Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review of HHhH by Laurent Binet (Harvill Secker, 2012; French 2009)

1942 and two Czechoslovakian parachutists are dropped from a British plane over their homeland.  Their mission, Operation Anthropoid, is to travel to Prague to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the SS and the driver behind the Final Solution.  They know that they are undertaking what has been classed as a suicide mission, and that the Nazis will exact a terrible revenge on the local population, but Heydrich is considered one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the Third Reich, a key strategic thinker that needs eliminating.  But how to write this true tale as a non-fiction novel?  A story that involves real people, is surrounded by myth, and has been told many times before?  These are questions that Laurent Binet agonizes over as he tells the story.

HHhH is two stories wrapped through each other.  On the one hand, it is the tale of Heydrich and the parachutists, and on the other it examines through self-reflection Binet’s obsession with the story and his attempt to write it as a non-fiction novel.  Binet is uncomfortable with the non-fiction novel for the same reasons that I generally shun the genre - that the focus is real people and events and by fictionalising the story in whole or part the author plays with and re-writes history.  HHhH confronts these issues head on by writing about the process of researching and writing about Heydrich’s assassination and his doubts and anxieties.  The story thus unfolds through a series of short sections that see-saw between the two threads.  At the start of the novel I was totally captivated by the approach and story.  However, as the book progressed it became increasingly tedious and tiresome.  The self-reflective elements lose their vitality and at one point Binet states: ‘I’m drivelling, aren’t I?’  To which my response was, 'yes, and you have been for quite some time'. It is not helped by the story of the parachutists being relatively mundane, lacking in spark and voice.  Binet is so paranoid about keeping the story ‘true’ that the narrative style reads more like popular history than fiction.  Whilst the book will appeal to literary folk and historians interested in the production of knowledge and the role of the author, as a novel it started with much promise but the format ultimately stymied the story.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Manchester side-bar

I got an email last week asking if I would present a seminar in the Politics dept at the University of Manchester sometime in the coming months.  Since I'm passing through Manchester Airport en route to the Wirral on Thursday, I offered to drop in and present then.  I didn't think they'd go for such a short notice option, but they have, so I'll be talking on public academia between 2-4pm before heading on.  I've just put together the slides, so I'm all set.  It'll be my seventeenth external talk this year and I'm looking forward to it.  I should have asked for recommended Manchester reads for this trip, as well as Merseyside ones.  Oh well, I'm only there for a couple of hours.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Review of The Untouchables by Shane Ross and Nick Ross (Penguin, 2012)

My review of Shane Ross and Nick Webb's new book appeared in the Irish Times on Saturday.  It starts thus:

Shane Ross and Nick Webb’s previous book, Wasters, concerned the misuses of State funds, poor governance, organisational failure and cronyism in public bodies in Ireland. In The Untouchables they turn their attention to individuals in positions of power and influence, and the organisations they work for, who have managed to weather the present crisis somewhat better than might be expected.

Ross and Webb’s principal argument is that the blame for Ireland’s woes extends well beyond politicians and that, despite calamitous failures, most of the architects of the crisis remain in their posts or businesses, and the same mindsets predominate.

Precious little reform has taken place, they write, despite the election promises of Fine Gael and Labour for quick action. Fianna Fáil and the Greens may have paid the price for the disastrous decisions they made in the previous government, but their elite networks, political patronage and poor systems of governance and regulation mean many powerful individuals and vested interests continue to thrive. 

To read the rest, click here ...

As a little experiment I put my twitter address at the end of the piece to see if it led to any more followers.  Over the weekend I picked up five new followers, one of whom was not because of the piece.  So it had some effect but much less than one might have thought.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

Last night we went to see Joan Armatrading at Sligo Live.  Somewhat unusually for a concert, I'd say we were in the lowest percentile in age.  She's certainly managed to hold onto her fans from the 1970s.  She played a mix of new songs and old classics and put on a great show.  What makes her timeless is she has a unique voice and sound and is skillful songwriter.  Wonderful gig.  Here's Love and Affection from 1976.


My posts this week
Review of Dust Devils by James Reasoner
A new splurge
Books for a trip to Australia
A review of A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari
Liverpool reads
A blank page and a blinking cursor

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A blank page and a blinking cursor

‘A blank page and a blinking cursor.  You’ve been staring at that screen for over an hour.’

‘There’ve been words on there, but rubbish words.  Flat, lifeless, boring words.  Words you wouldn’t wish on your most creative enemy.’

‘What kind of words?’

‘I don’t know.  You’re asking someone with writer’s block to actually name words.  Bad, soulless, uninspiring words.  What I need are melodious words, strung together to form delightful prose.  I’ll settle for any that produce an engaging narrative.’

‘Why don’t you take a break; go for a walk?

‘Because that blinking cursor is mocking me.  Winking, smirking, bah!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, October 26, 2012

Liverpool reads

Thanks for the suggestions re. Liverpool-based crime fiction.  Last night I downloaded onto my Kindle (too late to order the paperbacks):

Ed Chatterton - A Dark Place to Die
Martin Edwards - All the Lonely People

A Dark Place to Die sounds like it might also double up as a Aussie read, as half the plot is set there according to its blurb.  I've used the Aussie version of the cover right, which I much prefer to the UK version.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review of A Death in Tuscany by Michele Giuttari (Abacus, 2008, Italian 2005)

A young girl has been found by the side of the road, having apparently taken an overdose of heroin.  Given that no-one is searching for her, it is assumed that she is an illegal immigrant and junkie, a case that can be shelved and forgotten.  Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara, head of the Florence Squadra Mobile, however, has other ideas.  Suspicious of the fact that a girl so young appears to be an addict he starts to investigate.  The post-mortem reveals that she’d had sex before dying and that she hadn’t been a junkie; it looks like someone pumped her full of drugs, raped her, and left her to die.  Just as the case starts to gain momentum he is warned to proceed carefully, then becomes sidetracked when his best friend disappears along with a woman after her husband is found dead in her home. Determined to help his friend, the prime suspect in the husband’s murder, he clashes with the local Carabinieri who put in an official complaint.  Handing the case of the young girl over to a colleague, Ferrara takes a holiday to conduct his own investigation into his friend’s disappearance. 

A Death in Tuscany is a competent police procedural set in Florence and its surrounds.  It’s author used to be head of the Florence police and he knows his procedural details, giving a good insight into how the Italian system works with its divisions between state police, carabinieri and prosecutor’s office.  Ferrara is a political astute cop, dedicated to the job, with a healthy disregard for his superiors and liked by his colleagues, and a happy home life.   The story is well paced and the characterisation is nicely observed, particularly some of Ferrara’s colleagues.  Although the story draws the reader into the investigation and Tuscany region, there are a number of elements that seem a little fanciful, especially the linking of the two main threads, the binding of various players and conspiracy elements that work to undermine its credibility somewhat.  Overall, a solid read that deals with some difficult issues. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Books for a trip to Australia

I have a colleague heading to Australia for three weeks on Friday.  He wanted some Aussie reading for the trip so I've bought in a few books for him to choose from.  I think they'd be good companions for anyone making the trip.  Here's what's in my goody bag (with links to reviews).  Feel free to add to the list ...

Adrian Hyland - Diamond Dove
Phillip Gwynne - The Build Up
Peter Temple - Truth; Bad Debts
Shane Maloney - Stiff; The Brush-Off; Nice Try
Kel Robertson - Dead Set
Leah Giarratano - Vodka Doesn't Freeze
Garry Disher - Blood Moon

It would be nice if there were a few more books on there but, as I've noted before on the blog, getting hold of crime novels published in Australia isn't easy or cheap.  In exchange for a loan of some of the above, I'm getting my colleague to bring me back a couple of books I can't buy from here.  Seems like a fair dinkum deal to me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A new splurge

Over the last few days I've taken steps to replenish the TBR pile, ordering the following:

Julia Keller - A Killing  in the Hills

Helgason Hallgrimur - The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

Nick Quantrill - Broken Dreams

Paul Johnston - The Silver Stain

Joseph Kanon - The Good German

Edward Wilson - The Darkling Spy

Victor Gischler - Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse

Ben Pastor - Liar Moon

Roger Smith - Wake Up Dead

C.H.B. Kitchin  - Crime at Christmas

Christa Faust - Money Shot

Darragh McManus - Even Flow

Of course, there's still stuff on the existing TBR, including the books backing up on the Kindle.  And I still have to order my Liverpool reads.  I've also ordered about the same number of non-fiction books.  It's good to have choice, right?  The plan is to work my way through this lot between now and the New Year.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review of Dust Devils by James Reasoner (Pointblank, 2007)

After a childhood living in foster homes, Toby McCoy has drifted south from Oklahoma to Texas seeking answers to his past.  He approaches a lonely farm, looking for work.  The woman living there alone is twice his age and nervy, but she agrees to take him on.  Over the next month they grow close, but both have their secrets.  The woman’s arrives in the form of two old friends intent on revenge.  After a gunfight, Toby and Dana are on the run with their two dogs, Max and Clifford, bound together through their developing relationship.  Their adventure, however, is only just starting as Dana tries to cut herself free from her past by confronting old demons.

The strong point of Dust Devils is the plotting, its strong noir undertones, and the characters of Toby and Dana.  The setup is very nicely done and the story continues at a nice, jaunty pace as the two principal characters seek to resolve their respective issues: Dana’s life of crime and Toby’s abandonment as a child and his mother fixation.  As they travel across Texas, the tale becomes ever darker, with the sense of foreboding growing, leading to a well played resolution.  Despite these pluses, the writing at times is quite flat, and despite a style that is mainly dialogue and action, it slips into tell rather than show at times.  The result is a nicely plotted story, told in a voice that is sometimes weak.  Nevertheless, Dust Devils is an enjoyable slice of country noir.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

I've spent the day messing in the garden and reading a draft of one of my novels.  I haven't read it in quite a while and actually enjoyed the story.  I even laughed at a couple of my lame jokes.  Quite an odd experience in many ways. What I'd really like to be able to do is to read it completely fresh, as if someone else had penned it and I hadn't got a clue as to how the plot unfolds.  I'd be able to get a proper sense of it then.  A few weeks ago, I re-read a paper I'd written over a decade ago. That did kind of feel as if someone else had written it and I had forgotten quite a bit of the detail of the argument presented, though not the broad thrust.  I guess time helps, but what I really need is a magic blanking button.  In the absence of such a button, there's something unsettling about reading something you've written; an odd-sense of familiarity and alienation. 

My posts this week:
Review of Restless by William Boyd
Death in the Clouds, kind of
Liverpool crime fiction?
NoirCon blues
The Wrong Man

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The wrong man?

‘You’ve got the wrong man.’

‘No, we’ve got the right man.  You killed her, Paul.  Dragged her into the woods, raped then strangled her.  How did that make you feel?  Like a god?’

‘It wasn’t me.  Why won’t you believe me?’

‘You were caught on CCTV, talking to her shortly after she left the pub.  You’re the last person she was seen with.’

‘All I did was ask her for a light.’

‘And then you killed her.’

‘No!  Why would I kill her?’

‘Because you’re sick in the head.’

‘I didn’t do it.  I swear.’

‘Stop lying to us, Paul.’

Friday, October 19, 2012

NoirCon blues

For quite a while I've been toying with trying to go to NoirCon in Philadelphia, Nov 8-11.  I would dearly like to attend, but it's right in the middle of the semester and I'm tied up with teaching and admin (I'm still head of two departments).  So this year is out, but this is a note to myself: I will do my damnest to attend the next one.  One can't beat a bit of some dark, soulful noir and the chance to talk about it with writers and other fans; which reminds me, I need to stock up on some new books.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Liverpool crime fiction?

I'm heading to Liverpool and the Wirral at the end of the month for a few days.  I'm looking for some crime fiction set in either location.  Does anyone have any recommendations?  They'd be much appreciated.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Death in the Clouds, kind of

Having read Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie last week I thought I'd watch the Poirot TV adaptation starring David Suchet.  None the first ten to fifteen minutes of the adaptation, which was based in Paris and the French Open tennis tournament, appeared in the book.  The number of plane passengers was cut from eleven to eight; Japp travels to Paris; and on it goes.  None of the changes were necessary.  The book could have been adapted as published.  In particular there was no need to mess with the plot or the dialogue, which Christie excels at.  It's becoming something of a recurring theme for me to lament scriptwriters radically altering stories.  The only I times I can see the merit is to cut the length or to address a flaw.  Neither were required in this case.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Review of Restless by William Boyd (Bloomsbury, 2006)

The hot summer of 1976 and Ruth Gilmartin is supposedly working on a history PhD thesis at Oxford University, but is actually spending most of her time teaching English to foreign students and raising her young son, Jochen.  Her mother lives in a cottage in the Cotswolds and has started to show signs of paranoia, watching the woods behind the house with binoculars.  Having built a new life for herself after war, she senses that her past is catching up with her and turns to Ruth for help, revealing her secrets.  Sally Gilmartin is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian émigré recruited by English spymaster Lucas Romer in Paris in 1939.  From there she is sent to Scotland for training before taking up a position in a small outfit run by Romer in Belgium that tries to plant disinformation in newspapers around the world aimed at misdirecting or undermining the German war effort.  The legacy of her time as a spy still haunts her and her training is telling her that she has one more mission to perform, one that she needs Ruth’s help to carry out.

Restless is told in chapters that alternate in time between 1976 and the war.  Whilst I found the more recent narrative to be well written and interesting, it is the war time tale that sparkles - Boyd wonderfully evokes Eva’s journey and the politics, intrigue, spy craft and danger of being a spy for a country at war.  Unfortunately the switching thus had the effect of breaking up Eva’s story with more mundane interludes that a love-sick Iran engineer/activist, suspect German guests, and Ruth’s investigation fail to enliven to the same intensity and vividness of the war years.  At one level then, this is a very good read, with engaging prose, strong characterization, and a well constructed plot; at another, it is a little uneven varying between good and outstanding, though Boyd does an excellent job of weaving the two strands together in the final part of the book with a satisfying resolution that has a nice twist.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

Every Friday and/or Saturday for the past six weeks I've either presented a paper at an event or organised a conference.  It's been quite a diverse set of talks: transforming the crisis (Cork); mapping humans (Oxford); the science behind urban development (Vienna); housing and planning (Athlone); the US election (Maynooth) and mapping Ireland (Tallagh).  Thankfully, I'm getting my weekends back for the foreseeable future.  I also don't have another public talk in the diary until the new year (I was meant to be going to Malaysia and Singapore in two weeks time, but other matters intervened).  Instead I can hopefully crack on with the new (academic) book, which is progressing, but more slowly than I hoped.

My posts this week
Review of Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon
Pasting over the cracks in a story
Review of The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
Measuring Ireland's Progress: Benchmarking against the past and other countries
Oxford Dictionary up on Amazon
Review of Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie
Why do I always attract the weirdos?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Why do I always attract the weirdos?

‘Why do I always attract the weirdos?’ Jenny moaned.

‘They’re all weirdos,’ Tessa replied.  ‘They’re men.’

‘But they have their uses,’ Katie said.

‘Yeah, but only one.’


‘What?  It’s true.  They’re good at taking out the bins.’

‘The last one who came up to me smelt like he lived in a bin,’ Jenny said and took a sup of her lager.

‘At least they provide you with good anecdotes.’

‘There has to be a least one nice man out there.’

‘And here he comes now.  Your knight in shining armour.’ 

‘Oh god, he even looks like a bin man!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Review of Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (1935, Hamlyn)

Hercule Poirot is flying from Paris to London.  In the same section of the plane are ten fellow passengers - a Parisian lady, a countess and her friend, a businessman, a dentist, a hairdresser who has won the Irish sweepstakes, a Harley Street doctor, father and son archaeologists, and a detective author - who are served by two stewards.  As they near the airport at Croyden, one of the stewards tries to wake the Parisian lady, Madame Giselle, only to discover that she is dead.  At first it appears that she has died of a reaction to a wasp sting, but the ever observant Poirot finds at her feet a small blowpipe dart disguised as a wasp.  The puzzling questions are who killed her and how were they not observed doing it given that none of the passengers witnessed another using a blowpipe?  On landing Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard is on hand to investigate.  It soon transpires that Madame Giselle was a wealthy moneylender who profited from making loans to selected individuals and made sure they paid by holding damaging information about them, and her will leaves her fortune to the daughter she gave away at birth.  Whilst Japp flounders, Poirot uncovers some fairly clear links between some of the passengers and Madame Giselle, though others appear to have no connection or motive for her death.  Through careful deduction he slowly pieces together what happened on the plane before denouncing the culprit.

Death in the Clouds is a classic locked room mystery - a murder is committed in a space occupied by thirteen people, yet no-one witnesses the crime and all of them could conceivably have a motive for the death.  Christie excels at creating such puzzles and telling them in an engaging, often witty voice, that is all show and no tell.  The secret is clever plotting that slowly reveals how various elements of the murder were committed and why, but which keep as many suspects in the frame as possible until a final denouement whilst feeding the reader red herrings and leading them down false paths as they try to determine the killer’s identity.  Her telling is aided by well drawn characterization, especially Poirot and Japp, and some nice observational touches that keep matters plausible.  There are two weaknesses to her style of storytelling, however, both evident in Death in the Clouds.  First, the story is all about the puzzle and rarely do they open up wider reflective questions for the reader.  The effect is a tale that is intriguing but which lacks contemplative depth.  Second, it is almost impossible for the reader to deduce the identity of the murderer before the denouement as some crucial clues are held back and often they are quite outlandish.  Nevertheless, Death in the Clouds is an enjoyable read and Poirot is a delight.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Oxford dictionary up on Amazon

I've noticed that my co-authored, forthcoming book - the Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography - is available for pre-order on Amazon.  It will be formally published in April 2013.  I was recently asked what the main differences are between it and the Dictionary of Human Geography published by Blackwell.  In a nutshell, our dictionary has more entries (over 2100 vs c.1000); wider coverage across the discipline; more variety in entry type (biographies, places, events, books, organisations, political agreements, in addition to concepts and methods); length of entry (more concise); level of entries (aimed at undergraduates and interested generalists rather than advanced postgrad and academics); style of entry (very clear with limited use of jargon); consistency in entries (all written by the three authors rather than an edited collection); price (£11.99 vs £24.99); its much smaller and lighter.  Whilst some might view them as competing texts, I think they're complementary, with the Blackwell dictionary having longer, more advanced entries.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review of The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946, Penguin)

Richard Cadogan is a struggling poet of some renown.  Having extricated an advance out of his publisher he heads to Oxford for a week’s holiday, setting off late.  The train halts in Didcot and he hitchhikes a lift the rest of the way arriving around midnight.  Dropped at the edge of the city, he walks in.  Drawn to a shop whose awning has been left down, idle curiosity leads him to try the door.  Finding it unlocked he enters an empty toyshop, then climbs the stairs to flat above where he discovers the body of an old woman who’s been strangled.  Just as he’s leaving he’s knocked unconscious.  Waking four hours later he makes his escape and heads for a police station.  When they return to the shop it is no longer a toyshop but a grocer’s and there’s no sign of a body.  Had Cadogan been dreaming or had an elderly woman been murdered the night before?  His Oxford don friend, Gervase Fen, decides to investigate, convinced of foul-play.

The Moving Toyshop is a locked room, crime farce.  Crispin writes in taut, tight prose, that is all show and no tell so that the plot moves along a jaunty pace.  The characterisation is nicely observed, especially the double act of Cadogan, the poet out of his depth, and Fen, the bright detective who ignores the law.  The other principles are also well penned.  The plot is quite intricate, and the puzzle is agreeably knotted.  A streak of dark humour runs throughout and as the story unfolds the farce deepens, so that by the end there are dozens of people chasing each other round Oxford in a set of caper sequences.  The only real issue is that plot does rest on a set of coincidences and actions that are unlikely, which the author tries to paste over by conversing directly with reader (see post yesterday).  In many ways this doesn’t really matter as the story remains a very enjoyable romp.  Overall, a fun and engaging tale.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pasting over the cracks in a story

On Saturday I read The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (pub. 1946).  It was great fun, but the story rested on a few coincidences and the principle characters acting in odd ways.  Crispin's strategy for dealing with this is to appeal to the reader through his character's interactions that a suspension of disbelief is perfectly credible or entirely appropriate.  He also injects a few quips re. the author and publisher.  They actually work quite well to diffuse problematic plot devices and reinforce the sense that the book is a crime farce.  Here's a few examples:

'Don't spurn coincidence in that casual way,' said Fen severely.  'I know your sort.  You say the most innocent encounter in a detective novel is unfair, and yet you're always screaming out about having met someone abroad who lives in the next parish, and what a small world it is.'

'Well, I'm going to the police,' said Cadogan.  'If there's one thing I hate, it's the sort of book in which characters don't go to the police when they've no earthly reason for not doing so.'

'My dear fellow, are you all right?  I was making up titles for Crispin.'

'Let's go left,' Cadogan suggested.  'After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.  I wonder - '

'After all, it's a somewhat unusual business, isn't it?'
'So unusual that no one in his senses would invent it.'

'It will work,' Fen responded confidently, 'because no one expects this sort of trick outside of a book.'

Monday, October 8, 2012

Review of Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon (Simon and Schuster, 2012)

Leon Bauer, a businessman in Istanbul, has spent the Second World War undertaking errands for the American consulate and helping his wife rescue Jews escape from Europe.  In the post-war period he finds himself performing the same roles, only his wife is in a clinic having had a nervous breakdown.  His American handler has arranged for Bauer to meet someone off a boat, a man who was a senior figure in the Romanian fascist regime, someone who persecuted Jews but has valuable information about the Russian intelligence services.  His job is to hide the man until he can be flown to Washington for debriefing.  Only someone else is also waiting at the docks, leading to a shootout.  Unsure who to trust, and with the Americans, Russians and Turks hunting for his charge, he seeks a safe passage for them both out of the country.

In Istanbul Passage Kanon envelopes the reader in the city in the immediate post-war era - a city on the fulcrum between East and West in a country seeking to remain somewhat neutral in the coming cold war.  Kanon expertly recreates its cultural landscape and sense of place - the melting pot of sights and sounds; the busy waterways and markets; the contrasts between rich and poor; and the political and diplomatic haunts of consulates, hotels and private parties.  The characterisation is keenly observed, especially Leon Bauer, who is given the unenviable task of keeping alive a war criminal, someone hated by the Jews he helps rescue, and who finds himself caught in both a political drama and an unfolding romance. The plot is intricately woven and as the story unfolds Kanon ratchets up the tension, performs twist after twist, and shifts the moral terrain.  Indeed, with regards to the latter, the story poses questions about obligation, duty and loyalty in relation to work, family and strangers.  The result is a thoughtful and engaging page-turner.  It certainly whetted my appetite for his other books.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm having a golden age of crime fiction weekend.  Yesterday I read The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946) and today I've made a start on Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (1935).  Both are tightly plotted, witty, and all show and no tell.  A lot to be learnt on that front by some contemporary writers, I feel.

My posts from last week

September reviews
Residential property price register launched
Last seen wearing
Data visualizations of residential property price register
Review of The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman
The geography of actual sales prices
Review of The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal
Forty minutes to transfer terminals

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Forty minutes to transfer terminals

She tugged at his jacket.  ‘Put it on later.’

He snatched his bag from the tray and shuffled after her, clutching his belt.

A tinny voice announced: ‘Final call for flight ...’

‘Geoff, come-on!’

‘I’m coming.’ 

‘We’re going to miss it!’

‘We’ve got fifteen minutes.’

‘That’s when it departs, not when they close the doors.  Hurry up!’

They half-walked, half-jogged through a shopping mall masquerading as a departure lounge, reaching a corridor that seemed to go on for forever. 

He slowed to a walk, panting.  ‘Forget it, Sandy.  We’re not going to make it.’ 

‘Geoff! Come-on.’ 

They started jogging again.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, October 5, 2012

Review of The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (Bloomsbury, 2012)

A former police inspector, Makana lives on a rickety house boat in Cairo having fled Sudan seven years previously, forced out by Islamic extremists who killed his wife and daughter.  He now ekes out a living as a private investigator, fed jobs by Inspector Okasha, a friend in the Egyptian police and by word of mouth.  One morning he summoned to the penthouse apartment of Saad Hanafi, a self-made man who owns a vast property empire, dozens of businesses and a football club, the Dreem Team.  Hanafi wants Makana to find their missing star player, Adil Romario, a playboy figure who’d like to star in movies.  Aware of Hanafi’s notorious reputation for playing dirty, Makana agrees to undertake the job, knowing that he is only being given a partial version of the story as to Adil’s disappearance.  It doesn’t take him long to discover that the Hanafi empire is in trouble and not all is well in the aging kingpin’s household.  Determined to locate Adil, he is thrust into Cairo’s rich and seedy underbelly, tangling with a Russian gangster, Islamic fundamentalists, the intelligence services, and an English mother searching for the daughter abducted many years earlier.

The Golden Scales has all the ingredients of a good crime thriller - colourful, engaging characters, a strong sense of place, social context and politics, a tangled knot of competing interests and intrigue, and well written prose.  For the most part it’s a very good read.  Makana is a wonderful character with an interesting back story, and the sense of place is excellent, dropping the reader into modern day Cairo and the Red Sea resorts.  Where the story is slightly let down is with some elements of the plotting.  Generally, it is nicely constructed and it builds towards a tense climax.  However, there are a couple of points which don’t really add up.  For example, Cairo is a massive city, yet Makana meets the English woman searching for her child quite by chance in a restaurant and somehow decides that she is somehow linked to the Hanafi case.  There is no basis for that assumption, and meeting her and splicing the threads together is a massive coincidence and plot device that is clumsily executed. The resolution is also a little clunky with Hanafi’s reaction seeming out of character.  These awkward moments undermine what is otherwise an interesting and enjoyable tale.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review of The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman (Blasted Heath, 2011)

March 1st 1929 in Dusseldorf and working girl Emma Gross is murdered in a pay-by-the-hour hotel.  The murder and a handful of others are attributed by Inspector Michael Ritter to a young man with learning and behavioural difficulties, cast as copycat murders of a notorious killer, nicknamed ‘the ripper’, who’s at work in the area.  May 1930, the killings are continuing, a young girl has disappeared, and the infamous Inspector Gennat has been drafted in from Berlin Kripo to head up the investigation.  Detective Thomas Klein has been tipped off as the identity and location of the ripper by a young woman who escaped his clutches.  Ritter’s former partner, Klein has been banished to the suburbs for sleeping with Ritter’s wife, his reputation smeared with allegations of communist sympathies.  Seeking a lifeline back to headquarters, Klein tries to bring in the ripper by himself, but his plan is thwarted and he instead ends up in hot water.  Ritter wants him drummed out of the force, but the only person that the ripper, Peter Kurten, will talk to is Klein.  The more Klein interviews Kurten, the more convinced he is that the copycat murders were performed by him, with the exception of Emma Gross.  The young man might well have killed Gross, but in the other cases the prosecution was fabricated.  Klein starts to secretly investigate the old case, but soon he is being followed and threatened.

The Killing of Emma Gross is a well constructed historical police procedural that is based on the story of the real Dusseldorf ripper, Peter Kurten, using real characters from the case such as Gennat and the pathologist.  The story is gritty, edgy and dark, with a nice tension running throughout centred on the fraught rivalry between Klein and Ritter, and Berlin Kripo's presence.  The plot is well paced and as it unfolds becomes a real page-turner.  The characterisation is excellent throughout, with adequate back story to get a good sense of the main actors, and Klein was engaging as a flawed copper looking for redemption and revenge.  Moreover, Seaman does a good job of placing the reader in the Weimar Republic and its unsettled social and political landscape.  Overall, a taut, sinister, well told tale and I’d be interested in spending more time in Klein’s company. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Last seen wearing ...

Having read the book Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter a couple of weeks ago, I decided to dig out the DVD and watch the adaptation for TV as portrayed in Morse.  The most striking thing about the TV version is that it bares very little resemblence to the book.  Just about everything has been changed - context, the characters and their lifestyles, the relationships between the characters, the storyline, the killer's identity.  It's a wonder that they even called it 'Last Seen Wearing'.  I really don't understand why the writer did this.  The book could have been adapted as is and it would have worked just as well, if not better than the adaptation (if one can call it adaptation).  What I do know is, it annoyed the heck out of me and the person I gave the running commentary to on what had been altered!  If I was Colin Dexter I probably would have been livid.  I'd love to hear a rationale explanation as to why so many changes were made as I really can't think of any.

Monday, October 1, 2012

September reviews

Another good month of reading, with five 4 star and two 5 star reads.  My book of the month was We Are the Hanged Man by Douglas Lindsay, a darkly comic mash-up of police procedural and reality television that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Spies in the Sky by Taylor Downing ***.5
Brenner and God by Wolf Haas **.5
A Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis ****
Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter ****
Homicide by David Simon *****
No Sale by Patrick Conrad ****
Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson ****
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollack ****
We Are the Hanged Man by Douglas Lindsay *****