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.
So, in Snitch (2013), we have John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), the model Dad. He’s one of these great caring people who, when he sees a new employee working late, stops to help move sacks around. His only mistake in life so far has been to get divorced and give the custody of his son, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), to his ex, Sylvie Collins (Melina Kanakaredes). For whatever reason, his son has had nothing to do with his father. This lack of a father’s guiding hand leads to an act of extreme stupidity in which he agrees to hold a small mountain of pills for a friend. Needless to say, this is a set-up and the DEA swoop as soon as the drugs are through the door. This paragon of stupidity is now looking at a minimum of ten year’s jail time. America has some really weird laws which have mandatory sentences based on the quantity of drugs held, but there’s chance for a reduction in that sentence if the accused co-operates with the authorities to ensnare others higher up in the distribution chain. Given the potential to take eight years off his sentence, the dimwit claims he cannot become a snitch. In the jail visiting telephone chat, we get all the guilt-tripping. If only I’d been a better Dad and had you in my life. I cared too much about my business to push the issue of joint custody. If I’d been a better son and not hated you for going off to live in a big house and leave Mom and me in a rundown neighbourhood. . . Yawn!
Faced with this spectacularly unfair law, superDad decides to volunteer his own services as a snitch in his son’s place. Not surprisingly, this is not how the law is supposed to work. Bending the rules requires the approval of DA Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). Law officials tasked with the enforcement of these laws are, by definition, not bleeding hearts. So Keeghan’s response is entirely rational. If superDad comes up with an airtight arrest of someone with intent to distribute not less than half-a-kilo of coke, his son gets remission. But the risk is all his. Obviously he’s not a trained police officer and the idea of a naive do-gooder going undercover to infiltrate a drug distribution cartel is a high-risk activity even at the best of times. Nevertheless, for the love of his son, he decides to explore options. As the boss of a construction company, he employs ex-cons. Perhaps someone can point him in the right direction.
Right so let’s pause here. Dimwit son agreed to break the law and got busted. Great, so he’s a criminal. He refuses to entrap any of his friends. Great, so he’s got a vague grasp of morality and feels he should not roll on someone he thinks is innocent just to shave years off his sentence. So even though superDad has remarried and has a new child to love, he decides he will act as the snitch. But to achieve the aim of excusing his criminal son, he has to get one or more ex-cons to give up their contacts or involve themselves in further criminal activity and risk jail. For the ex-cons superDad involves, this is not the same as acting as a paid informer for the police. SuperDad is inciting these ex-criminals to become criminals again. He starts a “partnership” with Daniel James (Jon Bernthal) who is married and trying to rebuild his life in difficult circumstances. Just talking to him is a conspiracy and exposes this man to the risk of jail. Yet this conversation gets our hero as far as Malik (Michael K. Williams). The DA is moved to offer a reduction to one year if superDad can bring him in. A concerned DEA officer Cooper (Barry Pepper) sets superDad up with a wire and sits in the background as an advisor. Later he warns superDad about the DA. She can be a little forgetful on the detail of the deals she makes. So our hero ends up being introduced to Juan Carlos “El Topa” Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) and, after a set-piece chase, we get to the end.
In a way this is the film in which the ex-wrestler gets to show whether he can act. Interestingly he may be physically the biggest man in the room on several occasions, but he’s not there to fight. Playing against type, he’s there to look scared but determined. There’s some plausibility to his story that life in the construction industry can’t pay the bills in these difficult economic times. Whether that would force a respectable businessman to start transporting wholesale quantities of drugs is another matter. Frankly I found the first half of the film to be deadly dull. I’m not doubting the narrative necessity of each element of the story as shown, but the pace is leaden. Even when we get on to the road in his truck, it’s not that much better. It’s a long drive. When the action does come, it somehow failed to engage my interest. It’s not that the situations are without tension. I just didn’t care whether this hero succeeded. Nothing in the set-up seems to justify any of this. I’m not denying this is a terrible law and our hero is being ruthlessly exploited by a DA with a political agenda, but our hero is doing all this for a worthless son. I might have had more sympathy if our hero had been forced into this because he was a victim. But none of this life-and-death extravagance is credible.
