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Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Broken Homes 1

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (Daw, 2014) is the fourth outing for Peter Grant and a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for some time. The old saying is that “things” tend to come in sets of three and, more often than not, the third time is the best. Which means, of course, that the first in the new set of three is not necessarily going to be better. We’re following on from the events in Whispers Underground with Lesley May struggling to come to terms with her facial disfigurement as more information about the Faceless Man’s activity surface. The first sign comes through a body dump. Jaget Kumar then quietly passes on a very suspicious suicide on the London Underground. This leads to an interest in the now deceased Erik Stromberg, a German architect who may have built something interesting near the Elephant and Castle. As constructed, the book provides a very elegant trail of breadcrumbs which leads up to a final confrontation and the big surprise to lead into the next in the series. So far so good.

It would also be fair to say that the general standard of gentle humour is maintained with some pleasing repartee between Grant and May. But the overall effect is less satisfying this time round. Perhaps I just had to wait too long before reading this. Perhaps I’m beginning to find the ideas just a little repetitive. It’s hard to put my finger precisely on the spot so I’ll scratch around and see what comes out.

Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch

The first three books have built themselves around the magic woven into the bricks and mortar of London. Making the whole scene work are the fey who live in and around the rivers of the metropolitan area. Given their power, a treaty has been put in place which requires the local police force to maintain a buffer unit that can respond to wrongdoing on both sides of the magical divide. This is the Folly, currently run by the appropriately named Detective Inspector Nightingale who actually gets more prominence in this book. Think of him as the White Wizard of London with Peter Grant and Lesley May as his apprentices. This leads to two major narrative strands. The young Grant and the now injured May must learn their trade as wizards. This is not a rerun of the Hogwarts experience because the lives of this pair are rooted in the reality of London and they are often in real danger. The second element is the relationship between different figures among the fey and the humans responsible for maintaining a workable interface with the magically challenged police. Not unnaturally, the average coppers on the beat tend to be less than enthusiastic if something wicked their way comes. While not exactly considering Nightingale to be one of the wicked, they prefer conventional cases. This is one of the less well explained features of this version of London. A large number of the police and their support staff are aware of the magical infrastructure of their city, but there’s little or no sign of general public awareness. In our world, it would be impossible to keep this from the news media.

The problem for the author is one of thematic repetition. So Aaronovitch has tackled the problem head on with the increasingly important battle for power between the Folly and the cohorts of the Faceless Man, this time reinforced by the redoubtable Varona Sidorovna. This adopts the more formal tradition of protagonist and antagonist in adventure and thriller novels, and gives more scope for crimes to be committed which would require the Folly’s intervention. In this book, there’s a remarkably spectacular crime which would certainly interest the news media to the exclusion of most other stories. However, this shift of emphasis brings its own challenge. The success of the first two books lay clearly in exploring the relationship with the fey. Now we’re looking at a criminal wizard, Aaronovitch must decide what balance to strike. In this instance, there’s a major set-piece as the magical beings come on-shore for their annual bash. Although some of what happens may be setting plot lines in place for the next novel, there’s little obvious contribution to the forward progress of this book’s plot. Indeed, you feel some of the characters are just being given walk-on moments to remind us they are still around.

So there’s some interesting discussion of urban planning and the politics of redevelopment. There are also one or two illuminating developments from Nightingale who’s beginning to emerge as a more rounded figure. But the feel is less coherent and I have the sense newcomers to the series might find this book less easy to follow. This leaves me recommending the first three books in the series and suggesting new readers might read Midnight Riot aka Rivers of London, the first book, before setting off on this. I found Broken Homes slightly disappointing.

For my review of two other books in the series, see:
Midnight Riot or Rivers of London and
Whispers Underground.

Veronica Mars (2014)

March 23, 2014 4 comments

Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars (2014) is a most curious example of wish-fulfillment. Those of us with memories like an elephant — sorry that simile doesn’t quite work in this instance because elephants don’t watch television shows. Those of us who can remember back to 2004. “Hey man, that’s like ten years and so passé. Who’d want to remember something from way back when?” Well, this is Rob Thomas and here’s a Kickstarter riposte to those executives in the movie-making business who don’t think there’s mileage in a cult television show for a sequel, but are prepared to spend millions of dollars in remaking The A-Team or, worse, Dukes of Hazzard, Land of the Lost, etc. Personally, I’d like to see a film based on Pushing Daisies but my eccentricity in matters of taste is notorious.

 

So, after a brief moment watching our heroine being interviewed by a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell) here we are back in Neptune, California with Kristen Bell as she slips seamlessly back into the character of the obsessive investigator who got her full PI licence when she was still at school. She’s responding to a call from Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who’s now a member of JAG — obviously a man who knows where he’s going so long as it’s by sea. He’s accused of murdering Carrie Bishop who had made a name for herself as a pop diva calling herself “Bonnie DeVille” (ah, what’s in a name). As with most people accused of murder, he needs some help. Naturally, Veronica opts out of the whirlwind of job interviews to fly out to renew acquaintance with her father, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), and the other stalwarts from her youth.

Veronica and Logan back together again

Veronica and Logan back together again

 

Insofar as this is a film made using fans’ money, the question we have to answer is whether the film is better than the average bear, or something that will only appeal to the diehards. Writing this at the end of the first week in the cinemas, the answer would seem to be limited appeal in the general marketplace. The gross take is edging up to $2.5 million. But the wrinkle we can’t get beyond is the number of people who opted for home viewing. The whisper is fairly positive and Rob Thomas says the early signs for a second film sequel are encouraging. It may well be this turns into a franchise despite the apathy of the power-brokers in Hollywood.

 

To achieve this no doubt worthy aim, the appeal must satisfy two completely different demographics. When it was being broadcast, it routinely picked up around 2.5 million viewers across three seasons. Whatever sequel is made must satisfy the natural desire of the fans to catch up with as many characters from the series as possible. To that extent the film succeeds as an exercise in nostalgia. Nine years have passed and people may have aged, but the high school reunion brings all the cast back together and provides a vital photographic clue from the past as to the motive for the most recent death. Indeed, as we wander through Neptune, interesting faces resurface, often saying “significant” things for the fans (and for solving the murder).

Dick, Weevil, Logan, Wallace, and Piz showing how reunions end

Dick, Weevil, Logan, Wallace, and Piz showing how reunions end

 

As to the mystery plot, it’s faintly amusing to see Veronica pull out her old box of PI stuff and have to make do with out-of-date tech. Indeed, her general lack of awareness about the cultural life of the city and its radio stations, is almost the death of her. But the mystery element is a little thin. There’s remarkably little set-up for the murder itself. We don’t get to walk through the scene of the crime or to have someone explain the gatehouse system which suggests Logan was the only one who could have committed the crime. Although this comes out as we get into the second half of the film, it’s always better when we viewers have a clear view of the problem to be solved from the get-go. As one of the attorneys says when Logan is looking for someone to represent him, he needs a viable alternative explanation of who could have done it. This is difficult to formulate without a proper set-up. Even when we have a reconstruction flashback, Veronica’s guess is actually wrong. At the end when we know whodunnit, we’re still left guessing whether her suggested method is correct.

 

Indeed, the ending sequence is a little undercooked. There’s a confrontation, admissions are made, there’s a chase and a fight. Yes, the classic elements are present but, somehow, they lack a true thriller quality. It has a made-for-television feel to it. I know the film was made on a tight budget so not as much time could be taken to get a full cinematic quality to it, but shambling around in the dark is not my idea of getting the job done. Putting all this together, I’m left moderately satisfied. It was good to see flashes of the old Veronica Mars spirit in some of the characters and situations — it’s slightly disappointing there’s not very much character development outside the core players. Summing up, the final evaluation can’t depend on past familiarity. The current mystery element must be strong enough and, somehow, I don’t think this is well enough put together to “hit the spot”. With a little more care, this could have been excellent. As it is, Veronica Mars is only slightly better than average.

 

The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 9 and 10

March 22, 2014 2 comments

The After Dinner Mysteries

The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 9 and 10 completes this run of the show. Cultural differences can sometimes get in the way of appreciating the quality of the work to be reviewed. When a Japanese television company sets out to write a “comedy” mystery series, mere Westerners like myself should not expect to laugh. Not born and brought up in Japan, their humour is likely to remain obscure. Yet here’s a show that borrows heavily from a manga (that’s like comics or graphic novels only more interesting) style to produce a more accessible vehicle for entertaining the viewer. This time, there are two murders, so the show spreads their solution over two episodes. We’re playing in the well-established frame of a group of mystery writers all called together for a social event at the home of one of the most successful but most reclusive of all mystery writers. This is playing the same game as Murder By Death (1976) which managed to strand a number of famous detectives in a country house and let them fight out who was the most absurdly gifted of all. This gang of mystery writers contains the loopy one, the angry one, the older one, and two women who, as Sapper and others have opined, are more deadly than the male. In the house where these writers assemble, we have the author and her young daughter, her editor, and a housekeeper. None of them seem to be expecting this gaggle of writers to appear, but in shows like this, you can never take anything at face value.

The writers invite themselves to stay overnight and are awoken by someone throwing a baseball trophy though a second storey window from outside the house. When they look around the open rooms, they find one of the women visitors had been bludgeoned. Beside the body is a pool of ink. Before dying, the victim had apparently written an X on the floor, thus following in the tradition of Ellery Queen’s The Scarlett Letters. How can you fail with a house full of eccentrics as suspects? Except the real question is which of the most common red herrings have been included and/or omitted? Obviously, it can’t be the angry one who threatens to bash anyone over the head who disagrees with him. Or the weird one who may be able to lift objects to balance on his head but not with homicidal intent. Or the old one who should have too much wisdom to want to kill anyone. Or the author who owns the house and is bedridden. Or the housekeeper because she’s short, well-covered, and cute. The young girl is too short to hit anyone over the head with a heavy object. The editor seriously damaged is shoulder when he was a pitcher at school and could not throw the trophy through the window from the garden or strike a blow to the head.

Yes, some do celebrate Christmas in Japan

Yes, some do celebrate Christmas in Japan

So why throw the trophy through the window and what’s the significance of the X? Well Kageyama (Sho Sakurai) comes up with a very convincing explanation of who committed the murder. Later that night, when Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa) comes downstairs, she not only finds another woman stabbed, but Kageyama is in the kitchen with a cake knife in his hand. The fact the knife has no blood on it and he would not have had time or motive to kill this woman, does not stop Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina) from arresting him and interrogating him. Obviously this is just a chance for some light relief and to give us a chance to consider where Kageyama slipped up in his analysis. After all, he’s been infallible so far in the series. Put food on the table, give answers afterwards. It’s been like clockwork.

The interesting thing about this pair of episodes is that the two murders flow as natural consequences from one fateful decision. As an outside observer to Japanese culture, this particular decision strikes me as completely absurd. It also seems impractical. For all the flair of the script in presenting this fait accompli, I don’t believe it even begins to meet standards of credibility. So how does this affect the outcome? Well, once you accept this premise, there’s a certain logic to the rest. Why should we even begin to accept it? Well, it’s a comedy mystery show, this is their Christmas special, and the Japanese equivalent of Christmas cakes are relevant to the solution of the mystery (these sponge cakes are covered in strawberries and cream). Although it’s not a national holiday, people do exchange gifts and families gather. As part of the build-up to New Year, it’s become an important time. Yet here comes the cultural incongruity. The West tends to produce saccharine sentimentality in celebration of this commercialised feast day. This episode does produce what’s actually described as a present for one of the characters, but it’s wrapped up in a terrible tragedy, a tragedy of epic proportions because it was all avoidable. People with talent should have been allowed to prosper in their own right. The natural cycle of life and death should have prevailed. Love once acknowledged, should have been celebrated. Lies would have been unnecessary and we could have had a happy ending. As it is, the lives of the criminals and those around them are wrecked. The only pair who emerge with a better relationship are Kageyama and Reiko. He because we get to see more of the man behind the mask and she because there are faint signs of emerging intelligence and a better attitude. And the depths of Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri’s idiocy are truly explored. Although these two episodes have been slightly less accessible to an outsider, the overall quality of The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 has been impressive. The plots have been ingenious and sufficiently intricate to demand a full hour to explore them. The format has also been varied and avoided boring us through repeating the same jokes. If you have the chance, this series is well worth watching.

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 1 and 2
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.

Voodoo Ridge by David Freed

March 21, 2014 9 comments

Voodoo-Ridge-medium1

For reasons not relevant to this review, I’ve been spending time recently thinking about the different ways in which people view the world. One of the most common questions that seems to emerge is the extent to which there is any equity, fairness or justice in society. In societies which claim to be more democratic than not, there are certain expectations about equality of access to basic services and protections for “human rights”. Sadly such expectations rarely play out in the real world where increasingly severe income disparities mean differential access to services can be bought by the wealthy and the legal system can be manipulated for the benefit of those with power. For many have-nots, this can mean life is brutish and short. Except this is not what we see in the average book. Authors sugarcoat the pill. Even though dystopian fiction is popular in the YA market, the vast majority of fiction titles have feel-good intentions. They pander to a section of the market that wants to feel inspired by protagonists who prevail against the odds or find redemption in some way. It’s the “happy ever after” syndrome. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Bringing realism into fiction tends to produce a darker tone and more depressing outcomes. Not everyone wants to be reminded how awful life can be for the less fortunate.

Voodoo Ridge by David Freed (The Permanent Press, 2014) finds our hero, Cordell Logan, in an emotionally equivocal state. In the back story, his wife left him for a colleague. In the last book, that colleague was killed and she asked her ex to find out who did it. In the reunion under difficult circumstances, a spark was briefly kindled. The result was an announcement of pregnancy. Neither side had thought they were still fertile (age can often deceive the unwary) so no precautions were taken. Now they have to confront the new reality. Somewhat improbably, they decide to remarry. Such are the mistakes people make when emotions are running high. This persuades them to fly up to South Lake Tahoe for a snap wedding — all the advantages of Las Vegas but without the temptation to gamble (not that remarriage is anything but a gamble). As they approach the small airport, our hero spots what could be the wreckage of a plane. As a concerned citizen, he reports the sighting when he lands. This news is greeted with some degree of incredulity. No planes have been reported lost or missing in recent times. Nevertheless, he persists in his assertion, pointing adamantly to a spot on a high-definition map.

David Freed

David Freed

Of course he ends up guiding the police to the place he saw as he flew in. He’s frustrated by the general air of scepticism and his natural sense of duty kicks in. That this means postponing the wedding is not a major consideration in his mind. The love between the couple seems to have returned but not the romance. To him, the symbolism of a marriage ceremony to confirm the resumption of love as usual can be fitted in when it’s convenient — a typically male-centric point of view. When they find the plane, it turns out to be “old”. The dead body of one of the people from the airport who had heard the initial report is the first complication. The second complication comes when the FAA declares all information about the plane classified. Why would a plane lost in 1956 still be subject to an official secrets ruling? None of this should immediately set alarm bells ringing. There’s no need for Cordell to increase his level of vigilance. That way lies paranoia and, as a Buddhist, he’s committed to seeing the good in people and the surrounding situation.

Of course all this traipsing around the landscape and Cordell’s involvement in the investigation is not appreciated by his bride-to-be who spends the day moping about in the cold of the town. To make things worse, the sheriff’s deputy calls Cordell out of the boutique hotel at the crack of dawn the next day. Perhaps Cordell should not be surprised his intended is not in evidence when he returns. Except this doesn’t feel right. She hasn’t gone out: both her jogging and the ordinary clothes she would have worn outdoors are still in the room. Later his cellphone rings. It’s not good news.

This is the start of an economically told thriller which makes the simplicity of a linear plot a delight to watch. The tension is skillfully maintained as we watch Cordell’s sense of duty collide with his love for his ex-wife. Needless to say, there can only be one outcome. My delight in Voodoo Ridge is not saying I want all my books to be grim, but there does come a point when the endless sunlight of modern fiction becomes tiring and a healthy dose of reality is appreciated. If you enjoy thrillers with a darker edge, this is a superb example of the form and you should snap it up.

For reviews of other books by David Freed, see:
Fangs Out
Flat Spin.

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

The Disposables by David Putnam

March 20, 2014 1 comment

Disposables-3D-833x1024

Life is considered “safe” when everything happening around you is predictable. Even when some of the possibilities represent a source of danger, the very fact you are aware of them means you can take appropriate evasive action. Insecurity comes from any lack of foresight. When you don’t know what dangers may be lurking or precisely when known dangers may manifest themselves, anxiety sets in and, if that’s not controlled, it can lead to hypervigilance and panic. It’s the same when it comes to reading a book which is published under the banner of thriller. If it’s easy to predict from one page to the next exactly what will happen, the “safe” plot rapidly grows boring and any thrills there might otherwise have been evaporate. The mark of a good thriller comes from some spark of originality.

At this point, we have to be honest. In practical terms, it’s very difficult to come up with a “new” plot. With several thousand increasingly sophisticated thrillers published each year over the last fifty and more years, the ingenuity of authors has been expended in the endless search for a different way of telling the same basic story. So we can’t expect novelty when it comes to the major plot elements. The protagonist will come under threat. Over the course of the book, the threats will become more severe until, in a major confrontation, there’s conflict resolution and the protagonist reaches some kind of accommodation with the world.

So here comes The Disposables by David Putnam (Oceanview Publishing, 2014). In a neutral voice, I’ll tell you this is a first novel. Our protagonist is Bruno Johnson. He used to be a tough cop who would dispense street justice and keep the streets safe by being more scary than gang leaders. This led to him being recruited into the elite Violent Crime Task Force. At this point, I’ll point to the ironic ambiguity in the name of this squad. Individually and collectively, these were violent officers who would stop at nothing to bring crime under control. For a while, Bruno was partnered with Robby Wicks. This worked well until Bruno was caught crossing a line and ended up doing time. He’s now out on parole, but planning to make a run for it.

David Putnam

David Putnam

Bruno and his current girlfriend, Marie, have been offering a safe house to abused children. They are the disposables of the title because the court system has little or no time to investigate claims of ill-treatment. Children are simply returned to the parent with custody. One of those liberated from the system was the son of an important man in Korea. He’s been pressuring the State Department and, in turn, the FBI has been tasked with recovering the boy. With Bruno in the crosshairs, he agrees to stage a robbery to raise enough cash to fund a quiet departure from American shores with the children. At first, everything seems to be going well but, when Robby Wicks appears looking for help to track down a serial killer, the situation rapidly grows complicated and the opportunity to slip away seems to be closing.

There have been so many books, television series and films exploiting the deficiencies of the Social Services. This means the idea of a tough cop rescuing the children suffering the worst abuse is hardly original. Providing a safe house or some form of underground railroad continues along familiar lines. In this version, there are also a number of classic stereotypes. Marie is a nurse who has seen the abuse first-hand in the ER and prefers intervention. We also meet a prostitute with a heart of gold, drug-pushers and other lowlife characters, hard-nosed cops, and so on. But two elements rescue this novel from the edge of the abyss of failure. The first is the way the familiar plot elements are put together. Although the plot is slightly busy, it maintains a good pace and provides just enough manipulation of expectation to keep the pages turning. For the record, there’s enough inside information about the working of the police force to have some of the content bleeding into the subgenre of police procedural. The second redeeming feature is the crispness of the prose. This author strikes a nice balance between telling and showing. Too often first novelists fall into the trap of believing we readers need more information. This gets on with the job in hand with good economy and a clear eye for detail. All of which leaves me with very positive feelings about The Disposables. It’s a very readable thriller that knows where it’s going and makes sure you’re still reading until it gets there.

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 7 and 8

The After Dinner Mysteries

The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episode 7 starts off with the outrageous suggestion Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa), our heiress, as beautiful as she is, could possibly have a bad back. Yet there she is, bent over on getting out of bed and completely unable to straighten up. It’s therefore fortuitous that she’s the heiress to a massive fortune and that one of the businesses the family owns makes documentaries. Because there’s a crime, Kageyama (Sho Sakurai), our ever-helpful butler, is able to arrange for a television crew to follow the investigation. Now she can lie on her couch at home, watching the investigation in real-time on her television. Except, to hasten her recovery, the body and mind require stimulation. Our butler therefore cooks up a TCM remedy which knocks her out. A milliner is also called. The prospect of buying a hat (or two) is bound to lift her spirits.

The crime scene is part of an abandoned factory which has been converted into a residence and design studio. Our murder victim is found in her bath, apparently drowned. She designed clothes and hats — one of the hats is missing from a set of display shelves which is highlighted as suspicious. After her sleep, the television company delivers an edited version of the rest of the continuing investigation which they watch with the milliner who may be able to offer insights into the crime which involves his “trade”. There are some nicely satirical moments as the relationship of exploitation between heiress and hatmaker is exposed. There’s also a very good dig at the uselessness of the cars the detective’s family makes.

Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa) talks hats over dinner

Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa) talks hats over dinner

We then come to the crunch. Why would the murderer have stolen a hat? It was raining heavily. There would have been no-one around to see anyone leaving so there was no need to wear a hat to conceal identity. Because it was raining all night, it’s also unlikely the killer arrived with a bare head and no umbrella (or hat). So what does a murderer do with a hat and why must it then be taken away? It’s a nice puzzle and although the process of arriving at the answer is drawn out, the explanation is quite pleasing. This doesn’t change the fact that the episode is woefully contrived. But that should not distract us from the fact the underlying social dynamics it describes are sadly all too real. The ending is therefore quite affecting even though, in a way, the result of the case was a type of betrayal. This intrusion of the real world into the life of an heiress is not supposed to happen.

Episode 8 has us in high school reunion territory as our heroine is invited to a party at a television station to meet up with her old friend, who has become a Kabuki actor of some fame. Her fall from her platform soles immediately after emerging from the limo gives us an excuse to meet with her four “friends” from the past, plus one or two others she knew from her time at school. Of course, Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina), the detective who personifies incompetence, is also on hand. He’s going to act as a special advisor on a new police procedural. When the star’s sister is attacked, he takes over the investigation. Naturally he sees the heiress and, as is now the established convention, continues to believe she’s the “person of interest” from Hong Kong. Because he’s attracted to her, she and the Kabuki actor are allowed into the investigation. This gives the actor who is to play the part of a detective the chance to learn from real-world sleuth in action.

The logic turns on a nice piece of social observation and the properties of a gemstone called alexandrite or chrysoberyl. But, in part, because this is just an assault and not a murder case, the point of the episode then changes. The reveal of the guilty party in the assault occurs early. We then get into revealing the person who was guilty nine years earlier in school. Yes, this is essentially a social mystery to untangle all the misunderstandings that occurred between the children in school. It proves to be slightly humiliating for the heiress but, because she’s now beginning to mature, she immediately understands how action can be taken to remove the misunderstandings. Whether that will resolve the current problems is left to our imagination.

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 1 and 2
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 9 and 10.

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton

March 18, 2014 1 comment

Sergeant Chip by Bradely Denton

One of the most interesting aspects of reviewing at such volume is the sudden opportunity to notice coincidences — all the more ironic because one of the features in fiction that I find most aggravating is the coincidence, e.g. that instead of a plot developing along organic and natural lines, everything is structured in a way that events just happen to occur in the order necessary to achieve the desired effect. When this is woefully contrived, I happily leap on the improbability of the coincidence and deride the author for being a force of destiny. Well, a month or so ago, I reviewed a book with a dog as the protagonist and ruminated on the scarcity of first-person narratives featuring animals. In retrospect, this is a good thing because authors routinely fall into the trap of overly sentimentalising the way in which the animals are portrayed.

Sergeant Chip by Bradley Denton (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a set of three novellas, the titular story being about a poodle/labrador cross (the story was nominated for the 2005 Hugo Award and won the 2005 Sturgeon Award). We’re in the field of animal uplift for military purposes. Cognitive enhancement is a topic not uncommon in science fiction and medical thrillers (and animation blockbusters like Muntz’ dogs in Up). In this instance, we humans have been manipulating dogs for land use, and sealions and dolphins for use at sea. The most effective teams arise when the humans have real empathy for the animals. We ride with Chip and his human handler, Lieutenant Dial, who prove very good in the field, both for pubic demonstration purposes and when confronting the “enemy”. Thematically, this is a story about loyalty and the ethics of leadership. Because the dog is the point of view, we get to see multiple levels of duty in action. It starts with the relationship between the dog and his handler, moves up to the relationship between Dial, now promoted to Captain, and those under his command. And then spreads to look at the relationship between invading troops and unarmed civilians. Needless to say, the story doesn’t show the human side in a very good light apart from Dial, but each individual has his or her own rights and interests to protect with everything told in an unaffected prose with a clear eye for more objective values. This is an outstanding story.

Bradley Denton

Bradley Denton

“Blackburn and the Blade” was nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and shows us a series character coming into a small town to regroup, re-equip and prepare to move on again. Except coming into a new environment often means meeting new people. At times, they can prove a dangerous distraction, introducing unexpected enemies. This is most elegantly put together, giving us a clear sight of all the relevant characters and mentioning the murder just before our “hero” came to town. Once we know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s time for the murderer to reappear. Fortunately, there’s a celestial conjunction — now that’s what a proper coincidence looks like when you’re writing a noir supernatural thriller.

“The Adakian Eagle” was a nominee for the Edgar and, as that would suggest, it’s a superb story featuring an ageing Dashiell Hammett on manoeuvres in WWII. American troops found themselves in some interesting places when fighting the Japanese and this takes us to the Aleutian Islands in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only are they remote, but also volcanic and prone to rain. Once the Japanese had been defeated on Attu, the islands became a vital supply depot for the Russian campaign. This assistance to the Commies was somewhat ironic at the time and became even more so when the permafrost of the Cold War set in and the McCarthy backlash came to fruition. During the war, the cultural hostility is nicely captured here in the relationship between the Lieutenant Colonel and Dashiell Hammett, with the customary racial prejudice and contempt for those considered less intelligent also on display.

The story explores two convergent forces. The first we may call a belief in the potential of the supernatural to affect events in the real world. The second is the determination of an older and more experienced man to cut through the bullshit and do whatever is required to protect himself and anyone else who has fallen under his protection. The result is strictly speaking an investigation of a suspicious death on the side of one of the volcanos, but the influence of belief in the supernatural is immanent, providing a key element in both the short and longer term motivation for events. It should be said the other element in the motive is elegantly revealed as one of the more traditional and all too human desires. In the short term, the forces balance each other out — to that extent, everyone gets what they deserve. In the long term, history stays on track which is as it should be.

Bradley Denton is new to me but these three novellas convince me I really should take the time to track down more of his work. That means this collection has served its purpose and introduced an author whose range and diversity is worth exploring. Thank you Subterranean Press.

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

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