Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth (Pan, 2009)

Autumn, 1944, London. A young Polish woman is murdered while on the way to visit her aunt. She had been working on a farm owned by former Scotland Yard detective, John Madden. His old colleagues discover that the woman was slayed quickly and efficiently by a skilled killer. They pick up a hopeful lead, but then a second murder occurs. Already interested in the case, Madden starts to an active role in trying to determine why Rosa was killed and to identify and catch the murderer. However, it’s apparent that the killer’s modus operandi is to depose of anyone who can potential identify him.

The Dead of Winter is the third in the John Madden series, each set in a particular decade, this one in war-time London.  Madden has left long left his job as a Scotland Yard detective and is now running a farm.  When a Polish woman working for him is murdered in London he aids his former colleagues try to apprehend a ruthless killer.  The story is a relatively straightforward serial killer police procedural, where the murderer is a killer for hire whose signature is to murder all potential witnesses to his identity. That’s not a spoiler in that it is clear from the start that’s this is the case. In this sense there is little mystery in the story, it is all about the crime and the procedural elements. These are relatively straightforward, with Madden unearthing and tracking clues. The characterisation is the strongest element of the story, with Madden, his old colleagues, WPC Lily Poole and a number of incidental characters well-drawn. On the downside is a lot of unnecessary exposition, the removal of any mystery (the reader knows the reason for the murder pretty much from the prologue and finds out the identity of the killer way before the end), and a plot that doesn’t quite make sense when pressed with respect to the actions of the killer. Eliminating the prologue would have made the story more interesting and was entirely unnecessary in my view. The result is a rather staid and underwhelming tale.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review of The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson (2016, English; 2010 Swedish)

Former police chief Lars Martin Johansson still enjoys street food. When he stops for a hotdog what saves his life is the presence of a number of police officers. Suffering a massive stroke he is rushed to hospital. While recovering his neurologist tells him about the rape and murder of a nine year old girl that took place twenty five years ago. The neurologist’s father was a priest who before he died told his daughter that a parishioner had passed on her suspicions concerning the killer, though he hadn't told the identity to the daughter. The case has never been solved. From his hospital bed, Johansson starts to investigate, soon discovering that the original investigation had been botched from the start. Moreover, due to a new twenty five statute of limitations, even if he identified the perpetrator they could not face justice. Johannsson, however, is not the kind of person who’s going to let a stroke, ill-health, weak evidence or the justice system get in his way – he was after-all known as the cop who could see round corners.

The Dying Detective is the eighth book in the Jarnebring and Johansson, not all of which have been translated into English. It can though be read as a standalone and I’ve not yet read any of the other books. In this outing, Johansson has retired as police chief and suffers a serious stroke. While recovering he starts to investigate a twenty five year old rape and murder of a nine year old girl that was never solved. Using his friend Jarnebring to run errands and asking favours of former colleagues he starts to piece together what happened and who was responsible. His obsession for justice is not good for his recovery, but Johansson is only interested in the good life and justice, not struggling along with illness and popping pills. Undoubtedly the star of the book is Johansson, a bear of a man struggling to maintain his bite. He’s surrounded by a cast of memorable characters including Jarnebring, his brother Evert, wife Pia, and home-helps, the tattooed Matilda and burly Max, and there’s some nice interchanges between them. I was particularly taken with the narrative voice, which is engaging and entertaining, especially the tandem of Johansson’s spoken words and thoughts.  For the most part, Persson keeps the plot moving along, mixing in some light humour and social commentary. At the point the killer’s identity is revealed, however, the pace drops and the story becomes somewhat drawn-out, shifting from the hunt to the nature of justice. What was a great read has the wind taken from its sails, losing momentum and direction. Which was a shame as I was thoroughly enjoying the tale. Nonetheless, The Dying Detective is a very good read with a wonderful lead character.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've finally got round to reading another Rennie Airth book - The Dead of Winter - the third in the John Madden series. The last was quite a while ago, which I failed to finish as I left the book on a plane only twenty pages from the end. Pretty frustrating, but difficult to justify buying the book again to complete. This one is partially set in Bloomsbury, where I'll be giving a talk later this week.

My posts this week

Review of Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Coterill
New paper: Being a ‘citizen’ in the smart city: Up and down the scaffold of smart citizen participation
Review of Silence by Anthony Quinn

Saturday, May 20, 2017


May in L.A. and it had been raining for a week.

Carter huddled under a too-small umbrella and watched a tow-truck drag a SUV from the canal.

Ten minutes later he was staring at the bloated driver, still clutching the steering wheel.

‘Rick Shine,’ Matisse said. ‘King of the knock-down car lot and late-night TV ad.’

‘You’re fine with Shine,’ Carter mimicked.

‘Sold my mother a piece-of-shit run-around. More porcine than fine.’

‘Well, he’s now in the big car park in the sky.’

‘More like a pit-stop in hell. The man had no heart.’

‘Yet, he was a practiced cardealologist.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review of Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Coterill (Quercus, 2005)

Laos, mid-1970s, the country is transitioning to a new communist government. After many years hiding in the jungle and now in his seventies, rather than retirement Dr Siri Paiboun has found himself the new national coroner. He has also discovered he is host to an ancient spirit, which has opened up a whole new world. His new role examining the recently deceased and his ability to see dead spirits poses many questions and mysteries. His natural curiosity and willingness to resist and subvert the wishes of the political regime lead him to investigate deaths that others would prefer to be ignored. He is aided in his exploits by the formidable Nurse Dtui, Mr Geung, his mischievous mortuary assistant with Downs Syndrome, Inspector Phosy, and his long-term ally and senior politician, Civilai. When a bodies start to turn up with an unusual bite marks, Siri starts to investigate. He is distracted by a man who seems to have taken a running jump from the seventh floor of a government ministry, and a trip south to where two men have mysterious been burnt to a crisp. In the meantime, Nurse Dtui pursues her own line of inquiry.

Thirty-Three Teeth is the second book in the Dr Siri series set in Laos in the 1970s. Like the first in the series there is much to like about the story and storytelling. The real delight is the characterisation, especially Dr Siri, Nurse Dtui, and mortuary assistant, Mr Geung, who are all extremely likeable, multidimensional characters with interesting back stories. Dr Siri, in particular, shines with his easy-going charm and slightly rascal persona. Added to this is: the sense of place and time in the early days of the communist regime in Laos; the mythical and spiritual elements that sit easily into the tale without seeming contrived or oddly supranatural; and the unusual mysteries that are investigated. The result is a warm-hearted, charming and enjoyable tale that blends crime and social/historical commentary with magical realism to great effect.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review of Silence by Anthony Quinn (Head of Zeus, 2015)

Spooked at a police checkpoint, Father Aloysius Walsh speeds away to his death. For the past few years he had been collecting evidence of collusion between serving police officers and loyalist paramilitaries, plotting a murder triangle in Armagh in the late 1970s. Inspector Celcius Daly arrives at the scene, along with Special Branch, and starts to investigate despite their warnings to steer clear. At a hotel a few miles away a former British agent who served at the heart of the IRA waits for Father Walsh, but is instead visited by a journalist. The agent, journalist and Daly all want the murders and the involvement of the police exposed, but for different reasons. For Daly the reason is personal – his mother’s name is written on Walsh’s murder map. His colleagues want Daly to drop his investigation and the agent silenced. Daly, however, needs to know the truth of his mother’s death even if that means revealing dirty police secrets of the past.

Silence is the third book in the Inspector Celcius Daly series set in the borderlands of Northern Ireland. Daly is an introverted and stubborn loner cop who lives in a run-down cottage near to Lough Neagh. In this outing he’s investigating the death of a Catholic priest who had been investigating the death of Daly’s mother, along with others, in 1979. Daly had been told his mother was caught in the crossfire of a skirmish between the police force and Republican terrorists. Father Walsh’s research shows she was killed in cold blood by Loyalist paramilitaries colluding with serving police officers. The police force wants to keep the collusion under wraps to protect its reputation and the officers involved. Daly is only interested in the truth. With his usual single-mindedness he starts to gather evidence to supplement that collated by Father Walsh. Unlike much crime fiction that is driven primarily by the plot and the interactions between a fairly large cast of characters, Silence is an in-depth character study of a man struggling with himself and his past, and the landscape and history of the Irish borderlands. Quinn dwells on Daly’s inner turmoil, the atmosphere and sense of place, and the secrets of a dirty war. The result is a highly reflexive, literary crime tale that juxtaposes the present fragile peace with the need for truth and reconciliation.  The prose is often delicious, there’s some nice intertextuality with Stuart Neville’s work, and a clever knowing nod to the storytelling with a passage in which a journalist details how she’s going to tell the story of the 1979 murders through a fiction piece starring Daly (Quinn is a journalist).  Where the story suffers a little bit is the ending which seemed a little truncated and the denouement lacked conviction and resolution. In addition, there was one element that did not ring true for me and bumped me out of the story. Nonetheless, an interesting piece of introspective crime fiction.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday's drabble was the 300th I've published on the blog. Which means for the past 300 Saturdays I've managed to find some time to write and publish one. I'm sure one Saturday I'll clean forget or something will get in the way, but hopefully not any time soon.

My posts this week

Review of One or The Other by John McFetridge
New paper: From the accidental to articulated smart city
Review of A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward

Cha Cha Cha

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Cha Cha Cha

‘Would you like to dance?’ He held out his hand.

She rose to her feet. ‘I thought nobody was going to ask.’

‘You’re new here,’ he said, spinning her round gracefully.

‘I moved in Thursday. You’ve done this before.’

‘Ballroom instructor, Butlins 1957 to 61. And you?’

‘Chorus line, Pinewood Studios.’

‘This could be the start of something beautiful.’

He pushed her away and twirled her back.

She laughed. ‘I bet you try this with all the new arrivals, you old shark.’

‘But you’re the first that’s made me want to Cha Cha Cha again.’

‘Quickstep seems more your style.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review of One or The Other by John McFetridge (ECW Press, 2016)

Montreal, 1976. A year of discontent. The Olympics are due to take place in the summer and after the terrorists attacks in Munich the authorities are taking no chances. Public sector unions are threatening industrial action. A Brinks truck is been hijacked and the police keep shaking down criminal gangs in the hope of catching the thieves. The suspicion is the stolen money is being used to flood the city with drugs. Eddie Dougherty is also out of sorts. He wants a permanent appointment as a detective but always seems to be seconded on an interim basis and to the fringes of a case. He’s thinking of popping the question to his girlfriend, but can never find the right time. When a teenage couple are found on opposite sides of the river he is paired with a francophone port cop to investigate. The pair are soon marginalised, however. Neither is happy with the outcome, especially when it’s ruled a murder-suicide rather than a double murder. Defying their bosses, the pair keep unofficially plugging away at the case over several months.

One or The Other is the third book in the Eddie Dougherty series set in Montreal in the 1970s. In this outing it’s 1976. The two big events in the city are a major armed robbery and the Olympics. Dougherty is at the fringes of both, but is out of sorts at work and home. He wants to be a detective but is only ever temporarily assigned and the case he’s working – the death of two teenagers – is taken away from him and in his view mis-investigated, and his relationship with his girlfriend seems to have reached the point where they make a longer term commitment. The tale is stretched out over the year, tracking Dougherty’s unofficial investigation undertaken with a port cop of the teenage deaths. In many ways, this is a bold move. The armed robbery and the Olympics would have been much bigger hooks, but both are largely skirted. Instead McFetridge concentrates on the mundane – everyday policing and the slog of office politics, the ordinariness of crime and a potential miscarriage of justice in a case that is little cared for, and a slightly unsettled home life. On one hand it gives a kind of hyper-realist account of policing, and on the other it leaves the tale somewhat flat and insubstantial. The result is a book that feels like a bridging tale, a filler-episode, as Dougherty’s life transitions. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting police procedural of a case tangential to the key action in the city.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review of A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward (Faber and Faber, 2016)

Lena Grey has recently been released from prison for the murder of her husband. When the body of a man is found shot dead in an abandoned morgue the police are mortified to discover that it is the same man. So, who was the original victim? Why did Lena kill him and claim he was her husband? And who killed the husband fifteen years after his original supposed death? Detective Inspector Francis Sadler and his small team of Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer and Detective Constable Connie Childs of the Derbyshire police seek answers to both the old and new case. So does Lena’s sister, Kat, who is receiving strange gifts. However, Lena has disappeared and clues seem thin on the ground.

A Deadly Thaw is the second book in the DC Connie Childs series. In this outing she and the rest of her team are investigating the murder of a man believed to have been murdered fifteen years previously. It’s an interesting hook that Ward just about makes credible, though it does require a bit of suspension of disbelief given it occurred in a small town, rides on the basis that only one person who could recognize the body saw it before it was cremated and that was his wife who was also the murderer, and the police did no other checks. The story then largely unfolds as a typical police procedural, though two other strands are interwoven: a thread following the sister of the woman convicted fifteen years previously for the man’s first murder; and flashbacks to the time leading up to the first murder. The former provides another perspective on the case and adds a couple of prospective suspects, the latter gives some wider context to the case. Set in a relatively quiet town in Derbyshire, the sedate pace of the place is mirrored somewhat in the tale and, while the story ticks along in a series of short chapters and there are some action points, the key element is the characters and their interactions. The central character is Connie Childs, who has the drive to succeed but is nonetheless a team player and is no ‘super-woman’, unlike many single-minded maverick or quirky fiction cops. The rest of the team is similarly made up of fairly ordinary coppers and the town by normal folk with their various issues. Indeed, a nice aspect to the story is the very ordinariness of the place, people and crimes.  The result is a reasonably engaging tale that is as much about the relationships between characters as it is about solving the murder.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Just been to Cork for a couple of days to attend a conference. Always enjoy visiting. They've painted all the traffic control boxes in a Republic of Cork theme. Here's a couple of them. 

My posts this week
Review of The Divided City by Luke McCallin
April reads
Bridging the adoption gap for smart city technologies
Review of Dietrich and Riefenstahl by
                                        Karin Wieland
                                       They used to dance and laugh

Saturday, May 6, 2017

They used to dance and laugh

She’ll wait all night for him to come. But he won’t come, or if he does it’ll be dawn. She’ll sit by the door and twist her hair; drink black coffee and fret. They used to dance and laugh, roll around between the sheets. Now they barely talk any more, or if they do it soon becomes a shouting match. She’s not sure what went wrong, just that it is all wrong. He remembers how it used to be, but not how to recapture the magic. Yet she still waits for him to come and he still does eventually return.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of The Divided City by Luke McCallin (Berkeley, 2016)

1947, Berlin. Gregor Reinhardt has returned to Berlin and is back serving as a detective inspector in the local police force. Post-war, the force is full of green and unqualified recruits, many of them serving as puppets for their various Allied masters, and Reinhardt is shunned and mocked – especially by those with communist sympathies – for being a former officer and being sponsored by the Americans.  He generally keeps himself to himself, working the night shift.  In the early hours he is called to a double homicide. A British agent is found dead in a stairwell. In an apartment above a former Luftwaffe fighter pilot has been asphyxiated. The British want the killer of their agent caught. Reinhardt is given the less political task of investigated the death of the pilot. He soon discovers that the pilot was one in a series of deaths involving members of the same squadron and the Russians and Americans are also interested in the case. Each power is demanding to be informed of progress, as well as an underground group of ex-military German personnel. Unwittingly, Reinhardt finds himself playing a deadly game with a killer out for revenge and four Allied powers struggling for control of a divided city.

The Divided City is the third book in the Reinhardt series. After charting Reinhardt’s exploits in Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War, this outing is set in Berlin in 1947. Reinhardt has returned to his pre-war job as a detective in the Berlin Kripo. McCallin uses this scenario to create a very nice setup, with Reinhardt continuing his outsider role.  Very few policeman who served in the Nazi era have survived in post and the force is full of new recruits with little experience and who are full of resentment. Reinhardt commands little respect and is openly mocked by colleagues. He does though have the knowledge and skills to undertake a complex murder case and the survival instinct to navigate dirty politics. In the case he’s presented – former fighter pilots from the same squadron being murdered – he needs all his wits to track down clues and survive political and physical attacks from all sides. It’s clear that the book is well researched and McCallin gives a sense of the landscape and social life of the devastated city, the alienation of the German populace and social divisions, and the political in-fights between the four Allied powers running the city. Reinhardt is an interesting, conflicted character, and the characterisation in general is strong. Where the book excels is with respect to the plot. It’s a little ponderous to start, but it soon gains direction. McCallin weaves together a complex tapestry and there’s a tremendous amount going on, but at the same time it’s straightforward to follow the threads and various intrigues. It’s not obvious who the killer is until near the end, which I sensed more from intuition than piecing together evidence, and it’s only with the reveal that it’s clear that McCallin left a series of well veiled clues. Overall, an atmospheric and engaging tale.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

April reads

A relatively slow month of reading. The standout book was Adrian McKinty's There's Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly. Another strong addition to the Sean Duffy series.

Whiskey River by Loren Estleman ****.5
The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith ***
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott ****
Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker ****
Bulldog Drummond by Sapper **
There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty *****

Monday, May 1, 2017

Review of Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland (2013, Liveright)

Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were born within less than a year of each other (late 1901, mid-1902) and both grew up in Berlin, their teenage years blighted by the First World War. Both women were head-strong, egocentric, manipulative, determined to succeed in show business, and had a fondness for relationships with younger men as well as with women. Both started off as actresses. After initial successes, Dietrich headed to Hollywood, Riefenstahl turned her hand to directing. While Dietrich drifted between Hollywood, New York and Paris, making movies and having an endless set of affairs, Riefenstahl cultivated a friendship with Goebbels and Hitler and became the documentary maker of choice for the Nazis. During the war Riefenstahl spent millions making a movie, using concentration camp victims as extras. Dietrich in contrast, worked as an entertainer, following frontline US troops in North Africa and up through Italy. Post-war, Riefenstahl fought a number of legal cases to try and salvage her reputation, while Dietrich’s career slumped. Both remained restless and sought to reinvent their fame, which they both did in later years: Riefenstahl as a photographer and Dietrich as singer.

Wieland’s twin biography traces the long lives of Dietrich and Riefenstahl, alternating between the stories of both women.  And this is one of the core issues with the book. It is two biographies told side-by-side. Wieland makes little attempt to compare their lives explicitly, leaving it to the reader to make points of comparison. Certainly there are many similarities between Dietrich and Riefenstahl in terms of their drive, ambition, sexual conquests, and manipulative behaviour, but they took different routes with respect to Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl cultivated and enjoyed the patronage of senior Nazis and was a key element of their propaganda machine. Dietrich loathed the Nazis and raised significant investment in war bonds before spending a couple of years entertaining frontline troops. What is presented is a timeline of actions and relationships, but little analysis of the motivations and aspirations of both women, or how they might have been reflective of other German women of the same age. In fact, both women are somehow separated from wider context. Little is said, for example, about German society and the entertainment industries during and after the First World War or the Weimar period, we just get an account of family relationships and career. The result is two parallel biographies that are somewhat disconnected from one another and from the time and society in which they were embedded. Moreover, both are judged entirely from the standpoint of the present. That’s not to excuse the choices and actions of Riefenstahl in particular, but to note that they were not entirely out of place within the context in which they occurred. That she continued to deny accusations and evidence post-war is rightly judged, but again, Riefenstahl was not the only one to do so and her stance should have been contextualised with respect to other such cases.  Overall, an interesting read but lacking in wider context and analysis.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

A few more ordered books arrived at the local bookstore. Here's the new tbr pile, minus Luke McCallin's The Divided City, which I'm halfway through. It's quite a while since I've bought a pile of books that does not contain a new-to-me author. All of these are part of series.

My posts this week
Definitely worthy of a snack
Review of Whiskey River by Loren Estleman

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Definitely worthy of a snack

Go on then. Yes, yes. Wait a minute. Where did that go? He didn’t throw it.  At least, I don’t think he did. But his hands are empty. Maybe it went over here? No, nothing but more sand. Whoa! How did it get back in his hand again? Go on then. Yes. No. I don’t care which way – I can run in circles all day. Why's he dropping it? Bloody hell, he’s given that a good boot! I gotcha, I gotcha. I can fly!

‘Great catch, Buddy!’

Definitely worthy of a snack. I’ll swap you a ball for a treat.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Whiskey River by Loren Estleman (Scribners, 1990)

Detroit, the late 1920s/early 1930s. The city is a melting pot of people drawn to its industrial base.  The start of the Great Depression has added a desperate edge and prohibition has led to a thriving underground scene of speakeasies and bootlegging, with gangs bringing liquor across the Detroit River from Canada or setting up their own breweries. Competition is fierce, with regular deadly fights over turf and markets, overseen by a corrupt police force as interested in kickbacks as keeping the peace. Constantine (‘Connie’) Minor is a tabloid columnist who made his name working the crime beat. He’s met and written about the city’s major criminals and has built up a level of trust with them. In particular, he has formed a bond with a young, charismatic hoodlum, Jack Dance, who invites him to take part in a whiskey run across the frozen river. Subsequently, Dance uses Minor as a go-between, swapping the journalist’s supposedly neutral position to deliver messages for an inside track on breaking stories. It’s an odd relationship, with Dance being ruthless and unpredictable, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, and Minor hiding his excesses to protect his source of exclusives. While ‘Joey the Machine’ and the Unione Siciliana seem to be playing a long game, Dance lives in the moment, taking evermore risks to take a larger share of the bootlegging business.

Whiskey River is the first novel in the Estelman’s ‘Detroit’ series, with each novel focusing on a key aspect/event in the city’s history in the twentieth century. In this outing it’s the late 1920s/early 1930s and the focus is on the operation of criminal gangs and their on-going battles with each other and the law. The story is told in the form of a testimony by Connie Minor, a syndicated tabloid columnist, at a grand-jury investigation into police corruption held in 1939. Minor’s recollection focuses mainly on the life and death of Jack Dance. Dance is a young criminal and schemer with a faulty moral compass, high ambitions, an unpredictable nature, and an inner energy that makes things happen. He has no respect for the established criminal or legal order and is prepared to take on both. Minor is drawn into Dance’s world and is trusted by him, allowing the journalist access to the life of a hoodlum. To ground the tale in the history of the city, Estelman mixes in a number of real world events including a couple of murders and political machinations. To create atmosphere, the tale is told in style of an earlier gangster movie or Raymond Chandler novel, with some nice observations, witty one-liners, and at times sparkling prose.  The result is a character-driven story of Detroit’s underbelly during prohibition, of warring criminal gangs, corrupt police, and a society reeling from the Great Depression. The only niggle is use of a narrator, which seems to put a bit of distance between the reader and the unfolding story. Otherwise, Whiskey River is a fascinating and engaging piece of historical crime fiction.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Service

I've a few books on the to-be-read pile, but none of them particularly took my fancy so I went a little crazy with book orders this past week. I picked up the first three books from the local bookshop on Friday, and also selected another while there. They are Jane Casey's After the Fire, Anthony Quinn's  Silence, Claire McGowan's A Savage Hunter, and Karin Wieland's Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (which I'm presently reading). The others arrive during the week. I'll not be short of reading for a while (thankfully).

My posts this week
Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott
Improvisation and instinct

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Improvisation and instinct

‘What’s taking so long?’

‘Nothing. Just be ready to get out of here.’

The van was parked in front of the bank.

‘I don’t like it. God knows what Lonny’s likely to do.’

‘He knows what he’s doing.’

‘Yeah, right. Lonny’s all improvisation and instinct.’

A large man tumbled through the bank’s doors, dragging a middle-aged woman.  From inside came the sound of gunfire. Two more men exited wearing balaclavas.

The side-door slid open. 

‘Who’s she and where’s the money?’

‘She is the money! Well, bank manager. We’re kidnapping her.’

‘That wasn’t the plan, Lonny.’

‘Well, it is now. Go!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (2009, Pocket Books)

Moscow, 1956. Leo Demidov, former MGB officer, now heads up a homicide division. The new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, has denounced the hard-line of Stalin in a secret speech that has been widely circulated and has promised reform.  Millions have been complicit in carrying out Stalin’s purges and millions were executed and sent to gulags.  Leo has personally arrested hundreds of people, many of them guilty of little more than trying to survive a brutal regime.  Khrushchev’s speech threatens to destabilise the Soviet system and someone seems intent on exacting revenge against those in power.  Leo, his wife Raisa, and their two adopted daughters are in the firing line. Leo wishes to atone for his part in wrecking lives, but not at the expense of his family. To save them he must undertake a hazardous mission, first to the gulags of Siberia, then to revolutionary Hungary.

The Secret Speech is the second book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.  After his exploits in Child 44, Demidov is now running a homicide division.  He can’t break free of his MGB days, however.  One of those he arrested and sent to the gulags is using the ‘Khrushchev thaw’, in which the new leader seeks reform and to the hard-line actions of the State, and their early release to target those responsible for their incarceration.  Leo and his new family is top of the list for reprisals.  Smith uses this revenge premise to construct a wider political thriller in which Leo, in order to save his family, becomes an unwilling participant in a larger plot.  There’s certainly a lot going on in the tale, including a potted history of Khrushchev’s failed reforms, the savagery of the gulags, the parallel criminal underworld in the Soviet Union, and the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian rising, with Leo trying to navigate each to stay alive and rescue his kidnapped daughter.  While there’s plenty of action and tension, the story becomes ever-more unbelievable as the tale progresses. Both the political thread and Leo’s quest become ragged, staged and driven by plot devices.  Leo not only survives the first hundred pages or so, but somehow has ninety-nine lives despite the numerous life-threatening scrapes he finds himself in.  The result is a Hollywood blockbuster that hides a tenuous plot with violence, melodrama, political intrigue, and a series of mini-cliffhangers. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review of The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999, Sceptre)

Harry Starks is a fearsome and fearless London gangster in 1960s London who courts a legitimate front through his Soho club, The Stardust, and his friendship with minor celebrities and politicians.  Openly homosexual, he’s always a young man in tow from whom he expects loyalty and affection.  Running the seedier side of the Swinging Sixties – strip clubs, rent boys, porn shops, long firm scams – Harry does deals with bent coppers and terrorises his staff and victims while outwardly projecting charm and generosity.  Arnott reveals Harry’s complex nature through the stories of five people who spend significant time in his company – Terry, a rent boy; Teddy Thursby, a gay politician; Jack the Hat, a drug-addled gang member; Ruby, a failed film star turned strip-club manager; Lenny a sociology lecturer – charting the gangster’s rise and fall from the mid-60s to late 1970s.

The Long Firm was the first instalment in Jake Arnott’s London gangster trilogy that spans forty years.  The story charts the exploits of Harry Starks, a charismatic and violent gang boss who runs a series of rackets fronted by legitimate business interests.  Rather than tell the story from Starks perspective, Arnott provides five snapshots through the eyes of five people who become part of Harry’s world for a time, each manipulated by him for his own ends: a rent boy turned boyfriend; a politician turned company director; a gangster who’s fallen out of favour with the Krays; a failed film star turned strip-club manager; a sociologist turned advocate.  While breaking the tale into five separate accounts that occasionally intersect disrupts the overarching story arc, it’s an effective strategy for revealing Harry’s complex nature.  Each account is well told with a distinct voice and crafted prose, though they vary a little with regards to how compelling each is with the latter three having a stronger hook and thread in my view.  Nonetheless, the attention to detail throughout is excellent, with a keen eye for social and fashion trends, made more realistic through the use of real life characters of the time such as the Kray twins, Tom Driberg and Judy Garland.  The final instalment, with its discussion of sociological theories prevalent in the late 1960s and 1970s, is particularly well done.  Overall, an interesting literary, character-driven crime novel, that excels in capturing in the essence of a ruthless, cunning gang boss and the dark underbelly of Swinging London.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

This weekend I have been mostly sleeping and reading.  After a week's trip to Boston, followed by a short hop to Glasgow, it seems the batteries are pretty flat.  Between naps I've been working my way through Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech and working out what books I want to order to replenish the TBR pile.

My posts this week
Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker
Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper

Saturday, April 15, 2017


A siren wailed, approaching at speed. 

Karl tumbled from the bed, scrabbling for shoes.

The curtains lit up blue.

Jackie must have blabbed. 

He bolted for the rear of the house as the car drew to a halt. 

The back door was locked, the old kitchen window was boarded shut. 

Something heavy hit the front door. 

‘Karl!’ Sheriff Jenkins yelled.  ‘Open-up!’

‘Shit!’ Karl tugged at the window board.

‘Karl, we made a deal!’

‘And you double-crossed me!’

‘And you triple-crossed.  You’re a dead man.’

The door splintered at the same time the board tore free.

Karl leapt into the darkness.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review of Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker (1975, Dell)

Boston PI Spenser has been hired by the Red Sox to investigate whether their star pitcher, Marty Rabb, has been throwing the occasional game.  Posing as a sports writer, Spenser starts to poke his nose into the affairs of the franchise.  He soon starts to suspect that all is not well in the Rabb household. In particular, there’s something a little out-of-kilter with Marty’s wife Linda.  With a little digging it Spenser discovers that Linda has a shady past; enough to attract the attention of a careful blackmailer.  And that blackmailer is not happy to have Spenser nosing around.

Mortal Stakes is the third book in the Spenser series (that ran to 39).  In this outing, Spenser is investigating the possibility that Red Sox baseball games are being fixed.  He quickly hones in on the potential vulnerable point in the life of salt-of-the-Earth, star pitcher, Marty Rabb.  It seems that a manager’s suspicions are correct, but rather than confirm the rumour and close the case Spenser prefers to help Rabb and his wife fix their problem and give them a second-chance.  That brings him into conflict with a ruthless blackmailer.  Parker tells the tale in a no-nonsense fashion.  There are no major twists or misdirection, and limited use of plot devices.  Rather the tale is just a well-told straightforward, linear PI investigation - Spenser spots a clue and then tracks down an answer.  The story moves along at a fair clip, with a series of tension points, and there’s a nice sense of time and place (Boston in the mid-1970s).  Overall, an enjoyable, uncomplicated PI tale.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of Bulldog Drummond by Sapper (1920, Hodder)

Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond is finding it difficult to adjust to civilian life after the First World War.  Seeking adventure he places an advertisement in a newspaper offering to tackle tasks that would provide excitement.  Among the many responses he receives is one from a young woman who suspects that her father is being blackmailed by a dangerous criminal.  Drummond quickly determines that the woman might be right, but the case is far more complicated involving an international conspiracy.  He also decides that the woman is right for him.  While conducting a world-wind romance, Drummond takes on a motley gang of criminals intent on wrecking Britain politically and economically, masterminded by the enigmatic and ruthless Carl Peterson.

Published in 1920, Bulldog Drummond was the first book in a series of ten books featuring the adventures of Captain Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond and his on-going semi-gentlemanly tussle with criminal mastermind Carl Peterson.  It’s ‘boys adventure’ fare, with Bulldog acting as the chivalrous white knight saving and falling in love with a young woman, rescuing a tortured American millionaire, while tackling a ruthless criminal and his gang.  It is very much a story of its time in two ways.  First, in terms of its telling, with very stilted dialogue and staged scenes.  Second, it is full of the social protocols and class relations of the age.  The story is kind of ridiculous, especially the duelling relationship between Bulldog and Peterson, who rather than simply killing one another when one gets the chance sets a trial and the chance of escape.  It all got a tedious pretty quickly despite the endless japes.  Except for being stuck on a plane with no other book it’s unlikely I’d have completed it otherwise.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a long week in Boston.  I've had full days of meetings and conference sessions since getting here. Friday in particular was busy as I was in five concurrent sessions from eight in the morning to seven at night, followed by a work meal.  This is my favourite photo from the event, from a panel late yesterday afternoon.  The 'disinterested Winston Churchill' look is one I might try and cultivate.

My posts this week
Long Black
Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Long Black

‘I’m worried about that bag.’

‘Which bag?’

‘That bag over by the milk.’  Keith snaked out a long arm.

A suitcase was standing by the counter, the nearest person a few feet away.

‘It’s been there ten minutes.’

Keith headed towards the other patrons and started to quiz them.  Nobody claimed ownership.  Most shrugged, unconcerned.  A couple left.

A man appeared and grabbed the handle.

‘Where the fuck were you?’

‘The toilet.’

‘Literally taking the piss, you idiot!’

‘It’s a coffee shop.’

‘In central London.  D’ya really think the only Long Black you’re likely to get here is a coffee?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail, 2017)

Belfast 1988.  A recent returnee to Northern Ireland, a local drug-dealer, is found dead.  He’s been shot with a bolt from a crossbow in front of the house he shared with his Bulgarian wife.  Detective Sean Duffy returns from a holiday in Donegal to investigate. A few days earlier another man survived a similar attack. It seems as if local paramilitaries are actively policing drug-dealing in their area. Duffy keeps scratching at the case despite being directed to ‘yellow file’ it. Eventually his persistence starts to pay dividends, but it also brings a visit from Internal Affairs and attracts the attention of the IRA. If IA doesn’t push him out of the force, then the IRA might push him out of existence. To add spice to a difficult case, his partner has decided to seek a temporary break in their relationship, taking their young daughter with her. Duffy is not easily phased, but the stakes at work and home have got him worried.

There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly is the sixth book in Adrian McKinty’s excellent Sean Duffy series set in Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland during the 1980s. In this outing, Duffy has settled down with his partner and has mellowed a little after the birth of their daughter. His work life is just as difficult as ever. Being a Catholic cop and head of Carrickfergus CID at the height of the Troubles is challenging; more so when you have a streak of intransigence and bloody-mindedness and want to solve every crime and have the wits to do so. In this case, Duffy seeks the killer of a local drug-dealer which brings him into the orbit of paramilitaries who ‘police’ local areas. As usual he manages to rub his own colleagues and powerful people up the wrong way, with potentially deadly consequences.  As with the other books, the characterisation, sense of place and time, intertextuality, and prose are excellent.  Duffy and his colleagues are three-dimensional characters and the dialogue throughout the story sparkles.  In addition, the pacing and plotting is very nicely done, with tale working its way to a tense denouement without the need for obvious plot devices.  The result is a wonderful addition to the series.

Monday, April 3, 2017

March reads

Quite a mixed month of reading with two standout books, Redemption Road by John Hart and The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell.  The latter was my read of the month.  An interesting plot, with a telling that made me laugh out loud several times.

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell *****
The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner ****
Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea ***
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet ***
The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax ****
Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith ***.5

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I gave talk on Wednesday from a replica of the ballroom stairs on the Titanic in Belfast.  Given that while I was talking Teresa May was announcing the triggering of Article 50 it felt quite apt.

My posts this week

Dead Skip by Joe Gores ****
Redemption Road by John Hart *****
Fulbright award for Aoife Delaney
So starts a perfect day 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

So starts a perfect day

‘I’m tired, Joe.’

‘Another a minute.’

‘You’ve been saying that for the past half-an-hour.’

‘Here we go.  It’s coming.  Open your eyes, Daisy.’

‘I need to sleep.’

‘You’re missing it.’

Daisy rolled over onto her side.  ‘Big deal.’

‘It’s starting.  Oh, wow.’

‘This better be worth it.’  Daisy pushed herself up.

Peaking above the horizon was a slither of sun.  Its golden light danced across the lake; the leaves on the trees tinged with honey.

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘Worth staying awake for.’

‘Come-on,’ Daisy said, standing, starting to pull off clothes.

‘What are you doing?’


‘So starts a perfect day.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of Dead Skip by Joe Gores (Mysterious Press, 1972)

Former boxer, Bart Heslip, is working a repo-man for Dan Kearny Associates, a private investigation firm in San Francisco.  After dropping off a car late at night Heslip is attacked from behind, put in a car, and rolled over the side of a hill, leaving him in a coma.  While the police conclude that he was drink driving and lost control, his colleagues disagree.  Heslip’s close friend, Ballard, sets himself the task of running down the attacker within 72 hours.  He suspects it must be related to one of the many cases that Heslip was working on, but working out which one and then locating them is not going to be straightforward.

Dead Skip, first published in 1972, was the first book in the Dan Kearny Associates series that charted the work of a private investigation company in San Francisco.  Gores worked as a PI for twelve years and his knowledge of how to track down people and property is evident in the story.  In this case an employee of DKA is attacked and left in coma, the crime crudely faked as a road traffic accident.  A young investigator, Ballard, hunts for the killer, aided by Kearny himself.  The strength of the book is in the procedural elements and the pacing.  Gores keeps the prose tight and focused on the action.  The result is a story that moves along at a fair clip, but somewhat at the expense of characterisation, which is mainly inferred from behaviour and dialogue.  Moreover, there is little in the way of backstory – in many ways, the storytelling is like a television script.  The plotting is nicely done, with Ballard unearthing new clues and chasing an elusive killer, though I wasn’t quite convinced by the denouement.  That said, it was an enjoyable, quick read.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review of Redemption Road by John Hart (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

Elizabeth Black is a tough cop living with a dark secret that draws her to over-protect vulnerable children.  When rescuing a young girl who has been abducted and raped by two black suspects she pumps 18 bullets into the pair, include joints and genitals.  Now she’s being pursued for excessive violence and torture of suspects.  Ex-cop Adrian Wall has been suffering torture at the hands of a prison warden and guards while serving 13 years for the death of a local woman.  He’s always pleaded innocence, but only a handful of people believe him, including Elizabeth.  On the day he’s released, Gideon – another of Elizabeth’s young charges and son of the murdered woman – seeks out Adrian with the intention of shooting him dead. Instead Gideon ends up in hospital. The following day another woman is found dead in the same place and laid out in the same way as the victim Adrian was convicted for.  Attention is quickly focused on the newly released convict, despite Elizabeth’s best efforts to intervene.  And not only does Adrian looked doomed, but it looks likely that she’ll also be heading for prison. 

There’s a heck of a lot going on in Redemption Road.  John Hart has interwoven two main storylines and their various subplots together to create a multi-layered tale.  The pacing is at a quick tempo, with barely a pause for breath, and there are multiple mini-cliffhanger moments that keep the pages turning. Indeed, the story is full of tension and to a certain degree is relentlessly grim – there are very few light moments in the book, in fact it is to a large extent a litany of people being fairly horrid to one another.  At a few points I had to put the book down and go and get some fresh air before inevitably being drawn back to wanting to find out what was going to happen next.  Amazingly, given how much plot is crammed into the 400 odd pages, the story does not feel forced or overly reliant on plot devices.  They’re there, of course, but storytelling is no nicely done that they don’t feel contrived or over-egged.  Perhaps inevitably given how many crime fiction books I’ve read I’d pegged the murderer fairly early in the tale and it was reasonably well telegraphed as to how the story would resolve.  The characterisation is very nicely done, with good interactions between the characters.  And the prose is expressive.  The result is a kind of literary redemption, serial killer tale with a hell of a lot more going on than the average literary tale. Grim but good.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I made a quick trip to Amsterdam during last week. I wasn't sure if the book I was reading was going to last the full trip, so also packed a slim paperback from the TBR - Joe Gores', Dead Skip, first published in 1972.  As it happened, I did finish my present read, so started on the backup.  Dead Skip
was the first in six installments of the Dan Kearney and Associates private investigator series set in San Francisco.  Gores worked for twelve years as a PI and it shows in the story. My review will follow this week, hopefully.

My posts this week
Bones and cartilage
Review of The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bones and cartilage

The car drifted right, the thwack, thwack, thwack of the wheels juddering over cat’s eyes waking Janet.

She rolled her head forward, bones and cartilage clicking softly.

‘Jesus, what time is it Fergal?’

The car lurched into the next lane.

Suddenly Janet was blinking, trying to orientate, on-coming headlights blinding her.

Next to her, Fergal was slumped lifeless across the steering wheel.


She grabbed him by the shoulder and tried to tug him back.

He barely moved.

Next, she tried heaving the steering wheel anti-clockwise.

A horn blared.


She yanked him back, but then bones and cartilage exploded.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Review of The Day That Never Comes by Caimh McDonnell (McFori Ink, 2017)

Summer in Dublin. Activists led by a wayward priest have taken over the headquarters of a failed bank to house homeless people.  A vengeful, new organisation, Puca, wants rough justice for those that led Ireland to bankruptcy.  Three developers of Skylark properties, a property complex riddled with build quality issues that went bust as the bottom fell out of Irish economy, leave court after their trial collapses on a technicality.  A stunning blonde asks MCM Investigations to determine if one of the Skylark developers is cheating on her with his wife.  Paul Mulchrone needs the money, but he’s got problems of his own.  His business partners are not talking to him: Nurse Conroy, his ex-girlfriend is still steaming mad at him for cheating on her; former Detective Sergeant Bunny McGarry has disappeared.  And Maggie, the ex-police dog foisted on him has an attitude problem and a thirst for beer. Mulchrone is an amateur investigator at best and the friend he recruits to help him tail Jerome Hartigan is just as hopeless.  As the hapless pair trail round Dublin, Puca start to murder members of the Skylark Three and those associated with them, and the people of Dublin are being whipped up into a bitter frenzy.  Can Mulchrone, his pal, Phil, and Maggie discover who is driving the violent undercurrent and halt the madness?

The Day That Never Comes is the second book in Caimh McDonnell’s Dublin trilogy.  In this outing, the hapless Paul Mulchrone has started a new private investigation company with Nurse Conroy and former Detective Sergeant Bunny McGarry.  However, it already appears to be hitting the rocks, with Nurse Conroy refusing to speak to Paul, and McGarry missing in action.  Mulchrone is left to keep the show on the road, but even he’ll admit to being Dublin’s worst private investigator.  His task is trying to trail a property developer involved in large-scale corruption, embezzlement and building control violations.  It should be straightforward but someone is murdering the developer’s colleagues and he may well be on the hit list as well.  Like the first book, the tale is great fun; witty throughout and with a number of laugh out loud moments.  At the same time it’s got all the elements of a decent crime tale.  The characterisation is excellent, especially the no-nonsense Nurse Conroy and the slightly psychotic Bunny McGarry, a man who administers his own brand of justice with a hurley. The plot is well constructed, with McDonnell interweaving a number of strands – including a police investigation line, phone-ins to a radio chat show, and flashbacks to McGarry dealing with an earlier incident of planning corruption – that builds to a nice denouement. And there is a strong sense of place and context; the story set in Dublin, a city still simmering with resentment at the state of the economy and fallen personal fortunes after the financial crash.  Overall, a very nice comic crime caper that delivers both the laughs and decent crime story.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

While looking for something else I discovered Jake Arnott's first novel, The Long Firm.  I bought it a long time ago and misplaced it before I'd had chance to read it.  It's now going to shuffle it's way to near the top of the TBR. I'm also grateful that I didn't get round to buying a second copy. Eventually everything resurfaces in this house.

My posts this week

Review of The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P.D. Viner
New paper: Living Labs, vacancy, and gentrification
Review of Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea
He was here

Saturday, March 18, 2017

He was here

The door swung open, held by a middle-aged woman.

‘He was here.’

‘Mrs Davies, I …’

‘Why are you persecuting us? Why aren’t you out there, catching real criminals?’

‘I’ve just come to …’

‘You’re always picking on our Darren just for being a kid.  Why can’t you leave us alone!’

She started to close the door.

Carter jammed a foot in the gap.  ‘Mrs Davies, it is about Darren ...’

‘I told you, he was here.’

‘He’s in hospital.’

‘What did you do to him?’

‘Nothing. But a guard dog at White’s didn’t realise he was home all night.’ 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.