Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've spent Christmas week doing a bit of DIY, reading, and finally catching up with writing/posting reviews (I'm now up-to-date again). I'm a long way from finishing Laura Lippman's The Sugar House, so that'll be the first review of 2018. Hope you've had a great seasonal break and all the best for the new year.

My posts this week:
Review of A Red Death by Walter Mosley ****
What kind of present is that?
Review of A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy ****.5
Review of Solo Hand by Bill Moody ***.5
Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman ****.5
Review of Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic ****

Review of A Red Death by Walter Mosley (W.W. Norton, 1991)

1953, Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins has invested his ill-gotten gains from a murderous adventure a few years previously into real estate. Working as a janitor at the buildings he owns, he hides his assets behind a paperwork screen, leaving his associate, Mofass, to front managing the properties. Now the IRS are chasing him for undisclosed income, seeking to press federal charges. Adding to his woes is the suspicious death of one of his tenants and the arrival of EttaMae and her child, on-the-run from Easy’s villainous best friend, Mouse. Salvation seems to arrive in the form of the FBI, who offer Easy a chance to skip the tax charges if he helps them investigate a group of communists connected to a local church with activities linked to Champion Aircraft. The IRS are not happy and continue to make threats, the cops have him in the frame for the tenant’s death, and he’s in love with EttaMae but knows Mouse will kill him if he tries to steal her away.  And that’s just the start of his problems.

A Red Death is the second book in the Easy Rawlins series set in post-war Los Angeles. Easy has a habit of finding trouble and acting detective. In this outing he’s infiltrating a communist cell for the FBI in order to avoid a federal charge for tax evasion. When people connected to both his IRS charge and his FBI case start dying, it seems he’s swapped going to jail for non-payment of tax to going for murder. To add to his woes his personal life is a mess, starting an affair with EttaMae, the love of his life and partner of his best friend. The strength of the tale is its portrayal of the African-American experience in post-war America (both the seamier, darker underbelly and respectable business and church communities) and every-day and institutional racism, the sense of place, and the character of Easy Rawlins. Easy is a complex man in which good and evil battle internally and he’s often the sinner using casual lies, deception, robbery and violence to make headway; while he has a moral compass of sorts helping people where he can, ultimately he prioritises protecting himself. Which is perhaps no surprise given the social circumstances of the poor, working class community he’s operating in, which is a dog-eat-dog world. Where the tale struggles a little is with regards to the plot, which felt a little to tangled with a number of subplots and dozens of characters being threaded together – a death in one of the apartments Easy owns; a IRS case against Easy; a FBI case into a communist cell; an extortion racket in a church; EttaMae and Mouse arriving in the city – each with its own sub-plots and twists. There’s plenty going on – scheming, violence, extortion, murder, sex - leaving Easy dazed and confused throughout much of the story. And so, to a degree, is the reader. Eventually it all comes together with a well disguised twist. Overall, an interesting and entertaining story that might have benefitted from less is more.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

What kind of present is that?

Tess passed over a large wrapped box. ‘Okay, guess!’

It was surprisingly heavy.

‘So this is something you wanted that you bought for yourself for me to give to you?’ Ron asked.


‘So shouldn’t you be opening it?’

‘What would the fun in that be? Guess.’

‘A bread-maker.’


‘A coffee machine?’

‘Open it!’

Ron ripped the paper free and opened the box.

‘Tins of paint. What kind of present is that?’

‘Well, you’ll be doing the painting.’


‘Well, I’ll be looking after junior while you paint the box room.’ She rubbed her belly.

‘Now that’s a present!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Review of A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy (Seventh Street Books, 2016)

June 1933, a chance encounter and chase with Bonnie and Clyde on a Texas road has left Ranger Sonny Burton with a badly damaged arm. A few months later, while still coming to terms with his enforced retirement the arm has to be amputated. Aged sixty two and a widower, Sonny is struggling to come to terms with a sedate life and trying to complete everyday tasks with one hand. He’s not left idle for long, however. A hospital janitor, Aldo Hernandez, persuades him to look for his wayward and missing daughter, Carmen. Aldo is afraid she might join two other young women who’ve been brutally murdered and left on the side of the road for the crows to feast on. In addition, on his first trip to the local store he witnesses a robbery-turned-homicide. Sonny is reluctant to act as detective given he no longer carries a badge, especially when his son – also a Texas Ranger – is sent to the area to hunt for the man killing young women. However, he’s prepared to help Aldo search for Carmen and if that helps find the store thieves-cum-murderers, or the serial killer preying on young women, then he’ll try to administer justice.

