Archive for January, 2014

Old Mars edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois

January 31, 2014 Leave a comment


Old Mars edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois (Bantam Books, 2013) is introduced in “Red Planet Blues” by George R R Martin. The editors are of an age to have grown up with the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other early fictioneers who preferred the idea of our solar system’s planets being full of life just waiting to be discovered. Venus was a jungle world enveloped in mists and full of potentially dangerous life forms. Mars was the world of canals and a dying civilisation. And so on. There was a great deal of romance in the old-fashioned sense of the world as magic and science merged in simple, linear story lines of daring-do. By modern standards, the majority of these stories are badly written. So simply to recreate stories in a long-dead style would be a pointless venture. If people really want to read the supposed classics of this period, they are fairly easily obtained for a few pennies on the secondhand market. Consequently, this anthology is aiming for a retro feel with enough substance and, if appropriate, postmodern whimsy, to appeal to modern readers. For some of the authors, this proves to be a challenge too far. For others who are old enough in the tooth to have supped wine from the cups of pulp, the updating is something of a triumph.


“Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele shows the strength and weakness of this theme. The set-up is genuinely interesting albeit not very original in trying to prove a scientific hypothesis. We happily pursue the plot hoping for something new or interesting. Perhaps there will be a twist we haven’t seen before. But when the end comes around, there’s no resolution. Instead of solving the problem and potentially preventing the outbreak of violence between Earth and the aborigines of Mars, all our hero has done is kick the can down the road. Not quite the return we expected for the predictable cure he administered. Although perhaps we’re supposed to think the genie was out of the bottle once the question had been asked back on Earth and that, sooner or later, someone would try again. “The Ugly Duckling” by Matthew Hughes seems to be a better balance between the old fantasy feel of Mars and more modern sensibilities. This time an archaeologist infiltrates a mining operation as it begins work to dismantle an old Martian town. He’s the stereotypical egghead surrounded by roughnecks in a place of wonder the miners can never appreciate. The question then becomes what represents the value of understanding a past culture and leaves us wondering what the swan will look like.

George R R Martin

George R R Martin


“The Wreck Of The Mars Adventure” by David D. Levine is a classic rerun of a science fantasy trope in which an adapted sailing vessel crosses the void between Earth and Mars, and then recovers from a crash landing to begin its return journey. It’s delightfully wacky as the sailors struggle with unexpected problems in navigating using the solar winds and then learn to trade with Martians for materials with which to rebuild the ship. “Swords Of Zar-tu-kan” by S.M. Stirling is a pleasing piece of noir set on the red planet with a kidnapping requiring tracking and extraction — not too difficult with an optimal canid to follow the scent trail and a Coercive to back up the human in the rescue mission. It flows nicely because it presents the extraordinary as ordinary and not needing explanation.


“Shoals” by Mary Rosenblum is a modern story pretending to be retro. None of the pulp writers would have been interested in a young man who could interact with Martians in a fractionally different dimension overlaid on the reality humans can see. Because he can interact with these beings, he can protect his human community but also plan an eternal life. It’s a rather beautiful story. “In The Tombs Of The Martian Kings” by Mike Resnick is a wonderful pulpish story of two adventurers who accept a commission to find the tomb and then begin a whole new negotiation. The sardonic humour of the piece elevates it to a higher level. “Out Of Scarlight” by Liz Williams is something of a curiosity. It’s a high class, high fantasy story of three different people tracking down an escaped slave, but I see nothing to require the reader to place this story on Mars. It could have been set anywhere. “The Dead Sea-bottom Scrolls” by Howard Waldrop is another delightful story but not at all pulpy.

Gardner Dozois

Gardner Dozois


“A Man Without Honor” by James S.A. Corey again sees eighteenth century ships of the line suddenly dragooned into service outside Earth’s atmosphere. This time, it all comes down to the word of an Englishman. Can he really be relied on to act as honour dictates? “Written In Dust” by Melinda Snodgrass is a standout story about a family out in the Martian boondocks next to the only remaining Martian city. The tragedy in the human relationships is all too recognisable. It’s a shame people make such problems for themselves through their inflexibility. “The Lost Canal” by Michael Moorcock is an author just having the greatest fun possible with two likely lovers going underground to save the world and have a drink of water. “The Sunstone” by Phyllis Eisenstein is a surprisingly sentimental story in which the notion of what it means to have a home is explored. Obviously, it could just be a physical place where you hang your hat, or it could be membership of a wider cultural construct. “King Of The Cheap Romance” by Joe R. Lansdale plays the game well with an implacable monster in pursuit of the resolute girl as she hurries to deliver the vital vaccine across the Martian ice. It touches all the bases of dead Martian culture as our hero takes a whistle-stop tour of a previous battle site while fighting her own. “Mariner” by Chris Roberson preserves the pulpish feel by engaging in matters piratical as a misplaced human sailor takes command of a Martian ship with interesting political repercussions. “The Queen Of Night’s Aria” by Ian Mcdonald produces a great wave of irrepressible fun as we rerun the oft-forgot Space Opera by Jack Vance with an Irish tenor playing Mars and winning in the final act. I’m not at all sure H G wells would have approved of this continuation of his great conflict, but it’s a rousing way to bring the curtain down on this anthology. Albeit slightly uneven in tone, Old Mars nevertheless represents very good value for money.


For reviews of other anthologies by our top editorial team, see:
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance,
Songs of Love and Death and


For an anthology edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see:
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.


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


The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011) Episodes 1 and 2

January 30, 2014 Leave a comment

The After Dinner Mysteries

The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011) is a Japanese comedy crime series based on the novel “Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de” by Tokuya Higashigawa that manages to amuse despite my Western tastes. Better still, the quality of the puzzles to solve is pleasingly high yet the script plays fair with the viewers most of the time. The format of the show follows that of The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie, and gives us three stereotypes from which to draw humour. The first is the hero of the series, Kageyama (Sho Sakurai). This follows in the tradition of the Jeeves and Wooster stories by P G Wodehouse where a fairly dim person of high status employs a butler who contrives to pull the fat out of the fire whenever it’s necessary. In this case, the butler is young and powerfully intelligent. The reason for his selection to carry on in the role is that, as the rich heiress has now decided to hide her background and enter the police force, the older butler can no longer keep up with her to provide the necessary protection demanded by her father. He therefore passes on the bow tie of office to the more sprightly youngster.

Kageyama (Sho Sakurai) confronts Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa)

Kageyama (Sho Sakurai) confronts Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa)

Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa) comes from a zaibatsu, i.e. a family wealthy and powerful beyond even normal Japanese standards and, as the heiress, she should be married off to another family to protect the inheritance position. Except she has decided not to comply with the conventions of the family and is now a rookie detective at Kunitachi Police Precinct’s Criminal Affairs Division. It’s not exactly that she’s dim, but she has yet to acquire enough experience of life outside the cocoon of wealth to be able to understand how “real”, i.e. poor, people live. This makes her not particularly well suited to investigate crimes. Nevertheless she’s willing to learn and has reasonably good instincts. This should work well except for a piece of bad luck. She’s assigned to work for Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina). Like Reiko, he comes from a rich family — that controlling Kazamatsuri Motors — and works for the police. Unfortunately, he’s terminally stupid, only surviving in his position as head of the Serious Crimes Unit because of his family’s status.

The structure of each episode gives us a “comic book” view of the crime to solve. We see the crime scene through the eyes of Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri who spouts nonsensical interpretations of the primary features of the crime scene. Most of the time, Reiko Hosho is able to puncture the buffoon’s opinions. The rest of the time she keeps her doubts to herself. One of the games is to try spotting Kageyama who shadows his mistress to ensure she is safe. He can be working as a cleaner mopping floors, hiding in boxes of fruit and vegetables, or cutting a very large ornamental bush into the shape of a dinosaur (he likes to stay inconspicuous). We then cut back to her palatial residence just before dinner, hence the parallel with The Thirteen Problems. She’s deeply depressed that she cannot solve the case so he accuses her of being stupid, blind or mentally disabled. Naturally she would normally fire him for insubordination but, if he can solve each case and she can take the credit, she will rise through the ranks and get out of the shadow of the idiotic Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri. She therefore swallows her pride and, after we are allowed to sit in on all her interviews with witnesses, the brain-power of the butler solves the case.

Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina) trying to look cool and intelligent

Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina) trying to look cool and intelligent

The first murder is beautifully Japanese, depending on the custom of removing shoes before entering the home. A woman is found dead in her bedroom wearing lace-up boots. There’s no mark at all on the wooden floor in the sitting area so she cannot have walked in. Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri therefore believes we have a man strong enough to kill her outside the apartment and then carry her into the bedroom. The butler carefully deconstructs what all the witnesses say and then reconstructs the sequence of events so that everything fits together. Although there’s an element of padding to get the script to the right length, this is a wonderful format. As viewers we get to see and hear the same information as the butler (the show breaks this in the second episode in one respect when the butler views the crime scene himself and spots an anomaly in the bookcase next the the desk where the body is found). It’s therefore up to us to apply our own reasoning abilities to beat the butler to the right answer. I confess to failing miserably with the first puzzle which is just wonderful when you can look back at the chain of reasoning. The second episode is not quite as strong. We have a locked house mystery in which we’re to assume there are five people who could have done it. In fact, such is the ease with which our butler gets into the crime scene, any killer could entered the house and put all but one of the right elements in place for death to occur. But the script assumes our killer is one of the five. There are pleasing clues but, as with one of the Agatha Christie short stories, I’m not sure this is an entirely fair solution.

Despite my reservations, this is a very strong opening pair of episodes and bodes well for the rest of the season so long as the scripts do not endlessly recycle the same jokes. To maximize enjoyment, forget to think about the failure of the police force to investigate Reiko Hosho’s background and give her higher status because of her family connections.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 3 and 4
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 5 and 6
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 7 and 8
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 9 and 10.

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)

January 29, 2014 3 comments


Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014) is full of potential significance. If we take the first episode in the season as confirming Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) intentionally betrayed the friendship he had with John Watson (Martin Freeman), then this episode must be seen as an attempt to repair the damage. Agreeing to act as the best man at the wedding is both sides going above and beyond the call of duty. Like Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), I can’t imagine anyone less appropriate to take the best man role. That Watson should ask him has two implications. First it shows some degree of exclusivity in the relationship they share. You would think, after a life spent in the army and then in civilian life, Watson would have made one or two friends. Yet that seems not to be the case. I remind myself he was going through counselling in the first season which suggests a difficulty in making and keeping friends. Trading on this relationship with Sherlock is therefore a cruel and unusual punishment for all involved. That Holmes agrees ought to suggest he also feels he should do something about the loneliness and isolation he experiences — but that would never happen.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington

Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and Amanda Abbington

The deductive interlude with Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) and the hat in the last episode was really a parable about loneliness. On that occasion, Holmes presumed to offer advice to Mycroft about the need for the latter to take some action to remedy the absence of social contacts. One interpretation of his decision to act as best man would perhaps be that he’s also evaluating the need to reconstitute the friendship with Watson and not completely alienate everyone else. No matter how maladroit he is, failing to relate to people around him eventually becomes a barrier to getting paid work through networking and word-of-mouth recommendation. Yet Mycroft is adamant in his advice that Sherlock should never get involved with other people. Indeed, this episode sees Mycroft repaying his brother’s advice, asserting that friendship makes Sherlock vulnerable, i.e. opens him to the risk of emotional pain when colleagues desert him to get married. This does leave us wondering what, if anything will happen on the Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) front. We’ve seen Sherlock give her a sample of what life with him would be like and we then have the rather curious physical similarity between her boyfriend and Sherlock. It’s obvious she still has feelings for Sherlock, but is currently expressing them through this replicant. Perhaps both in this series and all the other screen and literary incarnations, Holmes is forever doomed to be on his own — a kind of victim of his own genius — particularly when he shows his frustration at having no current puzzles to occupy his mind.

Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves and Louise Brealey

Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves and Louise Brealey

So we start off with Lestrade (Rupert Graves) deeply frustrated that the bank robbing Waters family yet again avoided conviction — this proves simply a time-wasting device to show the potential for Sherlock to produce chaos inadvertently. Having agreed to act as best man and as a high-functioning sociopath, Sherlock takes it on himself to police the people around Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), seeking to filter out those who may still have dreams of a relationship with her or otherwise be a threat. This does not include Major Sholto (Alistair Petrie). Unlike Mycroft who refuses to take the part of the spectre at the feast, preferring solitary running on a machine in his country house, Sholto appears at the wedding with interesting consequences. The best man speech is, of course, embarrassingly hilarious. Yet the whole exercise is mandated because Watson asserted that Sherlock is his best friend. He wanted just two people to be beside him at the wedding feast (no matter what the cost). The pub crawl only lasting two hours should have sounded a warning bell. The nurse with the ghost client is an interesting diversion because it nicely continues the loneliness theme. The five women dated by the invisible man are romanced and left alone. Fortunately, no matter how lonely Major Sholto my be, he’s far too much the gentleman. He would never commit suicide at John’s wedding. So that leaves Holmes standing alone with the chance to be the first to go home after admitting to John and Mary that they have had significant experience in parenting through having to deal with his apparent childishness.

All of which leaves me somewhat frustrated. I think there’s a very good episode buried in there somewhere but, probably because it has to last 90 (or so) minutes, Sherlock: The Sign of Three is overextended and ends up being too knowingly clever for its own good.

For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini

January 28, 2014 5 comments


One of the litmus tests for the quality of any book is the extent to which it inspires the reader to thought. In this case, The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini (translated by N S Thompson) (Quercus Books, 2013) and the first of an intended trilogy featuring Commissario Michele Balistreri, persuades me to spend a little time thinking about the nature of corruption. For some who prefer questions to be answered in strictly black-and-white terms, it’s simply a situation in which money changes hands to adjust the expected outcome. Yet the reality is rather more subtle. In every culture, there are norms of behaviour and we judge the extent to which people conform by assessing whether they aspire to the ideals they claim to uphold. So, for example, authority figures might be expected to be role models, leading by their example. Or religious figures might be expected to clearly demonstrate a sincere belief in the tenets of their faith and avoid hypocrisy. Or those in political positions might be expected to take decisions for the benefit of society as a whole and not use their office for personal gain. It’s not necessary for money to change hands. People can be influenced into departing from the behaviour expected of them by the promise of favours or by withholding a threat. It can be small scale or systemic depending on the likelihood the manipulation will be discovered and those involved held accountable. In some societies, there’s a perfect storm when the majority of those in the interlocking positions within the government, judiciary, policing agencies and religious institutions are willing to abuse their power for personal gain (in the broadest sense of the word).

So if we take Italy as an example, there’s an inherent imbalance between secular and religious power. With the Holy See sitting as a separate sovereign state in the heart of Rome and exercising power over Catholics around the world, there’s always going to be pressure on the political classes not to antagonise or undermine the Pope and the administration of the Church. Then you have the rump of the nobility which has survived as a part of the elite alongside the upwardly mobile rich, and the aggressively criminal vie with extremists from both the left and right to ensure a rich blend of influences when it comes to critical decision-making. Yet if there’s one thing that captures the Italian spirit, it’s that corruption is never really seen as morally wrong. It’s merely getting your own way by cunning. You should therefore not be surprised that a recent report from Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated about 10% of all the public contracts awarded by local and central government were affected by corruption. That’s billions of pounds, dollars or, if you’re desperate, Euros.

Roberto Costantini

Roberto Costantini

So people like Michele Balistreri are an easily recognised symptom of an interesting social phenomenon. When he did his teenage rebellion, he went out to an extreme but, when the group stopped being political and decided to become more terrorist oriented, he did a deal through his father who was a police chief. He signed up as a supergrass and, when many of the group were rounded up, he suddenly found he had a degree and a sinecure in the Rome police force as a Captain in an undemanding neighborhood. Yet instead of becoming everything he despised, he abused his position to treat the work less than seriously, engage in serial womanising, drink, smoke and gamble. All this would probably have led to an early grave through excess but, in 1982, Elisa Sordi is murdered. This proves to be a watershed. He thinks he’s cracked the case but, just as the triumphant arrest is made, the rug is pulled and evidence emerges showing the suspect could not be guilty. His boss is old and close to retirement so takes the blame to protect the young firebrand. We then move forward to 2006 and find Balistreri playing the difficult political game of protecting a small crew of firebrands from themselves in a less than popular unit.

People deal with guilt in a number of different ways. Balistreri has never forgotten the catastrophic failure to get justice for the working class family that lost its beautiful daughter. When his conscience is further pricked by the suicide of Elisa’s mother, he decides he has to reopen the case. Except he rapidly discovers this is going to expose everyone in his team to danger. In Italy, once a crime goes cold, it’s supposed to stay that way, particularly when the truth might threaten the interests of the nobility or the Vatican.

Let’s now offer a hypothesis: that moral men are never going to prosper in the senior ranks of the Italian police. Whereas saints find their own niche in the Church, considerable political adaptability is required to avoid being scapegoated when the better organised are planning how to deflect blame if they are suspected of wrongdoing. Balistreri has seen it all in a long career and he’s strongly into survival mode until he’s forced to acknowledge that the safe way is never going to catch the killer from 1982. What makes this search all the more urgent is that there seems to be a link between new bodies and the deaths in 1982. Perhaps more importantly, the latent racism against the Roma community is being stirred up. If these new deaths are tied to this community, the reaction could be violent. So this is homicide resonating with political significance at the highest levels in Rome’s local government and at a national level. The challenge for Balistreri is to keep his team alive and on track to catch all those involved.

The result is a completely riveting police procedural. We see the original investigation come unstuck and watch the same thing threatening to happen again as people continue to lie or refuse co-operation. This is the eternal problem for any police force. Unless the community consents to the policing activity and supports it by passing on reliable information, the police will never collect enough evidence to secure convictions. There’s uncertainty as to who killed Elisa right up to the end and, when we have the answer, the question is whether Balistreri is better off with that knowledge. Sometimes success in an endeavour does not bring the redemption you are seeking. The Deliverance of Evil is a masterclass in the extent of the privilege and patronage that permeates Italian society and the problems a motivated police officer faces when he tries to find a killer among the ranks of the powerful. It runs slightly long but is never less than thought-provoking. This should be required reading for everyone who enjoys police procedurals and thrillers.

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

Justice for Sara by Erica Spindler

January 27, 2014 Leave a comment


Sometimes the idea and structure of the book hits a sweet spot and you just get sucked into the reading experience. In Justice for Sara by Erica Spindler (St Martin’s Press, 2013), we’re offered the story of Katherine McCall. She’s the stereotypical seventeen-year-old who thinks she’s in love with a slightly older man in the small town of Liberty, Louisiana. This leads to an argument with Sara, her older sister who acts as legal guardian after the death of their parents in a car crash. Needless to say, when Sarah is found beaten to death with a baseball bat, there’s quite strong circumstantial evidence that Kat was the killer. Fortunately, a good defence attorney is able to convince the jury of reasonable doubt and she’s acquitted. Unfortunately, what’s good enough for judge and jury is not going to convince the small town of her innocence. So she takes off and discovers she’s quite a talented baker. Ten years later, she’s become a modestly successful businesswoman.

During these ten years, there have been occasional anonymous letters but, on the anniversary of the murder, Kat receives a simple one-line question, “What about justice for Sarah?” This is enough to motivate a return to the town in search of the truth. We know this is not going to be without danger. The innocent sister is bound to lift up rocks to see what crawls out and, inevitably, the real killer will emerge. Because this is a romance and thriller, there’s immediate chemistry between Kat and Luke Tanner. This is both good and bad. Luke is the local police sergeant, but the son of the Chief who decided she was guilty and never seriously investigated the other potential suspects. To help her, Luke must therefore defy his father whose health is starting to fail — yes, there must always be barriers in the way of true love.

Erica Spindler

Erica Spindler

I make no apology for the rebuttable presumption I apply to books falling into the “romance” genre. As an old man, my cultural expectations are usually at odds with the female point of view on display. So I find it disheartening that female authors feel obliged to create plots in which their female protagonists do dangerously silly things and, more often than not, then have to be rescued by a man. It baffles me that women seem incapable of writing books in which women are sensible and can defend themselves if attacked. All the good work of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s has been consigned to the waste bin of history and patriarchy remains supreme. The daughters of women who threatened to throw off the shackles of oppression are now firmly back in the role of submissive dependence.

And this proves to be the case here. Kat is the proverbial loose canon, blundering around Liberty accusing people of having killed her sister. Needless to say, this leads to her being attacked and requiring rescue on a number of occasions. So, given my rebuttable presumption of awfulness, I should be walking away, shaking my head in disbelief that I’ve wasted yet another day reading junk. But this time my prejudice has been overcome by a really good plot and a pleasing structure — some of the characterisation is pretty good as well. This is a trail of breadcrumbs book in which we follow Kat from a suspicion, to an admission, to further questions, and so on. What looks at first sight to have been a simple murder proves very complicated to unravel because, during the ten intervening years, there have inevitably been changes in the town. Hence, we have alternating sequences. The main action is set in the present but, at strategic moments, we’re taken back to the murder to see what key people were actually doing before or after the death. This allows us a measure of how much people have or have not changed. More importantly, it shows us what secrets they keep and how these secrets might have been the cause of, or motive for, Sara’s murder. The answers that emerge are pleasingly elegant and the revelation of who wielded the baseball bat and why is nicely judged. However, this still leaves the question of who has been sending the anonymous letters which trigger Kat’s return. This proves a very clever element in the plot.

If we keep prejudices as to her lack of good judgement to one side, Kat shows the required determination to overcome not only the anticipated hostility of the town, but also the embarrassment of having to meet up with people who gave evidence against her in the trial. There’s also the problem of how much of the teen friendships will survive the passage of ten years. This leaves us with some pleasing other characters like the elderly next-door neighbor who’s now declining into dementia and quickly gets confused during any conversation, the go-get-em realtor, the Chief of police whose motives for the one-sided investigation slowly emerge as the book develops, and so on. Taken overall, this is one of the best romance tinged thrillers I’ve read for quite some time even though Kat must melt into Luke’s arms at the end. Justice For Sara is worth reading.

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

Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)

January 26, 2014 2 comments

Sherlock Season 3, Episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014)

Sherlock: Season 3, episode 1. The Empty Hearse (2014) is the resolution of one of television’s greatest cliffhangers — how did Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) avoid death when he jumped off St Barts hospital roof? There are only a limited number of ways in which this could have been arranged. Endless hard copy and online articles, comments,and forum posts have speculated. So now we come to the big reveal as Mark Gatiss, the clever scriptwriter, explains how his version of the magic trick was performed. The opening minutes replay several of the possibilities: that someone took the body of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) and dressed it as Sherlock, while Sherlock did a bungee jump and crashed through a window where the testosterone rush could be channelled into constructive activity. The hypnotist arriving to implant suggestions in the mind of John Watson (Martin Freeman) has a fanciful air about it, but it’s all part-and-parcel of the enthusiasm with which fans have taken up the challenge of second-guessing the script and everyone is entitled to see some of the theories tested out on the small screen. Meanwhile, Sherlock remains “dead”, using the time to track down and dismantle Moriarty’s network.

Two years later, the news media are abuzz. The police have confirmed the nature of the set-up to destroy Sherlock’s reputation. This rehabilitation of the Sherlock name empowers Mycroft who, for once, goes undercover to track down his brother. They meet up in Serbia where Sherlock’s somehow having a bad hair day. It seems there’s a need for his skills back in London. You can tell how desperate the times have become because Watson has grown a mustache. Even Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) finds this exuberance of hair distressing. She thinks it makes him look old enough to be a Hobbit. So there’s this chatter: a terrorist cell is planning something spectacular. Only Sherlock can save the day. It’s time for the resurrection. Although I’m not at all clear why he has to come back to life to catch these dangerous people. Surely he could sneak up on them without them noticing?

John Watson (Martin Freeman)  is guided on his choice of wine by  Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)

John Watson (Martin Freeman) is guided on his choice of wine by Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)

There’s a nice piece of byplay over whether Watson is proposing to marry a woman. It’s so soon after Sherlock died, etc. The whole question of a gay relationship between our dynamic duo has been grist to the mill for fannish speculators, but coming from Mrs Hudson, it seems slightly unsavory. And, to complete the surprise of his return to the land of the living, Sherlock bursts into the restaurant where the oblivious Watson is waiting to propose to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington), his intended (and Martin Freeman’s partner in the real world — it keeps all the plum roles in the family, as it were). The face-to-face discussion of why Sherlock never let even a hint of his survival come Watson’s way is meant to be entertaining. Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mrs Hudson are less confrontational. To get the investigation underway, the Irregulars are triggered — they never really thought he was dead anyway. As is required for a Sherlock Homes episode, we then have a deduction session. It’s padding out a few minutes as Sherlock and Mycroft consider a hat but it ends up revealing in that Sherlock uses the “game” to suggest Mycroft is lonely and should do something about it. Who knew he cared? As a reward for helping him fake his death, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) is drafted in to replace John. Boring clients are intercut with boring patients as John stubbornly refuses to leave the practice.

The introduction of the man who disappears from the last car on the underground train is the first sign of possible terrorist action. The episode then catches fire with John’s elevation to the status of guy-about-town. It’s a nice touch but the date should have been better trailed. The only thing left to fill out a few more minutes is the arrival of Sherlock’s disgustingly normal parents. This is amusing for five seconds and then we’re looking for afoot to get the game in motion.

The task for this episode is to balance three completely different elements. We have to be led over the resurrection hump so Sherlock can get back on to the immediate case. It doesn’t really matter whether any of the explanations tendered are convincing. All they have to do is be vaguely appropriate, make us smile, and give Holmes and Watson a chance to reach some kind of accommodation so they can work together again. Then there’s the terrorism case. This is not so original, rerunning the Guy Fawkes trope through V for Vendetta. But I suspect the intention was to produce a climax to give our two heroes a chance to clear the air even though the bomb is turned into a kind of joke at Watson’s expense.

Amanda Abbington accepts Watson's proposal

Amanda Abbington accepts Watson’s proposal

Although the first element starts well in the restaurant and the A&E department, I think the joke is milked just a little too much. Indeed, the script seeks to draw humour from Watson’s distress and grief during the two year period he believed Holmes to be dead. The current anger is entirely justified since Holmes offers absolutely no explanation of why Watson could not have been trusted with the truth. Indeed, I would go one step further. This seems to be the explanation of the fall. The whole street has to be closed off and the team of well-rehearsed people swing into action with Operation Lazarus (so none of Moriarty’s snipers could possibly have noticed this disruption to traffic in central London). It’s all to do with sight lines and what key people can see from where they are standing. In a way, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter whether this elaborately stage-managed trick could ever have been pulled off in the real world — evacuating all the buildings around the square and inside the hospital so no-one else could have seen it done through a window, stretches credibility. The whole point as a piece of television is to entertain. So does it succeed?

Well, here’s the problem. The only sight lines the script seems to care about are those from Watson’s point of view. This is reinforced by the arrival of the cyclist. Taking one step back, there would seem to be two key people here. We have Watson who should be trusted to keep the secret and the sniper who is about to shoot Watson. The sniper is the one who matters and, no matter how brilliant the mind planning the trick, it would not be possible to predict exactly where the sniper would take up position. If the sniper could see the trick performed from his high vantage point, he would shoot Watson (and Holmes). We’re therefore left with the paradox that Holmes primarily aimed the trick at Watson while Mycroft’s merry men may have intercepted one or more of the assassins.

Then there’s the third strand which is to provide the broader narrative drive for this three episode season. Watson is smitten by Mary but she’s obviously not what she seems, instantly recognising the code used in the SMS. The end of the episode is setting up a new villain who attacks Holmes through Watson (or attacks Mary through Watson). Which only leaves us with the curious incident of the body in the room. This seems to have been staged by Anderson (Jonathan Aris), one of the forensic team at New Scotland Yard, and it doesn’t really fit into the story at all. Or perhaps I misunderstood. . .

Putting all this together, I think the team of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat always had built up expectations to a point when they would disappoint more than they pleased when this episode aired. That said, with worries about the way Holmes and Watson are now relating to each other, I think The Empty Hearse was as entertaining as it could have been or we had any right to expect.

For reviews of the earlier episodes, see:
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 1. A Study in Pink (2010)
Sherlock. Season 1, Episode 2. The Blind Banker (2010)
Sherlock: Season 1, Episode 3. The Great Game (2010)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 1. A Scandal in Belgravia (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 2. The Hounds of Baskerville (2012)
Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 2. The Sign of Three (2014)
Sherlock: Season 3, Episode 3. His Last Vow (2014)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)

January 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Marple Julia McKenzie

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Season 6, episode 3. Endless Night (2013) starts with an unfortunate accident on the ice in 1948 where Mike Rogers (Tom Hughes) tries unsuccessfully to save the brother of Robbie Hayman (Aneurin Barnard). They were skating on thin ice as Robbie looked on from the bank reading a book. Ah, such memories can haunt a man. So nearly the hero. . . Then we wind forward to 1956 where Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is staying with a recently widowed friend Marjorie Phillpot (Wendy Craig). In the high street, she meets Mike Rogers, now earning a living as a chauffeur. They see a poster advertising Gypsy’s Acre for sale, but it seems no-one wants to buy it — it’s reputed to be cursed. When he goes to view the rundown ruin, Mike meets Esther Lee (Janet Henfrey) who, by way of fortune-telling, quotes William Blake in Auguries of Innocence: some are born to endless night (some gypsies know too much for their own good).

So here we go with familiar twin themes of unlikely romance and the supernatural, stolen kisses, curses and portentous dreams of death. And in the background, Robbie Hayman has been announcing he’s going to die so this gives him a licence to do whatever he wants including shooting people (hopefully no-one he knows). This plot is playing with the stereotype of the lower class chancer who meets and marries the rich American heiress Ellie Goodman (Joanna Vanderham). Since we’re invited to watch this story from his point of view and he’s not necessarily the most reliable of narrators, we’re invited to suspect he might marry for money and then find a way in which his wife might meet an accident and so make him rich — assuming the estate is set up to allow him to inherit (which it proves to be).

Joanna Venderham and Tom Hughes survey Gypsy's Acre

Joanna Venderham and Tom Hughes survey Gypsy’s Acre

Coincidentally, the couple meet up with Miss Marple and Marjorie while on their honeymoon in Italy. When the family of the heiress realise she’s married in secret, they go through outraged shock to bitter acceptance. Meanwhile, the house is being built on Gypsy’s Acre. They knock down the crumbling pile and erect a square glass monstrosity — no wonder local people want to kill them. On their first visit to their new home, a rock flies through one of the windows — someone has a great throwing arm to reach from a hidden position in the woods to an elevated window. The breaking glass cuts Ellie’s face — a gypsy’s warning, perhaps? There’s a folly in the woods. What a classic touch and plenty of opportunity for spookiness.

Ellie has a Swedish friend, Greta Anderson (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). When she asserts the right to share the modern nest with the newly weds, Mike is outraged. He wants Ellie all to himself. Greta begins looking for a home nearby. It then appears the new wife may have a heart problem and then there’s the question of what pills she might be taking. Later a dead bird and threatening note appear on their doorstep. Lee is suspected but she’s not around. Miss Marple finds a large bankroll of cash in her cottage. And finally. . . a riding accident: Ellie lying next to a horse out in the countryside. The doctor says she’s been dead three or four hours. The doctor diagnoses heart failure brought on by the shock of falling. Of course, none of these stories work if such diagnoses are correct. To understand the problems with this adaptation, we need to go back to the beginning.

The original novel is a first-person narrative told by Mike Rogers and introducing Miss Marple into such a plot creates an unfortunate tension because she’s required to keep appearing in the most unexpected places in order to see the relevant key events. We even have her investigating the folly and speculatively kicking over the traces in the quarry so she can work out what must have happened. It seems she’s become a stalker and exercises a more or less free right of entry into the couple’s modern house. The less said about the melodrama of the ending, the better. Kevin Elyot, the scriptwriter, never resolves the dilemma. Either this is to be a slightly different version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in which we see the story slowly reveal the reality of how Ellie comes to die, i.e. that’s why we have Mike’s voiceovers at strategic moments, or we have Miss Marple investigating a suspicious death.

Not that it really matters, but I’ve no idea where the Hamburg newspaper clipping came from. So this leaves us with a plot which has a suspicion of interest and an overwhelming flood of bad judgement. The faint interest lies in the decision to leave Mike’s point of view more or less in place. The Marple and Poirot formula of stumbling across a body and then working out whodunnit does grow slightly wearisome over time. This format avoids the cast of likely suspects and the strewing of herrings, red or otherwise. As a piece of television, this actually starts quite well until we get these endless coincidences to insert Miss Marple into the plot. The ending with her running around like a world-class sprinter and the dramatic fire does nothing to explain the psychology of the killer. Consequently, Endless Night proves to be a rather linear version of the plot, lacking any real twists and turns, or grand reveal at the end. The set-up is good enough, but then there’s no real mystery and absolutely no suspense. This leave us disappointed to say the least.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Police by Jo Nesbø

January 24, 2014 1 comment


Police by Jo Nesbø (Alfred A Knopf, 2013) (translated by Dan Bartlett) is Harry Hole’s tenth outing and it starts with our hero missing. It’s perhaps not inappropriate to remind people that Harry was shot at the end of Phantom, the last book. Obviously, unless we’re suddenly to veer into the territory occupied by “detectives” who have crossed over and now guide investigations from beyond, we’re forced to assume our hero will turn up sooner or later. This is a rather pleasing coup de théâtre. The absence reminds us that no-one is indispensable. The world continues to turn and things still get done even though the “key person” is AWOL. And so it proves here. The remnants of the Boiler Room team actually make reasonably good progress on their own. Except, of course, that progress is not enough on its own in such a high-profile and complicated case. So, in the end, the team is forced to rely on its hole card (sorry, I’ve been waiting to write that for years) to win the pot and tidy up the current mystery. So who’s in play?

Well, as you might expect, consulting psychologist Stale Aune is back in private practice. Without Harry to include and inspire him, the drudgery of each day’s sequence of clients depresses his spirits. A particularly difficult client compounds the looming existential despair with dream sequences based on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. Perhaps something in the lyrics is significant. Poor man! Does our expert actually have to listen to the music to crack the case and make a diagnosis? Then there’s Gunnar Hagen. He’s still head of the squad but having increasing problems with the new police chief Mikael Bellman. Fortunately, the latter’s childhood friend Truls “Beavis” Berntsen is on suspension so there are not quite as many disruptions as there have been in the past. Which leaves us with special detective Katrine Bratt, Beate Lonn, she of the magic eyes and eidetic memory to remember faces, and Bjorn Holm the forensics officer who can’t perform the same miracles as CSI but always manages to come up with interesting titbits of information.

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

This time around, we’re dealing with a cop killer. This crime is viewed as an exceptional by the police and, in defence of their reputation, they devote exceptional resources to solving it. This killer is particularly provocative because the victims are killed on the anniversaries of the murder cases they failed to solve. It seems this killer is taking revenge for the victims whose murderers have never been brought to book. Yet this may not be the right motive. Those of you who read police procedurals will know the key elements in the investigation focus on motive and opportunity. At first sight, it doesn’t appear there are any connections between the different murders. Then there’s a hint there may be a common denominator person. There’s just the one problem. He seems to have been killed in his cell in prison. Ah happy days. It’s this type of problem that makes reading police procedurals/murder mysteries such a delight. Then we add into the mix the general development of the series characters, one of these unfortunate allegations of impropriety by an older lecturer against a female student, and unfinished business from the last book.

The result is a delightfully complicated and thoroughly engrossing read. Indeed as we move closer the end and the morality gets a little blurry, we get into some very nice discussion of Harry Hole’s personality. Just what’s been driving him in potentially self-destructive directions and can anything be done to keep him on the straight and narrow (and still capable of solving crimes)? The answers are fascinating, and although there’s a slightly convenient way in which he avoids crossing over the line (again), the thriller tension is ratcheted up most effectively as we close in on the solution and the aftermath. There’s also a delightfully macabre hook left for the next in series. It shows an elegantly provocative mind at work to leave us poor readers on this note. Overall, Police shows Jo Nesbø on top form, delivering yet another powerful page-turner.

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
The Bat
The Son.
There’s also a film version of Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

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

Dark City by F. Paul Wilson

January 23, 2014 Leave a comment


Dark City by F. Paul Wilson (Tor, 2013) sees the in-filling continue in the Repairman Jack saga. For those of you keeping count, there were the three books dealing with the teen years and then we have the sixteen book series leading up to the revised Nightworld which also concludes the Adversary Cycle. This is the second book in the Early Years Trilogy. This new sequence shows Jack arriving in New York in February 1991, and beginning to establish the basis of the career in which he becomes the Repairman. In Cold City, he consolidates the friendship with Abe, and meets Julio and the Mikulski brothers. There’s excitement as Jack gets involved in an operation to disrupt a child sex abuse ring which leads us into a story with multiple threads.

At this point I need to take one step back and write a few words for those who have not previously encountered Repairman Jack. Here’s a listing of the running order so far:≈ As you can see, this is an epic piece of work and everything is woven together. The characters who appear in this book are fairly constant throughout the series and, for those of you new to the series, the coincidences which save our hero are not coincidences. For example, the “woman” known as Mrs Clevinger plays the guardian angel to save Jack, and on the other side, Drexler is deep in the thick of things to recruit helpers to promote chaos when the “time” comes. In fact, the teen and early years set of books is all part of a major irony which runs throughout the series. From the outset, Jack is a young man in search of himself as an independent person. He wants to live an unremarked life, below the radar. As we find him in this novel, he’s living on cash reserves. He has no social security number, no bank account, and no credit card. He thinks he’s finding his own way yet, unknown to him, he’s being shepherded — “groomed” is not quite the right word because it’s acquired an unfortunate sexual connotation — in a particular direction. If you read this book as a standalone, there will be much you will not understand. Yes, the book has exciting passages but, without a context, I suspect you will struggle to derive any consistent enjoyment. So because the YA books are less than perfect for adult sensibilities, the advice has to be to go back to the true beginning, i.e. Black Wind and The Keep. That way, you get a better understanding what’s happening and why. The only downside to this is that you’re no longer reading a conventional thriller. From the outset, the overarching narrative is a supernatural or horror thriller. If that’s not your thing, it may be a good idea not to start because, as the series gets closer to Year Zero, it grows more obviously supernatural (in the broadest sense of the word because elements of the plot are actually science fiction).

F. Paul Wilson

F. Paul Wilson

For the purposes of this plot, we have the first early planning of terrorist action against the Twin Towers. This is going to use Moslem jihadists to plant a bomb. We get to the 9/11 assault in Ground Zero (secret history stories are great fun). So this episode sees Jack still pursued by the “Dominicans”, Jack changing apartments, buying a new car, and thinking about where his relationship with Cristin might be going, and a second auction set up as a trap. As is required in Repairman novels, there’s quite a high body count. In this case, we’re also into exploring the best response to the sexual abuse of children. Needless to say, this book is not suggesting probation and/or other noncustodial forms of treatment aimed at rehabilitation. It assumes the worst of the men and takes a firm line in punishment. That this also disrupts the plans both of Drexler and the jihadists is an unappreciated side effect.

Since I’ve been reading F. Paul Wilson from the beginning of his writing career, Dark City was a necessary addition to the pile to read. As a fan it does not disappoint. It maintains the usual pace with plenty of incident to entertain on the way to a satisfying climax and a good hook into the final volume in the immediate trilogy.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

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

The Sound and the Furry by Spencer Quinn

January 22, 2014 2 comments

The Sound and the Furry by Spencer Quinn

When children and young adults sit in classrooms around the world, the omniscient teachers of English always instruct aspirant authors never to use animals as first-person narrators. They point to the brilliance of White Fang where Jack London allows the reader to see the world through a dog’s eyes, but using the third-person. The problem for readers is one of credibility. By definition animals are not sentient and therefore cannot use natural language for thinking and communication. Even if the author decides to cheat, the animal is inherently an unreliable narrator. Given the majority of humans get confused and have problems in understanding the world, animals are even less able to understand what’s going on around them. One of the few examples of a successful canine protagonist is The Last Family in England (published as The Labrador Pact in America) by Matt Haig — one of the safest points of view from which to describe the breakdown in a marriage.

Yet here comes The Sound and the Furry by Spencer Quinn — a pseudonym of Peter Abrahams (Atria Books, 2013), the sixth book to feature Chet and Bernie as a crime-fighting pair of PIs. Chet is one of these rather large and powerful dogs that police forces around the world train and rely on when it comes to protecting static sites and chasing after potentially dangerous criminals. Except Chet allowed himself to be distracted when going through his final testing and so flunked out of the course. Instead of walking the mean streets as one of the dedicated K9 squad, he’s relegated to second string PI work. Fortunately, Bernie Little is an ideal partner and they settle into a comfortable routine in which Chet is able to offer help and support as investigations proceed. Sometimes he’s allowed the pleasure of attacking humans. That’s what his natural aggression and taste for human flesh were channelled into. The rest of the time is divided between sleep, eating and chewing the fat with Bernie as the most intelligent human in the room (which is not saying much) struggles to understand the complexities of the immediate case. With his keen sense of smell and acute hearing, Chet usually has a much better idea of who’s around and what their intentions are. Although Bernie is usually quite quick to pick up on the hints Chet barks or growls, they are still working on their communication skills.

Spencer Quinn aka Peter Abrahams

Spencer Quinn aka Peter Abrahams

In this episode, our pair are out driving when they encounter a road gang of criminals. Among them, they spot Frenchie Boutette, one of many now behind bars because of their best efforts. Coincidentally, Frenchie has need of PI help. The white sheep in the other wise black family, Ralph, has gone missing. This is completely out of character and the blame is laid at the door of the no-good Robideaus. When a $3,000 retainer appears, Chet decides he would like to investigate the sights and smells of Bayou Country. This is not to say the tail wags the dog, but Bernie understands which side his bread is buttered on. Then after a brief run-in with a member of the Quieros, a homicidally inclined gang of bikers who work in the drug distribution business, our pair find themselves in Louisianna with humans less than thrilled by Bernie’s arrival and a gator called Iko thinking Chet is a bite-sized nibble before lunch.

When this first-person convention first got going, there was an endearing quality about the humour. We traded on the notion that dogs have relatively short attention spans, not very reliable short-term memories, poor impulse control, and a total lack of awareness as to how strong they are. Now we’re arrived at the sixth outing, all the best jokes have been told and retold in several different ways. This leaves us with a slightly tired quality to the venture. Worse, we’re now in a different stamping ground which is populated by southern stereotypes including suspiciously helpful oil executives paid to handle reports of environmental damage. Putting all this together and The Sound and the Furry is a rather disappointing book. There are some moderately amusing moments and some of the situations develop in slightly less predicable thriller fashion due to the different point of view. But the plot is not terribly original and there’s one absurd example of survival against the odds. So unless you’re a die-hard fan of this PI duo, I would suggest letting the sleeping dog continue dreaming of rabbits or whatever he prefers to chase.

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

%d bloggers like this: