilities.

My posts this week

May reads
Review of After the Fire by Jane Casey
Review of The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor
Paedo!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Paedo!

There was an explosion of orange paint on the window.

‘What the ...’

Daly peered through the stained glass at several people gathered at the gate.

‘There he is!’ A second balloon sailed through the air.

Daly stomped to the front door.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’

‘Paedo!’

A balloon burst at Daly’s feet.

‘I’m a paediatrician, you morons.’

‘See, I told you!’ one them shouted. ‘He’s a paedo.’

‘A paediatrician not a paedophile!’

‘For fuck’s sake, Colin!’

‘He’s admitting it!’

‘He’s a children’s doctor, cretin.’

‘Sorry, doctor!’ a woman said.

‘Leave before I call the police!’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, June 2, 2017

May reads

May proved to be a good month of reading. My standout read for the month was Colin Coterill's Thirty-Three Teeth, with its lovely blend of mystery and whimsy and memorable characters.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor ***.5
The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth ***
The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson ****
Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Coterill ****.5
Silence by Anthony Quinn ****
One or The Other by John McFetridge ***.5
A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward ***.5
The Divided City by Luke McCallin ****.5
Dietrich and Riefenstahl by Karin Wieland ***