Monday, September 30, 2013

Review of The Riot by Laura Wilson (Quercus, 2013)

August 1958 and DI Stratton has moved from the West End to Notting Hill, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in London.  Over the previous decade many Caribbean migrants have made the locale their new home and racial tension is high, often tipping over into violence.  For Danny Perlmann, a Polish refugee and holocaust survivor, the area represents a business opportunity.  He’s been building up a property folio, buying and subdividing houses and renting them to anyone who wants them regardless of colour or occupation, including prostitutes.  When Perlmann’s civil minded rent collector is murdered, Stratton is assigned the case.  Not long after one of Perlmann’s renters, a black man that the locals think is dating a white woman, is stabbed to death on the street.  Whilst upper class do-gooders try to keep the lid on the simmering cauldron, Stratton tries to solve both murders before the place erupts into riots and running battles.

The strengths of The Riot are the characterisation, sense of place and time, and social contextualisation.  DI Stratton is a strong and interesting lead and the book is full of a diverse set of well defined and vividly penned characters.  There is a strong sense of London in the late 1950s as the social mix of some neighbourhoods start to change, and Wilson does a good job at conveying the social realities of working class life and the tensions around change.  Indeed, the story works well to weave issues of race (both Black and Jewish) and gender through class and capital.  And the plot is intriguing and quite complex.  That all said, the story is let down a little by its pacing and balance.  Prior to ‘the riot’ the storytelling is quite slow and there is a lot of unneeded detail.  For example, on his initial visit to the house in which a murder occurred Stratton laboriously meets everyone in the building and others nearby, most of whom never reappear in the book and who tell him little of importance.  After ‘the riot’ things speed up somewhat, but there’s sometimes not enough fleshing out or reveal as to what is going on, especially with respect to the Perlmann’s empire.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining story that’s nicely contextualised.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

On Friday I travel to New York and then on to Boston to give a couple of talks and to hook-up with some folk relating to work projects.  I've two books lined up for the trip so far, Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham and Andrew Cotto's Outerborough Blues.  Whilst I'm in New York I'm hoping to spend some time in one or both of Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers and The Mysterious Bookstore to browse titles and fill-up part of a suitcase.  Any recommendations for a Boston novel to pick-up for the second half of the trip?

My posts this week
No comment
Review of Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason
Review of Dresden by Frederick Taylor
Irish crime fiction festival, Nov 22-23

Saturday, September 28, 2013

No comment

Stiles pushed back the chair, paced to the wall and back. 

‘Karen’s dead, Michael.  You killed her.’

The man continued to stare at the off-white table top.

‘You beat her to death with a kettle. ... Pummelled her with it.  She put up with you for twelve years and that was her reward?’

Stiles bent down to the table, leaning on his long arms. 

‘So how was it, Michael?  You had an argument? ... It got heated and you lost your temper? ... For god’s sake, man, you killed her!’

Michael slowly raised his head, his expression blank.  ‘No comment.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review of Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason (Harvill Secker, 2013)

Drawn to Eastern Iceland in search of the brother he lost in a snow storm decades previously, Detective Erlendur has taken to sleeping in the ruins of his childhood home and wandering the mountains.  One morning he meets Boas, an elderly farmer, and they chat about a young woman, Matthildur, and some British soldiers who had died on the same night in a blizzard on the moor.  Unlike the soldiers, Matthildur’s body was never found.  Intrigued, Erlendur begins to investigate her tale, tracking down those still alive who knew her.  The more he teases apart her story, the more he’s convinced that there is more to her disappearance than at first meets the eye.

Strange Shores is the final instalment of the ‘Murder in Reykjavik’ series featuring Detective Erlendur.  Erlendur has always been haunted by the disappearance of his brother in a snow storm and the fact that his body was never found.  He blames himself for the death and searches the moors for his final resting place.  He is drawn to the story of Matthildur, a young woman who similar vanished whilst walking in the hills.  Indridason weaves these two threads together in Strange Shores.  As with previous books, the pace is often slow, ponderous and reflexive.  That in itself is fine, however, the story suffered from two issues.  First, after a decent start, it began to feel like a novella extended into a novel, with too much of the tale not moving the story forward.  Second, some of the dialogue felt clunky, which might have been a translation effect, but disrupted the narrative.  Further, the conclusion of the story seemed to be oddly out of key.  My overall impression then was that Strange Shores has the usual trademark melancholy, atmosphere and sense of place of the other tales in the series, but the plot and telling was weaker and thinner than some of the other books.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review of Dresden by Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury, 2005)

The flattening and firestorm of Dresden on the night of the 13th February and morning of the 14th of February 1945 continues to generate controversy.  For many it has become a symbol of the extent to which the Western Allies overstepped the mark from a morally righteous war campaign to wanton destruction and mass murder.  For others, Dresden was a legitimate target; a key transport node and a centre for armaments production and administration, and the next city that the Russians would face as their front moved forward.  The controversy focuses on Dresden and not other German cities who suffered the same fate in large part because of its cultural cache -- known as ‘The Florence on the Elbe’ -- the fact that it was unprotected (its flak guns moved elsewhere), the lateness of the attack in the war wherein it was clear that the Allies were going to win, that the city was full of refugees fleeing East, that the centre of the city and its key heritage buildings were the target rather than factories, and Russian anti-Western propaganda after the war as the iron curtain closed and the cold war started.  Frederick Taylor’s book seeks to chart what happened on the 13th and 14th of February 1945, when between 25,000 and 40,000 people died, and thousands more were made homeless as thirteen square miles of the city’s historic centre was destroyed, and to contextualise it within the long history of Dresden and of modern aerial warfare and the end game of the war, and to consider the moral philosophy of the bombing.  He does so by drawing extensively on archival sources, interviews with Allied air crew and survivors of the firestorm, and by considering other accounts of the raid and their arguments.  The result is a book that does more than detail a particular harrowing destruction of a city, but tries to make sense of it.  Some of the history of the city was probably not needed and the moral philosophy could have been deepened and extended, but otherwise Taylor succeeds in his aim, providing a very readable, informative and largely non-partisan account and arguments. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Irish Crime Fiction Festival, Nov 22-23

I picked up this bit of news from the blog of the Oracle of Irish crime fiction, Declan Burke, Crime Always Pays (if you're interested in all things Irish crime fiction then it's a must-read).  On November 22nd/23rd Trinity College Dublin, in association with New York University, are hosting an Irish Crime Fiction Festival.

Confirmed speakers so far are Declan Burke, Jane Casey, Paul Charles, John Connolly, Conor Fitzgerald, Alan Glynn, Declan Hughes, Arlene Hunt, Kevin McCarthy, Brian McGilloway, Eoin McNamee, Niamh O'Connor, Louise Phillips, Peter Quinn, Michael Russell, and Stuart Neville.

The initial programme is:

Friday 22 NovemberLong Room Hub, Trinity College
6.30pm-8.30pm: Panel Discussion and Book Signing

Saturday 23 November
Long Room Hub, Trinity College
10.00am-11.15am: Writers Panel, 'Historical Crime Fiction'
11.30am-12.45am: Writers Panel, 'Irish Crime Fiction Abroad'
12.45pm-1.30pm: lunch
1.30-3.30pm: Surprise Film Screening
3.45pm-5pm: Writers Panel, 'Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland'
6pm (doors open 5.30): 'An Evening With Michael Connelly' (interviewed by John Connolly)
Exam Hall, Trinity College

The event is free, except for a €6 charge for the Connelly/Connolly panel.  Details about the event and tickets can be found on the festival website.

I've already booked my tickets.  I suggest if you're interested you do as well before they're all snapped up.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

At my 'no longer head of department' gig on Friday I was very kindly given some Amazon vouchers.  The first item in the basket was Jack Irish, the TV adaptation of two of Peter Temple's novels - Bad Debts and Black Tide.  I'm really looking forward to watching these as the novels were terrific and Guy Pearce is a brilliant actor, so it should be a winning combination.  It was followed by Peter Quinn's Hour of the Cat and Malcolm Mackay's The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter.  Now I'm pondering and I'm about to work my way through some review sites to see what else should join them.

My posts this week

Review of Ostland by David Thomas
Review of All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards
Book launches
Learning to count in the shelter

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Learning to count in the shelter

There were nine of them crammed in the shelter.  Her mother, her aunt, her elder brother and sister and four cousins. 

Somewhere in the distance was a string of dull thuds.  A trickle of loose soil fell from the roof. 

A few moments later the explosions were much louder, the ground vibrating. 

Her aunt started to mutter.  ‘Our Father who art in heaven ...’

Now they could hear the whistle of the bombs, the explosions growing nearer and violent.

How many were in stick?  Ten?

Her brother was counting: ‘six, seven, eight, nine ...’

‘... hallowed be thy name ...’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Book launches

It's dawned on me that tomorrow I'll be launching Stiffed and the Oxford Dictionary of Human Geography.  Work has organised an event to mark my stepping down as director of the institute I've run for the past 11.5 years.  Rather than hold another event, we've folded the book launches in as well.  Which is fine by me as I'm always a reluctant participant in these kinds of events.  Hopefully I can get away skulking at the back with a bottle of wine whilst working my way through the nibbles. 

Review of All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards (1991, Arcturus Classic Crime)

Harry Devlin is a duty solicitor in central Liverpool.  Since his wife, Liz, left him he leads a solitary life, his time revolving around work and representing petty criminals during interviews and in court.  It’s definitely not the glamorous side of legal work and nor does it pay handsomely.  Arriving home late at night he finds his former wife waiting in his apartment.  Always the life and soul of a party, she’d left him for a well connected criminal.  Harry has never stopped loving her and when she asks if she can stay for a few days whilst she sorts out her personal life he agrees against his better judgement.  Within twenty four hours she is dead, stabbed to death in an alley.  Rather than leave the case to the police, Harry decides he’s going to catch his ex-wife’s killer.  He starts to follow up on leads, but it’s clear that neither the police nor the perpetrator are happy with his crusade.  Regardless, he persists with his investigation, whilst at the same time fending off the advances of his lonely neighbour.

All the Lonely People was Martin Edwards debut novel and the first book in an eight part series featuring world weary but tenacious solicitor, Harry Devlin.  The story has the feel of a classical who-dunnit, with Devlin taking on the role of a put-upon, down at heel PI, and the tale focusing on the characters, their relationships, and the investigation, but with little gore or unrealistic or heightened tension.  Edwards does a nice job of contextualising Harry’s life as a duty solicitor, evoking Liverpool at the end of the 1980s, and capturing the lives of the poorest strata of society and their social relations.  The characterisation is nicely observed, as is the interplay between the characters.  For the most part the story works well, but the puzzle seemed a bit too weak and the killer well signposted, in part because the misdirection was a little too obvious.  Nonetheless, I found it an entertaining read and hope to spend some more time in Harry’s company in the future.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review of Ostland by David Thomas (Quercus, 2013)

Georg Heuser is an ambitious police officer who has come top of his graduating class.  His reward is to be placed as an apprentice to Wilhelm Ludtke, head of the Berlin murder squad.  He joins the squad in February 1941 in the middle of one of the highest profile criminal cases of the war – the S-Bahn murders, where a man is raping and murdering young women on and near to the Berlin train system.  The squad are under enormous pressure from their boss, General Heydrich, to bring the killer to justice, yet he’s proving highly elusive.  Heuser is determined to prove his worth, both in terms of work and politically, with the aim of being noticed and securing rapid promotion.  This he achieves and once the case is closed he is transferred east to Minsk to help oversee the policing in the newly conquered territory and the administering of the final solution to local Jews and those being transferred to the area.  Despite his revulsion at his orders, he proceeds to carry out them out, eventually becoming head of the Minsk Gestapo.  As the Russians approach he heads west and survives the war, rejoining the police and rising to become chief of police in Rhineland-Pfalz.  In 1959 he’s arrested, accused of war crimes and eventually put on trial.  Ostland tells his story and that of the case against him.

Ostland is a fictionalised account of parts of the career of ‘Dr’ Georg Heuser – his part in solving the famous S-Bahn murders and his role in the murders of thousands of Jews and others in occupied Russia a few months later, and his arrest fourteen years after the end of the war and subsequent trial.  The first elements are told in the first person from Heuser’s perspective, the latter in the third person from the perspective of two prosecuting, investigative lawyers, Paula Siebert and Max Kraus.  Whilst Heuser and his colleagues are real people, Siebert and Kraus are fictional.  Both parts of the story are based on documentary evidence presented in Heuser’s trial, along with other research by Thomas.  I’m always a little wary of fictionalised version of real events as the danger is the creation of revisionist history that distorts what really occurred – my sense is why not just write a factual history book, especially since we have no idea of the inner thoughts of particular characters.  In Ostland, however, the fictional form works remarkably well, in the main because Thomas uses the form to explore wider questions of moral philosophy: what compels men to commit truly evil acts and how should such men be judged? 

Heuser’s case is interesting basis on which to explore such questions as he went from investigating what was considered one of the most evil killers in the Reich, to be a state-sanctioned murderer.  Thomas unsettles the reader by portraying Heuser through an everyday lens and as being cultured, reflexive, obedient and ambitious, and not as a psychopathic monster, as well by detailing the logic of how the law works and a general desire at the time of the trial to forget the past and move-on.  It is a story that becomes more compelling and disturbing as it progresses, especially as cracks and doubts are added to Heuser’s professional demeanour and the account unsettles what would seem like commonsensical judgements about Heuser’s actions.  There’s no doubt that the story is distressing in its telling of both the S-Bahn murders and the genocide in Minsk, and it’s not a tale for the faint-hearted.  But for those prepared to make their way to the end it’s a thought-provoking read, especially when one starts to consider what they would have done in the same situations and context, and how one would subsequently try to rationalise actions and live with oneself.  In this sense, whilst the story is quite simply told, it packs a very powerful punch that is likely to stay with the reader for quite some time. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

After two weeks travelling by train with my father round the Czech Republic and Eastern Germany I am feeling cultured out.  I don't think I've ever been to so many museums and heritage attractions in such a short space of time before.  Other than general wandering around, here's where we visited, all of which were interesting places and worth checking out.  The picture is the rebuilt skyline of Dresden.  I'm just finishing a book about the bombing raids that flattened the city in February 1945.  The skyline once again resembles that painted by Canaletto in 1748, when it was known as 'Florence on the Elbe'.

Prague Castle, including St. Vitus Cathedral, The Story of Prague Castle, St. George's Basilica, Prague Castle Picture Gallery, Powder Tower.
Museum of Communism
The Army Museum Žižkov


Zwinger – Old Masters Picture Gallery, Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments
Royal Palace - New Green Vault, Armoury, Turkish Chamber
VW Transparent Factory

Museum of City History
Museum in the ‘Rounded Corner’ (Stasi Museum)
Museum of the Printing Arts
Museum of Fine Arts

HSB Steam train up Brocken Mountain

Topography of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie
Schloss Charlottenburg
Jewish Museum Berlin
Museum of Technology

My posts this week
Review of Tretjak by Max Landorff
Review of The Darkling Spy by Edward Wilson
Next batch of reads
Review of The Good German by Joseph Kanon
A deadly descent?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A deadly descent?

Dieter stared out the window of the train at the tall pines and rocky outcrops.  Suddenly the sound of the struggling engine was punctuated by a loud explosion and violent juddering.  Jolted to the floor, it took a moment before the shouts, screams and rattle of machine guns registered.  Two round holes pierced the wooden slat above his head and he snapped back into reality.  Clambering to his knees he felt the floor sway as the carriage started to roll backwards.  As the remains of the train began its descent, slowly picking up speed, he fired blindly into the trees.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Review of The Good German by Joseph Kanon (2001, Sphere)

Jake Geismar worked as a reporter in Berlin up until the autumn of 1941.  He then worked in North Africa and Italy before working his way into Germany with General Patton’s army, visiting a couple of death camps.  Before leaving Germany he vowed to Lena, a work colleague with whom he was having an affair, that he would return after the war so they could resume their relationship.  But flying into the shattered ruins of Berlin to cover the meeting of Churchill, Truman and Stalin, and to report on the city, its inhabitants and political division and administration for Collier’s Magazine, he’s worried that she hasn’t survived the war.  He soon has other stories to keep him occupied – a US soldier that shared his flight is found murdered with a stash of money, a congressman keen to snap up German scientists for the US, the uncovering of Nazi war criminals who are seeking to make their past disappear, and allied soldiers on the make in a thriving black market.  Geismar is determined to find Lena and get to the bottom of each of these issues, particular the death of the US soldier, but the more he digs, the more complicated and interwoven the stories become and the more danger he finds himself in.

The Good German has the feel of a Hollywood movie, blending a romance story with that of a thriller, accompanied by strong undercurrents of justice and morality during and after war – he’s a US reporter and she’s the German wife of a rocket scientist who’ve been separated by the conflict; he’s now searching for her at the same time as pursuing the biggest story of his career, one that puts them both in great danger.  It’s a tale that seeks to be a mainstream romantic thriller, whilst also covering big themes such as war crimes and the Allies conflicting positions on how to deal with Germany and its people in the immediate aftermath of the war and the tensions and manoeuvring between them.  Kanon manages to skilfully mix the style and substance, providing two long intersecting story arcs focused on Jake and Lena’s romance and the murder mystery with respect to the death of a US soldier, whilst also delivering a number of interesting subplots.  The characterisation, historical contextualisation and sense of place and time are very good throughout.  The writing and plotting is assured and engaging, though sometimes is a little longwinded and melodramatic, and the interconnection of all subplots is overly convenient and contrived.  Nonetheless, The Good German is a compelling, atmospheric page-turner and thought-provoking read.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Next batch of reads

This is my first day back at work after three weeks holiday.  That's the longest break I've had in well over a decade.  On my return I found three new books waiting for me: Laura Wilson's The Riot, Barbara Nadel's A Private Business, and Geoffrey McGeachin's Black Wattle Creek.  Along with Arnaldur Indridason's Strange Shores my plan is to make them my next quartet of reads, so expect reviews to start appearing in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review of The Darkling Spy by Edward Wilson (Arcadia Books, 2010)

1956 and the cold war is heating up.  The reputation of Britain’s intelligence services lies in tatters after the defection of Burgess and Maclean, with the suspicion of other traitorous spies still in place.  Henry Bone, a British spymaster, has discovered that a key East European spy, codenamed Butterfly, is about to defect to the Americans.  Butterfly has plagued Bone for two decades and carries secrets that would further damage Britain’s reputation.  To try and get to Butterfly first Bone turns to his protégé, William Catesby.  Catesby is already perceived by some to be a security risk given his Belgium mother, working class background and socialist sympathies.  After a mission to Budapest at the height of the uprising in 1956 and a personal scandal, Catesby is persuaded to be a plant defector to East Germany, hoping to identify Butterfly before he defects himself.  It’s a mission that places duty ahead of all else and Catesby’s hoping that he hasn’t made a fatal choice.

The Darkling Spy is a cold war spy story in the mould of John Le Carre – a dark, complex, layered tale of small heroic, compromising and treacherous acts and mind games, rather than the action, thrills and womanising of Fleming.  Wilson creates a world in which no-one quite trusts anyone else, even family, friends and allies; in which the wrong decisions can have fatal consequences.  It is a world of pervaded by lies, deception, mis- and dis-information, politics and ideology.  There is a strong sense of atmospherics and sense of place throughout and the story is told through an engaging voice.   Bone and Catesby are convincing characters with interesting back stories that are nicely portrayed and the other characters are well penned.  The plotting is very nicely done, with the various pieces of the jigsaw manoeuvred into place and the final picture only being revealed in the last few pages.  The denouement felt a little flat, although in keeping with the understated telling of the rest of the story.  Overall, a very good cold war spy tale.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review of Tretjak by Max Landorff (Haus Publishing, 2011 German, 2013 English)

Gabriel Tretjak lives his life in relation to a strict code designed to keep everything under perfect, ordered control.  The code minimizes complications and makes him very successful at what he does, which is to fix the problems in other peoples’ lives.  For a substantial fee he creates and executes solutions, rebuilding the personal and professional lives of his clients, whatever the situation or scandal.  In the past, Tretjak used the code to fix his own life after a troubled upbringing, and it seems as if he needs to do so again as someone undertakes a series of murders that all suggest he is the perpetrator.  The calm and clever Inspector Maler certainly believes so as he investigates the grizzly crimes.  Tretjak knows he is innocent, but someone seems to have out-fixed the fixer.  In order to counter the compelling evidence and stay out of jail he’s going to need one heck of a solution.

There’re relatively few untapped angles to the crime genre, with most stories falling into a set of established sub-genres and tropes.  Tretjak works ‘the fixer’ angle, but does so with a nice philosophical undertone that gives it freshness.  Tretjak is not the most likeable of characters, but Landorff does a good job of setting out his back story and exploring his various traits and neuroses over the course of the book as he reacts to the attempt to frame him for murder and the intervention of his estranged father.  The other principle characters also have depth and are nicely developed.  The plot for the most part works well, being layered and complex, with the philosophical elements providing some nice reflective moments.  However, there were a couple of dangling threads that were left unexplained and the resolution felt somewhat contrived, a little clunky, and was telegraphed from quite a way out.  The result was a slightly flat ending to a mostly thoughtful read.  Overall, an interesting, literary crime fiction story.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm on a run of historical crime fiction set in the 1940s/50s at the moment.  In addition to Echoland and Stettin Station, I've recently read The Darkling Spy by Edward Wilson and The Good German by Joseph Kanon (reviews in the next few days).  And I've just started Ostland by David Thomas.  After that I think it'll be time to reorient back to the present and away from Germany for a couple of books.

Review of Stettin Station by David Downing
Review of Echoland by Joe Joyce
August reviews
Review of Love Songs from a Shallow Grave by Colin Cotterill

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An ambush in the mountains

Muddy brown smoke bloomed out of the trees as the train struggled up the incline.

Tomas watched its progress through a pair of binoculars.

‘Remember, Peter, not too early.’

‘Maybe you should do it?’

‘Just as we planned, okay.’  He signalled to a comrade to their left.

The engine turned into view, growling and hissing.  As it neared, tired faces appeared in the filthy windows.

Pasha watched the front wheels reach the marker.

The explosion lifted the engine from the track and down the slope, pulling two carriages with it.  Then the rattle of machine guns, shouted orders, and screams.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, September 6, 2013

Review of Stettin Station by David Downing (Old Street Publishing, 2009)

November 1941, the Wehrmacht has ground to a halt outside of Moscow and the relationship between Japan and the US is deteriorating.  John Russell, a British journalist with an American passport and long term resident of Berlin, can sense the winds of change.  He’s loathed to leave his thirteen year old son or his long term girlfriend, actress Effi Koenen, but it’s clear he needs to try and find a way to out of the country whilst remaining in contact.  One prospect is to act as a point of contact between the Americans and the Abwehr.  Another is to gather evidence of significant interest to the Allies and, in particular, the communists so that he can use their escape lines.  However, just as he’s putting both arrangements in place the Gestapo and SD re-awaken their interest in his presence and activities, potentially jeopardising his plans. 

Stettin Station is the third book in the John Russell and Effi Koenen series.  The strengths of the tale are the characterisation, sense of atmosphere and place, and the historicisation.  Russell and Koenen are well realised and rounded characters and they are accompanied by a broad spectrum of nicely penned others, including journalists, administrators, various forms of police, family, friends and other citizens.  Downing manages to nicely blend the everyday realities and complexities of living in Berlin during the war with the politics and machinations of a police state and his role as a foreign journalist.  The result is a story that captures the everydayness of getting on with lives in a state of perpetual background fear, and the tactics of surviving and resisting.  Moreover, by utilising real events and occasionally real historical characters, Downing provides a semblance of authenticity.  Where the book suffers a little is with regards to the plot.  Whilst it is an interesting story the tale seemed largely a transitory one, moving the characters into place for the next instalment rather than having its own self-contained arc and denouement.  Moreover, the ending seemed somewhat contrived and didn’t ring true to me.  Nonetheless, Stettin Station is a solid addition to a very good series and I look forward to reading the next instalment.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review of Echoland by Joe Joyce (Liberties Press, 2013)

June 1940 and whilst Britain licks its wounds after the debacle leading to Dunkirk and France teeters on the edge of defeat, Paul Duggan has been transferred to G2, the Irish military intelligence division, given his knowledge of the German language and the string pulling of his uncle, a politician.  Ireland is pursuing a policy of neutrality, though some favour siding with the Allies and others with the Germans in the hope of gaining a united Ireland.  Duggan has been assigned the task of monitoring a German national who is sending cryptic and receiving saucy letters to the continent but otherwise seems inactive.  He’s also been asked by his uncle to find his cousin who has gone missing and has possibly been kidnapped.  Duggan slowly makes progress on both cases, aided by Special Branch detective, Peter Gifford, whilst trying to keep the hunt for his cousin a secret from his bosses.  Nothing, however, is quite what it seems in the murky world of spies and politics.

Set in 1940, Echoland is set during a fascinating period of contemporary Irish history as it the country tries to negotiate its neutral role and its relationship to Britain and Germany.  Joyce weaves an interesting plot involving G2 (military intelligence) and Special Branch as they keep tabs on the German legation, suspected German spies, and the IRA, who view the war as an opportunity to leverage a united Ireland.  The plot is the strength of the novel, nicely intersecting two storylines – the hunt for a German spy and trying to trace the whereabouts of a politician’s missing daughter.  Joyce’s storytelling is all tell and no show, detailing the action and dialogue of the main characters.  Whilst this worked to a degree, the lack of reflection and historicisation rendered some of the story flat and lacking in atmosphere and tension and the characters one dimensional.  For example, the reader is presented with lists of streets that the characters traverse, but very little description of them or the activities taking place, or the general mood of the populace or how the war was affecting them.  Nor is there a wider sense of the lead up to Ireland’s political position at the time.  There is practically no back story with respect to any character, with the lead character being curiously asexual, apolitical and naive, and at the end of the book I felt I knew as much about him as I did at the start.  The result was a book carried by its plot, but one that lacked the atmosphere, depth and subtle tension evident in similar kinds of Second World War espionage tales such as those by Alan Furst, David Downing, Aly Monroe or Joseph Kanon (a selection here).  Nevertheless, an enjoyable and interesting tale and I'd read the next instalment if it Echoland is the first in a series.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

August reviews

A mixed bag of read for August.  My read of the month was Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, which proved to be a fun and well plotted and realised book.

The Third Rail by Michael Harvey **.5
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt ****
The Signal in the Noise by Nate Silver ****
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd ***
The Reckoning by Jane Casey ***.5
A Nail Through the Heart by Tim Hallinan ***
Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith *****
The Barber Surgeon's Hairshirt by Douglas Lindsay ***
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline *****
The Lost by Claire McGowan ***.5
Black Seconds by Karin Fossum ****

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review of Love Songs from a Shallow Grave by Colin Cotterill (Quercus, 2010)

It’s 1978 and Dr Siri Paiboun, Laos’ only coroner, is approaching his seventy fourth birthday.  After a lifetime of serving the communist party and finally witnessing the Laos revolution he would like to retire.  Instead, he is tasked with examining the body of a young woman found dead in a sauna on a former American base that now houses many of the present ruling elite.  The woman has been stabbed through the heart with a epee, a small z carved in her thigh.  Siri’s friend, Inspector Phosy, is tasked with investigating the case.  The following day another young woman is found dead, similarly with an epee through the heart and a z cut on her thigh, shortly followed by a third case.  It seems that there is a serial killer on the loose.  As usual, Siri can’t help becoming involved in the investigation, but initially he’s baffled.  He’s also distracted by disturbing dreams, Nurse Dtui’s domestic problems, and the endless rain.  Just as he starts to make progress he’s asked to go on an official trip to Kampuchea controlled by the Khmer Rouge, which is when his real troubles start.

Love Songs from a Shallow Grave is the seventh book in the Dr Siri series.  Of the four that I’ve read it’s the strongest in terms of the plot, which is very well constructed and executed, blending a nice mystery puzzle with a strong sense of place and fascinating historical and social context.  Whilst the tale still has some of the comic charm of the other books, both of the intersecting storylines are dark, especially Siri’s time in Kampuchea, which is quite harrowing but well handled.  And although the story principally follows the investigation and the official trip, Cotterill advances the personal lives of the stable of main characters Siri, Madame Daeng, Nurse Dtui, Inspector Phosy, former Minister Civilai, and Mr Geung.  Indeed, a real strength of the book is that the full gang are present for nearly the entire tale, each with their own interesting subplot.  Overall, a clever, dark and enjoyable tale with a fascinating geographical and historical context.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lazy Sunday Service

Friday was a watershed moment in my professional career as I stepped down from three roles - as Director of National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA, after 11.5 years), Director of National Centre for Geocomputation (NCG, after 2 years), and Chair of Irish Social Sciences Platform (ISSP, after 6 years).  I'll continue to work in NIRSA as a PI on various projects, but will not be running the place on a day to day basis.  I can't say I'll miss all the crappy admin and politics, though I'll not be able to escape it all.  Eleven and a half years in one role is more than enough and the change should hopefully be good for me and the institute.  Looking back it's been a productive decade and I'm happy that I've handed over NIRSA in better shape than I inherited it.  Raising the salary every year for 15-25 people has been a challenge, but somehow we've scraped it together.  Onwards to the next challenges ...

My posts this week
A coming storm?
Review of The Third Rail by Michael Harvey **.5
Review of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt ****
Review of The Signal in the Noise by Nate Silver ****