Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review of Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith (2013, Simon and Schuster)

Investigator Arkady Renko is attending the funeral of murdered billionaire businessman, Grisha Grigorenko, when a protest begins at the cemetery gates for Tania Petrovna, a fearless journalist who supposedly committed suicide.  She cannot be buried on consecrated ground and besides her body has disappeared from the morgue.  Renko is drawn to the protest which is broken up first by a gang of skinheads, then the police.  Tatiana was not the kind of person who would take her own life, but she had plenty of enemies.  Despite being warned off, Renko starts to poke around sure that foul play was involved in the journalist’s death.  He soon comes into possession of a notebook filled with the idiosyncratic codes of a translator whose body was found in sand dunes near to Kaliningrad, home to the Russian Baltic fleet and the world’s largest source of amber.  If there’s an answer to Tatiana’s death, either the notebook or Kaliningrad hold the key, but only if Renko can stay alive.

Tatiana is the eighth book in the Arkady Renko series, the first of which, Gorky Park, was published in 1980.  A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the intervening thirty years, including the demise of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russian oligarchs.  Tatiana focuses on the latter and what seems like the tenuous connection between the deaths of a billionaire and a fearless investigative journalist.  The themes of the dangers of being a journalist in Russia and the corruption existing between state agencies and large businesses was topical and interesting.  However, the set up felt overly contrived and elaborate, hinging on a coded notebook, an odd collective and a state conspiracy, with some of the connections and back story a little sketchy.  Moreover, it made little sense that Arkady is allowed to continue to poke his nose around given the stakes.  That said, the story is nicely written, with a sense of melancholy pervading the prose, and Renko remains an appealing, taciturn, pragmatic and quietly determined investigator.  Overall, an interesting story that felt somewhat contrived and also a little thin.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review of All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye by Christopher Brookmyre (Abacus, 2005)

Jane and Alexis both had events in their teenage years that irrevocably changed their lives.  Whilst enjoying being a punk in Glasgow, Jane became pregnant, married and settled down to a boring married life.  In Canada, Alexis hacked into a classified site and ended up on the run in the South of France working for a shadowy high-tech, private security contractor who does lethal work for hire.  Now forty six and a grandmother, Jane still dreams of being a secret agent, going on dangerous adventures and playing in the casinos of Monte Carlo.  Alexis wants to give up fighting and killing baddies and to go to College.  Both are trapped in their respective lives.  But then Jane’s son Ross, a specialist in non-lethal weapons, disappears.  Alexis’ firm is hired to locate him and they soon form a partnership with Jane, who’s steely determination to track him down means she soon living her James Bond dreams.

Brookmyre’s tales are always good fun, invariably a thriller tale wrapped up in dark humour and spun out as an edgy comic caper.  So it is with All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye, which has a very nice hook about a dour Scottish housewife making a transformation into Lara Croft as a secret agent.  The set-up is very nicely done, as is the unfolding of the plot and the denouement, with the action sequences particularly well conveyed.  As usual, Brookmyre develops a colourful cast of characters, placing them a number of them slightly or fully out of place, and riffing on their interplay.  The result is humour is ever present, though rarely spills over into belly laughs.  The only downside is there is far too much explication and back story, with rambling long passages that added little but padding.  Some judicious editing would have added a little pace and verve.  Overall, an entertaining, well conceived, tongue-in-cheek thriller.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

A busy week reading, making notes, plotting and writing an academic paper.  When I've not been doing that I've had my nose stuck in a novel.  A very nice way to spend a few days.  To replenish the book pile I also ordered Cathi Unsworth's Bad Penny Blues and Shuichi Yoshida's Villain

My posts this week
Review of The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers
Review of The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
Review of Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett
The tide has turned

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The tide has turned

‘Alf, the tide has turned.’

‘It’s still going out.  That last wave didn’t come in as far as the previous one.’

‘Are you sure?’

They were paddling along the edge of the sea, a couple of hundred metres out from the sand dunes.

‘We’re fine.’

Alf took Bessie’s hand and they skirted a jellyfish. 

‘But that area there is filling up with water.’

‘What?  Alf stared back towards the dunes, where a wide expanse of water now lay.



‘We must be on a sandbar.  Come-on ...’

‘But I can’t swim!’

‘... we better head back before we’re stranded.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Review of Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett (1929, Dial Press)

Cesare ‘Rico’ Bandello is an up-and-coming mobster working for Sam Vettori in the Little Italy area of North Chicago.  Given his guile and ruthlessness it’s only a matter of time before he ousts his canny but slothful boss.  While standing up a nightclub on New Year’s Eve Rico shoots an off-duty police captain dead.  The gang go to ground and Rico knows that if everyone keeps their nerve then they can continue to expand their empire.  But with the police applying pressure, it’s only a matter of time until things are bought to a head.

Little Caesar is considered to be the first American gangster novel, highly innovative for the time for its social realism in depicting how a gang was run and organised, their crimes and on-going struggles with the law.  He subsequently converted the book into a screenplay and it was made into a movie (1931), also considered the first classic Gangster film.  In total he wrote over 40 novels and the screenplays for over 50 movies.  The plot for Little Caesar is very linear, telling the story of the rise and fall of a hardnosed, ambitious gangster, who quickly moves up the ranks due to his daring and ruthlessness.  The prose and storytelling is tight and expressive, the pace kept high, and the reader is quickly hooked in through the action sequences punctuated by Rico’s manoeuvrings.  The story lacks the depth and sophistication of later gangster tales, but is nonetheless an interesting and engaging read.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review of The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943, Knopf)

Private investigator Philip Marlowe has been hired by a Los Angeles businessman, Derace Kingsley, to find his wayward wife, Crystal, who’s been absent from their cabin in the mountains for a month.  She’s subsequently sent a telegram saying she’s getting a Mexican divorce and is re-marrying.  More recently Kingsley has received a call from a hotel to say her car has been there for two weeks and he's met the supposed suitor, Chris Lavery, a gigolo, who denied all knowledge of eloping with Crystal.  Given his wife has had a few run-ins with the law, though they’ve always been hushed up, and concerned for her safety and the blowback from any scandal, he wants Marlowe to track her down.  He starts by heading to Lavery’s abode, where the gigolo sticks to his story of brushing-off Crystal, and the doctor’s house opposite attracts his attention after the police are called to move him on.  He then heads to the Kingsley cabin at Puma Point in the mountains, where he discovers the body of a woman in the lake, the wife of the caretaker, who disappeared after he’d had a fling with Crystal the day before she supposedly fled to San Bernadino and onward to Mexico.  The caretaker is arrested for the murder of his wife, but Marlowe isn’t convinced at his guilt and sets off to unravel the case.

The Lady in the Lake is the fourth book in the Philip Marlowe series.  Marlowe’s character as a private detective who can handle folk like a feather when needed, but is more likely to use the edge of his tongue and the back of his hand, is firmly established.  The strength of the book is the plot and Chandler’s storytelling.  The story starts as a missing wife case, quickly becoming a two missing wives case, then a murder investigation after one of them is found at the bottom of a lake.  Whilst the police believe they’ve quickly solved the murder, Marlowe isn’t convinced and he still hasn’t found the first missing wife.  It takes all of his guile and abrasiveness to finally locate her and solve the puzzle, and the denouement is very satisfying as Chandler reveals a perfectly logical, but well camouflaged, twist.  The characterisation and their interactions is well done and Chandler nicely portrays and passes comment on the social relations and police corruption of the time.  Overall, a superior PI tale from one of the genre’s masters.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review of The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers (1945, re-issued by 280Steps 2014)

In an impulsive moment, Inis St Erme, a rich investor, and Elinor Darrie, a receptionist in an insurance company, decide to get married.  Unable to tie the knot in New York without waiting a few days for a license they borrow a car to drive to Vermont.  On the way they pick up a hitchhiker and stop for a picnic on a lonely road.  St Erme and the hitchhiker get into a fight, the latter apparently mortally wounding the investor before bundling him into the car and speeding off.  On its journey the car knocks down and kills another man and runs over a dog.  Yet the vehicle never reaches Dr Riddle whose car has broken down on the first junction on the road.  And when they do find St Erme’s body he is missing his right hand.  To the police and Riddle the case makes little sense and nor do any of the clues, then those connected to the investigation also start to fall victim to the killer.

The Red Right Hand is a convoluted whodunnit penned by Joel Townsley Rogers, best known as a prolific short story writer.  Rogers’ aim seems to have been to a tell a tale that is as full as possible with feints, sleights, red herrings, twists and turns, and contradictory evidence, as Dr Henry Riddle recounts the story of an eloping young couple who pick up a hitchhiker on a lonely road, the resulting murder, and the investigation that leads to other deaths.  The set-up is kind of an open-air locked room mystery, with the killer seemingly managing to escape along a blocked road.  The story is narrated almost as a stream of consciousness by Riddle, but it’s not always clear how reliable his narration is, and his account sometimes rambles on through some amazingly long sentences, with dozens of sub-clauses.  Whilst the plot is complex and clever -- the denouement is a wonderfully piece of storytelling -- it relies on a whole series of coincidences, a couple of which are more than a little fantastical (as the story is told they seem odd but work to place doubt into the reader’s mind; when looking back after the resolution they make no sense).  The result is a story where the reader is aware that the tale will only work if they become duplicit in the charade, suspending any kind of realism and continue knowing that they cannot believe anything until the final few pages.  The Red Right Hand is an undoubtedly clever book, but the coincidences and knowing cleverness just didn’t quite work for me despite all the plaudits that have been heaped on it over the years.  Nonetheless, worth a read for the sheer gusto of the plot.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I popped into the local bookshop yesterday to see if the last part of an order had come in.  It hadn't, so I started to browse the shelves.  In the end I came away with Adrian McKinty's new standalone, The Sun is God, and Martin Cruz Smith's, Tatiana.  Expect reviews shortly.

My posts this week
Review of The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz
Launch of Last Kiss by Louise Phillips
Required housing supply estimates and creating supply
Review of Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson
Gone fishing

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gone fishing

‘I’ve seen Brokeback Mountain, what am I meant to think when two men go fishing all day?’

‘That they’ve gone fishing?’

‘That lasts an hour or so, then they’re bored silly, then they’re skinny dipping, then rolling around on the bank using a different kind of rod.’

‘That sounds more like what you’d want to happen if he took you!’

‘It would be more fun than fishing!  What’s the fun in trying to outwit a trout?’

‘More of a challenge than staying at home to do so?’

‘Oi, you cheeky bitch!  God, I could lie on this beach all day.’ 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review of Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson (Tyrus Books, 2014)

Boo Malone and his best friend, Junior, survived the hell of St Gabriel’s Home for Boys.  They now run their own company, 4DC (Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap), providing security for a handful of grungy pubs/nightclubs.  Boo and Junior mostly work the door and floor of The Cellar, a hangout for misfits, policing antics with a mix of banter and menace.  Occasionally things get out of hand, in part due to Boo’s anger management issues, but mostly they coast along.  Then they are hired to find Cassandra, a runaway misfit teenager whose politically powerful father wants her found before any scandal reflects onto him.  Seduced by a large fee, Boo and Junior take the job.  It soon becomes clear that Cassandra has fallen into dangerous hands and Boo becomes fixated on finding and saving her whatever the cost.

Hard Bounce is a hardboiled noir tale of friendship, exploitation, violence and compassion.  Robinson writes in tight, expressive prose, capturing the dark world of Boo and Junior, two men who survived growing up as orphans in boy’s home and now eke out a living running their own security company bouncing pubs/nightclubs.  There is a good dynamic between Boo and Junior and the characterisation through is nicely developed.  Boo, in particular, is well portrayed, a large, hard man with anger management and self-loathing issues, haunted by his past and concerns as to what happened to his sister after the death of his parents.  The plot is a typical PI tale concerning the hunt for a misfit, rich kid who’s disappeared into Boston’s underbelly, but the twist is that Boo and Junior are bouncers, not detectives.  What they do have, however, is an inside track on Boston’s darker side, street wits, and a set of tight friends.  The theme around underage sexual exploitation is dark, but so is that world.  Boo’s single-mindedness and his refusal to share information or seek help is pushed to an extreme perhaps, but worked as a plot device to ratchet up the tension.  The real pleasure of the story is Boo and Junior’s banter and friendship and tracking them through their dark and lethal adventure.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Launch of Last Kiss by Louise Phillips

The third installment of Louise Phillips series featuring criminal psychologist, Dr Kate Pearson, is launched on August 12th, 6.30pm in Eason's in St Stephen's Green Shopping Centre.  If you're in Dublin then I'm sure she'd be delighted to see you there to set Last Kiss off into the world.  The first two books were both shortlisted for the Irish crime novel of the year, the second, The Doll's House, winning the award in 2013.  Here's the blurb for Last Kiss.

In a quiet suburb, a woman desperately clings to her sanity as a shadowy presence moves objects around her home.
In a hotel room across the city, an art dealer with a dubious sexual past is found butchered, his body arranged to mimic the Hangman card from the Tarot deck.
But what connects them?
When criminal psychologist Dr Kate Pearson is brought in to help investigate the murder, she finds herself plunged into a web of sexual power and evil which spreads from Dublin to Paris, and then to Rome.
Will Kate discover the identity of the killer before it's too late to protect the innocent? But what separates the innocent from the guilty when the sins of the past can never be forgotten?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Review of The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz (2007, Simon and Schuster)

Isabel Spellman is 28, lives in San Francisco, and has worked for her parent’s PI company, Spellman Investigations since she was 12.  In contrast to her near-perfect older brother, Izzy was a rebellious teenager, in trouble with the law several times, and a constant headache for her parents.  She still ploughs her own furrow, constantly battling with her family, especially her mother and younger sister, Rae, and cycles through boyfriends on a fairly regular basis.  Knowing how to snoop into someone’s life, to tail them covertly, and to pick locks and to break and enter has its positives and negatives.  Living in a family with the same skills, who also possess devious and manipulative streaks, can be a nightmare.  Izzy has finally reached the end of the line - she wants out of the family house and business.  Her parents reluctantly agree, but will only provide a reference if she solves one last case; the most difficult one on their books. 

I ordered The Spellman Files as it had been described to me fitting into the ‘tart noir’ sub-genre.  When the book arrived the cover conveyed ‘chick-lit’ and I wasn’t at sure the book would be to my taste.  Thankfully the cover is somewhat misleading, especially since the main character, Izzy, is more likely to dress like a Nirvana fan than a lead character in Sex in the City.  That said, The Spellman Files is kind-of Bridget Jones as private investigator.  The result is a humorous tale of family in-fighting, failed romances, and a difficult cold case.  The real strength of the book is the characterisation of idiosyncratic and somewhat dysfunctional Spellman family, who run a detective agency and know all manner of spying and tracking tricks, and their various interactions and escapades.  The cold case Izzy is working on is interesting and has a nice resolution, and to provide context, Lutz slots in a lot of back story via a series of entertaining side tales.  Overall, an enjoyable, well told story that is more than a chick-lit foray into crime fiction.

Monday, August 4, 2014

July reviews

July proved to be a quite varied month of reading - from dinosaurs working as PIs to political satire to cross-dressing amateur sleuth to the Russian front to a PI tale told from a dog's perspective to spies in postwar Washington.  My read of the month, however, was a gritty police procedural set in Peterborough and its surrounds by Eva Dolan.

Crossword Ends in Violence (5) by James Cary ***.5
Casual Rex by Eric Garcia ***.5
Cross of Iron by Willi Heinrich *****
Summertime, All the Cats are Bored by Philippe Georget ***
Washington Shadow by Aly Monroe ***.5
The Carrier by Preston Lang ***.5
Long Way Home by Eva Dolan *****
Dog On It by Spencer Quinn ****
Nice Try by Shane Maloney ***.5
The Gigolo Murder by Mehmet Murat Somer ****

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

If you're a book blogger or reviewer and fancy an ARC of my new novel Stumped then 280Steps has posted details on how to obtain a copy.  The story is a screwball noir set in Ireland. 

On other news, I can officially announce that I hate the flu.

My posts this week
Review of Grind Joint by Dana King
New Paper: Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work
Review of Crossword Ends in Violence (5) by James Cary
Review of Casual Rex by Eric Garcia

Saturday, August 2, 2014

My name’s Marie

Marie sauntered into the site portacabin.  Five men were seated at two tables, a hot-water urn steamed in the corner.

‘Howya doing, Rosie?’ said a thick-necked man.

‘My name’s, Marie.’ 

‘This is no place for a pretty woman named Marie.  Convent’s over on James Street.’

One of the other men laughed.

‘You’ve nothing to giggle about, lard-ass.  I’m a much better lay than you: bricks and bed.’

‘What are you?  Some kind of lego whore?’ thick-neck said.

The roundhouse kick sent him tumbling to the floor, out cold.

Marie headed to the urn.  ‘Anyone else want to test my patience?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.