Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review of Garden of Beasts by Jeffery Deaver (2004, Hodder)

1936, Paul Schumann is a German-American hitman in New York. He’s set up and captured and given a stark choice: work for a secret government plot and a handsome payoff or face the death penalty. The plot is to travel to Germany and kill Reinhard Ernst, who's in charge of rearmament, in the week leading up to the Olympics. Even before his boat has docked things start to go wrong. They quickly unravel when he reaches Berlin. It seems that he is expected and he quickly gets into scrapes by acting the plucky hero. He’s determined to fulfil his mission however now that he’s seen the Nazi regime up close.

Garden of Beasts is a kind of boy’s own adventure for adults as Paul Schumann – professional hitman, amateur boxer, and former soldier – tries to assassinate a senior Nazi in the week prior to the 1936 Olympics when Berlin is teeming with additional security. Not only does he have avoid the various Nazi security factions, but also a determined Kripo detective who has little time for the new regime. The story barrels along at quick pace, with plenty of spills, crosses and tension points, and with a bit of romance thrown in. However, it all feels staged and a bit clunky. The story just didn’t seem credible at any point, and scenes seem to exist to showcase aspects of Nazi rule and bits of Nazi trivia, or drop in real characters from the period, rather than simply being part of the story. And the ending felt flat and didn’t ring true. While Schumann had the potential to be an interesting character he felt a bit too much of a caricature, as did most of the other characters. The result was I struggled through the story, which was a pity as the premise and setting around the Berlin Olympics held much promise.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

How’s she meant to know?

‘Just tell her.’

Paul shook his head.

‘How’s she meant to know, if you don’t?’

‘If she doesn’t know by now.’

‘How the hell is she meant to when you keep it bottled up inside?’

Paul shrugged.

‘You can’t keep living like this. You’re torturing yourself.’

‘It’s better than not being with her.’

‘But you’re not with her. You just work together.’

‘Still better.’

‘Sometimes you need to take a chance. Look, here she comes. Hey, Sally.’

‘Hi Mark. Paul.’

‘Paul was wondering if you fancied a drink?’

Paul’s eyes widened.

‘I’d love to.’


‘I thought you’d never ask!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

A friend

The wind had picked up.

Luke glanced back. ‘I think we’ve left it too late.’

‘We’ll be fine,’ John replied. ‘We just need to round the headland.’

A gust rocked the boat, nudging it off-course.

John thrust the tiller right and increased the revs.

Rain started to sweep across the craft.


‘Keep low in the boat. We’ll be there soon.’

There was a jolt from the side.

‘What was that?’ John asked.

Luke peered into the water.

A dolphin stared back, then pushed the boat towards the headland.

‘A friend.’


‘A mermaid.’


A wave crashed over them.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Review of The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly (1994, St Martin’s Paperbacks)

It’s four years after Harry Bosch shot dead Norman Church, a serial killer named The Dollmaker. Now he’s on trial for his unlawful death, Church’s wife seeking compensation from the LAPD. On the opening day of proceedings a new body is discovered under the floor in a building burned out in the Rodney King riots. It appears to be another victim of The Dollmaker, but the time of death is seemingly two years ago. It’s not just Honey Chandler, the widow’s savvy lawyer, who is trying to sink Bosch. As the trial unfolds, Bosch investigates the new murder, aware that there are probably more victims out there and the second killer will strike again, and unsure who to trust given whoever the new murderer is must be in or close to the original investigative team.

The Concrete Blonde is the third book in the long running Harry Bosch series. I first read over twenty years ago and it's as good as I remember it to be. Connelly weaves together a well plotted police procedural with a feisty courtroom drama. Bosch is on trial for shooting dead an unarmed man, Norman Church, believed to be the serial killer, The Dollmaker. On the opening day of the trial another body is discovered that appears to be a victim of The Dollmaker, but was murdered after Church’s death. The new body is clearly designed to muddy waters, sink Bosch, and sow distrust in the police, who know that the new killer must have had insider knowledge and might be one of their colleagues. The pressure mounting on Bosch is also placing his current relationship under severe strain. Connelly draws on his experience as a veteran police and courts reporter for the LA Times to produce a highly compelling, tense, and expertly plotted tale. There isn’t a single element out of place and the twists and turns keep coming. Interestingly, given present protests against policing culture and methods, there is a strong critical analysis of the police running through the book, written not long after the Rodney King riots; Connelly describing the force as a paramilitary organization infected with political bacteria. Bosch is part of that culture, while he also wages war on the worst of crimes.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Review of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014, Penguin)

Maud has become forgetful. She makes endless cups of tea that she then doesn’t drink. Sometimes she doesn’t recognize her daughter. She slips out of her house with a purpose to then find she cannot remember why or quite where she is. But she stoically clings on to the fact that Elizabeth is missing. With a pocketful of post-it notes she keeps hunting for her friend, much to consternation of her daughter, amusement of her granddaughter, and ire of Elizabeth’s son. Somehow the disappearance has got muddled with that of her sister, Sukey, just after the war. Then, as now, she ran her own investigation, but never solved the case.

Elizabeth is Missing is a mystery tale involving the disappearance of two women, seventy years apart. In both cases, Maud has sought to solve the cases, the first concerning her sister, Sukey, and the second, her friend Elizabeth. She was too young and naïve to resolve the first, and she is seemingly too forgetful to complete the second. For Elizabeth has dementia and her thoughts slip, slide and vanish. Relying on notes to herself, a fractured memory, and a fierce determination to at least find Elizabeth, she keeps at the task. Healey tells her tale through two parallel threads, where her present day exploits provide triggers for remembering her sister’s disappearance. She does a lovely job of portraying Maud’s condition and its effect on her relationship to her family, all the while spinning out the mysteries, leading to a reasonably well telegraphed conclusion. A quite moving story that is nicely executed.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

He confessed

Carter’s hand searched the bed for his phone.


‘You’d better get over here.’

‘What time is it?’

‘This is his work. She’s a perfect fit.’

‘Gerry, start again. What are you talking about?’

‘I’m talking about Quayle. She’s marked with his signature.’

‘One we missed?’ Carter said, heading for the bathroom.

‘Killed in the last 24 hours.’

He halted. ‘What?’

‘You heard.’

‘But he’s …’

‘Maybe we put away the wrong man.’

‘He confessed.’

‘Then a copycat.’

‘We kept his signature a secret.’

‘Then the wrong man.’

‘No. Must be a copycat.’

‘Or the real killer.’

‘Where are you?’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Review of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon (2015, Simon & Schuster)

Prior to the war and his flight to the United States, Alex Meier was friends of the von Bernuth and Engel families. 1948, a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunts, he’s now heading to Berlin to try and earn his way back to his adopted home and son as an American spy. The plan is to return as a socialist intellectual and persuade his old flame, Irene von Bernuth, to collect pillow talk from her present lover, a senior figure in the Russian administration. The only way in and out of the blockaded city is by airlift and once there it’s a game of survival inside a moral maze. He’s welcomed as a returning hero, but is quickly drawn into a deadly game amongst old and new friends. It’s clear that the socialist paradise promised by the Russians and their German puppets is a mirage and that he cannot trust anyone. Leaving Berlin alive, with his deal complete, will be a challenge, especially since his mission careens off plan the moment he arrives.

Joseph Kanon tale explores the moral quandaries of a world with little trust amongst friends and allies, permeated by constant state of fear, betrayals, and little battles to gain an upper hand; where friends conspire to keep the past and present hidden, and inform on each other; where an indiscretion such as an ill-placed joke can lead to hard labour. Meier is placed back amongst pre-war friends, each of whom has survived in different ways, and into a society which has unfamiliar rules. However, he’s a natural at intricate plots and spy craft, and he’s quick to adapt. Despite the wider themes of post-war politics and the developing cold war, Kanon keeps the tale at the intimate scale and the tangle of conflicted relationships between old friends and family members. And there’s a nice sense of place and time. The result is a thriller with a small t, where there’s a stream of small twists and turns, and the tension simmers rather than boils over.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

May reviews

Black Betty was my read of May. Walter Mosley in top form.

Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey ***
Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn ****
Rock, Paper, Tiger by Lisa Brackman ***
Black Cross by Greg Iles ***
Black Betty by Walter Mosley *****
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman *****
Arabesk by Barbara Nadel ****

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Protect and serve

‘We risk out lives every day.’

‘That doesn’t give you the right to brutalize people, Tom.’

‘We’re doing our jobs.’

‘By targeting and attacking black people?’


‘Your job is killing unarmed people? Kneeling on necks until they die? Shooting them in their home?
You’re meant to protect and serve.’

‘We honor the badge!’

‘People are meant to trust you.’

‘They can.’

‘And the marches? Police violence at peaceful protests of police violence!’

‘We only responded in kind.’

‘I was there, Tom. I witnessed what you did.’

‘You were there?’

‘And I’ll keep going. The problem here is not me.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Review of Fires of London by Janice Law (2012, Mysterious Press)

The artist Francis Bacon works as an ARP warden in the blitz in London and lives with his half-blind and light fingered childhood nanny. He takes advantage of the blackout to cruise for illicit liaisons, party in various bars where other gay men meet, and run his own roulette gambling den. When a young man he knows is found dead he gets drawn into the search for the killer, with two more deaths placing him in the frame as a suspect. Edging round the fringes of a club that provides violent trysts he searches for a way to clear his name and bring the real killer to light.

Fires of London is the first of six books featuring Francis Bacon as an amateur sleuth. The tale is rooted in some biographical context, set before Bacon received any recognition for his work, and it does a nice job of capturing the blitz and the underground gay scene in the city. Written in the first person, Bacon is cast as a complex, clever man who enjoys risk, adventure, infidelity, and a degree of hedonism, and is somewhat of a loner despite the presence of his nanny companion, a steady relationship, a circle of acquaintance and friends. The mystery is nicely plotted leading to a tense denouement.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Review of The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1971, Harper)

Sweden in the early 1970s. A senior police office is killed with a bayonet in his hospital room. The case is dealt with by Martin Beck, the head of the national murder squad, and his team. Nyland was a disagreeable character and there are plenty of people likely to hold grudges, but they quickly hone in on one. But as well as being deadly dangerous, he seems to have little to lose.

The seventh book in the series, the tale is one of police brutality, lack of accountability, and revenge, providing as usual a social commentary on an aspect of Swedish life. The plot is fairly linear with little mystery, more focused on the reason for the attack and the chase to apprehend. And the ending is very abrupt with no wrapping up or examination of the fallout. In my view, while still a good read, it’s the weakest in the series so far.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Review of The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz (2017, Harper)

Anthony Horowitz has reluctantly agreed to write a book about Hawthorne, a murder detective expelled from the London Met but who’s retained as a consultant on cases. The case he’s going to shadow is the death of Diana Cowper, strangled six hours after organizing her own funeral. Hawthorne is convinced that the case is more than a robbery gone wrong and sets out to discover the truth, digging into Cowper’s past and the life of her son, a famous actor. Horowitz tags along, trying to make constructive contributions and put up with Hawthorne’s abrasive personality, but is always one step behind the detective.

The first book in the Hawthorne series, The Word is Murder, uses the first person, with the author being the central character, playing Watson the chronicler to Hawthorne’s Sherlock. Horowitz peppers the story with life as a successful author and screenwriter, dropping in snippets about work practices, various real-life book and television series, meetings with producers and directors, and relationship with agents and family. Hawthorne acts as a lofty, somewhat disagreeable foil. The mystery is well plotted, with a couple of nice twists and turns. And while the biographical approach was interesting I just couldn’t really connect with the voice which I found a bit too ingratiating.