Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Map Reader published

The second of my books published this month turned up on Thursday. The Map Reader published by Wiley-Blackwell and edited by myself, Martin Dodge and Chris Perkins. At 478 pages in a large format, with double column format, it looks and feels like a substantial read. And the production values are excellent, with it nicely typeset and generous reproduction of maps and use of colour plates as section breaks.

The book itself is a reader drawing together 55 key academic papers and chapters concerning the theory and practice of cartography written over the past 60 years. The chapters are organized into five sections: Conceptualising Mapping; Technologies of Mapping; Cartographic Aesthetics and Map Design; Cognition and Cultures of Mapping; and Power and Politics in Mapping. For each section we have provided an introductory essay and for each chapter a short abstract, along with further reader and suggested cross-links.

Given space constraints, all the chapters included had to be edited down to be under 5,000 words in length. Most were 8-12,000 words long. The rule was that we could only edit out text, but not add anything, and yet we had to retain argument and narrative flow. An interesting exercise and I think we did a pretty good job.

Unfortunately its quite a pricey buy at £80 ( and $130 ( Hopefully it will be published in paperback at some point in the future.

Dodge, M., Kitchin, R. and Perkins, C. (2011) The Map Reader: Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Review of Secret Dead Men by Duane Swierczynski (Point Blank, 2004)

Detective Del Farmer is obsessed with a Las Vegas crime syndicate he calls ‘The Association’ that were the cause of his death. Occupying the brain hotel of Agent Kevin Kennedy of the FBI he tracks down other victims and gathers their souls hoping they can tell him how to identify Association members. When the FBI suspect that Kennedy isn’t who he says he is, Farmer borrows the face of the Association’s latest murder victim, Brad Larsen, and sets off in pursuit of Larsen’s killers. After months of running and hiding, and in desperate need of funds, he ends up in Philadelphia taking a job to protect a rich, young woman. But something is about the job doesn’t feel right, the souls in his guest hotel are proving less than helpful, and someone keeps trying to kill him.

Secret Dead Men was Swierczynski’s debut novel. Its start is somewhat ponderous and hesitant, the prose a little flat, before picking up. My suspicion is that there was no easy way to open the story given the concept at its core. Swierczynski has one hell of an imagination and taking a novice and immersing her/him in the world as he’s conceived it, and to believe and go along with that world, takes a lot of skill. He manages to pull it off and after the first two dozen pages the story is zipping along. The jumping between bodies, false identities and double crossing demands a certain attention to the plot, but it’s well worth it. Secret Dead Men is a blast of a read and the most imaginatively conceived crime novel I’ve read in ages, possibly ever. The story twists and turns its way toward a dramatic conclusion. I tried to tell someone about it not long after finishing. The response was: ‘I know, I know, you’ve already told me – it’s a complete mindf**k’. That about sums it up – a complete head-wrecker of a novel. Wonderful stuff.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review of Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews by Michael Bar-Zohar (Adams Media, 1998)

In March 1941 Bulgaria’s Fascist government signed an agreement with the axis powers of Germany and Italy. Germany used Bulgaria as a launch pad for some of its Balkans campaign and in return it gained back some of the lands it had lost in World War One – Macedonia and Thrace. Rather than fight on the Eastern front, Bulgaria was to occupy and police the Axis’ Balkan conquests. Like other allied countries, Bulgaria came under fierce pressure to export its Jews to the death camps to the north. It did in fact sign agreements with Germany and started to secretly round up Jews into temporary holding camps. However, due to leaks the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews became aware of the impending disaster and sought help from influential politicians, King Boris and the Orthodox Church. At the last minute, political pressure led to the cancellation of the forced movement of Jews of Bulgarian citizenship, though others weren’t so lucky. Despite repeated attempts to resurrect the scheme under German pressure, the holocaust did not take place, and Bulgaria remained the only German ally not to send its own citizens to the death camps, though it did send the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace.

Bar-Zohar tells the history of how Bulgarian Jews were saved, detailing the principle events and characters, based on first hand testimony and archival research. For the most part the book provides a fascinating account of anti-Semitism and its resistance in Bulgaria. However, there are bits of the narrative that are contradictory, which somewhat undermines confidence in the story being told. For example, it is argued that before the war Jews had full equality, and yet they could not enter politics. It’s noted that King Boris manipulated the political scene so that he had absolute power to appoint and dismiss government ministers, yet it’s stated that he was a democrat and enlightened. He was a simple and modest man, yet he was known as ‘the fox’ for his cunning and cleverness. Bulgarian people essentially had no issues with Jewish people and yet it had a range of anti-Semitic events and policy, adopted laws based on Germany’s Nuremburg laws, and had an active anti-Semitic government throughout the war. The Bulgarian Jews were saved, yet 11,000 Jews of Macedonia and Thrace, which became Bulgarian territories, were sent to the death camps. These kind of paradoxical observations challenge the argument being advanced and certainly left doubts in my mind as to the veracity of all parts of the story. I don’t for one minute doubt that a small number of parliamentarians and church leaders did fight and block the expulsion of Bulgarian Jews, but there is a fair amount of supposition and speculation as to the role of King Boris and other leading figures and how events actually unfolded. This is to a certain extent inevitable, but Bar-Zohar never really fills the reader with confidence that his version of the story is the full truth, but rather presents one, partial version of it. The result is a little disconcerting and unsettling. Overall, an interesting book about an important coda to the holocaust in Europe, but one feels that it is not the definitive account.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Danish crime fiction

I'm off to Denmark for five days at the end of May. As per usual, I'm after recommendations for crime fiction set where I'm visiting. So, I'm looking for good crime fiction, in English, set in Denmark. Ideas?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review of The Ghost Mountain Boys by James Campbell (Three Rivers, 2007)

In March 1942 MacArthur abandoned the Philippines and retreated to Australia to lick his wounds and promise his return. The Japanese continued their advance across the western Pacific invading New Guinea to Australia’s north. During fierce fighting the Japanese pushed the Australians from the north of the island south along the Kokoda track crossing the 10,000 feet Owen Stanley Mountains. Losing New Guinea would open up Australia to Japanese bombers.

In response, MacArthur committed the 32nd Division to the campaign, instructing them to cross the mountains thirty miles to the south of the Australians and to engage the Japanese bridgehead at Buna. No such path existed. Rather they were expected to create a 120 mile route through dense jungle across steeply mountainous terrain. Unsuitable to vehicles, all supplies had to be carried by hand. The division were mainly national guardsmen and conscripts with no combat experience, jungle training or suitable equipment. Not unsurprisingly they suffered enormously before they ever engaged the enemy. MacArthur had little sympathy. He wanted to inflict the first land-based Japanese defeat of the war.

When they eventually reached Buna, they found an elite and experienced Japanese force that was well dug in. Rather than simply surrounding the encampment and starving the Japanese out, MacArthur ordered the American and Australian forces to take Buna regardless of cost. It was an arrogant, selfish decision by a commander completely out of touch with the terrain and conditions, which led to many needless deaths and woundings, with the time saved serving no strategic benefit.

The result was that whilst Buna eventually fell, the campaign had one of the highest casualty rates of the war. Out of nearly 11,000 men in the 32nd Division there were 9,688 casualties, 7,125 succumbing to a variety of debilitating diseases such as malaria, dysentery, dengue fever, scrub typhus and hookworm. Some regiments were decimated. For example, the 126th Infantry Regiment were reduced from 131 officers and 3,040 enlisted men, to 32 officers and 579 men when they were transported out in January 1943. In the whole campaign, across all allied services, 3,300 were killed and 5,500 wounded (compared with 1,100 killed and 4,350 wounded at Guadalcanal).

In The Ghost Mountain Boys James Campbell tells the story of the 32nd Division’s campaign in New Guinea, their trek across the Owen Stanley range and the eerie Ghost Mountain, and their struggle to overrun the Japanese at Buna. Campbell’s account is excellent on a number of levels. First, he does a very good job of personalising the story, tracking a number of Division members from senior officers to enlisted men, based on interviews, letters sent home and archival research. We get to know the men, their personal history and family circumstances. Second, he provides amble contextualisation with regards to New Guinea and its strategic position in the war, the history of the division and its campaign, the war in general and in particular MacArthur’s decision making. Third, by translating Japanese war diaries, he manages to detail the campaign from the Japanese’s point of view. Fourth, he manages to convey, with a great deal of sense of place, the geography, terrain and climate of New Guinea, helped in part by retracing the route taken. Throughout it is clear that he has great respect for the people and events he is documenting. The result is a wonderfully engaging narrative that provides a detailed overview of the campaign. Parts of the story have strong emotional resonance, especially the thread concerning the chief medic Simon Warvenhoven, whose love letters to his wife are reproduced throughout the story. In my view, this is military history at its best, working at different levels and registers to give the reader a real sense of the tragedy of war. A poignant but rewarding read.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review of Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston (2004, Ballantine)

Henry (Hank) Thompson had a bright future in baseball ahead of him until a third baseman landed on his leg as he tried to steal a base, breaking it clean in two. His life then ran off the rails, culminating in a car crash a year later in which his friend is hurled through the windscreen to his death. Moving from California to New York he drifts into a bar job in the Lower East side. Drinking too much, his life drifts by until two Russians decide to drag him across the bar and beat the living hell out of him. A few hours later he passes out and wakes in hospital minus a kidney. He has no idea as to why he took a beating, though he thinks it might be connected to his neighbour, Russ, who left his cat with him before skipping town. Six days later when he arrives back at his apartment the Russians are waiting across the street. The cops are less interested in the Russians than the location of Russ. And two black cowboys with psychotic tendencies are also on Russ’ trail. Russ it seems has double-crossed all of them, and if Hank can’t find Russ, he’s going to pay the price. Within twenty four hours, Hank is on the run, wanted for murder, pursued by the NYPD, the Russians and the cowboys. All he wants is to stay alive, but the whole city it seems is looking for him.

