Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Benyon Rees *****
Zoo Station by David Downing ***
The Reapers by John Connolly ***
Go to Helena Handbasket by Donna Moore *****
The Damned Season by Carlo Lucarelli ***
The Price of Darkness by Graham Hurley ****
A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell ***
'Rommel?' 'Gunner Who?' by Spike Milligan ****
The Foreign Correspondence by Alan Furst *****
Queenpin by Megan Abbott ****
Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill ****
All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney ***
A difficult choice, but my book of the month is Matt Benyon Rees' The Collaborator of Bethlehem, which I thought was an excellent debut. As I stated in my review, 'As first novels go, they won’t come much better than this for a reader like me who likes a mix of a strong plot, good characterization and memorable characters, informative contextual history, good pacing, a balanced blend of action and dialogue which lacks overly thick description, and a story that stimulates my interest in a place and an issue and stays with me long after I finish reading it.'
The past three months I've been following a steady pattern of reviews every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That's going to change for a while now that some pressures on my reading time have resurfaced, not least getting two of my own contracted books finished and in the post by the end of October, plus having to read student work and prepare lectures.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
'Capt. Rand and Bombardier Edwards came down, both grinning. Strange, after sticky situations men always grinned, even burst out laughing.'
I thought it interesting that their reaction was one of laughter. In crime fiction the mood of anyone who survives a violent encounter is, I think, almost universally dark, sombre and introspective rather than light and jokey. I'm wondering why that is (assuming my perception is accurate)? Following Milligan's account there should be much more laughter in the genre - either as a stress and mood lightener before a dangerous encounter or as a safety valve afterwards.
Perhaps not enough writers have experienced the situations they write about? Maybe laughter just seems inappropriate or out of place in the narrative and it's tamed or cut out? Maybe the kind of violence and danger in experienced in crime is more personal and harrowing and that suppresses any instinct to joke and laugh? I'm not sure, but it's an observation that has certainly given me pause for thought. Next time I have a character survive a sticky situation I'll have a go at forgetting the impulse to write a gloomy, introspective account and have him/her use their adrenaline to laugh off their fear and see how it turns out.
Monday, September 28, 2009
All the Colours of the Town is what I would call an ‘okay read’. It wiled away a few hours pleasantly enough, but it didn’t bowl me over. In part, I think my ambivalence is partly a matter of taste, something I’m becoming more conscious of as I write reviews. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I prefer relatively fast paced stories, strong on dialogue and action, rather than introspective tales that devote a fair chunk of the narrative to the inner thoughts of the lead voice. All the Colours of the Town has a good sized chunk of introspection, but for me it also has issues with padding and pacing. To take one example of padding, at one point there is a totally unnecessary paragraph describing a hotel cleaning cart. If it were removed, it would make absolutely no difference to the story, so why is it there? There are countless other descriptive passages that are really not needed and add little to the plot. With respect to pacing, the story seems to come in spurts separated with introspective lulls, and the ending is too hurried with one of the central characters falling out of view. For me, I think the book needed tightening up – if it lost 30-40 pages whilst retaining the same plot it would jaunt along at a nice, even pace. That said, the characterisation is fine and the story is interesting enough, and the book provides a contemporary companion of sorts to Stuart Neville’s The Twelve, with a Scottish twist on violence, politicians with shady pasts and Northern Ireland (my review here).
Sunday, September 27, 2009
The A.D.D. Detective - Criminal Brief
A Cool Six Thusand - Detective Beyond Borders
Motivation - Do Some Damage
Ban Ignorance, Not Books - In Reference to Murder
The Regulars - Confessions of a Mystery Novelist
A Gem of a Murder by Carlton Keith - Killer Covers
Hunting Jacques Futrelle by Steven Steinbock - NoirCon
My post this week
Review of The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst
A poor hunt turns good
Review of Queenpin by Megan Abbott
Putting Cartography back on the map
Review of Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill
Saturday Snippet: The Price of Darkness by Graham Hurley
Saturday, September 26, 2009
At last Winter felt firm ground beneath his feet. He explained about the history of the place, all those wars, all that prize money, all the matelots sailing home in triumph after hammering the French. He described the Harbour, HMS Victory, world-class museums in every corner of the dockyard. Then he moved onto the venue itself, Spithead, the biggest stage in the world, a stretch of water made for an event like this.
To be honest, he said, Portsmouth had always raised a bit of a smile on anyone who really knew it. The place had always been full of character but a bit rough, a bit scuzzy. Lately, though, money had been flooding into the city. He told her about the glitzy new shopping developments, the harbourside apartment blocks, the marinas packed with ocean-going yachts. And now, he said, the council had found the bottle to fund the jewel in Pompey's crown, the Spinnaker Tower, five hundred feet of soaring concrete, a fantastic peg on which the city could finally hang its hat.
The Millboork flats lay at the end of the spur motorway to Southampton docks, a gaunt Sixties tower block stuffed full, according to Bazza, with problem families. Rain had pooled on the cracked paving stones outside the main entrance and a spilling wheelie bin, abandoned in the middle of nowhere, was attracting a cloud of squalling seagulls. ...
Winter was gazing up at the flats. The sheer size of the building reminded him of similar blocks in Pompey. Somerstown or Portsea, he thought. Grey lives, grey concrete, grey sky. No wonder half the population had settled for shit television and a freezerful of pizzas.
It's a shame that none of this could be captured on the cover which bears no relation to the story. My review of The Price of Darkness can be found here.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Disco for the Departed is the third book in the Dr Siri series, and the first I've read. It is described on its cover as having ‘comic charm’ and I wouldn’t disagree. Whilst I only laughed out loud a couple of times, I found myself often smiling along to the story and its understated and sly wit. In Siri, Dtui and Mr Geung, Cotterill has fashioned three well drawn characters which are not only very likeable but wholly believable, and the supporting cast were also well depicted. The story is well crafted and plotted, rich in detail and insights, and snakes and twists to a satisfying end. In particular, Cotterill does a good job of setting out the history and geography of Laos in the 1970s without this contextual material swamping or detracting from the story. It is also to his credit that I never once questioned Siri’s shaman abilities; instead I simply accepted it at face value that he could interact with the spirit world. All in all, Disco for the Departed was a very pleasant read and I look forward to reading more of Siri, Dtui and Mr Geung’s adventures.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
At the Annual Symposium in June 2009, Bob Lilley the President of The British Cartographic Society (BCS) gave an overview of the review process the society had taken in light of the slow decline in membership and the increasing marginalisation of cartography as a source of knowledge. The paradox confronting BCS is that in an age of pervasive geospatial information and intelligence and rapid advances in geocomputational techniques and geotechnologies (e.g., GIS, Sat-Nav, LBS, GPS, remote sensing, Web 2.0 applications), cartography seems to be becoming somewhat of a peripheral art and science. Put simply, the new generation of map-makers are often bypassing cartography in favour of tacit knowledge, intuition, and principles drawn from graphic design and information visualization. One of the prime solutions advocated to address these issues was for the BCS, and the cartographic community in general, to reassert the role of cartography as the key provider of geovisual knowledge.
To reverse the fortunes of the BCS, I suggest, one needs to do much more than aggressively and unapologetically reassert cartography as the science of representing the spatial dimensions of the Earth. Instead it is my belief that cartographers need to engage in a reflexive process of thinking through how cartography is philosophically constituted and start a process of re-imagining the theoretical underpinnings of cartography. This rethinking needs to be nothing less than a root and branch review that questions and reconfigures the foundational knowledges of cartography rather than merely tinkering around the edges of established ways of knowing and doing. Such a philosophical engagement is important because how we comprehend cartography shapes how we practice it. That is, the ontological underpinnings of cartography shape its epistemology – the kinds of questions we ask and how we ask them.
Most practicing cartographers understand cartography to be a representational science underpinned by a conventional scientific ontology wherein the world can be objectively and truthfully mapped using scientific techniques that capture and display spatial information. In contrast to sciences such as physics or biology that focus predominately on understanding the world, cartography has become a science of measurement and representation (a science focused on the production of scientific knowledge). The job of cartographers is to effectively and truthfully represent and communicate spatial relations, not to employ the map to interpret the world – that is left to those that use maps. This disjuncture between measurement and the work of the map means that the epistemology of cartography has come to focus on technical questions of mapmaking rather mapping per se or understanding spatial relations more broadly. As a result, a great deal of work has been undertaken to produce rules and standards regarding how spatial information is displayed. This is reflected in the cartographic journals where the vast majority of articles concern the production of maps rather than how maps do work in the world in diverse ways or interpreting what the maps reveal.
In short, as Jeremy Crampton (2003) and Dodge and Kitchin (2007) argue, cartography has become ontical in nature; that is, its foundational underpinnings are fixed and unquestioningly accepted and it evolves through technical rather than philosophical advances. Cartography in these terms develops by asking self-referential, methodological questions that aim to refine and improve how maps are designed and communicate rather than by critically examining the ontological assumptions of what a map is and how it undertakes work in the world. The consequence is that cartography, with the exception of critical cartography, has become intellectually moribund vis-à-vis the rest of the sciences (and it is fair to say that critical cartography is understood and practiced by a very small number of mostly academics and constitutes a marginal set of ideas within the broader cartographic community). Indeed it is telling that the recent BCS symposium did not have a single paper or session devoted to map theory or philosophy.
For cartography to reassert itself as a key discipline in the geospatial age, it is my contention that it needs to do so as a fertile source of ideas rather a storehouse of techniques. That means re-engaging in philosophical debates occurring across the sciences with respect to ontology and epistemology. As Dodge et al. (2009) detail, maps can be conceptualised in a number of ways not simply as representational truths – maps as constructions, inscriptions, proscriptions, actants, performances, practices, and many others. My suspicion is that for those working in GIS, and in particular LBS and Web 2.0 applications, maps are conceived of largely in these ways. They are much more interested in the work a map does and whether it succeeded in its intended aims of helping the person using it to achieve their objective than whether the map conforms to precise scientific standards or how it looks. The map is understood as a form of knowledge that unfolds in practice and actively does work in the world, not as a representational truth.
It is not until cartographers start to think of maps in these ways and to re-think the epistemology of their research and practice that it will become intellectually exciting and stimulating for the new generation of mappers. What that means in practice is an intellectual shift from map-making and how maps communicate information to a much broader notion of cartography that embraces how maps are engaged with and used in practice, often as a means to an end. In this sense the BCS should, at the very least, change its tagline from ‘The Art and Science of Mapmaking’ to ‘The Art and Science of Mapping’. Cartography is much more than making maps. I know that many will argue that cartography is interested in map use, but the point I am trying to make is that this is in a quite different and narrow sense to that expressed in a post-representational approach that conceives of maps in a radically different way (as having no ontological security, brought into being through practices, and being transitory, contingent, and relational in nature, see Dodge and Kitchin 2007).
A strategy that seeks to reassert cartography as a means to tame new mappers and new geotechnologies – to rein them in to follow established rules and standards – seems to me to be doomed to failure. Old traditions that try to discipline and constrain youthful enterprise will always be fighting a losing battle. Instead old traditions are best advised to engage with new ideas and ways of doing things and to find ways to adapt so that they remain relevant and re-establish themselves as a core set of ideas and knowledges. For me, this necessitates a rethinking and re-envisioning of cartography; fresh ways of re-imagining the foundational underpinnings of the discipline that draws it out of its moribund state and makes it an intellectually stimulating for cartographers and puts it on the map for others. Such a rethinking will not be an easy task but it will help cartography evolve and reassert its position as a key geoscience.
Crampton, J. (2003) The Political Mapping of Cyberspace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Dodge, M., Kitchin, R. and Perkins, C. (Eds) (2009) Rethinking Maps: New Frontiers in Cartographic Theory. Routledge, London
Kitchin, R. and Dodge, M. (2007) Rethinking maps. Progress in Human Geography 31(3): 331-344
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Abbott’s writing is in the best traditions of noir – dark, edgy, atmospheric, lyrical. The prose is excellent, the narrative taut, and the dialogue snappy. Queenpin is essentially an in-depth character study of two women and their evolving relationship, and Abbott excels at bringing both women fully to life and one is drawn fully into their worlds. My only quibble is that the book really fails to broaden out beyond the master and apprentice relationship to further contextualise them in the world in which they operate; it would have been good to know more about the nitty-gritty of their jobs, the grip of the mob on the city, the local politics and law, their personal histories, and so on (and hence a four star review; The Foreign Correspondent I reviewed on Monday was excellent at siting an in-depth character study in wider social and political contexts at multiple scales). Like Lucarelli’s The Damned Season I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, Abbott has pared the book back as about as far as it can go without losing the essential plot. As a result, the book is quite slight at 180 pages and I wanted more – much more - there and then! This is writing to savour and I didn’t want it to end. This is the first Megan Abbott book I’ve read and I’m looking forward to reading the others post-haste.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
One thing that strikes me about these covers is that they're all quite different, but with perhaps the exception of the rather generic Frost at Christmas, they're also very good and strong designs. There does seem to be a trend at the minute to have quite generic covers with 'atmospheric' tinted photos that bears no relation to the story (for example, Graham Hurley's The Price of Darkness that I reviewed recently), so these are a welcome change.
I'll be posting a review of Queenpin tomorrow and looking forward to tucking into the others in the coming days (although I'm saving the Frost book until Christmas).
Monday, September 21, 2009
Alan Furst’s stories are thrillers with a small t. They grab and pull you along, but the storytelling is subtle and deep, avoiding melodrama and high tension plotting that often characterise capital T thrillers. They are sumptuous meals of carefully blended tastes, rather than the zip of junk food. And so it is with The Foreign Correspondent. As with all Furst novels, the prose is excellent, the narrative is well structured and textured, and his characters are complex, living multi-dimensional lives that are filled with difficult choices, conflicting emotions, contradictions, and doubts. In particular, Furst is very good at conveying a scene with few words, conjuring a mood, atmosphere, a sense of place or a character in a few sentences; at historically contextualizing the story, and at effortlessly working across scales – small lives and how they fit into a continental landscape of political turmoil. The result is a well told, multi-layered story that hooks you in early and makes you care about the characters and the politics, and at the end leaves you sated and looking forward to next meal at a Michelin starred restaurant. (I’m aware that one of the criticisms of Furst is that his stories have open or ambiguous endings, but for me that’s a plus – I’m tired of nice, neat endings that rarely happen in real life).
Sunday, September 20, 2009
John Steinbeck - Adventures in Writing
A tale of two series - Crime Scraps
Tales from the 62 Bus - Number 3 - Big Beat from Badsville
Not The Lost Symbol - Material Witness
Review of Smoke and Mirrors by Kel Robertson - Sunnie's Book Blog
Dan Fespermann - The Amatuer Spy - International Noir
Hardboileds by Joshua Glenn - Noir Con
Conferences, Part Two - Do Some Damage
Go Honey Lou by Thomas B Dewey - Killer Covers
My post this week
Review of The Price of Darkness by Graham Hurley
Ohio/Kentucky crime fiction
Review of A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
The Global Irish Economic Forum and the Irish Diaspora Strategy
Forgotten Friday: 'Rommel?' 'Gunner Who?' by Spike Milligan
Saturday Snippet: The Reapers by John Connolly
Saturday, September 19, 2009
But no one on either side ever forgot that the law was white. Justice might be blind, but the law wasn’t. Justice was aspirational, but the law was actual. The law was real. It had uniforms, and weapons. It smelled of sweat and tobacco. It drove a big car with a star on the door. White people had justice. Black folks had the law.
The boy understood all of this instinctively. Nobody had been forced to explain it to him. His mama hadn’t sat him down before she died and gone through the subtleties of law versus justice with him as it applied to the black community. As far as anyone was concerned, there wasn’t a black community. There were just blacks. A community implied organization, and there were a great many people who associated organization with threat. Unions organized. Communists organized. Black people did not organize, not here. Maybe elsewhere, and there were those who said that the tide was changing, but not in this town. Here, everything worked fine just the way it was.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Up in Belfast today at the Irish-Scottish Forum for Spatial Planning and writing this in the Lanyon Building at Queen's University of Belfast, one of the signature of buildings of Northern Ireland. I worked in Queens between 1996 and 98 and it's interesting to be back. I'm involved a number of cross-border projects relating to spatial data and planning issues and I travel up to the North usually once a month, but its quite a while since I've been to the university. I have a soft spot for Belfast, but I don't miss Queen's politics in the slightest!
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Earlier in the year I co-organised a two day workshop - Exploring Diaspora Strategies - that bought together 8 countries and the World Bank to discuss how countries protectively engage their diaspora. Resulting from that was a set of reports, including one that used the workshop presentations to think through what lessons Ireland could learn from other countries and to consider what new programmes might be implemented. This report was submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs to feed into their on-going review of diaspora engagement. The Global Irish Economic Forum is a new and welcome initiative through with Ireland can engage with the global Irish business community, but it must be noted that it builds on a broad base of existing engagements - Enterprise Ireland already supports over 60 Irish business networks with over 30,000 members who work to support Irish businesses overseas and form a key social network for the Irish business diaspora. It is this broad base which differentiates Ireland from other countries who have also pursued the business elite route, such as Scotland and Chile, and in my view this is the great strength of Irish policy and should be strengthened and expanded as a priority.
The two tables below, taken from our report, detail the programmes that Ireland presently runs and ones that we think it should consider implementing to build and reinforce its diaspora engagement.
Table 1 – Summary of Irish State supported diaspora policies/programmes
ADMINISTRATIVE SUPPORT APPARATUS FOR OVERSEAS POPULATIONS
* Department of Foreign Affairs – Irish Abroad Unit
* Network of embassies and consulates around the world
* Participation in EU, UN, WHO, OECD and OECD
* Government’s Emigrant Services Advisory Committee (formerly known as Díon)
* Enterprise Ireland and Business Networks
* President’s Office : Moral and Cultural support for engaging the diaspora
INFRASTRUCTURE CONECTING DIASPORA AND HOMELAND
* Emigrant media including Emigrant News Online and RTÉ, plus a plethora of Irish newspapers and radio stations broadcasting online.
* Irish socio-cultural websites such as IrishAbroad.com and Europeanirish.com
* Government supported online services, including Irish Network of Great Britain, * Crosscare Migrant Project and EAN
EXTENDING CITIZENSHIP : PROVISION OF WELFARE SUPPORTS
* Emigrant Support Programme (coordinated by Irish Abroad Unit)
* Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas
* The Department of Education and Science - overseas child abuse victim redress; grants for overseas Irish to attend Irish third level institutions
CULTURE AND SOCIAL BUILDING OF THE DIASPORA INCLUDING TOURISM POLICY
* Ireland’s Cultural Policy and Culture Ireland
* Irish clubs and local organizations abroad
* Worldwide celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day
* Research Centres such as the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies, Irish Diaspora Forum
* Irish University Alumni Societies
* Tourism Ireland
* National Archives of Ireland and Irish Ancestral Research Association
* Emigrant Support Programme community & heritage funding
* The Ireland Funds
* The International Fund for Ireland
* The Atlantic Philanthropies
* Enterprise Ireland, Industrial Development Agency (IDA)
* Specialist Knowledge Networks: the Irish Technology Leadership Group, Biolink USA-Ireland, Techlink UK-Ireland
* Professional Knowledge Networks : Irish Network New York, Irish Network San Francisco, Irish Professional Network of London
* Transnational Business Networks: “Irish-other nationality” business associations
* Global Knowledge Networks: Asia Pacific Ireland Business Forum, The Ireland Funds
Global Irish Economic Forum
* FÁS sponsored international recruitment fairs
* The Department of Social and Family Affairs – funds emigrant advice services (including for returning Irish)
* Crosscare Migrant Project (Emigrant Advice)
* Safe Home programme
* Dept of Environment capital assistance programme
* The Aisling Return to Ireland Project - annual supported holiday to Ireland for long-term, vulnerable Irish in Britain
* IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation) Export Orientation Programme (EOP)
* Ireland’s International Development work (e.g. Irish Aid)
Table 2 – Summary of possible extensions to and new diaspora policies/programmes
ADMINISTRATIVE SUPPORT APPARATUS FOR OVERSEAS POPULATIONS
* Irish State to consider formally appointing the DFA (perhaps IAU) to be co-ordinator of Ireland’s diaspora strategy (a role which critically requires light networking and not a muscular command)
INFRASTRUCTURE CONNECTING DIASPORA AND HOMELAND
* A state-sponsored website portal should be created that provides links to (but not content) all diaspora programmes and the networks/projects that they support and all other sources of information, advice, social and business networking, etc.
* A diaspora forum should be established that meets twice a year – once in Ireland, once abroad – to discuss the relationship between Ireland and its diaspora
* Rewarding diasporeans who make a significant contribution to Ireland and the diaspora through an awards scheme
EXTENDING CITIZENSHIP : PROVISION OF WELFARE SUPPORTS
* IAU budget to be expanded, focus continuing to broaden to other vulnerable Irish abroad including youth, homeless, and undocumented Irish, and geographical reach continuing to widen
CULTURE AND SOCIAL BUILDING OF THE DIASPORA
INCLUDING TOURISM POLICY
* A programme should be developed to help finance websites and Internet ventures that seek to better inform and mobilise the Irish diaspora at different scales
* A dedicated social networking fund should be established
* A homecoming style event should be considered
* The state should consider specific funding for RTE to develop services for the diaspora, including satellite broadcasting abroad
* Extend the Aisling Project, or creating a similar parallel scheme, to enable vulnerable Irish abroad of all ages to visit Ireland
* Invest in and develop genealogical supports for those researching their family tree
* Develop a supported programme of summer schools for higher education students from the diaspora
* Continue promoting the Irish language through language workshops and summer schools organised outside of Ireland, parallel to the Ciste na Gaeilge intensive summer courses
* Develop school curriculum and project materials concerning Ireland and the Irish diaspora suitable for second-level teaching and project work in diaspora communities
* Establish a research programme that creates and populates diaspora community archives, undertakes oral histories, and examines present-day life of the diaspora as a means to stimulate interest in Irish identity and culture. This should be supported by the creation of a diaspora research fund that organisations can apply to support their activities
* A strategy should be formulated to develop philanthropic relationships with non-elite members of the Irish diaspora
* Facilitate the creation of more ITLG type networks, wherein successful Irish entrepreneurs and business leaders are encouraged to invest in and nurture Irish start up companies or existing small-to-medium sized businesses who demonstrate high potential for growth
* Establish networks of other professional groups such as doctors, lawyers, finance, and other producer services
* The state markets specific investment opportunities (including PPPs) in infrastructural projects or specific businesses to diaspora investors
* Implement a highly skilled professional partnering programme
* Implement a scheme similar to GlobalScot and ChileGlobal targeting high achieving diaspora members.
* Implement a student mentoring scheme that places the brightest Irish graduates with top diaspora companies
* Facilitate professional mobility for people of Irish descent, who are not European-Union passport-holders and who are willing to come and work in Ireland, temporarily or permanently, through a special visa regime
* Market developments in Irish education to attract both families with younger children to return as well as children of diasporeans who might wish to return to study in Ireland.
* Extend the possibility to apply for subsidized accommodation to any returnees – beyond the vulnerable elderly diasporeans willing to come back to Ireland targeted by the existing Safe * Home programme – on a temporary basis, so as to give them some time to find suitable housing and/or a job for themselves and their families.
* Host a Homecoming event like Scotland to attract a significant volume of diaspora members to visit Ireland and to encourage them to consider making the move more permanent.
Prepare a ‘welcome back’ package for diaspora visitors that encourages them to consider moving to Ireland.
* Prepare a scheme that eases the relocation of belongings from abroad.
* Develop a scheme that places foreign-national postgraduate students with Irish companies
* Develop new Ireland-Other Country Associations that could help Irish businesses expand into new markets
* Support the work of other countries’ diaspora organisations in Ireland
* Develop a ‘Team Ireland’ ambassadorial scheme that recruits foreign national business people to represent and act on behalf of Ireland
* Work with Irish universities with regard to overseas alumni that might help Irish businesses in local contexts
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Somewhat surprisingly I struggled through A Trace of Smoke. I’ve been thinking about why as it has many of the ingredients that I normally like - good historical context and sense of place, an interesting plot, and a good mix of distinctive characters. After a bit of reflection, I think there are four reasons. First, I found the writing a little flat and pedestrian. Second, the dialogue really didn’t work for me – it’s too formal and stilted. There are very little, if any, colloquialisms, slang, hesitations or stumblings, swearing or personal inflections, and the style of the dialogues doesn’t vary across characters or situations. Third, the book seemed to try and blend romance/cosy with noir, two sub-genres that I think are always destined to make awkward bedfellows. Fourth, I’ve never been a great fan of first person narratives, especially when they try and voice feelings, emotions, automatic reactions and so on. So much of what we do in life is instinctive and habitual, and is rooted in the subconscious, taking place beyond our conscious awareness. We can post-hoc try to rationalise it, but we do not do so at the time. That’s why I think I prefer to read what characters do and say, rather than what they think. People rarely consciously think in stressful situations, they react, and why should it be any different for fiction characters? For me, if first person narratives are to work, then they need to either avoid the conscious voicing of the subconscious or be very subtle in how this voicing occurs. A Trace of Smoke has an explicit voice that I just couldn’t buy into. That all said, and as I’ve already noted, the story is interesting and I think A Trace of Smoke will appeal to many readers and it’s certainly been well reviewed elsewhere. I enjoyed the story, I just struggled with how it was told, and despite all my reservations I would be curious to know what happens to Hannah and Anton next.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
So, can anybody recommend any crime fiction set in Ohio (preferably Columbus) and/or Kentucky (preferably Lexington)? Any suggestions will be gratefully received.
Monday, September 14, 2009
The Price of Darkness is eighth book in the DI Faraday series that also feature DC Paul Winter. If you enjoy carefully researched, well written police procedurals, that always try to raise wider questions about the nature of society then I highly recommend them. In this case, the book examines the nature of careerism, collective betrayal of individuals for the ‘greater good’, property development greed and asset stripping with little thought for those who lose their job and pension, and so-called problem families and youths with little future prospects. The characterization is excellent, and Hurley has a keen eye for dialogue and the complexities and contradictions of how people live their lives, including coppers. He also does a very good job of evoking Portsmouth and placing the reader in its landscape and amongst its people. The storytelling is multi-layered, but Hurley is always fully in control, parcelling out the plot though a well-paced narrative. I have one real quibble with the story, but I won't discuss it here as there's no way of doing so without putting in a spoiler. Admittedly there was a nice twist on the quibble, but I felt it didn’t quite feel right. Regardless, it was a great read and I’ll definitely be back for more.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Defining genres by Bedroom scenes - Big Beat from Badsville
Spotlight on A.S. King - Beth Fish Reads
Review of Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong - Between the Covers
On f**cking detective fiction - Do Some Damage
Scared away - International Crime Authors Reality Check
Bernard Share, The Finner Faction - International Noir
Review of The Complaints by Ian Rankin - BookBag
Jen Westerson on medieval lawlessness - It's a Crime
My posts this week
Review of The Reapers by John Connolly
Well, I wasn't imagining it
Review of Go To Helena Handbasket by Donna Moore
Short story: Trust and Fear
Review of The Damned Season by Carlo Lucarelli
Saturday snippet: The Collaborator of Bethlehem
I missed the Dublin Books 09 crime sessions yesterday. I'm sure they went well. I'll try and get along next year. I was up in Roscommon where I spent the day under a blue sky (for a change) digging a French drain. Muscles I forgot I had are now seeking to go back in hiding.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
He spooned out a helping of fattoush, a Syrian salad of mint, parsley, romaine lettuce and chopped pita bread. He had only to place Maryam’s fattoush in his mouth and the sharpness of her lemon vinaigrette would transport him to a café in the Damascus souk where he had spent many wonderful times in his youth. Maryam hadn’t been there with him, but somehow she seemed to have tasted what he had tasted. It was as though her cooking made a map for him of his life story. It was comforting like a well-bound, old atlas that took your imagination across mountain ranges without the physical exertion, annoyance, and inconvenience of actual travel. He wondered if Louai Abdel Rahman felt the same way about Dima’s cooking. Perhaps he hadn’t been married to her long enough for the taste of her grape leaves to supplant that of his mother’s in his memories of taste and happiness. Omar Yussef thought that, as the fugitive crept home through the dusk, he would have been struggling to concentrate on the dangers around him. A mother’s cooking and its redolence of home was powerful for any Palestinian. He was comforted that at least the boy had died anticipating pleasure.
I'm going to have to get lunch now. My review of The Collaborator of Bethlehem is here.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Review of The Damned Season by Carlo Lucarelli, translated by Michael Reynolds, Europa Editions (2007, in Italian in 1991)
I have pretty much the same issues with the second book in the series as I did with the first, Carte Blanche (reviewed here). I think Lucarelli is a wonderful writer – I love his style and the way the story is told, but the book is simply too thin for me and the story underdeveloped (the book is less than 100 pages long). What I wanted as a reader was the story fleshed out to give more insight into De Luca’s flight and the back story of the area and some of the locals, particularly the various victims and the partisans. As it stands, Lucarelli has pared it back as about as far as it’ll go to tell a relatively complex story. It almost feels like an extended synopsis rather than a dense novella. In addition, the story wasn’t as compelling as the first book, particularly as the ending was so flimsily resolved (they’re looking for a needle in a haystack and they find it straightaway). So at one level, I really admired the writing, but at another I was left a little frustrated. Like the first book, I’m left with the sense that what is an okay novella could have been a minor masterpiece if extended and deepened. That said, I'm compelled to read the final installment to the trilogy.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
‘You have two options, Cathal – jump or be pushed. You can go in your time or mine. It’s up to you.’
‘There … there must be another way.’ It was dark on the balcony, barely underlit by light pollution from the street below, diffused through a fine drizzle. The thin bar of the railing had numbed his buttocks, his feet dangling into thin air, strong hands from behind holding him in place. You could see most of
‘This business is all about trust and fear, Cathal. I don’t trust you. And fear, well that’s what this is about.’
‘I … I … I can change.’
‘No. No you can’t, Cathal. You’re a pathological liar and a junkie. You’ll always be a junkie.’
‘I ... I can. I’ll get you some money. Tomorrow. I’ll get it for you tomorrow.’
‘This isn’t about money, Cathal. It’s about respect. It’s about doing the job assigned to you. It’s about trust. I trusted you to deliver that consignment. It didn’t arrive.’
‘I … I …’ He was shaking now, unable to control his panic.
Neither man spoke for a few moments.
‘Where’s the consignment, Cathal?’
‘I … It’s … I’ll get it for you. I can get it back.’
‘Where is it, Cathal. You want to live, don’t you?’
‘It’s … I can’t.’
‘You can’t? You're more worried about someone else even though the only things keeping you alive at the moment are my hands?’ He jerked Cathal forward whilst holding him in place.
The world shifted in and out of focus. ‘Fuck! Shit … shit. Oh god!’
‘The only god here right now is me. And praying will make fuck all difference. What did you do with the drugs?’
‘I … I … Jesus. Jesus. Please, Jimmy.’
The hands jerked him forward dislodging his bony backside from the railing, but holding him aloft. The soles of his runners scrabbled for purchase on the wire-enforced glass, his hands seeking the railing.
‘Argh … h …. Argh … h. Fuck. Oh, fuck. Please. Please.’
‘The drugs, Cathal.’
‘Me da. Me da’s shed. Behind the bikes.’ It was a release to say it. To let go.
‘Your da?’ The hands dragged Cathal back onto the railing.
‘In his shed.’
‘Why are they in his shed, Cathal?’
‘I … he … we … fuck.’
The hands caught him unawares pitching him forward into the void. The man had expected him to scream, but instead he tumbled silently until a dull thud.
Trust and fear. Reputation was everything.
‘My time,’ he mumbled to himself.
* * *
It took a while for the front door to be opened, light spilling from the hallway onto the driveway to reveal the sodden visitor.
‘How are things?’
‘Like shite. Streets are full of gombeens and fuckheads regardless of how many we put away.’
‘The world is full of gombeens and fuckheads, Tommy; you’re wasting your time. Are you going to invite me or what?’
‘For fuck’s sake.’ He shook his head frustrated. ‘You’ve been pushing your nose into my business, Tommy.’
‘Every guard in the city is trying to stop people from putting your business up their noses.’
‘I want it back.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘He shouldn’t have given it to you.’
‘You drove him to it, Jimmy. All your threats and posturing; he was scared stiff. I was the only person he felt he could trust.’
Jimmy snorted a laugh. Trust and fear. ‘If it ever came out what he was up to it could cause a lot embarrassment. He could go to prison.’
‘Better that path than yours.’
‘There might not be any path once news of the missing consignment reaches my partners.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘That’s life. Some of them are not very forgiving, Tommy. You know how they work.’
‘Look, you better fuck off before you force me to take you down the station.’
‘I don’t think so. Brothers are, after all, brothers.’
‘Stay away from Cathal, Jimmy.’
‘I want the consignment back.’
‘Let me rephrase that. If you don’t give it me back they’re going to kill him.’
‘They’re going to what? He’s your nephew, Jimmy, not some fuckhead hood.’
‘Business is business. They don’t give a fuck that he’s family. I don’t give a fuck! He should have delivered the consignment.’
‘I can’t give it to you.’
‘Not even for your son? It’s just drugs, Tommy. Everyone gets their fix; nobody gets hurt.’
After a long pause Tommy eventually conceded. ‘They’re in the garage.’
Trust and fear.
‘Thank fuck,’ Jimmy muttered.
If that consignment wasn’t delivered he was a dead man.
A distant siren was starting to near.
* * *
Jimmy lifted the trunk of his battered red, 98
‘I always knew you would, Jimmy. I always knew you would.’
Jimmy risked a sideways glance at Doherty. He was a short, wiry man in his early fifties, with salt and pepper hair cut short and stylish wire glasses.
‘It won’t happen again.’
‘I know, Jimmy.’ Doherty turned to face him.
‘There won’t be a problem with the courier either.’
‘I know that as well. You never told me your brother was in the guards, Jimmy.’
Doherty was a head shorter in height but radiated potential violence. His reputation preceded him, and if it didn’t then there was every chance that a smart mouth would discover it first hand. And if Doherty didn’t dish out the pain then his two companions would. Dressed all in black, they were standing off to one side in the deserted factory car park, keeping a close eye on their boss, the smaller of the two casually holding a handgun at his side. The larger bodyguard, his head shaved, had fists the size of turnips that were just as hard. Jimmy had felt their wrath and he had no desire to do so again.
‘Cat got your tongue?’
‘No, Mr Doherty.’
‘He won’t be a problem. We have an understanding.’
‘Even after you pushed his son off the top of the Kilkee flats?’
Jimmy stayed silent.
‘The word is that he thinks Cathal was killed by his brother’s partners.’
‘I … I … look Mr Doherty I think …’
‘Shut the fuck up, Jimmy. The word is that he wants to take revenge on his son’s killer. There seems an obvious solution to me. What do …’
‘Look, Mr Doherty, I think there must be …’
The fist landed firmly in his stomach winding him. A boxer’s punch. Driven home. He folded in half. The knee arrived on cue, rocketing his head back, sending him reeling, skittering backwards trying to stay on his feet.
Doherty danced after him, grabbing him by the hair. ‘Don’t interrupt me Jimmy, y’hear? Ever.’
He tried to nod his head.
‘Yes, Mr Doherty.
‘Good man. So what you think the solution is then Jimmy?’
‘I’ll … I’ll talk to him. Let him know he’s making a mistake.’ He could feel a drip of blood sneaking from his nose, trailing to his upper lip. Instinctively his tongue darted out tasting its coppery tang.
‘And you think he’ll listen to you Jimmy? He’s going to listen to reason when he’s lost his only son?’
‘I … I don’t … I’ll get it sorted Mr Doherty. I got you the consignment back, I can …’
‘And what are you going to say?’ Doherty interrupted. ‘A big boy did it and ran away? He knows he was a junkie. He knows that he was mixed up with you. He knows how he died.’
‘He jumped! I didn’t touch him.’
‘Tell it to St Peter. You put him on the balcony, didn’t you? Hung him over the edge?’
‘I was trying to find out what he did with the consignment,’ Jimmy pleaded.
‘He should never have been trusted with the consignment in the first place!’ Doherty snapped. ‘What the fuck were you playing at?’
‘Jesus, Jimmy, are you slow or something? As I said before, there seems an obvious solution to me. You’ll have two options – jump or be pushed.’
‘Look, Mr Doherty, I’m sure we can find another way.’
‘I don’t think so, Jimmy. Now shut the fuck up or Mac will pop you right now; I can’t stand a man who begs.’
* * *
The view from the balcony was spectacular, the city laid out before him, the Wicklow Mountains rising blue grey in the distance; off to the left was the slate green water of Dublin Bay. He peered over the edge of the rail careful not to put his hands on the graffiti etched wood.
Ten storeys below a group technicians from the Garda Technical Unit surrounded the prone body of his brother. He was lying only feet away from where his son had been found. Fifty metres back a small group of bystanders were congregated behind blue and white crime scene tape, some of them there for the second time in two days. A camera flash popped a couple of times.
What was it his brother used to mutter; his version of the criminal code. ‘Trust and fear, Tommy. It’s all about trust and fear.’ It seemed to him that it was much more about fear; real and imagined.
The message from Jimmy’s death was clear. To him it said, ‘Back off, the person who killed Cathal has paid the appropriate price.’ To the other hoods in the city it let them know the price of failure.
He shook his head slowly. Doherty could go fuck himself.