Saturday, December 31, 2016

There’s something down there

Jane and Connie were standing at the head of the stairs.

‘There, do you hear it?’ Jane whispered.


‘A bell ringing.’


From somewhere down below floated up a peal of chimes.

‘Maybe it’s a clock?’ Connie suggested.

‘There’s only one and it doesn’t work.’

‘There must be a rational explanation.  How about the oven?’

‘No.  There’s something down there.  Some kind of ghost.’

‘There’re no such things.  It’s the clock malfunctioning or the wind playing tricks.’

‘Every night, but not during the day?’


‘Then you’ll go down and check it out?’

Connie hesitated.  ‘Perhaps in the morning.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Review of The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh (1975, Orion)

Los Angeles, 1974.  The night patrolmen of Wilshire Division in central Los Angeles work an eight-hour shift, dealing with the underbelly of society – the bad, the mad, the schemers, the downtrodden, and their victims – as well as their bureaucratic bosses who seem more interested in their career trajectories than their fellow officers or the city they serve.  To let off steam, ten of them meet occasionally in MacArthur Park at the end of the shift, along with a couple of overweight cop groupies who work as cocktail waitresses, for ‘choir practice’ – quickly getting drunk on shaken-down booze, fooling around, sharing their night’s adventures and gossip, and venting their frustrations.  One night, however, choir practice ends in tragedy with a fatal shooting that threatens all their careers.

There’s a reason why a ‘best reads of a year’ list should be published in January of the following year.  In this case, the reason is The Choirboys.  Set in 1974 in central Los Angeles, the tale follows the lives of five pairs of patrolmen working the night shift over a six-month period, culminating in a fatal shooting in MacArthur Park, where the men gather periodically to get drunk and let off steam.  The shooting and its fallout form the hook of the story, but the bulk of the novel consists of a series of vignettes related to each pair of patrolmen; their work dealing with the underbelly of Los Angeles society, their interactions with their bosses and each other, and their personal lives.  In essence, the narrative is an extended piece of contextualisation leading up to the MacArthur shooting, as well as a stinging social critique of the ills of society, its causes and the responses, and the nature of policing and police management.  The book was written during Wambaugh’s last serving year as a Los Angeles police officer before he left to become a full-time writer, and it clearly draws on his own experiences and frustrations working a beat and dealing with the administration, as well as the stories and legends circulating among cops.  The result is a fascinating, multi-layered story of ten men struggling to be the thin-blue line, upholding the law in a society creaking with inequalities, abuse and crime, while also trying to keep their own lives from tipping over the edge.  Their safety valve is ‘choir practice’ – a gathering in MacArthur Park at the end of their shift in which they get drunk and vent.  The characterisation and social relations excellent, with Wambaugh fleshing out fully-dimensional personalities who form an uneasy and fractious alliance.  The vignettes and story arc are compelling and realistic.  And the prose and voice are engaging, blending serious social commentary with black humour and tragi-comedy.  Indeed, much of the story is dark in focus, dealing with tragic situations, though Wambaugh balances the pathos with some mirth and genuine laugh-out-loud moments.  At times, the story is a little over-extended, and Wambaugh exaggerates his critique by focusing on a mixed group of screw-up cops tainted by misogyny, racism, violence, corruption and other vices, but there’s no getting away from the fact that The Choirboys is a brilliant novel that works on many levels.  A thoughtful, insightful, critical and entertaining read.  

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Review of Holding by Graham Norton (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016)

The village of Duneen is full of lonely souls.  Overweight Sergeant PJ Collins has let life pass him by policing a small rural community where nothing much happens. He’s pampered by his elderly housekeeper, who has been keeping other peoples’ houses for over forty years. The three Ross sisters live together in their old farmhouse, as they have done since their mother died of cancer and father committed suicide when the youngest was still a teenager. Brid Riordan has a least married and has two children, but it is a loveless match and she regularly drinks herself to sleep. When the skeleton of a man is found buried on the old Burke farm, PJ Collins suddenly has a major case to investigate and Evelyn Ross and Brid Riordan are reminded of the source of their discontent and rivalry – the disappearance of Tommy Burke twenty-five years ago. Each blame the other for lost love and suspect the other of murder. PJ’s ambition to solve an old crime is dented by the arrival of a detective from the big city and it soon appears more difficult to unravel than anticipated and to reveal some of the village’s dark secrets.

Comic Graham Norton’s debut novel is a rural police procedural, somewhat in the cozy mode, set in rural Ireland. The story follows Sergeant PJ Collins’ investigation into the circumstances that led to a man being buried at the old Burke farm after his bones were uncovered by workmen. The suspicion is that the bones are those of Tommy Burke, who disappeared twenty-five years previously. At the time he was engaged to be married to Brid Riordan, but was also being pursued by young Evelyn Ross. Neither woman fully recovered when Burke supposedly skipped town never to return, having been seen catching the bus to Cork; Riordan slipping into a loveless marriage and Ross retreating into life as a spinster looking after her two sisters. The discovery of the bones unsettles the lives of both women, who suspect each other of foul play, but provide purpose for PJ, who finally seems to be discovering himself after years of freewheeling loneliness. The strength of the story is the characterisation, especially PJ, Brid and Evelyn, and their interplay. Norton portrays each sympathetically and nicely captures their personalities and frailties. There’s no great surprises in the plot, but it is nicely constructed and builds to an engaging denouement. However, it is a little uneven in its telling, especially with regards to one reveal. Where the tale does suffer a little though is with respect to context. The themes, social relations and Ireland portrayed felt more like a tale set twenty years ago rather than 2016. Moreover, the police procedural elements and social context did not ring true – a small rural village would not have a full-time police station, it would certainly have mobile phone coverage if it had a station, and it is highly unlikely that a brand new housing estate is being built in a rural area in Ireland at present (finishing off a ghost estate, maybe) or anyone is managing to sell sites. In this sense the tale felt nostalgic for an era when Norton left Ireland, rather than being set in the present. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable read dealing with themes of love, loss, secrets, statis, and loneliness.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Review of Crimea by Orlando Figes (Penguin, 2010)

In 1853, Russia after a lengthy negotiation with the European powers of Britain, France and Austria and threats to the Ottoman Empire, entered the Danubian principalities (now part of Romania).  Ostensibly the origin of the conflict lay in squabbles over access and control of the Holy Lands between the Orthodox Church and Catholics and the treatment of Christians in the Ottoman Empire.  In the background lurked a large geopolitical project of speeding up the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the gain of territory and expansion of the Russian sphere of influence.  The Turks declared war and France and Britain backed them seeking to block Russian imperial plans.  As British and French fleets entered the Black Sea and troops moved into Danube delta, Russian withdrew.  Rather than conclude with peace, France and Britain decided to continue the campaign to cower Russia.  Their intent was to deal a devastating blow in the Crimea, seizing Sevastopol, the Russians main naval base.  After a successful landing in September 1854 and march on the naval base, British and French military leaders made a series of blunders and rather than quickly taking the port ended up in a long and costly siege that lasted eleven months.  In March 1856, Russia sued for peace and the war was officially ended by the Treaty of Paris that forbade a Russian fleet in the Black Sea, led to some Balkan states becoming mostly independent, and to moderate reforms in the Ottoman Empire. 

Orlando Figes provides what one blurb calls ‘wide-angled history’ of the war, drawing on a range of sources to cover the conflict from all perspectives.  The result is a very detailed account of the war, including an extended introduction charting the pathway into the war, and an extended epilogue that documents its short and long-term consequences with respect to European affairs and the political map.  In particular, he details the geopolitical context to the war and the various machinations at work, as well as the key political and military personalities within the various nations, and each of the main battles.  By drawing on personal diaries and newspaper coverage he provides intimate details of bloody encounters and political intrigue.  The book thus provides a fascinating account of the context for and surrounding the war, as well as its actual prosecution.  In many ways, however, the telling could have done with a bit of an edit.  In its ambition to be the most thorough and balanced account of the war, it ends up being overly long, with too much context prior to and after the war, and often too much detail concerning its various elements (there are dozens of vignettes of various minor personalities, for example, which while interesting are effectively asides).  This will be a huge plus for some readers, but for me put too many trees in the woods.  Nonetheless, it is an impressive piece of scholarship and certainly informs the reader about all aspects of the conflict and its aftermath.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Happy Christmas Day.  I hope you got a sackful of lovely presents.  In terms of wrapping, this one was my favourite - the shape and gaping hole left me guessing!

My posts this week
Review of Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt
Review of City of Thieves by David Benioff
Get away from me with that twig

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Get away from me with that twig

‘What’s that meant to be?’


‘It’s twig you’ve snapped off some shrub.’

‘I bought it in a florist.’

‘Well, you can forget it; I’m not kissing you.’

‘What happened to Christmas cheer?  Good will to all men?’

‘It went the way of a Fairytale of New York.’

‘That’s a love song!  A duet.’

‘It’s a tale of lost love, dashed dreams, and being a drunk and a junkie.’

‘But I bet Kirsty Maccoll still gave Shane MacGowan a Christmas kiss.’

‘And he gave her a smash hit.’

‘Come-on, Caro.  A quick peck.’

‘Get away from me with that twig.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Review of Devastation Road by Jason Hewitt (Scribner, 2015)

A man wakes in a field. He is unsure who he is, where he is, or how he got there. Gradually he gathers himself and starts to explore. In a nearby river bodies are floating past. At a farmhouse a young man appears to be burying two people. He starts a journey, heading to where he thinks home might be.  He is joined by the young man, Janek, who reveals they are in Czechoslovakia. The war is on-going, but the Russians are not far away and the roads are full of refugees. Using a fragment of map, Owen, heads into Silesia with a sense he is searching for something, though he’s not sure what. Janek is hunting for his brother, Petr. Unable to retain memories for long Owen jots down notes to refresh his knowledge. Gradually he starts to remember fragments of his life in England, his brother, a woman, and joining the RAF. On their journey Owen and Janek meet Irena, a troubled young Polish woman who is trying to give away her unnamed baby. Together the three of them plus the baby head towards Leipzig en route to England, the past of each gradually catching up with them. And the more they progress into the heart of Germany the more devastating the journey becomes.

Set in the last days of the Second World War, Devastation Road charts Owen’s journey from a field in Czechoslovakia back to England. As told by Hewitt it’s both a physical and metaphorical journey – a slog across Germany and one of self-discovery. With amnesia and disorientated, Owen sets off on foot accompanied by a young man, Janek who is seeking his brother. Initially avoiding roads, they soon join the endless stream of refugees and are joined by Irena and her baby, who is seeking the man who raped her to pass on the child. Together they journey to an abandoned prisoner of war camp, then onto the rubble of Leipzig, ending up in concentration camp shortly after liberation. Along the journey Owen starts to remember fragments of his life and how he ended up on the continent. Janek and Irena have their own secrets that are also gradually revealed. The strength of the story is the hook of the journey and the evolving dynamic between Owen, Janek and Irena and the gradual piecing together of each of their lives. The tale seemed to sag and lose direction a little in the middle section, and I never quite connected with the lead characters, but Hewitt brings the story to a poignant denouement. The result is a thoughtful tale that deals with themes of memory, belonging, regret, and redemption.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review of City of Thieves by David Benioff (Viking, 2008)

Lev Beniov is the son of a poet who has disappeared in Stalin’s purges. Aged seventeen he chose to stay in the sieged city of Leningrad when his mother and sister were evacuated and spends his nights as a fire warden on the roof of his apartment block.  When a dead German parachutist lands nearby he and his starving friends loot the body.  Lev, however, is caught by the NKVD and taken to the infamous Crosses prison.  He is soon joined in his cell by Kolya, who has been arrested for desertion.  The penalty for looting and desertion is death. However, the following morning they are taken to see a colonel who is determined that his daughter will have a cake at her wedding reception at the end of the week.  His wife needs a dozen eggs and Lev and Kolya’s task is to find and bring them back or be executed.  It seems like an impossible task in a city cut off from supplies and fresh food is a distant memory. Given no option, the two strangers embark on their quest, scouring the city and heading out behind enemy lines.

City of Thieves is a well crafted coming-of-age story set during the Siege of Leningrad.  It’s told from the perspective of the author recounting how his grandparents met before emigrating to America.  The tale has a number of strengths, including an engaging voice and prose, well-paced narrative, a well-developed sense of place, time and context, and a great hook and engaging story line.  What makes the book shine, however, is the characterisation and the emerging relationship between two friends.  Lev is a shy, intelligent but somewhat naïve seventeen year old working as a fire warden.  Kolya is only a couple of years older but is gregarious and much more worldly-wise.  The pair are thrown together when Lev is caught looting the body of a dead German parachutist and Kolya is arrested for desertion, having slipped back into the city for some female company. Facing summary execution, they are given the option of a reprieve if they can locate a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a NKVD colonel’s daughter.  While Lev is uncertain how to proceed, Kolya seems to relish the challenge, confident he can use his charm, wit and wiles to track down the eggs.  As their quest unfolds Kolya takes Lev under his wing and an uneasy friendship starts to develop, deepening as they encounter a number of challenges.  Having quickly exhausted options in the city, they move through Soviet lines into the countryside beyond, tangling with partisans and Germans.  One partisan in particular catches Lev’s eye, Vika, a deadly sniper.  She seemingly has little interest in him or Kolya, though gradually she becomes the third member of the quest.  Benioff nicely blends the action of the adventure with the dynamics of the emerging friendship and observations about Soviet society and the war.  And while the tale could have been dark and depressing, Benioff nicely balances pathos with dark humour and moments of warmth.  Where the story does slip a little is with respect to the emotional register, particularly towards the end, with an absence of grief or anger or a tugging on heart strings.  Nonetheless, City of Thieves is an engaging and entertaining tale of hardship, friendship and adventure.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

On Friday I finally managed to return the completed copy edits and index for the Understanding Spatial Media book.  Hopefully that is now done and dusted and the book should see the light of day sometime in the new year.  On the same day I got the positive reviews back on the proposal for an edited book on Digital Geographies and the contract for that should be signed in the new year.  The next big deadline on the horizon is the Data and the City book, which is very near to being ready to submit. Wheels turning ...

My posts this week:
Review of The Darkest Summer by Bill Sloan
Review of Exposure by Helen Dunmore

A tiny hand

Saturday, December 17, 2016

A tiny hand

Tom turned the corner and stopped abruptly.

Half the row of terrace houses had collapsed.

‘Cable Street got it as well, poor buggers,’ a passing woman said.

He stumbled forward, ignoring the melee of filthy firemen.

An arm shot across his chest.  ‘Where d’ya think you’re going?’

‘Number 29.’ He pointed.

‘There’s an exploded bomb.’

Tom pushed the arm away and scrambled up onto the rubble.

Almost immediately he spotted the tiny hand reaching skyward.

Lucy.  Just turned one.

He dug frantically into the debris and halted.

The arm was plastic.

He didn’t know whether he was relieved or not.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, December 16, 2016

Review of The Darkest Summer by Bill Sloan (Simon and Schuster, 2009)

On June 25 1950 communist North Korean troops invaded South Korea advancing quickly.  Seoul fell shortly after and the well-armed invaders made steady progress down the Korean peninsula.  The US and United Nations pledged political and military support to South Korea, with US troops mobilised from Japan for war, with others shipping from the US and Mediterranean.  Given the huge downsizing of the US military post Second World War and their relatively easy postings US troops were ill-prepared for combat and they fared poorly in their initial encounters with the North Koreans.  As the supply lines were extended and more US and UN troops arrived, the battlefront stabilised around Pusan at the foot of the peninsula.  The job of pushing back the North Koreans largely fell to the US marines, a branch of the military threatened at the time with being phased out.  The Darkest Summer tells the story of the US marines battles in Korea in 1950, mainly focusing on battles on the Pusan perimeter and the daring amphibious assault at Inchon near to Seoul.  While the book discusses each encounter and provides eye-witness testimony, it largely skims over the wider political landscape and military strategy and also the battles undertaken by UN or South Korean troops.  Indeed, it is a very US-centric account of the first phase of the Korean War.  As such, while it was interesting and one got a sense of the battles from a soldier’s point of view it is somewhat myopic and narrowly framed.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Review of Exposure by Helen Dunmore (Hutchinson, 2016)

Lily Callington fled with her mother to Britain from Germany in the late 1930s, leaving her father behind.  November, 1960, and she’s living in Muswell Hill, is married to Simon and has three kids.  Late one evening Simon’s boss from the Admiralty, Giles, phones from hospital and asks him to visit immediately.  It seems that Giles has taken home a top secret document and needs Simon to return it covertly.  Once in possession of the file, Simon hesitates.  Shortly after Simon is arrested and accused of spying for the Soviets.  While a small camera is found in his office at work, the crucial file is still missing.  Suddenly Lily’s world is falling apart.  Her husband is in remand, her job is under threat, her neighbours and colleagues shun her, and the kids are being bullied.  Simon seems resigned to his fate with the evidence stacked against him and Lily seems destined to repeat the flight to safety she experienced twenty years previously.  She’s a fighter though and she’s determined to try and keep her family together.

Exposure is a spy drama that focuses mostly on the fallout affecting a wife and children when a family-man is framed as a traitor.  The tale concentrates on a triangle between Lily Callington, her husband Simon, and his boss, Giles.  In an effort to save his own skin after taking a top secret file home and ending up in hospital after a fall, Giles turns to Simon, a long-time friend and colleague.  When Simon fails to take the file back he unwittingly positions himself as a fall-guy.  Dunmore uses the refrains of indecision, waiting too long, and a hope that a situation will turn out alright to chart the fallout, setting the tale in the context of Lily’s flight from Germany twenty years earlier in which her family delaying leaving Germany, with only herself and her mother reaching Britain.  The tale has a number of strengths.  The storyline is nicely plotted and paced, with the unfolding drama of the ordeal interspersed with flashbacks to key moments in Lily, Simon and Giles’ lives and the gradual revealing of secrets that may have additional repercussions.  The characterisation and character development is excellent, with each of the leads being fully dimensional, along with the children, and their interactions ring true.  In addition, Dunmore keeps the mood and tension low-key but persistent, keeping the sense of an everyday family caught out of step front and centre.  The result is an engaging, thoughtful, understated literary spy tale.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a slow reading week.  Home and work has been hectic.  I'm presently making my way through The Darkest Summer by Bill Sloan about the Korean war.  The latter part of the book focuses on the invasion of Incheon, which is one of the places I stayed on my recent trip there.   

My posts this week
Review of Black Roses by Jayne Thynne
Ear ache

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Ear ache

‘Are you listening to me?’

‘As if I’ve a choice!  Why don’t you give it a break, put on the kettle, and make yourself a piping hot cup of shut the fuck up.’

‘How dare … I’m … it’s you that’s being unreasonable here, I’m …’

‘Me?  I’m not the one shouting and raving.’

‘Because of you!’

‘I’m going to the pub.’

‘As if that’ll solve anything!’

‘It’ll solve my ear ache.’

‘You’ll have a bigger problem if you leave now.’


‘Fine?  You’ll be looking for a new home!’

‘For once we agree!  I’ll pack when I get back.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review of Black Roses by Jayne Thynne (Simon and Schuster, 2013)

1933.  Clara Vine is a young British actress and daughter of a German mother and a former Conservative MP with fascist leanings.  Fed-up with life in Britain and with an offer for the possibility of work at the famous Ufa studios she heads to Berlin.  Partly through circumstance, partly through her heritage, Clara falls into a circle of senior Nazi wives, including Magda Goebbels who recruits her to model new German fashion and becomes her confidante.  She is also being pursued by Goebbels right-hand man, Klaus Muller.  Clara is no chip off the block, however, and loathes what the Nazis stand for and are up to.  After an encounter with Leo Quinn, a spy whose cover is working in the British Embassy passport office, Clara agrees to continue her association with the Nazi wives and to pass on anything she learns.  It’s a dangerous game and it becomes more so when Magda Goebbels enlists her in deadly game.

Black Roses is set in Berlin 1933 shortly after the Nazis have come to power and are undertaking the first wave of sweeping changes.  The main protagonist is Clara Vine, a young British actress who hopes to establish a career at the Ufa studios.  Shortly after arriving in the city, she falls into the company of senior Nazi wives and enrolled into a new fashion state agency that aims to dress German women in appropriate clothes.  Principled and determined, with little time for the Nazi ethos and behaviour, she’s found herself in a difficult situation.  That is made more unpalatable when a British embassy employee, Leo Quinn, asks her to continue to meet the wives and collect and report any interesting information.  As she works undercover, unfolding events centred on the secrets of Magda Goebbels are drawing her ever further into a dangerous situation, and at the same time she’s falling for Leo while also dating a senior Nazi.  Giving a sense of authenticity, Thynne populates the book with many real characters, events and fashions (and there’s certainly a strong focus on the fashion), as well historical context and the geography/atmosphere of the city.  Clara, the set-up and the real historical context are intriguing and the story should have fully captured my attention and imagination. However, I never quite got fully engaged with the tale until the last section.  I’m not sure why – partly voice, style, focus, pace, I think.  It was just one of those stories that was okay, without being a compelling, immersive read for much of it.  I’ll probably still try next book in the series as there’s a lot of promise in the main character and premise and I often find the second book clicks more strongly than the first.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm presently working through the proofs for Understanding Spatial Media, which should be out early next year. Next job is the index. A tedious job, but one I think best done by the author/editor if its to be useful.  Looking forward to seeing as a finished tome.

My posts this week
Review of Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta
November reviews
Dust and moonshine

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Dust and moonshine

‘Stop.  Just stop!’  Carrie threw up her arms.

‘What?’ Penny snapped. ‘You wanted an explanation, I’m explaining.’

‘And it’s all dust and moonshine.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘That everything you say is either without substance or a fantasy.  You’re a liar.’

‘You’re calling me a liar?’

‘You are a liar!  You can’t help yourself.  You probably don’t even know what the truth is.’

‘How dare you!’

‘Go home, Penny.’

‘You go home!’

‘I am home.  You’ve not managed to steal it from me yet.’

‘So now I’m a thief?  God, Carrie, you’re such a cow.  It was one dance.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

November reviews

A mixed month of reading in terms of themes, styles, etc.  My read of the month was Gil North's The Methods of Sergeant Cluff, which was re-issued by the British Library.  Cluff is certainly his own man, with his own methods, and it makes for an engaging police procedural.

Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta ****
1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski ****
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch ***5
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes ***.5
The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North ****.5
Cobra by Deon Meyer ****
The Piccadilly Murder by Anthony Berkeley ***.5
The Nuremberg Enigma by Yves Bonavero **.5

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta (Bloomsbury, 2008)

Berlin at the tail end of 1946.  Pavel Richter, a decommissioned GI, is holed up in freezing apartment in the British sector of the city, struggling with a kidney infection.  His friend Boyd visits and asks him to look after a suitcase that contains the body of a dead dwarf.  It seems that the dwarf has been selling secrets to the Soviets and is about to pass on a valuable piece of information.  As well as being sought by a Soviet general, a scheming colonel in the British Armed Forces is hunting for him.  Pavel is no condition to do anything other than lie in bed and try to stay alive.  Aiding him in this task is Anders, a twelve year old street orphan, who enrols the help of his upstairs neighbour, Sonia.  By coincidence Sonia is the colonel’s mistress and he regularly visits her apartment.  As the hunt for the dwarf unfolds and Boyd is found dead, rather than hand the dwarf over to the colonel, Pavel and Sonia instead hide the body as they try to work out what game they are caught up in.  All the while both the British and Soviets are closing in.

Set in the freezing ruins of post-war Berlin, Pavel and I has the feel and atmosphere of the film version of The Third Man.  At the heart of the tale is Pavel, a former GI, Sonia who has survived post-war as a prostitute, Anders, an orphan who splits his time between Pavel and his street-gang who hustle and thieve to get by, and a rogue, over-weight British colonel.  Hovering on the fringes is a Russian general.  What brings them together is the dead body of a dwarf stuffed in a suitcase and the secret he holds.  It’s an interesting hook and Vyleta uses it to spin an elliptical tale of spies, street gangs, prostitution, violent state services, survival, friendship and budding love.  It’s very much a character-drive story, yet each character is not quite what they seem.  That is very much the case with Pavel.  Indeed, near the end of the tale, the narrator of the story, a British ex-soldier, remarks that there is a hole at the centre of the story he's telling – and that hole is the enigmatic Pavel.  The narrator’s knowledge of him is based on events that happen over a few short weeks during which Pavel barely reveals anything about his past and acts in a calm and collected way.  While that could have been quite frustrating, it actually draws the reader in.  The result is an intriguing, atmospheric and ambivalent tale.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

On Friday I made a start on Mark Douglas-Home's The Malice of Waves to come to an abrupt halt at the bottom of page two.  The next 33 pages were missing and they weren't elsewhere in the book.  So on Saturday I headed to the bookshop to seek a replacement.  While I was there I also picked up copies of Helen Dunmore's Exposure and Graham Norton's Holding, both of which I'm looking forward to reading. 

My posts this week
Review of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
Review of 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski
Is she worth it?

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Is she worth it?

Kenny dropped the pliers to the floor.  ‘He doesn’t know anything.’

‘He knows,’ Jack said, standing.  ‘He’s trying to be noble.’

He lifted Jimmy’s bloody head by the chin.

‘You could save yourself a lot of suffering if you just tell us where she is, Jimmy.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Is she really worth it?  She’s just like all the rest; she’ll use you then walk away.’

‘The last time I saw her was Thursday morning in her apartment.’

‘And then?’

‘Then nothing.’

‘Try the hammer this time, Kenny.’

‘But I don’t know anything!’

‘This way we’ll know that for sure.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski (Harper, 2005)

Last month I visited Moscow and went to the Borodino Panorama, a massive 360 degree painting that depicts the 1812 battle between Napoleon’s Grande Armee and Czar Alexander’s Russia forces commanded by Marshal Kutuzov that took place to the west of the city.  It was a massive encounter involving tens of thousands of soldiers and had the largest one day casualties prior to The Somme.  Napoleon’s forces won the battle and shortly after entered Moscow, much of which had been burned.  However, Alexander and Kutuzov did not capitulate and refused to negotiate with the Emperor of France, who at that time also ruled much of Europe.  Shortly after occupying Moscow, Napoleon decided to undertake a tactical retreat, aware that he was critically low on supplies and the winter was approaching.  However, he set out too late and his retreat was marred by freezing temperatures, snow and ice, for which his army was ill-equipped, and a lack of food, water and forage for the horses.  Along with a series of battles and partisan attacks, the weather massively reduced his force, along with its accompanying civilian entourage.  Few of the original force, which numbered over half-a-million, who entered Russia left.  In total between the French and allied forces and the Russians circa one million people perished.  For Napoleon the consequences were dire and within a few years he had lost his empire and was exiled and Alexander was entering Paris.  In every way it was a costly campaign. 

Due to its significance of the Grande Armee’s adventure into Russia to European and Russian affairs, it has been written about many times.  However, accounts tend to have a particular ideological slant and purpose and are usually based on a narrow set of sources.  In 1812 Adam Zamoyski seeks to tell the story in a non-partisan way using a range of sources from multiple countries and drawing heavily on first hand testimony of letters and diaries written during the campaign, and accounts by key actors afterwards.  The result is a dense and compelling story that balances historical and political contextualisation with accounts of key battles and events told in harrowing detail.  And it is a harrowing story, involving tens of thousands of deaths in battle, or as prisoners, or from hunger, or freezing temperatures.  Often hundreds or thousands die in a few hours, even in non-combat situations.  And the horses suffer more than the people.  It’s a fascinating tale, but it really isn’t for the faint hearted or weak-stomached.  Without wider knowledge of other accounts it is somewhat difficult to judge, but Zamoyski does seem to succeed in providing a balanced telling.  Indeed, it is clear that he favours no side and forensically details the calamitous decisions, heroic actions and atrocities committed by the French and her allies and the Russians.  It is perhaps a little over-long and dense, but overall, an interesting and detailed account of a key event in nineteenth century Europe.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz, 2011)

Peter Grant is a probationary constable in the Metropolitan police.  While he wants to become a detective, he’s destined for a career managing paperwork until he’s called to guard the scene of a beheading.  While his colleague, the perky WPC Leslie May seeks out coffee, and he’s trying to shelter from the rain he takes a witness statement from what seems is a ghost.  He heads back the following night to see whether he can find out more and meets Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale.  Nightingale heads up a secret unit that polices supernatural phenomenon.  He offers to take on Grant as an apprentice and to train him in the magical arts of dealing with London’s darker side.  The job has its obvious attractions but also many dangers, including a homicidal maniac seeking to take revenge two hundred years after he himself was murdered, and trying to negotiate a truce between the god and goddess of the Thames.  There’s an awful lot to learn and not much time, but the risk of a premature death is better than a lifetime filling out paperwork.

Rivers of London is a police procedural meets urban fantasy tale set in contemporary London.  It follows the induction of probationary constable Peter Grant into a secret unit within the Metropolitan Police that investigates supernatural events and crimes within the city, and his attempts to negotiate a truce between the warring factions of the god and goddess of the Thames and to halt the murderous actions of a homicidal spirit.  Grant – the son of a mother from Sierra Leone and white jazz player - has an interest in science, but didn’t achieve the grades necessary for University, and instead joined the police force where he seems destined for low-level administration.  Instead, after a chance encounter with a ghost and Thomas Nightingale, the Mets resident wizard, he’s become the sorcerer’s apprentice – a role he’s not entirely suitable for, but is willing to try, especially if it’ll impress his good looking colleague, Leslie May.  Those three characters provide an interesting set of leads and there is a good, cosmopolitan cast.  Other strengths of the story are its dark humour, the snippets of history and geography, and the everydayness of the magic and mythical characters.  The tale starts well, with a nice setup, but the story wanes a little in the middle before picking back-up, and Grant's teenage persona trapped in an adult's body gets a little wearing at times.  Overall, an enjoyable start to the series and I plan to read the next book, Moon Over Soho.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Last week was one of endless meetings.  Beside those I had two papers published.  The first I was delighted with as it was in Philosophical Transactions.  My review this week was of The Age of Wonder and many of the scientists discussed in the book, such as Banks, Davy, and Herschel, published their seminal papers in the journal.  Other famous contributors include Newton, Darwin, Franklin, Somerville, Faraday, Boole, Turing, and Hawking. My contribution is 'The ethics of smart cities and urban science' in a special issue on ‘The ethical impact of data science’.  I'm now deep into another popular history book, set at the same time as The Age of Wonder, but concerning Napolean's invasion of Russia in 1812.

My posts this week
Smart Docklands in a word, and smart city bingo
New paper: The ethics of smart cities and urban science
Review of The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
New paper: Algorhythmic governance: Regulating the ‘heartbeat’ of a city using the Internet of Things

A bit part in her life

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A bit part in her life

‘I’m just a bit part in her life,’ John complained.

‘And does she know you want to be more than that?’

‘No.  Yes.  I don’t know.’

‘Then tell her.’

‘Do you watch TV?  If a bit part moves to the centre its to die or be a short term foil for a principal character.’

‘Life isn’t television, John.’

‘Yeah, it is. The world is full of bit parts.’

‘Well, your choices are to remain a bit part, risk death, or seek a better role.’


‘It could be worse: you could have failed the audition or just been an extra.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (Harper, 2009)

There are a couple of different ways to explore the development of science in the Romantic period (the end of the eighteenth and beginning of nineteenth century).  One is to do a broad survey, charting developments in thought across different domains and contextualising these within a general social and political frame, or to focus on a single domain as an exemplar.  Or one could detail the biography of a key individual or institution, or detail the interwoven biographies of a number of key personalities.  In The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes mixes all these approaches together to provide a portrait of scientific development in Britain from 1768 to roughly 1840. 

In the main, the book pivots around three central characters, botanist Joseph Banks, astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphrey Davy.  On the one hand, this focus provides some in-depth discussion of their personal lives and their professional and political work, and their interactions with each other and their collaborators.  Especially fascinating was the interactions between these scientists and literary figures and the way in which science and the arts were intertwined.  On the other, it provides a relatively narrow focus on the work of particular individuals.  As a result, rather than getting a broad picture of developments in chemistry over a 50-60 year period in Britain and elsewhere, one is presented with the work of Davy and little else.  That is fine, except occasionally Holmes does provide a broader view, for example providing a quite detailed overview of ballooning that charts various developments by pioneers in both Britain and France, and setting out a broad sweep of the development of science in Britain from the mid-1820s onwards. 

In addition, the chapter about Mungo Park was like an orphan child; Park was an adventurer to Africa rather than a great scientist and his two trips added little to science.  And the material is quite selective.  For example, in detailing Banks’ trip to the Pacific, Holmes concentrates exclusively on his time in Tahiti and largely ignores the reason for the trip, the transit of Venus, which was a significant international scientific endeavour.  Moreover, the industrial revolution that was unfolding at the same time, with significant advances in engineering and manufacturing is all but absent except for a discussion of the development of the Davy lamp.  The result is a fascinating but uneven read that is often drawn-out. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

For the second weekend in a row I've bought a handful of books to help replenish the to-be-read pile.  This time I bought three more popular history books and three novels.  The latter are City of Thieves by David Benioff, Pavel and I by Dan Vyleta, and Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.  I've already made a start on the latter.  Hopefully the two sets will get me to the New Year.

My posts this week

Review of The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North
Review of Cobra by Deon Meyer

Saturday, November 12, 2016


‘Do you believe in fate, Stevens?’ Gaffney said, walking around the laboratory table.

‘I believe we create our own luck and in coincidences.’

‘Luck can be manufactured?’

‘We can create the conditions within which certain outcomes are more likely to be favourable.’

‘So this experiment wasn’t fate or luck?’

‘It was the outcome of patient work and empirical experiment guided by established knowledge.’

‘So, it’s really somebody else’s work?’

‘You seem determined to attribute my success to luck, fate or theft.’

‘Then it was genius?’

‘It was science.’

‘Revealing God’s secrets?’

‘Revealing nature’s secrets.’

‘You deny God?’

‘You deny credit?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review of Cobra by Deon Meyer (Hodder and Stoughton, 2013)

Detective Benny Griessel is called to a kidnapping scene on a wine estate just outside Cape Town in which two bodyguards and an estate worker have been murdered – each shot with a bullet engraved with a cobra.  It seems the victim is a recently arrived British citizen who was prepared to pay handsomely for protection.  The British consulate confirm the passport is a fake, but will say little else; Interpol reveals that the kidnap is probably the work of an elusive hitman named ‘the Cobra’; and the South African secret service wants to muscle the case away from the cops.  Meantime, a pickpocket is working a shopping mall, trying to gather enough cash to pay for his sister’s university tuition.  Only he picks the wrong victim and suddenly there’s more dead bodies, and more bullets with cobra engravings.  Ordered to pass the case over, Griessel and his team decide to keep investigating sensing that there is more to the demand than law and order.  Still possessing the lifted wallet, the pickpocket is also being drawn into a deadly game.

Cobra is the fourth novel in the Benny Griessel series.  Like its predecessors, it’s a fairly high octane police procedural thriller, with a strong sense of place and nicely penned characters.  Griessel, along with his feisty female colleague, Captain Mbali Kaleni, are once again the stars of the show, along with Tyrone Kleinbooi, a pickpocket trying to pay his sister’s way through university.  In this outing, Benny should be happy, now off the booze for some time and having moved in with new love, Alexa.  But his sense of inadequacy with Alexa and the job is giving him the blues.  The kidnapping of a British citizen and the death of two bodyguards and a wine estate worker provides an welcome distraction.  When higher authorities try to push Griessel and his team to one side, it’s clear that they’ve started to investigate a case with international connections and local connotations.  For Kaleni, the case gives the strong whiff of corruption from the Apartheid era and she’s not prepared to be sidelined.  Tyrone is a pickpocket with a code who has chosen the wrong bag to lift a wallet.  The plot is pretty linear as Griessel, Kaleni and co try to track down the hitman, ‘the Cobra’, and Tyrone tries to negotiate a swap of the wallet for his sister.  However, Meyer skilfully swaps the narrative back-and-forth between the cops and Tyrone, providing a storyline that races along and was certainly difficult to put down.  However, the tale runs out of steam a little towards the end and halts quite abruptly, which was a bit of a shame.  Nonetheless, an entertaining read and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Review of The Methods of Sergeant Cluff by Gil North (1961, Chapman & Hall, reissued British Library 2016)

On a wet and windy night in the Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw the body of Jane Trundle is found in the passageway next to the town hall, her purse full of money.  A good looking girl who worked in the local chemist’s shop, Jane had ambitions to climb her way out of the poverty of her parents, who live in an area of tightly packed, back-to-back terraced houses.  Attention focuses on Carter, a young man who idolised Jane, who was seen with her earlier that night.  While Inspector Mole feels it’s an open and shut case, Sergeant Caleb Cluff is not convinced.  Instead he focuses his attention on Greensleeve, the chemist, despite the lack of evidence linking him to the death, the man’s position within the community, and his protestations of innocence.  Cluff has his own methods and he’s not about to let procedure and protocol get in the way of intuition and passive intimidation.

The Methods of Sergeant Cluff is the second book in the Cluff series, presently being re-issued by the British Library.  In this outing, Cluff is investigating the death of a good-looking, social climbing chemist’s assistant.  While his colleagues suspect a young man who doted on her and was seen in her presence earlier that evening, Cluff is convinced the man is innocent.  Instead he focuses his attention on the young woman’s boss.  As with the first book, Cluff’s method is to largely ignore his colleagues and to passively intimidate the focus of his attention, hanging around outside the shop, visiting his wife, and searching his premises and making it obvious he has done so, waiting for his quarry to crack under the pressure.  The problem is that the chemist insists he is innocent of the murder, though he’s clearly got something to hide.  The characterisation is excellent: Cluff is very much his own man, a stoic loner who ploughs his own furrow, Barker is a local constable who has a soft spot for his distant sergeant, Inspector Mole is an officious outsider who’s fond of the easy path, and Greensleeve is a self-important man with connections.  North has them talk past and ignore each other, with some nicely observed social interactions.  The plot unfolds in a somewhat linear fashion, though the tale rises in tension and there’s a couple of twists at the end.  Overall, an enjoyable police procedural.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I've usually got 3 to 5 unread books within an arm's distance, so when I finish one book I can pick up another.  However, I was down to my last book yesterday, so was thankful that an order had turned up at the local bookshop.  I've now added Jason Hewitt's Devastation Road, Joseph Wambaugh's The Choirboys, Jane Thynne's Black Roses, Mark Douglas-Home's The Malice of Waves and Adam Zamoyski's 1812 to my to-be-read pile.  I'm particularly looking forward to reading the latter having visited the Borodino panorama in Moscow recently that depicts that battle in an enormous 360 degree painting.

My posts this week
Post advertised: Postdoc on ProgCity project
Review of The Piccadilly Murder by Anthony Berkeley
Smart Dublin – in one word
Review of The Nuremberg Enigma by Yves Bonavero
Impressions of Songdo, an urban growth machine in progress
October reads

Saturday, November 5, 2016



‘What?’ Law glanced left at the old man.

‘Alienation from neoliberalism and the end of empire.  Too much inequality, distrust, social and economic instability, and walls crumbling down.’


‘This.’ The man pointed at the screen mounted on a wall.  ‘Brexit. Trump. Militarised police. Fascism. Make America Great Again.  Take Back Control.  Trickle-up wealth.’

Law glanced at the screen and turned his attention back his pint.

‘And this is just the end of the beginning.  The prelude.  It’s as if history has taught us nothing.’

‘Hey, Citizen Smith,’ the barmaid intervened, ‘let him deal with his alienation in peace.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review of The Piccadilly Murder by Anthony Berkeley (House of Stratus, 1929)

Ambrose Chitterwick is taking afternoon tea in the Piccadilly Palace Hotel when his attention is attracted to an old lady arguing with a man.  He’s called to a telephone and when he returns the man has gone and the woman is dead.  It appears Miss Sinclair has committed suicide, but Chitterwick witnessed the man’s hand hovering over her tea cup as he distracted her.  When the man reappears for what he says is a scheduled meeting he’s arrested by Chief Inspector Moresby of Scotland Yard.  Further analysis reveals that the woman died from Prussic acid poisoning.  As far as Moresby is concerned Major Sinclair killed the old lady to obtain her fortune before she changed her will once she’d realised he’d married against her wishes.  At the request of the Major’s wife and influential friends Chitterwick agrees to keep an open mind and to re-consider his evidence by investigating the circumstances of the death more thoroughly.  He quickly comes to doubt his original conclusion, but if the Major is not the murderer, who is?

Anthony Berkeley was a journalist and crime writer and one of the founders of The Detection Club.  The Piccadilly Murder was published in 1929 and was the first of two books to feature amateur sleuth, Mr Ambrose Chitterwick.  Chitterwick is a man of means who lives with his over-bearing aunt who hen pecks him.  He has impeccable manners, always acts formally, and wants to do the right thing.  On witnessing the death of an elderly lady in the Piccadilly Palace Hotel, and sure he saw the man with her add something to her cup, he volunteers his information to the police.  They quickly apprehend her nephew, Major Sinclair, who fits the description of the man dining with her.  When a duke and his sister ask Chitterwick to come and stay he feels obliged to do so, though he knows that they are going to ask him to consider his evidence.  They persuade him to at least re-examine the death, which Chitterwick does, somewhat to the bemusement of the police, who seem to tolerate his interference due to his social standing.  Berkeley has a nice eye for detail and his dialogue is nicely done with Chitterwick barely able to end any sentence.  In a way the plot is a form of locked room mystery, though conducted in plain sight in the middle of a busy tea room.  While the mystery has Chitterwick and everyone else confused, the identity of the murderer seems fairly obvious to the reader.  However, Berkeley does reveal a dramatic twist at the denouement, though it wasn’t really that convincing.  Overall, an enjoyable amateur sleuth procedural tale from the Golden Age.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of The Nuremberg Enigma by Yves Bonavero (Lark & Frogmouth, 2016)

April 1945.  Russian troops are nearing the centre of Berlin.  As the Third Reich nears collapse its leaders start to plot their escape, including Adolf Hitler.  When the Russian’s reach the German leader’s bunker they discover two burnt bodies, one of which appears to be Hitler, with similar dental work but missing finger tips.  While the world is told Hitler is dead, there is some doubt as to whether this is the case.  At the same time, T-Force officer, Peter Birkett, is making his way from Brussels to Kiel, keeping up with or running ahead of frontline troops in order to secure valuable scientific sites and scientists.  His Russian counterparts are doing the same, including Elizaveta Terisova, a Volga German who has managed to survive Stalin’s purges.  They are particularly keen to track down refined Uranium for use in developing atomic bombs.  Both parties are converging on a coal field, each determined to secure the area’s assets for themselves not realising there’s a potentially greater prize hiding in one of the mine shafts.

I received a free copy of the book from its publicist in return for an honest review.  The Nuremberg Enigma takes two storylines – one an alternative history concerning the death of Hitler and the other a factional account of a T-Force officer – and merges them together.  Since I read a lot of fiction set between 1930 and 1960 and military history of the Second World War (including recently a book on T-Force) the story seemed an ideal fit for my reading tastes.  The story starts quite promisingly, with a nicely written opening section set in centre of Berlin in the dying days of the Second World War, setting up a scenario where Hitler potentially survives the final onslaught.  The story then shifts register and voice – swapping to first person - to follow the exploits of Peter Birkett, a young British officer in T-Force, a specialist group that seeks to move forward with the troops to secure scientific sites.  This is interspersed with a third-person telling of the similar exploits of a young Russian intelligence officer of German extract.  There’s an imbalance in the telling of the back stories of these two characters, with much greater description of Elizaveta’s personal history.  Personally, I think the telling would have worked better if the whole story had been told in the third person.  Moreover, the emotional register of the story is uneven with, for example, a key death barely registering on one of the central characters.  More problematic, however, is the believability of the alternative history of Hitler thread which, while nicely set up, lacked substance and credibility and often made little sense.  And the thread leads to one of the most ridiculous endings I’ve read in quite some time (which is difficult to discuss without giving spoilers).  Overall then, while the story is interesting and has plenty of action it is somewhat uneven in its telling and plot and ultimately wasn’t convincing. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

October reads

Quite a mixed month of reading.  My book of the month is The Life We Bury, a thoughtful literary crime tale, by Allen Eskins.

A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris ****
Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith ****
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskins ****.5
Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings **.5
The Human Flies by Hans Olav Lahlum ***.5
Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear **.5
Oblivion by Arnaldur Indridason ***.5
Slicky Boys by Martin Limon **.5

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

After reading two 'oldies' last week - Anthony Berkeley's The Piccadilly Murders and Gil North's The Methods of Sergeant Cluff (reviews soon) - I'm back now with detective Benny Griesel in modern day South Africa, reading Cobra.  It's a bit of a contrast with 1930s and 60s England.

My posts this week
Review of A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris
Smart Moscow
Review of Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith
The last one

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The last one

Fletcher tugged up the collar on his sodden coat.  It was a futile gesture.  He’d probably barely notice the difference if he tumbled into the canal, he was that soaked through.

‘Sir!’ A torch beam danced amongst bare branches; a figure appeared on the towpath.  ‘We’ve found her!’

Fletcher picked up his pace, mud sucking at his shoes.

‘This way, Sir.’ The policeman pointed his torch towards a derelict building.

She was lying in the grate of a half-collapsed chimney.  Brown hair covered her face, her dress bunched around her waist.

‘She’ll be the last one,’ Fletcher vowed.  ‘The last.’ 

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review of A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris (Penguin, 2007)

St Petersburg, 1866.  A man is found hanging from a tree in a park.  At his feet is a suitcase containing the body of a dwarf.  It appears the man killed the dwarf then took his own life, however, investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich is not so sure.  Despite the protests of others he pursues an investigation into the deaths.  His enquiries convince him that there was foul play, but proving it and finding the killer is not going to be straightforward, especially when there is no clear motive or suspect.  Methodologically he starts to piece together the lives of the two victims, hunting for clues as to who might have killed them.

A Gentle Axe is the first book in the Porfiry Petrovich series set in St Petersburg at the late nineteenth century.  The central character is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and works as an investigating magistrate in the bustling city, which is stratified by wealth and class.  In conducting his cases Porfiry Petrovich has to negotiate the formal social structures and politics, as well as mix with the poor and needy.  It requires diplomacy and determination, especially when certain elements would prefer the case he is working on – the death of a bulky yardmaster and cantankerous dwarf – to be declared closed without a fuss.  Morris does a good job of detailing the character and atmosphere of the city and its social relations.  The characterisation and the interactions between them is nicely observed.  The procedural-style plot is engaging with Porfiry Petrovich stoically unearthing and following clues, though some of the detective work is based on intuition rather than deduction and the denouement involves plenty of accusation and conjecture but not much concrete evidence.  Perhaps unsurprisingly then the reader is left guessing as to who the murder is and their motives until the end.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining historical crime tale.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989, Random House)

After fleeing Moscow former state investigator Arkady Renko has worked his way east, hiding in the shadows, always moving on before his former colleagues track him down.  It is now the time of Perestroika and Renko is working the slime line of a large factory ship, gutting fish before they are frozen.  In the spirit of cooperation the boat is working with American trawlers, storing their catches.  When one of the trawlers deposits the body of a female crew member onto the deck of the Polar Star the captain asks Renko to investigate her death.  To the consternation of some of the crew Renko suspects foul play.  At first he is reluctant to investigate further, but like many of the men who encountered the woman before her death he feels drawn to her.  It soon becomes clear, however, that investigating her death might have deadly consequences.

Polar Star is the sequel to Gorky Park, the first book in the Arkady Renko series.  Set a number of years after the first book, Renko has fled his former life and colleagues, taking a succession of menial jobs, working his way east across Siberia.  He eventually finds himself working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea, processing fish caught by American trawlers.  When a young woman is dragged from the sea by a net, Renko is persuaded to turn investigator once again.  Given the closed setting, the woman could have only been killed by one of the Russian crew or the crews of the American trawlers; she was last seen on the stern of the factory boat after a party on-board which the Americans attended.  It’s a neat set-up, made more compelling by the number of potential suspects given the woman’s promiscuity, the secrets held by many of the crew, their reluctance to aid Renko, especially since his investigation seems likely to cancel shore leave after four months of sea, and the inherent suspicion between Russians and Americans.  Smith gives a real sense of life on-board a factory ship operating in freezing territory and the uneasy thawing of relations been cold war rivals.  He slowly winds up the intrigue and tension, with the plot unfolding towards a nice denouement. The only flat note is the sense that Renko should have been dead within the first third of the tale and somehow manages to stay alive despite the many opportunities to kill and dispose of him.  Indeed, that he’s alive at the end of the book is something of a miracle.   Nonetheless, Polar Star is a gripping crime thriller.