Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

There’s nothing new or original in this novel. Touches of Doctor Who, Perhaps. Touches of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime. Touches, indeed, of Eleanor Oliphant Is Perfectly Fine.

An outsider struggles to fit into humam society and ultimately fights to understand what it is to be human. Wrap that up with some science fiction and a very much secondary plot and you get The Humans. 

Here, our outsider is an alien. A Vonnadorian. A Vonnadorian sent to Earth to prevent Professor Andrew Martin from disseminating a solution to the Reimann Hypothesis. I’m no mathematician but this seems to be a real world hypothesis broadly connected to the patterns behind the distribution of prime numbers. Apparently, prime numbers are so critical that this one piece of information would secure the next stage in human civilisation. Well. Okay. I’ll buy that as a premise. 

And the civilised, rational and immortal Vonnadorian hosts had decreed that humans were too violent, venal and vapid for that sort of advancement. Too contradictory. Too emotional.

So they murdered Andrew Martin and put our narrator into his life in order to destroy his solution and anyone else he may have informed, including his colleagues, co-workers, his mum, his wife and child.

It comes as no surprise that the mission gets derailed when the narrator develops attachments, discovers his own emotions, allows himself to fall in love with Professor Martin’s wife. Spock balanced by  Kirk; Data by Riker. 

Nothing new but thoroughly enjoyable and amusing in places.

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 It’s a funny thing about series. What is original and unique can become familiar and even – dare I say it? – stale as a series goes on. They become perhaps over-thought or overworked like a piece of dough that’s had the life kneaded out of it.

I wonder whether that’s what has happened with this book.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series up to this point. The genii loci of the rivers of London created a mythic and original take on London; the Faceless Man was a formidably distant and shadowy nemesis; Nightingale was enigmatic; Grant himself was engaging and a pleasant narrative voice. Foxglove Summer, which bravely took Grant out of London, worked brilliantly by keeping a freshness which the return to London in The Hanging Tree seemed to lose.  

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a good book in that slightly niche fantasy detective genre. It was just a little familiar and tired.

In this book, Grant is called in to what appears to be a drug overdose which implicates one of Lady Tyburn’s daughters – Olivia Jane McAlliste-Thames – as the supplier of those drugs. A convoluted series of plot twists involving a lost Principia by Newton dealing with alchemy brings in the newly reconstructed Lesley May and the Faceless Man who is eventually in this book unmasked but who, as usual, escapes in the end.

As usual, there are a couple of nice set pieces; Nightingale again exudes the potential for massive power but is never seen doing it; there’s the usual credible police procedures. And it was all decent enough. But familiar. A little bit by-the-numbers.

The other thing that really irked me was that Peter Grant frequently did things with other people and always uses the “Beverley and me …” subject construction. Always. I think without exception. Maybe I’m getting old and I know it’s to create a voice but it irked.

I will still follow the series through to the end: I am that invested in the characters. But I hope there’s some more joy and life in the next one.

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Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.

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I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

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Detective fiction is a funny thing. The moment of most conflict and drama generally takes place outside the narrative, often before detective has been called in. The narrative arc is pretty formulaic: scenes are inspected, witnesses interviewed, discrepancies explored. And the conclusion is pretty predicable: the culprit is identified and society made safe from him or her. And they can become self-parodic: the body count in the various villages around Midsomer and Cabot Cove and St Mary’s Mead; the stereotypes of the detectives – the lonely genius of Holmes and Morse, the cantankerous Inspector Frost, the rebellious Luthor; the implausibility of the amateur sleuth.

But they are beloved!

And I love them.

They are the form of writing where the relationship between the reader and writer is at it’s most active and mutual. It is a dance, a tango; it is a battle of wits; it is a running joke. The reader is constantly building his own narratives, reconstructing the clues presented to him, re-evaluating the interviews. We judge and weigh up both the characters and the writer: we know that the early obvious suspect is a red herring with another 300 pages to read or another hour to watch.

And this book is a hymn to these classic, golden age cozy novels and their modern television counterparts – perhaps unsurprisingly as Horowitz has written for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and written two new “official” Holmes novels as well as taken on Bond.

The novel is, as they say, a book in two parts: the first half is a presented as the ninth Atticus Pünd novel by Alan Conway – echoes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot abound in Pünd: dapper, clever, gentlemanly, foreign and a consultant to various police forces in 1950s England; the second part is a contemporary investigation by editor Susan Ryeland into the death of Conway himself and a search for the missing final chapters of his book.

Ryeland as a narrator is herself steeped in detective fiction and the novel is a delightful homage to and pastiche of the cozy detective novel – eschewing the darker notes that have grown with the growth of “nordic noir”.

Whilst well crafted and engagingly written, it is not a deep portrayal of character: Susan as a character and narrator was a little two-dimensional and her relationship with Andreas was not terribly fleshed out; the characters within the Atticus Pund novel had no more depth. In both parts, the characters felt like little more than chesspieces moved around and into place by the writer.

And there did seem to be an awful lot of summarising and of recapping of the information given in the previous couple of hundred pages which, ironically, could have been edited out quite happily. And the opening chapters which methodically showed every main character’s reaction to the first death in Conway’s novel felt somewhat formulaic and by-the-numbers.

Horowitz played with a range of different voices in the novel: Conway’s narrative voice in the Pünd novels, his true voice and his somewhat pretentious derivative literary voice; we hear snippets and extracts from these and from his sister and a rival would-be writer. It did come across as a little smug in parts, a little too self-consciously clever. Did he name his author Alan Conway after the conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick? Did he rely on plant names for his characters in the same way that Susanna Ryeland, working for Charles Clover, derided Conway for doing? Invented interviews between Horowitz and an author who doesn’t exist promoting a book that Horowitz wrote himself…

It’s a great, fun read and a cosy winter’s treat, like an open fire and mulled wine. But it’s no literary masterpiece.

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

It’s surprising how coincidences happen sometimes.

I mean, it’s no surprise that there’s been a lot of crime and detective fiction in my reading list recently: it’s basically research! But there’s also been a lot of Shakespeare in it!

Ali Shaw’s The Trees isn’t – I don’t think – based on Shakespeare but there are resonances and echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through it. The whisperers in their enigmatic and invisible presence stir memories of Puck and Robin Goodfellow, or perhaps the fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed, tending on the creature on the throne as if they were an Oberon. And the trees’ own confusion of season recalled the lines

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

And now, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a modern revisiting of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, where Prospero has become Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival usurped by his assistant following the deaths of his wife in childbirth and then his daughter Miranda.

And alongside that, I have picked up Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, thinking from the blurb that it was more of a murder mystery – until, that is, I read the prologue and kicked myself for not recognising perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most potent quotations

“I could be bounded in a nut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

How could I not have recognised that?!

Here, Hamlet is indeed bounded in a nutshell: he is a (somewhat precocious) unborn foetus two weeks from birth listening to – and narrating – it requires a serious suspension of disbelief – his mother’s and uncle’s plans to murder his father. Just on a small note, what McEwan does with the names is delightful: Gertrude (a name which teenagers usually mocks) becomes quite beguiling as a Trudy; Claudius (which has classical connotation) is modernised to Claude which, phonologically, conjures up the image of a clod of earth, which fits delightfully with the scarily unimaginative and dull-witted would-be murderer.

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This will be a fairly brief review for two reasons: firstly, I thought I’d already reviewed it and only realised when I tried to link my review of The Vows of Silence to it that I’d not; and secondly, it is very much a continuation of the second novel, The Pure In Heart.

Serrailler is summonsed to Yorkshire to help investigate a lead in the kidnapping and (presumed) murder of David Angus, leading him to effect the arrest of the kidnapper, Edwina Sleightholme, in a surprisingly and refreshingly thrillerish moment fleeing down a Yorkshire cliff face – a moment that was a tad reminiscent of The Woman in Black or of something Hitchcockian.

Hill is a writer who has gone on the record to say that she is less interested in the whodunit than the why-dunnit, so I was anticipating something thoughtful and interesting in the presentation of Sleightholme. And was slightly disappointed. There was no real exploration of the mind of a killer. She is portrayed pretty much as simply evil – a word I have trouble with – who just did because she wanted to. After the genuine emotional horror of The Pure in Heart in which the repercussions of the abduction are seen on the family, the explanation and the presentation of the killer were bland. And maybe that was entirely the point. That the monstrous wears the same banal face as the rest of us.

Other tragedies and crimes took place too and interweaved with new characters: Max Jameson lost his wife Lizzie to Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease – an unusual and odd disease to choose perhaps – and his grief led to increasingly bizarre confrontations including holding the new pastor Jane Fitzroy hostage in her own home. Serrailler eventually talked him round to releasing Fitzroy who quickly became a friend of his sister, Cat Deerbon, and lined up as a love interest for Serrailler. It was a nice breath of fresh air in the Deerbon household where some very tedious arguments about GP working conditions were held ad nauseam.

As often happens with the series, it is slow and gentle and meditative – with the exception of the scene on the Yorkshire cliffs – and I vacillated between enjoying that meditativeness and finding it slightly tedious. I didn’t find the Max Jameson plot line convincing as an exploration in either crime or grief, nor the presentation of Sleightholme. What I did like was the reaction of Sleightholme’s mother to her daughter’s arrest: the shock and denial and obsessive rejection of the truth.

It’s a Dresden File.

It’s Harry Dresden; it’s Jim Butcher.

Even after reading only the previous two novels, I already know what to expect.

It’s also a step up from the previous two novels in the series: the prose is still very, well, prosaic; Dresden is still a wise cracking hard boiled detective with magic; but the plotting and world have expanded here and it feels that there’s a more assured hand on the tiller. I have not been convinced that Jim Butcher knew whether to embrace the paranormal or the police procedural style of the first novel, but, with this one, he seems to side with the paranormal, expanding his mythology as well as his character list.

The first book touched on vampires but focussed on a single rogue sorcerer; the second turned the spotlight onto various forms of werewolves. This one has sprouted into a dozen other fantasy creatures. And so we meet (in the opening chapter) Michael Carpenter, a carpenter and crusader, who wields Amoracchius, a fabled mystical sword embedded with one of the nails of the Cross. We also meet Dresden’s Godmother Leanansidhe, a faerie who seeks to control Harry through a combination of seduction, bribery and bargaining.  The plot revolves round Harry’s efforts to confront the being dubbed The Nightmare which attacks people as they sleep and possesses them, binding them with a spectral spiritual barbed wire. Ghosts abound and are vanquished, rival clans and houses of vampires assemble and even a Dragon makes a cameo appearance. And, somehow, the overtly Christian and the Faerie and the mythological and the magical managed to complement  each other rather than conflict with each other.

It is not great writing – sorry Mr Butcher – but it is a fast paced and enjoyable read and is written with a playfulness and joy which is a pleasure to read. It is as if Butcher knew just how insane putting these multifarious ideas and mythologies together was, but did it any way.

In terms of plot, we are plunged directly in medias res as Dresden and Carpenter battle a ghost in a children’s home, learning that the boundaries between the mundane world and the otherworld has thinned, causing the increase in ghostly apparitions. Later, Dresden is summoned to the home of a police officer – with whom he defeated a demon-summoning sorcerer named Kravos earlier – who is under attack by The Nightmare, briefly reuniting with Karrin Murphy (who is again regrettably absent from the novel) and defeating the attack. Further attacks by The Nightmare show that it is assaulting those involved in defeating Kravos prior to the start of the novel, leading to attacks on Karrin and on Carpenter’s wife and on Dresden himself, consuming a large amount of his magical power. As with Fool Moon, we are given hints that Dresden is ridiculously powerful but fettered which is a little (and I’m sure intentionally) frustrating and not unlike Ben Aaronovitch’s treatment of Nightingale in the Rivers of London series.

Throughout the novel, the Red Court of vampires’ ball is built up as a central set piece, and it is here that we finally get to see a real hint at the extent of Dresden’s power, even though Susan Rodriguez, his girlfriend for wont of a better word, is captured, which forces the weakened Dresden into a reckless attempt to rescue her. Without adding spoilers, Susan’s fate is tragic and painful and I hope that she returns later in the series.

Just set aside any expectation for realism, strap in for a fun ride, turn off your brain and enjoy!

You know when you hope you got a book series wrong? Other people are telling you it’s great but you just don’t get it? You end up offering excuses for the writer: maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind; maybe  I was too tired; maybe I read it too quickly.

Sometimes, it is genuinely that other people are wrong.

J. K. Rowling does not write well for an adult audience.

Let’s be fair, this isn’t a car crash of a novel – note the pun; I worked hard on that one else! – it’s serviceable in a pedestrian way. It whiles away a rainy weekend. In the same way that Dan Brown does. And that’s okay.

Let’s turn to the plot. A writer goes missing and Cormoran Strike is hired to locate him; once located, he is discovered dead in a particularly gruesome way that echoes the ending of his unpublished book. The list of those who had access to the book becomes the list of suspects, and it is made up entirely of two-dimensional caricatures. The chain smoking agent, Elisabeth Tassel, who seemed to owe a huge debt to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada; the obnoxious literary rival, Michael Fancourt; the pretentious publisher, Daniel Chard; Jerry Waldegrave, the alcoholic limp editor who permitted practically anyone else to have unfettered access to the safe in which the manuscript was locked; the self-published mistress and her transgender friend, Kathryn and Pippa. 

Each one is equally unlikeable and unlikely as a suspect; each had opportunity; each has motive; no motive is any less credible than any other.

And just like in Cuckoo’s Calling, about two thirds of the way through the novel, Cormoran Strike deduces the killer and spends the rest of his time smugly not telling anyone. And, to be frank, I didn’t care. Not a jot.

Strike was a loner in the first novel and this one widens his social circle a little: in addition to Robin Ellacott, we suddenly have a socialite half-brother, a shark-diving friend and a taxi driver joining Team Cormoran. And that’s all lovely… but all terribly convenient and again those characters are two-dimensional plot devices.

And Strike is – for wont of a better word – a bastard. Yes, I know that it’s not untraditional to try to create sympathy for characters with flaws, that flaws can in fact create sympathy. But Strike is a bastard. Not just is he irritatingl smug, he is a user of women. His relationship with his ex-fiancee is toxic; his treatment of Nina in the novel is atrocious. Which makes the clumsy and blunt attempt to create sexual tension between him and Robin deeply unattractive. In fact, Robin is caught essentially between  two abusive men: her fiance Matthew Cunliffe is just as bad and controlling. 

In fact, that may be the most interesting thing about the novel – albeit one which was done on The Archers recently: the toxicity of abuse within apparently “normal” middle-class relationships.