Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review of Fletch by Gregory McDonald (1974, Avon)

Fletch is a twenty seven year old, twice divorced, former marine turned investigative journalist. His present assignment has him living undercover among a strung-out beach community trying to discover the source of the local drug supply. There he’s approached by a multi-millionaire, Alan Stanwyk, who wants him to commit a murder in a few days time then flee with fifty thousand dollars to Buenos Aires. The victim is to be Stanwyk himself. Intrigued, Fletch agrees to the job hoping to close the beach case and quickly get to the bottom of Stanwyk’s proposition.

Fletch is the first in a series of nine books featuring the investigative journalist. In this outing he’s trying to uncover the source of the drugs blighting a beach community and get to the bottom of why Alan Stanwyk wants to be murdered for a fee. It’s a tightly written story, mainly driven by dialogue-heavy encounters, with Fletch working away at both stories through on-the-ground digging and impersonation. While the character might work for some, and is no doubt a fair reflection of a certain kind of man, I found him tiresome and annoying: Fletch is a lying, cheating, conniving, arrogant, self-centred, know-it-all misogynist with dubious morals (he’s sleeping with a fifteen year old drug-addict while working undercover, he’s giving both his ex-wives the run-around, and he’s killed the cat belonging to one of them) – qualities that make him a good journalist but a fairly shitty person. While crime fiction is littered with anti-heroes, they usually have a quality that endears them in some way to the reader. In this case, it's dark humour, but that didn't do sufficient work for me. The result was a kind of lighter-hearted PI tale that had two main strands which work their way to a somewhat inevitable but nicely wrapped up denouement, but had a lead character for whom I couldn’t care less.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Review of The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore (Random House, 2016)

New York, 1888. The economic war to light up America with electricity is raging. Thomas Edison is promoting DC networks and is aggressively protecting his light bulb patent. George Westinghouse has improved the bulb and is rolling out AC networks devised by Nikola Tesla. Edison is suing Westinghouse for a billion dollars and is running a dirty campaign through the media to discredit his rival and using the financial muscle of J.P. Morgan to squeeze his company. Westinghouse turns to a young, untested lawyer, Paul Cravath, a recent graduate of Columbia Law School to represent him. Cravath is ambitious and cunning and he’s willing to fight the hundreds of separate cases Edison has bombarded Westinghouse with. Cravath is playing David to Edison, Westinghouse and Morgan, but he’s tenacious and he’s willing to pursue every avenue in order to win at all costs, including the love of his life, Agnes Huntington, a celebrated opera singer.

The Last Days of Night is a fictionalised story of the battle for control of electricity and lighting supply in America is the late 1880s. There are a number of published factual accounts of the events, as well as biographies of the main actors, but very little about the lawyer at the heart of legal cases, Paul Cravath. Moore sets out to fill this hole through a story centred on the young man, who subsequently invented the present labour structure of law firms and held a number of important society roles. To do so he populates the book with real people and events, speculating as to what was said and done, though in so doing he somewhat alters the timeline for the purposes of the novel and also inserts events that never happened. He’s done this to compress the timeline and create dramatic effect. This is fine in terms of the storytelling, but less so for conveying the historical record, though the broad sweep of the battle and outcome remains. I find this recasting of history a bit unsettling, but parking that feeling Moore does a nice job of bring the characters and events to life and creating a compelling tale of corporate and personal rivalry, with a dash of romance thrown-in. The result is an entertaining and interesting read.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I spent a couple of days last week in Siegen in South Westphalia, Germany at workshop. A nice small city which apparently is the setting for a series of crime novels, though they are only available in German. For once I didn't have a book set in the country of destination and instead worked my way through Defectors by Joseph Kanon.

My posts this week

Review of The City in Darkness by Michael Russell
Something I did

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Something I did

‘Something you ate?’

‘Something I did.’

‘Bad enough to get you running to the toilet every five minutes?’

‘Bad enough I regret it.’


‘So, what?’

‘So, what are you regretting?’

‘Something stupid. It doesn’t matter.’

‘It clearly does.’

‘It really doesn’t.’

‘A problem shared is a problem halved. Maybe I can help?’

‘A problem shared is one that quickly becomes gossip. Especially a problem shared with you.’

‘Ach, that’s not fair, Barry. I’m your best friend.’

‘That’s why I know.’

‘Must be a hell of a regret.’

‘I told you, something stupid. Oh, God, I need to go again.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review of The City in Darkness by Michael Russell (2016, Constable)

The tail end of 1939. The IRA have raided a military arsenal in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. A postman has gone missing in Wicklow. Detective Inspector Stefan Gillespie of the Dublin Special Branch finds himself involved in both cases. In the former, he’s hunting down the perpetrators and the missing weapons, all the while suspecting his boss might have a hand in the raid. In the latter, he’s sent to help with the investigation given the local police are suspects in the disappearance and suspected murder. The postman had a side line in gossip and blackmail and in his possessions is a hint that the tragic accident that led to the death of Gillespie’s wife several years earlier was actually part of a series of four murders. He starts to investigate, with the evidence suggesting a man in Spain might be able to shed some light on the matter. As it happens, the Irish ambassador to Spain requires an escort back to the country, where he is hoping via connections with German intelligence to free Frank Ryan, an Irish man on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War, and Gillespie sets off as his chaperone.

The City in Darkness is the third book in the Stefan Gillespie series set in 1930s/40s Ireland, with jaunts to other locations. In this book, Gillespie suspects his boss of involvement in an IRA raid on a military arsenal and investigates the disappearance of a postman, which segues into an investigation into the death of his wife. The trail leads him to Spain and the old Irish college at Salamanca and to efforts by the Irish ambassador to free Frank Ryan from one of Franco’s prisons. As usual, Russell uses Gillespie’s cases as a way to explore the wider politics and international incidents at the time. In this case, the involvement of Irish forces on both sides in the Spanish civil war, the role of German military intelligence in freeing IRA leader, internal politics between agencies in Ireland, the actions of the IRA during the war, and Ireland’s neutrality. Even the disappearance of the postman was a real event, though Russell spins it into a whole other story line. The result is an murder mystery with an interesting context, a nice sense of place and time, and an engaging plot. It did feel a little contrived in places, with the story shoehorned around real events, though this little detracted from the read. Overall, another good addition to a very good series.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Back to endless drizzle and autumn showers. Graham Moore's The Last Days of Night are helping me while away the hours. The patent war over the light bulb really was a war, conducted between Edison and Westinghouse, with Tesla in the thick of the action. Interesting novelization of true(ish) history.

My posts this week
Review of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham
Review of Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle
It's not your fault

Saturday, September 8, 2018

It's not your fault

‘What did we do to deserve this?’ Maeve looked up for the first time in ten minutes. She brushed away a tear. ‘We always treated him right.’

‘Some are just born bad; that’s all there is to it,’ her sister replied. ‘There’s nothing you could have done.’

‘They were children.’

‘It’s not your fault, Maeve.’

‘He was an awkward child; always getting in trouble. Always falling out with others. And now this. We’ll be blamed. How am I meant …’

‘People will know it’s not your fault.’

‘No, they won’t. We’re his parents. How could it not be our fault?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Review of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham (Orion, 2015)

Fiona Griffiths is recovering from a long-term stint of undercover work and studying for her sergeant’s exam while browsing through cold cases. Two cases take her interest: a seemingly impossible burglary and the death of a security guard ruled as accidental. Just as she starts to poke around she’s pulled back into active service and given the tedious job processing evidence on a rape case. Her bosses, however, allow her to snoop around her cold cases as long as she keeps on top of her main duties. From slight pieces of evidence she manages to pry open chinks that suggest foul play in both cases. Then she discovers another body in a different jurisdiction, a seeming suicide but there are links to the other cases: impossible access and deep-sea cables. Seizing on tenuous links and skirting on or over the edges of police procedure she stitches together a conspiracy worth millions. But who’s going to listen to a lowly detective constable that often seems away with the fairies?

This Thing of Darkness is the fourth book in the Fiona Griffiths series set in Cardiff and South Wales. In this outing, Fiona is back to negotiating life without Buzz, and still struggling with her mental health and with following police procedure and the law. The larger criminal conspiracy that she’s been piecing together across the series comes to the fore, while her family and personal life recede. While working on a rape case, she spends any free time focusing attention on two deaths – one ruled accidental, the other suicide – and a handful of seemingly impossible burglaries. Other officers struggle to see the crimes for what they are, let alone the connections between them, but Fiona has a mind that works laterally and relentlessly. What Fiona sees is a play for millions; a scheme worth killing for. As with the previous books, Bingham does an excellent job at continuing to spin Fiona’s character development and advancing the longer arcs of the series with respect to her personal life (her adoption, her condition, and her criminal father) and her tangle with a set of dodgy Welsh businessmen. The plot is a little convoluted, unspooling and interlinking a handful of plotlines and subplots, and it’s sometimes tricky to see quite how Fiona made her deductions (for me, in solving the rape case), but narrative is so seductively readable and the story highly compelling and entertaining that it barely matters. Another excellent addition to the series.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Review of Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle (Cassava Republic Press, 2016)

Former solicitor turned journalist, Guy Collins, is on assignment in Nigeria to cover the forthcoming elections for a small TV news agency. His first night in Lagos he decides to go to a local club. There’s a commotion outside when a woman’s mutilated body is dumped on the roadside; when Collins goes to investigate he’s arrested along with anyone else near the scene. Rather than being released the local inspector throws him in a cell. Several hours later he’s rescued by Amaka, a woman on a mission to try and protect the lives of prostitutes working in the city. Collins had claimed to be working for the BBC and Amaka can see an opportunity to use him to gain publicity for her cause. Avoiding the police, Amaka and Collins try to discover the identity of the powerful men who use and exploit the city’s prostitutes. Meanwhile some of those forces are involved in a deadly power game, along with an on-going feud with corrupt police who also want to stop Collins reporting anything negative about the country.

Set in Lagos in Nigeria, Adenle’s tale focuses on the plight of a visiting journalist who finds himself out-of-place in the seedy and dangerous underbelly of the city, tangling with corrupt police and politicians and vicious gangs who are involved in prostitution and trading body parts. His journey is guided by a beautiful, well-connected lawyer who is on a mission to improve the safety and lives of the city’s prostitutes and expose corrupt senior figures. Part of the tale concerns trying to protect the country’s reputation by silencing the journalist; no doubt the Nigerian tourist board would similarly like Adenle’s book to disappear given it pulls no punches. Indeed, the tale is fully of violent encounters, sexual exploitation and corruption. The story is a little uneven but engaging and compelling and there’s a strong sense of place. The plot works fine until the latter quarter where it seems to drift a little off-kilter, especially the role of the police in the denouement. As an aside, the title and cover of the French translation Lagos Lady seems more apt than Easy Motion Tourist, which is based on a song title. Overall, an interesting, dark tale of fighting corruption and crime in a city pervaded with both.

Monday, September 3, 2018

August reads

A bumper month of reading and reviews, a couple of which were July reads that slipped over. Also a very good month in terms of enjoyment, with nine being four or more star reads. My standout read though was Eva Dolan's Watch Her Disappear.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes ****
Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard ***
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts ****.5
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson ****
The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman ****.5
Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan *****
Echobeat by Joe Joyce ****.5
Lamentation by Joe Clifford ***.5
The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer ****.5
A Little White Death by John Lawton ****
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell ****.5

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Always good to read fiction set where I'm visiting. I spent Tuesday to Friday in Cardiff, so read Harry Bingham's This Thing of Darkness, much of which was set in the police headquarters, which was the building next door to where I was attending a conference. Nice to match up the geography of the book with the city.

My posts this week
Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Review of Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard
Home truths

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Home truths

Hardy heard a voice he recognized on the other side of a partition.

He was about to join them when a new voice said: ‘Fucking Hardluck is driving me crazy. What the hell’s wrong with him?’

‘He’s always been like that: geek-meets-prat.’

Another added: ‘He’s fucking clueless. And creepy.’

Hardy knew that no boss was beyond critique, but the hostility was a surprise; felt his face flush and a hollowness yawn inside.

No-one said anything in his favour.

‘Hey, guess who’s in the next booth?’

Hardy hurried from the pub; no way he could face them now. Perhaps not ever.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland, 2013)

1931, Chicago. Harper Curtis tumbles into a house in Chicago to find a dead man. The house seems in tune with Harper’s penchant for violence and has set him a task: to travel back and forth through time to kill the shining girls, leaving and collecting objects. 1974 and Harper steps out of the house, finds Kirby Mazrachi and gifts her a plastic toy pony. 1989 he returns to murder her. But against the odds Kirby survives the savage attack. While Harper continues his temporal journey to collect his shining girls, Kirby starts her journey to track down her would-be killer. She enrols as a journalist student and gets a post as an intern at the Sun-Times. Unable to work the crime desk, she asks to be partnered with Dan Velasquez, an ex-crime reporter who also covered her case. She searches the archives to try and find similar cases and also places classified ads looking for clues that’ll point her in the right direction. But the clues she finds don’t seem to make sense.

In The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes takes the serial killer story and gives it a double twist – the killer travels back and forth over a sixty year period to visit and murder his victims, and one of his victims survives his savage attack and turns hunter. The story is told through two main narrative lines: one following Harper Curtis, the killer who has stumbled across a house that seems to direct him to the shining girls and lets him step out into different times to give them gifts as children, then revisit them later to murder them; the other mapping Kirby Mazrachi’s encounters with Harper and her attempts to track him down given that the police have failed to identify and apprehend him. Occasionally a section focuses on another character, such as Kirby’s mother or Dan Velasquez, her mentor at the Sun-Times newspaper where she’s an intern. While Kirby has some depth, Harper is somewhat one-dimensional and lacks back story. The time-shifting plotline works well and Beukes does a good job of it seeming natural rather than a gimmick and blending it into the historical timeline. The story meanders its way temporally through a number of horrific murders to an inevitable denouement, but then ends at the climax with little in the way of wrap-up and closure. Overall, an interesting take on the serial killer trope.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review of Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard (1991, Harper)

Florida judge Bob Gibbs wears his two nicknames – ‘Big’ and ‘Maximum’ – with pride. One is self-proclaimed, the other is what the media have labelled him for his over-zealous use of the longest prison sentence possible. He’s also not averse to using his position to do a little skirt-chasing and pulling favours. One of those favours is to try and scare his wife into leaving using a dead alligator that proves to be alive. He’s also become the target of a former recipient of his harsh sentencing, who happens to be in the charge of probation officer, Kathy Diaz Baker, who is also the subject of Maximum Bob’s lecherous attention. Unwittingly Kathy has found herself trying to stave off the amorous advances of a judge whilst trying to keep him alive, though it does bring her into contact with a handsome cop.

Maximum Bob is part of the Elmore Leonard’s Florida-set screwball noir crime novels, noted for their colourful characters, slightly wacky plots, and snappy dialogue. This outing focuses on a set of related escapades surrounding Judge Bob Gibbs, also known as ‘Maximum Bob’ for his typical sentencing. Gibbs has had enough of his wife, who is possessed by a black girl killed a hundred years before, and decides to get her to leave by playing on her fear of alligators. He’s also chasing after probation officer, Kathy Diaz Baker, and is the target of two criminals who want him dead. Gibbs is not quite as in control as he would like, Diaz has her sights set on someone else, and the criminals are not as smart as they think. As a set-up it’s okay without being compelling. Indeed, my sense was this was a paint-by-numbers Leonard story that was a passable read without having a strong enough hook or characters the reader really reviles or cares for beyond Kathy Diaz Baker. As usual the prose and dialogue was very easy on the eye, but the story is a little flat and never really captured the imagination.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

There should be a list of books that you definitely don't read before travelling to the place it's set, or which the local tourist board would like to ban. I've made a start on Easy Motion Tourist and it fits that bill being concerned with the dark criminal underbelly of Lagos in Nigeria. Not a read for the fainthearted or squeamish. Review in due course.

My posts this week
Review of The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
Review of Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson
Review of The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman