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.