Sunday, September 30, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

A slow trickle of books arrived during the week: Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey, The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, The Last Goodnight by Howard Blum, The Cypher Bureau by Eilidh McGinness, and Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt. I've already finished the last two - reviews soon. The others have joined the TBR pile and hopefully I'll get to them soon.

My posts this week
Review of The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross
Review of Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
Review of The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag
He'll walk again?

Saturday, September 29, 2018

He'll walk again?

‘Look, before we go in, there’s been a complication.’

‘A complication?’

‘We couldn’t save the leg. We tried but it was too damaged.’

‘He’s lost his leg?’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Oh, god, poor Ben.’

‘He’d been shot.’

‘Shot? Not run over?’

‘Only if the car was shooting .22 bullets.’

‘Who’d want to shoot Ben?’

‘I think that’s a question for the police, Mrs Larkin.’

‘He’ll walk again?’

‘With a bit of recuperation. Come through, I bet he’ll be pleased to see you.’

The collie barked as she entered, his tail thumping the mat.

‘Ben! We’ll soon have you running in circles!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Review of The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross (Ace, 2004)

Bob Howard works for The Laundry, a super-secret government agency that deals with incursions from alternative universes. Bob usually works as a low-level techie, keeping the agency’s computers functioning, but he has an interest in mathematics, philosophy and computing, and a proficiency to react well to odd happenings. After one such incident on a training course he is upgraded to the field and sent to the US to talk to a professor who wants to come home but the authorities will not let travel. While in California, the professor is kidnapped and there’s a serious breach that seems to involve dimension-hopping terrorists. Barely surviving, Bob heads home to serious amounts of bureaucracy, before continuing on to the atrocity archives in Amsterdam, where he’ll face his biggest challenge to date.

The Atrocity Archive is the first book in the Laundry Files series that follows the exploits of Bob Howard, a techie turned field agent for a top-secret government agency charged with stopping the Earth being obliterated by demons and assorted entities from alternative universes. In this outing, Bob is transformed from an office-bound employee to an active agent and is dropped in the deep-end to tackle the kidnapping of an attractive philosophy professor. Bob thinks that the professor is a goat to attract a malicious predator, but what’s actually at stake is the survival of the planet. The tale is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek SF tale of keeping Earth safe from incursions from other realms and British bureaucracy and institutional politics at its most excessive. There’s a fair amount of clever-sounding philosophy and science and humour in the vein of The Big Bang Theory meets James Bond, which makes for some good fun. Overall it’s an engaging read, though the story is a little uneven in its telling, and it wraps up rapidly in the aftermath of the denouement.  I suspect it might be a series that gains depth and strength as it unfolds. Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping, as I intend to give the next instalment a read.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review of Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998; original 1986)

Palomino Molero is found horrifically murdered in the Peruvian desert, near to an air force base in the 1950s. Two local cops, Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma investigate. They discover that Molero was stationed at the base, but the commanding officer there refuses them permission to question other personnel as it is outside their jurisdiction. Undeterred they continue to pick away at the case. Besides solving the mystery, Silva is obsessed with bedding a local woman, and he has vowed to do both.

Llosa won the novel prize for literature in 2010. Having read this short novel by him, I’m mystified as to why. Maybe it was an issue with translation, as the prose was mundane and flat, the plot was straightforward, with no real surprises or twists, and the tale has little in the way of literary subtext, other than being an honest kid or cop in a corrupt society brings few rewards. The kid in this case is Palomino Molero, a musician who volunteers for the air service, who is murdered and haunts the story. The cops are two officers, one somewhat naïve, the other more canny. Rather than ignore the murder, as their senior officers and the commander of a local air base want, the two cops keep working away it, slowly making progress, though they’re aware that if they do succeed, nobody is likely to thank them. Overall, an interesting enough police procedural tale set in 1950s Peru.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Review of The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag (Bantam, 2006)

Irina Markova worked as a groom at horse stud by day and partied with the rich men of the Florida polo set at night. When Elena Estes finds her murdered colleague’s body in a canal, ravaged by alligators, she’s determined to seek justice. A former cop, Estes knows how to conduct an investigation, but this one is going to be personal: she know the victim, the lead cop is the man she split up with a couple of days before, one of the suspects is her former fiancé, and the lawyer hired by the rich set to damp any investigation is her estranged father who defended her fiancé from a charge of rape. To add spice to the mix, Irina’s uncle is head of the local Russian mob and he wants revenge, and Elena is attracted to a Spanish polo player who runs with the self-styled alibi club that seems to protecting a group of men who were partying with Irina the night she died. Nothing though is going to stop her discovering the truth.

