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Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling

Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling

To say Shadows of the Falling Night by S M Stirling (Roc, 2013) Shadowspawn 3 is tedious is an understatement. It all starts to go wrong with the prose which is formulaic and wooden. In some hands, functionalism is a virtue because the words are the least barrier between the reader and the meaning. There’s no ornament or distraction. The author just gets on and tells the story. Unfortunately that’s not what we have here. Everything feels padded out with lots of detail about where everyone is or what everyone is wearing or eating or enjoying as art. None of it is terribly interesting in itself and cumulatively it’s just boring. I have the sense the author started off with a particular word count in mind and that’s what he wrote. What also makes the text less appealing is the S&M theme. Although we don’t quite get into the realm of soft porn, the descriptions of Monica’s domination flirt around the edges of good taste. We’ve also got a fair bit of history to wade through explaining the origin of the species and how the Shadow folk have evolved, particularly since they latched on to the Mendel and Darwin guys to go in for selective breeding.

For those of you who’ve missed the first two in this series, the Shadowspawn are an amalgam of the different supernatural beasties we’re identified as preying on us over the centuries. So think of them as predominantly vampires but with mind-control, shape-shifting and other attributes bred into the different blood lines. The other interesting feature is that they can live on beyond one body and inhabit others. Although they can be killed, most manage to endure for centuries.

S M Stirling holding on to his precious

S M Stirling holding on to his precious

As to the plot, it couldn’t be easier to describe. All the interested parties touch base in Paris. Principally that’s Adrian Brézé and his wife, Ellen, and the antagonist sister Adrienne Brézé. The children, Leila and Leon, are in the care of Eric and Chiba in Santa Fe, and all four have to get from America to Europe, joining up with Peter Boase en route. Harvey Ledbetter, his atomic bomb and his two pursuers (or not), Anjali Guha and Jack Farmer, are moving across Turkey. . . and then everyone converges on Tbilisi where The Shadow Council will decide how they are going to thin the ranks of the humans. The choice is between letting off EMPs to knock out all the modern technology and releasing one of these tailored plagues. Using bombs to destroy the technological infrastructure is messy. Worse, it’s going to leave the planet pretty irradiated which won’t kill the Shadowspawn, but it will make their lives less comfortable. There’s also the risk of atomic power stations melting down and causing all kind of other problems. The disease option keeps the technology and all the comforts it brings without the number of humans getting in the way. The problem in leaving scientific knowledge workable is that humanity is getting far too interested in trying to identify and defeat the Shadowspawn. Anticipating this growing risk, the mood is to strike first and ask questions later. Just to add a little spice to the mix, Harvey’s bomb has been factored into Adrienne’s plan. She thinks it will kill most of her competitors and leave her in charge.

So the book inches everyone forward towards the big bang (or not). People are chasing the children but who and why is not clear. This is what other people call a twisty plot, i.e. no-one has any idea what’s going on, but the author keeps giving contradictory signals as to who might be responsible. If you’re interested in guessing, you’re a real fan and will no doubt love this book. If like me, you think any plot run along these lines is as exciting as watching a car-wreck in slow-motion, you look away after the first ten seconds of the impact has taken half an hour to view and flick through to the end to see how bad the damage was. There’s fighting in different bodies including a quick rerun of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Moby Dick, followed by explosions of different magnitudes and something approaching a novelty to set things up for the next book should the publisher offer enough money to buy it. Personally, I would let Shadows of the Falling Night be the final book in a trilogy and hope he goes on to write something better, but there may be an army of fans out there demanding more.

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

For reviews of other books by S M Stirling, see:
The Council of Shadows
The Tears of the Sun.

Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)

July 20, 2013 3 comments

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

So here’s the brief for the production team. What’s required is a dark police procedural, i.e. we get an emotionally disturbing crime in each episode for the officers to investigate, and the key characters are in a perpetual state of turmoil. That way, we flirt with the horror genre where the humanity of the characters is under threat from what they experience and how everyone reacts. Key to all this is that both DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) and Zoe Luther (Indira Varna), his wife, feel a terrible sense of guilt (albeit for different reasons). Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), of course, is a sociopath and feels no guilt for anything she does, including emotionally torturing the Luthers. The problem with this structure is that it can become monotonous. Although the more minor characters are relatively normal, their contribution is not enough to leaven the overall frenetic tone. It’s all hyper by virtue of the individual crimes and the interaction between Zoe and Mark North (Paul McGann), Luther and Alice. So in the first episode, we have a crime which is considered particularly terrible. A daughter kills both her parents. If Luther is seeking justice for the dead, he should be implacable in his pursuit of Alice. So far, it looks as if she’s bright enough to avoid giving him enough evidence to secure a conviction. The irony, of course, is that in their different ways, both Luther and Alice are monsters so they understand each other and, to some extent, are attracted to each other.

OK so here we go with Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010) and, yet again, high-intensity music blares out as two police officers are shot to death under a railway bridge. It’s another of these melodramatic starts to an episode, set in darkness with long shadows and exaggerated camera angles. . . until we’re back to Luther standing on top of a roof as if he might be going to jump. Well no such luck! Mark North comes into the police station and admits he threw the first punch which began the fight the arresting officers saw. This lets Luther off the hook, and Mark is in Zoe’s good books for setting the record straight. This leaves Luther to talk with DCI Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh) until he’s sent off to examine the scene of the police shooting. It all looks staged as an execution. Further investigation shows the shooter took out the video cameras in the area except for the one capturing our man walking into the area. The body language on display enables Luther to identify the man as a soldier. Alice telephones to say she’s investigating how Henry Madson (Anton Saunders) comes to be in a coma. She says she’ll take the results of her investigation to Zoe. That really puts Luther in a good mood. Terry Lynch (Sean Pertwee) comes into the frame as the executioner, but he’s in jail. So that leaves his son Owen (Sam Spruell) who might be taking revenge on the police for locking up his father. So to prove the point, we see Owen shooting a police woman responding to a prank call. This brings multiple officers to the scene and he then shoots six dead as a sniper. DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) gives a pep talk and sends out the beleaguered troops to find the bad guy.

Sam Spruell as the cop killer

Sam Spruell as the cop killer

To help the police, Owen posts a video to YouTube attacking the British government and demanding the release of his father. He claims his father should not be locked up for attacking a police officer. It was post-traumatic stress wot made him done it. Ever thoughtful, Alice offers to help in the investigation, but ends up threatening Luther. Alarmed, our husband manqué asks Zoe to leave London. This leads to a big argument between Zoe and Mark who doesn’t believe the threat is credible. He thinks Luther is playing mind games, looking to control his wife.

Meanwhile Luther goes to visit Terry Lynch in prison. They reminisce. Luther had a father in the army, but when he was old enough to defy his father, gave up trying to please him. But Luther opines that young Master Lynch has been sent out to do a job. Papa says he won’t call his son back unless he gets his sentence reduced. Reed searches the old man’s cell and finds a sim card. He suspects a trap, but with no other lead, they triangulate where the phone can be found. The SWAT team go into the empty house and find a bomb. Four die and six are injured. This bumps the case up to the anti-terrorism unit. Luther’s off the case. As if. So Luther goes back to Daddy and they exchange threats.

To keep the melodrama going, Alice breaks into Zoe’s home with Mark, and they discuss Luther. Zoe says she proud of Luther but doesn’t want to stay married him. Alice asks Zoe whether she believes Luther tried to kill Madson on behalf of the dead. Zoe says she doesn’t think Madson deserved to live.

Meanwhile, using the medium of television, Luther has made a target of himself. He goes into a council estate, broadcasting his presence on a police radio knowing the son can overhear. We then have a ludicrous Russian Roulette sequence until, having distracted the nutty lad by allowing the trigger to be pulled five times without it going “bang”, Luther overpowers the boy and slaps the handcuffs on his wrists. Another case solved by the man with the magic head (it’s magic because he can prevent the gun from going off). This is patently absurd. We’re supposed to think Luther has been suicidal because he was standing on the edge of the roof. That’s why he’s willing to die himself but not willing to let the idiotic soldier to kill himself. Except he allowed number one son to put the gun to his head twice and pull the trigger. He only acted when he knew it was a sure thing. What’s worse is all the cod psychology of the son failing to live up to his father’s high expectations. I don’t believe tough Daddy would have caved into the threats and given Luther all this dirt on his son.

Luther then calls up Alice and, when they meet on the bridge, says he’ll kill her unless she agrees to leave Zoe alone. Alice claims she’s now his friend. She thinks Zoe is admirable and she gives her word she will not contact Zoe again, well Brownie’s honour (as if chocolate cake has any honour). Satisfied by this peace accord, they go for a cup of coffee, not as friends, of course. I’m still on the fence. I’m finding it difficult to adjust to Idris Elba as Luther. The performance seems to lack consistency. Ruth Wilson as Alice, however, is rather endearing in a macabre kind of way. She’s the one factor keeping my interest. Hopefully, her role will be maintained and provide Luther’s character with a little more ballast to avoid being swamped by his inner demons. For now, I’ll persist.

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 3 (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).

Luther: Season 1, episode 1 (2010)

Luther 2010 Idris Elba

What a tense start for Luther: season 1, episode 1 (2010) by Neil Cross. It’s the melodrama of a chase through darkest London. . . the music is going full pelt. DCI John Luther (Idris Elba), our hero, corners the suspect in a derelict building. This is Henry Madson (Anton Saunders) a suspected paedophile. He’s going to fall unless our hero pulls him up so, under pressure, he confesses to hiding the little girl in an area hidden behind a false wall in the living room of his home. Luther makes the call. DCI Ian Reed (Steve Mackintosh) finds and revives the girl. Unfortunately, Madson falls but doesn’t die. Sorry that may be the wrong way round. Madson falls but unfortunately doesn’t die. Seven months later, he’s still in a coma. There are no witnesses so, after an inquiry exonerates him, our hero is allowed to resume his duties by DSU Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves). This despite the warnings of her boss DCSU Russell Cornish (Matthew Marsh). So there you have it. The man’s a loose canon, physically violent but ruthlessly intelligent, obsessed with the need to solve crimes and bring wrongdoers to justice. To celebrate his reinstatement, he’s teamed with DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown). It seems the stupid boy has been begging to work with Luther for months: hero worship for a paedophile disabler.

 Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) and John Luther (Idris Elba)

Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) and John Luther (Idris Elba)

To show the pace of crime in the bustling heart of the Metropolis, the moment Luther is returned to duty, the police are called to a home invasion by Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). She’s the daughter. Both parents and the dog have been shot dead. It was her father’s birthday. Her mother had taken sleeping pills and was lying down in her separate bedroom. The front door was left unlocked so someone was watching the house and entered when Alice popped out to the shops. The daughter was a prodigy who went to Oxbridge when she was thirteen. She’s now a research scientist. She hated her parents for pushing her, but that doesn’t mean she killed her parents. Luther is convinced she did, but there’s no evidence she did, just an absence of evidence she did not. She can’t be charged and leaves the police station with a smile on her lips.

After being separated from her while on suspension, Luther calls his wife, Zoe Luther (Indira Varna). She claims to be pleased he’s been cleared and is back at work. Except she’s having an affair with Mark North (Paul McGann). Why not tell him earlier? It’s cruel to keep lying. When he comes round and she gives him the bad news, he breaks the door in anger. The first day back at work and now dumped by his wife. All the challenge of a new case and now disappointment. So as insights in his character go, this is weird. What was it about their relationship that Luther felt he couldn’t stay with his wife while on suspension? Was he so self-absorbed he couldn’t be good company? Why did he feel his wife couldn’t help him stay positive? Put like this, it’s hardly surprising she found someone else to love while this streak of misery was in abeyance. It’s like his life stopped when he couldn’t be a policeman and he could only go back to his old life when when he was reinstated. His self-image was out of joint. He was a good cop with a beautiful wife. When he couldn’t be a cop, he couldn’t be with his wife. Hmmm. Not the right view of love or relationships, is it?

Zoe Luther (Indira Varna)

Zoe Luther (Indira Varna)

Our Alice makes a thorough Google search of the Luther family. Because she’s a narcissist, she needs to impress Luther. She’s committed the perfect crime. How is she to deal with people who upset or annoy her? So Luther sets out to annoy her in the hope she’ll do something rash. In response, Alice puts fear into Zoe and there’s no evidence again.

Luther speculates Alice hid the gun in the dog. The gun being plastic would melt when the dog was cremated. To prove it to himself, he breaks into her flat and steals the urn. When he looks inside, he sees gun fragments in the ashes. They are not evidence because he acquired them illegally and there’s no way any of the fragments would show evidence she handled the completed gun. He throws the urn into the river but keeps some of the gun parts. He threatens that he’ll frame someone else for the murder so she will be forgotten. To show he’s accepted his wife has ended the relationship in favour of another man, he goes round, fights with the new man and gets escorted to a police station. Alice celebrates another day of not being arrested by going to visit the hospital where Madson is in a coma. It’s a fun time for everyone except the viewers. I have the sense this is a potboiler, patched together out of stock characters and situations.

I’m not at all sure I find the prospect of a marriage between the Luthers even remotely credible. She’s a high-powered lawyer. He’s bright but essentially a thug with poor self-control. Given the hyper style of all the behaviour we’ve seen, I don’t believe he could have wooed and married this woman. Even if he did manage to stay together emotionally long enough to marry her, the moment he began investigating serious cases, he would have alienated her. I can’t even begin to see why she would stay with him. Given he’s weird, it seems the series is being set up with Alice as his Moriarty. When he doesn’t have a hot case, he’s going to be obsessing about how to catch her. It’s time for birds of a feather to do a bit of flocking. Overall I’m suspending judgement. There are some signs of interest in the banter between Luther and Alice. It may become more watchable. Only time will tell. As an aside, the novel based on these characters is far better.

For a review of the prequel novel, see Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross.

For reviews of other episodes in the television series, see:
Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (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).

Pacific Rim (2013)

July 18, 2013 4 comments

Pacific Rim 2013

Pacific Rim (2013) reminds us that alien invasions can come from different directions. Conventionally, the pesky beasts load themselves into star ships and fly here. This gives us some time to prepare as our telescopes pick up these large unidentified objects heading in our direction. But, of course, the more advanced aliens can open wormholes and fly between two points in space just by pressing Go. This takes Earth’s defences by surprise and, with such formidable technology to call on, they beat us without waiting to collect the $200 for pressing Go. This film takes the wormhole idea one step further and has an interdimensional door opening in the middle of the Pacific. But instead of the aliens coming through personally, they send through Kaiju, rather large dinosaurs somewhat akin to Godzilla and similar Japanese favorites. They can be beaten using conventional weaponry, but it takes time and while they are being slowly shot to pieces, they do an enormous amount of damage. This seems to be an incredibly stupid way of trying to take over a planet. These aliens have the technology to clone ever larger beasts with great fighting skills. Wy can’t they reverse this process and develop tiny creatures called bacteria or a virus which can be unleashed to kill us all without them having to break sweat (assuming the aliens perspire as opposed to randomly seeping ichor)? From the human perspective, we have a single entry point so submarines with nuclear torpedoes could wait there and kill the beasts as their heads emerge. Polluting the sea is a small price to pay if it saves lives.

At this point, it’s perhaps relevant to mention director Guillermo del Toro’s interest in H P Lovecraft. Cthulu lives and dreams in a city deep under the South Pacific. It’s called R’lyeh. Notice the hero of this film is called Raleigh. We may therefore speculate this is the minions of the Elder Gods softening up Earth before Cthulu wakes up and the other Mythos beings arrive. Appropriately, evidence emerges suggesting the aliens tried this before with the original dinosaurs, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite the right mix and they died out before they could clear out the indigenous lifeforms. Now we’ve had several centuries polluting the place, the atmosphere is just right for the larger scale dinosaurs to return. This time the aliens’ monsters will clear off the vermin, i.e. us, leaving the aliens a great planet to call home.

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi as the winning team

Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi as the winning team

Knowing conventional weapons will not keep us safe for long, Earth comes together and builds giant robots called Jaegers. The timing of this is interesting. While these monsters are popping up out of the ocean, we can develop the technology and build these robots in a few months. Yeh, right (sarcasm intended). One person interfaces are not strong enough to control these machines. It needs two minds working together. Brothers Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Becket (Diego Klattenhoff), were never star athletes but they were compatible when slaved together to drive the robotic Jaegers. Two-person teams like them become rock stars. They beat the Kaiju. Life begins to go back to normal. Then a Category 3 Kaiju appears and the game swings back in the aliens’ favour. The brothers are beaten and, while connected, Yancy is killed. This leaves Raleigh psychologically damaged. The Kaiju are adapted and start to win more frequently. The ranks of the Jaeger are thinned. As is required in films like this, Earth’s politicians decide to build walls around the biggest cities. Hilariously, the elite retreat three-hundred miles inland and leave the rest of the plebs in these more exposed places. Not that this will save the leaders-from-behind, of course. But the elite can delude themselves they will live longer than the masses. The remnants of the Jaeger team are sent to Hong Kong with funding for only eight months. Led by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), they turn themselves into a last chance defence of the city, prepared to take on all-comers. The rest of the cities hide behind walls. Unfortunately with nothing between the monsters and each wall, the beasts can just hit it until it comes down. Raleigh Becket is recalled to the front line and teamed up with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). As a pilot, Pentecost rescued her from a Kaiju attack and raised her as his daughter. Now he’s holding her back until the plot requires him to make the adoptive parental sacrifice. The new partnership has to build trust. After an initial misfire, it’s obvious they will be winners. With Idris Elba to do the recycling of the Shakespearean trope, it’s once more into the breach dear friends as, on St Crispian’s Day, the heroes set off to cancel the apocalypse.

OK, so what’s right about this film? Well, some of the CGI is very impressive. There’s a nice attention to detail and a real attempt to give a sense of the mass and momentum of both the monsters and the robots. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say is good. Staying with the CGI for a moment, almost all the scenes are at night and many of the battles are partially obscured by rain or sea water lashed up into the air. I have an interminable list of everything wrong with what we see. Frankly, translating this idea from the far superior anime forerunners like Neon Genesis Evangelion is a robot too far. It’s a problem of perception. When you see these vast machines as anime, it’s easy to suspend disbelief. You don’t have to relate them to real-world physics or metalurgy. You can just sit back and watch the inspirational story of heroism unfold. But the more realistic you make the robots, the more questions you have to answer. Like just what metals go into the manufacture of these machines? And why do they not get bent out of shape or dented every time a Kaiju taps them with a claw? Yes, they get damaged (eventually), but they get thrown all over the place, crash through buildings and even get dropped from a great height. But they just get up, dust themselves down and start fighting again. And they are all atomic powered? What’s the risk of having them fight inside a city? Even if they don’t blow up, damage could spread radioactive fuel and leave the area uninhabitable. No, wait. They fight in the sea so leaks of the fuel just kill all the fish we eat. And how can a couple of helicopters can pick one robot up and drop it into the shallow sea without breaking it? And why is the seabed always flat when the robots go into battle? And later they are like submarines that can swim down to the bottom of the Pacific without the pressure crushing them? And is that supposed to be an oil tanker being carried as a weapon by one of the robots? I don’t think so!

Idris Elba as Henry V

Idris Elba as Henry V

Integral to the plot is Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) not quite named for his appetites, who harvests everything useful from the fallen Kaiju. Killing the beasts is good business for him and the Asian men who pay vast amounts of money for Kaiju parts as aphrodisiacs. Initially the scientist double act is there for light relief. Meet Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) the let-me-talk-to-its-brain guy and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) the math wonk. But later they prove essential. As to the technology on display, the drift or neural bridge is quite an interesting idea. Two minds slaved together — think left and right brain — to control the robot. The question, of course, is how the minds stay focused on the job in hand and avoid becoming immersed in memories or other primal urges. Now back to the scientists. If a human was to mind-meld with a Kaiju, that would be a two-way link — not that the aliens would need to know much about us. In this, the baby Kaiju is an amusing touch with two scientists sharing the load to get the inside dope.

This leaves me disappointed. It might have been possible to craft a good story on this theme of monsters vs. robots, but it certainly didn’t appear on the screen. At 130 minutes, the whole thing just takes too long with the human interaction not strong enough to fill in between the set-piece battles. I suspect even the fanboys are going to find Pacific Rim heavy going.

Beyond the Bridge by Tom MacDonald

Beyond-the-Bridge-3D

Reviewing is rather an odd way of passing the time. Unlike the real world in which I pick the books I want to read, boxes turn up on my doorstep and I add the new books to the pile. I operate on the taxicab rule. It’s strictly first in, first out. That way I keep track of the queue and know which books are next in line. I would like to say that all the books are at least good. If publishers or the marketers are going to send books out for review, you would hope they would always pick the better ones. That way the reviewers wouldn’t have to lie too much to sing their praises. Yet I’m still picking up real stinkers. Perhaps publishers or marketers get too close to their own product or clients, and lose their objectivity. The commissioning editor thought it good enough to buy. Hours of loving care have been spent preparing it for the market. They all want to think the best of it.

Ah well, such is the way of the world. And since taste is intensely subjective, I’m equally able to make mistakes. There’s no absolute right and wrong in this business. Everyone is peddling their own judgement. The publisher puts his or her head above the parapet with the latest title. By return, I fire back with my magisterial opinion. Sometimes, we’re in diametrically opposed camps. In the case of Beyond the Bridge by Tom MacDonald (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) I’m pleased to be able to report the publisher has hit the bullseye. This is one of the best PI novels or thrillers so far this year. Perhaps this is not surprising given the success of the first. I confess to having missed it, but according to the marketing blurb, The Charlestown Connection was Winner of Best First Novel 2012 Indie Book Awards, nominated for the 2012 International Thriller Awards, Best First Novel, a finalist for American Librarians Association, 2011 Book of the Year Award, and nominated for Reader’s Choice Award, Salt Lake City Utah Library Association.

Tom MacDonald

Tom MacDonald

So what’s it about? Well this is the second in an emerging series featuring Dermot Sparhawk set in Boston and, as is always the case when you want to catch out the unwary reviewer, it’s a prequel. Having proved a hit with the character, the author decided to show us how our Irish Native American Indian first got sucked into the investigation game. The backstory is set in the poorer part of Boston with our hero working in a charity outreach role for the Catholic church. Born and brought up in the area, he’s well known because he almost made it as a pro-football player. A knee injury cut short his fledgling career. There’s a real sense of authenticity about life in this area with the poverty and desperation to the fore. It’s a refreshing change from the more cozy middle-class approach to urban America which can allow the hero to visit the wrong side of the tracks, but not actually live there. In this novel, a serial killer is crucifying priests and our hero is asked by the brother of one of the victims to find out who was responsible. Out of courtesy, Dermot tells his priest what he’s doing and, when the Bishop hears, the work becomes more official.

With this character, we’re firmly into the land of novels dealing with disability which I discussed in the reviews of Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham and, to a lesser extent, in A Murder in Passing. Because alcoholism is slightly different, I’m going to expand on this theme a little. Addicted detectives have achieved some success through Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, and so on. The question is why authors saddle their detectives with a disability. The answer is simple. These fictional characters are going to show off superhuman mental abilities, out-thinking everyone from the tough and experienced police officers to the criminal(s) whodunnit. Since we readers are mental pygmies by comparison, we need to feel these paragons of mental virtue are credible and human enough to empathise with. Hence, they need to be given flaws. That way they become less than perfect and we can come to care about them. In the case of alcoholism, this is to some extent a self-inflicted disability and so we can be fighting alongside as they try to beat the demon booze through AA sessions and with the help of their sponsors. Equally important is the capacity of the character for growth. When he or she has a flaw, there’s always the chance of some recovery. Through rehabilitation, a character may regain some function in an injured limb. An alcoholic can go several chapters without taking a drink. Of course, when the weather gets cold, the old injury can flare up making movement painful. Similarly, one drink can lead to alcohol poisoning and near death experiences. Alcoholism also exposes our hero to added dangers. It’s more difficult to take a sober detective by surprise, but the bad guys can walk into the room of a man incapacitated by alcohol without fear (assuming they have the right room, of course — the wrong room could land them in a lot of trouble).

Beyond the Bridge is a very elegantly constructed puzzle. There are three immediately connected deaths but one doesn’t seem to fit quite as smoothly into the series. As Dermot begins to ask questions, he finds himself threatened which is always inspirational because it suggests he’s on the right track. By the time he’s finished, there are quite a few bodies. It’s par for the thriller course and our hero’s claims of self-defence are credibly supported by the evidence, so his personal tally doesn’t lead to a prosecution. That means there’s plenty of action and real ingenuity in how the final revelation is proved. Hence with trumpets blazing and fireworks leaping into the sky, I herald a terrific read, leaving only one question. Where does Dermot get what seems to be quite a lot of spending money?

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

Rain Dogs by Baron R Birtcher

Rain Dogs by Baron R Birtcher 1

I suppose it’s a feature of my advancing age but I find myself wondering why people are so fascinated by crime and criminals. You can’t open a newspaper or turn on a television news channel without reports of some new crime. Why the curiosity? It’s hard to explain. Although the dates and times of the crimes differ, the essential facts are identical. Someone we don’t know has been raped, robbed or killed. It’s the same when we look for entertainment. No day goes by without a television program dealing with fictionalised crime. The cinema is overflowing with films showing us criminals at work. I suspect our interest is not that we want to learn about the phenomenon of crime. Rather we’re interested in peripheral or surprising features, e.g. that a ten-year-old could rob a bank with a toy handgun or that an armed gang could actually rob an armoured car in broad daylight — a phenomenon we tend to think only happens in Hollywood’s imagination. Or we see crime as a way of debating our view of morality or the politics of law enforcement, e.g. whether CEOs should be jailed when their corporations “lose” millions of dollars.

Taking this last question one step further, the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for all things criminal can also be used by government to shape opinion, say by showing that crime never pays or by emphasising that solving crimes often depends on the co-operation of members of the public passing on information or giving evidence as witnesses. Except, of course, the public stopped being naive many generations ago. There’s never been a great deal of public confidence in the police or the criminal justice agencies. Everyone knows the law is applied unequally depending on the nature of the crime and status of the alleged offender.

That’s presumably why I’ve noticed an increasing trend to use criminals as the protagonists in books and films. This assumes some degree of sophistication on the part of readers. Assuming they are not going to read or view the work as a how-to guide, the point of the creative work is to tell us something about why people commit crimes and, in some cases, to show them in a sympathetic light. In this, we’ve rather gone beyond the Victorian model of morality in potentially exculpating the parents who steal bread to feed their starving children. Now we see shades of amorality. There are good and bad criminals. Judging by films like Pain and Gain, there are even comedic murderers.

Baron R Birtcher

Baron R Birtcher

All of which brings me to Rain Dogs by Baron R Birtcher (Permanent Press, 2013) which is set in 1976 as the Columbians are about to move their hard drugs operation closer to the American border. In the first instance, they do so through the local soft drug networks. Later, they will come in person. Our first-person “hero” is a grower and dealer specialising in high-grade marijuana. He has fields both in California and Mexico. His partner is a pilot. Since their retirement from the military after two tours of duty in Vietnam, they have made a very good living out of trade. They have never been overly ambitious. They grow enough to satisfy market demand. Their prices are fair. They have enjoyed a quiet life. All that is going to come to an abrupt end as Columbian agents move into their part of California to take over the fields while, on the other side of the border, things also begin to change for the worse.

So our hero is a “good” criminal and he’s about to encounter some very “bad” criminals. In a parallel story arc, a youngish US cop who works on the border is also being sucked ever deeper into a corrupt relationship with the major crime boss on the Mexican side. Thematically, this is the “good” cop who’s seduced to the dark side and then wrestles with his conscience and seeks redemption. As you can see the morality play is set in motion. In order to escape with his life, our hero will have to fight at some point. The problem, of course, is how he’s going to avoid the police on both sides of the border while extricating himself from the escalating mess. There’s also the practicality of funding his disappearance. He’s lost his fields to the Columbian agents and half his last harvest to American law enforcement. There’s a rainy day fund, of course, but this is rather more of a deluge than he was expecting. If he’s to retire, he’ll need a new identity and enough money to establish himself somewhere quiet. There will be a price to pay for salvation. It’s the same for the cop. Like the titular rain dogs of the title, he’s a stray. When the dogs are accidentally caught out in a storm, the rain washes away the scent of their trails and they cannot find their way home. So how much must he pay for someone to show him how to return (if that’s actually possible)?

Putting aside my concerns about whether we should be rooting for the drug dealer or corrupt cop to escape, Rain Dogs proves to be a taut and exciting read. Watching the wheels slowly come off everyone’s wagons is fascinating. North of the border sees real stupidity at work. South of the border, greed and a drug-fueled delusion of invincibility sow the seeds of destruction as everything is resolved with the mandatory exchange of bullets and explosions. Overall, you can’t ask for a more effective thriller than this despite its moral ambivalence.

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

Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis

July 15, 2013 4 comments

Necessary Evil Ian Tregillis

To get any value out of this concluding volume in the Milkweed Triptych, you should have read the first two books in order. I can say without fear of contradiction you will not understand a lot of what happens without knowing what has gone before. Ironically, the same applies to this review. I’m not going to repeat the discussions set out in the first two reviews. I’m going to focus on this book.

In Bitter Seeds, the first book by Ian Tregillis, the question is what the precog has foreseen. The Coldest War answers this question and tell us what she proposes to do about it. This leaves us with Necessary Evil (Tor, 2013) which allows us to watch how her grand design works out. From the outset, we’ve been considering whether any of these alternate timelines is deterministic. The presentation has suggested only one person has free will. Given the breadth and depth of her ability to foresee the future and pick which timeline to follow, the precog has been charting her path through the decades. In a multiverse, every decision point branches, casting off alternate realities but, up to this point, everything has worked out exactly as she has foreseen. Indeed, what she’s achieved is breathtaking. Given the scale of what she wanted to avoid, she’s had to work backwards from the one route to salvation and examine all the decision points to see how she can get there. In so doing, she’s been reviewing a potentially infinite number of alternate histories, seeking out the key moments and identifying the people she needs to influence into acting or not acting. Of course, I could invert this and say her fate was set when she was born. She was always going to arrive at the point representing the end of book two. She merely had the illusion of free will.

This would suggest others might have free will or that no-one ever has free will. But if that were the case, the very idea of a multiverse would be a paradox. If no-one ever has free will, there can be no alternate timelines. There could only be the one timeline that everyone is predestined to follow. This leads me to major problems with the plot. If this book deals with an alternate history timeline, the two people who are sent to this 1940 are from outside this timeline’s cause and effect. What has happened to them in their own timeline remains because it has already happened. It cannot be undone when the cause does not occur in the new timeline. Yet Ian Tregillis wants to play fast and loose with this issue. In this book’s timeline, the man who should survive to send them back in 1963 dies in 1941, yet the older Marsh remains in this timeline. But when the younger Marsh does not suffer the leg injury, the travelling Marsh’s leg is cured. You think that’s bad? Well here comes the nail in the coffin. In this timeline, there are two versions of Marsh but only one precog. If we have an older and a younger Marsh, why do we only have one young precog? What happened to the older version of the precog when being transported back? It’s this lack of attention to the logic of the plot that completely spoils the effect.

Ian Tregillis

Ian Tregillis

So putting that to one side, what are the consequences when the precog is to some extent able to reset the clock? In theory, this new timeline should unfold according to the master plan. The younger version will guide events to avoid the catastrophe she has foreseen in all the other timelines. This timeline will survive. Except, of course, there’s one small change. Up to this point, she’s been the only one with an overview of time. Now there’s a second person and he understands both the strengths and weaknesses of the precog. So he can share the precog’s desire to avoid the looming catastrophe, but not be prepared to pay the same price to achieve it. More importantly he can also work backwards and understand what would need to happen to ensure the safety of those he cares about. Ah, so now we come to the heart of the Triptych. From page one of Bitter Seeds, we’ve been watching how individuals have reacted when they learn the price to pay to get the results they want. At a national level, governments at war cannot be concerned about the individual. They are fighting for the majority of their citizens and if that means sacrificing the few, that’s a price worth paying. At the other end of the scale, the individual wants to survive but may be prepared to sacrifice him or herself if the price is right. So a loving father might sacrifice himself to save his child, a spy threatened with capture might commit suicide to avoid betraying his country.

Of course, this is talking about sacrifice in physical terms but individuals may also sacrifice their principles if that’s necessary to save themselves or others. Hence, the title of the book. History shows us that some people have fought with honour, maintaining their personal integrity and protecting the reputation of their country for fair play. History also shows how often those who play fair are beaten by those who ignore the rules of chivalry and play to win regardless of the cost. It’s been a sad theme to see how often the honest are surprised by the extent of the dishonesty around them and how easily that dishonesty can strike them down. So an individual who recognises the full extent of all the risks may well be put to the choice. When there are dishonourable options, will the decider pick the least evil or do what’s necessary to win?

You’ll have to read the book to see how it works out but, as you might expect, it’s not clear cut. When we all know exactly what price has to be paid for ultimate success, there’s a certain degree of irony in how the final element of the price is collected. Perhaps that’s how fate actually works. If there’s a sine qua non and several people are aware of it, it doesn’t matter who fulfills the condition so long as the precondition is met, i.e. the necessary evil occurs.

This leaves me with an issue I referred to in the first review but it grows significantly worse in this book. Let’s start with the practicality of life described as Britain in 1940. Early on, our hero from the future needs some local cash so he gets on a bus with some future bank notes in his wallet. The idea that a bus conductor could change a five pound note is absurd. Ignoring the physical difference in the size and colour of the future note which would be spotted immediately, the average annual pay in the UK in 1940 was about £200. So even on the busiest routes, no conductor would collect and keep more than £5 in loose change. That’s 1,200 pennies except the average bus fare around that time was a hapenny (i.e. £5 = 2,800 coins). So the conductor would be weighed down with farthings and hapennies, perhaps some thrupenny bits and sixpences, and the occasional shilling. During quiet times, the conductors used to bag the excess loose coinage and either lock it in a cabinet in the stairwell or give it to the driver for safe keeping in the front cab. Even if this conductor had enough to give change for more than one’s weeks pay, consider how long it would take to count out more than one thousand coins and how much they would weigh. This is symptomatic of a cavalier attitude towards all things British, particularly its language. I know and appreciate that this is a book written by an American for the American market, but it’s aggravating that the vocabulary and vernacular attributed to British and German characters comes out as modern American English. Scattering one or two British colloquialisms does not make this book even remotely realistic. Oh but wait. This is fiction so it doesn’t have to be credible.

I was really looking forward to reading Necessary Evil but the reality has proved a major letdown. Once you set out to write a time travel or multiverse story, there are rules to be followed. This happened in the construction of the first two books. It’s such a shame the rules were mostly thrown away in this concluding volume. If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I would never have paid for my own copy.

For reviews of the first two in the series, see Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War. There’s also a free-standing Something More Than Night

The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham

The Tyrant's Law

I suppose when it comes to awarding the mantle of the top fantasy writer, i.e. recognising the one who writes the epicest of the sprawling, rooting-tooting garden variety, many people would instinctively point to the R R Martin guy who’s been doing this really ace job of promoting his fantasy books on the small screen. But this rock star popularity muddies the waters and prevents readers from seeing how many other writers might deserve the mantle more. For example Brandon Sanderson has been building some very interesting worlds in which magic works and then letting people loose in them. If we were talking about classical high fantasy, I suspect he would get my vote. The problem with GRRM’s continuing saga is that it’s grown increasingly diffuse with multiple points of view drawing our interest hither and thither. This may work for a very narrowly defined narrative but creates too many distractions when you try to line up timelines in different parts of the world. That’s what makes Daniel Abraham the man to watch. He’s very ambitious in the story he wants to tell but very disciplined in the way he tells it. There’s a real epic quality in all his work but it’s rooted in the everyday lives of people. You can’t have a functioning society unless the people in cities can get food from the land. You can’t have trade to accumulate wealth unless you have a medium of exchange and an economy. You can’t have a state unless it has the power to levy taxes to pay for the necessary infrastructure and the defence of the land under its control.

The Tyrant’s Law by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2013) The Dagger and the Coin Book 3 features the four most important point of view characters. As the current head of state, we have Lord Regent of Antea Geder Palliako who’s standing in for Prince Aster until he reaches his majority. Clara Kalliam is the widow of the man who led an unsuccessful coup against Geder and now more quietly continues the resistance. Cithrin bel Sarcour is the banker who tries to keep the economy on track even though there’s a major war going on around her. And then there’s Captain Marcus Wester who’s off trying to find the way of saving the world from the mess it’s getting into. Looking at the technical side of the narrative, it’s difficult to get the timelines to match because Geder moves around to make himself appear a real leader, but his travels are nothing to the quest undertaken by Wester. In partnership with Kit, this duo see more of the world than anyone else doing jungle jaunting, back to city dwelling, and then off to ass-freezing on seashores. The two women, however, are residents of different cities for most of the book. So weeks or months pass as we drop in and out of everyone’s lives except Wester makes a fleeting visit to Cithrin who then has to decide whether to meet up with Geder. Meanwhile Clara stays on her own, hiding in plain sight while Wester passes through her city. That’s the strength of anonymity. When no-one knows you’re a spy, you can get a lot more done. For the most part, this all does fit together as the the politicking slowly percolates, the war progresses, and the searching for salvation tracks across the land.

Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham

In a way, this book is simply moving us forward. Daniel Abraham announced this as a five-volume epic so we need to be collecting all the pieces, moving them to the right places, and priming everything for the big climax at the end of book five. All this would be mechanical and boring were it not for the fascinating level of detail in the world and the increasing depth of the characters. In a way, each of the four POV characters has been seriously damaged. Cithrin was orphaned and forced to live on her wits from an early age. This book shows her finally managing to learn something about the true meaning of friendship and love. There’s still a long way to go but at least a start has been made. Wester is still trying to adjust to the loss of his family. He’s found some comfort in the support of people in his mercenary group, from the protectiveness he feels for Cithrin, and from the revelations made by Kit which give him a reason for embarking on his quest. Clara had a relatively quiet life until her husband was declared a traitor. He’d had the temerity to attempt the murder of Geder. Failure led inevitably to his execution. As a widow, she has to find a way of surviving and then decide what to do with her life. Which leaves us with Geder whose flaws have placed him in the role of tyrant. This is all a magnificent irony because he’s completely the wrong person to be in this position but, once he inadvertently satisfies the terms of the prophesy, the priests are going to push him into a position of power so they can spread across the land (again). Watching him is faintly disturbing. He often has the best of intentions for doing entirely the wrong things.

It’s useful we now have a hint as to the nature of the spiders. That was a most pleasing surprise. Yet the precise way the mechanism of infection works remains unclear (as perhaps it should). It seems there have always been apostates so, if the priesthood has to expand its numbers among a potentially sceptical population, perhaps there will be more who use the “power” for good rather than oppression. It also seems some of the races were created to be resistant to the influence of the spiders. Quite how this will play out given the awakening in the last chapter remains to be seen. But what we seem to have is a radical cult who literally are the thought police and, to ensure world domination, they have to eradicate one or more of the races. Whether we take our historical precedents as racial or ideological purity, this is another genocidal pogrom in action.

So things are nicely poised for the fourth volume which leaves me with just one further issue. I’m not against five-book series per se, but this volume has some elements of repetition about it. Cithrin is yet again apprenticed so she can learn some more about “banking”. Geder shows increasingly naive and immature responses to situations (again). Questing is always the same in fantasy books, particularly when the early part feels like one of the game-playing scenarios where the hero has to find the magic McGuffin to be able to move up to the next level. So I have the sense this story is slightly padded out. Everyone’s character is developing nicely but there’s a slight drop in the pace and the slightest hint of unoriginality about some of the situations. I think it would have been better if everything had been crammed into four books. Don’t get me wrong. As a book, The Tyrant’s Law is very good, i.e. distinctly better than average. But I’m slightly less convinced this series is going to turn out as good as the earlier Long Price Quartet which was wonderful. As always, you should not read this as a standalone. To get the best result, you should have read the first two, i.e. The Dragon Path and The King’s Blood.

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 Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
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.

Penance by Dan O’Shea

July 13, 2013 2 comments

Exhibit.A.Penance.cover (3) 2nd for Mike Dec 4

Appreciating style is highly subjective. It would be so much easier if society had agreed metrics so we could dismiss a book as too florid if the percentage of adjectives in a text exceeded 20% or that consistently more than three clauses in a sentence made it a literary rather than a genre book, and so on. Indeed, the moment you open the Pandora’s Box of analysis, you’re immediately caught up in judging the way language is used in the text. Let’s start asking questions. Are the words more important than the ideas? Is a poetic style using metaphor able to address a more sophisticated set of images than a conventional prose style? Where do we rank credibility, originality, psychological depth, and the morality of the acts and omissions described? So because no-one has ever defined a coherent set of criteria against which to measure the quality of any given artistic work, we’re left with all these vague feelings which crystalise into like and dislike as we read.

So here comes Penance by Dan O’Shea (Exhibit A, 2013). This is his first novel after publishing a collection of short stories. It introduces Detective John Lynch of the Chicago Police. He’s of Irish ancestry and, because of his family, has connections to the powerbrokers in the Windy City. His father, Declan Lynch, was a straight cop who was killed on the job. Taking that as his inspiration, John Lynch has steered clear of the corruption. His uncle, on the other hand, has always been a player, working for Paddy Wang, the regional kingmaker. Those with the real power always need people to front for them. That way, the puppet masters can stay in the shadows while getting the results they want. The plot therefore depends on a political drama that was played out in 1971. To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say, an unfortunate incident is exploited to achieve a number of significant results. Many different people had to be involved. All those who could be trusted were given rewards of different types. The remainder met unfortunate ends.

Dan O'Shea

Dan O’Shea

Coming forward to the present time, the title to the book sets the tone of the plot. This is a sins of the fathers story. Most of the original players are now dead, but their children live on, some continuing in their fathers’ footsteps. One of these children decides to do penance by killing the guilty who survive from 1971. This man has highly refined skills, having trained as a sniper and then worked off the books for the US government. When he goes off the reservation, his agency is tasked with killing him before he can do any real damage. This leads to a direct conflict of interests when the first victim is shot in Chicago and the case is given to John Lynch. My first problem is with the mounting scale of the debacle as the body count rises and the cover-ups swing into place. The different factions in government all have slightly different agendas depending on whether their interests are threatened or not. As their motives do not align, co-ordination breaks down and there’s in-fighting. In the midst of all this, John Lynch very conveniently finds a file his father had hidden away. This clarifies many of the facts in the 1971 cover-up and suggests his father was murdered. We then get into John Lynch collecting a small number of trusted people around him to hold down the Chicago end. He’s also approached by one government faction who supply self-interested support. This leaves our man in the middle trying to do the boy-scout thing of keeping as many people alive as possible while taking down all the bad guys, no matter who they are.

I’m not convinced much of this is even remotely credible but, I suppose, if you’re going to write a modern thriller, you don’t worry too much about keeping a lid on your imagination. If the detail all fits into a coherent plot and you’re writing about a group of people with sociopathic tendencies, you stop worrying whether they would shoot people. As sociopaths they would not only shoot them, they would double cap them in the head to make sure they were dead and then look for the next person to shoot. If there were witnesses, they would be unfortunate collateral damage. And so on. Politically, this is all sanctioned because people in government office prefer to stay in office. Morally they are no better than the killers they send out to clean-up the damage. The result is a depressing litany of corruption and criminality.

Then we come to the style which I confess to not liking very much. In part, it’s a judgement of taste, e.g. a man parks his Jaguar sedan in a portico big enough to hold Bill Clinton’s libido. I suppose similes like this are amusing to some readers. There’s actually one joke close to the end which did make me smile. But I think a lot of the humour badly misjudged. I’m also disturbed when an author refers to characters as, “the small Chinese sociopath”. We have a range of different killers paraded before our eyes: from America, Israel and, yes, China. But it’s the casual attribution of nationality that somehow distinguishes between degrees of efficiency in killing. Sadly, the Israelis don’t come out of this pissing contest very well. I could go on listing all the different ways the text made me flinch but all that does is give my subjective impressions. You might very well think this type of police procedural which rapidly shifts gear into a flat-out political thriller is your kind of book. If so, you’ll no doubt find Penance a top-class read. But if you prefer a book to have a reasonable amount of credibility and some psychological depth to the characters (the sociopaths outnumber the sane characters by a significant margin), this is not for you.

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

The Bat by Jo Nesbø

The-Bat-Jo-Nesbo

The Bat by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Books, Random House, 2013) translated by Don Bartlett (originally published as Flaggermusmannen in 1997) is the first of the novels featuring Inspector Harry Hole and it’s a fascinating study of guilt and racism. Taking the question of guilt first, Harry is trapped in an official conspiracy to preserve the reputation of the Norwegian police and the peace of mind of the parents of the police officer Harry killed. People do many different things when they are in public office. Sorry, that’s a rather silly way to put it. Being human and so fallible, people act irresponsibly no matter what their status or role in society. It’s not, you understand, that they believe themselves above the law or that they can manipulate the law enforcement agencies into taking no action. Rather it’s that they become self-absorbed and fail to understand the risks they run. So when something goes wrong, senior management often decides to cover up the problem. It’s not directly to protect the individual wrongdoer although that’s the effect. It’s to maintain public confidence in the institution and, perhaps, help the families of those who die. So in a friendly-fire incident, it’s better to blame the enemy on the battlefield than the panicking squaddie who pulled the trigger. Or for the Police Commissioner to overlook the alcoholism and regular incapacity of the officer who was driving.

Aborigines are also central to the plot. Harry is partnered with an aboriginal police officer — obviously Australian officialdom has a sense of humour in matching the two social outsiders — he meets Toowoomba a younger man fighting against the institutionalised racism of the country, and relies on Joseph to find a witness and for guidance on how to accommodate the wrongful judgments of others. The opening part of Harry’s journey through Australian society is presented as a form of learning experience. He has to resolve his own reactions to his status as a barely-tolerated outsider. The Australian police are not overjoyed that a Norwegian has been sent to “help” investigate the local death of a Norwegian woman. They hide their resentment but prefer this inconvenient man to sit quietly in a corner and not disturb them. From an early point, Harry begins to engage with the local gay community which, despite official tolerance, is also struggling for acceptance. He’s also trying to find the right way to relate to Aborigines. The irony is that the Aborigines who know Harry is Norwegian and has only just arrived in Australia, will not relate to him in the same way as the locals. There should be no history or cultural baggage to get in the way of a more open set of relationships. Yet because Harry feels he doesn’t know how to relate to the Aborigines, he creates tensions where none should exist.

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Racism is a bit like how humans keep fish in an aquarium. Like mammals, fish also have a day/night cycle and if keepers disturb these circadian rhythms, the fish grow anxious and their health is threatened. So when the whites came to this big country and found “people” already there, the first reaction was to kill them. There was no possibility of sharing all this empty land. Later the whites felt guilty so they put the surviving locals on display. They tried to make them comfortable in the prevailing white culture, separated the children from their parents, introduced them to cities, and gave them an education. The expectation was that this well-intentioned forced relocation would make the new generation happy. The Aborigines would be assimilated and the whites wouldn’t have to feel guilty any more. Except, like the fish in the aquarium, many of the relocated children grew up alienated, rejecting the imposed environment as false, and wanting to return to their roots.

Harry’s like that too. The secrecy surrounding the fatal accident is forced on him. He’s even given official recognition for his good work in trying to catch the escaping criminal. How is he to expiate his own sins if they cannot be admitted? How can he be rehabilitated if there’s no public shame and punishment imposed to reflect his blameworthiness? The result is that he ends up as alienated, depressed and self-destructive as the Aborigines. The punishment he chooses for himself is cold turkey and obsessive dedication to his work as a detective. He quits drinking and drugs. He becomes a better than average detective. But he fails to become a better person because he can’t adjust to the knowledge he’s responsible for the death of a fellow officer. So when he falls off the wagon, the results are more extreme than might normally be the case.

It’s extraordinary we should have had to wait fifteen years to read this book in English. Although there are elements which some might consider controversial, there’s nothing so extreme to justify this form of censorship. That said, the continuing work of Don Bartlett has produced another outstanding result. Obviously I can’t say how this book reads in Norwegian, but it’s a wonderful piece of English. The way the plot works is also terrific. While the inclusion of the allegory and metaphor threatens to distract, the speculation and detailed analysis leading to the final conclusion is nicely balanced by the Australian context. As the outsider, Harry literally comes with a fresh pair of eyes. Except unless and until he knows something of the local culture, it’s impossible to use those eyes effectively. How can the newcomer attribute salience when he’s not aware of local significance? First he must learn and then think about what he has seen. The resulting investigation is completely engrossing. The murder of the Norwegian woman is linked to other deaths. There’s some very pleasing misdirection and Harry almost loses the game because he takes another drink. But the final conclusions are immensely satisfying. For those of you who have been wondering why Harry Hole is so dysfunctional, this is a must-read book!

For a review of the film version of one of Jo Nesbø’s books, see Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
Cockroaches
Police
The Son.

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

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