Set in depression-era, post-prohibition Texas, A Thousand Falling Crows tells the story of Sonny Burton’s semi-retirement from the Texas Rangers after losing an arm in a shootout with Bonnie and Clyde. Licking his wounds and struggling to come to terms with living with only one hand, he’s asked by a local Mexican janitor to search for his missing daughter. He’s reluctant to get involved, but Aldo Hernandez believes a ranger always remains one, regardless of what the service thinks. Sonny thus finds himself investigating two cases that might be related – a couple of deaths of young women, brutally attacked and left on the roadside, and a robbery-homicide conducted by two young Mexican twins. Sweazy tells the tale in an understated, poetic and engaging voice – much in keeping with his reserved lead character. The plot and pacing works well, hooking the reader quickly and drawing them through the narrative, and there’s interesting historicisation with respect to the depression era and race relations, and nice sense of place of the Texas panhandle in high summer. Interspersed in the tale are short interludes where the action is seen from the perspective of on-looking crows intrigued by human behaviour and the possibilities of a fresh meal. These interludes work surprisingly well and act as a nice counterpoint to the story. Overall, a compelling read in what might hopefully be a new series.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review of Solo Hand by Bill Moody (1994, Walker & Company)

Evan Horne is having a bad year – a car accident severed the tendons in his right ‘solo’ hand ending his career as a jazz pianist and his wife has divorced him, moving in with his former boss, singer Lonnie Cole. When highly compromising pictures of Cole and country star, Charlie Crisp, along with a blackmail note, are sent to the singer that names Evan as the go-between he’s given little choice but to cooperate. However, Evan isn’t just going to just hand over the million dollar ransom; he’s also going use his insider knowledge of the music business to try and uncover the blackmailer. What he discovers is the dark arts of false accounting, royalty and return scams, and other record company and agent tricks to promote artists and divest them of their earnings. Those tricks seem to also run to blackmail and murder, with Evan soon becoming framed for the extortion and the target of violence. Even with his old pal, now cop, Coop, helping, it seems Evan will do well to find the blackmailer given the number of potential suspects and backstabbing nature of the music industry.

Solo Hand is the first in a series that features Evan Horne, ex-jazz pianist turned amateur detective, who investigates crimes related to the music business. In this outing, Horne is drawn into what at first seems like a straightforward case of blackmail against his former employer, jazz singer Lonnie Cole, which turns to violence and murder. The strength of the tale is Moody’s insider knowledge of the music industry, its dark underbelly and how it works as business to generate profits at the musicians expense. There's also a good sense of place and music scene relating to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Evan Horne is an interesting enough character, uncertain about his future after a car accident that has damaged his right hand, but with enough wits to play detective, albeit with the help of his cop buddy, and he’s trying to navigate a colourful set of characters working in the industry. The plot unfolds at a nice pace and there’s a few twists and turns, though the tale lacks a little heft, the characters feel a little thin, and there’s no major surprises as to the perpetrator or outcome. Overall, a solid amateur PI tale with an authentic take on the dirty side of the music industry.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2012)

Ove has never been the life and soul of a party – in fact, he’s been withdrawn, taciturn, irritable and abrasive most of his life. Ove has high principles and a short fuse. He expects things to be done correctly, conducts daily neighbourhood inspections, and badgers his fellow residents and the local council if things don’t meet his exacting standards. And he has no time for people who do not drive a Saab or can’t fix anything they own. Now aged 59, his beloved wife, Sonja, is dead and he’s been let go from his job. He just wants to end it all and join her. His new neighbours and a stray cat, however, have other ideas, disrupting his plans and his ordered life. Pregnant Parvaneh, husband Patrick and their two young children are immune to Ove’s curmudgeonly ways and slowly inveigle their way into his life – borrowing ladders, seeking lifts to hospital and driving lessons, and reading stories. The cat hangs around his house seeking shelter from a local bully with a vicious little dog. Try as he might, Ove can neither end it all, nor get his neighbours or council officials to follow or enforce the Resident Association rules. Moreover, he can’t help doing good deeds, in part because he gets so frustrated with other people making a hames of whatever it is they are doing, though he moans and despairs all the while. Despite his wishes, his bitterness and crankiness seem to finally be becoming appreciated by more than his wife, who always saw in him qualities that no-one else could. Backman tells Ove’s story by focusing on the few weeks from when Parvaneh and her family move into street, interspersed with key moments in his life. The tale is essentially an in-depth character study, peeling back the layers to reveal what made the man, and detailing how his life and those of his neighbours becomes transformed. It’s a sort of a late coming-of-age/putting life back-on-track story that’s engaging, gently humorous, a bit sentimental, and heart-warming. I found it an enjoyable read on the lead up to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review of Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (Pushkin Vertigo, 2015)

Caleb Zelic and his business partner, ex-cop, ex-alcoholic, Frankie Reynolds run a security and investigation company in Melbourne. They hire in Caleb’s best friend, Senior Constable Gary Marsden, to help solve a couple of thefts from a warehouse. Shortly after sending a couple of warning texts to his family and Caleb, Gary is found dead. Soon Frankie has seemingly been kidnapped, Caleb has been attacked, and the only clue as to who’s behind the assaults is the name ‘Scott’. Unwilling to trust the police, Caleb retreats to his ex-wife, Kat, and to Resurrection Bay, his childhood home. There he tries to piece together Gary’s last few hours and identify Scott, while also rekindling his relationship with Kat. But Resurrection Bay isn’t beyond the reaches of his enemies.

In many ways, Resurrection Bay is a straightforward crime confusion tale in which a PI stumbles into a murderous situation and, unable to trust the police, goes on the run, at the same time trying to protect those around him, solve the case and bring the perpetrators to justice. As with most fictional PIs, Caleb Zelic’s personal life is a mess – recently divorced, a brother who’s a reformed drug addict/dealer, a partner who’s a recovering alcoholic. The fresh angle is Zelic is deaf and is reliant on lip-reading, some very residual hearing, and sign language (by coincidence, in the book I read prior to this, Sleeping Dogs, it was the criminal who was deaf and signed). Zelic’s deafness adds somewhat to the confusion, but to Viskic’s credit it is largely incidental to the story – it’s a tale in which the lead character happens to be deaf, rather than being centrally about a deaf PI. The characterisation in general is nicely done, with a good dynamic between Zelic, his ex-wife, and those he encounters. And the story zips along as Zelic careens from one situation to the next. The plot itself and the denouement is a bit predictable, except for a twist near the end, and is reliant on a series of somewhat staged plot devices (lost phone, crushed keys, etc.); nonetheless, the characters, pacing, dash of dark humour ensure it’s engaging and entertaining read.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

After letting my Goodreads 'want to read' list expand to over 100 books I've culled a few I was interested in, but not desperate to read. The plan now is to try and work it down by actually finding and reading a good portion of the books on it. I have a couple of the tbr pile and I'm presently reading 'A Man Called Ove' by Fredrik Backman. There seems little point have a 'want to read' list if I'm not actually going to read them. Mind you, I've a pile of books I've bought that I've not read, which is worse than wishful thinking!

My posts this week:
Review of Sleeping Dogs by Mark O’Sullivan
Review of A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart Kaminsky
Review of Don’t Mess With Mrs In-Between by Liz Evans
Stick 'em up

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Stick 'em up

‘Stick ’em up!’ Karl yelled. 

The three people in the queue raised their arms at the sight of two men holding sawn-off shotguns, nylon tights pulled over their faces.

‘I always want to say that,’ Karl said to Peter.

‘Just concentrate on the job. You, behind the counter, put all the money in a bag and pass it out.’

‘Don’t hurt us,’ an elderly woman pleaded.

‘Don’t worry, Betty, we’re just here to collect our pension. In a lump sum!’


‘Way to go, numb-nuts,’ Peter hissed.

‘Sorry, Peter.’

‘Sheesh. We’re meant to be incognito. Hey, lady, where’s our pension!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A review of Sleeping Dogs by Mark O’Sullivan (2014, Transworld)

Shot three times on an isolated lane, Harry Larkin, head of a criminal family, lies dying in a Dublin hospital. Before slipping into a coma he asks Eveleen, the ward nurse, to find Detective Inspector Leo Woods and to tell him to find his daughter, Whitney. Leo has history with the family, having run Harry as a police informer thirty years ago and had an affair with his wife, Liz. As Harry’s son and his right-hand man vie to take over the dying man’s operations, Leo and his team try to discover who shot him and what has happened to his teenage daughter. The case soon become more murky when a second death is linked to the investigation, as well as a Slovakian and Libyan connection. Dealing with the Larkins was always fraught and this case feels to Leo like an intimate family affair, tinged with an international twist that makes it tricky to decipher.

Sleeping Dogs is the second book in the DI Leo Woods series set in Dublin. In this outing, Leo is forced to revisit his past involvement with a criminal family through an investigation into the death of its patriarch and the disappearance of his daughter. Initially the case seems like it might be relatively straightforward, but it soon becomes clear that there is much more to Harry Larkin’s death than a simple shooting by a rival gang or a family feud, including a couple of international connections. As with the first outing, Sleeping Dogs is an excellent tale with strong characterisation, nicely portrayed social interactions, and an intricate, engaging plot. There’s plenty of backstory of the Larkins and Leo’s past relations, as well as the contemporary lives of the police characters inside and outside work. And the case is an interesting multifaceted puzzle built around a somewhat dysfunctional family who have little trust in the police. The only element that’s somewhat subdued is the sense of place – while located in Dublin there’s little real sense of the city or Ireland more generally and the tale could have been set just about anywhere. Nonetheless, a very fine police procedural.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review of A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart Kaminsky (1988, Ballantine)

In a remote village in Siberia the young daughter of a soon to be political-exile has died. The commissar sent to investigate her death is murdered by an icicle thrust through his eye. Inspector Porfiry Rostnikpov is sent from Moscow to investigate the commissar’s murder, but is instructed not to investigate the death of the young girl, even if the two are related. Rostnikpov’s career is on a downward spiral; he manages to expose political and police corruption and gain justice but pays in being reassigned and sidelined. And it seems that some hope that the trip to Siberia will finish him off for good, either falling foul of the two officers sent to spy on his investigation or going the same way as the commissar. In freezing conditions, Rostnikpov quizzes the inhabitants and tries to identify a murderer while also outwitting his companions.

A Cold Red Sunrise is the fifth book of the Inspector Rostnikpov series set in Russia. This outing, published in 1988, shows slight hints of the Glasnost era, though the Soviet regime is very much in place. Rostnikpov is an interesting character – a stoic, cunning man with an injured leg, who is obsessed with weight-lifting and solving crimes, and manages to maintain high principles yet survive the political machinations of the Soviet policing and intelligence services. In this tale, Rostnikpov is sent to Siberia to investigate the death of a commissar who had been investigating the suspicious death of the daughter of a soon-to-be political exile. Nobody in the small village seems happy with his presence and his prime tactic is to subtly unsettle the locals to try and provoke a reaction. It’s a dangerous move given what happened to the commissar. Like Rostnikpov and Siberia, the storytelling is spartan, being all show and no tell. There’s a strong sense of place and contextualisation as to the politics of living and working in the Soviet regime. At one level the story seems relatively straightforward and uncomplicated, but as it nears its conclusion Kaminsky reveals some nice twists that make perfect sense but are nonetheless surprising. Overall, an engaging and entertaining police procedural.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of Don’t Mess With Mrs In-Between by Liz Evans (Orion, 2005)

Grace Smith is an independent PI working out of a collective office. When the owner of the office passes on a case to her it seems relatively straightforward. Barbra Delaney wants to leave her fortune to three strangers who she photographed leaving a local shop. Grace’s job is to find out the identity of the three lucky people and check out whether they are upstanding citizens. However, tracking down the three proves a little more tricky than anticipated, especially since all them have something to hide. What follows is a calamitous set of events, including Grace’s home and office being trashed and a nasty murder.

Don’t Mess With Mrs In-Between is the third book in the PI Grace Smith series. Grace is not the most talented PI, but she is feisty and persistent, and she likes to think she always gets her man (or at least they might fancy her). In this outing she tries to track down three people chosen at random by a rich heiress to become the beneficiaries of her will. Only the three are not keen to have someone snooping around their business and the heiress also seems to have something to hide. Progressively the case becomes more convoluted and dangerous. The tale fits into the tart noir genre popular at the end of the 1990s/early 2000s, a kind of edgy cozy with a strong-willed, independent female lead. While at times entertaining, the story unfolds somewhat haphazardly, often held together by thin or awkward plot devices and I just had difficulty believing a good chunk of it or in some of the characters, and the ending was weak. I know tart noir and crime with a comic twist often requires a suspension of disbelief, but it all felt too overly contrived without the payoff of being lost in the tale or belly laughs. And some things made little sense to me – for example, a PI being knocked from her bike and not even being curious about who hit her, let alone trying to track them down. The result was a book that felt a little insubstantial, driven by a central character with flaws, some humour, and a frail plot.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally found time to get to the local bookshop to pick up some Christmas reading: Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic; A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman; A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; and A Thousand Falling Crows by Larry Sweazy. Hopefully I'll also pick-up The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn, which had been put to one side for me but was lost among similar piles. Looking forward to some time to relax and enjoy these over the seasonal break. I also bought Slumberland by Paul Beatty and Spook Street by Mick Herron (who wrote my two favourite reads of November) to read early next year.

My posts this week:
Review of Bryant and May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler
New paper: The (In)Security of Smart Cities: Vulnerabilities, Risks, Mitigation, and Prevention
November reads
Won’t is not the same as can’t

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Won’t is not the same as can’t

‘You have one life, Beth. You need to leave him and enjoy being alive again.’

‘It’s not that simple.’

‘But better than living in fear. Or hiding these.’

Mary tugged up a sleeve to reveal a bruise.

Beth yanked it down again.

‘He’s just under a lot stress. Occasionally he flips.’

‘Stop making excuses for him. Lots of people are under pressure but they don’t smack their partners about.’

‘He doesn’t smack me about.’

‘And those bruises made themselves.’

‘Mary, just leave it.’

‘I will when you leave him.’

‘You know, I can’t.’

‘Won’t is not the same as can’t.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of Bryant and May – The Burning Man by Christopher Fowler (Doubleday, 2015)

The end of October and a scheming banker has not only collapsed a private merchant bank, he seems to be getting away with it. The injustice has not just anti-capitalists on the streets of London, but also ordinary citizens. In the depths of austerity it seems people have had enough of the blatant greed. One man, however, is taking his protest further than others and appears to be using his actions to try and whip the crowds into more of a frenzy. He starts by throwing a petrol bomb at the bank, killing a homeless man taking refuge in the doorway. Next he tars and feathers a banker. Each day there is another victim and soon it’ll be Guy Fawkes night when bonfires will lit across the nation. Trying to stop the arsonist is Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Met Police. Hampered by other sections of the police and the bank, the two old detectives and their assistants race against time to find useful clues, worried that the city might go up in flames.

The Burning Man is the twelfth book in the Bryant and May series. In this outing they are trying to stop an arsonist wreaking revenge on people working in the banking sector after another financial scandal and who seems to be orchestrating the sentiments of a restless and angry public. After years of working for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, Bryant and May are long in the tooth and well versed in tackling difficult cases, but this one has them taxed. The killer is clever and quick moving, dispatching one person a day, and Bryant is starting to suffer from dementia. The climax of the week is going to be Guy Fawkes night at which point the city could tip-over into full-scale anarchy. There is much to like about The Burning Man: the wonderful set of characters, especially Bryant, and their interactions; the deep sense of place and all the historical factual snippets that are woven into the narrative; its political sensibilities and its critique of the ‘one percent’; and the lucid and engaging storytelling with a rising sense of tension. The story just carries the reader along in an entertaining, dark, and at time humorous romp. There were just two bumps in the tale – the fact that I was pretty confident I knew the identity of the killer from near the start; and the ending was a bit of damp squib. Nonetheless, a very enjoyable read.

Monday, December 11, 2017

November reads

Late with noting my November reads.  Difficult to pick between The Sellout by Paul Beatty and Real Tigers by Mick Herron. I think the The Sellout just shades it, but they are both excellent.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty *****
Codebreakers by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley ***.5
Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente ***
Real Tigers by Mick Herron *****
Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann ****
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee ****
Map of the Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt ***

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Given winter seems to be gearing up with the first largish (by Irish standards) snow fall, I thought I'd whisk myself away to Siberia where they really know how to do freezing landscapes with Stuart Kaminsky's A Cold Red Sunrise. Making me feel positively warm.

My posts this week:
Review of Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout
New paper: slow computing
Review of The Man With the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy
Buried treasure

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Buried treasure

Conor thrust the spade into the glue-like clay, then stomped on it with muddy boots.

He leveraged back the handle, easing a block free. The clay stuck to the face and he slid it off with a gloved hand.

A glint of gold caught his eye. Digging at the soil revealed a solid gold band.

Clambering out of the hole he yelled to his wife. ‘I’ve struck gold!’

‘Don’t be daft, Conor.’

‘Look, see.’

She turned the intricate band over. ‘It looks like it belongs in a museum.’

‘Buried treasure! I guess I better find another spot to bury Lucky!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review of Death of a Doxy by Rex Stout (Viking, 1966)

Orrie Cather is in a bind. He’s engaged to be married, but has been having an affair with a woman who is unwilling to let him go. Then she is murdered and Orrie is the number one suspect. Fortunately for Orrie he works for Nero Wolfe, the celebrated private detective. Wolfe believes that Orrie is innocent but the problem will be proving it. Soon a new twist is added to the investigation. The murdered woman was a doxy – the kept woman of rich businessman, and that man will pay Wolfe fifty thousand dollars if he can solve the case and keep his name a secret. Slowly Wolfe, his faithful assistant, Archie, and the rest of the team winkle out some clues. Eventually they have a suspect. But how can they ensnare the murderer, spring Orrie, and keep the sugar daddy’s name a secret?

Death of a Doxy was the forty second instalment of the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1966 (the first in the series was published in 1934). In this outing, Wolfe and the narrator, Archie, are tasked with clearing the name of one of their detectives accused of murder. The case is already a bit of a puzzle when it’s made a little more tricky by the addition of a silence clause – the sugar daddy of the victim will pay handsomely for his name to remain unknown. It’s a challenge they’re prepared to accept. At this stage of the series, Wolfe and Archie are well drawn characters, there’s a deep well of back story, and Stout is versed in crafting a story that has intrigue, a neat puzzle, well-staged set pieces, and nicely drawn characters. The storytelling is tight and all show not tell. Stout keeps the reader guessing as to the ending, which is a little ambiguous, though no less satisfying for that. Overall, a quick, entertaining read.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review of The Man With the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy (Oneworld, 2016)

In the late 1950s two leading Ukrainian nationalist leaders were murdered in Munich. Both deaths baffled the nationalist groups and West German police. In the fall of 1961, just before the Berlin wall was erected, Bogdan Stashinsky and his East German wife skipped the funeral of their baby and made a dash into West Berlin. Stashinsky headed to the local CIA headquarters and claimed he was a KGB assassin who had murdered Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera using a secret poison gun. The Americans were suspicious that he might be a plant and passed him over to their West German colleagues. Slowly, Stashinsky, also a Ukrainian forced to work for the KGB, persuaded the police that he was who he said he was, and that he had murdered his compatriots. The subsequent trial placed the Soviet Union on trial as much as Stashinsky and the result had long term implications – Stashinsky was effectively deemed a puppet, with the real murderers those who controlled him, creating a legitimate new legal defence for Nazi war criminals; the KGB was forced to change its policy of overseas political assassination; there was a reshuffle at the top of the Soviet political system, with Aleksandr Shelepin’s career cut short; and the plight of Ukrainian nationalist movement was highlighted.

Serhii Plokhy’s book traces the life of Bogdan Stashinsky, particularly from his entrapment recruitment by the KGB through to his disappearance after his short prison stay post-trial. It’s a factual account that tries to cut through all the misinformation about Stashinsky created by the Ukrainian nationalists, the KGB and East Germans, especially at the time of the trial, when the Cold War propaganda machine went into overdrive. While it does seek to provide an objective view, it is also a largely sympathetic account of a man trying to survive inside the KGB and Soviet system that had a habit of severely punishing its own members for supposed and real transgressions. Usefully, it provides an everyday account of Soviet spycraft, Cold War relations between East and West, and the fragmented overseas Ukrainian nationalist movement that sought to highlight the plight of captive nations of the Soviet Union. It is only towards the end that books drifts to speculation given that what became of Stashinsky after prison is publicly unknown. I found it a fascinating read, especially given the present context of strained relations between the Ukraine and Russia.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Since I was heading to London last week I decided to take a read of Christopher Fowler's 'Bryant and May: The Burning Man.' I read the first book in the series when it was first published in paperback, but for some reason never got round to reading any others. Now I'm wondering why as this outing has all the ingredients I love in a story - great characters, interesting plot, social commentary, and strong sense of place. I think the series might become my travelling to London reads for the next few years.

My posts this week

Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty
New paper: The timescape of smart cities
Sitting ducks

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Sitting ducks

It took a brief moment for Finnegan to realise a shot had been fired. Then he was diving towards Kelly Meakin.

The actress hit the wet pavement, Finnegan sprawled on top of her.

A second shot had him trying to cover her.


‘We’re sitting ducks,’ he muttered, ignoring her.

‘Finn, my shoulder.’

He risked a look.

Her dress was covered in blood.

‘We need to go.’

Finn scooped her up and started to run.

‘I told you.’

‘Now’s not the time for point scoring.’

A third shot and his legs buckled.

‘I don’t want to die, Finn … Finn?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.