Caught Stealing starts at a canter and is soon at a flat out gallop. Huston’s writing is terse, edgy and captivating. I was hooked from the first page to the last. The basic premise is that of the wrong man in the wrong place. Thompson is a resourceful enough character to survive, but only just, meaning that the plot unfolds through a series of chases and violent, visceral near-misses, double and triple crosses, and edge of the seat scenes. And as the story unfolds Thompson slowly transforms from victim to reluctant avenger. This really is an adrenaline filled read, cracking along at a terrific pace. Huston does a great job of introducing the reader to Hank and his world in an economical, yet rounded and somewhat self-depreciating fashion, and in constructing an action filled, yet strangely credible, plot. The backcover blurbs say things like ‘breathless’, ‘unflinching’, ‘hopped-up thriller’, ‘blast of a read’, ‘reads like the Maltese Falcon on crack’ and Caught Stealing is all of these and more. I thought it was a hoot. If someone has some spare cash for the film rights, and they’ve not already been snapped up, then it would make a terrific movie. Definitely in my top three reads of the year so far.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm going to have a tough choice picking a book of the month. Just read a stellar trio of books. Charlie Huston's Getting Caught, James Campbell's The Ghost Mountain Boys, and Duane Swierczynski's Secret Dead Men. All five star reviews. Next on the pile were Jasper Fforde's One of Our Thursdays Is Missing and Dave Zeltserman's Pariah. There's every danger that they would make the choice even more difficult so I've shuffled them down a few places and will read them in May instead. Picking one from three is a big enough headache and I still have two other favourite authors to look forward to.

My posts this week:
Reviews to follow ...
Review of Devil Red by Joe Lansdale
Review of Slow Burn by G.M. Ford
If you were an agent, who would you want to represent?
Review of 30 For a Harry by Richard Hoyt
Review of The Rainy City by Earl Emerson
New book arrived

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New book arrived

Yesterday I received a copy of my new book, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, published by MIT Press (ISBN: 978-0-262-04248-2). It looks great. We'll see what readers make of the argument.

It ships on Monday and can be bought from all good bookshops. For a hardback academic book the cost is pretty reasonable. You can find it at for $30 and for £24.

The back cover blurb:
After little more than half a century since its initial development, computer code is extensively and intimately woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. From the digital alarm clock that wakes us to the air traffic control system that guides our plane in for a landing, software is shaping our world: it creates new ways of undertaking tasks, speeds up and automates existing practices, transforms social and economic relations, and offers new forms of cultural activity, personal empowerment, and modes of play. In Code/Space, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge examine software from a spatial perspective, analyzing the dyadic relationship of software and space. The production of space, they argue, is increasingly dependent on code, and code is written to produce space.

Examples of code/space include airport check-in areas, networked offices, and cafés that are transformed into workspaces by laptops and wireless access. Kitchin and Dodge argue that software, through its ability to do work in the world, transduces space. They develop a set of conceptual tools for identifying and understanding the interrelationship of software, space, and everyday life, and illustrate their arguments with rich empirical material. And, finally, they issue a manifesto, calling for critical scholarship into the production and workings of code rather than simply the technologies it enables–a new kind of social science focused on explaining the social, economic, and spatial contours of software.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Forgotten Friday: The Rainy City by Earl Emerson (Ballantine, 1985)

Melissa Nadisky has run out on her poet husband and young daughter. The child’s grandfather, a powerful businessman with political connections, snatches the child just as PI Thomas Black arrives to investigate the mother’s disappearance at the behest of his law student lodger. Not long after his house is turned over and his lodger attacked. As Black starts to hunt for Nadisky, key witnesses start to die in mysterious circumstances. Undeterred he ploughs on with his investigation, aware that someone is prepared to kill to stop whatever has frightened Nadisky underground from being revealed.

As PI stories go, The Rainy City is pretty good. Black is hewn from wherever PI characters are cookie-cut and some of the characters are a little stereotypical, but the writing is expressive and tight, the plot has the right amount of twists and turns, it clips along at a jaunty pace, with plenty of action and realistic dialogue (though occasionally it becomes a little wooden), and there is a nice blend of characters. The end was no great surprise, but then few are, although Emerson does a nice job of maintaining tension to the final few pages. I have no idea why the cover shows a sinister man wearing a clown’s mask. Black's lodger does dress up as a clown at one point, but she’s a beautiful young woman. The book kept me entertained on the two flights between Dallas and Seattle, thus performing its job admirably. The Rainy City is the first in a series of nine Black books and if they improve as they go along, then this is a good starting point.

Forgotten Friday: 30 For A Harry by Richard Hoyt (1981, Evans and Co)

John Denson is a former journalist turned PI. He’s hired to work on the Seattle Star by the paper’s owner and editor, both of whom hold a suspicion that a ‘Harry’ is on the newspaper’s staff – named after the famed Harry Karafin, the Philadelphia Inquirer investigative journalist who used his position as a reporter to blackmail influential businessmen to keep stories out of the news. They are worried that a scandal might undermine the paper and push it into the hands of media magnate who has bought up all the shares with the exception of the owner and his sister. Working on the city desk, Denson immediately hones in on the potential suspect, but before he can make headway, the journalist is found murdered, along with two others, including the editor’s secretary. It appears that the Harry has received his 30 – the sign-off code under a story that signals the end – from whomever he was blackmailing. Only Denson isn’t so sure and keeps digging away at the case.

30 For a Harry blends the worlds of the PI with investigative journalism. Hoyt clearly has a feel for how newsrooms and newspapers operate and he does a nice job of immersing the reader in a newspaper world in transition from typewriters to computers, and under pressure from falling sales and consolidation. The storyline is well plotted and paced, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested until the end, although there are no great shocks at the denouncement. The characters and scenes are nicely observed and the writing has an easy style about it, with a dash of wry humour, that keeps the pages ticking by. Denson is your typical womanising, hardboiled PI, but he seems fresh enough in Hoyt’s hands to make him interesting. Overall, an enjoyable read that has a nice twist from usual PI fare.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

If you were an agent, who would you want to represent?

I met with my agent on my recent trip to the US. We had a great chat about authors and books. It got me thinking about what it might be like to represent a stable of great writers. So, imagine that you’re a literary agent, but you can fill your stable with only ten working wordsmiths. You’ll have the privilege of interacting with them, reading their initial drafts hot off the presses, and selling their work to the world. Your selection doesn’t necessarily have to be your favourite writers, or the ones that might net you the most income, but perhaps the one’s you think might be most interesting or enjoyable to work with. Which ten writers would you want to represent?

Here is my fantasy stable of ten, in no particular order: Joe Lansdale, Duane Swierczynski, Charlie Huston, Dave Zeltserman, Megan Abbott, Adrian McKinty, Arnaldur Indridason, Adrian Hyland, Donna Moore, Carlo Lucarelli

Five Americans, an Australian, an Irish man, a Scot, an Icelander, and an Italian. I reckon there’s a reasonable mix of up-and-coming/experience, geography, crime/humour here, and strong agency identity with a focus around noir, hardboiled and comic crime capers. Blummin’ difficult to pick only ten mind. My reserve ten, left stranded in the wings, are Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Alan Furst, Jasper Fforde, Daniel Woodrell, Ann Cleeves, Katy Munger, John Connolly, Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly. Heck, this ‘reserve’ team is just as strong as the list above! Maybe I’d have to run two agencies.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review of Slow Burn by G.M. Ford (Pan, 1998)

Seattle P.I. Leo Waterman has been appointed by Le Cuisine Internationale to act as a security consultant for their first convention outside of Europe. However, two warring chains of steakhouses seem set to use the event to try and settle their differences. One is intending to open a new restaurant the week on the convention and is threatening to barbecue a prize Angus bull that used to belong to the other chain. Caught in the middle are a restaurant reviewer and the families of the two chain owners. Not long after taking the job, the reviewer is found murdered and, having been discovered in the suite, Waterman is the prime suspect. Using a motley crew of cleaned-up homeless people as his operatives Waterman tries to keep the lid on the antics of the two steakhouses and to track down the real killer.

Slow Burn by title and slow burn in terms of storytelling. Slow Burn is told in an easy going, relaxed style with an undercurrent of gentle humour. The story features a set of larger than life characters and has a good set up. The narrative is workmanlike, with a good flow between scenes. What the story lacks, however, is tension. The story does build towards a climax, but it is without a real sense of urgency. Whilst there is a nice twist with regards to the identity of the killers, the rest of the ending is fairly predictable. Overall, an enjoyable, gently humorous read that lacked a bit of bite.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review of Devil Red by Joe Lansdale (Knopf, 2011)

Marvin Hanson has started a private investigation company employing Hap and Leonard as operatives, with the hope that they might work their way up to detectives. Mostly he has them doing odd jobs, supplying muscle and heat where required. When an elderly lady commissions Hanson to investigate the cold case of her murdered son, Hap and Leonard are charged with sticking their noses where they’re not wanted, a task they are more than qualified to undertake. What they discover is a series of murders connected by a red devil motif and a whole lot of trouble.

Devil Red has all of Lansdale’s trademark writing – cracking dialogue, fast pacing, a motley crew of colourful characters, a dash of slapstick, and a hook and drag ‘em storyline. And it has, for my money at least, the most enjoyable double act in contemporary crime fiction, Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. The start to Devil Red is excellent as usual, and the narrative rattles along from there. The end, however, comes too soon and too easily, and the book felt about 30-40 pages too short, missing a couple of twists and turns along the way. This was a shame as it really was a five star read up until the closing scenes, with the pages flying by. That said, Devil Red does little to alter my opinion that Lansdale is one of the best crime writers plying his trade at the minute and if he keeps writing them, I’ll keep reading them.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reviews to follow ...

Without a computer, I've had more time for reading and I've fallen behind on my reviewing. Whilst in the US I read six books. Expect the following reviews over the next couple of weeks.

Joe Lansdale - Devil Red
G.M. Ford - Slow Burn
Earl Emerson - The Rainy City
Richard Hoyt - 30 for a Harry
Charlie Huston - Caught Stealing
James Campbell - The Ghost Mountain Boys

The standout book was Charlie Huston's Caught Stealing. Loads of action, twists, double-crosses, and not a wasted word. As debut novels go, it's a knockout.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Up, up and back to the hotel

Up at 3.45am. In the airport at 4.30am. On a train back to the city at 5am. My hotel booking ran Monday to Saturday. It turns out my plane ticket is for Sunday. Much scratching of head and consternation at the electronic check-in desk. A thousand dollar bill to move the ticket forward a day. Er, no thanks. Slow trudge to the train, back into the city, and back into my old hotel room for a couple of hours. Two hours nap, then booking another room. Try again tomorrow. This trip has been eventful one way or another.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Oh my god, get me out of here ...

You walk into the shop, take a quick glance around and think to yourself, 'Blimey, I've hit the mother lode.' Rapidly followed by, 'Oh god, this is a mistake; I need to get out of here.' The shop is wall to wall, floor to ceiling crime and mystery novels. Thousands of them. Every author you can think of. It's like the TBR from hell. I browse around in a cold sweat. I shun all offers of help - you don't offer to feed the habit to an addict - don't these people know they are drug dealers? I select three books and high tail it out of there, feeling like I might be walking away from the ultimate high. The Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Only for those who have self-restraint. Everyone else enter at your peril - the TBR will grow. My haul ...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

When the world goes blank

I had one of those, 'oh shit' moments on Tuesday night. Doubly since I also had food poisoning. But the main catastrophe was my laptop dying. One minute it was working fine, the next the screen was blank. It seems my harddrive has been fried, probably by a power spike (according to a computing professor I was with yesterday). Thankfully I backed up on Friday before travelling, but I've lost most stuff I've done on the road. The big issue is I'll be without a computer for the next few days, except when I can borrow one. Probably not a bad thing. More reading, less writing. I'm on a bit of a binge at the minute - I've read four novels since leaving Ireland on Friday. Heaven knows when the reviews will follow.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Short story: You raise me up

I've been meaning to write this short story for a while, but never quite got round to it. A 4am jet-lagged state in a Dallas hotel did the trick. It features Mary Carmichael, a main character in my novel Saving Siobhan, and her sidekick, Jacob.

Norm, this one is for you.

You raise me up

‘For god’s sake, Jacob, will you stop humming that tune,’ Mary said.

‘It’s Westlife,’ Jacob replied, as if it that was all the justification needed for humming the same tune for more than two hours. He drummed his fingers on his knees.

‘I know it’s bloody Westlife! Can we change the channel?’

‘Westlife are the greatest!’

‘Westlife are mental cruelty!’

It was approaching one o’clock in the morning. They were parked on a quiet residential road bathed in orange streetlight. The house that they were observing had been in darkness for the past two hours. On several occasions, over the preceding couple of months, Mrs Kovac and her three young children had been subjected to taunts and attacks by a small gang of local youths, who for reasons known only to themselves had taken a hostile dislike to the Bosnian family. The local guards seemed powerless to do anything without material evidence, and by the time they arrived the youths had scarpered. In desperation she had turned to Mary Carmichael for help.

‘Westlife are number one!’

‘Yes, because bonkers people like you and impressionable young girls buy their bloody songs.’ She turned in her seat to stare over at him.

‘I’m not bonkers. I’m special.’

‘We’re all special.’

‘I’m special and you’ve got no legs. Look!’ Jacob pointed at three youths approaching the house, dressed in jeans and hoodies, their hoods pulled up obscuring their faces.

The first egg hit an upstairs window, the second the front door. The youths were laughing and joking, shouting taunts as they off-loaded their supply of ammunition.

Mary already had the camera up to her eye, taking photos, zooming in, hoping for a shot that would identify the attackers.

‘Mrs C?’ Jacob prompted, reaching for the door handle.

‘No, no. We stay in the car and take pictures. Not that I have a choice,’ Mary replied. Her wheelchair was on the seat behind her. By the time Jacob had retrieved it, and she had transferred into it, the youths would be long gone.

‘I could stop them.’ He stared over at her.

‘I know you could,’ she said, raising the camera back to her eye. ‘But you’re not going to. We don’t want to stop them. We want to catch them.’

Their cache of eggs exhausted, one of the youths extracted a can of spray paint from his hoodie and scrawled something on the wall. The three of them stood back to admire their statement: ‘Go home pakis’.

‘Jesus,’ Mary muttered. ‘I guess by definition they’re stupid, but these guys really are morons. They’ve got the wrong country, wrong culture and wrong race.’

