Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Please pass me some aspirin

Everyone in Ireland has known for quite some time that the Celtic Tiger party is long over. Property prices are down c.50% on the peak, unemployment has risen from under 5% to just under 13%, public sector take home pay is down 15-20%, etc. What we weren't sure about is the size of the banking hangover and how long its going its going to give us a financial headache. The picture is starting to become a little clearer, although its still a little hazy and will probably stay that way for some time yet.

Yesterday turned into a 'Super Tuesday' where one big headline followed another, and opposition politicians and the general public were sent reeling at the scale of the banking problem (see here for an overview and also the blogs, and IrelandAfterNAMA). Not only is NAMA (the new toxic bank) taking €81 billion euros of property loans off the banks for a cost of c.€46b (c.47% haircut), but a huge programme of recapitalisation is taking place, which in effect is nationalising the banks. So far over €33b has been committed to recapitalisation, and the need for another €10b already flagged. That's c.€89b in bailout monies in a country consisting of 4.5m people (c.€20,000 per person). The US bank bailout was $700b (€517b) with a population of 340m people (c.€1,520 per person).

The taxpayer is now footing the bill for the excess of the bankers and property developers, and it's going to take a generation to pay off (even if NAMA does manage to recover its debts). Someone please pass me some aspirin, we're suffering from one hell of a collective hangover.

There has to be a few good crime stories to written about this mess.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (Alfred Knopf, 1934)

Frank Chambers drifts through life, hustling here and there, always moving on from trouble. And he finds it with Cora Papadakis, a woman’s who dream of a good life in Hollywood has ended with her being married to a Greek garage and roadside cafe owner, Nick. Nick hires Frank as a mechanic and it doesn’t take long for Frank and Cora to start a torrid affair, and not much longer for them to start plotting the perfect murder of Nick. But committing murder is not as straightforward as it seems in theory …

The Postman Always Rings Twice is the second of the classic crime fiction curriculum challenge books I’ve read. While the story is quite short (89 pages in the edition I read), it packs a powerful punch. It’s a long time since I’ve read a novel, where my first action on finishing it is to go back to the beginning and start again. It really is that good and certainly one the best stories I’ve read since Hans Fallada’s, Alone in Berlin (my favourite read last year). And it has much in common with Fallada’s masterpiece, having a small cast of principal characters, a very well plotted, credible and clever story, and a noir sensibility that leaves the reader emotionally drained by the end. The writing is tight, thin on thick description, and proceeding through a series of nicely judged scenes that documents a fatal attraction and its consequences. And it’s clear as to why readers of this blog voted it an essential classic crime fiction read. A powerful book, that’s worth reading twice.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Well if you could see the stars, then ...

I'm a regular visitor to Armagh, as it's home to the International Centre for Local and Regional Development. I'm here today and tomorrow discussing cross-border spatial planning (the coordination and planning of shared infrastructure and services for mutual benefit). Armagh is a very nice small town, with two cathedrals, a lovely Georgian square, and a worldclass observatory where 25 scientists work studying the heavens. It has to be one of the oddest places to site an observatory. As I write it is lashing rain. There are clear skies suitable for star gazing about 30 days a year. It doesn't seem to hamper the work much. The observatory has been here since 1790 and seems to be going strong. If you're ever passing through, it's well worth a visit. (There would be an image to accompany this post, but blogger is refusing to unload one - click on the link to take a tour).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Lazy Sunday Service

The final version of the proofs for The White Gallows will be sent back to the publisher this evening and the manuscript should be forwarded to the printers tomorrow. It's going to be tight to get copies for the London Book Fair, April 19-21, but hopefully it'll all go to plan. I've now also booked my flights to attend the LBF. I'm looking forward to having a nose around and seeing what's going on in the industry at the minute.

My posts this week:
Representative democracy is breaking down?
The mirror's this way
Review of The Complaints by Ian Rankin
It's very good, but it's not good enough
Finding the floor
Review of Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review of Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North by Stuart Maconie (Ebury Press, 2007)

I bought Pies and Prejudice as an impulse buy when travelling through Manchester Airport a week ago. Like Maconie I’m a northern exile and the opening few pages were entertaining enough. The basic premise is that Macione heads north from his new southern life of sun-dried tomatoes and his cappuccino machine to discover what makes the north what it is, why it differs from the south of Britain, and to rediscover his inner northerner. He starts by stating that he’d ‘like to think that it could be enjoyed by the fine people of the south too’ and then launches into a broadside against the south and its people. It’s a curious way to start a book about the north – the first 30 pages discussing the shortcomings of the south. It then moves onto Crewe, a kind of frontier town, not quite the midlands, not quite the north, before finally arriving at the north proper. And when he does arrive, what we get are his observational notes describing the place he’s visiting, a couple of anecdotes, and one or two abbreviated historical stories.

One can get a sense of a place through its geography and history, but what is crucially missing from the narrative are people. There are a couple of thin anecdotes, but one never meets the people of the north. Maconie describes the people he sees, but we barely get a snippet of a conversation (mainly because he doesn’t actually talk to them – he sits in a pub or café or wanders a street, but doesn’t engage those around him other than when he is served), and of the very few voices reported (often people he already knows) none of them are asked what makes the north, the north, or what makes them a northerner or a Geordie or Scouser, or what it is like to live in a place, etc. Surely one of the key things that makes the north, the north, is its people? It’s as if he’s wandered around, often visiting a place for just a couple of hours, and that was enough to form a coherent impression. It leads to a strangely anaemic read. Having waded to the end, I’m no wiser about the north than when I started, although I know Maconie likes pies and is happy to dole out his prejudices. Travel writing is about people and place. It’s a shame we never met the people.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's very good, but its not quite good enough

I'm having one of those weeks. I've been slaving away trying to get a large European Research Council grant application completed. It's taken me an absolute age to put the thing together as it really needs to be spot on given the chances of being awarded it are 2-5 percent. I had some feedback on the preliminary draft this morning. The verdict, 'it's very good, but its not quite good enough'. Rather than a bit of tweaking, the proffered solution (and unfortunately I agree with the assessment), is a fundamental rewrite and restructing. I've spent all day at it. I suspect it is becoming poorer with each draft. I had this problem with a story once. In striving for perfection it just got worse and worse and ended up in the bin. I'd have been better off leaving it alone. I'd be happy with very good, but its not the top 2-5%, is it? So, once again, it's back to a clean sheet.

Does anybody have any top tips for dealing with this kind of issue? All advice gratefully received ...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review of The Complaints by Ian Rankin (Orion, 2009)

Malcolm Fox works for the Conduct and Complaints section, the police unit that investigates other cops. Almost universally disliked, Fox and his colleagues run a small, tight ship, and expect little help or friendliness from the colleagues of those they investigate. Having just managed to wrap-up a case against Glenn Heaton, a cop who bends the rules to get results, Fox is asked to start an investigation into the conduct of Jamie Breck, a cop in the same team as Heaton suspected of purchasing online child porn. Almost immediately the partner of his sister, a man who has recently broken her arm in a row, is found beaten to death, and to complicate things Breck is part of the team investigating his murder, with Heaton’s boss in overall command. Fox starts to bend the rules himself, befriending Breck, unable to trust the other cops to do a good job, especially as they seem to be using the case to get at him. Soon, Fox has the tables turned on him, suspended from duty, along with Breck, and subject of a conduct investigation. Unsure who to trust, Fox needs to clear his name and find the killer of his sister’s partner.

Rankin is a skilled author, who seems to write effortlessly. Well plotted and structured, with workmanlike prose, the pages flip past. Very quickly, the reader is immersed in Fox’s world, his backstory, his relationships with family and key actors, and the city he lives and works in. As with Rankin’s previous books, Edinburgh is a character in itself – its geography, history and sense of place. The Complaints is an entertaining read, engaging with the present economic crisis and the downturn in the property market. As I posted a couple of days ago, my only real quibble was the core characters; I didn’t really take to any of them, especially in the first half of the book. I slightly warmed to Fox in the final quarter, but I didn’t find myself rooting for him in the same way as Rebus and Siobhan Clarke. That said, I will almost certainly read the next Rankin novel to feature Fox and ‘the complaints’ section.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Lazy Sunday Service

A slow week of writing and reading posts (my reader is telling me I've several hundred unread posts, that are going to unfortunately remain that way). I've been travelling and trying to get other things done. I haven't yet made my final decision on the cover, but having swung backwards and forwards between them, I'm slowing coming round to the second one (darker at the top), mainly because it makes more sense in literal terms and it also ties more with how the noose is found in the story (by a person staring up into the branches at dusk). No doubt I'll change my mind again by tomorrow.

My posts this week:
Are there any reasons why we shouldn't be cynical?
Disinvestment in education is the path to the innovation island?
Review of Devil's Food by Anthony Bruno
Review of Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre
Final decision on cover
Does a story have to have likeable characters?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Does a story have to have likeable characters?

I'm nearing the end of Ian Rankin's, 'The Complaints'. I'll post my review early next week. Rankin, as per usual, has produced a solid, well plotted story that engages with a contemporary issue - in this case, the property crash in the wake of the financial crisis. And once again, there is a strong sense of place, with geography of Edinburgh shining through. That said, I found that I wasn't enjoying it as much as I thought I should. I'm a fan of Rankin's work and this seemed to have all the right ingredients. Then after a while it struck me - I either didn't like, or was ambivalent about, all the main characters. I had the same issue with John McFetridge's, 'Dirty Sweet'. A well written, well plotted story that featured morally ambiguous characters that I struggled to take a shine to (and I suspect I was never meant to; that was the point). It's an interesting approach, but as a reader it means there's no-one to identify with or to root for which, for me personally, leads to a slight alienation; a distancing or disconnection from the story.

Which brings me my question - does a story have to have at least one likeable character? A plucky hero, a lovable rogue, a flawed but moral maverick, etc. for it to work optimally? Or can all the characters be unlikeable and story still work just fine?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Final decision on cover

The designer has sent me two, slightly different versions of the cover design for The White Gallows. I now need to make a decision. I've shown them to a couple of people and I have a split vote, so I'm hoping you might push me towards the one that you think is the stronger cover (and I appreciate there's not much difference in this - fade out at the top, of fade across the middle). I'm particularly pleased that they have used my photos of choice for both the front and back cover. So, what do you think? Or perhaps it doesn't matter?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review of Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Operation Mincemeat tells the true story of how the British deceived the Germans into believing that the massing of troops in the Mediterranean, and scheduled for an invasion of Sicily, were actually going to invade Sardinia and Greece. Billed as ‘the most successful wartime deception ever attempted’, and undoubtedly saving many thousands of allies lives, Macintyre charts the operation from its initial conception through to when a film version of the story, The Man Who Never Was, was made post-war.

The ruse was relatively straightforward. Take a fresh corpse, dress it in the uniform of a British soldier, attach a briefcase containing supposed confidential correspondence, drop the body into the sea a few hundred metres from a Spanish beach, wait for the Spaniards to discover the body and the secret documents and for them to give copies to the Germans, and make a bit of a flap to appear as if most distressed at the unfolding events. It was an idea lifted by a future novelist, Ian Fleming, from a crime novel by Basil Thomson, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937). It was then developed by Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, and approved for implementation by crime novelist, John Masterman. A key player in its unfolding was Alan Hillgarth, the naval attaché in Madrid, and another crime novelist. It seems that war gave some novelists the opportunity to use their imagination in creative ways and to live out their fantasies.

I picked up the book as an impulse buy, mainly because I’d enjoyed one of Macintyre’s other books, Agent Zigzag. Macintyre is strong at providing a readable historical narrative, that does not get too bogged down in factual description, nor strays too close to seemingly like fiction. Operation Mincemeat does a good job at weaving together the biographies of several principal characters, and structuring the story so that it maintains interest. There is a little repetition in places, and sometimes the narrative does drift along some unnecessary sidelines, but generally the book does a good job explaining the unfolding of events and painting a picture of its main protagonists.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review of Devil’s Food by Anthony Bruno (Forge, 1997)

Responsible for letting a prison riot get out of hand, its been a long descent from deputy warden for Loretta Kovacs. Now she is at the last chance saloon – the jump squad, aka the New Jersey Parole Violators Search Unit. Single, overweight and still anxious after her ordeal of being tortured by a prisoner, she’s determined to hold down the job, taking night classes to get into law school. Her first case is a make or break deal: failure to track down and recapture Martha Lee Spooner - a savvy embezzeler who’s skipped bail and run off with a biker gang's money - she’s out of a job. Her partner, Frank Marvelli has other things on his mind though, namely the health of his wife, dying from cancer. They soon discover that Spooner is in Florida, working at a scam at the WeightAway resort, a place where fat people pay to be tortured for not being thin; a place that holds bad memories for Kovacs. After a bit of persuasion Marvelli agrees to travel to Florida, but only for one night. But Kovacs and Marvelli are not the only people after Spooner; the Feds also have her in their sights and so do the biker gang.

Devil’s Food is a comic crime caper and a fun read. With an oddball set of characters, a slightly screwball plot, snappy dialogue, it rattles along at a quick pace. The first couple of chapters were excellent, before it settles down into a mostly solid read, occasionally sparking back into top form. There are a couple of places where the plot becomes a little threadbare or overly farcical, but they soon pass. The condition of Marvelli’s wife adds a welcome slice of pathos to contrast with some of the madcap action, but nonetheless I spent a lot of time reading with a smirk on my face and occasionally guffawing aloud. Overall, an enjoyable piece of non-weighty reading that provided a bit of much needed light relief.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Lazy Sunday Service

A very hectic week, which at least ended with the proofs for The White Gallows being put in the post on Friday afternoon. I probably should have sent them registered post, but didn't think about it at the time. Hopefully they'll get to their destination in one piece!

My posts this week:
Review of The Good Thief's Guide to Paris by Chris Ewan
Comparing housing vacancy estimates

Free market fundamentalism
Can NAMA deliver?
The end of the five minutes
In the pie shop ...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In the pie shop ...

I'm a sucker for a good comic, crime caper - oddball characters, screwball plot, and an electric pace, and I'm as happy as a glutton in a pie shop. I've just started Anthony Bruno's, Devil's Food, about two officers from the New Jersey Parole Violaters Search Unit and their attempt to recapture a savvy embezzeler who's skipped bail and headed for Florida, leaving a lot of unhappy people in her wake. I had a grin on my face for the entire first two chapters. Great characterisation, snappy dialogue and madcap action. If that keeps up until the end of the story, I'm going to very full of pie. Next slice, please!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The end of the 5 minutes …

The last month has been a bit of a rollercoaster re. media work. Our research on housing vacancy and ghost estates led to a lot of media interest and debate, centred around three peaks – one in relation to our initial blog post, the next in relation to ghost estates, and third around a report by another university released last Friday. Twice the story was the third item on the national TV news, and was also covered extensively by national radio and newspapers, and local radio and newspapers. In total we’ve tracked c.100 media pieces, not including local radio (although I only actually gave a handful of interviews). I think we’re at the tail end now, so the five minutes of attention are probably up. Which to be honest is no bad thing given it had associated costs, such as the amount of time it absorbed, tangling with vested interests and all that entails, and managing relationships with some of the organisations that fund the institute’s research. On the plus side it focused attention on a significant public issue and it has started a process of policy intervention. All in all it’s been an instructive exercise that threw up some lessons about dealing with the media and playing the role of a (so-called) ‘public intellectual’. What it’s demonstrated – somewhat to my surprise – is that an academic blog can get itself into public discourse, even if in a minor way, and make a difference to a degree. There might be something in this whole Web 2.0 thing …

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Every now and then things seem to converge so that it feels that, rather than making progress, everything is regressing. This week is one of those moments. I'm trying to copyedit proofs, make edits to another book, get an issue of a journal put to bed, deal with the media, put together a large grant application, and do the general stuff that goes with being a head of a unit. I seem to be making zero progress on anything and every email I send off just generates more work; and deadlines are looming. Normal service will resume once I've managed to get on top of things. I need one of those 'stress head' toys! I'm sure it can't be only me who manages to enter one of these funnels ...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Review of The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris by Chris Ewan (Pocket Books, 2008)

Charlie Howard is a thief turned crime novelist. After a reading at a Paris bookshop, and a little too drunk to exercise good judgement, he is persuaded to demonstrate his lock-picking abilities by breaking into the apartment of a young man. The next day his fence asks him to break into the same apartment to steal a painting by a little known artist. Again ignoring the warning bells ringing in his mind he agrees to do the job, but when he breaks in the painting has already been stolen. Worst still when he returns home the apartment’s real owner is dead in his living room. Someone is trying to frame him for the burglary, and troublingly several parties are after the painting leaving Charlie stuck in the middle trying to find a way to safety. Then to add to his woes his agent, Victoria, decides that now is a good time to meet the author she’s only ever spoken to on the phone.

I’m not a great fan of first person stories with a largely descriptive style, preferring a third person narrative driven by dialogue and action. I guess I like to get a sense of the characters through how they act and behave rather than the internal ‘dialogue in their head’. The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris had then a little bit of an uphill battle to win me over. The real strength of the book is its premise (a crime author who is a criminal whose exploits parallel those of his novels), its plotting, which is well crafted and clever, and its pacing, with the story jaunting along at a nice trot (if it had been written in the third person and dropped the introspection/description it would have zipped along like grease lightening, which is how I tend to like caper novels). Where the story is probably a little weak is with respect to characterisation. Despite the first person perspective I never really got a sense of the emotional and psychological make-up of Charlie – what made him tick – and the other characters tended to be thin and underdeveloped. I think this was partly because no character, including Charlie, had a backstory; the reader never learns anything about their history or family, just their role in the caper being told. I’m aware that this probably doesn’t sound as positive as it might, so I should make it clear that The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris did win me over, mainly due to its astute plotting, and I intend to read the first book in the series. Other reviews can be found at: It's a Crime, Random Jottings, Innocent Bystander,

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Service

For the first time this year we have fabluous weather with a clear blue sky. The garden beckons ...

My posts this week:

In the field
Review of The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
The Geography of the Live Register
Cover design
February reviews
Ego massage

Thanks to Mack for reminding me that Jasper Fforde has a new novel out. Another one to get for the TBR! It's getting difficult to keep up with favourite authors as the pile grows ever more rickety.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ego massage ...

The reviews of our manuscript for MIT Press, Code/Space, turned up yesterday. Thankfully they were, on the whole, positive and provided a nice little ego massage. Well, two of the reviews did, the third brought us back down to ground with a bump. Here's a couple of nice snippets and then the bump.

"This is an excellent draft of an interesting book and I strongly recommend that MIT publish it. The book is nuanced and sophisticated in its portrayal of software as socially created, with complex and contingent effects. Overall, I find it to be engaging, convincing, and formative in its analysis of how software is injected into, and transforms, innumerable spaces of contemporary society."

"Code/Space will be a really influential text. No other book is as informed, comprehensive or accessible on the subtle and crucial intersections of code and geography. Few other authors understand these often opaque, ignored or misunderstood processes as well as Dodge and Kitchin."

"My overall and honest reaction to this text was to dislike it."

Just as you think it can't get better review number 3 pops up to put sand in the massage oil, which is probably no bad thing (although I'm quite used to sandy oil at this stage, usually accompanied by a rejection letter!)

We now have until April 15th to address the reviewers comments for it to make a Spring 2011 publication. That's going to require a little rejigging of the diary, but it'll have to be done to avoid further delay in publication. Goodbye reading time ...

Friday, March 5, 2010

February Reviews

February felt like another slow month of reading, mainly due to being sidetracked with other things. My book of the month was Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Do. If you haven't discovered Woodrell, he's well worth checking out - carefully layered, multitextured stories of everyday life on the margins.

The Song is You by Megan Abbott ****
Kamikazi by Raymond Lamont-Brown ***
Grift Sense by James Swain ****
Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura ***
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett *****
The Ones You Do by Daniel Woodrell *****
Old Flames by John Lawton ***

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cover design

Patti Abbott's post about cover art yesterday has prompted me to share four possible cover designs for The White Gallows. I like to take an active role in this aspect of a book because, frankly, some of the covers on my other books have been stinkers. Whether I have a good eye or not is though a different issue. The designer is presently away on holiday and when she's back we have to decide on a cover. Whilst she's away I've taken the opportunity to take the initiative and come up with a sample of four designs. It seems that a common theme with contemporary police procedurals for cover design is to use a photo, so I've stuck with that trend. I'm leaning towards one of these, but I thought I'd see what others thought. Which cover do you like best, or do you think I should scrap them all and start again? Click on them to get an enlarged image.

The front cover relates to one scene in the book where a noose is found hanging in an oak tree on the farm owned by the victim in the first case McEvoy is investigating. The back cover is of Trim Castle, where the body at the centre of a second investigation is discovered.

BTW, if you ever want to attract curious attention, wander round a park with a forty foot length of thick rope with a noose tied to one end and then set it up in a tree.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review of The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, translated by Benjamin Moser (Picador, 2002)

Ricardo Carvalho finishes work in the plush offices of a mining company in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, says goodbye to some of the staff, takes the elevator down to the underground car park, gets in his car, smokes a cigarette and then blows his brains out with a handgun. Only when the police turn up there is no gun and his possessions have been stolen. Inspector Espinosa, an honest cop in a police force that is often corrupt and with a keen interest in philosophy and literature, is assigned to the murder case. At first he makes little progress until the gun turns up on the black market, Carvalho’s secretary disappears mysteriously and it’s revealed that Carvalho had taken out a massive life insurance policy. For a while it seems as if the case is starting to make sense, but then it twists and turns in unexpected ways leaving Espinosa scrambling in the dark, unsure who to trust.

I enjoyed The Silence of the Rain; it’s a solid and intriguing police procedural. Espinosa is a thoughtful, world weary character who reminded me somewhat of Morse. The pace is well judged, the characterisation sound, there is a strong sense of place as the characters move around Rio, and the story has some nice twists. Split into three parts, the first and third parts are written in the third person, the middle part in the first person, putting the reader in the mind of Espinosa. It was a little jarring to swap from one perspective to another, but it actually works well. My only real issue relates to the start and particularly the end which kind of fell apart and was poorly resolved. In short, I was left with very big questions unanswered, which was pretty frustrating given that for the most part this is solid storytelling (and I imagine this will cheese some people off a lot more than it did me). I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll leave it that. On balance, an enjoyable story, the first is a series of seven Espinosa novels, and I plan to read the next in the series, December Heat, which hopefully has a more convincing ending.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In the field ...

I spent 12 hours yesterday doing some fieldwork, driving round the Irish countryside looking at the phenomena of so-called 'ghost estates'. A long but interesting day. I visited a diverse set of estates, the majority of which were in pretty good order. Not necessarily perfect, but certainly livable (and often not far off being completed in terms of landscaping, etc). Their main issue is simply that very few people live on them and given the present state of the Irish economy and housing market they may remain that way until the corner is turned. They ranged from apartment blocks, to terraced housing, to semi-detached, up to very large, exclusive 5 or 6 bedroom properties. There were some though that were a bit of a mess and have been abandoned halfway through the build. All the estates had a vacancy/under-construction rate of over 50 percent (with an average of 80 percent). It can be quite strange to be walking round an almost finished estate of 60 plus houses and apartments that are all vacant. I also came across a 'firesale' where prices had been dropped to 100K (at the height of the boom the most expensive property on the estate was 399K). These were very nice houses, on a nice estate, in a nice village. If one had a spare 100K and a job was near by, one might be tempted!