Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review of The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minatour, 2015)

Esa Khattak of Toronto’s new Community Policing unit is asked to look into the death of Christopher Drayton, a seemingly successful businessman who has emigrated to Canada from Italy. The death looks like an accident, but Khattak’s friend in the Justice Department believes that Drayton might be Drazen Krstic, a commander of the Dragan Corps and perpetrator of war crimes in Bosnia, including the Srebrenica massacre. Afraid of a media scandal for allowing a wanted war criminal to legally migrate to the country and failing to act on anonymous tip-offs, Khattak is asked to undertake a low-key investigation until he is sure that it is Krstic that is dead. Along with his sergeant, Rachel Getty, he probes Drayton’s life and seeks information from the local, immigrant Bosnian Muslim community. Muddying the waters of the investigation is Drayton’s gold-digging girlfriend, whose only concern is to make sure she inherits his estate. Khattak is also somewhat blinded by his infatuation with the owner of a museum to which Drayton was thinking of donating a sizable sum and a strained relationship with his former best friend, who is one of Drayton’s neighbours; and Getty has a sideline trying to find her runaway brother.  As it becomes clear that Drayton is Krstic, Khattak and Getty try to work out if Drayton was pushed, and if so who by.

The Unquiet Dead is a police procedural that tells two intertwined stories. The first is the investigation into the death of Christopher Drayton, a businessman who has fallen to his death on some local bluffs. The second is a set of vignettes of war crimes committed in Bosnia in the early-to-mid 1990s and the impotence of the UN forces in protecting Bosnian Muslims from murder and rape. There are three links between the two threads – Christopher Drayton is suspected to be Drazen Krstic, a commander of the Dragan Corps, responsible for the Srebrenica and other massacres; Esa Khattak, the investigating police officer was a volunteer civilian in the former Yugoslavia; and there is a small Bosnian Muslim community now living in Toronto. In addition, some of the evidence are bits of written testimony as to the crimes committed during the war. Khan’s intent is clearly to tell the tale of the war crimes, the lack of protection provided by the UN forces at the time, and the subsequent lack of formal justice, through a fictional lens in which the suspicious death of suspected war criminal is investigated. As a strategy it partly works, but the other elements added to the telling in order to create a wider story felt clunky and weak. Khattak’s strained relationship with his former best friend who is a neighbour of the victim, and the backstory of Rachel Getty who is Khattak’s sergeant and still lives with her abusive father, played like character plot devices. Khattak’s former partner and Drayton’s girlfriend are over-the-top caricatures of scheming, bitchy women. The police procedural elements also just did not ring true – Khattak is meant to be head of a new high powered unit, yet he can find time to spend a couple of weeks on a single investigation, with just one supporting officer, and no other cases or pressures or contact with other team members. The result was a read that drew attention to a harrowing modern-day holocaust, but which had a few too many awkward plot devices, one-dimensional characters, and some lack of realism.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review of The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Coterill (2008, Soho Press)

Dr Siri, the reluctant national coroner of Laos in the aftermath of communist victory in 1976, has had to travel to a national congress in a remote district. Afterwards he is commanded to journey through the jungle with his cowardly and hectoring boss, Judge Haeng, where they are attacked by a Hmong family. Haeng disappears into the undergrowth where he is ill-equipped to survive, while Siri is kidnapped. The elder of the family wants Yeh Ming, the thousand year old shaman that inhabits Siri’s body, to exorcise a devil from his daughter before they head to the Thai border to escape persecution on ethnic grounds and for siding with the anti-communists. Meanwhile, back in Vientiane, Nurse Dtui is keeping an eye on the mortuary in Siri’s absence. Her first task is to stop a booby-trap corpse blowing up the building and its occupants. Then, along with Madame Daeng, Siri’s financee, she starts to investigate, soon finding herself chasing a deadly woman known as The Lizard.

The Curse of the Pogo Stick is the fifth book in Dr Siri series set in Laos in the 1970s, which I’ve slowly been working my way through in non-sequential order. In this outing, Siri is kidnapped by a Hmong family who want him to draw on his inner shaman to exorcise a devil from a daughter and lift the curse of a pogo stick sourced from the US military. Meanwhile, Nurse Dtui, Inspector Phosy, Madame Daeng and Civilai take on a Royalist terrorist, The Lizard, who is targeting the coroner’s office. Of the six books I’ve read so far, this is weakest. While it has its moments, my sense was the book was a bridge between entries in the series rather than being a full developed story in its own right (which I also said about the previous book in the series). The issue I think is that story consists of two shorter tales, one underdeveloped and the other also slightly under-cooked, that run in parallel. The thread involving Siri’s usual gang of helpers and The Lizard was particularly weak, largely due to a change in telling of the story. In the first hundred pages or so the thread was told in the present, running side-by-side with Siri’s adventure. It then disappeared, re-emerging near the end as a tale told in retrospect once Siri is back with the gang. That gap and the change in storytelling style simply didn’t work for me and the tale felt weak and lacking in intrigue and twists and turns. Siri’s thread while having more substance felt too static once he gets to the Hmong village and the denouement felt curtailed. My sense was that tale needed more movement and tension, which might have been created if the judge had played a more confrontational role and Siri had gone on the journey towards the Thai border with the family for at least part of the way. What saves the book are the characters, which are a delight, and the world that Coterill has created, which is always interesting to visit.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I've spent the morning rebuilding a dry stone wall that had collapsed. It was a relaxing puzzle fitting it back together. I was also contemplating which book to read next. I think I might go with either Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart or The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths by Harry Bingham. Seventeenth century China or modern day Wales? I'm still deciding.

My posts this week:
A tribute to Bernadette
Review of Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer
Review of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Before the reckoning

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Before the reckoning

‘Keith?’ The relief was evident in her voice.

‘Everything’s turned to shit, Cass.’

‘You went back to the Galleon?’

‘I was feeling lucky. I could feel it in my bones, Cass. I nearly had it all back again.’

‘And then you lost the lot!’

‘I had a flush; all he had was two pair.'

‘So, you won?’

‘Yes and no. It was Tommy Dolan.’

‘You took Tommy Dolan’s money to pay back Hogg?’

‘And now I’m in deeper shit.’

‘Fuck, Keith.’

‘But I cleared the debt. Look, pack a bag and meet me in Galway. Let’s party before the reckoning.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Abacus, 2009 Swedish, 2012 English)

Allan Karlsson never wanted a hundredth birthday party with the mayor and local press, so an hour before the event he climbs out of the window and wanders into town in his slippers. He finds himself at the bus station where he buys a ticket to get on the first bus. While he waits a young man asks him to mind his suitcase while he goes to the toilet. When the bus comes before the man returns, Allan gets on, taking the suitcase with him. And so his adventure starts, having taken fifty million kroner from a criminal gang. It soon involves a couple of murders and an elephant. But Allan is used to escapades and taking things in his stride.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a comic crime caper meets Forrest Gump told through three strands that eventually meet at the denouement. The first strand follows Allan’s escape from an old people’s home on the day of his hundredth birthday and subsequent adventure involving a suitcase of cash, a career thief, a criminal gang, an eternal student turned hot-dog seller, a reclusive woman and her elephant, and a couple of murders. The second tracks the hunt for Allan by a police detective and prosecutor who are hampered by incompetence and vanity, and a criminal boss who has dim-witted accomplices. The third maps out Allan’s life, which has involved a couple of journey’s around the world, meeting several world leaders, several incarcerations, and key contributions to the nuclear age. The concept is a nice one and the story starts out well, with a strong hook and a lightly comic touch. Comic crime capers are usually held together with plot devices, with the humour, pace and larger-than-life characters papering over the unlikely twists and turns. Allan is a wonderful character that rejects politics and religion and has a devil-may-care attitude to life, however, he cannot quite compensate for the creakiness of the plot, especially towards the end, when unlikely and silly occurrences are substituted for the absurd. Moreover, the humour becomes a bit tedious after a while. The result is a tale that starts well, but cannot sustain the feel-good formula to the conclusion.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer (Bantam, 2011)

August 1942 and American forces decide to start the process of pushing back the Japanese on land and sea, landing troops on the island of Guadalcanal, the largest island in the Solomons in the South West pacific. The marines quickly gain a toehold and control of the only airfield, but do not dislodge the Japanese from much of the island. However, neither navy has control of the sea, nor total superiority in the air. Determined to re-take the island the Japanese fly daily bombing runs from bases in New Britain and also send the Tokyo Express – a convoy of destroyers turned troop and cargo ships – on nightly runs to bolster and resupply their army. They also send larger formations that include battleships and cruisers to bombard marine positions, as well as submarines. Opposing them is a US fleet still adapting to being at war. What follows is a series of seven large night battles between US and Japanese naval forces, mainly between destroyers, cruisers and battleships, but also occasionally aircraft carriers and their aircraft. Both sides claim victories in the savage clashes that at their conclusion leave both with twenty four vessels sunk, however it is the US that retains Guadalcanal, with most Japanese soldiers evacuated through a Dunkirk-style rescue.

Hornfischer tells the story of the Guadalcanal campaign from the US naval perspective, seeking to rebalance accounts that focus more on the actions of the marines on the island. To that end he achieves that aim providing a detailed overview of both the administrative challenges and politics of naval command and the unfolding of each battle based on extensive research. While the command politics is rather dry in its telling, excavating the ins and outs of decision making and responsibility for follies, the battle engagements are more compelling, giving a sense of the chaos and carnage of clashes drawing on first-hand testimony. While Hornfischer does provide some rebalancing in the US account, it still suffers from imbalances. By focusing exclusively on the naval engagements, the battles on land and in the air are backgrounded. Moreover, it is still very much a US account and is laced with American patriotism that verges on jingoism – barely any mention is made of the wider war and political context in the Pacific and the role and action of other Allies, and the Japanese side of the battles are somewhat sketchy. In addition, while the story does provide a somewhat personal perspective of individual actors, they all remained somewhat thin, consisting mainly of descriptions of actions, rather than providing a sense of the person and their fate. As such, while book does largely succeed in its aims, albeit in a rather flat narrative, it would have been useful to read a more holistic account of the campaign. Overall, an interesting if narrow account of the taking and defending of Guadalcanal.

Monday, March 5, 2018

A tribute to Bernadette

I was very saddened to hear of the passing of Bernadette Bean who blogged her crime fiction reviews at Reactions to Reading and Fair Dinkum Crime. Although we never met, I corresponded with her for almost a decade via a Friendfeed group, later the Petrona Crime and Mystery Friends group on Facebook, via comments on blogs, and through email. I was very grateful when she generously took the time to read and comment on a work-in-progress, what was then titled 'Saving Siobhan' which eventually became 'Stumped'.

The great thing about Bernadette's blog and her correspondence was you could trust her to say exactly what she thought and to provide a reasoned rationale to support her views, and do so in an engaging manner. For someone trying to decide what to books to hunt down and read, those kinds of reviews are invaluable. It's also useful advice for an author as long as they're not too thin-skinned to take criticism and learn from the insights. And Bernadette had plenty of insight and I always felt she would have made a great literary editor.

Bernadette was foremost a champion of good reads and listens (see was an avid audio book listener). She was a fan of engaging stories that were well told. Like every reader she had her tastes and interests, but she'd give every book a fair assessment. She was also prepared to take a chance and read books by first-time authors and if she liked what she read she become their champion.

She also had her causes. She was an ardent supporter of female writers, fiction by Australian authors, and libraries (the picture above is from a recent protest to protect Norwood Library in Adelaide). I'd hazard she had the most encyclopedic knowledge of Australian crime fiction and had certainly read more work, by more Australian crime authors, bar her co-blogger on Fair Dinkum Crime, Kerrie Smith. And she was certainly a great ambassador for Australian crime fiction - enough so that I would import books only available in the Australian market (which is surprisingly difficult to do and still drives me crazy).

As a reader I owe her a great debt as the quality of my reading has increased immeasurably by hunting down books she recommended. Several of those books have made it onto my end of year 'best reads' list, including my top read of last year: The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong. Only a couple of weeks ago I ordered a couple of books she'd reviewed and I've shuffled Ausma Zehanat Khan's 'The Unquiet Dead' to the top of my pile and will do the same with Vaseem Khan's 'The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra' once it arrives to read in tribute. I'm going to miss her reviews and recommendations immensely, but will continue to revisit her archive to find new books to try.

If there is a heaven, then I imagine Bernadette has already discovered its extensive library and is holed up in the crime fiction section, working her way through the collection. And she certainly 'will not be shushed' while resident.

May she rest in peace.

Some other tributes can be found at:
Bernadette at A Crime is Afoot
Vale Bernadette at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist
A tribute to Bernadette in Oz at Mrs. Peabody Investigates
A Sad Loss at Euro Crime
A Tribute to Bernadette in Oz at Fair Dinkum Crime
RIP Bernadette at Reactions to Reading at Clothes in Books
Why’d You Go, Bernadette? at The Rap Sheet
RIP Bernadette Bean, blogger at Reactions to Reading by Patricia Abbot
A Tip of the Hat to a Revered Blogger at Ah Sweet Mystery Blog

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service
Ireland has been suffering its worst winter weather for a few years, with record levels of snow in some parts of the country as Storm Emma swept in from the Bay of Biscay and met freezing Siberian winds. Given that we rarely receive snow, we're not really set up for it, with the country grinding to a halt with just a few centimetres. In this case, it's been a fair bit more than that (in some cases six foot drifts in roads and gardens - as per picture right from a newspaper) and the government officially shut the country from 4pm on Wednesday until Saturday morning, with everyone told to stay at home. Many non-primary roads still remain shut. What that's meant for me is more reading and writing time. It's still cold, but we're now into the thaw and flooding phase. Hopefully that'll pass okay and the country will get back to normal next week. Shame my reading time will be as well.

My posts this week:
Cursing is a kind of praying
February reads
Review of The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield
Review of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cursing is a kind of praying

‘What the fuck was that?’ Popowski muttered, wrestling with a jammed door.

‘Probably a gun magazine,’ Hansen replied. ‘Half the ship must be ablaze by now.’

‘Fuck! We’re trapped in a fucking sinking tin can.’

‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be ...’

The two men glanced down at the man praying.

‘Sorry about the cursing, padre,’ Hansen said.

The pastor smiled. ‘Cursing is a kind of praying, son. And all prayers are welcome right now.’

‘Fucking, right,’ Popowski muttered. ‘But you can’t hustle on your knees, padre; but you can pray while pushing a fucking door.’  


‘On three, push.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

February reads

My book of the month was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a historical literary crime tale set in Northern Iceland at the beginning of the 19th century. Would have been a perfect read to accompany the present inclement weather.

My posts this month:
The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield ***
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson ***
Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent ***.5
The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell ***.5
The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski **
Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser ****  
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent *****