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Gulf Boulevard by Dennis Hart

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

Gulf Boulevard by Dennis Hart

Having read Gulf Boulevard by Dennis Hart (Permanent Press, 2014), I’m encouraged to ask a simple question, “What’s funny?” Here’s the thing. No matter where you go (with the possible exception of North Koreans who don’t take shit from no-one and shoot first) people laugh. Yet for all this seems to be a characteristic of the human race, the reaction to situations and words used is not perfectly understood. It just seems to be something that evolved as a part of our general pattern of social interaction. Sharing a joke confirms membership of the group and, in some contexts, helps to defuse tensions. So what makes us laugh? It’s often the unexpected appearance of an absurd element. Life is moving along as usual, then something happens but, no matter what it is, there’s a quick and relatively painless resolution of the problem. In a real world scenario, a man slips on a banana skin but, having travelled some distance along the pavement, arms windmilling desperately, he regains control of his balance without falling. Having held their breaths, spectators bust into spontaneous applause, laughing and congratulating the man, while the resulting video goes viral on YouTube. Had the man fallen and broken bones, it would have been viewed as a tragic accident. Any public laughter would have been considered inappropriate even though he had looked funny while trying to avoid the fall.

In other words, humour has boundaries. Where they fall differs from one community to another. What one group may find hilarious, another may find tasteless. The wider the cultural gap, the more difficult it is for humour to cross. And, let’s face it, you can’t get a wider gap than the Atlantic. The cultural norms are strikingly different “over there”. For all the American entertainment industry has been doing its best to universalise its content, there’s a serious problem when it comes to humour. The rest of the world can be impressed by CGI epics and thrilled by tense drama, but it doesn’t always find its funny bone tickled by the US worldview as expressed through its humour. Let’s face it, we can’t even agree how to spell the word.

Dennis Hart

Dennis Hart

So this is not intended as a laugh-out-loud book, but it’s clearly aiming for the niche we might tentatively label comedy thriller. Think of it as juxtaposing universal thriller components with culturally-specific punch lines and jokes. In spirit, I was reminded of The Gazebo by Alec Coppel who was Australian. This is about a man hounded by a blackmailer who decides murder is the only way out. Having buried the body in the foundations of the titular gazebo, we then spend the rest of the play waiting for it to pop up again (they made an American film of it as well). Well here are two men. One is a very efficient hitman who, through spontaneously turning his one shot into a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, finds himself in deep trouble. Naturally, he relocates to a remote island off the coast of Florida. The other is a moderately obsessive accountant who hits the jackpot on the Powerball Lottery and is able to buy a house on a remote island. Unfortunately, it’s the same island and we spend the book waiting for the mob to arrive to extract their revenge. In the meantime, this plays out as a cross between Neil Simon’s Odd Couple and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. On one side, we’ve got a man who rakes his beach to keep it looking as perfect as he dreamed it would be — he’s the ultimate in voluntary hermits. On the other, there’s a man who enjoys sitting on the beach watching the sun go down — such is his girth, standing up again can be a challenge.

In the midst of all this, we have the accountant’s ex-wife who unilaterally decides their marriage never ended and she should be entitled to some of the lottery winnings, a parrot who has an extensive repertoire of phrases and sounds to keep all entertained, and one of the best people you could ever hope to find to represent the interests of the Indians. The resulting mixture is one of these delightful confections that seems lighter than air. Suspending disbelief like it never went out of fashion, we float across the Gulf to an island paradise that turns out to have one or two minor drawbacks. If we were following the exploits of Ignatius J Reilly, we would say Fortuna has not smiled on our heroic recluse. So this leaves him no option but to fend off these intrusions into the privacy of his idyl with a sharp tongue and the occasional resort to fresh tomatoes. Needless to say, both the words and the produce are considered provocative, and he finds himself hounded and beaten. Perhaps he should just piss in his own boat to save everyone else the trouble or just regift all his shit to North Korea and hope they don’t shoot back.

At my advanced age and given my curmudgeonly status, it’s remarkable I managed to avoid straining unused facial muscles while reading this book. Yes, I was tempted to smile several times which is high praise. There’s considerable wit on display and some of the jokes do prove universal. So with the threat of hit people invading my current island paradise, I have no choice but to recommend Gulf Boulevard. If it can almost make me smile, it must be outrageously amusing to everyone on the other side of the Atlantic.

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

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

December 30, 2013 1 comment

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2009) sees Lady Abigail Irene Garrett and wampyr Don Sebastien de Ulloa making a home for themselves in a London under German occupation. This novella is set some thirty-five years after events described in New Amsterdam. In this alternate history, Britain lost the peace and, with its king fled to America, the younger generation of the British are growing up through the education system put in place by their conquerors. The first real signs of this are now openly walking the streets wearing the uniforms of the German army. When the occupation is all you’ve known during the formative years, it’s difficult not to be a collaborator. For the record, this is not the German master race we know from our own history. It’s the Prussians who, under the leadership of a Bismarck analogue, have been grabbing European turf. Sadly, from their point of view, Russia has yet to succumb. This leads them to attempt a magical strategy. If their army could be reinforced by werewolves, this would almost certainly give them the edge when it comes to an invasion. The problem is how to resurrect the largely lost packs and, even more importantly, ensure their loyalty. It would be somewhat embarrassing if, having found a way of putting together a regiment of these beasts, they then ate all soldiers in sight, regardless of their uniforms.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

It’s always convenient to read books and see only the superficial story of a British resistance movement with an undead Scarlet Pimpernel working alongside them. But that would be to completely misjudge the quality of the book. This is a book about the power of love at opposite ends of the age spectrum. From the merely old and immortal comes the tragedy of mortality. Vampires were first human and only later came to their higher status. This means they can be tempted by the emotion of love even though, to them, it’s going to be ephemeral unless they turn the object of their affection. So Sebastian is on the cusp of that bittersweet moment when his human love will die. That he’s seen nations born and die gives him perspective, but that doesn’t really change the nature of the experience each time he watches someone he cares about die. At the other end of the age and experience scale, we have two young girls on the cusp of turning into warriors. Yet, despite the psychological manipulation, they find themselves experiencing physical attraction. Further complicating matters is the question of race. One girl is Jewish and she has already assumed responsibility for infiltrating the werewolf operation so she can strike back for her people. For her, the sacrifice of herself or the others around her may become necessary if she’s to carry forward the plan.

The book therefore considers the nature of relationships when one or both parties are mayflies. Perhaps we all accept short-term satisfaction when we can place ourselves in a larger context. For Sebastian, he may lose Abigail Irene’s physical body but she will always be with him in memories. It’s the regret you cannot hold hands or kiss that will prove fleeting when all you have to do to be together again is to close your eyes. For the young lovers, it’s the natural feel to the emotions that’s so seductive. Despite the options to persuade or actually change the other person’s mind, they would never do that because it’s a betrayal of the trust they have in each other. That there’s an inherent lack of honesty in the infiltrator does not change her love. That she recognises the other may turn into an enemy the moment the dishonesty is revealed cannot stop her. She’s been honed into a weapon and she has to live with the consequences. She has a higher purpose than ephemeral love.

So Seven for a Secret is a book that features vampires, their renfields, werewolves and assorted manipulative human taskmasters. Yet it’s also about the tragedy individuals have to endure because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The result is affecting, melancholic and rather beautiful.

For reviews of books also by Elizabeth Bear, see
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette),
Range of Ghosts,
Shattered Pillars,
Shoggoths in Bloom,
Steles of the Sky and
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette).

Dust jacket artwork is again by Patrick Arrasmith.

Magic and Loss by Nancy A Collins

December 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Magic-and-Loss

Magic and Loss by Nancy Collins (Roc, 2013) is the third book in the Golgotham series and, since the spells which underpin the creation of these stories come in trilogies, this seems to draw all the threads together. Not that the series could not continue, of course. But, for now, we seem to have disposed of the major villain and his cohorts. So for those of you who have not previously encountered this series, a brief summary. Tate is the talented daughter of an immensely rich New York family but, as is required to set the romance ball rolling, she’s at odds with her parents. She wants to be a sculptor — not the common or garden worker of rock and stone — that would be so common. She’s into bending metal bars with her teeth and welding the results together into interesting shapes. This is not quite the type of activity up with which neighbours will put so she moves into Golgotham. This is the not quite ghetto where all the magic folk live. Here she can literally do her Vulcan act and no-one gives a rat’s ass. Naturally she establishes her studio in a house owned by Hexe, a member of the Kymerian royal family and master of right-hand magic — that’s the good variety. Sparks fly. As we come into this third book, Tate is now pregnant so this is the trigger for the final assault on the royal family’s hold on power.

Boss Marz, the local gang kingpin who was jailed in the last book, has now been released from jail on a technicality and is now back in Golgotham to reclaim his turf and take revenge on Tate and Hexe. If I was to jot down the plot outline on he back of an envelope, you would think it had potential. Naturally, Boss is just a front and, when a devious plan springs into action, Hexe is possessed and Tate, somewhat surprisingly, takes off back to her parents — obviously her hormones are affecting her ability to think straight. In the first two books, she was inseparable from her wizard man. Yet just because he attacks her, she runs away. I find this less than credible. Even more surprising is the reaction in the parental household. Her mother actually admits how she came to marry her father which is not very flattering, and the butler who has spent a lifetime in service, hands in his notice and comes back to Golgotham with his mistress. Except he turns out to have a thing for underground oracles and those rather loud shirts men wear to look cool on Hawaii’s beaches.

Nancy Collins with a dominant right eye

Nancy Collins with a dominant right eye

So the potential of the plot in enabling the possession of Hexe and doing all the usual dire things people do when they are bent on revenge starts off reasonably well. But it slowly breaks down as we get into both the relationship problems of Tate and Hexe, and the relationships of our lovers’ parents. Indeed, the family history is enlarged upon to include grandparents and a significant backstory based on a coincidental meeting between the two mothers before they respectively produced Tate and Hexe. It’s one of these small world plots where everyone either knows everyone or turns out to be related in some unexpected way. There’s also altogether too much information about Golgotham, its culture and its celebratory festival. Far be it for me to suggest this is mere padding. I suppose there are gangs of fans out there who suck up detail and admire the comprehensive way in which this “world” has been constructed. Sadly, I just got bored. In the earlier books, I was prepared to tolerate the romance which has been driving Tate’s evolution from a mere artist with a hammer and oxyacetylene welding kit, into a magician in her own right, able to animate her creations. This is actually quite a cool metaphor. Artists invest their creations with their love so it’s only right they should literally be able to bring them to life. Except, apart from an early flicker and a late rally, very little is made of her magical abilities in this book. She’s much more passive and less confident. It doesn’t feel right given what she’s been through. I would have expected her to show more grit when she’s actually got a lot of power to draw on.

The result is, I’m sad to say, a damp squib. I think this could have been a dark and tense novel, full of thriller potential and several set-piece fights or small battles. Instead, it allows the romance to slow everything down and lighten the tone. I know the urban fantasy subgenre is not supposed to stray into dark territory. It’s the equivalent of the cozy mystery as the opposite of noir or the hardboiled. So all the potential is dissipated with too much exposition and not enough sense of danger for our parents-to-be and, after a quick birth, the baby boy. This is a major disappointment. Although the first in the series was uninspiring, the second managed to produce a genuinely interesting plot idea. Magic and Loss slides back into the genuinely bad end of the fantasy market and, unless you are a fan of the first two, you should not trouble the bookseller to sell it to you.

For reviews of the other books in the series, see:
Left Hand Magic
Right Hand Magic

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

Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss

December 28, 2013 1 comment

Urban Renewal cover_full

In a long life, I’ve known a number of career criminals including one charged with murder. As people to meet in pubs and ordinary social settings, they are remarkably unremarkable. But in the right context, of course, they do radiate a certain menace. So books like Urban Renewal by Andrew Vachss (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) are always interesting because they walk the narrow moral line for authors in that they describe the ordinariness of these people’s lives interspersed by often cold-blooded outbursts of crime. To that extent, they reflect an underlying reality about life. Even the most deadly killers have families and friends. When they are not out on a job, they like to relax and do boring stuff. Indeed, it’s this time of being human that grounds them. Without this, they would be like mad dogs and bark so long and loud that even the most dense detective in the city would be able to identify them. It’s the quiet ones you never see coming.

For the author, there’s a dilemma. If the villain as protagonist is painted as completely “evil”, the majority of readers might find the reading exercise fascinating but only in a macabre way, i.e. many horror novels trade on the inherent evil of key characters to create the appropriate emotional response. But the more redeeming character features the author allows the protagonist, the less intimidating he or she becomes. At an intermediate stage this leads us to the vigilante. This is a socially useful individual who uses extralegal strategies to defeat the real evil around him. As readers, we’re invited to forgive the fact he or she kills the really bad guys because this activity satisfies the utilitarian criterion of delivering the greatest good for the least cost. Indeed, this plot usually introduces the human before the resort to criminality. This can be a loving parent whose child is kidnapped, raped and killed in a gruesome way. The police suspect who’s responsible but do not have enough evidence to justify the expense of a public trial. Our protagonist therefore takes the suspect somewhere quiet and asks pertinent questions with a cattleprod or electric drill. If guilt is established, we accept revenge as a justification for doing away with this pond scum. Should it prove not to be the kidnapper but other offences are admitted, we’re still encouraging our hero in the extermination campaign. The next one he takes will be the actual kidnaper. It will all work out for the best. One of the classic tropes is the apparently timid man or sexy woman who learns martial arts and how to shoot. They then walk the darker streets and back alleys inviting muggers and rapists to strike. This satisfies our general desire to have the streets turned into safer places for ordinary people. Since the police have to wait for the criminals to attack, this more proactive approach is more efficient.

Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss

In Urban Renewal, we have a tight group who are unquestioningly loyal to each other. Cross is the brains. As Marlon C Cain was a career criminal as a juvenile and ended up in the ultimate “pen” with Vernon D Lewis aka Ace. During their stay, they met an already massive individual who later becomes known as Rhino. This trio will add Princess, Tracker, Tiger and others. In a way, they become a family of misfits and outlaws whose only interest in life is survival and self-advancement. Their services are for sale, but this is not a simple murder for hire operation. They are far more sophisticated than that. More to the point, for all they would die for each other, they have no code of honour or morality. They do whatever it takes to earn the next buck, and then move on in search of the next. This makes them a very valuable resource to organised crime in their city (for now Chicago). It also means they are very carefully watched. If they become too dangerous to the mob or other criminal groups, the conflict would be short and brutal.

This is the second novel to feature Cross, but there are also short stories offering different views of the group and how it operates. The title gives us the theme. The group literally decide to invest their time (and some of their money) in a street which could be gentrified if the local gangs would decide to leave it alone. The homes are bought at the bottom of the market as the mortgage defaults cascade through the neighborhood. Now all they have to do is clear out the local rats. But at a metaphorical, we also see one of the group deciding he would like to live in one of these houses. This is a major psychological shift. His apartment is fortified and in a poor part of the city. He’s not suddenly transforming into an upwardly mobile social stereotype, but it’s nevertheless a form of renewal. Whereas Cross might otherwise have been less than committed to the role of pest control officer, the group must now work for real.

The other plot threads deal with an attempt to place a mole inside his organisation, a how-to become a player guide, disposing of inconvenient people, playing one mob leader against his ambitious deputy, and street racing 101. Although all these elements are woven into a relatively coherent whole, there’s a slight feel of fix-up as the structure tends to be slightly episodic. The upshot of all this is a book which holds interest. For all their amorality, the group is inadvertently a force for good. A part of Chicago ends up a better neighborhood in which civilians can live without harassment from local gangs, drug pushers and prostitutes. Several senior gangland figures are removed from their posts which disrupts the activities of their organisations. Some low-level thugs are persuaded to move up to better levels and an exploitative grifter gets his just deserts. Because these socially desirable results are not directly intended, we are denied the chance to accept Cross as a vigilante. He will always be too far off the reservation for acceptance. Nevertheless, Urban Renewal is worth reading. It’s not glorifying evil. Andrew Vachss simply catalogues the murders dispassionately and passes on.

For a review of another book by Andrew Vachss, see Shockwave.A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Almost Human: Season 1, episode 4. The Bends (2013)

December 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Almost-Human2

Almost Human: Season 1, episode 4. The Bends (2013) sees the banter between the two heroes taking on new levels of interest as they debate whether Dorian (Michael Ealy) should wait in the car while Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) eats his Japanese ramen, or they should discuss the relative merits of food from a tin or live on the hoof. Because Dorean has the language package, he can talk to the Japanese proprietor and arrange a practical joke, but I’m increasingly uncertain what the point of these interplay moments is. In entirely human dramas, there are filler conversations between cops or family members or vampires and their renfields, and we tend to accept people talking about the latest game, should dad be put in a home, or is the latest batch of blood from the piggery hitting the spot? But the conversations in this series feel as if they are deliberately exploring just how human Dorean can appear to be and how cranky but loveable the human Detective is. Giving Dorean a sense of humour sufficient for him to play a merry jape says something about the quality of his programming. Or are we supposed to be looking beyond the mechanical body and software brain? Is this intended to make us wonder whether the DRNs, as the early version of this android revolution, were using human brains until they could “perfect” the physical analogue? Put another way, is the big reveal going to be that Dorean is actually Robocop?

Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook) being cool under pressure

Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook) being cool under pressure

So this is a hack plot about the good cop who was our human hero’s friend back in the day. Six years later, he’s found dead, apparently collaborating with the street drug industry which is about to launch a new product called The Bends (it’s derived from seaweed, hence the tenuous connection to the sensations experienced by divers). So now our human is on a crusade to clear his friend’s reputation. To do this, he negotiates with Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor). He wants to continue the investigation “off the books”. The masterplan is for loveable, eccentric Brit scientist or brain-box Rudy Lom (Mackenzie Crook) go undercover as a cook to draw out the drug dealing kingpin. This gives Rudy his moment in the sun to be told not to wear a fancy European suit and a fedora when posing as a low-life cook to the drug addicted. To set up this meet, our two low-profile cops go into a bar in the seamy side of town and fight their way through a crowd full of low-life to find one of the bottom dweller drug pushers who can send a message to the kingpin. Of course, no-one in this bar or the surrounding block would have noticed the arrival of said notorious cops nor that they openly talked with him in the street outside. None of his associates would see the release of said dealer’s girlfriend on weapons charges. It’s just a coincidence she was freed on the exercise of a police officer’s discretion. The kingpin would never suspect he was being set up within days of the last set-up. Such criminals are, by definition, intensely stupid people who will respond to invitations from their street dealers obviously doing deals with the local law.

The chronically nervous Rudy tosses down a magic drink which turns him into a GPS transmitter and goes off into the dark warehouse. He’s so so over-the-top nervous he even tells the criminals his real name. I didn’t predict that level of dysfunction. I thought the scriptwriters would leave the character with a shred of dignity. Hah! As if. This is a Brit and so becomes the punching bag for all American prejudices against those afflicted with intelligence. This performance out geeks even the uber-geeks in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Faced with such terminal incompetence, Dorian has to go in to help the human from committing suicide by logorrhea. Yet despite all this, the kingpin spirits Rudy out of the building — wow, who could have seen that coming. How did the kingpin know the neutralise the GPS drink? If there’s any cliché left out of this plot, I can’t see it. It’s 100% pure recycled bullshit. So shoot here, fight there, hide here, celebrate victory there. When the grieving widow is wheeled into police headquarters and gushes, “Thanks for not giving up on my husband. You’re a good man, John.” it sums up the puke-making sentimentality that ruins shows like this. Put another way, watching Almost Human: The Bends rots both human and android brains from the inside out.

For reviews of other episodes, see
Almost Human. Season 1, episode 1 (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 2. Skin (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 3. Are You Receiving? (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 5. Blood Brothers (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 6. Arrhythmia (2013)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 7. Simon Says (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 8. You Are Here (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 9. Unbound (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 10. Perception (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 11. Disrupt (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 12. Beholder (2014)
Almost Human: Season 1, episode 13. Straw Man (2014).

The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames

There’s something about a village. . . Growing up in a satellite town to a city, I had the best of both worlds with a small tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone else, but with the shops and services supplied by what was left of trade after the War in the wreckage of the city. In fact, truth be told, the city was really just a town with so many of the men killed or wounded and forced to stay at home. Until the fifties really kicked into gear, the streets were not that busy at either end of the social setting. After a relatively brief period living in a city, I was off out into the countryside to a real village. It was a welcome relief even though I was, by definition, an outsider. Ironically, I’m still an outsider now that I’ve moved into a different cityscape. Perhaps I was designed to be a hermit.

In part, I think that’s why I like Samuel Craddock, the hero of The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames (Seventh Street Books, 2014). Although he did a stint in the Army, he had the chance to stay in his small Texan community. Naturally gregarious and blessed with both intelligence and common sense (a rare combination), he’s now retired from his role as “lawman” to the county. That doesn’t mean the county has given up on him. His replacement is a drunken lush who spends too long inside bottles of different shapes and sizes to be any use as a human being, let alone a law enforcement officer. So when there are problems, people just happen to remember Samuel’s telephone number and call him up. Like the local sawbones, that means he’s been a continual presence in people’s lives, watching them born and grow up through the generations. If the town is a safe place to live, it’s in no small way due to his benign approach to defusing situations and easing people into less confrontational ways. In real and not just idiomatic terms, such men are the salt of the earth.

Terry Shames

Terry Shames

When setting out to write a mystery, there’s always a balance to be struck between the nature of the puzzle woven through the plot and the mechanics of characters and settings. Some authors delight in creating the problem to be solved. Everything else is set dressing and actors moving around as needed in order to get all the clues out there for us armchair detectives to delight in spotting. When at their best, these authors dazzle us with the intricacies of their inventiveness. When off their game, we watch cardboard characters moving through generic settings of little or no substance or importance. At the other end of the scale, the setting is one of the characters and the nature of the puzzle to solve arises out of the characters and their interaction. When this works well, as here, our detective moves through the town he knows so well, yet still finds so much he does not know. He watched these children grow up. There were many things he saw but, with an adult’s sensibilities, he didn’t always get the meaning quite right. Yes, he was keeping other people’s secrets, but not quite what they wanted to hide. It’s actually quite ironic. With all his wisdom and, at times, he’s pretty wise, he’s not nearly as good at judging people as he thinks he is. Of course, the people who live in small towns all know each other and therefore learn to hide their secrets well. Those who fail, tend to leave with their reputations shredded. So it’s not his fault that he can’t immediately see through the deceptions. People see what they want to see. Indeed, his life would be very uncomfortable as a law enforcement officer if no-one could keep their secrets from him. Everyone’s entitled to their privacy. Whether they’ve been faithful or secretly killing people, that’s their business. Well, most of the time. Until they cheat on someone who takes resentment to a new level of destructiveness or they kill someone he can’t ignore.

This time around, we’ve got two bodies, a nasty beating, a shooting, a potentially dangerous Hells Angel biker group, and a wacky cult in Waco (where else?). It’s a delightful conflation of criminal behavior for Sam to investigate while worrying about his knee, taking great care of his cattle, and reaching the right level of social interaction with the women on the periphery of his life. I may never have visited Texas, but I’ve met people like Sam and many of those who live alongside him in this community. They are the same basic characters who lived in the village where I made my home, agonised whether their cricket team had won over the weekend, and gossiped outside the schools, in the shops and in the pubs. So if you like meeting people and learning more about them, this is the book for you. Of course it matters whodunnit and why, but it’s equally important to know if the killer was married and had children. Knowing what happened to them after the killer was arrested is part of the package when you read books like this — as is knowing which secrets to keep and which to leave unanswered. In short, The Last Death of Jack Harbin is a great book which just happens to be a mystery! Surprisingly, even the title turns out to be completely appropriate.

For the review of another novel by Terry Shames, see A Killing at Cotton Hill.

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

The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor

December 25, 2013 Leave a comment

The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor

The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor (Seventh Street Books, 2014) is the third outing for Hugo Marston, the Regional Security Officer for the American Embassy in Paris. This time, he’s to babysit a rising star in the US political firmament who’s filling in at a session designed not to resolve anything about the future of Guadeloupe which, for those of you not so well versed in geography, is a group of islands currently under the protection of France. These citizens, in their more disloyal moments, toy with the idea of embracing the benefits of democracy as peddled by the US. Given the semi-traditional tension between the US and France, it therefore suits the US to posture its willingness to accept administrative responsibility (just as soon as they work out where it/they is/are). Hence, this meeting is arranged out of the public’s view so that, even though the fact of its existence can be admitted if pushed, privacy can be maintained and both sides can then say whatever they want about why nothing was resolved. Reluctantly, Hugo accepts this mission only to find it triggers an investigation which has “ramifications”.

The trigger is that the isolationist Senator gets unexpectedly drunk at the evening meal designed to be an icebreaker and, when he surfaces the following morning, he’s insistent someone was in his room during the night. To keep the peace, Hugo agrees to call in his friend in the Paris police force. Of course no-one expects anything of interest to surface. What do drunk Senators see if they briefly wake during the night? But, among the many fingerprints found in his bedroom is one that matches a print taken at the scene of a murder/robbery south of Paris. Naturally, the police are not allowed to barge in and take the fingerprints of anyone attending this international conference. Even the staff of the château refuse co-operation, alleging that they, along with the high-powered whom they serve, are above reproach. Given the identity of those involved, no French judge is prepared to authorise what is thought a fishing expedition without anything to link the two locations or the people involved. It’s just a surprising coincidence, i.e. just the kind of knotty puzzle Hugo likes to get his teeth into.

Mark Pryor

Mark Pryor

The pleasing feature of this series is that all the characters are evolving. Although this could be read as a standalone, half the interest lies in the metanarrative as we watch the relationships shift through time and circumstance. What adds additional drama to the dynamics of the plot is the death of one character who had been important during the first two novels. This is brave of the author. The majority of writers put together a cast of stock characters and then run permutations on them as the series develops. It also helps build loyalty among readers if they believe the same team will be rolled out to solve each book’s crime(s). George R R Martin has rather broken the mould by killing some of the most interesting characters as his series progresses, but introducing new talent for us to get to know and then worry about. While Mark Pryor hasn’t killed off one of the lead protagonists, the victim is important and the loss hits everyone hard. This additional layer of realism enhances the emotional depth of the book and helps bring people together.

As to the mystery, we’re given very good value this time round. I had absolutely no idea what was going on until arriving quite close to the end. Looking back, the motive is clear so long as you draw the right inferences from the historical interpolations. I’m not absolutely sure everyone acts with complete credibility but, in a sense, I don’t think it matters. There’s enough done here to make it feel right. Even when we’re all at sea at the end, the discussion and its consequence have a resonance which just about perfects the emotional forces at work. Fear at the loss of status, the humiliation and, perhaps, derision that might have followed exposure of those particular facts. . . We can only guess.

So I’m back on track with Mark Pryor. His first book was promising and The Blood Promise confirms him as definitely someone to watch. Hopefully, he can maintain consistency as we look forward to the next in the series.

For reviews of the two previous books in the series, see The Bookseller
The Crypt Thief.

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

Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu

December 24, 2013 Leave a comment

aunty lee's delights cover

Aunty Lee’s Delights by Ovidia Yu (William Morrow, 2013) proudly proclaims itself A Singapore Mystery and, unlike the Inspector Chen series by Liz Williams which is set in a fictional Singapore 3, this is the real deal — a double murder set in the contemporary “garden city”. Not that this is in any way relevant to the assessment of the book but I suspect, if asked, the Singapore Tourism Board will be secretly delighted by this book since it sells the city as a destination for foodies to enjoy. The titular Aunty Lee runs a Peranakan eating place of considerable virtue, offering traditional Nonya recipes with a modern twist. The point of reading a mystery set in a “foreign” country is that it allows us to enjoy solving the puzzle while learning something of the people who live in this “place”. For those of you not certain where it is, there’s a tiny sliver of land at the end of the Malay peninsula. It’s a “red dot” which faces Indonesia. In 2012, it had 14.5 million international visitors — not bad for an island which has a total population of slightly more than 5 million. This is not to say it depends on tourism to earn its living. The number of visitors is just one more string to the economic bow which primarily grows through international trade and its substantial financial muscle. Why is this even remotely relevant? Because to understand the book, you have to understand something of the country.

Ovidia Yu

Ovidia Yu

Singapore is a melting pot of different races and cultures. In some respects, it’s immensely conservative, e.g. this October, in a case brought by Tan Eng Hong, the Singapore court upheld section 377A Singapore Penal Code which criminalises male homosexuality, but as a financial and industrial centre, it’s one of the most innovative and competitive business centres in the world. This is an essential paradox as the small nation struggles with its transition to first world status in having AAA ratings from all the major credit agencies, but lacking some of the attributes that characterise the Western democracies. This is to some extent reflected on the ground where the international visitors see the film set of a modern vibrant city while, behind the scenes in the heartlands, the local people live their lives. Hence this book represents an honest view of what life is like for the locals. It’s perhaps appropriate to dispel any prejudices that may be lurking. Some readers in the west resist reading books in translation. Have no fear. English is one of the four national languages of Singapore and Ovidia Yu uses a form of English that’s perfectly angmohised with, unless I blur, only one or two local Singlish usages like kiasu, kaypoh and goondu, i.e, out to win, usually an older person who’s somewhat nosy, and a relatively polite way of referring to someone as an idiot. Readers in the West will find this novel not only accessible but also a rather delightful exploration of the potential of English to sound faintly exotic.

So what’s it about? Well, Aunty Lee finds herself somewhat vexed because people who have eaten her food have ended up food for the fishes. In her lexicon, people who eat her food become family so any attack on them is an attack on her. There’s just one problem. As a stereotypical little old lady, she can hardly emulate Charles Bronson in a Death Wish sweep across the island, exterminating all villains as she comes across them. But she knows the right people in the local police force and can manipulate the people around her into accommodating her wishes. This enables her to become indispensable to the investigation and, in the style of all amateur sleuths, to steer the police in the right direction. The result is a delight, even boasting a Golden Age confrontation between our hero and the villain at the end. On the way, you will learn a few recipes, come to understand a little of the centrality of food in the local culture, appreciate the sometimes difficult position of foreign maids in Singaporean households, and get a fresh perspective on Singapore’s gay laws. The end result is essentially Singaporean but wonderfully universal. Crime is crime no matter where it’s committed. What we see here is marriages that accommodate the stresses and strains of different personalities, loyalty within the family, prejudices that poison relationships, fear that drives people to actions they sometimes regret after the event, and love that sometimes transforms lives for the better. Aunty Lee’s Delights really is a delight to savour at every level.

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

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms

December 23, 2013 Leave a comment

A-Price-to-Pay-An-Iona-Khan-Mystery--377918-f079cad1a106edf23bdc

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms (Severn House, 2013) is the second book in the series featuring Detective Constable Iona Khan, and it strikes out as if it’s going in an interestingly cosmopolitan direction. The protagonist has a Scottish mother and a Pakistani father, perhaps appropriately being named Iona Khan, drawing names from both cultures. In the real world, mixed-race couples often face active discrimination from both side of the family and from the community in which they establish their home. For the child of such a marriage to be the hero of a contemporary police procedural is a brave decision. Not only is this a woman as a detective in a police force known to be institutionally sexist, it’s a mixed race individual in a force known to be institutionally racist — a double whammy for our hero to duck and weave her way around. Add in the fact she’s a maths graduate and her capacity for a different way of thinking is also clearly staked out. She’s going to run into all kinds of problems simply because she’s a graduate — with the fast-track career structure, many direct entrants face considerable discrimination regardless of race. But here we come to the essential paradox in mixed-race characters.

For her to be acceptable as the protagonist, she can’t be too “foreign”. In effect, she must be British in almost everything she says and does (since there are no illustrations of her, readers probably don’t discriminate against her on the basis of her appearance, but some of her colleagues and random people she encounters may well react adversely to her skin tone and physical difference. Indeed, in some books of this type, the protagonist’s character almost becomes a walking stereotype of what it means to be British (whatever that does mean). In other words, the contribution of the non-British parent is rather more theoretical in the face of the socialisation the child has received by going through the British education system. The fact our hero has ended up in a counter-terrorism unit adds to the potential for mistrust. Some will inevitably question whose side she is on if those to be investigated are Pakistani.

Chris Sims

Chris Sims

The perennial problem when writing books with a female protagonist in police procedurals is how strong to make her. Since we live in a patriarchal society, there are certain norms to observe if the author is to produce what might be described as a mainstream book. Recently, I’ve been reading about a fourth wave of feminism building on support generated online. It’s stating the obvious that the previous three waves have been less than successful in disturbing the tranquility of the male-induced power structures. Hence, books like this can show a woman doing her limited best in the face of male obstruction. Often this will mean her brains and enthusiasm are ruthlessly exploited so that, if she happens to come up with the right answers, her male bosses can take the credit. Should the investigation take a wrong turn, she will be a convenient scapegoat. If there’s physical danger, there should always be men around to rescue her and so emphasise her essential weakness.

On the other side of the fence, a fourth wave book might have the woman solve the case that has defeated all the less than competent men around her, beat any criminals who attack her with cool judo moves, and be rewarded with a commendation and a promotion by a grateful nation (it’s a terrorism case so the Queen would have to give her a gong for preserving world peace). Depending on the model to be adopted, this woman might be able to drink all her male colleagues under the table, love them and leave them in the sack, or swagger with that indefinable quality that marks her out as an instinctive leader. In short, she would be an inspirational role model for all women readers, showing them that any glass ceiling would shatter the moment she happened to catch sight of it and that she would rise to the top, often with the support of the men who realise submissiveness is required when they are in the presence of a superior being. She will become a focus for individual and group action to call out men who are sexist and misogynistic, and challenge the assumptions underpinning patriarchalism. She will lead a vanguard of women towards a future of greater gender equality in a more global community. Yes, well you know the type of book I mean. Both patriarchalists and feminists can write propaganda.

I’ve diverted myself in this way because the book proves to be unadventurous in its gender politics. Ms Khan actually proves to be intelligent but perhaps necessarily rather paranoid. She’s competitive and suspicious of others which prevents her from being a real team player. Thus, even if the men around her were actually well-intentioned and trying to make her feel one of “them”, she would be unco-operative. This weakness makes her a less than engaging protagonist. Indeed, she proves to be somewhat reckless and has to be rescued. Even at the end when what’s probably an olive branch is extended in her direction, we’re left uncertain whether she’s capable of grasping it. This is a clear signal to women readers. The entire investigation was hurtling in the wrong direction, yet she did not have the self-confidence to open her mouth and insist on being heard. Indeed, when she did talk to a colleague and he passed on her ideas to their boss, she assumed he was her enemy and ceased co-operating. I’m not saying this is unrealistic. Women react differently in such situations of institutionalised racism and sexism. But her performance is less than stellar. In the end, she does “solve” the case but it’s only by accident, and because she didn’t follow protocol and tell people where she was going and why, she had to be rescued. This is embarrassing and not a little sexist.

I wanted to like A Price to Pay. The basic plot idea is sound and the reason why the investigation hares off down the wrong track is nicely worked out. But putting aside the slightly horrendous coincidence that kicks into operation as a plot dynamic about halfway through, I couldn’t warm up to Ms Khan at all. The fact I might understand the reasons for the protagonist’s actions does not make her likeable. Worse, almost all the women who appear in the pages of this book are victims in one way or another. Even the protagonist’s mother who had shown such good judgement in marrying for love, is shown completely misjudging the man who had been in her daughter’s life. And that’s quite fatal to enjoyment. So even though it works as a police procedural with an international dimension giving it contemporary relevance, I was disappointed.

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

Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Shadows-of-Death-Dorothy-Martin-Mysteries--385739-d838cf881d9fdacc8284

Shadows of Death by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2013) is the fourteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery. She’s from Indiana but has married an Englishman (well Cornishman which is not at all the same thing) who, conveniently, used to be a policeman (well, Chief Constable), and she’s now gone as native as any willing American can. For those of you less clued into the mysteries of the north of Scotland in general and Orkney in particular, it tends to be quite cold (even in summer) and there are many sites to interest archaeologists. Indeed, with the type of perversity usually reserved to the young of our day, it seems the first people to enter this island of ours came from the north. Yes, I know most people would imagine they crossed over on one of the ferries from France (avoiding King Harold with the arrow sticking out of his eye), but the oldest evidence of human occupation in Britain is in Orkney. When it comes to watching people dig up the evidence of this first batch of illegal immigrants, the first step is to journey north having made arrangements for the cats — the dog is expected to rough it with the humans as they first drive and then fly their way towards the Pole.

When installed in Stromness, they meet up with a local potter called Andrew and, with a minor delay to fit in more local colour including Roadkill, the local feline who’s master of all he surveys, we can get on with the mystery. Yes, everyone has their own irons in the archaeological fire and disagreements over how best to proceed with the dig are growing ever more acrimonious. Now with the death of the American who was funding the excavation, it’s time for our sleuths to get to work (did I mention her dog is called Watson?). When public opinion and some conveniently damning evidence combine, the police arrest the local farmer who had been loudly broadcasting his intention to rid the earth of Americans in general and this man in particular. This, of course, is the signal for our investigative duo (plus Watson) to get started. And then all we need is for the local police to be called away to deal with a major terrorist threat (a very British phenomenon) which leaves our investigators without portfolio to work out whodunnit.

Jeanne M Dams

Jeanne M Dams

The problem, of course, conforms to the Golden Age formula. We’re stuck on an island with a limited pool of suspects. When we further analyse the situation, there’s motive and opportunity aplenty. Better still, none of the most obvious candidates has a complete alibi. So now it comes down to the core problem. No-one needs to talk to either of our heroes. He’s long retired and she’s, well, American and with the exception of “Mac” Macintyre, all foreigners in the northern reaches of Scotland are sassenach and worse, and so condemned to be ignored. Her status shades even more into despicable territory when Roadkill goes missing and the rumour mill thinks shedunnit. Fortunately, one or two women who are plugged into the innocent until proved guilty mode prevail over the no smoke without fire brigade. With alcohol flowing, communications can be restored. Still the gossip very specifically alleges Roadkill was sacrificed in a ritual. The ladies of the village remember another ritual sacrifice where the one blamed mistook a hen for a cockerel which, no doubt, cocked up the sacrifice when the blood was spilled.

At this point, I need a brief moment to think about classifying this book. Arising on the other side of the Pond, the cozy mystery is selling strongly. This almost always features an intelligent woman as an amateur sleuth who uses her life’s experience to unravel whatever puzzles are thrown into her path. As with the Golden Age format, the setting tends to be a village. That’s why the majority of the key characters already know each other and, exploiting her natural wit and charm, our protagonist infiltrates the gossip circle and roots out the facts necessary to solve the crime. In this case, our stereotypical heroine is married to an ex-policeman whose past record opens doors that would usually be closed to an amateur. Finally, most would characterise this subgenre as being “gentle”. The victim is usually portrayed as seriously unpleasant and deserving to die and, as in this book, the murder method is made to look like an accident. This avoids any real unpleasantness and leaves the readers to focus on the quality of the plot and the development of the characters.

So, for better or worse, Shadows of Death is an English (tea) cozy with a pleasing ramble through village life in the Scottish Islands as our duo filter fact from fiction in the local gossip, excavate the truth from the mass of conflicting evidence, and arrive at the solution to the problem. I suspect I’m not in the target readership for a book of this type. I appreciate it but leave it to female readers to genuinely enjoy the exploration of the relationship between the couple as they navigate the tricky waters of Scottish culture in pursuit of a killer.

For a review of the next book in the series, see Day of Vengeance.

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

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