When reviewing, you sometimes have to bite the bullet and use technical jargon to get the message across. Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas (Apex Publications, 2013) revives the urge to dive back into critique. Prepare yourselves. This anthology is “fun”, using the word in its most technical sense, of course. Thematically, we’re partying, on occasion in disco or roller derby mode, so be prepared for some culture shock. It’s also quite sexually liberated so brace yourself for diversity. There’s also occasional bad language but where in this life is safe from the undeleted expletive or three? Overall, there’s considerable irreverence on display although there are moments of seriousness. Put this together and you have one of the most enjoyable of anthologies of the year so far. And, at the end of the day (or night) depending on how long the party lasts, isn’t that what fiction should be all about? Yes, there’s a space to be held for the white-knuckle and wow-factor stuff — actually the kind of stuff that’s often held up for praise when it comes round to award time — but we should all be allowed to celebrate reading for the sheer pleasure of seeing words used well to make us smile, or think (just a little — too much thinking can overload the brain’s computing power).
It all starts with “Sister Twelve: Confessions of a Party Monster” by Christopher Barzak, a pleasingly subversive fairy story in which twelve princesses discover a secret passageway that takes them to an infinity of parties through time and space. All they need do to escape the dreary grind of life in the palace is to touch the floor, open the door and go down the steps. The freedom is intoxicating so long as it lasts. “Apex Jump” by David J. Schwartz has to be the ultimate roller derby event where the challenge is not to win, but to avoid being beaten by a new record amount. Just remember, when the sergeant major says, “Jump!” you do it without hesitating. “With Her Hundred Miles” by Kat Howard let’s suppose each sleep really is a little death and the dreams that are born during that short stay in the afterlife are fatal to whatever you were dreaming about. Then dreaming about birds in flight would mean you wake up and find your bed surrounded by dead birds. But suppose you dreamed about people?
In these days of sexual equality, “Star Dancer” by Jennifer Pelland supplies the Women in Black I’ve been waiting for. This story is definitely WiBbly and sometimes WoBbly (that’s Women on Blue Kisses) when the dance music plays and we all get as high as an elephant’s eye. “Of Selkies, Disco Balls, and Anna Plane” by Cat Rambo reminds us we can change our appearance and act out roles wearing different clothes, but underneath, we stay the same. “Sooner Than Gold” by Cory Skerry is a delightful story about possibilities. Who knows what excitement lurks on the other side of a closed door? Whatever it is, keep it close to your chest! “Subterraneans” by William Shunn & Laura Chavoen takes the idea of wife swapping to a new level. Think of it as a kind of megamix when you choose between the red and blue pills to Marvin Gaye’s “Lets Get It On”. “The Minotaur Girls” by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a thoughtful story of a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, wanting so desperately to be old (or skillful) enough to be allowed into the “club”. In just a few pages, this contrives to say something interesting about the ties between the generations of the young as they take years off their lives in the pursuit of the unattainable. “Unable to Reach You” by Alan DeNiro in these days when everyone expects you to be connected 24/7, it’s important to get to the source of any problem and assert control. “Such & Such Said to So & So” by Maria Dahvana Headley plays a neat game with the language of drinking and partying, suggesting no-one should get to like their drinks too much or the dog will leave its hairs when it bites us on the ass. While “Revels in the Land of Ice” by Tim Pratt finds poetry in the eye of the beholder if you go to the revels to see what it reveals.
“Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Goes for Drinks with the Green Girl” by Sofia Samatar is nicely surreal. Life passes by this pair of partying girls and death fails to keep them down as they keep the celebratory mood going. “Blood and Sequins” by Diana Rowland gives us inadvertent police officers in a major prostitution and drug bust as the zombies rescue the butterfly. It all makes perfect sense when you read it. “Two-Minute Warning” by Vylar Kaftan gives us a nice SFnal twist on a paintball party upgraded to more lethal levels as people who live for the thrill of it all encourage those grown more timid to get back into the spirit of things. “Inside Hides the Monster” by Damien Walters Grintalis wonders how sirens would fare when modern music replaces the simple melodies she prefers. The problem, of course, is that if she listens to this modern music, might her own music be tainted. Yes, that could be a real problem. “Bad Dream Girl” by Seanan McGuire gives us the real inside dope on roller derby when the girls with aptitude come out to play. Of course this is all wonderful so long as they play fair. No-one gets hurt (too seriously). But what would happen if one decided to cheat? “A Hollow Play” by Amal El-Mohtar wonders what people might sacrifice if the need was great. It’s all a question of relative values. The more you want, the greater the sacrifice you might have to make. Of course, as the process approaches, you might suddenly realise what you propose to sacrifice isn’t meaningful enough. That would be an unfortunately discovery to make. “Just Another Future Song” by Daryl Gregory considers the problem of identity which might get a little lost if you can upload yourself into different bodies. The challenge, of course, is to remember just enough, whether in the brain unit or the gut, to make the best transfer to the next body. “The Electric Spanking of the War Babies” by Maurice Broaddus & Kyle S. Johnson returns to another SFnal disco groove as the Star Child looks for the mothership to give the Funk to the people, whether they want to receive it or not. “All That Fairy Tale Crap” by Rachel Swirsky is a very amusing metafictional rant against the idea of fairy stories and the stereotypical women who defer to their Princes so they can become mindless Princesses and live unfulfilled lives forever after.
Put all these hints together and you have a highly enjoyable anthology.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Thicket by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, 2013) continues the line of books in which we view the world through the first-person narrative of a young adult. I suppose a classic example of this literary device would be Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a copy of which is owned by Shorty in this book) in which the inexperienced narrator tells the story as best as he or she can. Obviously the inexperience includes both the art of storytelling and understanding of how the world works. Thus, it’s not uncommon to find such narrators unreliable in what they tell us. If the young person has never been in this type of situation before, it’s easy for the readers to understand how easily “things” may be misunderstood, i.e. the author decides not to make the book a considered autobiography in which the older and wiser version of the narrator takes a more objective view of the past and smiles ruefully at his or her naive behaviour. Rather the reader is left to sink or swim in the mind of this youngster, flailing around to try to understand more exactly what’s going on. This can either be very successful as the reader increasingly identifies with the narrator or it becomes a slight barrier between the reader and the character.
In this very successful instance, we’re immediately pitched into crisis with our first-person narrator, Jack Parker. He’s a sixteen-year old boy and with his sister, Lula who’s fourteen, they find themselves surrounded by death as an epidemic of smallpox hits their part of East Texas and their parents die. Fortunately, their grandfather has survived an earlier outbreak of the disease and has natural immunity. He sets up a plan to leave their interests protected and they set off out of harm’s way to Kansas. Unfortunately, there’s a fight on a river ferry with three desperadoes, and the youngsters are separated when a water spout hits the ferry and breaks it apart. The rest of the book then follows Jack in his efforts to find his sister and, as is likely to be necessary, rescue her from Cut Throat Bill, Nigger Pete and Fatty Worth. They had just robbed a bank and were making their getaway across the river. When the ferry breaks up, they decide to keep Lula to do the washing and other chores.
To help in the rescue effort, he reaches an agreement with Eustace Cox, his hog and Shorty (aka Reginald Jones). Eustace is part white, part coloured and part Comanche. Shorty, as his name suggests, is a dwarf who’s reached an accommodation with the world. He embraces loneliness, his books and an interest in astronomy, and leaves the world to its own devices. As a man who developed his wit and intelligence while working in a circus, he shakes Jack out of the rut into which his mind has dropped. When you’re young, it’s an easy life when you can rely on parents, a grandfather who’s a preacher and God. But when the others die and all you have left is God, you have to decide whether you’re going to trust in the Lord or do something to help yourself even though this may involve some dishonesty like stealing or something approaching homicide if it’s necessary to liberate your sister. In this, Shorty delivers the philosophical rationale for what needs to be done. Sneaking up on people and killing them before they know you’re coming is best. If that’s not possible, shooting them from as a safe a distance as possible is the answer. If you’re sixteen-years-old and close enough to use a knife, you’re already too close to death to worry what happens next. Of course what happens next is our hero meets Jimmie Sue and learns a whole lot more about the world than he was expecting and they even get the support of the law in the shape of Sheriff Winton. When Spot joins them, the rescue team with revenge and bounty on their minds is complete, and they can start moving toward the Thicket where the bad guys are said to be hiding.
Placing this book in the scale of style Lansdale adopts, this is more in the Hap and Leonard approach with a delightful admixture of violent mayhem and dark humour. Some of the descriptive prose and dialogue are mordantly hilarious as our heroic youngster comes of age through a slightly more bloody rite of passage than usual. Indeed, there’s quite a body count by the time we get to the end so, in fairness to those not familiar with the Lansdale approach to thriller writing, it may not be a book for the faint-hearted. Personally, I think this one of his best books to date.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Nostalgia is a very strange beast. Many would have you believe that it’s a kind of sentimental attachment to the past — a romanticised and highly selective viewing of the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I would prefer to think of it as a mere acknowledgement of the volume of memories that occupy the mind. These are the times I’ve lived through, good and bad. When it comes to literature in the broadest sense of the word, I’ve been putting eyeballs to paper for more than sixty years and have seen stylistic fashions come and go. When I first began to take an active interest in fiction, some Victorian and a considerable volume of early Edwardian work was still very much in vogue. I suppose I cut my teeth on British adventure and American hardboiled when my reading really took off in the 1950s. Not that the two are even remotely compatible, but I still recall the highlights. At their best, there was an eerie blend of naïveté and violence. No-one stopped to think very hard about the morality of what was being done. Expediency and a stiff upper lip were the only requirements when deciding what was needed. I miss the uncritical simplicity of those days. Life was so much easier when you could shoot first and, if the mood came upon you, ask questions afterwards.
All of which brings me to The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham (Subterranean Press, 2013), a novella featuring Balfour and Meriwether, two chips off the British block of Empire. For the record, this is the third in an emerging series which began with The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance and continued with The Vampire of Kabul. Seeing two names on the tentpole, it’s tempting to characterise this as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but that’s definitely not what’s intended here. Although there are books where Mr Holmes takes on Dracula, Dr Jekyll and divers other creatures of Earth, then moves on to fight the War of the Worlds and to crossover into Cthulhu Mythos territory, this does not feature a detective blessed with deductive reasoning skills with a sidekick companion for light relief. Rather this pair who share accommodation are more in the Allan Quartermain mould where the response to danger is to shoot it and, when the bullets run out, hack at it with a conveniently-to-hand knife. Although they obviously do think, it’s not what we’re supposed to be interested in.
So here comes a rather sly, tongue-in-cheek adventure story set in 188-, with a representative of the British Government coming to King Street to ask for a little assistance with a slightly delicate matter. It seems one of the men who work for the Empire has gone missing. He was supposed to make a simple journey to Harrowmoor to talk with an inmate of the local Sanitarium. Worryingly, there’s been no word of him since. Of course, since the British Government is asking, this can’t be a simple matter otherwise the local police force would be asked to investigate. With typical Britishness, Lord Carmichael doesn’t say what the problem is and our heroes don’t ask. When your country calls, you dare not refuse her. What follows is great fun as our pair ride a specially commissioned train to Harrowmoor. Having established a base in a local inn, one sets off to the Sanitarium, the other in search of word of the missing agent. In due course, they meet up for the big climax.
The essence of good fantasy is that you combine some level of credibility with a complete disregard for reality. As the White Queen fondly recalls, it’s good to be able to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, and having been fortified with plenty of food, rather more impossible things before lunch. So this is definitely not Baskervillian dogs nor are we into the Hounds of Tindalos. This is all pleasingly different and explains perfectly why Her Majesty’s Government might be a little reluctant to explain to our heroes what might be going on. I romped through this and now wait for more of the same. Even though it may be nostalgic in tone to me, this is sufficiently modern to pass muster for the new generation of readers. The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is recommended.
Dust jacket illustration by David Palumbo.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.
Luther: Season 1, episode 5 opens with the mundane task of moving house. This can be such a strain so James Carrodus (Thomas Lockyer) and his wife Jessica (Donatienne Dupont) were prepared for bad things but perhaps not this. There they are, standing in an empty flat, when a truck from the same removal company that took their furniture away, pulls up outside. Sadly this is bad people who seem to think this art dealer has converted ill-gotten gains into diamonds through a money launderer. Having taken the trouble to come, they are not going to take no for an answer. Leave no stone unturned, they say in the idiom. So with his wife kidnapped, the husband comes into the police station asking for DCI Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh). With the man he knows out of the office, DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) and the increasingly reliable DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) step forward and hear an edited story of his wife’s kidnapping. Luther persuades DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) to borrow diamonds from the evidence safe. This breaks the chain of evidence and will kill a current case dead if the loss is discovered. But they can surely keep hold of these diamonds, right?
Once alerted to the scale of the impending disaster, Reed goes to see Bill Winingham (Alexander Morton), the money launderer with whom he has a corrupt relationship and who set up the robbery through Tom Meyer (Danny Lee Wynter), his nephew. Meyer called in the American specialists, Daniel Sugarman (Ross McCall) and Evangeline Nixon (Ania Sowinski), to collect the diamonds. Reed tells the nephew that if he doesn’t rescue the woman, he will personally kill everyone in sight. This is the type of behaviour for which the British police is well known. Meanwhile the ransom drop with the borrowed diamonds goes wrong as the husband gives up the wife and runs off the the borrowed diamonds. Worse the nephew is intercepted as he rescues the kidnapped wife and both are killed by Daniel Sugarman. It’s a bad day for everyone when Reed is instructed to arrest the money launderer for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and several murders. Reed has been at the heart of the unfolding disaster. If he had trusted Luther to rescue the woman, she and the nephew would still be alive. He now has a problem. While Luther knows of his dodgy past and might be prepared to help, there are too many loose ends lying around which might lead back to him in any event. The episode now becomes almost entirely centred on Reed as he tries to decide what to do for the best.
On the romantic front, Mark North (Paul McGann) is taking a few days away from Zoe Luther (Indira Varna) so she can decide what she wants. She comes into the police station to tell John he’s surplus to requirements. This is just what he needs to hear at the height of this kidnapping. Distressed he calls on Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) and finally agrees with her that there is no love. As a natural contrarian, she confesses she killed Madson for unselfish reasons — because she couldn’t stand to see Luther hurt. At last we have a clear understanding between them.
So no more discussion of the plot. For the first time in this series, Neil Cross managed to get everything right through the simple expedient of focusing on the characters and letting the situation unfold at a natural pace. There’s real tension in the attempts to capture the kidnappers as they pick up the ransom. Similarly, the slow disintegration of Reed is beautifully handled. This character as played by Steve Mackintosh has been rather in the background up to this point but, as the threats of exposure grow more real, this turns into a very well constructed performance. Unlike others who have rather overacted when coming into the limelight, Mackintosh shows the slow decline into despair, toying with the possibility of suicide. But then he pulls himself back from the edge. His performance gives the episode a solid base from which Idris Elba can launch his more extravagant style. They make a good pair. The upshot of this episode leaves everything poised for the last episode in this season. For once, I’m actually looking forward to watching it.
For a review of the prequel novel, see Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross.
Reviews of the television episodes can be found at:
Luther: Season 1, episode 1 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)
Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011).
Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a second novella in the Eternal Sky series, a prequel to Bones and Jewel Creatures where we first met Bijou, one of the Wizards of Messaline. Her magical ability is as an Artificer. She makes creatures out of bones and jewels, animating then with her breath, guiding them with her mind. These creatures are more than mere puppets. They are extensions of her mind. In this elegantly produced book from Subterranean Press, we find her in a more stable form of relationship with Kaulas the Necromancer and Prince Salih as they are approached for help by a newly arrived trio: Maledysaunte, Salamander and Riordan. They want help to enter Ancient Erem in pursuit of Dr Liebelos who has has two claims to fame. She’s the mother of Salamander and a magician with the rare gift of Precisianism, the gift of making “things” orderly, sometimes permanently so. Although our heroine and her two companions suspect there’s a lot left unsaid in this request for help, they understand that anyone who has the power to enter Ancient Erem may be able to cause serious (and permanent) disruption to their world. Preparing for the worst, they therefore make arrangements to lead their visitors into this most dangerous of places.
This is a fascinating insight into the history of the relationship between the world and Erem, highlighting the way in which magic and technology remain intertwined. In the human world, the vestiges of oil-powered land and air transport remain functional but in such short supply, their use is only for those of high status and power. So Prince Salih, the second son of the local potentate, has a motor car for use when he needs to travel over distance at speed. But when it comes to entering Ancient Erem, they must ride on the backs of dead animals, reanimated for the purpose. Each side of the coin has its uses when something needs to be done. Within Erem itself, the ghuls or dog-men move around on the surface at night. Who knows what dangers may lurk below. From this you’ll understand there’s a curious transition between the human world and the entirely different Erem. Although it may have an oxygen environment similar to the human world, i.e. it supports life, the stars are different and the multiple suns are death to anyone caught out in the daylight. That leaves most of the life in underground caves. Fortunately, electric torches work as well as the more ancient forms of magic. As you’ll no doubt gather from the title, the point of the pursuit into Erem is to decide who shall control the Book of Iron, one of the oldest texts of magic ever created. As with all things magical, nothing is ever straightforward and sometimes painful decisions have to be made when the order of the worlds may be at stake.
At its heart, the Book of Iron is a story about relationships. In particular, it asks what precisely we might understand by the concept of friendship. Obviously, it’s rather different to the love a child might feel towards a parent because that’s not something originating through choice. Individuals choose to become friends. They come to care about each other, assuming some degree of responsibility for the welfare of each other. It’s possible this will involve some degree of intimacy but it’s not necessary for this to be sexual. Put the other way round, a couple could be lovers in the physical sense but not strictly speaking friends. Physical attraction and the need to possess another for a period of time is not the same as friendship which adds value by sharing ideas and interests. So here we have two trios, both of which have been stable until they come together in stressful times. The “adventure” they share and its outcome forces the survivors to reconsider their relationships. Perhaps existing friendships can survive, but sexual relationships might have to be rethought. Maybe new friendships might form as old friendships are destroyed. When it comes down to the survival of individuals and the fate of the worlds, hard decisions may have unexpected social consequences.
The result of this rumination is an acceptance of delight. Book of Iron is a most pleasing fantasy novella which balances action against the exploration of the human heart. Fortunately, it’s the heart that wins out.
For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City
The rather beautiful jacket artwork for this Subterranean Press edition is by Maurizio Manzieri.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Germany of 1945 after the end of the war was in terrible shape. It was not politically convenient at the time to tell the victorious citizens back home just how much damage the Allies had managed to inflict upon German cities. Nor did the Allied leaders admit just how much aid was going to be necessary to keep the survivors alive, particularly since contemporary US policy was to deny food to surviving Germans. There was also a conspiracy of silence as about half-a-million Germans disappeared to the East never to be seen again. No-one liked to talk about revenge through ethnic cleansing. Even today, this is a very sensitive subject. Those who were left first camped out in the ruins, chasing food on the black market, using cigarettes as currency. As the months passed and after the end of the events described in this book, they endured what’s become known as the hunger winter 1946/7 where survivors fled the cities and tried to find food in the countryside. This was despite Hoover’s reluctant agreement in 1946 to allow charitable organisations to begin food shipments to Germany to prevent the children from starving. The title, Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones (Mysteriouspress.com original, 2013) A Mystery of the Third Reich is a reference to the legacy of the Reich as betrayal, ruin, rubble and grief. Although there were scare stories of Werwolf brigades left behind as guerillas, the reality was a docile people desperate to survive and find any relatives still alive. While the Russians and French engaged in reprisals, the British and Americans put their weight behind the trials at Nuremberg. Ironically, the trials evoked little local interest. The people couldn’t have cared less what happened to the men who’d led them into this mess.
My reason for starting in this way is that modern generations fail to understand the true extent of the horror experienced both by the German survivors and the occupying forces that became their jailers. Although this book to some extent skates over the surface of the problems, it’s good to see a writer of this quality take the brave decision to set the book in this somewhat controversial period of history.
Captain Nathaniel Morgan, born Morgenstern, is set up as the potential scapegoat if the Allies can’t identify the killer of three men of different nationalities in different parts of Nuremberg. At three day intervals, the killer has slashed the throats of a Russian, American and French soldier. To help, Morgan secures the release of ex-Chief Inspector Werner Beck, a German police officer who had fallen foul of politically connected factions at the end of the war, but who has experience in tracking serial killers. Still short-handed, they recruit Wieland Imhofer, a one-armed private investigator, to help them pursue the killer. Meanwhile Kate Wallace, daughter of a powerful US Senator, is learning her way around the city as a reporter on her first important overseas job. The investigators fear a British soldier will be next, yet the fourth victim turns out to be a Polish civilian. Curiously, this slight shift in the pattern of nationalities and the dates gives them an insight into the plans of the serial killer. Two possible theories emerge. From the first two deaths, this could be someone eliminating the competition in the black market. But the French officer seems not to have had direct connections to illegal trade. This leads to the second theory which is that the murders are political and leading up to a grand gesture to coincide with the first major trial at the Nuremberg court. News that the Allies can’t stop a serial killer and some more serious “terrorist” outrage would seriously distract world attention from the trial itself. For that reason, the Allied Powers are anxious to prevent news of the killings leaking to the Press. Morgan and Beck come under increasing pressure to catch the killer before news leaks.
Although there’s one convenient coincidence which ultimately leads to the discovery of the killer’s identity, this is a nicely paced investigation as the Jewish and German policemen set differences aside and try to act like “proper” policemen in a world turned upside down by the war. Setting everything against the ruins of a once great city at a moment the Allies want to make a pivotal entry in the discourse of their victory narrative gives us a dramatic backdrop. There’s a pleasing confluence of historical factors in play in these ruins. People are the sum of their life experiences. Many Germans have been reduced to little more than feral beasts, abandoning much of their humanity in their drive to survive. Others have managed to maintain something of their past status and dignity. While above the chaos and, to some extent, indifferent to it, the four occupying powers spar amongst themselves over the true nature of their roles in this catastrophic situation. It’s through this tension and the interactions between the different groups that the truth will slowly emerge. In this let’s remember that there were good Germans like Oskar Schindler who helped Jews, and that many of the Allies were profoundly anti-Semitic and indelibly racist. There’s a revealing moment when a young white GI shoots a black solder dead in the street only to be arrested by Morgan. In this book, the minorities have to stand up for each other against the bigotry surrounding them. Some of those we meet look forward to a future when differences will have faded away. Others are bound in the past and committed to the notion that differences must be maintained at all costs.
While I have the slight sense that punches have been pulled so that modern sensibilities will not be overly disturbed, Ruin Value remains a bold piece of writing and a very pleasing serial killer investigation and thriller. It’s well worth reading.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Because my reading is now spread over quite a wide range of the genres, I not infrequently come into a series after a significant number of books have already been published. I bear this with fortitude. It comes with the territory of becoming a more-or-less full-time reviewer instead of being able to pick and choose what I want to read when I want to read it. So here we go with my first look at Dan Groves, better known as the TV Detective, in Shadows of Justice by Simon Hall (Thames River Press, 2013).
For reasons unknown to me, our reporter as hero seems very pally with Detective Inspector Adam Breen. While it’s always useful for an investigating officer to have the help of a newshound when appropriate, e.g. to manage the news on a kidnapping, it seems unlikely they would have a practical working relationship as investigators. With the real-world police under pressure for leaking secrets to the news media for cash, the fictional equivalent would be more cautious about sharing information with a television journalist. Although this relationship is entirely open and not corrupt, the officer would need to be seen to be clean and not give rise to suspicion of misconduct in public office. Indeed, this July has seen the publication of new guidelines with all British police officers now required to register the names of all “friends” who work in the media. Ironically, the same obligation applies to “friends” who have been convicted of criminal offences. Failure to disclose will be considered gross misconduct and will lead to dismissal. That said the hook of this book is the mismatched team and we’re not supposed to question whether it’s even remotely credible. Such are the whims of authors and far be it for me to be overly critical of pairing characters so they can investigate and solve fictional crimes.
Structurally, the narrative of this book is very interesting because about halfway through it pivots and takes a different route to the end. Thematically, this is not original. I’ve seen many examples of it before, but it more usually sets up in a short preface or evidence of it is collected during the investigation and reveals the motive for the murder(s). Allowing for my failing memory, I can’t remember such a dramatic moment creating the motive for the deaths in the second half. Indeed, for a while I was nursing the belief that the key people had staged their own deaths. Given the motive for the initial kidnapping was revenge both personal (the reason for signing the ransom note PP is a delight) and political, it appealed to my sense of justice that the perpetrators should seek to disappear. That would add more pain and suffering to those left behind and perfect the criminals’ revenge. Once I had disabused myself of that “absurd” notion, I more or less got the final twist but not the precise mechanism of how it was all engineered. It’s a very elegant plot and definitely scores high on my scale of whodunnitry.
Unfortunately, that’s an end of the praise. Reactions to writing style are always highly subjective so you can take what follows with a pinch of salt. The fact I dislike the prose as presented to me should not deter you from reading an ingenious police procedural with an amateur detective assisting. But by my standards this book is at least fifty pages too long. No opportunity is missed to pad out events to almost unreadable lengths. For example, the first chapter describing the arrival of the jury to deliver its verdict is almost completely redundant. It makes the start unnecessarily melodramatic and adds more than a thousand words where a simple sentence or two would have sufficed. When it comes to the general text, expressions must be “unreadable”, battles “wearying”, the state must be “all-knowing”, and the bureaucracy “faceless”. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the use of flowery adjectives and illuminating descriptions, but I find this text somewhat overwrought and not a little clichéd. Yet as I indicated at the outset, this is not a first novel. Publishers are in the game to make money so Simon Hall must be popular. Word-of-mouth and general reviews must be positive. I’m therefore forced to conclude that, yet again, my taste is out of step with the general readership for this type of fiction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.