Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review of Snapshots by Michael O’Higgins (New Island, 2015)

Dublin, 1981, at the height of the hunger strikes.  Christy Clarke is a ruthless criminal specialising in armed robberies.  Wayne Clarke, his son, is a gifted musician and footballer, who wishes his parents would stop their constant fighting.  Father Brendan is the local curate, actively involved in the abortion referendum campaign and battling his conscious with regards to his own sexuality.  Detective Sergeant Dick Roche is obsessed with tackling serious crime in Dublin and has his sights set on nabbing Christy.  A brutal attack on a prison officer puts these four on a collision course where each has something significant to lose: their freedom, their innocence, their reputation, their career.  An uncompromising battle of wits ensues, with no player wishing to cede ground.

Snapshots is the debut novel of criminal lawyer, Michael O’Higgins.  The real strength of the novel is its characterisation and character development as the four principal actors seek to outwit each other to come out top in their various interlinked battles.  O’Higgins carefully frames and sets out the worldviews of a ruthless criminal, his twelve year old son, the local curate, and a committed copper, and slowly entangles their interactions, charting how each is transformed by their encounters and the passage of time.  While the plot and telling is somewhat slow and ponderous to begin with, the tale soon picks up pace and intrigue and really hits its stride when O’Higgins gets onto his familiar territory of the courts.  Rather than adopting the register of a thriller, the narrative benefits from a grounding in realism and authenticity, with working class Dublin in 1981-82, the Troubles and hunger strikes in the North, domestic violence, clerical sexual abuse and the abortion referendum providing wider contextualisation.  While there is no great sense of mystery, O’Higgins does keep the reader wondering as to who will come out on top and the denouement is wonderfully classic noir.  Overall, a thoughtful, literary, criminal tale.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm slowly making progress constructing the index to the new academic book - Code and the City.  I've done twenty or so of these and I'm still surprised how long it takes to do it properly.  My estimate is that it'll have taken me over twenty hours by the time it's complete.  Still, it'll be a useful index, as opposed to some of the ones I've had done for me in the past that seemed to consist of a random selection of words.  Nonetheless, it's a tedious process and I'll be glad when I'm done!

My posts this week

Smart cities, privacy, data protection and cybersecurity
Review of Slow Horses by Mick Herron
Watching you, watching me

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Watching you, watching me

‘Well?’

‘Nothing.’

‘What about the lights?’

‘Maybe they’ve just left them on to deter burglars?’

‘Well, it’s not working.  Let me have a look.’

Dave shuffled Kenny to one side and placed his eye to the scope.  A farmhouse door came into focus.

‘Jesus, it’s like we’re ten feet away.  Where’s their car?’

‘Dunno.  Gone?’

‘Come-on then, let’s get in-and-out before they return.’

The two men started along the track.

‘Hello lads.’  A man holding a shotgun stepped out from the trees.  ‘Mighty things, aren’t they?’  He  touched his binoculars.  ‘Great for spying on car lights bumping along isolated lanes.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review of Slow Horses by Mick Herron (Soho Crime, 2010)

Slough House, an anonymous building in Central London, is where failed British spies are dumped in the hope that they will call it quits and leave the service.  There they do hours of boring, tedious, low-level work while trying to work out a way back to Regent’s Park and the intelligence heartland.  River Cartwright should be a rising star, but after causing chaos when an evaluation exercise goes wrong he finds himself transcribing mobile phone calls.  When a young Pakistani man is kidnapped by Far Right extremists who are threatening to behead him, River sees an opportunity for redemption.  Soon he’s dragged the other slow horses into his secret mission.  However, nothing is quite what it seems and rather than winning the race the slow horses could well be on the way to being put down for good.  However, they’re not going to go without a fight.

Slow Horses has an intriguing hook – what happens to spies that become a potential liability – those that have not done enough to be sacked but have a big question mark hanging over them?  Are they forced out the service or put out to pasture?  Britain’s answer is Slough House, a building full of misfits desperate to find their way back to the centre.  In Slow Horses, the first book in a series, a young agent side-lined for causing a major emergency shutdown of a mainline station decides he’s not simply going to serve his time, but is going to earn a recall, even if it means going head-to-head with the centre.  His ragbag collection of colleagues are soon, if reluctantly, drawn into his unofficial mission, and they’re all soon teetering on being out of their depth, with the exception of their boss, a field agent of some renown.  Rather than stick with one point of focus, the tale spends time with each of the Slough House occupants, their rivals, and the victim at the core of their mission.  It's a strategy that works well, introducing the reader to the ensemble cast.  And rather than the story being a thriller with a capital T, the game being played is more cloak and dagger and character-driven, though there is still tension and some dramatic action.  There is also some nice contextualisation concerning post 9/11 right-wing politics.  The result is an enjoyable spy tale for the modern age that would translate well to television.

Monday, February 1, 2016

January world tour

I've been on a mini-world tour in January visiting Colombia, Finland, Poland, Germany, South Africa, Japan, United States, Australia, Egypt and Norway.  Certainly one of best reading months, with plenty of variation in the story lines as well as settings.  My stand out read was 7Days by Deon Meyer, closely followed by To Steal Her Love, Galveston, and A Small Town in Germany.  

Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst ***.5
The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal ****
Peepshow by Leigh Redhead ***.5
Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto ****.5
Parade by Shuichi Yoshida ***
7Days by Deon Meyer *****
A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carre ****.5
Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski ***
To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu ****.5
The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez ***

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

My report on smart cities, privacy and data security was launched on Thursday in the Dublin traffic control room by Dara Murphy T.D., Minister for European Affairs and Data Protection (available here). It was commissioned by the Data Protection Unit, Department of the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) and is the first publication by the new Government Data Forum, a panel of experts drawn from across industry, civil society, academia and the public sector.  There was some media coverage on the Six One news on RTE1, KFM, the Irish Times, Silicon Republic and Irish Tech News.  I've tried to be as comprehensive as possible in the analysis and to detail lots of examples of good and bad practice, as well as set out a suite of solutions to improve data privacy and security.  Take a glance if you want to see how much data are being generated about you and what happens to it.

My posts this week:

Review of Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst
New report: Getting smarter about smart cities: Improving data privacy and data security
Review of The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal
Review of Peepshow by Leigh Redhead
A singular venture?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A singular venture?

‘What’s his story?’ Joyner asked.

The man was sitting on a veranda, a gun resting in his lap, his gaze a thousand yard stare.

‘He was meant to take a bullet for the President.  Instead he leapt for cover.  They buried another agent three days later.’

‘He looks like a powder keg waiting to go off; go on a spree or blow his own brains.’

‘He couldn’t take a bullet for the President; he can’t take one now.  He’s alive but he can’t live with himself.  Spends all day trying to solve that conundrum.  I figure it’s a singular venture.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Review of Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst (Sandstone, 2011; Norwegian 2010)

Midsummer in Stavern, Norway, and a severed left foot wearing a running shoe is washed up on the shore. Shortly afterwards another severed left foot is discovered. Chief Inspector William Wisting is placed in charge of the case. His team quickly make a connection between the feet and four elderly people that disappeared months ago, but cannot identify a reason for their disappearance or why their feet are now suddenly appearing. Wisting’s boss has applied for promotion and wants a quick result and plenty of media coverage. In contrast the detective wants a careful examination and surety, but with the pressure rising he tries to quickly discover clues that will reveal why the victims were killed and the identity of the killer.

Dregs is a straightforward police procedural that is very much in the Scandinavian style – a relatively dour detective, an understated narrative with close attention to detail, and realist in its depiction of police work and society. The plot works at the level of carefully revealing the solving of a puzzle rather than being driven by action and tension. Dregs starts at a relatively sedate pace, slowing moving pieces into place, and it’s only as the telling progresses that the extent of the puzzle and intricacies of the plot is revealed. The result is an intriguing tale, with a nice denouement and explanation concerning the discovery of four severed feet that sit at the heart of the story. There is also a strong sub-plot in which the main detective’s journalist daughter is writing a feature about six people who have been released from prison after serving a sentence for murder, which sets out some interesting questions about justifiable homicide and regimes of punishment. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review of The Ghost Runner by Parker Bilal (2014, Bloomsbury)

It is 2002 and the effects of 9/11 are being felt across the Middle East as the global war of terror unfolds.  Musab, a former low ranking jihadist and political exile, is lifted from a street in Denmark and renditioned back to Egypt.  After a few months he escapes and disappears.  Makana, a former detective inspector in Sudan and now private investigator in Cairo, has been hired by a suspicious wife to track her husband.  The only woman the lawyer visits is a young girl in a private clinic that dies shortly after.  It turns out that the girl is Musab’s daughter, apparently burned to death in an honour killing.  An old family friend, the lawyer had been helping her and he now asks Makana to track down Musab.  The trail leads to Siwa, a small, isolated desert town from which Musab had fled many years earlier.  Makana arrives shortly after the death of a local magistrate and is enrolled to help in the investigation by the local police sergeant.  The town is full of dark secrets, but finding answers and justice proves difficult when no-one wants to discuss the past and its role in the terror stalking its streets.

The Ghost Runner is the third instalment of the Makana series set in Egypt.  In this outing Makana investigates the murder of a young girl, suspecting her former terrorist father of committing an honour killing.  Travelling to a small town in the desert he tries to piece together the family history and pick up the trail of the father.  His arrival coincides with a series of deaths and it is clear that the legacy of an event many years earlier is unfolding.  The Makana series has a number of appealing strengths that are once again evident in The Ghost Runner, such as its atmospheric sense of place, its contextualisation within Eygpt’s politics and history, and its well-drawn characters.  In particular, Makana is a detective worth spending time with – a clever, taciturn man haunted by the loss of his family in his flight from Sudan who is quietly patient and persistent.  As with the first two books, the tale extends well beyond a straight forward murder investigation, with Parker embedding the story within a wider narrative of local, national and international politics, and exploring themes of family, gender, honour, corruption and terrorism.  As such, there’s an awful lot going on, though it never feels rushed or confused, and indeed the tale sagged a little bit in the middle as Makana makes little progress, before picking up in the last third as the tension and body count rises.  It’s fair to say that there were quite a few plot devices used to make the whole thing hang together and the two denouements were somewhat contrived.  Nonetheless The Ghost Runner is an absorbing read.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Review of Peepshow by Leigh Redhead (Allen and Unwin, 2004)

Simone Kirsch always wanted to join the police force.  The police, however, do not want her given her time working in peepshows and as a stripper.  Undaunted she’s taken an evening class as a private investigator and gained her license.  With her first case she’s dropped in at the deep end, investigating the murder of Frank Parisi, the notorious owner of The Red Room, one of Melbourne’s premier strip clubs.  To provide added motivation, Frank’s older brother has kidnapped her friend Chloe, demanding a result within two weeks or he’ll end her life.  Looking for fast answers Simone heads undercover in The Red Room trying to find clues while baring all.  She’s soon on the trail of a corrupt policeman, is being pursued by another, has fallen in lust with a rockabilly guitarist, and trails round Melbourne’s sex industry, usually with a hangover.  With the clock ticking down, Simone seems out of her depth, but she’s determined to try and shed her water wings and to find the killer and save her friend.

In the late 90s/early 00s I read a whole bunch of tart noir tales involving sassy, smart female PIs who usually got themselves involved in dangerous, madcap adventures with a side-line in romantic/lustful romps.  Peepshow fits neatly into the sub-genre, but with sex/sexy dial turned up to eleven.  Leigh Redhead provides a vivid glimpse in the peepshow and stripping side of the sex industry, and leaves little to the imagination with respect to the sex life of her lead character, Simone Kirsch, a stripper turned private investigator.  Simone’s task is to find the killer of a strip club owner under threat that her friend, Chloe, will die if she fails.  Given that the police have failed to turn up any clues it’s a tall order.  Thrown into the mix is a colourful set of strippers, a corrupt cop, a rockabilly band, two suitors – a guitarist and an undercover cop – and a lot of champagne and drugs.  The result is quickly paced romp laced with plenty of humour.  There’re not too many surprises in the telling, but the story is good explicit fun and sets up the series well.  Simone Kirsch is certainly breaks the usual PI mould and I’m looking forward to her next case.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I've already posted about my 2015 reads, but another way of glancing through my reviews can be found at Goodreads, which also provides a few stats.  Apparently the 99 books I read totaled 29,801 pages. 

My posts this week:

Review of Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
Review of Parade by Shuichi Yoshida
Review of 7Days by Deon Meyer
If we find her alive, I'll kill her myself


Saturday, January 23, 2016

If we find her alive, I’ll kill her myself

The door banged open. ‘She’s gone!’

‘Who?’ Bobowski asked looking up from a ball game.

‘Who do you think?  Mini-Bitch.’

‘Fuck.  Where …’

‘How the hell do I know!’ Hardy said snatching up a red phone.  ‘She’s gone … I’ve searched the house and grounds … Okay, but she’s not here … I’ll call back.’

‘Well?’

‘He wants to know if she’s slipped out to meet a boy or she’s been kidnapped.’

‘Either way we’re fucked,’ Bubowski said.

‘We’ve two minutes until he tells the senator and hits the panic button.’

‘If we find her alive, I’ll kill her myself.’



A story is a drabble of exactly 100 words.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review of Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto (Sphere, 2014)

Roy Cady is a bag man for a New Orleans mobster.  On the same day as he’s told his lungs are full of tumours he’s asked to go with a colleague to perform a shakedown.  Only the set-up feels all wrong.  His instinct that he is the potential victim proves true and after a short melee of violence the only two people alive are Roy and a young prostitute.  Realising that Raquel (Rocky) will receive the same treatment as the others if left behind Roy takes her with him, heading for Galveston.  On the way they pick up Rocky’s young sister.  Hiding in a motel by the sea, Roy knows the best way to survive is to ditch the two girls, but somehow he feels compelled to try and keep them out of harm’s way.  However, that’s easier said than done.

Galveston is a story in the classic noir mould – a dangerous man, whose life is immersed in violence and crime, seeks redemption trying to save a young woman and small child knowing that he will probably reap the consequences of his actions.  Despite the well-worn set-up, Pizzolatto provides an entertaining, edgy read that is lifted by very strong characterisation and engaging prose.  The plot revolves around the interaction of Roy Cady, a forty year old bagman who’s just been told his lungs are full of small tumours, and Rocky, a young, naïve prostitute who has little conception of how to make it in the world other than to sell her body.  Both have troubled histories and despite being ill-matched nurture an uneasy friendship.  A key plus in the telling is that Pizzolatto places a strong emphasis on character development and their personal journeys as much as on the plot and their flight from the New Orleans mob.  The result is a thoughtful noir tale that doesn’t pull punches, mixing hope with despair, violence and pathos, and has a nice twist in the denouement.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review of Parade by Shuichi Yoshida (Harvill Secker 2014, Japanese 2002)

Two young men and two young women share an apartment in Tokyo.  Koto barely ventures out into the world, waiting by the phone for her TV star boyfriend to ring.  Ryosuke attends a private college and is having an affair with his friend’s girlfriend.  Mirai manages a shop and spends her spare time either drawing illustrations or partying all night in gay bars.  Naoki works for a film distributor, is a long distance runner, and is frequently drunk.  One day Satoru, a homeless youth, turns up and moves in.  Nobody is quite sure where he came from or what he does, but he’s soon accepted as part of their world.  As they’re lives unfold, they speculate on the strange comings and goings from the apartment next door and the attacks against women in the area.

Parade is somewhat of a curious book.  It is marketed as crime fiction, with a tagline of ‘A masterpiece in tension’, yet crime is almost incidental to the story and there is practically no tension in the story or its telling.  Instead, Parade is a literary novel about alienation and estrangement in modern society; of not quite fitting in, of lacking direction and purpose, of desiring what cannot be obtained.  While the timeline is linear, each of the chapters is told from the perspective of five people sharing an apartment, each of whom has kind of drifted into living there.  Each is told in the first person, with the character reflecting on their own life – their history and ambitions, their relationships with others – and setting out their view of the world.  In this way, a wider narrative about the interactions and friendship between the five is examined, as well as Japanese society more broadly.  It was a sombre rather than tense read, a kind of literary soap opera of urban alienation which, for the most part is a thoughtful reflection on modern life.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Review of 7Days by Deon Meyer (Hodder, 2012)

Captain Benny Griessel is a recovering alcoholic, so is his friend, Alexa.  After much persuasion she is making a come-back, reviving her singing career.  Benny is to be her rock, helping her regain her confidence.  However, their plans are derailed when Benny is called away from her first public outing to deal with a shooting incident.  A policeman has been shot and an email sent to SAPS states that unless the killer of Hanneke Sloet is arrested a police officer will be targeted each day.  Sloet, a successful and sultry lawyer, had been slain in her apartment a month earlier but the case had quickly gone cold.  Griessel is put in charge of re-investigating the Sloet murder, whilst his colleague, Mbali Kaleni is assigned the task of finding the sniper.  Along with the political and media pressure, adding to Benny’s woes is trying to keep Alexa from sliding all the way off the wagon and to make sure he doesn’t join her.

Deon Meyer might well be the best writer of police procedural thrillers at present.  His stories have all the good hallmarks of a police procedural – an interesting lead cop and supporting cast, a strong sense of place, interesting puzzles, and attention to detail – but they also have the pace and tension of a thriller; the rollercoaster ride of a race against time.  And so it is with 7Days.  Captain Benny Griessel, a man who trails a litany of personal failures in his wake, is given the task of solving a murder while under immense pressure from a sniper shooting police officers and bosses, politicians and media demanding immediate results. Meyer expertly balances character development, plot and pace, producing a highly engaging and entertaining read that not only delivers an intriguing story but nicely advances the longer narrative of the Griessel books.  I was hooked from the first page and picked it up at every opportunity to find out how Benny was getting on at solving the two intertwined cases.