Thursday, December 31, 2020

Review of The Killing Bay by Chris Ould (2017, Titan Books)

An international mix of anti-whalers have gathered in the Faroe Islands determined to stop the killing of pilot whales. The day after an unsuccessful attempt to save a pod of whales being driven by boats onto the shore the official photographer of the protest group is found murdered. The body has been arranged in a staged manner and evidence is directed to a local fisherman, who happens to be the son-in-law of a CID officer, Hjalti Hentze. Once a suspect is named Hentze absents himself from the case. The fisherman claims to be innocent but is generally uncooperative with the police. The man in charge is determined to follow the single line of inquiry despite the circumstantial nature of the evidence and clear indications of outside interference in the case. Sure that there is much more going on and unhappy with how their superiors are handling the murder case, Hentze and some of his like-minded colleagues pick away from the sidelines, ruffling a few feathers in the process. They are aided by Jan Reyna, a British police officer who is visiting the islands, looking into the early life of his mother.

The Killing Bay is the second book in the Faroes series featuring British police officer, Jan Reyna, and local detective Hjalti Hentze. This outing is set just a few days after the first, with Reyna still on the island, taking a break to try to find out more details about his mother’s life on the islands. One thread of the story follows Reyna’s family investigation, told in the first person. The other, told in the third person, follows the investigation into the death of an activist photographer, who had been a member of anti-whaling protest group. The chief suspect is Hentze’s son-in-law, who had met his former girlfriend on a number of occasions over the previous weeks and whose alibi does not stand up to scrutiny. Hentze absents himself from the case, but the way it is being managed and interference from outside authorities spurs him to take covert interest. While Hentze and a couple of colleagues do most of the running, they occasionally turn to Reyna for help. Ould creates a decent sense of place and both threads are intriguing, though the family inquiry is a little threadbare, and the murder a little drawn-out. There was no great surprise in the denouement, but that was fine as there’s nice character development and both threads were interesting journeys.


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Review of The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan (2019, Sphere)

DS Cormac Reilly’s girlfriend Emma works in a privately funded biochemical lab at Galway University. Late one evening she discovers a young woman dead in the car park outside the lab. The first person on the scene is Reilly, who quickly takes charge. There’s no indication that Emma was involved in the death, but he’s well aware of a previous accusation of murder and a traumatic past. After a year of working cold cases he’s just been shuffled back into rotation. He knows he should absence himself from the case, but his instinct is to try to quickly clear Emma from the inquiry and move the investigation forward. However, it’s soon clear that it might be a high profile case when the ID of Carline Darcy, granddaughter of the founder of Darcy Therapeutics, a hugely successful pharmaceutical company and the sponsor of the lab, is found on the victim. The company is highly secretive and only willing to give the bare minimum of help to the police and office politics are not aiding the investigation either. 

The Scholar, the second book in the DS Cormac Reilly series set in Galway, charts Reilly’s quest to clear his girlfriend’s name and catch the killer. It’s a relatively straightforward police procedural, with one major thread focusing on the young woman murdered outside of the lab, and a secondary thread concerned with tying up the loose ends of a father’s attempt to kill his family. The two intrigue points on the major thread are the involvement of Reilly’s girlfriend as the discoverer of the victim and initial suspect, and the link to Carline Darcy, whose grandfather owns Darcy Therapeutics, which sponsors the lab. Reilly should absent himself from the case but doesn’t, and Darcy Therapeutics is obstructionist and has the police and university management tip-toing around the case. It makes for some intrigue and tension, though the story is quite linear and in the end quite quickly and easily wrapped up with little sense of mystery. Instead, the tale seemed designed to provide a window onto Reilly, his relationship to Emma and her past, and fill out some of their backstory. That works fine to a point, especially since it is told in an engaging voice, but also makes the story a somewhat staged. Overall, a fairly decent second instalment to the series.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Othello Syndrome

‘I don’t have another woman,’ Charlie said, exasperated.

‘You do, I know you do.’

‘I don’t.’

‘You’re always sneaking off to her.’

‘When? If I’m not at work I’m here, or taking the kids to ballet or football.’

‘Don’t lie to me! You’re always chasing other women.’

‘Julie, you know that’s not true.’

‘I see you. Hear you.’

‘I need to get out of here. Clear my head.’

‘Yes, go running to her!’

‘I’m not running to anyone. I think we need to see that psychiatrist again.’

‘Is she the bitch you’re sleeping with?’

‘Julie, please.’

‘Don’t lie to me!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, December 19, 2020


‘Do you believe in fate?’

‘Is he handsome?’ Claire asked rooting through her wardrobe.

‘Does that make a difference?’

‘It’s fate if he’s handsome. What about this?’ She held up a short red skirt.

‘For a first date? And if he’s not?’

The skirt hit the floor. ‘Not what?’


‘Then it’s a coincidence.’

Sarah tutted. ‘Right.’

‘So he’s a minger then? This?’

‘You won’t need to worry about him mentally undressing you.’

‘Help me find something sexy but … classy.’

‘He’s not a minger.’

‘But still a coincidence?’

‘He just seems …’

‘Like fate?’

‘Yes. No. I don’t know.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Review of Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter (2013, Mariner)

While the West places the start of the Second World War as September 1939, for China their fight with the Japanese started in 1937 with a skirmish that led to a full-scale assault followed by 8 years of continuous battle. Arguably the conflict started earlier with the invasion and occupation of Northern China in 1931, though an uneasy peace followed. Rana Mitter tells the story of China’s war concentrating on the period 1937 to 1945, though bookending the main narrative with the context and lead-up to the war and the civil war between nationalists and communists that immediately followed. At the start of the twentieth century China was a divided nation, with several large states ruled by various warlords and regimes, and weak on the international stage. The Nationalist Party had started to try and create a more unified nation, though forming political alliances among rivals was difficult. When the Japanese launched their assault on Eastern China, these divisions undermined the coordination of armies and the Chinese experienced a succession of defeats, the advance being halted when the Yellow River dykes were breached killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nationalist China turned to America for help, especially for political support and war supplies, while the communists turned to Russia. The US aid came with the condition that an American general act as the military chief-of-staff; a decision that would have long-term consequences. What followed was a war of attrition, with up to 100 million refugees, famine, between 16-20 million deaths, followed by civil war. By 1949 China was unified under the Communist Party and its geopolitical position on the world stage has been transformed. It had been a major theatre of the war and a key member of the allies, yet its contribution was also largely airbrushed from accounts of the Second World War.