The Alibi Man is the second book in the Elena Estes series. Estes used to be a cop, but now works on a stud farm owned by a friend and moves around the fringes of the rich polo community. When she finds one of her co-workers dead, rather than leave the investigation to the cops, Elena starts to her own manhunt. At one level, the setup and the unfolding of the investigation works fine. Elena is a feisty, headstrong woman who knows how to handle herself, and the elitism and sense of entitlement of the polo set creates a nice foil. On another level, the tale is riddled with coincidence and personal ties between characters: Elena knows the victim, was recently dating the lead cop, was the fiancé of the lead suspect, and her estranged father represents the members of the self-titled ‘alibi club’. That much personal baggage adds a certain frisson to the story, but also leadens it, making it difficult to feel the tale has much credibility. Added to that, most of the characters are one dimensional caricatures, though that is made up for by sparring between the two lead cops. The result is a story that has a good pace, tension and entertainment, but has a little too much melodrama, too many plot devices, and feels like a Hollywood movie script where the pizzazz overrides realism.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

A copy of William Ryan's new book A House of Ghosts arrived in the post last week. I can't think of a recent book which has such high production values - embossed hardback with gold colouring, like one might find in nineteenth century library. It seems the tale is a take on the golden age of crime's country house mystery set on a Devon island in 1917.

My posts this week
Review of Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Review of Fletch by Gregory McDonald
Review of The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
It didn't mean anything

Saturday, September 22, 2018

It didn't mean anything

Kirsty bounded into the kitchen.

‘Where have you been?’ Gary asked.

‘I was at Tracey’s.’

‘I rang Tracey. You left around midnight.’

‘I went clubbing.’


‘I went to a party.’

‘I’ll move my things out later.’

Gary got up from the table and left the room.

‘Gary!’ Kirsty bustled after him.

‘We were meant to be engaged.’

‘We are!’

‘No, we’re not. Who was he this time?’

‘He was; it was just …’

‘It obviously meant more to me than it did to you.’

‘It didn’t mean anything.’

‘Yes, it did.’


‘Don’t try to blame this on me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Review of Defectors by Joseph Kanon (Atria, 2017)

Simon Weeks used to work for the State Department, but after the defection of his brother, Frank, to the Soviets in 1949 he’s been working in publishing. It’s now 1961 and Frank wants Simon’s company to publish his memoirs of his time as a spy. As the first account by a defector, one approved KGB, it would should be a welcome financial boost. The CIA are less keen for the Weeks brothers to be profiting from Frank’s treachery. Simon travels to Moscow to work on editing the manuscript with his brother, who quickly springs a surprise on him – he wants to counter-defect back to the US, taking his wife with him. Simon unwittingly finds himself playing a dangerous game in a country he doesn’t know, with two intelligence agencies and brother he doesn’t trust. But once he’s stepped over the line, the only thing to do is play the game to its conclusion.

Joseph Kanon’s stand-alone novel, The Defectors, is set in Russia in 1961 at the height of the Cold War and focuses on the relationship between two brothers – Frank, a Soviet spy who has defected to Moscow and still works for The Service (KGB), and Simon, a former State Department analyst turned publisher. Simon’s company is going to publish Frank’s memoirs, and Simon has travelled on a special visa to discuss and edit the manuscript. That means meeting for the first time in twelve years and raking over old ground, all under the watchful eye of Boris, a colonel in the KGB, plus other Service agents, and a handful of other defectors who form a loose social circle. The key hook of the story is the proposal by his brother to counter-defect, drawing the two brothers into a dangerous exit game. The strength of the story is that Kanon plays the tale in an under-stated way, focusing on the relationships between characters, the monotony and paranoia of life in the Soviet Union, the disconnected lives of defectors, and the stress of playing a duplicitous game, rather than it being an adrenaline-rushed thriller. This also works against the story at times, with the pace slowing to a crawl. There are also some jarring moments that felt like awkward plot devices and the denouement felt somewhat rushed and a little flat despite the couple of twists. Overall, an interesting spy tale that seemed to be missing a bit of intrigue and tension.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review of Fletch by Gregory McDonald (1974, Avon)

Fletch is a twenty seven year old, twice divorced, former marine turned investigative journalist. His present assignment has him living undercover among a strung-out beach community trying to discover the source of the local drug supply. There he’s approached by a multi-millionaire, Alan Stanwyk, who wants him to commit a murder in a few days time then flee with fifty thousand dollars to Buenos Aires. The victim is to be Stanwyk himself. Intrigued, Fletch agrees to the job hoping to close the beach case and quickly get to the bottom of Stanwyk’s proposition.

Fletch is the first in a series of nine books featuring the investigative journalist. In this outing he’s trying to uncover the source of the drugs blighting a beach community and get to the bottom of why Alan Stanwyk wants to be murdered for a fee. It’s a tightly written story, mainly driven by dialogue-heavy encounters, with Fletch working away at both stories through on-the-ground digging and impersonation. While the character might work for some, and is no doubt a fair reflection of a certain kind of man, I found him tiresome and annoying: Fletch is a lying, cheating, conniving, arrogant, self-centred, know-it-all misogynist with dubious morals (he’s sleeping with a fifteen year old drug-addict while working undercover, he’s giving both his ex-wives the run-around, and he’s killed the cat belonging to one of them) – qualities that make him a good journalist but a fairly shitty person. While crime fiction is littered with anti-heroes, they usually have a quality that endears them in some way to the reader. In this case, it's dark humour, but that didn't do sufficient work for me. The result was a kind of lighter-hearted PI tale that had two main strands which work their way to a somewhat inevitable but nicely wrapped up denouement, but had a lead character for whom I couldn’t care less.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Review of The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore (Random House, 2016)

New York, 1888. The economic war to light up America with electricity is raging. Thomas Edison is promoting DC networks and is aggressively protecting his light bulb patent. George Westinghouse has improved the bulb and is rolling out AC networks devised by Nikola Tesla. Edison is suing Westinghouse for a billion dollars and is running a dirty campaign through the media to discredit his rival and using the financial muscle of J.P. Morgan to squeeze his company. Westinghouse turns to a young, untested lawyer, Paul Cravath, a recent graduate of Columbia Law School to represent him. Cravath is ambitious and cunning and he’s willing to fight the hundreds of separate cases Edison has bombarded Westinghouse with. Cravath is playing David to Edison, Westinghouse and Morgan, but he’s tenacious and he’s willing to pursue every avenue in order to win at all costs, including the love of his life, Agnes Huntington, a celebrated opera singer.

The Last Days of Night is a fictionalised story of the battle for control of electricity and lighting supply in America is the late 1880s. There are a number of published factual accounts of the events, as well as biographies of the main actors, but very little about the lawyer at the heart of legal cases, Paul Cravath. Moore sets out to fill this hole through a story centred on the young man, who subsequently invented the present labour structure of law firms and held a number of important society roles. To do so he populates the book with real people and events, speculating as to what was said and done, though in so doing he somewhat alters the timeline for the purposes of the novel and also inserts events that never happened. He’s done this to compress the timeline and create dramatic effect. This is fine in terms of the storytelling, but less so for conveying the historical record, though the broad sweep of the battle and outcome remains. I find this recasting of history a bit unsettling, but parking that feeling Moore does a nice job of bring the characters and events to life and creating a compelling tale of corporate and personal rivalry, with a dash of romance thrown-in. The result is an entertaining and interesting read.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I spent a couple of days last week in Siegen in South Westphalia, Germany at workshop. A nice small city which apparently is the setting for a series of crime novels, though they are only available in German. For once I didn't have a book set in the country of destination and instead worked my way through Defectors by Joseph Kanon.

My posts this week

Review of The City in Darkness by Michael Russell
Something I did

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Something I did

‘Something you ate?’

‘Something I did.’

‘Bad enough to get you running to the toilet every five minutes?’

‘Bad enough I regret it.’


‘So, what?’

‘So, what are you regretting?’

‘Something stupid. It doesn’t matter.’

‘It clearly does.’

‘It really doesn’t.’

‘A problem shared is a problem halved. Maybe I can help?’

‘A problem shared is one that quickly becomes gossip. Especially a problem shared with you.’

‘Ach, that’s not fair, Barry. I’m your best friend.’

‘That’s why I know.’

‘Must be a hell of a regret.’

‘I told you, something stupid. Oh, God, I need to go again.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review of The City in Darkness by Michael Russell (2016, Constable)

The tail end of 1939. The IRA have raided a military arsenal in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. A postman has gone missing in Wicklow. Detective Inspector Stefan Gillespie of the Dublin Special Branch finds himself involved in both cases. In the former, he’s hunting down the perpetrators and the missing weapons, all the while suspecting his boss might have a hand in the raid. In the latter, he’s sent to help with the investigation given the local police are suspects in the disappearance and suspected murder. The postman had a side line in gossip and blackmail and in his possessions is a hint that the tragic accident that led to the death of Gillespie’s wife several years earlier was actually part of a series of four murders. He starts to investigate, with the evidence suggesting a man in Spain might be able to shed some light on the matter. As it happens, the Irish ambassador to Spain requires an escort back to the country, where he is hoping via connections with German intelligence to free Frank Ryan, an Irish man on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War, and Gillespie sets off as his chaperone.

The City in Darkness is the third book in the Stefan Gillespie series set in 1930s/40s Ireland, with jaunts to other locations. In this book, Gillespie suspects his boss of involvement in an IRA raid on a military arsenal and investigates the disappearance of a postman, which segues into an investigation into the death of his wife. The trail leads him to Spain and the old Irish college at Salamanca and to efforts by the Irish ambassador to free Frank Ryan from one of Franco’s prisons. As usual, Russell uses Gillespie’s cases as a way to explore the wider politics and international incidents at the time. In this case, the involvement of Irish forces on both sides in the Spanish civil war, the role of German military intelligence in freeing IRA leader, internal politics between agencies in Ireland, the actions of the IRA during the war, and Ireland’s neutrality. Even the disappearance of the postman was a real event, though Russell spins it into a whole other story line. The result is an murder mystery with an interesting context, a nice sense of place and time, and an engaging plot. It did feel a little contrived in places, with the story shoehorned around real events, though this little detracted from the read. Overall, another good addition to a very good series.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Back to endless drizzle and autumn showers. Graham Moore's The Last Days of Night are helping me while away the hours. The patent war over the light bulb really was a war, conducted between Edison and Westinghouse, with Tesla in the thick of the action. Interesting novelization of true(ish) history.

My posts this week
Review of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham
Review of Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle
It's not your fault

Saturday, September 8, 2018

It's not your fault

‘What did we do to deserve this?’ Maeve looked up for the first time in ten minutes. She brushed away a tear. ‘We always treated him right.’

‘Some are just born bad; that’s all there is to it,’ her sister replied. ‘There’s nothing you could have done.’

‘They were children.’

‘It’s not your fault, Maeve.’

‘He was an awkward child; always getting in trouble. Always falling out with others. And now this. We’ll be blamed. How am I meant …’

‘People will know it’s not your fault.’

‘No, they won’t. We’re his parents. How could it not be our fault?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Review of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham (Orion, 2015)

Fiona Griffiths is recovering from a long-term stint of undercover work and studying for her sergeant’s exam while browsing through cold cases. Two cases take her interest: a seemingly impossible burglary and the death of a security guard ruled as accidental. Just as she starts to poke around she’s pulled back into active service and given the tedious job processing evidence on a rape case. Her bosses, however, allow her to snoop around her cold cases as long as she keeps on top of her main duties. From slight pieces of evidence she manages to pry open chinks that suggest foul play in both cases. Then she discovers another body in a different jurisdiction, a seeming suicide but there are links to the other cases: impossible access and deep-sea cables. Seizing on tenuous links and skirting on or over the edges of police procedure she stitches together a conspiracy worth millions. But who’s going to listen to a lowly detective constable that often seems away with the fairies?

This Thing of Darkness is the fourth book in the Fiona Griffiths series set in Cardiff and South Wales. In this outing, Fiona is back to negotiating life without Buzz, and still struggling with her mental health and with following police procedure and the law. The larger criminal conspiracy that she’s been piecing together across the series comes to the fore, while her family and personal life recede. While working on a rape case, she spends any free time focusing attention on two deaths – one ruled accidental, the other suicide – and a handful of seemingly impossible burglaries. Other officers struggle to see the crimes for what they are, let alone the connections between them, but Fiona has a mind that works laterally and relentlessly. What Fiona sees is a play for millions; a scheme worth killing for. As with the previous books, Bingham does an excellent job at continuing to spin Fiona’s character development and advancing the longer arcs of the series with respect to her personal life (her adoption, her condition, and her criminal father) and her tangle with a set of dodgy Welsh businessmen. The plot is a little convoluted, unspooling and interlinking a handful of plotlines and subplots, and it’s sometimes tricky to see quite how Fiona made her deductions (for me, in solving the rape case), but narrative is so seductively readable and the story highly compelling and entertaining that it barely matters. Another excellent addition to the series.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Review of Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle (Cassava Republic Press, 2016)

Former solicitor turned journalist, Guy Collins, is on assignment in Nigeria to cover the forthcoming elections for a small TV news agency. His first night in Lagos he decides to go to a local club. There’s a commotion outside when a woman’s mutilated body is dumped on the roadside; when Collins goes to investigate he’s arrested along with anyone else near the scene. Rather than being released the local inspector throws him in a cell. Several hours later he’s rescued by Amaka, a woman on a mission to try and protect the lives of prostitutes working in the city. Collins had claimed to be working for the BBC and Amaka can see an opportunity to use him to gain publicity for her cause. Avoiding the police, Amaka and Collins try to discover the identity of the powerful men who use and exploit the city’s prostitutes. Meanwhile some of those forces are involved in a deadly power game, along with an on-going feud with corrupt police who also want to stop Collins reporting anything negative about the country.

Set in Lagos in Nigeria, Adenle’s tale focuses on the plight of a visiting journalist who finds himself out-of-place in the seedy and dangerous underbelly of the city, tangling with corrupt police and politicians and vicious gangs who are involved in prostitution and trading body parts. His journey is guided by a beautiful, well-connected lawyer who is on a mission to improve the safety and lives of the city’s prostitutes and expose corrupt senior figures. Part of the tale concerns trying to protect the country’s reputation by silencing the journalist; no doubt the Nigerian tourist board would similarly like Adenle’s book to disappear given it pulls no punches. Indeed, the tale is fully of violent encounters, sexual exploitation and corruption. The story is a little uneven but engaging and compelling and there’s a strong sense of place. The plot works fine until the latter quarter where it seems to drift a little off-kilter, especially the role of the police in the denouement. As an aside, the title and cover of the French translation Lagos Lady seems more apt than Easy Motion Tourist, which is based on a song title. Overall, an interesting, dark tale of fighting corruption and crime in a city pervaded with both.

Monday, September 3, 2018

August reads

A bumper month of reading and reviews, a couple of which were July reads that slipped over. Also a very good month in terms of enjoyment, with nine being four or more star reads. My standout read though was Eva Dolan's Watch Her Disappear.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes ****
Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard ***
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts ****.5
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson ****
The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman ****.5
Watch Her Disappear by Eva Dolan *****
Echobeat by Joe Joyce ****.5
Lamentation by Joe Clifford ***.5
The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer ****.5
A Little White Death by John Lawton ****
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell ****.5

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

Always good to read fiction set where I'm visiting. I spent Tuesday to Friday in Cardiff, so read Harry Bingham's This Thing of Darkness, much of which was set in the police headquarters, which was the building next door to where I was attending a conference. Nice to match up the geography of the book with the city.

My posts this week
Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Review of Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard
Home truths

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Home truths

Hardy heard a voice he recognized on the other side of a partition.

He was about to join them when a new voice said: ‘Fucking Hardluck is driving me crazy. What the hell’s wrong with him?’

‘He’s always been like that: geek-meets-prat.’

Another added: ‘He’s fucking clueless. And creepy.’

Hardy knew that no boss was beyond critique, but the hostility was a surprise; felt his face flush and a hollowness yawn inside.

No-one said anything in his favour.

‘Hey, guess who’s in the next booth?’

Hardy hurried from the pub; no way he could face them now. Perhaps not ever.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.