Monday, August 31, 2009

Review of The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, published by Picador (2003, in Italian in 1994)

Silvio Luparello, a well connected Sicilian politician, is found dead in his car by two garbage collectors at the Pasture, a narrow strip of brush land between an abandoned chemical plant and a beach, a liminal space of prostitution and drugs. It seems as if Luparello has died in flagrante, but Inspector Salvo Montalbano is not so sure. Tantalisingly out of reach, something is not quite right and despite the pressure of his boss, the local judge and a bishop to close the case he keeps returning to the source of his unease – why would Luparello, known for his discretion, risk everything by visiting the Pasture? And who was in the car with him at the time he died? Slowly, but surely, he starts to form water into shapes, but which one is the truth?

I had a little friend, a peasant boy, who was a little younger than me. I was about ten. One day I saw that my friend had put a bowl, a cup, a teapot and a square milk carton on the edge of a well, had filled them all with water, and was looking at them attentively.

‘ “What are you doing?” I asked him. And he answered me with a question in turn.

‘ “What shape is water?”

‘ “Water doesn’t have a shape!” I said, laughing. “It takes the shape you give it.”’

Camilleri’s writing seems breezy and effortless, sucking the reader into the seedy underbelly of Sicilian high society and the easy going and urbane world of Inspector Montalbano, and I zipped through The Shape of Water in a few hours. Camilleri keeps the pace fairly brisk by minimising the description of scenes and characters to their essences. His characterization and sense of place suffers little however. Often quite humorous, the story is well plotted and from the mid-point on it starts to twist and loop, cleverly tying up different strands and proving Montalbano was right to have doubts. I found The Shape of Water to be a more satisfying read than August Heat (my review here) although the latter book had a more rounded list of supporting police characters.

Other reviews:
(Another) 52 Books

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

Posts I've enjoyed this week
A fictional interlude - Big Beat from Badsville
Roses are red, dahlias are blue - Crime Always Pays
Dial S for Suspense - Criminal Brief
Jef Geeraets - The Public Prosecutor - International Noir
The Build-Up, Philip Gwynne - Mysteries in Paradise

My posts
Review of Harold Shipman: Prescription for Murder by Brian Whittle and Jean Ritchie
Pet Peeves
Mapping Manchester
Scene of the Crime
Review of The Last Llanelli Train by Robert Lewis
And may god bless all that sail in her
Review of Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski
Saturday Snippet: Black Out

The conference I attended last week was okay; all it really reminded me was 1) I have a number of obligations to people (I'm under contract to deliver three books, two book series, and two journals); 2) they are very dangerous places in terms of picking up new obligations (I've agreed to do two other books). My ambition when attending these events is that I'll meet at least one new person who might be interesting to work with and I pick up at least one new, useful idea. I met a couple of new people, but the conference was a washout on the ideas front. Some of the papers I went to were shockingly poor, but there seems to be a long tail in academia (0r, as in the cartoon above, a short tail and a pile of bodies).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Black Out

John Lawton has a fine eye for capturing war torn London. In Black Out the year is 1944 and the blitz is still lingering on. I reviewed the book ten days or so ago and I thought I'd share a passage from the book that might wet your appetite.

At the foot of Eros's pedestal two young women sat in shirtsleeves, daring all for spring sun, and shared a single cigarette.

He walked into Piccadilly, watching his shadow dance before him. In the brightness of such light the city contrasted sharply with the weather. London thawed. London budded. London ached. Like a muscle stretched and strained for too long it yearned to relax. The sense of action, the sense of an ending being almost tangible. Troy found himself wondering if the city would not expire with the forst breath of spring like some old man who had spent his energy enduring the depth of winter and had none left for the simple pleasures of living. What the sun revealed was a city of peeling, blistered paint, of broken, boarded-up windows, of shattered walls and open roofs, of four long years of make do and mend. It was a city scorched and scarred, patched and tattered in the light of spring.

I was also taken by this line:

'Of course war's an utter fucking picnic! Millions getting slaughtered for the benefit of the nostalgia of the survivors.'

Given the plethora of novels, TV series, documentaries and Hollywood movies that focus on the second world war, it's difficult to not think of them as a perverse nostalgia industry built on a mountain of dead bodies (even if some of them help us to think through why it happened and shocking waste of life, rather than simply providing entertainment).

I've already ordered the second book in the series, Old Flames, which moves forward to 1956. If its written with the same prose and eye for place I'm sure to enjoy.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Review of Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski, translated by Danusia Stok, Maclehose Press (2008, in Polish 2006)

1933 and the Nazis have recently taken power and are in the process of infiltrating and re-organising the institutions of the Weimer Republic. In Breslau, Criminal Counsellor, Eberhard Mock, Deputy Head of the Criminal Department of Police Praesidium, is not only trying to maintain his authority and power base, but make sure that when the political axe falls on his boss he's promoted into his position. Mock is entirely capable of achieving such an end because he’s an arch-player of the political game, happy to double deal, blackmail and coerce. When 17 year old Marietta von der Malten, the daughter of a Baron, is found murdered in a railway carriage, along with her governess and a railway worker, Mock takes charge. The three victims have been killed by scorpion stings, the daughter’s stomach also slashed open, and strange writing is scrawled on the wall. Mock is well aware of the stakes and sets to work to find the killer knowing that the Gestapo also has an interest in the case. Through some string pulling by Mock’s boss, a young policemen from Berlin, Herbert Anwaldt, is foisted upon him. Mock and Anwaldt form a close 'father-son' partnership during the course of the sweltering summer as they are drawn into a dark world of torture, false confessions, school girl prostitution, and secret sects, as they seek to uncover a dark secret that has serious consequences for both of their futures.

This book should have been right up my street – strong characters, historical pre-World War II setting, interesting plot – but it just never clicked for me. I did enjoy it, but I felt I should have loved it. Somehow it fell a little flat. I’ve been trying to work out why. I think part of the problem is that every character in the book is highly flawed and criminally inclined. All the female characters are prostitutes or madams, all the male characters are police or Gestapo or aristocracy, all highly corrupt. There were no ‘good guys’ only those that weren’t Nazis. I read somewhere that Death in Breslau was Chanderesque. I’ll go along with the idea that Krajewski’s writing is noir, but its doesn’t have the first person narrative of Chandler, nor his craft at creating a way of seeing the world – Chandler always had very rich descriptions of place that didn’t just put you in the landscape but made sure you were seeing it through his lenses (see this post for more on this). And Eberhard Mock is not an anti-hero in the Philip Marlowe mould, he has institutional power and he uses it, even torturing and disposing of people to get the information he needs. I’m starting to think that the book had no heros or anti-heros, just villains. As a reader I was left with little vested interest in any character. As the plot unfolded it became a little fantastic, with the connections to The Crusades and some of the coincidences stretching the story to almost breaking point. Given all that was happening during this period there was really no need for this kind of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' kind of angle.

I wasn’t quite sure where Breslau was, so once I’d finished the book I decided to google it. It’s the German name for Wroclaw in what is now Lower Silesia is South West Poland. Prior to the First World War Breslau was in Prussia and was the sixth largest city in the German Empire. By 1932, just prior to the novel’s setting, the Nazis gained their third highest vote in Breslau, making it one of their strongholds, and from 1933 onwards they started to persecute their political enemies, constructing a series of concentration camps in the region. The novel gave me the impression that Breslau was a small, provincial town. Clearly the book didn’t manage to get this broader contextual history across and the pictures I found show a very ornate medieval city, which never formed in my mind’s eye for some reason.

Death in Breslau passed a few hours, but something just didn’t click for me in the way that I hoped it would. That said, I’d be prepared to give the other books a second chance. Thanks to Uriah at Crime Scraps for the recommendation. Other reviews can be found at:

Eurocrime 1

Eurocrime 2
Reviewing the Evidence
You've Got to Read This!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

And may god bless all those that sail in her ...

The launch of the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography is taking place this evening at 6.45pm at the Royal Geographical Society conference in Manchester. It's preceded by a panel session focused on reference works and the production of geographic knowledge. I've spent the last five years or so working as Editor in Chief on the project and its great to be finally pushing it off into the world. Dealing with 844 contributors and 20 editors has been an interesting experience (and I never want to have to proof read 7762 pages in one go ever again).

Elsevier are using the opportunity of launching it at the RGS conference to put together some marketing materials. They have a professional video team here all day interviewing people who contributed, along with some of the editors, and the launch itself. They've already produced a promo trailer which can be seen here.

Thankfully I'm leaving all the public talking stuff to Nigel Thrift, my co-editor in chief, so hopefully I'll be able to skulk about at the back of the room and snaffle the wine and snacks.

More about the encyclopedia can be found here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review of The Last Llanelli Train by Robert Lewis, Serpent’s Tail (2005)

If you enjoy in-depth character studies then The Last Llanelli Train might be for you. The book focuses on the blurred and dazed life of permanently drunk, Robert Llewellyn, a some time private investigator in the provincial city of Bristol. Down on his luck and just about at the end of the road he’s hired by a woman who wants to entrap her husband. It should be easy money – all he needs to do is find an attractive and reasonably intelligent prostitute and moral weakness will do the rest. Only Llewellyn and his demons never want to do anything the easy way – drinking, gambling, arguments, fights; he stumbles from one ill-informed decision to another, conscious of his own shortcomings but drawn to trouble and other social misfits, what little money coming his way passing through his fingers like water.

The White Hart was over the other side of Victoria Park, in Bedminster. It was a rough, joyless hovel, the landlord was an idiot, and I didn't like any of the locals. All the places I went to tended to be like that. My needs are not great, and let's not deceive ourselves as to what are needs and what are not. Let's have the nerve to face them for what they are, right? It works out cheaper that way. Usually.

This is not normally the kind of book I tend to read. Usually I go for something that has quite a bit of action and much more dialogue, where the characters are well defined and drawn out, but the focus of the narrative is the story itself not the principal character and his inner thoughts. As a consequence I struggled with the first half of the book wanting desperately for things to happen beyond Llewellyn getting paralytically drunk, wandering from one pub to the next, sitting in caffs or the bookies and reflecting on his own foibles. In the second half of the book the story with respect to the entrapment starts to come into its own and other characters start to edge to the fore and I started to enjoy the read. Lewis captures the desperation of an alcoholic’s tenuous grip on the world and his fractured and cathartic life. If you want to enter the lifeworld of a small town PI who seems to hate life as much as he tries cling onto it then The Last Llanelli Train might be your cup of tea.

Scene of the Crime

A couple of years ago we were the victims of arson. I was a visiting professor at Manchester University and was staying in an apartment complex in Glossop on the edge of the Peak District. I've stayed the past two nights in the town and walked past the scene of the crime yesterday evening. The place has been rebuilt after an extensive renovation and refit of all 72 apartments. It was kind of strange to be back.

The story in short. A young couple across the hall from us on the top floor had a drunken argument one night. To teach her a lesson the man broke his girlfriend's fingers and tried to throw her off a fourth storey balcony and when that didn't work he set fire to her apartment. We were in the pub at the time and missed all the commotion. When we got back we could see flames through the window from the car park and called the fire brigade. Before I reached the main door to set off the fire alarm it kicked into life. The fire brigade came and put the fire out and we were allowed back into the apartment at about 2am.

At about 7.30am there was heavy hammering on the door. When we opened it there was a fire woman standing there, flames visible through the glass roof behind her. She told us to evacuate the building. We grabbed some clothes and the small rucksacks that had our passports etc in (and thankfully my laptop) and headed out to the car park in our pyjamas. Once outside we got dressed and then watched the whole of the top floor go up in flames and all the floors below get destroyed by thousands of gallons of water.

It turned out that the fire brigade had not got the fire out fully and it had been smouldering above our heads during the night, reigniting in the morning. The complex was an old mill and the old wooden beams were saturated with a couple of centuries of machine oil. We were due to fly back to Ireland for Easter that day in any case, so once it got to around 2pm we headed to the station and went to the airport, checked-in and flew home. We didn't return after that.

It was an unfurnished apartment and since we were on the top floor we lost everything in the place including a load of books and three months worth of my notes (I write in the margins of my books). I also lost all my receipts which meant claiming expenses back from the university was a real chore. It's funny how bureaucracy works - they wouldn't process my claim because I didn't have the receipts even though they knew our apartment had been set on fire! It took weeks to get it sorted.

Anyway, nobody was directly killed in the fire and the arsonist was sent to prison indefinitely for the public's protection with a minimum term of 3 years, and we have an interesting story to tell about a trip that went up in flames - literally.

Here are a couple of links to news stories
BBC News
Glossop Advertiser (about the blaze) and about the arsonists appeal
Fire Inquiry press release
High Peak District Council press releases

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mapping Manchester

I'm heading to the Mapping Manchester exhibition tomorrow evening in the Reading Room in The Rylands Library in Manchester City Centre. It's been put together by Martin Dodge and Chris Perkins of Manchester University. The three of us had a book published earlier in the year, Rethinking Maps. The exhibition runs until January 2010, so if you're in Manchester it might be worth a look.

A selection of the maps can be found on the BBC Manchester website

Pet peeves

We all have them - things that drive us nuts. Our pet peeves. I've just experienced one of mine.

I've just read a supposedly revised paper sent to me for evaluation by the editor of an academic journal. I say supposedly because all the author has done is tinkle with a couple of sentences and add a couple of references. The original decision on the paper was a revise and resubmit, which basically means the paper has some merits but it is unpublishable as it is and its needs a substantial rewrite, perhaps including additional analysis.

For the life of me I cannot understand an author who fails to take the advice of an editor and three referees and resubmits the same paper, especially when it's clear that they think the paper needs major surgery for it to be publishable. If the decision the first time round was revise and resubmit, with no substantial changes it will be the second time. All the author has done is waste the time of four people and in my case raise my blood pressure!

I know the author probably thinks the paper is fine and is no doubt frustrated with the original verdict, but having worked as the managing editor of an international journal I know from experience that if all of the referees say the paper needs revising in some way it invariably does. In ten years of overseeing over 1000 papers we never once accepted a paper as it was originally submitted even from the top names in the field. There was always some small way in which the paper could be improved to make a very good paper into an excellent one. In all but a very small number of cases revisions did indeed make the paper stronger (there were some papers that paradoxically got worse, almost always very weak papers to begin with).

The refereeing process is designed to be a constructive process that helps authors publish the best possible piece of work. Authors ignore the advice given at their peril (although not all the advice has to be taken, but it should not be simply dismissed out of hand especially when it is consistent across a number of reviewers). The paper I've just read is now likely to be rejected. If the authors had undertaken the revisions they were requested to do their paper would have been stronger and in all probability accepted for publication, perhaps after some further minor edits. They've wasted my time, the editor's and their own. Cheers.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review of Harold Shipman: Prescription for Murder by Brian Whittle and Jean Ritchie, Sphere (2005)

Harold (Fred) Shipman was convicted in January 2000 for the murder of 15 patients and one count of forging a will. The subsequent public inquiry into his death, headed by Dame Janet Smith, concluded that Shipman had killed at least 215 people, and was suspected of killing an additional 45 people, between 1975 and 1998. The overall total will never be known, and different sources provide slightly varying totals – Whittle and Ritchie attribute 284 deaths to Shipman’s hands, the first in 1971. One thing is certain, in terms of confirmed victims, he was the world’s most profilic serial killer. Over 80 percent of his victims were women, and the vast majority elderly. None of his victims were sexually assaulted or mutilated in any way. Shipman killed by injecting sufficient morphine to induce an overdose. While family and friends were shocked at the death of what in many cases was a seemingly healthy person, Shipman used his status as a doctor and in particular his crafted persona as someone with a particular interest in the well-being of elderly patients to cover his murders. While there were suspicions concerning the unusually high death rate amongst his patients prior to his arrest, he was caught because he altered his modus operandi, forging the will of his final victim so that he was the sole beneficiary of her estate. He pleaded his innocence right up to his suicide in Wakefield Prison in 2004 at the age of 58, taking to the grave the true extent of his crimes. In passing his sentence, Judge Forbes, stated:

‘Each of your victims was your patient. You murdered each and every one of your victims by a calculated and cold-blooded perversion of your medical skills for your own evil and wicked purposes. You took advantage of and grossly abused their trust. You were, after all, each victim’s doctor. I have little doubt that each of your victims smiled and thanked you as she submitted to your deadly ministrations.

‘None realised yours was not the healing touch, none knew in truth you had brought her death, death disguised as the caring attention of a good doctor. The sheer wickedness of what you have done defies description. It is shocking and beyond belief. You have not shown the slightest remorse or contrition for your evil deeds and you have subjected the family and victims to having to re-live the tragedy and grief you visited on them.’

I only rarely read true crime books. This one was sent to me by a friend and I’m glad he did (and I've read it now because I'm heading to Glossop, near to Hyde where Shipman killed most of his victims, tonight). Lucidly written and avoiding sensationalisation, Whittle and Ritchie’s book provides a fascinating account of Harold Shipman’s life and his crimes. The extensive research underpinning the account is clearly evidenced throughout including: numerous interviews with the family and friends of victims, former colleagues and patients, and the various agencies involved in the case such as the police and victim support; documentary sources such official testimony and the letters that Shipman sent from prison to supporters; and accounts of the court case. Well structured and paced, the book carefully balances historical narrative with human stories and associated facts. To the authors' credit, the tone is restrained and appropriately sensitive and compassionate with respect to family and friends, never losing sight of the fact that the Shipman murders involved real people and that there are many people still grieving and asking questions.

Harold Shipman: Prescription for Murder is an excellent but deeply troubling and unsettling read about a man that many people trusted with their health but who liked to play god with their lives.

It'ssss ... okay/It doesn't look too bad

I'm heading over to Manchester today to a conference. I've been repeatedly told that I couldn't go 'like that' and I needed a haircut. And truth be told, I did need a good tidy up. Somehow I never quite got to the hairdressers in the village last week. And it's closed on a Monday. Yesterday evening I was given a stark offer. Either she could cut my hair or I was to do it. Let's face it, that's not a great choice. Well I've suffered the former before so I took the sensible option and decided I'd snip away at it. How difficult can it be to cut your own hair? All you need is your head, scissors, a comb and a mirror. The conversation that followed.

'It's better than it was.'
'I mean, it'ssss ... okay.'
'Well it doesn't look too bad.'

How bad is 'too bad?' Oh flip. 'It's better than it was' is going to have to suffice. I'll buy a cap in the airport.

I'm not very prepared for this conference all round. I'm giving a paper with Mark Boyle on diaspora strategy policy and international labour migration. We haven't yet met to discuss it. I'm leaving today, he's leaving Thursday, the paper is Friday at 11am. The encyclopedia launch is Thursday night, which means Friday breakfast is going to be a hungover pow-wow to work out what we're saying and which one of us is saying it. I guess there might be some email flying about before then.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

Posts I enjoyed this week

I speak not good
- International Crime Authors Reality Check
How to write crime - Overkill
Backtracking - The Drowning Machine
Bob Moore - Don't Call me a Crook - Big Beat From Badsville
Incident in Tacoma - Criminal Brief
Author or hobbyist - Adventures in Writing
Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler's Imagined City - Detectives Without Borders
Haaayyyy-terrrr - Do Some Damage
My latest culture clash - International Crime Authors Reality Check
The Darkest Room - Crime Scraps
Constructing reality: What we pay attention to - International Crime Authors Reality Check
April Fool by William Deverell - Crime Watch

My posts
Review of Stop Me by Richard Jay Parker
Frankenstein: A genius creation
Review of Black Out by John Lawton
Pre-order splurge
Review of Bombs over Dublin by Sean McMahon
Saturday snippet - Drowning Slowly

I'm off to Manchester tomorrow evening to attend the Royal Geographical Society conference where the encyclopedia I've edited will be launched on Thursday evening. I imagine the posts this coming week might have a different flavour to the usual fare. We'll see.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Saturday Snippet: Drowning Slowly

You were an assistant bank manager. Then the bank re-organised and culled a rake of middle managers. The only job you could get was working as a 'customer service advisor' for a web-hosting company, sitting all day in a call centre talking to lost people and morons. Then your wife leaves you. You're drowning slowly.

I wrote the first chapter of Drowning Slowly earlier this year, but its now been on the 'something to come back to list' for a while. Here's a snippet.

I threaded my way through the cubicles avoiding everyone’s inquisitive stares and dropped down into my seat. What the hell was I doing here? I was that character in the Dilbert comic strip - Wally or whatever his name was. I used to have an office, now I had two hardboard walls tacked with yellow stick-it notes and postcards from people who could afford to go on holiday.

The open plan office was organised into six sets of four cubicles. Two sets were occupied by the technical advice team. They were staffed by three Indians that always dressed in smart suits and ties, three lads who didn’t own a comb between them and had a wardrobe consisting entirely of black jeans, assorted dark coloured t-shirts and shapeless grey jumpers, and two women whose hair colour seemed to change daily, who sported a number of piercings of lips, noses, eyebrows, and dressed pretty eclectically. Today one had her hair dyed blue, the other black with orange streaks. They were both wearing flowery summer dresses over black leggings, brightly coloured plimsolls and lots of black eye shadow.

All eight techies are under the age of twenty five. The three Indians are pleasant enough but I can hardly understand a word the other five said. If they weren’t talking technical gibberish then I hadn’t the cultural frame to get involved in any conversation. It was all blogs, manga, games, bands I’d never heard of, and general geeky stuff. God knows how anybody understood the advice they were supposedly giving.

The next two sets of cubicles were the content advice team. They consisted of two Polish men in their late twenties, a Latvian who used to be a fireman, a mixed-race guy who had recently graduated with a media studies degree from Oxford (which he made a point of telling you – ‘Hi, I’m Phil. I recently got a first in Media Studies from Oxford’), a young slip of a lass from Cork with a fierce mouth on her (who everybody knew was sleeping with Phil because she let us all know by talking loudly over the cubicle wall - ‘Phil, are you coming over later? Don’t bother with pyjamas, you won’t need them’; he seems delighted and embarrassed by her in equal measure), a lovely Chinese woman of indeterminate age that I have trouble understanding, Sal, a quick witted, twenty-something, Liverpudlian with long dyed blonde hair who could probably make it as a model, and an auburn haired, late thirty-something goddess from Northern Ireland called Niamh. I had an awful crush on Niamh.

The final two sets of cubicles were occupied by the customer services team to which I belonged. Our job was to basically answer billing and account queries, to redirect queries to the other two teams, and to deal with complaints. We were the lowest of the low both figuratively and literally. Sales and marketing were located on the floor above us, the web design teams and programmers were on the third floor, and senior admin and management filled the top floor. We were the dumb bastards too dull or lacking in ambition to have a job that required skills beyond being able to answer a phone, type shit into a computer, and take crap from people for eight hours at a go. The rest of the floor would have taken pity on us except they couldn’t care less.

Over the wall to my left sat Carol, a thirty two year old of Jamaican descent with one inch fingernails, two inch heels, three children and a take no-shit attitude. To my right was Johnny Tubbs, a mid twenty-something wide-boy who seemed to spend most of his time on his mobile wheeling and dealing, arranging to sell stuff that had fallen off the back of a lorry. So far he had persuaded me to buy four dodgy DVDs and two polo shirts, none of which I wanted and all of dubious quality. Diagonally across from me was Diane, a fifty-something housewife whose two children had flown the nest. She’d come back to work for something to do now the house was empty and a bit of extra money. She looked like a straight-laced pensioner-to-be with short grey hair, large spectacles and plain blouse buttoned to her neck, but she had a mouth like a Blackpool postcard.

At the other four cubicle block sat two early twenty-something lads: Tas a British born Indian who was between acting jobs and Jack who was a bear of very little brain but also the life of the place, always cracking jokes and swapping banter. Both fancied themselves as ladies men. Opposite them sat Carla, a raven haired, dusky skinned, Italian who always dressed immaculately in designed label clothes and seemed to spend most of the day filing her nails or gesturing wildly as she spoke into her headset, and Clarissa a shy, be-spectacled woman in her mid-twenties who barely spoke above a whisper, never looked anyone in the eye, and blushed deeply anytime a man spoke to her. Which given she was sat next to Jack was about every five minutes.

I was the only bloke on the floor older than thirty. And I was at the bottom of the food chain.

‘Are you alright, man?’ Johnny asked looking round the edge of the cubicle. ‘You look like shit.’ Lift you up, knock you down. ‘What did Ms Big Jugs want?’ He asked referring to our ambitous twenty six year old section manager who had a prodigious chest which she flaunted with a wardrobe of plunging necklines.

‘I need to improve how I empathise with our customers,’ I said wearily, putting my headphone set back on. ‘I’ve had an official warning. Once more and I’m gone.’

‘Like she’d know what empathy is,’ Carol sympathised from behind the divide. ‘All she cares about is how we reflect on her. Fuckin’ fat bitch.’

Carol was also on a written warning for telling a customer exactly what she thought of him when he threatened her after she wouldn’t give him her personal number (‘I don’t give a shit how many years you’ve been a customer or who you’re friends with, but you can fuck off you fuckin’ wanker, fuckwit, dickhead.’) Apparently she should have dealt with it more professionally even though the company admitted the caller was a fuckin’ wanker, fuckwit, dickhead (although too important to drop).

‘Don’t sweat man, you’d be better off out of here,’ Johnny continued. ‘At least you wouldn’t have to put up with any more crap from Ms Juggernaut.’

‘What did you do, Greg?’ Diane asked without raising her head above the screen.

‘I told Mrs Twelve Pence to get a life.’ They all knew who Mrs Twelve Pence was - I’d given out about her enough times. She was on old biddy who insisted the company owed her a twelve pence rebate, which technically we didn't. She'd rung up everyday for the past two weeks asking for me by name and I'd finally cracked.

‘You said, fuckin’ life,’ Johnny corrected. ‘I heard you, man.’ He voiced shifted timbre as he took a call. ‘Yeah, Godzilla Media. Johnny Tubbs my name. What can I do for you, yeah?’

‘Don’t worry about it, Greg,’ Carol said. ‘You had to say something to that woman. She’s been pestering you for days. And Sandra’s always got a bee up her ass. She just likes to throw her weight around.’

‘Just make sure she doesn’t land on you,’ Diana the straight-laced granny said. ‘It would take you days to climb out from under her tits.’

Carol laughed, and spluttered, ‘You’re a wicked woman, Diane. A wicked woman.’

Perhaps something to fiddle with once I've stopped fiddling with other things.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Review of Bombs Over Dublin by Sean McMahon, Currach Press (2009)

The Irish government, under the leadership of Eamon de Valera, declared its neutrality on September 2nd 1939, the day before Britain and France declared war on Germany. In a hectic day of Dail business, de Valera pushed through The Emergency Powers Act, a piece of legislation that effectively gave the government license to run the country as it saw fit for the duration of European hostilities and which led the Second World War being termed The Emergency in Ireland.

Over the past couple of years I have been collecting books on The Emergency including those relating to life, politics and espionage in Ireland, and also direct Irish involvement in the war, for example Irish people working in Britain or serving in the British forces or likewise living in and serving Germany. I therefore snapped up Sean McMahon’s short book (127 pages) on a recent visit to The Reading Room in Carrick on Shannon.

Bombs Over Dublin sets out in general terms the basis of Irish neutrality and the extent to which Ireland was affected by what was happening elsewhere in Europe, in particular documenting its preparations for war (including how to respond to possible invasion from the South by the Germans as a prelude to invading Britain, and from the North by Britain seeking to protect its western flank), the handful of times bombs were dropped on what was then named the Free State or Eire (especially those in Dublin), and the instances where the Irish fire brigade headed north to help in tackling the much more severe bombings of Belfast.

The book is generally well written and structured providing a sound, basic account of Ireland’s approach to the war and what preparations were made, before setting out the various instances of bombs being dropped onto Irish soil. I particularly enjoyed this quote from the Irish Times editor, R.M. Smyllie, about censors:

'troglyditic myrmidons, moronic clodhoppers, ignorant bosthoons, poor cawbogues whose only claim to literacy was their blue pencils.'

Whilst short, the book is informative, but lacks the depth and breath of other texts on the period. My impression is that the book is probably best thought of as a kind of primer, providing a readable introduction to the material that is treated in more detail in other texts. Indeed, while the book claims to be the first to focus exclusively on the bombings, they are discussed in brief elsewhere, and McMahon’s coverage of the events is fairly rudimentary. My sense is that the primary sources of information were other texts and some newspaper research, rather than extensive archival research of Irish, British and German government and military sources concerning the bombings, or in-depth interviews with surviving eye-witnesses. As a result, the book lacks the depth of material and analysis that would satisfy scholars of The Emergency, although it does provide a nice, basic introduction for a generalist audience. Given that this is what I think the book aims to do, it adequately fulfils its brief.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pre-order splurge

I've had an interesting journey trying to get The Rule Book into Irish bookshops; I've learnt a lot about the book publishing industry in the process. I won't bore you with the details but it seems that the impasse has been cleared (by me taking a cut in royalties so that the publisher and distributor both got what they wanted). I got two reports yesterday of sightings, one in the Dublin Airport, the other in the window of Hodges Figgis, the largest bookshop in Dublin. Hopefully the blumming thing will now find its way into reader's hands ...

Anyway, feeling chipper with myself I decided to splurge and pre-order some books. I very rarely do this, but there are a couple of authors and series I'm prepared put my hand in pocket for. So I've ordered the following, which when they are delivered will zip to the top of a to read pile that's already rickety.

Are there any authors or series that you feel compelled to buy the minute they're published (and forget the price)?

I can't wait to get stuck into these. If they all turn up on the same day I won't know where to start. I also know a couple of people who'll be pestering me for first dibs once I've finished. In fact I imagine they might get snaffled the moment I turn my back.

I also decided to buy two others. Old Flames is the second book in the Troy series, the first of which I reviewed yesterday. If Donna Moore's blog is anything to go by then Go To Helena Handbasket should be a blast. Expect reviews this side of Christmas! I know I'm not going to be able to stop myself, but I really don't need to buy any more books before then.

Flip-it - I've just read the order email from Amazon. Peter Temple is published 3rd Sept, Philip Kerr 10th Sept, and Terry Pratchett 1st Oct. I just followed the default settings which groups the delivery into as few as parcels as possible so the expected delivery date is 7th-13th Oct! I need to to keep a better eye on that next time. Grrrr.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review of Black Out by John Lawton, Phoenix (1995)

London 1944, the tail end of the Blitz, and a human arm is discovered by children on a bomb site. The arm has been severed from its owner by a knife. The case is assigned to Detective Sergeant Troy, son of a Russian émigré turned newspaper magnate, and the rising star of the murder squad based in Scotland Yard. Troy soon establishes that Peter Wolinski, a Polish communist and intellectual, is missing from his apartment and starts a manhunt, only the victim appears to be German and there is no record as to his identity. Soon Troy is drawn into the world of wartime intelligence and is caught between two femme fatales – Tosca, a feisty New Yorker working for American High Command and Lady Diana Brack, the elegant lover of a shady American operative. Stonewalled by the intelligence services, when Troy refuses to give up the chase he becomes the hunted.

Black Out is one of a series of Troy novels that have been published out of chronological order. It’s the first one I’ve read and there was no sense that I needed to have read any of the others as the book stands alone. I found the first 100 pages or so a little frustrating. The story kind of ambled along and exploited a set of coincidences that I found very convenient and unlikely. For example (and revealing these will not spoil the read) – Wolinski, the man who disappears, lives in the apartment above Troy’s former mentor; Troy’s uncle, a university professor, also knows Wolinski; the woman who visits Wolinski’s apartment exits as Troy revisits his mentor; she is known to him as a family friend; Troy’s trusted constable also knows the woman as his brothers lust after her; the liaison between MI5 and the police attended the same school as Troy at the same time and is known to him; when Troy visits a RAF base he bumps into an old rival of his father. This is a big city, full of millions of people, and yet conveniently half a dozen principle characters are already known to each other and coincide in time and space. Perhaps one, maybe two, coincidences would have been realistic. But seven? And they were the ones I jotted down. In addition, Troy has remarkable luck – for example he’s the only survivor of a bomb explosion.

I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t as the story really picks up and the tension starts to mount and I ended up really enjoying the book. And there are some great twists towards the end. There was actually no need for these coincidences and the book would have worked equally well if the characters had been strangers. The characterisation is good throughout and I thought Kolankiewicz, the foulmouthed pathologist (‘fuck bloody off bastardpimpcopper’; ‘what the bollox you want, smartyarse’), and Tosca, the feisty New Yorker, were great creations. Lawton captures the atmosphere of black out London and the story eventually evolves into a convoluted and gripping tale.

Overall, despite a frustrating start, Black Out really grew on me, the latter half more than making up for the first, and I’ll keep an eye out for other Troy novels.

Thanks to Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps for the recommendation. Another review can be found at It's a Crime

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Frankenstein: A Genius Creation?

Was Frankenstein (and by implication all path-breaking fiction) created by someone who was intrinsically a genius?

A couple of years ago I was invited to attend an interdisciplinary workshop, ‘Milieus of Creativity’ - part of the Knowledge and Space series - in Heidelberg (on the basis that I’d edited a book on the Geographies of Science Fiction). An interesting debate developed about the nature of genius and creativity with some social psychologists arguing that the notion of creativity should be limited to purely path-breaking developments which they felt could only be achieved through the innate qualities of a genius mind – in other words, you’re either born with an intrinsic ability to be truly creative or not. Countering them was Barney Warf (a geographer from Kansas) and myself. Our argument was that genius could not be reduced to some teleological inevitability, the result of some inborn biological make-up and fate, but rather all creativity was the product of contingent and relational processes and that talent has to be nurtured and harnessed. I thought it might be worth repeating the opening section, which was published recently and which briefly looks at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and seeing what people thought.

Writing fiction is a creative act. It involves the production of a narrative that tells a story. And while much fiction is derivative of stories that have preceded it, and much of it is clichéd, shallow and uninspired, there is a steady stream of new works that continue to push boundaries with respect to style, substance and foci. These are stories that are creative in ways that extend beyond simply making something. Rather than being citational, imitative and stereotypical (where the plotlines and characters are similar to much that had preceded), they are genuine attempts to challenge conventional tropes and styles, and also to say something meaningful about the world (rather than simply entertain). They are works that are insightful, surprising, educational, interesting, exciting, enlightening; they interpolate (fill in holes) and extrapolate (make fragments into a whole); and they might be intertextual, but in knowing, clever, witty and meaningful ways. They make us look at the world afresh with new perspectives.

Such creative acts, I would argue, do not arise out of nowhere, some innate product of a novelist’s biological make-up (and thus measureable in some reductionist way through psychological testing). Instead, their creativity is a product of their skills and talents coupled with their embeddedness in networks of people, things and places. These networks profoundly shape their fiction. Writers learn the various aspects of how to write – literacy, grammar and punctuation, composition, observation and translation (taking knowledge of the world and converting it into a narrative), imagination and speculation, to critically engage with philosophy, ideology, and aspects of the human condition, and so on. Whilst some might possess a great talent for these skills, these supposed ‘gifts’ are nurtured, shaped and encouraged by diverse factors such as schooling, tutoring in literary theory and praxis, exposure to other writers’ work, encouragement and critical feedback from peers, and so on. And while some writers might claim to have had no formal training in creative writing, their abilities to craft a story has nonetheless been nurtured in informal ways. Nobody sits down to write a fully formed writer. And a writer’s stories derive their inspiration, focus and politics from their life experiences and their engagements with people and places.

To take the novel, Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and published 1818. It is a profoundly creative and imaginative work that Malmgrem (1991) argues provided the genesis for the genre of science fiction. Shelley’s ability to write the story and the story itself did not arise from nowhere, the product of an innately talented mind. Rather the book was a product of Shelley’s schooling, her engagements with other fiction, her friendships and discussions with the literary set who formed her circle of friends (Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori, Percy Shelley), her travels around Europe and her reading of the cultural landscape (Frankenstein was written in Geneva with the Alps and locales such as Chillon Castle providing inspiration), and her knowledge and understanding of the radical changes that were occurring around her with respect to the age of Enlightenment, the start of the industrial revolution, the development of rationale scientific practice, and a growing sense of how science could advance society and the future could be extrapolated from the present. Indeed, Shelley herself acknowledges in the introduction to the 1831 edition that the idea for the novel arose out of a challenge to write a ghost story after she and her friends had read Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d'histoires d'apparitions de spectres, revenants, fantômes, etc. (1812), a French translation of a German book of ghost stories. There then followed a set of conversations about the scientific work of Erasmus Darwin and Luigi Galvani which provided the scientific underpinnings for the story. At later stages various drafts would have been read by friends, editors and so on, with edits then being applied to the text. Frankenstein was then the product of a complex engagement between Shelley and the world at a particular time and place.

To return to the original question - was Frankenstein (the original science fiction novel) created by someone who was intrinsically a genius?

Is there such a thing as true genius?

The full version of this piece can be found in Kitchin, R. (2009) Looking at the present through the future: Science fiction and contingent and recursive, creative geographies. In Funke, J and Meusburger, P. (eds) Mileaus of Creativity. Springer: Dordrecht

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review of Stop Me by Richard Jay Parker, Allison and Busby (2009)

howdy doody
on vacation
slim attractive dreadlocked babe with a fun sticky-out bellybutton, likes rabbit fur
forward this email to ten friends

each of those friends must forward to ten friends

maybe one of those friends of friends of friends will be one of my friends

if this email ends up in my inbox within a week I wont slit the bitches throat

can you afford not to send this on to ten friends?

So starts Richard Jay Parker’s first novel, Stop Me.

Leo Sharpe has received this and similar such emails from the supposed Vacation Killer in his inbox and has ignored them as spam. Only after each email a young woman’s jaw bone is sent to the local police force. Then Laura, his recently married wife, fails to return from the bathroom in their local pub. No amount of searching can locate her and a few hours later an email referring to her is sent out into the ether. Laura’s employers put up a ransom of 50,000 pounds for their son to then disappear and his jaw bone to be sent to the police. But Laura has disappeared without a trace. Initially a prime suspect in her abduction, Leo’s life slowly unravels, losing his job, becoming addicted to sleeping tablets, and retreating into a loner, communicating via the internet with the man who claims to be the Vacation Killer but who the police have dismissed as a crank. At the bottom of a pit of despair he decides he needs to discover what happened to Laura, to find out if she’s still alive, and he sets off to confront his demons.

Stop Me is relatively straightforward story, simply but competently told. This is both its strength and its weakness. The strength is it's a relatively easy read, well structured and paced, and adequately plotted. In some ways it felt like a one-off television drama fleshed out into a novel. The weakness is that story-telling lacks any real prose and for me, at least, it didn’t incite any deeper thinking about the nature of people and society, particularly about disappearances and abduction. The story essentially focuses on Leo and is quite reflexive, exploring his thoughts and how he comes to terms with his wife’s disappearance and his journey to discover her fate. This psychological exploration I found was mostly surface with only minor glimpses of any real emotional depth. I think my own ambivalence to Leo is that he’s essentially a weak character and I found it hard to warm to his task because the reader is never introduced to Laura. It's quite difficult to care about the fate of someone who’s a blank slate. I don’t usually comment on the cover, but it does little for me and especially the orange and red text, nor does the title. I think I would have gone for 'The Vacation Killer', but I appreciate that’s a subjective choice.

Overall, a competent enough first novel that has small screen potential.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Lazy Sunday Service

Posts I enjoyed this week:

We Go Postal: What Gets Our Goat - It's a Crime
Walk the Dark Streets - William Krasner - Big Beat From Badsville
Biggles tale saved me - BBC
Killed at the whim of a hat - International Crime Writers Reality Check
M.S. Power and The Stalker's Apprentice - International Noir
On crime & thrillers: Hemingway on crime - When Falls the Coliseum
Die a Little: Megan Abbott - Crime Scraps
The Darkest Room - Johan Theorin - It's a Crime
Dark Mirror, Barry Maitland - Mysteries in Paradise
An Interview - Captain Joseph Barbelo - Crime Scene NI
Have you read Ngaio Marsh? - Crime Watch

Hello From Earth
Send a message to Gliese 581d, a planet outside our Solar System which may support life, courtesy of the Australian Government. They're collecting statements up to 140 characters long to send on Aug 24th. They clearly think there's something in this as they're moderating the messages to make sure they're appropriate!

My posts:
Review of Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Unhealthy waters - walter, health and place
Review of Inspector Mallon by Donal McCracken
Landscapes of Crime - map of European locations of English language mystery novels 1750-1900
Review of Winter Frost by R.D. Wingfield
Saturday Snippet - short section from Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth

Yesterday I made a bench so that when the sun does eventually shine we can sit outside and look at the view from the blue house. It sits over an old tractor axel that we found buried under brambles in the garden. It's a good job I made it yesterday as its drizzling again today and its barely possible to see the other side of the valley, let alone the hills beyond.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Saturday Snipper: Unbearable Lightness ...

I spent an hour on Wednesday evening trying to find some quotes to use in a piece I was drafting on sense of place and crime fiction for Dorte's DJ Krimiblog (posted today). Below is a passage that I didn't use, but liked a lot. It's from The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce that I reviewed a couple of week ago.

We pulled out of Borth and continued gliding silently, hardly picking up speed, towards Ynyslas and Dovey Junction. The morning sun had just cleared the horizon above the flat watery world and threw a horizontal beam that made us squint and duck the dust particles that appeared from nowhere like swarms of gnats. The light had the colour of lemonade - not the stuff from the sweetshop, but the homemade drink, chilled and left on the sideboard in a glass pitcher and craved by children in the Famous Five books with the desperation of cocaine addicts. It filled the carriage with warm pale honey and gilded the golf course and beach and sea, and turned the marram grass on the dunes to golden stubble along the chin of the sky.

I don't know about you, but I'm on that train, dodging dust, squinting out at the estuary landscape and the sea beyond. Great stuff.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Review of Winter Frost by R.D. Wingfield, Corgi (1999)

Winter Frost is the fourth Frost I’ve read this year having discovered the series back in March browsing in Murder Ink in Dublin. I was very familiar with the television series – A Touch of Frost – and was worried the books would be quite dour, slow and formulaic. The Frost books are, however, quite different to the television version being much more humorous, often politically incorrect, and rattling along at a fast pace, interweaving several plot lines as Frost juggles multiple cases.

Frost himself is a conniving, coarse, sarcastic, insolent, ribald, scruffy and persistent cop. He’s disdainful of anyone in authority; shirks paperwork and any job that doesn’t take his fancy; is happy to cut corners, take liberties with evidence, to bluff and lie to get results, and commandeer resources and ask for permission afterwards; and is always making miscalculations and errors, often with dire consequences, although he’s always prepared to take the blame for them and the mistakes of others. In other words, he’s a lovable rogue who ultimately cares about his colleagues and victims and wants justice performed. That justice is eventually realised is often the result of inspired stumbling and luck than carefully managed police work. He also tells awful jokes and uses distasteful humour to deal with the stresses of the job (which is often very funny and I’ve laughed out loud a fair few times with each book).

Wells couldn’t bite at the bait quickly enough. ‘Superior? She’s the same rank as me … a sergeant. She’s done half the time I have, only been here five flaming minutes and she’s made up to a temporary inspector. What has she got that I haven’t?’
‘Big tits,’ said Frost.

Wells jabbed a finger. ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head there, Jack. It’s sex discrimination in reverse.’
‘I’ve never tried it in reverse,’ said Frost, ‘but where is she?’
‘With a prisoner … a cab driver. He picked this woman up and, instead of taking her home, took her down a side street and raped her.’

‘Bloody hell!’ tutted Frost. ‘I hope she didn’t leave him a tip.’

In Winter Frost the usual chaotic madness reigns in Denton police station – short staffed, under-funded, badly managed, with several high profile cases on the go. Superintendent Mullet has lent half the staff to the county headquarters for a drugs case, leaving those remaining including the bitter Sergeant Wells, ambitious Liz Maud, and incompetent ‘Taffy’ Morgan to cope. Someone is kidnapping, torturing and then killing prostitutes, two young girls have disappeared, an old skeleton has been found under a garage, there is a spate of burglaries across the town, the local supermarket has been held up at gunpoint, and a gang have ram raided a jewellers. To top it off, not long after Frost has arrested the prime suspect in the young girls disappearances, the seemingly innocent man tops himself thus starting an internal inquiry.

In the main, Winter Frost is a terrific read. Wingfield’s characterization is superb, with well drawn characters who come to life on the page. His dialogue ‘feels’ real and narrative is well written. The first hundred pages or so, in particular, are very well done, sucking you in to the story and providing several laughs. My main issue with the book, as with the other books in the series is that there are too many plotlines. Not that they are difficult to follow, but that there’s no way Frost would be trying to manage so many, especially given the seriousness of the cases. Two missing girls under the age of nine would have meant massive media coverage, an influx of national dailies, and huge pressure from senior police and politicians for a result. The same for a killing spree on prostitutes. The idea that both of these cases would be tackled by the same policeman, who is also looking after several others, and that a drugs case would have staffing priority is ridiculous. While having many plotlines makes for a lot of action it’s really not needed as the book would have worked just as well with just one or two. I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but as with one of the other books, I was also a little disappointed with the ending. That said, Winter Frost is a very entertaining read and I will be buying the last two I'm missing in the series in due course.

If only the television series could have stuck to the bawdy, politically incorrect cop of the books. One of crime fiction’s great characters has had most of the life sucked out of him by the small screen (despite the fine acting by David Jason). I picked up my copy in The Reading Room in Carrick on Shannon.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Landscapes of crime

George Demko, a geographer from Darmouth University in the US, argues that a literary sense of place is essential quality of good crime fiction and one of the key ingredients in the genre’s success. Crimes happen somewhere and detailing the landscape it occurs in and the complex social, political and economic milieu of that locale is often essential part of helping readers get a sense of what occured and why. This happens across scale from inside a room or a clearing in a wood to neighbourhoods and the city or region as a whole and many crime writers set their stories in a single arena so that over time their readers get to know the intricacies of a place. For example, Colin Dextor’s Inspector Morse novels give a vivid portrayal of Oxford; Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch patrols the mean streets of Los Angeles; Ian Rankin's Rebus stalks the underbelly of Edinburgh; Peter Temple's novels are set in and around Melbourne; and Brian McGilloway’s stories criss-cross the Donegal/Derry border. An Irish Times feature recently detailed many others.

The places which feature in crime novels are not however evenly spread. Demko has mapped the locations of crime novels, published in English, from 1750-1990. I'll only detail one of the maps here because I'll probably discuss some of the others at later dates. The map below is for Europe. London and Paris fair particularly well, both the setting for over 500 novels. Next are Berlin and Rome with between 76-150 stories. Then a small grouping of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Prague, Venice and Amsterdam with between 31-75 novels. Clearly French novels had relatively high translation rates into English, but also I suspect that Paris, Rome and Berlin were favoured locales of English authors who wanted to set their mystery abroad. The map also highlights the recent phenomenon of translated, Scandinavian crime fiction which seemed to be pretty much non-existent prior to 1990. In fact, it might be an interesting exercise to update the map, adding in the last 20 years of data or to time slice it to see what places were popular at different periods.

This post is an updated version of my first ever entry on NUIM Geography blog a few weeks ago.