Here we find ourselves pitched into an increasingly confident area of historical mystery. The conventional mystery or thriller writer picks a time of relative calm as the setting. This leaves the history as contextual background information, with the foreground free for the hero to investigate the wrongdoing. But some authors prefer times of great conflict as the setting, and the period just before, during, and after World War II is proving a fruitful area for authors to explore. J. Robert Janes has a long-running series set in Occupied France featuring Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo and Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté. The interest, of course, lies in the question of whether St-Cyr is a collaborator and therefore worthy of contempt, or does he earn some latitude because he pursues wrongdoers regardless of nationality or status? Philip Kerr also has a long-running series featuring Bernie Gunther, a homicide detective. The first book starts in 1936 at the time of the Olympics, then moves forward to 1938 with him given the temporary rank of Kriminalkommissar in Heydrich’s state Security Service, and later moves into the war years and the period immediate afterwards. Luke McCallin has his second book featuring Captain Gregor Reinhardt coming out later this year and J Sydney Bounds has one book set in post-war Nuremberg, see Ruin Value.
A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is the third book in the series featuring Martin von Bora, an officer in the Wehrmacht who continues to work with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi (in the first book, Bora is teamed with Father John Malecki, a Polish-American priest working directly for the Vatican). The consistent themes through the three books are dark and complex. First in Poland and then the two remaining books in Italy, we’re required to think about how different groups form and maintain alliances. Standing slightly outside the more conventional political power structure, there’s the overarching relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Third Reich. As part of the plan to deChristianise Germany, catholics had been specifically targeted which led to the increasing marginalisation of catholics during the 1930s. However, the relationship with the Papal See was complicated when Italy formally joined the Axis. As Germany began its expansion across national borders, it immediately found itself having to hold areas still deeply religious. As if invasion was not hard enough for the occupied people to stomach, it would further antagonise locals if priests were arrested and the people were prevented from worship.
Much of this book is taken up with Germany’s difficulty in reconciling its presence in Italy with the entrenched power of the Pope and his cardinals. Bora is a useful honest broker because he’s a trusted catholic whose university study was guided by a man now serving as a cardinal. This book is set in 1944 as the Allies are pressing their advance through Italy towards Rome. So the alliance with the Italian Fascists is failing as patriotic fervour dims in line with military failures. The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS is also strained as the practice of retaliating for German deaths by executing multiples of local citizens is encouraging the emergence of increasingly confident resistance fighters. Final efforts to deport Jews and others deemed socially undesirable are also producing real political disagreements between the different groups. It would be a serious understatement to call this a time of danger and uncertainty. And Ben Pastor does not make the mistake of leaving these events in the background. In many senses, this is a work of military fiction or a political thriller which just happens to feature an army officer who gets sucked into investigating politically sensitive deaths.
The initial hook for the investigators is the death of Magda Reiner who worked in the German Embassy as a secretary. She was found dead on the pavement outside her apartment block. It could have been suicide, but the Roman Chief of Police prefers that a political opponent be guilty of her murder. Much later there’s what may be a murder-suicide with a society lady well-known for her charitable works found dead in bed with an elderly cardinal. Obviously all three deaths are sensitive albeit for different reasons. As a serving officer, Bora is already deeply committed to defending what Germany holds in Italy. The investigations must therefore be fitted around his military duties. He’s also conscious of the fact that Germany will lose this fight and be forced out of Rome. If Guildi is positively involved in this investigation, he may be damned when the Allies take over and the locals can take their revenge against known collaborators. Independently, Guildi finds himself walking a narrow line through the infighting between the Italian factions as the Communists begin to take a more active role. In the end he will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to risk staying in Rome as the Allies arrive, or going north with the partisans.
A Dark Song of Blood is a powerful novel about lives under pressure. With every individual wondering whether he or she will be able to survive, it falls to the few with a conscience and a sense of honour to defy the prevailing power structures and do what they believe to be right. Bora has been emotionally scared and physically damaged. He’s no longer fit for active duty on the front line and so finds himself fighting a different type of war both with himself and many of those around him. As the novel progresses, he proves to be a proactive survivor, i.e. once he realises he’s falling into the pit, he decides to fall with as much force as possible and hope to produce at least one small change for the better before he dies. The outcome for Rome as a city is a matter for history. The different outcomes for Bora and Guildi are completely fascinating, making this a genuinely impressive novel.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.
This review now captures the rest of Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) rather than focusing on individual episodes and captures my frustration with how the story develops. To clear the decks, let’s confirm this has nothing to do with time travel as understood in the West. Rather it’s a morality tale building on the notion of a supernatural power bent on establishing a balance in the karma (or the lotus root, your choice). Imagine a world in which a group of people are tied together through time. They are continuously reincarnated in relationships which are substantially the same from one generation to the next. At a critical point in each cycle, one key character has a decision to make about the fate of another. If that decision is for “evil”, the same group are doomed to rerun the scenario when they are reborn, and so ad infinitum. But in our modern age, the supernatural being grows tired of this key character always making the wrong choice. Our interventionist God therefore decides to change one of the variables.
When one of the modern characters is “killed”, Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun), the Joseon version, is brought forward to take his place. Ah ha! So this new player knows how the scenario was unfolding three-hundred years ago. His first problem is to understand the new culture and try to work out who everyone is. Once he’s less gauche, he can more safely begin interacting with people. But when he tries to apply his understanding of past events, it causes a chaotic response from the modern players. It takes him a while to understand he had misunderstood what was happening around him in Joseon. Obviously the court politics of the past don’t fit the culture of private wealth and the phenomenon of the chaebol — a large corporation controlled by one or more family members. This element in the series actually proves interesting as one faction in the family led by Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) tries to manipulate the holders of a key block of shares to gain control. Had this been run as a straight contemporary drama, there was more than enough meat to make a highly effective thriller as one person dies and attempts are made on the lives of others. But this is not allowed for two reasons:
The initial set-up forces us into a “time travel” mode and prevents the police investigation from building up any tension. Instead, we have the Crown Price constantly trying to work out what has to happen to enable him to go back to his own time. Investigative punches are therefore pulled as our hero slowly pieces together who everyone is and how his return might be triggered. The script also leaves giant holes with no effort made to explain exactly what happens to the bad and not so bad characters in modern times. It’s a whole lot easier when the Crown Price does go back to Joseon because he can torture them, banish some, and execute the rest. Those were the days when a hero really could get things done properly.
The series is a romance and the Crown Prince has to meet and fall in love with Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), the modern version of the woman he was supposed to marry in Joseon. This further dilutes any tension because our hero can’t do the hand-holding and gazing into her eyes bit if he’s behind bars or on the run from the police. So subject to the one major plot device, everything has to enable our couple to fall in love.
Ah yes, the plot device. Way back in Joseon times, the first episode shows us a view of what happened. Except it’s fundamentally dishonest! I’m not against scriptwriters allowing their characters to make mistakes. We’re all human and not immune from misunderstanding the events as they occur around us. Yet this “error” is so fundamental that it lacks all credibility! There’s no way this could have happened! Someone would have noticed and said something — unless we’re supposed to believe not only that the Crown Price had his eyes closed at the critical times, but that the bad guys had paid everyone around him not to draw his attention to this rather stunning fact. So why do the scriptwriters have to engage in this deception? Well, if they showed us the choice being made in Joseon times, it would rather give the game away as to what the choice would have to be in modern times. If the series were not being run as a romantic drama, this could have led to our watching Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the key character, continue to make the decision for evil. That would have been a high-powered tragedy, leaving the Crown Prince adrift in time and our supernatural being resigned to trying to get it right the next time round. As it is, there’s no tension because although we know this couple of star-crossed lovers are doomed to part, we know they must be together so tears can be shed when the Crown Price is whisked back to Joseon.
The modern ending is frustratingly mushy. The mawkishness comes from the instant love-at-first-sight between Park Ha and Yong Tae-Yong. Yet more frustration comes from not seeing how that plays out with the families on both sides. The control of the chaebol could be consolidated in them if the appropriate share transfers were confirmed. Worse the time travel is proved real because the Crown Prince sends a love letter to Park Ha by burying it under the pavilion by the lake. Watch out the gift of the gold medallion — that’s a real tear-jerker. Historically speaking, it seems Park Ha and Boo-Yong are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect the man they love. So, as a time travel plot, this is a disaster (why does Park Ha end up in the juice shop and Boo-Yong write an expanatory note to the Crown Price?), but it works quite well as satire and a romantic fairy story.
For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2.
Looking back, I’ve been an obsessive reader for most of my life. In the idle moments before starting this review, I wondered what the source was. I suppose I could blame my mother who endlessly read to me until I was old enough to read for myself. It’s always good to blame the parents when they’re no longer around to defend themselves. Or it could be that the early choices happened to be the crack cocaine of books leaving me hopelessly addicted, doomed endlessly to read in the vain hope of recapturing the early highs. Who knows and, perhaps, who cares! It’s a relatively harmless compulsion — even though I may not be as communicative with my wife as she might sometimes like, I am nearly always in her presence albeit not socially engaged with her. Anyway, over the years, four categories of book have crystalised. There are the unreadable — no matter how great the compulsion to read, and the sense of respect I should hold for the author who’s taken the time and trouble to write all these words, there are always other books waiting to be read. Sometimes, I just have to put down the immediate book and start the next. At the other end of the scale are the very few that hit the sweet spot. These books are the reason I persevere — not that I ever reread them. Once is enough (there’s the lurking fear that if I revisit a loved book, I might not like it so much the second time and that would destroy happy memories).
In the middle ground, are the almost (very) good and the books I finish out of duty. Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem (Solaris, 2014) falls in the latter class, almost but not quite reaching the unreadable level. When I was growing up, I always regretted Henry Kuttner’s decision not to write more Baldy stories. They take the hillbilly mutant trope and have fun with the ideas. They carefully avoid the gothic horror idea that there are dangers lurking in the woods (apart from the teddy bears on their picnic) and nicely blur the line between fantasy and science fiction as the multigenerational family tries to live a quiet life. On the front cover of this book, there’s a supposedly encouraging quote from the Guardian, “A beautifully crafted novel.” The quote does not refer to this book, of course. No publisher sends prepublication copies to newspapers to get blurb quotes. But having finished this book, I can confirm the prose is professional (as we should expect from Tem whom I’ve previously enjoyed as a short story writer), and the plot does make sense in its own terms. So, at a craft level, this book engages the mind and I can appreciate the effort that went into writing it.
But when it comes to the plot and the lack of dynamic in the narrative, the book is virtually DOA. Here’s this youngish man who left the valley for a while but has now come back to look after granny. She may or may not be close to death — this tribe seems to live a long time — but before she goes, she’s determined to pass on the family lore. One of the traits we’re told about early on is the hyper-empathy, i.e. the ability to sense or feel what others are thinking or feeling. The way this old lady passes on her oral history is by enabling him to feel events as if he had been there. So the structure of the book yo-yos from 1934 with granny old enough to have her first period, and the modern day with granny and her thirtysomething relative living in a shack in the woods. And boy is there a lot of kudzu! Wow that stuff really does grow fast. Anyway, in the past, there’s this really dangerous guy, a relative who’s become a preacher and uses snakes during his services — it’s all terribly symbolic what with the devil having occasionally appeared as a snake. No-one likes him, many fear him, and the rest either avoid him or worship with him. So there you have it. The preacher has his snakes to keep his faith strong, and the kudzu grows like it’s a plant possessed. I’ll pause while you make the connection. And then the past catches up with the present, or those who live the longest triumph, or not as the case may be. I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Shame really. A great deal of thought has gone into the construction of this plot. It just has no tension or suspense as a thriller. It never gets off the ground as a horror novel. I suppose it could be classed as fantasy, or as science fiction if this is one of these evolutionary stories where a genetic mutation is passed down through the generations by careful interbreeding. Whatever the genre, I found it tedious and boring.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) sees a publisher finally translating and releasing one of the early Harry Hole novels. For the record, this is the second in the series but the last to be translated into English. It follows on from his exploits in Australia. For those of you new to the series, he’s the detective with a brain who has looked into the abyss. Needless to say, neither side of this exchange of view was enamored, so Harry has decided to seek oblivion through alcohol. This does not, of course, lead to his dismissal from the police force. Those that matter in the hierarchy understand the circumstances and, from time to time, there’s a need for a man like this. In this instance, the need arises in Bangkok (a city providing all the temptations likely to attract the addicted and the dangerous). The Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found with a knife in his back in a brothel. This could be deeply embarrassing to the ruling party in Norway so a cover-up is in order. A little research suggests Harry may not emerge from the bottle long enough to do any lasting damage. The local Thai authorities are also keen to minimise the media interest. It might damage their tourism trade if it were to be suggested a knife-wielding killer was lurking in a brothel, massage parlour or one of the many other venues where sexual gratification for money may be obtained.
To help ensure the investigation is less than successful, the Thai authorities designate a woman and a farang to liaise. She’s the daughter of an American officer and a local woman who has returned to Thailand. It’s not the gender itself that’s likely to be a problem. Local Thais tend not to be impressed by foreigners. So even though she speaks the language like a native, the lines of communication are not going to work so well. The only thing going in her favour from Harry’s point of view is that she’s not as corrupt as the majority of the local police force — it’s an economic problem with the government not paying those employed to enforce the law enough to live on. So most take money not to enforce the law.
As murders go, this looks reasonably straightforward: man found dead in brothel by the prostitute sent to service him. While not an everyday crime, there’s always a dangerous edge to using the services of the sex industry. Prostitutes or their pimps roll clients for their passports, credit cards and cash. Muggers and robbers steal whatever’s left. Mostly the clients live to tell the tale. Sometimes they fight back when they should know better and pay the price. Yet this is an ambassador. More to the point, he’s independently wealthy so need never go this low down in the market. Although perhaps that’s the point. Maybe a part of the excitement comes from entering the demimonde. Except there are some photographs in his briefcase (what man takes his briefcase with him when he goes to a brothel?). They show a paedophile with a boy. The photographer was using a long lens and did not capture the man’s face. So perhaps the ambassador was meeting someone to blackmail. But if the motive was blackmail, why didn’t the killer take the photographs? Even on the initial survey, there are some unusual factors. Once the investigation goes through the standard moves, the unanswered questions multiply. This should lead to the whitewash both government want. With no obvious way to answer all these questions, the case should be closed and Harry should go home.
But Harry never has been one for following orders and, as he dries out in the heat of Bangkok, he begins to understand the force of the old joke, “When a cockroach dies, one-hundred turn up at the funeral.” In this case, Harry’s crude hacking at the walls of silence around him, encourages a number of creatures to crawl out into the daylight. The only two problems are which might be the killer(s) he’s looking for and can he avoid being killed by those that resent being disturbed? It proves to be a highly detailed plot with a very nicely arranged diversionary tactic in play. Unfortunately, we also get the traditionally seamy view of Thailand as a tourist destination. Although most of the information is necessarily subordinated to the need to keep the plot going, it’s a clichéd overview with few pleasing touches of local colour to bring the setting to life. That the corruption also extends back to Norway should not surprise us. The politics swirling around this murder endangers reputations in both countries. Naturally, once he’s sobered up, Harry is just the man you need to get to the truth of the matter. What then happens is predictable as the news is massaged. Ironically, for all Harry produces a clear-cut ending, the cover-up more or less stays in place. Life goes on and Harry can resume his search for oblivion.
Since I enjoy reading clever books with a darker edge, Cockroaches appeals to me. There’s a rather satisfying coldblooded quality to the planning and execution of the crimes on display. It doesn’t matter how realistic the events may be. The intellectual rigour of the plot makes the book worth reading. From the little I’ve said, you’ll understand the themes explored are not for the faint-hearted. But, for the most part, the book is not explicit. It should not offend while asking pertinent questions about the weaknesses some humans have.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Flat Spin by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2012) is the first in the Cordell Logan series and brings ex-wife Savannah Carlisle back into his life after six years of divorced bliss and just as he had begun more seriously to scrape along the bottom of the financial barrel — earning any kind of a living as a flight instructor when you only have a beat-up Cessna 172 is never going to be easy. As the title says, his life’s in a flat spin. Fortunately, he’s now adopted the Buddhist way (and its vegetarianism except when his Jewish landlady cooks for him or he’s not in the mood) so he’s feeling less bad about himself as he resets the Karmic balance in his life. This means he remains calm when Savannah tells him of the murder of her “new” husband (and Logan’s ex-boss) — the idea of a Karma payback never occurs to him. Particularly when he learns the couple had already separated due to her infidelity. At first, of course, he wants nothing to do with this murder and the idea of him going to the police to tell them what his ex-boss and betrayer used to do for a living is not appealing. But nothing ever stays that way in books like this.
So then we’re off on one of these pleasingly informal investigations. Our man was in one of these plausible deniability, top-secret units that would go anywhere and do whatever was necessary to protect the interests of America as defined by those who know of the unit’s existence. He left when he discovered his boss’s interest in his wife. It’s therefore somewhat ironic to find him taking his ex-father-in-law’s money to help the police catch the killer. Fortunately, he still has Buzz, a contact from the good old days who can do a little research for him. Other than that, the pace of the investigation is set by the wattage in his charm each time he talks with people who might just know something.
It starts to get more serious when Buzz produces the somewhat annoying negative. The murder does not look like a professional hit by one of the many people or organisations the “team” might have upset over the years. That forces our hero to look closer to home — a look that necessarily includes his ex-wife since she might have resented being dumped (yes, not the best of motives, but our man believes in being thorough). The most pleasing feature of this book is not just the plot although that does prove to be rather delightful when the motives of those involved become clear. It’s the sense that the author was actually having fun when he wrote it. This needs a word of explanation. If you look at the nature of the plot, this is not a comedy. People die, some more bloodily than others. There are car chases and, given our man is a pilot, a mid-air incident that leads to him being grounded and threatened with prosecution. So this is not exactly a walk-in-the park thriller. We tick all the boxes in the Thriller Writing for Dummies Guide and come up smelling of roses (or whichever flowers you associate with death and mayhem).
Rather we have moments as we read when there’s a note of humour at work. Let’s ignore the wry view of the world expressed through our hero’s comments and the stereotypical Jewish grandmother as his landlady. This is not simply a matter of wit in the dialogue. It’s just the sense of absurdity in some of the situations. Most authors, particularly those writing their first novel, prefer to play safe. If they are going to introduce anything even faintly surreal, it can come in later books when they have established themselves with a strong brand image for straight thrillers or up-and-at-’em adventure stories. They think that’s where the money is to be made and that absurdism has no place in the “bestseller”. Flat Spin succeeds in the main because it fails to match current marketing expectations. The author rather admirably thought he would allow some of the characters we encounter to act with the level of stupidity we find in the real world. These characters may have reputations as husbands and wives, or spies, or gangsters, or hitmen, or lawyers, or businessmen, but that doesn’t stop them from getting into situations everyone with any common sense would avoid. The end result, therefore, is not only an excellent first novel, but also an excellent springboard from which to launch into the other two in the series. If you have not read David Freed, start with this and work your way through to Voodoo Ridge which is outstanding.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Having read and enjoyed some of this author’s short stories, I thought it time to have a look at one of his novels. This is convenient because Night Terrors by Tim Waggoner (Angry Robot, 2014) is the first in the new Shadow Watch series. Audra Hawthorne and her ideation Jinx are the headline pair. OK so here we go with the set-up. Out there (somewhere that’s not outer space because this is not SFnal interplanetary material), there’s the Maelstrom (not the Scandinavian whirlpool but a cache of uncontrolled energy). This can bleed through into both our world and the Land of Nod, the world of sleep and dreams. The result can be chaotic as what was ordered and predictable becomes less so. Humans can ideate, i.e. create creatures out of their dreams by drawing on the Maelstrom. If they do this, they don’t need to sleep. In turn, this messes with their heads and leads to them making mistakes unless they do the R&R thing. Anyway, Audra has dreamed up Jinx and, together, they are a team committed to keeping both worlds free from attack by other creatures formed out of Maelstrom stuff. We start off with our duo in Chicago chasing after Quietus, an assassin who’s already killed three humans. They capture him but, when they go through the door into the Land of Nod, they are mugged by a local and a mercenary, and lose their prisoner. This is embarrassing and the boss of this trans-dimensional law enforcement organisation may take this as a symptom of less than the peak efficiency expected of all his teams.
On the face of it, this is a very interesting concept. Ignoring the far past, humans can interact with the energy field and create incubi out of the Maelstrom. These beings now populate the Land of Nod which has separated itself out as a dimensional home for them. However, some can pass between our world and Nod. This gives them separate daytime and nighttime bodies. Their personalities may also change on transition. Their two “halves” are not mirror images, but there’s a tendency to polarise as opposites. So the incubi are created by humans but, for the most part, are not dependent on them for continued existence. This leads to interesting quasi-religious questions about the process of creation among the incubi. However, some humans ideate specific beings and there’s a much higher degree of interdependence. As a child, Audra had a number of “unresolved issues” which led to her having an increasingly specific fear of a clown. Over time, this “clown” took on substance and became the being now called Jinx. Because he was born out of her fear, she’s never completely bonded with him. A small part of her continues to fear him. Consequently, their relationship as a law enforcement team is not as effective as it might be — I should mention that humans are teamed with incubi so they can police both inhabited dimensions.
Whether by accident or design, most books sit comfortably in an obvious genre class. But this book rather playfully blurs the line between science fiction and urban fantasy. Let’s put the question of creationism to one side and focus on the “as is”. We have two parallel dimensions, one populated predominantly by humans, the other by incubi. But there are portals or doorways which enable beings to pass from one dimension to the other (there’s a feature not unlike the Bajoran wormhole phenomenon in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine connected with these doorways). Mostly due to the humans, a considerable amount of science has been devoted to researching the Maelstrom itself and the systems enabling different features to manifest. This has led to the development of real technology to exploit Maelstrom energy as weapons and otherwise to exploit the way in which incubi can manipulate dimensional space. The older incubi were initially not interested in science and so were, with one exception, marginalised. This book sees the self-proclaimed Lords of Misrule showing off the results of some of their more recent research. That said, the plot itself largely conforms to the urban fantasy model. Young girl with supernatural clown buddy have the job of keeping the city of Chicago safe from incubi (that’s demons if you want it in more obvious fantasy terms). They face a number of threats, are thought less than effective, and are replaced by more senior operatives. This leads to our duo teaming up with a young man and his pet dog to take on all-comers. There’s the whiff of romance in the air, and lots of fighting with none of the “good guys” seriously threatened. Indeed, one of the problems with this plot is the ease with which the incubi repair their bodies and avoid what should be certain death. It leads to a certain lack of suspense as they get into trouble and escape with only a scratch that’s healing rapidly as they walk away. Even though a human, Audra is feisty and also manages not to be too serious injured — it’s a gift most heroines enjoy in a series where romance is in the air.
Put all this together and you have a very professional package based on an interesting idea. Anyone who wants to see a slightly different version of urban fantasy will find this highly readable. For them as likes this type of book, Night Terrors is a very good buy.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.