Archive for March, 2012

Skeleton Picnic by Michael Norman

As I was reading Skeleton Picnic by Michael Norman (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012), I found myself thinking about the writing style. In my terms, it’s simple and uncomplicated. Yet it occurred to me that, to some readers, classifying a style as “simple” might be taken as slightly insulting. So I began wondering what I actually mean. After all, writing is nothing more than putting words in the right places to make sentences and paragraphs. As an example of an extreme approach, it was not unusual for Marcel Proust to write sentences containing more than 600 words. Hence, the choice of words and their arrangement on the page says something about the author. In practical terms, it offers a sample of vocabulary he or she uses and, by the way the words are arranged, says something about the way the author thinks. Obviously, authors don’t necessarily write in the same way they might talk after a few alcoholic beverages in the local pub, i.e. there’s a differences between public statements and private utterances. Nevertheless, all words in their contexts are a kind of window into the author’s mind. We see the meanings intended and make a judgement on their merit. So, in many senses, keeping the style simple is a virtue. It places the fewest barriers to understanding between the author and the readers except, in the case of Proust, a small subset of literary masochists genuinely enjoy a challenge.

Looking back at this book, it’s quite an interesting stylistic exercise. There are very few attempts to establish clear mental pictures of the settings or the people in the landscape. Other authors can spend pages establishing a look-and-feel impression, fleshing out descriptions to create “atmosphere”. Michael Norman tends tends to offer simple statements of where we are and, from time to time, mention a fact about physical appearance. So his priorities focus on the narrative. There’s to be no slowing down. He wants the most efficient delivery system possible for the plot. Hence, when I label a style “simple”, this is not a criticism. It describes a legitimate artistic choice to strip out details considered inessential. It’s a form of artistic minimalism. As a final thought on more general issues, when setting out to read a book, I find authorial omniscience can be a little annoying. Early on, we innocent readers are informed that events will soon threaten the lives of the series hero, J D Books, and his family. It rather dispels the slow realisation of imminent danger when the author has warned us in advance what to expect. If this had been a single lapse, I might have forgiven it, but it actually happens three or four times through the text.

Michael Norman clamping his left arm in a natural pose

So what about the plot? There’s a market in Indian artifacts recovered from land previous occupied by the tribes. For all unauthorised digging is illegal, pot hunters continue to go out into the desert in Southern Utah. Some are legitimate collectors. Others are out to profit from selling the recovered items on to the international market. Needless to say, when large amounts of money may be involved, amateurs are at risk. In this case, Rolly and Abby Rogers disappear on one of their exploratory digs. A visit to their home discovers a break-in. Their collection of artifacts has been stolen. Since the disappearance took place on federal land, this puts it in the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. Ranger J D Books must therefore balance the collection of evidence in the desert and the investigation of the burglary. He reasons it’s easier to assume the two events are connected. If he can find out who broke in, it may lead to whoever kidnapped the Rogers. In practical terms, this is a linear police procedural as we watch over the Ranger’s shoulder as he tries to decide what might be significant. What lifts it above the more usual fare is that this is a small community. Everyone knows everyone else and, more importantly, may be related to each other in some way. Although he’s been away for a few years, our hero can’t move very far before running into a potential conflict of interest in the investigation or threatening the interests of a family with real political influence. This social, political and legal minefield generates real interest. Just how far should an investigator go when, for example, his brother-in-law may be a person of interest, or an attorney he dated represents one of the people arrested? The fact he isn’t immediately pulled from the case says something very significant about the level of financial support for law enforcement in this part of the world. There literally are no other people immediately available to move forward with the kidnapping case at the required speed. Although hope for finding the Rogers alive is fading, there can be no slow-down in the pursuit of the investigation. J D Books has to stay on the case, no matter what the social or technical difficulties.

The result is impressive, demonstrating in simple terms, the process an investigator will go through to work out whodunnit. Although there’s gun fire and other elements representing a slight shift towards a thriller format, Skeleton Picnic remains a classic piece of detective fiction in a small town where criminals are moderately incompetent and blood is thicker than water.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dark Blood by Stuart MacBride

As I was reading Dark Blood by Stuart MacBride, I suddenly remembered that some British films are released into the North American market with subtitles. It’s not just the accents and the slang. It’s all the cultural references that most people living outside Britain probably wouldn’t understand. Some of Ken Loach’s films have suffered the subtitle fate which inevitably consigns each film into the very limited art house circuit. It’s somewhat annoying. Apparently, we Brits don’t need any help with American accents and slang. It’s that old cultural imperialism assumption that British peasants have seen and heard enough American television shows and films that we can instantly translate everything into our own version of English. . . Anyway, as I was reading this book I was happily smiling at how impenetrable the language would probably be to our trans-Atlantic cousins. Or, even if they could guess what it was supposed to mean, they would miss the essential humour in seeing dialogue like this written down. I’ve met people who talk like this and it’s genuinely refreshing to see a fairly credible version of it presented for general consumption. Too often we find ourselves in some posh world where people still talk as if stuck in a 1950s or 60s timewarp when everyone wanted to write another of those Golden Age detective novels that hadn’t quite gone out of style. Dark Blood is not some police procedural or routine detective fiction. This is the people of Scotland in the raw with a tough, no-nonsense approach to their lives and work. I was completely mesmerised.

