Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review of The Sentinel by Mark Oldfield (Head of Zeus, 2012)

2009, Ana Maria Galindez, a young forensic investigator, is sent to a disused mine to examine the bodies of fifteen bodies enclosed behind a bricked-up shaft entrance. The bodies appear to be victims of an execution squad related to the Spanish Civil War. 1953, Comandante Guzman is head of the Brigada Especial, a unit answerable directly to General Franco dedicated to tracking down and handing out summary justice to former Republican combatants. Guzman is a brutal policeman used to getting his own way, but General Valverde and a group of Dominican gangsters attached to an American trade delegation are challenging his authority. Galindez’s discovery of the bodies provides a link from the present to Guzman’s handiwork in the past. As she investigates Guzman she attracts the attention of dark forces that seem intent on halting her digging. Perhaps Guzman didn’t disappear in 1953 as the records suggest and Galindez’s prying has raised a monster?

The Sentinel is the first book in a trilogy focusing on the aftermath and legacy of the Spanish Civil War, and in particular the exploits of Comandante Guzman. Guzman works to the orders of General Franco and runs the Brigada Especial, which specializes in hunting former Republicans, torturing them for information, and executing them. He’s a cunning and savage policeman who rules by fear and violence, leading his fellow officers from the front as he teases, beats, rapes and kills his victims. There’s really no redeeming side to his character, yet Oldfield manages to make him a fascinating protagonist despite his savagery. The Sentinel is told through three narratives, two of which focus on Guzman directly, and one by proxy. The first is his youth in the civil war, the second his actions in 1953 as he’s caught in a vicious power game within Franco’s court. The third is set in 2009 and tracks the investigation of a young but well-connected forensic investigator, Ana Maria Galindez, as she tries to uncover evidence of Guzman’s post-war activities. I have mixed feelings about the book. While on one level the story is engaging and interesting, on another it is uneven and over-extended. The Galindez storyline is unnecessary and unconvincing with respect to plot, relationships and dialogue and is driven by endless plot devices and for me the book would have been a far better read if it had been absent. For the first third of the book, the Guzman plotline was too much tell and not enough show. The second half of the Guzman story saves the book as the intrigue and tension deepens. My dilemma now is that I’d like to know what happens in the subsequent books, but I don’t want the same frustrating reading experience. Since both are longer than this one, I’m not sure that’ll be the case.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books, 2006)

1854, London. Over the course of a couple of weeks Cholera sweeps through a Soho neighbourhood killing hundreds of people and sending others fleeing. Cholera is a relatively recent import from India and like other deadly ailments it is not well understood, thought to spread via foul-smelling vapours. Dr John Snow, a noted physician and anaesthetist, who lives close to the outbreak has a different theory which he has been working on for a number of years. He believes Cholera thrives in polluted water. The most recent outbreak gives him an opportunity to prove his case. One of his key methods is to plot the locations of deaths and the sources of drinking water. What his resulting map reveals is that Cholera victims are concentrated around a single water pump. While few share his conviction that Cholera is spread via drinking contaminated water, the local authorities do close the pump. His findings are confirmed by a local churchman, who determines that the victims did all drink from water collected from the pump and those that sourced their water elsewhere were unharmed. Despite the weight of evidence, some public health officials continued to believe the miasma theory rather than Snow’s conviction, but over time Snow’s map and data changed how cities were managed, with a vast public sewer network being built to separate drinking water from waste.

The Ghost Map tells the story of how Dr John Snow, a London physician, solved the problem of how to tackle Cholera. Johnson starts his historical tale by setting the scene and in particular detailing the filth and stench of the city and the various professions who cleaned and recycled the city’s waste. In the absence of sewers and formalized waste management, human and animal faeces littered streets and basements. It was the foul-smelling stench – the miasma – of such waste that was thought to spread disease. Snow, however, had a different theory – disease was spread via contaminated water – and most of the book concerns Snow’s work. In particular, the narrative focuses on the 1854 cholera epidemic, its catastrophic outcome on a local community, how by plotting ghosts on a map Snow identified the source of the outbreak, changing both the practice of epidemiology and public infrastructure and public health provision of modern cities globally. It’s an interesting tale, but it is a little uneven in its telling, with an overextended focus on some elements that drifted into repetition, and underdeveloped on others, particularly the public health situation and response, and the evolution of thinking and practice in the years proceeding Snow’s work. And the final chapter on the spread of disease and viruses in the present day, as well as urban development, was a potted attempt to convert the lesson from the nineteenth century to the present that felt like an add-on and speculative. In addition, the lack of Snow’s maps and analysis, especially the key Voronoi one, seemed an important oversight. Overall, an okay read about an interesting case.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I picked up a few of my orders from the local bookshop yesterday. I now have the following books to look forward to: The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Night Life by David C Taylor, Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart, The Curse of the Pogo Stick by Colin Cotterill, The Way Back to Florence by Glenn Haybittle, and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. That should keep me going for about three weeks!

