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Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas

July 31, 2013 2 comments

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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

The Thicket by Joe R Lansdale

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.

Joe R. Lansdale dressed for some black humour

Joe R. Lansdale dressed for some black humour

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.

For other reviews of books by Joe R. Lansdale, see:
Devil Red
Edge of Dark Water
Hyenas
Vanilla Ride.

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

The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

Balfour_and_Meriwether_in_the_Incident_of_the_Harrowmoor_Dogs_270_396

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.

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

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
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Luther: Season 1, episode 5 (2010)

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

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?

Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) and John Luther (Idris Elba)

Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) and John Luther (Idris Elba)

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.

Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh)

Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh)

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

July 27, 2013 1 comment

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

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.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

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:
ad eternum
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
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.

Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones

July 26, 2013 1 comment

Ruin Value by J Sydney Jones

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.

J Sydney Jones

J Sydney Jones

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.

For reviews of other books by J Sydney Jones, see:
The German Agent
The Keeper of Hands
A Matter of Breeding.

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

Shadows of Justice by Simon Hall

Shadows of Justice by Simon Hall

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.

Simon Hall

Simon Hall

 

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.

 

Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010)

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

For Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010), we open to strains of gentle music while observing the sentiment and quiet calm of Graham Shand (Rob Jarvis), a murder, who has just taken a life and nicely posed the body. He pauses, remembering the day and then removes a necklace from his latest victim. Well, at least we’re back into the night and dealing with obviously disturbed people. No more middle class criminals flirting around in suits. This is one of your common or garden sex killers. And, in the best traditions of an inverted crime story, we then follow the happy killer home after his “late shift” ostensibly recovering and repairing taxis. He’s in the mood and celebrates his good residual feelings by giving his wife the necklace as a birthday present, followed by a slightly different present in the bedroom.

Rob Jarvis as Graham Shand

Rob Jarvis as Graham Shand

Meanwhile, back at the ranch where DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is crashing after his feel-better session with Zoe Luther (Indira Varna) — he’s never been what you might call a happy camper, but he’s certainly feeling less like smashing up the furniture today — the telephone wakes him. DCI Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh) calls him in to consult on what now seems a series of three murders. Not just a serial killer, you understand. It’s a murder spree. Luther thinks the man is in the police database. It’s just a case of asking the right questions. Which he promptly does with DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) doing most of the heavy lifting off screen to narrow down the pool of suspects with unlikely speed.

Meanwhile Henry Madson (Anton Saunders) our man in a coma with stories to tell about Luther, is showing signs of waking up. Both DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) and DCI Martin Shenk (Dermot Crowley), the complaints man, arrange to be on hand to ask the right questions just as soon as he’s well enough to answer. Aware of impending disaster, Luther warns Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) off. He thinks the police will be following him wherever he goes so he can’t keep on seeing her. That upsets our dear lady. Needless to say, she’s not going to take any disruption to her lifestyle lying down. Unfortunately he’s not properly grateful when she kills Henry. Killing Madson just finishes off what Luther started. He should be grateful. So Alice goes to rat out Zoe to Mark North (Paul McGann). Oh more happy days as Mark and Zoe try to work out where they might be going with their relationship. Zoe is guilty as Hell but patches things up with Mark. Luther is history again!

Zoe Luther (Indira Varna) and Mark North (Paul McGann) at home

Zoe Luther (Indira Varna) and Mark North (Paul McGann) at home

The problem with this episode is easy to state. It’s not what we’ve come to expect as a pure Luther episode. A significant amount of the time is spent observing the serial killer and his wife. This is not a police procedural focusing on Luther’s David Bowie approach to solving crimes. It’s more like a “true crime” story in which we’re invited to understand the context for the killer’s decision to take several lives. His wife is being unfaithful. He’s impotent unless he kills. So to try to win back his wife in the bedroom, he goes out to kill. It may not be a good plan, but it might save his marriage. Once Ripley has magically tracked down the suspect, Luther spends time holding Mrs Shand’s hand in the interview room as he gets the inside story of their marriage. Graham was a serial thief, stealing handbags to keep himself (and his wife) happy. She didn’t call the police even though she thought a handbag fetish was an immensely creepy kink. You don’t shop your husband to the local law in this part of London. But eventually it all became too much and she left him. Devastated, he staged a big suicide act and that persuaded her to come back. Now this. . . The ending is the worst kind of melodrama as, completely departing the real world, we have a contrived rescue which excludes Luther from the final confrontation — he might be daft enough to sneak off to meet up with Madson’s killer or just to run off to a Russian airport to avoid extradition for a crime he did not commit. That means the arrest all goes wrong in one of the more absurd endings for what’s supposedly a realistic police procedural.

Having hit what I thought was a reasonable balance between developing the central characters and investigating the crime in the last episode, this gets it all wrong in a different way. Even though it’s a good idea for Alice to kill Madson and then take revenge on Luther by driving Zoe away again, the killer overcoming his psychological impotence is too big a distraction. With only two more episodes to go in this first season, I remain to be convinced this series featuring Luther is any good.

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 5 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)
Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011).

Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (2010)

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

At first I’m not convinced I’m watching the right series. The sun is shining through the windows. A young mother is playing with her baby. Where’s all the darkness and foreboding? And then of course this perfectly charming man wearing an immaculate suit knocks on the front door and that’s an end of the happy times. Without so much as a by-your-leave, we really are back with the melodrama of Luther: Season 1, episode 3 at full throttle. By some means not clear, the man manoeuvres the woman out of the house and into his car. I suppose it must have been the threats that kept her quiet in a public space. And just to confirm we can’t possibly have anything normal on the scene for too long in this series, DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) gets called into the house from which she was taken. The walls of the hall have been covered with text written in blood. It’s all terribly Satanic and must have taken hours to do using a step ladder and small paint brushes. It’s not clear where the woman is during this decoration process. This repeats a crime of ten years ago where the investigation went terribly wrong. There’s a suspect, of course, but because of the political overtones, no-one is to go anywhere near this suspect unless there’s clear evidence implicating him. Well that’s the usual red rag to a Luther. No talking with the man we all know did this. Ha!

Burgess (Paul Rhys)

Burgess (Paul Rhys)

We now follow the pattern of the first two episodes for the first half of the hour long episode, interweaving the over-the-top crime with the domestic entanglement between our two couples. Mark North (Paul McGann) is beaten up when he gets out of his car outside the house now occupied by Zoe Luther (Indira Varna). Convinced John Luther would be so petty-minded as to arrange this, Mark goes in to make an official complaint to DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves). It was Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), of course. She’s taken it as her personal mission to drive Mark away so that Luther can have Zoe back. What a wonderfully well-intentioned sociopath she is, even arranging to have the attack videoed and posted to Luther’s email account. After some discussion between Luther and Alice following the arrival of DCI Martin Shenk (Dermot Crowley) the complaints man, Alice goes to see Mark and admits she was responsible. She convinces Mark that things will go very badly if he fails to withdraw the complaint. In due course, Shenk accepts the situation at face value. A witness has changed his mind and no longer believes John Luther was at fault. But he gives the warning he will take Luther down if he has to come back.

Not allowing himself to be distracted from the kidnapping, Luther calls in Richard Henley (Andrew Tiernan) the policeman from ten years ago. He’d been undercover for fifteen months but Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys), the suspect, had recognised him as a police officer and tied him to a chair. Having provoked him, the suspect let him go and accepted a beating. This gave rise to a big claim for damages and the collapse of the case against him (even though he was guilty, of course). It’s an oldie but goodie plot device and, for these purposes, adequate to keep the police away from him until now. He anticipates someone will come and Luther duly obliges. It’s all terribly civil but Burgess calls a pre-emptive press conference to warn the police away from him again.

John Luther (IIdris Elba) and Zoe (Indira Varna)

John Luther (IIdris Elba) and Zoe (Indira Varna)

We have to endure Burgess draining blood from his latest victim. In theory, she’s to be kept alive so she can be continuously drained to produce enough blood to write another set of messages on walls. But time is short on this abduction. Luther speculates that Burgess has a narrow boat. Young DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) does good work and tracks it down. They break in without a warrant. No-one is going to connect this to Burgess because he used a proxy to get title. They find the woman’s dead body in a freezer. So now Luther has to persuade his young sidekick to keep quiet about finding the body. Luther ups the stakes by assaulting Burgess in the street. He takes a DNA sample and pretends to plant the evidence on the boat. DCI Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh) then calls Burgess and makes blackmail threats, demanding money to suppress the blood evidence Luther has allegedly planted at the scene. All this gets wrapped up in a surprisingly low-key fashion. I’m not at all convinced the case would stand any chance in court but, for whatever period of time, it does get the nutty killer off the streets.

In the second half, there’s a very distinct shift of tone. The first two episodes are a nonstop potboiler. No-one pauses for breath as they all plunge headlong forward. This is the first time we see proper interaction between Luther and his new DS who proves to be competent, doing some good research when Luther is hiding from Shenk. Reed is also starting to come more into focus. But the real interest comes from the stresses in the relationship between Zoe, Mark, Alice and Luther. No matter what we might think of Luther, a man who’s shown capable of reducing a door in his house to matchwood with his bare fists, he does seem to have engendered considerable loyalty in Zoe. She’s now taking his side and finding Mark’s inclination to think the worst of Luther somewhat annoying. So Luther and Alice have a heart-to-heart. He has evidence she paid Mark’s attackers, but he gives it to her in the hope she will respond constructively. It’s an interesting but almost certainly a futile ploy. Zoe however comes to Luther to apologise for not trusting him. Oh dear. Alice has engineered the beginning of a reconciliation.

Once this stops trying to be a horror story of Satanic, i.e. sadistic, exsanguination, it actually makes a decent shot at engaging the mind. I’m not saying the series would be better if it dealt with more normal crimes. I understand the point of having Luther work such exciting cases. But I think the series would be better if the general tone was more matter-of-fact. There’s a slightly unpleasant salaciousness about the detail of some of these crimes which jars slightly. I think the real purpose of the series is to explore Luther the man and his relationships. That has been diluted by all this gratuitous melodrama. Hopefully the tone will now follow on from this last half hour and settle into a better pace.

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 4 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 5 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)
Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011).

The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen

Rosen The Tenth Witness

I find cultures endlessly fascinating, each one the fruit of cumulative experiences unique to the physical area and the people who inhabit it. Take Britain, for example. I grew up surrounded by the damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe which did its best to level all the shipyards and their factory supply chain based a few miles from my home. That experience is somewhat different to the French who, to some extent, escaped the physical destruction but had to endure occupation. I suppose that’s why France retains its ban on the public use or display of the swastika and other Nazi insignia. But if you were to go to Taiwan or Singapore, the Red Swastika Society or 世界紅卍字會 is a major charity which proudly displays the symbol above its schools and other public buildings. Yet if you were to show these island people Japanese symbols from the War, you would get a very different reaction. Cultures, wartime experiences and current responses are highly localised.

 

The Tenth Witness by Leonard Rosen (Permanent Press, 2013) produces a prequel to the excellent All Cry Chaos explaining why the youngish Henri Poincaré joined Interpol. We’re back in time to 1978 with Henri and Chin, his partner in engineering, off the Dutch coast to search for a 1799 shipwreck. The day before the first dive is to be made, our hero goes for a guided waterlogged hike across the low-tide flats of the Wadden Sea. The guide is Liesel Kraus, heiress to the major German steel conglomerate and, to his surprise, he finds himself invited to a family gathering on their local estate. Initially, this is a ploy so that Liesel has an excuse not to be even vaguely civil to the latest man Anselm, her older brother, would like her to consider marrying. But there’s a mutual spark and despite the differences in wealth and status, they begin an exploration of the emotional ground between them. Their mutual problem is the cultural baggage.

Leonard Rosen

Leonard Rosen

 

Although both were born after the War, the Kraus family was inevitably a part of the German Reich. The steel it produced was used to make weapons for the Wehrmacht. The owners of this business not only voted for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, they met Hitler and other key people in the government. Worse the family did engage in the activities judged to be war crimes. Fortunately, Liesel’s father Otto produced evidence to show he had been another Oskar Schindler, helping some Jews escape persecution. This distinguished him from Alfried Krupp and other leaders of German heavy industry. Nevertheless, there’s always going to be a taint in the eyes of a French engineer.

 

So this is a love story. Henri loves his work as an engineer and shares his joy of “making things” with the Kraus family. Because of his immediate commission to attempt the recovery of gold from the suspected wreck, he also shares his love of this particular piece of history with Anselm. He may also be falling in love with Liesel. But how practical is that if there are skeletons in her family’s closet? Can individuals accommodate the sins of their fathers and forge new ties? Well how different is the new generation? Nazi Germany ran some of its manufacturing capacity using slave labour. Suppose a Western company identifies an underdeveloped country with chronic unemployment. It offers the unemployed the dirty and dangerous work its own people will not do. It pays them a pittance. They are dependent. They do the work even though it makes them ill and some die. Morally, how is this distinguishable from actual slavery? We call it outsourcing. On a different tack, you can accept the reality that many Nazi Germans had a deep-seated prejudice against Jews. Suppose a modern man has a comparably visceral prejudice against gypsies? Neither is rational — prejudice is by its nature irrational — or morally defensible.

 

Henri and Victor Schmidt go to the ship-breaking yard in Hong Kong where the Kraus company processes the old tankers it buys for two million with the scrap worth double. It’s not a pretty sight. Anselm is also interested in stripping the precious metals from electronics. Henri begins to work out the process but, when he injures himself, that leaves him time to begin investigating the Kraus family and Otto’s claim of Schindler qualities to escape prosecution for war crimes. It seems there were ten witnesses as to his essential good character. Ah so now you see the point of the title and understand the race if these witnesses start to die.

 

Last year, we had Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman and Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard look at the Holocaust with the question of revenge uppermost. It’s therefore interesting to take this slightly different path to the same question. Courtesy of the Allies, many Nazis like Wernher von Braun were allowed to wipe the slate clean if their skills could prove useful to the winning side. Yet no matter how thorough the sanitisation may initially appear to be, people remember and some records escape for later generations to find. After time has passed, this book invites us to consider whether there’s a social good in the truth emerging. Because cultures are dynamic, the answer will change over the years. Immediately after the war, the victors play out the roles most appropriate to their national interests. It will be a balance between the understandable desire for revenge and the need to provide a basis on which the defeated can find some measure of forgiveness and move into the future.

 

After the peace has been converted into greater international harmony, some might argue these men have been rehabilitated by their years of good and loyal service after the war. They might have earned the right to maintain the fiction of their pasts. Others might say there should be no statute of limitation on war crimes, that states should not conspire with criminals to cover up past crimes. Whatever your view, this book poses the question to the children, asking them where their loyalty lies. Is filial duty more important than accountability for crimes against humanity? Should a man accept complicity if he falls in love with the daughter of a possible war criminal? The answers come in this very elegantly written book with a plot that reminded me of Anthony Price, balancing history against a modern investigation with possible gold at the bottom of it all (even if only recovered from discarded electronic equipment). The Tenth Witness confirms the promise of the first book. Leonard Rosen is a writer to watch because this book not only offers a fascinating investigation and thrillerish elements only one of which is gratuitous and fails to ring true, but also stimulates thought by probing some emotionally and culturally sensitive issues.

 

For a review of the first book by Leonard Rosen, see All Cry Chaos.

 

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

 

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