Forgotten Ally seeks to set the record straight and make a case for how the events during those years shaped, and continues to influence, China’s relationship with other post-war powers. While providing an over-arching history, Mitter tells the tale by focusing on four key figures: Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Nationalist government; Mao Zedong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party; Wang Jingwei, who defected from Nationalist Party to form a puppet government in occupied China; and ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, the American appointed as Chiang’s chief of staff. In addition, he focuses on a number of key events, such as Rape of Nanking, the bombing of China’s wartime capital, Chongqing, and the ill-fated campaigns in Burma, drawing on a range of archival and personal testimony material. It makes for a fascinating read, providing a synoptic overview of what took place and key actors and decisions. However, because it is covering a number of years and many events it also quite sketchy, sacrificing depth for breadth. This is inevitable, but at times it does feel a little too sketchy. In particular, the Japanese side of the conflict is barely touched upon. Nonetheless, it’s an informative and engaging read, it does a good job of providing a balanced view, and makes a reasonable argument concerning how the war shaped China’s post-war geopolitical relations.  


Saturday, December 12, 2020

You need to let it go

 Mark stood in the doorway. ‘Tracy, just stop.’

‘We’re committing hara-kiri!’

‘You need to let it go.’

‘It’s going to affect our lives for the rest of our lives.’

‘And venting on social media is not going to change that.’

‘But it’s so stupid!’

‘And nothing we do is going to fix it.’

‘But we can let them know how angry we are.’

‘And that’s the problem. You’ve become consumed by anger. It’s not good for you.’

‘But …’

‘Tracy, come to bed. It’s late.’

‘They lied. They’re still lying.’

‘And they’ll be lying tomorrow. And you'll still be angry.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Review of The Merry Misogynist by Colin Cotterill (2009, Quercus)

Laos, 1978. A government official with a license to travel the country is wooing, marrying, then killing young virgins in remote rural areas. Most of the victims simply disappear, but one ends up on the mortuary slab of Dr Siri Paiboun, the national coroner. Appalled at the manner of her death, Siri decides to investigate, teaming up with the detective married to his nurse. As well as hunt a serial killer is also fighting a personal battle with the housing department and searching for an itinerant Indian man who has disappeared from the streets of the capital. 

The Merry Misogynist is the sixth instalment of the Siri Paiboun series following the investigations and adventures of the Laos state pathologist, who after a lifetime of revolutionary service is rewarded with work rather than retirement. In this outing, Siri seeks to halt the work of a serial killer preying on naïve, young rural women and find a missing Indian man who he’d usually encounter near to his work. In my view it’s probably the weakest of the series so far. While Siri is his usual affable, engaging self, the plot threads felt weak and tired. Each thread was very linear with no twists and turns. The serial killer thread was cliché and the missing Indian made little sense when pressed (he’d left a set of clues leading to where he was, but logically wouldn’t have been able to leave them). And Siri’s spiritual side didn’t surface at all, when it would have made sense to be present. The real saving grace was Siri and his interactions with his close circle of friends and the light humour. I’m hoping the series picks up again as the last couple have been a bit lacklustre, though Siri really is a delightful character.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

The Madman

 ‘You hired The Madman?’

‘Yes.’ James continued to stare at his laptop screen.

‘Seriously?’ Colin’s voice rose an octave. ‘Are we that desperate?’

‘He’s the best there is.’

‘He’s also psychotic!’

‘But in a good way. We need …’

‘What we need is a cool head, James. He could sink us.’

‘We’re already sinking; that’s why I hired him.’

A paper ball hit the back of Colin’s head.

‘Nobody’s sinking.’

The man in the doorway was barely five feet tall.


‘You’re not going to welcome your saviour?’

‘You’re certifiable!’

‘Maybe. But I can get you out of this mess.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Review of The Dead House by Harry Bingham (2016, Orion)

A young woman is found laid out in an old ‘dead house’, a small building close to a chapel in which bodies were housed prior to burial. For Detective Sergeant Fiona Griffiths how she came to be there is a puzzle worth solving. Even when the autopsy reveals she died of natural causes, Griffiths finds a way to keep the case open so she can assuage her curiosity. She has two lines of inquiry, some very expensive, high-end plastic surgery that will hopefully reveal who she is, and some trace barley remains that might reveal where she lived or died prior to being laid out. She doggedly pursues both leads and soon has a proper case; though as usual she spots connections that no-one else can see and her headstrong approach is bound to lead her into big trouble. 

The Dead House is the fifth book in the Fiona Griffiths police procedural series set in South Wales. In this outing, Fiona is investigating the death of a young woman laid out in a chapel dead house. The first challenge is identifying her given no-one appears to know who she is and her expensive plastic surgery suggests she is not local. The second is work out how she came to be there and her movements prior to death. Having spent the night in the dead house with ‘Carlotta’, as Fiona names the corpse, she has formed a special bond given her own odd relationship with death, vowing to solve the mystery. Bingham spins out a taut, twisting tale from this premise, with Fiona in fine, singular form. Undoubtedly the joy of this series is Fiona, who is one of the quirkiest, interesting and smart police officers in fiction and a pleasure to spend time with, despite all her foibles and vices that must drive most of her colleagues mad. Added to this is a strong sense of place, a captivating plot, along with the longer plot arc of the series, and engaging narrative. While it became somewhat unbelievable towards the end, the story was a gripping page turner (the scenes underground had my heart in my mouth and put me off caving for life). Another very entertaining addition to what has become my favourite UK-set series.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Out the window

 Jamie held his brother out of the window.

‘Don’t let me go!’

‘It’s the only way.’


‘It’s not far.’


‘Come-on, kid!’ A voice shouted from below. ‘Drop him.’

Jamie closed his eyes, counted to three and let go of his brother’s wrists.

When he looked down the man was clutching Tom, lowering him to the ground.

‘Now you.’

Jamie shook his head and coughed.

‘You’ve got to jump, kid. Climb out the window.’

Jamie stood on the window ledge, smoke billowing around him.

‘I’ll catch you.’

‘I can’t.’

‘You can. Jump.’

Jamie closed his eyes and tumbled forwards.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Review of The Plotters by Un-su Kim (2019, Fourth Estate; 2010 Korean)

As a small child Reseng was adopted by Old Raccoon, the keeper of the Doghouse Library. While it seems like an ordinary library, it has few visitors and actually serves as a hub for organized crime, especially contract killings. Reseng was groomed to be an assassin and has grown-up to become one of the best in the business. A secret group of plotters devise who should be killed and how; the library organizes the execution. But it’s a business that eats its own. The Old Raccoon is under pressure from a younger rival and Reseng is also under threat after deviating from a plot. And the opposition have the best killer in the business.

The Plotters is a noir tale set in South Korea. Pulling strings behind the scenes, a shadowy group of plotters orchestrate contract killings in which targets are eliminated and their bodies vanish. Reseng operates at the sharp-end, undertaking the kills and transferring the bodies to a pet crematorium. It’s a competitive business, where a deviation from a plot can place the assassin on the death list. Which is where Reseng finds himself. Only there appears to be more than one plotter at work, as well as rivalry in the underworld, unsettling the usual order. Trying to seize the initiative and save himself and his mentor, Reseng takes matters into his own hands, leading to a bloody set of encounters. Un-su Kim creates a dark, reflexive tale of a young assassin trying to survive in a cut-throat world. He does a nice job of constructing the world of the plotters, their actors and the Korean underworld. In many ways, Reseng is the least colourful character in a book populated by larger-than-life, quirky low-lives, but he has an interesting backstory and pursues his own strategy. The storytelling nicely blends pathos with dark humour, and is told in a literary voice. And while it is a little uneven in its pacing, mixing thoughtful description and reflection with action sequences, there’s never a dull moment in the narrative. Overall, an engaging, entertaining read and I’ll be looking out for other books by the author.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Review of Deep as Death by Katja Ivar (2020, Bitter Lemon Press)

Winter, Helsinki, 1953. Hella Mauzer, the first woman to serve in the city's homicide unit, has been forced out and prosecuted for injuring a suspect. She’s set herself up as a private investigator, but her run of bad luck continues as she’s given a large fine to pay in a short time-frame and her relationship with a radio presenter has run aground. When a prostitute is found floating in the harbour, the brothel’s madam turns to Mauzer to help. The brothel is known to have catered to the city’s elite and the head of homicide is reluctant to investigate given the role of chief of police is up for grabs. However, an ambitious inspector in the unit is reluctant to toe-the-line. Mauzer thus finds herself competing with her old boss to solve the case and as other’s start to perish, the stakes are raised. 

Deep as Death is the second book in the Hella Mauzer series set in 1950s Finland. In this outing, Mauzer has been forced out of the homicide unit and has set herself up as a private investigator. She is hired to investigate the death of a prostitute by a madam who is aware the police are dragging their heels, afraid of upsetting political leaders. As she starts to make some progress, forces seem to conspire to thwart Hella’s efforts. At the same time, a young inspector spots an opportunity to move his career forward, running with the case against his bosses wishes. Ivar tells the story from the point of view of Hella and the inspector. It works reasonably well, providing two perspectives on the case, and creating a sense of competition between the two, and there’s a good sense of place and context. The story unfolds as a who-dunnit, with a rising body count and some twists-and-turns. The denouement, however, seemed to fall apart a bit, being somewhat unconvincing, and was wrapped up very quickly leaving the story without adequate closure.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

It's never too late

 ‘I can’t do this anymore, Ruth.’

‘Do what?’

‘This. Meeting up. Going for walks.’

‘Oh.’ She turned to face him. ‘Why?’

‘Because …’ Brendan shrugged.

‘Are you breaking up with me?’

‘I’m not sure we were ever together.’

Ruth reached for his hand, which he pulled out of reach.

‘What about the last two years?’

‘We’ve been friends.’


‘Yes, companions.’

‘I thought that’s what you wanted? A companion.’

‘I did. I do. But I thought it might lead to something else.’

‘It still can.’

‘It’s too late for us to star in a rom-com.’

‘It’s never too late, Brendan.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review of Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (2013, Gollancz)

A trace of a blood in the boot of a car, the owner a suspected illicit practioner of magic. A locksmith cooked from the inside-out. A town-planner stepping off a platform in front of a train. The appearance of a stolen book on industrial-scale magic of German origin. PC Peter Grant is dashing between cases that appear to be linked to his nemesis, the Faceless Man. The leads point to a notorious sink estate in Elephant and Castle in South London, designed by an infamous German emigre. Not sure what he is looking for, but certain that the estate holds the key, Grant and his colleague, Leslie take up residence, assured that something strange is taking place.

Broken Homes is the fourth book in the urban fantasy meets police procedural, Rivers of London series. The story revolves around an estate in South London, notorious for its strange and fortress-like design that has made it a no-go area for authorities. The local council is seeking to knock it down to build something new. Residents want to be left alone. And another force seems intent on using it for something else. Peter Grant and colleagues, who specialise in policing strange phenomena, are interested in discovering more about the latter, which seems linked to some mysterious deaths elsewhere in London. It’s an enjoyable read, with a nice set of characters, intriguing elements, and usual humour. However, while there is a full story arc, the tale felt a bit too much like a bridging entry in the series, being a little too meandering and open-ended, with a number of threads that are unresolved or not fully explained. And the lack of backstory with respect to all the threads – the unit Grant works for, Lesley’s face, the Faceless Man, the Rivers – would make it a quite confusing standalone read. Nonetheless, an entertaining addition to the series.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Box room

Alysha nervously picked at her plate.

‘She can sleep in your room tonight,’ Frank said. ‘You can have the box room.’

‘We’re both sleeping in my room,’ Peter replied.

‘This is my house.’

‘And Alysha is my wife.’

‘Frank,’ Sylvia said, hoping to head-off a full-blown confrontation.

‘We’ll find a hotel.’

‘Peter.’ Alysha sought out his hand.

‘You’ll stay here,’ Frank said. ‘But in separate rooms.’

‘I’m sorry, mum.’ Peter rose to his feet. ‘You’re a racist prick, dad. Alysha’s pregnant. Twins.’

‘Peter,’ Alysha whispered.

‘He can reject us, but he’ll never get to be a racist prick to them.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review of The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu (2017, Constable)

1936, Singapore. Sixteen year old Su Lin is coming to the end of her time at a mission school. She has ambitions to be a reporter, but her first step to achieving that goal is to avoid being married off to a much older man selected by her uncle. Her teacher has arranged for her to be the housekeeper for Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy. At their initial meeting LeFroy is called away to investigate a suspicious death at the residence of the Acting Governor of the colony, taking Su Lin with him. The nanny has fallen to her death from a second floor balcony. Su Lin quickly spots some oddities with the death and persuades LeFroy to let her offer to replace the nanny, stay at the residence, and try to see what she can find out. He reluctantly agrees, though his enthusiasm dips when a second death occurs. Su Lin though is determined to protect the daughter she is minding and solve the case.

