Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm reading Missing in Rangoon by Christopher G Moore at present.  The setting, weather and culture is certainly different to cold, rural Ireland.  The story is peppered with some nice observational touches.  I liked this one as it captures how I think the relationship between my academic work and creative writing:

"As with many reinventions, the original platform remained functional underneath.  The Colonel was still a cop who played the saxophone and not a saxophonist who played at being a cop."

My posts this week:

Review of Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller
Review of Beautiful, Naked and Dead by Josh Stallings
A Murder in Venice

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Murder in Venice

The three visiting academics stared at the body floating in the canal.

‘You know him?’ the inspector asked.

‘He’s a professor at the university,’ Göran replied. 

‘We were waiting for him,’ Sigrun added.  ‘He said he kept Italian time, not Swiss.’

‘The dead are always late,’ the inspector said. ‘And often in life also.’

‘Water is life,’ Rafaela, the hydrologist, muttered. 

‘Not if you’re drowned, Signora,’ the inspector replied.  ‘You’re going to have to stay in Venice for now.’

‘For how long?’ Göran asked.

‘As long as necessary.  There are worse places to be.  Unless you’re the murderer, that is.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review of Beautiful, Naked and Dead by Josh Stallings (Heist Publishing, 2011 )

Moses McGuire is not sure what he hates most -- himself or the rotten world he finds himself living in.  Having been drummed out of the marines and served time, he’s approaching forty, his wife has left him, and he’s working as a bouncer at a run-down strip club in LA.  He’s surrounded by losers and hardened and criminal souls, and his closest friends are Kelly, a waitress at the club who declines to strip, and bottles of whiskey.  Contemplating whether to end it all with a bullet through the back of his mouth, he receives a phone call from Kelly asking him to come and rescue her from two thugs from her past.  By the time he catches up with her she’s been tortured and murdered and McGuire gains a new purpose in life: revenge and justice.  And he doesn’t really care who he pisses off in the process of exacting them -- the cops, FBI, the mob, or those working in the strip and prostitution industry -- or if he’ll end up dead.  All that matters is making those responsible pay, and he has the attitude, wheels and firearms to make sure that happens.

Beautiful, Naked and Dead is a hardboiled caper novel that starts at a fair clip and keeps motoring along until its bloody climax.  Everything about the book is hard-edged with soft undertones: the characters, the plot, the prose.  Moses McGuire at one level is a cookie-cut hard man, but Stallings makes him a little vulnerable and complex with a firm moral compass despite his own shady past.  The other characters are a little one-dimensional and cliched, but they perfectly fit the plotline and the fast-paced action.  The strength of the plotting is the relentless pace, nicely realised action scenes and interchanges between characters, strong contextualisation within the stripping industry, and sense of place.  Adding to the whole effect is Stalling’s tough writing voice that is nicely expressive and engaging.  Overall, an entertaining read that has possible movie-script written all over it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Review of Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller (Faber, 2013)

Following the death of his wife, eighty two year old Sheldon Horowitz has recently moved to Oslo to live with his grand-daughter and her husband.  After a stint as a marine in Korea, he's spent most of his life running a watch and clock repair shop, grieving over the death of his son in Vietnam, for which he blames himself, and looking over his shoulder for North Korean spies bent on exacting revenge for the soldiers he killed during the war.  Unable to speak the language and unsettled by the move and regrets in life, he seems increasingly disconnected from the world and his grand-daughter believes he might be starting to suffer from dementia.  When the upstairs neighbour appears on his apartment doorstep with her young son after a violent argument he takes them in.  But the respite is short lived.  Her attacker breaks down the door and kills the mother as Sheldon and the son hide in the closet.  Afraid the police might hand the boy over to the killer, the two fugitives slip away, intent on making their way to a summer cottage and sanctuary.  Not sharing a language, the old man and young boy sneak through the Norwegian landscape, drawing on Sheldon’s in-grained marine training, as the cops, family, and the mother’s killer search for them.  He might have failed his son, but Sheldon isn’t going to fail the small boy he’s christened ‘Paul’.

There’s a lot to like about Norwegian by Night, especially the wonderful lead character of Sheldon Horowitz.  He’s cranky, difficult, complex, indignant, lovable, principled and caring.  Derek Miller gives him great depth by charting a detailed back story and providing him with a difficult quest.  He surrounds him by other well realised characters and there are some very nice interchanges between them.  The plot is relatively straightforward in terms of Sheldon and the young boys journey, but Miller adds depth and layers through the use of remembrance and contextualisation, and it builds to a tense and dramatic climax.  Much of the story is a wonderful read, shifting the reader through a full spectrum of emotions.  However, the story drifts a little in the middle, providing back story material for other characters rather than keeping the focus more centrally on Sheldon and ‘Paul’, and Paul is the most underdeveloped character in the book (we never once get to see the world through his eyes, unlike several other characters).  I was fine with the resolution, but the ending for me was a little too sudden leaving a number of loose ends with regards to the fate of different characters beyond Sheldon.  Overall, this was a very good read and highly recommended to readers who like character-driven crime fiction.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm off to Venice for a couple of days this week to attend a meeting and present a talk.  I was hoping to read Alibi by Joseph Kanon, which is set in the city in the 1946, when I was there but the order hasn't arrived at the local bookshop.  I have an unread Donna Leon book on the bookshelf, Blood from a Stone, so I'm going to give that a go instead.  I've not been to Italy before, so I'm looking forward to trip, even if it's only a short visit.

My posts this week
Review of The Twelfth Department by William Ryan
Norwegian by Night
Reading tensions
Unfinished estates and the local property tax
Review of The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes
Detailed maps of every unit on unfinished estates exempt from the local property tax

Saturday, March 23, 2013


George stared at the pile of grey-blue stones, then bent down and selected one, weighing it in his calloused hands, twisting it round, taking in its shape.  He turned to the half-built wall and slotted it into place.  Testing its fit, it toppled to one side.  He pulled it free, turned it ninety degrees and tried again.  Unsatisfied he placed the stone in another slot, then dropped it to one side.  He stared at the wall, then at the hill across the valley, before gazing back down at the pile of stones, content in the cadence and silence of work. 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Review of The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes (Avon, 1960)

Alberta Wright has found God via Sweet Prophet Brown’s sermon at a street service on 117th Street, Harlem.  At the height of her religious fervour, she seemingly drops dead.  Her partner, Sugar Stonewall, dashes from the scene not wanting to be around when the cops turn up.  He arrives back at their apartment to find that Alberta’s estranged husband has sold all her furniture, having failed to find her secret stash of cash.  But Sugar and her husband are not the only one’s hunting for Alberta’s money and soon the furniture buyer is murdered at his shop.  Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, two black detectives working the Harlem beat, start to investigate, aware that the body count might rise before they manage to administer justice.

The Big Gold Dream is the fourth book in the Coffin Ed and Grave Digger series.  The strongest element of the story is the sense of place and contextualisation as to life and hustles in Harlem in the 1950s.  However, the characterisation is wafer thin, with next to no back story with respect to any of the various characters, and the two lead detectives hardly feature at all.  What keeps the story together is the plot and pace.  Himes keeps the action moving along in a reasonably convoluted tale about finding a supposed small fortune hidden by a somewhat naive woman.  The telling is a little ragged in places, but it’s a reasonably entertaining caper.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reading tensions

Over the past couple of months I've been wrestling with the balance between reading fiction and work-related material.  The dilemma is that I have a lot of books I need to read to help me write the academic book I'm working on, but not enough time to read them.  The obvious solution is to scale back on the fiction to slot the non-fiction in.  I've been resisting that, but it's fairly obvious that something is going to have to give and it needs to be the fiction reading.  So, expect a lessening of crime fiction reviews on the blog over the coming months, after which normal service should hopefully resume.  My plan is to still post at least one fiction review a week; more if I continue to resist the need to scale back.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Norwegian by Night

I bought Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller from the local bookstore on Saturday afternoon.  I finished it yesterday morning.  It's one of the those books you devour in a couple of sittings and manages to convey just about every kind of emotion.  The lead character - an eighty two year old former Marine now living with grand-daughter in Oslo - is a wonderful creation.  I'm still mentally digesting the story about how he goes on the run with a small child after witnessing the murder of the boy's mother.  I'll post a review in the next week or so, but suffice to say it's worth checking out.  Of the three covers I've seen browsing the internet, this one is my favourite.

Review of The Twelfth Department by William Ryan (Mantle, 2013)

Moscow, 1937, Captain Korolev, a divorced detective with the local militia is looking forward to spending a week with his young son, who is visiting him for the first time in a while.  He’s barely met Yuri off the train when he’s asked to investigate the death of an important scientist, shot in the back of the head in his exclusive apartment near to the Kremlin.  The scientist has managed to rise up the greasy pole to attain his own research institute through a mix of promising results from dubious science and denouncing colleagues.  Korolev knows the case is a poisoned chalice given the interest of a colonel in the Twelfth Department of the NKVD and he’s relieved when it’s taken away from him.  His respite is short-lived, however.  Not only is he directed back to the case, but he becomes a pawn between two sparring NKVD departments and Yuri disappears.  The challenge is to solve the case whilst negotiating a booby-trapped tightrope in a country where failure has dire consequences and to save his son.  No easy task, but at least he’s armed with tact and guile, and has the support of friends and enemies, all of whom may share his fate if he fails.

The Twelfth Department is the third instalment in Korolev series and sees the detective back in his native Moscow after his excursion to the Ukraine in his last outing.  Ryan does an admirable job of recreating the tension and paranoia of pre-war Russia, and the ways in which ordinary people try to survive and get by in the system.  Korolev is canny, street-wise and willing to take a risk, but he isn’t corrupt nor anti-establishment, instead trying to be a good citizen and comrade in a regime that oppresses many.  Given his job, he is tested often, and in The Twelfth Department Ryan provides a nice conumdrum to solve both in terms of the case and in surviving being a pawn in a game between NKVD departments.  Indeed, this is a well-paced, plot-driven story, and whilst the characters are nicely penned, they are caught in the moment of the story and the reader learns little of their back story or wider situation and it would be interesting to learn a little more about Korolev and his colleagues in the next book.  In compensation, there is a strong sense of place, good contextualisation, and vivid atmosphere.  Overall, an enjoyable read and solid addition to what is shaping up to be a very good series. 

I was fortunate enough to be send an advance copy by the publisher and The Twelfth Department is not published until May, so you have plenty of time to get your advanced order in.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

St Patrick's Day reading

Happy St Patrick's Day.  Given it's a day to celebrate all things Irish I've gone back through my reviews and picked out all the novels written by Irish authors in the last twelve months.  There are some cracking stories here, so why don't you join in the festivities by tracking down at least one of them and giving it a read. Or if you want something you can read right now, you could try my short story from earlier in the week, The Case of the Strange White Van, set in Leitrim.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville
The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy
I Hear Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty
The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway
Red Ribbons by Louise Phillips
The City of Shadows by Michael Russell
Slaughter's Hound by Declan Burke
Even Flow by Darragh McManus
A June of Ordinary Murders by Conor Brady
Ghost Town by Michael Clifford

My other posts this week:
Property tax evaluation model and what it means for residential property owners

Review of Last Rights by Barbara Nadel
White van stories
Review of Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer
Stick or twist?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Stick or twist?

‘So, how’s life?’

Susie placed her wine glass on the table.  ‘It’s okay.’

‘That good?’

‘I think it might be time to move on.’

‘Again?  You’ve only been with them two months.’

‘From Simon.’

‘Simon?  Are you crazy?’

‘I ... well, I just ...’

‘Do you love him?’

‘Yes.  I ... yes.’

‘And he’s treats you well.’

‘I wouldn’t have lived with him for eight years if he didn’t.’

‘And the bedroom?’


‘So what’s the problem?’

‘It just feels ... stale.’

‘Stale can be refreshed.  Finding something better might be more tricky.’

‘But it could be exciting.’

‘Or lonely.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review of Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer (Hodder, 2010)

Benny Griesel’s home and work life seem to be drifting away from him. He’s been sober for six months, but his wife has still not let him return to the family home. At work he’s been eased to one side, assigned the role of mentor to a new crop of detectives. The day starts badly when he gets an early morning call about the discovery of a body. A short time later he receives a second call; another body has been found. Both are high profile: a young American tourist and the owner of a successful record label. His day is going to be busy and stressful, giving advice to two rookie detectives. Then he discovers that a second American tourist is being chased by a gang of men intent on killing her. Griesel is ordered to take charge of finding and protecting the young woman. But not only is she running scared, she believes that some of the men pursuing her are police officers. The clock is ticking and time is running out for both the woman and Griesel.

Thirteen Hours starts at a brisk pace and hurtles along to its tense conclusion. The journey, however, is not overly linear, with Meyer managing to create a layered, complex and compelling story consisting of two intersected plotlines. The contextualisation is excellent, particularly with respect to the dynamics and politics of the Afrikaans music industry and the South African police force, and the social geography of Cape Town. The characterisation is very nicely realised, especially Griesel and his fellow cops, and Meyer is particularly good at portraying the interplay and dynamics between characters and how these evolve over time and in context. The only slight niggle was the sense that woman being chased should have really been able to find safety in such a large and busy city, especially once she knows the US authorities are also looking for her, yet when she does find refuge she takes a bath rather than calling for help. Other than that, this is a great read - a tense, fast-moving, textured thriller - which definitely whets the appetite for spending more time in Griesel’s company.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

White van stories

Yesterday, Patti Abbott posted links to all the entries to her 'white van' challenge - to write a short story involving a white van.  I haven't yet found the time to work my way through all of them, but if you're interested in some short pieces of flash crime fiction head over to Patti's blog pronto.  And here's the link to my story - The Case of the Strange White Van.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review of Last Rights by Barbara Nadel (Headline, 2005)

1940 in London at the height of the blitz, undertaker and First World War veteran Francis Hancock’s nerves are in shreds.  Unable to descend into the shelters for fear of being buried alive, he wanders the streets in a dazed madness as the bombs fall all around him.  One night he comes across a man who claims to have been stabbed before staggering off.  Two days later, the man turns up in Hancock’s funeral parlour.  The police think he died from shock caused by a bomb blast, but Hancock discovers a small pinprick on his chest which he believes was created by a hat-pin.  Initially, the police are not interested, but after a post-mortem examination they arrest his wife, disbelieving her alibi and aware that she has a chequered history and possible 'bad blood', her mother having murdered her step-father with a hat-pin through the heart.  Hancock is not convinced of the woman’s guilt and having taken in her teenage daughter sets about trying to contact her estranged sisters and to discover who did kill the man.

Last Rights is a kind of a hard-edged cozy: undertaker, Francis Hancock, turns amateur detective, investigating a murder when the police do not at first seem interested, continuing when he feels that they have arrested the wrong person.  The edge is provided by the blitz, working class conditions, prostitution and the black market, and some unsavoury characters.  The story unfolds at a reasonable clip and Nadel’s style is quite engaging.  There is some nice contextualisation with respect to the blitz and the Jewish community in London, the sense of place is quite strong, and the characterisation and familial relations are well realised.  Where the book suffers is with respect to the plot.  The premise is interesting but the execution is weak and contrived at times and the killer is somewhat obvious from a long way out.  There were a number of elements of the story that I just simply did not believe, not least the actions of the police, which made little sense.  Overall, the makings of a good series, but this opening story was undermined by an improbable plot.

3 stars

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Case of the Strange White Van

I haven't posted a short story on the blog for a while, except for the weekly drabble.  This story is my entry to Patti Abbott's flash fiction challenge - to write a tale about a white van.  I wrote it last spring, but couldn't decide where to submit it to as it doesn't really fit the remit of most crime fiction outlets, as you'll see if you read on.  I'm usually pretty ambivalent about my own fiction, but I actually quite like this one and I might well write some more tales involving the same characters.  Hopefully, you'll enjoy it as well. 

The Case of the Strange White Van

As the offices of a private investigator went, 4 Chestnut Grove was the bees knees as far as P.I. Kevin Carter was concerned.  Beggars couldn’t afford to be choosers and rent free digs for a gumshoe down to his last brass cents were a godsend. 

The house was the third in a row of seven that backed onto open fields.  The first was little more than breeze block walls, eight feet high.  The second was missing a roof, windows and doors.  The third, fourth and fifth had roofs made of red tiles and weathered doors, but bare window frames. 

The final two were sealed and had internal stud walls, though a number of their windows had been smashed.  They had been claimed by a small gaggle of local teenagers who would congregate in and around them in the evenings and swap coarse humour and awkward flirtation.  On the weekends they would drink cans of cider and bottles of cheap vodka, playing music on their mobile phones as they gradually vandalised the dilapidated units, unlived in since they were built four years previously.

P.I. Kevin Carter pushed aside brambles in the overgrown back garden and entered his offices through the unlocked back door.  He took off his fedora and mac and hung them on a stand.

‘Hold all calls, cupcake,’ he said to the secretary and passed into the hallway.  ‘I’m working on a very important case.’

He clambered up a pallet he’d leant against two long planks, then worked his way up steps he’d nailed onto the right-hand plank to reach the upper floor.

He turned and hollered down into the hall below.  ‘And don’t let that rattlesnake, Sam Spade, bother me.  He’s a two bit liar and a braggart.  He’s done his last day’s work for the Carter Detective Agency.’

Through with instructing Agatha Christie in her duties, he snuck carefully to the bay window at the front of the house and peeked out cautiously.  The potholed road was empty.  Opposite were the fenced off concrete bases for an unrealised second row of units.  Beyond them a hawthorn hedge partially obscured the rest of the village.

Happy he was alone, he moved to what would have been a back bedroom and pushed aside a slab of wood and tugged out a cardboard box.  It contained the tools of his trade -- a magnifying glass, a compass, a pad and pen, fingerprint powder and a brush, a small pair of binoculars, a torch, some spare batteries, a penknife, a water pistol in case the dames got hysterical or the situation turned ugly, and a stash of detective magazines.  His pride and joy, a tiny silver camera, always stayed in his pocket, handy to record vital evidence.

He pulled a magazine free, sitting down on two stacked breeze blocks and opened the pages, searching for an interesting story.

‘Kevin?’ A woman’s voiced shouted from outside.  ‘Kevin are you in there?  It’s time for your tea.’

‘Drat,’ P.I. Carter muttered, stuffing the magazine back in the box and covering it with the board. 

‘Kevin?  Come-on, love.  What have we told you about playing in there?  It’s not safe.’

‘It’s as safe as houses,’ P.I. Carter muttered as he climbed down to the hallway.

‘I thought I told you to hold all my calls?’ he said to Agatha as he slipped on his hat and coat.  ‘I think it might be time to get a new secretary; one that knows how to deal with crazy older people.’


‘Well, look who it is -- if it isn’t that low-down rat, Sam Spade.  What’s the matter, Spade, got no home to go to?’

P.I. Carter didn’t wait for an answer, but moved from behind a low wall and crouch-walked to the edge of a dense thicket of brambles.  Kneeling in damp weeds he stared over at a white van parked outside of number seven.

‘I told you we were through,’ he whispered.  ‘I have a new sidekick now.  Meet Sherlock Holmes.  Sherlock this is Sam Spade.  He’s too fond of the drink, the ladies and fighting for proper detective work.  Sherlock’s just put the famous Professor Moriarty behind bars.’

P.I. Carter glanced over his shoulder.  ‘What’s the matter, Spade, you can’t take a hint?  Now, scram.’

P.I. Carter crept around the brambles and shuffled along the edge of a concrete base to get a better view of the house.  He pulled his camera from his pocket and took a photo of the van’s license plate.  There was no sign of its occupants.

‘I’ll go this way,’ P.I. Carter pointed to his left.  ‘You go that,’ he said to Sherlock, pointing right.  ‘And be careful, this country is full of dangerous and desperate men.  They’ll kill you as soon as look at you.’

‘Indubitably,’ Sherlock muttered, setting off.

P.I. Carter watched him stalk back to the brambles and disappear.  His sidekick was going to need more than a funny hat and a large magnifying glass if he wanted to solve the big cases.  He shook his head and darted off, running low.

As he made his way across the weed-infested piles of builder’s rubble P.I. Carter could see that Sherlock was already in place, sitting cross-legged on the ground under the back window.  As he neared the house he accidentally kicked a glass bottle, sending it twirling across the rough ground and clinking off the wall.

‘Drat!’ he muttered, dropping down next to Sherlock.

‘What was that?’ a man said from within the house.

‘What was what?’ another voice answered.

‘I thought I heard something outside.’

‘Oh-oh,’ P.I. Carter muttered.  ‘Come-on.’

He sprinted along the back of the houses and dashed in through the back door into his agency offices.

‘Quick, everyone upstairs,’ he said, running through to the hallway.

As they scrambled up the pallet, he made the introductions.  ‘Sherlock, this is Agatha.  She’s the office secretary.  Agatha, this is our new detective, Sherlock Holmes.  We’ll hide in the bathroom.  I have a rope there for an emergency escape.’


Wearing his mac and hat, P.I. Carter entered the kitchen where a radio was broadcasting the six o’clock news.  ‘Gardai are still searching for a gang of four men who robbed a Leitrim post office at gunpoint this afternoon.’

A woman turned the sound down and turned from the washing up to face him.

‘And where are you going?’

‘Detectiving with Agatha and Sherlock.’

‘What happened to Sam Spade?’

‘He had to go.  I’m undertaking a new investigation - The Case of the Strange White Van.’

‘You’re not going to that ghost estate are you?  I’ve told you a thousand times, it’s not safe.  You’re to stay away.  Do you hear?’

‘We’re working a stakeout,’ P.I. Carter said, ignoring her concerns.

‘You’re to be back before it gets dark, it’s a school day tomorrow.  I don’t want to have come looking for you again.  And try and stay out of trouble.  People don’t like peeping toms.’ 

‘Agatha and Sherlock don’t have to go to school and we’re not peeping, we’re on a stakeout.’

‘Well, they’re older fictional characters, dear, and they’ve already finished school.  They’ll just have to do the stakeout whilst you’re in class.’

‘But we’re about to crack this case wide open!’

‘Well, you better get it solved in the next hour or so, hadn’t you, Kevin?’

‘Come-on, Sherlock,’ P.I. Carter said, opening the door.  ‘Let’s leave this dame alone so she can finish the dishes.’


‘Maybe they’re builders,’ P.I. Carter said to Sherlock.  ‘In which case the company offices could be in danger.’

They’d had the house that the van was parked outside under observation for the past forty five minutes.  P.I. Carter raised his binoculars and stared at the downstairs window.  There were shadows moving inside, but that was as much as he could determine.  The light was fading fast and there were no street lamps on Chestnut Grove.  If they was going to solve the case, then he’d need to act soon. 

‘Come-on, let’s get closer,’ he said, rising to his feet, crouch-running across the road to the side of the van.

He crept to the edge of the vehicle and peeked round the side.

‘Okay, let’s go,’ he muttered, then dashed to the front corner of the house, leaping over a pile of flattened tin cans.  Catching his breath, he gingerly slid along the wall to the front window.  He could hear the voices of two men talking inside, but couldn’t quite make out their words.  A third voice added to the conversation.

After a couple of minutes, P.I. Carter carefully peered through the smashed window into the gloom.  There were three men sitting in a half circle on thick planks of wood resting on breeze block piles.  On the floor in front of them was a pile of bags.  One of the men leant forward and pulled something from one of the bags. 

A car pulled into the estate, its headlights bouncing along the house facades. 

‘Oh-oh,’ P.I. Carter said. 

He dug his camera out of his pocket and poked it through the broken pane.  The room lit up in a brilliant flash.

‘Drat!’  He’d forgotten to turn off the flash.

He faced the car pulling up behind the van and took another photograph.

‘Come-on, Sherlock, let’s split this joint.’ 

He set off like a gazelle with its tail on fire just as the front door to the house burst open.

‘Oi, you.  Stop!’

‘Get him!’ a voice said from the direction of the car.

P.I. Carter burst in through the front door to his offices.

Sam Spade was leaning against the wall, chewing a blade of grass.  ‘Don’t worry, kiddo, I’ll stop them.  I’ve already sent Agatha upstairs.’

P.I. Carter scrabbled up the pallet and onto the right hand plank.  Just as he reached the upper floor, the front door banged open.

‘There’s the little bastard,’ said a tall, thick-set man with a black stubble.

‘Well, he’s trapped now.  Throw us down the camera, little fella, and we’ll leave you alone.’

P.I. Carter stretched out his hand to help Sherlock up the last couple of steps, then winked at Sam Spade and stepped back out of sight.

‘Little bollix,’ the second man said.  ‘Come-on, let’s get him.’

P.I. Carter dashed to the would-be bathroom and threw his escape rope out of the window.  He tugged on it to test it was secure, then clambered out the window.  Back in the hallway there was an almighty crash as the pallets, planks and two beefy men fell to the ground. 

‘Despite all his faults, Sam Spade is a man of his word,’ he said, looking up to Sherlock.  ‘I’ll go for help.  You look after Agatha.’

He lowered himself to the ground and ran along the narrow path through the back gardens, brambles scratching at his trousers, and out onto the main road, not stopping until he reached a phone box.  He dived in, shutting the door behind him.

‘Who were they?’ Sherlock asked.

‘They were horrible,’ Agatha added.

‘It’s elementary, my dear Sherlock,’ P.I. Carter said, staring at the small screen on the back of his camera.  ‘It’s those gangsters who robbed the post office!’

He picked up the phone and dialled 999.


Two days later, having re-built his staircase, P.I. Carter sat in his upstairs office.  Although the robbers had fled the scene, the photographs of the van and car’s license plates, along with the three men counting the money, meant they were apprehended half an hour later as they drove along a country lane. 

Taking a pair of scissors he cut out the headline story in Leitrim Observer: "Boy Detective Solves Post Office Robbery."

‘This is going to be great for advertising,’ he said to Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, and Sam Spade.  He pasted the cutting into a scrap book and shut its pages.  ‘I declare The Case of the Strange White Van now closed.’


I have another story involving a white van in, starring my hapless, feckless cops Harry and Pete.  It's called Speeding; click-on the link to take a read.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

This week coming sees the release of Philip Kerr's latest Bernie Gunther novel, A Man Without Breath, the ninth in what, so far, has been an exceptional set of novels.  The moment new tome arrives it'll go to the top of the pile.  If you're unfamiliar with the series, it's well worth checking out - historical crime fiction at it's best.  The new novel is set in 1943 in Poland, the first of the books to focus exclusively on the Berlin cop's exploits during the war (the others are mainly set either before or after).  The back cover blurb:

It is winter, 1943. Bernie Gunther has left the Criminal Police and is working for the German War Crimes Bureau based in Berlin.  Reports have been circulating of a mass grave hidden in a wood near Smolensk. The grave's whereabouts are uncertain until, deep in the Katyn Forest, a wolf digs up some human remains. Rumour has it that the grave is full of Polish officers murdered by the Russians - a war crime that is perfect propaganda for Germany.  But it needs a detective of subtle skill to investigate this horrific discovery.  Cue Bernie Gunther...

My posts this week

A story stretched too far
Review of A Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie
The Twelfth Department
Review of White Dog by Peter Temple
Fallen behind

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Fallen behind

‘Where’s Jen?’

‘She’s right behind me.’  Mark turned and stared down the dark, empty lane.

‘Well, she isn’t any more,’ Steve said, stating the obvious.

‘She was there a minute ago.’ Mark said, starting to amble back the way they’d come.

‘Jen?’ Sally shouted.



‘Fuck.  Maybe she slipped into the ditch?’ Mark suggested.  ‘She was pretty drunk.’

‘And maybe you should have been walking with her,’ Sally said, trotting past him.

‘I was walking with her.’

‘Is that why she’s disappeared?’

‘You were racing ahead.  She fell behind.’

‘So it’s our fault?’

‘Where the hell is she?’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, March 8, 2013

Review of White Dog by Peter Temple (Quercus, 2011, pub in Australia in 2003).

Sarah Longmore is about to stand trial for the murder of her former lover, a property developer who’s business was in trouble.  Jack Irish has been hired to look into her defence and the veracity of her claims that she’s innocent given that it appears to be an open and shut case.  Jack’s partner has just taken a job in London, so he has plenty of time to investigate Longmore’s story.  It doesn’t take long for him to start to question her guilt and not much longer for others to warn him to quietly drop his snooping.  But once something has got under Jack’s skin, he finds it difficult to walk away.  The question is whether he’ll be walking at all if he doesn’t let the case slide.

White Dog is the fourth and (so far) last book in the excellent Jack Irish series set in and around Melbourne about a former lawyer who divides his time between being an investigator, debt collector, furniture maker, horse-racing gambler and watching Aussie rules football.  Like all of Peter Temple’s novels, White Dog is a nice mix of hardboiled crime and literary voice and observational asides.  In a genre full of workman-like prose, Temple writes with a fresh tone.  The narrative is layered and sometimes almost elusive or veiled, the reader as unsure as to what is happening as Jack.  It’s an intriguing and beguiling style.  As usual, the characterisation is excellent, especially Jack and the Youth Club, an elderly group of football supporters that prop up the local bar, and Jack’s horse racing friends.  The plot is tight and engaging and there’s a nice sense of place.  Overall, a first rate read and  I’m hoping that now the first two books have been adapted for television that Temple will resurrect what has been a stellar series.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Twelfth Department

An advanced copy of The Twelfth Department by William Ryan turned up in the post yesterday.  It's the third installment in the Captain Korolev series set in Moscow in the late 1930s.  It's duly been shuttled to the top of the to-be-read pile.  The first two books in the series are well worth checking out.  Here are links to my reviews of The Holy Thief and The Bloody Meadow.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review of Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie (Quartet Books, 2010)

In the spring of 1940, an old family friend of Superintendent Lannes is found dead in an alley in Bordeaux.  The victim had clearly been tortured and mutilated.  Lannes starts to investigate, suspecting that the man had been murdered not because of his sexuality but for political reasons.  The phoney war is holding, politicians are posturing, and he is soon warned to drop the case.  Lannes, however, is unwilling to fully let go, continuing to probe, all the while worrying about his son who has been drafted into the army and is positioned facing the Germans.  In the meantime, he investigates hate mail sent to a prominent Bordeaux family, headed by a callous patriarch.  As France falls and a new government is put in place, Lannes has to adjust to working in a police force collaborating with the enemy.  He still hasn’t let the original case drop, but pursuing it becomes increasingly dangerous and he has to contemplate letting justice slide to avoid becoming a victim himself; a compromise he has difficulty coming to terms with.

The premise of Death in Bordeaux - a cop constrained by circumstance - is an interesting one.  Massie manages to keep the uncertainty and concessions working until the last page, but the tension is undermined somewhat by a fairly long-winded narrative, pedestrian pace, and the contrived nature of the plot concerning de Grimaud family.  Lannes is an interesting enough cop, dogged and reflective, who worries for the safety of his family, and feels increasingly at sea in the new political terrain, and the characterisation in general is nicely done.  And there is a good sense of place and historical contextualisation.  However, I never really connected with the story, which felt ponderous and flat.  Overall, a run of the mill, historical police procedural.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A story stretched too far?

I'm a good chunk into a book.  It's an okay read, but I've been having problems with the believability of some of elements of the plot in what is meant to be a realist piece of crime fiction.  That's fine, I can live with plot devices if they're not too clunky or stretch things too far.  However, last night I reached a point where the believability got stretched to, what seemed to me, breaking point.  Here's a brief summary of events:

An abusive husband is stabbed whilst out walking.

His wife’s alibi is that she was visiting a back-street abortionist the evening he was killed.

Her teenage daughter corroborates her story, but the abortionist (who would have been committing a crime herself) doesn’t.

The wife’s mother was convicted of killing her husband in the same fashion.

There is no material or forensic evidence (no weapon, no clothes with the victim's blood on, etc) and no witnesses to the stabbing.

The police charge the wife with murder on the basis she'd been heard to threaten taking revenge for her beatings and her alibi only being supported by her daughter.

Would the police really charge her with murder on the basis of a contested alibi and a supposition that murder runs in the blood, when there is no hard evidence or witnesses?  On what basis are they going to convict her other than loose conjecture?  Would it even last two minutes in a court of law?  Does this sound reasonable or far-fetched to you?  I'm going to soldier on, but my faith in the story has been undermined for now.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

In the last few days I have finally managed to do a block of writing for the first time this year.  All I seemed to do in Jabuary and February was read, with the occasional break for teaching and admin.  In fact, I can't remember doing so much concentrated reading in a block before: exam papers, coursework, Master's theses, PhD thesis, drafts of other people's papers and chapters, papers submitted to the journal's I edit, refereeing for other journals, book proofs, academic papers and books related to a project I'm undertaking, and novels.  Whilst it has been interesting, it's also been frustrating to be stuck reading, editing and commenting on other people's work, rather than getting on with my own.  Hopefully I'm now over the hump and can make some progress.  I'd better do as I've short story to write and three papers to be ready by the end of the month.  Better get a move on.

My posts this week:
Stiffed cover
Review of Six Bad Things by Charlie Huston
Review of Too Big To Know by David Weinberger
February reads
Three new arrivals
That's all there is to it

Saturday, March 2, 2013

That’s all there is to it

‘Where is she?’

‘She’s not coming.  She’s decided to withdraw her evidence.’

‘She’s doing what?  She can’t.  She ...’


‘He got to her, didn’t he?  Didn’t he?’

‘What did you expect?  Of course he got to her.’

‘And you let him.  Jesus.  He’ll do it again, you know.’

‘I’m not her guardian, Ginny.  I don’t have her under twenty four hour surveillance.  He got to her; that’s all there is to it.’

‘That’s not all that there is to it!  He rapes young women.  Threatens to kill them.’

‘I’m sorry, okay.’

‘No, it’s not okay.  Fuck.  Fucking bastard.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, March 1, 2013

Three new arrivals

Mrs P of Mrs Peabody Investigates recommended a few contemporary crime fiction books set between the 1930s-50s.  I've just picked three of them up from the bookshop.

The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel
Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel
Last Rights by Barbara Nadel

Looking forward to giving them a go.