Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Warm but not red hot

A couple of weeks ago I got the results of Jason Duke's 'red hot writing contest', but forgot to pass on the news.  I submitted a Harry and Pete piece - Stakeout.  Got down to the last four, but didn't make top spot or runner-up.  More than happy with that - getting down to the final handful was a nice pat on the back.  The winner was "My Asshole Brother" by Eric Beetner; runner up: "A Long Fall Into Nothing" by John Mantooth.  The other finalist was "Seventy Two Hours or Less" by Michael Solender.  My personal favourite was John Mantooth's piece.  The stories will be published in issue #6 of Crimefactory in November.  Thanks for Jason Duke for running the competition and Paul Brazill for hosting it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

TBR panic (abated)

My TBR pile is getting quite low and a visit to the local bookstore did not turn up anything I fancied that much so I've splashed out and ordered ten new books to quell my rising panic at the thought of running out of reading material I'm in the mood for.  Six of these are authors new to me and the others are 'bankers'.  Hopefully they will arrive shortly so I can get tucked in - can't wait.

Day After Day, Carlo Lucarelli
Raven Black, Ann Cleeves
Devil's Peak, Deon Meyer
Blood of the Wicked, Leighton Gage
The Samaritan's Secret, Matt Rees
Hard Man, Allan Guthrie
Saturday's Child, Ray Banks
The Coroner's Lunch
, Colin Cotterill
Small Crimes, Dave Zeltserman
Needle in a Haystack, Ernesto Mallo

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

Things that make you go 'argggh!' - (1) spending an age trying to get online - I could connect to the ISP for some of today, but not actually do anything - very frustrating.  (2) a promising book unravelling as it proceeds - I posted yesterday about Bangkok Tattoo.  It was all going well until about the halfway mark, then it started to lose focus and by the time the 747s hit the World Trade Centre (a glaring factual error) the story had lost direction and dwindled except for the occassion fizz and interesting insight.  I'm 30 odd pages from the end which means I'll finish it, but it's going to need something special to rescue it from a damp squib of an ending.  We'll see.  I hope something is pulled out of the bag as I thought the first half was excellent.

My posts this week:

Review of The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst
Digging for Gold - short synopsis
The data deficit in Ireland
Opening lines
Value engineering going to lead to urban squalor?
Review of The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza by Lawrence Block
When the cover does its job

Saturday, August 28, 2010

When the cover does its job

I picked up John Burdett's 'Bangkok Tattoo' simply because of its cover - a simple three colour, but striking art work (that wraps round the book).  The back cover blurb then did its job.  I'm about halfway through and so far it's living up to expectations and I'm thoroughly enjoying.  The cover art certainly did its job (and it does have a job to do, though you wouldn't think it given the generic, non-statements of many books). 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Review of The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza by Lawrence Block (No Exit Press, 1980)

Bernie Rhodenbarr is a skilled thief and safe breaker who has semi-retired and runs a rare and secondhand bookstore.  Two doors down, Carolyn Kaiser runs the Poodle Factory dog grooming parlour.  Kaiser is Rhodenbarr’s apprentice, but neither are career criminals, undertaking recreational burglary for the thrill and to pick up a bit of spending money. When Carolyn hears that the rich Colcannon’s are going to be away for a night, the pair decide to visit their swish Manhattan town house.  Only somebody got their first and has trashed the place.  The only pickings left are a semi-valuable print and whatever is in the safe.  What they find are a couple of pieces of jewellery and a single coin.  The next stop is Abel Crowe, holocaust survivor and fence, who identifies the coin as a valuable 1913 nickel, of which only six exist.  The true value is unknown, but a conservative estimate is at least $250,000.  They leave the coin with Crowe, but a short while later he’s murdered.  The question is, who killed him and who has the coin?

Block writes in a confident, easy style.  The premise is interesting in that Rhodenbarr doesn’t consider himself a ‘real’ criminal, but something of an honest rogue who has standards and ethics, and he invites the reader to identify with him and imagine playing a similar role.  The story is well structured and paced, but it feels formulaic and writing by numbers.  As such, I found it a little tired, with the story lacking bite; it all feels a little comfortable and cozy with no edge or tension.  Whilst there is reference to Spinoza and some flirting with philosophy this is a straight-up slice of entertainment.  Perhaps most frustrating plot-wise is a resolution that rests on a marginal coincidence, which is okay, but a little clunky.  What makes the book enjoyable are the characters, the gentle humour and the premise.  Rhodenbarr, Kaiser and Crowe work well together, and the other characters well penned.  Overall, entertaining enough to pass a couple of evenings, but doesn’t set one’s pulse racing.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Opening lines

To continue an occassional series of interesting opening lines, these are from some comic crime novels.

"I was hungry enough to eat the ass end of a skunk."  Out of Time, Katy Munger

"Peace had settled over the city like the skin on a rancid custard." Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men, Colin Batemen

"Paranoia doesn't sleep; a guilty conscience looks over its shoulder forever."  Virgin Heat, Laurence Shames

"I've been a poet and novelist for almost a week now and I am really getting the hang of it."  Dead Organised, Audrey Corr

"The minotaur had been causing trouble far in excess of its literary importance."  Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Short synopsis - Digging for Gold

I've been trying to draft a short synopsis (less then 150 words) for the next McEvoy book, Digging for Gold.  I'm not sure about the title or the synopsis.  I'm trying to get something reasonably snappy, that'll make people want to read on.  I don't know how long I've spent drafting and tweaking it, but I'm at the stage where I'm too close and need some independent feedback.  What do you think?  Okay?  Any suggested edits (or back to the drawing board)?

Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy has got himself ensnared in a tangle of work and women.  Marianne Haas, a Dutch national and estate agent, is found hanging in a client’s house.  Nearby, the remains of a young woman are discovered in a bog.  Along the Irish border, rivalry between fuel smuggling gangs has led to murder and collaboration with a fiery superintendent.  None of the three cases are straightforward and are little helped by the attention of an ambitious journalist and the resistance of local officers to outside help.  To add spice to the mix, McEvoy finds himself flirting with one of his subordinates whilst relying on his lodger to look after his increasingly distant daughter.  Undertaking one case is stressful, managing three and an evermore complex personal life is a potential nightmare.  Rural Ireland is proving to be anything but an idyll.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review of The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (Phoenix 2008)

Jean-Francois Mercier, the French military attaché to pre-war Poland, spends his time sweet talking the Polish military into buying French armaments, running various informants and spies, working the embassy cocktail circuit, and dealing with the internal politics of French military intelligence.  A veteran of the First World War, and contemporary of de Gaulle, Mercier is confident and resourceful.  When he foils the attempted abduction of Edvard Uhl, a German engineer and informant working on tank armament, he creates a hole in his knowledge network.  Uhl has suggested that the Wehrmacht is testing tanks in hilly, forest terrain.  Mercier needs to establish the veracity of the claim as it suggests that if the Germans attack France it will be through the Ardennes, a route deemed impossible by French high command.  Whilst plotting and undertaking his various excursions, he falls in love with a beautiful League of Nations lawyer, who is already in a relationship with a Russian journalist.  With the threat of war looming, Mercier must find a way to uncover the Nazis invasion plans and steal Anna from her present partner.

Furst excels at weaving the humdrum of everyday life through a larger geopolitical story spanning a number of countries.  And so it is with The Spies of Warsaw, which traces the convoluted life of Jean-Francois Mercier in the lead up to the Second World War, and his various dalliances and missions.  The plotting is slow and ponderous at times, and occasionally a little clunky, but Furst works to draw the reader in and tug them along, and as with previous books the narrative is highly informative, detailing the place, social relations and politics of the era.  The characterisation is, for the most part, excellent, though some of the Nazi thugs and French military personnel drift toward caricature at times.  The story itself was quite muted and although the tension should have been ratcheted up at certain points, as Mercier undertook dangerous missions, the narrative really lacked an edge.  The biggest let down, however, was the ending: the book very nearly sailing through the air as I read the last paragraph.  In fact, it would have been a stronger end if that paragraph had been omitted.  Overall, an enjoyable enough read, but not one of his best.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

I started Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell this morning.  It has the longest opening sentence of any novel I can remember and its a doozy.

'You're no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it's been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you're fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin' down with a miserable bluesy beat and there's two girls millin' about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time its three or four Sunday mornin' and you ain't slept since Thursday night and one of the girls voices, the one you want most and ain't had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, 'cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunh of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin' to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.

That's how it happens.

Can't none of this be new to you.'

Can't but help read on, more like.  Cracking stuff.

My posts this week:

Review of The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
A worthwhile dedication
Dublin office supply
Review of Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wlison
Eat, sleep, media

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Eat, Sleep, Media

The BBC have an interesting news item on an Ofcom report.  Their study of 1,138 adults found that the average person is awake for 15 hours and 45 minutes and spends 7 hours and 5 minutes of that engaging in media and communication activities (and nearly 9 hours if you count multitasking).  The leading media is television, with the average adult Brit watching over three and half hours per day.  Print media comes in at 31 minutes per day. Emailing and texting take up 80 mins, and other online media 36 mins.  I thought the following chart was interesting - it maps the distribution of activities over a 24 hour period.

I'm not in line with the average person - I watch less television, spend much more time on print media and email (but not texting) and way more time using other online media.  As for multitasking, I can only cope with one thing at a time!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review of Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wilson (Harper Collins, 1995)

Based in Benin, West Africa, Bruce Medway is in his late thirties and makes a living as ‘fixer’ for traders along the gold coast.  Inevitably he deals with some shady characters and shady transactions and he knows how to look after himself in a society which has a healthy black market and little time for the rules and laws of former colonial masters.  Double-crossed by the fearsome Madame Severnou, Medway is warned off any confrontation by his client, Jack Obuasi, who has a cut in the deal.  Instead Obuasi pushes Medway towards B.B. a businessman who has a problem – the disappearance of Steven Kershaw, a failed financial consultant in London who has come to Africa to get himself back on his feet.  Criss-crossing Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria it doesn’t take long for Medway to pick up Kershaw’s trail – only it seems the expat has murdered a French woman after first torturing her and he’s also wanted by some other dangerous characters.  Joined in the hunt by a local cop, Bagado, Medway continues to search for Kershaw even though he knows he is being drawn into a politically corrupt hornet’s nest.  All the while he’s trying to decide whether to take his relationship with his German aid worker girlfriend, Heike, to the next level.

Wilson writes in an assured style that is strong on description and insight, and Instruments of Darkness captures the complex social and political relations of West Africa and how a white trader and fixer operates within such conditions.  Indeed, the book does a good job of evoking a strong sense of place and people.  The characterisation is, for the most part, good, although sometimes there was a sense of caricature.  I suspect that is because there are no weak characters, in the sense that they all have strong personalities.  The story is probably best described as a thriller, rather than crime novel, and there is a good pace and page turning quality to the narrative.  However, as the book progressed the plot got increasingly convoluted and less believable, and in the end suffered from the same problem as all Bond films – the villains capture the hero, but instead of doing the logical thing of killing him (as with other troublesome characters), they let him live, then he escapes, and lo and behold eventually emerges victorious, and what’s more as they are about to kill him they tell him the whole plot and let him ask questions.  I just kept thinking, why don’t they just kill him?  Regardless of this shortcoming, overall, an enjoyable thriller.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A worthwhile dedication

As part of Patti's Forgotten Friday series I've plucked off the shelf Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.  The task is to write a review of a book that you'd read whilst at College age (18-23).  I went through a Pratchett phase about then.  I started reading last night and will hopefully have it finished by Friday.  I was particularly taken with the dedication, which runs thus:

'They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol.  Whatever their name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into a film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered.  No-one ever asks them if they wanted to.

This book is dedicated to those fine men."

That seems a pretty noble gesture to me - a dedication to the minor characters that know that they're going to be in the narrative for a couple of seconds at best and pay the ultimate sacrifice for the plot.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Review of The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Orion, 2009)

Jack McEvoy is a seasoned reporter with the LA Times covering the crime beat.  The newspaper is in financial trouble and is laying off 100 employees.  Jack’s chips are cashed at number 99 and he’s been given two weeks grace to train his replacement, the ambitious rookie, Angela Cook.  Jack is a pro, and if he’s going, he’s going on a high and the inside track on the life of 16 year old Alonzo Winslow, confessor to rape and murder, seems like the perfect front page story.  Only once Jack starts to probe, he comes to the conclusion that Alonzo is innocent.  Which means that someone else raped and killed the woman found in the car Alonzo had stolen.  McEvoy turns to his former partner, and FBI profiler, Rachel Walling for advice, and Cook, eager to muscle in on Jack’s swansong story, discovers a murder with an almost identical modus operandi in Las Vegas, one in which the ex-husband has been convicted.  Unwittingly, through her internet search, Cook has triggered an alarm and unbeknownst to them, the two journalists turn from hunters to hunted.  On a journey into the desert outside of Vegas, Jack has his first encounter with The Scarecrow, and is saved by Walling.  So begins a cat and mouse game with a killer who seems to know their every move.

Connelly is a crime writing heavyweight and thankfully, unlike some mega-sales writers, his books are generally consistently well written, plotted and entertaining.  His writing is deceptively easy on the eye, honed through years of working as a crime journalist, and he draws extensively on his knowledge of the newspaper business, law enforcement and the legal system to provide, for the most part, a confident degree of realism.  His dialogue is credible and his characters are well drawn.  Where The Scarecrow has a weakness is with respect to the plot.  It is all going fine up until the point where Rachel Walling is introduced, a plot device to hook McEvoy back up with his old partner.  Connelly has a penchant for taking the lead characters from his many books and intersecting their lives, with mixed results.  From here on in, the story becomes a little lame and formulaic with McEvoy and Walling throwing commensense and rationality out the window and The Scarecrow turns into a pretty ordinary serial killer who is caught without too much trouble, albeit through a sequence of events that provides some tension.  Over the years, Connelly has set himself a very high tide mark in quality reading.  The Scarecrow is an entertaining read, but it is certainly not his best work and might disappoint some fans.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

I was meant to be taking two weeks holiday.  What I actually did was work through the copyedits for the Code/Space book, completed the first draft of Digging for Gold, wrote a short story and started another, read a few books, and got no further than driving into town for provisions and walking the dogs round the lanes.  And I'd be happy to do the whole thing again.  Tomorrow will no doubt involve a plunge back into the maelstrom at work as two weeks worth of crap will need shifting off my desk.  Oh, joy.

My posts this week:

Review of The Information Officer by Mark Mills
Digging for Gold
Review of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Watching the detectives
Movie adaptation - No Country for Old Men
Review of Point Blank by Richard Stark

Friday, August 13, 2010

Forgotten Friday: Point Blank (The Hunter) by Richard Stark (Allison and Busby, 1962)

Parker is out for justice.  He’s been doublecrossed, shot by his wife, and left for dead in a house set on fire by his partner after holing up after a successful robbery.  After escaping the blaze he spends time on a chain-gang for vagrancy, before killing a guard and setting off country for revenge and his share of the take.  It doesn’t take long to find his wife or his former partner.  Mal Resnick has used the money to payback the Outfit and buy his way into being a made man.  Parker doesn’t care who has his money, he wants it back, even if he has to take on the whole of New York Outfit to get it.  And if that means that people end up badly injured or dead, well so be it. 

Originally published as The Hunter, Point Blank is the first of 24 novels written by Donald Westlake under the pseudonym, Richard Stark, which mostly concentrate on the Parker character, but four of which focus on a Parker accomplice, Alan Grofield.  Parker’s an interesting character, mainly because he’s so one-dimensional.  He’s a ruthless, thuggish, though by no means dumb, criminal who’s determined to get his way and is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve that, almost exclusively through violence.  There’s very little sentiment or reflection in his actions, and he has his own code of justice, which mainly consists of seeking revenge and compensation against anybody who crosses him, and helping himself to whatever takes his fancy.  Stark’s writing is all tell and no show; like Parker himself, lean and mean, perfectly expressing the dark, amoral underworld in which Parker operates.  The story is compelling, interweaving the story of the doublecross with that of the revenge, and the narrative hurtles along at a terrific pace through its 154 pages.  The only shortcoming was the notable absence - Parker is leaving a trail of destruction in his wake and yet the police, and their efforts to track him down, are missing.  They may have been several steps behind, but they were almost certainly on his trail, and their investigation would have made a solid third leg to the story.  Otherwise, Point Blank, is an entertaining blast of a read.  

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Movie adaptation - No Country for Old Men

Given that I recently read and reviewed No Country for Old Men, I decided to rent the DVD of the film adaptation.  Made by the Coen brothers, the movie is about as faithful a translation of a book as I've seen since for quite a while, with the exception of the ending.  In most scenes the dialogue is word for word from the book and the casting is pretty good.  I'm not sure though how much sense the movie would make to those watching it who had never read the book, as the narrative often lacked context, with scenes involving characters that hadn't been introduced or it clear why they were included.  The movie did fill in one gap missing in the book, but missed a chunk out from the book's ending.  I felt the novel had a relatively weak ending, but movie more so.  I'll try and write the next bit without giving spoilers, but will hopefully make sense to those who have read the book and watched the movie.  If it had stopped at the point where Chigurh walked out the house, that would have worked okay, but to stop where it did seemed to cut things off mid-section and makes little sense for anyone who hasn't read the book as it does not explain who was driving the car or why the accident occured.  Anyway, always interesting to see how a book is adapted for the big screen.  The book was better, but the movie was above average.  

Watching the Detectives

A nice parcel arrived early this afternoon.  We only have the four domestic Irish channels on the TV, so instead of buying more books, I spent my birthday vouchers on some DVDs.  Four box sets - the complete series of Morse, the complete series of Poirot, series 1-5 of Frost, and the 12 episodes of Miss Marple played by Joan Hickson.  186 hours of viewing pleasure as the nights start to get longer (and very good value as they were fraction of the original recommended price).  We've just watched the first Morse, The Dead of Jericho (also the first Morse book I read).  Very superior television.  So, next time there's nothing much worth watching on the box, we can watch some master sleuths at work.  The only thing to beat that is reading a very good book.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (Picador, 2005)

Llewelyn Moss, Vietnam veteran turned welder living with his young wife in a trailer park, discovers a grizzly scene whilst out hunting antelope near the Rio Grande – a drugs transaction gone badly wrong, all the participants dead bar one who is badly injured.  Ignoring the trailer load of heroin, Moss finds he can’t pass over the two million dollars in cash.  Taking it, he knows, will lead to a whole heap of trouble, leaving it defies logic.  Unable to live with his conscience of abandoning a dying man in the desert, Moss makes the mistake of heading back to the scene to help, and so begins a terrifying chase, as both the Mexican drug runners and the American buyers want the money.  But this is no simple chase, as the psychopathic Chigurh tracks Moss across Texas, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.  Sheriff Bell has a lifetime of experience, but in following Chigurh’s trail he comes to realise that America has changed and it’s no country for old men, with different values and comprehension of the world, to be practising law enforcement.

No Country for Old Men is a powerful tale of greed and corruption, a lament to the American dream polluted by drugs and violence. McCarthy writes in a simple, no frills style that is deceptively rich and layered.  It is literary in its construction, but doesn’t resort to long words or complex styling.  Its power is in its voice.  It is storytelling as heard on the back porch or in the local bar by a seasoned raconteur using everyday language.  McCarthy captures the lyricism and cadence of speech and thought, no more so than when he swaps into the narrator’s voice of the increasingly disillusioned Sheriff Bell.  The characterisation is excellent and the plotting is captivating.  My only gripe is that the story becomes a little derailed towards the end, with one discordant jump in the story that lacked explanation, and a general trailing off in the narrative.  Overall, a compelling read that wasn’t quite sustained throughout.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Digging for Gold

As of two hours ago, I have a full first draft of the next McEvoy book.  It's provisionally titled, 'Digging for Gold.'  The story charts the investigations into the deaths of two women in the same area, separated by fifty years.  I'm going to spend the next couple of days working through it, tweaking and tidying, then I'll try and find a couple of beta readers prepared to give a thorough critique.  Hopefully after that comes redrafting and polishing as required.  I'm happy with it so far, and feel its an improvement on the previous two books, but I'll have a better sense of its merits once I've read the whole thing through and had time to reflect.  Anyway, time to walk the dogs.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Review of The Information Officer by Mark Mills (Harper 2009)

Major Max Chadwick is the information officer on Malta during its long siege and aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe.  Part of an upper-class set running the island, his job is to gather information and put a positive spin on it to help raise spirits and maintain cordial relations with the locals.  Whilst having an affair with a submariner’s wife, Max falls for Lillian, the deputy editor of a local newspaper.  But juggling two women is the least of his problems once he becomes aware of a serial killer praying on local women.  It appears that the killer is a British combatant, but high command have little interest in revealing his handiwork for fear of unsettling relations with the Maltese and warn Chadwick off investigating the slayings.  Undeterred, Chadwick starts to secretly hunt for the killer in order to stop him striking again.

The Information Officer is an easy to read, but it has too much show and not enough tell for my tastes.  There is a lot of backstory and details on the history of Malta during the Second World War, all of which was fascinating stuff, but it needed to come out through the story rather than consisting of pages of context.  And I never really warmed to the central characters with the exception of Elliot (an American agent), Mitzi (the submariner's wife) and Busuttil (a local detective).  My big issue, however, was plot, which tries to blend serial killer, esponiage and romance, with a heavy dose of local/foreign ally relations and a history lesson.  It proved a little too much.  I don’t want to give spoilers, but I could not workout why the killer was leaving so many clues; it made little sense.  As was the espionage angle, which was never explained.  And the ending was a let down.  It starts to build to a climax, but just as we’re getting to it, it jumps forward nine years and the reader is given a glossed over version that doesn’t give any details of the rescue and what happens after.  Most frustrating.  Overall, Mills demonstrates that he can write well and give a history lesson, but I found the story wearisome.  Furst, Lawton and Kerr do Second World War crime more convincingly.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Lazy Sunday Service

I've been reading Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow over the past couple of days.  It's got a little daft from the moment Rachel Walling was introduced, but still entertaining.  Connelly seems to have few weak spots - his writing is very easy on the eye, his dialogue is credible, he knows what he's talking about and educates as he plots, and his characters are well drawn.  Occassionally, though, his storyline suffers a little because he wants to draw together his lead characters from different books and then get them to run counter to commonsense and rationality.  Still, there are only a few writers that I consistently return to, and he's one of them.

My posts this week:

Damned statistics
Review of Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason
July reviews
Review of Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McKinty
Turning 40
Country noir
Review of Client by Parnell Hall

Friday, August 6, 2010

Forgotten Friday: Review of Client by Parnell Hall (Onyx, 1991)

Stanley Hastings is an aspiring actor and writer who only does PI work to pay the bills.  What this usually consists of is investigating the circumstances around accidents for which victims are filing a negligence case through the law practice of Rosenberg and Stone.  Then one day a bona fide case is presented to him – a man who wants him to spy on his wife.  Hastings has never been on a stakeout, tailed a suspect or used a gun, but how hard can it be to catch a wife with her new man?  In Hastings case, pretty tough.  And rather than catching her in the act, he’s arrested for her murder.  In order to prove his innocence he’s going to need to improve his detection skills and determine who the real killer is.

I struggled with Client.  It’s a kind of cozy, PI story, where the main character is a bumbling detective who is well out of his depth.  Hall is best when he is writing dialogue, which in places is excellent.  But there is far too little of it in this story and, save for Chief Creely and Richard Rosenberg, there is not enough colour or depth to the characters.  Not a whole lot happens in the first 100 pages – which also has some asides about bad teeth and buying sanitary towels which try to be humorous but fall flat.  In the latter half of the book the plot unfolds in a very straightforward way when it could have benefited from some twists and turns.  Overall, a passable read that needed more dialogue and plot.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Country Noir

I finished No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy a couple of days ago.  Earlier in the year I read Brian Hart's 'Then Came the Evening' and I've become a big fan of Daniel Woodrell (review of The Ones You Do and Winter's Bone).  What links the three?  I think they're all good examples of Country Noir.  What I'm after is other recommendations that fit that genre.  Any suggestions?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Turning 40

I think most people who know me well have thought I've been middle-aged for most of my life; and now I am.  The mid-life crisis must no doubt be getting ready to spring into action.  One of my aims in life was to be retired from academia by the time I reached 40 and be a full-time writer.  Well, here I still am slaving away in the university with 25 more years until retirement (sigh).  At least I have been able to get stuff published, even if I can't make a living from it.  I guess 31 books (if I'm also allowed to count each of the 12 volumes of the encyclopedia as a book) is a decent enough haul.  As a birthday treat I've lined up a Woodrell (Tomato Red), Furst (The Spies of Warsaw) and Connelly (The Scarecrow) [given Inridason and McKinty will also be August reviews, I suspect competition for book of the month is going to be fierce].  Now, if I could write something that was even a decent imitation of their shadows, I'd be a happy man.  Perhaps that endeavour will be the source of the mid-life crisis ...

Review of Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2003)

Michael Forsythe was introduced early to the school of hard knocks growing up in the working class estates of Belfast during the Troubles.  When he’s convicted of benefit fraud, Darkey White, a New York crime boss, pays for his travel to the United States.  To pay back his airfare, Forsythe works for White, running various rackets and scams, tussling with Irish Americans and the rising power of the Dominicans in Harlem and the Bronx.  Quick-witted, fearless, and handy in a tight corner, he makes a strong impression with both Darkey and his girlfriend, Bridget.  Foolishly he starts an affair with the fiery and passionate young woman; an affair that can only bring trouble.  And when the revenge comes it sends Forsythe on a hellish journey from which there seems little hope of return. 

Dead I May Well Be
is a confident, bold and assured debut novel of great depth and storytelling.  Forsythe is a complex and well-drawn character and the rest of the cast are more than mere extras.  The writing is sharp and dark, the plot is rich and thick with political and philosophical insight, as well as violence and pathos, and the story zips along at a cracking pace.  McKinty does a good job of capturing the sights and sounds of pre-Giuliani New York City, and the personal relations within and between gangs.  And the dialogue and narrator’s voice are spot on.  If you’re looking for a hardboiled slice of noir with a fresh voice, then Dead I Well May Be is as good as place to start as you’re likely to get.  What I need right now, is his second novel – I fear they might be addictive.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

July Reviews

My book of the month by a country mile was Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel.  To repeat a part of my review: 'Brodeck’s Report is an extended, multilayered parable which weaves a philosophically and emotionally rich tapestry.  Beautifully crafted and plotted by Claudel, the story engages the reader to reflect on the questions that Brodeck seeks to answer; the kinds of moral ambiguities concerning our sense of belonging, community and interpersonal relations, and the consequences of actions that plague our everyday lives.'

Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta ****
Damnation Street by Andrew Klavan ****
Gallows Lane by Brian McGilloway ***.5
Almost Blue by Carlo Lucarelli ***.5
Vodka Doesn't Freeze by Liah Giarrantano ****
Brodeck's Report by Phillipe Claudel *****
Cogan's Trade by George V Higgins ***
Water-Blue Eyes by Domingo Villar ***
Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista ***

Monday, August 2, 2010

A review of Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason (Harvill Secker 2009; 2007 Icelandic)

A middle-aged woman is found hanging from a beam in her summer cottage, a few metres from Lake Thingvellir.  The woman had long been depressed and the death of her mother two years previously had sent her on a downwards spiral.  The death seems like a straightforward case of suicide.  And yet, Detective Erlunder, senses that something isn’t quite right.  No stranger to loss and depression himself, he starts to piece together her life, undertaking an unofficial investigation in order to understand why she hung herself, confounding his colleagues and upsetting the woman’s husband.  At the same time he takes a look at two unresolved cases, a young man and woman who simply disappeared in the 1970s.  All three deaths inevitably make him reflect on the death of his younger brother in a snowstorm when they were children, which he survived, and his sense of loss and guilt.

Hypothermia is a book that slowly draws you in, wraps a warm blanket around you and envelopes you in intricately woven narrative layers.  Indridson’s skill is in the plotting and pacing of stories; in placing his readers in the landscape and culture of Iceland and capturing the humdrum interweaving of lives, the mundane and everyday conflicts and betrayals, and exploring the small and petty things that people do to each other.  The under-stated narrative is driven by a steady pace and emotional register, rather than high tension or drama, with the same questions about love, loss, guilt and life after death repeated discordantly with respect to the cases Erlunder investigates and his own life.  The result is a book with qualities like a fine wine – a subtle but complex blend of colours, smells and tastes rather than the whiz-bang of a rollercoaster.  Hypothermia is a fine addition to the Erlunder series which has developed into a strong and satisfying set of stories that make perfect reading for wet and windy nights.

Damned Statistics

A short item about our housing review appeared in the Sunday Times (News Review, Section 4, page 10).  It only contained two ‘facts’ both of which were wrong.

“A report published on Thursday warned that it make take 60 years to repair the damage done by over-development and rezoning of land in Ireland during the past decade.”

The report actually says that if the number of households continued to grow at the 1996-2006 rate, there is enough housing stock to last 3.5 years.  There is enough land zoned for residential use to last 13.4 years.  Together there is enough housing and land zoned to last 16.8 years.  The phrase ‘60 years’ is not used anywhere in the report.

“The report also claimed that there are more than 300,000 unwanted properties in Ireland.”

The report actually states that there are over 300,000 vacant homes, including holiday homes, in Ireland with an oversupply of 120,000 units (in excess of an expected base vacancy rate and holiday homes).  Again the phrase ‘unwanted’ is not used anywhere in the report.  The key figure is 120,000 and not all of them are unwanted – there is a huge social housing waiting list.

This isn’t the only example of misreporting and misquoting of our statistics over the past few days, but it makes me very leery of believing any statistic reported in a newspaper and reminded me that one really does need to go to base sources at all times.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sunday after storm

The Prime Time programme aired on Thursday night.  You can watch it online if you're interested.  I was pleased with the final result.  I was worried that it would be cut and spliced to try and produce sensational headlines but they did a nice job of it.  The newspapers managed to find the headlines though and our report got pretty good.coverage in the national broadsheets, including front page and lead editorials.

Irish Times - here, here, here, here
Irish Independent - here, here, here, here
Irish Examiner - here, here, here, here

On Friday I did a number of radio interviews on the national channels, which went okay, I think.  Just one tricky moment when a question sideswiped me (the jist of which was, "Weren't you partly responsible for the crisis since you advised government and you didn't sound the alarm bells earlier? - as it happens we were critical of government policy all through the boom, but no-one was interested, but even if we weren't the idea that we're to partly blame for the crisis seems like a pretty desperate critiique of our report - we didn't set fiscal or planning policy, we didn't zone land, we didn't build houses, etc)..

Off out now to go and see what the Sunday Papers say.

My posts this week:
Review of Tonight I Said Goodbye by Michael Koryta
Review of Damnation Street by Andrew Klavan
The Red Eye
Planning must be built on sustainable foundations