Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review of A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris (Penguin, 2007)

St Petersburg, 1866.  A man is found hanging from a tree in a park.  At his feet is a suitcase containing the body of a dwarf.  It appears the man killed the dwarf then took his own life, however, investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich is not so sure.  Despite the protests of others he pursues an investigation into the deaths.  His enquiries convince him that there was foul play, but proving it and finding the killer is not going to be straightforward, especially when there is no clear motive or suspect.  Methodologically he starts to piece together the lives of the two victims, hunting for clues as to who might have killed them.

A Gentle Axe is the first book in the Porfiry Petrovich series set in St Petersburg at the late nineteenth century.  The central character is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and works as an investigating magistrate in the bustling city, which is stratified by wealth and class.  In conducting his cases Porfiry Petrovich has to negotiate the formal social structures and politics, as well as mix with the poor and needy.  It requires diplomacy and determination, especially when certain elements would prefer the case he is working on – the death of a bulky yardmaster and cantankerous dwarf – to be declared closed without a fuss.  Morris does a good job of detailing the character and atmosphere of the city and its social relations.  The characterisation and the interactions between them is nicely observed.  The procedural-style plot is engaging with Porfiry Petrovich stoically unearthing and following clues, though some of the detective work is based on intuition rather than deduction and the denouement involves plenty of accusation and conjecture but not much concrete evidence.  Perhaps unsurprisingly then the reader is left guessing as to who the murder is and their motives until the end.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining historical crime tale.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989, Random House)

After fleeing Moscow former state investigator Arkady Renko has worked his way east, hiding in the shadows, always moving on before his former colleagues track him down.  It is now the time of Perestroika and Renko is working the slime line of a large factory ship, gutting fish before they are frozen.  In the spirit of cooperation the boat is working with American trawlers, storing their catches.  When one of the trawlers deposits the body of a female crew member onto the deck of the Polar Star the captain asks Renko to investigate her death.  To the consternation of some of the crew Renko suspects foul play.  At first he is reluctant to investigate further, but like many of the men who encountered the woman before her death he feels drawn to her.  It soon becomes clear, however, that investigating her death might have deadly consequences.

Polar Star is the sequel to Gorky Park, the first book in the Arkady Renko series.  Set a number of years after the first book, Renko has fled his former life and colleagues, taking a succession of menial jobs, working his way east across Siberia.  He eventually finds himself working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea, processing fish caught by American trawlers.  When a young woman is dragged from the sea by a net, Renko is persuaded to turn investigator once again.  Given the closed setting, the woman could have only been killed by one of the Russian crew or the crews of the American trawlers; she was last seen on the stern of the factory boat after a party on-board which the Americans attended.  It’s a neat set-up, made more compelling by the number of potential suspects given the woman’s promiscuity, the secrets held by many of the crew, their reluctance to aid Renko, especially since his investigation seems likely to cancel shore leave after four months of sea, and the inherent suspicion between Russians and Americans.  Smith gives a real sense of life on-board a factory ship operating in freezing territory and the uneasy thawing of relations been cold war rivals.  He slowly winds up the intrigue and tension, with the plot unfolding towards a nice denouement. The only flat note is the sense that Renko should have been dead within the first third of the tale and somehow manages to stay alive despite the many opportunities to kill and dispose of him.  Indeed, that he’s alive at the end of the book is something of a miracle.   Nonetheless, Polar Star is a gripping crime thriller.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I've spent the last week in Moscow and St Petersburg.  It's been a great trip so far and I've been very well looked after by my hosts.  Tiredness has now caught up with me. Too many 9/10am to 10/11pm days, including 9 hours of lecturing and two 2 hour public lectures, meeting folks from Smart Moscow, Yandex (the Russian Google), Habidatum (urban big data company), Strelka (Institute for Media, Architecture and Design), being filmed for a documentary, and doing some sightseeing.

My posts this week
Review of The Life We Bury by Allen Eskins
Review of Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings
Snow White

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Snow White

‘Why are we here again?’

‘Because Doyle said so.’

‘But why here?’  Francie kicked a stone across the rough concrete.

‘Why are we sent anywhere?’

‘I’m not staying here.  It’s a shitehole.’

‘Who said anything about staying here?’ Joey headed between two run-down tower blocks.

‘Really?  Here?’

‘Why not here?’

‘Because it’s a shitehole.’

‘And plenty of places to lie low.’

‘So, who is he then?’


Francie stopped walking.

‘What?’ Joey asked.

‘I’m not doing a woman.’

‘What difference does it make?’

‘It just does.’

‘You’ve developed a conscience?’

‘I’m not a monster.’

‘You’re hardly Snow White either. Come-on.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review of The Life We Bury by Allen Eskins (Seventh Street Books, 2014)

For his English class Joe Talbert needs to write the biography of a stranger.  Seeking a suitable person he visits a nursing home where he’s introduced to Carl Iverson.  Iverson is a Vietnam vet and convicted murderer and rapist who has been medically paroled from prison due to his terminal cancer.  The dying man’s friend insists that Iverson was wrongly convicted and having retrieved the old case files Joe starts to have doubts as well.  Enrolling the help of his neighbour, Lila, Joe becomes determined to find out the truth of who raped and killed Crystal Hagen, a sixteen year old girl, thirty years previously before Iverson dies.  However, he’s hampered in his efforts by having to deal with his alcoholic mother and her new lover, look after his autistic brother, and by his naivety in pursuing certain lines of inquiry.
The Life We Bury charts the efforts of college student Joe Talbert to investigate whether justice was served in a thirty year old case in which a teenage girl is raped and murdered. The man convicted of Crystal Hagen’s death, Carl Iverson, is a Vietnam vet who admits to both killing and murdering people, but insists they were in Vietnam not Minnesota.  Iverson is dying of cancer with a couple of months to live and has promised to answer Joe’s questions truthfully, though his answers do not tally with the trial record.  This premise provides a compelling hook for Eskins tale, which explores themes of innocence, justice and responsibility.  There is a strong sense of realism in the troubled lives of Talbert and Iverson, both of whom have skeletons in their closets.  The familial relations of Talbert, with his alcoholic mother, autistic brother, and awkward fledgling relationship with his neighbour, Lila, are particular nicely done.  The only aspect that felt a little forced was Talbert’s naivety in his investigation where he sleepwalks his way into danger not just once, but twice, though his actions serve to raise the menace and tension in the narrative.  Nonetheless, The Life We Bury is an engaging, thoughtful and suspenseful literary crime tale.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review of Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings (Titan, 2011)

1940 and the phoney war is over and the Battle of Britain is on-going.  A vivacious land girl is found by the side of a Shropshire road, shot in the head, white poppies placed on her chest.  Detective Inspector Tom Tyler is in charge of the investigation.  Suspicion immediately falls on the nearby Prees Heath internment camp which houses many German nationals.  However, most of its residents have little sympathy for their homeland having fled from the Nazis and some offer to aid the detective, such as an eminent psychoanalyst.  In addition to trying to solve the case Tyler has a number of family issues, such as a failing marriage, a distant son who survived Dunkirk, and a sixteen year old daughter who dislikes working for her grandfather who is trading on the black market. And to top it off his first love has reappeared, working as a translator in the camp after living on the continent for the previous twenty years.  When a second land girl disappears it’s clear that there’s a sinister force at work in the area.

Season of Darkness is a historical police procedural set in rural Shropshire in 1940.  Detective Tom Tyler is in charge of an investigation into the murder of a land girl – a working class Londoner who has moved to the area to help work on local farms.  The girl was known to be a flirt and possesses money in-excess of her salary.  Shortly after her friend also disappears while taking a short cut to a church service.  While some suspect their deaths are the work of a German parachutist, others suspect the nearby Prees Heath internment camp that houses German nations, though Tyler does not rule out the possibility that the killer is a local.  Along with his small team, Tyler tries to gather evidence and clues while also dealing with complications in his home and personal life.  Although at times overly descriptive, the story was engaging and interesting up until about two thirds through, then the plot started to unravel and too many elements did not add up or make sense. In the main these elements or plot devices seem to for the sake of melodrama and trying to add action and tension and are difficult to discuss without giving plot spoilers, but needless to say I rapidly lost faith in the story.  Which was a shame; instead of wanting to read on to get to the end, I struggled to the conclusion becoming ever more disillusioned with the clunky plot. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week was an interesting one and included attending a dinner with Michael D Higgins (President of Ireland) and arriving in Moscow.  I was really looking forward to attending an event with the president as I've been keen to hear him give a speech in person.  His one on Tuesday evening was very good indeed. It's so refreshing to have a president who is a public intellectual and can talk to big themes and issues.  I landed in Moscow late yesterday afternoon.  Today I was a given a tour of Red Square, the Kremlin and the Tretyakov gallery (Russian art). The Kremlin is quite something, especially the five cathedrals within the walls which are stunning inside with floor to ceiling icons. Also passed by the Bolshoi Theatre, the Lubyanka, and Moscow State University. My impression of Moscow before coming here, gleaned from cold war films and literature, was a grey, drab, dreary city, with endless blocks of Soviet-style apartments, whereas it’s a vibrant European-style city with wide boulevards and a lot of interesting architecture.  There’s certainly been a lot of development in the last twenty years. It reminds me a bit of Berlin. 

My posts last week
He axed for it
Review of The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum
Review of Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

He axed for it

‘You’re trying to tell me this was an accident?’

Carter waved his hand at the dead man, a small-handled axe buried deep in his skull, but kept staring at the nervous youth.

‘Ye, yes.’

‘Okay, explain it to me.’

‘We were throwing axes at a target.’ The youth pointed to a large hay bale, two axe handles protruding. ‘He stepped out in front of me.  And …’

‘He walked in front of you knowing you were throwing an axe?’

‘He thought I’d finished.’

‘He couldn’t count and you couldn’t see him?’

The youth shrugged.

‘He axed for it, did he?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review of The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum

1968 and Harald Olesen, a legendary hero of the Norwegian resistance and post-war government minister, is found shot dead in his apartment.  The murder is a lock-roomed mystery, with no-one else present in the apartment or seen leaving immediately after the shot.  A young detective Inspector, Kolbjorn Kristiansen, is assigned to investigate the case and quickly determines that one of the other apartment dwellers must be the murderer. At first it seems that none them have a motive, but with patient detective work – aided by Patricia, the brilliant-minded young daughter of a family friend – Kristiansen discovers each is a human fly with their own reasons for buzzing round Olesen and potentially wanting him dead.  The death somehow seems connected to Olesen’s secret work during the Second World War and when a second murder occurs they have to step-up their investigation to catch a smart and deadly killer.

The Human Flies is the first book in the K2 (Kolbjorn Kristiansen) historical crime series that also features his brilliant-minded, wheelchair-bound, young sidekick, Patricia.  This outing is set in 1968 and is essentially a locked-room mystery where the killer is most likely to be one of the other residents in a block of six apartments.  While each resident appears to have little motive, through clever detective work each is revealed to have a reason for harming the victim, Harald Olesen, a hero of the Norwegian resistance.  The book is clearly a homage to the Golden Era of crime fiction, especially to Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot’s style of case and investigation, but also to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, with Patricia similarly being a brilliant armchair detective who will not leave her abode, but rather synthesizes clues and directs Kristiansen, who then picks up the plaudits.  Lahlum carefully spins out the plot, judiciously revealing clues and keeping characters in the frame.  However, at about three quarters of the way through it becomes obvious who the killer is to the reader even though Kristiansen seems oblivious, Patricia mute, and Lahlum tries to spin misdirection.  The consequence is the last quarter felt contrived and a little hollow.  Nonetheless, Lahlum spins an interesting puzzle and homage.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review of Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear (Harper, 2016)

Early 1938 and Maisie Dobbs has returned to England from Spain, where she’d been working as a nurse in the civil war, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband.  Still unsure what she’s going to do with herself she’s approached by old acquaintances in the Secret Service.  A rich British industrialist has been imprisoned in Dachau and the Nazis have agreed to release him into the custody of his daughter.  Only his daughter is seriously ill and they want Maisie to pose as her instead.  In addition, another wealthy industrialist wants Maisie to find his wayward daughter, who has abandoned her husband and young child to go partying in Munich – a woman Maisie holds responsible for her husband’s death.  Maisie is soon tangling with the SS as she tries to free the imprisoned boffin and persuade the wayward daughter to return home.

Journey to Munich is the twelfth book in the Maisie Dobbs series.  In this outing she travels to Munich to try and free a British industrialist from Dachau and the clutches of the Nazis and to accompany him back to Britain, while also trying to persuade a young woman to stop partying with SS men and to return home to England.  The first of those plotlines on its own would have been fine.  The second one is purely to continue a thread from previous books and add a bit of melodrama and was all too coincidental.  Nonetheless, the plot works okay up until the major twist, which also derails the logic of the tale and it then limps weakly to the end.  There are just too many elements that made little sense, too many weak plot devices, and too many stereotypical characters.  As a result, while Maisie is an interesting character who lives an eventful life, for me this sojourn failed to live up to its promising premise.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week was one of running around after two weeks away in Boston and Korea. This one coming is trying to get myself sorted for a week in Russia.  I've managed to line up two books to take: Martin Cruz Smith's Polar Star and R.N. Morris' The Gentle Axe, the first set in the 1980s and the latter in 1866.  I wanted to find one set in contemporary Russia that wasn't some kind of political/spy thriller, but didn't manage to come across one, though I'd still be interested in recommendations.

My posts this week:

Review of Oblivion by Arnaldur Indridason
Big data and the city
Review of Slicky Boys by Martin Limon
September reads
Gut instinct

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Gut instinct

Pollack took one look at the mutilated face and turned on his heels.  ‘Naylor!  I told you he’s a savage!’

Carter caught him at the front door.  ‘Not so fast, Sherlock.  Unless you’ve got an infallible crystal ball we do this by the book.’

Pollack shrugged himself free.  ‘I don’t need a crystal ball.  It’s Naylor.  He has motive, means, and it’s his MO.’ 

‘Or it was someone who wanted it to look like Naylor.’

‘It was Naylor.’

‘He’s a prime suspect, I agree, but I want a water-tight case not a hunch.’

‘Warranted suspicion.’

‘Gut instinct.  There’s a difference.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

September reads

September was a mixed month of reading in terms of styles, themes and places.  Difficult to pick a book of the month, but I'm going to go with The Silent Dead by Claire McGowan.

Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler ***
Willnot by James Sallis ***.5
A Man With One of Those Faces by Caimh McDonnell ****
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute ****.5
The Constant Soldier by William Ryan ****.5
The Silent Dead by Claire McGowan ****.5
Dark As My Heart by Antti Tuomainen ***

Friday, October 7, 2016

Review of Oblivion by Arnaldur Indridason (Vintage, 2014)

1979, Erlendur is a rookie detective with the Reykjavik police.  When a body is found in an isolated thermal pond not far from an American military base, Erlendur and his boss, Marion Briem investigate. The body has been dropped from a great height onto a hard floor and once they discover the man worked as an aircraft mechanic their attention quickly turns to the base and its massive aircraft hangars.  However, the base is US territory and they have no interest in collaborating with the Icelandic police, leaving the detectives frustrated and trying to find alternative sources of information.  In parallel, Erlendur decides to pursue a cold case that has obsessed him for some time – the death of a young woman near to an old US base from the Second World War that was occupied by Icelandic families when it was abandoned.  It doesn’t take him long to find a couple of threads that were poorly investigated at the time of her disappearance. 

Oblivion is the second prequel novel to the original Erlendur series.  In this outing, it’s 1979, Erlendur has separated from his wife, is estranged from his five year old daughter, and is now working as a detective in CID under the supervision of Marion Briem, his long-term mentor.  Erlendur is investigating two cases that have links to American bases in Iceland.  The first concerns an Icelandic man they suspect has been murdered on the present base, though the US military refuse to cooperate.  The second is a cold case concerning the disappearance of a young woman twenty five years ago who was receiving records bought on a US army base and lived near to a decommissioned one.  Indridason spins out the two stories with his usual unhurried, thoughtful, often dour, prose that matches the disposition of his main character.  Both plotlines are reasonably interesting, with Indridason sticking with their more mundane, familial aspects rather than shifting gears into thriller territory, though the more contemporary thread raises questions about the presence of the US military in Iceland and the troubled relationship between locals and interlopers.  It was a shame that both plotlines relied on weak plot devices to move them forward.  Nonetheless, Oblivion is another nice addition to the Erlendur series.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review of Slicky Boys by Martin Limon (SoHo Crime, 1997)

1970s Korea. American MPs Sueno and Bascom are unwittingly enrolled into luring an English soldier to his death.  Luckily for them they are assigned the case to investigate.  All the signs point to thievery, black market dealings, and the involvement of Slicky Boys, a ruthless Korean gang who specialise in theft from American bases.  However, the case is more complex that Sueno and Bascom anticipate and there is little cooperation from the local population.  And once their involvement in the Englishman’s death is known they are removed from the case.  Wanting to make up for their lapse the two military cops continue their investigation using a mix of threats, violence and street smarts.  But as the body count rises it seems they have taken on a foe that is more wily and tougher than them.

Slicky Boys is the second book in the Sueno and Bascom US military police series set in South Korea in the 1970s.  In this outing they tangle with the Slicky Boys, a secret, highly organized and ruthless gang that steals about four percent of the value of US Army goods and equipment in the country (enough to be highly profitable, but not arouse too much suspicion given the rampant black market economy).  Sueno and Bascom believe that they are responsible for the death of a young, enterprising Englishman who also has light fingers.  However, things are not quite as they seem and dealing with the Slicky Boys is a dangerous venture.  Whilst the context and setup are interesting the book has a number of shortcomings, the main one being that the plot is barely believable.  By any reasonable expectation, given their actions and encounters, Sueno and Bascom should have been dead by the mid-point and there are too many elements that made little sense beyond plot devices to add twists and action.  The prose is workman-like and often flat.  And while it is interesting to have two flawed lead characters, Sueno and Bascom are hardly likeable and Bascom, in particular, is fairly loathsome with his violent intimidation of witnesses and misogyny.  Such a portrayal of some American MPs might be reasonably accurate but it gets wearing after a while and the only thing keeping the reader rooting for them is the baddies are even worse.  Overall, then, an action-packed story, but weakly plotted.