Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've nearly finished Michael Russell's City of Lies. Turns out it's book four, not three. So now going to have to find The City in Darkness, which the bookshop told me was not published until November (which is probably true for the paperback rather than 'large' paperback - hardbacks seem to have gone out of style). I should be back on course with the series order by the year's end!

My posts this week
Review of Dead Water by Ann Cleeves

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The man was tied to the chair, his face and shirt bloody.

Harry tugged down the gag.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Do I look okay?’

‘What happened?’

‘What do you think happened? They tied me up and worked me over.’

‘But what’re you doing in my garage?’

‘How the fuck do I know? I didn’t pick the venue! Now, can you untie me before they return?’

‘They’re coming back?’

‘To finish what they started.’

There was a noise outside.

‘Quick. My hands.’

Harry started to tug up the gag.

‘Hey, what’re you …’

He slipped out the rear door and ran.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review of Dead Water by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan, 2013)

Journalist Jerry Markham has travelled home to Shetland, claiming to be working on a secret story that appears to be related to the energy industry. He’s not long back on the islands when he’s runoff the road and murdered, his body left in a rowing boat in front of the Fiscal’s home. Usually Inspector Jimmy Perez would run the investigation, but he’s still trying to come to terms with the death of his partner and being the carer for her seven year old daughter. Instead, Detective Inspector Willow Reeves is sent from the mainland to head up her first murder investigation. Bought up in a commune on a Western isle, Willow has rebelled against her parents beliefs though she carries some of the lifestyle. Willow and a local sergeant start to trace the movements of Markham and possible motives for his death. The journalist seems to have rubbed a number of people the wrong way before leaving for London under a black cloud, abandoning a pregnant young woman. Only a small protest group were happy with his questions concerning new green energy projects. As Reeves and her team struggle to find convincing leads, Perez starts to take an interest in the case. Slowly coming out his shell as he starts to piece together clues, forming an uneasy alliance with Willow.

Dead Water is the fifth book in the Jimmy Perez Shetland series. After the death of Perez’s partner in the last outing, the detective is at a low ebb, bringing up Fran’s seven year old daughter and thinking of quitting the police. When a journalist is murdered, Detective Inspector Willow Reeves is sent from Aberdeen to lead the investigation. Willow doesn’t seem like the usual kind of detective, seemingly a little laid-back and unconcerned about appearance, but she’s ambitious and disarming. She soon senses that the local Fiscal has a personal connection to the case and the journalist’s former girlfriend, who he’d abandoned whilst pregnant a few years before, is being economical with the truth. The case makes slow progress but gradually works its hooks into Perez, who increasingly takes an active role. In finding his feet, however, Perez habitually takes solo-runs, chasing down leads without consulting Willow creating a little tension between the two that they continually try to smooth over. Cleeves nicely balances the personal dynamics within the police team with the puzzle of the case, creating a character-driven police procedural with plenty of intrigue.  As usual there is a strong sense of place, with the Shetlands performing as more than a backdrop.  The denouement felt a little contrived, but overall an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally got round to tracking down the third book - The City of Lies - in Michael Russell's Stefan Gillespie series. I'm looking forward to reading as the first two books were excellent. Reviews here and here

My posts this week
Review of The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich
Review of Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus
Idiot love

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Idiot love

Jane cracked open the door.

‘Jesus, Joe, what the hell happened to you?’

Joe’s left hand was clamped over a bloody shirt.

‘Cut myself.’

Jane widened the gap. ‘What with? An axe?’

‘I’m an idiot.’

‘You’ve got that right!’

‘An idiot in love.’

‘Unrequited love. Into the bathroom.’

‘Idiot love.’

‘Tell me you’ve not done anything stupid, Joe.’

‘You know me.’

‘Let me look.’

He lifted up his shirt to reveal a deep, ugly wound. 

‘We need a doctor. And that’s not self-inflicted. Who did this?’

‘She got me good, Jane. She’d got me from the start. Always an idiot.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Review of The Good Assassin by Paul Vidich (Atria, 2017)

George Meuller has left the CIA and is teaching in a university and writing spy novels when the director calls him in to ask a favour – head to Cuba to look into the activities of Toby Graham, an operative suspected of colluding with Castro’s forces fighting the Batista regime. The FBI are convinced Graham is supplying the rebels with guns and information. Meuller and Graham were college friends and it’s felt that might provide cover for the covert investigation. Reluctantly Meuller agrees, heading to Havana under the pretence of working as a writer for Holiday magazine. He arrives to find a jittery country on the brink of revolution. He falls in with an old acquaintance, Jack Malone, and his wife, Liz, begins an affair with his photographer, and starts to rub against the local FBI agent and the Cuban intelligence services. Graham remains elusive, even when the two finally do meet and Meuller finds himself developing divided loyalties.

