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 ***



Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review of After the Fire by Jane Casey (Ebury Press, 2015)

A fire rages through the top two floors of a tower block in North London. Two bodies are found in a locked flat on the top floor and at the base of the tower is the body of a notorious right-wing MP. In hospital a young girl and elderly woman fight for their lives and a mother fears for her safety now her location has been revealed to her estranged, abusive husband. It’s not clear to the Met how the fire started but first impressions are that it was deliberate. DC Maeve Kerrigan and her boss, DI Josh Derwent, are part of the investigative team. Derwent is at war with the overall investigation lead officer and Kerrigan has personal problems beyond work to deal with, but both are determined to discover what happened at the tower block and why. The problem is that everyone on the top two floors seems to have something to hide.

After the Fire is the sixth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series set in London. Kerrigan is a head strong detective in the Met police determined to make her mark and negotiate the internal politics and personal rivalries of the system. In this outing she is part of a large team investigating a fire in a North London tower block that leaves three people dead, including an infamous MP, and a handful of other residents in hospital. The strength of the story is the main plotline and the procedural elements, with Kerrigan and colleagues trying to piece together what happened and why. Several possible explanations emerge and each has to be verified or dismissed, made more challenging by many of the surviving residents having something to hide. As usual, Kerrigan nicely tussles with her domineering boss, DI Joss Derwent, as well as other members of the team. There is a secondary plot focusing on Kerrigan’s ongoing battle with a master cyber-criminal who is stalking her on- and offline. Personally, I’ve found this running plotline tedious and a distraction, and did so with this outing as well. In addition, at times the book becomes a little too egocentric in the narrative, entirely focused on Kerrigan and her life, rather than a more rounded account with respect to other characters. The result is some of the strands terminate and it’s left to the reader to wonder what happened subsequently to the characters involved. Otherwise, After the Fire is an absorbing and entertaining read, with a nice puzzle at its heart.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins, 2016)

September 1666 and the Great Fire burns much of London to the ground. James Marwood’s home survives, but only because he lives a few miles away with his disgraced father, a plotter of the downfall of King Charles I, whose son is now king. Marwood is employed in Whitehall as a clerk, running errands for Master Williamson, who as well as managing affairs of state publishes the Gazette newspaper. In the aftermath of the fire, there is much to be addressed, including the rebuilding of the city and investigating a suspicious death. The man murdered was in the employ of Lord Alderley, a rich goldsmith, significant property investor and a moneylender to the king. Alderley is the guardian to Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett, his niece and daughter of an infamous regicide who is still on the run. Betrothed to a man she detests and desired by her lecherous cousin, Cat leaves the household, working as a maid in a lodging house. Despite never knowing each other prior to a chance encounter during the Great Fire, Marwood and Cat’s lives are linked through their fathers’ membership of the Fifth Monarchists, a fanatical religious, anti-royalist group. Their lives become further entwined as Marwood searches for a killer who seems intent on pursuing a bloody revenge.

Set in the months after the Great Fire of London in 1666, The Ashes of London utilizes real characters (including King Charles II, Christopher Wren and Joseph Williamson) and events to spin a historical crime fiction tale that is full of political intrigue. At the centre of the tale is an on-going conspiracy concerning the actions of Fifth Monarchists who helped Oliver Cromwell dispose of King Charles II, some of whom are still at large despite King Charles I being restored to the throne. Beyond the historicisation and sense of place, which is nicely done providing interesting wider context without dominating the tale, the strength of the story is the two principle characters. James Marwood and Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett have anti-royalist fathers, but are trying to get on with their lives in the new regime. Marwood’s father has served his time, but is now suffering from mild dementia. While serving as a lowly clerk in Whitehall, Marwood tries to look after and protect his ailing and ostracised father. Cat is living in her aunt, who has married the wealthy Lord Alderley, but is unhappy with their plans for her and the attentions of her cousin. When a servant of the Alderley household is murdered Marwood is asked to investigate. By the time he reaches the Alderley residence Cat has fled, taking refuge as a maid in a lodging house. The plot progresses by telling the Marwood side of the tale in the first-person, and Cat’s side in the third person. Taylor keeps the pace relatively swift, charting the paths of both protagonists and their various trials and tribulations. There are no real surprises in the story and the wrap up after the major denouement felt a little flat with some open threads. I’m not sure if that’s because Taylor is planning a sequel or it ran out of steam or he wanted to avoid obvious plot wrap ups. Overall, an interesting and engaging medieval investigative procedural.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Thursday was my last overseas trip to give a talk until November, and there's just two in Ireland in the diary for the same time period. I'll still break twenty gigs for the year, but this furlough will hopefully refresh batteries and translate into some thinking and writing. I guess time will tell if the hypothesis and experiment works. 

My posts this week
Review of The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth
Review of The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson
Life’s too short for fairy tales