Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review of Snow Blind by Ragnar Jónasson (2015, Orenda Books; 2010 Icelandic)

Ari Thór Arason has dropped out of studying theology and philosophy and enrolled in police college. Living with his girlfriend in Reykjavik he accepts a post as a rookie police officer in the small, isolated town of Siglufjörður, 400 km away in northern Iceland. Nestled alongside a fjord, surrounded by mountains and accessible only via a single tunnel, it’s the kind of place where everyone knows everybody else and the crime rate is so low that doors are left unlocked. Ari Thór is very much the outsider and his girlfriend is unhappy with his move, but it’s a first job and step on the career ladder. When a famous author and chair of the local dramatics society is found dead at the foot of the stairs, it’s assumed by everyone that he’d fallen accidentally. Ari Thór thinks his colleagues should at least entertain the possibility of foul play.  Shortly afterwards a woman is found stabbed and half-naked in the snow. The most logical culprit – her abusive partner – has an alibi. With the town cut off through heavy snow and an avalanche, Ari Thór investigates both cases, ignoring the guidance from his boss.

Snow Blind has a touch of the golden age of crime meets Scandinavian police procedurals, which is perhaps reflective of the fact that Jónasson has translated fourteen of Agatha Christie’s tales into Icelandic. The tale focuses on the efforts of a rookie cop to solve two suspicious deaths, one of which appears to be an accident, the other murder. At the same time, he’s trying to deal with being isolated in a small town in northern Iceland, separated from his girlfriend, and treated as an outsider. Both deaths have classic setups. The first concerns the death of a famous author during a break in rehearsals at the dramatic society, found at the foot of the theatre stairs, with everyone claiming to be elsewhere at the time. The second is the stabbing of a local woman, the prime suspect with a cast-iron alibi. Jónasson spins the tale out at a sedate pace, concentrating as much on the character development of Ari Thór, the personalities of the theatre group, and the social relations and sense of place of the town as it does on the cases. The solution to one case is a little telegraphed, but the other has a nice twist to it. Overall, an engaging but not gripping story that’s the first in the Dark Iceland quartet of books.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

My new academic book – Data and the City – edited by myself, Tracey Lauriault and Gavin McArdle was published by Routledge during the week. It's available in both paperback and hardback and is a companion volume to Code and the City published last year.

My posts this week
Review of Riptide by John Lawton
Review of Present Darkness by Malla Nunn

Saturday, August 26, 2017


There’s definitely something tasty round here. Something sweet and fruity. Something juicy. There it is. And I have it all to myself. Hmmm, this stuff is delicious. Sticky, but lovely. Whoa! Emergency takeoff. That was some bang! Here it comes again! Dive right, duck left. And again. Bad turbulence; double roll. Time to make a run for it. Ouch! My head! What the heck, there’s nothing there. It’s like an invisible barrier. Thwack! How the heck do you escape? Thwack. If I’m going to die, so are you.

‘Jesus, the little sod stung me!’

That’ll keep the monster distracted. Tally-ho!

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Review of Riptide by John Lawton (Orion, 2001)

1941. Wolfgang Stahl, a senior Nazi and American spy has fled Berlin and made his way to London, going underground in the city. Stahl’s handler, Calvin Cormack has been flown in from Zurich, and paired up with special branch inspector, Walter Stilton, to track down the missing agent. Stahl’s old boss, Heydrich has also activated a couple of agents to deal with him before he can talk to the allies about Germany’s plans. Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard’s murder squad takes an interest when the body of a supposed Dutchman is discovered, but is quickly moved to one side. Troy though likes resolution and when the killer strikes again and Cormack is in the frame for murder, the young policemen decides to set his own trap.

Riptide (released as 'Bluffing Mr Churchill' in the US) is the fourth book in the Inspector Troy series, though it is a prequel to the other books in the series, set in 1941 when Troy is a young, up-and-coming sergeant.  The plot centres on the hunt for a senior Nazi and American agent who has fled to London and is hiding in the city, unsure who to trust.  Trying to track him down are an American Army officer and special branch detective, with Troy on sidelines waiting to enter to save the day. This is typical Lawton fare, blending strong historicisation and sense of place with a ripping yarn peopled with interesting and engaging characters, ranging from everyday folk to senior diplomats and politicians to real-life players at the time. Cormack and Troy are at the core of the tale, but it is the Stilton family who steal the show. The result is a wonderfully evocative sense of London at war and a gripping tale of espionage, politics, murder and pathos (Lawton is not afraid to bump off some of his most endearing characters) that has a nice side line in dark humour and a lovely slapstick scene in a tailor’s shop.  I was gripped from the start and picked up the book every time I had a spare moment, thoroughly enjoying the read.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of Present Darkness by Malla Nunn (Emily Bestler Books, 2013)

1953, Johannesburg, South Africa. As with other cops, Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper is hoping that no-one is murdered in the days leading up to Christmas. While his colleagues are looking forward to a holiday away from the city, Cooper is hoping to spend time with his coloured partner and child, a strictly illegal relationship in the apartheid country. Their hopes looked dashed after a white couple are assaulted, the man dying in the hours afterwards, but the positive identification of a black boy and his friend as the assailants by their daughter appears to lead to a quick result. For Cooper it creates a major headache as the boy is the son of Cooper’s friend, Zulu detective, Samuel Shabalala. Cooper is certain the boy is innocent, however the daughter is sticking to her story, the lead detective Lieutenant Mason is determined to wrap things up quickly – planting evidence as required – and the boy refuses to provide an alibi for himself. To make things more difficult, the hard-headed Mason has made it clear he will not tolerate anyone disrupting the case and he’s prepared to shatter Cooper’s home life if necessary. Cooper, however, is made of stern stuff, as are his friends Shabalala, and Dr Daniel Zweigman, a survivor of German concentration camps, and he knows the terrain, having been raised in the Sophiatown ghetto.

Present Darkness is the fourth book in the Detective Emmanuel Cooper series set in South Africa in the 1950s. In this outing, Cooper has returned to Johannesburg, the city in which he was raised, and is living in secret with Davina, his coloured partner, and their child. The plot concerns the assault and murder of a white couple and the framing of a teenage black boy for the crime. The sting in the tail is the boy is the son of Cooper’s friend, Zulu detective Samuel Shabalala.  Cooper wants justice, his boss Lieutenant Mason wants to see the boy hang and is quite prepared to not only ignore evidence but to fabricate it. Mason is a bully and full of dirty tricks, though it’s not clear why he’s so keen to close the case so quickly and to push Cooper to one side. Nunn once again does a nice job of detailing the lived realities of apartheid South Africa, with its marked prejudices and oppression, corrupt policing, its dangerous ghettos, and illicit relations and friendships across the race divide. And it has a strong sense of place – both in the city and the countryside – and historical contextualisation. The three friends at the heart of this, and the other books – Cooper, Shabalala, and Dr Zweigman – again shine, forming an interesting and engaging trio. While the other books take a slightly more expansive view, this tale focuses very much on personal danger – the framing of an innocent boy and the fraught attempt to see justice served, and the threat to Cooper’s new family. Nunn nicely builds the tale up to a dramatic denouement, though the resolution seemed a little contrived and held together with plot devices. Overall, another entertaining addition to an excellent series.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I've made a start on 'Riptide' by John Lawton, though I'm reading the American version titled 'Bluffing Mr Churchill'. The book is a very good read so far, but the title change and cover design are not so wonderful in my view. Thankfully, I'd not already this fourth book in the Inspector Troy series, so did not end up with an unwanted second copy (having not realised Riptide and Bluffing Mr Churchill were the same book); I've done this a couple of times and it's bloody annoying.

My posts this week
Review of The Dust of Death by Paul Charles
Review of The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor
Why teach history if you’re going to ignore it?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why teach history if you’re going to ignore it?

‘Look at these shitheads with their torches and guns shouting blood and soil!’ Harry waved at the television. ‘Why is this allowed? In America! Why teach history if you’re going to ignore it?’

