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The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan

April 30, 2014 1 comment

The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan

As those of you who read these reviews will know, one of my pet peeves is the overuse of the coincidence. You can’t avoid them in any of the media. There are two or three tracks in the narrative that look completely separate until it turns out they are all different aspects of the same case. Or our protagonist just happens to be in the right place at the right time to meet the key witness who saw the villain doing something suspicious. And so on. In most cases, this is just too convenient to be even remotely credible unless the writer is using coincidence as a deliberate literary device, e.g. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” as said by Rick in Casablanca (1942) or the point of the plot is to generate humour as in a farce.

 

So when a writer sets off to put a plot together, there’s going to be an order of events required to get to the end with the right outcome. In the best books, this careful construction feels natural. There’s an organic sequence with one event leading to another. The problem comes when the ending too obviously dictates what has to happen, i.e. the writer is playing the role of capricious fate. The more contrived, the less credible. So, for example, Bram Stoker has Dracula arrive in Whitby which just happens to be where Mina Murray, Jonathan Harker’s fiancée, happens to be on holiday. Or in a large number of thrillers, two key characters may be separated by circumstances in a big city but, when one is required to save the other, they just happen to be within shouting distance of each other.

Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge, 2013) is the second book to feature journalist Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan. She’s trying to rebuild her career in print after losing her job as a television reporter. Because of the ethical rules, neither side of the potential relationship is supposed to fraternise with the other. But fate naturally throws them together and, despite the rules, they find themselves increasingly of the opinion they ought to “do something about their mutual feelings”. The book therefore balances this romance against the investigations the “couple” are engaged in. Now comes the bad news. Almost every aspect of this plot is affected to a greater or lesser extent by coincidences. Jane is persuaded to help an ex-colleague look into a possible problem with an adoption agency. Her editor asks her to pick up a story involving the way in which the local Department of Family Services deals with children who are innocent victims of crime, e.g. where their parents are killed. And Jake picks up two cases. . . Yes you guessed it. He finds two young children at the scene of a homicide who will have to go through the foster care system, and is later allocated a suspicious death involving a member of staff at the adoption agency. It all goes steadily down hill from then on, with virtually every twist and turn in the plot depending on someone seeing something or finding something or being related to someone or not being related (hence the title of the book).

 

And do you know what? I really couldn’t care a fig! Yes, that’s right. This is a disgraceful exercise in how to abuse the coincidence but it’s written with such wit and style that I forgave the author. Our heroine may commit every cliché in the thriller canon (even being prepared to run into a burning building to rescue a source to demonstrate her status as hero) while Jake turns out to be wonderfully self-critical and continuously beats himself up for not doing better. Yet, when it comes to the crunch, he’s able to talk his way out of trouble or, if that fails, he can shoot with unerring accuracy. So The Wrong Girl turns out to be the exception that proves the rule. If you can write with the right level of panache, the reader’s enjoyment converts the dross into gold. And, as if it was necessary for me to tender evidence in support of my assessment, the book has been nominated for the Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel and the Left Coast Crime Award for Best Mystery.

 

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

 

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke

April 29, 2014 5 comments

longlivethequeen

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke (one of the several pseudonyms of the suitably anonymous Kathryn Smith) (http://www.orbitbooks.net/, 2013) is the third and final in The Immortal Empire series which bills itself as dark fantasy. So, fearing nothing, I step into the life of Xandra Vardan. She’s the sixteen-year-old slip of a girl who thought she was just an ordinary kid and then discovered not only that she was a rather special supernatural being but, perhaps more importantly, the heir apparent to the Goblin throne. Yes, not only does she have to adjust her understanding of how the world works, but also learn to wear the crown. For all this to work, we have a fantasy alternate version of London. Queen Victoria is one of these rather long-lived vampires, there are werewolves and, of course, the goblins live underground in tunnels next to the London Underground. All this might have been harmonious except for the group of humans who seem to think all supernatural beasties are an abomination. They act like terrorists, killing those who can be killed, blowing up stuff and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Indeed, with the news media somewhat on the fence, there’s a risk of the majority human population rising up and attempting their version of a final solution.

 

Rather like Blade (1998), our heroine has an important mutation which enables her to walk in daylight — it seems crossbreeds can develop useful attributes. Indeed, there are secret laboratories experimenting on the supernatural creatures and also looking for a variety of the Plague that might spread fast through the human community. Think of the “one ring to rule them all” and you’ll get the idea as to what the labs are actually trying to produce. Because this is a covert romance, there’s a lively relationship between our Goblin Queen and Vex, the alpha male of the werewolves. And, supposedly to add a little spice to proceedings, the catalyst for this book’s action is the escape of one of the lab creatures. In the last book, Xandra was briefly held by one of these labs and they harvested some of her eggs. Now we have the product of artificial reproduction out of the streets looking not unlike our heroine when she chooses to (yes, a shape shifter with facial recognition software built in). It’s a not uninteresting idea that our heroine should have to relate to and occasionally fight an enhanced version of herself.

Kate Locke

Kate Locke

 

First the strange feature. This is a book written by a Canadian set in London. As you might expect, this requires a certain scattering of Britishisms to give the idea the setting might actually have something to do with Britain as one of the language centres of the world. Because the setting is somewhat ambiguous in terms of technology — genetic manipulation, cloning and other advanced techniques mixed in with occasional steampunk elements — the colloquialisms are “old”. For example, I haven’t heard anyone refer to another as His Nibs for more than fifty years. But here’s the thing. I was not at all surprised to see our heroine frequently curse by using the phrase, “Fang me!” (she’s dating a werewolf and her father is a vampre so fangs run in the family). Amongst themselves, we British folk can get quite salty if the mood takes us. Yet I then discovered most of the characters curse and swear like navvies. There may be marginally more fangs than fucks in all its grammatical forms, but it’s the presence of other Anglo Saxon expletives that intrigue me. Shag, knob and the other less obvious words appear quite regularly, but it’s relatively unusual to find a cunt (or two) in a book with romantic overtones presumably aimed at the delicate fair sex. Not that I care one way or the other. It’s language you hear everyday on the streets. I was just faintly surprised to see it in a book like this.

 

The second oddity is what’s presented to us as the mystery plot. Just who is behind this fiendish plot with the laboratories? Why has this mastermind created this heroine lookalike? What is this new plague? Well, the answers to these question are remarkably obvious. I may not have read the two earlier volumes but, if you actually care, there’s really only one person it can be.

 

So there you have it: a thin plot stretched to tedious length to comply with modern publishing standards. A few decades ago, this would have been a satisfactory half to an Ace Double. As it is, Long Live the Queen overstays its welcome as dark fantasy (it’s not that dark), as urban fantasy (too much real sex in both language and deed), as steampunk (only the names of modern devices are changed to make them sound Victorian), as mystery (which it isn’t), or anything else you might care to throw into the genre mix.

 

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

 

Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins

April 28, 2014 2 comments

supreme-justice-300

A while back, I read one of these conspiracy theory books reconstructing the history surrounding the JFK assassination. Although I thought the writing good, I found the reading experience somewhat frustrating. As a Brit, I know little of the assassination and couldn’t distinguish between the actual history and the fictionalisation. Some might say this is a good thing. We’re not supposed to be reading a thriller based on a true story so we can just have the true story retold. The author must be going to add something and, in theory, it must be high praise if I can’t tell where the line is drawn between the fact and the fiction. Except I found I couldn’t care less which bits were true. Nevertheless, I decided it was distinctly unfair of me to judge the author on one book, particularly one coming so late in a series about a subject which left me cold. So here’s me picking up Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins (Thomas & Mercer, 2014).

 

The hero of this political thriller is the usual candidate. Meet Joseph Reeder. He’s a former Secret Service agent who took a bullet for the standing president (Agent Frank Horrigan in In the Line of Fire (1993) has comparable demons in his past). Since Reeder didn’t really like the president or his politics, and was not as shy as he should have been about saying so, he took early retirement and now runs his own security business. To equip him as a top-class investigator, he’s a long-time user of kinesics: the art of interpreting body language and drawing appropriate deductions. A homicide detective with whom he’s friendly asks for his opinion when Supreme Court Justice Henry Venter is gunned down in a robbery. He and his clerk were in a high-class restaurant when two gunmen came in with drawn guns. The initial impression is a robbery gone bad but, when Reeder reviews the surveillance records, he classifies this as a hit. As soon as this is reported to the FBI, Gabe Sloan, a longtime friend and godfather to his daughter, insists Reeder joins the task force to investigate. This leads to Reeder being partnered with Patti Rogers, a youngish but experienced agent. Together, they begin to piece together what may have happened but they are quickly distracted when a second Supreme Court Justice is shot down in his back yard. Since both the justices were on the conservative wing and the current president is a democrat, this suggests the killers have an agenda to rebalance the political complexion of the Supreme Court — assuming the president will play ball and appoint two very liberal judges to the bench as replacements. Now the challenge is to protect the surviving justices while investigating who might be orchestrating this attack on “supreme” justice or injustice depending on your political point of view.

Max Allen Collins

Max Allen Collins

 

This leads me to the first of my problems with this book. I appreciate from the news coverage of American politics that the system has become increasingly polarised. Although this is near-future fiction, it doesn’t seem as though progress has been made in defusing the conflict between the two parties. Instead, the activist conservatives on the Supreme Court have exploited their majority and dismantled several landmark “liberal” precedents. This is assumed to be provocative. All the major characters in this book have rather different shades of belief, but they all share one faintly alarming trait. Not one of these people is politically indifferent. Instead they are slightly obsessive about placing each other on the political spectrum and modifying their behaviour depending on who’s in the room. I’m not at all sure whether this is realistic for Washington folk but, if it is, this has to rank as a very depressing book.

 

We then come to the plot. Now I’m the last person to want realism in the books I read — I do spend many hours a week reading science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, the more realistic a book, the less exciting it tends to be. But this is a plot depending on a number of rather implausible factors. Since I prefer not to engage in spoilers, you will have to take my word for it. Suffice it to say the conspirators go through some fairly convoluted manoeuvres to set their plot in motion and then fail to tie up the loose ends in a neat pattern. People with this level of experience would not have left any chance of matters being tracked back to them. But since our hero and able sidekick have to be able to solve the case, I suppose incompetence is required. So is Supreme Justice enjoyable despite this rather weak plot? Well, the prose has that same lucidity I enjoyed first time around and, so long as you switch off your critical faculties, I suppose you might find the twists and turns of the plot surprising and exciting. Sadly, I found this all somewhat predictable and less than riveting so I can’t honestly recommend it.

 

For a review of another book by Max Allan Collins, see Ask Not.

 

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

 

The Leopard by K V Johansen

April 27, 2014 2 comments

The Leopard-1

Another day and another epic fantasy in which the author is obviously determined to break the mould and write the ultimate bait and switch book. So let’s remind ourselves of the basic rules. The book must be titled by featuring the lead character. Since this will usually be a wizard or someone with a useful skill like a thief, the names will usually reflect this, e.g. Hoho the Great, Axelrod the Unwashed or Weasel the Lightfingered. This protagonist will usually have a sidekick and, after sinking a few mugs of the local brew, they set off on a quest that will involve fighting three-lettered creatures like orcs (except when there’s more than one of them, of course). If the fan boys are lucky, a barbarian princess with optional fighting skills may be added to the mix. And so on.

So here we go with The Leopard by K V Johansen (Pyr, 2014) (first in a new Marakand duology) which is set in the same world as Blackdog and builds on the general mythology of that world. We start off with Deyandara. Now she’s a person with an interestingly opaque lineage. All we can say for sure is that she’s a bastard and because everyone else to whom she may be related has been killed off, she’s in line to take over the throne. Except, she’s not that keen on the idea having spent her youth not very seriously training to be a bard. However, all this is rendered somewhat moot because, within minutes of her being acclaimed queen by the few nobles who happen to be around, the local goddess, Catairanach, appears to her in a vision and, before you can say, “Rumpelstiltskin is my name,” she’s whisked off into the countryside on a minor quest. Sadly this goddess is strictly temperance, so our heroine is not allowed any of the local brew. She’s also denied the right for her name to title the book. This should give you a clue as to her importance.

K V Johansen

After a while, she finds Ahjvar. He’s an assassin with the nickname, The Leopard. “Ah ha!” you’re saying. “This is the guy who gives his name to the book (the spots help him hide in the shrubbery). Now we can get on with the story.” Better still, he’s got a sidekick called Ghu. Not surprisingly, because this is a fantasy with deities, demons and a practical system of magic in operation, Ahjvar has been cursed. The message from Catairanach is that he can be free of this inconvenience if he goes off on a quest to kill the mad prophet known as the Voice of Marakand. Actually it’s not much of a quest because the Voice is in the city of Marakand so it’s not that difficult to find her. He does get to drink, though, which is always a good sign. So after traipsing across the landscape doing their best to leave Deyandara behind, our team arrives in the city. Shortly thereafter, the assassin kills the current Voice, is captured, is converted into a soldier loyal to the reincarnated Voice and sent out of the city. Yes, that’s right. The titular assassin is not the long-running protagonist (he’s pushed out of the way so he can come back in book 2 and kick butt). Deyandara is also sent off to find whatever’s left of her kingdom. This leaves us to meet and greet a couple of characters from the first book who turn up in the city. They link up with a magician who’s been there for a while. They briefly link up with Ghu who hasn’t quite decided whether he should go off and try to rescue Ahjvar. And then there’s a lot of fighting with undead magicians being used to intimidate Marakand and its citizens. Obviously, they are quite difficult to kill, what with them being already dead. None of this zombie rubbish for them. They are pretty invincible unless they can be reminded they are already dead. That tends to break the spell animating them.

So the author is slightly playing a game with the readers, introducing new characters and then moving them into position for book 2, while characters we know something about reappear to carry us through to the evenly balanced ending where both sides need to regroup before launching off into book 2. I’m not prepared to say a great deal about the quality of the plot because it’s obviously one book divided into two parts for publication purposes. It could turn out very good. . . All I can say is that the prose is quite dense and full of reasonably interesting detail. Since we only have to wait until December to see how it all plays out, this may be worth picking up if you like epic fantasy.

For a review of the other book set in this world, see Blackdog.

The cover art from Raymond Swanland is rather pleasing.

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

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)

April 26, 2014 2 comments

Elementary poster

This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014) demonstrates the strength and weakness of the formula adopted by the series producers. The early decision was made to present this show as essentially a series of standalone episodes with only the occasional linkage and minimal character development. Past experience usually means this condemns the show to death by formula. There just aren’t enough interesting plots to maintain the series over a season. More to the point, there are a number of canonical expectations the fans will have so, with common sense prevailing, the show has slowly been developing the character arcs and introducing a metanarrative. When the two elements collide as in this episode, something has to give. In this case, the balance between the murder mystery and the metanarrative left neither very satisfactory.

We start off in an AA meeting which is, to put it mildly, a very heavy-handed way of establishing the theme for this end-run of episodes. When asked to identify the greatest threat to his continued sobriety, Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) tells the room his uniqueness as an individual is likely to be his downfall. With characteristic arrogance, he perceives himself as literally without peer. In practical terms, he feels he’s lowering himself to relate to others (this sounds really bad so we’ll pass quickly on). He wonders how he should react to other people when he sees no value in relationships. At what point should he stop trying to maintain them? I suppose we’re to take this as an overflow from the loss of his friend Alistair in the previous episode. Having just lost one of his few friends, he’s naturally foreseeing a life of increasing loneliness. Many lie to themselves when they claim not to need others. Holmes has enough realism to see loss of human contact would leave him seeking alternative approaches to filling in the emptiness. Meanwhile, Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) hears someone crying on the stairs outside the room where the AA meeting is being held. It’s one of the early regulars who’s concerned she hasn’t heard from her sister. This gives us the lead into the murder mystery which is solved but without any reference back to the sister fighting addiction. So she’s just left to deal with the grief of her sister’s loss without Watson (or Holmes) offering any kind of support. Sadly there just isn’t enough time to follow through with plot elements that don’t fit the metanarrative theme.

Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) and Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) enjoying the great weather for drones

Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) and Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) enjoying the great weather for drones

In the other part of the episode, we begin with a moment of madness. Yes, we get to see Mrs Hudson (Candis Cayne) and Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans) again. Our devious brother has made the trip back across the Atlantic to try to break up Holmes and Watson so, to make Holmes jealous, Mycroft not only asks Watson to visit his restaurant, but also then proposes they resume their relationship. So this stays with the initial theme of the episode set in the AA meeting as we now wait to see how far Holmes will go to keep the relationship with Watson. At first, his reaction to being told of Mycroft’s proposal is to say nothing. For once, he’s showing maturity, giving her space while she crafts a reply to Mycroft. While she’s thinking, the search for the missing sister turns up two dead bodies. It seems the sister was collateral damage in a hit on the “unknown” male. When they check his wallet, they find he was working at a start-up developing drones for the military. So Holmes is implicitly respecting Watson’s privacy while dealing with a case giving surveillance capacity to the government. Except, of course, he doesn’t respect her privacy and goes to see Mycroft at the restaurant where, just by chance, he sees someone who was there the last time he visited. A photograph shows this regular customer to have an interesting provenance.

Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans)

Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans)

As to the murder mystery, this is another of these vaguely SFnal, near future technology episodes where we’re supposed to accept the faintly absurd notion of a microminiaturized murder weapon. I was just about onboard for the surveillance aspect (although the machine really does have the most powerful batteries since the energizer bunny first hopped into view). The use we see here is ridiculous. The larger drone version is far more credible although it would be very visible and, if actually fitted with a shotgun usually only firing two bullets, less practical. A machine gun would be more sensible. Anyway, Watson able to infiltrate the office of the suspect and open his superduper safe with a hairpin were equally silly plot devices to bring this part of the episode juddering to a halt before they had rounded up all the technicians to equip and fly these drones. This is another of these major government scandal stories that fails to spark any political intervention from any of the federal bodies. As to the metanarrative, it’s all left in a nicely balanced way with Watson kidnapped, but the build-up to it is far too cursory. This is a potentially far more interesting development and, for once, it could mean the next episode is entirely devoted to the metanarrative and has no murder for Holmes to investigate. This might also give more screen time to Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) and Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) who have been less visible recently. We can only live in hope. As it stands, Elementary: The Man With the Twisted Lip is a below average episode despite the cliffhanger ending.

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

April 25, 2014 1 comment

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

Here we find ourselves pitched into an increasingly confident area of historical mystery. The conventional mystery or thriller writer picks a time of relative calm as the setting. This leaves the history as contextual background information, with the foreground free for the hero to investigate the wrongdoing. But some authors prefer times of great conflict as the setting, and the period just before, during, and after World War II is proving a fruitful area for authors to explore. J. Robert Janes has a long-running series set in Occupied France featuring Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo and Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté. The interest, of course, lies in the question of whether St-Cyr is a collaborator and therefore worthy of contempt, or does he earn some latitude because he pursues wrongdoers regardless of nationality or status? Philip Kerr also has a long-running series featuring Bernie Gunther, a homicide detective. The first book starts in 1936 at the time of the Olympics, then moves forward to 1938 with him given the temporary rank of Kriminalkommissar in Heydrich’s state Security Service, and later moves into the war years and the period immediate afterwards. Luke McCallin has his second book featuring Captain Gregor Reinhardt coming out later this year and J Sydney Bounds has one book set in post-war Nuremberg, see Ruin Value.

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is the third book in the series featuring Martin von Bora, an officer in the Wehrmacht who continues to work with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi (in the first book, Bora is teamed with Father John Malecki, a Polish-American priest working directly for the Vatican). The consistent themes through the three books are dark and complex. First in Poland and then the two remaining books in Italy, we’re required to think about how different groups form and maintain alliances. Standing slightly outside the more conventional political power structure, there’s the overarching relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Third Reich. As part of the plan to deChristianise Germany, catholics had been specifically targeted which led to the increasing marginalisation of catholics during the 1930s. However, the relationship with the Papal See was complicated when Italy formally joined the Axis. As Germany began its expansion across national borders, it immediately found itself having to hold areas still deeply religious. As if invasion was not hard enough for the occupied people to stomach, it would further antagonise locals if priests were arrested and the people were prevented from worship.

Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor

Much of this book is taken up with Germany’s difficulty in reconciling its presence in Italy with the entrenched power of the Pope and his cardinals. Bora is a useful honest broker because he’s a trusted catholic whose university study was guided by a man now serving as a cardinal. This book is set in 1944 as the Allies are pressing their advance through Italy towards Rome. So the alliance with the Italian Fascists is failing as patriotic fervour dims in line with military failures. The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS is also strained as the practice of retaliating for German deaths by executing multiples of local citizens is encouraging the emergence of increasingly confident resistance fighters. Final efforts to deport Jews and others deemed socially undesirable are also producing real political disagreements between the different groups. It would be a serious understatement to call this a time of danger and uncertainty. And Ben Pastor does not make the mistake of leaving these events in the background. In many senses, this is a work of military fiction or a political thriller which just happens to feature an army officer who gets sucked into investigating politically sensitive deaths.

The initial hook for the investigators is the death of Magda Reiner who worked in the German Embassy as a secretary. She was found dead on the pavement outside her apartment block. It could have been suicide, but the Roman Chief of Police prefers that a political opponent be guilty of her murder. Much later there’s what may be a murder-suicide with a society lady well-known for her charitable works found dead in bed with an elderly cardinal. Obviously all three deaths are sensitive albeit for different reasons. As a serving officer, Bora is already deeply committed to defending what Germany holds in Italy. The investigations must therefore be fitted around his military duties. He’s also conscious of the fact that Germany will lose this fight and be forced out of Rome. If Guildi is positively involved in this investigation, he may be damned when the Allies take over and the locals can take their revenge against known collaborators. Independently, Guildi finds himself walking a narrow line through the infighting between the Italian factions as the Communists begin to take a more active role. In the end he will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to risk staying in Rome as the Allies arrive, or going north with the partisans.

A Dark Song of Blood is a powerful novel about lives under pressure. With every individual wondering whether he or she will be able to survive, it falls to the few with a conscience and a sense of honour to defy the prevailing power structures and do what they believe to be right. Bora has been emotionally scared and physically damaged. He’s no longer fit for active duty on the front line and so finds himself fighting a different type of war both with himself and many of those around him. As the novel progresses, he proves to be a proactive survivor, i.e. once he realises he’s falling into the pit, he decides to fall with as much force as possible and hope to produce at least one small change for the better before he dies. The outcome for Rome as a city is a matter for history. The different outcomes for Bora and Guildi are completely fascinating, making this a genuinely impressive novel.

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

The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti

April 24, 2014 1 comment

the spectral link thomas ligotti

It’s a rather spooky experience, having read all the early works by Thomas Ligotti, to come back to him twenty years later to discover I’d hardly missed anything. While he was never what you might call prolific, he used to be moderately consistent. But, some ten or so years ago, he was affected by a form of writer’s block and has only just been spurred back into life. Actually, that’s a more literal sentence than you might imagine. In 2012, he was suddenly hospitalised and the near-death experience has sparked a resumption of the writing. So it comes to pass that I am holding a slim volume from Subterranean Press titled The Spectral Link. It contains two new stories from the master. That makes it something of an event in the horror community.

“Metaphysica Morum” sits comfortably in the class we might loosely call existential horror. Our protagonist is facing a form of psychological crisis. It’s not simply a matter of alienation or that he finds the world has grown meaningless. Either or both would suggest nihilist thinking. Rather there’s something about the way he perceives the world, both in his waking state and in dreams, that he finds profoundly depressing and unsettling. He seeks psychological help and, apart from having someone to talk with, he’s guided into meditation and relaxation therapy. In a not wholly professional way, his therapist assumes responsibility for organising our protagonist’s life. Before this meeting, our protagonist had not been sufficiently involved in the world to seek work or find any means of support for an independent lifestyle. The therapist places him in part-time work and provides a roof over his head. Although this offers the opportunity for more stability in his life, the lure of suicide grows stronger. Perhaps the expected trajectory for this story would be despair and the acceptance of death as hope is lost, but matters change when he receives a rather strange letter from someone who may be a member of his family. Ignoring whether the usual law of cause and effect applies, there’s also a change in the nature of his dreams. When he mentions the dream to his therapist, it triggers some alarm. The development of the plot then veers off into unexpected territory and arrives at a rather pleasing moment of unresolved ambiguity.

Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti

“The Small People” also deals with the nature of existence and considers both how we perceive the world and what may constitute a bigoted attitude towards one group of beings. Let’s for a moment assume this is an allegory about the effect of immigration. To those established in a place, the arrival of new people, perhaps of a smaller stature and not speaking the same language, might be viewed as threatening. Perhaps when they come, the original occupiers of the land feel uncomfortable and withdraw, leaving the newcomers to throw up whatever shelters they can using the materials to hand. It would all look chaotic, lacking the sophistication of the original township. Think about shanty towns or slums suddenly changing the urban landscape, creating blight, causing a loss in property values in neighbouring areas. Of course this is not something to be talked about openly, because to denigrate the immigrants would be to betray your bigotry. Discriminating against them would be illegal in some legal systems. But there does come a point when some feel they can’t retreat any further, when they have to take a stand on one of the issues they consider a moral imperative, e.g. mixed marriages between the original inhabitants and the newcomers. Yes, without getting too obsessed about the overall problem, focusing on just one issue might get results. And just think, all this could be a horror story not in any sense related to real-world problems. Allegories are like that. They enable us to think about socially difficult issues without treading on too many toes. . . You see that’s a part of the problem. Just how many toes do these newcomers have? The answer to the question actually asked in this story is typical of the paranoid thinking that afflicts some individuals who see other people as somehow different.

It’s a testament to Ligotti’s skill as an author that he makes two stories go a long way. This slim volume may be less than one-hundred pages in length but it packs a big punch both as an intellectual exercise and as horror for, when the chips are down, what can be more frightening than the product of an intelligent mind?

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

Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts

rooftop-prince

This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.

This review now captures the rest of Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) rather than focusing on individual episodes and captures my frustration with how the story develops. To clear the decks, let’s confirm this has nothing to do with time travel as understood in the West. Rather it’s a morality tale building on the notion of a supernatural power bent on establishing a balance in the karma (or the lotus root, your choice). Imagine a world in which a group of people are tied together through time. They are continuously reincarnated in relationships which are substantially the same from one generation to the next. At a critical point in each cycle, one key character has a decision to make about the fate of another. If that decision is for “evil”, the same group are doomed to rerun the scenario when they are reborn, and so ad infinitum. But in our modern age, the supernatural being grows tired of this key character always making the wrong choice. Our interventionist God therefore decides to change one of the variables.

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

When one of the modern characters is “killed”, Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun), the Joseon version, is brought forward to take his place. Ah ha! So this new player knows how the scenario was unfolding three-hundred years ago. His first problem is to understand the new culture and try to work out who everyone is. Once he’s less gauche, he can more safely begin interacting with people. But when he tries to apply his understanding of past events, it causes a chaotic response from the modern players. It takes him a while to understand he had misunderstood what was happening around him in Joseon. Obviously the court politics of the past don’t fit the culture of private wealth and the phenomenon of the chaebol — a large corporation controlled by one or more family members. This element in the series actually proves interesting as one faction in the family led by Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) tries to manipulate the holders of a key block of shares to gain control. Had this been run as a straight contemporary drama, there was more than enough meat to make a highly effective thriller as one person dies and attempts are made on the lives of others. But this is not allowed for two reasons:

Han Ji-Min in modern style

Han Ji-Min in modern style

  • The initial set-up forces us into a “time travel” mode and prevents the police investigation from building up any tension. Instead, we have the Crown Price constantly trying to work out what has to happen to enable him to go back to his own time. Investigative punches are therefore pulled as our hero slowly pieces together who everyone is and how his return might be triggered. The script also leaves giant holes with no effort made to explain exactly what happens to the bad and not so bad characters in modern times. It’s a whole lot easier when the Crown Price does go back to Joseon because he can torture them, banish some, and execute the rest. Those were the days when a hero really could get things done properly.

  • Jung Yoo-Mi

    Jung Yoo-Mi

  • The series is a romance and the Crown Prince has to meet and fall in love with Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), the modern version of the woman he was supposed to marry in Joseon. This further dilutes any tension because our hero can’t do the hand-holding and gazing into her eyes bit if he’s behind bars or on the run from the police. So subject to the one major plot device, everything has to enable our couple to fall in love.

  • Ah yes, the plot device. Way back in Joseon times, the first episode shows us a view of what happened. Except it’s fundamentally dishonest! I’m not against scriptwriters allowing their characters to make mistakes. We’re all human and not immune from misunderstanding the events as they occur around us. Yet this “error” is so fundamental that it lacks all credibility! There’s no way this could have happened! Someone would have noticed and said something — unless we’re supposed to believe not only that the Crown Price had his eyes closed at the critical times, but that the bad guys had paid everyone around him not to draw his attention to this rather stunning fact. So why do the scriptwriters have to engage in this deception? Well, if they showed us the choice being made in Joseon times, it would rather give the game away as to what the choice would have to be in modern times. If the series were not being run as a romantic drama, this could have led to our watching Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the key character, continue to make the decision for evil. That would have been a high-powered tragedy, leaving the Crown Prince adrift in time and our supernatural being resigned to trying to get it right the next time round. As it is, there’s no tension because although we know this couple of star-crossed lovers are doomed to part, we know they must be together so tears can be shed when the Crown Price is whisked back to Joseon.

    Lee Tae-Sung

    Lee Tae-Sung

    The modern ending is frustratingly mushy. The mawkishness comes from the instant love-at-first-sight between Park Ha and Yong Tae-Yong. Yet more frustration comes from not seeing how that plays out with the families on both sides. The control of the chaebol could be consolidated in them if the appropriate share transfers were confirmed. Worse the time travel is proved real because the Crown Prince sends a love letter to Park Ha by burying it under the pavilion by the lake. Watch out the gift of the gold medallion — that’s a real tear-jerker. Historically speaking, it seems Park Ha and Boo-Yong are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect the man they love. So, as a time travel plot, this is a disaster (why does Park Ha end up in the juice shop and Boo-Yong write an expanatory note to the Crown Price?), but it works quite well as satire and a romantic fairy story.

    For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2.

    Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

    April 22, 2014 1 comment

    Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

    Looking back, I’ve been an obsessive reader for most of my life. In the idle moments before starting this review, I wondered what the source was. I suppose I could blame my mother who endlessly read to me until I was old enough to read for myself. It’s always good to blame the parents when they’re no longer around to defend themselves. Or it could be that the early choices happened to be the crack cocaine of books leaving me hopelessly addicted, doomed endlessly to read in the vain hope of recapturing the early highs. Who knows and, perhaps, who cares! It’s a relatively harmless compulsion — even though I may not be as communicative with my wife as she might sometimes like, I am nearly always in her presence albeit not socially engaged with her. Anyway, over the years, four categories of book have crystalised. There are the unreadable — no matter how great the compulsion to read, and the sense of respect I should hold for the author who’s taken the time and trouble to write all these words, there are always other books waiting to be read. Sometimes, I just have to put down the immediate book and start the next. At the other end of the scale are the very few that hit the sweet spot. These books are the reason I persevere — not that I ever reread them. Once is enough (there’s the lurking fear that if I revisit a loved book, I might not like it so much the second time and that would destroy happy memories).

    In the middle ground, are the almost (very) good and the books I finish out of duty. Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem (Solaris, 2014) falls in the latter class, almost but not quite reaching the unreadable level. When I was growing up, I always regretted Henry Kuttner’s decision not to write more Baldy stories. They take the hillbilly mutant trope and have fun with the ideas. They carefully avoid the gothic horror idea that there are dangers lurking in the woods (apart from the teddy bears on their picnic) and nicely blur the line between fantasy and science fiction as the multigenerational family tries to live a quiet life. On the front cover of this book, there’s a supposedly encouraging quote from the Guardian, “A beautifully crafted novel.” The quote does not refer to this book, of course. No publisher sends prepublication copies to newspapers to get blurb quotes. But having finished this book, I can confirm the prose is professional (as we should expect from Tem whom I’ve previously enjoyed as a short story writer), and the plot does make sense in its own terms. So, at a craft level, this book engages the mind and I can appreciate the effort that went into writing it.

    Steve Rasnic Tem

    Steve Rasnic Tem

    But when it comes to the plot and the lack of dynamic in the narrative, the book is virtually DOA. Here’s this youngish man who left the valley for a while but has now come back to look after granny. She may or may not be close to death — this tribe seems to live a long time — but before she goes, she’s determined to pass on the family lore. One of the traits we’re told about early on is the hyper-empathy, i.e. the ability to sense or feel what others are thinking or feeling. The way this old lady passes on her oral history is by enabling him to feel events as if he had been there. So the structure of the book yo-yos from 1934 with granny old enough to have her first period, and the modern day with granny and her thirtysomething relative living in a shack in the woods. And boy is there a lot of kudzu! Wow that stuff really does grow fast. Anyway, in the past, there’s this really dangerous guy, a relative who’s become a preacher and uses snakes during his services — it’s all terribly symbolic what with the devil having occasionally appeared as a snake. No-one likes him, many fear him, and the rest either avoid him or worship with him. So there you have it. The preacher has his snakes to keep his faith strong, and the kudzu grows like it’s a plant possessed. I’ll pause while you make the connection. And then the past catches up with the present, or those who live the longest triumph, or not as the case may be. I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Shame really. A great deal of thought has gone into the construction of this plot. It just has no tension or suspense as a thriller. It never gets off the ground as a horror novel. I suppose it could be classed as fantasy, or as science fiction if this is one of these evolutionary stories where a genetic mutation is passed down through the generations by careful interbreeding. Whatever the genre, I found it tedious and boring.

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

    Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø

    April 21, 2014 4 comments

    Cockroaches-The-Second-Inspector-Harry-Hole-Novel-V-376003-5d4eb82dbd9467d7f1b0

    Cockroaches by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2014) sees a publisher finally translating and releasing one of the early Harry Hole novels. For the record, this is the second in the series but the last to be translated into English. It follows on from his exploits in Australia. For those of you new to the series, he’s the detective with a brain who has looked into the abyss. Needless to say, neither side of this exchange of view was enamored, so Harry has decided to seek oblivion through alcohol. This does not, of course, lead to his dismissal from the police force. Those that matter in the hierarchy understand the circumstances and, from time to time, there’s a need for a man like this. In this instance, the need arises in Bangkok (a city providing all the temptations likely to attract the addicted and the dangerous). The Norwegian ambassador to Thailand has been found with a knife in his back in a brothel. This could be deeply embarrassing to the ruling party in Norway so a cover-up is in order. A little research suggests Harry may not emerge from the bottle long enough to do any lasting damage. The local Thai authorities are also keen to minimise the media interest. It might damage their tourism trade if it were to be suggested a knife-wielding killer was lurking in a brothel, massage parlour or one of the many other venues where sexual gratification for money may be obtained.

    To help ensure the investigation is less than successful, the Thai authorities designate a woman and a farang to liaise. She’s the daughter of an American officer and a local woman who has returned to Thailand. It’s not the gender itself that’s likely to be a problem. Local Thais tend not to be impressed by foreigners. So even though she speaks the language like a native, the lines of communication are not going to work so well. The only thing going in her favour from Harry’s point of view is that she’s not as corrupt as the majority of the local police force — it’s an economic problem with the government not paying those employed to enforce the law enough to live on. So most take money not to enforce the law.

    Jo Nesbo

    Jo Nesbo

    As murders go, this looks reasonably straightforward: man found dead in brothel by the prostitute sent to service him. While not an everyday crime, there’s always a dangerous edge to using the services of the sex industry. Prostitutes or their pimps roll clients for their passports, credit cards and cash. Muggers and robbers steal whatever’s left. Mostly the clients live to tell the tale. Sometimes they fight back when they should know better and pay the price. Yet this is an ambassador. More to the point, he’s independently wealthy so need never go this low down in the market. Although perhaps that’s the point. Maybe a part of the excitement comes from entering the demimonde. Except there are some photographs in his briefcase (what man takes his briefcase with him when he goes to a brothel?). They show a paedophile with a boy. The photographer was using a long lens and did not capture the man’s face. So perhaps the ambassador was meeting someone to blackmail. But if the motive was blackmail, why didn’t the killer take the photographs? Even on the initial survey, there are some unusual factors. Once the investigation goes through the standard moves, the unanswered questions multiply. This should lead to the whitewash both government want. With no obvious way to answer all these questions, the case should be closed and Harry should go home.

    But Harry never has been one for following orders and, as he dries out in the heat of Bangkok, he begins to understand the force of the old joke, “When a cockroach dies, one-hundred turn up at the funeral.” In this case, Harry’s crude hacking at the walls of silence around him, encourages a number of creatures to crawl out into the daylight. The only two problems are which might be the killer(s) he’s looking for and can he avoid being killed by those that resent being disturbed? It proves to be a highly detailed plot with a very nicely arranged diversionary tactic in play. Unfortunately, we also get the traditionally seamy view of Thailand as a tourist destination. Although most of the information is necessarily subordinated to the need to keep the plot going, it’s a clichéd overview with few pleasing touches of local colour to bring the setting to life. That the corruption also extends back to Norway should not surprise us. The politics swirling around this murder endangers reputations in both countries. Naturally, once he’s sobered up, Harry is just the man you need to get to the truth of the matter. What then happens is predictable as the news is massaged. Ironically, for all Harry produces a clear-cut ending, the cover-up more or less stays in place. Life goes on and Harry can resume his search for oblivion.

    Since I enjoy reading clever books with a darker edge, Cockroaches appeals to me. There’s a rather satisfying coldblooded quality to the planning and execution of the crimes on display. It doesn’t matter how realistic the events may be. The intellectual rigour of the plot makes the book worth reading. From the little I’ve said, you’ll understand the themes explored are not for the faint-hearted. But, for the most part, the book is not explicit. It should not offend while asking pertinent questions about the weaknesses some humans have.

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

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

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