A while ago, an author tired of a series character and decided to kill him off. Being of a flamboyant disposition, our jaded Arthur Conan Doyle threw Sherlock Holmes off the Reichenbach Falls. This caused shock and horror in the reading community and, given the upswelling of anger and resentment, Doyle finally relented and brought the hero back to life. It was as if the man had never been away. Sherlock strode back into Watson’s life as fit as the proverbial fiddle. With Easy Rawlins, a character created by Walter Mosley, the brush with death was rather more serious. At the end of Blonde Faith, Easy is drunk behind the wheel of his Pontiac. The sense of despair had been building throughout the book and he finally acts on it by driving off a cliff. Six years later in our time, he’s back in Little Green (Doubleday, 2013), the twelfth outing, except only two months have passed since his suicide attempt failed. Raymond Alexander aka Mouse searched the cliff on a tipoff from beyond, courtesy of Mama Jo. Under his guidance, Easy has been nursed back to consciousness. That was the body repair more or less complete. That still left the soul labouring in the shadow of death. In one of his infrequent moments of consciousness, Mouse asks Easy to look for Evander Noon aka Little Green. When Easy wakes up properly two days later, he remembers the request and, defying everyone, he rises from his bed and hits the streets in search of this young man who decided to visit with the hippies on Sunset Strip and hasn’t been seen since.
From this you’ll understand we’ve moved on to 1968 in Los Angeles but, in the real world on the streets, little has changed for the black man. That Easy happens to carry a PI badge only vaguely changes his status from a mere “nigger” in the eyes of white police officers to that rare bird, a “nigger” with a badge. This lack of change is somewhat ironic given the rise of the hippy counterculture. If ever there was going to be something to unite older people of different races, it was the emergence of this drug-fueled, free love generation. But Easy’s progress from death to some semblance of life represents a triumph of sorts. The fact he’s been in a coma for two months has not changed his situation. Yet when he sees what he would have lost, it does give him a reason for wanting to hang around for a little bit longer. We all have a burden of guilt to carry around. That he hurt his family and friends by his suicide attempt adds to that burden and forces him to seek a form of redemption in both his own and their eyes.
Which brings us to Evander. He’s had the worst possible experience with LSD. It took him out of his usual relationship with the world and tipped him into a very unfortunate place in which he briefly surfaced during his trip to find himself surrounded by bags of money covered in blood. Not really aware of his actions, he gathered up this money and hid it. Except, he finds it very difficult to remember what he did with it which is unfortunate when bad men start asking him. When Easy rescues him and Mama Jo patches him up, the time has finally come to do some serious remembering. That way, when the bad men continue their search for the money, Easy and Mouse will have the right answers for them. As with all the books by Walter Mosley, this plot just rolls off the page like a well-oiled machine, each step in the journey advancing us closer to the resolution of the problems, and illuminating our lives with insights into the lot of the African Americans in the Los Angeles of the 1960s. It was a tough time but, with the community pulling together, most manage to get through life with no more than a scratch or two. That’s not to say people don’t get beaten or shot. No matter what the historical period, there will always be a few dead bodies by the time the book is finished. The trick pulled off by Easy and Mouse is that they protect the people closest to them, plus those they take under their wing on a temporary basis. Except when you’re saving people, there’s no such thing as temporary. These people owe debts of gratitude and offer deep roots of support within the community if criminals or outsiders represent a threat. There’s strength in numbers so that even the police walk carefully if the crowds look threatening.
All of which confirms my immense satisfaction in seeing the return of Easy Rawlins. These slick PI investigations set in Watts give us the relatively rare opportunity to look at the African American experience in a recent historical context. These books speak with great authenticity and insight. Although it’s been good to spend time with Leonid McGill, it’s better to get back to the familiar Easy Rawlins. He’s the man I would want on my side if the going got tough. Little Green is Walter Mosley doing what he does best.
For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Known To Evil
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone
Killers’s Art by Mari Jungstedt (Stockholm Text, 2013) translation by Tiina Nunnally, shows the very real problems of publishing books out of sequence. This is the second book published in English for the American market after The Dead of Summer, yet they are respectively the fourth and fifth books in the series. For the record, this translation was published in the UK in 2010. So for those of you in the US, this is your first chance to read what happened to persuade Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas to promote Karin Jacobsson as his deputy, and about the tragedy that drove Johan and Emma apart despite the fact they have a child together. Frankly I find this publication schedule incomprehensible. When the story of the police and journalist teams develops from book to book, why must American readers be invited to read it backwards? Perhaps if these books were predominantly standalone police procedurals, it would not matter very much. But these books have a more even balance between the story arcs of the series characters and the individual mysteries. In my opinion, there’s absolutely no justification for starting at book five and then publishing book four, when it would have been just as easy to commission the translation of book one and publish them in order in all markets so we could watch the background story play out. Or is the publisher making some kind of value judgement that, somehow, the readers in the American market are not yet ready to read the earlier books. Perhaps we should draw a parallel with the recent appearance of The Bat by Jo Nesbø. This is the first book featuring Harry Hole, written in 1997 but only now released in English. I note the parallelism that the first Hole book published was also the fifth, but we then dropped back to the third and were able to read the rest in sequence (we’re still missing the second but it’s due this year). When a story is written to be read in a particular order, why must the publisher frustrate the author’s intention and deny the readers the opportunity to watch the characters’ development in sequence?
Ah, well, rant over. We should just be grateful we have another book by this talented author. So here we are back on the island of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island and a signifiant province. Local residents of Visby, the main town, are shocked when Egon Wallin is found hanging from one of the gates in the wall — this is the best preserved mediaeval town in Scandinavia with a two mile section of wall ringing part of the town centre. Wallin ran a successful art gallery and died on the evening of hosting an event to launch a new artist in Sweden. From the outset it’s clear this was a murder but establishing the motive is complicated as it almost immediately appears he had made arrangements to leave his wife and join a gallery in Stockholm run by a partnership. Given the physical strength required to commit the murder and hang the body from the gate, the wife and her lover are ruled out. They would just have been glad to see him go. Indeed, there are no clues as to who would have wanted him dead until a famous painting, “The Dying Dandy” by Nils Dardel, is stolen in Stockholm. Again this appears a motiveless crime. The painting is so well known, it could never be sold on the open market and it seems not to be a theft for hire because the thief leaves behind a statue stolen from Wallin’s gallery the day he was killed. Why someone would kill a gallery owner in Visby and then steal a painting is a complete mystery (which is, of course, why we read these books).
The answers to the mystery of the murder and then theft are very satisfying. Even the red herring that appears quite early on is neatly tied in to the overall whodunnit package (albeit that the coincidence is only just acceptable because the number of people in the art world with the contacts to achieve particular ends would be limited). So as a police procedural, it works beautifully with the understandable despondency of the investigation team captured in the central section of the book as their leads all come to nothing. If there is a fault with the book, it lies in the time given to Anders Knutas, the lead detective. Whereas we are allowed to see into the lives of Johan Berg and his partner Emma, we see very little of the relationship between Knutas and his wife Lina. With the policeman so obsessed when a big case comes in, it strains the relationship not only with his wife, but also the rest of the family. Since the intention is to suggest sexual tension between Knutas and Karin Jacobsson, it’s not fair on the reader to skimp on the detail of the marriage. In a perfect world, a happily married Knutas would not be tempted, so failing to show how the time passes with Lina at weekends is lazy writing. With this one caveat, Killers’s Art is a genuinely impressive book with a realistic investigation into a pleasingly complicated case. I should warn readers that there are homosexual themes so, if this disturbs you, this may be a book to pass over. Hopefully, in these enlightened times, everyone will put prejudices to one side and read it. It’s one of the best Scandinavian police procedurals of the year so far published in the American market.
For a review of the sequel to this book, see The Dead of Summer.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
There’s considerable controversy, if you want to be dramatic about this debate, as to whether it’s harder to write a good first novel than to follow up a good first novel with a second good one. Personally, I think it a challenge to write anything good enough to publish, and the need to keep doing it is a millstone around every author’s neck. If you happen to hit the jackpot with the first publication, everyone is comparing the successive books with the first. If they find them all wanting, you become yet another one-hit-wonder of the fiction world. If you slowly improve from book to book, your loyal fans become fatalistic, praying you will never fail — sometimes whichever god people pray to hears these prayers and we have a writing career everyone can be proud of. But these authors are relatively few and far between.
So here comes The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor (Seventh Street, 2013) the second book featuring Hugo Marston, the Head of Security at the United States Embassy in Paris. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood but, for whatever reason, I didn’t find this anywhere near as good as the first. The Bookseller is what we might call a character-driven mystery that slowly develops into a thriller where our hero resumes his friendship with Tom Green, an ex-CIA operative, and earns the respect of local French Inspector Raul Garcia. This time, we begin with a psychopath disturbed in mid-flow by a couple coming to view Jim Morrison’s grave in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery. He just can’t take the chance they might see him and disturb his carefully constructed timetable so, having had the foresight to arm himself against eventualities, he takes out his gun and shoots them. Depending on your point of view, he’s unlucky to have killed the son of a US senator who was in Paris to spend some time working in the US Embassy. Of equal interest, the girl who died beside him was in France on a fake passport. There may be a terrorist connection.
Needless to say, Daddy Senator migrates rapidly over to Paris and is red hot for unleashing every spook in Europe to nail the terrorists who have just assassinated his son. Except, as Hugo tries to point out, that scenario makes absolutely no sense. If the girl was actually a terrorist luring him to his doom, why was she shot? When the Police later realise an adjacent crypt has been disturbed and bones stolen, the terrorist connection looks even less probable. Even the most deranged terrorists do not steal the bones of a dead can-can dancer. As as for the glass scarab left in the crypt, an Egyptian connection seems more likely than Al-Qaeda. Then there’s the shooting itself. A .22 pistol was used, not exactly the weapon of choice used by terrorist hitmen and the killer had to shoot several times to kill his victims. Not even the most inept terrorist hitman, lurking in a cemetery for his prey, places shots randomly round the bodies. Unfortunately, such rationality does not appeal to the Senator who calls for the best to take charge. Improbably, this proves to be Tom Green whose alcoholism is escalating to destructive levels with cocaine also beginning to favour in his diet of substances to abuse.
So we’re off like a rocket with his sidekick suddenly unreliable and Raul Garcia attracting bullets like he’s become magnetic. There’s little or no time for real character development and the mystery element is paper thin. Two-dimensional Senator Daddy is throwing his weight around, Tom Green is barely functional, Claudia the girlfriend seems to have cooled, and Hugo gets to run around cemeteries. It’s all rather underwhelming and it’s only as we come into the final section of the book that the thriller element comes together in a more coherent form. I’m not denying the set-pieces forming the tracking down and end of the serial killer are well done. Indeed, they are very professionally put together. But these scenes come like the Fifth Cavalry charging over the hill with trumpets blazing and sabres at the ready long after the battle has been lost and the enemy long gone. I had no interest in any of the people involved and the serial killer’s motivation is, to some extent, fairly obvious from the first quarter of the book. Indeed, The Crypt Thief is about as interesting as an episode of Criminal Minds transplanted from Las Vegas showgirls to Paris can-can dancers with a little local colour thrown in to make it look better. I regret to say Mark Pryor has stumbled after a good first novel. Let’s hope he gets the act back together for the third, otherwise one-hit-wonder status beckons.
For a review of the first in the series, see The Bookseller.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
There has always been a fascination with the personalities of those who break the law. In part, this is because we have sneaking admiration for those with the confidence to take on the “system”. We revere Robin Hood because, as the leader of a guerilla force using forested lands as concealment, he was able to run a communist revolution against the King and his barons by forcibly redistributing the wealth of the nobility to the downtrodden peasants. We fear other criminals because they directly threaten us. So in cultural and political terms, we accept law-breaking when it achieves the justice we expect from our governmental organisations. We approve of extra-judicial or extra-legal methods when the aims of the law-breakers match our own needs. There’s then a grey area inhabited by individuals like Billy the Kid or John Dillinger who have achieved legendary status even though their behaviour was probably antisocial to the majority. Their notoriety elevates them from mere criminals to potential heroes. During Prohibition and the Great Depression, governments were having serious public relations problems, and the reputation of banks was even lower. Hence, the activities of bootleggers and bank robbers like Dillinger were like adventure stories, lifting the spirits of the common people and distracting them from the drudgery of their lives. For the bootleggers and bank robbers, of course, this celebrity status was ultimately self-serving. They were selling us rotten booze at inflated prices because we were hopeless alcohol addicts and they were stealing from the banks who’ve been stealing from us, the people. So it’s perfectly possible for violent offenders to avoid the classification of evil and become heroes, celebrated in all the media. Using the word in its widest sense, outlaws can be heroes. You only have to think of Batman and other vigilantes to see how we embrace the extra-legal when we think governments are failing us.
In crime fiction, we have Parker by Richard Stark (Donald E Westlake) as probably the most prolific of the criminals as (anti)hero. More recently, we’ve had a professional hitman as protagonist in Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo, the Good Thief series by Chris Ewan, and so on. In the last six months, the cinema has produced a slew of amoral films including Arbitrage in which our “hero” kills his mistress and makes millions out of fraud, Snitch in which a father commits multiple crimes to get his criminal son out of jail, Pain and Gain in which three incompetents kidnap and murder people, and so on. It seems the creative have decided now is the right time to bring us stories from the darker side of the moral spectrum.
All of which brings me to Ghostman by Roger Hobbs (Knopf, 2013) in which our protagonist is a seasoned criminal who has made a career out of robbery and, where necessary, murder. His true claim to fame within the criminal fraternity is his ability to blend in and disappear (like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, he lives completely off the grid). He’s the ultimately invisible man which gives him great flexibility to move around a city and achieve his aims. We start with him approached by a fixer he worked for five years ago when his misjudgment caused a big bank robbery to fail. He feels a sense of guilt and therefore agrees to help out to even the balance between them. This fixer has organised another robbery, this time at a casino, which has also gone very wrong. He needs our hero to pull the fat out of the fire. The intention had been to use the money from the casino to pay for drugs. Our hero is therefore to recover the stolen money and prevent the fixer’s late payment to the drug distributor from turning into a war. As introductory stories go, this is not unreasonable but, of course, nothing is quite what it seems.
During the course of the resulting story, our hero meets a whole range of people, only one of whom is explicitly on the side of “justice”. Everyone else is criminal to some degree, some quite violently and dangerously so. The navigation from start to finish against the clock is therefore fraught with difficulty as various people try to kill him and/or acquire the stolen money. So this book is not for everyone. There are descriptions of torture and varying degrees of violence. Since I insist on continuing to call him the hero, you will understand he’s actually out to get a result that matches his own ethical code. Although this need not have been the case, what he does is actually useful to local law enforcement agencies. That helps to sell him as a more acceptable “hero”. Indeed, I confess to finding the book a success despite the somewhat gratuitous Russian Roulette scene — I’m not wholly convinced he would go quite that far even though it’s a dangerous situation. The idea he’s a modern parallel of Aeneas is also interesting, i.e. that he’s being “saved” or saves himself so he can fulfill his destiny. But there’s a certain lack of coherence to the character and, despite all the fascinating detail, many of the plot elements are familiar. Against this I set the fact this is a first novel. Under the circumstances, I forgive the author. This is a genuinely great debut and I will be waiting to see where the next book takes him.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Baker Street Translation by Michael Robertson (Minotaur Books, 2013) is a fascinating book written at an interesting time. At this point, I need to divert in a parallel universe. For these purposes, I’ll call it “the world created by Amazon” which has recently launched a fan fiction subdivision in its publishing division. So if the copyright holders sanction the exploration of their fictional worlds, fans will be allowed to write whatever they like (well, not really) and get paid royalties varying between 20 and 35%. This is supposed to attract the community of fans that spends its time writing fiction for fun. Just think: for as little as 20% you can give away all your rights in your work and enable Amazon to make even more money from your efforts. What’s not to like about that? Anyway, let’s now travel back to our mundane world where authors are allowed to take characters already out of copyright and do what they like with them (including sex scenes, and counterintuitive acts and omissions) and they get to keep all the money their creativity inspires through film and television rights, foreign distribution, and so on.
The idea of the shared universe has been around as long as there have been oral histories. People used to travel from village to town, passing on the latest news and telling stories about culturally iconic characters. This allowed multiple authors to get creative when talking about the exploits of heroes and so fantasy fiction was born, e.g. Beowulf and other sagas. Once copyright appeared on the scene, ring fences were thrown around the most valuable properties and the collaborative development of ideas has had to wait until the monopoly expired or for the copyright holders to give permission for the sharing. Coming up to date, the world of television has recently brought us Sherlock and Elementary, continuing the tradition of playing in the Sherlock Holmes sandbox. To be honest, I’m always interested to see how inventive authors can be when approaching the Sherlock Holmes universe. This hook is particularly ingenious. One of the enduring myths has been that Holmes was (and remains) a real person. Hence there’s a steady stream of mail going to 221B Baker Street. Since 1932, a building society has occupied the site and has employed a person to answer all the correspondence. Michael Robertson has the building society lease out some of its rooms to a barrister on condition that he takes on the role of secretary to Sherlock Holmes. This barrister is then sucked into adventures in the style of Sherlock, such excitement usually being triggered by letters or individuals arriving at his chambers believing Holmes to be a real person.
In this instance, an old man arrives from Taiwan. He has been working as a freelance translator but the person who last employed him has refused to pay. For this man, it’s not so much about the money. He feels his honour has been besmirched and wants “Sherlock” to investigate why he has not been paid. Asking a few superficial questions, the barrister establishes his potential client was asked to translate instructions for a toy duck designed to spout nursery rhymes and so drive the parents of small children demented. He insists the translations are absolutely accurate yet, when our hero views the rhymes in their finished form, he finds their meaning distorted. Concluding the translator is incompetent, he sends the man away with a recommendation he return to Taiwan, perhaps delaying the journey to see The Mousetrap. Sadly, the body of the translator is found that night with the barrister’s business card and a theatre ticket in his pocket. What better way to force our reluctant hero into an investigation?
At this point, I need to alert readers to the semi-comic nature of the book. This is not a strictly canonical work which relies on set-piece deductions to arrive at a grand solution in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. This is a London barrister (plus his brother who’s currently aiming to qualify for the bar in the US) in a love triangle. He’s ineffectively in love with a beautiful model who has been involved in previous adventures. But a press baron also has his eyes set on her and believes his money and status make him irresistible to members of the fair sex. To complicate the adventure of the translator, said press baron is kidnapped and held to ransom. Yet, in addition to the £1 million in cash, they also demand all the letters that have been delivered to Sherlock Holmes during the last month. Now you can see how everything ties together. But. . .
As I said in the previous paragraph, this is not intended to be taken seriously. That’s why we’re supposed to forgive the distinctly illogical set-up of the work to be translated. In fact, nothing about this plot device makes any sense. If people of even vague competence were involved in a conspiracy with this declared purpose, they would easily be able to plant bombs in the places to achieve their desired effect without having to go through all these MacGuffin-based manoeuvrings. But if you approach the book on the basis that its many absurdities are a part of the humour, it proves to be a reasonably enjoyable lightweight read. The Baker Street Translation is therefore of interest to anyone who wants to see how the Sherlock Holmes trope can be extended, and for those who want an undemanding book to read during the summer holiday period.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2013) is the second to feature Willie Black, one of these journalists who just won’t take no for an answer. If his editor or the publisher tells him to “back off”, he stubbornly runs towards it, no matter what the danger. This is not, you understand, the result of natural perversity. This is the mentality of the stereotypical “news hound”, the reporter who never lets go once he gets his teeth into a story. In an earlier life, he was probably Tintin. In this reincarnation, he’s a three-times married alcoholic who leads a charmed life working for a newspaper that’s more interested in pleasing their wealthy socialite owners than the pursuit of truth and justice. For what it’s worth, I also note the coincidence of this being the second book in as many months in which a man is passing. For those of you not up on the intricacies of racism in America, the “passing” refers to an African American who’s sufficiently pale in skin colour to be able to pass as white. In defence of the somewhat ironically named Mr Black, he does not find out about his ancestry until after this book has started and, having digested the information, is not embarrassed to disclose his relationship to a very clearly African American with an interesting past, a man called Richard Slade.
When Willie Black was just starting out as a reporter some twenty-eight years earlier, the big local case was the rape of Alicia Parker Simpson who was an innocent young thing of sixteen summers. The man accused and convicted was Richard Slade. He serves twenty-seven years before DNA testing shows him not to be the guilty man who left his seed at the scene. Some five days after his release, Alicia is shot dead in her car. Naturally everyone in officialdom lines up to accuse Slade of taking revenge for spending all those years in jail. Except none of this may be as straightforward as the police and prosecutors would like to think. Included in the undecided camp is our hero and one of his ex-wives who’s assisting in running the defence. Normally his involvement in the investigation would not be a problem, but the newspaper has been writing inflammatory editorials and has the family and many in the local community hostile to the press. Mr Black therefore finds it difficult to get anyone to talk with him until his mother mentions his link to the family. That breaks the ice and gives our hero an opportunity to talk with both the accused and his mother. Things take off from there.
There are several good things about this book. The first is the quality of the prose. Howard Owen has a natural flow to his writing which makes it a pleasure to read. There’s also considerable credibility in the characters we meet en route to the solution of both the original rape and the new murder. While making allowances for some stock characters out of central casting, some individuals are pleasingly different from the norm and add an extra layer of interest to the book. Unfortunately, this interest does not stick so tenaciously to the primary character. Alcoholic reporters from the old school of investigative journalism are difficult to do well. His hippy mother who still spaces out on cannabis feels reasonable but his ex-wife and daughter don’t quite fit. Sadly, the character that is WIllie Black feels a little “convenient”, fitting into the needs of the plot rather than engaging in events to shape outcomes. Although he does scare up some information by his own efforts, the key to really understanding what’s going on comes when one of the Simpson family breaks ranks and starts to feed him information. Without that lucky break, he would never get anywhere near the solution and would end up fired from his job and probably in jail for dangerous driving while drunk.
Although there are some nice moments in the plot and the writing itself is a joy to read, The Philadelphia Quarry ends up less than exciting. It’s a brave effort but, given the first in the series was nominated for the Hammett Prize, somewhat of a disappointment.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Being old, I’m allowed to ramble. It’s considered one of my more endearing qualities and, out of respect for my advanced years, you will smile benignly during this opening salvo on Will F Jenkins (who was also known to write under the name Murray Leinster). During my completist days, I used to collect his work for fun. There were just so many books to aim for, it was years before I got anywhere near a complete set, but it was so satisfying when I almost made it. It was the early Westerns that defeated me. I managed all the science fiction and mysteries. . . My point is that when I was young, authors wrote and we bought — those of us who came late to individual races, struggled to catch up. Today, years can go between books in a series. Back in the good old days, a different publisher could be bringing out a new title under a pseudonym by an author we were collecting every four to six months. If you were enjoying an author, you didn’t have to wait long for the next thrilling instalment. That’s one of the things I like about Mike Resnick. He’s old school both in years and in his approach to publishing. If there’s someone out there ready to publish something he’s written, he publishes it and is writing the next one. If you have a look at his Wikipedia page, you get an idea of just how busy he’s been and note this has not represented any loss of quality — he‘s been nominated for Hugo Awards thirty-six times. Never let anyone tell you quantity does not equal quality. If you can write, you can write. Mike Resnick can write, and then some.
Anyway, way back in 1995, our heroic author launched himself into an Eli Paxton Mystery called Dog in the Manger. This was not just any missing pooch. This was the Weimaraner (don’t ask) that won best in show and then went missing. Such a classy case for a man who hardly brings quality to the ranks of PIs in Cincinnati, was a way for our author to cash in on his own hobby of dog breeding and established our PI as the standard less-than-successful businessman with the problem-solving skills of a Sherlock — I’ve never been clear why such crime solving exploits don’t translate into more business than the hero knows what to do with. You would think he would have clients lining up three deep at the door for an appointment. But that would break the mould which finds our hero wondering where the next dollar is coming from at the start of this new book in the series, The Trojan Colt (Seventh Street, 2013). After my opening paragraph, note the irony in that our heroic author has followed the modern pattern of allowing eighteen years between the first and second in the series.
This time our PI is to guard a young horse. Not just any horse, you understand. This colt has the breeding to suggest it might be the next Secretariat or Man o’ War, i.e. to be able to run faster than your average Dobbin. Our hero takes up residence with the horse, Tyrone, and his groom, Tony Sanders, at the Keeneland Summer Sale in Lexington, Kentucky. This time, everything is going well until the day of the sale. Fortunately for the owner, it’s not the animal that disappears, it’s the groom. With the colt sold to an Arab billionaire for more than $3 million (just small change), our hero is employed by the young man’s parents to find out what happened to their son. The result is a fascinating ride through the world of horse breeding (which is not the same as horse racing).
Like any specialised world, an outsider never knows what’s going on and, assuming the author has done his research properly, this is a fascinating insight into the mechanics of money-making applied to the breeding of horse flesh. In practical terms, it’s about as exciting as horse racing. All you have to do is lay down your money to buy a yearling based on its parentage and then sit back to race it when it has grown strong enough. If you get the bet right at the auction, you end up with a winning stallion or mare you can breed for more champions. So millions of dollars are at stake both in the auctions, then the training of the yearlings and the races where the quality of the beasts is finally proved. That means the tightest security must be in place. There must be no doubt which horse is which. Fortunately, there’s no problem of identification with this horse. It has a very distinctive scar on its neck. That’s what makes the disappearance of the groom all the more puzzling. The horse was sold at a record-breaking price. What would make the groom suddenly walk away? More importantly, why should someone take pot shots at our hero when he starts to ask questions? He has no idea what he’s supposed to know that might make him a threat. When the answer finally emerges, it’s all rather elegant. As you would expect from Mike Resnick, the ultimate professional when it comes to writing more or less anything. The Trojan Colt comes up on the rail and, in the final furlong, flashes into the lead — another winner from his pen.
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
DCI Banks Strange Affair (2012) shows us one solution to a classic problem. Because we can’t do a prequel for this type of television series and endless flashbacks to our hero’s youth slow down the contemporaneous action, the answer is to have our lead character suddenly forced to go back to his family so we can see how he ended up as this streak of human misery. Arthur Banks (Keith Barron), his father, used to get up at six every morning and go to work. Over the weekend, he had his football and was known to buy a few beers in the local pub. But he was one of these salt-of-the-earth northerners who saw their duty as fathers to put food on the table and ensure their children grew up staunch Labour Party supporters. The practical care fell to the “mother”, Ida Banks (Polly Hemmingway). She did her best with her two sons but they did not get on. It turns out that even as a child, our hero was morose and difficult. He disappointed his father by refusing to study and go on to university — just look at the mess that’s ended him in. Only a copper, for God’s sake. Completely letting down the family which sees the police as the tool of capitalist and repressive governments, out to beat the Labour movement into the dirt. His brother Roy was the apple of his father’s eye. University and then life as a businessman. Ludicrous hypocrisy really. The socialist family spawns a copper and a get-rich-quick chancer. The father loves the wrong son. Such are the burdens of being born into a family in a series, first as novels and then as television episodes.
As we kick off, DCI Banks (Stephen Tompkinson) has the misfortune of losing DS Annie Cabbot (Andrea Lowe) to maternity leave and in comes DI Helen Morton (Caroline Catz). So here comes the set-up. Our hero takes off when his brother suddenly gives him a call. Except the unloved one seems to have disappeared. There’s a murder (what a surprise): a young woman called Jennifer Lewis. Guess what? She has our hero’s address on a piece of paper in her car. Not of course that anyone thinks our hero has suddenly become a cold-blooded killer. Suicide is more his style. But he can’t be involved in the investigation until it’s clear what’s going on. Then his brother also turns up dead. Shot in the head and dumped in a quarry. Roy’s business partner, Gareth Lambert (David Westhead) suggests Roy was having an affair with Jennifer and there’s CCTV footage from a garage showing them together an hour before Jennifer was murdered. To cut a long story short, the pivotal character turns out to be Carmen (Heida Reed) which leads us to one of the plot devices I hate the most.
Carmen has disappeared but the police have her mobile number. So our hero calls her leaving a voice mail saying he spoke with Roy before he was killed. He knows what Roy knew. She doesn’t know that he, Alan, doesn’t know anything. She may be spooked out into the open. Or whoever killed Roy and Jennifer may not want to take the risk he knows what Roy knew and so come to kill him too (and not before time, I might add). Anyway, there’s altogether too much knowing in all this bluff and double bluff and then, after some tense work, we end up with the solution. As you might expect, it’s really, really dark (that’s what makes this such a depressing series — give me the happy smiling village life of the Midsomer Murders any day). I won’t spoil it for you but it’s one of these fiendish plans for what, to some people’s eyes, may seem a not unreasonable purpose. I leave it to you to make the moral judgement but, because our hero triumphs, the murderer of his brother is revealed and his father is moved to thank our unstoppable force for justice by giving him Roy’s car — a Porsche which our hero has great difficulty getting into and out of. The moral of this story is that, if you’re a gritty Northern Dad who’s slaved away to put bread on the table, you may have produced a son who made his living out of prostitution and other criminal activities but, in the end, your son came to a red line, a red line placed there by you as his Dad. He was killed because he would not cross that red line. So gritty Northern Dads can take confidence. Your sons may be shits but, when the chips are down, they would rather be killed than betray your family values. At least, you’re supposed to think that’s reassuring. Personally, I would rather have my son alive than killed for a principle.
DCI Banks Strange Affair (2012) follows in the tradition of the first three stories in the series. It wants to emphasise the harshness of life “in the north” so everyone is emotionally repressed and prone to frowning as thoughts of life’s unfairnesses threaten to rise up. I suppose the motive is interesting but the practical mechanics of the show with Carmen lost, then found, then lost, then found again is a bit contrived.
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010) is another of these adaptations that parachutes Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) into a novel featuring another investigator. In this instance, she’s displacing Ariadne Oliver. There’s nothing inherently wrong in doing so if the story is strong enough. A puzzle is a puzzle and anyone can be drafted in to solve it. The primary feature of both the novel and this adaptation is the supernatural element. Originally published in 1961, Britain was fascinated by the occult and black magic with Dennis Wheatley remarkably popular. I say remarkably because his prose writing style was terrible, but he made a good living out of the quality of the ideas he managed to get down on paper. Agatha Christie herself flirted with the supernatural from time to time and this is her most explicit use of “dark forces” as a murder weapon.
The best, if not the only way, to get anything sensible out of this story is to see it as a product of the time it was written. Let’s assume that everyone from the lowest class peasant to the upperist class nob was familiar with the uses of black magic for murder. Indeed, it must seem to the more wealthy members of society that, if they want a foolproof way of collecting on their inheritances early, the best way of cashing in is to get Satan or one of his minions to do the dirty deed for them while they are out of the country or obviously in a cast-iron alibi situation. So they approach a booking agent who sends them out into the countryside where three witches perform a ceremony. Pausing at this point, you have to accept that hard-bitten and intelligent people will not only part with their money, but also sit through this ceremony without bursting out laughing. Why? Because a few weeks later, the target of their murderous intentions will die from “natural causes”. Whoo hoo! Satan rules, OK!
So if you know someone, who knows someone, the word will come back to you that Satan is ready, willing and able to remove obstacles to your inheritance for just a few thousand pounds. Here’s an address. Knock three times and ask for Mr Bradley. Curiously, no-one ever goes to the coven at The Pale Horse directly. Their occult powers can only be bought when the telephone rings and Mr Bradley says it’s a done deal. So in cocktail parties up and down the Home Counties, the gossipers are hard at work. “Did you hear those darling witches did it again? Bazzer’s Uncle Valerian has just joined the Happy-Ever-After Brigade. I’ve booked in my Aunt Esmeralda and Great Uncle Arbuthnot next Tuesday week. They’re having a two-for-one special, doncha know.” Just thinking about this as a plot device gives me a headache, but this is “vintage” Agatha Christie. Although she was past her best by this time, let’s run with the notion that, if the greed is strong enough, both the cynical and gullible will play along with all the mummery to get the job done.
As a television episode in a period setting, this is written and performed in a quasi-documentary style. Under normal circumstances, the inclusion of black magic should provoke the production team into the usual melodramatic excesses to ratchet up the tension and aim to produce a few boo moments as evil stalks the streets. Yet this proceeds at the walking pace of a funeral cortège with no hint of excitement. This is surprising because we start off in a pea-souper with Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons), the parish priest, called around to hear a death-bed confession. Stepping back out into the fog, he’s then battered to death. This could have been played up but the word coming to mind after seeing it is “dull”. Lurking in the background is the police sidekick Inspector Lejeune (Neil Pearson). He trots around in Miss Marple’s wake nodding sagely whenever she vouchsafes a nugget of wisdom. As the primary setting, we have a creepy village and its local witch burning ritual which is observed by our historian Mark Easterbook (Jonathan Cake) as if he’s going to write it up for his next textbook. And then the satanic ceremony itself which is laughably tame.
So I see a slightly better performance from Julia McKenzie. Even though she’s being given less than sensible things to do, I actually felt she was more in the Miss Marple groove. There are the usual great production values on displace with Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire looking the part. I also thought one or two of the plot innovations were constructive, but the whole enterprise founders because of the horrendous coincidence required so that Miss Marple meets the murderer. In the original novel, the murderer is actually being quite helpful to the police as their inquiries are proceeding. This character’s involvement is therefore more natural. Here Miss Marple must suspect him from the outset without anything more than a marginal suspicion about the accuracy of a physical description of someone half-glimpsed in the fog. While taking nothing away from the quality of the traditional gathering of the suspects together at the end with the big reveal, The Pale Horse is a rather silly story that’s played out at a leaden pace with no spark of life about it at all.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)
Well, having enjoyed Dr Temperance Brennan in my first, delayed outing into the book form, I continue to eat up the spin-off television series Bones, featuring Emily Deschanel as Brennan, leader in forensic anthropology. In another world, I saw this described as a form of prequel to the books. Given the age disparity between the two versions of Brennan that’s stretching things but we don’t need to concern ourselves with the issue here. With my usual skill, I’ve managed to miss a book in the series. Apparently she went into darkest Canada the last time round, but in The Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs (Scribner, 2013) Dr Temperance Brennan Book 16, she now finds herself back “home” in Charlotte. In the broad narrative arc, Andrew Ryan has gone AWOL while her husband persists. I suppose the lovers for characters like Brennan must always be unreliable. Remarkably she’s still married (even at the end of this book we’re still not sure whether the divorce papers have actually been filed to complete the termination of the marriage) and so finds herself in deep emotional waters as no-one quite stacks up in the longer term to replace her husband. Their daughter Katy is all grown up now, and with the independent-mindedness you would expect from a child produced by Brennan, the infant warrior has joined the army and shipped out to Afghanistan — not quite the ideal way of mourning the death of her boyfriend. Needless to say, both parents worry about the extent to which she’s going to be exposed to danger which, in Brennan’s case, is somewhat ironic. All of which brings us to the mystery/thriller core of the book.
There are three separate “crimes” for our hero to investigate. We start off with a hit-and-run victim out on a fairly deserted stretch of highway. It’s a young girl. The good news is that “Skinny” Slidell is allocated the case. The bad news is that he thinks the girl was an illegal immigrant, earning a few dollars by selling her body. Investigating the deaths of prostitutes is never high on any Police Department’s list of priorities and despite the evidence strongly suggesting this is a murder case, Brennan knows this case is likely to sit on the back burner. The only point of interest is that she has a US Airways club card belonging to John-Henry Story, a man who died in a fire some months earlier. At least the circumstantial evidence very strongly suggested the remains were John-Henry Story. If that identification is correct, what’s this young girl doing with this club card? Brennan therefore makes this case a personal crusade. She’s going to go all out to catch the killer. Also waiting for her at the County Medical Examiner’s Office are some mummified dogs from Peru intercepted by US Customs. The man responsible according to the documentation is Dominick Rockett, a Desert Storm vet. Finally, her husband talks her into accepting a military job. The selling point is the opportunity to meet their daughter in Afghanistan. We’re therefore given the chance to see Brennan “under fire” in hostile territory.
The most impressive feature of this book is the meticulous way in which the plot is put together. Although there’s an amazing amount of coincidence and contrivance on display, you can’t help but admire the virtuoso way in which all the details are woven together to explain what’s going on and who’s responsible. Combine this with a high-paced delivery and you have a high-class mystery thriller that should match the other books in the Best Seller lists.
I have one very minor complaint. Reluctantly, I accept mountains of acronyms when I read military and some espionage fiction, but I think the citing of military jargon and its immediate decoding is overdone in this book. For once, I think the author has allowed herself to be too impressed by her own research. The only other issue to address is the message of the book. In other reviews, e.g. Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, I’ve commented on the extent to which the identification and discussion of an issue of contemporary significance can or should be fitted into a genre rather than an explicitly political or literary novel. I accept a great deal of good can be achieved by discussion of difficult issues by very popular writers. It gives everyone a chance to explore what they feel. In this case, I think the author has avoided the trap. Brennan’s interest in the girl arises naturally because she feels every victim deserves her best efforts. This may not happen because the police classify her as a probable prostitute and therefore a more disposable member of society. That the victim later proves to have been one of several women trafficked and forced into prostitution does not distract us from unravelling the mystery. It does, perhaps, become slightly more heavy-handed during the epilogue, but I think the book preserves its essential character of a mystery while making some constructive comments on the appalling practice of human trafficking. Put all this together and The Bones of the Lost is a wonderfully entertaining read, seamlessly blending the scientific with the more practical side of investigating crimes, and providing the excitement of a thriller ending.
For the review of another book by Kathy Reichs, see Flash and Bones.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.