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Archive for the ‘Crime Fiction’ Category

I desperately need more space on my already overcrowded bookshelves, so I’m always looking out for books that can go to the op shop. My eye recently fell on a row of aging paperbacks by two American detective story writers, Ross MacDonald and John D. MacDonald. (No, my books aren’t shelved alphabetically, I’m not that organised, it’s just chance they were together.) Ross McDonald (no relation to John D. and in fact a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) published a series of eighteen detective stories featuring private eye Lew Archer between 1949 and 1976. John D. came a little later with his twenty books featuring Travis McGee, a sort of private detective, between 1964 and 1985. So my paperbacks are at best over thirty years old, the spines show wear and tear, the print is small and the pages are yellowing. Would anyone want them? Is the recycle bin more appropriate than the op shop? I decided to re-read a couple before making up my mind.

The Lew Archer books are very easy to read so I read two, The instant Enemy and The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which is a catchy title but has little to do with the story. First published in 1968 and 1963 respectively, they are among his later books. They are in some important ways very similar, and I think it likely that they are fairly representative of all of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer stories. This similarity arises firstly because of the ongoing, and engaging, character of Lew Archer himself, a former policeman turned private detective working in Los Angeles. He is the natural successor of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Like Marlowe, Archer is tough and honourable, with a good line in deadpan humour. Secondly, both of the stories involve family dramas and secrets. There is remarkably little sex, though there is of course some violence; you can be sure that at some point in the story Archer will be variously left for dead, but most of the violence happens off stage. Archer is more concerned with the patient acquisition of information, what he learns from one person leading on to the next until the missing connection is made and the puzzle is unravelled. And this is where a third similarity comes in; both these plots, and probably the plots of most of the books, depend on misdirection. The real baddy is never who he/she appears to be, leading to quite complicated dénouements in the last few pages. So although the plots are clever, Archer is a delight and MacDonald’s prose is slick – as in ‘under the sound of money, her voice remembered times when there hadn’t been any’ –  there is a degree of sameness about the stories that marks them as genre fiction, rather than something more challenging – though not everyone agrees with this.

John D. MacDonald included a colour in the titles of each his Travis McGee stories (he wrote lots of other books, including suspense and science fiction) and the book I read was Free Fall in Crimson, first published 1981 so it’s a fairly late one. McGee works out of Port Lauderdale in Florida calling himself a ‘salvage consultant’, with a talent for ‘finding things for people’, or, as another character puts it, ‘slipping about, doing shifty things for people’. He fought in Vietnam, is large, physically fit and good at the rough stuff. And though he is not a private detective as such, he operates very much like one. Clearly Travis got fairly battered in the previous book (The Green Ripper, 1979) and is trying to put his life back together, but he agrees to follow up an unsolved murder for the son of the man who was killed. This involves him in talking to everyone with any connection to the man and his family, including bikies and film people, and stirring things up until he gets the information he needs – though not without further murders;  these however mostly occur off stage. Travis acquires a girlfriend, which Lew Archer never does, so there is a bit of sex, though it is chaste by today’s standards. It doesn’t add much to the story, so I guess it’s about fleshing out Travis’s character. I’m always interested in how civilian detectives – or salvage consultants – resolve their case, since they have no power to arrest anyone. Travis finds a clever way to deal with this problem.

One of the things that surprised me a bit is that none of these books feels particularly dated. There are of course no personal computers or mobile phones to play a role in detection but in any case, both Lew and Travis rely on talking to people face to face, seeing their reactions and making judgements about their credibility. I noticed that there are almost no people of colour in the books; it is a white world, which is doubtless no longer the case. Doubtless someone from Los Angeles or Fort Lauderdale would see many social and physical changes since these books were written that an outsider would not be aware of. But they are nevertheless remarkably modern in their concerns.

Both these writers have received high praise. Ross MacDonald has been favourably compared to the two earlier ‘hard boiled’ crime fiction writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he has had a major influence on writers like Sue Grafton and his books are now being reissued. John D. MacDonald has been praised even more fulsomely, for example by Stephen King as ‘the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller’ and by Kingsley Amis, who claimed that MacDonald ‘is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels’. I think Amis is a bit over the top, but can certainly agree with King about John D. being a great story teller. I personally prefer Lew Archer to Travis McGee, but that’s a matter of taste.

You can read more about Ross MacDonald here, and John D. MacDonald here.

So op shop or recycle bin? In truth I can’t bring myself to do either. They are classics. They’ll stay on the shelf for a while longer.

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Here are some comments on two crime stories by relatively new Australian crime writers, and one by one of most established in that genre – though he’s not Australian by birth, and it isn’t set here. Compared to him, however, the other two still have some ground to make up.

Ecstasy Lake, by Alastair Sarre

Ecstasy Lake (2016) is the second of Sarre’s crime stories, featuring Steve West, ex professional footballer, now mining engineer. I liked the first one, Prohibited Zone (2011), which I reviewed here, and this one has many of the same strengths. I’m not sure the plot holds up quite as well though. West arrives back in Adelaide at the behest of his old friend Tasso, who believes a geologist they both know has found gold in outback South Australia. The only problem is he’s been murdered. West is soon involved in a gang war in Adelaide over drugs, as well as moves by Tasso to get an exploration licence for the area covering the putative find. And then there is the question of who killed their friend. All this provides plenty of scope for action, but I found the plot overall lacks the coherence of structure of the previous book. And some of the characters, like Tasso and his off-sider Bert are just a bit too convenient: Tasso is just too rich and Bert is just too competent, making them functions of the plot not fully credible characters. (Bert reminds me of Cam Delray in the Jack Irish stories, always turning up with a car or a gun just when he’s needed. Maybe such a device is always needed by amateur heroes.) West is an enjoyable character, with plenty of zippy dialogue, and I enjoy the way Sarre writes. There’s lots of Adelaide in it too – so no wonder I like it.

In The Evil Day, by Peter Temple

Written in 2002, this is Peter Temple’s sixth crime novel. I’ve read and enjoyed his four Jack Irish books, all except the last of which come before this one. I reviewed the first one, Bad Debts, including comments on the telemovie made from it here. (There’s a 2016 TV series too.) But what made me read this one is the excellence of his two subsequent novels, The Broken Shore (2005), reviewed here, and Truth (2009) reviewed here. I think both these brilliantly supersede the crime genre by virtue of the quality of their writing and social commentary. Here’s some support for that view. So I was interested to see how this earlier book stands up in comparison. Unlike these, this one is set primarily in Hamburg, and briefly in South Africa (where Temple grew up), London and Wales.

There are two main characters, Con Niemand, ex-soldier now working in security, initially in Johannesburg, and John Anselm, a journalist once held hostage in Beirut, now also working in security but the surveillance rather than the muscle kind. In the course of his work, Niemand comes across the film of a massacre somewhere in Africa. He tries to sell it, and then is the subject of a number of attempts to kill him. The company Anselm works for is conducting illegal surveillance of two businessmen, apparently for an entity wishing to recover assets from them. Inevitably, the two stories intersect. I found the Anselm story a bit confusing at times, but there’s quite a big hint which helped make sense of it. Niemand is a conventional tough hero, extraordinarily resourceful in escaping his pursuers, and extraordinarily lucky in finding someone to help him. Anselm is a more fully drawn character, whose feelings and relationships ring rather truer, and whose life in Hamburg is more fully fleshed out. His dialogue in particular is spare and effective. The plot is quite clever, but relies a bit much on conventional crime genre conventions, particularly happenstance; Temple admits as much when Anselm says he ‘knew the buoyancy of the moment when intuition intersected with luck’. It’s also a bit violent for me – though that doesn’t mean it’s very violent. Overall, a very good crime novel, but not rising above genre like Truth or The Broken Shore.

The Falls, by B. Michael Radburn

Published in 2016, this is the third of Radburn’s books, though the first I’ve read. There are two main male leads, Taylor Bridges, a national park ranger who appears in Radburn’s previous book, The Crossing, and Quade Marsden, a detective who has been demoted to uniformed sergeant in a small town in Gippsland, Victoria, apparently as a punishment for exposing corruption (‘Whistle-blower or snitch?’ asks one character). Just before they are forced to flee a bushfire, two rock climbers discover a body in a canyon, but the site is destroyed by the fire. Bridges, a close family friend of one of the climbers, agrees to help Marsden with the geography of the area. But the two discover not only the entrance to an old lost mine, but a number of other grave sites. More help is called in, headed up by Detective Sandra Norton. The action moves between these three, but also involves the viewpoints of the climbers, who were looking for the mine, and someone who could be the villain. Could stories about a religious cult that centred on the mine be true? Could the descendants of the family that owned the mine by involved? Can Detective Norton flush out the murderer? The characters all have a bit of back story, and are adequate for their part in the plot, if not fully convincing. Radburn seems to subscribe to the idea that something dramatic has to happen every three pages, and I wondered if he were writing with a TV adaption in mind; both plot and landscape seem to invite this. I had hopes for the plot, which seemed to be developing nicely into a satisfactory jigsaw, but by the end there were some pieces that didn’t fit, and a strong whiff of deus ex machina in the resolution. Still, it kept me going on a hot summer’s day. But please Mr Radburn it’s bushfires, not wildfires. That’s what they have in America.

 

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I really believe that some crime fiction is as rewarding to read as some literary fiction, and both of the books discussed here fit into the rewarding category, though for different reasons. And just for a change, I’m including TV crime series that is based on crime fiction which, though offering other pleasures, for me falls short of the written word.

Even the Dead (2015) is I think the eighth of the Quirke mysteries by, as the cover tells us, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. It’s a story that picks up some of the threads left hanging in the first of Banville’s crime stories, Christine Falls, reviewed here. Quirke, a pathologist in Dublin in the 1950s, has been on a sort of indefinite sick leave, but at the urging of his second in command, returns to work to consider anomalies in the autopsy of a young man apparently killed in a car crash. He teams up again with Inspector Hackett to find out what really happened, and it is soon clear they are treading on the toes of the rich and powerful. ‘This is Ireland ..,’ Quirke says. ‘There’s nothing the Church can’t get away with.’ But as Hackett retorts, they are ‘fierce inquisitive men, disinclined to be put off’. Quirke is also driven by his past, or rather lack of it (he was adopted); he needs to find ‘other lost creature(s)’. As in earlier books, his daughter Phoebe plays an important part in the story. With her involvement I think that Black the crime writer allows for coincidence to play rather too great a role. Perhaps Banville is rebuking Black when he has Quirke repudiate coincidences: ’they seemed to him flaws in the fabric of the world’. Black contrives a satisfactory ending where justice is seen to be done, but it is nevertheless for Banville that I read this series. His writing is a true pleasure, and I only had to reach for the thesaurus once.  (See my review of The Sea to decode that.)

Silent Kill (2014) by Peter Corris is his umpteenth Cliff Hardy story. It is in no sense ‘literature’ in the way that Banville/Black books are because of the fine writing they contain. The pleasure of Corris’s crime fiction is the characterisation of Hardy – a sort of Australian Philip Marlowe.  He doesn’t exactly walk the mean streets of Sydney, but he has his own code of honour, and dead-pan wisecracking repartee.  Here he is employed as a body guard to Rory O’Hara, a self-styled ‘self-funded righter of society’s wrongs’ who is about to undertake a speaking tour in which he promises to spill the beans on political corruption. He has already been victim of a hit and run accident. But the tour is disrupted when it has only just begun; there is treachery within O’Hara’s ranks, and a murder. Hardy does the basic detecting; ‘asking the right questions to find someone was my bread and butter, and I set about it.’ The story gets quite complicated, with shadowy intelligence services involved, which I find a bit of a cop out as it involves access to information and resources that are beyond the ordinary private detective.  It’s exciting in the same way TV crime shows can be: more action than explanation. But it’s still a satisfying story.

Speaking of more action than explanation, this is also my problem with the recent six-part Jack Irish TV series. It is the fourth Jack Irish production, the three previous ones, Bad Debts, Black Tide and Dead Point being telemovies based on Peter Temple’s books of the same titles. This one uses many of the Temple’s characters, but has a plot written specially for the series (with Temple’s consent). To my eyes, this has resulted in a less carefully crafted plot. The action is exciting enough – and of course you can see it – but I was often left thinking afterwards ‘how did that happen’? Being a six part series also meant that every episode had to end with a cliff-hanger situation, which gives a different shape to the story from that of a novel, which can build more slowly and establish firmer causation.  There is, too, a huge coincidence built into the story. Jack is hired to find a missing person, but finds himself framed for his murder. (One of the things that was never clear to me was why bother to frame him, when all the baddies needed to do was to use him to find their quarry. Or simply kill him.) He sets out to discover who did frame him, and finds himself enmeshed in a shadowy conspiracy doing something nasty, and murdering anyone in their way, though it takes a while to find out exactly what they are up to. Coincidentally, Jack’s on-again off-again girl-friend Linda Hillier has taken a job in Manilla that just happens to involve her in the same conspiracy. Hmmm. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. Guy Pearce makes a wonderful Jack, his horse-racing buddies are working on yet another racing scam and his old mates are still mourning the demise of the Fitzroy Football Club from the same seats in the pub. The Philippines connection makes for exciting viewing. In fact visually it was all pretty good. I think my problem is that I’m more attuned to reading than watching, whereas I should simply see these as two activities that aren’t really comparable. Then I might enjoy each for what it is. I doubt it though.

You can read more about John Banville here. Benjamin Black has a separate web page here; there’s also a 2013 three-part TV series based on the first three Quirke books. You can find more about Peter Corris here. And here is a review of the Jack Irish series which has recently finished on the ABC, so you might be able to catch it on iView, or DVD. You might also like Peter Temple’s two other crime stories, The Broken Shore and Truth – both of which fit into my ‘literature’ category; see my reviews here and here.

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It was with much sadness that I heard last week of the death of Ruth Rendell. I guess it wasn’t totally unexpected – she was, after all, 85 – but her death leaves a gap in crime writing that will be hard to fill.

Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930-2015) wrote three different kinds of crime fiction. There is her Inspector Wexford series of police procedurals, her stories which involve crime but don’t focus on its detection (Ruth Rendell Mark II), and her psychological crime stories written under the name Barbara Vine

Rendell is reticent about her personal history.  Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers.  Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man.  She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’.  After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times.  She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950.  They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later.  They had one son.  She wrote six books before she approached a publisher; when she did, her books were instantly successful.  From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories.  In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and from then on continued to produce books in all three categories.  In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government.  Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor (2002).

I remember reading From Doon with Death not long after it was published. I thought it was OK as a standard police procedure with some human interest around the Wexford’s and his off-sider Burdon’s families, but not brilliant. The Wikipedia entry on the book, however, says that ‘although the identity of the victim’s lover “Doon” would not be much of a surprise to the 21st century reader, at the time of its release it was considered ground-breaking and daring’. I’ve always thought that Rendell’s writing grew in stature as she developed the character of DCI Reg Wexford. In the early books, Wexford’s role was essentially just to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret.  Later he grew into a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like,’ she says, ‘– I’ve done that more and more’.

Even more important, though, was the development of his social conscience – the lens through Rendell’s own concerns for social, political and moral issues were reflected. Three books in particular stand out for me: Simisola (1995), Road Rage (1997) and Harm Done (1999). They deal with racism, environmental issues and child abuse.  Rendell has always held left of centre views, and was active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show ‘the world as it is’ led her to tackle issues she thought important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond most police procedurals. It is this grounded, thoughtful appraisal of aspects of British society that will be most missed.

The books that come after these are still good; I’ve reviewed several of them, and they continue up to the time when Wexford has retired – though he can’t keep out of the detecting business. They include The Monster in the Box (2009) here, The Vault (2011) here and sadly the last one, No Man’s Nightingale (2013) here.

For all that I admire the Wexford series, however, my favourite of Rendell’s books remains one of her stand-alone Barbara Vine ones – The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (1998). One difference between the Vine stories and the Wexford and the other psychological mystery Rendell stories is that the former involve much more reference to events in the past. The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy also differs from the Wexfords in being a mystery story, rather than a crime story. It might even be suggested that it is a novel about family relationships rather than a mystery story; it is a story about deception, rather than crime. Sarah Candless is the daughter of a famous novelist, Gerald Candless. After his death, she sets out to write his biography. But all is not as it seems when she beings looking into her father’s past. Like a lot of other mystery stories, it is a quest, and it builds up a strong sense of mystery, and ultimately, suspense.  It makes for a complex and satisfying story.

You can read the obituary of Ruth Rendell in the Guardian here. In 2014 she created a new detective, Colin Quell, for The Girl Next Door. A must-read for me.

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When the first Benjamin Black crime story appeared – Christine Falls (2006) which I reviewed here – there was no mention anywhere that this name was a pseudonym for John Banville, the highly acclaimed Irish novelist, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea – reviewed here. Banville had told the literary world that he was going to write a crime story, but there was nothing to alert an unsuspecting public that this was it. With The Silver Swan (2007), Black’s second crime story, the cover makes it quite clear that this is John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. And this is fair enough, because what Benjamin Black writes isn’t your normal crime story – there’s too much Banville in it for that.

This book is again set in Dublin in the 1950s and features the pathologist Quirke – he doesn’t seem to have another name. He is asked by a man he knows slightly not to perform an autopsy on his wife, who has been found dead in the sea.  Quirke initially agrees, but finds suspicious circumstances, and does one anyway. So he knows she didn’t drown. But what should he do about it? He gets as far as talking to Detective Inspector Hackett, who he met in the first book, but doesn’t tell either him, or the coroner the truth, and the verdict is death by misadventure. Why does he not speak out? Both he and Hackett are still bruised from the outcome of events in the first book; we now find that the corruption they discovered – ‘the wave of mud and filth’ – has been hushed up. Quirke doesn’t feel like sticking his neck out again, but he suffers from an ‘incurable curiosity’. So will he be drawn into the mystery whether he wants be to or not?

Quirke shares the story with the dead woman, Deirdre Hunt. Black is very clever at managing transitions between past – recent past in this case – and present, not stooping to giving dates and times as some authors do. It works smoothly enough, so we read about events leading up to her death mixed in with events after it. The story is also told through Quirke’s daughter Phoebe, and to a lesser extent through Deirdre’s business partner Leslie White. This provides an opportunity to get inside these characters’ heads, to understand their motivation. This is essential, because this book, like the previous one, relies on characterisation rather than fast-moving action for its interest. Quirke does a bit of traditional detecting, such as asking questions and putting pressure on people. Black also uses the crime story tactic of misdirection to keep the plot ticking along; ‘Nothing,’ he warns, ‘is what it seems’. There’s also elements of family saga, carried over from the previous book; they make more sense if you’ve read it. But overall, the reader is primarily being asked to engage with the disordered psychology of the main characters.  Black says of Quirke: ‘he is a very damaged person, as many Irish people are from their upbringing’. And is what he seems intent on showing – with somewhat mixed success, in my opinion.

For all that Banville continues to insist that he and Black are ‘two completely different writers who have two completely different processes’, the writing is that of someone with a literary sensibility. Where else would you find a crime writer describing a character’s eyes darting with ‘an odd, hindered urgency’? Or feeling ‘the touch of a cold tentacle of unease’? And these are just two random examples. In an interview, he describes Dublin as ‘a beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty’; in the book, the smoky, shabby presence of the city is almost palpable. Banville explains that ‘Quirke lives in the apartment in Dublin which I inherited from my aunt and he moves around in that area where I was when I first moved to Dublin … it’s soaked in my recollections.’ And so it’s not surprising that the language he uses to describe it is sensuous and evocative. Banville says ‘I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they are pieces of craft work and I like to think they are honestly made.’ Maybe the Black books are less verbally dense, but you could read this book just for the pleasure of the writing.

I find this story to be ultimately pessimistic, both in terms of the fate of the characters and the society in which the action occurs. The society Black describes is narrow and stifling; he has an American visitor comment critically on ‘The way you go about in cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding things that should change or be fixed or made new.’ We know from the start that Deirdre Hunt’s attempt to change her life ends in disaster; is she being punished for asserting herself in a male dominated society, or simply a victim of it?  And Black ignores the common premise of most crime novels that justice must be seen to be done, and order restored. The Dublin of the 1950s may be beautiful, but in Black’s hands it’s not a very nice place.

I was interested to see that the first three of the Black stories (there’s now seven of them) have been made into a BBC TV series, Quirke, and though it doesn’t seem to have been shown yet in Australia there’s a DVD available. You can find out more about the series here. And you can read more about the work of Banville here and of Benjamin Black here. The most recent Benjamin Black book is a Phillip Marlowe fanfiction, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014). The most recent Banville book is Ancient Light (2012); after reading The Silver Swan, you might not be too surprised to find it’s a story of obsessive love.  Two completely different writers? I don’t think so.

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The Raven’s Eye (2013) is the twelfth in Maitland’s series featuring Detectives Brock and Kolla – now risen through the ranks to Chief Inspector and Inspector. It is a textbook British police procedural – despite the fact that Maitland, a retired professor of architecture, now lives in Australia. Unlike most of the earlier books, architecture doesn’t play a part in this one, except, perhaps, by way of an analogy.

The story begins with the death of a young woman on a canal boat. It appears to be the result of an accident, but to Inspector Kathy Kolla, there was ‘something troubling about this death, something that didn’t smell quite right.’ But why are senior police so unwilling to pursue it further? The action then shifts to another, much more high profile case: Jack Bragg, a vicious criminal, is bent on revenge against his ex-wife and former business associates.  Kathy has a crucial role in the plans to capture him, but what is it that neither she nor Brock is being told?

Readers of crime stories know that where there are two cases, however disparate, in one book, they are likely to be in some way connected. You could argue that this is artificial; in real police work, very few crimes of such different natures would ever be connected. But the genre has certain conventions, and this is one of them. While each case has its own trajectory, establishing the connection between them is central to the plot. ‘What the hell,’ wonders Brock, ‘did those things have to do with one another?’ Maitland uses failures in personal and organisational communication to build tension – what are Brock and Kolla not being told? Will this lead to disaster? And they don’t always communicate properly with each other – just tell him where you’re going, I wanted to shout. Maitland is a very competent writer, so the connections are cleverly woven, and if at the end I did think this is a bit over the top, well, it’s no more so than in most police procedurals.

Furthermore, the connections relate not just to events, but to a major theme of the book – technology and the nature of police work.

It seems that as well as dealing with a crime or crimes, most police procedurals flesh out the story with reference to material not directly related to the crime itself. Often it’s details from the detectives’ private lives: they are loners, with shattered family relationships, eating badly and listening to a lot of jazz. In this book, Maitland doesn’t spend much time on private lives. His ‘extra’ element here is the police force itself, and how it copes with restricted resources. And it’s an interesting study. The path he suggests policing is taking is in direction of stringent control of spending and greater reliance on technology. Chief Inspector Brock is uneasy about this. He feels that police on the ground – not police bureaucrats – have the best sense of what’s necessary. ‘More computers?’ he thinks. ‘Nothing to compare with a smart detective with a smart eye.’ Is he, as his boss suggests, being ‘stubborn and intransigent’, not being ‘a team player’?

But technology is pervasive. Bragg is tracked not by informers or whispers on the grapevine, but using technology to collate ‘information from social networking sites, financial transactions, IP network logs, satellite navigation equipment and mobile phone traffic’. Kathy makes extensive use of the internet and aerial photography. Clearly the police must make effective use of the available technology. But the question asked in this book is how far should they go? What is the boundary between public safety and abuse of civil liberties? This is surely a very relevant question for today. One of the senior police officers has an architectural drawing on her wall of the Panopticon, a prison dreamed up by Jeremy Betham in the late eighteenth century, in which a single watchman observes all inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly. Is creation of a modern Panopticon a legitimate aim for modern police surveillance? Maitland seems to be acknowledging that technology is vital, but that there are boundaries that shouldn’t be overstepped.

I’ve previously reviewed Maitland’s Chelsea Mansions (2011); you can read the post here. I had reservations about the end of that one, and thought some of his earlier books were better. This one is a fast-paced and engaging read, and the ending, if not perfect, does work better. I see that Maitland has now published Crucifixion Creek (2014), the first of what promises to be a series of three books set in Australia, featuring Sydney homicide detective Harry Belltree. I’m looking forward to it. You can read more about Maitland and his work here.

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Holiday Reading

Here’s a couple of good reads for a hot summer afternoon. Both are crime fiction, from different countries and different subgenres, but with significant similarities.

I picked up Michael Koryta’s A Welcome Grave (2009) because of the glowing endorsement by Michael Connelly on the cover. According to him, Koryta is ‘one of the best of the best’. I know endorsements don’t mean much, but I respect Connelly – here’s my review of one of his recent crime stories – and he’s right that Koryta is good. Despite the fact that he is only 32, there’s a lot Connelly can judge him on. This is his third book about private investigator Lincoln Perry – all of which were nominated for various awards – and there is one other in this series, plus six other books from a range of genres including crime, adventure and ghost stories. I’m breaking into his Lincoln Perry series – but it doesn’t matter, as the book is essentially self-contained.

Perry is a private detective operating in Cleveland Ohio. He was previously a cop, but was thrown out of the force for assaulting a prominent attorney who just happened to be having an affair with Perry’s fiancé Karen. Now that same attorney has been found murdered, and Karen wants Perry to find his estranged son. What could possibly go wrong? The story follows a structure reasonably common in crime stories where things get worse and worse for the hero as events beyond his (usually) control stack up against him until he eventually finds a way of fighting back. Koryta is slightly better at setting the conspiracy up than he is at producing a convincing resolution, but overall the story works well. I like the way he writes; Perry is a bit of a laid-back, wise-cracking Phillip Marlow sort of character. But he’s not quite the white knight that Marlow is; I like Perry’s admission at the end that he had made judgements and assumptions that he wanted to be true, and has to deal with the fact that they turned out to be wrong. I also like that Koryta’s preparation for writing private detective stories was to work as a private detective himself for a time.

The second book is The Tower (2009) by Michael Duffy, a police procedural set in Sydney. It is the first of two books featuring Senior Constable Detective Nicholas Troy. Duffy is no stranger to crime writing, having been a crime reporter (among other things, including publisher and contrarian broadcaster), and author of two ‘true crime’ books and a fictionalised representation of a Lebanese crime family in Sydney.

A young woman falls from a floor high up in the unfinished Tower building in Sydney. Is it suicide or murder? Detectives Troy and McIver are searching the unfinished top floors when the more senior of them, McIver is wounded by a gunman who flees the building. The Homicide section of the NSW police force is undermanned, and Troy has to take a leading role in the investigation. The case is complicated enough, but soon Troy finds he has to deal not only with police politics but with external power and influence. ‘Troy was not used to politics, had rarely felt its breath on his cheek. But he knew it was out there, waiting for him like everyone else.’ How well can he deal with it?

The narrative moves at a good pace, but at times I got quite confused about who was doing what to whom. Duffy says that when he writes a story, he doesn’t know how it’s going to end. Along the way in this one he introduces people smuggling, union corruption and dodgy business dealings as well as sex and drugs. Some of these are central to the plot, but others seem just there to confuse, as if the author wasn’t quite sure which bits he’d use. He says in an interview that he likes TV series such as The Wire, where ‘at first you feel a bit lost but it makes you pay attention. You have to become a detective and help solve the crime.’ So maybe he applies this to his work, and I’m just not paying enough attention. And it’s probably true that there is a deal of confusion in police work, as they strive to create a clear understanding of what actually happened. So I probably shouldn’t worry too much about loose ends. Troy is an interesting character, and I did enjoy the book – I’m just not entirely sure how it all fits together.

The differences between these books are obvious. Apart from the different settings, it is the difference between the private detective story, which seems to be the dominant detective subgenre in America, and the police procedural, which flourishes in the UK and Australia. (Connelly’s police detective Harry Bosch is an exception, but I’m not aware of very many others.) Private and police detectives work in different ways, their motivations are different, and very often the structure of the story has to be different to accommodate the private detective’s inability to arrest anyone. But these two books share a similarity I hadn’t expected. The heroes of both are not just baffled by events; they become the subject of a conspiracy. They become entangled because of the sort of people they are, and both writers have succeeded in creating heroes whose behaviour is a convincing response to their circumstances.

You can read more about Michael Koryta here, and Michael Duffy here.

PS I’m surprised by one thing in The Tower, and it’s that a Detective Constable would be given so much responsibility in a case. In most British TV police procedurals, constables seem very much the lower orders (though admittedly that isn’t true of Detective Constable Rachel Bailey in Scott and Bailey).  Maybe it’s different in Australia. Having been a crime reporter, Duffy would presumably get such details right.

 

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Watching You (2013) is Robotham’s ninth book, and the fifth featuring clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. His other series character, Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz, now retired, also has a role. Robotham seems to alternate them being the main focus of the story; Joe was central to the previous book, Say You’re Sorry (2012), and it was Ruiz’s turn in the one before that, The Wreckage (2011). The Ruiz books seem to me to address broad issues of power and authority – The Wreckage is, for example, set partly in Bagdad –whereas Joe’s stories tend to be more focussed psychological thrillers. This is one of the latter, and I do rather miss the wider reach of the Ruiz stories.

The book begins with an italicised first-person statement from an unnamed watcher, and we hear several more times from this person (presumably a male, though it doesn’t say so) throughout the book. The person he has watched from childhood is Marnie Logan. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with a teenage daughter, a young son with coeliac disease and a missing husband. He simply vanished one day, leaving his gambling debts behind him. Marnie can’t access his bank account, or even stop his direct debits. She is being threatened by the crooks he is in debt to, and the only way she can find the money is to agree to work for them as an escort. She sometimes feels someone is watching her. She is consulting Joe O’Loughlin in an attempt to come to terms with the loss of her husband, but he can’t help feeling there is something else worrying her at a much deeper level. Why is her file the one that is stolen when someone breaks into his office? And why are the police asking her questions when one of the crooks she has been working for is found dead?

O’Loughlin, banking on assistance from Ruiz, agrees that they will help Marnie establish whether her husband is really dead. But when they start looking into her past, they get puzzling responses from people she has known. The reader knows from the first-person sections some of what is going on, and may be tempted to guess the rest – but not all is as it seems. Can we really trust Marnie? This is where the psychology really comes to the fore, making it a clever, if uncomfortable read.

O’Loughlin is not a detective, but he shares with some private detectives the capacity to solve crimes by seeing things that others, including the police, miss. Ruiz says to Joe: ‘You understand more than most people. You look harder. You care more. You let things bruise your soul and question what’s wrong with humanity.’ Ruiz is prepared to help because as Joe tells Marnie: ‘He’s a good man.’ Detective Inspector Gennia takes a different view. ‘He doesn’t like psychologists. In particular he doesn’t like criminal investigations where psychology serves a purpose. Most crimes are straightforward and easy to understand …They kill for money, power or revenge – simple yet ancient motives that don’t require a psychological profile to unravel or comprehend.’ For Joe, ‘Human behaviour seems so random, yet can be plotted and graphed’ – though in this case, the behaviour is quite outside the normal range of expectations – in more ways than one. It could be argued that using psychology in the way Robotham does is cheating; it goes beyond insight and introduces factors that aren’t predictable by the average reader (well me, anyway). But surely looking at people on the psychological edge is at the heart of the psychological thriller. The other side of the coin of Joe’s psychological insight is his physical weakness, as the Parkinson’s disease he suffers from gets slowly worse.

I always enjoy Robotham’s writing. He was first a journalist and then a ghost writer of celebrity ‘autobiographies’ before he turned to crime writing. It’s perhaps this that has given him such a good grasp of the mechanics of story-telling, at which he excels. He know just how and when to ratchet up the tension, how to keep the reader on edge, never quite comfortable about how the story will develop. He’s also good at realistic characters and situations. Marnie is an excellent creation and Robotham does a good job of writing from a female perspective. ‘In terms of getting inside the head, inhabiting the skin of a woman, I’ve had to do that as a ghost writer. It’s still very challenging to do as a fiction writer as the majority of fiction readers are women. If you get it wrong, if there’s something that jars with them, if I’ve messed something up, readers aren’t very forgiving,’ he says. All the other bit part characters that make up the story, such as Marnie’s children, Zoe and Elijah, are also well drawn. I’m not so sure about the villain – you’ll have to make up your own mind on that. It is a psychological thriller after all.

You can read more about Michael Robotham here. And here’s an interesting interview with him. His most recent book, Life or Death (2014) breaks the O’Loughlin/Ruiz mould – as far as I can see, it isn’t about either of them. You can search the What Book to Read blog for my posts on earlier Robotham books.

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I read the late P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley when it came out in 2011. I enjoyed it – how could I not, being both a fan of P.D. James and Jane Austen? (Does this make me a Janeite? Probably. Too bad.) But I nevertheless felt that the problems of marrying a murder mystery to a story about early nineteenth century social relationships were too great even for P.D. James, and that in order to be true to Elizabeth and Darcy, the crime story had to suffer. You can read what I said here. But of course I was interested to see how the TV series deals with it.

The problem I find with adaptations of books for film or TV is how far the adaptation should be viewed as a stand-alone product. I can’t stop myself comparing them. Here there is the additional complication that the book is an adaptation of sorts of the original Austen characters and some of the original situations. A double level of comparison! So not only do I compulsively compare the TV series with the book, I also compare it with the world of the original. This is unfortunate, as I would probably enjoy the TV series more if I didn’t constantly find myself muttering ‘Yes, but …’

The facts of the murder are essentially the same as in the book. Elizabeth and Darcy’s brother-in-law, George Wickham, is accused of killing his friend Captain Denny in the Pemberley woods on the eve of the annual Pemberley ball. What were they doing there? Why would he kill his friend? Will he be found guilty and bring dishonour on Pemberley? As the story progresses, some of what is only hinted at in the book is made much clearer on the screen, and I think this actually strengthens the plot. And in the TV version, Elizabeth is given a major role in the resolution, which takes away some of the deus ex machina element in the ending of the book. Naturally it is played for all the tension that can be screwed out of it, and quite successfully, too. But is this clarity is achieved at the expense of a violation of the social conventions operating in Austen’s world?

The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy differs markedly from that in the book. In the book, Darcy has no doubts about his love for Elizabeth. In the TV version, they fight, and begin to question each other’s commitment. This version chooses to stress Darcy’s pride in the traditions of Pemberley, which is something present in the book, but not a matter of contention between Elizabeth and Darcy. On screen, the unpleasant side of Elizabeth’s family is played up, so we are reminded of how much he has married below himself. In both the book and the TV series we are shown Lydia Wickham as a hysterical and foolish woman – but her shallowness is more marked on screen (though I have to admit she has a moment of redemption). The TV series also gives us Mrs Bennett as a much more unpleasantly insidious character than in the original. She doesn’t actually appear at Pemberley at all in the book, where only Mr Bennett is present, as a source of calm and support. In the book, Jane, the presentable sister, and Bingley are present from the first; on screen, Jane comes in only briefly later. And the element of family pride is added to the relationships between Darcy’s sister Georgiana, her cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam who wants to marry her and Henry Alveston, the man she loves. Having Darcy and Elizabeth quarrelling, Georgiana torn between her suitors and contemplating putting duty to Pemberley before love, makes for high drama and good visuals. But it’s not in the book, and doesn’t add to the murder side of things – well not much, anyway. And having Elizabeth and Darcy at each other’s throats has more in common with one of the weaker romantic sequels to Pride and Prejudice than it does with the spirit of generous accord reached between them in that book.

The production is visually attractive, and the acting perfectly acceptable. Elizabeth seems to have risen to the occasion as mistress of Pemberley, but there is almost no place for her wit and playfulness – though there wasn’t in the book, either. We get a touch of it in her meeting with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which is nice, as we only get a letter from her in the book. We can probably agree that Elizabeth would never be showy in her dress, but would she really wear more or less the same thing every day? A few bits of modern dialogue creep in, as when Darcy says ‘He’ll be fine’, but overall, the surface conventions have mostly been respected.

The deeper problem for me concerns Elizabeth’s role. P.D. James clearly felt that as Darcy’s wife and mistress of Pemberley Elizabeth couldn’t take an active part in the murder mystery. By limiting what Elizabeth can do, James has also limited the crime story. By expanding her role, the TV version has strengthened the crime story, but at the expense of the conventions of the time.  As for Darcy’s role in the TV version, it’s not hard to imagine that all that pride from the original book was still lurking around somewhere …

You can read more about P.D. James here, and see some of the tributes to her after her death in November 2014 here.

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Once again, I read a review of Littlemore’s second book, Harry Curry: the Murder Book (2012) and decided to read the first one, Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice (2011) first. It does set the scene, but by all means read the second one if you come across it first – I’m assuming it’s as much fun as this one.

The five chapters of the book cover five legal cases Harry Curry (presumably a pun on Hari Kari) is involved in. Other than that, there’s not much story. But there doesn’t need to be. At the beginning of the book, Harry’s licence to practise as a barrister is suspended by the Bar Association’s disciplinary committee on the grounds of alleged rudeness to a judge. He is approached by a young barrister, Arabella Engineer, who isn’t doing too well – we see her lose her case – with the suggestion that Harry act as legal strategist for her. The first three cases operate on this basis. Harry gets his licence back and the next two cases are joint operations between them. Of course there is the issue of their relationship, but for me, the interest is in what happens in the court room.

Littlemore is a senior barrister – a QC – who works in the area of criminal law. The cases in the book are almost certainly versions of the real thing taken from his experience, though perhaps what he wished had happened, rather than what did. They cover allegations of drug smuggling, murder, assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and rape, there is an appeal against an extradition and a coroner’s hearing into deaths that occurred in a bush fire. The old Perry Mason tradition of court room drama involves the defence team getting their client off by doing the detective work of finding who really did it. These stories are not like that; they depend on the defence finding reasons in law that can be argued in favour of their client. Here, it’s rarely an issue of finding that someone else has committed the crime; ‘Harry’s rule has always been that you win cases by keeping evidence of guilt away from the jury, not be attempting to call alibis, or some other assertion of innocence.’ Littlemore pays meticulous attention to the court setting, details of procedure like choosing the jury, and the cross examination of witnesses; the court ‘feels like a workplace’. The setting and the cases feel real, not just because they presumably are, or could be, but also because of Littlemore’s skill in making his points simply and clearly. I find it easy to believe he is a very good barrister.

A major theme of the book is justice, for the innocent and the guilty alike. What do barristers do when they are certain that their client is guilty? They defend them by all available means. In real life, Littlemore responds to the question of defending ‘someone who you yourself believe not to be innocent’ by saying: ‘Well, they’re the best cases. I mean, you really feel you’ve done something when you get the guilty off. Anyone can get an innocent person off. I mean, they shouldn’t be on trial. But the guilty – that’s the challenge.’ Harry says in defence of his criminal law practice: ‘There is a point to what I do: I’m the only thing standing between those poor bastards and the might of the state.’ He’s also committed to the defence of the under-dog against the vested interests of big business like insurance companies. At one point, another lawyer says to him: ‘Get off the white horse, Harry. It doesn’t suit you.’ Harry ignores him. But one of my reservations about the book is whether Harry is a bit too good to be true.

Another slight reservation is whether Harry is a bit too much the stereotypical Establishment black sheep. His father is an eminent QC, now suffering from dementia. Harry, product of a public school and good university, knows everyone in the legal world; he just chooses not to share their lifestyle aspirations. He drives a Jag, but it belongs to a client doing ten years for importing drugs. ‘Harry’s minding it for him, but the client doesn’t exactly know that.’ Hmm. A little too insouciant? But maybe Littlemore knew of such a circumstance. Harry’s Establishment background enables him to indulge in some pointed legal snobbery; in a Queensland solicitor’s office a law degree from Bond University ‘hangs in pride of place, and Harry wonders at the wisdom of that. Would you want that to be generally known?’ This is insider humour, having a go at a relatively new, private university. His description of a ‘fascinator’ as something ‘shop girls wear to the races’ is plain ordinary social snobbery.

But these are trivial reservations. Overall, it’s a fascinating inside look at the workings of the law in ordinary Australian courts, where the cases have their own drama. I probably should have said more about Arabella – for that, you’ll have to read the book.

Australian readers who think they know the name Littlemore in another context are right. Stuart Littlemore was a journalist and broadcaster for some years, most notable for his creation and hosting of the ABC’s Media Watch, a forum for media analysis and comment, specialising in ‘conflicts of interest, bank backflips, deceit, misrepresentation, manipulation, plagiarism, abuse of power, technical lies and straight out fraud.’ Right up Harry Curry’s alley. These days Littlemore’s name might be familiar from his role as counsel for Eddie Obeid at the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. Now there’s a challenge for a defence lawyer.

You can read a short account of Littlemore’s life here, and a rather more interesting interview with him after the publication of this book here. Asked if he is Harry, his response is ‘I would like to be that brave.’

I was amused to see that a writer for the online law students’ site, Survive Law, thought highly of the book. The reviewer writes: ‘The cases are gritty and the descriptions of the clients and proceedings so realistic that you could almost justify reading this book as study!’

 

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Some time ago I wrote about Sue Grafton’s alphabet crime stories featuring Kinsey Millhone – A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar and so on up to U is for Undertow. Now we have V is for Vengeance (2011) and W is for Wasted (2013). I have no doubt X,Y and Z will follow.

The earlier stories were all written in the first person from Kinsey’s perspective. In S is for Silence, T is for Trespass and U is for Undertow, Grafton introduced the stories of other characters, told in the third person. V is for Vengeance follows this pattern. The book starts with a prologue in which a young man is setting off for a gambling session in Las Vegas. The story proper starts two years later with Kinsey witnessing two women shoplifting. Grafton then introduces Nora, a socialite who discovers her husband is having an affair with his secretary, and Lorenzo Dante, rich and outwardly respectable, but deeply involved in crime. What have all these to do with each other? Who is wreaking vengeance on whom? I like Kinsey’s take on it: ‘I’m a big fan of forgiveness,’ she says, ‘as long as I’m given the opportunity to get even first.’ Most of the story still belongs to Kinsey, but in the other sections, Grafton introduces quite different social settings and mind sets, allowing her to probe relationships and feelings quite foreign to Kinsey. This is an interesting experiment; is Grafton perhaps practising for a writing life after the alphabet series?  But I can’t help feeling she is still more at home with Kinsey. On the bonus side, we get a rare, brief glimpse of how someone else sees her.

W is for Wasted also follows one other character besides Kinsey, but much more briefly than in the previous book. The story begins with Kinsey’s statement ‘Two dead men changed the course of my life that fall’. She pursues the circumstances of the death of one, a homeless man named Terrence Dace, who had her name and phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket when he died. The other is Pete Wolinsky, a private detective she knew slightly, who was apparently shot in a robbery. His story is told through the somewhat clunky device of a third person narration starting several months before his death. What, if anything, have these stories to do with each other? ‘I don’t know how I get caught up in shit like this,’ says Kinsey.

One of the interesting things about the series is the way that Grafton always finds a new story to tell. I think she is able to do this in part by using the stratagem mentioned above of introducing the third person narratives of major new characters into books. She also reveals piecemeal the circumstances of Kinsey’s life. Grafton was either very far sighted at the beginning of the series in making Kinsey an orphan, or very clever at spotting an angle later on, for this has had the undoubted benefit of allowing her to find out more about her family as the books progress. Previous books have introduced her mother’s family; in W, we find out more about her father’s family. This is interesting because we care about Kinsey, but also has major relevance to the plot. We also learn a lot about Kinsey’s life; for example she isn’t sure she likes having family, and wonders if she was better off without one. ‘Aunt Gin hadn’t fostered feelings of connectedness and I hadn’t had occasion to develop them on my own.’

Grafton also fills the pages with an extremely detailed account of Kinsey’s activities. To take a random example from V: ‘I arrived at my office at 9.00 the next morning, unlocked the door, and gathered up the pile of mail the postman had shoved through the slot the day before. I tossed the stack on my desk, and went down the hall to the kitchenette, where I put on a pot of coffee. When the machine had gurgled to a finish, I filled my mug.’  These 65 words could easily be replaced with 15 words, as in: ‘When I got to the office I picked up the mail and made a coffee’. It’s as if Grafton were actually seeing life through Kinsey’s eyes – and for me, the detail is one of the pleasures of the series. As she says, ‘it’s better if you experience it just as I did, one step at a time.’ I can see the detail might annoy some readers, though.

Of all the other things that could be said about these books, I’d like to mention the attention Grafton pays to Kinsey’s craft as a private detective. ‘What I lack in brute force,’ she says, ‘I make up for in persistence and sheer cunning.’ She solves mysteries by following things up and talking to people, and then seeing connections others haven’t. ‘I could arrange the facts in any order I liked, but the bits and pieces would only come together when I perceived their true relationships,’ she says. She knows her limits, and is specific about one of the issues common to all private detectives stories. Once you know who the baddies are, what can you do about them? As she says, ‘The problem was I had no authority to act. At best I could make a citizen’s arrest … If I managed to collar a crook, what would prevent him simply laughing it off and walking away?’ What indeed? Grafton finds ingenious ways to deal with this too.

You can read more about Sue Grafton here. I think she should run a competition for the naming of the last three books. X is for X-Ray, or maybe Xenophobia, is the best I can do. Y is for Yellow (as in cowardly) perhaps? And Z is for Zapped. But I’m sure Sue Grafton will do better than that.

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When I was at the movies to see Gone Girl – which I recently reviewed – I saw the shorts of a film that looked dark and violent; I later found it described as an example of the neo noir. A New York detective who had quit the force after a child died as ‘collateral damage’ in a shootout with criminals – an accident, but one the detective believed had come about partly because he had been drinking…  A detective that now worked as an unlicensed private eye just inside, or sometimes outside the law. It was the title that brought it all back to me. A Walk Among the Tombstones, published in 1992, is one of a series of books by Lawrence Block featuring Matthew Scudder, private detective and recovering alcoholic. So I thought I’d write about the book before seeing the film – or maybe not seeing the film, if the story turned out to be more violent than I remembered from reading it twenty years ago.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth in the Matthew Scudder series, so the death of the child is not part of the story (as it appears to be in the film). But it continues to haunt Scudder, and he goes to a lot of AA meetings to help stay sober. Then Pete Khoury, who he has met at AA, asks him to undertake some work for his brother Kenan. Kenan’s wife has been kidnapped. (This is where the film starts.) He pays a ransom, but his wife is brutally murdered anyway. He can’t go to the police because his money comes from drug trafficking, and they would ask awkward questions. So he wants Scudder to find the men who did it. And then he wants to kill them.

After this fairly dramatic start, the book moves into a much calmer phase with Scudder looking for the killers. Though he doesn’t have much to go on, he patiently puts together evidence and clever guess work. ‘When I start something I have a hell of a time letting go of it,’ he says. ‘I don’t do it by being brilliant. I just hang on like a bulldog until something shakes loose.’ He calls in favours from old police colleagues, and gets some help from computer hackers. The story is set in the early 1990s, so there are no mobile phones, little by way of police data bases, and fairly basic computers. The New York phone system still works by people putting quarters into public phones. Goodness knows what the film will make of that. He finds out some very nasty things, but initially these are in the past and written down or verbally reported. Violence is described, but not with the immediacy that it might gain by being shown in a film. Things do, however, move to a violent climax.

Yet I don’t feel that this is a particularly violent book. This is partly because of Block’s understated prose style, and his ability to undercut the horror with a sort of wry humour. For example, someone is garrotted. ‘I had seen a garrotte before so I knew right away what I was looking at, but nothing really prepares you for it. It was as awful a sight as I had ever seen in my life,’ says Scudder. But then he goes on ‘But it did lower the odds.’ If the film shows such things, it will indeed be noir, and I won’t want to see it. If it can retain Block’s lightness of touch, with the violence implied rather than revelled in, then I might find it worth seeing.

Part of the tone of the story – and presumably the film – is set by Scudder himself, played in the film by Liam Neeson. He is clearly a damaged man; after seeing a play with ‘a lot of brooding intensity’ he comments that ‘It took me through dark passages in the self without troubling to turn the lights on.’ He is self-contained and tries to remain unemotional; he follows the AA principle of taking one day at a time. His drinking destroyed his family life, but in this story he is in an ongoing relationship with a character from a previous book. He lives simply, but in a way that is willingly self-imposed, rather than forced on him. He is an honourable man, in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; he will do dodgy things for good ends. The story is made less confronting by the fact that the drug trafficker, Kenan Khoury, isn’t shown as evil, despite the way he makes his money. In fact he is quite a sympathetic character.

I am assuming, of course, that the plot of the film follows that of the book. This is probably an unwise assumption, as I know from this review that the end of the film is different from the end of the book, though I don’t know how. Somehow I fear the softer edges of the book will have been knocked off in the film.

Given that this book was published in 1992, I wonder why it is only now that it has attracted the attention of the movie moguls. Perhaps it is the title; Block does a good line in titles, with, for example, the two before this one being A Ticket to the Boneyard (1990) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (1991). He is an amazingly prolific writer; there are 17 Matthew Scudder novels stretching from 1976 to 2011. In addition he has a series about a bookseller and part-time burglar, which is fun, if a little formulaic, one about a man who never needs to sleep and a whole lot of others, most written under other names. But from what I’ve read, the Matthew Scudder series is the best of them. And no, I probably won’t go and see the film.

You can read more about Lawrence Block and his books here. And here’s another review of the film.

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Here I am again breaking into a series. A Murder Unmentioned (2014) is the sixth in a series set mostly in New South Wales in the 1930s and featuring Rowland Sinclair. Although of course the story is self-contained, a number of the characters and their relationships have obviously been developed in earlier books, and I can’t help thinking that knowing that development might make them seem a bit more real.

Rowland Sinclair is the black sheep of a wealthy family of graziers. He lives an unconventional lifestyle in a mansion in Sydney where he dabbles in painting and takes up left wing causes with three bohemian friends who all seem to be members of the Communist Party. But a visit from the police sends him hurrying back to the family property, Oaklea, near Yass. It seems that his father’s death fourteen years ago, believed to be at the hands of a burglar, isn’t that simple. The reader already knows from the prologue that the burglar story is untrue. But now the gun which killed his father has been found in a dam on the property, along with some items which were believed to have been stolen at the time. So if not a burglar, then who? What motive has a former employee for casting suspicion on Rowland? And why is Rowland so unwilling to talk about it?

I think this novel is best seen as a family saga-cum-historical novel, rather than a crime story. Who killed Father is at the centre of it, but there are lots of family happenings that have only a general relevance to the main game – for example the machinations of Lucy Bennett, the fire at the homestead or Rowland’s sister-in-law Kate’s pregnancy. There is also a lot of material that is included because it is interesting, and of the period. The first chapter sees Rowland taking a flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, with a young Nancy Bird looking on. Everyone’s heard of Kingsford Smith, but some may not know that Nancy Bird was in fact the youngest Australian woman to gain a pilot’s licence. These characters play no further part in the story – though Rowland’s flying does – so why introduce them, other than for historical interest? Rowland goes to a meeting of the NSW Centre Party, and has a run-in with Eric Campbell, who is trying to turn his fascist New Guard movement into a political party – without success, as it happens. Apparently Rowland has crossed swords with Campbell and his New Guard in earlier books, but it has only the most oblique relevance here. Edna Walling is redesigning the gardens at Oaklea, and Jock Garden of the Communist Party, Bob Menzies of the United Australia Party and Frank Green, Sydney gangster, all make an appearance.  Each chapter begins with what purports to be an excerpt from a newspaper of the time – though I’m not sure if all of them are genuine. All this historical detail is quite fun, but not really necessary in solving the crime. To put it another way, someone has to find the gun in the dam, but it doesn’t have to be Edna Walling.

Gentill has a fairly formal style of writing. I think this is a deliberate strategy when used in relation to conversations between the characters, where she tries, with some success, to catch the tone of relationships in the 1930’s between men and women, bosses and workers, family members and friends. Thus Rowland says of his painting: ‘My father would not have approved of my work … He would not have tolerated it.’ Or his brother Wilfred: ‘Kate was under the impression you admired her.’ Or Lucy’s father: ‘I knew your father, you know … fine man. I expect you’re cut from the same cloth.’ The 1930s feel is heightened by the similarly of the prose style to the newspaper excerpts. I don’t remember seeing the word ‘chums’ used in ordinary prose since I last read a Girl’s Own Annual. But there are too many clichés, such as ‘his jaw tightened’, ‘his eyes flashed fury’, or ‘his voice was thick with contempt’. Just because run-of-the-mill writers may have used such commonplaces in the 1930s doesn’t mean they should be used now in a book about the 1930s. By all means ensure that Rowland raises his hat to ladies, but don’t let it become a platitude.

I like history, so I found the story fun. There is always something of interest happening. Furthermore, the plot so far as it related to the death of Rowland’s father works well, though I thought the final resolution a bit contrived. If, however, I put on my historian’s hat, I’d have to wonder about the relationship between Rowland and his three friends – two male, one female. Apart from occasionally saying something about capitalist domination, the two men seem to lack the passion and conviction it would have taken to be a Communist. Their relationship seems more like Bunter to Wimsey than comrade to comrade (though Rowland is a fellow-traveller, not a paid up Communist). Putting in a lot of historical detail doesn’t of itself make a book genuinely reflect the history of the times. This is a nice try, rather than the creative reimagining at the heart of the best historical novels.

You can read more about Sulari Gentill and her work here. I love the book’s cover.

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I picked up Death and the Maiden (2011) for no better reason than I liked the title – Schubert’s string quartet No 14 in D minor of the same name is one of my favourites. In this book, however, it is the song Schubert wrote in 1817, for which the quartet is named and which is the theme of the second movement, that is being referred to – though in my view with doubtful relevance. I also discovered that this is not a stand-alone story; there are already five other stories featuring the main characters; the books are collectively referred to as the Liebermann Papers.

The story is set in Vienna in 1903. A singer from the court opera is found dead. Is it an accident, suicide, or murder? Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt of the Vienna security office is called in to investigate, and he is joined, as usual in this series, by his young friend Dr Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud. They find that the court opera is a hotbed of rumour and jealousy, in part aimed at the Director, Gustav Mahler. It seems that the Mayor of Vienna, the powerful demagogue Karl Lueger, may also be involved. Then there is the singer’s psychiatrist, who rejects Freud’s theories and has links with the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. Is it sex, or politics, or both that lie behind the singer’s death?

The turn of the century was obviously a fascinating time in Vienna, and Tallis makes frequent reference to contemporary events and movements. On one hand there is the intellectual ferment that produced the theories of Freud, the music of Mahler and the Secessionist movement in art and design. Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze gets a passing mention. Both Rheinhardt and Liebermann are musical – this may have been what brought them together in the first place – and there are lots of references to the music of Chopin, Mozart, Brahms and Mahler. Indeed there is a sub-plot involving the lives of two fictional musicians in which Liebermann unravels a mystery by reference to a composition by one of them. On the other hand there is political turmoil as the tottering Hapsburg Empire struggles against the nationalist forces tearing it apart, and demagogues like Lueger stir up popular discontent, often directing it into anti-Semitic channels. Apparently Lueger really did say ‘I decide who is a Jew’, though not in the context found in this story.

You’d hope with all this material to work with – both real and imagined – that Tallis would have produced an absorbing crime story. But the plot doesn’t really work for me. Some of what seem like non sequiturs– such as the scenes with Liebermann’s former fiancé – may be excused as making more sense in the context of the series. But Liebermann’s role is supposed to be central to the story. He is supposed to use theories about the subconscious as an investigative tool, on the premise that ‘guilty people are always giving themselves away – unconsciously’. Lieberman suggests Freudian motives (hysterical and oedipal) for several of the characters’ actions, but I don’t really find it convincing. His explanations are overly simplistic, and no more compelling than the theory the traditional doctor puts up that the singer had a weak nervous system. Tallis never lets the poor woman speak for herself. He makes the point that forensic science was making great strides just at the same time as psychoanalysis; the relatively new practice of autopsy is important in the story, as are some other forensic details. But overall, Rheinhardt doesn’t have much concrete evidence to go on, placing too much weight on the debatable influence of the subconscious.

Perhaps I would have responded better to all this if I felt the book was truly well written. It’s one of those cases where I find it hard to say just what was disappointing about the style. It’s perfectly adequate writing – but it just doesn’t go beyond that. Neither Rheinhardt nor Liebermann come alive for me, despite Tallis’s attempts to humanise them through music, food and family relationships. And Vienna doesn’t really come alive either; the details have a faintly researched air, rather than one of verisimilitude. This sense that Tallis may be trying too hard is summed up for me by the title. Rheinhardt sings and Liebermann plays Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, with an English translation that shows the maiden pleading with death to spare her, only to have death reply that she has nothing to fear and can sleep softly in his arms. There is no sense in which these sentiments are represented in the story – so why make it the title?

Overall, I didn’t hate it. I was just a bit disappointed that with such rich ingredients it didn’t turn out better. You can read more about Frank Tallis and the Liebermann Papers here. And you can listen to ‘Death and the Maiden’ here.

This is by no means the only crime novel in which Freud appears. Try, for example, The Interpretation of Murder (2007) by Jed Rubenfeld.

 

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I’ve lost count of how many Detective Inspector Wexford stories Rendell has written, but I think No Man’s Nightingale (2013) is the second since his retirement from the Kingsmarkam police force. You can read my review of the first, The Vault (2011), here. I thought that was perhaps not her best effort, but this one is vintage Rendell.

The vicar of St Peter’s Church is found strangled in the vicarage. Being female, of Irish and Indian parentage, socially liberal, a moderniser of the liturgy and a single mother hasn’t made Sarah Hussain universally popular, but Detective Superintendent Burden is nevertheless struggling to work out who could possibly have committed such a crime. Wexford, still a close friend of Burden’s, is happy to assist, finding that his reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while stimulating, is not enough to fill his retirement. There is also a sub plot, very loosely linked to the main one, about the family of Maxine Sams, who is the Wexfords’ cleaner. The reader knows that the murder must have been committed by one of the characters in the story – Rendell would never stoop to a deus ex machina ending – and there are certainly clues. But I only recognised some of them as such when I found out who dun it, and was intrigued right to the end.

Wexford not still being a policeman, this is not strictly a police procedural. He misses having his former police powers: ‘When for years you have had authority it is very hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stay disappeared’. ‘Not for the first time, but perhaps more positively and tellingly than before, he was realising how insignificant he had become in the great scheme of law and order, of lawmaking and law implementing, of having nothing to do in a society where doing things was all-important.’ But Rendell cleverly contrasts Burden’s orthodox police approach with Wexford’s more intuitive one; he doesn’t need powers other than those inherent in him. Burden discounts the search for causes: ‘We are not going to identify any recognisable sort of motive here,’ he says. ‘And searching for a motive such as jealousy or envy or gain, is only going the hinder any progress we’re making.’ But it is Wexford’s observations of people and what drives them that ultimately solve the puzzle – though not without a few false starts. The ‘possibility [that] had been building up in his mind, increasingly until it had become a conviction … had nothing to do with reason, it was some kind of intuition.’ ‘Ridiculous, he told himself. Like some nineteenth-century novel. Wilkie Collins maybe. But if it was an illusion, it was one he couldn’t get out of his head.’ Ultimately, Burden has to agree that Wexford’s instincts are correct. ‘I hate having to admit it but I think you’re right,’ he says. Rendell comes down decisively on the side of perception and insight into human behaviour over the more limited assessment of means and opportunity.

This is not a fast paced thriller; it at least as much a novel of manners as it is a crime story. Indeed a good deal of the interest for me lay in characters and situations not directly related to the original murder. There is a good slice of English social reality in this book. The issues of sexism and racism inevitably arise; in terms of the latter there is both overt and what Wexford calls ‘apologetic racism’ – defined by one reviewer as the ‘ironic recognition that one has said something inherently open to the charge of racism but can find no way of not saying it’. Themes in the sub-plot echo those of the main story, in particular the question of what people will do out of love for their children. What a woman will do to have a child is also a theme that is explored. ‘People are weird,’ says Burden, and this is true of a number of the characters in this story. But Rendell through Wexford is unwaveringly compassionate, even to those who might not deserve it. ‘We judge people by ourselves, Wexford thought, and by our own beliefs, customs and prejudices.’ His seem based in kindness and empathy, though this is not true of various other of the characters. His reading of The Decline and Fall is an exploration of human behaviour, just as is his everyday observation of those around him. It is no coincidence that Rendell quotes the following passage that he is reading: ‘It is the religion of Zingis [Genghis Khan] that best deserves our wonder and applause. The Catholic inquisitors of Europe, who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy, and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration.’

A minor quibble. As I noted in my review of The Vault, Rendell makes use of ‘teasers’ such as ‘Although they didn’t know it, the laughter was due to stop’, or ‘She turned out to be right’. I’m not sure why she does this, as I don’t think it adds anything. But I can forgive her.

Ruth Rendell doesn’t seem to have a web-site, but you can read more about her here. Her latest book – a crime story but not a Wexford one – called The Girl Next Door, came out this month. Now if I could be a quarter as productive as she is at 84 …..

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A while ago now I wrote a blog about Thrones, Dominions, the unfinished 1936 Dorothy Sayers mystery that Jill Paton Walsh successfully completed in 1998. For all that the world of Lord Peter Wimsey could be called dated and snobbish, I enjoyed the clever story and the continuation of the love theme between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. It seems that lots of other people liked it too; now there are three more Vane/Wimsey novels from Paton Walsh, A Presumption of Death (2002), The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) and The Late Scholar (2013).

In Dorothy Sayers’s novels, the recovery of the Attenbury Emeralds is occasionally referred to as Peter’s first case, but she never wrote about it. This Attenbury Emeralds is set in 1951, though nearly all the first half of the book concerns the fate of the emeralds, lost twice and retrieved both times with Peter’s involvement in the 1920s. The rest of the book is about his third involvement with the jewels post World War II, and relates back to their earlier history. The emerald that is important in the story was once owned by an Indian Maharaja; now he would like to buy it back. But it mysteriously disappears at an upper-class house party. Shades of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (which I wrote about here)? Well yes, Paton Walsh makes the connection, though this jewel wasn’t stolen from India; ‘Attenbury owned it with a clear conscience … it was no moonstone.’ The second loss echoed the first. But it is the third involvement that creates the real mystery in the story, and I’m not going to tell you what that’s about –it’s a genuine puzzle story of the ‘golden age’ variety. There are clues scattered throughout, though mostly of the kind I only recognised after I found out what happened.

I think Paton Walsh must enjoy writing as if she were Dorothy Sayers, as she certainly seems to have some fun doing it. Because the earlier history of the emeralds is being recounted to Harriet, Peter and his assistant Bunter are telling her what they remember happening – meaning there is a lot of dialogue. Harriet asks my favourite question about how people can remember long ago conversations so accurately. ‘Unless you have been making half this up, you have an extraordinary memory,’ she says. ‘Of course I’m not remembering everyone’s remarks verbatim,’ Peter replies, ‘I’m making a good deal of it up, but the drift … is all right.’ Well, nice to have that admission. Peter expects to have to run ‘the gauntlet of literary criticism’, and Harriet, a detective novelist herself, is well placed to notice that they have reached ‘the Little did they know juncture’ – a ‘good teaser’. She also comments on coincidence: ‘You can’t have coincidences in detective stories … Readers simply can’t accept them.’  But she goes on: ‘Though in real life they do keep happening’ – as they do in this story. ‘Clever readers,’ says Harriet of her own work, ‘would have seen through the whole thing’; as noted above, I didn’t see the main twist coming in this story, though I’m not sure even a ‘clever reader’ would have done so. Peter is right; in puzzle mysteries, ‘when you know how you know who.’ And I loved Paton Walsh’s faintly self-mocking comment when Harriet is complemented as having ‘the finest mind in detective fiction’; she replies ‘I can’t compare with Conan Doyle, or Agatha Christies, or Dorothy Sayers …’

Peter at sixty and Harriet, who is a bit younger, are very much the same characters as they were in the original Dorothy Sayers stories of the 1930s, though marriage and parenthood have mellowed them. There is however, a considerable change in the world they live in. ‘That vanished world … all seniors talk so fondly about’ is the time before World War I, rather than between the wars. Paton Walsh has Wimsey talk quite bitterly about the lack of real change post World War I: ‘the fact was,’ he says, ’that all the suffering and death had produced a world that was just the same as before. It wasn’t any safer, it wasn’t any fairer, there were no greater liberties or chances of happiness for civilised mankind’. The real change, for the upper classes at any rate, seems to be occurring as a result of World War II (which is dealt with in A Presumption of Death). Death duties are breaking up the old estates, social relations are changing: ’the iron age of distinctions between servants and family was over’. ‘I think I can feel the social weather changing as we speak’. This doesn’t mean that there is a change in the relationship between Wimsey and Bunter: they still ‘sound like a script by Noel Coward.’ But Bunter wants a different life for his son – including a degree from the London School of Economics.

Paton Walsh says at one point that Peter and Harriet’s old fashioned habits are a form of ‘affectionate nostalgia’ for the old ways. I rather think my fondness for the book is rather similar. Who writes puzzle mysteries these days? Who has an aristocratic detective with a supremely resourceful and self-effacing servant? This is comfort reading. And after all, who wouldn’t like a Bunter of their own?

You can read more about Jill Paton Walsh, who, by the way, is 77, here, and an interview with her about channelling Sayers here.

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I’ve done here what I often advise against and have picked up a book that is the most recent in a series. The Dead Season (2012) is the fifth of Kent’s Sandro Cellini stories. I guess it doesn’t really matter; there’s probably nothing you really need to know about what has gone before, though some of the characters are ongoing. Cellini has fairly recently been forced to take early retirement from the Polizia dello Stato in Florence; I think he may still have been in the force in the first book. This may have told the reader more about the work he did as a police officer; what is said here suggests he was a first responder rather than a detective. But he’s a detective now – a private one. And the circumstances of his departure may have shed light on the kind of police officer he was.

This story takes place in Florence in the middle of a heat wave, and the oppressive weather is a constant element in the story. Kent, who has lived in Florence, is probably thinking of the summer of 2011, when Florence experienced its hottest day on record – 42.1°C. Sandro’s friend (from a previous book?) and sort of part-time assistant Giuli brings him a client she has met at the Women’s Centre where she also works. Anna Niescu is eight months pregnant and her fiancée has disappeared. Can Sandro find him? Alongside this we meet Roxana Delfino, who works as a teller in a bank. A regular client doesn’t come in to deposit his takings; Roxana feels ‘a minute, sudden unexpected nudge of panic’. Then the manager of her branch is found dead. We know that there will be a connection between the two strands of the story; the interest of the book is in part how this is worked through. I really like clever plotting, and overall, this is pretty good.

Part of the interest is also in the characters. A review I read of an earlier book suggested that the pace was too slow, but I didn’t find this one dragged. Either it is better paced, or the characters are well-drawn enough in their own right to carry the story. For a start, Sandro makes an interesting private detective. He is uneasy about his new role: ‘he couldn’t go on like this, apologizing for himself, telling himself how low he’d sunk,’ he tells himself. ‘There had to be a way of being a private detective that he could live with.’ He still is friends with his former partner in the police force, which gives him access to rather more information than the ordinary private investigator is likely to have. But he is aware that the interests of his client may not always be the same as those of the police: ‘whose side was he on, exactly?’ he wonders. He is in his sixties – unusual in itself – and needs to be clever rather than brash and pushy – the modus operandi of many younger private eyes. ‘Oh Jesus. I’m too old for this’ he says at one point. But being clever isn’t easy in the heat: ‘there was information in his head, but unfortunately it hadn’t come in the shape of facts arranged in useful, neat columns: more like a swarm of wasps, circling and scattering, forming and reforming.’ He isn’t into high tech stuff: ‘there’s no substitute for getting out there and talking to people’. He operates partly on an assessment of people that is almost instinctual, but are instincts sometimes ‘the wrong thing to pursue’? He does so, nevertheless; his ‘wobbly, imprecise … lopsided building of a theory’ about the case is constructed on instinct. This is because at heart, he is on the side of ‘the defeated, the not quite competent, the stupidly soft-hearted’. You can’t not like him.

There are of course a range of other characters, most of whom are also well drawn. Kent is good on personal relationships and the tensions within them. Relationships between parents and children – or substitute children – are important, as is the ability to have them; pregnancy is a sub-theme in the story. Not all characters can be fully fleshed out, because someone has to be the hidden villain, but Kent does quite a good job of keeping the reader guessing.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about this book, but I enjoyed it more than many crime stories. I think this is partly because I like the way Kent writes. It’s hard to say what beyond a general competence is good about her writing style, but for me, she rarely puts a foot wrong.  On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly moved – frightened, elated or thrilled – by it, so there’s probably an element of safety or comfort in reading it. Sandro is a safe and comfortable hero.

I can’t help noticing that there are quite a lot of Italian detectives – mostly police – around at the moment. As well as Sandro Cellini, the is Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti in Venice, the late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, who seems to get posted all over Italy,  the late Magdalen Nabb’s Marshal Guarnaccia, who spends at least some time in Florence, and Timothy Williams’s Commissario Piero Trotti, who operates in an unnamed city in the north of Italy. There are no doubt many Italian crime writers as well. But I also can’t help wondering if somewhere in Italy there is a writer beavering away on a series in English about a detective in Halifax or Huddersfield.

There is remarkably little on the internet about Christobel Kent, but here is an interesting blog she wrote about Florence.

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After complaining in a recent post that too many police procedural crime stories are about psychopaths and serial killers, the next one I pick up isn’t like that at all. Beams Falling (2014) is Newton’s second novel in a series featuring Detective Nhu Kelly (inevitably known as Ned) of the NSW Police. Like the first one, The Old School (2010), it is firmly set in the burgeoning underworld of gang and drug crime in Sydney. If you are going to read either of them, read The Old School first, as this story follows on from the end of that one. And don’t read any more of this review, as I can’t help giving away some of what happened in the first book. Here’s the link to it.

Ned is slowly recovering from being shot in the line of duty. Physically she is well enough to return to ‘light duties’, but she is still suffering psychologically from the trauma. She feels an overwhelming need to take her gun everywhere with her, though this is against police procedure. But is she in a fit state to carry a weapon? She is also driven to return to policing by the belief that she knows who killed her parents in an execution style shooting when she was a child. She is sure that Old Man Liu, a rich crime boss turned ‘respectable’, and his son Sonny are responsible, but they seem to be beyond the reach of the law, protected by members of the very police force Ned works for. (I like her comment: ‘Sydney. You were only a crook until you made enough money, then you were promoted to ‘colourful local racing identity.’) She is disappointed to be assigned to a task force dealing with Asian crime in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, as this is the home of Vietnamese, rather than Chinese gangs. But maybe they will lead her back to Chinatown and the Lius.

The story is set in 1993, though there is little to indicate this apart from a mention of a federal election and the absence of mobile phones. As in the previous book, the action takes place against a backdrop of internal police politics and external and internal investigations of police corruption. But they play a much smaller part in this story than they did in The Old School. Shades of bending the rules, ‘playing a bit rough’ and even of corruption, do add to an air of suspicion and mistrust that makes Ned feel an outsider. ‘Secret fucking squirrels,’ she thinks. ‘Last thing she wanted to do was to get sucked into whatever that lot were up to. Even so, being excluded, making it so obvious, it touched a nerve.’ Here the focus is much more on Ned herself, and her battle to deal with the effects of her injury. There is also more exploration of police culture, with several minor sub-plots designed both to illustrate and to undermine the idea of the force as a family that looks after its own – what she calls ‘the false sense of intimacy of the Job’. I guess this is where Newton’s own experience as a police officer comes in; she spent over a decade as a detective in Sydney, and must have a pretty good idea of what it’s like – particularly what it’s like to be a female police officer. Nhu of course has the further ‘difference’ of being part Vietnamese. I also wondered if Newton sets her stories in the early nineteen nineties because she feels more comfortable putting a bit of distance between policing then and now.

One of the strengths of the book is the daily round of police work which Newton is well able to describe. But the story is told from Ned’s point of view, so this means that she only sees scraps of the whole. Perhaps because of this, I found the plot a bit confusing at times, and though it did eventually come together, I thought the book lacked the narrative drive of Newton’s first one. The role of Detective Sean Murphy, from under-cover police operations, is vague, perhaps deliberately so, but you really need to have read the previous book to understand Ned’s relationship to him. There are lots of characters; I couldn’t always keep track of them. Several characters have a role – in either the action or the police culture – but then just disappear. The relationships between the various branches of the police are a bit befuddling too. Some things are left open-ended; it could be argued that life, particularly as far as police investigations go, is like that. It could also be that Newton will take them up in later books.

I thought at first that the emphasis on Ned’s state of mind had come at the expense of the social comment I valued in The Old School. But thinking about the book, I realised that Newton’s depiction of the drug wars in the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta is itself social history. There is a poignant picture of the fracturing of Vietnamese families and culture in collision with the unpleasant realities of crime and drugs. The young gang members – the ra choi  – which literally translates as ‘coming out to play’, but here means the foot-soldiers of the drug wars – are the children of Vietnamese migrants who struggle to give them a better life; the sound of the sewing machines of Vietnamese outworkers can be heard in the streets. Why have they rejected their parents’ values and chosen to ‘play’ with drugs and guns? Newton’s questions are well worth asking.

You can read a bit more about P.M Newton here. To understand the title, try reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929).

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Peter Robinson is a very competent writer of police procedurals.  There are sixteen stories featuring DI Alan Banks before this one (2007), and three more after it. You can read my review of one of the newer Banks stories, Watching the Dark (2012), here. I enjoyed Friend of the Devil, but not as much as I usually do police procedurals. I don’t think this is Robinson’s fault; it’s rather that I’ve perhaps overdosed on the sort of story that seems a natural fit for the police procedural, and this one is a perfect example of it.

DI Banks works out of the imaginary town of Eastvale in Yorkshire. His former sergeant and occasionally on but mostly off again girlfriend, Annie Cabbot, now also Detective Inspector, has been seconded to a neighbouring force. Both are dealing with murder cases. These get alternate treatment until eventually they run together. Banks’s case is the rape and murder of a young woman. Cabbot’s case is more bizarre; a woman in a wheelchair with quadriplegia is found at the top of a cliff with her throat cut. If this sounds familiar, it may be because the book is the basis for one of the episodes in the successful TV series, DCI Banks (2010-14). It is also links back to an earlier book Aftermath (2001), which was the pilot for the main TV series.

Both cases are about sexual violence and murder. I’m not for a moment suggesting that such crimes aren’t horrific; they deserve the maximum of police resources to solve. But I am suggesting that psychopaths and serial killers are becoming the staple of British police procedural crime fiction. There are several reasons for this, all exemplified to some extent in this book. Such crimes are more suitable for police procedurals than they are for stories about private detectives. Police are the ones immediately on the scene. They have extensive scene-of-crime resources, giving them access to DNA testing, and post-mortem results. All these factors are important in this story – though Robinson is clever, and not all is as it seems. In Britain at least, there seems to be an extensive web of CCTV which can be checked for the movements of people and vehicles. This is also important here, and again, Robinson uses it well.  But these resources aren’t usually available to private detectives, so they often need to look at different sorts of crime – ones that the police have missed, or crimes in the past that reverberate into the present.

The psychopath is also useful for the police procedural writer because there is less need to provide a credible motive for the murderer. Murder is what psychopaths do. There are usually a range of suspects, all of whom could be the murderer; none of them can be drawn in any great depth, because giving them depth of character is difficult without giving away too much about possible motive. But any smiling face can hide a psychopath. And so it proves here. I’m not saying that Robinson doesn’t do a good job of hiding the identity of the killer; even after he has identified that the motive is revenge, he still has to make a lot of connections – which of course DI Cabbot is also making – to identify who the killer is. It’s a cleverly put together story – it is just limited by the police procedural form.

Part of what I miss in this form of crime fiction is the ‘state of society’ emphasis that I find in some crime fiction that has a private detective, or is simply a mystery involving someone outside law enforcement. The police procedural usually only does this through the private lives of the police involved, and their formal interactions with the public as witnesses or suspects. We learn quite a bit about Banks and Cabbot; Banks, for example, is reading Tony Judt’s Postwara very good choice. Robinson makes implicit social comment, but of only a limited kind. A writer such as Kate Atkinson, for example, is able to write much more explicitly about the society her characters operate in, to the point where in her hands, the crime novel is subsumed into a general literary category.

A further result of concentrating on the psychopath is that other forms of crime are neglected. Where is the police procedural about corporate crime, like large-scale financial fraud, or illegal environmental pollution? Presumably there’s not much of a story in going through bank statements and mobile phone records. A few police procedural writers have however brought such issues alive. DI Rebus has had run-ins with crime that is closely linked with politics. Gangs, drugs and people trafficking also make an appearance in Rankin’s work – which are technically police procedurals. Michael Robotham has also ventured into some of these areas, though the majority of his books aren’t really police procedurals and are anyway often about serial killers. Police forces can investigate only when they know there has been a specific crime; they aren’t usually the ones who identify the systemic problem. This is much more likely to be done by a private detective working for a concerned individual; Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski is easily my best in this area.

Readers can no doubt supply a list of police procedural crime stories which are not about serial killers and psychopaths. Probably I’ve just read too many that are in too short a time.

You can read more about Peter Robinson and DI Alan Banks here.

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A while back I reviewed Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl (2012). I liked it so much that I included it in my five favourite books of 2013, and decided I should read Flynn’s earlier work. Dark Places is her second book, published in 2009 – though my edition says on the cover ‘from the author of Gone Girl’, suggesting that the third book is carrying the less successful second one. I think this suggestion is pretty right, though it may be a matter of taste rather than quality. Certainly it’s a very different book from the one that followed it.

Libby Day is the sole survivor of a massacre at her mother’s debt-ridden Kansas farm, twenty four years ago when she was seven. She lost her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, fifteen year old Ben, was convicted of the murders and jailed for life; it was Libby’s evidence against him that ensured his conviction. It soon becomes clear that the family was in a bad way before the murders; Libby now lives in a state of aimless depression. She has used up the fund that was created for her from donations by well-wishers, she has no job, no skills and no motivation to acquire any. Then she receives a letter from the ’Kill Club’, a macabre organisation made up of people with obsessions about particular crimes. They believe Ben to be innocent. They will pay her to talk to them, to sell family mementos to them, and above all to find out if someone else could have committed the crimes. Libby wants the money and knows that her carefully coached testimony as a child wasn’t true, but what sort of can of worms will she open if she has to go back to that time – a ‘Darkplace’ she tries never to think about? What if Ben really is innocent? Who else might have done it?

Half of the book tells the story, with Libby as narrator, of her search for the truth, which gradually becomes as important to her as the money. Alternate chapters tell what happened on the day leading up to the murders from the perspective of Patty, Libby’s mother, and of Ben, though in the third person; a series of events is recounted that spiral into worse and worse disaster. As in Gone Girl, there are multiple voices; each has its distinctive tone. Flynn has a very good ear for nuances of region, age and gender. This is a very clever narrative structure, as Libby’s story expands the possibility of arriving at the truth and even changing her life, while Patty’s and Ben’s stories can only close in, edging closer and closer to catastrophe we know is about to happen. And of course, ‘every single person in this case lies, is lying, did lie.’

Libby is certainly no heroine struggling for freedom from her messed up life. Right from the beginning she presents herself as seriously damaged. The book begins with the sentence: ‘I have a meanness inside me. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something is wrong with it.’ This is a theme she returns to again and again. Is it an explanation? Or an excuse? Her mother feels constantly inadequate; she has done the best she can, but the farm is mortgaged to the hilt, there’s never enough money, her ex-husband, Runner Day, is worse than useless: ‘wily and dumb at the same time’, dealing drugs, always on the scrounge. Her sisters are mean and whiney, and her brother Ben is an angry and hostile teenager. But Patty loves her kids, and would defend then if she could; can Libby be blamed for only occasionally glimpsing this? Can she actually change for the better?  The only reason you don’t thoroughly dislike her is that she is very self-aware; she knows when she’s being hateful. And some of her terrible habits turn out to be useful.

What happens during the final day before the murders, and the murders themselves, is actually very nasty, so nasty that I skipped over a couple of bits. I think Flynn describes Ben’s situation very well; you can see how it could happen, even if it is a bit over the top. A fear of the devil worship he is accused of did actually sweep the United States in the 1980s, crazy as it sounds. Communities  – especially poor rural ones? – can get caught up in mindless hysteria. Teenager boys do struggle to understand how to be men; we might blame Ben for some of his decisions, but Flynn makes them understandable. I’m not so sure about Patty, though.

I took some of the social relations in Gone Girl to be satirical, though I thought the tacky mid-west landscape the story was set in was realistic enough. There doesn’t seem to me to be any satire in this book. The social relations are a real reflection of deadening poverty, greed and selfishness – with only a tiny bit of love. And the physical landscape – the run-down farm, the failed tourist town, the toxic dump and the plastic bags blowing out of the landfill – also ring true. Libby’s self-deprecation may lighten the blighted tone somewhat, but is just that; it has no wider social reference. Overall I couldn’t help thinking that Gone Girl is nasty in a clever way, whereas Dark Places is nasty in a cruel and twisted way. They’ve made a film based on the book, but I certainly won’t be going to see it.

You can read more about Gillian Flynn here, and the film here. It is to be released in September of this year.

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