A neighbour shouted at the youths from an upstairs window.

One of the lads took flight and darted along the pavement, the other two shouted back threats.
Before Mary could react, Jacob pushed open the door just as the youth drew alongside. The boy crashed into the door with a thud and landed sitting on his backside. Jacob was already up and out of the car.

‘Jacob! Jacob, get back in the car,’ Mary instructed. ‘Jacob! Don’t do anything stupid. Jacob, are you listening to me?’

The kid had risen to his feet, angry and embarrassed at being floored. ‘What the fuck! A fucking mongol! A mongol wearing a fucking Westlife t-shirt. You’re fucking dead, Mong.’

He’d been joined by his two friends, their hoods still up.

‘Jacob, get back in the car,’ Mary instructed.

‘Listen to your mother, Mong,’ one of the other lads said.

‘It’s not nice to throw eggs at people’s houses,’ Jacob said, pushing the car door shut.

‘It’s not nice to knock people over, you fucking Mong.’ The youth went to push Jacob, but found only thin air.

Mary had her mobile phone to her ear. ‘Grant? Grant, you’d better get over here. Jacob’s out of the car. Some kids are about to get hurt ... I’ve asked him to get back in. He won’t listen ... Just get over here!’

‘You’re fuckin’ dead, Mong.’ The lad launched himself forward, trying to save face.

Jacob ducked a shoulder, placing it into the youth’s midriff, lifting him up and letting him drop with a thud to the pavement behind him. ‘You raise me up ...’ he sang, ‘so I can stand on mountains.’

The two other lads rushed him. He stamped on the shin of one, and landed a heavy blow to the stomach of the other, then grabbed their hoods and clattered their heads together. As they moaned, folded in two, he rounded them and swept their legs away so that they landed on their prone friend. Tugging one up onto the other, he sat on their backs.

‘You raise me up ... to walk on stormy seas,’ he continued to sing.

Mary lowered the car window.

‘Jesus, Jacob. All we were trying to do was take some photos.’

‘You said you wanted to catch them. I’ve caught them.’

‘Are you lads, okay?’ Mary said loudly.

‘Fuck off.’

‘That’s what happens if you mess with Ireland’s judo champion. He won the bronze medal at the Special Olympics.’

‘He’s a fuckin’ spaz. You’re both fuckin’ dead.’

‘He isn’t a spaz and he whipped your racist asses. Perhaps you should try out for the trampoline team, Jacob?’

Jacob raised himself up and dropped down, repeating the action enthusiastically several times.

Mrs Kovac appeared in her gateway, gazing at the scene, her brow furrowed in concern.

‘That’ll do, Jacob,’ Mary warned. ‘We don’t want to bust the springs.’ Mary waved tentatively at the Bosnian woman. In the distance a siren sparked into life. She rolled her head back and let out a deep sigh, wondering how she was going to explain the situation. She doubted the police would buy the argument that she was just passing. She seemed to have been just passing an awful lot of incidents of late.

‘You raise me up ... so I can stand on mountains,’ Jacob sang happily, bumping up and down in time to the music only he could here.

‘Jacob, stop with the feckin’ Westlife.’

‘Westlife are the greatest!’

‘Westlife are mental torture. If the police ask, we were just passing, okay?’

‘Okay. You raise me up ... so I can walk on stormy seas,’ he crooned to her.

‘You’ll be walking home.’ She raised the window, but Jacob just increased the volume of his singing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review of The Cutting Crew by Steve Mosby (Orion, 2005)

Four police officers have decided to take the law into their own hands. If a suspect manages to wriggle free of a prosecution, then they dispense their own brand of justice. One case though has got under their skin. A young woman is found brutally murdered, but no suspect is identified. Four months on and the team have fallen apart, two of them leaving the police, one of them becoming obsessed with the case. Then he too is killed in a brutal fashion, beaten to death in the same house the young woman had been found. It is clear that the other three are also in danger. As they try to piece together why their friend has been slain, they start to undercover more information about the young woman and the art project she had been working on with her friends – exploring the myths of the city and how it seems like a living entity. Somehow the founding fathers of the city appear to live on and they want the cutting crew eliminated.

Steve Mosby’s The Cutting Crew is a crime novel with a twist. It’s not really science fiction, in that the book seems like it is in the contemporary era, though its timing is not stated, and it clearly set in this world. However, the nameless city seems other worldly to some degree, divided into sixteen districts, each named after an animal, and each with its own characteristics. Myth has it that the city was founded by eight brothers. Mosby’s narrative is dominated by two elements – the city and its geography and history, and interpersonal relationships. Both were well crafted, providing a textured, layered insight into the two principle characters – the city and the main character, Martin. The story itself is compelling, though it seems to lose its way a little in the middle. Towards the end, it twists in an unusual and fulfilling way, bringing the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. Overall, an unusual crime novel, with strong undercurrents of myth and legend.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm in Dallas for a couple of days en route for Seattle. It is scorching outside (32C, 92F). I've been wandering around the arts district and dropped into the Dallas Art Museum. For the first time, I think I actually 'got' a Mark Rothko piece (right). It's interesting how some artists are instantly recognisable. You can walk into a room full of paintings and straightaway pick out a Rothko, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Hopper, etc., even amongst the emulators. I wonder if the same can be said of crime writing? If you were given a page of writing, would it be possible to instantly name the author?

My posts this week:
Irish towns and the crash
Review of The Big Short by Michael Lewis
The Spanish property soap opera
March reviews
Review of Still Life by Louise Penny
Being used as a chat-up line
Review of The Swiss, The Dead and The Gold by Jean Ziegler
The city is alive ...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The city is alive ...

The city is a central character in Steve Mosby's The Cutting Crew. He spends quite a bit of the narrative detailing the form, geography, history, myths and sense of place of the nameless city the story is set in. He uses the metaphor of the body a lot, talking about the city consisting of organs, muscles, arteries and so on - a living organic thing, pulsating with life. Here is a passage from near the beginning.

There were nights when he’d drive me out of the city and up into the hills nearby. We’d park and both look out over the buildings and the lights and the people below us, and it would seem to me that in some awful way the city was alive: that there was a dark heart flexing and thumping underneath the skin of concrete and soil. ... The more we talked and worked, the more I could sense the city’s heart beat. It made me feel powerless and awful and weak.

I was supposed to be in control of this city – this enormous creature that was bad from top to bottom – and it wanted none of it. Maybe it would let us get away with the little stuff, but the evil was too ingrained: any concerted attempt to dig it out would bring the buildings crashing down. That’s what Sean said: it was like the human body if you removed all the water – all you’d be left with is a pile of sand.

That was how he saw the city, and after a while that’s how I began to see it too. Partly it was because of the way things worked: everything was so orchestrated and coordinated that it was often difficult
not to see a design under it all. But sometimes you only had to walk down the streets to start imagining them as veins and arteries, and on those occasions I often wondered if I could kneel down, press my hand to the pavement and feel the slow thud of the city’s pulse.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review of The Swiss, The Gold and The Dead by Jean Ziegler (Penguin, 1997)

Switzerland, despite being neutral, played an important role in the Second World War. A very profitable role. Through both its national and private banks it helped finance the Nazi war machine by laundering German and looted gold and allowing them to purchase much needed raw materials from other countries. Manganese, tungsten, chromium, iron ore and diamonds, all essential for armament manufacture, and oil vital for logistics, all had to be bought on the world market and imported, in a market that shunned the Reichsmark but welcomed the Swiss Franc. The Swiss also allowed the Germans to re-arm and transfer troops in Italy using the Swiss rail network, and they actively refused entry to refugees fleeing from all over Europe for sanctuary, handing them back into the hands of the Gestapo. After the war, Swiss banks made it all but impossible for the relatives of those whose assets were stolen and lodged in the country to be retrieved, holding onto them for their own gain.

Ziegler’s book documents these issues and sets them in the context of Swiss history more broadly and the period of the war. It is somewhat odd book in terms of its structuring and tone. The book seems to jump around an awful lot and it could have done with some restructuring and consolidation. The first chapter labours the point about the Swiss facing up to the decisions and actions of the previous generation, forwarding a moral line. This is revisited throughout the text and really seems to be overdone. And yet, the reason for such caution and explanation is revealed in the afterword. On September 20th 1998, Ziegler – a Professor of Sociology and five time elected official of the National Council of the Swiss Confederation (and subsequently appointed to the UN Human Rights Council) - received a communication from the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office informing him that he was being charged with ‘treason’ infringing the ‘independence of Switzerland, and promoting foreign undertakings directed against the security of Switzerland’. Writing and talking about the history of Switzerland can clearly be a fraught undertaking, especially when many – including very large and powerful banks who fear having to return gold reserves – want that history suppressed and forgotten. In that sense, Ziegler’s book is an important one. Given the relatively limited sources he had access to, and the moral and ethical landscape he was trying to operate in, it would be good to read another, more up to date account. This is an interesting starting point, though not always for the right reasons.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Being used as a chat-up line

I visited a friend on Sunday on the way back to the airport. His brother was also visiting. He told me the following story. He’d been on a train in Britain, sharing a table with a couple of young women who turned out to be Geography students. He asked if they knew my work, which they did. He then regaled them with stories of our time in youth club. He ended with the punchline – ‘You were a great chat up line’. There is something very odd about being used as a chat-up line. I’m not sure what. Personally, I can’t believe that it would work. ‘I know Rob Kitchin, do you fancy a date?’ ‘Er, no thanks.’

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review of Still Life by Louise Penny (2005, Headline)

Jane Neal, an elderly spinster and friend to everyone in the village of Three Pines in Quebec, has been found dead on a deer trail through a copse. She’d been felled by an arrow that passed straight through her chest. The hunting season has started and it’s not clear whether the death is accidental or deliberate. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec has been assigned to the case. Three Pines might appear idyllic, but Gamache soon uncovers tensions and secrets amongst its inhabitants. What is not at all clear is why anyone would want Jane Neal dead.

I picked up Still Life by Louise Penny whilst in Montreal. It’s opening novel in her Chief Inspector Gamache series. The book won the CWA New Blood Dagger in the UK, the CWC Arthur Ellis Award in Canada, and an Anthony Award in the US. The book is a modern twist on the kind of cosies written by Agatha Christie and her ilk, though a police procedural rather than an amateur detective. Cosies are not my favourite kind of crime novel and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on with the story and its telling. The cosy feel lessened as the book went on, and the read was entertaining. Part of the story hinges on an unlikely coincidence, though the puzzle itself is clever enough, and Gamache is a plausible and engaging character. Some of the characters are a little clichéd and the character of Nicole seemed underdeveloped and her subplot doesn’t really go anywhere. Overall, a book that will appeal to readers who like their police procedurals with a cozy bent.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

March reviews

A pretty varied month of reading. A Beautiful Place to Die and The Main were the stand out books and although there's not much to split them in terms of being interesting and entertaining reads, The Main shades it as my book of the month.

Spitting on a Soldier's Grave by Robert Widders **.5
Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse ***.5
The Burning Girl by Mark Billingham ***
He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond ****
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn ****.5
The Main by Trevanian ****.5
People Who Walk in Darkness by Stuart Kaminsky **.5

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review of The Big Short by Michael Lewis (Penguin, 2010)

In The Big Short Michael Lewis traces the lead up to the global finance crash by charting how a handful of people saw the crash coming and made a fortune betting on it happening. Lewis has an engaging writing style and uses both personal narrative and a focus on key individuals to draw the reader in and ground and localise what was a complex and somewhat opaque historical event. He succeeds very well in this regard and the book provides a compelling genealogy of the years immediately before the crash and some interesting insights into the psychology and internal politics and rivalries of Wall Street traders. For me, however, the book fell a little short. By pursuing a personal story narrative, Lewis tends to ignore the wider contextualisation of the crash - the politics and political economy of finance, especially in the US; the financialization of Western society; and the organization, globalization and interdependence of the finance system. More broadly, the economics and sociology of finance - on Wall Street, on Main Street, and on Acacia Avenue – is lacking; how and why property bubbles form and the pattern and logic of investments made. Moreover, the book is implicit in its moralising, failing in many ways to castigate all involved, including those that were shorting the system – they are held up and admired for their foresight in getting rich at the banks’ expense as they collapsed and were rescued. Rather than trying to stop the madness and heading off the impending crash by publicising their knowledge and going to the authorities, they bet on the crash happening even though they knew what the likely consequences of a crash would be, and they actively encouraged some of the madness by creating a new market for such bets (but they’d be wildly rich, so what did it matter?). Nor is there enough reflection on normative questions on how the system should be reconfigured and run; rather Lewis reveals some of the shortcomings, but leaves it to others to think about what should change. That said, The Big Short is a very engaging and compelling read, even if it does leave you shaking your head in frustration at the madness, arrogance and greed of Wall Street banks and the people who run them.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I gave a reading to north Kildare crime book clubs last Tuesday in Leixlip Library. About 20 people turned up on the night, all of them women - which is an interesting tell on the membership of book clubs and, no doubt, the broader reading public (the picture right is not from the night, but one I borrowed off the internet). We had a pretty lively discussion that went on beyond the alloted hour and a half slot. The great thing about these sessions is that you learn a lot about about how people perceive your work and also you as a person and writer. You also get some interesting feedback on the stories themselves and also some suggestions as to how to improve them. Two ideas that I liked were about humour and character and subplot threading across books. I'll probably take those two up. Many thanks to those folk that did turn up and chatted away.

Posts this week:
Review of The People Who Walk in Darkness by Stuart Kaminsky
How useful is your work?
Planning permissions and planning debates
Cash or readers?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cash or readers?

I'm visiting my brother in the North of England for the weekend. We've been in town shopping. I couldn't help ducking into two discount bookstores. The selection was limited and random, but I picked up Steve Mosby's The Cutting Crew for two pounds from one shop and a copy of Anarchy and Old Dogs for a pound from the other. A pound for a brand new book that actually had two pounds stamped on it in big letters on the front. I thought two pounds was a bargain. I always feel guilty buying books below cost as I want the author to be probably rewarded for their labour. I justify it to myself because I buy over 100 books a year, so a large chunk of my disposal income goes to authors and publishers, and I write a review of all books I read which might help persuade others to try their work.

Buying books at these prices got me thinking about authors and what is best from their perspective. I suspect that at two or one pounds the author is getting nothing or little in terms of recompense. So, is it best to sell fewer books but make more money, or to sell more books and have more readers rather than recompense? Cash or readers? I'd be readers, but then I'm trying to live off of book royalties. It would be interesting to get other views.