Monday, October 31, 2011

Kinky philosophy

Kinky Friedman, that is. I read 'Greenwich Killing Time' over the weekend, the first in the detective series that stars Kinky Friedman as the private investigator. I enjoyed the book, especially his observations and humour. Here are a few quotes from the book.

"There are no good lawyers. There maybe lady wrestlers and Catholic universities. There maybe military intelligence. But a good lawyer is a contradiction in terms. When you needed one, you needed one, however, and I needed one."

"Some people wake to the sound of church bells. Some people wake to the sound of birds. But in New York City you wake to the sound of garbage trucks. Place is still filthy, of course. Can't have everything."

"Rain was a lot like vomiting. One of the few great equalisers in life. It soaked society dames and bag ladies. People and pigeons. Cops and robbers."

"Of course, most people didn't know what they were missing. And they sure didn't know what they weren't missing. Nor did they know that there was any difference between the two."

"Rather grudinglythe guy called the city editor, and before you could have cooked a two minute egg, the waves were parting, the wheels were turning, the metaphors were mixing, and the two of us were shaking hands with Virgil and following him down into the circles of Hell."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I see that Google are starting to rein in their free API service for Google Maps. Developers using the API will start paying for the service after 25,000 map loads per day ($4 per 1000 views). We use the API on one of our projects, so this is something I'll be keeping an eye on. It's not going to affect usage in the short term for the users of sites that employ Google Maps mash-ups, though it will start to affect high volume providers of such mash-ups. Clearly, the strategy here has been to get people hooked and then introduce charging. It'll be interesting to see if the map load limit is gradually reduced over time and if Google roll out the charging model to its other services. It wouldn't surprise me if that were the case.

My posts this week:
Six to choose from ...
Review of The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson
Activity status of unfinished estates 2011
Intense, urgent and a little explosive
Review of The Bloody Meadow by William Ryan
You'd Better Sit Down

Saturday, October 29, 2011

You'd better sit down

'I think you'd better sit down,' Mary said.

Kenny dropped into an armchair. 'I take it this is bad news.'

'It depends on how you look at it.'

'Bad then. Go on.'

'I'm pregnant.'

'You're ... how the hell did that happen?'

'How do you think?'

'But you're forty five!'

'And still fertile. And so are you. Two bottles of wine and no protection and ...'


'Is that all you've got to say? Jesus?'

'What do you want me to say?'

'I don't know? That you're over the moon. That it'll be okay.'

'I ... a baby ... Jesus.'

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review of The Bloody Meadow by William Ryan (Mantle, 2011)

Militia captain Alexei Korolev is still living with the ghosts of his last major case when Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD security service asks him to investigate the supposed suicide of a young woman, Maria Lenskaya. He has little choice in the matter since the directive has come the Commissar for State Security, with whom she was having an affair. With good reason, Korolev fears political cases; this is after all the period of Stalin's great purges, and a wrong step by Korolev will have knock on consequences for his family and colleagues. Moreover, the young woman died on the film set of The Bloody Meadow that is being shot at an agricultural college near to Odessa on the Black Sea. A thousand kilometres outside of Korolov's usual patch of operations, and in the heart of Ukrainian resentment at the ravages of collectivisation, his presence as investigating officer is hardly welcome. Quickly establishing that Lenskaya was, in fact, murdered he starts to try and determine who killed her. The case though is not straightforward and seems to hint at a conspiracy against the state.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ryan debut novel, The Holy Thief, so I had high expectations for The Bloody Meadow. It's a good read, but doesn't quite match the quality of the first book in the series. The Holy Thief had a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere, with a very tight plot. The Bloody Meadow is more expansive, felt a little looser in the plotting, and Korolov as a character is little developed in terms of backstory and personal life. And because there is a lot going on and there is a big cast, the development of characters in general is a little bit too much surface and not enough depth. There are also some unlikely coincidences, which enable a couple of characters from the first book to appear in the second. That all said, the book does have historical richness and The Bloody Meadow is an enjoyable read, and if I hadn't read the first book I'm sure this review would read more positively than it might seem. To be clear then, I am still recommending it as worthy of a look and my sense is that this is a series with a lot of potential. Personally, I hope the third book is set back in Moscow, allowing a further engagement with the militia and pathology characters from the first book. Regardless of setting, I plan to read it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Intense, urgent and a little explosive ...

The Irish Times today has a piece penned by Declan Burke entitled 'Flash fiction: Intense, urgent and a little explosive'. He very kindly included one of my drabbles - Blood Pumping Quick - as well as a piece by Nuala Ni Chonchuir. I am, of course, delighted with this! For anyone interested in penning a piece of flash fiction, The Irish Times has issued a challenge seeking flash fiction stories of no more than 500 words. They'll publish the best of them. There are no parameters re. genre or focus. There's no set date but stories should be submitted to At only 500 words, you've nothing to lose by giving it a go.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review of The Savage Altar by Asa Larsson (Penguin, 2005)

In Kiruna, a small town in northern Sweden, a young man is stabbed to death in a church. He'd previously died years before, but had been revived. His story received global coverage through his book and preaching and led to the three main churches in the town coming together to form a much larger entity. The victim's sister, Sanna, discovers the body and very quickly becomes the main suspect for his brutal murder. Desperate, she calls her former friend Rebecka Martinsson, who left the town and the church in disgrace years previously and is now a tax lawyer in Stockholm. Reluctantly, Martinsson returns and working with and against the local police tries to piece together what happened, at the same time discovering what had occurred in the town in her absence. What she finds is a conspiracy of silence and threats. And the nearer she edges towards the truth, the more danger she finds herself in.

The Savage Altar is the first novel by Asa Larsson and won Sweden's best first crime novel award. The book has a police procedural feel to, and it does have that side to it, but it primarily focuses on Martinsson's efforts without ever really straying into legal thriller territory. Rebecka Martinsson is a feisty character, and is easy to identify with. Indeed, the characterisation throughout the book is strong, with a good range of supporting cast and I felt the pregnant cop had a lot of potential to front her own series. The story also has a good sense of place, transporting the reader to the frozen landscape of northern Sweden. One feature of the storytelling I particularly liked was the change in perspective between characters, which could alter mid-scene as one character left. The story itself was relatively straightforward. The plot was nicely constructed, though it has no real twists (which was fine by me), andits tension points were a little flat because they were well telegraphed. Overall, a solid start to a series, which I intend to follow based on this outing.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Six to choose from ...

The shortlists for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards 2011 have been announced. The shortlist for the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award is:

A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black
Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke

The Reckoning by Jane Casey
Bloodland by Alan Glynn
Taboo by Casey Hill

The Bloody Meadow by William Ryan

You can vote for your favourite book by clicking on the image above. I've only read Absolute Zero Cool and Bloodland, so far. I've made a start on The Bloody Meadow. I'm a little surprised that Gene Kerrigan's The Rage didn't make the shortlist, but as Declan Burke notes over on Crime Always Pays, 2011 was a bumper year of quality Irish crime fiction.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Just started to read Anglo Republic: Inside the Bank that Broke Ireland by Simon Carswell. Not far into it and it's a sobering, depressing, interesting read. Just about everything about the bank should have been setting off alarm bells, instead it was feted and copied as the other banks tried to compete. The blame for Ireland's crisis is often placed squarely at the door of the banks and Anglo in particular. However, Ireland's political economic model and its regulatory regime gave free license for the banks to pursue dubious business models. It'll be interesting to see if Carswell manages to site and explain Anglo in this wider context.

My posts this week:
Review of Nazi on the Run by Gerald Steinacher
The El up Ninth Avenue
Some of the dark stuff
Two gritty takes on justice
Review of Garnethill by Denise Mina
Unfinished estates 2010-2011 change
I know you're not the answer

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I know you’re not the answer

I know you’re not the answer,
I know you’re not the answer,
Black and blue, forty different hues,
Oh love, oh god, oh ...

Black nights, grey mornings,
Walking into doors and falling,
Clutching, weeping, tight false smiles,
Life is more than little white lies.

That’s the hope at least,
As I know you’re not the answer.
How can you be the answer?
Oh love, oh god, oh ...

Heaven help the fool,
Who looks in the mirror,
And self-deludes,
Who frets and forgets and fails to regret.


I know you’re not the answer.
I’ll never have an answer.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review of Garnethill by Denise Mina (Bantam, 1998)

Maureen O’Donnell is a survivor of abuse by her father and a psychiatric hospital. She now works in a theatre ticket booth, is mistress to Douglas, a therapist, and is in perpetual conflict with her alcoholic mother and her doubting sisters. After a drunken night out she wakes to discover Douglas tied to a chair, his throat cut. The police, her family, Douglas’ family and the media all have Maureen pegged as his killer. Sensing that the only way the truth will be discovered is through her own investigation, she turns to her few friends who believe in her and starts to nose around. She soon discovers a scandal, a conspiracy of silence, and a whole heap of trouble.

I had mixed feelings about Garnethill. Mina is clearly a skilled writer and the story is well plotted, with some nice twists and tension points, and is particularly strong on characterization. It also has a nice sense of place and contextualisation with respect to incest, abuse, family feuds, friendship and mental health issues. The full complexity of Maureen as a character shines through. My problem was with Maureen, however. If there is a difficult path, she seems to take it. The story is set up so that you’re meant to feel sympathy and empathy for her in opposition to the characters that oppose her, in particular her mother and Joe McEwan, the policeman in charge of the investigation into Douglas’ death. My problem was that I often identified with McEwan more than Maureen, especially as the book progressed. In her obsession to exact a retributive justice, she actively misleads the police and brings people into real danger and harm, including herself. And the end is quite callous in many ways as she rejects someone she’s being trying to protect. It might be realistic in many ways, but I found it a little frustrating and tiring. Overall then, a book that has a lot of pluses, but which didn’t resonate with me personally as much as I hoped it might.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Two gritty takes on justice

Patti Abbott and Paul Brazill, two very fine crime short story writers, have published collections recently.

Patti's collection of 23 stories is Monkey Justice and is published by Snubnose Press. It's been praised thus:

"Patricia Abbott proves that there are many shades of noir as she expertly layers her stories with melancholy, loss and the frailness of the human psyche" – Dave Zeltserman

“In this collection of short contemporary noir fiction, Patti Abbott distinguishes herself as an extraordinary storyteller of the dark recesses of the human heart. Abbott’s characters hit hard, fight dirty, and seek a brand of hardscrabble justice that will leave you both wincing and wishing for more.” – Sophie Littlefield

Paul's nine story collection is Brit Grit and is published by Trestle Press. Reviews run thus:

Brit Grit gives you a meaty, informative introduction to the genre followed by nine terrific fast-paced stories populated for the most part by stoned, drunken, thieving losers. The absurdities of everyday life are meat and drink to PDB, and his observations and characters are in turn sad, poignant, greedy, wicked, ridiculous and funny - Julie Lewthwaite

'Brazill's knack for mining life's absurd moments ... is on full display here, as is his razor sharp dialogue' - Death by Killing

Paul Brazill's writing is a wonderful mix of gritty urban noir stylings, superb dialogue and wonderful one-liners' - Gone Bad

Both have nothing but five star reviews on Amazon UK and US. If you like the short story form, worth checking out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some of the dark stuff ...

Two books to keep an eye out for if you're a noir aficionado, both released this month. Gerard Brennan's The Point and Nigel Bird's Smoke. Gerard writes the blog Crime Scene Northern Ireland and Nigel blogs at Sea Minor. Expect dark, dark reads. Here are the blurbs:

The Point
Small time crook Paul Morgan is a bad influence on his brother, Brian. When Paul crosses one thug too many, the cider-fuelled duo flee Belfast for Warrenpoint, the sleepy seaside resort of their childhood memories. For Brian, a new life in the Point means going straight and falling in love with Rachel, while Paul graduates to carjacking by unusual means and ‘borrowing’ firearms from his new boss. Brian can’t help being dragged into his brother’s bungling schemes but Rachel can be violently persuasive herself . . . and she isn’t the only one who wants to see an end to Paul’s criminal career.

People from Tranent aren’t called ‘the Belters’ for nothing. It didn’t take Carlo Salvino long to find that out the first time around and, now he’s out of the hospital, he’s all set for revenge. The Ramsay brothers, on the other hand, are keen to rise up in the world and get the hell out of town. They gather all their hopes in the one basket, ‘The Scottish Open’ dog-fighting tournament. In Leo they have the dog to win it, now all they need is a fair wind. The Hooks, well they’re just a maladjusted family caught up in the middle of it all. A tale of justice, injustice and misunderstanding.

As the last line of Nigel's blurb on Amazon says: Belts on and hold on to those hats.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The El up 9th Avenue

The challenge set by Patti, over at Pattinase, was to write a short story, no more than a 1,000 words long, inspired by the art of Reginald Marsh.

The picture my story relates to is "Why not use the L" (1930) which is held in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

All the other stories are listed over on Patti's site, with some great contributors. Check them out.

Marian folded over The New York Post and peeked round the corner, swaying with the rhythm of the railcar. ‘How you doing, sugar?’

‘What?’ Elsie turned her head, her eyes blinking behind round glasses like a mole trying to adapt to sunlight. She’d been staring out the grimy window opposite. Perched thirty feet up on a steel frame, as the train passed the side streets she could catch glimpses of the dark waters of the Hudson River speckled with reflecting, fractured lights, and the flat expanse of New Jersey.

‘Are you doing okay, petal?’

Elsie nodded her head shyly, trying to block out the acrid, cloying smell of the bum next to her. Or perhaps he worked a manual job; something that built up a heat. Maybe he laboured at the docks or one of the waterfront factories. Regardless, his thick woollen coat was stained with oil and god knows what and reeked of wet dog and cheap liquor.

‘You want to take in a movie?’ Marian asked. ‘There’s a Gary Cooper talkie at Loew’s. Morocco. A romance about a legionnaire and a cabaret singer who meet in the desert. The canary’s that blond kraut with the bedroom eyes.’ Marian tapped the advert in the paper with a manicured nail. ‘Marlene Dietrich.’

‘I ... I’m not so taken with Gary Cooper,’ Elsie admitted.

The bum snorted a laugh without opening his eyes. ‘Honey, all you white broads love Gary Cooper.’

Elsie looked at Marian, but her companion’s amused smile offered little support.

‘Well ... well, I don’t.’ She preferred Clark Gable. He seemed more ... dashing.

‘Maybe you need to get those glasses checked, lady?’

‘And maybe you’d better mind your own business.’ She couldn’t quite believe she’d said it. Six months previously, when they’d first moved to the city seeking work and a little adventure, she wouldn’t have said boo to a goose. Marian had instantly slid into the bustle, noise, dirt and language of the city. Elsie still felt like she was living in an alien world.

The bum opened one eye, stared at her for a second, then closed it again.

‘Forget the movie palace, sisters,’ he mumbled. ‘The only place to be is Connie’s up on Seventh and 131st.’

The train pulled to a halt, passengers stepping out onto the platform.

Marian took a seat opposite Elsie. ‘That’s up in Harlem,’ she said.

‘Uh-huh.’ His eyes were still closed, his oversized cap pulled down low.

The train set off again, rocking and clunking to a rising beat.

‘Connie’s is a theater?’

‘Jazz club, honey. Satchmo hisself will be playing there tonight.’




‘Where you been at, Sister? Louie Armstrong. The top cat. Everyone knows Pops.’

‘It’s a ... black club?’

‘Only on the stage. White only out front. You’d fit right in, like snowflakes at the North Pole.’

‘So how do you know about it, if it’s a white’s only joint?’

‘I’s the best axe man from here to Chicago, kitten. Play there off and on.’

‘You’re in a band?’

‘Well ... I’ve played with them all. Fats, Duke, Ella, Cab, Dizzy. I set their rhythm rocking.’

The women stared across at one another, trying to decide if the bum was telling the truth.

‘I’s just ... I’s just between bands right now,’ he continued. ‘But I’ll be playing with Pops tonight. Pops always done right by Paws Jackson.’


He held up his massive hands, their palms pale, the fingertips calloused. He cracked open an eye to watch their reaction.

Marian’s eyes widened. She’d never seen fingers so thick and long. They were like something you’d see in a comic. Like giant octopi.

‘I could help get you muffins in, if you wanted. I know the doorman pretty good. He lets me store my fresh togs there, so I can make a bee-line straight from the front line.’

‘I ... I don’t ... I don’t think so,’ Elsie said, unable to believe that the ruffled man next to them was anything more than a bum or labourer; that they were even talking to him.

‘We’d need to get changed; if we’re going on the hop,’ Marian said.


‘You ladies look just fine. Workin’ girls are always welcome at Connie’s.’

‘We ain’t no working girls, Mister,’ Elsie said.

‘Sure you ain’t. I never said you were.’ Paws pulled a sly grin, closing his eyes again.

The train started to slow to a halt. Elsie rose to her feet and shuffled to the door, unable to hide her relief. ‘This is our stop, Marian.’

‘How about we head up to Harlem,’ her friend replied, not moving, ‘listen to some jazz?’

‘I don’t ... I don’t know.’ The Gary Cooper movie now sounded swell. They could watch the feature, grab a coffee and a bite to eat in Sammy’s before heading back to their cramped apartment.

‘You need to live a little, Sister,’ Paws said. ‘Let your hair down. Nobody going to put the drop on you less you want them to.’

‘I ...’

The train lurched, pulling out of the station, gaining speed.

Paws cracked open one eye and laughed. He could already feel the bass pounding, Pops’ trumpet blasting over the top, hitting sugary high notes.

There’d be some sweet music tonight.

Some info on Connie's Inn, Harlem (1923-33) can be found here.

A useful site for 1930s American slang can be found here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review of Nazis on the Run: How Hitler’s Henchmen Fled Justice by Gerald Steinacher (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Nazis on the Run details through detailed archival research the escape routes and hiding places of Nazis and their collaborators, many of whom were wanted war criminals, in the aftermath of World War Two. In particular it concentrates on documenting the ‘ratlines’ through Austria, South Tyrol and Italy on to South America and the Middle East. South Tyrol proved to be an ideal place in which to lay low before being shepherded onwards because it had a large number of ethnic Germans who were technically living in Italy and were effectively stateless at the war’s end; it was on the north/south route for people who had been scattered by the war and thus used to the mass movement of out-of-place or stateless people; and it was in easy orbit of church organisations, notably the Vatican. Steinacher details five main groups that aided Nazis and collaborators along the ratlines – Nazis themselves and the South Tyrol Ethnic German community; The Red Cross and other aid organisations; religious orders including the Vatican; the US intelligence Services; and South American consuls and representatives, notably Argentina. Often working in tandem, these groups ensured those fleeing had shelter, work, finance, and suitable paperwork to evade justice. Over time the ratlines evolved into quite sophisticated networks and were fairly robust.

Steinacher creates a convincing weight of evidence from documentary sources to back-up his story, however, the story itself leaves a lot to be desired. The book is marketed as a popular history tome, but it is academic in its presentation and writing style. The result is rather dry and stogy. Even then, the analysis is rather descriptive in nature, detailing lots of information and anecdotal stories, but really fails to shift to explanation or a wider discussion of what the analysis means for how we interpret what happened. The conclusion starts to do this, but is relatively short and underdeveloped. More problematically, the book could have done with a really good edit to sort out issues of repetition and poor structuring. Given the high standards of OUP, I was quite surprised that this basic editorial work had not been undertaken. The level of repetition in particular is very noticeable. With a decent edit, about a twenty percent reduction in length, and the addition of some explanation, this would have been a first class book. As it is, whilst the research work seems sound, it just about passes muster.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm back to buying books faster than I can read them. I bought two books this week and ordered two more (right). The plan is to read them all, but having worked the pile down a bit in the last few weeks there's still at least fifteen week's worth of reading backed up and that seems set to grow. What I need is a buying moratorium. I'm still working my way through new to me authors. At the minute I'm half way through Denise Mina's Garnethill.

My posts this week
Review of The Holy Thief by William Ryan
The bloody meadow
Call for crime fiction short stories
Unfinished housing estates 2011 update
Review of Open Season by CJ Box
Can't live without shoes

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can't live without shoes

‘What are they?’ He points at the bags.



‘They were on special offer. Thirty percent off.’

‘But you bought three pairs.’

‘They were a bargain.’ She turns away.

‘You have a closet full of feckin’ shoes, Gemma,’ he says, trailing after her. ‘You don’t need any more shoes!’

‘I like shoes!’

‘You’ll have to return them. Have you any idea how much trouble we’re in? The three credit cards are maxed out and you’re buying shoes!’

‘They were a bargain!’

‘They’re just more debt!’

‘I like shoes.’

He leaves. It’s that or he’ll stab her with a stiletto.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review of Open Season by CJ Box (2001, Corvus)

Joe Pickett is a relatively green game warden in Saddlestring in the Twelve Sleep Range, Wyoming. With two young girls and another baby on the way he’s struggling to make ends meet given his meager salary. After he’s disarmed by an outfitter and he lets the incident ride, his unpopular status is added to as a figure of fun. That is only the start of his problems. When his seven year old daughter, Sheridan, claims to have seen a monster in the back yard, Pickett is skeptical. The monster however is the same outfitter that disarmed him. Only he’s now dead. At the camp he’s just ridden from, Pickett, another warden and a deputy find two other hunters shot dead, seemingly killed by another hunter. The case is quickly closed, but Pickett is not satisfied. When he continues to investigate, his life starts to get a whole lot worse.

It took me a little while to get into Open Season. Box writes in short, often flat sentences, and the beginning is spent largely developing the characters and family relations. Gradually the story opens up and the prose becomes a bit more expressive. The strength of Open Season is the sense of place, contextualisation and the plotting. Box does a good job of placing the reader in the mountain and small town landscape of Wyoming, and in framing the work of game wardens and the social politics concerning their work. The plot develops nicely, the tension slowly ratcheting up. It’s clear from quite a long way out that what is going on and who the bad guys are, and that Pickett will ultimately win out, but it matters little; the reader is still kept on the edge of their seat. The characterization is well done, especially with regards to Pickett’s family. Overall, Open Season puts in place a very solid foundation for the rest of the series.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Call for crime fiction short stories

Trestle Press are seeking submissions for a new anthology series of hardboiled/noir stories. Here's the framing:

"Murder around the world. Is a body lying on the floor with a knife jutting rudely out of the victim's chest the same kind of murder in Calcutta, India as it would be, say . . . . in Oslo, Norway? Are the motives of a villain in Yokohama, Japan the same as might be found in Stuttgart, Germany? The art of the mystery/detective story found around the world; a treasure chest of delicious whodunits."

The call is open to novices as well as established authors. Closing date for the first round of submissions is Nov. 12, 2011. The next round cutoff is Dec 1, 2011. First come first served. Email stories to

Also a reminder: Patti, over at Pattinase, is hosting a flash fiction challenge. The task is to write a short story of less than 1,000 words inspired by the art of Reginald Marsh. Stories to be posted up by October 18th and the link sent to Patti so she can collate them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Bloody Meadow

Having thoroughly enjoyed William Ryan's The Holy Thief, I popped into a bookstore today and bought his new novel, The Bloody Meadow. The blurb runs thus:

Following his investigations in The Holy Thief, which implicated those at the very top of authority in Soviet Russia, Captain Alexei Korolev finds himself decorated and hailed as an example to all Soviet workers. But Korolev lives in an uneasy peace – his new-found knowledge is dangerous, and if it is discovered what his real actions were during the case, he will face deportation to the frozen camps of the far north.

But when the knock on the door comes, in the dead of night, it is not Siberia Korolev is destined for. Instead, Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD security service asks the detective to look into the suspected suicide of a young woman: Maria Alexandovna Lenskaya, a model citizen. Korolev is unnerved to learn that Lenskaya had been of interest to Ezhov, the feared Commissar for State Security. Ezhov himself wants to matter looked into.

And when the detective arrives on the set for Bloody Meadow, in the bleak, battle-scarred Ukraine, he soon discovers that there is more to Lenskaya's death than meets the eye.

If the book is of the same quality as the The Holy Thief, then I think Ryan will be onto a winning series. A kind of Bernie Gunther series set in Russia during roughly the same period.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Holy Thief by William Ryan (Mantle, 2010)

Moscow in 1936 and a young woman is found tortured to death in a former Church. Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia is asked to investigate the case. Korolev, a veteran of both the Eastern Front in the Great War and the revolutionary civil war, is known as being a wily, skillful cop. And he needs to be: Moscow at the start of the great purge is a dangerous place, where a casual joke about the regime is sufficient for a ticket to the camps, and fear propels people to denounce each other in order protect themselves. Very quickly the NKVD become interested in the case and Korolev is compelled to keep them informed of progress. A second victim, a senior criminal figure, is then found similarly tortured. It’s apparent to Korolev that the case involves high level officials and that makes it just as dangerous to him as it is to those he’s pursuing.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Holy Thief, which is a very assured debut novel. It skillfully weaves together a police procedural with the understated elements of a spy thriller a la Le Carre. The characterization is well developed and Korolev is sympathetically portrayed with an interesting back story and enough depth to sustain a series. Where the book excels is in the contextual framing of politics and social relations of Stalin’s Russia – the cliques and factions, the collectivization, the role of the state, the division of power and resources, the social conditions and the everyday drudge of making ends meet – and in the strong sense of place and claustrophobic atmosphere. The plot is carefully constructed and well paced, with sufficient twists and turns and tension points. Once I’ve got hold of the second book in the series, The Bloody Meadow, it’ll move to the top of my reading pile.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I've made a start this weekend on Gerald Steinacher's Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice. The book is an interesting analysis of the various ways in which Nazis, along with hundreds of thousands of stateless citizens and refugees, survived in post-war Europe and gained passage to other parts of the world. The book is marketed as a popular history tome, but is much more academic in its presentation and writing style. The big plus is it is full of information, the negative is that it could have done with a good edit to sort out repetition and poor structuring, and it is largely descriptive, failing to shift to explanation. More in the review once I've finished reading it.

My posts this week
In loving memory
September reviews
Review of Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
NAMA and debt forgiveness
Review of Death Toll by Jim Kelly
The Song of the Sea

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Song of the Sea

It had been five days since the yacht had capsized. Five days in an orange bubble being tossed around on boiling waves, tumbling and spinning in a drunken dance. Five days listening to the song of the sea. The pitter-patter of spray and the thwack of waves against nylon and rubber, the crash of mountains of water greeting each other or tumbling in on themselves, the howl of the wind whipping and spinning in the troughs, his own groans and the dry heaves of sea sickness. And every now and then a haunting lullaby calling to him from the deep.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Review of Death Toll by Jim Kelly (Penguin, 2011)

Due to flooding the graves of a King Lynn cemetery are being exhumed and moved. What the diggers did not expect to find was the bones of a black man lying on top of a coffin buried nearly thirty years before. Forensic evidence suggests that he was thrown in the grave the night Nora Tilden was buried, killed by a blow to the back of the head. DI Peter Shaw and DS George Valentine are assigned to the case, which they know will difficult to solve given the intervening years. What they are hoping is that by asking awkward questions they might dislodge the truth. What they discover is a family with secrets that want to keep them hidden. At the same time they are trying to solve another cold case – one that involves Shaw’s father and Valentine. Thirteen years previously DCI Shaw and Valentine were demoted for supposedly planting evidence. Shaw is determined to clear his father’s name and to put the guilty party behind bars, even if it means potentially jeopardizing his own career.

Death Toll is a solid police procedural. Kelly skillfully weaves the two cases around and through each other as Shaw and Valentine struggle to keep on top of both cases. The plotting is carefully constructed and paced. The characterization is nicely realized, and although I didn’t really take to either Shaw or Valentine that didn’t seem to matter. There is a very strong sense of place, Kelly dropping the reader into the landscape of Kings Lynn and the Norfolk coast. The prose is quite workmanlike, but has flourishes of nice, colourful imagery. My main critique is that sometimes the storytelling is over-elaborated, with passages that added little to the story, and the text would, I feel, have benefitted from some trimming to increase the pace and tension. Overall, a well constructed police procedural.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review of Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail, 2011)

Sid and Chip have grown up together on the wrong side of the tracks in Baltimore, discovering the world of jazz at a young age. 1939 finds the two black Americans in Berlin, playing illegally in bars and dives, their six piece band including Paul, a Jew, and Hiero, a mischling (a half black German). They know they should leave, but they’re unwilling to abandon their paperless band mates. Then Delilah arrives to entice them to Paris to cut a record with Louie Armstrong. Sid falls head over heels for the seductive singer, but she only seems to have eyes for Hiero, a virtuoso trumpet player that some think is as good as Armstrong. After a fatal scuffle with some 'boots' (the Nazi authorities), they know it’s time to head to the border. Then Paul is snatched from the street by the Gestapo and another band mate quits, setting in train their flight. They arrive in Paris the day after war is declared and settle into the phoney war. What they need is another set of papers to get Hiero out of France ahead of the Germans arriving, but then he is seemingly betrayed, ending up in a concentration camp. Fifty years later, a festival recognizing Hiero’s genius has been organized and Sid and Chip are the special guests.

I was hooked on Half Blood Blues from the first paragraph. The book has all the ingredients I like in a novel - a strong story, well penned characters, a good sense of place and atmosphere, lovely prose, and a sensitive embedding in historical context. This is a book that is very much about Sid and his relationship with his friends; the war setting provides a backdrop and the situation of black people in Berlin and Paris forms an important context, but it frames the story rather than being the story (some reviews of the book do, in my view, unfairly critique the story on these grounds, suggesting that those interested in finding out more about black people in Germany look at other non-fiction books). The characterization and the social relations between the principals - the love, jealousy and tension - is the standout quality of the book. At the heart of the story are the themes of friendship, betrayal, guilt and forgiveness and these are skillfully woven through each other, providing the threads that tie the two time periods together. The prose is rich and colourful, and a real joy to read. One of my books of the year so far.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

September reviews

My September book of the month was White Sky, Black Ice, the first in the series featuring Nathan Active. I need to get round to ordering the second in the series. Out of the eight books I read during the month, six were police procedurals. And yet they were all quite different in terms of their style, place and characters, and their social and political framing. Nice to get such a mix.

White Sky, Black Ice by Nathan Jones ****.5
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths ****
The Quarry by Johan Theorin ***.5
The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle ***.5
Frozen Out by Quentin Bates **.5
Bloodland by Alan Glynn ****
The City, The City by China Mieville ***.5
Every Shallow Cut by Tom Piccirilli ***

Monday, October 3, 2011

In loving memory ...

I don't usually post on personal, family stuff, but I'm Birmingham again today at the funeral for my nan. I travelled over last weekend to see her and she died the day after I returned to Ireland. She was 92 (just shy of 93) and married for 72 years. It's going to take a while for it to sink in that she's gone. She requested that Just A Closer Walk With Thee by Patsy Cline be played at the service. Here's a live version of the song.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

Halfway through Death Toll by Jim Kelly. Enjoying it, although it is a little longwinded in places and could have been tightened up to useful effect. There's no doubt though that he employs some lovely descriptive imagery throughout. Here are two samples from the same page.

'His eyes were green too, bright and youthful, but his skin had all the surface tension of a week-old party balloon.'

'The smile on the barman's face fell like a calving iceberg.'

My posts this week:
White lips / Pale face /Breathing in snow flakes
Review of The City, The City by China Mieville
Reginald Marsh art, flash fiction challenge
Review of Every Shallow Cut by Tom Piccirilli
Half blood blues ...
This isn't a game

Saturday, October 1, 2011

This isn’t a game

‘Slow down.’

Gavin ignores the request. It’s like he’s playing on his XBox, his gaze fixed twenty metres ahead, the car an extension of himself.

They hurtle round a corner on a perfect line, the g-force tilting them in their seats.

‘Gavin!’ This isn’t a game to Chloe, it’s a rollercoaster ride and she’s scared.

‘Relax. I know this road like the back of my hand.’

They crest a hill, the wheels leaving the slick road.

An over-sized truck fills the windscreen.

Chloe screams, Gavin instinctively turns hard left, hitting the brakes.

The car smacks into a wall and cartwheels.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.