‘They’ve a right to free expression,’ Fred said, yawning.

‘But not to incite hate and violence. To take the law into their own hands!’

‘Calm down. They’re just a few losers.’

‘Hitler started with a few losers. Look how that turned out! I was two when I was rescued from Buchenwald; I know the world these morons want. Believe me, you don’t want to live in it.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Review of The Dust of Death by Paul Charles (Brandon Press, 2008)

A man is found crucified in the non-denominational Second Federation Church in the small village of Ramelton in North Donegal. The victim is a local master carpenter and he was having an affair with the Minister’s wife, who has disappeared. Inspector Starrett and his team are soon tracking down clues, interviewing locals as they try to determine who was responsible. All the evidence points to the Minister, but he is adamant that he was ignorant of the affair and innocent of the murder.

The Dust of Death is the first book in a pair of Inspector Starrett mysteries set in northern Donegal. This one focuses on solving the murder by crucifixion of a local carpenter. Starrett is a genial though lovelorn copper who had a career as a classic car dealer in London before returning to Ireland and becoming a policeman. Despite the gruesome murder, the tale is somewhat of a cosie-style police procedural – a kind of Ballykissangel meets Midsomer Murders mystery set in a small village full of characters and gossips. The tale is pleasant enough, but suffers from a weakness in detail with regards to characters (one policeman is a champion hurler from Galway but plays for Donegal; another is 72 years old and a former major in the British Army – both highly unlikely) and police procedure, which seems to lack structure and process but rather meanders along. Indeed, a logical and critical question is not asked by the police at the start of the investigation that would have led to it being solved very quickly. The result is a light-hearted tale that lacks depth and substance.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of The Road to Ithaca by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2017)

May 1941. Bora is part of the German embassy staff in Moscow, but is sent to Crete to secure sixty crates of Cretan wine for Beria. The island has only just been seized by German paratroopers and is still in post-invasion turmoil. Upon arriving he assigned the task of investigating an accusation by a British officer of the cold blooded murder of a German archaeologist connected to Himmler and his household by the paratroopers. Neither the soldiers or the locals are inclined to aid his investigation, but Bora is a persistent detective prepared to antagonise his own side to discover the truth. The English soldier who witnessed the atrocity and took photographs has fled captivity to the Cretan highlands, so Bora treks into enemy territory guided by a reluctant American woman to try and gather eye-witness testimony.

The Road to Ithaca is the fifth of the Martin Bora series to be translated into English (and tenth in full series published in Italian). The five are all set during World War Two, but are not told sequentially. In this outing, it is May 1941 and Bora is asked to examine a possible war crime in Crete just after its invasion. He has some knowledge of the island, having vacationed there as a child, and is familiar with Greek mythology and stories, such as Ulysses. Indeed, Ulysses permeates the book in two sense: first, he is carrying a copy of the book by James Joyce; second, he keeps recalling bits of the ancient tale as he wanders on his quest and braves various challenges. My sense was that my enjoyment of the tale would have been heightened if I’d been familiar with both stories. As it was, the story has much to like, including the stoic anti-Nazi, but by-the-book military man, Martin Bora, the detailed and somewhat convoluted plot, and the historical and geographical contextualisation with respect to Crete post-invasion, it’s longer history and archaeology, and its mythology. In the background are themes of class, politics, history and culture. The narrative is rather dense, with lots of detail, and is partially told through Bora’s diary entries. The result is a clever, multi-layered story that is as much an in-depth study of Bora as it is about solving a mass murder and wider geopolitical events.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

I started to look at ghost estates around 2009, a couple of years after the crisis in Ireland started. At the time I didn't realise it would take up quite so much of my working time. A decade on they remain a significant issue. If you're interested, there's a fairly lengthy story in the Irish Times this weekend.

My posts this week
Review of Death in Shanghai by MJ Lee
Review of Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale
That could be me

Saturday, August 12, 2017

That could be me

‘That could be me,’ Billy said, staring at revelers outside a bar.

‘We can get drunk later.’

‘No, I mean, I could’ve gone to college. Made something of my life.’

‘You’ve made something. You’re working for me, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, but ...’

‘No buts. We make a good living.’

‘Putting up plasterboard and doing nixers.’

‘It’s a trade and it’s steady work.’

‘I had the grades; was going to study law.’

‘But you didn’t have the fees and those lawyers are all cocksuckers.’

‘I could have got a scholarship.’

‘You’d have just become a bigger dick than you already are.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of Rusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland, 2017)

With his partner, Brett, and his newly discovered daughter, Chance, bed-bound with flu, Hap is hoping to continue recovering from a near fatal stab wound in peace. However, that proves a short-lived hope after Louise Elton visits the private investigation firm owned by Brett. Louise wants the firm to investigate the death of her son, Jamar, who she believes was beaten to death by rogue cops who also abused her daughter. Hap heads to the local projects to investigate, joined by his old-time partner, Leonard Pine. While Hap likes to try and be diplomatic when poking around, Leonard has a short fuse that tends to quickly escalate to violence. The locals are not happy with their presence, but the cops are even more hostile. It appears that Louise’s fears are well-founded, with the local police chief not only administering the law but also running organized crime. Which means seeking justice is going to be far from straightforward.
Rusty Puppy is the twelfth instalment of the Hap and Leonard series set in East Texas. In this outing they investigate the death of a young black man and tussle with a set of rogue cops who like to run both the law and crime. As usual, the pleasure of the read is the camaraderie and banter between two tough guys - Hap, a poor white man and his best friend, Leonard, a black, gay man with a trigger temper - who fight the battles of people who’ve been wronged; the larger-than-life characterisation in general (in this case, Reba – the four hundred year old vampire midget locked in the body of a child is a wonderful creation); and Lansdale’s voice and sparkling dialogue. As with each tale, Hap and Leonard trade insults and blows with their adversaries, as well as anyone else who finds themselves in the way, eventually reaching a bloody and hard-won, though rarely neat, resolution. In this sense, Rusty Puppy has all the usual Lansdale ingredients. However, the mystery in this outing is very straightforward and the conspiracy at the heart of the tale is so wide-open, involving dozens of people, one wonders why it wasn’t common knowledge beyond the local community and already being tackled by the media and wider law-enforcement. And there’s an inevitability about the denouement. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun read that rattles along to entertaining effect with all the usual Hap and Leonard wit and scraps.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review of Death in Shanghai by MJ Lee (HQ, 2017)

Shanghai, 1928. Detective Inspector Danilov, a Russian émigré, and Detective Constable Strachan, a half-Chinese novice who’s father was a Scottish police officer, are tasked with finding the killer of a blonde woman found on a sandbank in the international settlement at the heart of the city. A Chinese character is carved into her skin. Danilov starts to piece together clues, but the killer strikes again quickly, and the pressure from his superiors for a quick result mount. He is not aided by rivalry in the detective squad and struggles to keep up with a killer driven to dispense their own kind of justice. Nonetheless, Danilov and Strachan are determined to put a stop to the murders, or become victims trying.

Death in Shanghai is the first in the Danilov series set in Shanghai in the 1920s. It’s a serial killer by numbers affair, with Inspector Danilov playing Sherlock Holmes (including the close observational detecting and opium addiction), Constable Strachan playing Dr Watson, and the killer playing Moriarty. Danilov is not well liked by his colleagues, who undermine his investigation, and he is still searching for news of his family marooned in Minsk during the Russian revolution. The plot is fairly predictable, the prose is workmanlike, and the sense of place flat, a number of elements with respect to the murders and the police work do not seem to add up, and the epilogue seemed highly unlikely. It’s by no means a terrible read, and there’s plenty of action and twists and turns, rather it felt flat with stereotypical characters and a formulaic plot that failed to captivate.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of writing and posting a drabble each Saturday. Somehow I've managed not to miss the weekly ritual, though it was close yesterday given I've come down with some lurgy. They're a little bit hit-and-miss in quality, but the pieces are all conceived and published within half-an-hour, and they're always fun to draft. 

My posts this week
Review of The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal
Review of The Dry by Jane Harper
Sunday Girl

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sunday Girl

John shuffled on the bench seeking a more comfortable position.  ‘What are we waiting for? Godot?’

‘She’ll be here.’

‘So it’s woman then? An actual live person?’

‘She just running late.’

‘And she’s what, you’re girlfriend?’

‘We’re going to get married one day.’

‘Married! How long have you known her? A week?’

‘Six months.’

‘And you’re only now telling me! What the …’

‘She takes a walk here every Sunday.’

‘You’ve not even spoken to her, have you?’

‘I’m working up to it.’

‘You’re stalking her.’

‘Only on Sundays in the park.’

‘You need help, Liam.’

‘She’s my Sunday Girl.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Review of The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Cairo, 2004. Former Sudanese detective, now political refugee and private investigator, Makana is asked by the city’s leading art dealer to explore rumours that a famous painting, that disappeared from Kuwait in the first Gulf war, is hidden nearby. The suspicion is that the painting was smuggled into the country by an Iraqi colonel wanted for war crimes. Makana’s probing soon leads to encounters with two mysterious Americans, a corrupt former police officer, and a powerful pair of local gangsters, and to the vicious death of the art dealer. With the demise of his employer Makana could step away from the case, but his need to practice justice, plus a request from a local police detective, compels him to search for the art dealer’s murderer and the fabled painting and its thief. Which means navigating a perilous route between competing interests.

The Burning Gates is the fourth instalment of the Makana private investigator series set in Cairo. In this outing, Makana starts out exploring rumours that a famous painting looted in the first Gulf War is in the city, along with the Iraqi war criminal who plunderer it and other treasures. However, he’s soon in the crossfire of six competing interests, including a pair of local gangsters, a team of US mercenaries, an American cop, a corrupt former cop, the local police, and the elusive Iraqi colonel. Bilal nicely interweaves the strands to create a compelling thriller that manages to remain mostly grounded in possibilities rather than straying into fantastical plot devices as many thrillers do, with Makana tracing the various threads and reveals to a nice denouement. As with the other stories in the series, the real strengths of the tale are the reflective and stoic lead character, his coterie of helpers – his driver, newspaper connection, local cop – the strong sense of place, and the contextualisation with respect to contemporary Egyptian culture and politics. The result is an engaging and entertaining read that nicely blends a classic PI trope with political thriller.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review of The Dry by Jane Harper (Abacus, 2016)

Aaron Falk left Kiewarra when he was sixteen, run out of town by the father and nephew of a teenage girl found drowned in the creek who believe one of the Falks is responsible for her death. Falk has reluctantly returned twenty years later for the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler. With a devastating drought bringing misery to farmers, it appears that Hadler shot his wife and young boy, leaving his baby girl alive, before turning the gun on himself. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but neither Luke’s father nor the local police sergeant are fully convinced that everything is as it looks. They persuade Falk to help with their unofficial investigation, though all he wants to do is leave a town that is still openly hostile to his presence. While trying to piece together the final hours of the Hadler’s lives, Falk also rakes over the case that led to his banishment.

The Dry is Jane Harper’s debut novel featuring financial cop, Aaron Falk. The tale is set in a small rural town and its hinterland in Australia during a devastating drought and focuses on the apparent murder-suicide of Luke Hadler - Falk’s childhood best friend - and his family, and the death of their friend, Ellie Deacon, twenty years previously. Falk is personae non-grata, suspected by the local community of being responsible for Ellie’s death. Harper nicely portrays the sense of place of rural Australia, the claustrophobia, tension, and desperation of a community struggling to survive, and the bitterness of unresolved accusations and intimidation. The narrative interweaves to good effect the two murders, time-shifting back-and-forth from the present to Falk’s teenage years and the days leading up to the Hadler deaths. Harper maintains the menace throughout, and while the resolution of one of the threads is kind of obvious from the start, the other is a nice puzzle with a twist. Overall, a captivating opening to a new series.