The ultimate outcome is also a real pain. The hero and his ex-wife are the happiest ex-couple I’ve ever seen, while our hero has effectively destroyed his new family’s life as his business is gone and they must go into witness protection. I really don’t think that’s going to be a long-term marriage. There’s actually a good story here waiting to be told. If the DA and the undercover cop had sat down with our hero to plan an operation, we could have built up a tense drama. As it is, the parts created for Susan Sarandon and Barry Peeper are woefully underwritten. This would also have put proper legal protection in place for Jon Bernthal as the man seduced back to his criminal ways. The longer term criminals are classic stereotypes and boringly predictable. Not even the acting of Dwayne Johnson can save the film because he’s been given silly things to say and do. Overall, Snitch is a ghastly tragedy of everyone on the production side missing opportunities to make a good film.
Olympus Has Fallen (2013) starts with Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), our hero, and the President (Aaron Eckhart) practising their boxing before the First Family sets off for a fund-raising bash. This establishes that neither of them know how to fight for real and that the President is a good sport, not minding too much if an underling hits him in the mouth. Then it’s off into the snow and ice for the excitement of a midnight dip and a tragedy to reset the First Family’s dynamic. As is then required, eighteen months pass and the tensions rise on the Korean peninsula — this is a coincidence, of course, not cause and effect. Even to my jaded ears, Gerard Butler’s attempt at an American accent sounds unconvincing. He’s even less convincing as a lover and he’s definite not a model employee — the President has transferred him because he can’t stand seeing the men who were there on that night or perhaps he just can’t stand hearing the accent mangled. Whatever the reason, he’s all whiney and depressed. The opening sequence is slow-moving and, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.
Finally the pace begins to pick up with a low-flying plane coming into restricted airspace while a convoy of vehicles brings the South Korean Prime Minister through the streets and into the White House. Then the plane shoots down the two jets sent to intercept and starts shooting at targets around the White House. This spooks the President into his bunker, thoughtfully taking the visiting South Korean team with him even though it’s “against protocol”. Films like this would just die if people did what they are supposed to do. The attack on the ground then gets more systematic as tourists suddenly turn into commandos. Amazingly, it takes Gerard Butler almost thirty-five minutes to fight his way into the White House and the rest of the film to get back out again. The only note of originality during this attack is the use of Washington sanitation vehicles as covert armored vehicles. Needless to say, all the permanent guards and secret service agents are mown down as the White House falls into enemy hands. Uncharacteristically, the US Army turns up too late to do anything. They’re usually more gung-ho than this. When Kang (Rick Yune) the leader of this Korean strike force, confirms he’s holding the President hostage, this is a low moment for America and the music plays like a funeral march as international hubris is rewarded with local failure. Fortunately Gerard Butler is scrabbling around in the dark looking for the President’s son. The result is inevitable. We then come to the McGuffin. Every film worth its salt has to have a device of some sort. This film has the Cerberus computer system. If three codes are entered into the White House system, the terrorists can abort any nuclear missile launch. The Speaker (Morgan Freeman) takes over as acting President and lengthens his vowel sounds to sound, well, Presidential.
It’s not hard to say why this film fails to generate any thrills. It’s doing everything by the 1980s playbook and, since we’ve seen it all before, it’s no longer thrilling. The plot takes the plodding route. First, introduce the hero and establish a relationship with the President and his son. Establish the political scenario on the Korean peninsula and then stage the titular attack. Except it’s all the worst kind of melodrama without any depth or subtlety. For example when the Koreans spot our hero on the surveillance cameras, they identify him. One says, “We don’t need to worry about him.” and the President makes a whispered aside, “You should.” which says a great deal about the quality of the dialogue and its ability to maintain suspense rather than deflate it with unintended humour. Worse, a lot of the action takes place in semidarkness with the sub-Hans Zimmer heavy chords supposedly signalling how exciting all this is. Except it blatantly is not exciting. It’s just one cliché after another. So Gerard Butler starts torturing some of the Koreans he’s captured. His approach is literally laughable. Or to put it another way, the dialogue produced laughs from those around me which is not what you expect from a torture scene. Apart from this, the whole package is a third-rate rerun of the Die Hard scenario. He’s an insubordinate lone wolf in a violent quest to defeat terrorists who have taken over a building. All the scriptwriters have done is change the building to the White House which, fortunately, is insured against all the usual catastrophic events visited upon it by Hollywood. To tell us Gerard Butler is a hard man with a ruthless streak, he says “fuck” a lot. To show he’s also got a brain, he also uses the adjectival, gerund and adverbial forms of “fuck” as well.
Perhaps it’s just the 13 in 2013 that’s giving me such a run of bad luck, but every film so far apart from Iron Man 3 has ranged between bad and catastrophically awful. This film has a terrible plot that makes no sense a lot of the time, incredibly bad dialogue, badly-lit action scenes, poor CGI, wooden acting from almost everyone, only token women, and ghastly sentimentalism cast as patriotism in the final speeches. You should only go to see Olympus Has Fallen as a paid member of a focus group to analyse why this film is so bad and to offer advice to the producers on how to avoid making a turkey of this size in the future.
You can imagine how the pitch meeting went. The team goes in with a note on the back of an envelope. The bad guy breaks out of jail and makes a run for the Mexican border. The only thing standing between him and freedom is a battle-scarred veteran sheriff in a hick town no-one’s ever heard of. They talk about nostalgia for the 1980s shoot ‘em up films where lone heroes prevail against outrageous odds. But brought up to date, of course. Modern audiences, they don’t go for the simple-minded shit no more. This one’s gotta have heart. They talk about timing and the potential availability of a suitable geriatric action hero who can carry this type of film. Inquiries are made. He would be interested. They talk dollars and the film is green-lighted.
For films like The Last Stand (2013) to work, there has to be a script with good pacing. Strangely, the writing is left to a relatively inexperienced Andrew Knauer so it needs support. This comes from Jee-woon Kim as director. Although this is his first US feature film, he’s one of South Korea’s best directors having garnered praise, a few awards, and good box office on the Asian circuit for all his films. One, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited (2009). He’s a good choice to take a very simple story, string it out over 107 minutes and keep us entertained.
So this is a twin-track film. We need a slow set-up in Sommerton Junction, Arizona, next to the Mexican border where we meet everyone who’s going to feature in the battle at the end. We also need to establish the threat and meet the FBI team that’s going to be chasing the bad guy as he makes his break for freedom. In the boondocks, it’s another routine day of festivities as the local people celebrate the departure of their football team and most of the town in support. Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Sheriff, gets ready for the peace of the weekend, undisturbed by inconvenient people jaywalking on the streets or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. This doesn’t prevent him from picking up Burrell Thomas (Peter Stormare) on his radar as he passes through Sommerton. He feels wrong and, as we later see, he’s on his way to meet with the rest of the gang which has a vital task to perform.
In LA, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is getting ready to move Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) the Mexican drug boss in what’s supposed to be a secret convoy. Not unnaturally, there’s a mole so, to produce the necessary trigger for the rest of the film, some of his gang are waiting for the convoy with one of these cranes with a convenient electromagnetic grab to lift the armored truck on to the roof of a nearby tall building. Exit drug cartel boss with an FBI hostage in the fastest thing on wheels stolen from a nearby motor show. The car itself is great fun and, although hilariously foolish, the way it takes out the two SUVs carrying the SWAT team is terrific fun. Indeed, this typifies a certain sense of inventiveness about the way the plot develops alongside the more routine moments of realism, e.g. the failure of the milk delivery alerts the town that the local farmer may have had a heart attack. Or could it be something more serious?
Unlike the films of the 1980s which were vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger to dance around the screen avoiding bullets and taking out small armies on the “other side”, this has him as a reluctant hero. He’s more afraid because he’s seen blood spilled and knows what’s coming. Fortunately there’s the usual weirdly eccentric guy who lives outside town who rescues the situation. Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) is a dealer in historic arms. Deputising him gives the defenders access to an impressive range of weaponry including a WWII Vickers machine gun and some mediaeval armour — just what you need when fighting off a well-armed gang. Trying to move the townsfolk out of the diner has humour as does the attempt to establish a barricade using whatever’s to hand. It’s a good set-up.
This is not to say the film is actually any good. As mindless entertainment, it keeps going well. But if you make any attempt to think about what’s happening, you could shoot the script full of holes. The ending is just extraordinary and not in a good way. It’s rare to come across such an array of poor contrivances to fill the last ten minutes or so as they drive around the corn field, manage to navigate to the bridge without GPS, fight without anyone waiting on the Mexican side to welcome our escapee, and then limp back to town doing the Lone Ranger bit with the wrecked car as the tired horse. To say the follow-up FBI investigation is a joke is an understatement. Indeed, the lack of chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Forest Whitaker is embarrassing, and the final arrest is the capping moment of stupidity as, apparently, the FBI can hack Swiss bank accounts on demand. That said, The Last Stand is not pretending to be anything other than a popcorn special and, at that level, it succeeds admirably. So long as you’re not expecting anything special, you’ll enjoy it.
We need to start out by laying down a few criteria for deciding when a thriller is a success. For these purposes, we should recognise that genres are actually irrelevant. There’s no reason why thriller elements cannot underpin science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and so on. All that’s required is either a single protagonist or a small group that finds itself under threat of attack. This may be with a view to capture the hero or group, or with more fatal consequences in mind. For our immediate purposes, we’re straddling the mystery, crime, adventure fences with vague spy and or military overtones because of the backstory. From this, you will understand we’re not dealing with an “ordinary” hero who earns reader sympathies by being an Everyman figure. Rather we have someone who’s had specialist training and must therefore win our sympathies by having a ready wit and, perhaps more importantly, dilemmas about whether to rescue his failed marriage. If in doubt, our hero should be tempted to stray but hold himself back on the off-chance his wife may return to his side (and bed).
In the classic thriller, our hero is outgunned, often threatened by a mysterious organisation making it difficult to know who to trust. In Fangs Out by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2013) A Cordell Logan Mystery, the “enemy” is unknown. Our hero is given money to investigate and refute a dying declaration that the head of a US defence contractor corporation has been cooking the books and is a murderer. So when someone tries to kill our hero, it’s obvious there must be something to investigate, but it’s uncertain which of those he’s questioned might have attempted his murder. So we’re principally into mystery thriller adventure territory as our heroic pilot and ex-National Security agent struggles to stay alive and work out exactly who’s hiding what from whom.
We start off with the necessary trigger event. As he’s about to be executed for murder, the condemned man uses his chance at a few last words to reassert his innocence and names the man he says is responsible. We then move to the selection of our hero as the one chosen to solve the mystery. In this case, Cordell Logan guides a plane into a safe landing and, as a form of reward, is given the job of finding the evidence to show the right man was executed. This moves us into the “search” phase where our hero beats the grass to see how many snakes emerge (it’s an old Chinese proverb, often applied to combat situations). Naturally this brings him into contact with the love interest. In this case, there are two women who try to get him into bed and so break his emotional commitment to his ex-wife. As he beats the grass, key pieces of information come his way and, with determination and a little unofficial help from a certain national agency, he pieces the information together into a hypothesis. He should, of course, trust the cops with all this information but, by then, he’s in revenge mode because the attempt on his life also wrecked his beloved old aircraft. He therefore prefers to find the villain and discuss matters before the police arrive. Naturally, this all leads to a “happily ever after” resolution which confirms the essential fairytale subtext to all adventure stories, namely that our hero confirms his relationship with the love interest (until the next book in the series comes along, of course).
This is the second thriller I’ve read this month built around flying and, as a complete package, this is significantly better. Both the situation to investigate and the mechanics of midflight emergencies are beautifully captured here. Apart from the section where Logan and Dutch Holland fly off in an attempt to find Al Demaerschalk, Fangs Out is a fast-paced, lean plot which positively crackles with wit and invention.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Bleiberg Project by David Khara (Le French Book, 2013) (translated by Simon John) A Consortium Thriller and the first in an intended trilogy with the film rights already sold to this first volume — this does not, of course, mean the film will ever be made, but it says something about the nature of the thriller that it should attract this interest. In terms of plot, we’re playing the old game of immediate threat hidden inside a bigger mystery. The first question appears to be how, if at all, the victorious Allies should have benefitted from the medical research undertaken by the Nazis using their supply of human “volunteers” both before and during World War II. It goes without saying that the German researchers abandoned all ethical considerations in their attempts to explore the human body and its potential. In part, this was driven by the goal of creating an Übermensch. An underlying irony of this story is that Bleiberg, the scientist in charge of the research forming the focus of this novel, is Jewish. In the early 1940s, he has his first success in creating a superior being. However, the broader historical question explored in multiple flashbacks is whether there was a context for the rise of Nazi Germany and, if so, what purpose was served.
This takes us into a world where shadowy organisations manipulate governments and guide the flow of history. A classic example of this phenomenon is the IIlluminati who play a pivotal role in Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and more recently in Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. Then we have The Knights Templar, The Freemasons, and so on. It’s a routine playground for the conspiracy theorists who look for coincidences in the past as evidence of a plan at work. In this case, we’ve got people talking with the young Hitler and offering to help him into power in return for access to whatever medical research he promotes. It’s at this point the book blurs the line between straight thriller and science fiction. Of course, it doesn’t go the whole hog to something like the Milkweed Triptych series by Ian Tregillis. Writing a proper science fiction/fantasy book is not what’s intended here. This is more in the tradition of The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin which has the Nazis develop cloning and then weave the thriller around the premise of multiple children growing up around the world. All of which brings us back to the initial question which we must now modify. What would a shadowy organisation do with the results of unethical medical experiments if it, rather than the Allies, had acquired all the data and key scientists after the War?
For our purposes, we start off with the man who became Lieutenant General Daniel Corbin. As a good Air Force Officer, he “notices” things that fail to fit into the usual routines. His suspicions are raised so he begins a private investigation. When he realises the danger to himself and his family, he arranges to “disappear”. In due course, he meets Bernard Dean, a CIA nonoperational agent, and trusts him to keep a watchful eye over his son, Jeremy Novacek Corbin. The kindest way to describe the adult Jeremy is an embittered materialist. He never made a proper emotional recovery after his father suddenly left home and ends up surrounded by the greed merchants on Wall Street. When this waste of space becomes a target, Jacqueline Walls draws the short straw of bodyguard, not an assignment she would have undertaken voluntarily. As is required in thriller mode, they take off for Europe and, after miscellaneous fights and explosions, end up inside one of the secret lairs of the shadowy Consortium. In all this, the most interesting character proves to be Eytan Morgenstern, a member of the Israeli Secret Service who has a watching brief but is forced to intervene when Jacqueline proves less than adequate.
This is a great translation, nicely catching the rhythms of US English and developing considerable narrative drive as we quickly get into the action. The narrative is built around multiple flashbacks so we can slowly piece the key events together before and during the War. These flashbacks are taken out of order and require the investment of memory to put all the piece into their right positions in the jigsaw. This makes it more interesting than the conventional linear novel. On balance, I think it one of the better examples of conspiracy theory novels with a Nazi twist. Apart from the science of the medical development at the centre of the book, there’s very little originality on show. But what we get is shown off with considerable élan. Of course, our heroes must survive to fight another day so there’s little real suspense. That’s the price paid by all authors who set off to write series unless they introduce some humour into proceedings. Everyone forgives an author for a less than white-knuckle ride if he or she makes us smile as we read. Sadly, The Bleiberg Project is rather straight-faced but still very entertaining.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The point of these reviews is to give you a piece of my mind. In doing so, I’m showing you who I am and how opinionated I can be. And this is done just by selecting words and stringing them together into sentences. Some may think this clever stuff but, as authorial voices go, it’s actually not a difficult trick to pull off. Authors who write fiction and create characters have a more difficult time. They have to strike a balance. On the one hand, they need to establish their own unique voices. That’s the major part of their brand, the way in which they appeal to their readers. Some write in short sentences. Even the idea of using words of more than two syllables (sorry) is anathema (only joking). Others think and write in a more complicated way. Their sentences go on for ever.
They don’t like short paragraphs, even for emphasis!
Over time, authors find the readers who like their voices. But that’s only half the battle. Fiction depends on presenting characters who act and speak in credible ways. Readers have to feel they know and understand the people they read about. They must want to identify with them and vicariously experience the situations described in the books.
Even when the novel is a first-person narrative, the protagonist’s voice is not the author’s voice. When we see a painting, we might suspect the identity of the artist but looking for the signature confirms it. In a novel, you hear the author’s voice through the voices of the characters he or she creates. The most successful books have a personality of their own. That’s what makes us fans. It carries us from one book to another even though the content in terms of characters and situations may be radically different.
I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, 2013) Book Two: The Troubles Trilogy. A Detective Sean Duffy Novel is following the history of the day. Argentina invades the Falklands and the DeLorean factory continues to deliver those cars with the gull-wing doors that can fly owners into the future. We first find our hero, now promoted to Inspector, exchanging friendly fire with a watchman when they’re called out to an abandoned factory site to investigate a blood trail. Such are the challenges when plainclothes police officers respond to a call. After persuading the old soldier to stop shooting, they find a body, cut to fit into a suitcase. Even on a good day, this would be bad news. That it seems to be a foreigner adds to the burden of paperwork and probably means the crime will be kicked upstairs for politically more cautious officers to investigate. This coincides with a blip in Sean’s relationship with Laura so his normal routines are disrupted. Life can be a real bitch in a town called Malice. When the cadaver turns out to be American and the poison used to kill him is very obscure, the case looks challenging, but then the case in which the body was dumped turns up a clue. And the clue leads them to another death that’s in the record books as an IRA hit. . . Pursuing this trail gives us a delightful piece of investigative logic including the canonical dog that fails to bark.
It’s at this point that the book takes off from a police procedural into faintly surreal thriller territory as the girl on the motorcycle, the one you only see through a glass darkly, turns out to be a fan of Doctor Faustus. She’s a kind of agent provocateur, a challenge to the macho Duffy who takes such inordinate pride in his investigative skills. Perhaps if he’s less than a good detective, he shouldn’t be so cocksure of himself. In the end, of course, there are answers. But our hero has to pay a heavy price to get them. You might wonder why he would be so persistent. The answer is, as you might expect, slightly complicated. Some detectives are dogged. While this is sometimes thought an admirable quality, it tends to be a more boring trait and the resort of the unimaginative. Sean Duffy is a detective with flair. He’s blessed with an analytical mind and, even when he knows the risks, is not afraid to use it. Having been in close proximity to an exploding terrorist bomb, he believes his survival is a kind of investment in the future. Individuals cannot do much on their own, but if there were more like him, Northern Ireland would become a better place. It will probably never be an entirely normal place, but any improvement is to be welcomed.
Why have I used the word surreal to open the previous paragraph? The answer revolves around the culture of Northern Ireland. Over the decades, the flow of life in the province has been distorted. Those lucky enough to live in broadly stable and peaceful cultures view events in places like Belfast as somehow stepping outside the normal constraints of logic. They shake their heads at news from the province, refusing to accept this is normality for those who live in this place. On the other side of the divide, the people’s defence to the horrors around them is a black humour. When you are surrounded by pain and death, the only way to deal with it is by finding humour in the macabre and the denial of hope. It’s a kind of satirical submission to the inevitability of death.
It seems to me I Hear the Sirens in the Street is the final step in Adrian McKinty’s journey to perfect his author’s voice. This is a book of realism yet, because of the humour, it also captures the sectarian tensions in a way that makes them more bearable for the modern reader. I find McKinty’s voice particularly pleasing in this book. In earlier novels, I think he was trying to hard to be “amusing”. Here the humour is more organic, emerging with a more natural feel and making this book particularly satisfying. So I unhesitatingly recommend this second episode in Sean Duffy’s career. I find him fascinating as a character. It will be interesting to see, having survived two books, whether he can live to fight on at the end of the trilogy.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I need to start off this review with a little theory. Over the years, distinctions have arisen between structuralism, formalism and functionalism. As applied to literature, functionalism goes beyond an analysis of grammar and looks at the function of language in a larger context. So instead of asking about the structure or form of the language, the question is more what the speakers or writers do with it. It’s a more holistic question looking at meaning, authorial intention and the outcomes achieved through the use of the given language. I suppose functionalists are interested in the capacity of language to achieve the author’s intentions. So in The Marseille Caper by Peter Mayle (Knopf, 2012) we have a book which, in all senses, satisfies formalist and structuralist criteria, i.e. when you look at the components of language used, all the properties of language have been most professionally exploited. But when we come to functionalist considerations, there seems to be little attempt made to interact with the audience. There’s an essential passivity about the text which makes the reading experience decidedly dull. What has gone wrong?
As a caper, this is crime fiction that sits on the dividing line between an adventure and a thriller. Many might say this is a false distinction. That in both genres, a protagonist encounters physical danger, so the plots are basically the same. After the set-up, we see the emergence of risks as our hero explores the local environment. Regardless whether the hero is active or passive, the risk matures and positive threats have to be repulsed. In a thriller, the level of suspense and excitement is significantly higher, stimulating the reader’s sense of expectation that serious injury or death are imminent. However, adventures can literally be our hero against the environment, i.e. surviving piranas and other perils when the plane crashes into the Amazon rainforest. Whereas thrillers always feature villains and our hero has to take the initiative in some task or quest. Put simply, if a thriller fails to thrill, it’s a failure. But we can admire an adventure story and enjoy it because our expectations of emotional engagement are initially set at a lower level.
Applying functionalist methods to the evaluation of this text, what should we be looking for? It should start with an analysis of the plot. The point should be to deliver peaks and troughs of emotion, rather like a roller-coaster ride. Overall, there should be a sustained sense of suspense as our protagonist comes into danger. There can be surprises, minor moments of early triumph, some humour, and moments of sadness and despair while the level of danger ratchets remorselessly up to the climax at the end. Set-piece chases and fights will provide high points. Injuries and the deaths of team members provide the lows. As we approach the end, there will be a sense of impending doom. All this needs to be delivered with vocabulary choices to heighten emotion and structural choices, e.g. simple sentences, shorter paragraphs, etc. to produce a page-turner style.
No wait, I did say this was a caper. That means the most we can expect are swindles, perhaps thefts and, when the author feels the need to kick it up a gear, a kidnapping. So perhaps by definition, a book with this title can only be mild adventure. Hmmm. Well this is the second book featuring Sam Levitt. In his first outing, he earned his finder’s fee from the insurance company employing him by stealing the property back from the rich man who had “acquired” it. Impressed by our hero’s ingenuity, the same rich man now forgives past transgressions and employs our hero to front a bid to build some beach-front property in Marseille. Although there are two competing bidders, we’re only interested in one Englishman whose approach to business is to buy or bully his way to success. When it comes to the broad sweep of the narrative, there’s no real sense of threat or menace. Only one person is injured and all problems are easily overcome. Frankly, I can’t remember reading a crime/adventure/thriller novel quite so insipid for months. There’s no suspense and no humour to compensate for the lack of thrills. The only thing that distinguishes it from the pack is the detailed descriptions of the food and wine consumed during our hero’s stay in the Marseille area. Since I like French food and wine, this element of the book was interesting but, otherwise, The Marseille Caper falls completely flat. It’s not functionally fit for the purpose of being read with enjoyment. The only thing in its favour for me as a reviewer is that, at 210 pages, it’s mercifully short.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
It’s customary for thrillers to globe trot. For the high-end market, James Bond transports us to hyperreal destinations. When first written, these were the playgrounds of the rich and powerful, the places we ordinary people could never access. Now that travel has democratised the world to some extent, the film versions must present these more accessible locations in a way that heightens their difference. The sun must rise from just this angle to reflect off the buildings, the neon of the advertising hoardings must make surreal flickerings on marbled floors, the waters of the sea must be crystal clear and free from the sewage more usually found floating around urbanised coastlines. At the other end of the market, thrillers insist on more real locations where we vicariously experience more brutal violence and feel the lack of human kindness.
A Good Death by Christopher R Cox (Minotaur, 2013) falls into the latter camp where we get a slightly sanitised version of life in the demimonde of Bangkok and then a positively romanticised trip across the border into Laos. The best way to capture the spirit of this book is to see it as a slowly evolving adventure story. As is usually required, we start off in America with a young man coming into his father’s business as a PI. Early on in this career move, he’s offered a chance on an insurance case. The company is deeply suspicious about a claim on a life policy. A young woman has apparently overdosed in Bangkok. This would trigger a double indemnity claim. Even though there’s a body verified by the local staff of the US Embassy, the company believes this is a fraudulent claim. Our hero is therefore sent off with specific instructions to prove the fraud.
This is the ultimate fish-out-of-water set-up. He’s never been to this part of the world before and is profoundly inexperienced when it comes to dealing with people in radically different cultures. Yet with little difficulty, he’s able to talk with the coroner, officers at the local police station, people at the hotel where the body was found, and so on. In other words, despite the lack of language skills, he’s moving with the same ease he might back home in the US. At first sight, everything about the death looks legitimate except. . .
The problem with the first part of the book is we have to go through it all to get to the second part. Yes, I know. I’m sorry. But the first third is rather slow-moving and not terribly convincing but, unless and until our hero resolves the question of the death, we can’t get on with the next phase. Think of the story as growing organically, one part naturally developing into the next. So during the course of his investigation, he runs foul of one of the more senior police officers who seems to be into some level of corruption involving prostitution if not more serious offences. It therefore becomes expedient to leave Bangkok. There’s a travel third and then a final third of straight thrillerish adventure.
I would like to be able to tell you this is a good story. In fact, the author is genuinely trying his best to tell a story that spans the generations and makes recent history relevant to today. In other hands, may be this could all have worked but, as it is, the whole thing starts off ponderously and then slowly collapses under its own weight. It’s like watching a slow-motion car wreck as our hero slowly moves off the map and ends up in a different country. This just does not feel credible. He hasn’t got the personality to undertake a journey involving this level of risk. Even though he acquires one of his father’s ex-army buddies as a guide, I don’t believe it would play out this way. And even if he did end up in this place, I seriously doubt he would survive. The natives in this part of the world are notorious for their ability as hunters and, if they should want to ensure those they captured hung around to see how it would all end, they would still be there. The result is more an adventure than a thriller with our hero blundering back into civilisation so there can be a next book in the series. Why I am classifying this as adventure? Because in true thriller mode our hero is the prime mover who pulls everyone through to the triumph at the end. At best this guy is reactive and little better than a spectator during much of the action. It’s a shame. I have the sense it could have been a lot better but, as a first novel, I suppose there’s just enough to encourage us. Perhaps the next one will all come together in a coherent and well-paced package. Until then, A Good Death is something you should only read if you have an interest in studying the problems in first novels.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.
As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.
All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.