So let’s cut to the chase with the set-up. Dark Blood is the sixth book to feature Logan McRae in the Cold Granite series set in Aberdeen which, as everyone who lives north of the border knows, is nicknamed the Granite City. As if the city didn’t have enough local criminals to worry about, it’s now the holiday destination of Richard Knox, a sex offender of epic proportions who abducts and rapes old men, now released into the community after serving his time. This will necessitate a small addition to the Sex Offenders’ budget to offer both supervision and, almost inevitably, protection should his presence become known. To help resettle him, DSI Danby flies up from Newcastle. As always, it’s a joy to the local force to have the benefit of an outside officer’s knowledge and experience. Meanwhile, there’s a flood of counterfeit goods and funny money appearing, while a crazed man with a baby in tow seems intent on robbing a jewellery store with the help of a sawn-off sledgehammer, there’s a flasher in action even though the temperature is too cold for brass monkeys, and an informer has gone AWOL.

Stuart MacBride wondering if his Scottish accent is showing

Naturally, all this would normally be well within the competence range of this dedicated team of professionals except Logan McRae is struggling with an alcohol-fueled attitude problem. He feels no-one loves him so there’s no need for him to love any of them back. Such a confrontational approach can only last so long before those in power begin suggesting he might have to take his hook and sling it in a distant place completely disconnected from the police force. And this despite the most supportive of DIs to work for. Indeed, Steel’s ability to sing him a lullaby in tune but without the words, only la-la-las, is one of the things keeping him going. Anyway, as the delights of babysitting the sex offender pall, Logan finally decides he should clean up his act. So, with a new-found determination, he stops drinking. Every time he feels himself weakening, someone hits him, more often than not, over the head. He finds this is worse than the hangovers he had been experiencing and has no desire to make it worse by actually consuming anything alcoholic.

When the body of the snitch turns up on a building site owned by a gangster, the pace of the book, which has not been exactly slow-moving, accelerates into top gear as our hero adds smashing up cars to his repertoire of things to do when you want to take your mind of drinking. Then the situation get into a right pickle as our sex offender’s address is outed and journalists camp outside to record events as local people argue their case Mr Knox should be relocated to someone else’s backyard. Several fights and a few inspirational la-la-las later, an entirely more sober McRae finally comes through with most of the right answers. He may still not be flavour of the month with the powers that be, but he’s done his best to clean the vomit off his notebook and, with the level of personal odour reduced below biohazard, he’s slowly on his way towards some well-deserved rehabilitation — possibly in the next book in the series called Shatter the Bones.

So if you’re into highly idiomatic vernacular dispensing wit and wisdom about life for the Scottish finest and their prey, both local and visiting criminals, Dark Blood should be right up your street. It’s full of incident, not of the pretty variety, and packed with memorable characters. All in all, terrific entertainment!

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

So let me get Wrath of the Titans (2012) straight. This is about Perseus (Sam Worthington). He’s the one proudly parading in a skirt as opposed to Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) who’s the warrior Princess sporting the full-dress armour you would expect on the battlefield. It seems rather insulting to the LGBT community that men in films can confidently walk around wearing a mini (what did these ancient Greeks wear underneath their skirts?) with their swords in an erect position, whereas modern men seen in public, with or without swords, run the risk of assault and arrest (which in some countries will be the police assaulting the man in the skirt). Except in Greece itself, of course. The modern Greek army, following in the noble tradition of the Scottish regiments with their kilts (and, if we’re to believe the myths, nothing underneath) continues to celebrate heroes like Perseus when turning their soldiers out for guard duty (see below). It brings in much needed tourist revenue during this time of austerity as homophobic men from around the world come to view one of the few national armies retaining gender neutral uniforms, albeit with a female bias — will you just look at those shoes with the bobbles. Having repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, President Obama will no doubt be introducing comparable uniforms to further enhance the morale of US troops, should he win the next election, of course. Anyway, the reason for this fixation with skirts is the way the CGI plays with them in this film. For example, if Perseus were to jump feet-first from a height, you would expect the force of the air whipping past his ankles to wrap the skirt around his waist, thus exposing him to criticism from the film censors. Except, no matter what our hero is doing, the skirt never outrages his modesty (see the poster above).

Sam Worthington with his curly top


I begin in this way because the film itself is set at a comparable level of idiocy — on the poster, note how the hero avoids using the forked end to attack the beastie — one spike good, three spikes bad. It all starts with the polyglot approach to dialogue. In the good old days of Hollywood, there were voice coaches who would train everyone involved to approximate the same mid-Western accent. So here comes Sam Worthington with his native Australian, Rosamund Pike and Ralph Fiennes with their cut-glass English, Liam Neeson reverting to type with his Northern Irish brogue and, most hilariously of all, Bill Nighy approximating the Galápagos Islands which are just north of Huddersfield if you approach via Surrey. Ares (Édgar Ramírez), of course, is from Venezuela so he can speak with a funny accent without trying and then there’s Toby Kebbell who wins the prize for the most anonymous accent — it’s the beard that filters out the phonemes as they leave his lips.

Rosamund Pike and Bill Nighy looking at the playback of the scene where she wore the beard


As you will gather, Slight Disagreement Between the Gods is all about men in skirts being given silly things to do while pretending to live in the Tower of Babel. The next big truth about this epic is that all but one of the men has Daddy Issues, a term coined by Sigmund Freud to describe sons who would prefer their fathers to be elsewhere. So Helius (John Bell) is annoyed by his father Perseus who won’t let him play with his sword. Perseus is upset with his father, Zeus, because he resents having to save the world whenever Zeus messes things up. Zeus, Hades and Poseidon are upset with Cronus, their father, because he never made time for them when they were baby Gods — just to be sure you understand, Cronus was the Titan lacking in parenting skills, while Chronos was an earlier God of Time. Ares as the God of War just wants to fight with everyone including Zeus his father. Only Cronus has no Daddy Issues because he’s a product of CGI. And talking of the CGI, we get to see Cerberus, a few cyclops, some randomly thrown together nasties with lots of arms and legs, all holding swords, and the horse with wings. When he finally appears, Cronus looks like a grown-up version of Lavagirl without Sharkboy around to liven up the party. He makes all those slow-motion moves much beloved by overweight professional wrestlers who want to look silly when faster-moving, good-looking heroes stop pretending to be hurt and close in for the knockout.

Toby-Kebbell says, "Feel the wrath of my hair!"


I think the moment I began to feel really ill was when the pride of the ancient Greek army did that everyone-make-ape-noises-together thing that’s supposed to show group solidarity as Perseus had his Pegasus moment wheeling in the sky (the US Marine Corp apparently use the verb to “oorah” as opposed to the “hip, hip, hooray” more commonly used by the British when they want to make a sarcastic comment). If this had been part of a more general attempt to make the film amusing, I would have accepted it as one failed joke. But I think this was intended, somehow, to be serious. So there you have it, Sam Worthington, Toby Kebbell and Rosamund Pike travel to an island that doesn’t exist, go through the labyrinth where the Minotaur makes a cameo appearance, and enjoy a package tour round the Underworld where nothing stays the same until you get to the missing Daddy and the red hot Titan in the soft centre. Wrath of the Titans is completely without humour, interminably boring, and lacking anything approximating intelligence. Even the Gods die in despair — obviously, there’s no convenient Heaven for them to adjourn to when they shuffle off this immortal coil. I suppose this means it’s a blockbuster, but my money says it will sink without trace at the box office once the word-of-mouth spreads.


Greek army soldiers auditioning for a John Cleese sketch

Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings

In one sense, I suppose I should be falling over myself in excitement. Not only is Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) written about the kind of people I grew up with, but I also know this part of the world rather well, having lived for many years just a few miles away from the countryside where this is set. It creates a slightly fuzzy, nostalgic feeling when time and place coincide. Unfortunately, my excitement stops just after the conceptual level and fails to rekindle when I get to the execution. The first problem comes with the sense of place. Although it mentions local landmark pubs, hotels and a nearby hospital, there’s very attempt to give a sense of the community, although some of the xenophobic panic of the time is mentioned. In this place, being so close to the Prees Heath internment camp, the presence of so many of the 27,000 people rounded up and held as a threat to national security, would have been more dominant in local culture. At the time, the fear-mongering from the popular press had induced an irrational level of fear in all parts of the country — even those not seriously at risk from German attack. History records that the conditions under which people were detained at Prees Heath were bad. There was chaos in most of the places used for internment, made significantly worse because the military had no idea why these people had been rounded up nor what was to be done with them. Until the majority were moved to the Isle of Man, this remains one of the more shameful exercises perpetrated by the British Government during the early part of the war. The rest were deported to Canada and Australia with many of the internees beaten and robbed by the soldiers. One ship full of Jewish internees sank on the way to Canada.

Maureen Jennings skillfully hiding the loose jaw

While it would be unfair to say Maureen Jennings has completely sanitised the history, the conditions as described in the Prees Heath are remarkably humane and the military arrangements not unduly oppressive. I suppose it remains politically inconvenient to draw attention to the potential British anti-Semitism which led to this appalling treatment. In this part of Shropshire, holding so many behind barbed wire in tents and generally squalid conditions would have been well-known in the surrounding towns and villages. The police and the military worked together to keep order on both sides of the wire. So the idea that our “hero”, Detective Inspector Tom Tyler would not have had routine liaison meeting with the officers at the camp and discussed security is a non-starter. More importantly, there would have been a steady watch on comings and going at the camp. As far as I know, there were no cultural events as described until the detainees arrived in more permanent accommodation in the Isle of Man. However, since authors these days are supposed to engage in meticulous research before committing anything to paper, I suppose all this is documented and I will defer to the author on this.

We also have some importance accorded the debacle at Dunkirk, sometimes better known as Operation Dynamo as our hero’s son is still feeling the adverse effects. So, with two young men back in the small town, everyone has an opinion on the way the war is going. Except, of course, the farming community is rallying round the local monied class to help beat the food rationing system, while the Land Army has drafted in some willing young ladies to help lift local spirits. As to the story, we have the death of one London girl. She’s had the good fortune to stumble on a blackmail opportunity except, before she can really cash in, she’s knocked down early one morning and, when this isn’t immediately fatal, she’s shot in the head. Later, her best friend also disappears. As a puzzle, we’re shown early on that everything is going to turn on the relationship between the town and the camp. So the structure of the book walks us through the local community and gives us a sight of the camp and some of the detainees. Note the speed level I picked. There’s little sense of urgency. It’s not that our detective doesn’t do his job, supported with reasonable efficiency by a doctor to do an autopsy and constables to fetch and carry. But no-one is breathing down his neck with threats to draft in help from the county or even call in Scotland Yard. The investigation just makes steady progress as information is accumulated. On the way, our hero discovers an ex-girlfriend is working in the camp as an interpreter which gives him the opportunity to reassess his own marriage and wonder what it might have been life had different choices been made.

As a plot, there’s some meticulous attention to detail. Everything fits together perfectly as a puzzle. It’s just there’s no real interest or excitement in the solution. I had barely registered the ultimate villain on the way through and, by the time the more thrillerish bit comes at the end, I can’t say as I cared very much who it was. I suppose the final reveal is a nice touch but, by then, it was all too little, too late. I had given up on Season of Darkness. So, unfortunately, I can’t honestly say I can recommend this. I was hoping it would replicate the interest of the Detective Murdoch Mysteries which are a nice balance of history and police procedural. I think this fails because it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be detective fiction or a World War II historical novel or an adventure story/thriller.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)

For once, it’s nice to see a film where the title actually describes what it’s about. Too often, you see a title and have absolutely no idea what to expect. Is Rush Hour about traffic jams or too many people crushing on to a mass rapid transport system? Is Fast and Furious porn, describing someone’s technique in bed? Or does Gone in Sixty Seconds suggest how long it will take the film to sicken you and force you to leave the cinema? With Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) we’ve a title to describe in a single phrase what it takes 107 minutes on screen to show. It’s up alongside Snakes on a Plane and the inspirational holiday promotion film Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.

Ewan McGregor and Amr Waked doing the important stuff


As to the plot, let’s take a moment to consider what happens when a relationship dies. Time has passed and the initial enthusiasm has drifted away. You have set and now boring routines. Words may be exchanged but, often, their meaning is missed. Even if sex occurs, it’s more a duty than anything even remotely romantic. Such is the marriage of Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling). He goes off to work in the civil service where he’s a shy boffin and fly fisherman when he gets the chance. Think of him as similar to the unassuming inventor in The Man in the White Suit. Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness meet again in Ealing Comedy style. They are both innocents in the world who get sucked into situations beyond their experience and ability to control. As to his wife, without asking him or discussing options, she goes off to work in Geneva — initially only for six weeks. For a man who only allows himself a drink on a Sunday — they married on a Friday but it was a public holiday in Northern Ireland so he treated it as an honorary Sunday — this disruption to his routine comes as a shock. The disturbance is continued because he’s now expected to work on a project he considers a complete nonstarter. He’s to transplant British salmon to the Yemen and make them swim upstream, assuming there’s actually some water there, of course. Watching Ewan McGregor vaguely stir into a state approximating “being alive” is a delight.

Emily Blunt sees past short-term physical to long-term partnership


This somewhat eccentric piscatory project is the brainchild of Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) ably assisted by Harriet (Emily Blunt). Since the Government is looking for “good” PR to offset the decision to send troops into Afghanistan, Patricia Maxwell (Kirsten Scott Thomas) mobilises all Departments to make the project real. She want photo ops showing Arabs can be peace-loving fisherfolk rather than terrorists. This brings us neatly to Paul Torday, the author who first put virtual pen to paper and produced the eponymous novel which won the 2007 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. It describes the battle between cynicism — British businesses want a cut of the sheikh’s money while the Government wants a PR coup — and faith — the sheikh and, in due course, Dr Alfred believe the project can be made to work. At first, it’s theoretical in the same way it’s possible to send men to Mars and, just may be, get them back again. But when Harriet is also convinced, they become a can-do force that beats the nay-sayers and doom-mongers at their own games.


Although we have operatives for al-Qaeda intent on killing the sheikh — for reasons not entirely clear, they think flooding this part of the Yemen breaches sharia law — this is more a gentle romantic comedy with faintly satirical overtones. In one sense, the film lacks the rather more comic edge of the book. It presents Patricia Maxwell as a completely unlovable force for publicity, prepared to stop at nothing in pursuit of the right media coverage for maximum spin effect. Since this is backed up by very little intelligence, her efforts are prone to skate on the edge of disaster. But the other civil service characters are cardboard stereotypes. They are introduced as examples of mere incompetence rather than with any serious intent to amuse. So where’s the romance?

Kirsten Scott Thomas as the spin master to die for


With Dr Alfred cast adrift by his wife’s departure to Switzerland, he’s free to look at Harriet. She’s had an intense relationship with Captain Robert Mayers (Tom Mison), an SAS officer who’s MIA, presumed dead. This leaves her vulnerable but, with surprising gentleness, Fred brings her back to work. The burgeoning relationship feels credible and we can accept Fred’s refusal to return to the boredom of suburban life. No matter what Harriet decides, he’s set off upstream like his salmon. The sheikh is also pleasingly inspirational while remaining quite humble. He may be worth millions but he’s not lost his common touch nor an open-minded approach to other cultures. The only thing that spoils the film is the ending. The deus ex machina discovery of the missing SAS officer and his secret flight to Yemen with the press corp in tow is capped by a more serious terrorist attack. This strikes a discordant note. Everything up to this point, including a more personal assassination attempt, has been very small-scale. This breaks out into the open for no good plot development reason other than to show Patricia Maxwell as even more manipulative than we might have thought. The resolution must come down to Harriet’s private choice and the swathe of destruction is unnecessary drama.


In the end, I suppose, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a film with an inspirational message. Life is unrewarding unless you believe in something. The more strongly you believe, the better the outcome. It’s all about personal investment. If you work on something, your labour gives you a stake in the result. If it’s a relationship, it only stays alive so long as you commit yourself to it. If it’s a major infrastructure project, local people will only accept it if they are involved and feel they are earning the rewards. So regardless whether you know or care about fishing, this is a low-key but rather delightful film. It’s pleasing the British Lottery should have allocated the funds. This time, the entire production team and cast hit the jackpot in a very British way for all the director, Lasse Hallström, hails from Sweden.


The Ironclad Prophecy by Pat Kelleher

The Ironclad Prophecy by Pat Kelleher (No Man’s World II) (Abaddon Books, 2011) is one of these books you pick up from the pile waiting for review and then almost immediately feel like putting it down again. By an act of magic, a chunk of the trenches at the Battle of the Somme has been transported to another world. . . When Edgar Rice Burroughs was trying to think of something exciting to write about one-hundred years ago, he took a single Confederate soldier off to Mars (that’s Barsoom to the fans). Here we’ve got a couple of hundred British Tommies, all their rations and equipment, three nurses, an aeroplane with guns attached, and, most important of all, one of those experimental tanks that tended to break down, get stuck in the mud and suffocate the people inside. Wow! That’s really scaling things up.

Now we can rerun all those stories from my youth with the British Army fighting the Zulus on the Veldt. Yes, that nicely pegs the technology of the local alien nasties. They sport the equivalent of spears with no long-range capacity. Had the magic spell not conveniently carried a chunk of the French countryside complete with trenches and barbed wire, we could have replicated the laargering of wagons into defensive positions to show the British superiority in fire-power and tactics. For those among you who like your history, the situation here is roughly comparable to the Siege of Eshowe (1879), albeit that the British have not arrogantly attacked the natives, believing in their own invincibility. They have been involuntarily dumped in the middle of enemy territory and so find themselves under siege with limited supplies of food and ammunition. The only relief would come from the tank except it went off to explore some time ago and hasn’t been seen since. Cue a small group of self-sufficient, salt-of-the-Earth Tommies to go off and find it. Yet, now we come to a problem as a reviewer. I read First World War and adventure stories set in Africa when I was growing up so find myself bored to tears when invited to go back to narrative content I thought long dead. To modern readers who’ve never thought about asymmetrical conflict using only one-hundred year old weaponry against “primitive” native tribes, this will all be shiny, new and exciting.

Pat Kelleher with a sad and resigned expression after reading this

Hey, then we’ve got hostile plants and other beasties. Welcome home to Harry Harrison’s Deathworld where local flora and fauna do their best to kill a human on sight. Except here we have a nice irony because, inadvertently, the British fight fire with fire. Just as carving a wooden leg out of a local tree can have an unfortunate effect on the wearer, so the poppies in the area just outside the trenches have a disorienting effect on the local Zulus. Instant highs from the poppy without the need to process it into heroin or cocaine disorient the attackers. Frankly, I’m stunned to discover The Ironclad Prophesy is the second in what’s intended as a series, although I do concede the clever puniness of the series title. So instead of giving into temptation and throwing the book into the nearest bin at around 50 pages, I grit my teeth and keep reading. There must be some good in this morass. In today’s high-pressure commercial world, no sane publisher would produce something at this level of drivel unless something more interesting happens.

For a moment, let’s digress into the Heart of Darkness (1903) by Joseph Conrad which creates a metaphor for the dangers when entering a poorly explored landscape, the cruelty of the treatment meted out by the European colonists to the natives, and the essential darkness to be found within people. Francis Ford Coppola later conflated the original story with the war in Vietnam. Both book and film require the rescue of a man called Kurtz who’s less than sane. The original Kurtz described by Conrad tries to declare himself a God. The second is a commander fighting his own demons, partly due to the consumption of mind-modifying substances. Apocalypse Now has passed into legend both as to the problems in making it and as a completed product. That said, whenever any small group sets off into the unknown and finds individuals heavily under the influence of psychotropic drugs, comparisons are inevitable. In his case, the leader is not only inhaling fumes but also drinking a distilled version. There are both physical and psychological changes. The fact we’re on an alien world, with an odd metal wall that shouldn’t be there and a secret hidden in the jungle can’t paper over the recycled nature of the plot.

Well, in the end, the alien world does prove to be interesting as it rescues the Tommies when they would otherwise be unable to save themselves. There’s also an improvement in the clichéd “temple” scenes deep in the jungle as our crazed commander finds the ability to commune with the present and past inhabitants due to his symbiotic enhancement. Unfortunately, we’ve had to stagger through too much dross to get to this point. So here’s the truth of it as best I can supply it. If you’ve never read anything about the life and times of the British soldier in the trenches, and you know nothing about colonialism and the wars it engendered, you’ll probably enjoy this. Set on an alien world with an interesting set of native species, there’s a fair amount to find exciting. But if, like me, you’ve been reading straight adventure and military fiction for more than sixty years, you’ll find The Ironclad Prophesy a somewhat tedious retread of very old ideas that only comes to life in the final third of the book.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Memory of Blood by Christopher Fowler

March 26, 2012 3 comments

In a novel set, in part, among theatricals, it’s appropriate to reflect on the world of the Green Room where those not actually on stage, have the chance to talk to each other. Many of these conversation are wonderfully catty with all kinds of nicely malicious asides and observations. People who live in each other’s emotional pockets know where all the bodies are buried and are not afraid to exhume them. In the open chapters of The Memory of Blood by Christopher Fowler (Random House, 2012), the ninth in the Bryant & May series and one of the so-called Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries, we have some hilarious moments. There’s a delightful eavesdropping quality about them. Indeed, I suspect many of the one-liners are real, meticulously collected by our author at smart pubs, clubs and restaurants around London.

Howsoever they come to be here, the result is a pleasingly refreshing way of introducing our cast of investigators and those who may, with the exception of the victims, properly be considered suspects. Although, of course, the fact this pair of detectives are involved doesn’t mean the actual cast of suspects will be artificially limited. After all, when you find Mr Punch in a heap on the floor in a locked room, you naturally assume he’s just thrown the baby out of the window, shouting, “That’s the way to do it!” True to form, you’d find Punch’s wooden hands fit the bruises on the baby’s neck. Then an independent witness comes forward. She’s German and therefore has no sense of humour. She’s also blessed with artistic talents and draws Punch’s face as the dwarf who opened the window in the flat opposite and threw out the baby. Naturally, we must now consider the case solved. It’s an application of the rule derived from one of the first cases involving a false report of crime. A man rushed into a police station and alleged that, every morning when he looked in the mirror, he found cuts on his face — evidence someone was trying to kill him as he slept. It turned out, while still half-asleep, he was using a blunt razor to shave. His name was Occam. All doubt as to Punch’s guilt is dispelled when Jack Ketch, Punch’s hangman, is found next to a suspended body. It must be supernatural with golems and demonic possession of dolls like Chucky in the frame as the killers. Or perhaps the dolls are automata or radio-controlled killing machines.

Christopher Fowler celebrates the launch of another Bryant & May with a matchstick glued to his chin

Far more interesting is the death of Anna Marquand, the woman researcher and ghost writer who’s been working on Bryant’s biography. It seems an unlikely coincidence she should die immediately after talking to her celebrity author. Then, after taking a swim to clear her head of irrelevant details, DS Janice Longbright confirms a theft of the manuscript was the motive for what was probably murder. Feeling the need to follow the trail to the end, she takes the lead in the investigation only to find herself in ever deeper waters and in need of a paddle. It’s a shame Bryant and May are so preoccupied with Punch and Judy, although which one gets to date Punch is not disclosed.

In the primary case, the Devil is in the detail although, this particular devil is more chaotic in nature and called Punch. Christopher Fowler is completely fascinating on the meaning of Punch, the Victorian preoccupation with automata and the tradition of Grand Guignol. For example, did you know George Cruikshank illustrated a Punch and Judy book? Well, neither did I nor, until it was pointed out, did I understand why I needed to know George’s secret life with ink and pen. This characterises this novel as jam-packed with esoteric pieces of information. Individually, this data may appear completely irrelevant but, in a world where outside-the-box thinking requires connections to be made between facts in defiance of conventional rules, we arrive at a perfectly logical explanation for everything, plus an ingenious way of getting the suspect to confess. Bryant and May are on top form with admirable back-up from everyone else in the team.

The Memory of Blood is an intoxicating ride. Not, you understand, that there’s any need to consume copious amounts of alcohol to maximise enjoyment. Christopher Fowler has produced a champagne mystery where merely opening the covers and breathing in the first bubbles leads to instant bliss. This is supremely enjoyable and should be uncorked and consumed with the minimum of delay. And, as a final thought, never underestimate the power of a garden gnome in the hands of a helpless old woman.

For a review of another book by Christopher Fowler, see Plastic.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett

First, let me rise to the occasion with an apology and praise where it’s due. The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett (a pseudonym of Mark Anthony) (Random House, 2012) is not a pallid rendering of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë nor some tip of the hat to events at Thornfield Hall courtesy of Charlotte Brontë — even though part of the Hall in this novel does burn down. This is a legitimate science fiction or fantasy novel in its own right. The better quality of work I noted in The House of Durrow Street has born fruit as Galen Beckett now abandons the pretense of a mashup with style dictating plot, and develops a strong narrative in more or less contemporary language. We start off with an invasion and survival for a tribe lost in time thanks both to the arrival of two strangers and to the power of the forest. We’re then back to our present with Mrs Quest and tragedy as she miscarries. It does, however, enable us to catch sight of an emerging Darwinism and make us wonder about how traits may be inherited.

In Parliament, Rafferdy is engaged in defending civil liberties while the question of royal succession remains uncertain. It seems those seeking power want to ensure loyalty to Altania by modifying the presumptive Constitutional rights of free speech and association. It’s the usual power grab based on a redefinition of the crimes of sedition and treason. But strange since, without a sovereign on the throne, royal reputations are not at risk. Then there’s the plan to cut back the ancient forests. . . Rafferdy, ever the bold one, is continuing his interest in magic, despite the danger of arrest. As Eldyn grows more comfortable in the Theater of the Moon, he moves into the world of journalism as a paparazzi, making impressions of scenes for publication in the local newspapers. It’s surprising how effectively the images capture the “truth” of what the impressionist sees and how politically manipulative some images can become.

The development of the political situation is slightly drawn out but, once the nature of the plot becomes more clear and Mr Quest is arrested, matters begin to move with a better pace. Eldyn becomes a revolutionary and, when Rafferdy tracks him down, the first step to resolving the situation has been taken. Ivy has been too slow to put all the pieces together and is still plagued by her dreams of the past. Although nightmare might be a more appropriate description once she knows Mr Bennick has returned. Now, as the battle lines are drawn up, the relationship between Lily and Eldyn becomes particularly touching. In a good cause, he’s running down his physical reserves by continuing in the theatre and making impressions. All is going well until a lover spurned puts him in danger. Rafferdy turns out to be a natural leader in the military sense, while Ivy and Rose wait for a chance to contribute to the fight.

Thematically, this is a powerful work about the power and possible redemptive quality of self-sacrifice. Let’s put aside all overtones of class and recognise nobility of spirit as the worth we see in an individual based on the contribution he or she makes to the general good. Although well-established societies use the word “noble” to confer only an honorific status, that status was earned at some point in the past. The public acknowledged bravery or some other valuable quality. Governments prosper when their citizens are motivated to give of their best. When heroes emerge in each generation, they must be co-opted into social structures of honour and respect. There will also be land and wealth to be earned. Naturally, some heroes will act hoping for the rewards, but the most deserving are those who care nothing for themselves, but only for the cause for which they fight.

So, let’s come down to motives. Suppose a husband wishes to die before his trial. That way, there will be no conviction and his wife can inherit his estates. The problem is, to achieve his end, he must persuade another to kill him. His wife may benefit from this self-sacrifice, but the price is to make another a murderer. What about those who are human “weapons”? The physical warriors train and hone their skills to become the best possible fighters. It’s not their role to judge the quality of the orders given. Their sole mission is to carry out the orders of those they choose to serve, even if they know they are being sent on a suicide mission. The other warriors have less obvious skills, but are no less effective in the defence of the realm. They may not pick up a knife or a gun, but they are the thinkers who plan, the technologists who develop new weapons, and the women who stay at home and work in the factories to produce the ammunition for the soldiers to fire. Once the community is engaged, who is to say any one contribution is less valuable than another. So long as all are committed to the enterprise and they all give their contribution without regard to their own safety, are they not all heroes? Or do we judge people by their motives? For each who chooses to die, are we to value those deaths differently because some serve out of loyalty and devotion, as opposed to a desire to seek redemption for past wrongs? Do the deaths of the “guilty” match the deaths of the “good”? Or does our willingness to forgive what we believe to be past sins somehow change the nature of their sacrifice?

From this you will understand The Master of Heathcrest Hall inspires some interesting questions of morality to ponder. Although, by my standards, the book takes a little too long in the telling, this is the current fashion and I do not blame Galen Becket for following it although the length of the epilogue is excessive when, “And they all lived happily ever after” would have sufficed. The end product is elegant in explaining all that has gone before and, as we come into the final section, genuinely exciting. Taken as a whole, the trilogy is one of the better ones currently available (you can skip through the first volume to extract the hub of the story) and well worth picking up by everyone who enjoys science fiction with transport and other systems powered by practical magic. In a way, it harks back to the old days of science fantasy in which the way physical effects are achieved is irrelevant. We’re not to be interested in why a “machine” should work not because of its springs and gear wheels, but because of the runes carved into the frame. We’re simply to accept the fact it works and enjoy the wonder of the results.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of the earlier books in the trilogy, see:

The Magicians and Mrs Quest

The House on Durrow Street

Steal the Show by Thomas Kaufman

March 24, 2012 1 comment

Steal the Show by Thomas Kaufman (St Martin’s Press, 2011) is a classic PI novel which, of course, forces us to consider what elements conspire together to produce a “classic” noir novel. I suppose the first time we see an iconic private eye is when a lone figure stops being the mere gumshoe, shamus, private dick or snooper — a wonderfully pejorative word — as found in the pulps like the Black Mask which promoted the hard-boiled, penny-a-word, detective fiction, and becomes more universal character. The first point to note is that these more iconic figures are not good-looking heroes. They can be short and fat, old and grizzled. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe inhabit seedy offices in run-down city blocks. They drink in cheap bars, struggle to make a living on the streets, but can hold their heads up if invited into the Bel-Air mansions of the increasingly decadent well-heeled. They’ve seen it all before and are not afraid of anyone based on reputation or class. Many have been soldiers or have the soldier’s mentality. They understand the need for violence and, because it can threaten them, they are always vigilant. They have few friends. This includes women. But they are always strongly heterosexual in outlook, preferring the prospect of beauty to the alternative of violent death. In manner they’re acerbic, laconic and wont to make witty retorts. Summing it up, these men are socially rejected by the majority in conventional society, despised by the police and treated with contempt by criminals. They are tolerated only because they perform an essential social service. Their mood tends to be desolate, like the bleak landscapes of New York’s back streets or LA’s soullessness as captured by James Ellroy. This presents the PI as a voice of rationality in a world that’s often a practical nightmare with gothic murderers like Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep and Phyllis in Double Indemnity by James M Cain stalking the street. It’s hyperreal crime literature populated with figures we can say embody evil, hence the universality of the noir novel as good vs evil, the best of three falls to decide the winner.

In Steal the Show, Willis Gidney is struggling to stay in business. No-one is giving him any work. This is making him desperate enough to consider giving up his licence and getting a regular job. What makes his situation all the more precarious is that he’s in the process of trying to adopt a little girl whom he found next to a dead body. He’s an orphan, the product of Washington’s failing child care service, having grown up on the streets learning survival skills like how to lie and steal. Had it not been for Captain Shadrack Davies of the D.C. Police, he would have become a career criminal. Indeed, it was the Captain who named him and began the slow process of reforming him. Now he’s doing his best to put his past behind him and “do the right thing”. Except poverty may force him back into a life of crime, or to protect a client, he may have to break the law. Fortunately, his life skills and a small army of people he grew up with on the streets are consistently there as back-up should he need it.

Thomas Kaufman with the new point and shoot camera

Needless to say, as a single man, the state is not looking too kindly on his application to adopt a young girl. When he’s refused permission, he needs money to pay a lawyer to appeal. Fortunately a client comes along with cash and what, to Gidney, would be a simple job of breaking and entering. He salves his conscience that the burglary is all in a good cause and the cash will help cover the cost of the appeal. So he discovers evidence of a small factory duplicating a stolen film. When this evidence is passed on to the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Gidney secures continuing work to track down yet more illegal duplication operations. There’s just one problem. He’s upset the gang apparently running the Washington operation and they’re out to kill him. When someone tries to frame him for a murder, he’s even more determined to find out what’s going on.

This is a highly engaging novel that strikes a nice balance between the need to provide a good puzzle for us to solve, enough action to make it exciting, and an increasingly revealing study of Gidney’s character. Having been a victim of uncaring foster homes, he want to keep this girl out of the system. But the force of this need is a distraction from his work as a PI and hampers his survival as the gang goes public in its attempts to kill him. Worse, he’s almost committing himself to love, but his refusal to talk about his past or to share anything of his emotional life drives a wedge between them. Ironically, if they were together as a stable couple, his application for adoption would look better on paper. It seems many sacrifices may be required to solve this part of the puzzle. As to the operation for duplicating films which he disrupts, this gives us an insight into the world of film-making and distribution. It also introduces the two stars of the film being stolen who also turn out to have their own problems. As more bodies pile up and the threats to Gidney get closer to home, the tension ratchets up and reaches a point when several successive revelations show who’s doing what to whom and why. It’s all highly entertaining and the results on all issues are credible and satisfying. Steal the Show is not a happy-ever-after fairy story where people get to end their lives stirring rainbows into pots of gold. Life goes on — a major triumph in itself. So I confirm the excellent promise of the first novel, Drink the Tea and look forward to the next in the series.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Naamah’s Blessing by Jacqueline Carey

Naamah’s Blessing by Jacqueline Carey (Grand Central Publishing, 2011) (Book III of the Naamah Trilogy which fits into the broader narrative of the Kushiel’s Legacy series) is both enjoyable and frustrating. This is what I take to be the final episode in the current series that began with Naamah’s Kiss (2009) and continued in Naamah’s Curse (2010). We have therefore to tie up all the loose ends when our heroine, Moirin mac Fainche, and her more pithily named husband, Bao, finally return to Terre D’Ange. All this could have been done in relatively short order had the main antagonist been available. Unfortunately, Raphael del Mereliot has disappeared off to the New World with Thierry, the Dauphin of Terre D’Ange in tow. Merchants have realised the full benefits of trade, particularly now that this alternate reality Europe has discovered chocolate. This exploratory mission is intended to forge the necessary links to make long-term trade possible.

Jacqueline Carey gives us 150 pages to familiarise ourselves with the new political realities of Terre D’Ange given that Jehanne de la Courcel is dead. Her husband, King Daniel, remains locked in grief and has temporarily passed de facto control of the kingdom to Rogier Courcel (never a good move to give an ambitious relative a position of real power). No matter. The King’s depression is so deep, he neither knows nor cares what’s going on around him. Worse, he can’t bear to be with his four-year old daughter, Desiree de la Courcel, who looks too like Jehanne. Her care has been passed over to “trained” nursemaids who are struggling to contain the tantrums of the precious little tyke. Such is the stereotype of behaviour displayed by the unloved. King Daniel emerges from his slough of despond long enough to appoint Moirin surrogate Mummy and, together with Bao, they start about converting the frog into a Princess. Although the politics of ruling the state and, ultimately, of succession have some mild interest, this first section drags like a sack of potatoes across a rocky terrain. Only when adverse news comes from the New World do things begin to perk up.

Jacqueline Carey with her window on the world of Terre D'Ange

Even so, the sea voyage and the trek through the unforgiving jungle to find the missing men is all fairly routine. It may be an alternate reality but the jungle remains the same. There’s disease (damn mosquitoes are everywhere), snakes (damn things lurk on land and in rivers) and a river in flood to sweep away the unwary (damn thing pretends to be a means of transport, hides the snakes, breeds the mosquitoes and, when it rains a bit, acts as a meat grinder for anyone who falls in). And let’s not forget the damn natives who sacrifice the tour package holidaymakers, revolting villagers in neighbouring counties and anyone else they don’t like, and build temples to their gods out of the skulls they collect from the stew pots. There are, of course, Conquistadors but, mercifully, it’s too early in this version of history for pirates. When the chocolate trade gets started, shipping carrying the new gold will be targeted, of course. I read reams of these adventures stories when I was growing up and, now I’m old, having to plough through this rerun in an alternate reality book is ironic to say the least. This is a dismal swamp for desperate authors who want to spin out the story for a few more pages, i.e. to page 370 — only another 240 pages to go.

Only when we get to meet Raphael again does the book settle down into a more comfortable rhythm and back into a more creative zone (although one small passage suggests an awareness of “Leiningens Kampf mit den Ameisen” by Carl Stephenson (1937)). The final third of the book is immensely satisfying even though the resolution of the first 150 pages is achieved in a rather perfunctory way when the survivors get back to Terre D’Ange. It makes you wonder why the set-up was so long if there was to be no detailed follow-through. Nevertheless, this efficiency of disposition allows time for the final confirmation of the love between Moirin and Bao, and to see their immediate future settled.

So, let’s come back to the two words I started with. The final third of Naamah’s Blessing is fantasy of the very best quality. It’s more than merely enjoyable. It leaves such a good feeling, I’m tempted to forgive all the hack clichés that preceded it. Jacqueline Carey has consistently produced excellent work. It’s frustrating that this book should start off on the final leg of the trilogy journey with such leaden feet. Although, in fairness, all you young things who’ve never encountered people trying to make progress through a hostile jungle, may find the middle section the most exciting thing you’ve ever read. So, for those who are fans of the first two novels in the current cycle, there’s an emotionally satisfying ending as all the farewells are said to all the key players from the earlier parts of the story. It should go without saying that, if you’ve not read the earlier books, you should not start here. When in doubt, always start at the beginning.

It’s a rather beautiful piece of art from Alan Ayers for the jacket.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

%d bloggers like this: