Sunday, July 21, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A nice morning talking about books. I've been persuaded to try one of Robert Macfarlane's books about place, landscape and nature. Having a quick browse, I'll probably start with Landmarks and see how I get on.

My posts this week

Review of The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson
Review of Metropolis by Philip Kerr
Dry land

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Dry land

Paul leveraged the spade into the soil.

Another year, another crop.

Except the previous two years had been fallow.

First, Cathy had died shortly after diagnosis.

Then three weeks later, he’d been made redundant.

He'd been cut adrift from his two key anchors.

Lost at sea for almost two years; bobbing around in grief and self-loathing.

He’d almost drowned in sorrows and given up hope of seeing the shore again.

But then he’d been caught in a loose net and pulled gently towards the coast.

Friends who ignored his drunken hubris.

Now the dry land was preparing to flower again.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Review of The Blood Spilt by Asa Larsson (2008, Penguin; 2004 Swedish)

Rebecka Martinsson is still traumatised from her last visit home to Kiruna in northern Sweden when she ended up fighting for her life. Her law firm has retained her services, but has her on light duties. When the firm is approached by a set of churches in Kiruna for legal services one of the partners thinks its opportunity to aid Rebecka’s rehabilitation. She journeys home with her boss, planning to stay on for a few days after the Church business is conducted. When they arrive, however, they find the Church is reeling from the murder of one of their women priests. A staunch feminist, Mildred Nilsson had managed to polarise the community with her self-defence classes for women, an all-female Bible study group, and establishing a church fund to protect the local she-wolf from being hunted. The local police are not short of potential suspects, but they are short of any evidence. Rebecka unearths a fresh lead, handing it over to the police and hoping it’s the end of her involvement in the case.

The Blood Spilt is the second book in the Rebecka Martinsson series set in northern Sweden. Martinsson is a corporate lawyer with mental health issues after an encounter that left three people dead. In this outing, she travels back home two years after the traumatic events of the first book, still licking her wounds and trying to get her life back on track. She stays in an off-the-track bed-and-breakfast, visits her grandmother’s house, and makes friends with a teenage boy who has a mental disability. She has a bit of work to do for a local church, but that is quickly concluded. The local community is reeling from the death of female priest and Rebecka discovers some evidence and passes it on to the police, but as far as she’s concerned that’s the end of her involvement. However, she has an unfortunate habit of crossing paths with murderers. There’s a good sense of place, the characterisation well drawn, and portrayal of the complex web of connections and local rivalries is nicely done. The investigation into the death of the priest is the main thread of the story, but there are a couple of subplots relating to Rebecka’s personal life and the journey of a she-wolf. While nicely written, the latter added little to the story and was a bit of a distraction. Martinsson builds the tension well and the final section of the book has a couple of chilling climaxes, and a couple of the events made me quite annoyed (but not in negative way) in terms of how they turned out (they just had a powerful affective punch). Overall, an engaging read that left me worrying about what trauma Larsson will put Rebecka through in future books.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of Metropolis by Philip Kerr (2019, Quercus)

Berlin, 1928. Germany is still trying to recover from the bloodshed and crippling penalties of the First World War, the Weimar Republic is at its decadent height, the Nazis are starting to gain political influence and power, and anti-Semitism is on the rise. Bernie Gunther has been promoted from vice to the Kripo murder squad. His first task is to review the Silesian Station killings in which four prostitutes are murdered and scalped in quick succession. He’s barely acquainted himself with the case when a fifth murder takes place, the victim the daughter of one the city's criminal king-pins who wants to administer his own justice. Then a second set of murders start targeting crippled war veterans who beg on the city streets. Bernie has a theory that the two sets of murders are linked, but his two bosses are unconvinced. He's never one to shy away from a hunch, however, and is determined to solve the cases even if that means taking a path that deviates from the straight and narrow.

Metropolis is the 14th and final book in the Bernie Gunther series, and the last by Philip Kerr who died of cancer last year. I’ve been caught between wanting to jump in and not wanting the series to end, having read the initial trilogy twenty years or so ago, but last week took the plunge. This outing takes the reader back to Bernie’s first case as a member of the murder squad in 1928 and his attempt to solve two sets of murders, one targeting prostitutes and the other crippled war veterans. Bernie’s first wife is already dead, he’s living in a boarding house, and his somewhat wonky moral compass and cynicism are already in place, though his perspective shifts somewhat in the book from a fatalism to looking out for oneself to get by. It’s a view he adopts over the next thirty years as he tries to survive a murderous regime and its aftermath. Unlike some of the other books that span years, this outing is a relatively straightforward, self-contained police procedural. As usual, Kerr drops in a number of well-known historical figures in the police and movies, and peppers the story with historical facts and a good sense of place and time. And Bernie stoically tracks down clues and takes his own path to get to the truth. A fitting end to an excellent series, with a charismatic, anti-hero lead character who lived a life full of twists and turns that rarely went well, despite him trying roughly to do the right thing. I’ll no doubt revisit the early books in the coming years.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I've been re-reading interviews as I write a paper. This quote is sage advice.

"I think your problem is that you think about things in terms of whether they make sense. That is the problem. We have got to abandon this idea of making sense, because the fact that it makes sense doesn't seem to make any progress at all with these guys."

The world only starts to make sense if you stop trying to think about it rationally!

My posts this week

Review of Last Call by Paula Matter
Review of The Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
Like father, like son

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Like father, like son

‘I don’t like him serving us,’ Kath said, dropping down into seat at the long table.


‘Mr Sour-puss there.’ She nodded at a silver-haired man spooning veg onto plates.

‘Let me guess, you’re worried he’ll poison you.’

‘His son killed five other kids.’

‘Yeah, his son. Not him.’

‘Like father, like son.’

‘Stop talking blather woman. I heard he used to be a respectable lawyer.’

‘And now he volunteers in a soup kitchen.’

‘To pay back his son’s debt and avoid the worst of the abuse. We’re as fucked-up as him.’

‘We’re not murderers.’

‘And nor is he.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Review of Last Call by Paula Matter (2018, Midnight Ink)

Maggie Lewis works as a bartender at the local VFW in a small town in northern Florida. On her night off Korean war veteran Jack Hoffman is murdered in his truck in the car park after closing. The next morning she’s brought in for questioning by the local police chief given her hair band was found in the truck and her passcode used to enter the bar in the early hours. Released after questioning Maggie knows she’s still the chief suspect despite the wider evidence. She has little faith in the police to discover the real killer given that they failed to solve the murder of her husband two year’s previously and turns to her lodger, a former policeman who’s waiting on his PI license, for help. The two set out to discover who is trying to frame Maggie for murder, a course of action that neither the police nor the real killer appreciates.

Last Call charts Maggie Lewis’ attempt to prove she is innocent of the murder of one of her barflies in a VFW bar in northern Florida. The front cover describes the story as smart and funny, but unfortunately the tale is neither. The plot is a rather mundane whodunit set around the clientele of a bar and there’s no clever misdirection or twist, and the writing is rather workman-like and flat. Maggie Lewis comes across as angry and antsy and lacks a razor sharp wit needed to inject the needed humour. Which was a shame as there’s a lot of potential in the character – she’s down-to-earth, she lives hand-to-mouth barely keeping her head above water financially, and she’s hard-edged but vulnerable after the murder of her husband. She’s not too bright however, she lacks emotional intelligence, she’s not particularly likeable, and she blunders her way through a case she doesn’t actually solve leaving a trail of ruined lives through revealed secrets in her wake. None of that was exploited to its full potential. I was expecting a bit more sass and bite, but it was all too pedestrian and humdrum.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Review of The Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (2002, Doubleday)

It’s the anniversary of the Lilac uprising and the more senior members of the Night Watch make their annual pilgrimage to the Cemetery of Small Gods and the grave of John Keel and the six other watchmen who gave their lives. Commander Sam Vimes was a week-old lance-corporal at the time of the revolution that saw the fall of a tyrant patrician and the end to his secret police. Thirty years later he’s head of the Night Watch and a Duke and about to become a father for the first time. He’s also in pursuit of a charismatic psychopathic killer, who’s been cornered at the Unseen University. As Vimes pursues Carcer over the rooftops a terrible storm is brewing and with a large lightning strike the duo find themselves back at the time of Lilac revolution. Carcer’s first act is to kill John Keel leaving Vimes to step into the role to make history unfold roughly as intended while a group of monks seek a way to get him back to the future. Making history repeat, however, is not straightforward, especially with Carcer doing his best to stop the revolution and Vimes having to keep an eye on his younger self.

The Night Watch is the sixth book in the City Watch series, and #29 in the Discworld series. In this outing, Commander Sam Vimes has to contend with quantum physics, revolution, and a serial killer as he’s hurtled back in time to the Lilac uprising. It is a time when Sergeant John Keel of the Treacle Mine Road Watch House sought to barricade the surrounding streets to protect citizens from the secret police and a mad patrician seeking to cling onto power. Only Keel is dead at the hands of Carcer, the serial killer he’s pursuing, and Vimes has to take his place to ensure that history maintains it approximate course. While he does his best to organize his old watch house and lookout for his youthful self, a monastic order of time-altering monks work on a way to send him back to the future. As usual, Pratchett uses the Discworld series to explore (pseudo)scientific ideas such as quantum physics, time travel and craniometry, and social themes such as secret police and social revolution, through a lens shot through with humour and observational insight. The story is a little slow to get going, but by the latter half it’s found its stride gaining verve, pace and wit. Vimes is in his element as he organizes his lacklustre Night Watch, seeks to ensure that the Lilac Revolution takes place, and that he’s a future to return to. It’s engaging and entertaining fare, light-but-big hearted, with a good dose of incidental, thoughtful, reflexive social commentary.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

If you like discussing crime fiction than Mystery Scene magazine has started a community forum. It's early days yet, but hopefully it'll lead to some interesting discussion.

My posts this week
Review of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Review of Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan
June reviews
Coup de grace

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Coup de grace

‘You wouldn’t kill a dying man now, would you officer?’

Carney was propped up against a wall, clutching a bloody wound just below his shoulder.

‘I’m happy to make an exception for you, Carney.’

Kelly stepped cautiously into the room, his gun hanging by his side.

‘I need a doctor.’

‘You need a priest.’

‘No thanks. They need to get their own souls atoned for Saint Peter.’

‘You’ll not even get to meet him.’

‘I think we’re all afforded a hearing.’

‘That’s more than you deserve.’

Kelly raised his gun.

‘Seriously? I’ll be dead soon anyway.’

‘But not soon enough.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Review of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013, Black Swan)

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910 and promptly dies. History repeats but she lives, the doctor having made it through the snowstorm. It is a pattern that Ursula is set to repeat dying multiple times in several different ways, sometimes a sense of déjà vu saving her from the same fate in a subsequent life. Mostly her lives follow a very similar trajectory, occasionally they diverge and take a different track. At some point, she realises that she could potentially save the world from the darkness of the Second World War. But can one person stop fate?

Life After Life follows the multiple lives of Ursula Todd, the middle child of five of an upper-middle class family. She’s born at Fox Corner, a large detached house in a small village on a commuter line to London and grows up – except when she dies early in childhood – with her family, and a maid and a cook. Her father is a banker and serves as a captain in the First World War. Her mother is a somewhat a snob and her aunt is a flirtatious socialite. Her elder brother becomes a senior civil servant. Ursula sometimes attends secretarial college and sometimes university, studying languages; sometimes she takes a year to travel to Germany, Italy and France. She nearly always has the same friends and takes the same lovers, though sometimes she has a disastrous relationship. In none of them does she have a long-term happy relationship or her own family. If she reaches her twenties she nearly always ends up in London working in the civil service and as an air raid warden during the Blitz, though occasionally she ends up in Germany. She seems destined to keep living variations of the same life, each living having echoes of those previous. All of her lives are somewhat ordinary as Ursula is not destined for fame; indeed, she lives a relatively small life.

Atkinson uses the repeating lives idea to explore the notion of history as a palimpsest, constantly being re-written over the top of itself where the previous iteration echoes through, as well as the tension between fate and contingency. A small alteration sets a different path, but the overall trajectory always remains similar since so much stays constant – family, home, friends, personality, education, etc. Thrown into the story is a mix of literature and philosophy on the nature of life (and death). By tracking Ursula’s various lives, the reader is asked to reflect on whether their lives would be roughly the same if they lived it over again? Would they seek to derail fate and seek something radically different? And would they sacrifice themselves for a greater good? It’s an interesting narrative form, with obvious echoes with Groundhog Day. It occasionally gets a little tedious always resetting to the day of her birth, though Atkinson does a good job of telling that event from many perspectives, but overall it works well. The temptation must have been to run major events through ‘what if’ scenarios, but keeping the focus on a small life makes the reflective questions more personal and grounded. The result is an engaging, thoughtful literary novel that asks big questions but not in a highbrow, inaccessible way.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

June reviews

Two back-to-back five star reviews in June. Difficult to pick between them, but I'll go with Adam Sternbergh's The Blinds as my read of the month.

The Liberator by Alex Kershaw ***.5
Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell ***
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris *****
The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh *****
Code Breaker by Marc McMenamin ***
London Rules by Mick Herron ****
The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez ****

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of Dead Man’s Land by Robert Ryan (2012, Simon Schuster)

Although now well beyond normal service age Dr John Watson has re-enlisted to serve a front-line medical doctor in the Great War. He’s role is to assess and treat wounded soldiers in a casualty clearing station and to teach the new method of blood transfusion to other doctors. The carnage is terrible, with an endless stream of bloody victims to attend. When one of his charges dies, his jaw clamped shut, eyes bulging and his skin tinged blue, Watson suspects foul-play. His suspicion is further aroused by a number carved in the victim’s chest and rumours of similar deaths among the same regiment. He might be without his friend, Sherlock Holmes, but Watson has learned from his time with the master detective and he’s determined to get to the truth even if that means risking his life in the trenches.

Dead Man’s Land is the first book in the Dr Watson series set during the First World War. After parting ways with Sherlock Holmes, Watson has re-enlisted as a medical officer and headed to the trenches of Flanders where part of his mission is to extol the virtues of the new method of blood transfusion. His first post is in a relatively quiet section in a casualty clearing station where he discovers the Leigh Pals, a regiment he met a couple of months earlier in Egypt, are serving. When one of the pals dies after a blood transfusion Dr Watson suspects foul play. His initial investigation suggests this is not the first such death. Someone is using the cover of battlefield carnage to commit murder and Watson sets out to identify and capture him. Ryan does a nice job of building a story around Dr Watson and bringing him to the fore of the story, and in constructing a serial murder tale in the frontline area of Flanders. There is a good sense of place and historicisation as to conditions and operations at the front and medical services, and the dimensions of class and hierarchies within services (military and medical) are nicely realised. Beyond Watson, the nursing staff and the Leigh Pals are well realised and engaging, especially suffragette voluntary aid detachment nurse Mrs Gregson. The core of the plot is a nice murder mystery that has a good twist to it, however it has a couple of subplots that were a bit of a distraction involving a German sniper and Winston Churchill that felt like interest padding, and it was a shame in many ways for Holmes to be pulled into the story. Overall, an engaging tale that does a reasonable job of continuing the canon without it feeling overly pastiche.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

A weekend of digging a french drain between showers, playing with the dogs, and reading an old Terry Pratchett novel, The Night Watch. I could get used to this kind of life.

My posts this week
Review of The Liberator by Alex Kershaw
Review of Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell
Normal family

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Normal family

‘So your mum and her dad are married?’


‘And you’re married?’


‘But you’re brother and sister?’

‘Step-brother and step-sister. We’re not blood relations. We’re the same age.’

‘But you grew up together?’

‘From the age of twelve when my mum moved in with her dad.’

‘So, you were living as siblings and then you started dating?’

‘When we were sixteen.’

‘Even though your parents were married?’


‘But you have a younger step-sister who is related to you both?’


‘And you have two kids?’

‘We’re not hillbillies, y’know.’

‘You’re not a normal family, either.’

‘Yes, we are.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, June 28, 2019

Review of The Liberator by Alex Kershaw (2012, Crown)

Felix Sparks wanted to study law at college but his poor background led him to ride the railroad before enlisting in the Army. Having saved enough to pay the fees, he left the army and enrolled in a law degree only for World War II to intervene. In July 1943 he is coming ashore in Sicily as a second lieutenant in the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th ‘Thunderbird’ Division. As Alex Kershaw’s history reveals, his journey to the end of the war involves three more beach landings at Salerno, Anzio and southern France, fighting in the Vosges Mountains, battles across Germany ending with the liberation of Dachau. For 500 days his regiment was almost constantly on the front-line and suffered some of the highest casualty rates amongst the Western allied armies. Sparks rose through the ranks and unlike many other commanders led from the front, taking part in fierce frontline fighting in Italy and Germany, miraculously surviving for so long when few others did (though he is seriously wounded and spends some time in hospital). Sparks’ service was not, however, without controversy. Devoted to his men and their welfare he was prepared to challenge and defy his superiors when needed. Ordered to liberate Dachau, his unit is horrified at what they find and some of his officers line-up and shoot SS men. Shortly after, he bars a general and a journalist from entering the site. The two events haunt his career and reputation post-war.

Kershaw tells Sparks’ story from childhood to his post-war career as a lawyer, judge, National Guard general, and gun control campaigner, concentrating on his Second World War experiences. At times the story is a little sketchy and thin, both with respect Sparks’ experiences and the wider context of his regiment/division and the broader war effort and politics, but trying to tell a life-time and especially 500 days of conflict in less than 400 pages was always going to be a tricky task. Kershaw’s tactic is to provide a light overview of all stages of the journey and focus in particular on key events, especially Anzio, entering Germany, and liberating Dachau. Generally, the balance is right, but it does leave the first half of the book a little anaemic at times, with the story growing in interest and detail as it progresses. The result is a fascinating tale of a determined man and those that he fought with and their remarkable and bloody journey from Sicily to Munich.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Review of Last Orders by Caimh McDonnell (2018, McFori Ink)

Two bodies are discovered buried in the Wicklow Mountains. Former policeman, Bunny McGarry, knows that the evidence trail will eventually lead to his door. Always somewhat unhinged and further traumatised from ten days at the hands of a mad-man the previous year, Bunny begins to come apart at the seams, talking to ghosts, seeing trackers everywhere, and acting more erratically than usual. Bunny’s two business partners are not fairing much better. Having built a successful investigations company, Paul seems determined to destroy it through a pointless tit-for-tat rivalry with a competitor that quickly escalates into all-out war. Brigit is in despair over Paul’s actions, the perilous state of the company, and Bunny’s mental health. Both situations are spiralling out of control and neither seems set to end well.

Last Orders is the third book in the Dublin trilogy, plus prequel, and marries both together, with the events of the prequel catching up with Bunny McGarry and effecting the fate of MCM Investigations, which is already hanging in the balance due to a feud with another company. McDonnell runs the tale as two strands – the investigation into the deaths of two men found buried in the Wicklow Mountains, and Paul and Bridget’s war with the Kelleher brothers – that become entwined through Bunny administering a dose of rough justice to a cheating gigolo. It should have been great fun, but the story felt too staged and contrived, moving from one set-piece to another, the humour a little flat with few laugh-out-loud moments, and the denouement was pretty much signalled from the start. The characters are somewhat pale shadows of themselves – Bunny is missing some verve, Paul seems to have become someone else – and the bionic FBI agent Alana Dove is straight from the ‘larger-than-life and completely unbelievable’ casting couch. Comic crime capers often suffer from stagey-ness and oddball characters, but in the best of them – as with earlier books in this series – they are inherent or incidental to the story rather than being its crux. While the story has its moments, for me it’s the weakest of the books so far.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Reasonably rare to read back-to-back five star reads and the two from this week will make picking a book of the month in a week's time tough. I doubt they'll get much competition from yesterday's haul from the local book shop, not because they won't be good reads, but because I'm unlikely to have read them by next Friday. Looking forward to reading this pile.

My posts this week
Review of Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Review of The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh
They'll be another if you blabber

Saturday, June 22, 2019

They'll be another if you blabber

Leahy was three steps along the corridor when the shot sounded.

He spun back and threw open the door.

The prisoner had slumped to the floor, dark blood gathering round his head.

‘What the fuck!’

A pistol was hanging by Kelly’s side.


‘You told me to get rid of him.’

‘I told you to get him out of here, not blow his fucking brains out!’

Kelly shrugged. ‘He deserved what he got.’

‘Since when did you become judge and executioner?’

‘Since this fucker and his pals killed Bates.’

‘This is murder.’

‘And they’ll be another if you blabber, Leahy.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Review of Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris (2008, Mariner)

Sixteen year old Nouf Shawari is due to get wedded in a couple of weeks when she disappears from her family’s island-based mansion along with a truck and her favourite camel. The family asks Nayir al-Sharqi, a desert guide, to search for her. Ten days later, just as he is losing hope, her body is discovered in a desert wadi. The coroner determines that she died not of dehydration or sunstroke, but by drowning, and that she was pregnant. However, a payment from the family returns a verdict of accidental death. Nouf’s brother asks his fiancé, Katya, who works in the coroner’s office, along with Nayir, to secretly investigate his sister’s death. Nayir is conservative in his views on gender, strictly observing cultural traditions, and is deferential in his manner. In contrast, Katya is more forthright, has a doctorate and wishes to continue to work when she marries, though she follows her father’s wishes and social norms and is always accompanied by a chaperone. The two form an uneasy alliance as they try to trace Nouf’s last few hours and determine who might have wanted her dead.

Finding Nouf is the first book in the Nayir Sharqi and Katya Hijazi trilogy of crime mysteries set in Saudi Arabia. Nayir works as a desert guide, and this outing starts his career as an investigator, and Katya works as a lab technician in the coroner’s office. They are paired together through their shared acquaintance with the brother of Nouf Shawari, Katya being his fiancé and Nayir an old friend. Nouf is found dead in the desert having drowned in a flash flood and the brother asks each of them to investigate her death. The sixteen year old girl was due to be married shortly after she disappeared and it soon transpires that she planned to flee her new husband in New York, where they were due to honeymoon. She was also pregnant when she died. Ferraris uses this premise to tell a compelling murder mystery tale that is firmly rooted in the culture and place of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, she creates a palpable sense of place with respect to the landscape, terrain, architecture and weather, and carefully sets the cultural context especially with respect to gender, religion, wealth and family. The contrast and awkward tension between Nayir and Katya nicely unfolds, as does the investigative elements of the plot that has plenty of intrigue and leads to a satisfying denouement. I’ve already added the second book to my list of future reads.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Review of The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh (2017, Faber and Faber)

Sheriff Calvin Cooper overseas the tiny population of Caesura, West Texas, located in the third least populous county in the United States. The residents all chose to live there, not sure whether they are criminals or witnesses in need of protection, but knowing that their key memories have been wiped as a part of new experimental programme. Afraid of the consequences, rarely does anybody leave what they call ‘The Blinds’. Supplies arrive once a week and occasionally a new resident shows up, picking a new name based on those of movie stars and vice-presidents. After eight years of relative mundanity there’s been a suicide and a murder in quick succession attracting the attention of outside federal agents. The residents are nervous, the deputy sheriff smells a conspiracy, and Cooper wants to use the fear to get Fran Adams, the only resident with a child, to leave. The uneasy peace starts to unravel as the truth of The Blinds starts to be revealed and it appears that nobody is as innocent as believed. And with a town full of criminals who fear the truth more than death, and outside interests interfering, Cooper is going to struggle to maintain order.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to find crime novels with a fresh take on the genre with most fitting into classic moulds and are derivative in storyline and twists. The Blinds, however, does manage to create a new angle blending together aspects of a Western with a SF memory loss tale. Caesura, West Texas, is a dusty, isolated town of second chances. All of its residents except for an eight year old boy and the three-person police team are either criminals or key witness who’ve had their memories altered so they cannot remember what led to them being there. What keeps them in place is a fear of what will happen if they leave, but a suicide and a murder have them worried about danger closer to home. Sheriff Calvin Cooper is charged with keeping the peace, but the two deaths have attracted outside attention, which along with the arrival of four new residents threatens to destabilise the community and reveal truths that nobody wants to rediscover. Sternbergh uses this premise to spin-out a compelling yarn in which the past gradually intrudes on the present leading to betrayal, violence, redemption, and desperate fight to survive. The story immediately grabs the reader’s attention and maintains its tight hold until the final page. The plot is very nicely constructed with plenty of intrigue and tension, the characterization is excellent, and there’s a strong sense of place and context. A wonderful, engaging, fresh tale of corrupted justice. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

I've still a dozen books on the TBR but it felt like it needed a bit of better mix to choose from so I've put in another order with the local bookshop. Hopefully the following will be wending their way to me shortly to be shuffled into the pile: Antonio Hodgson, The Devil in the Marshalsea; Paula Matter, Last Call; Saeida Rouass, The Assembly of the Dead; Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; Ann Cleeves, The Crow Trap; Sara Gran, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway; Asa Larsson, The Blood Spilt; Karin Fossum, Don't Look Back; Patricia Gibney, The Missing Ones; Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Murder at the Savoy; Laura Wilson, An Empty Death.

My posts this week
Review of Code Breaker by Marc McMenamin
Review of London Rules by Mick Herron
What kind of question is that?

Saturday, June 15, 2019

What kind of question is that?

‘Fifty kinds of love? Seriously, why do you read these things?’

Matt threw the magazine onto the floor and dropped on the sofa.

Chloe crossed her legs and glared at him. ‘Because they entertain. They enlighten. They comfort.’


‘Yes, comfort. They let you know that you’re not the only woman living with a Neanderthal.’

‘You needed a magazine for that?’

‘Matt, do you love me?’

‘What kind of question is that?’

‘A pointed one.’

‘Because I criticised your magazine?’

‘Because you don’t understand why I read them.’

‘This is ridiculous.’

‘What’s ridiculous is that you haven’t answered the question.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Review of Code Breaker by Marc McMenamin (2018, Gill)

During the Second World War Ireland declared itself neutral and sought to stay out of the conflict. Its strategic location on the edge of the Atlantic and sharing a land border with Britain meant it was under pressure from both the Allies and Germany to favour and aid their cause. As McMenamin details, while the Irish government cooperated covertly with the British, especially on intelligence work and enabling flights over Donegal, it stuck rigidly to neutrality with Germany. The government maintained diplomatic relations and let its legation operate throughout the war, but also actively policed spying and jailed German spies, and sought to limit German influence on domestic politics and activities that might lead to the Allies to occupy the country. The IRA, on the other hand, hoped collaboration with Germany might lead to a united Ireland and the organization actively aided German spies sent to Ireland, notably Hermann Gortz. In response, section G2 of the Irish intelligence service sought to actively limit German communications and capture spies, and the Irish government interred IRA members. The Abwehr and SD sent a relatively small number of spies to Ireland including a handful of Irish nationals, a couple of South Africans, and an Indian. All but Gortz were caught shortly after landing or never made it ashore, and most seemed ill-suited to the task with the exception of Gortz and Gunther Schutz.

McMenamin provides a relatively broad account of Ireland’s relationship with Germany and Britain and its quest to remain neutral, focusing on the various spies Germany sent to Ireland and the work of G2. In particular, he spends some time detailing the work of Richard Hayes, the Director of the National Library, who was recruited on a part-time basis by G2 to crack German ciphers and help interrogate prisoners. Hayes was a polymath, skilled as both a linguist and a mathematician. His approach to cryptography was mathematical, but also social and technical, spending time talking to spies, riflling through their possessions for clues, and using forensics on burned paper. He made a number of contributions to cracking German ciphers including being the first to identify the use of microdots and solving agent in-field radio and legation ciphers, the latter of which were used in the Ardennes offensive. After the war his work was officially recognized in a secret meeting with Churchill and MI5, and he continued as director of the National Library until 1967 when he took up a position of librarian for the Chester Beatty Library.

While the book is nicely written and interesting, it’s timeline jumps around a bit, much of the material about German spies in Ireland has been told previously, and the new focus on Hayes is a little thin, in part due to the lack of source material. It would have also been nice to get more technical explanation of how the ciphers worked and were cracked, and the text linked to its sources. It would have also been preferable if the hyperbole could have been dropped. Hayes work was important, and his story worth telling, but he was not all that ‘stood between Ireland and Nazi Germany’ and ‘the fate of the country and the outcome of the war’ did not rest ‘on his shoulders’. His work was far from ‘crucial’ to the war (though it no doubt influenced Irish position and policy), and had marginal effect on turning the tide in the Allies favour (by late 1944 the tide had long turned). And some statements simply don’t stack up. Gortz was arrested in November 1941 and the idea he could have tipped the Germans to the double-cross system or the plans to land in Normandy as claimed make little sense. This hyperbole aside the book provides a readable overview of Ireland’s approach to Germany and its spies and the efforts of Richard Hayes and his G2 colleagues.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of London Rules by Mick Herron (2018, John Murray)

A terrorist attack in Derbyshire and a pro-Brexit MP with designs on his job and a tabloid journalist for a wife has the Prime Minister on his toes, and by association Claude Whelan the new head of the Secret Service. Whelan will soon have more trouble to deal with, including a Muslim MP who is acting strangely and his own service being implicated in the attack. Slough House, the dumping ground for washed up spies, is never far from the Secret Services woes and one its occupants soon find themselves the target of a murder and the team chasing terrorists despite them supposedly being locked-down. Slough House might be home to the slow horses - capable of making any situation worse - but they still play with London Rules.

London Rules is the fifth book in the excellent Slow Horses series about the exploits of a bunch of has-been spies, each with a personal problem, who’ve been sent to Slough House to see out the rest of their career. In this outing, the gang of misfits are trying to get to the bottom of why Roddy Ho, a narcissist hacker with a personality bypass, is the target of a murder attempt and tangling with a terrorist cell enacting an old British secret service plan designed to destabilise a country. As usual, they are only partially equipped to deal with the threat and quickly make matters worse by accidentally killing a person they’re trying to protect. What makes the book shine are Herron’s cast of dysfunctional characters and their interactions that mix farce, slapstick and politically incorrectness. The dialogue often sparkles, especially any conversation involving Jackson Lamb, a man who treats everyone with disdain and condescension; a man who thrives mansplaining mansplaining and is comfortable telling cripple jokes to a disabled woman. The plot thread involving the terrorists would have worked better I felt if they weren’t more incompetent than the slow horses: the only thing that kept them from being caught quickly was luck, momentum and picking non-obvious targets. In a way the plot almost felt like a foil designed to enable Herron to spin some farce and create character situations, and poke fun at politics and the establishment, rather than being the central concern. Nonetheless, another clever, witty addition to a must-read series that is crying out for adaptation for television.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday was publication day for 'The Right to the Smart City' book edited by Paolo Cardullo, Cesare Di Feliciantonio and myself published by Emerald. The book focuses on the interrelationship of smart cities, rights, citizenship, social justice, commons, civic tech, participation and ethics, and includes chapters by Katharine Willis, Jiska Engelbert, Alberto Vanolo, Michiel de Lange, Catherine D'Ignazio, Eric Gordon, Elizabeth Christoforetti, Andrew Schrock, Sung-Yueh Perng, Gabriele Schliwa, Nancy Odendaal, Ramon Ribera-Fumaz, and the three editors.

My posts this week
Review of The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Generally being the operative word
May reviews

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Generally being the operative word

McStay’s gaze settled on the hands clutching the crucifix.

‘Copycat killing,’ Logan said. ‘Poor cow.’

‘Unless Tasker is innocent.’

‘Tasker killed those three women. A court convicted him.’

‘So? Judge and juries get it wrong. We get it wrong.’

‘Don’t let Carmichael hear you say that.’

‘Carmichael’s a great believer in Occam’s Razor.’


‘He likes easy solutions.’

‘Because they’re generally right.’

‘Generally being the operative word. Tasker has always protested his innocence. Never confessed. Didn’t even hint at it.’

‘You really think this is the same killer?’

‘Or it could be a copycat.’

‘Jesus, Gerry, make your mind up!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Review of The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2018, Riverhead Books)

At a party the author is introduced to Carlos Carballo, a man obsessed with political assassinations. He wants Vasquez to write a book about the assassination of the Colombian liberal, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, murdered by a lone gunman on the 9th April 1948, plunging the country into a ten year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people died and a million were displaced. Like the rumours surrounding the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914, and the assassination of John Kennedy, Carballo is convinced that there was a wider conspiracy behind Gaitán’s death involving at least one other gunman backed by a group hiding in the shadows manipulating events. Vasquez gets into an argument with Carballo, accidentally breaking his nose in the altercation. A few years later Vasquez meets Carballo again, giving away information that would be of interest for his conspiracy theory, which leads to a theft. Vasquez promises to try and recover the object by promising to write the book Carballo wants written. The material Carballo produces captures Vasquez’s imagination making him question accepted history despite him being resistant to revisionist claims.

The Shape of the Ruins is an auto-fiction account of how Vasquez comes to write a novel concerning the assassinations of two twentieth century Colombian politicians that had lasting consequences for the country. The first death is the murder of General Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914 and the parallel inquiry conducted by a young lawyer, Marco Tulio Anzola, who published a book in 1917 setting out an alternative account to the official investigation. The second murder is the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and the obsessive investigation by Carlos Carballo who wants to produce a book that replicates Anzola’s work. Carballo has assembled what he believes is extensive evidence of a conspiracy concerning Gaitán’s death, but he wants a professional writer of Vasquez’s stature to write the book. Carballo meets Vasquez at a party, but Vasquez wants no part of the venture. Circumstances, however, conspire to make Vasquez take on the job. His investigation leads him to question the nature of history and conspiracy theories, and the obsessions of those that seek to challenge and re-write the past. It’s a fairly lengthy tale, with much philosophical wandering and autographical asides, and long passages recounting Anzola’s and Carballo’s stories. Given the mix of official history and conspiracy theories it’s difficult to know the extent to which the tale is fiction and faction, which matches in many ways the contested nature of Colombian history. And that’s the point of the story, I feel, given the politics and violence that haunts the country. In that sense, the book makes an engaging, reflexive and thoughtful intervention regarding Colombian identity, memory, and living with the past. It’s a little too long in places, especially recounting Anzola’s quest, but is nonetheless an interesting read.