Set in Cuba in 1958, The Good Assassin tells the story of George Meuller, a former CIA agent, tasked with assessing whether his friend, Toby Graham, has been supplying Castro’s rebels with arms. Meuller is very much the reluctant, ambivalent spy, slouching round Havana and the Cuban countryside, first trying to make contact with Graham, then trying to assess whether he’s pursuing his own agenda, all the while mildly antagonising the local FBI agent and the Cuban intelligence services. Vidich nicely captures Meuller’s persona and frustration and the unsettled situation of the last few months of the Batista regime. The plot seems to meander along without really changing pace or rising in tension. Occasionally there are dramatic moments, but they too are told in a laconic way, almost as if they are incidental, and their consequences are little explored.  The result is a story that seems quite flat and overly understated. As a consequence I was never quite captivated by the tale, despite some nice prose and occasional choice observations.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review of Midnight in Berlin by James MacManus (Duckworth Overlook, 2016)

1938 and Colonel Noel Macrae is transferred from Vienna to Berlin as military attaché. Macrae is alarmed by the Nazi programme of rearmament and their political rhetoric and wants Britain to take a tough line against German ambitions for expansion eastwards. However, the British ambassador has well developed links to senior Nazis and is a strong advocate of appeasement. As Germany runs diplomatic rings around Britain and France, walking into Austria and threatening Czechoslovakia, Macrae liaises with a senior German army figure who claims he represents a group plotting against Hitler but will act only if Britain backs a coup. The British government does not want to get involved, and to make life complicated Macrae’s contact is having an affair with his wife. Macrae himself is drawn to the enigmatic Sara, a Jewish woman forced to work as a prostitute in an exclusive Gestapo brothel designed to entrap the elite of German society and foreign visitors. As spring arrives in 1939, Macrae has three pressing concerns: can he save Sarah from the Gestapo? is his marriage worth saving? should he take matters of state into his own hands?

Midnight in Berlin, set in the city in 1938/39, draws heavily on actual events and policy and involves numerous real-world characters to tell the story of how Britain and Germany slipped towards war. To add some fictional narrative, MacManus hooks the story around the efforts of British military attache, Colonel Noel Macrae (loosely based on the real attaché at the time), to change Britain’s policy of appeasement and take a more interventionist position, and the tale of Sara, a young Jewish woman forced to work in a Gestapo honey-trap brothel. Macrae is taken to the exclusive club where he meets the woman who offers to pass on information in return for knowledge about the fate of her captive brother. The period and the events are interesting, but for me, the tale is too much a history lesson lightly fictionalised with not enough of a story. As is stands, if the historical account was pared back there's little left, and when the story did focus more on the main fictional characters it flits briefly on their affairs rather than dwelling upon them. Indeed, the tale is cast as a love story, however, the relationship between Macrae and Sara did not come across as a Nazi-era ‘Pretty Woman’. Rather, there was some lust, manipulation, and lingering infatuation, but there was no sense that there was anything serious developing and story tails off to a damp squib of an ending.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up three books in a secondhand bookshop yesterday. Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson (which I read twenty years ago and thought it would be good to revisit), Robert Ryan's Early One Morning, and Paul Charles' The Dust of Death. All three have Irish connections, with Eureka Street being set in Belfast, Early One Morning starting in Dublin, and The Dust of Death being set in Donegal. I also picked up three in the local bookshop: Riptide by John Lawton, Sleeping Dogs by Mark O'Sullivan and The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal. Have added them all to a to-be-read pile that is back to being healthy in choice (i.e. thirty plus books!).

My posts this week
Balancing and redistributing ‘additional’ academic work
Review of The Trespasser by Tana French
June reads
A hole in the head

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A hole in the head

‘I need this, Mickey, like a hole a head.’

‘And that’s what you’ll have if you fuck up.’

‘What’s with the American accent? You’re from Dub-lin, Mickey. And I don’t think the mafia are running round in Adidas tracksuits.’

‘You want that hole now, bigshot?’

The goon flanking Mickey Doyle drew a pistol.

‘If I’m dead, you lose everything. All five million. Is that your game plan?’

‘You’re just the go-between. A nobody.’

‘I’m the lynch-pin. Pull me out and the whole deal implodes.’

‘Like your head will.’

‘Only if you’re as stupid as this conversation suggests. Well, are you?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

June reads

June was a good month of reading. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch was my read of the month. This is my slowest reading year since 2008; I'm at 44 books for the half-year. Ticking along but slowing down. Too many other distractions.

Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris ****
The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman ****
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid ****
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler ***.5
A Savage Hunger by Claire McGowan ***
Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher ***
Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch *****
After the Fire by Jane Casey ****

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Review of The Trespasser by Tana French (2016, Hachette)

Detective Antoinette Conway always wanted to make the Murder Squad. Six months of hazing and she’s sticking-in by sheer will-power and bloody-mindedness. Conway is no wilting violet and is well able to give as much as she gets, but the endless games of politics, psychology, harassment and being given the crappy cases are wearing her down. After a long night shift, she and partner, Stephen Moran, the only seemingly decent bloke in the squad, land a domestic murder investigation. Aislinn Murray has been killed by a blow to the head in her own home, a candle-lit dinner for two in preparation. At first sight it appears to be a straightforward lover’s quarrel turned violent. But elements of the case don’t quite add up and a stranger seems to be stalking Conway. Breslin, the experienced and charming cop assigned to help Conway and Moran, is pushing for a quick open-and-shut arrest of Aislinn’s boyfriend. However, the obstinate and suspicious streak in Conway wants a by-the-book investigation. It might be her last case, either through choice or being forced out, but Conway wants to finish in the squad on her terms.

The Trespasser is the sixth book in the Murder Squad series set in Ireland – a somewhat lose collection, with each book readable as a standalone. I’ve only read three, but this is by far the strongest. My issue with the other two was that they were overly descriptive and too long and could, in my view, have benefitted from an edit. This instalment also suffers a little from being overly drawn-out – French includes every single aspect of the case including full ‘unedited’ accounts of every sentence in every interview, all of Conway’s thoughts, rich descriptions of context and scenes, detailed explanations of procedural elements, etc. – but it is fully absorbing. The microscopic detail simply adds to the tension. This is aided by close attention to office politics and psychology and strong characterisation and character development, especially of Detective Antionette Conway, the first person protagonist. Complex and abrasive, Conway is alive on the page. The plot was a relatively straightforward police procedural with a well-telegraphed twist and a nice denouement, but it’s telling is beautifully executed. Indeed, The Trespasser is a wonderfully written, multilayered and intense tale that had me hooked from the start and never let go. Certainly the best Irish police procedural I’ve read in quite a while.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Balancing and redistributing ‘additional’ academic work

I rarely publish anything on the blog related to my day job, reserving it instead to discuss crime fiction. I'm making an exception for this piece as it's too long for a Facebook post and I've no other suitable place to post it.

I’m finding that managing my workload is becoming increasingly difficult. A big part of the issue is an endless stream of requests for work that extends beyond my usual workload. Since January I’ve been keeping a list of such requests. Here’s a summary table of the number and type of request – the list doesn’t include university business/committees, circular spam requests/calls, already existing board commitments, follow-on requests to re-review, requests for copies of papers/info, requests for reviews of novels, my own journal editing work, and student references.

In total I’ve received 194 new requests in the first 26 weeks of 2017, varying between four and ten a week.

42 paper review
16 grant review (one of which was to undertake 12 site reviews of 2 days each)
3 book proposal review
4 book endorsement
2 review book manuscript
5 academic reference/tenure request
3 PhD external examiner
38 research or media interview/survey/seeking advice
12 contribute paper/chapter
4 write a book
6 work on a project
8 appoint to advisory board
49 speak at workshop/conference
1 be a journal editor
1 visiting prof

That’s a lot of potential additional tasks. In fact, taking on all of it would be a full-time job (and even then would involve overtime!). And I take on a quite a few of them – certainly all of the reference, external examining requests and book endorsements, most of the interviews/advice, about a third of paper reviews, grant reviews, speaking at events, contributing paper/chapter, and membership of advisory boards.  That adds up to a lot of service work. All 194 need some correspondence, even if it’s just to say ‘sorry, I can’t do at present’. 

This weight of expectation raises two main questions. First, what is a reasonable acceptance rate for these requests – in total and across types of requests?  Second, what is the distribution of such requests across all academics – and if it’s as asymmetrical as my anecdotal evidence of asking colleagues suggests, what can be done to re-balance the workload?

With respect to the first, undertaking a commensurate number of reviews to work submitted seems like a reasonable, minimum expectation.  So if one submits two articles in a year, one should expect to review six papers in return. Ditto for grant applications, etc. But is there an upper threshold beyond reciprocity where it’s acceptable to flatly turn down additional review work (say 20 papers in per year)? Or if one is a journal editor managing 50+ papers a year can one forego reviewing for other journals? I certainly generate a lot of reviewing work through submitting papers and grant applications, and I’m often asking people to review for Dialogues in Human Geography or contribute chapters to a book. I have a strong sense of obligation to undertake such work in return. Nonetheless, I’m certainly doing a lot more at present than I’m generating and I’m considering adopting an upper-limit on reviews to make things manageable, and only reviewing papers/grants that closely fit my expertise and I’m interested in. I’m not quite sure though what a reasonable upper-limit might be – suggestions welcome.

My own experiences as an editor and asking colleagues chimes with Stuart Eldon’s observations* concerning the ‘exchange economy of peer review’; that is there is a strong asymmetry in the both the requests for reviews and in the acceptance of doing review work (indeed, my anecdotal evidence is that the ‘decline to review’ rate has increased substantially over the past twenty years). Some people get asked a lot, other infrequently; some do a large number of requested reviews, others decline most requests. Of course, there are reasons as to why there is an asymmetry in requests and why people decline. Editors and agencies tend to favour established networks and those with an established profile. Academics are under increasing pressure within their workplaces with respect to teaching, research and admin. Yet, the entire academic system of evaluation is reliant on reciprocal peer review.

My sense is that journals and grant agencies need to get much better at spreading the additional academic work around. There were nearly 10,000 attendees at this year’s Association of American Geographers conference, probably 6,000+ of which were post-PhD academics. There’s a large number of academic geographers across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia. There is no shortage of potential experts to review work and to participate on boards, etc. One ‘rule’ we used to apply when I was editing Social and Cultural Geography was: the three referees had to come from two or more continents and at least one had to be an early career scholar. We would often also look for a reviewer outside of the discipline. A useful addition might be at least one reviewer located outside of Anglo-America, and to also consider issues of gender and race as well. It would also help to diversify editors beyond Anglo-America, thus gaining their networks of scholars (as well as encouraging a more diverse set of submissions and tackling the hegemony of Anglo-American scholarship in leading journals^). Another ‘rule’ some journals apply is that if you submit an article there is an obligation to undertake three reviews in return; if you don’t fulfil this you cannot submit another article to the same journal. In terms of talk and board invitations, I try and pass many of these on to postdocs and early career scholars to help build their profiles. Again, it would be particularly useful to spread invitations with respect to gender and race.

It would be interesting to see some data from journals as to status, location, etc. of who are being invited to review, the decline rates (and who are more likely to decline), and the extent to which people submitting to a journal are being used as referees; also what policies journals and grant agencies have for recruiting referees and tacking decline rates.

While my list of requests might be a few standard deviations from the norm, there are certainly a number of colleagues who are also dealing with a large number of requests and are doing more than their fair share of additional academic labour. My feeling is that we’re long past the point where we need to proactively tackle who gets asked to do what. I’ll continue to do my share, but I’m going to try and better manage requests. My hope is that I won’t need to say 'no' more often because the load is being shared around more effectively. But I suspect that will only happen if there’s a concerted attempt to modify selection procedures for invitation.

Many thanks to folks who wrote comments on a Facebook post I posted a couple of weeks ago about this issue. I’d welcome more feedback – please post a comment.

* Elden, S. (2008) The exchange economy of peer review. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26: 951-953.

^ Kitchin, R. (2003) Cuestionando y desestabilizando la hegemonia angloamericana y del ingles en geografia. Documents d'Anàlisi Geogràfica 42: 17-36. Reprinted as Disrupting and destabilising Anglo-American and English-language hegemony in Geography in Social and Cultural Geography (2005): 6(1): 1-16.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Picked up a new reading chair in the charity shop yesterday. Needs a bit of touching up but hopefully many years of gently rocking back and forth ahead as the pages turn.

My posts this week:
Review of Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris
Review of The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman
Standing for a month

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Standing for a month

Henry tipped back in the chair and rocked forward.

The heat and humidity was oppressive.

He swatted at a fly crawling up his leg.

‘Janie, fetch me a beer!’

‘Fetch it yourself,’ Janie answered from the kitchen.

‘You’ll do as you’re told or I’ll leather your hide.’

‘You’d have to get you’re fat ass out of that chair first.’

‘If you don’t bring me that beer you’ll not be able to sit down for a week.’

‘Here!’ Janie poured the beer over his bald crown.

Henry flapped. ‘Why, you!’

‘I got you you’re beer, didn’t I!’

‘Make that a month!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Review of Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris (Corvus, 2013)

1947, Glasgow. Former policeman, then army major, now crime journalist Douglas Brodie is living in sin with lawyer, Samantha Campbell. When the Jewish community in the city ask Brodie to investigate a series of burglaries, he agrees, needing the cash. He solves the crime, but the thief is killed before he can be apprehended. In turn, the killer is murdered. Unnerving Brodie and the Jewish community are the evidence of links between the victim and the Nazi regime. In the meantime, Sam is asked to travel to Hamburg to take part in the war crimes trials. Brodie took part in the first trials as an investigator and when Sam is due to return for a second stint he’s asked to accompany her to help prepare the current cases. It’s also an opportunity to examine any link between the concentration camps and Glasgow. What he discovers suggests a conspiracy that will have dramatic repercussions. To help crack the case Brodie joins forces with his old police friend, Danny McRae – a man with his own shady past.

Pilgrim Soul is set in Glasgow and Hamburg in the cold winter of 1947. It charts journalist Douglas Brodie’s investigation into a string of burglaries affecting the city’s large Jewish community, the possible presence of former Nazis in the city, and his participation in war crimes trial in Hamburg having previously been involved in earlier trials when in the British army. There’s much to like about the story. Brodie is an engaging character with an interesting back story. There is a strong sense of place and time, with a nice portrait of Glasgow and its social context. The story is well contextualised with respect to the war crimes trials, including the inclusion of some real life Nazi criminals.  The plot, for the most part, is well crafted and interesting, and there’s a strong, steady pace. For the first two thirds of the book it was a solid five star read, despite one obvious telegraphed plot device. What unsettled the book for me, was the arrival of Brodie’s old, pre-war fellow policeman, Danny McRae. Pilgrim Soul is the third book in the Brodie series, as well as the third in the McRae series. In my view, the intersection of the two series was a problem for two reasons. First, the plotline and denouement attached to McRae creates one too many twists that felt overly contrived and unnecessary. The story would have stood perfectly well on its own without McRae being involved. Second, I’ve not read the previous two McRae books, only the Brodie ones, but I now have a fairly full precis of what happens, including their resolutions that’ll probably ruining any mystery to those books if I read them. Nonetheless, Pilgrim Soul was an entertaining and interesting read.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review of The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman (Anchor, 2015)

Adolf Tolkachev is a senior radar engineer working in an elite Soviet military research institute in Moscow. He’s also very disillusioned with the oppressive Soviet regime and how under Stalin’s years it persecuted his wife’s family. Wanting to undermine the state in February 1978 he taps on the window of a car possessing US diplomatic plates. At first the CIA mission in the Moscow embassy ignores his approach suspecting that the man is a dangle – a KGB attempt identify CIA operatives and to spread disinformation. Tolkachev is persistent, however, making a couple more approaches, and passing on some information. The details, if true, are a goldmine of advanced technical information on weapon and defence systems. After more than a year of dithering the CIA decide that the Russian engineer is genuine and worth running. Managing an agent in Moscow with teams of KGB operatives keeping US embassy employees under heavy surveillance, as well as their own citizens, is not straightforward. The CIA station is taking a risk, Tolkachev is putting his life on the line. Driven to do as much damage as he can, over the next few years Tolkachev photographs thousands of pages of secret military documents and even smuggles out a couple of circuit boards. The intelligence saves the US billions of dollars of research and gives them a distinct advantage in designing their planes and weapons systems.

Hoffman tells Tolkachev’s story drawing on archival research and interviews with CIA Moscow Station agents. He details how the spy was run, including all the anti-surveillance measures and tricks used to evade observation, and the information Tolkachev supplied and the risks he took to procure it fully aware of the consequence if caught. Hoffman manages to create a narrative that balances the technical details with a well-developed character study of the main actors. The end-game is a little bit sketchy, told almost exclusively from the US-side but that perhaps to be expected given limited access to sources. The result is an engaging and gripping account of a driven and brave man (no doubt the Soviets would cast him differently), supported by dedicated agents working deep in enemy territory, whose actions had a profound effect on US military technology.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I managed to forget to bring a second book with me on a trip, so had to duck into the airport bookshop to pick up a new read. Took about ten seconds to spot Tana French's new tome, The Trespasser. Now 150 pages in and enjoying it. A police procedural that focuses on the minutia of an investigation.

My posts this week

Review of Out of Bounds by Val McDermid
Review of Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Saturday, June 24, 2017


The water was the colour of valentine roses.

The woman shades of Rosemoor.

‘I hate this job sometimes,’ Naylor said. ‘What is she, thirty five?’

‘About that,’ Kinsale replied.  ‘She cut her own wrists?’

‘Well, something’s been cut.’ Naylor hovered over the bath. ‘We better leave it for the tech team. Who found her?’

‘Her daughter. Seven. Had the presence of mind to ring it in. Didn’t touch anything. Said she watches CSI.’

‘Jesus. I was still watching cartoons at seven. Vicious GBH and everyone bounced back.’

‘She says she wants to be a policewoman.’

‘Sounds like she already is.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review of Out of Bounds by Val McDermid (Little, Brown; 2016)

DCI Karen Pirie is still coming to terms with the untimely death of her partner, Phil. Unable to sleep she walks the streets at night and throws herself into her work as head of the Historic Cases Unit during the day. Her latest investigation is a familial DNA match from a joyrider with the perpetrator of a rape and murder twenty years previously. It should be an open and shut case, but there’s a tricky complication. At the same time, Pirie takes an interest in a contemporary case, one she has no right to get involved in: the apparent suicide of a disturbed man. Pirie thinks it’s murder and piquing her interest further is the unsolved murder of the man’s mother twenty five years earlier, a victim of a bomb on a small, private plane. She starts to investigate both, putting herself on a potential collision course with her a colleague, her boss, and an influential third party. Not that this fazes Pirie; all she is interested in is justice and she doesn’t mind ruffling feathers and undermining her own position to get it.

Out of Bounds is the fourth book in the Inspector Karen Pirie cold case series set in Scotland, though I read it as a standalone. In this outing Pirie is investigating three cases, two of them interlinked, and also trying to help some Syrian refugees find their feet in their new home in Edinburgh. None of the cases are straightforward, complicated by messy family relations, and they all have the potential to get Pirie in trouble with her boss and the press. And she only has the jurisdiction to examine one of them. McDermid does a nice job of winding the cases and the refugee thread around each other and keeping the pacing taut and steady. There are a handful of plot devices that felt a little contrived and murderer in one of the cases was well telegraphed despite a couple of attempts at misdirection. But none of that really mattered as the key to the story is Karen Pirie, an indomitable, engaging, driven and wounded spirit who is willing to cut corners and rub people up the wrong way if it gets her a result, and McDermid’s engaging voice. The result is an interesting and entertaining police procedural.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler (Penguin, 2016)

In 1920s Germany cocaine and heroin were available to purchase in pharmacies without prescription, fuelling the hedonistic Weimar Republic. When the Nazis came to power they set about clamping down on such drugs and ushering in an era of sobriety. However, their place was replaced by methamphetamines, marketed as Pervitin, a wonder drug that offered energy and euphoria; today known as crystal meth. When the Nazis turned to war, Pervitin was issued to all troops, providing an upper that negated the need for sleep and providing fortitude – a contributor to blitzkrieg being the soldiers were blitzed. Also a factor in the war effort was drug taking among the Nazi elite. Goring was addicted to morphine, and Hitler had regular injections of vitamins, steroids and opiates. In fact, Hitler took over 80 different kinds of supplements and drugs and towards the end of the war became addicted to oxycodone and cocaine. Hitler’s personal doctor, Dr Theodor Morell was also treating other high ranking Nazi’s and Wehrmacht high command, as well as trying to build a pharmaceutical empire. 

Blitzed details the extent and effects of drug taking in Nazi Germany, focusing in particular on its use within the armed forces and by Hitler. Drawing of archival research, especially with respect to the documents left by Dr Morell, Ohler's thesis is that drugs played a more predominate role in armed combat, and were much more of a critical element in Hitler’s demeanour and decision-making, than previously acknowledged. Ohler makes a convincing case that a pharmacological reading of Nazi Germany helps cast light on some of the military actions and political decision-making. The narrative is engaging and the story told fascinating. However, there are a few issues that detract from the argument being made, namely context, balance, structure and conjecture. The book claims to be about drug use in Nazi Germany. In the main it is about Hitler’s use of drugs, with some but limited coverage of drug use in the armed forces. Drug use in the pre-Nazi era is rather quickly covered, and drug-use among the wider population is cursorily dealt with. There is no discussion about the immediate aftermath of the war, when presumably there were millions of methamphetamine addicts going cold turkey. In addition, there is quite a bit of conjecture and speculation in the analysis. The result is a skewed and partial analysis that overly concentrates on Hitler’s drug use, as interesting as that is. Nonetheless, Blitzed is an intriguing and engaging read that raises some interesting questions and speculation.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Having just spent a day lying in the field reading Out of Bounds by Val McDermid, I find that my to-be-read pile has a distinctly Scottish flavour. I'm now working my way through Gordon Ferris' Pilgrim Soul. Waiting in the wings are Ann Cleaves' Dead Water and Craig Russell's The Deep Dark Sleep. Looks like it'll be a summer of tartan noir.

My posts this week
Review of A Savage Hunger by Claire McGowan

Saturday, June 17, 2017


‘Was that necessary?’


‘The way you berated that poor man.’

‘He was being an idiot.’

‘No, he wasn’t. There’s a difference, Cassie, between being confident and being a bitch.’

‘Are you calling me a bitch?’

‘I’m saying that girl power is about standing up for one’s rights, not trampling over others.’

‘You know that I employ you, right?’

‘I thought we were friends.  You asked me to help you, not the other way round.’

‘So, I’m a diva now?’

‘I think the fame has gone to your head.’

‘Who’s the bitch now?’

‘Bye, Cassie.’

‘Karen! Get back here! Karen!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review of A Savage Hunger by Claire McGowan (Headline, 2016)

Alice Morgan has seemingly been abducted from an isolated church. There is blood on the floor and a holy relic is missing. The young student had been studying at a small third level college dedicated to educating troubled students. In Alice’s case she’s an anorexic who has spent much of her time at boarding school or in a rehab clinic, sent away by her government minister father and unloving mother. Neither her fellow students or the college seems concerned about Alice’s absence and there appear few clues as to Alice’s fate. And to add to mystery she vanishes on the anniversary of the disappearance of another woman thirty two years before. The former missing person’s unit of Ballyterrin’s police force is asked to investigate, including forensic psychologist, Paula Maguire. Maguire is due to be married in a couple of weeks, but she is no fan of weddings and is obsessed with finding missing people since the disappearance of her mother when she was a teenager.  To make life interesting her former boss and lover has been drafted in by Alice’s father to help with the case. With the pressure rising at work and at home, Maguire struggles to make sense of the disappearance and to track down the missing student.

A Savage Hunger is the fourth book in the Paula Maguire series set in Northern Ireland’s borderlands. Maguire is a forensic psychologist who specializes in finding missing people. In this outing Maguire helps the PSNI try to find a young university student, Alice Morgan, who is anorexic and is studying at a small third level college dedicated to educating other troubled students. Competing for Maguire’s attention is her upcoming wedding, which she’s been dreading. To add to unease, her ex-boss and possible father to her two-year old child is flown over from London to help with the case at the request of Alice’s father, a government minister. What follows is a soap opera held together with an endless parade of plot devices, both with respect to Maguire’s person life and Alice’s disappearance. While the resultant story is okay on its terms – McGowan is clearly aiming for a soap opera – neither Maguire’s home life nor the case is particularly satisfying given all the plot devices. In addition, the running commentary from Alice is a bit of a distraction and at the start of the novel especially takes away some mystery. For me this is the weakest book in the series so far and I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing on with book five or not yet – personally, I’d like the balance of focus to shift back from Maguire’s personal life to the procedural elements and the case under investigation but given the setups for the next book that doesn't seem likely.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've finally got round to reading Norman Ohler's 'Blitzed', which details the regular use of drugs by both the Nazi leadership and the armed forces. It's basically a pharmacological reading of the German side of the Second World War and it makes for fascinating reading, since various addictive drugs were common place, especially Pervitin, a methamphetamine, used to combat fatigue and increase aggression and lower inhibitions. I'm about a third of the way in and the phoney war is ending and I imagine folks are going to become even more 'blitzed' as the war progresses.

My posts this week
Review of Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher
Review of Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
More to life

Saturday, June 10, 2017

More to life

‘There has to be more to life than this.’  Stan put his head in his hands.

‘Like what?’ David asked.

‘I don’t know. Just more. You live, you die, shit happens in between.’

‘Life’s what you make it. Isn’t that what the song says?’

‘That’s pish. You think you can control your own destiny?’

‘I think we have a say.’

‘Life’s conditioned. There’re rules, structures, limits – money, power, violence, ability, connections.’

‘You still have choices. Opportunities. Come-on, let’s go to the pub; see if we can score.’

‘With people as desperate as us.’

‘With people who want more from life.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Review of Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher (Sandstone Press, 2016)

Berlin, 1929. After a shooting incident that the press will not drop, Detective Inspector Gereon Rath has been transferred from Cologne to the capital facilitated by his well-connected father. He’s placed in the Vice Squad, but has ambitions to transfer to the Homicide Division. When a Russian searching for the former resident of Rath’s apartment is dragged out of a canal, Rath sees an opportunity to impress his new bosses. Running his own parallel investigation in secret he is soon in over his head grappling with the underworld, Russian emigres, and Nazi sympathizers and organizers, none of whom are happy with Rath asking awkward questions, and rubbing his new colleagues up the wrong way. And to complicate matters, the communists are using May Day to foment unrest. If Rath isn’t careful he’ll wind up dead rather than a hero.

Babylon Berlin is the first book in the Gereon Rath series set in Berlin. The book takes place in 1929. The city is a cauldron of political unrest with the communists, social democrats and Nazis vying for power, and a bohemian lifestyle rubs shoulders with Prussian values and a criminal underworld thriving in the aftermath of the First World War and hyper-inflation. Kutscher captures something of the place and times through the investigation of Inspector Rath as he tries to identify a man who has been tortured and dumped in a canal and to locate his missing friend. The plot is reasonably complex involving a fairly large cast of characters and a handful of intersecting threads and it takes a bit of work to track them all. The main shortcomings of the story are, however, that the central plotline seems somewhat far-fetched, the plot is kept moving forward by an endless succession of plot devices, there’s a fair amount of telegraphing that removes some of the mystery and tension, and Rath isn’t particularly a likeable character with his scheming and dubious morals (and like his girlfriend I soon tired of his antics). The result is a story with plenty of action, but lacks realism and credibility, and could have benefitted from the maxim less is more.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch (2011, Gollancz)

Detective Constable Peter Grant is the first new addition to ESC9, Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9, of the Metropolitan Police in fifty years. His new boss is training him to become a wizard capable of handling the magical crimes in the city. When Dr Walid at the morgue notices that jazz men keep dropping dead in trios, Grant is asked to investigate. It seems that something is feeding on the special talent that separates great musicians from others and it is hanging around Soho. Grant has some knowledge of jazz – his father being Richard ‘Lord’ Grant, a virtuoso trumpet player – and he recognizes the signature sounds of ‘Body and Soul’. When he’s not being distracted by his new girlfriend, he’s soon on the trail of a rogue magician. And where Grant goes, trouble is usually waiting, quickly joined by the murder squad.

Moon Over Soho is the second book in the Peter Grant series set in modern day London, which slots into the genre of urban fantasy police procedural. I was intrigued by the first book, but not bowled over by it. However, I loved the sequel from start to end. Aaronovitch manages to create all the elements of a good story – plot, voice, sense of place, context, characterisation – and make them work together in harmony. I was particularly taken with the voice, the little asides about London’s history and jazz, and observations about modern policy. The trick with good urban fantasy is to make it seem completely natural so the reader suspends disbelief without effort and the magical elements don’t jar or throw the reader from the story and Aaronovitch executes this very well. For an added bonus there’s a nice streak of humour running throughout.  The end is a little telegraphed, but not in a way that undermines the pleasure of the read. I'm now firmly hooked on the series and I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Somewhat unusually for me, as I like to mix up the geography of my reading, I've just read four novels in a row set in London, all of them police procedurals of a kind: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor set in 1666, The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth set in 1944, After the Fire by Jane Casey set in 2014, and Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch set in 2010. Despite all have a very good sense of place, each portrayed a very different London. As a site for fiction it seems to have infinite possibilities.

My posts this week

May reads
Review of After the Fire by Jane Casey
Review of The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

Saturday, June 3, 2017


There was an explosion of orange paint on the window.

‘What the ...’

Daly peered through the stained glass at several people gathered at the gate.

‘There he is!’ A second balloon sailed through the air.

Daly stomped to the front door.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’


A balloon burst at Daly’s feet.

‘I’m a paediatrician, you morons.’

‘See, I told you!’ one them shouted. ‘He’s a paedo.’

‘A paediatrician not a paedophile!’

‘For fuck’s sake, Colin!’

‘He’s admitting it!’

‘He’s a children’s doctor, cretin.’

‘Sorry, doctor!’ a woman said.

‘Leave before I call the police!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, June 2, 2017

May reads

May proved to be a good month of reading. My standout read for the month was Colin Coterill's Thirty-Three Teeth, with its lovely blend of mystery and whimsy and memorable characters.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor ***.5
The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth ***
The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson ****
Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Coterill ****.5
Silence by Anthony Quinn ****
One or The Other by John McFetridge ***.5
A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward ***.5
The Divided City by Luke McCallin ****.5
Dietrich and Riefenstahl by Karin Wieland ***

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review of After the Fire by Jane Casey (Ebury Press, 2015)

A fire rages through the top two floors of a tower block in North London. Two bodies are found in a locked flat on the top floor and at the base of the tower is the body of a notorious right-wing MP. In hospital a young girl and elderly woman fight for their lives and a mother fears for her safety now her location has been revealed to her estranged, abusive husband. It’s not clear to the Met how the fire started but first impressions are that it was deliberate. DC Maeve Kerrigan and her boss, DI Josh Derwent, are part of the investigative team. Derwent is at war with the overall investigation lead officer and Kerrigan has personal problems beyond work to deal with, but both are determined to discover what happened at the tower block and why. The problem is that everyone on the top two floors seems to have something to hide.

After the Fire is the sixth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series set in London. Kerrigan is a head strong detective in the Met police determined to make her mark and negotiate the internal politics and personal rivalries of the system. In this outing she is part of a large team investigating a fire in a North London tower block that leaves three people dead, including an infamous MP, and a handful of other residents in hospital. The strength of the story is the main plotline and the procedural elements, with Kerrigan and colleagues trying to piece together what happened and why. Several possible explanations emerge and each has to be verified or dismissed, made more challenging by many of the surviving residents having something to hide. As usual, Kerrigan nicely tussles with her domineering boss, DI Joss Derwent, as well as other members of the team. There is a secondary plot focusing on Kerrigan’s ongoing battle with a master cyber-criminal who is stalking her on- and offline. Personally, I’ve found this running plotline tedious and a distraction, and did so with this outing as well. In addition, at times the book becomes a little too egocentric in the narrative, entirely focused on Kerrigan and her life, rather than a more rounded account with respect to other characters. The result is some of the strands terminate and it’s left to the reader to wonder what happened subsequently to the characters involved. Otherwise, After the Fire is an absorbing and entertaining read, with a nice puzzle at its heart.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins, 2016)

September 1666 and the Great Fire burns much of London to the ground. James Marwood’s home survives, but only because he lives a few miles away with his disgraced father, a plotter of the downfall of King Charles I, whose son is now king. Marwood is employed in Whitehall as a clerk, running errands for Master Williamson, who as well as managing affairs of state publishes the Gazette newspaper. In the aftermath of the fire, there is much to be addressed, including the rebuilding of the city and investigating a suspicious death. The man murdered was in the employ of Lord Alderley, a rich goldsmith, significant property investor and a moneylender to the king. Alderley is the guardian to Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett, his niece and daughter of an infamous regicide who is still on the run. Betrothed to a man she detests and desired by her lecherous cousin, Cat leaves the household, working as a maid in a lodging house. Despite never knowing each other prior to a chance encounter during the Great Fire, Marwood and Cat’s lives are linked through their fathers’ membership of the Fifth Monarchists, a fanatical religious, anti-royalist group. Their lives become further entwined as Marwood searches for a killer who seems intent on pursuing a bloody revenge.

Set in the months after the Great Fire of London in 1666, The Ashes of London utilizes real characters (including King Charles II, Christopher Wren and Joseph Williamson) and events to spin a historical crime fiction tale that is full of political intrigue. At the centre of the tale is an on-going conspiracy concerning the actions of Fifth Monarchists who helped Oliver Cromwell dispose of King Charles II, some of whom are still at large despite King Charles I being restored to the throne. Beyond the historicisation and sense of place, which is nicely done providing interesting wider context without dominating the tale, the strength of the story is the two principle characters. James Marwood and Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett have anti-royalist fathers, but are trying to get on with their lives in the new regime. Marwood’s father has served his time, but is now suffering from mild dementia. While serving as a lowly clerk in Whitehall, Marwood tries to look after and protect his ailing and ostracised father. Cat is living in her aunt, who has married the wealthy Lord Alderley, but is unhappy with their plans for her and the attentions of her cousin. When a servant of the Alderley household is murdered Marwood is asked to investigate. By the time he reaches the Alderley residence Cat has fled, taking refuge as a maid in a lodging house. The plot progresses by telling the Marwood side of the tale in the first-person, and Cat’s side in the third person. Taylor keeps the pace relatively swift, charting the paths of both protagonists and their various trials and tribulations. There are no real surprises in the story and the wrap up after the major denouement felt a little flat with some open threads. I’m not sure if that’s because Taylor is planning a sequel or it ran out of steam or he wanted to avoid obvious plot wrap ups. Overall, an interesting and engaging medieval investigative procedural.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Thursday was my last overseas trip to give a talk until November, and there's just two in Ireland in the diary for the same time period. I'll still break twenty gigs for the year, but this furlough will hopefully refresh batteries and translate into some thinking and writing. I guess time will tell if the hypothesis and experiment works. 

My posts this week
Review of The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth
Review of The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson
Life’s too short for fairy tales

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Life’s too short for fairy tales

‘Where’s Dad?’

‘He’s gone.’

‘Gone where?  Fishing?’

‘No, he’s left.  We’ve split up.’

‘Split up?  What the …’

‘Now, Brendan, don’t get angry. We’re both happier this way.’

‘Happier?  What about me and Kath?’

‘What about you?  You’ve both left home. You were the only reason we stayed together.’

‘But …’

‘But nothing.  We have our own lives.  And Kath is fine with it.’

‘Kath knows already?’

‘She thinks your father’s new girlfriend is okay.’

‘Girlfriend? But what about you?’

‘I’m sure I’ll fine someone too.’

‘And to till death do us apart?’

‘Life’s too short, Brendan, for fairy tales.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

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.