Saturday, September 16, 2017

Easy, girl

Three SOCOs were huddled near the house.

‘What the hell’s that noise?’ Carter asked, approaching the shed.

‘His dog.’

‘Why hasn’t she been removed?’

‘No-one was brave enough to tackle her.’ Halligan eased open the door. ‘Dog warden’s on his way.’

The white bull terrier lifted her head, stopped mewing and rumbled a low growl.

‘Easy, girl,’ Carter said, showing his palms.

The dog eased itself up, it’s left flank covered in blood.

‘Are you going to remove it, Sir?’

‘I’d prefer not to look like our friend here. The question is, how did his attacker get past the dog?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review of After You Die by Eva Dolan (2016, Random House)

A gas leak explosion leads to the discovery of a mother and her paraplegic daughter in the house next door. Dawn Prentice has been stabbed multiple times, her daughter left to fend for herself, dying from a stroke bought on by neglect. The Prentices were already known to DS Mel Ferreira of Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit after a number of harassment incidents, including ‘Cripple’ being written on their car. That places the murder investigation into the hands of DI Zigic rather than CID and he, Ferreira, and their small team try to solve the case. Hampering their progress is the absence of a key witness who is being protected by another police force, too many potential suspects given Dawn’s promiscuous love life, and a lack of resources, but they doggedly stick to their task.

After You Die is the third book in the Ferreira and Zigic procedural series focusing on the work of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit. In this outing, the pair and their small team are investigating the murder of a mother and the death of her severely disabled child who been victims of a harassment campaign. The murder has the feel of a domestic crime and Dawn Prentice almost certainly knew her attacker, but there are plenty of potential candidates and some complicating factors, including the absence of a key witness and the murder weapon. In my view it’s the strongest book in what is an excellent series. There are several aspects that make it standout, not least its realism – this is no fantasist thriller, nor does it rely on unlikely coincidences or weak plot devices. Instead, it is a tightly plotted tale of a tragic double murder and its investigation that rings true. And for the first time in a while I hadn’t identified the killer a fair way before the reveal; well, I had, but then I had a fair few characters pegged as the suspect throughout the read. Indeed, Dolan does an excellent job of keeping various possible suspects in the frame and shifting potential guilt between them. The characterisation is nicely done, as is the peeling back of the victims’ lives and their relationships to others as the investigation unfolds. The tale also nicely deals with issues around disability, harassment, and fostering. And Ferreira and Zigic’s personal lives unfold with their own everyday domestic dramas. Overall, a captivating read and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I know we're not getting hurricanes like elsewhere, but it's rained every day for seven weeks and it really is time for it to stop. I'm fed up with being constantly damp! I've finally got round to starting Prussian Blue by Philip Kerr - it's a big book and I might have to get a little stand for it as its fair weighty; I suspect the content is going to be as well.

My posts this week
Review of Love Story, With Murders by Harry Bingham
Behind the water tank
August reads

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Behind the water tank

‘Sir.’ Hannigan tried smiling at the petrified face. ‘Sir.’


‘There’s a child up here. A girl.’

‘Alive?’ Carter asked, surprised, turning his attention from the bloodstained walls.

‘Yes. She’s hiding behind the water tank.’

Carter climbed the ladder and the white-suited forensics officer turned her torch towards him.

‘Is she okay?’

‘I can’t get her to respond.  She looks scared out of her wits.’

‘Are you okay, missy?’ Carter asked.

The girl tried to shuffle back further out of reach.

‘She’s afraid of your voice.’

‘I would be too. I’ll get family liaison; she’d be better with a psychologist.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Review of Love Story, With Murders by Harry Bingham (Hachette, 2013)

When a human leg is discovered in the garage freezer of a house being cleared after the death of its elderly occupant DC Fiona Griffiths is first on the scene. Soon carefully packaged body parts are being found in gardens, sheds and houses all over the surrounding neighbourhood. Then human remains from another body are discovered scattered by a nearby reservoir.  While the first victim, a young woman, seems to have been killed a few years beforehand, the second, a Moroccan-born engineer from the local university, is much more recent. Cardiff’s CID rapidly mobilises, but they have hundreds of persons of interest and no clear link between the victims. Griffiths is determined to remain a part of the investigation to the point where she’ll bend the rules to make sure she’s involved. Her antics place her in grave danger, though Griffiths is no stranger to peril or death given that she’s recovering from Cotard’s Syndrome and her psychotic episodes give her a unique perspective on life and cases.

Love Story, With Murders is the second instalment of the Fiona Griffiths series set in Cardiff, Wales. There are two key strengths to story. The first is the lead character, a complex, unconventional, socially awkward, risk-taking, young woman with an interesting back story. When she’s not creating or rushing headlong into a situation, she’s highly reflective, aware that she lacks emotional intelligence and needs to act how she thinks a ‘normal’ person might do.  The second is the voice; Bingham tells the tale through a highly engaging first person narrative.  In terms of plot, Bingham weaves together three main strands: the murders of a young woman and a Moroccan-born engineer, a suicide at a local prison, and Griffiths’ investigation of her father (a high profile criminal in the city) and her unconventional adoption when she was two. It’s an interesting mix, leading to a story that zips along and is bursting with intrigue, though some it seems to rely a little too much on coincidence and is somewhat far-fetched at times. Nonetheless, it’s a gripping read and it’s a real pleasure to spent time with Fiona Griffiths, a unique character in a genre full of stereotypes and tropes.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

August reads

On the whole, August proved a good month of reading. My book of the month is Riptide by John Lawton.

Snow Blind by Ragnar Jónasson ***.5
Riptide by John Lawton *****
Present Darkness by Malla Nunn ****
The Dust of Death by Paul Charles **.5
The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor ****.5
Death in Shanghai by MJ Lee **.5
Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale ***.5
The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal ****.5
The Dry by Jane Harper ****.5

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

For all crime fiction aficionados, Noireland: An International Crime Fiction Festival, Oct 27-29, Belfast. Join Benjamin Black, Adrian McKinty, Brian McGilloway, Claire McGowan, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Sophie Hannah, Stuart Neville, Arne Dahl, Robert Crais, Liz Nugent and many more. Looks like it'll be a couple of interesting days of conversations.

My posts this week
Visiting positions, Maynooth University
Review of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding
Workshop: The Right to the Smart City
Review of Snow Blind by Ragnar Jónasson
Spilt coffee

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Spilt coffee

‘He did it.’ Clarke said, watching a police car depart.

‘The world and her mother knows he did it, but why?’

‘He said she’d spilt his coffee.’

‘You don’t cave your wife’s head in over spilt coffee.’ Jones rolled his neck.  Over his shoulder one of the SOCOs laughed.

‘What’s so fucking funny?’ Clarke bellowed.

 ‘Meakins’ just ripped the arse out of his white suit,’ a voice answered, ignoring Clarke’s ire.

‘Jesus,’ Clarke muttered. ‘Thirty three. Two kids.’

‘He’ll get life.’

‘And be out in fifteen.’

‘Must have been some cup of coffee.’

‘It’s got fuck-all to do with coffee.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Review of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding (Windmill Books, 2013)

Born in 1901 Rudolf Höss served as an under-age soldier in the German Army in the Middle East during the First World War, fell in with the National Socialist Party in the early 1920s, serving time in prison for manslaughter, and tried his hand at farming before joining the SS and becoming an early employee of the first concentration camp. He worked his way up through the ranks becoming the founding commandant of Auschwitz, putting in place the architecture and practices of mass murder in the archipelago of related camps and refining the process to make it more efficient, and joining the senior management team in charge of running all concentration camps. He was thus a key player in the holocaust. Born in 1917, Hanns Alexander was the son of a rich Jewish doctor in Berlin (and great-uncle of the writer). As the National Socialists grew in power and Jews became more persecuted, along with his fellow family members he fled to England in 1936. Along with his twin brother he signed up with the Pioneer Corps, being sent to France and evacuated through Dunkirk, returning to France in 1944. As the war drew to a close he was transferred to the British war crimes unit to work as a translator, but later was made an investigator in his own right. Determined to prove himself, he tracked down the Gauleiter of Luxembourg and Rudolf Höss.

Hanns and Rudolf tells two intertwined biographies until their eventual convergence, telling the life stories of two German men who ended up on opposing sides, swapping roles of hunter and hunted.  The structure of the book thus consists of paired chapters focusing on a particular time period (in a very similar fashion to ‘Dietrich and Riefenstahl’, published in the same year and I reviewed a couple of months ago). While the focus is very much on the two men’s lives and their individual journeys, the narrative is also used to reflect in part on German society between the wars and how people became enrolled into the holocaust or were affected by virulent anti-semitism. The strength of the book is the contrasting biographies and the story of how they eventually came to intersect and the focus on their personalities and the everydayness of each man’s home life. While it is clear that Höss invented and performed monstrous acts, to his loved ones he was considered a dedicated and considerate family man. Hanns, while driven to seek justice, is a prankster and a little bit of a rogue.  They are poles apart, but are presented as stark black and white but as very dark and very light grey. Höss broke the dam of denial in the Nuremberg trials by admitting his crimes, and those of his fellow defendants, and detailing how the system worked, especially in his memoirs written in a Polish prison before his trial and execution.  The weakness of the book, however, is a reliance on those memoirs as personal testimony and a lack of critical engagement with them and deep reflection on the psychology and actions of Höss. The complexity of the man, who seemed to lead a double life or expressed a dual personality, is somehow lost and he’s presented somewhat at face value (rather than as someone trying to post-event justify their actions). The result was the narrative lacked a critical edge, failing to ask and answer difficult and penetrating questions about Höss life. Nonetheless, an interesting account of two contrasting men whose lives intersected in a dramatic way.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review of Snow Blind by Ragnar Jónasson (2015, Orenda Books; 2010 Icelandic)

Ari Thór Arason has dropped out of studying theology and philosophy and enrolled in police college. Living with his girlfriend in Reykjavik he accepts a post as a rookie police officer in the small, isolated town of Siglufjörður, 400 km away in northern Iceland. Nestled alongside a fjord, surrounded by mountains and accessible only via a single tunnel, it’s the kind of place where everyone knows everybody else and the crime rate is so low that doors are left unlocked. Ari Thór is very much the outsider and his girlfriend is unhappy with his move, but it’s a first job and step on the career ladder. When a famous author and chair of the local dramatics society is found dead at the foot of the stairs, it’s assumed by everyone that he’d fallen accidentally. Ari Thór thinks his colleagues should at least entertain the possibility of foul play.  Shortly afterwards a woman is found stabbed and half-naked in the snow. The most logical culprit – her abusive partner – has an alibi. With the town cut off through heavy snow and an avalanche, Ari Thór investigates both cases, ignoring the guidance from his boss.

Snow Blind has a touch of the golden age of crime meets Scandinavian police procedurals, which is perhaps reflective of the fact that Jónasson has translated fourteen of Agatha Christie’s tales into Icelandic. The tale focuses on the efforts of a rookie cop to solve two suspicious deaths, one of which appears to be an accident, the other murder. At the same time, he’s trying to deal with being isolated in a small town in northern Iceland, separated from his girlfriend, and treated as an outsider. Both deaths have classic setups. The first concerns the death of a famous author during a break in rehearsals at the dramatic society, found at the foot of the theatre stairs, with everyone claiming to be elsewhere at the time. The second is the stabbing of a local woman, the prime suspect with a cast-iron alibi. Jónasson spins the tale out at a sedate pace, concentrating as much on the character development of Ari Thór, the personalities of the theatre group, and the social relations and sense of place of the town as it does on the cases. The solution to one case is a little telegraphed, but the other has a nice twist to it. Overall, an engaging but not gripping story that’s the first in the Dark Iceland quartet of books.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

My new academic book – Data and the City – edited by myself, Tracey Lauriault and Gavin McArdle was published by Routledge during the week. It's available in both paperback and hardback and is a companion volume to Code and the City published last year.

My posts this week
Review of Riptide by John Lawton
Review of Present Darkness by Malla Nunn

Saturday, August 26, 2017


There’s definitely something tasty round here. Something sweet and fruity. Something juicy. There it is. And I have it all to myself. Hmmm, this stuff is delicious. Sticky, but lovely. Whoa! Emergency takeoff. That was some bang! Here it comes again! Dive right, duck left. And again. Bad turbulence; double roll. Time to make a run for it. Ouch! My head! What the heck, there’s nothing there. It’s like an invisible barrier. Thwack! How the heck do you escape? Thwack. If I’m going to die, so are you.

‘Jesus, the little sod stung me!’

That’ll keep the monster distracted. Tally-ho!

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Review of Riptide by John Lawton (Orion, 2001)

1941. Wolfgang Stahl, a senior Nazi and American spy has fled Berlin and made his way to London, going underground in the city. Stahl’s handler, Calvin Cormack has been flown in from Zurich, and paired up with special branch inspector, Walter Stilton, to track down the missing agent. Stahl’s old boss, Heydrich has also activated a couple of agents to deal with him before he can talk to the allies about Germany’s plans. Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard’s murder squad takes an interest when the body of a supposed Dutchman is discovered, but is quickly moved to one side. Troy though likes resolution and when the killer strikes again and Cormack is in the frame for murder, the young policemen decides to set his own trap.

Riptide (released as 'Bluffing Mr Churchill' in the US) is the fourth book in the Inspector Troy series, though it is a prequel to the other books in the series, set in 1941 when Troy is a young, up-and-coming sergeant.  The plot centres on the hunt for a senior Nazi and American agent who has fled to London and is hiding in the city, unsure who to trust.  Trying to track him down are an American Army officer and special branch detective, with Troy on sidelines waiting to enter to save the day. This is typical Lawton fare, blending strong historicisation and sense of place with a ripping yarn peopled with interesting and engaging characters, ranging from everyday folk to senior diplomats and politicians to real-life players at the time. Cormack and Troy are at the core of the tale, but it is the Stilton family who steal the show. The result is a wonderfully evocative sense of London at war and a gripping tale of espionage, politics, murder and pathos (Lawton is not afraid to bump off some of his most endearing characters) that has a nice side line in dark humour and a lovely slapstick scene in a tailor’s shop.  I was gripped from the start and picked up the book every time I had a spare moment, thoroughly enjoying the read.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of Present Darkness by Malla Nunn (Emily Bestler Books, 2013)

1953, Johannesburg, South Africa. As with other cops, Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is hoping that no-one is murdered in the days leading up to Christmas. While his colleagues are looking forward to a holiday away from the city, Cooper is hoping to spend time with his coloured partner and child, a strictly illegal relationship in the apartheid country. Their hopes looked dashed after a white couple are assaulted, the man dying in the hours afterwards, but the positive identification of a black boy and his friend as the assailants by their daughter appears to lead to a quick result. For Cooper it creates a major headache as the boy is the son of Cooper’s friend, Zulu detective, Samuel Shabalala. Cooper is certain the boy is innocent, however the daughter is sticking to her story, the lead detective Lieutenant Mason is determined to wrap things up quickly – planting evidence as required – and the boy refuses to provide an alibi for himself. To make things more difficult, the hard-headed Mason has made it clear he will not tolerate anyone disrupting the case and he’s prepared to shatter Cooper’s home life if necessary. Cooper, however, is made of stern stuff, as are his friends Shabalala, and Dr Daniel Zweigman, a survivor of German concentration camps, and he knows the terrain, having been raised in the Sophiatown ghetto.

Present Darkness is the fourth book in the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series set in South Africa in the 1950s. In this outing, Cooper has returned to Johannesburg, the city in which he was raised, and is living in secret with Davina, his coloured partner, and their child. The plot concerns the assault and murder of a white couple and the framing of a teenage black boy for the crime. The sting in the tail is the boy is the son of Cooper’s friend, Zulu detective Samuel Shabalala.  Cooper wants justice, his boss Lieutenant Mason wants to see the boy hang and is quite prepared to not only ignore evidence but to fabricate it. Mason is a bully and full of dirty tricks, though it’s not clear why he’s so keen to close the case so quickly and to push Cooper to one side. Nunn once again does a nice job of detailing the lived realities of apartheid South Africa, with its marked prejudices and oppression, corrupt policing, its dangerous ghettos, and illicit relations and friendships across the race divide. And it has a strong sense of place – both in the city and the countryside – and historical contextualisation. The three friends at the heart of this, and the other books – Cooper, Shabalala, and Dr Zweigman – again shine, forming an interesting and engaging trio. While the other books take a slightly more expansive view, this tale focuses very much on personal danger – the framing of an innocent boy and the fraught attempt to see justice served, and the threat to Cooper’s new family. Nunn nicely builds the tale up to a dramatic denouement, though the resolution seemed a little contrived and held together with plot devices. Overall, another entertaining addition to an excellent series.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've made a start on 'Riptide' by John Lawton, though I'm reading the American version titled 'Bluffing Mr Churchill'. The book is a very good read so far, but the title change and cover design are not so wonderful in my view. Thankfully, I'd not already this fourth book in the Inspector Troy series, so did not end up with an unwanted second copy (having not realised Riptide and Bluffing Mr Churchill were the same book); I've done this a couple of times and it's bloody annoying.

My posts this week
Review of The Dust of Death by Paul Charles
Review of The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor
Why teach history if you’re going to ignore it?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why teach history if you’re going to ignore it?

‘Look at these shitheads with their torches and guns shouting blood and soil!’ Harry waved at the television. ‘Why is this allowed? In America! Why teach history if you’re going to ignore it?’

‘They’ve a right to free expression,’ Fred said, yawning.

‘But not to incite hate and violence. To take the law into their own hands!’

‘Calm down. They’re just a few losers.’

‘Hitler started with a few losers. Look how that turned out! I was two when I was rescued from Buchenwald; I know the world these morons want. Believe me, you don’t want to live in it.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Review of The Dust of Death by Paul Charles (Brandon Press, 2008)

A man is found crucified in the non-denominational Second Federation Church in the small village of Ramelton in North Donegal. The victim is a local master carpenter and he was having an affair with the Minister’s wife, who has disappeared. Inspector Starrett and his team are soon tracking down clues, interviewing locals as they try to determine who was responsible. All the evidence points to the Minister, but he is adamant that he was ignorant of the affair and innocent of the murder.

The Dust of Death is the first book in a pair of Inspector Starrett mysteries set in northern Donegal. This one focuses on solving the murder by crucifixion of a local carpenter. Starrett is a genial though lovelorn copper who had a career as a classic car dealer in London before returning to Ireland and becoming a policeman. Despite the gruesome murder, the tale is somewhat of a cosie-style police procedural – a kind of Ballykissangel meets Midsomer Murders mystery set in a small village full of characters and gossips. The tale is pleasant enough, but suffers from a weakness in detail with regards to characters (one policeman is a champion hurler from Galway but plays for Donegal; another is 72 years old and a former major in the British Army – both highly unlikely) and police procedure, which seems to lack structure and process but rather meanders along. Indeed, a logical and critical question is not asked by the police at the start of the investigation that would have led to it being solved very quickly. The result is a light-hearted tale that lacks depth and substance.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2017)

May 1941. Bora is part of the German embassy staff in Moscow, but is sent to Crete to secure sixty crates of Cretan wine for Beria. The island has only just been seized by German paratroopers and is still in post-invasion turmoil. Upon arriving he assigned the task of investigating an accusation by a British officer of the cold blooded murder of a German archaeologist connected to Himmler and his household by the paratroopers. Neither the soldiers or the locals are inclined to aid his investigation, but Bora is a persistent detective prepared to antagonise his own side to discover the truth. The English soldier who witnessed the atrocity and took photographs has fled captivity to the Cretan highlands, so Bora treks into enemy territory guided by a reluctant American woman to try and gather eye-witness testimony.

The Road to Ithaca is the fifth of the Martin Bora series to be translated into English (and tenth in full series published in Italian). The five are all set during World War Two, but are not told sequentially. In this outing, it is May 1941 and Bora is asked to examine a possible war crime in Crete just after its invasion. He has some knowledge of the island, having vacationed there as a child, and is familiar with Greek mythology and stories, such as Ulysses. Indeed, Ulysses permeates the book in two sense: first, he is carrying a copy of the book by James Joyce; second, he keeps recalling bits of the ancient tale as he wanders on his quest and braves various challenges. My sense was that my enjoyment of the tale would have been heightened if I’d been familiar with both stories. As it was, the story has much to like, including the stoic anti-Nazi, but by-the-book military man, Martin Bora, the detailed and somewhat convoluted plot, and the historical and geographical contextualisation with respect to Crete post-invasion, it’s longer history and archaeology, and its mythology. In the background are themes of class, politics, history and culture. The narrative is rather dense, with lots of detail, and is partially told through Bora’s diary entries. The result is a clever, multi-layered story that is as much an in-depth study of Bora as it is about solving a mass murder and wider geopolitical events.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I started to look at ghost estates around 2009, a couple of years after the crisis in Ireland started. At the time I didn't realise it would take up quite so much of my working time. A decade on they remain a significant issue. If you're interested, there's a fairly lengthy story in the Irish Times this weekend.

My posts this week
Review of Death in Shanghai by MJ Lee
Review of Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale
That could be me

Saturday, August 12, 2017

That could be me

‘That could be me,’ Billy said, staring at revelers outside a bar.

‘We can get drunk later.’

‘No, I mean, I could’ve gone to college. Made something of my life.’

‘You’ve made something. You’re working for me, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, but ...’

‘No buts. We make a good living.’

‘Putting up plasterboard and doing nixers.’

‘It’s a trade and it’s steady work.’

‘I had the grades; was going to study law.’

‘But you didn’t have the fees and those lawyers are all cocksuckers.’

‘I could have got a scholarship.’

‘You’d have just become a bigger dick than you already are.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland, 2017)

With his partner, Brett, and his newly discovered daughter, Chance, bed-bound with flu, Hap is hoping to continue recovering from a near fatal stab wound in peace. However, that proves a short-lived hope after Louise Elton visits the private investigation firm owned by Brett. Louise wants the firm to investigate the death of her son, Jamar, who she believes was beaten to death by rogue cops who also abused her daughter. Hap heads to the local projects to investigate, joined by his old-time partner, Leonard Pine. While Hap likes to try and be diplomatic when poking around, Leonard has a short fuse that tends to quickly escalate to violence. The locals are not happy with their presence, but the cops are even more hostile. It appears that Louise’s fears are well-founded, with the local police chief not only administering the law but also running organized crime. Which means seeking justice is going to be far from straightforward.
Rusty Puppy is the twelfth instalment of the Hap and Leonard series set in East Texas. In this outing they investigate the death of a young black man and tussle with a set of rogue cops who like to run both the law and crime. As usual, the pleasure of the read is the camaraderie and banter between two tough guys - Hap, a poor white man and his best friend, Leonard, a black, gay man with a trigger temper - who fight the battles of people who’ve been wronged; the larger-than-life characterisation in general (in this case, Reba – the four hundred year old vampire midget locked in the body of a child is a wonderful creation); and Lansdale’s voice and sparkling dialogue. As with each tale, Hap and Leonard trade insults and blows with their adversaries, as well as anyone else who finds themselves in the way, eventually reaching a bloody and hard-won, though rarely neat, resolution. In this sense, Rusty Puppy has all the usual Lansdale ingredients. However, the mystery in this outing is very straightforward and the conspiracy at the heart of the tale is so wide-open, involving dozens of people, one wonders why it wasn’t common knowledge beyond the local community and already being tackled by the media and wider law-enforcement. And there’s an inevitability about the denouement. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun read that rattles along to entertaining effect with all the usual Hap and Leonard wit and scraps.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of Death in Shanghai by MJ Lee (HQ, 2017)

Shanghai, 1928. Detective Inspector Danilov, a Russian émigré, and Detective Constable Strachan, a half-Chinese novice who’s father was a Scottish police officer, are tasked with finding the killer of a blonde woman found on a sandbank in the international settlement at the heart of the city. A Chinese character is carved into her skin. Danilov starts to piece together clues, but the killer strikes again quickly, and the pressure from his superiors for a quick result mount. He is not aided by rivalry in the detective squad and struggles to keep up with a killer driven to dispense their own kind of justice. Nonetheless, Danilov and Strachan are determined to put a stop to the murders, or become victims trying.

Death in Shanghai is the first in the Danilov series set in Shanghai in the 1920s. It’s a serial killer by numbers affair, with Inspector Danilov playing Sherlock Holmes (including the close observational detecting and opium addiction), Constable Strachan playing Dr Watson, and the killer playing Moriarty. Danilov is not well liked by his colleagues, who undermine his investigation, and he is still searching for news of his family marooned in Minsk during the Russian revolution. The plot is fairly predictable, the prose is workmanlike, and the sense of place flat, a number of elements with respect to the murders and the police work do not seem to add up, and the epilogue seemed highly unlikely. It’s by no means a terrible read, and there’s plenty of action and twists and turns, rather it felt flat with stereotypical characters and a formulaic plot that failed to captivate.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of writing and posting a drabble each Saturday. Somehow I've managed not to miss the weekly ritual, though it was close yesterday given I've come down with some lurgy. They're a little bit hit-and-miss in quality, but the pieces are all conceived and published within half-an-hour, and they're always fun to draft. 

My posts this week
Review of The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal
Review of The Dry by Jane Harper
Sunday Girl

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sunday Girl

John shuffled on the bench seeking a more comfortable position.  ‘What are we waiting for? Godot?’

‘She’ll be here.’

‘So it’s woman then? An actual live person?’

‘She just running late.’

‘And she’s what, you’re girlfriend?’

‘We’re going to get married one day.’

‘Married! How long have you known her? A week?’

‘Six months.’

‘And you’re only now telling me! What the …’

‘She takes a walk here every Sunday.’

‘You’ve not even spoken to her, have you?’

‘I’m working up to it.’

‘You’re stalking her.’

‘Only on Sundays in the park.’

‘You need help, Liam.’

‘She’s my Sunday Girl.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Review of The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Cairo, 2004. Former Sudanese detective, now political refugee and private investigator, Makana is asked by the city’s leading art dealer to explore rumours that a famous painting, that disappeared from Kuwait in the first Gulf war, is hidden nearby. The suspicion is that the painting was smuggled into the country by an Iraqi colonel wanted for war crimes. Makana’s probing soon leads to encounters with two mysterious Americans, a corrupt former police officer, and a powerful pair of local gangsters, and to the vicious death of the art dealer. With the demise of his employer Makana could step away from the case, but his need to practice justice, plus a request from a local police detective, compels him to search for the art dealer’s murderer and the fabled painting and its thief. Which means navigating a perilous route between competing interests.

The Burning Gates is the fourth instalment of the Makana private investigator series set in Cairo. In this outing, Makana starts out exploring rumours that a famous painting looted in the first Gulf War is in the city, along with the Iraqi war criminal who plunderer it and other treasures. However, he’s soon in the crossfire of six competing interests, including a pair of local gangsters, a team of US mercenaries, an American cop, a corrupt former cop, the local police, and the elusive Iraqi colonel. Bilal nicely interweaves the strands to create a compelling thriller that manages to remain mostly grounded in possibilities rather than straying into fantastical plot devices as many thrillers do, with Makana tracing the various threads and reveals to a nice denouement. As with the other stories in the series, the real strengths of the tale are the reflective and stoic lead character, his coterie of helpers – his driver, newspaper connection, local cop – the strong sense of place, and the contextualisation with respect to contemporary Egyptian culture and politics. The result is an engaging and entertaining read that nicely blends a classic PI trope with political thriller.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review of The Dry by Jane Harper (Abacus, 2016)

Aaron Falk left Kiewarra when he was sixteen, run out of town by the father and nephew of a teenage girl found drowned in the creek who believe one of the Falks is responsible for her death. Falk has reluctantly returned twenty years later for the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler. With a devastating drought bringing misery to farmers, it appears that Hadler shot his wife and young boy, leaving his baby girl alive, before turning the gun on himself. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but neither Luke’s father nor the local police sergeant are fully convinced that everything is as it looks. They persuade Falk to help with their unofficial investigation, though all he wants to do is leave a town that is still openly hostile to his presence. While trying to piece together the final hours of the Hadler’s lives, Falk also rakes over the case that led to his banishment.

The Dry is Jane Harper’s debut novel featuring financial cop, Aaron Falk. The tale is set in a small rural town and its hinterland in Australia during a devastating drought and focuses on the apparent murder-suicide of Luke Hadler - Falk’s childhood best friend - and his family, and the death of their friend, Ellie Deacon, twenty years previously. Falk is personae non-grata, suspected by the local community of being responsible for Ellie’s death. Harper nicely portrays the sense of place of rural Australia, the claustrophobia, tension, and desperation of a community struggling to survive, and the bitterness of unresolved accusations and intimidation. The narrative interweaves to good effect the two murders, time-shifting back-and-forth from the present to Falk’s teenage years and the days leading up to the Hadler deaths. Harper maintains the menace throughout, and while the resolution of one of the threads is kind of obvious from the start, the other is a nice puzzle with a twist. Overall, a captivating opening to a new series.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Finally getting round to reading the fourth book in the Makana series set in Cairo, The Burning Gates, by Parker Bilal. The teeming melting pot of a hot and hectic Cairo with its 18 million souls is a far-cry from a showery, peaceful rural Ireland. They do share scheming, clientelist politics, however.

My posts this week

Review of City of Lies by Michael Russell
Review of Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Tom placed a pile of books on the counter.

‘I’m returning these.  We found them when we were clearing out my uncle’s house.’

‘Great!’ The librarian smiled and slid the books towards herself.

Tom folded his bag and headed to the door.

‘I’m sorry, but these are all overdue.’


‘You owe a fine.’

‘A fine? I’m returning them for my uncle.’

‘You’ll need to pay on his behalf.’

‘He’s dead. If we hadn’t cleared the house, you wouldn’t have them at all.’

‘Nonetheless …’

Tom laughed. ‘You’ll have to take it up with him. And good luck with that!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review of City of Lies by Michael Russell (Constable, 2017)

September 1940, Ireland. Two elderly brothers, their sister, and servant are found dead on a Wicklow stud farm, along with their prize horse. In the burnt out remains of the home is a German radio. The case seems open-and-shut, with the farm-hand accused of murder, but Detective Inspector Stefan Gillespie is not convinced. It’s not his case though and he has other things to occupy him, including an on-going feud between the IRA and the Irish state, the activities of the German legation, and the movements of mysterious Welshman. Then he’s asked to travel to Berlin via Lisbon and France to deliver a new code book to the Irish embassy. Once he arrives he discovers that an Irish woman is in prison accused of murder. Tangling with the Kripo and Gestapo in wartime Berlin runs certain risks, but nonetheless Gillespie smells rough justice and uses his diplomatic status to ruffle feathers. Whilst there the case brings him into contact with the small Irish community in the city.

City of Lies is the fourth book in the Inspector Stefan Gillespie series set in the late 1930s/early 1940s, with each book involving domestic and overseas adventure. As with previous outings, a lot of the story is based on real events and people, though recast fictionally. In this book, set in autumn 1940, Gillespie is tangling in Ireland with the IRA, who are dwindling in numbers as their brethren are interred for the War, and the Irish secret service. His overseas trip is to Berlin where he tangles with the German police and meets a handful of Irish citizens still living in the city and seeks to aid an Irish woman accused of killing a German soldier, and to London. At the heart of the book is Ireland’s internal politics and its relationship to Germany and Britain and two murders – one in Wicklow, one in Berlin – that are cases of rough justice, with two innocent people receiving the death penalty. In both cases, Gillespie seems the only person interested in the truth, but that’s often the victim in wars, especially where politics and intelligence services are involved. There’s an awful lot going on in the tale, with multiple strands unfolding, but Russell holds it altogether admirably. However, there probably is a little too much taking place, and the trip to London felt like a contrived plot device, and the ending seemed to tail-off into a fractured set of conclusions that felt like explanations rather than a denouements. As usual, Gillespie holds it altogether, along with Russell’s assured writing and the strong sense of time and place. Another good addition to a strong series.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (Sphere, 2016)

Merry Mansfield has a novel approach to snaring victims – she bumps their car from behind; when they approach after she has her skirt up, panties down and a razor in hand, and she persuades them to give her a lift to her destination, where her mob-connected partner and their fate awaits. On the way down the Florida Keys she prangs and lifts the wrong guy setting in motion a chain of unfortunate events. Lane Coolman is Hollywood agent; his main celebrity star is Buck Nance, the head of a redneck family reality show called Bayou Brethren. Buck is booked for a celebrity appearance in Key West, but without Coolman to shepherd him, he tells a couple of homophobic and racist jokes then flees when the audience turn nasty. Buck is alone, lost, paranoid, and a day later declared missing. Andrew Yancy is a former cop turned health inspector. Finding Buck might be his meal ticket back to a badge. But Yancy has other problems, including a partner who has fled to Norway for a better life, a new neighbour who has lost $200K diamond ring in the lot next to his house and wants to build a monstrous new vacation home, giant Gambian rats plaguing local restaurants, and a red-head named Merry who seems to have taken a shine to him. Finding Buck proves to be a bigger challenge that expected, leading to encounters with an unscrupulous businessman, a crooked lawyer, a Mob boss, and a lunatic redneck.

Razor Girl is the latest instalment of Hiaasen’s comic crime capers set in Florida. This outing takes place in the Florida Keys, mostly in the town of Key West. As usual, a fairly large cast of larger-than-life characters swirl round each other as mayhem unfolds driven by foolishness, misunderstanding, greed, and lust, revealing the absurdities of much of American life. In this case, the latter include celebrity and reality TV, excessive fandom, environmental vandalism, organized crime, and novel approaches to ensnaring victims.  It’s all fairly shallow, with Hiaasen focusing on keeping the action moving. The result is a tale that zips along with barely a dull moment, but one where the characters are pretty one-dimensional and lack substance. I found that I just didn’t care about any of them, and the multiple, intersecting plot lines meant I didn’t really care what happened either. And rather than being laugh-out-loud funny, the humour was light. As such, while I enjoyed the read, a few days later and it’s already fading from memory. And that’s okay: much like that the book parodies, the tale was light and disposable entertainment.

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.