Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review of Black Rock by John McFetridge (ECW, 2014)

Montreal, 1970, and the city is on the frontline of bombs and hoaxes by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a somewhat anarchic terrorist group.  Constable Eddie Dougherty is the son of a French mother and an Irish-Canadian father, and has only been a cop for a couple of years.  Somewhat out of place amongst his French speaking colleagues, Dougherty works as a patrolman out of Station Ten, responding to bomb alerts and trying to keep the peace.  Also at work in the city is the ‘vampire killer’, who has murdered three women.  When a fourth woman disappears in Dougherty’s old neighbourhood he is drawn into the periphery of the investigation.  As more and more cops are pulled into the task force to deal with the FLQ, the murder investigation stalls and Dougherty steps in to fill the gap determined to try and bring the perpetrator to justice. 

There’s much to like about Black Rock, a historical police procedural set in Montreal in 1970 -- attention to historical detail, the sense of place, the intersecting story lines, and the characterisation.  McFetridge bases the story around two real cases -- the ‘vampire killer’, a serial killer operating in the city, and the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a separatist terrorist movement that left hundreds of bombs across the city before moving on to kidnapping two high profile officials -- placing his central character, rookie cop, Eddie Dougherty, on the periphery of both cases.  Dougherty is still trying to work out his place in the city, and on the force, both of which are increasingly dominated by Francophones.  He’s a regular cop, competent but not exceptional, but since he knows the family of the fourth 'vampire' victim he becomes determined to try and help solve the murders when the investigation is put on the back burner to concentrate on capturing the key members of the FLQ.  His problem is he only has one clue to go on, the sighting of a white car with a black top that was seen near to where the latest victim was discovered.  It’s a slim lead and he’s not really sure how to pursue it.  By focusing on Dougherty and his stuttering, hesitant investigation and not one of the lead investigators of either the murders or FLQ actions, McFetridge stifles the potential tension somewhat, the story simmering along without ever really boiling over, but that’s actually one of the reasons I liked the tale so much.  The story focuses on the everyday, mundane policing in exceptional circumstances; on trying to grind out a result with limited resources and experience.  Moreover, McFetridge does a great job of placing the reader in Montreal in 1970.   The result, is a slice of social realism that I imagine would translate into a great television series.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review of Pest Control by Bill Fitzhugh (1996, Poisoned Pen Press [2012])

Bob Dillon has always been fascinated by bugs.  His all-consuming bug-bear is that mankind’s obsession with killing them using chemicals is making them more and more robust and is poisoning the planet.  He’s working on a chemical-free solution, however; cross-breeding assassin bugs to create hybrids that prey on pests such as cockroaches.  He’s hoping this method will result in his dream of owning his own company truck topped with a fibreglass bug.  Unfortunately, Bob is down on his luck.  He’s just quit his job with a traditional exterminator, his wife has also lost her job and is working as a waitress, and they owe money on their rent and utilities.  To try and convince him of the seriousness of their situation his wife decamps to her mother, taking their daughter, giving him an ultimatum to make his plan work or find another job.  Determined to try and make a success of his new technique, Bob answers an advertisement seeking an exterminator.  Only the advert is really seeking a hitman capable of murdering the head of a Bolivian drug cartel.  When the hit is duly executed, Bob unwittingly becomes a contract killer of international renown and the target of revenge.  What he’d like to be doing is testing his hybrid assassin bugs; instead he’s running for his life pursued by a coterie of the world’s best assassin’s looking to collect the bounty on his head.  It doesn’t look good for the all-natural bug exterminator, but Bob has three things in his favour: the world number-one hitman needs to salve his conscience; the milieu of New York can be a deadly place for those unfamiliar with its terrain; and he’s the owner of some very lethal bugs.

Pest Control is a screwball noir caper set in New York that plays off a confusion of two forms of extermination -- the killing of insect infestations and contract killing by hitman -- with Bob Dillon, the hapless hero of the story working as the former but being confused with the latter.  The setup is very nicely done and Fitzhugh keeps up the lightly comic riff to the final page.  What I liked so much about the story is its warm, upbeat slant despite all the mayhem and madness taking place.  Bob Dillon and his family are a genuinely likeable bunch and the baddies are cartoonish and fun.  Fitzhugh also peppers the text with nice entomological detail about the various bugs that appear.  The plot is nicely constructed and well paced, with a succession of confusions, setups, twists and turns that keep the pages turning.  Sure, it’s a little overly contrived in places, but that’s the nature of screwball noirs.  Overall, one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’ll definitely be tracking other Fitzhugh books down.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

An ARC of Stumped arrived in the post on Friday.  There's something really great about holding and flicking through an actual book.  It suddenly makes the whole publication process tangible.  280 Steps have done a great job with the production.  I'm really looking forward to it being published in November and being able to hand people a copy. 

My posts this week
Review of The Blood Dimmed Tide by Anthony Quinn
Dublin Dashboard media coverage
Review of The Late Greats by Nick Quantrill
She's got pretty persuasion

Saturday, September 27, 2014

She's got pretty persuasion

‘You did what?  Are you nuts?  She’s got you wrapped around her little finger.’

‘She needed my help.  He wouldn’t give her stuff back.’

‘That’s what the police are for, Danny!  Now they’re looking for you.  You could end up with a criminal record.’

‘Look, I was careful.  I went in through the back and wore gloves.  No-one saw me.’

‘As far as you know!  You need to wise up, Danny.  You’re never going to be friends with benefits.’


‘There’s no maybe about it.  You’re just another one of her dupes.’

‘Her favourite dupe.’

‘Soon to be serving time.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review of The Late Greats by Nick Quantrill (Caffeine Nights Publishing, 2012)

Joe Geraghty has been hired by Kane Major, manager of New Holland, the most successful band to come out of Hull in the 1990s who are reforming for a new tour, to keep an eye on them and police their interactions with journalists.  Don, the owner of the detective agency Geraghty works for, is not happy with the arrangement, given it is more of a security job than detection.  However, that soon changes as Greg Tasker, the troubled lead singer, disappears.  Geraghty joins forces with a tabloid journalist to try and locate Tasker and what seemed like an easy task takes a sinister turn.  Despite Don’s warnings to drop the job, and DI Robinson’s threats to stay away from a case the police are now investigating, Geraghty keeps his hand in, increasingly finding himself in hotter and hotter water.

Joe Geraghty’s PI beat is the dour streets of Hull on the East coast of England.  Despite attempts to gentrify parts of the inner city, it remains an earthy, struggling port town, with its fair share of poverty and crime.  Quantrill captures the sense of place and the ambivalent attitude of its residents to their city.  He populates the story with everyday kinds of figures, with even those who have managed to escape to supposedly better things -- managing/being in a rock band, becoming a national journalist -- still grounded by the town.  To add a little spice to the humdrum mix he has Geraghty babysit the reformation of New Holland, the biggest band to come out of the town in the 1990s, whose lead singer has disappeared, but even that quickly has the feel of being part of the everyday, relatively mundane tasks of a private investigator in a rough and ready town, with Geraghty plugging away at it like any other case.  And that’s a big part of why I liked the book, it was a thriller with a small ‘t’, set in the everyday, with Geraghty a fairly ordinary guy, with no special detection skills but blessed with bloody-minded tenacity and occasional irrational decision-making.  The plot moves a decent pace, and keeps the reader guessing until the denouement, though there were a couple of elements that were a bit lost on me.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining PI tale.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review of The Blood Dimmed Tide by Anthony Quinn (No Exit, 2014)

1918 and the trade in mysticism and séances is booming in London given the carnage in France and Flanders.  WB Yeats, Ireland’s most famous literary figure, is living in London with his young wife.  He’s haunted by both his long-term, failed romance with the actress and nationalist, Maude Gonne, and by the ghost of a young woman washed up on the shore in his home county of Sligo.  Yeats visits spiritualists, along with Charles Adams, an apprentice ghost hunter for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and disillusioned medic.  Determined to solve the death of Yeats’ ghost, Adams travels to Sligo by steamer, along with a disguised Maude Gonne, now a central figure in the nationalist movement, The Daughters of Erin, and Wolfe Marley a British agent.  There, below the imposing mountain of Ben Bulben, he is plunged into a society in turmoil -- Ireland is on the brink of revolution, republican and nationalist movements mobilising support, the Irish gentry, part of the British aristocracy, is anxious about the future, and the local police seem to have their own agenda.  Feeling distinctly out of place and unsure who to trust, Adams starts to investigate the death of Rosemary O’Grady.

Anthony Quinn has a very nice passage in The Blood Dimmed Tide that contrasts the Anglo-Saxon faith in science and reason and the Celts belief in the magical and mystical.  It’s the central tension developed in the story, but also an important distinction with regards to readership, I think.  Quinn is no doubt a fine writer and storyteller, as is evidenced by his first novel Disappeared, but I struggled my way into the first part of The Blood Dimmed Tide exclusively, I would hazard, based on my Anglo-Saxon scepticism with the supernatural and paranormal.  Any story involving WB Yeats, however, is inevitably going to have to be rooted in these concerns given his lifelong obsession with them -- he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890 and belonged to the ‘Ghost’s club’.  As the story unfolds, it shifts from being rooted in the supernatural to explore various tensions between mysticism and science, nationalism and unionism, law and criminality.  The result, for me at least, was a progressively more entertaining amateur sleuth story set at an interesting time in Ireland’s history, populated by a couple of its most famous figures (Yeats, Maude Gonne).  Overall, an out of the ordinary tale, that might at first appeal more to Celts, but won this Anglo-Saxon round.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Back in February I posted about Patti Abbott's forthcoming book Concrete Angel, which was due to be published by Exhibit A (an imprint of Angry Robot).  Since then Angry Robot have canned Exhibit A, pulling out of crime fiction publishing, leaving Patti and a string of other authors high and dry.  Thankfully, Patti's book has been picked up by Polis Books, who have just revealed the cover (right) and below is the cover blurb.  I'm looking forward to this one being published.

Eve Moran has always wanted “things” and has proven both inventive and tenacious in getting and keeping them. Eve lies, steals, cheats, swindles, and finally commits murder, paying little heed to the cost of her actions on those who love her. Her daughter, Christine, compelled by love, dependency, and circumstance, is caught up in her mother’s deceptions, unwilling to accept the viciousness that runs in her mother's blood. Eve’s powers of seduction are hard to resist for those who come in contact with her toxic allure. It’s only when Christine’s three-year old brother, Ryan begins to prove useful to her mother, and she sees a pattern repeating itself, that Christine finds the courage and means to bring an end to Eve’s tyranny.

My posts this week
Review of A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintrye
Dublin Dashboard
Before the school run

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Before the school run

‘What have I told you?  Don’t get in the car until I’ve told you it’s safe.’

‘Who’d want to kill you?’ Kayleigh said, leaving the car door open.

‘Your mother for a start.’  Harry extended a rod, directing the mirror under the sill.

‘If our car exploded, do you think it would make as big a mess as the Brighton bomb?’

‘It would make a mess of us.  And ...’ Harry paused, re-directed the mirror.

‘Back in the house, Kayleigh.’

He dropped to the tarmac and peered under the Cortina.


‘Go.  And ring 999.  Ask for the bomb squad.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dublin Dashboard

Today's a big day in my work life. We're launching the Dublin Dashboard, a project I've been working on for the past 10 months, and one of the first deliverables from my Programmable City project.  The Dashboard provides hundreds of easy to use, interactive graphs, maps and apps about all aspects of the city - economy, housing, transport, environment, health, public services, etc., including real-time information that's updated every few minutes.  It's going to be busy day between the launch and media work.  If you want to find out more, the short video (1.45 min) below gives a good overview.  And if you want a play on the site, head over to dublindashboard.ie.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2014)

For over twenty years Kim Philby operated as a Russian agent inside the British establishment, much of it working in MI6, including heading up Soviet counter-espionage.  The most famous of the Cambridge spies recruited in the early 1930s, he sent thousands of copies of secret documents to his spymasters and hundreds of Allied agents and provocateurs to their death or incarceration.  When asked to choose between family, friends, country and political ideology, he always chose politics.  A skilled liar and accomplished charmer Philby had a knack for establishing friendships and then exploiting them, relying on them to support his ‘good name’ when accusations eventually surfaced in 1951 as to his exploits.  Remarkably the strategy worked, with Philby not only remaining unprosecuted and free, but heavily defended by friends and colleagues and bought back into the intelligence fold, only defecting in 1963.  It is these duplicitous friendships that Ben Macintyre explores in A Spy Among Friends, notably his relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a high-flying MI6 agent, and James Angleton, who became the CIA head of counter-intelligence.  To a certain degree this does provide a new route into the story of Kim Philby and his exploits, though his charm and friendships are well known.  Moreover, the Philby story is one that has been told many times before; it is one that is highly contested with multiple versions of the truth and much disinformation circulating.  As a consequence, there is little in the book that has not previously been spun and reworked a few times over.  Indeed, most of the material is sourced from other accounts rather than archive sources.  What Macintyre offers then, is a slightly different take on an well-worn tale, but one that is told through an engaging narrative.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Some books can spend an age on my to-be-read pile before suddenly popping up to the top.  I've just made a start on Nick Quantrill's The Late Greats, the second Joe Geraghty novel.  I'm not sure how long it's been stuck on the pile, but far too long.  I'm not really sure why some of the books I acquire languish unread for so long.  They all start near the top of the pile and then somehow shuffle down.  And once they slip it's difficult to jump back up given the in-flow of new books.  I either need to work my way through the whole pile and try and stop a new one developing (some hope), or adopt an occassional re-shuffle policy (browse and re-order), or a deadline mandate (the book has to be read within two years of purchase, automatically being pushed to the top as the deadline nears).  I'm not sure any of these will work, but I should probably adopt one of them.  Suggestions welcome.

My posts this week

Review of Salty by Mark Haskell Smith
Review of Automate This by Christopher Steiner
Washed up on the tide

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Washed up on the tide

The tennis ball sailed over the top of the dune, quickly followed by a black and white collie. 

Maria crested the ridge, the full expanse of the bay coming into view.

Buster was at the surf’s edge, sniffing at a tiny pink body.

Maria gasped and hurried down the steep slope onto the beach.  ‘Buster!’

As she dashed across the wet sand she spotted another small body a few yards away.  Then another.  Then dozens more.

She slowed and approached the closest.  It was a child’s doll.  Relieved, she tipped it over with her foot, jumping when it muttered, ‘Mama.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner (Portfolio-Penguin, 2012)

In Automate This, journalist Christopher Steiner, discusses the ways in which algorithms are increasingly mediating and augmenting everyday life through their deployment in a variety of industries.  He makes a persuasive case, using a series of well told stories that focus on the activities of particular pioneers of creating and using algorithms.  The result is an engaging and informative read that largely celebrates the development and use of algorithms and their creators, and congratulates them for finding ways to make themselves incredibly rich whilst improving the lot of mankind through better health care, financial trading, music production, a multitude of apps, etc. 

That said, the book suffers from a couple of troubling flaws.  First, the narrative almost exclusively focuses on the development and use of algorithms in the United States, as if it’s the font of all global computing and algorithmic innovation.  And second, and more problematic, is the almost total absence of any critical analysis of algorithms, the logic and rational instrumentality underpinning their use, and their wider effects on social and economic systems.  Sure, the use of algorithms has its benefits, but there are also all kinds of risks and social, political and economic consequences to their use, including wide-scale economic restructuring and job losses.  Occasionally Steiner acknowledges some of these risks and effects, usually in a throwaway sentence, before quickly moving on, with the suggestion that the benefits out-weigh the risks and better algorithms will address most present shortcomings.  No serious attention is paid to forms of algorithmic governance or their uses in surveillance, social sorting, filtering and profiling, nor the inherent contradictions in rendering labour redundant and therefore unable to buy the goods and services algorithms create.  The result is an interesting and largely optimistic book that lacks analytic depth and critical reflection.  Nonetheless I have recommended it to several folk, with the warning to keep that caveat in mind.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Review of Salty by Mark Haskell Smith (2007, Black Cat)

Turk Henry, former bass player with the biggest rock band on the planet - Metal Assassin - and recovering sex addict, and his supermodel wife, Sheila, are on holiday in Thailand.  Turk is in a funk, unsure what to do now that the band has split, and just wants to sit on the beach and drink beer.  Sheila wants to explore and to take an elephant ride.  Heading into the jungle without Turk she gets more excitement than she anticipated when the group she is with is kidnapped by pirates.  Turk is quite happy to pay the million dollar ransom, but a neurotic Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent has other ideas, seeing the kidnapping as a way to fast-track his career and to get him reassigned somewhere cooler and more hygienic.  Meanwhile, Turk’s manager is plotting his rock star’s triumphant come-back after heroically saving his wife.  What should have been a straightforward transfer of cash, soon turns into trial for Turk, who for the past twenty years has had his life organised for him, but now has to take charge of his own destiny.

Salty is a darkly comic crime caper set in Phuket and Bangkok in Thailand that follows the travails of Turk Henry, a washed-up former rock star and recovering sex addict, as he tries to save his supermodel wife, an ex-drug addict whom he met in rehab, from a group of Thai pirates.  The set-up is relatively straightforward, putting the interests of different parties -- Turk, Sheila, an American government representative, the pirates, Turk’s manager and assistant, MaryBeth -- into conflict or tension and riffing on the interplay and character development as each has a small epiphany that helps them come to see themselves for who they really are.  For the latter to work, the characters have to be somewhat tarnished and a little unlikeable at the start and it takes some time to warm to some of them (and a few stay unlikeable).  The narrative is also full of cliches and cultural and country stereotypes, which are barely worked against.  As a result, I was never really firmly hooked into the story until near the end.  What kept me reading was the workable setup and the story moving at a relatively quick clip.  Overall, an enjoyable enough yarn that never quite kicked into a higher gear.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday I made a start on A Spy Among Friends about the life of Kim Philby.  The argument forwarded is that Philby survived for so long as a spy inside the British establishment because of his charm and extensive network of deep friendships.  What is striking about the story is that it is full of people with names such as 'Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen', 'Hester Harriet Marsden-Smedley', 'Sarah Algeria Majorie Maxse', and 'David de Crespigny Smiley', who were mostly educated at private schools and Oxbridge, and drifted into key government posts by virtue of their class and daddy's connections.  Eccentricity is a hallmark of this class 'born to rule' but nevertheless, half the anecdotes would be probably be dismissed as a little too fantastical if they were in a novel.  And when one looks at the present British cabinet, it's not hard to conclude that very little has changed with respect how and by who the country is run.  An interesting read so far.

My posts this week
Digitial geography
August reviews
Review of Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth

Saturday, September 6, 2014


‘Head left.  Keep going.  Now right.’

Lofty adjusted the headset.  ‘Are you sure?  Wasn’t I just here?’

‘No, no.  Head right.’

‘This is taking too long.’

‘Relax.  We’re beating the clock.  Okay and stop.’

‘There’s nothing here.’

‘The plans say there should be a door on the right.’

‘Well the plans are wrong,’ Lofty replied, tapping the blank wall.

‘It must be concealed.  Try searching for a switch or something.’

‘It’s just a smooth surface.’

‘Try shuffling along.’

Lofty pressed the skirting board.  It tilted in.  The floor beneath him snapped opened and he plunged down a narrow shaft.


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review of Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth (2009, Serpent's Tail)

London, 1959, Stella and Toby, both art students, have married and moved into their first home and surround themselves with bohemian friends.  Pete Bradley has been a policeman for a year and is dreaming to a move to CID when he finds the body of young prostitute lying near to the River Thames.  The case is quickly taken over by the murder squad, but Bradley’s potential is spotted and he soon finds himself working undercover monitoring fascist groups operating in Notting Hill, where a large Irish and Caribbean community is located.  Spotting a notorious criminal, he makes what appears to be a significant collar, only for the case to be prized away from him.  A few months later and another victim is found not long after Stella experiences another vivid nightmare.  As London moves into the swinging 1960s Stella’s career as a fashion designer starts to take off, and Toby becomes a successful artist.  However, her nightmares are still occurring, followed by the discovery of another victim of ‘Jack the Stripper’.  Pete is now working undercover within the police, but is still obsessed with solving the prostitute murders.  Unwittingly, Stella and Pete are working different ends  of the same mystery, desperate to stop any more women falling victims.

Bad Penny Blues provides an evocative rendering of London in the late 1959s and early 1960s and the criminal and bohemian interface around the north inner city, and the emerging racial tensions.  Indeed, the real strength of the story is the creation of a very strong sense of place using music, fashion, and the arts, along with snippets of scandals from the news and thinly veiled references to real-life criminals and the ‘Jack the Stripper’ case, which took place between 1959 and 1965.  Cathi Unsworth tells the story by swapping between two narratives, a first person account of Stella, a young fashion designer, and the third person perspective of Pete, a young copper.  It was an interesting approach, with the former designed to introduce the bohemian side of the city, and the latter its seedy underbelly and police corruption.  However, it took me a little while to connect with Stella and her third sight, and the two parallel narratives created an awful lot of characters and subplots, and at times it become a little confusing to keep track of everyone and what's happening.  Either narrative would have been substantive enough on its own.  That said, there is sufficient character development in both strands, the story is interesting, and London in the late 1950s and early 1960s is really alive on the page.

Monday, September 1, 2014

August reviews

August proved a very good month of reading.  Along with my usual contemporary fare I mixed in five books published more than 40 years ago, all considered noir classics in their different ways.  My read of the month, however, was a dark noir tale published last year, Dana King's Grind Joint.

The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty ***.5
I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woodrich *****
Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith ***
The Steam Pig by James McClure ****
The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers ***
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler *****
Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett ***.5
All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye by Christopher Brookmyre ****
The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz ****
Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson  ****.5
Grind Joint by Dana King *****