Saturday, March 28, 2020

Scare and scar

The dogs in the yard have been restless since five, catching the scent of something on the wind. Haunted by sorrow and regret, I’ve barely slept again; unable to escape this house, its land and routines, nor the memories that bind me to them. The hens tussle as I approach the coop door. They tumble out, darting between my legs, racing across the field to a scatter of yesterday’s vegetables. The dogs watch them passively, waiting for direction, itching to visit the top field where the sheep are grazing and the ‘accident’ happened. Those scare quotes still scare and scar.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Review of The Bomber by Liza Marklund (1998, Pocket Books)

A few months before Stockholm is due to host the Olympics a bomb explodes destroying one of the stands. Newly promoted to senior editor on the crime desk at a national tabloid paper, Annika Bengtzon mobilises her team to cover the story with her leading from the front. Using her contacts and shameless chasing leads she manages to get scoops on rival newspapers. But not all of her team are happy with her rapid promotion and seem keen to sabotage her efforts. Moreover, she’s finding it difficult to balance the long hours with her home life and two young children in the days leading up to Christmas. Nonetheless, she’s determined to try and identify The Bomber before anyone else and land the big story.

The Bomber was the first book published in the Annika Bengtzon series (the fourth chronologically) that follows the work of a crime reporter located in Stockholm. In this initial outing, Annika is struggling to balance home life and kids with promotion to head of the crime desk and investigating a major bombing incident at the main Olympic stadium. The story is as much about her trying to juggle the different roles while dealing with difficult colleagues who are undermining and sabotaging her efforts, keeping her husband on side, and coping with the stress, as it is about the investigation into the bombing. Marklund keeps the story and drama moving forward as Bengtzon battles on all fronts and seemingly keeps pace with the police’s efforts to uncover the bomber. It’s clear that she knows her newsrooms and the politics of running newspaper and the mechanics of hunting stories. The storytelling is pretty workman-like and the characterization a little thin at times, though it’s appeal is its plot-driven nature. I wasn’t really convinced about perpetrator or their backstory or the denouement, though the pages kept turning all the way to the end.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Review of Dead Meat by Philip Kerr (1993, Vintage)

After the collapse of the Soviet empire various mafia factions have moved to control economic activities. Business owners kowtow and government officials and the police are easily bought. A Moscow investigator travels to St Petersburg to discover if a special investigations police unit is corrupt. The unit is headed up by Grushko, a tough, street smart and wily cop who appears to be straight. The investigator is quickly enrolled into two cases, the firebombing of a local restaurant and the murders of a journal who specialist in uncovering scandals and a Georgian mafia member. The mafia seem at the heart of both and rival factions appear primed for a turf war. As Grushko and his team start to investigate it’s clear that whatever scandal the journalist was working on seems key, though nobody connected to the case seems to know what it was.

Dead Meat is a police procedural set in St Petersburg in 1993. The shortages of the Soviet era persist, but now the mafia control key goods not the state and prices are extortionate. Grushko heads up a special unit that tackles mafia crime, but such is the level of corruption in the police that he and his team is not above suspicion. A special investigator from Moscow is sent to provide an assessment under the guise of learning by being embedded into the team. He quickly finds himself actively working on mafia related cases, including the murder of a high profile journalist. Told in a hardboiled style and using plenty of local slang, Dead Meat charts Grushko’s investigation and the how his team are assessed in turn. The tale is relatively straightforward, but plot is engaging and lively. In particular, Kerr does a nice job of evoking the city and Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, and the politics and workings of the police, and there’s an interesting set of characters.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The same green?

‘Do you think we all see green the same way?’

Kyle turned towards Sheila.

She shrugged. ‘This valley. Do you think we’re seeing the same thing?’

‘Are we talking colours, or sight in general?’

‘Colours, I guess. So, not including short or long sightedness or various eye diseases.’

Kyle gazed across the fields.

‘Excluding red-green colour-blindness?’

‘Huh, colour-blindness. What about those who aren’t colour-blind? Do they see the same green, or different greens, or another colour they know as green and is different to what they know as red?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘I’d like our green to be the same.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Review of Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant (1991, Penguin)

Hannah Wolfe is a private investigator struggling to get by in London. Falling back on her old boss she picks up a missing persons case. Carolyn Hamilton was a promising ballet dancer who has disappeared. Her childhood teacher is sufficiently concerned to hire Hannah to track her down. However, not long after she starts her hunt, Carolyn’s body is found in the Thames, heavily pregnant. The police think it is suicide, but Hannah is not convinced. She suspects foul-play and continues to try and uncover the previous nine months. Her digging leads to employment agency, then onto Paris and a family who do not want to provide straight answers.

Birth Marks was the first in a set of three featuring London PI Hannah Wolfe. Hannah sees herself as a Philip Marlowe kind of character; a hardboiled, wise-cracking PI that eventually solves the case. In reality she’s a little more frail, not so smart, and reliant on others, though she’s persistent and resilient. Her task is to find a missing ballet dancer who then turns up dead. She uncovers clues by means fair and foul and makes faltering headway in a case the police have ruled suicide. The plot is fairly linear and despite a bit of a twist towards the end it’s pretty predictable; there is really only one suspect once they’ve come into view. A quite pedestrian but enjoyable enough PI tale.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Review of Legion of the Damned by Sven Hassel (1953, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I first read the Legion of the Damned as a teenager, along with a number of others in the series. I remember it quite differently to the present reading, perhaps coloured by the other books. Legion was the first book and supposedly the most auto-biographical. Indeed, the main character is the author and it follows his experiences of the Second World War serving in the German army, predominately on the Russian front. Far from glorifying war, or trying to recast the German crusade in a positive light, Hassel details the brutality of war for those on the frontline, made bearable by the comradery of fellow soldiers, most of whom are destined to die, letters from home, and snatched love affairs. Indeed, it is an anti-war book, critiquing those in power and their lackeys, and the savagery of the regime and battle.

It starts with Hassel being convicted of desertion, his time in prison and labour camps before being transferred to a penal battalion deemed expendable. It then traces his traversal of Europe and various wartime activities until the near the end of the war. There are brief interludes of levity and humanity, but generally it is grim reading. There are also hints at involvement in the anti-Nazi movement, though these are sketched over. It’s not clear how much is fiction (which is how the book is sold), and how much is autobiographical; though it is clear that it is based on Hassel’s experiences. The telling is quite episodic with a weak narrative structure, some of the scenes are brief, and it does end quite abruptly, though it is trying to cover a number of years in a relatively brief book. Nonetheless, the tale does debunk the myth of the glory of war, giving a strong sense of the horror of a brutal regime and total war, and the weariness and emptiness of endless frontline service.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A couple of Lemsip

‘It’s not self-isolation if you stay home from work during the day, but go to the pub in the evening, Kevin.’

‘Sure, doesn’t alcohol kill it? Handwash and that.’

‘Guinness is hardly sixty percent proof. You were probably shaking hands and slapping backs all evening.’

‘Stop fretting, Mary. It’s just the flu.’

‘That might kill you, or whoever you pass it on to.’

‘A couple of Lemsip and you’d be grand.’

‘No, Kevin, you wouldn’t. Stop being a selfish prick.’

‘There’s …’

‘If someone we know dies, I’ll tell everyone you’re responsible.’


‘Don’t Mary me; go take a shower.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Review of The City in Flames by Michael Russell (2019, Constable)

1940. Detective Inspector Stefan Gillespie has been suspended from the Irish special branch in order to be sent to undercover in London. Prior to leaving he spends time on his parents farm in Wicklow, where his son lives. While there a neighbouring farmer is found dead. Gillespie is suspicious, but he’s technically no longer a policeman and it seems more convenient for everyone that the death is recorded as suicide. Before he can stir things up he’s on the boat to Wales, arriving in London to take up residence as the new barman in the Bedford Arms in Camden, an IRA haunt. There he meets Vera Kennedy, seemingly an Irish woman working as a cleaner, with whom he forms a romantic relationship. However, Vera is not who she seems, having recently landed in Britain from Germany. Ultimately, her mission lies in Ireland, where she hopes to shake the country from its neutrality.

The City of Flames is the fifth book in the Inspector Gillespie series following the exploits of a single father cop in the lead up to and during the Second World War whose mother is German. As usual, Gillespie is pulled into a plot of special branch and G2, the Irish Military intelligence, aimed at maintaining Ireland’s neutrality and the status quo internally. In this episode he’s sent to London to monitor IRA activity there, but unwittingly manages to start a relationship with a German spy who has Irish roots. Together they experience the London blitz while carrying out their respective missions. At the same time, there’s been a suspicious death close to his parent’s farm. While he’s absent is father, a former cop, sets up his own investigation. The historical aspect is well realised, and the characterisation is nicely done, with a number of regular series characters making appearances. Russell spins out both plots at a fairly pedestrian pace, which are rooted in the context of Ireland’s neutrality, and involve some real characters and events. The Wicklow plot is not really necessary, but isn't too much of a distraction, and there are a couple of decent twists as the tale closes. However, both plots are held together by coincidences that are too convenient to little more than plot devices. Overall, an engaging addition to the series.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Now wash your hands

‘Are we going to die, Mummy?’
Sandra pursed her lips. ‘Eventually, yes. We all do.’

‘But this virus.’

‘You’ll be fine. It’s mostly affects older people. It’ll probably be just like having a cold.’

‘But one that can kill you.’

‘Only if you already have an illness.’

‘Like Grandad?’

‘Exactly. Which is why we’re not visiting him. In case we pass it on.’

‘But he’ll be okay?’

‘He’ll be fine. He’s self-isolating. And grandmother is looking after him.’

‘But if he gets it he’ll die?’

‘He’s not going to get it, dear.’

‘But …’

‘He’s not. Now wash your hands.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Review of Dixie City Jam by James Lee Burke (1994, Phoenix)

Dixie City Jam is the seventh novel in the Dave Robicheaux series following the cases of a maverick cop who revels in the underbelly of New Orleans and Louisiana. In this outing, he becomes entangled in a race between a local Jewish businessman and a group of neo-Nazis to salvage a submarine that was sunk off the America coast in the Second World War, as well as getting caught in the middle of a battle between his ex-cop partner, Irish and Italian mobsters, and between local cops. It’s fair to say there’s a lot of moving parts, with never a dull moment, as Burke keeps the story hurtling along its dark and violent path. Pretty much all the characters are battle-hardened and used to getting their way, which leads to a fairly testosterone-saturated tale, with a female cop taking on the same kind of persona, while the other women are either black widows or victims. That’s all to be expected given it’s a hallmark of the series, along with its engaging, vivid prose. However, what shifted me out of the story was Robicheaux, who is supposedly obsessed with catching the man who is stalking and sexually assaulted his wife, taking out his frustration by raping her while she sleeps. Robicheaux breaks rules and skirts the law to administer justice, and he’s complex and conflicted, but he’s supposedly driven by a need to protect his family from darkness, and sexually assaulting a woman who has suffered sexual assault felt out of character with a significant line crossed that was never once revisited. After that, my faith in Robicheaux waived and as the tale became more convoluted and less believable as it unfolded my enjoyment of the story tailed away. As it reached the end, the denouement felt somewhat flat, being well telegraphed and linear. Overall, a dark, gritty, tense and fast moving tale that keeps the reader hooked, yet felt too overloaded with contrived plot threads.