Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins, 2016)

September 1666 and the Great Fire burns much of London to the ground. James Marwood’s home survives, but only because he lives a few miles away with his disgraced father, a plotter of the downfall of King Charles I, whose son is now king. Marwood is employed in Whitehall as a clerk, running errands for Master Williamson, who as well as managing affairs of state publishes the Gazette newspaper. In the aftermath of the fire, there is much to be addressed, including the rebuilding of the city and investigating a suspicious death. The man murdered was in the employ of Lord Alderley, a rich goldsmith, significant property investor and a moneylender to the king. Alderley is the guardian to Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett, his niece and daughter of an infamous regicide who is still on the run. Betrothed to a man she detests and desired by her lecherous cousin, Cat leaves the household, working as a maid in a lodging house. Despite never knowing each other prior to a chance encounter during the Great Fire, Marwood and Cat’s lives are linked through their fathers’ membership of the Fifth Monarchists, a fanatical religious, anti-royalist group. Their lives become further entwined as Marwood searches for a killer who seems intent on pursuing a bloody revenge.

Set in the months after the Great Fire of London in 1666, The Ashes of London utilizes real characters (including King Charles II, Christopher Wren and Joseph Williamson) and events to spin a historical crime fiction tale that is full of political intrigue. At the centre of the tale is an on-going conspiracy concerning the actions of Fifth Monarchists who helped Oliver Cromwell dispose of King Charles II, some of whom are still at large despite King Charles I being restored to the throne. Beyond the historicisation and sense of place, which is nicely done providing interesting wider context without dominating the tale, the strength of the story is the two principle characters. James Marwood and Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett have anti-royalist fathers, but are trying to get on with their lives in the new regime. Marwood’s father has served his time, but is now suffering from mild dementia. While serving as a lowly clerk in Whitehall, Marwood tries to look after and protect his ailing and ostracised father. Cat is living in her aunt, who has married the wealthy Lord Alderley, but is unhappy with their plans for her and the attentions of her cousin. When a servant of the Alderley household is murdered Marwood is asked to investigate. By the time he reaches the Alderley residence Cat has fled, taking refuge as a maid in a lodging house. The plot progresses by telling the Marwood side of the tale in the first-person, and Cat’s side in the third person. Taylor keeps the pace relatively swift, charting the paths of both protagonists and their various trials and tribulations. There are no real surprises in the story and the wrap up after the major denouement felt a little flat with some open threads. I’m not sure if that’s because Taylor is planning a sequel or it ran out of steam or he wanted to avoid obvious plot wrap ups. Overall, an interesting and engaging medieval investigative procedural.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Thursday was my last overseas trip to give a talk until November, and there's just two in Ireland in the diary for the same time period. I'll still break twenty gigs for the year, but this furlough will hopefully refresh batteries and translate into some thinking and writing. I guess time will tell if the hypothesis and experiment works. 

My posts this week
Review of The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth
Review of The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson
Life’s too short for fairy tales

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Life’s too short for fairy tales

‘Where’s Dad?’

‘He’s gone.’

‘Gone where?  Fishing?’

‘No, he’s left.  We’ve split up.’

‘Split up?  What the …’

‘Now, Brendan, don’t get angry. We’re both happier this way.’

‘Happier?  What about me and Kath?’

‘What about you?  You’ve both left home. You were the only reason we stayed together.’

‘But …’

‘But nothing.  We have our own lives.  And Kath is fine with it.’

‘Kath knows already?’

‘She thinks your father’s new girlfriend is okay.’

‘Girlfriend? But what about you?’

‘I’m sure I’ll fine someone too.’

‘And to till death do us apart?’

‘Life’s too short, Brendan, for fairy tales.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth (Pan, 2009)

Autumn, 1944, London. A young Polish woman is murdered while on the way to visit her aunt. She had been working on a farm owned by former Scotland Yard detective, John Madden. His old colleagues discover that the woman was slayed quickly and efficiently by a skilled killer. They pick up a hopeful lead, but then a second murder occurs. Already interested in the case, Madden starts to an active role in trying to determine why Rosa was killed and to identify and catch the murderer. However, it’s apparent that the killer’s modus operandi is to depose of anyone who can potential identify him.

The Dead of Winter is the third in the John Madden series, each set in a particular decade, this one in war-time London.  Madden has left long left his job as a Scotland Yard detective and is now running a farm.  When a Polish woman working for him is murdered in London he aids his former colleagues try to apprehend a ruthless killer.  The story is a relatively straightforward serial killer police procedural, where the murderer is a killer for hire whose signature is to murder all potential witnesses to his identity. That’s not a spoiler in that it is clear from the start that’s this is the case. In this sense there is little mystery in the story, it is all about the crime and the procedural elements. These are relatively straightforward, with Madden unearthing and tracking clues. The characterisation is the strongest element of the story, with Madden, his old colleagues, WPC Lily Poole and a number of incidental characters well-drawn. On the downside is a lot of unnecessary exposition, the removal of any mystery (the reader knows the reason for the murder pretty much from the prologue and finds out the identity of the killer way before the end), and a plot that doesn’t quite make sense when pressed with respect to the actions of the killer. Eliminating the prologue would have made the story more interesting and was entirely unnecessary in my view. The result is a rather staid and underwhelming tale.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Review of The Dying Detective by Leif G.W. Persson (2016, English; 2010 Swedish)

Former police chief Lars Martin Johansson still enjoys street food. When he stops for a hotdog what saves his life is the presence of a number of police officers. Suffering a massive stroke he is rushed to hospital. While recovering his neurologist tells him about the rape and murder of a nine year old girl that took place twenty five years ago. The neurologist’s father was a priest who before he died told his daughter that a parishioner had passed on her suspicions concerning the killer, though he hadn't told the identity to the daughter. The case has never been solved. From his hospital bed, Johansson starts to investigate, soon discovering that the original investigation had been botched from the start. Moreover, due to a new twenty five statute of limitations, even if he identified the perpetrator they could not face justice. Johannsson, however, is not the kind of person who’s going to let a stroke, ill-health, weak evidence or the justice system get in his way – he was after-all known as the cop who could see round corners.

The Dying Detective is the eighth book in the Jarnebring and Johansson, not all of which have been translated into English. It can though be read as a standalone and I’ve not yet read any of the other books. In this outing, Johansson has retired as police chief and suffers a serious stroke. While recovering he starts to investigate a twenty five year old rape and murder of a nine year old girl that was never solved. Using his friend Jarnebring to run errands and asking favours of former colleagues he starts to piece together what happened and who was responsible. His obsession for justice is not good for his recovery, but Johansson is only interested in the good life and justice, not struggling along with illness and popping pills. Undoubtedly the star of the book is Johansson, a bear of a man struggling to maintain his bite. He’s surrounded by a cast of memorable characters including Jarnebring, his brother Evert, wife Pia, and home-helps, the tattooed Matilda and burly Max, and there’s some nice interchanges between them. I was particularly taken with the narrative voice, which is engaging and entertaining, especially the tandem of Johansson’s spoken words and thoughts.  For the most part, Persson keeps the plot moving along, mixing in some light humour and social commentary. At the point the killer’s identity is revealed, however, the pace drops and the story becomes somewhat drawn-out, shifting from the hunt to the nature of justice. What was a great read has the wind taken from its sails, losing momentum and direction. Which was a shame as I was thoroughly enjoying the tale. Nonetheless, The Dying Detective is a very good read with a wonderful lead character.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've finally got round to reading another Rennie Airth book - The Dead of Winter - the third in the John Madden series. The last was quite a while ago, which I failed to finish as I left the book on a plane only twenty pages from the end. Pretty frustrating, but difficult to justify buying the book again to complete. This one is partially set in Bloomsbury, where I'll be giving a talk later this week.

My posts this week

Review of Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Coterill
New paper: Being a ‘citizen’ in the smart city: Up and down the scaffold of smart citizen participation
Review of Silence by Anthony Quinn

Saturday, May 20, 2017


May in L.A. and it had been raining for a week.

Carter huddled under a too-small umbrella and watched a tow-truck drag a SUV from the canal.

Ten minutes later he was staring at the bloated driver, still clutching the steering wheel.

‘Rick Shine,’ Matisse said. ‘King of the knock-down car lot and late-night TV ad.’

‘You’re fine with Shine,’ Carter mimicked.

‘Sold my mother a piece-of-shit run-around. More porcine than fine.’

‘Well, he’s now in the big car park in the sky.’

‘More like a pit-stop in hell. The man had no heart.’

‘Yet, he was a practiced cardiologist.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Review of Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Coterill (Quercus, 2005)

Laos, mid-1970s, the country is transitioning to a new communist government. After many years hiding in the jungle and now in his seventies, rather than retirement Dr Siri Paiboun has found himself the new national coroner. He has also discovered he is host to an ancient spirit, which has opened up a whole new world. His new role examining the recently deceased and his ability to see dead spirits poses many questions and mysteries. His natural curiosity and willingness to resist and subvert the wishes of the political regime lead him to investigate deaths that others would prefer to be ignored. He is aided in his exploits by the formidable Nurse Dtui, Mr Geung, his mischievous mortuary assistant with Downs Syndrome, Inspector Phosy, and his long-term ally and senior politician, Civilai. When a bodies start to turn up with an unusual bite marks, Siri starts to investigate. He is distracted by a man who seems to have taken a running jump from the seventh floor of a government ministry, and a trip south to where two men have mysterious been burnt to a crisp. In the meantime, Nurse Dtui pursues her own line of inquiry.

Thirty-Three Teeth is the second book in the Dr Siri series set in Laos in the 1970s. Like the first in the series there is much to like about the story and storytelling. The real delight is the characterisation, especially Dr Siri, Nurse Dtui, and mortuary assistant, Mr Geung, who are all extremely likeable, multidimensional characters with interesting back stories. Dr Siri, in particular, shines with his easy-going charm and slightly rascal persona. Added to this is: the sense of place and time in the early days of the communist regime in Laos; the mythical and spiritual elements that sit easily into the tale without seeming contrived or oddly supranatural; and the unusual mysteries that are investigated. The result is a warm-hearted, charming and enjoyable tale that blends crime and social/historical commentary with magical realism to great effect.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review of Silence by Anthony Quinn (Head of Zeus, 2015)

Spooked at a police checkpoint, Father Aloysius Walsh speeds away to his death. For the past few years he had been collecting evidence of collusion between serving police officers and loyalist paramilitaries, plotting a murder triangle in Armagh in the late 1970s. Inspector Celcius Daly arrives at the scene, along with Special Branch, and starts to investigate despite their warnings to steer clear. At a hotel a few miles away a former British agent who served at the heart of the IRA waits for Father Walsh, but is instead visited by a journalist. The agent, journalist and Daly all want the murders and the involvement of the police exposed, but for different reasons. For Daly the reason is personal – his mother’s name is written on Walsh’s murder map. His colleagues want Daly to drop his investigation and the agent silenced. Daly, however, needs to know the truth of his mother’s death even if that means revealing dirty police secrets of the past.

Silence is the third book in the Inspector Celcius Daly series set in the borderlands of Northern Ireland. Daly is an introverted and stubborn loner cop who lives in a run-down cottage near to Lough Neagh. In this outing he’s investigating the death of a Catholic priest who had been investigating the death of Daly’s mother, along with others, in 1979. Daly had been told his mother was caught in the crossfire of a skirmish between the police force and Republican terrorists. Father Walsh’s research shows she was killed in cold blood by Loyalist paramilitaries colluding with serving police officers. The police force wants to keep the collusion under wraps to protect its reputation and the officers involved. Daly is only interested in the truth. With his usual single-mindedness he starts to gather evidence to supplement that collated by Father Walsh. Unlike much crime fiction that is driven primarily by the plot and the interactions between a fairly large cast of characters, Silence is an in-depth character study of a man struggling with himself and his past, and the landscape and history of the Irish borderlands. Quinn dwells on Daly’s inner turmoil, the atmosphere and sense of place, and the secrets of a dirty war. The result is a highly reflexive, literary crime tale that juxtaposes the present fragile peace with the need for truth and reconciliation.  The prose is often delicious, there’s some nice intertextuality with Stuart Neville’s work, and a clever knowing nod to the storytelling with a passage in which a journalist details how she’s going to tell the story of the 1979 murders through a fiction piece starring Daly (Quinn is a journalist).  Where the story suffers a little bit is the ending which seemed a little truncated and the denouement lacked conviction and resolution. In addition, there was one element that did not ring true for me and bumped me out of the story. Nonetheless, an interesting piece of introspective crime fiction.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday's drabble was the 300th I've published on the blog. Which means for the past 300 Saturdays I've managed to find some time to write and publish one. I'm sure one Saturday I'll clean forget or something will get in the way, but hopefully not any time soon.

My posts this week

Review of One or The Other by John McFetridge
New paper: From the accidental to articulated smart city
Review of A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward

Cha Cha Cha

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Cha Cha Cha

‘Would you like to dance?’ He held out his hand.

She rose to her feet. ‘I thought nobody was going to ask.’

‘You’re new here,’ he said, spinning her round gracefully.

‘I moved in Thursday. You’ve done this before.’

‘Ballroom instructor, Butlins 1957 to 61. And you?’

‘Chorus line, Pinewood Studios.’

‘This could be the start of something beautiful.’

He pushed her away and twirled her back.

She laughed. ‘I bet you try this with all the new arrivals, you old shark.’

‘But you’re the first that’s made me want to Cha Cha Cha again.’

‘Quickstep seems more your style.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review of One or The Other by John McFetridge (ECW Press, 2016)

Montreal, 1976. A year of discontent. The Olympics are due to take place in the summer and after the terrorists attacks in Munich the authorities are taking no chances. Public sector unions are threatening industrial action. A Brinks truck is been hijacked and the police keep shaking down criminal gangs in the hope of catching the thieves. The suspicion is the stolen money is being used to flood the city with drugs. Eddie Dougherty is also out of sorts. He wants a permanent appointment as a detective but always seems to be seconded on an interim basis and to the fringes of a case. He’s thinking of popping the question to his girlfriend, but can never find the right time. When a teenage couple are found on opposite sides of the river he is paired with a francophone port cop to investigate. The pair are soon marginalised, however. Neither is happy with the outcome, especially when it’s ruled a murder-suicide rather than a double murder. Defying their bosses, the pair keep unofficially plugging away at the case over several months.

One or The Other is the third book in the Eddie Dougherty series set in Montreal in the 1970s. In this outing it’s 1976. The two big events in the city are a major armed robbery and the Olympics. Dougherty is at the fringes of both, but is out of sorts at work and home. He wants to be a detective but is only ever temporarily assigned and the case he’s working – the death of two teenagers – is taken away from him and in his view mis-investigated, and his relationship with his girlfriend seems to have reached the point where they make a longer term commitment. The tale is stretched out over the year, tracking Dougherty’s unofficial investigation undertaken with a port cop of the teenage deaths. In many ways, this is a bold move. The armed robbery and the Olympics would have been much bigger hooks, but both are largely skirted. Instead McFetridge concentrates on the mundane – everyday policing and the slog of office politics, the ordinariness of crime and a potential miscarriage of justice in a case that is little cared for, and a slightly unsettled home life. On one hand it gives a kind of hyper-realist account of policing, and on the other it leaves the tale somewhat flat and insubstantial. The result is a book that feels like a bridging tale, a filler-episode, as Dougherty’s life transitions. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting police procedural of a case tangential to the key action in the city.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review of A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward (Faber and Faber, 2016)

Lena Grey has recently been released from prison for the murder of her husband. When the body of a man is found shot dead in an abandoned morgue the police are mortified to discover that it is the same man. So, who was the original victim? Why did Lena kill him and claim he was her husband? And who killed the husband fifteen years after his original supposed death? Detective Inspector Francis Sadler and his small team of Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer and Detective Constable Connie Childs of the Derbyshire police seek answers to both the old and new case. So does Lena’s sister, Kat, who is receiving strange gifts. However, Lena has disappeared and clues seem thin on the ground.

A Deadly Thaw is the second book in the DC Connie Childs series. In this outing she and the rest of her team are investigating the murder of a man believed to have been murdered fifteen years previously. It’s an interesting hook that Ward just about makes credible, though it does require a bit of suspension of disbelief given it occurred in a small town, rides on the basis that only one person who could recognize the body saw it before it was cremated and that was his wife who was also the murderer, and the police did no other checks. The story then largely unfolds as a typical police procedural, though two other strands are interwoven: a thread following the sister of the woman convicted fifteen years previously for the man’s first murder; and flashbacks to the time leading up to the first murder. The former provides another perspective on the case and adds a couple of prospective suspects, the latter gives some wider context to the case. Set in a relatively quiet town in Derbyshire, the sedate pace of the place is mirrored somewhat in the tale and, while the story ticks along in a series of short chapters and there are some action points, the key element is the characters and their interactions. The central character is Connie Childs, who has the drive to succeed but is nonetheless a team player and is no ‘super-woman’, unlike many single-minded maverick or quirky fiction cops. The rest of the team is similarly made up of fairly ordinary coppers and the town by normal folk with their various issues. Indeed, a nice aspect to the story is the very ordinariness of the place, people and crimes.  The result is a reasonably engaging tale that is as much about the relationships between characters as it is about solving the murder.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Just been to Cork for a couple of days to attend a conference. Always enjoy visiting. They've painted all the traffic control boxes in a Republic of Cork theme. Here's a couple of them. 

My posts this week
Review of The Divided City by Luke McCallin
April reads
Bridging the adoption gap for smart city technologies
Review of Dietrich and Riefenstahl by
                                        Karin Wieland
                                       They used to dance and laugh

Saturday, May 6, 2017

They used to dance and laugh

She’ll wait all night for him to come. But he won’t come, or if he does it’ll be dawn. She’ll sit by the door and twist her hair; drink black coffee and fret. They used to dance and laugh, roll around between the sheets. Now they barely talk any more, or if they do it soon becomes a shouting match. She’s not sure what went wrong, just that it is all wrong. He remembers how it used to be, but not how to recapture the magic. Yet she still waits for him to come and he still does eventually return.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of The Divided City by Luke McCallin (Berkeley, 2016)

1947, Berlin. Gregor Reinhardt has returned to Berlin and is back serving as a detective inspector in the local police force. Post-war, the force is full of green and unqualified recruits, many of them serving as puppets for their various Allied masters, and Reinhardt is shunned and mocked – especially by those with communist sympathies – for being a former officer and being sponsored by the Americans.  He generally keeps himself to himself, working the night shift.  In the early hours he is called to a double homicide. A British agent is found dead in a stairwell. In an apartment above a former Luftwaffe fighter pilot has been asphyxiated. The British want the killer of their agent caught. Reinhardt is given the less political task of investigated the death of the pilot. He soon discovers that the pilot was one in a series of deaths involving members of the same squadron and the Russians and Americans are also interested in the case. Each power is demanding to be informed of progress, as well as an underground group of ex-military German personnel. Unwittingly, Reinhardt finds himself playing a deadly game with a killer out for revenge and four Allied powers struggling for control of a divided city.

The Divided City is the third book in the Reinhardt series. After charting Reinhardt’s exploits in Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War, this outing is set in Berlin in 1947. Reinhardt has returned to his pre-war job as a detective in the Berlin Kripo. McCallin uses this scenario to create a very nice setup, with Reinhardt continuing his outsider role.  Very few policeman who served in the Nazi era have survived in post and the force is full of new recruits with little experience and who are full of resentment. Reinhardt commands little respect and is openly mocked by colleagues. He does though have the knowledge and skills to undertake a complex murder case and the survival instinct to navigate dirty politics. In the case he’s presented – former fighter pilots from the same squadron being murdered – he needs all his wits to track down clues and survive political and physical attacks from all sides. It’s clear that the book is well researched and McCallin gives a sense of the landscape and social life of the devastated city, the alienation of the German populace and social divisions, and the political in-fights between the four Allied powers running the city. Reinhardt is an interesting, conflicted character, and the characterisation in general is strong. Where the book excels is with respect to the plot. It’s a little ponderous to start, but it soon gains direction. McCallin weaves together a complex tapestry and there’s a tremendous amount going on, but at the same time it’s straightforward to follow the threads and various intrigues. It’s not obvious who the killer is until near the end, which I sensed more from intuition than piecing together evidence, and it’s only with the reveal that it’s clear that McCallin left a series of well veiled clues. Overall, an atmospheric and engaging tale.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

April reads

A relatively slow month of reading. The standout book was Adrian McKinty's There's Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly. Another strong addition to the Sean Duffy series.

Whiskey River by Loren Estleman ****.5
The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith ***
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott ****
Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker ****
Bulldog Drummond by Sapper **
There’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty *****

Monday, May 1, 2017

Review of Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland (2013, Liveright)

Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were born within less than a year of each other (late 1901, mid-1902) and both grew up in Berlin, their teenage years blighted by the First World War. Both women were head-strong, egocentric, manipulative, determined to succeed in show business, and had a fondness for relationships with younger men as well as with women. Both started off as actresses. After initial successes, Dietrich headed to Hollywood, Riefenstahl turned her hand to directing. While Dietrich drifted between Hollywood, New York and Paris, making movies and having an endless set of affairs, Riefenstahl cultivated a friendship with Goebbels and Hitler and became the documentary maker of choice for the Nazis. During the war Riefenstahl spent millions making a movie, using concentration camp victims as extras. Dietrich in contrast, worked as an entertainer, following frontline US troops in North Africa and up through Italy. Post-war, Riefenstahl fought a number of legal cases to try and salvage her reputation, while Dietrich’s career slumped. Both remained restless and sought to reinvent their fame, which they both did in later years: Riefenstahl as a photographer and Dietrich as singer.

Wieland’s twin biography traces the long lives of Dietrich and Riefenstahl, alternating between the stories of both women.  And this is one of the core issues with the book. It is two biographies told side-by-side. Wieland makes little attempt to compare their lives explicitly, leaving it to the reader to make points of comparison. Certainly there are many similarities between Dietrich and Riefenstahl in terms of their drive, ambition, sexual conquests, and manipulative behaviour, but they took different routes with respect to Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl cultivated and enjoyed the patronage of senior Nazis and was a key element of their propaganda machine. Dietrich loathed the Nazis and raised significant investment in war bonds before spending a couple of years entertaining frontline troops. What is presented is a timeline of actions and relationships, but little analysis of the motivations and aspirations of both women, or how they might have been reflective of other German women of the same age. In fact, both women are somehow separated from wider context. Little is said, for example, about German society and the entertainment industries during and after the First World War or the Weimar period, we just get an account of family relationships and career. The result is two parallel biographies that are somewhat disconnected from one another and from the time and society in which they were embedded. Moreover, both are judged entirely from the standpoint of the present. That’s not to excuse the choices and actions of Riefenstahl in particular, but to note that they were not entirely out of place within the context in which they occurred. That she continued to deny accusations and evidence post-war is rightly judged, but again, Riefenstahl was not the only one to do so and her stance should have been contextualised with respect to other such cases.  Overall, an interesting read but lacking in wider context and analysis.