This is the first in a cosy series set in Singapore in the late 1930s. The story is a traditional big house mystery in the vein of the golden age of crime transplanted to the colony, with the majority of the tale taking place in the Acting Governor’s residence investigating the suspicious death of the nanny. Although the police are involved, the primary investigator is Su Lin Chen, a teenager who is asked to temporarily replace the nanny until another can be hired. Su Lin is observant, smart, quick-witted, and kind and is not going to let her polio-crippled leg hold her back. Grand-daughter of a major trader and money-lender, she’s determined not be married off to an associate of her uncle, and has ambitions to make something of her life. Despite the colonial attitudes and racism of the governor’s family she quickly fits into the household as she hunts for clues and uncovers secrets. Yu spins an engaging, well paced whodunit tale that has several twists and turns and leads to tense, though not overly surprising denouement. There’s a reasonable sense of place, though the focus on the residence and domestic relations means the colonial context and island society is somewhat in the background. The charm of the story, however, is Su Lin and the golden age feel of the tale. Definitely a series I’ll be continuing with.

Saturday, November 7, 2020


‘Mr Smith, will you please answer the question.’

‘What’s the point? Everyone in this room thinks I’m guilty. Including my own lawyer.’

‘And are you?’

‘No. I didn’t kill that poor woman; but I have no way of proving it. Can’t we just skip forward to the sentencing?’

‘You haven’t been convicted as yet.’

‘That’s only a matter of time. We’re just wasting tax-payers money.’

‘An innocent man would contest the charges.’

‘This innocent man has been, but nobody wants to listen. Can’t we just end this charade?’

‘This isn’t a charade, Mr Smith.’

‘It is from where I’m sitting.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Review of Sicily ‘43 by James Holland (2020, Bantam Press)

The invasion of Sicily by Allied troops in July 1943 was the first major assault on Fortress Europe. It remains the largest amphibious landing in a single day, with 160,000 troops coming ashore on D-Day, and involved a vast armada, aerial skirmishes, and British and American-led armies taking on Italian and German troops. While the Western half of the island was quickly over-run, the Eastern half involved a bloody series of battles. After 38 days it was all over with most of the Italians surrendering and the Germans withdrawn over the Messina Straits. James Holland provides an overarching description of the invasion and key battles, drawing on the testimony of combatants on both sides and civilians. Unlike other accounts that tend to disparage the Allied efforts, Holland makes the case that Sicily was a major success despite mistakes being made (notably the use of airborne troops and gliders which suffered major losses, including via Allied guns). He argues that the mountainous terrain that favoured defenders and hardened German opponents slowed progress despite total aerial dominance and uncontested sea support, rather than incompetence, poor planning and weak tactics. His contention is well made. In general, one gets a reasonable sense of how the campaign unfolded. However, trying the cram dozens of battles and encounters into a single volume using multiple personal narratives makes for a somewhat bitty and narrow narrative. On the plus side, there’s a sense of what Holland’s main characters went through. On the negative, there’s a lot of jumping about and less sense of how particular actions and the overall campaign unfolded. It’s a difficult balance to achieve and it felt a little out of kilter. It might have helped if the relevant maps were embedded in the text at the appropriate points and there was more of them. Overall, though an interesting account of gaining a key foothold on Axis territory.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Poor bastard

‘There,’ Dessie slid the fiver across the table, ‘she almost made the record.’

Cathy stopped and turned. ‘Were you betting on me?’

‘Most last just a few minutes; you were pretty game.’

‘I don’t believe this.’

‘You won’t meet a nice fella then Terry,’ Colin said, ‘but he’s cursed. Put him next to a woman and he’s a nervous wreck; either clams up or spouts gibberish.’

Cathy glanced back at her blind date, who was staring forlornly at his cup.

‘Then why does he do it?’

‘Probably the same reason as you. Except he does it without hope. Poor bastard.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Review of Crimson Lake by Candice Fox (2017, Penguin)

Ted Conkaffey’s life has been turned upside down. The last known person to see a girl at a bus stop before she was abducted and raped, he’s accused of the crime. The case is withdrawn halfway through the trial leaving him neither acquitted nor convicted, but his reputation and marriage in ruins. His lawyer drives him north from Sydney to the wetlands of Crimson Lake, near to Cairns, and introduces him to Amanda Pharrell, a private investigator who has served time for killing another girl when she was a teenager. With the local community and cops starting to make Ted’s life a misery, he throws himself into investigating the disappearance of a local celebrity author with his new partner. At the same time he starts to dig into Amanda’s past, convinced there was more to her case than what’s on the public record. He’s pretty much given up on trying to prove his own innocence; the question is whether he’ll be able to stay in Crimson Creek long enough to solve the cases he’s working on before the locals force him to leave.

Crimson Lake is the first in a private investigator series set near to Cairns in North East Australia, featuring ex-detective Ted Conkaffey, a man wrongly suspected of kidnapping and raping a teenage girl, and Amanda Pharrell, an ex-con, who served time for murdering a fellow teenager. Ted has fled north to try and rebuild his life, knowing that he’ll never be able to shake-off the accusation unless the real culprit is caught. Amanda is all sharp angles, awkward, brazen, and with her own way of doing things. They make an odd pairing, but their circumstances enable them to form a working relationship. Their first case together is to investigate the disappearance of a local author who has gained fame and fans for Christian fiction, but whose lifestyle is far removed from pastiche of Old and New Testament he writes. As they hunt for clues and track down leads, the local community start to harass Ted and the cops threaten him with the aim of moving him on. Then the media track him down. Relatively tense from the start, Fox slowly ramps up the tension to create a taunt psychological thriller that interweaves three cases – Ted’s abduction, Amanda’s murder, and the author’s disappearance. Although somewhat unsettling and uncomfortable at times, there is strong character development, a good sense of place, and a nicely crafted plot that propels the story along with some good hidden twists leading to an enthralling denouement. And I was certainly left with a desire to see how Ted and Amanda’s lives develop in the next book in the series.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Review of Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson (1996, Vintage)

Belfast in the early 1990s. The Troubles are still on-going. Friends Jake Jackson and Chuckie Lurgan don’t care too much for the sectarian divisions and violence. Jake is a lapsed Catholic with a disdain for republicanism and its violence who works as a repo-man. Chuckie is an over-weight, poor Protestant living with his mother. As they reach thirty, change is in the air. Jake’s English girlfriend leaves him and he’s had enough of repossessing property. Chuckie has decided he’s going to make money and he’s discovered a cunning way to get his initial investment. And a cease-fire seems possible. As Chuckie’s empire rapidly grows and he finds love with good-looking American, Jake struggles to move-on, finding himself working as a builder.

I first read Eureka Street when living in Belfast in the late 1990s and much of the story takes place within a mile of where I was working in the area just to the south of the city centre. And in many ways the novel is a kind of love story for the city and its people. It has a wonderful sense of place and is full of pathos and humour as Chuckie and Jake try to navigate being poor, working-class friends from different religions in a city still riven with sectarian tension and violence. Wilson does a fantastic job of developing the two characters as their lives transform over the course of a year and deal with various situations. It’s beautifully written and has a strong emotional resonance, with the story switching from laugh-out loud moments to deep melancholy and tears. It has as much relevance for understanding Northern Ireland now, as it did then. Definitely one of my favourite novels. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

I didn't kill her

‘How many times do I need to say it? I didn’t do it.’

‘You took her behind the skip and you killed her.’ The police office tapped a photograph. ‘You stabbed her twenty two times in the neck and chest.’

‘I didn’t do it.’

‘You were found covered in her blood. You had the knife in your hand.’

‘I told you, I heard screams. I found her. I pulled the knife from her side.’

‘Yet you didn’t call for help.’

‘I didn’t leave either,’ Carrie said. ‘I was in shock.’

‘Or you had a guilty conscience?’

‘I didn’t kill her.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, October 17, 2020


 ‘That’s Queen Victoria?’

‘Yes.’ The director squinted into a camera eyepiece.

‘But she’s black.’


‘Queen Victoria was white.’

‘To you maybe.’

‘It’s not a matter of opinion.’

‘And what about Cleopatra?’


‘Was she as white as an English rose? Was Jesus as pale as a Scot?’


‘Everyone living in Palestine and Egypt were baby pink?’

‘John …’

‘Shall we daub her with white makeup like a minstrel?’

‘We need to recast.’

‘It’s what she says and does that matters not her skin colour.’

‘That’s not …’

‘So, white folks can play black characters but not vice versa?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Review of Land of Shadows by Rachel Howzell Hall (2014, Titan Books)

The body of a 17 year old black girl is found in an under-construction development. Homicide detective Elouise Norton and her new partner are assigned to the case. For Lou there are strong echoes with the disappearance on her sister, Tori, thirty years previously; not least the age and race of the victim and that the development is owned by Napoleon Crase, who owned the stored Tori was last seen hanging around. As they investigate, Lou tries to stay impartial but there are too many similarities between the two cases. She has never given up hope of discovering what happened to her sister, but that baggage might jeopardise the current investigation into an active killer.

Land of Shadows is the first book in the Detective Elouise Norton series set in Los Angeles. Lou grew up in a poor black neighbourhood and has worked her way out into a new life, though she is deeply scarred by the disappearance of her elder sister when she was a teenager. Her new investigation has echoes of Tori’s case involving the death of a young black girl and the chief suspect from thirty years ago. Along with her new white partner, Lou starts to follow leads, though she’s convinced she knows who the perpetrator is. To add to her stress, her husband is away in Japan on business and is conducting an affair. The tale then is a police procedural that is thoroughly personal to the detective. At one level this adds spice and tension, and on another feels like one massive coincidental plot device for that purpose. Consequently, while it’s an engaging read with an interesting lead character, there were some odd quirks that rang hollow – for example, it was a mystery to me as to why she’s allowed to investigate it at all, why there was a suggestion of suicide in Monie’s death, and why the original investigation into Tori’s death was so lackadaisical. While it builds to a tense denouement, the reveal felt a bit too contrived. Other than that, there’s a decent sense of place, it’s nicely paced becoming somewhat of a page-turner.  

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The way home?

 Alicia stepped through the door and into a warehouse. Pallet racking towered above her.

Startled, she turned heels and barged through the fire escape.

The pub was half-empty; a Beatles song playing on the jukebox.

Alicia imagined the speech bubble over her head. ‘What the …’

She wandered to the front door and stared out at a car park.

‘You alright, love?’ The barman asked.

Ignoring him, she exited onto a theatre stage and into the glare of a spotlight.

Alicia raised a hand to her eyes. Every door opened to a new space.

But none seemed to lead home.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Friday, October 9, 2020

Review of A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly (2017, Hodder & Stoughton)

Charlie Parker is spending a lot of time talking to his lawyer. Rachel his ex-partner wants to restrict access to his daughter. Ross, a federal agent, has persuaded him to sign a contract to undertake work for the government. The first case is to track down Jaycob Eklund who has disappeared. Eklund was a private investigator obsessed with the paranormal, and in particular, The Brethren, a group of ghosts whose ancestors maintain their sect. The trail leads Parker, and his two friends Angel and Louis, to ‘Mother’, the custodian of a criminal empire, and her disturbed son, Philip, who also want Eklund found. As Parker follows the trail, his own ghost, The Collector, is also seeking out The Brethren. What evolves is a complex game of ghosts. 

Connolly spins a multi-layered story. The plot is fairly complex, and is heavily contextualised by previous instalments of the series that might make it a tricky read if read as a standalone. But that is also its strength, in that it builds on and ties off some of threads of the longer arc of the series. As usual, the prose and storytelling is engaging, the plot is compelling and entertaining with a strong sense of mystery and tension throughout, and Parker is put through the usual wringer with respect to both his personal and professional life. A chilling, page-turning read.

Monday, October 5, 2020

September reviews

A very good month of reading, but Neuromancer was my read of the month.

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha ****.5
Neuromancer by William Gibson *****
East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman ****
Austral by Paul McAuley ****.5
A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson *****

Saturday, October 3, 2020


Mark stopped typing.

‘I was wondering when you would appear,’ he said without turning.

Sarah didn’t reply, unable to speak.

The gun started to tremble in her hand.

‘What are you waiting for?’

‘You … you betrayed us.’

‘To save you.’

‘Karl is dead.’

‘The three of us would have …’

‘And the others?’

‘They would have died regardless. We were all …’

‘In the fight! But you betrayed them. The cause.’

‘We’ll rebuild. Start again.’

‘No. I …’

‘Sarah.’ Mark turned in his chair. ‘I have always loved you.’

‘Yet you never understood me. Us.’

Sarah pulled the trigger.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Review of Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (2019, Faber and Faber)

1991, two weeks after the Rodney King beating ignites race riots in Los Angeles, 16 year old Ava Matthews is shot dead in a Korean convenience store after tussling with the pregnant owner who thought she was trying to steal a quart of milk. Jung-Ja Han is subsequently cleared of murder and freed, but by then war has been declared on Korean communities by African-Americans, who loot and burn down their stores. 27 years later, the city is dealing with another unarmed, young black man shot dead by police, and Ava’s cousin, Ray, leaves prison after a ten year sentence for attempted armed robbery. Shawn, Ava’s brother, and his family are waiting for him hoping he can go straight this time. Grace Park is disturbed by the continued racial tensions in the city, but lives a quiet life, residing with her parents and working as a pharmacist in their store. Her world though is about to be turned upside down. When leaving the store together one evening, her mother is shot, and while she is in surgery Grace learns about her past. As the police investigate the shooting, Shawn finds himself grappling with a crime that still haunts his family, and Grace with the attempt on her mother’s life and a past crime she knew nothing about.

Your House Will Pay follows two families still living with the after-effects of a crime committed in the shadow of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The two main characters are Grace Park, who wasn’t yet born at the time teenager Ava Matthews was shot dead by Jung-Ja Han for seemingly stealing a quart of milk, and Shawn Matthews, Ava’s young brother, who was in the store at the time. Shawn was already hanging round the fringes of a gang and his sister’s death tipped him into that life and prison until he found his feet and went straight. Grace grew up not knowing about her mother’s crime and how she walked free from court. Now her mother has been shot and Shawn and Grace find themselves grappling with the consequences. Cha sympathetically charts the pain, hurt and confusion in both families, while nicely contextualising the story in relation to the race riots and police brutality in 1991 and tensions between the African American and Korean communities, and the continued systemic institutional racism and Black Lives Matter in the present day. The character development is excellent, as is the portrayal of both families and their internal tensions and struggles. The plot is well-paced and balanced, with a well-judged thread of tension and intrigue running throughout. The only thing that seemed a little off was the ending, which felt curtailed and somewhat open-ended. Nonetheless, it is a powerful, thoughtful and thought-provoking read about racial tension, policing and justice in contemporary America.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Review of Neuromancer by William Gibson (1995, Harper)

Case used to be a skilled hacker, until an ex-employer compromised his ability to jack into the matrix by crippling his nervous system. Instead, he is left to hustle in the dark economy of Chiba City. Now he’s being given a second chance, recruited by a mentally unstable former military operative, and paired with Molly, a mirror-eyed samurai, and the construct of a former hacker, to make a run against a powerful artificial intelligence orbiting Earth that serves the Tessier-Ashpool business clan. He finds himself caught in the middle of a deadly conflict between AIs and family members, with little choice but to continue given the poison stored in his body, the antidote held by his employer.

I’ve read Neuromancer a couple of times before and have written about the book in some of my academic work. It’s twenty years though since I last read it. It’s aged remarkably well given the centrality of digital technologies to the storyline. In fact, if it were published today it would hold up on the tech side of things given its precedence. And the storyline does as well; a cyberpunk thriller that pits Case, a has-been hacker, and Molly, a cyborg, street-smart samurai, against a powerful AI that serves a shady business clan. Along with a whip-smart, intriguing and well-paced plot, the prose is evocative and delightful. It’s easy to see why the book won so many awards and how it became so influential in shaping thinking about networked technologies and the worlds they create. It remains an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking read.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

New book: Slow Computing: Why We Need Balanced Digital Lives


By Rob Kitchin and Alistair Fraser

Digital technologies should be making life easier. And to a large degree they do, transforming everyday tasks of work, consumption, communication, travel and play. But they are also accelerating and fragmenting our lives affecting our well-being and exposing us to extensive data extraction and profiling that helps determine our life chances.

Is it then possible to experience the joy and benefits of computing, but to do so in a way that asserts individual and collective autonomy over our time and data?

Drawing on the ideas of the ‘slow movement’, Slow Computing sets out numerous practical and political means to take back control and counter the more pernicious effects of living digital lives.

1 Living Digital Lives (PDF)
2 Accelerating Life
3 Monitoring Life
4 Personal Strategies of Slow Computing
5 Slow Computing Collectively
6 An Ethics of Digital Care
7 Towards a More Balanced Digital Society
Coda: Slow Computing During a Pandemic (PDF)

ISBN 978-1529211269

Book website

Bristol University Press, £14.99; 20% discount (£11.99) at: Bristol University Press, or £9.75 if sign up for BUP newsletter

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A foggy night

Mist filled the yard like a giant pool of bubble bath. Only the roofs of the outhouses were visible.


The dog didn’t reply.

‘You okay, boy?’

George stepped away from the door, disappearing into the fog.

Something clattered to the cobbles away to his left.


He inched towards the old stables, a faint scrabbling ahead.

‘Who’s there?’

‘Is everything okay, George?’

‘Shut the door and lock it,’ he called back.


Something lay on the ground ahead.


Foam ringed the old dog’s mouth, a foot pawing the handle of a spade.

In the field a cow bawled.


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Swim with me

 Emma put down her fork.

‘What happened to Jack the joker?’


‘The bloke that I used to flirt but not flirt with?’

‘He’s got stage fright.’

‘There’s only one person in the audience.’

‘That’s making it worse. Along with imposter syndrome.’

‘Imposter …’

‘You were the impossible dream. Now …’

‘We’re on a date.’

‘And my feet can’t touch the bottom of the pool.’

‘Just relax and swim with me.’

Jack snorted a laugh.

‘Think of it as clothed skinny dipping.’


‘Are you seeing me as I’m seeing you?’


‘Now we’re in the same pool.’ Emma smiled.



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Review of East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman (2017, HQ)

Javid – Jay to his friends – has been cruising through life as a small time dealer in West London. He keeps his head down, stays away from trouble, and goes to the mosque on Fridays, doing enough to get by but not attract attention. Just at the point where he’s bought the car of his dreams everything is turned upside down. The mosque is vandalised and Jay gets himself tangled up in a revenge attack while trying to protect a friend. During the fracas his car is stolen and with it the drugs and cash of a major supplier. Now Jay faces a tough choice, work for MI5 and rat on the supplier or be prosecuted for assault and face the consequence for the lost money. All MI5 want him to do is go undercover as a jihadist. Either way, his quiet life is over. 

East of Hounslow is the first book in the Jay Qasim series following the adventures of a small-time dealer turned reluctant MI5 agent. Rahman does a very nice job of flipping the everyday world of Jay from comfortable lad-about-town, who practises his Muslim religion and hustles to get by, to infiltrating an extremist cell who want jihad. It is the everydayness of the Muslim characters and their journey that adds an authenticity to the storytelling, though this feels a bit more paint-by-numbers with respect to the MI5 elements. Rahman portrays the lives of Muslims in Britain and how some become radicalised and many more do not without misbalancing the framing and plot. The dilemma set up provides a nice hook, and the plot unfolds at a nice pace with a couple of intriguing twists to a tense denouement. The ending seemed to unravel a little, with Jay more a bystander than a hero, but it overall the tale had a strong arc. Overall, a good blend of social and political commentary and thriller.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Are you going to ask?

Emma watched Jack enter the café.

He glanced around, his gaze briefly staying on her, then took a seat as far away as possible.

She waited five minutes before heading over.

‘Are you avoiding me?’

‘No.’ He continued to stare at his coffee.

‘You’re ignoring me at work as well.’

‘I … I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.’

‘I’d have told you if I were. There’s a difference between flirting and harassment, Jack.’




‘Are you going to ask?’


‘What you want to ask.’


‘Do I have to spell it out? A date.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Review of Austral by Paul McAuley (2017, Gollancz)

Sometime in the near future climate change has led to the thawing and wilding of parts of Antarctica. It’s still a cold, harsh place, but it’s also home to a sizable and growing population attracted by its natural resources. Austral is the daughter of an ecopoet and a husky: a person whose genes have been edited to cope with the climate and environment, though her difference means she is feared and discriminated against by others. She’s had a tough life, first growing up on a remote island where ecopoets, who work with rather than exploiting nature, were isolated, then in an orphanage after her escape fails. After a time in prison, she’s now become a corrections officer in a labour camp and consort to a major criminal. He’s got plans to escape, enrolling her in his scheme to kidnap the daughter of a senior politician, who is related to Austral through her grandfather. Austral has other plans, however, snatching the girl herself and heading out into the wilderness. Her plan is to demand a ransom then use the funds to leave Antarctica. Her first priority though is to make good her escape and keep herself and the girl alive as the authorities and criminal gang try to track her down.

The narrative takes the form of a story being told by Austral to her child, explaining her adventure, her relationship to the girl she has kidnapped, who’s her second cousin, the history of her family and of the populating and wilding of Antarctica, and the decisions that she took. The plot essentially follows her escape journey and its various twists and turns as the pair struggle across a tough, wild landscape and get themselves into scrapes. The world building is very nicely done, with a strong sense of place and landscape. And the tale is infused with thoughtful reflection on climate change, wilding and genetic modifications. Two other threads are woven in to the telling – the history of Austral’s grandparents and her own backstory, and a fantasy adventure that forms the story that the kidnapped girl is reading. The latter seems somewhat out of place and surplus to the main tale. The real strength of the book, however, is Austral and McAuley creates a convincing and interesting character who despite circumstances is determined to escape while acting in good faith to the girl she is forcing along with her.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Idiot boy

 Turning from the bar, Tom almost tipped his drinks over Sarah.


‘Is idiot boy ever going to do the honourable thing?’


‘Jack. Is he going to ask Emma on a date?’

‘Not in this lifetime.’

‘He’s been dancing round her for months.’

‘He’s worried he’ll be accused …’

‘Of what? Of being a sap?’

‘Of ‘inappropriate behaviour’.’

‘What? Is he that dumb he can’t tell she wants to be asked?’

Tom nodded. ‘Can she not …’

‘She doesn’t think proper for the lady to make the first move.’

‘Then it’s doomed.’

‘Let’s aim for delayed? What’s the plan?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Review of A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson (2010, Quercus)

Winter, 1950. A young woman and a 14 month old child are found dead in a washhouse behind a terraced slum in London. The husband confesses to the murders, though he proves to be a congenital liar, constantly changing his story. It seems like an open and shut case and John Davies is convicted of the crime, largely on the evidence of another resident of the house, Norman Backhouse, and hanged. A couple of years later, the bodies of four recently disappeared women are found in the house and two more are buried in the garden. The key suspect is the Backhouse. It seems like a terrible miscarriage of justice has occurred, unless two different murderers had been living in the same house at the same time. DI Ted Stratton had misgivings about the first case, and they’ve come back to haunt him. Meanwhile, ex-war time agent, Diana Calthrop, finds her life sliding backwards as two marriages fail leaving her in dire straits, and Stratton’s daughter finds herself struggling to make sense of her sexuality, and neither woman should be wandering London when so vulnerable.  

The third book of the DI Ted Stratton series fictionalises the events at 10 Rillington Place, where two sets of murders occurred in the early 1950s sending two men to the hangman. The first murderer was convicted in part on the evidence of the second one, casting significant doubt on the initial investigation, trial and guilty verdict. The cases subsequently led to two inquiries, though their findings were inconclusive, and influenced the decision to end capital punishment. In Wilson’s telling DI Stratton is the lead officer in both cases. He has misgivings while investigating the death of a young woman and 14 month old child. John Davies is a simpleton with a temper who continually tells lies. Some of the evidence doesn’t quite add up, but most points to Davies, who has also confessed. And everyone involved in the case, including Stratton, think him guilty. When a couple of years later, six more bodies are discovered in the house and garden, Stratton wonders if he’d made a terrible mistake, despite the evidence and confession. Along with the investigation, Wilson spins two other threads through the story, both of which are hooked around women’s sexuality and position in society. The first follows Monica Stratton as she enters the workplace and starts to question her sexual identity. The second focuses on Diana Calthrop, a woman Stratton holds a flame for, and her fall from grace as she divorces her first husband and quickly enters another doomed marriage. In part, these are included to provide a thread through the series, but they do add to rather than detract from the story arc. The result is a very nicely plotted tale that is very strong on exploring the psychological side of investigating emotive cases with criminals who constantly lie and charting character development, in particular, Stratton, Monica and Diana’s lives. The pacing, atmosphere and sense of place and time adds to the telling. Overall, the strongest book in the series, in my view.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

August reviews

A good month of reading. My book of the month is The Lost Man by Jane Harper.

Silent City by Alex Segura **.5
The Lost Man by Jane Harper *****
A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr ***
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke ****
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan *****
One For The Money by Janet Evanovich ****
Joe Country by Mick Herron ***.5



Monday, August 31, 2020

Review of Silent City by Alex Segura (2016, Polis Books)

Dumped by his fiancée and his newspaper career on the skids, each day Pete Fernandez drinks himself into a stupor. When a writer for the paper asks him to look into the disappearance of his daughter, a reporter, Pete reluctantly agrees. It pretty quickly becomes clear that something is awry, though the police don’t seem to want to know. The journalist had been investigating a series of underworld murders committed by a mysterious hitman known as The Silent Death and it seems she might have been on the cusp of revealing his identity. He might be a mess, but Pete used to be a bloodhound reporter, and he’s soon ruffling feathers as he tries to track down the missing journalist. And as he digs deeper, he’s drawn into the world of his father, a homicide detective who’s recently died, and the body count of The Silent Death rises.

Silent City is a journalist turned PI tale set in Miami, following the attempt of a drunken, washed up reporter trying to track down a colleague who’d been working on a big story for the crime desk. It’s one of those tales where just about every character, regardless of their role, is already a part of the lead character’s life, the trajectory and mystery of the story is telegraphed from a very long way out, and the tale is driven forward by plot devices. And the characters were a little too typeset and one-dimensional. The result is a derivative crime thriller, told through workman-like prose, which has a decent pace, intrigue and tension, but is wholly unbelievable yet predictable. It passed the time, but sparked little else. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

You deserve each other

 ‘I don’t think he’ll ever ask me out.’ 

‘He will. Eventually.’ 

‘I’m just a friend to him.’

‘A friend he wants to do naughty things with.’

‘He’s never even hinted at naughty.’

‘He sees you naked most of the time,’ Sarah said.

‘What? No!’

‘He’s practically drooling.’

‘Stop! He doesn’t see me that way at all.’

‘Well, you see him that way, so what’re you going to do about it?’

‘Nothing. He has to make the first move.’

‘It’s the twenty-first century, Emma.’

‘I’ll die of shame.’

‘You won’t.’

‘I probably will.’

‘Well, one thing’s certain. You deserve each other.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Review of The Lost Man by Jane Harper (2018, Abacus)

Deep in the Australian outback Cameron Bright’s body is discovered by his two brothers at Stockman’s grave, a bleak, isolated spot, having perished in the searing heat. His vehicle being parked some kilometres away suggests foul play, but other circumstantial evidence indicates misadventure or suicide. It’s not uncommon given the rural isolation and Cam seemed off-colour for weeks before his death. Nathan, the eldest of the siblings and social outcast, wants answers but the rest of the Bright family and ranch hands are more concerned with his mental wellbeing, their own problems, and preparing for the funeral and Christmas. And the police are several hours away, busy, and unconvinced that the death was anything more than a tragic incident. Nathan hasn’t spent this much time with others in a decade and he’d sooner retreat to his own failing ranch, but something about Cam’s death has got under his skin. 

Harper’s tale charts Nathan’s faltering investigation into his brother’s death, slowly revealing secrets and dark moments that shadow the Bright homestead. The telling is nicely evocative, with a strong sense of place, realistic rendering of ranch and family life, and tensions and social relations among an isolated, resilient community, and well-painted characters. The real strength of story is the tight crafting of plot, which is free of awkward or contrived plot devices; mixing reminisce and mystery it creates a slow burn sense of unease and intrigue, leading to an understated and satisfying denouement. The result is an engaging tale of a lost man wandering back towards redemption.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Review of A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr (1992, G.P. Putnam)

London, 2013 (at the time of publication, twenty years in the future). Society has become more uneven and unequal with capitalism devouring the state and prison sentences have been replaced by ‘punitive comas’. The Lombroso project uses brain scans to identify men lacking a Ventro Medial Nucleus, who are more likely to commit violent crimes, and places them in an anonymous programme designed to limit their tendencies. Only someone seems to have accessed the secret database and is murdering the men, focusing in particular on those given philosopher names as pseudonyms. Detective Isadora ‘Jake’ Jacowicz is assigned the case. Jake has her own demons related to violent men and she’s determined to track down the killer. But ‘Wittgenstein’ is a smarter than the average killer and she might have found her match. 

Kerr spins the tale out through two intertwined threads, the first the tracking police investigation, the second reproducing the journal entries written by the killer. The procedural elements are inflected with philosophical musings related to crime and punishment, with Jake increasingly questioning the ethics of the criminal justice system. The second apes Wittgenstein’s style and ideas, setting out the logic and reasoning of the killer and reflecting on the crimes committed. The result is a police procedural thriller that is thoroughly saturated with ethical and normative reflection, sometimes to the point of drowning the procedural side of the story. The issues raised are thought-provoking, but at times they seem forced centre stage, especially through the use of Wittgenstein’s notebook, and the tale feels too clever for its own good. As a result, while I found many of the ideas underpinning the book interesting, and it was quite an engaging read, it seemed a little too contrived and stilted.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Better than messing up?

‘Stop glancing over; go and ask her for a date,’ Tom said.

‘I can’t.’ Jack stirred his coffee.

‘Won’t, more like.’

‘We work in the same office.’


‘And me too.’

‘So, work romances are banned?’

‘Yes. I don’t know. I don’t want to make her feel … uncomfortable.’

‘It’s everyone else that’s uncomfortable, the pair of you doing that flirting not flirting thing.’


‘Sitting together, glances, shy smiles, small talk. It’s excruciating.’

‘You’re right, I’ll leave.’

‘Now you’re really talking nonsense. I’ll sound her out.’

‘That’s worse.’

‘You’re going to do nothing?’

‘Better than messing up.’

‘Is it?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Review of Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (2017, Mulholland)

Darren Mathews’ career as a Texas Ranger looks like it could be over, as well as his marriage. While both are in hiatus, an old friend points him to a pair of murders in the tiny settlement of Lark, which is little more than a pit stop on Highway 59. The first murder was a black lawyer from Chicago, the second a couple of days later, a local white woman. The local sheriff doesn’t want a Texas Ranger looking over his shoulder, especially a black one, and the locals are not happy he’s there either, especially those who attend a local bar where members of the Aryan Brotherhood hang out. Undeterred and determined to discover the truth before he loses his badge, Mathews starts to poke around, annoying just about everyone he encounters, including the wife of the dead lawyer. There are secrets in Lark, however, that nobody on either side of the racial divide wants revealed.

Bluebird, Bluebird is a police procedural set in East Texas centered on the investigation of a pair of murders by Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews. Race, family and community are its central hooks, explored through the killing of a black lawyer and a white woman in a small, rural settlement, and the turmoil in Mathews own life. Mathews is battling a number of issues at work and home – a career being derailed, a marriage on the rocks, a guardian pushing for a career change, a dysfunctional mother, an obstructionist local sheriff, and drink. The murders in Lark are a chance to redeem his career, and also to potentially contribute to the ongoing investigation to Aryan Brotherhood operating in the state. But little goes well after his arrival in Lark. Racial tension is high, and a black ranger is unwelcome. Locke nicely balances Mathew’s personal life with the investigation of an intriguing mystery, using both to provide an insightful social commentary on institutionalised racism in the Deep South. The story is well paced, the prose evocative, and the there’s a couple of nice twists. A strong start to the series.