Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review of The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert Parker (1974, Houghton Mifflin)

Boston in the early 1970s.  A wise-cracking private investigator, Spenser has been hired by a university to recover the Godwulf manuscript, a rare medieval illuminated text.  His initial focus is a student radical group who oppose the forces of capitalism.  When one of their members calls him in the early hours he arrives at her apartment to find her heavily drugged holding a gun and her boyfriend shot dead.  She swears that he was killed by two men and the gun forced on her, but to the police it looks like an open and shut case.  Spenser, however, believes she might be telling the truth and her rich parents hire him to discover the truth.  Others though are not so keen for him to be meddling in their affairs.

First published in 1973, The Godwulf Manuscript is the first in the Spenser series that had reached book #40 by the time of Parker’s death in 2010 and also spawned a hit TV show and some TV movies.  Spenser, as introduced in the book, continues the hardboiled, American PI tradition of the wise-cracking, womanising, tough guy investigator, which is perhaps no surprise given Parker’s own interests in the private-eyes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, on which he wrote his PhD dissertation.  While the theft of a medieval manuscript sounds like a relatively sedate case for a tough guy PI the tale soon shifts focus as Spenser tries to free a student framed for murder and tangles with both cops and the mob.  Never short of a wise-crack, Spenser manages to rub up the wrong way just about everyone he meets and progresses from one scrape to the next in the pursuit of justice.  A good example of oeuvre, tightly written and rattling along at a fair clip, the book is an entertaining read that will appeal to fans of hardboiled PI tales.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

On Thursday and Friday I attended the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Donegal.  It's an interesting event that's been running since 1981 and is unusual in that it is attended by senior politicians from all political parties, including government ministers (and this year the Taioseach [Prime Minister]), and by high profile journalists, with a smattering of academics thrown in.  Moreover, it's cheap to attend (€20 a day), and the sessions are geniunely open to debate and views and questions from the floor.  The sessions I was involved in on housing, planning and rural development were excellent in terms of setting out the present state of play and debating present and future policy.  And to top it off I was housed in Meryl Streep's old room at the Highlands Hotel.


My posts this week

Review of The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Review of Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway
Review of Werewolf by Matthew Pritchard
I can't confess to what I don't remember

Saturday, July 25, 2015

I can’t confess to what I don’t remember

‘I don’t remember.’

‘You don’t remember killing an old man?  Stabbing him fifteen times in the chest?’

‘No.’

‘You’ve no idea how you came to be covered in his blood?’

‘No.’

‘Or why you were hiding in his garage?’

‘I don’t remember anything.’

Harkin slammed his hand down on the table making Malloy jump. 

‘I don’t believe you.  You went there with the intention of robbing Mr Smith.  Only it went wrong.  Perhaps he wouldn’t give you the money.  Perhaps he insulted you.  Then you lost it.’

‘No.’

‘The evidence suggests otherwise.’

‘I can’t confess to what I don’t remember.’




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Review of The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (1968 Swedish, 1971 English, Pantheon)

Late 1960s Stockholm.  On a cold winter night as a bus nears the end of its route a gunman opens fire killing the eight passengers and the bus driver.  Amongst those killed is Åke Stenstrom, a young detective in Martin Beck’s team.  Beck is assigned the high profile case and immediately comes under pressure from politicians and the media for a quick solution.  However, clues are thin on the ground.  Working on the assumption that Stenstrom’s presence on the bus is not a coincidence, Beck and his team chase down all leads, however tenuous they might seem seeking the vital breakthrough that will reveal the killer’s identity.  But to solve one mystery they discover they must solve another.

The Laughing Policeman is the fourth book in the much praised Martin Beck series.  In my opinion it’s a masterclass in how to write a realist police procedural novel that does not rely on coincidence or plot devices to move the story along, nor does it concentrate on a non-conformist, lone cop (plus sidekick) who singlehandedly solves the case whilst coping with all kinds of personal issues.  Instead, the case is solved through patient, diligent investigative work by a team of cops, involving a lot of footwork, collaboration, probing, leaning on informers, petty criminals and suspects, and wandering down blind alleys.  It doesn’t get any racier with respect to the cops’ home lives, which are relatively humdrum and mundane.  Yet despite this everyday realism the story is completely gripping as the dyspeptic Beck and his team inch towards solving the death of their colleague and eight other passengers shot late at night on a Stockholm bus.  In my view the best book in the series so far.  


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review of Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway (2011, Macmillan)

Detective Sergeant Lucy Black has moved to Derry so she can be nearer to her father.  An ex-policeman forced away from the area at the height of the Troubles, he has returned home and now has dementia.  Her estranged mother has also returned, but as Assistant Chief Constable, and is now Lucy’s boss.  It’s not an ideal scenario and its made more challenging when Lucy is transferred internally away from CID at her mother’s behest.  First at the scene of a reported sighting of a local girl who’s been kidnapped she’d discovered another younger girl walking in the woods in the snow in bloodstained pyjamas.  Whilst CID search for the kidnapped girl, Lucy tries to determine who the young girl is and why she was in the woods.  Tracking down her own leads she keeps circling back to the kidnapping, much to the chagrin of her superiors.  But Lucy is her own woman and she’s determined to get to the truth of the little girl lost.

After five Inspector Devlin books set along the Irish border, Brian McGilloway turned his attention to a new series featuring Detective Sergeant Lucy Black set in Derry.  Like the Devlin books, the legacy of the Troubles haunts the tale, as it would for just about story involving the police in Northern Ireland, and McGilloway does a good job of weaving the past with the present.  He also does a decent job of balancing the narrative between Lucy Black’s work and personal life, and in so doing ensures two strong hooks: a pair of interwoven police cases (a young girl found wandering in the snow in ancient woodland and a kidnapped teenager), along with the unfolding personal challenges of an engaging lead character.  The result is a nicely constructed police procedural with a compelling plot, a good sense of place and time, and a great deal of heart.  The only downsides were a little too many coincidences intertwining the professional and personal and an extra twist at the end felt a little forced.  Nonetheless, a solid start to what seems set to be a strong series.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review of Werewolf by Matthew Pritchard (Salt, 2014)

August 1945 in the British occupation zone in Germany. Detective Inspector Silas Payne, a fluent German speaker, has been seconded from Scotland Yard to help train a new local police force, although his recruits are still interned.  When two bodies are found in the cellar of house requisitioned by the army Payne starts to investigate, quickly encountering resistance from the local British personnel who do not want him interfering in their affairs.  When a British soldier is killed, the commander and his deputy become convinced the murders are the work of still active Nazi resisters, so-called werewolves, seeking to undermine British authority.  Payne, however, believes it is the work of a single killer with a history of murder.  Whilst the army are chasing shadows, Payne employs his policing skills to try and track down the depraved killer who has used the war to hone his skills.

In Werewolf Matthew Pritchard joins together a story about the British occupation of the Western Germany and acts of profiteering, revenge, poor management, trying to place order onto a chaotic society and chase down war criminals, with a serial killer tale.  At one level, it’s pretty well executed, except towards the end where it becomes a little ragged and a few loose ends are left hanging, on another level the serial killer angle felt like a different kind of story interwoven into an end of war tale; a kind of sensational twist to an already murderous war.  There was, to my mind, plenty of interesting avenues to explore concerning the British occupation, Nazi war crimes and ratlines on their own.  Nonetheless, the story rattles along at fair clip and its engaging fare, there is some nice contextualisation with respect to the period, and Silas Payne is a strong lead character.  Overall, a quick-paced, tightly written piece of post-war crime fiction. 



Sunday, July 19, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

Since the publication of The Data Revolution book last summer I've not had a written academic book in progress. That changed yesterday morning when I mapped out the structure of a new one. No idea when I'll get to writing it since I've three edited books on the go and a whole bunch of paper and chapter commitments. Plus the latest novel is not writing itself.  Still, it's a start.  And it feels good to have a new book project settled in my mind (well until I dream up another one - I've a folder full of books I'd like to write and never have!).

On other news, I still have a short backlog of book reviews to post.  This week expect reviews of Werewolf by Matthew Pritchard, Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway and The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

My posts this week
Review of In The Wind by Barbara Fister
Review of Easy Streets by Bill James
Review of The Detective Branch by Andrew Pepper

A handful of bullets

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A handful of bullets

Harper opened his office door.

‘That must have been some lunch, Henry,’ Clarke said, without turning.  ‘We need to talk about Gina.’

Harper dropped into his chair and opened a desk drawer.

‘She’s dead.’

‘And she didn’t beat herself to death.’

The gun was in Harper’s mouth before Clarke could react.

As the trigger clicked Clarke opened his hand to reveal the bullets.

Harper dashed for the window, smashing through it.

Clarke ambled over and gazed down.

Fifty feet below two cops were wrestling with Harper on a slowly deflating crashpad.

The Doc would be delighted at his murder-suicide assessment.




A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review of In The Wind by Barbara Fister (St Martins Press, 2008)

After ten years working for the Chicago Police Department Anni Koskinen quit after testifying against a fellow cop whose actions had left a young man brain damaged.  Having set herself up as a PI she’s so far only had one job - finding the teenage daughter of her best friend - and has spent most of her time renovating her apartment.  When a local priest asks her to drive a quiet, well-liked church worker out of town she accepts the job without realising that she’s aiding a fugitive escape.  Rosa Saenz was once an active member of a radical arm of the American Indian Movement and is wanted for the murder of an FBI agent in 1972.  That agent was the father of her mentor, now also working for the FBI, and whose daughter she’d located.  Despite his personal investment in the case he doesn’t counter his wife and daughter’s encouragement for Anni to work for Rosa’s defence team.  The Feds and local cops are not so understanding, and nor is a group of white supremacists who are waging their own battle with the American Indian Movement.  Despite the age and obvious problems associated with the case, the Feds seem overly keen to capture and prosecute Rosa.  With tension rising in the city concerning post 9/11 policing and civil liberties, Anni finds herself battling to discover the truth against diminishing odds of success.

There is lots to like about Barbara Fister’s In The Wind - a strong, likeable lead character in Anni Koskinen, nice historical contextualisation, its social commentary on policing in the US post 9/11 and tensions around civil rights, and its engaging storyline.  This is a novel very much of its time, capturing the social and racial divisions of American society and the divided geographies of a US city.  And whilst it’s a crime thriller it takes a different path to most by portraying an alternative perspective from the typical cop or federal agency point of view.  The result is a subtle but stinging critique of heavy-handed, strong-arm, politically motivated policing, and series of interesting connections to the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.  From the very start Fister ratchets up the tension and then keeps it taut throughout as Anni pings from one crisis to another, tries to track down clues, and to maintain fraught relationships.  Whilst the solution to the puzzle is telegraphed from a very long way out, the tale remains gripping and the pages kept turning.  Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable, politically inflected and thought provoking, crime thriller and I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series, Through the Cracks.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review of Easy Streets by Bill James (2004, Countryman Press)

For years there’s been an understanding between Desmond Iles, a cop with a short temper and ambition, and Mansel Shale and Ralph Ember, two underworld bosses who run a substantial part of the city’s drug trade -- the police will turn a blind eye as long as they conduct their business in an orderly fashion.  However, a relaxation of the government’s attitude to drugs, plus a plentiful cheap supply, has meant the marketplace being flooded.  As profits plummet, various factions set about restructuring who the main players are, seeking alliances and bumping off rivals.  After a small time criminal’s house is firebombed, killing him and his young daughter, Iles and Harpur seek to restore order in their own unconventional way.

Easy Streets is the twenty first tale in the Harpur and Iles series.  It’s the first one I’ve read and I’m not sure it was the ideal introduction.  The start felt like joining an on-going conversation and it took a little time to work my way into the story.  In fact, the whole tale felt like an episode of a long running television show; more a snapshot into a much longer narrative than a fully-formed, self-contained story.  The tale is told from a handful of perspectives: that of the shady, seedy cops, Iles and Harpur, and the upwardly mobile criminals, Mansel Shale and Panicky Ralph Ember.  Where it excels is with respect to the dialogue in which characters can often be talking past one another as they ignore what the other has to say, and it is often darkly comic.  Overall, however, whilst interesting, it lacked a strong hook that would shift it from crime soap opera to something more substantial.



Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of The Detective Branch by Andrew Pepper (Phoenix, 2010)

London, 1844.  When three men are shot dead in a pawn brokers, Inspector Pyke of the newly formed Detective Branch is assigned the case.  Pyke has an uneasy relationship with his men, a past he’d sooner keep hidden, and an uncanny ability to rub his superiors up the wrong way whilst getting results.  Using his contacts in the underworld and journalism he starts to piece together the case leading him into conflict with local gangs, church leaders and his own bosses.  Soon he has made connections to a case from five years previously in which two children were brutally murdered.  But the more Pyke digs the stronger the opposition to his investigation and the less he seems able to trust his own men.  Too many people it seems want the conspiracy at the heart of the case to remain a secret and Pyke silenced.  But Pyke has never been one to shy away from making himself heard.

It took me a little while to get into The Detective Branch.  I think it was because there was a lot of work going on to move things into place, provide sufficient backstory, and evoke the time and setting.  The tale Andrew Pepper tells is an expansive and convoluted one, weaving together a whole plethora of different threads, crimes, factions and characters.  About a third of the way through everything started to slot into place, with the various alliances and rifts delineated and the general thrust of the puzzle clear.  As the tale neared its end the story picks up pace, but it also becomes more tricky to keep the various strands in order and questions start to arise.  The one that really baffled me was why Pyke was alive as the simplest solution for the conspirators would have been to bump him off, as they were doing with others.  Nonetheless, the tale is an entertaining one, with Pyke an interesting, non-conformist copper who administers justice in his own way whilst just about keeping on the right side of the law.  And it was a nice change to read a tale where the investigator has to rely on his wits, coercion and connections given the lack of forensics or modern technology.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I've been falling behind with posting reviews again.  I've four written and ready to go -- The Detective Branch by Andrew Pepper, Easy Streets by Bill James, In The Wind by Barbara Fisher, and Werewolf by Matthew Pritchard.  I'm presently working my way through Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway.  I'm not sure what I'll read after that; I'll see what catches my attention on the TBR.  I'll try and post three this week and probably the same again next week to catch-up.

My posts this week
Review of Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal
Review of Nazis in the Metro by Didier Daeninckx
Rear window

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Rear window

‘Don’t switch on the lights,’ Kelly ordered.

‘What?  Why?’ Dan hovered by the door staring into the dimly lit room.

‘They’ll see us.’

‘Who’ll see us?’

‘Them!’ Kelly pointed to the large window.  Opposite a condo block was lit up like a Christmas tree.

‘Are those binoculars?’

‘What we need is a tripod.  I can’t keep these steady enough.’

‘Are you spying on people?’

‘They think that if they’re ten stories up no-one can see them.’

‘Kelly!’

‘He’s going to kill her.  I know he is.’

‘Who?’

‘The monster is the purple underwear.  He’s already left her black and blue.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review of Nazis in the Metro by Didier Daeninckx (Melville House, 2014)

On returning to Paris, the elderly Andre Sloga is brutally beaten in the underground car park beneath his apartment building and left for dead.  When private detective Gabriel Lecouvreur reads about the story in the newspaper the following morning he feels compelled to find out more.  Sloga had been a gifted but controversial writer who had drifted into obscurity as his books dropped out of print.  With Sloga clinging to life in hospital Lecouvreur tries to retrace his recent life to look for clues as to the perpetrators.  He discovers that Sloga was nearing completion of a new book, one that exposes a sordid and dangerous political underworld, and he sets out to determine who exactly attacked Sloga and to complete his work.

Didier Daeninckx has a reputation for being one of France’s most controversial crime fiction writers.  Nazis in the Metro is a relatively short tale (178 pages) that has a fairly linear plot which seems to more a vehicle for revealing the sordid political underbelly of modern France than performing a crime tale.  Although quite nicely told, my sense was that the plot was weak and truncated throughout and in particular fell apart somewhat at the end.  As such, while the substance was interesting and the character of Gabriel Lecouvreur appealing, the tale fell short of expectation and was ultimately a little disappointing.  This was a shame as Daeninckx clearly has something interesting and worthwhile to say about French society and its politics.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review of Dogstar Rising by Parker Bilal (Bloomsbury, 2013)

A former policeman in Sudan, Makana fled in 1991 settling in Cairo.  A decade later he is working as a private investigator and is hired by a struggling travel agent to determine the provenance of a threatening letter.  There's tension in the area in which the agency is located: young boys are turning up dead, with a local Muslim leader using the murders to stoke up sectarian violence against the much smaller Christian Coptic community.  Makana soon determines that all is not well with the travel agency’s accounts and there is more to the letter than initially thought.  Then an employee is murdered, with Makana the only witness, and the police and state security services vie for control of the case.  As the tension continues to rise, Makana tries to solve both the travel agency puzzle and that of the murdered boys, all the time placing himself in more and more danger.

In this second outing for Makana, a refugee cop turned PI from Sudan, Parker Bilal tackles Christian/Muslim sectarianism, rising Islamic radicalism, and state security corruption in Egypt pre-9/11 head on, whilst keeping the mystery element of the story at its core.  Dogstar Rising then is very much a religious/political crime thriller but one played out by relatively minor players in the everyday life of the city.  That is, it’s not a political Thriller with a big T.  While the case relating to the murdered children adds tension, it is the thread concerning the workings of a dysfunctional travel agency that is most interesting and takes a different path to those well worn by crime fiction tropes.  Bilal does a good job of placing the reader into urban and social landscapes of Cairo and in particular its political and religious tensions.  The characterisation is nicely observed, in particular the stoic Makana, who often places justice ahead of his own interests.  Overall, an engaging read.