Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fifty shades of black and blue

‘What a way to go,’ Carter said, staring at the two hands sticking out from under the toppled bookcase and scattered books.  ‘Crushed to death by an avalanche of erotica.’

‘Battered into fifty shades of black and blue,’ the pathologist added.

‘Instead of running off into the sunset with Mr Darcy.’

‘I didn’t have you down as a literary type.’

‘I prefer mysteries and this looks like it could be straight out of one.  Bookcases don’t just fall down on bookshop assistants.’

‘Just remember what a mess throwing the book at someone makes.’ She handed a paperback to the detective.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review of The Yard by Alex Grecian (Penguin, 2012)

1889, a year after the Jack the Ripper murders, and Scotland Yard has established a dedicated murder squad.  One of its members, Inspector Little, has been found murdered, bound-up in a trunk at Euston Station.  The newest member of the squad, Inspector Day, is given the task of solving the case.  Recently promoted and just having just arrived from Devon, Day is keen to prove himself.  He’s aided in the investigation by Dr Kingsley, who has taken it upon himself to establish a forensically-led morgue, Inspector Blacker, and Constable Hammersmith.  Between them they start to gather clues, but then another murder is committed, a bearded man who has been shaved before having his throat cut, and a second policeman killed.  As they come under increasing pressure to bring the perpetrator to justice, the killer starts to interfere in the investigation, seeking to persuade Day to give up his pursuit.

The Yard is a curious kind of crime novel.  From near the start the identity of the killer is made clear, as is the reason for the crime, as is the process of investigation.  The story is then not a whodunit, whydunit or howdunit.  Indeed, there is really no mystery to the tale at all, much of the historical detail is dubious or inaccurate, and the villain is no Jack the Ripper or Moriarty, making the work for the police relatively easy.  Instead the narrative is propelled along by a mix of breezy writing, colourful scenes, and some interesting characters and their interplay, the pages turning mainly to see if it is resolved as it inevitably should be.  Inspectors Day and Blacker, Constable Hammersmith and Dr Kingsley are all engaging characters, each with a certain vulnerability but determined to solve the case, though the villain and lesser characters, such as the two whores who appear throughout, are more caricature in nature.  Given its various flaws, The Yard, is a book I would ordinarily find somewhat annoying, but in this case actually enjoyed - kind of like the low-brow movie you know you should dislike, but watch and like regardless.  Overall, then, a flawed but enjoyable tale of murder in Victorian London.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review of The Informant by Andrew Rosenheim (Arrow, 2013)

September 1941.  Special Agent James Nessheim has been sent to Hollywood where he somewhat reluctantly works in a movie studio screening scripts.  Supposedly working out of the Los Angeles FBI office, he actually reports directly to Assistant Director Harry Guttman.  One of Nessheim’s informers, Billy Osaka, a Japanese-American journalist and translator with a gambling problem, has gone missing after asking to see him urgently.  Nessheim sets out find Osaka, but soon discovers that others are also searching for him.  His boss has also been dragged into murky waters when a State Department employee with youthful communist sympathies approaches him to reveal that Russians have been seeking to activate him as a spy.  The next day the man is found dead in the park in which they met.  As Nessheim tracks Osaka’s trail, Guttman discovers that a sizeable amount of Russian-owned money has been transferred from New York to a Japanese bank in Los Angeles and asks his agent to find its destination.  Neither Nessheim or Guttman realise the significance of their respective cases, but both are acting beyond their remit and have hunches that they should keep digging away despite the warnings to the contrary.

The Informant is a historical political thriller set immediately prior to America entering the Second World War.  It’s the second book in the James Nessheim series, but can be read as a standalone.  The strength of the story is the plot and contextualisation.  The tale is told through a set of alternating perspectives of James Nessheim in Los Angeles, and is his boss, Harry Guttman in Washington and New York, and centres on finding a missing Japanese-American informant, uncovering the work of Soviet agents, and establishing if there is a link between the two and its significance.  Whilst, the timeline is linear, the plot weaves together a number of strands and subplots to create a complex, if somewhat fanciful, stew.  Nevertheless, Rosenheim makes sure the reader stays orientated and that the story keeps moving forward.  Moreover, he evokes the tense atmosphere, politics and political landscape of the time and nicely places the story in its locales, with a strong sense of place with respect to the film studio, Little Tokyo in LA, and the hills above Santa Barbara, and context with respect to the marginalised position of the Japanese in America and political sympathies with communism and the plight of the Soviet Union as German troops advance on Moscow.  The result is a thoughtful, engaging and well told tale.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Chinese translation in the works

The Chinese rights to my book with Mark Blades, 'The Cognition of Geographic Space', have been sold by the publisher, IB Tauris.  It should be published in the summer of 2016.  I'm not holding my breath about getting rich from this since I've not received a cent in royalties from my other two books that have been translated into Chinese, despite one of them being in its third edition (which is interesting in itself since it's only in its first edition in English!)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm launching two of my books this week - Stumped and The Data Revolution - in the Maynooth University Bookshop, Thursday 26th at 4.30pm.  It's a joint event with my colleagues Mark Boyle and Chris Brunsdon who are launching their own tomes.  More details can be found here.  If you are in the vicinty and fancy coming along then please do.

My posts this week

Review of The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan
New paper: Continuous geosurveillance in the smart city
Review of The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman
Book launch: The Data Revolution and others
Wherever the road takes us

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Wherever the road takes us

‘Okay, this is it.  Buckle up, kid, this might be one heck of ride.’

Tommy turned the ignition key.

‘Are you sure this is a good idea, T?’ Sally asked.

‘Are you sure that staying is a better one?  We need to get away, Sal, spread our wings, see the world.’  He gunned the engine.

‘But where are we going?’

‘Wherever the road takes us.  I don’t care as long as it’s far from here and your father.’

‘He’s just worried about me.’

‘And now he’ll have a reason.’  Tommy let out the clutch, pulling out slowly into blinding snow.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review of The Day the Music Died by Ed Gorman (Berkeley, 1999)

February 1959.  After watching Buddy Holly in concert lawyer and investigator Sam McCain drives home to Black River Falls, Iowa, through a winter storm with the unrequited love of his life, Pamela.  He wakes the next morning to twin disasters: his rock and roll idol has perished in a plane crash, and Kenny and Susan Whitney have been killed in an apparent murder-suicide.  To make matters worse, McCain was present when Kenny blew his brains out, having been sent to the mansion by his boss, the acerbic Judge Esme Anne Whitney.  McCain is not convinced Kenny killed Susan, but local police chief Cliff Sykes Jnr thinks it’s an open and shut case, and what’s more is delighted given his rivalry with the judge.  McCain finds himself stuck in the middle both professionally and privately.  The judge wants McCain to prove Kenny’s innocence, the police chief wants him to stop poking around in the investigation; he’s in love with the lovely Pamela, the judge’s personal assistant, whilst Mary Travers is in love with him and her fiancée detests him.  And to add a complication, McCain’s younger sister has got herself in trouble.  All McCain needs to do is solve the murder-suicide and resolve his personal life and his sister’s problem in the full glare of small town America.

The Day the Music Died is a P.I. novel set in a small Iowa town in the late 1950s and is the first book in the Sam McCain series.  In many ways it is the mirror of the typical hardboiled P.I. tale set in a big city.  McCain is smart, pleasant and good, lacking physical presence and menace, and is unlucky in love.  Black River Falls is a small, conservative town run by a handful of families, where everyone seems to know everyone.  The story revolves around an apparent murder-suicide.  It’s a strong hook, but after opening the story lacks impetus and tension until near the end despite the various rivalries and the themes of race and abortion subverting the conservative values of small town America.  The sense of place and characters also seemed a little one-dimensional, and it was a mystery to me as to why McCain was mooning over Pamela, when he clearly had more affection for both Mary and his beatnik lover.  Where Gorman did hit the mark was with the sense of time and culture, evoking the music, and race and class politics of the mid-west in the 1950s.  Overall, a pleasant enough read and a nice twist on the typical P.I. tale.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review of The Dead Ground by Claire McGowan (Headline, 2014)

Forensic psychologist Paula Maguire thought that she’d left Northern Ireland for good.  But after helping solve a case in her native Ballyterrin she finds herself still attached to a specialist missing persons unit, living at home with her father, pregnant but unsure who the father is, and still wondering what happened to her mother who disappeared in 1993.  She has limited time to dwell on her own problems, however, as a new born baby has been snatched from the maternity ward of the local hospital and the doctor running a local women’s centre that provides advice to those considering travel to Britain for an abortion has disappeared.  As the team search for the pair, and battle with a local police station for control of the investigation, another baby goes missing, followed by a pregnant woman.  With the pressure mounting to solve the cases Paula becomes emotionally invested in the investigation and inevitably ends up doing more than producing a profile of the abductor.

The Dead Ground is the second book in the Paula Maguire series set in the small, fictional border town of Ballyterrin, which in my head at least is Newry.  The storytelling is much more assured than the previous outing and less melodramatic, though it has plenty of drama.  Along with a compelling main plotline, McGowan interweaves a handful of interesting subplots that add to, rather than detract from, the story.  I was hooked from the start, the book quickly becoming a page turner, given the succession of abductions and the rising tension.  In this sense the plot worked well, although as the story progressed the mystery element receded as the identity of the perpetrator and the inevitable ending became obvious though no less tense.  Paula Maguire is a strong, complex, conflicted and engaging lead character, and McGowan surrounds her with an interesting mix of characters with different backgrounds and viewpoints.  The result is a swirl of alliances and rivalries depicted through some nice interpersonal exchanges.  Indeed, I imagine most readers will want to read the next book in the series as much to keep up with Paula’s soap opera personal life as to see how she solves the next crime.  There’s also a strong sense of place and history, with the Troubles still casting a shadow over the Irish borderlands.  Overall, an engaging, page turner, with an interesting lead character and subplots.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

During the week I posted the 600th book review on the blog.  I also popped into Hodges Figgis bookstore in Dublin after missing a train and the experience drove home how many thousands of crime fiction books are in circulation.  So many books, so little time!  I picked up three more, despite my plan to buy less in the first half of this year and reduce the TBR.  They were Red Joan by Jennie Rooney, The Informant by Andrew Rosenheim, and The Yard by Alex Grecian.  I also purchased Adrian McKinty's Gun Street Girl yesterday.  That means that so far this year I've bought more than I've read.  Oh well, better get back to reading.

On other news, Stumped was reviewed in Irish Times yesterday by the doyen of Irish crime fiction, Declan Burke.  He writes: "... a delightfully preposterous tale ... Kitchin maintains a cracking pace and generates plenty of humour by switching rapidly between the perspectives of a swarming host of outlandish characters." I'll take that.

My posts this week

Trouble in aisle four
Review of The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen
Review of Runaway by Peter May
Review of The Vanished by Bill Pronzini

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Trouble in aisle four

Tom stared absently at the shelves of healthcare products.

‘I’m just going to find some cream crackers,’ Sarah said.

Tom grunted in response.  Eventually he spotted the condoms and dropped two boxes into the shopping trolley.

An old lady rounded his back and pushed the trolley down the aisle.  Up ahead Sarah turned the corner.

‘Oh, flip!’ 

Tom shuffled after the lady, grabbed the boxes, and dropped them into Sarah’s passing trolley.

‘And I thought it was my lucky day,’ the woman said.

‘You’re welcome to him,’ Sarah replied cheerily.  ‘He’s just as hopeless when it comes to using them.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen (1931, Grosset & Dunlap)

Ellery Queen, the amateur detective son of a New York police inspector, is visiting a friend at the Dutch Memorial Hospital, where he gets invited to witness the removal of a gall bladder.  However, when the sheet covering the patient is pulled back, it reveals that the elderly millionaire, Abigail Doorn, has been strangled during pre-op.  Quickly sealing the hospital, Queen calls for his father and starts to investigate his most difficult case to date.  It appears that someone with nerves of steel has impersonated a leading surgeon and murdered the woman in a busy hospital.  With plenty of suspects but few clues to work with Queen struggles to solve the mystery.

Published in 1931, The Dutch Shoe Mystery is the third book in the Ellery Queen series, jointly written by cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, under the pen-name of Ellery Queen.  The series was considered one of the finest examples of a ‘fair play’ mysteries, with the reader presented with all of the clues available to the fictional detective so that they might solve it for themselves.  Indeed, the book includes a ‘challenge to the reader’ page inserted near the end of the book, prior to the denouement, that asks them to try and identify the killer based on the clues revealed in the plot.  The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a variation on the locked room mystery in that one of the workers, patients or visitors within the vicinity of the pre-op room must have perpetrated the crime and was almost certainly still present on its discovery.  And the investigation soon reveals plenty of people present with the motive to murder the victim.  The strength of the story is the intricate plot, which charts the detective’s investigation and reasoning.  However, this offset somewhat by the dryness of the read, the fact that Ellery Queen is quite a difficult character to warm to, being somewhat aloof, snobbish and self-obsessed, and the fact that whole premise felt somewhat contrived in order to produce the puzzle.  Nonetheless, an interesting read for the puzzle and challenge of solving it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review of Runaway by Peter May (2015, Quercus)

1965 and five teenage band members runaway to London to pursue their dream of making it big in the music industry.  The trip starts to go wrong not long after leaving Glasgow and by the time they’re in London their skint, wanted by the law, and have Rachel, the lead singer’s cousin, in tow.  By chance they end up in the company of a socialite doctor and his circle of celebrity friends, but their friendship is coming under strain and their dreams lie in tatters.  2015 and Maurie is dying of cancer, Jack is a widower, and Dave is an alcoholic whose wife has left him.  All three have led lives of regret and under-achievement, their runaway adventure still being the highlight of their lives; all three still dream of how life could have turned out differently, especially for the band member who didn’t return home.  When Maurie spots a newspaper story detailing the death of a former actor, who’s been on the run since they last saw him, he’s determined to head back to London before he dies to resolve unfinished business, accompanied by his old friends.

In Runaway Peter May juxtaposes a coming of age tale set in 1965, and its hope, faith, growing pains and hard lessons, with an end of life tale set in 2015, and its regrets, disappointments, and nostalgia.  What links the two together is a singular event - running away to London from Glasgow - that is both the highest and lowest point of the main character’s life and still casts a powerful shadow over him.  The tale is told from the perspective of Jack Mackay, split into a present day narrative told in the third person, and a historical narrative told in the first person.  This works well, allowing the two time periods to inform and mirror each other, as Jack and two his band mates retrace their steps fifty years later.  The strength of the story are the principal characters and their interactions.  The plot is relatively straightforward, telling in parallel the two road-trip adventures to London, and is notable more for its exposition of friendship, life’s journeys and nostalgia, than its crime or mystery elements.  Indeed, the tension in the story is generated more through rifts in the group and between family members than by sinister elements in the plot.  The overall effect is a story that is interesting and entertaining, but which never really turned into a page-turner due to its predictable outcome and pacing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review of The Vanished by Bill Pronzini (Sphere, 1973)

After twenty years in the US Army Roy Sands has left the service and travelled from Germany back to San Francisco to be with his fiancée.  He then vanishes before he meets her.  Worried for his safety and the lack of interest by the police she hires a private detective.  His first task is to track down the missing man's three Army buddies who shared the same flight home.  He discovers that Sands sent them each a telegram from Oregan, but after that the trail goes cold.  The detective starts to hunt for new clues, though he senses he’s on a wild goose chase until his apartment is robbed and he and the fiancée receive threats.  Neither though are the kind that simply give up.

The Vanished is the second book in Pronzini’s nameless detective series, told through a first person perspective.  The story has a nice cadence and expressive prose and is tightly written and honed, with little in the way of digressions or feints or blinds beyond keeping a few possible explanations in play as to why a man has disappeared; it simply tells the story of how the case unfolded.  The plot is relatively straightforward, but is engaging and entertaining, with a strong hook.  The key element, however, is the nameless detective.  Whilst he has a reflective, philosophical, empathetic side, he’s also pragmatic, dogged, and can look after himself in a squeeze; he also lacks the brashness and edginess of many fictional PIs.  I found him an appealing character to spend some time with, along with the nice mix of characters Pronzini populates the book, including Roy Sands who is ever-present despite being absent.  Overall, a nicely told hardboiled PI tale that has aged well.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

The publisher of Stumped is running a special promo this weekend for kindle readers.  It's £1.99 or $3 on Amazon ( or .com).  So if you're bored of TV and are looking for a fun, light read, clickety-click on the links above.  Here's what some nice folk have said about it.

 "Skip the manicure before reading. Stumped is a head-scratching nail-biter that'll leave your fingers chewed down to the nub."  Gerard Brennan

"Rob Kitchin joins the ranks of top-notch Irish crime writers: Hughes, Glynn, Bruen, French, and Burke."  Patti Abbott

"Trainspotting meets Desperately Seeking Susan..." CrimeFictionLover

"Prose as tight as a corkscrew and a gripping plot full of sharp twists and turns..." Paul D. Brazill

"Funny, engaging, fast-paced and hugely enjoyable."  Michael Russell

"If Seinfeld were updated as a murder mystery novel cast in Ireland, it could spontaneously combust into Rob Kitchin's Stumped."  Elaine Ash (Anonymous-9)

My posts this week:
January reviews
Review of The General Danced at Dawn by George Macdonald Fraser
So much for resolutions...
Review of The Korean War by Max Hastings
This has to stop

Saturday, February 7, 2015

This has to stop

The middle-aged man stood in the doorway.  ‘This has to stop!’

‘What?’ replied an elderly man, sitting up.

‘This!  Her!’

‘Her name’s Jane and she can hear you.’

‘It’s disgusting.’ The man kicked at a lacy bra.

‘And you’re celibate, are you?’

‘I’m not seventy four.’

‘And neither am I,’ the woman said.  ‘I’m seventy.’

‘It’s not ... natural.’

‘I ran a half-marathon recently and I’m fit enough to bonk your dad.’

‘You should go.  I want you out of our house.’

‘My house,’ the old man said.  ‘Now either apologise, son, or shut the door on the way out.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Review of The Korean War by Max Hastings (Pan, 1987)

Just five years after the end of the Second World War, the Korean War was the first of a set of ideological wars between the capitalist United States and her allies and communist states, which threatened to make the cold war with the Soviet Union a hot one.  In The Korean War, Max Hastings sets out the historical context and lead-up to the war, its initial unfolding and the deployment of a United Nations forces, and its bloody progression up to the armistice in 1953.  The book covers the wider general arc of the war, its ideology and politics, military actions, and the principle actors and their acts, but also has a series of smaller stories about individuals, and chapters about specific aspects of the war, such the air war, intelligence, and prisoners of war.  There’s a wealth of information based on an analysis of documentary sources and interviews with over 200 participants.  And rather than just describe what happened, he’s prepared to provide analysis and judgement as to cause and effects.

However, whilst the book provides an overarching analysis, it is fair to say it is a decidedly slanted one, and has a number of notable absences.  Hastings is a British journalist and historian and the book has a definite British slant in terms of analysis and sources.  There is some criticism of the British participation, but largely the British role both militarily and diplomatically is portrayed favourably.  On the other hand, the Americans do not fair so well, in part because they did make a hames of many situations, but it seems that more than that is going on.  For example, the British disaster at Imjin is depicted as a heroic last stand and plucky retreat, whereas the very similar American defeat at Chosin is framed as a deadly calamity.  His coverage of the Chinese participation is relatively scant and certainly coloured by his own ideological position.  However, by far the largest absence from the book is how the citizens and soldiers of the Republic of Korea and North Korea viewed and experienced the war.  Beyond a handful of anecdotes and some sweeping statements, the Korean people and Korean politics are almost absent in a book about Korea.  Perhaps this is to be expected in a book written by a British historian and the bias toward using Western, and in particular, British sources and interviews, but it does create a somewhat lopsided narrative.  The other major gap is what happened in Korea after the war ended in 1953.  Instead of tracking the post-war developments in both parts of Korea, Hastings instead compares the Korean war with Vietnam and the wider conflict with communism.  It’s another way in which he demonstrates that the book is not so much an analysis of the Korean war, but a war against communism fought in Korea.  It’s shame that it couldn’t have been both.  Nonetheless, it’s a very useful starting point for anyone interested in getting an overarching, if particular, account of the war.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

So much for resolutions ...

My new year resolution to cut back on buying books and to reduce the to-be-read pile is not working out too well.  So far this year I've bought more books than I've read.  Yesterday I picked up five in an Oxfam book store in Dublin:

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene 
A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez
Blue Lightening by Ann Cleeves
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

I'm always a little conflicted buying books in a charity shop: on the one hand, I'm giving money to a good cause, on the other I know the author isn't getting a penny.  Hopefully a little oxygen via the blog is a bit of compensation. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review of The General Danced at Dawn by George Macdonald Fraser (Harper, 1970)

Much to his surprise, at the end of Second World War, Dan MacNeill is commissioned into a Highland regiment, moving from Burma to the Middle East.  As a young officer he’s struggles to find his place and assert his authority and proceeds through a series of incidents, including a football tour, being in charge of troop train making its way between Cairo and Jerusalem, an inspection by a general, changing of the guard at Edinburgh castle, a court martial, and regimental rivalry at the Highland games.

The General Danced at Dawn is the first book in a set of three semi-fictional memoirs of Lieutenant Dand McNeill, based on the first-hand experiences of George Macdonald Fraser.  The book has a weak overall story arc, consisting of a set of anecdotes about various incidents, as McNeill makes his way from Burma, via the Middle East, to Edinburgh.  Told in a light-hearted fashion, each of the stories has a humorous tone, being more amusing than laugh-out loud, as McNeill blunders through various scrapes and japes with an odd assortment of characters that populate his regiment and those they encounter.  Macdonald uses the same memoir technique to much better effect with the Flashman series, where the overall story arc and hook is much stronger both in relation to the main character and historical framing.  Overall, an amusing set of anecdotes, but little more.

Monday, February 2, 2015

January reads

A quite slow month of reading and an even slower month of writing reviews.  In the end I managed six books.  Usually there's quite a bit of variation in my assessment, but oddly I scored them all at three and a half stars except for Malla Nunn's Let the Dead Lie, which is my book of the month.  And on reflection I think that's fair; they were all decent enough reads without being something special.  Hopefully the pressure at work will now drop and I can get back to usual business.  There should be three reviews this week as I finally finished a book I've been reading for a while and then shot through two more between Thursday and Sunday. 

My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir ***.5
A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor ***.5
Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh ***.5
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves ***.5
Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier ***.5
Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn ****

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

In the past couple of weeks I've had a number of invitations to present talks, all to do with my research on smart cities and big data, with one exception - an invite to present at an academic event in June at Queen's University Belfast concerned with rurality and crime fiction.  Basically they want me to use the lens of cultural and literary geographies to examine rurality in crime fiction.  I've not written an academic paper about crime fiction as yet, and it's also been a long time since I looked at what's happening in literary geographies, so it'll be an interesting challenge.  There's so many crime novels set in rural settings, and so many themes one could explore, it's actually quite difficult to know where to start.  Answers in the comment box below please.

My posts this week:
New paper: Knowing and governing cities through urban indicators, city benchmarking and real-time dashboards
Review of My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
Beneath the ice