Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review of Journey to Death by Leigh Russell (Thomas and Mercer, 2016)

In his early twenties George Hall worked in the Seychelles as an accountant at a hotel, where he met and fell in love with Veronique, his maid.  Shortly after there’s a coup and George is bundled onto a plane back to England as an undesirable.  Thirty years later and George, his wife Angela, and daughter Lucy have travelled to the islands for a holiday.  George and Angela are keen to revisit his old hotel and they’re hoping their daughter will be able to get over her recent break-up to her two-timing financé.  However, shortly after arriving it seems that someone is trying to kill Lucy and Angela is abducted.  The police seem little interested, George is in a daze, and Lucy decides to try and solve the mystery and rescue her mother.

I thought I’d give Journey to Death a read since it was a mystery set in the Seychelles and I fancied a virtual visit.  However, beyond the prologue and descriptions of tourist settings, the reader doesn’t really get a good sense of the place and its history and people; instead it acts merely as a backdrop.  Moreover, the mystery itself is quite weak and much of the plot seemed inexplicable – the choices the Halls make, the security in the hotel and the actions of its staff with regards evidence, and the island’s policing given events.  Despite the deeply troubling events - her mother abducted, a handful of attempts on Lucy’s life, a related murder - no-one seems to very troubled, let alone does anything substantial.  What keeps the reader hooked is discovering who is attacking the family and Russell’s pacy and breezy writing.  Overall, an okay read that lacked depth and realism.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review of Tin Sky by Ben Pastor (2015, Bitter Lemon Press)

Kharkov, Ukraine, 1943. Having barely survived the horrors of Stalingrad, Major Martin Bora of German military intelligence is preparing for the coming battle with the Russians.  Bora has been trying to squeeze information from General Platonov, recently shot down, when a second general defects, crossing the Donets with the latest version of T-34, a Russian tank.  Shortly after securing the new defector he is grabbed by the SS and hours later both he and Platonov are dead.  Bora is determined to try and discover why both men died and if there was a link between them.  However, given the tensions between rival arms of the German military and difficulties of operating in an occupied area it’s far from an easy task.

Tin Sky is the fourth book in the Martin Bora series to be translated into English (#9 in Italian).  In temporal terms it’s the second, sitting between Lumen (set in Poland in 1939) and Liar Moon (set in Italy in Autumn 1943).  This outing has Bora, a German military intelligence officer, located near to Kharkov in the Ukraine in the late spring, early summer of 1943.  Having recovered from Stalingrad, Bora is back on the frontline, preparing a new regiment while investigating a local set of murders in a small wood and trying to extract information from captured Russians.  When two Russian generals die within hours of each other, Bora investigates the circumstances but soon runs into resistance with colleagues.  Bora is an interesting character, born into an aristocratic, military family, with a talent for music and horsemanship, who lacks charisma but is dogged and principled.  His principles, however, are those of German military meaning he has no problem people being burned out of their homes or executed, or partisans being mowed down, as long as it occurs within and upholds the law.  The story is full of good historical detail, but is a bit too drawn out, full of description that little moves the story on.  This isn’t aided by the tale being told using a third person narrative and through Bora’s diary entries, the latter being somewhat redundant.  Moreover, the plot is quite convoluted and it’s not really clear why Bora is not murdered himself, especially given he is clearly a target once he decides to investigate; nor is it clear why he resolves the case they way he does.  The result is a story that while interesting, meanders, lacking pace, tension and a clear arc.  Nonetheless, it is a fairly solid addition to the series.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

A fairly quiet week.  I've been making travel plans to visit Boston and thinking about books to accompany me.  Robert Parker and John Connolly are already on the pile, so they've been moved to one side.  I might try to get hold of some Dennis Lehane and George V Higgins.  As to what I'm reading now, I've just started John McFetridge's A Little More Free set in Montreal, 1972 - very good so far.

My posts this week

Review of Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe Lansdale
Review of The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Finders keepers

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Finders keepers

‘Where did you get it?’ Mrs Heller demanded.

‘I found it,’ Josie said.


‘On the street.’

‘You found a gold bracelet lying in the street?’

‘Yes. By the park.’

‘And you expect me to believe that?’

‘It’s the truth!’

‘Like you’d know what the truth was! You’re just like your father – light-fingered.’

‘I found it.  Cross my heart.’

‘And did you try to find its owner?’

‘How?  It could be anyone’s.  Anyway, it’s finders keepers.’

‘Take it off. We’re taking it to the police station.’


‘So you did steal it then?’


‘Josie, the truth.’

‘I hate you!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review of Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe Lansdale (2016, Mulholland Books)

Always ready to stand up for those that need help, Hap and Leonard intervene to save a dog from a beating.  From across the street an old woman films them letting the owner know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a thrashing.  Their friend and employer, Marvin, shows up and reveals he’s the new chief of police.  Given his new job he needs to sell on his private investigator business and he figures Hap and Leonard are the perfect buyers.  Having worked manual, casual jobs for years they’re not so sure, but Brett, Hap’s partner is fed up of nursing and wants to give it a go.  Their first day as the new owners the old woman who filmed them shows up wanting them to find her granddaughter, Sandy, who disappeared five years earlier, using the film to negotiate a hefty discount.  After taking a journalism degree, Sandy went to work at a classic car dealership that appears to be a front for organised crime.  Hap and Leonard take on the case and soon stir-up a hornet’s nest.  This time they might have taken on more than they can chew, but as usual their determined to administer their own brand of justice.

Honky Tonk Samurai is the eleventh book in the Hap and Leonard series.  It has the same hallmarks as the earlier books: a witches brew of colourful characters, crackling dialogue, strong action sequences, and a decent sense of place and context.  And as usual, the real pleasure is in the likeable characters of Hap and Leonard and their relationship, and Lansdale’s unique voice.  However, for me, the tale and the telling didn’t quite live up to earlier outings, especially the first few books.  The story was linear and involved little detective work, and elements of the plot didn’t seem to sit quite right.  Whereas the other books are tightly paced in this outing there are some sizable chunks of dialogue that little move the story forward (even the characters tell each other to stop rambling).  The result is an undulating plot of lulls between some nice action set pieces.  Moreover, some main characters and key aspects of the story remain off-stage.  My sense was too much of the plot was about setting Hap and Leonard up in the private investigation business, moving new characters into their personal lives, and reuniting them with characters from earlier in the series.  Nonetheless, Lansdale’s brilliant way with words and the usual hallmarks makes Honky Tonk Samurai an entertaining and enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review of The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (1969, Harper)

A man commits suicide leaving a note that simply says ‘Martin Beck’, a chief detective inspector in the Stockholm murder squad.  Later that day, Beck’s colleague Gunvald Larsson is observing a small apartment block as a favour to another department when it explodes violently.  Larsson manages to rescue a number of people from the block before it collapses, but three are left dead.  It also appears to be a suicide, the victim leaving the gas running, which later ignites.  The case seems pretty straightforward, though there are some niggling questions, such as why the small-time criminal committed suicide and why the fire department was so late to arrive. 

The Fire Engine That Disappeared is the fifth book in the Martin Beck series.  Like the preceding novels, Sjowall and Wahloo tell the tale using a measured, understated voice.  The focus is very much on the everyday group dynamic of a murder squad, the various personalities, petty jealousies and rivalries, and how the police go about identifying and solving the crime.  And again, the timeline is stretched over many months involving lots of laborious and routine work.  However, the usual realism seems a little less believable in this tale than the others with a seemingly perfect crime being picked apart with a certain amount of luck and coincidence, the tale itself felt a little flat, and the social and political commentary about Swedish society is much less pronounced.  Nonetheless, it’s a solid addition to what has so far been a strong series.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

Friday was the first time in 20 years I had to pull out of presenting a talk, breaking my 312 not out record (which having totted it up is a heck of a lot of events). I didn't take the decision lightly and was thinking of driving to Galway, giving my presentation, and then trying to get emergency dental treatment. In the end sense prevailed and my dentist kindly slotted me into her day's scheduled. Upper left molar extracted. Still can't believe how much pain can emanate from a single tooth.  I'm now getting used to the gap and reading Tin Sky by Ben Pastor to aid recovery.

My posts this week
Review of A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm
Review of Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty
Breaker's yard

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Breaker's Yard

Carson and Mikey had been exploring the abandoned breaker’s yard for the past hour, wandering through the half-picked cars, sitting behind steering wheels, clambering up mountains of junk.  The place was every boy’s idea of a cool place to play – life-size toys, interesting nooks and crannies, hidden from prying eyes.

Carson tugged open the door of a shipping container and stepped inside.

At the far end was a wooden chair, ropes coiled around its legs.

‘Hey, look, a mannequin hand!’  Mikey reached down and picked it up.

‘I don’t think that’s …’

Mikey yelped.

Behind them the doors swung shut.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Review of A Life In Secrets: The Story Of Vera Atkins And The Lost Agents Of SOE by Sarah Helm (2005, Abacus)

Vera Atkins was born in Romania in 1908, schooled in Switzerland, and travelled widely prior to the Second World War, including Germany, England, South Africa (in each of which she had family) and the Middle East.  After her father’s death she changed her surname from Rosenberg to her mother’s maiden name, seeking to hide her Jewish heritage, and moved to Britain in the late 1930s.  Throughout her life she moved in the higher echelons of society and through her contacts she secured a post working for the nascent SOE, formed to place agents into enemy territory to collect information and undertake sabotage.  Vera took particular interest in the female agents, always trying to be at the airfield when the departed.  After the war she travelled to France and Germany and doggedly investigated the fate of those agents that fell into the hands of the Gestapo, visiting concentration camps and interrogating Nazi officers and officials.
Sarah Helm’s book explores Vera’s life and in particular her role in SOE and her post-war quest.  The book is divided into three parts.  The first part concerns Vera’s time in SOE during the war, the setting up of agent networks in France, and the disastrous handling of the Prosper and related networks in which London was expertly played through a ‘radio game’ in which the Germans broadcast through captured wireless sets and fresh agents were parachuted into their waiting hands.   The second part concerns Vera’s life before the war and her move to Britain.  The third part details Vera’s attempt to track down what happened to her agents and to seek justice for them.  What is clear from the outset is that Vera Atkins spent her life creating a carefully managed story about herself and her work.  And despite living a full and eventful life, she was guarded, manipulative, and often quite cold.  While respectful to Vera’s memory, Helm also exposes her secrets, dispelling the myths she created.  The story of the agents is both tragic and poignant.

Helm tries to enliven the text a little by describing her research; her various interactions with those that knew her and the families of SOE agents, her journeys to track down sources and view the places that Vera had lived/visited, and her searching and sifting through various archives.  The insertion of the author into the narrative runs counter to usual biographical/historical accounts and while it does provide some context as to why Helm draws the conclusions that she does it’s also a little tedious at times and pads the text.  Nonetheless, it is clear that Helm has undertaken a very large amount of research and her deductions seem sound.  The result is an interesting account of secretive woman who was involved in secretive work and the female agents she sent into the field.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review of Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty (Serpent's Tail, 2016)

1987, Northern Ireland.  Detective Inspector Sean Duffy of Carrickfergus CID is experiencing the high and lows of being a member of the RUC – riot duty for Muhammad Ali’s visit to Belfast, Beth his student girlfriend leaving him, and investigating the supposed theft of a wallet from a Finnish delegation visiting to assess the area for a new factory.  Then a young English journalist who was accompanying the Finns is found dead in the grounds of Carrickfergus castle.  It seems like a suicide but some evidence suggests otherwise.  If it is murder, then Duffy has a perplexing locked-room mystery, the second of his career – and the odds against that are astronomical.  On the same night a chief inspector who had been involved in the Finns' trip dies in a car bomb.  Duffy and his colleagues doggedly pursue the locked-room case which points to organized sexual abuse at the highest levels by politicians and television stars but find it difficult to make progress.

Two years since Sean Duffy’s last outing in Gun Street Girl and he’s still a somewhat listless detective inspector in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.  In this fifth instalment in the series Duffy’s love life once again flounders and he’s presented with an intriguing locked-room mystery.  At the heart of the case is sex abuse ring linked to Jimmy Saville and others, which Duffy finds difficult to investigate.  There’s no doubt that McKinty has created a superior police procedural series.  As with the previous four books, Rain Dogs presses all the right buttons – an engaging flawed lead character, a strong sense of place and time, nice contextualisation, and a thoughtful, clever plot with an interesting puzzle.  And, as usual, it’s written in his distinctive prose and laced with dark humour.  The story is a little flat in the middle at times and it would have been fascinating for the Saville angle to be explored a bit more, but nonetheless the tale is another strong addition to this excellent series. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a hectic week with three talks, each on a different thing.  Now back in the airport on the way to the Netherlands for another talk tomorrow.  I couldn't find a book set there in my to-be-read pile so settled for the The Fire Engine that Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo instead. 

My posts this week
Doreen Massey (1944-2016) RIP
Review of The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson

Saturday, March 12, 2016


‘It’s the same fist, but …’

‘He’s not turned,’ Finch snapped.  ‘Hanney wouldn’t collaborate.’

‘He might under duress,’ March reasoned.  ‘Trying to save the lives of others.’

‘By entrapping other agents?  No, Hanney has a rock solid sense of duty.  I was involved in his training.’

‘And that sense of duty might play in different ways.  If he’s turned then the entire network is compromised.  And we’re parachuting others into a certain trap.’  

‘It’s not a certain trap!’

‘But it might be?’


‘We’re playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.’

‘Which is the case whether he’s turned or not.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review of The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson (Arcadia, 2014)

William Catesby has risen from working class Suffolk lad via Cambridge and SOE to a SIS player.  Jeffers Cauldwell is a rich American from the deep south, cultural attache in London, and a communist spy.  Cauldwell and his network of agents are Catesby’s target. Cauldwell is soon caught, but his network remain at large.  When a Russian spy offers his services to British intelligence he reveals that the KGB’s network in Britain has apparently been taken over, most probably by communists who have swapped allegiance to the Chinese.  Moreover, SIS suspect that there’s a spy somewhere near the very top of Whitehall, quite possibly Lady Penelope Somers.  Catesby travels to Moscow and then Vietnam seeking answers, knowing that he is putting his own life in danger.

The Whitehall Mandarin is the fourth in Edward Wilson’s spy novels set in the 1950s/60s.  The premise is an intriguing one – how did the Chinese manage to catch up in the nuclear arms race so quickly?  Wilson’s answer weaves an expansive plot that criss-crosses the UK, United States, Cuba, Russia and Vietnam - touching on events such as the Bay of Pigs, the Profumo affair and British upper class sex scandals, the start of the Vietnam war - with William Catesby seeking to solve the puzzle and plug the leaking of UK secrets.  It’s an ambitious plot and while the book is very readable, the story is somewhat uneven in pace and concentration with some scenes/escapades short and punchy and others drawn out, and the credibility of the plot is stretched to breaking point a few times, not least in the denouement.  The result is an entertaining spy tale, but one that veers towards Frederick Forsyth when it might have better to have stuck more with the John Le Carre undertones.  Nonetheless, I’m looking to the next in the loose series, A Very British Ending.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lazy Sunday Service

I finally managed to get my hands on Adrian McKinty's latest, Rain Dogs.  I've made a start into it today.  There's a lovely opening scene that imagines Muhammad Ali visiting Belfast in 1987.

My posts this week
Review of Canary by Duane Swierczynski
Review of The Kill by Jane Casey
February reads

Saturday, March 5, 2016


Hart stared at the horizon.  The sea and sky were almost the same shade of black; the sea darker.  The ship pitched into a trough and crashed into the oncoming wave, freezing water flooding the deck.  Hart clung onto the rail and cursed.  To starboard an ancient steamer was engulfed in spray.  Only a madman would expose himself to such weather.  Madmen and petty officers with a nervous lieutenant-commander.  They’d already lost five ships.  Hart shuffled along the deck and repeated a prayer.  The steamer erupted at its stern.  The lieutenant-commander would leave it to its fate.  Hart prayed again.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Review of Canary by Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland, 2015)

Sarie Holland is a straight A’s honors student who barely drinks and never does drugs.  At a party she agrees to drive a fellow student across Philadelphia.  Only the run is for drugs and the location of the deal is under surveillance by Officer Wildey.  Sensing an opening to bust a difficult case once Sarie’s friend collects the drugs Wildey pulls her over, her friend doing a runner.  Sarie is given a choice – name her friend, become a police informer, or go to prison for five years or more.  She chooses informer.  Wildey and her boss think that by leaning on her hard, Sarie will give up the name of her friend.  Instead, Sarie tries to buy her freedom by tracking down other dealers.  She’s out of her depth, but proves quite adept of finding suitable felons.  Only Wildey has a particular dealer in mind. To complicate matters a gang is bumping off informers and it’s only a matter of time until Sarie is in their sights.

The hook in Canary is an appealing one.  The first time that a goody-too-shoes student does something stupid she is made to pay a heavy price, forced to choose between friendship, informing or prison.  However, a weakness in the book’s plot is that she barely knows the person she is taking the rap for and it’s hard to believe that she’d sacrifice her own future for him.  Added to that, the tale is propelled along by a number of fairly crude plot devices, barely believable twists, and a storyline that was somewhat telegraphed.  Nonetheless, Canary is an entertaining read, held together by the likeability of the two main characters, Sarie, the resourceful student, and Wildey, an honest, caring cop, and their interactions, and a strong sense of place with respect to Philadelphia.  The double narrative works well, swapping between their points-of-view, and also that of Sarie’s brother and father.  And once the seemingly inevitable telegraphed ending is revealed as a false summit the tale gets interesting and gripping.  The result is an enjoyable tale that requires a fair bit of suspension of disbelief.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review of The Kill by Jane Casey (Ebury, 2014)

DC Maeve Kerrigan, DI Josh Derwent and the rest of Superintendent Godley’s team are called away from a wedding to investigate the shooting of an off-duty policeman in Richmond Park.  The officer has been shot with an illegal firearm.  There is no apparent motive and no substantive leads and the officers struggle to make headway in the investigation.  Then there’s a second attack on several officers patrolling a sink estate, leaving a handful dead.  It appears that someone is indiscriminately killing police officers.  As the pressure mounts, Godley’s team struggle to make progress, though Kerrigan senses she knows what is happening and why but feels trapped to act, despite the on-going attacks.    

The Kill is the fifth book in the Maeve Kerrigan series.  It’s a very readable police procedural, with a tense core case in which the Kerrigan, her abrasive boss, Joss Derwent, and the rest of their team investigate the murderous targeting of police officers.  While the book has its moments and is generally an entertaining tale I struggled at times with the story.  This was for a number of reasons, part of which is my taste in content/style.  A large chunk of the book focuses on the relationship and sexual chemistry between Kerrigan and Derwent.  A good proportion of the first hundred pages of The Kill were devoted to their interchanges and Kerrigan’s related internal dialogues.  Personally, I found this a little tedious as much of it did not move the story forward and its consequence was to create uneven pacing throughout.  I’m sure that it is this relationship, and the will they/won’t they element, that is the real appeal of the series for many readers, but for my taste it is too foregrounded.  As for the story itself, I had a hard time believing in the procedural elements of the plot, where reality seemed to get sacrificed for grit and tension and the longer series arc of character relationships.  Admittedly, this is common in the genre but I found I couldn’t quite fully suspend my disbelief and be swept along in the narrative as required.  There is however some nice contextualisation of public perception and reaction to policing in London.