My posts this week:
Review of Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent
Review of The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell
Under fire

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Under fire

Polk hurried along the narrow corridor, sliding past sailors heading in the opposite direction.

Overhead he could hear the thumping of batteries returning fire.

The ship rocked as a second shell sliced through the deck and exploded.

The radioman slammed into a bulkhead and fought to stay upright.

Up ahead a man rounded the corner, his face bloodied.

Polk hurried on, determined to reach the comms room.

The next detonation sent him sprawling.

Then the lights flickered and died.

He hoped someone was sending out an SOS; that he’d make it out before the old lady slid beneath the waves.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Review of Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent (Penguin, 2016)

Judge Andrew Fitzsimmons and his wife Lydia live in a mansion on a large plot of land in south Dublin with their son, Laurence. It should be an idyllic life but their accountant has mis-invested their savings. To add to their woes they have sought to solve one aspect of their domestic life by taking a risk with a young troubled woman who has turned the tables on them. In a fit of rage the judge strangles the woman, but it is Lydia who finishes her off. They decide to bury the body in an old pond turned flower bed and hope that the police do not connect them to the missing woman. Laurence has an inkling as to what has happened, but his manipulative mother steers him into silent complicity. The police make little effort to find out what happened to Annie and the case is soon shelved. Karen, the dead woman’s sister, is determined however to discover the truth. When the dead woman’s father intersects with Laurence’s life he sees a way to atone for his parent’s sins, but in so doing he places the family secret and all his mother holds dear in jeopardy.

Lying in Wait is an extended family drama and psychological crime tale, plotting the intersections of the well-to-do Fitzsimmons and the working-class O’Tooles. At the heart of the tale is the obsessive, manipulative, sociopath Lydia Fitzsimmons, who cares only about herself, her family home, her son, Laurence, and having more children. The latter brings the family into contact with Annie Doyle, a victim of a Mother and Baby home and heroin addict. A showdown with the young woman leads to her death, with Lydia determined to cover up the murder. Nugent tells the story from the perspective of Lydia, Laurence and Karen, the dead woman's sister, with each chapter switching to another perspective. In this sense, the book is very much character-driven, plotting the unfolding lives and dramas of the lead protagonists, held together by the murder of Annie and Lydia’s determination to keep a secret, Laurence’s desire for atonement, and Karen’s quest to know what happened and justice. Nugent focuses on the intricacies of their lives, thoughts and interactions avoiding melodrama or shifting the register into thriller territory. The result a kind of realistic ordinariness, despite the tragedy at the centre of the tale. At one level, this is what makes the book work, but at another it flattens the storytelling in the sense there is no sense of urgency or pace or tension. The result was a nicely constructed and told tale, which was excellent on its own terms, but one I was never felt absorbed by.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Review of The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell (Quercus, 2011)

Glasgow, 1955. A body is dredged from the bottom of the River Clyde. The monogrammed cigarette case suggests it is Gentleman Joe Strachan, a pre-war criminal mastermind behind some of the city’s biggest robberies. Strachan had disappeared after a policeman was killed during his final heist. Lennox, a former Canadian commando during the war and journalist, is hired by Strachan’s twin daughters, Isa and Violet, to discover the corpse’s true identity. Since Strachan’s disappearance the twins have received a substantial payment each year which they had assumed was sent by their father. If the body isn’t their father, then they want Lennox to track him down. If it is him, who has been sending them money? Lennox starts to hunt around for clues in the criminal underworld, while also working on a blackmail case involving an American movie star working on a film in the city and surrounds. It seems, however, that someone doesn’t want him to find answers and is prepared to kill to stop his progress.

The Deep Dark Sleep is the third book in the Lennox series set in 1950s Glasgow. Lennox is still haunted by his time as a commando during the war and has wound up in Glasgow, working as a private investigator rather than return to his native Canada. Through guile and favours and he manages to navigate the criminal underworld of the ‘three kings’, while also maintaining friendships with policemen prepared to help him with his cases. As such, he’s the logical choice of PI for those who need difficult cases solved involving some criminal element. In this outing, he’s hired by the twin daughters of the most feared and successful criminal in the city before the war to discover whether a body dredged from the Clyde is their father, and by a solicitor acting on behalf of an American movie star who is being blackmailed over some explicit photographs. While the latter case seems relatively straightforward to resolve, the former soon turns deadly. Someone it seems is prepared to kill to keep the mystery of Gentleman Joe Strachan a mystery. Lennox is an engaging character, 1950s Glasgow is well portrayed, and Russell keeps the tale moving at pace. The twin threads, plus Lennox’s slow romantic pursuit of his landlady, is compelling and entertaining. However, while each thread is interesting, their entwining as the story progressed felt like a somewhat clunky plot device that didn’t ring true. The result was an enjoyable tale that progressed to a seemingly inevitable and staged conclusion.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The first of my ordered non-fiction reads turned up during the week, so I've slid The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson to the top of the to-be-read pile. I was also given a copy of Karin Slaughter's The Kept Woman. For some reason I've not read one of her books before, so I might give it a try in the next month or so as well, though I'm trying to read only one US-set book a month at present to give other places a go.

My posts this week
Review of The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski 
King Canute

Saturday, February 17, 2018

King Canute

‘Just forget it, Gerry. It’s inevitable.’

Gerry glanced at Mary, then across the lawn at the slowing rising water. He thumped the spade into the sodden earth.

He was soaked to the skin, the rain sweeping in from the west as it had been for the past week.

‘You’re going to catch your death.’

‘It’ll drain round to the side, you’ll see.’

‘Drain to where? There’s nowhere for it to drain to.’

‘I’m not giving up. It’s our home.’


‘It’s not beating me this time, Mary.’

‘You’re acting like King Canute. Come and help me move our stuff upstairs.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review of The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski (2003, Polish; 2010, Maclehose)

New York, 1960. Eberhard Mock is on his deathbed and wants to confess to his actions during his separation from his first wife in Breslau, 1927. At the time his marriage is imploding in domestic violence, rape and sexual promiscuity, Mock is trying to track down the ‘calender killer’, who is committing horrendous, brutal murders, leaving a page ripped from a diary with the victim. While Mock stews in alcohol and uses his officers to track his wife rather than the killer, his wife is taking revenge on his neglect by exploring her sexuality with her best friend and a baron. Despite his brutish flaws, Mock has a reputation for genius in investigating crimes and he’s soon approaching the murders from an unusual angle that points to mysterious sect.

The End of the World in Breslau is the second book in the Eberhard Mock series set in 1920s Breslau (present day Wroclaw). In this outing, Mock’s first marriage is ending at the same time as he’s trying to track down a serial killer obsessed with the past. At one level the tale is interesting enough as Mock tries to solve the crimes by focusing on the place it was committed rather than the crime or perpetrator. However, the story suffers from a couple of issues. The first is the thorough unpleasantness of Mock. Usually the bad cop is softened by a lighter side or the quest for redemption. Mock is embittered, vindictive and brutal: he beats and rapes his wife, he destroys careers, blackmails his boss, uses public resources as if his own, and tortures suspects. It may well be realistic, in the sense that some cops might be cut from that cloth, but it’s a brave move to have such a lead character as it’s difficult for the reader to find a point of connection. It’s not helped by every other main character in the book being almost as flawed or selfish, and every aspect of the storyline being rooted in immorality, violence and corruption. I appreciate that was probably the intention, but having no points of light in the darkness was wearing after a while. In addition, part of the problem of the storytelling is that is supposedly set out as a confession by Mock. Yet it’s told in the third person and has sections that relate specifically to his wife or colleagues that he could not know the intimate details of; he also claims to have no knowledge as to what happened to her after 1928, yet she became famous, making that unlikely. Moreover, the end became very messy and difficult to follow. All round, not a very satisfying read, though there was enough intrigue to keep my turning pages to find out the resolution of the murders.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been over twenty books since I read a non-fiction tome, but without one on the TBR (other than academic work books) I was stymied. After some browsing online I've just bought a handful. One on the periodic table, one on practices of geology, two medical histories, and five military histories (three naval, one codes, one aerial). The plan is to slot these a bit more consistently into the mix. Of course, I also ordered a handful of novels as well.

My posts this week:
Dreaming of being structurally sound
Review of Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser
Special issue: Data-driven Cities? Digital Urbanism and its Proxies | Tecnoscienza
Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Dreaming of being structurally sound

Jimmy sighed. He could stare at the equation until next Thursday and he still wouldn’t understand. If Einstein or Hawking were to explain it to him, it would remain a mystery. He just wasn’t cut out for maths. Yet he dreamed of being an engineer. Of building bridges like Brunel and Telford. Forging great spans of elegant steel and concrete. Or burrowing long, snaking tunnels through mountainsides. He had notebooks full of grand, intricate designs, shelves of balsa models, but no notion as to whether any would be structurally sound. He stared at the page, prayed for insight, and doodled.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review of Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser (1936, German; 2004 Bitter Lemon Press)

Sergeant Studer tracks down and arrests a former convict who is suspected of murdering a travelling salesman. After dropping the man off at prison and leaving, Studer returns as something is nagging at his subconscious. He finds his suspect hanging in his cell and manages to revive him. It suggests the man was guilty of the crime, but Studer is not convinced. He returns the village where the victim was shot and starts to hunt around. It’s clear that all is not well among a set of Gerzenstein’s citizens and Studer’s presence is not wanted. When his initial suspect confesses, the case seems to be closed. But the canny sergeant is a master at solving difficult cases.

Published in 1936 Thumbprint was the first in five Sergeant Studer novels written by the troubled Fredrich Glauser, who spent much of his life as an addict and in-and-out of prison or psychiatric wards, plus a couple of years in the French Foreign Legion. His unsettled personal life, however, is not evident in this assured and well-plotted tale of murder and conspiracy. Sergeant Studer used to be a promising inspector until he refused to drop a politically charged case. Now he works in the canton of Bern as an ordinary policeman, but he’s still blessed with good observational and deductive reasoning skills. And he knows how to unsettle people and prompt them into acting rashly – though sometimes they don’t respond as expected, which is almost the undoing of his investigation in this case. In this outing, Studer is investigating what seems like an open-and-shut case involving the death of a travelling salesman from a village. Despite the evidence he has an inkling that something is awry and seeks to find the truth and the real killer. As well as Studer, the strength of the tale is the quite complex puzzle and the show-not-tell voice. An interesting story that has aged well.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador, 2013)

Northern Iceland, 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to death for her part in the murder of two men, one of whom was her master and lover. After months in a local holding the district commissioner sends her to an isolated farm to await execution. The family are mortified to have a murderer amongst them, but rather than keep her under lock and key they put her to work in the house and farm. The landscape and weather are harsh and escape would lead to nowhere except death. Agnes asks for Tóti, a local trainee priest, to be her spiritual guardian and gradually tells him, and her host family, the story of her life and the death of her master.

In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be formally executed in Iceland, her head lopped off by an axe wielded by the brother of the man she was accused of murdering. A range of stories still circulate about the case, many portraying Agnes as a monster. Hannah Kent takes a different tack providing an in-depth and sympathetic character study of Agnes from the time she is sent as a prisoner to a local farm to the time of her execution. The story is somewhat of an existential tale, in part examining the mind and actions of a person awaiting death, in part charting the path that led to this fate. Kent uses both a first person perspective of Agnes and a third person general narrative to chart her last few months and the crime for which she has been convicted. In the main this is done through reminiscences, discussions with her priest, and interactions with the family charged with housing her until she is taken to the site of execution. In combination with some wonderfully evocative and lyrical prose, a strong sense of place and time, the result is a compelling, thoughtful-provoking read in which the nuances and circumstances of the crime are laid bare. In particular, the characterisation and social relations between Agnes, her priest, and the farm household are beautifully realised. While the telling drags a little in the middle, as a whole the tale is a first rate literary piece of crime fiction.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

For no particular reason, I haven't read a crime fiction novel set in Switzerland. That changed this week as I read Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser, first published in 1938, a police procedural in the Simenon tradition that charts a canny sergeant's investigation into the death of a salesman. My review will follow later in the week.

My posts this week:

Review of Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch
Review of The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
January reviews
I have a confession

Saturday, February 3, 2018

I have a confession

Cally met James at the hospital doors.

‘Come-on, she’s barely holding on.’

‘I came as fast as I could; got a standby flight.’

‘She won’t start until we were all together.’

‘Aidan’s here?’

They sped up the stairs.

‘Yes. There’s been lot of tears.’

They entered a private bedroom.

‘We’re all here now mother – Cally, Aidan, Sally and James.’

The elderly woman opened her eyes. ‘I have a confession, I … I murd ..’

She tailed off.


‘I think she’s gone.’

‘Was she just saying what I thought she …’

‘Get a nurse.’

‘None of us heard anything, okay.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

January reviews

An interesting month of travelling round fictionally in January, visiting the US, Russia, Turkey, New Zealand, Italy, Norway and England. My read of the month was A Gentleman in Moscow, a wonderful tale about an aristocrat indefinitely confined to a hotel post-revolution.

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch ****
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn ***
Blood Curse by Maurizio de Giovanni ***
Death on Demand by Paul Thomas ****
Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel ****.5
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles *****
The Sugar House by Laura Lippman ***.5