Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review of Dead Water by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan, 2013)

Journalist Jerry Markham has travelled home to Shetland, claiming to be working on a secret story that appears to be related to the energy industry. He’s not long back on the islands when he’s runoff the road and murdered, his body left in a rowing boat in front of the Fiscal’s home. Usually Inspector Jimmy Perez would run the investigation, but he’s still trying to come to terms with the death of his partner and being the carer for her seven year old daughter. Instead, Detective Inspector Willow Reeves is sent from the mainland to head up her first murder investigation. Bought up in a commune on a Western isle, Willow has rebelled against her parents beliefs though she carries some of the lifestyle. Willow and a local sergeant start to trace the movements of Markham and possible motives for his death. The journalist seems to have rubbed a number of people the wrong way before leaving for London under a black cloud, abandoning a pregnant young woman. Only a small protest group were happy with his questions concerning new green energy projects. As Reeves and her team struggle to find convincing leads, Perez starts to take an interest in the case. Slowly coming out his shell as he starts to piece together clues, forming an uneasy alliance with Willow.

Dead Water is the fifth book in the Jimmy Perez Shetland series. After the death of Perez’s partner in the last outing, the detective is at a low ebb, bringing up Fran’s seven year old daughter and thinking of quitting the police. When a journalist is murdered, Detective Inspector Willow Reeves is sent from Aberdeen to lead the investigation. Willow doesn’t seem like the usual kind of detective, seemingly a little laid-back and unconcerned about appearance, but she’s ambitious and disarming. She soon senses that the local Fiscal has a personal connection to the case and the journalist’s former girlfriend, who he’d abandoned whilst pregnant a few years before, is being economical with the truth. The case makes slow progress but gradually works its hooks into Perez, who increasingly takes an active role. In finding his feet, however, Perez habitually takes solo-runs, chasing down leads without consulting Willow creating a little tension between the two that they continually try to smooth over. Cleeves nicely balances the personal dynamics within the police team with the puzzle of the case, creating a character-driven police procedural with plenty of intrigue.  As usual there is a strong sense of place, with the Shetlands performing as more than a backdrop.  The denouement felt a little contrived, but overall an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally got round to tracking down the third book - The City of Lies - in Michael Russell's Stefan Gillespie series. I'm looking forward to reading as the first two books were excellent. Reviews here and here

My posts this week
Review of The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich
Review of Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus
Idiot love

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Idiot love

Jane cracked open the door.

‘Jesus, Joe, what the hell happened to you?’

Joe’s left hand was clamped over a bloody shirt.

‘Cut myself.’

Jane widened the gap. ‘What with? An axe?’

‘I’m an idiot.’

‘You’ve got that right!’

‘An idiot in love.’

‘Unrequited love. Into the bathroom.’

‘Idiot love.’

‘Tell me you’ve not done anything stupid, Joe.’

‘You know me.’

‘Let me look.’

He lifted up his shirt to reveal a deep, ugly wound. 

‘We need a doctor. And that’s not self-inflicted. Who did this?’

‘She got me good, Jane. She’d got me from the start. Always an idiot.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review of The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich (Atria, 2017)

George Meuller has left the CIA and is teaching in a university and writing spy novels when the director calls him in to ask a favour – head to Cuba to look into the activities of Toby Graham, an operative suspected of colluding with Castro’s forces fighting the Batista regime. The FBI are convinced Graham is supplying the rebels with guns and information. Meuller and Graham were college friends and it’s felt that might provide cover for the covert investigation. Reluctantly Meuller agrees, heading to Havana under the pretence of working as a writer for Holiday magazine. He arrives to find a jittery country on the brink of revolution. He falls in with an old acquaintance, Jack Malone, and his wife, Liz, begins an affair with his photographer, and starts to rub against the local FBI agent and the Cuban intelligence services. Graham remains elusive, even when the two finally do meet and Meuller finds himself developing divided loyalties.

Set in Cuba in 1958, The Good Assassin tells the story of George Meuller, a former CIA agent, tasked with assessing whether his friend, Toby Graham, has been supplying Castro’s rebels with arms. Meuller is very much the reluctant, ambivalent spy, slouching round Havana and the Cuban countryside, first trying to make contact with Graham, then trying to assess whether he’s pursuing his own agenda, all the while mildly antagonising the local FBI agent and the Cuban intelligence services. Vidich nicely captures Meuller’s persona and frustration and the unsettled situation of the last few months of the Batista regime. The plot seems to meander along without really changing pace or rising in tension. Occasionally there are dramatic moments, but they too are told in a laconic way, almost as if they are incidental, and their consequences are little explored.  The result is a story that seems quite flat and overly understated. As a consequence I was never quite captivated by the tale, despite some nice prose and occasional choice observations.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review of Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus (Duckworth Overlook, 2016)

1938 and Colonel Noel Macrae is transferred from Vienna to Berlin as military attaché. Macrae is alarmed by the Nazi programme of rearmament and their political rhetoric and wants Britain to take a tough line against German ambitions for expansion eastwards. However, the British ambassador has well developed links to senior Nazis and is a strong advocate of appeasement. As Germany runs diplomatic rings around Britain and France, walking into Austria and threatening Czechoslovakia, Macrae liaises with a senior German army figure who claims he represents a group plotting against Hitler but will act only if Britain backs a coup. The British government does not want to get involved, and to make life complicated Macrae’s contact is having an affair with his wife. Macrae himself is drawn to the enigmatic Sara, a Jewish woman forced to work as a prostitute in an exclusive Gestapo brothel designed to entrap the elite of German society and foreign visitors. As spring arrives in 1939, Macrae has three pressing concerns: can he save Sarah from the Gestapo? is his marriage worth saving? should he take matters of state into his own hands?

Midnight in Berlin, set in the city in 1938/39, draws heavily on actual events and policy and involves numerous real-world characters to tell the story of how Britain and Germany slipped towards war. To add some fictional narrative, MacManus hooks the story around the efforts of British military attache, Colonel Noel Macrae (loosely based on the real attaché at the time), to change Britain’s policy of appeasement and take a more interventionist position, and the tale of Sara, a young Jewish woman forced to work in a Gestapo honey-trap brothel. Macrae is taken to the exclusive club where he meets the woman who offers to pass on information in return for knowledge about the fate of her captive brother. The period and the events are interesting, but for me, the tale is too much a history lesson lightly fictionalised with not enough of a story. As is stands, if the historical account was pared back there's little left, and when the story did focus more on the main fictional characters it flits briefly on their affairs rather than dwelling upon them. Indeed, the tale is cast as a love story, however, the relationship between Macrae and Sara did not come across as a Nazi-era ‘Pretty Woman’. Rather, there was some lust, manipulation, and lingering infatuation, but there was no sense that there was anything serious developing and story tails off to a damp squib of an ending.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up three books in a secondhand bookshop yesterday. Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson (which I read twenty years ago and thought it would be good to revisit), Robert Ryan's Early One Morning, and Paul Charles' The Dust of Death. All three have Irish connections, with Eureka Street being set in Belfast, Early One Morning starting in Dublin, and The Dust of Death being set in Donegal. I also picked up three in the local bookshop: Riptide by John Lawton, Sleeping Dogs by Mark O'Sullivan and The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal. Have added them all to a to-be-read pile that is back to being healthy in choice (i.e. thirty plus books!).

My posts this week
Balancing and redistributing ‘additional’ academic work
Review of The Trespasser by Tana French
June reads
A hole in the head

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A hole in the head

‘I need this, Mickey, like a hole a head.’

‘And that’s what you’ll have if you fuck up.’

‘What’s with the American accent? You’re from Dub-lin, Mickey. And I don’t think the mafia are running round in Adidas tracksuits.’

‘You want that hole now, bigshot?’

The goon flanking Mickey Doyle drew a pistol.

‘If I’m dead, you lose everything. All five million. Is that your game plan?’

‘You’re just the go-between. A nobody.’

‘I’m the lynch-pin. Pull me out and the whole deal implodes.’

‘Like your head will.’

‘Only if you’re as stupid as this conversation suggests. Well, are you?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

June reads

June was a good month of reading. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch was my read of the month. This is my slowest reading year since 2008; I'm at 44 books for the half-year. Ticking along but slowing down. Too many other distractions.

Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris ****
The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman ****
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid ****
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler ***.5
A Savage Hunger by Claire McGowan ***
Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher ***
Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch *****
After the Fire by Jane Casey ****

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review of The Trespasser by Tana French (2016, Hachette)

Detective Antoinette Conway always wanted to make the Murder Squad. Six months of hazing and she’s sticking-in by sheer will-power and bloody-mindedness. Conway is no wilting violet and is well able to give as much as she gets, but the endless games of politics, psychology, harassment and being given the crappy cases are wearing her down. After a long night shift, she and partner, Stephen Moran, the only seemingly decent bloke in the squad, land a domestic murder investigation. Aislinn Murray has been killed by a blow to the head in her own home, a candle-lit dinner for two in preparation. At first sight it appears to be a straightforward lover’s quarrel turned violent. But elements of the case don’t quite add up and a stranger seems to be stalking Conway. Breslin, the experienced and charming cop assigned to help Conway and Moran, is pushing for a quick open-and-shut arrest of Aislinn’s boyfriend. However, the obstinate and suspicious streak in Conway wants a by-the-book investigation. It might be her last case, either through choice or being forced out, but Conway wants to finish in the squad on her terms.

The Trespasser is the sixth book in the Murder Squad series set in Ireland – a somewhat lose collection, with each book readable as a standalone. I’ve only read three, but this is by far the strongest. My issue with the other two was that they were overly descriptive and too long and could, in my view, have benefitted from an edit. This instalment also suffers a little from being overly drawn-out – French includes every single aspect of the case including full ‘unedited’ accounts of every sentence in every interview, all of Conway’s thoughts, rich descriptions of context and scenes, detailed explanations of procedural elements, etc. – but it is fully absorbing. The microscopic detail simply adds to the tension. This is aided by close attention to office politics and psychology and strong characterisation and character development, especially of Detective Antionette Conway, the first person protagonist. Complex and abrasive, Conway is alive on the page. The plot was a relatively straightforward police procedural with a well-telegraphed twist and a nice denouement, but it’s telling is beautifully executed. Indeed, The Trespasser is a wonderfully written, multilayered and intense tale that had me hooked from the start and never let go. Certainly the best Irish police procedural I’ve read in quite a while.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Balancing and redistributing ‘additional’ academic work

I rarely publish anything on the blog related to my day job, reserving it instead to discuss crime fiction. I'm making an exception for this piece as it's too long for a Facebook post and I've no other suitable place to post it.

I’m finding that managing my workload is becoming increasingly difficult. A big part of the issue is an endless stream of requests for work that extends beyond my usual workload. Since January I’ve been keeping a list of such requests. Here’s a summary table of the number and type of request – the list doesn’t include university business/committees, circular spam requests/calls, already existing board commitments, follow-on requests to re-review, requests for copies of papers/info, requests for reviews of novels, my own journal editing work, and student references.

In total I’ve received 194 new requests in the first 26 weeks of 2017, varying between four and ten a week.

42 paper review
16 grant review (one of which was to undertake 12 site reviews of 2 days each)
3 book proposal review
4 book endorsement
2 review book manuscript
5 academic reference/tenure request
3 PhD external examiner
38 research or media interview/survey/seeking advice
12 contribute paper/chapter
4 write a book
6 work on a project
8 appoint to advisory board
49 speak at workshop/conference
1 be a journal editor
1 visiting prof

That’s a lot of potential additional tasks. In fact, taking on all of it would be a full-time job (and even then would involve overtime!). And I take on a quite a few of them – certainly all of the reference, external examining requests and book endorsements, most of the interviews/advice, about a third of paper reviews, grant reviews, speaking at events, contributing paper/chapter, and membership of advisory boards.  That adds up to a lot of service work. All 194 need some correspondence, even if it’s just to say ‘sorry, I can’t do at present’. 

This weight of expectation raises two main questions. First, what is a reasonable acceptance rate for these requests – in total and across types of requests?  Second, what is the distribution of such requests across all academics – and if it’s as asymmetrical as my anecdotal evidence of asking colleagues suggests, what can be done to re-balance the workload?

With respect to the first, undertaking a commensurate number of reviews to work submitted seems like a reasonable, minimum expectation.  So if one submits two articles in a year, one should expect to review six papers in return. Ditto for grant applications, etc. But is there an upper threshold beyond reciprocity where it’s acceptable to flatly turn down additional review work (say 20 papers in per year)? Or if one is a journal editor managing 50+ papers a year can one forego reviewing for other journals? I certainly generate a lot of reviewing work through submitting papers and grant applications, and I’m often asking people to review for Dialogues in Human Geography or contribute chapters to a book. I have a strong sense of obligation to undertake such work in return. Nonetheless, I’m certainly doing a lot more at present than I’m generating and I’m considering adopting an upper-limit on reviews to make things manageable, and only reviewing papers/grants that closely fit my expertise and I’m interested in. I’m not quite sure though what a reasonable upper-limit might be – suggestions welcome.

My own experiences as an editor and asking colleagues chimes with Stuart Eldon’s observations* concerning the ‘exchange economy of peer review’; that is there is a strong asymmetry in the both the requests for reviews and in the acceptance of doing review work (indeed, my anecdotal evidence is that the ‘decline to review’ rate has increased substantially over the past twenty years). Some people get asked a lot, other infrequently; some do a large number of requested reviews, others decline most requests. Of course, there are reasons as to why there is an asymmetry in requests and why people decline. Editors and agencies tend to favour established networks and those with an established profile. Academics are under increasing pressure within their workplaces with respect to teaching, research and admin. Yet, the entire academic system of evaluation is reliant on reciprocal peer review.

My sense is that journals and grant agencies need to get much better at spreading the additional academic work around. There were nearly 10,000 attendees at this year’s Association of American Geographers conference, probably 6,000+ of which were post-PhD academics. There’s a large number of academic geographers across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia. There is no shortage of potential experts to review work and to participate on boards, etc. One ‘rule’ we used to apply when I was editing Social and Cultural Geography was: the three referees had to come from two or more continents and at least one had to be an early career scholar. We would often also look for a reviewer outside of the discipline. A useful addition might be at least one reviewer located outside of Anglo-America, and to also consider issues of gender and race as well. It would also help to diversify editors beyond Anglo-America, thus gaining their networks of scholars (as well as encouraging a more diverse set of submissions and tackling the hegemony of Anglo-American scholarship in leading journals^). Another ‘rule’ some journals apply is that if you submit an article there is an obligation to undertake three reviews in return; if you don’t fulfil this you cannot submit another article to the same journal. In terms of talk and board invitations, I try and pass many of these on to postdocs and early career scholars to help build their profiles. Again, it would be particularly useful to spread invitations with respect to gender and race.

It would be interesting to see some data from journals as to status, location, etc. of who are being invited to review, the decline rates (and who are more likely to decline), and the extent to which people submitting to a journal are being used as referees; also what policies journals and grant agencies have for recruiting referees and tacking decline rates.

While my list of requests might be a few standard deviations from the norm, there are certainly a number of colleagues who are also dealing with a large number of requests and are doing more than their fair share of additional academic labour. My feeling is that we’re long past the point where we need to proactively tackle who gets asked to do what. I’ll continue to do my share, but I’m going to try and better manage requests. My hope is that I won’t need to say 'no' more often because the load is being shared around more effectively. But I suspect that will only happen if there’s a concerted attempt to modify selection procedures for invitation.

Many thanks to folks who wrote comments on a Facebook post I posted a couple of weeks ago about this issue. I’d welcome more feedback – please post a comment.

* Elden, S. (2008) The exchange economy of peer review. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26: 951-953. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1068/d2606eda

^ Kitchin, R. (2003) Cuestionando y desestabilizando la hegemonia angloamericana y del ingles en geografia. Documents d'Anàlisi Geogràfica 42: 17-36. Reprinted as Disrupting and destabilising Anglo-American and English-language hegemony in Geography in Social and Cultural Geography (2005): 6(1): 1-16.http://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/3878/1/RK__Disrupting_and_destabilizing.pdf

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Picked up a new reading chair in the charity shop yesterday. Needs a bit of touching up but hopefully many years of gently rocking back and forth ahead as the pages turn.

My posts this week:
Review of Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris
Review of The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman
Standing for a month

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Standing for a month

Henry tipped back in the chair and rocked forward.

The heat and humidity was oppressive.

He swatted at a fly crawling up his leg.

‘Janie, fetch me a beer!’

‘Fetch it yourself,’ Janie answered from the kitchen.

‘You’ll do as you’re told or I’ll leather your hide.’

‘You’d have to get you’re fat ass out of that chair first.’

‘If you don’t bring me that beer you’ll not be able to sit down for a week.’

‘Here!’ Janie poured the beer over his bald crown.

Henry flapped. ‘Why, you!’

‘I got you you’re beer, didn’t I!’

‘Make that a month!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Review of Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris (Corvus, 2013)

1947, Glasgow. Former policeman, then army major, now crime journalist Douglas Brodie is living in sin with lawyer, Samantha Campbell. When the Jewish community in the city ask Brodie to investigate a series of burglaries, he agrees, needing the cash. He solves the crime, but the thief is killed before he can be apprehended. In turn, the killer is murdered. Unnerving Brodie and the Jewish community are the evidence of links between the victim and the Nazi regime. In the meantime, Sam is asked to travel to Hamburg to take part in the war crimes trials. Brodie took part in the first trials as an investigator and when Sam is due to return for a second stint he’s asked to accompany her to help prepare the current cases. It’s also an opportunity to examine any link between the concentration camps and Glasgow. What he discovers suggests a conspiracy that will have dramatic repercussions. To help crack the case Brodie joins forces with his old police friend, Danny McRae – a man with his own shady past.

Pilgrim Soul is set in Glasgow and Hamburg in the cold winter of 1947. It charts journalist Douglas Brodie’s investigation into a string of burglaries affecting the city’s large Jewish community, the possible presence of former Nazis in the city, and his participation in war crimes trial in Hamburg having previously been involved in earlier trials when in the British army. There’s much to like about the story. Brodie is an engaging character with an interesting back story. There is a strong sense of place and time, with a nice portrait of Glasgow and its social context. The story is well contextualised with respect to the war crimes trials, including the inclusion of some real life Nazi criminals.  The plot, for the most part, is well crafted and interesting, and there’s a strong, steady pace. For the first two thirds of the book it was a solid five star read, despite one obvious telegraphed plot device. What unsettled the book for me, was the arrival of Brodie’s old, pre-war fellow policeman, Danny McRae. Pilgrim Soul is the third book in the Brodie series, as well as the third in the McRae series. In my view, the intersection of the two series was a problem for two reasons. First, the plotline and denouement attached to McRae creates one too many twists that felt overly contrived and unnecessary. The story would have stood perfectly well on its own without McRae being involved. Second, I’ve not read the previous two McRae books, only the Brodie ones, but I now have a fairly full precis of what happens, including their resolutions that’ll probably ruining any mystery to those books if I read them. Nonetheless, Pilgrim Soul was an entertaining and interesting read.

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