In the days of innocence, there used to be jokes that started, “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. . .” That was before we got all wrapped up in what might or might not be politically correct and worried such jokes might be a form of racism in mocking the idiosyncrasies of each nationality. Well, in Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson (Orbit, 2013) Jessica McCain Book 2, some werewolves, two vampires and a human go into the woods together. . . Now those of you who, by accident, have encountered the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, will know that this combination is fairly combustible as romantic love triangles complicate interspecies politics. This pursues the same basic idea but just on the adult side of the young adult (YA) divide. In other words, this is not strictly speaking YA but rather the kind of book you encourage YA readers to try. Hopefully it weans them off YA and moves them into reading books with more adult sensibilities. The marketers then say, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” or words to that effect and before you can say “Snap dragons are beautiful at this time of year!” these older readers have been moved on and are actually reading stuff meant for adults to read. To fill this interstitial role, this author has crafted a not quite “urban fantasy” because almost all the major action takes place in natural surroundings (forests and mountainous areas). But we have a youngish female heroine who’s just growing into her powers and her love interest who’s missing, held in captivity. Plus the mandatory human who’s just found out that all this supernatural shit is true. Ah, if only our heroine didn’t have a conscience, it would be so easy to kill off the human to protect the secret of her heritage. But fear of guilt makes werewolf people do foolish things. So they take him along on this campaign to kill Selene, the Lunar Goddess (and rescue the love interest).
Now as you probably know, Goddesses are pretty badass and damned difficult to kill. It’s going to take a lot of effort to drain enough of her immortality so she ceases to exist. Why take the human? Because the werewolves can’t leave him where he was being held captive and they can kill him if he gets in the way on their mission — assuming none of the assorted supernatural perils do for him on the way, of course. In the first book, our heroine made a deal with the Vampire Queen, so two vampire foot-soldiers who have some experience of the Goddess are sent along to help. That’s why this disparate group end up traipsing through the woods to get to the mountain and do battle. This would be relatively straightforward (insofar as anything ever is in fantasy novels), but then the Underworld decides to get involved and this upsets the natural order of things. And that brings us to the Prophesy. Yes, all books like this have to have a Prophesy and, in this instance, powers long ago predicted that population growth in the different supernatural species would lead to new tensions and conflict. In such a situation, there would have to be a peacekeeper, someone not directly involved who would see each side in the conflicts played fair. Yes, you guessed it. Our girl is the interspecies referee in the making.
So there you have it: this is a tag team contest between our heroine and her mixed cohorts against the Goddess and her backers from the Underworld. Everything happens at a good pace and there are twists and turns on the way to the set up for the next exciting instalment. It’s positive and upbeat with every challenge easily defeated as she explores and grows more confident in her powers (I suppose there will be some explanation of the source of these powers at some point but, for now, you just accept she can defeat all-comers without using anything like her full potential). In my opinion this makes the book suitable for the fourteen to sixteen age bracket in emotional development if not physical years. Those who are emotionally older will look for books which have protagonists face more real challenges without the assurance of success to keep their spirits up, i.e. books which deal with the uncertainties of life and death in the battle against “dark forces”. Parents can be reassured this book has no sex scenes. Just a tender clinch when the battle is over. All this makes Hot Blooded is a safe and unchallenging read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (Orbit, 2013) Bannon and Clare Case Book Two finds Archibald Clare, the mentath, continuing in pursuit of Dr Vance while Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, keeps this alternate history version of Britain safe from Spanish agents provocateurs. So what we have here is a variation on the theme of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. This man has deductive powers honed to almost supernatural levels and he’s partnered with a magician in this different version of Victorian Londinium with Alexandrina Victrix on the throne as Ruler of the Isles and Empress of Indus with Consort Prince Alberich by her side. It’s not quite steampunk. A missing limb can be replaced but the purely mechanical has to be enhanced by spells for painkilling and full mobility. Consequently, this particular world is experiencing a collision between magic and the scientific method which, amongst other things, is leading to advances in technology and medicine that do not depend on magic for their efficacy. In some respects, therefore, this world is experiencing a delayed renaissance.
The problem, such as it is, may be simply defined. Magic actually works but it is inherently limited to specific individuals who cannot be everywhere. Such is always the way. Only a few gifted people have the talent that can be nurtured and developed into the Prime status. This makes knowledge inherently more useful because once it is disseminated, anyone with the wit to understand it, can exploit it. So there’s a direct conflict of interest. Those whose power and influence in society depend on their innate abilities are hostile to those who would generate practical and more universal applications for their ideas. So, for now, the horse rules for transport across land and the air is reserved for magical creatures. Up to this point, there has been no need to develop steam power for transport purposes because the population level and culture remain more mediaeval than Victorian in the sense we would understand. But, from the point of view of those in leadership roles, there’s a real problem in having to rely on individuals. Loyalties are not always guaranteed to persist. This gives the magically challenged a direct incentive to find ways of managing the world without having to rely on magic.
This book focuses on research which discovers the existence of bacteria. It’s speculated this knowledge could be weaponised and so work is undertaken to culture the relevant strains of bacteria and create a mechanical system for releasing it. This is ingenious because the magicians will not detect the source of the problem and their powers will not be able to defeat what they cannot understand. We therefore have a plot developed which sees Emma Bannon’s talents manipulated to unwittingly bring the infection into the Court while Archibald Clare thinks about the problem and infers the existence of a bacteriophage as a cure.
This is an interesting book with an intriguing premise, but the author has made the strategic decision to focus on the narrative rather than the exploration of the ideas. As a result, we have a relatively simple tale told with great efficiency. It positively zips along as our romantically but platonically entangled couple fight for the Empire’s safety while dealing with matters of the heart obliquely when they have a chance to draw breath. The Red Plague Affair is an enjoyable romp.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
In A Decent Interval by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2013) A Charles Paris Mystery, we join our hero in his lonely life as an almost consistently successful actor now arrived in the alcohol-fueled wilderness years better known as the late fifties. . . How wonderful it is when work does come in after an eight month hiatus even if he does briefly have to become a Roundhead. So he’s untimely ripped from the comfort of his chair in front of the television next to the bottle of Bell’s and sent on location with Tibor Pincus in deepest Newlands Corner (near Guildford) where he’s to re-enact the Battle of Naseby for a documentary. Fortunately, such is the amount of whisky consumed on the shoot, he has no problem in falling down in death many times, including some deaths in Cavalier costume. He’s not a one-man army, you see, but two armies for the price of one. Imagine his pleasurable surprise when there’s an immediate prospect of more work. This time from director Ned English who’s fronting for the entertainment mogul Tony Copeland. The plan is to bring high culture to the masses by transplanting two celebrities into a modern production of Hamlet as the titular Dane and Ophelia. Both have triumphed in television contests: one for singing and the other explicitly to cast a wannabe as Ophelia. The director needs everyone else to be reliable, biddable and prepared to work for the Equity minimum pay. This makes the rehearsals with two amateur actors interesting and, when part of the scenery falls on the young singer during the technical rehearsal, the understudy is quickly in his stride.
Sadly, understudies do not make for good box office. If the Twitter generation, which has the attention span of a gnat, is to be induced to part with money, there must be someone “they” want to see. A replacement with good looks and acting talent is drafted in. With the show now touring the provinces, the Twitterati’s attention is reignited by the mysterious death of the Ophelia. Appropriately, Charles Paris is the one to find her dead in a dressing room. This production is turning out to have the same potential for bad luck as The Scottish Play. With another understudy stepping into the role, business at the box office remains brisk as the ghoulish speculate on who will be next to be injured or die. With the police now interested in establishing the cause of Ophelia’s death (not drowning, you understand), our hero finally engages his brain and begins the process of analysis we readers know so well — this is the eighteenth Charles Paris investigation. So he listens to many, speaks to a few and soon has ideas about who might be responsible for what’s going on.
The pleasure in reading Simon Brett is twofold. What he writes is always drawn from the hard reality of the world. But to keep the mood on a lighter note, the text is littered with casual comments and asides that bring smiles to your lips. That said, the events on display here are essentially tragic. Relationships are fractured and broken, people’s hopes and dreams are shattered, despair abounds in many lives. Indeed, at every level, what we see is failure on an epic scale, broken only intermittently when individuals rise above the pack with a brilliant performance. Moments later, the light in the darkness is extinguished and the cast falls back into the reality of their mundane lives where compromise and forgiveness are the only ways to save people from themselves. As a matter of technique, Simon Brett makes it all flow so easily. Too often, authors who set out to leaven tragedy end up forcing situations to generate the humour. This is silky smooth with an elegance about it that few others can match. The result is a delight demonstrating two further truths: that knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven (although whether our hero considers the return to his lonely seat in front of the television heavenly is moot — a West End run would have been preferred) and that when a son gives to his father, both cry (although in this case, the father has such a monstrous ego, he won’t cry for long — probably only a few minutes in fact). A Decent Interval gives us food for thought while entertaining us. Charles Paris may not be Horatio holding the bridge, but he shows us he can be positively Nelsonian in the right circumstances. You can’t ask for more than that.
For a review of another book by Simon Brett, see Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
iD by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2013) The Second Machine Dynasty continues the discussion of what constitutes a human — is it just a machine running its software in meat rather than in a fabricated body? Putting this in context, the socialisation process modern humans go through as they grow up in a group environment never addresses the problem. By definition, all those in the group are within the range we consider human. Everything else is an animal or inanimate technology, and there’s no real chance of confusion. So long as the group relates to each member as human, everything else is subsidiary, e.g. whether the human is male or female, abled or disabled, and so on. Of course, there can be problems with the roles it’s considered appropriate for particular individuals to adopt and with questions of interpretation, e.g. on whether women are equal members of society or those of the same sex may marry, but nothing approaches the central difficulty in this series of books.
Here we have androids and gynoids, i.e. machines that can be mistaken for human. It’s even confusing for the machines to know whether they are interacting with another machine or a human. So, for example, a machine might consider a mildly autistic human to be a machine because of the lack of emotional affect. This is an intriguing Pandora’s Box to open. It might lead us to speculate that groups would construct identities and roles for individuals as they appear to be. So if an individual presents as a female, the group could agree to confirm this attribution and to maintain it even if it should later appear this is a machine without any ability to reproduce sexually or, indeed, to engage in sexual activity as a female. This is not to say that the labelling process becomes arbitrary, but it allows each group to make its own decisions on how the members shall relate to each other. I suppose if this was entirely a machine group, they could even consider if it was appropriate to hack one or more individual’s software whether as an upgrade or to enable new abilities. That said, we should remember from the first book that all the “robots” have the potential to be self-replicating regardless of external gender appearance.
The protagonist of the first book was Amy Peterson. She’s a von Neumann machine and her version of Asimov’s Three Laws has broken down — whether wisely, this culture also aimed to impose a limit on the machines’ ability to harm humans. Amy belongs to a clade of nurses, and to enable her to give practical assistance to injured humans, she taught herself how to stick needles into them and, later, to assist in cutting them open for surgery. Once the door was opened, she eventually became “human” in her ability to wound or kill, but not to feel bad about doing so (a little like her psychopathic grandmother Portia). This made her a target by humans who preferred robots did not have this ability and from other robots who wanted the freedom to dispose of the inconvenient humans. When we start off, Amy and her equally “manufactured” partner Javier are sequestered from the world on her mobile island (perhaps Never Never Land) collecting fissile material as it travels. Although Amy is more than capable of defending herself and the others on the island, there will always come a point when an attack is going to prevail. This reality forces Javier into the foreground. When a subversive priest arrives, Javier is manipulated and left to make mistakes. The results are the destruction of the island and freedom for Portia.
The rest of the book explores the extent to which it would be possible for humans and machines to co-exist. Naturally, having been here first, the humans remain species-centric and prefer the notion of a world reserved exclusively for them or a sharing based entirely on their terms. To that end, they have an ultimate solution (or perhaps I should say solid). There’s also pleasingly ironic news about the genesis of Amy’s capacity for beating the failsafe injunction about killing humans. Looking over the disparate groups making up the machine side, they are still hobbled by the failsafe, and with Amy disappearing with the island, it’s left to Javier to explore options for survival, both for individuals and for machine-based intelligence at large.
I think iD more successful than vN because there’s a greater consistency of tone and pacing. Although there are inevitable contrivances to move the plot forward and make the required allegorical points, the broader narrative leaves the balance between humans and the machines at an interesting tilt. It will be interesting to see where we go next in this original and thought-provoking saga. As a final thought, I should offer a gentle warning of some sexual activity. I think it tame but if you prefer your fiction to be free from different forms of mating, there are passages you might want to skip over.
For a review of the first in the series by Madeline Ashby, see vN.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
A Murder in Passing by Mark de Castrique (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the fourth Sam Blackman Mystery based around the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency. Sam and Nakayla have a growing reputation as investigators despite the fact their work ethic is more on a hobby level. Their finances are sound without having to work too hard. Sam was a Chief Warrant Officer working for the military police. He’s now retired with a prosthetic leg replacing the one he lost in Iraq. Having overcome the inevitable self-pity, he’s proved his ability in civilian life, making loyal friends and the inevitable enemies as a private investigator.
The book starts with our couple part of a small group investigating the woods for wild mushrooms in the Kingdom of the Happy Land. This historical estate was established by a group of emancipated and runaway slaves but has long been abandoned. Few disturb the land making it an ideal place for mushroom hunting. Embarrassingly, Sam falls over on to a rotten log covered in edible fungus. His hand goes through into what proves to be a hollow space containing a decomposed body. Just the luck of the draw, really. As the police begin their efforts to identify the body, Marsha Montgomery arrives in their offices with a story about the Kingdom, a stolen photograph, and her missing father. This quickly establishes the core of the story as based on a mixed race relationship in 1967 between Marsha’s parents. This year was significant in that the law was changed to allow such couples to marry. Obviously changing laws does not change people’s attitudes and prejudice may have been a significant factor in the white man’s disappearance. Almost immediately after they begin their own informal investigation to decide whether they will take on the case, an overzealous police officer arrests Marsha and her eighty-five year old mother without waiting for evidence to identify the corpse. The reason for the arrest is that Marsha, fearing her mother might have shot her father back in 1967, was seen burying the possible murder weapon in their back yard.
This makes the legal situation of the defence interesting because, if the prosecution can’t prove the identity of the victim, they can’t begin to prove a murder case against the mother and Marsha was only five at the relevant time. There are also some really nice bits of reasoning like the analysis by a ex-sniper of the scene where the shooting is assumed to have taken place. Taking an overview of the plot as it’s slowly rolled out, this is a very elegant rerun of an “idea” that used to be quite common in mystery and detective fiction. Because culture evolves and changes over time, it’s been some years since I last encountered it which makes it all the more pleasing to see an author demonstrate a contemporary relevance. Even if you understand the significance of one piece of evidence when it emerges, the enjoyment of the book is not disturbed. The theme just changes from a mystery to an understanding of the family tragedy as it played out all those years ago and the effect it still has today. The author enhances the theme by including a modern couple weathering prejudice against people in a gay relationship.
Although the plot itself is interesting, the real attraction of the book is the characterisation of our two detectives and their friendly attorney. So avoid the need to repeat myself, you should look at the introduction to my review of Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham on the question of lead characters with a disability. In this instance, our hero only finds the body because he’s disabled. Having put the coincidence of the right person in the right place at the right time, he’s also very strongly invested in helping other Vets adjust to their newly acquired disabilities. Indeed, he takes a direct interest in helping a young man with a prosthetic hand find employment. When so many in the real world are reluctant to look beyond the financial cost of the wars the US has been engaged in over the last decade or so, it’s distinctly refreshing for an author to be telling a positive story about someone who has lost lost a leg but gained a new perspective on life. All this makes A Murder in Passing a great read.
For a review of another book by Mark de Castrique, see The 13th Target.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Welcome to The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis (Del Rey, 2013). To say this author is something of a phenomenon is an understatement. After a rather dispiriting start to her writing career mentioned in the afterword to the first of these stories, she’s contrived to win more major awards than anyone else in the science fiction field. This is a collection of her award-winning shorter fiction. Once you say that it gets very difficult to suggest any one of these pieces is less than excellent. They have all won at least one major award. However, tastes change and, since this collection spans thirty years of output, it’s perhaps the right time to look back with modern sensibilities to the fore of the brain. By way of introduction, I should explain all the stories are rooted in relationships, usually families, but also show concern over the question of romance and how relationships come into being and end. Consequently, although the explicit content may be science fiction or fantasy, the subtext is always more intimate.
“A Letter from the Clearys” (Nebula Award 1983 for short story) is a post-apocalyptic story of a family that, by accident, survived a nuclear war. It’s typically small-scale with only a few characters and, without sentimentality, it deals with the paranoia and hopelessness of the survivors. In a real sense, you wonder why they bother to keep going when there’s very little chance of being able to produce new life. It’s still a very human story and stands up well to the passage of time. “At the Rialto” (Nebula Award 1990 for novelette) is a story of chaos at a hotel hosting multiple conventions and, as a piece of humorous writing, some of the jokes continue to be amusing. The rest are intellectually satisfying because I remember smiling happily at them when I first read this. As to content, our heroine discovers that, no matter how much conscious effort is invested in the decision-making process, the outcome is usually the same, particularly if the person serving you is only working part-time to pay for her organic breathing course. The pay-off is still good value but I’m tempted to say it repeats itself and runs a little too long.
“Death on the Nile” (Hugo Award 1994 for short story) is a nicely elegant way of talking about death. It’s a sad fact we’ve become resistant to thinking about dying and what might happen afterwards. Some live in denial with their atheism, others assume rigidity of belief that the only binary outcomes are Heaven or Hell, plus their own sanctimonious certainty they’ll be going to the “right” place. This works well as a kind of fantasy with a faintly horrific overlay as uncertainty overtakes our heroine when the self-appointed guide drops out of sight. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” (Hugo Award 1997 for short story) remains quite simply wonderful. The idea H G Well’s Martians might have landed with such force in the cemetery where Emily Dickinson was buried that they woke her up is, in itself, a delight. The explanation of what then happened is deduced from fire-damaged fragments of poetry discovered some years later. “Fire Watch” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1983 for novelette) is a story about living with the threat of death. Sent back in time to the London of the Blitz, our misfit historian who misunderstands so much of what surrounds him, must confront the possibility of his own death or the deaths of those around him, as they fight to save St Paul’s from destruction. It’s an odd reflection on the time this novelette was written that it should seem plausible a group of Communists would destroy the cathedral in 2016. It’s also interesting our historian should be rewarded for failing to return with empirical data simply because he’s learned, albeit belatedly, that people matter more than facts. Somehow that generates a dissonance between the great sense of London in 1940 created by the author, and such a lack of coherent detail about the future education system that seems to send people back in time without proper preparation.
“Inside Job” (Hugo Award 2006 for novella) is one of these standout stories that relies on scepticism to prove H L Mencken can’t come back from the dead to debunk spiritualists and other con artists who prey on the gullible. That makes the entire story a nice paradox and a commentary on how unlikely it is that anyone can ever overcome their mutual distrust to admit their love. “Even the Queen” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1993 for short story) applies a faintly humorous veneer to a “woman”s issue”. If the relevant technology could be developed to switch off menstruation, would women want it? As a man, I’ve always assumed women really wanted all that discomfort and pain, and the osteoporosis following the menopause, and would rebel at the idea of being free from reproductive inconvenience (obviously, for the perpetuation of the species, women should be able to turn the switch back on and produce babies as and when they want). Yet in this future, the natural women’s group who call themselves the Cyclists are considered a dangerous fringe cult. It’s all pleasingly thought-provoking.
“The Winds of Marble Arch” (Hugo Award 2000 for novella) is rather an odd story to have won an award. It concerns itself with death, both physical with possible supernatural outcomes, and metaphorical in the ending of relationships. There’s a conscious parallelism as if in a comedy of manners where social misunderstandings are mirrored in subjective phenomena. To my taste it takes too long to get to a faux romantic ending. “All Seated on the Ground” (Hugo Award 2008 for novella) is a genuinely pleasing idea. Rather than have aliens land and instantly attack, this sextet emerge from their spacecraft and look like disapproving Aunts. It takes a co-ordinated effort to establish the basis of communication and, in so doing, we learn a lot about the difference between self-important bureaucrats, radical preachers, and humble people who just want to earn the approval of the Aunts. There’s also a recital of the ways in which the words of carols and some hymns might encourage listeners to various acts of violence. Although the message is hopeful, I think the idea a thin joke spun out too long. “The Last of the Winnebagos” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1989 for novella) deals with a different future from the one we have. Here’s an America with acute water shortages and the loss of many species of animal including dogs. The core of the story revolves around “guilt”. The hero’s own dog was killed by a young girl. He tracks her down fifteen years later and, under pressure from an aggressive Society tasked with protecting what’s left of the wildlife, an accommodation emerges which allows the innocent to avoid retribution. There’s also a certain irony in the development of a different type of camera, the eisenstadt. If our hero, as a photojournalist, had had this camera earlier, his dog might still be alive. As it is, there are only old photographs to remind people of what they have lost.
For me Connie Willis lacks a certain degree of consistency. She has a flair for capturing the essence of human beings and their relationships. All the stories showcased here demonstrate this quality. But she can get caught up in the moment and go on slightly too long so the shorter stories are better. The collection rounds off with three of her speeches which are new to me and interesting. Overall, this is a perfect way to see an author at her best.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Treachery in Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen (translated by Anne Trager) (Le French Book, 2012) The Winemaker Detective Series (titled Mission à Haut-Brion in the series rather more provocatively titled Le sang de la vigne or The Blood of the Vine, in France). There are twenty-one books in the series which are “detective” novels, each one focusing on a crime in a different leading French vineyard and its appellation d’origine contrôlée. Under the same title, Le sang de la vigne, the books have also been a successful series on French television, so far running eight ninety-minute episodes. So here we go with the first run out in English for Benjamin Cooker, his wife Elisabeth, and Bacchus, their Irish setter. He’s the ultimate wine guru and winemaker who bottles from his own Bordeaux estate in Grangebelle on the banks of the Gironde, and writes the definitive guide to what’s drinkable in the wine world. Whether it’s a grand cru estate or a new blender, everyone waits in trepidation to see what his judgment of their latest efforts will be. His new assistant is Virgile Lanssien from Bergerac who, on his first day, goes with Benjamin to the Chateau Les Moniales Haut-Brion where an outbreak of Brettanomyces is suspected: a yeast that can change the taste and bouquet of a serious wine for the worst.
For a leading wine, this is a catastrophe unless the infection is nipped in the proverbial bud. Fortunately Cooker acts as a consultant and can call on top-class chemists and other experts, all of whom act with absolute discretion. It would be immensely damaging to the reputation of any major label if even a hint of scandal should emerge. The question, once the initial diagnosis is confirmed, is how the barrels should have become infected. It most commonly occurs in cellars which fail to observe even the most basic of hygiene standards. This cellar is run to the highest standards of care. It’s inconceivable that this could be accidental. The question, therefore, is who would have a motive to contaminate such high-profile wine and how was it done. For obvious reasons, the cellar has a good security system and only two individuals have keys and the access code.
Running in parallel is the provenance of an overmantle, a painting most often hung over a fireplace. To his surprise, Cooker discovers that there’s another very similar painting. When he investigates, he finds both paintings were almost certainly by the same artist and might have been a pair. In turn this leads to an ageing, alcoholic historian who rambles drunkenly through much of the history of the area and, in the final moments before falling into unconsciousness, volunteers the information that the two paintings were part of a triptych. From this brief introduction you will notice the welcome omission. This is a mystery without a murder! Too often writers of mysteries think they must kill off several people in order to entertain their readers.
This is a novella length but manages to cram in a mass of fascinating detail about winemaking and the history of the Bordeaux region where we discover much intrigue and skullduggery of different degrees of viciousness. It seems little has changed over the centuries. Treachery in Bordeaux should be of interest to anyone who enjoys a good mystery, and has an interest in wine and its place in French culture.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the third in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi and, as with Fever Dream, our forensic psychologist with the hero complex has yet again survived to the end of a book. Back in 2003, there was an appropriately titled film called the Bulletproof Monk. Once you realised the hero had supernatural powers, all the silliness of his invincibility faded into the background. When something is explicitly a fantasy, you willingly suspend disbelief. But this book pushes the envelope of credibility as our hero is variously assaulted, rear-ended into a ditch, and shot at on several different occasions. To say he’s leading a charmed life is an understatement. Yet, if you’re prepared to look beyond this blurring of reality, what we have here is an above-average mystery puzzle for our sleuth to solve. After all, to write a series, the author is always obliged to keep the hero alive (or else pivot into a supernatural book in which his ghost continues investigate crimes in the mortal coil — observing what people say and do is not a problem, but telling the police whodunnit is a challenge unless they take instant messages by ouija board).
So where to start? Well there’s no better place than the first introductory scenes which represent one of the best starts to a mystery that I’ve read in quite some time. Boiling it down to its essentials, the narrative structure of this series is for there to be two “crimes” for our hero to investigate. In the last book, we had him consulting over a bank robbery while worrying about why someone committed suicide. This time he gets called out by a country sheriff who has a confessed killer in custody. The “accused” says he’ll take them to where the body is hidden but only if the increasingly high-profile Rinaldi is there to keep him safe from harm (both internally generated and externally applied by the local police). Very reluctantly, he gets into his car and navigates the icy conditions into the night. What they find when they finally reach the house in the woods is wonderfully atmospheric with a delightful twist borrowed from the horror genre. The only problem with such a strong opening is that, by contrast, the pace of the next section of the book feels so slow. Fortunately, the FBI then invite our hero to consult on one of their cases.
Before his retirement from the Bureau, an old FBI profiler had tracked down a serial killer who died while in prison. As a direct result of this death, he may now be on a hit list. Under normal circumstances, he would support the investigation through his expertise but not only has he retired, his mind is also worn down through his inability to sleep properly. He suffers from night terror. Because the FBI agent in charge considers both Rinaldi and his new patient outside the magic circle, neither are given access to the case files relevant to the threat. Needless to say, this excessive following of the book and rigid thinking is not going to solve the case. The real catalyst for action therefore comes when the sleep-deprived old guy decides to exit the hotel where the FBI has him in protective custody. This was not at all what the FBI operatives were expecting and it leads to Rinaldi going out into the field with one of the local detectives to interview a witness who may be able to identify the killer.
In the midst of this, the mother of the man who has confessed to the first somewhat gruesome murder contacts Rinaldi. She’s convinced her son is innocent and a situation is engineered forcing our hero to talk with the “killer”. But as our sleuth says to this highly respectable woman who swears her son was with her around the time of death, “If he’s innocent how did he know where to find the body and why would he confess if he was innocent?” Two very good questions, I’m sure you’ll agree. As is always the case when reaching the end of this type of book, our hero is able to say with compete certainty whether the man who confessed to the killing is innocent and who has been going around killing a prison guard, a judge, a prosecutor, and so on. The fact the key scenes of revelation take place on a factory roof at night gives the second meaning to the title.
Summing up, this is a top-class mystery with thrillerish overtones as our psychologist with an unadmitted death wish triumphs yet again. This is far better than Fever Dream so Dennis Palumbo is an author developing in technique and threatening to become one of the top mystery writers.
For another review, see Fever Dream.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
By way of opening, I make no apology for revisiting an old question: what makes a good “detective” novel. Not in the sense of a police procedural, you understand. In what I suppose is now the post-Golden Age, we seem to have entered a permanent grey area in which individuals who are neither serving police officers nor registered private inquiry agents solve crimes. In An Iron Rose by Peter Temple, we’ve got a “retired” police officer now making a living for himself as a blacksmith and factotum out in the Australian countryside — a veritable wilderness in which to wander for years.
You’ll notice I was careful to pose the question as referring to a “detective” novel. In US terms, this blurs into either or both the mystery and PI subgenres. The essence of all books of this type is for the protagonist to identify clues and so solve crimes, usually a homicide or two. This distinguishes thrillers which are more usually anticipatory books where the more heroic protagonist discovers a plot to kill the President or blow up the moon (see The Face by Jack Vance — sorry that’s cheating because it’s science fiction) and must defy the odds to prevent this terrible plot from reaching its intended conclusion. The emphasis is on page-turning excitement which generates tension in the reader. After a certain point, we all know who’s who in the good/bad stakes and, more often than not, the protagonist is the underdog. To achieve the required “thrills”, the emphasis is on the action with the hero regularly exposed to the risk of injury or death. As a result, the language used by the authors is less important. In “detective” books, the authors are free to indulge their delight in words and dabble in simile and metaphor as the mood takes them. More importantly, the rules of the genre allow them to go slow if the mood takes them that way.
In writing this review I’m forced to the admission this is a first. Although common sense tells all readers anyone can write a noir novel (except, perhaps, the Nepalese who are so far up the happiness index they probably don’t know what noir is), this is my first look at what’s legitimately to be classified as “authentic” Australian noir. The hero is a disgraced police officer. He was the case manager on a high-profile investigation into a drug distributor who was killed while under observation. He’s therefore scapegoated, i.e. he’s the victim of corruption in the police force. Fortunately, he has skills learned from his father to fall back on and can make his own way, avoiding further contact with the police and the politicians with their own less than honest agendas. This retreat into the more gentle pace of the countryside, its drinking culture and addiction to Australian Rules Football, is rudely shattered when his neighbour and his father’s best friend is found hanging. No-one who knew the man believes he would have committed suicide but, equally, no-one can suggest why anyone would have wanted to kill him. Reluctantly, he makes a few inquiries which leads him to a local institution tasked with helping young women who are in deemed in need of rehabilitation. The deceased worked there for a while in the 1980s and visited again shortly before his death. This seems more than a coincidence when our hero discovers some newspapers carefully preserved by the deceased which refer to the body of a young woman found in a mine shaft.
As a first-person narrative this is a wonderfully controlled piece of writing with some delightfully wry observations on those our hero meets. Ignoring the plot which, as you will rightly surmise, gets into some quite dark aspects of human behaviour, the quality of the prose alone makes the book worth reading. Add in the increasingly dangerous nature of the investigation and you have a really pleasing outcome as our hero unearths the deep roots of corruption and fights for truth, justice and the Australian way of playing football. My only problem with the book as presented to me is with the introduction which is wholly unnecessary and excessive in length. If there was going to be a eulogy included, it should have come as a short appreciation at the end of the book. My advice, therefore, is for everyone who enjoys great prose used in service of noir fiction to read the text of An Iron Rose by Peter Temple, but to pass over the introduction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Redeye by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2013) Wonderland Cycle 2 is Bobbi January’s story set some two years after the fight at the Genefex Corporation left her frightened for herself and desperately sad at the loss of Agent Thomas Cooley Walken of the American Industrial Security Bureau. She’s taken over the running of The Temple after Anton Stadil’s death and has kept a low profile. Now she shaken out of her quiet retreat by a message from a changed ex-colleague of Tom’s from the Bureau days. Then she was Arnold Kelley. Now he’s Freida Kelley. That’s the future of gender for you.
At this point, I need to give you the headline overview. We’re now more explicitly into the science fiction mode with some levels of uncertainty as to who everyone is and precisely what target(s) they should be aiming for. But none of these elements are sufficient, individually or collectively, to be classified as a mystery. In terms of narrative structure and style, therefore, we’ve rather left the first two books behind. We’re now recognizing that there’s an alien invasion underway and watching our key characters take the fight to the aliens. That said, it’s difficult to define sides in this conflict. Because the form of the invasion is transplanting alien personalities into human bodies, not all the transplants take. This has created a kind of fifth column with some “personality hybrids” supporting humanity’s cause. The problem for both sides is detecting when a transplant is failing and the extent to which the original human personality may be able to reassert control. Taking a step back, this is a very well-conceived plot, nicely picking up from the first in the series and taking us through to a delicate point of balance at the end.
The major problem with the first section of this book is the character of Bobbi. I don’t mind people living in a state of fear for some of the time. That’s an inevitable part of life. And given what’s she’s been through, it’s completely understandable she should feel so insecure. But, after a while, I found her heightened anxiety state rather tiresome. Again making allowances, she’s balanced herself in a difficult position. Like everyone else, she has legitimate curiosity and would like a better understanding of what’s going on. But she’s only too aware how fragile her position is. So she’s isolated herself. This is moderately responsible of her. If she’s going down in flames, she’d rather not see others going down with her. But with the loneliness comes a natural amplification of the anxiety and paranoia. She lacks objectivity because she denies herself the chance to talk with anyone else. So the arrival of Freida should share the burden and ease the fear. But that doesn’t happen. In part this is because Freida seems to have a reckless streak and engages in some highly dangerous activities without first checking with Bobbi. But once you’ve introduced yourself to paranoia, it tends to stay your friend. Trusting this person is a stretch. That’s why the steady presence behind the security of The Temple, is a better person to trust. She’s known Marcus Scalli for ten years. And lurking just out of sight (although somewhat unnervingly in earshot) is Cagliostro whose agenda is a complete unknown but his identity, later revealed, is interesting.
The first big set piece inside Data Nexus 231 is a bit of a cliché with the Wonderland mods, slowish-moving ghouls to contend with. It improves significantly from the entry into Tenleytown until they meet up with the titular Redeye who proves to be the saviour of the book producing a better balance as Bobbi gains in confidence and Redeye proves a powerful catalyst to directing the attack in what looks to be the right direction. As we go along, some of the additional historical background, particularly of the Eurowar, is quite interesting, and we get snatches of memory from the Yathi. When you put the whole thing together, it actually produces an alternate history for Earth starting in pre-Revolution France with influence slowly moving around Europe until the final beachhead is established in the US. But this is less impressive than the first two books set in this version of Earth which were both packed with a wealth of political and economic background information.
Put all this together and there’s a general lack of spark. The first two books had spiky prose and a lot of inventiveness. This is a professional job, but it spins the story out too far. It ticks the right boxes and the story moves along, but it would be better if it lost at least fifty pages. This is a shame. I had hoped Michael Shean would develop into a really interesting author for the longer term. On the evidence of Redeye, I’m less sure he’s going to convert his early promise into reliable and consistent performances. Hopefully the next book will get us back on track.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.