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Reckless Disregard by Robert Rotstein

June 30, 2014 2 comments

Reckless Disregard Cover

This book sets me thinking about what ingredients must be mixed together to make a good legal thriller. Let’s start off with the obvious. At some point before, during or after the book starts, X must break the law and require the services of a lawyer. We are then allowed the privilege of watching said lawyer from the moment of initial advice through to the trial at the end. Although the court room scenes are not mandatory, there must be a good reason for the case failing to come before a judge so said lawyer can demonstrate just why he or she is in such high demand as a trial lawyer. On the way to the legal and thrillerish denouement, our heroic legal manipulator must face dangers. Others in the entourage or potential witnesses are expendable but, of necessity, the legal eagle must fly unscathed in the physical sense (although it’s appropriate from there to be some running, hiding and the occasional blow struck — some lawyers even pick up the occasional bullet wound as a trophy).

Those of you with some legal knowledge will understand the theme of this book from the title. Reckless Disregard by Robert Rotstein (Seventh Street Books, 2014) is about defamation. In this instance, it’s alleged the latest video game from an anonymous underground designer libels a famous Hollywood movie producer. Under American law, it’s necessary to prove the publication of the images and words was malicious. That means the publisher must have shown reckless disregard for the truth, i.e. at least willful blindness. In theory this should be relatively straightforward given this game designer has alleged the movie producer kidnapped and killed an actress. Anyone looking in the historical record would find no mention of said producer ever having anything to do with the actress so here comes a man with one of these apparently unimpeachable reputations to sue an underground revolutionary who dares attack one of the titans of the movie industry. Needless to say, the only person standing between David and Goliath is our series hero, Parker Stern. To put it mildly, he’s not the strongest of performers having lost much of his trial mojo through increasingly severe anxiety attacks. However, this time he’s motivated to take the case because Lovely Diamond is the attorney of record on the other side.

Robert Rotstein

Robert Rotstein

Those of you who have read the first book will know our hero and Lovely ended up an item. In the intervening period, she has broken off the relationship leaving our man somewhat puzzled and deflated. This is not so much a chance for revenge but an opportunity for them to interact again, even if only from opposite sides of the courtroom. He’s not sure what, if anything, will follow on from this, but he feels he has to try. So this part of the book is a great success. Having adopted the cliché of pairing them off, our author now has them as wounded warriors. Since both have their secrets, it’s interesting to watch how they slowly grow more comfortable with each other again. The plot is also very cleverly put together with some nice twists and turns when we get into court. The unravelling of the core mystery about what might or might not have happened to the missing actress is engrossing.

The only problem I have is with the game itself. A not inconsiderable amount of time is devoted to describing the different levels and showing how the game apparently tracks the real world events. I’m not a game-player so I can’t speak for the credibility of this as a real-world game. So I accept such a game might have a cult following and confirm it as an ingenious way to set the hare running to see which dogs try to chase it down. But I have a problem with the later explanation for the game showing one of the murder scenarios, apparently before the murder(s) occur(s) or is/are discovered. The game designer or other(s) helping him/her must have had a good idea how this element was introduced into the game. Yet the designer’s failure to resolve this issue becomes the second reckless disregard. The first is publishing the game knowing there’s no positive evidence to prove the kidnapping/murder ever took place. The best state of the evidence is as a basis for undermining the reputation of the movie mogul. The second is either the designer becoming a murderer or concealing the identity of the murderer.

So we’re left in a very interesting state. Through one of the quirks of examination and cross-examination in trial, Parker Stern’s secret is revealed. Perhaps this will help restore his trial mojo. The relationship with Lovely may be repairable despite the presence of the game-playing son. And a version of justice is achieved so far as all the public and the police are concerned. Putting this together, Reckless Disregard is a very good legal thriller, doing clever things to mix all the ingredients in a relatively new way. But it’s not as good as the first in the series. This is slightly more contrived.

For a review of the first in the series, see Corrupt Practices.

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

No Stone Unturned by James W Ziskin

June 29, 2014 2 comments

No Stone Unturned James W Ziskin

No Stone Unturned by James W Ziskin (Seventh Street, 2014) sees the second appearance of Ellie Stone, a young woman driven by the need to prove herself in a 1960‘s society that has still to embrace the notion of gender equality. She’s currently working in the small town of New Holland in upstate New York at The New Holland Republic, but finding it very difficult to be taken seriously as a reporter. Not surprisingly, given the era, Artie Short, the owner, tends to give preference to unimaginative, by-the-numbers George Walsh. This has been grinding down our heroine, so hearing the discovery of a body on her scanner gives her the chance to be first in the queue when it comes to getting the inside story. The body proves to be Jordan Shaw, daughter of the local judge and respected attorney. It was was discovered half-buried in the woods, having previously occupied a room at the somewhat notorious Mohawk Motel. To her surprise, the Judge formally asks her to investigate. It’s not exactly that he has no faith in the local sheriff to discover who killed his daughter, but he reasons it can only help to have a second string to his bow. In making this choice, he’s relying on his inside knowledge of her success in tracking down her father’s killer in the first book.

This doubly motivates her. Obviously she sees the story of her investigation as being her foot in the journalistic door and, if she can also get the judge’s backing, there may be other opportunities flowing from the social and political connections. With her trusty camera always to hand, she takes photographs of everything that may prove significant. Once in full flow, she’s an unstoppable force, identifying the present whereabouts of the Shaw’s family car and then beginning to piece together what happened at the Mohawk Motel. However, it’s when she travels into Boston that we get to see her determination as, confronted by a locked door, she calmly picks up an axe and discovers the next body. Needless to say, she’s in full photographer mode as she waits for the police to respond to her call. Then it’s off to Tufts where Jordan Shaw was a student. At this point, the plot takes off into pleasingly complicated territory as our journalist/reporter has to work out what the relationship is between the lives the two girls might have had in Boston and in New Holland. There’s also a diary to puzzle over with lots of interesting notations and significant initials.

James W Ziskin

James W Ziskin

Sadly, she becomes the trigger for a slightly heavy-handed portrayal of the Indian/Pakistan hostility through the palpable tension between Prakash Singh and Hakim Mohammed at Tufts and, later, in New Holland. This plot element and the emerging debate about birth control form the time-specific links to 1960. Although our heroine is attacked and, in a separate incident, almost dies, there’s a distinct pulling of punches when it comes to dealing with the sexism of the time. The racism against the Hispanic community also feels sanitised. More importantly, even more than in the first book, the first-person narrative featuring Ellie lacks credibility. Although she functions very well as an investigator and solves the various crimes including the two murders, it could just as easily have been a young man. Yes she does flirt a little and is physically vulnerable, but this is very much a man’s view of a woman’s internal monologue.

This leaves me with slightly mixed feelings about the book. As a murder mystery, it’s a nicely constructed plot with suspects serially eliminated as the pages turn. The thriller element of the young woman who survives assault and attempted murder is also reasonably persuasive. But the sense of location in 1960 is not quite as successful as in the first book and the characterisation of Ellie is more perfunctory. So if you’re prepared to view this as predominantly a murder mystery with only a faint historical veneer, you’re likely to find this at least as enjoyable as the first in the series. But if you were expecting there to be a step forward in developing the historical themes and watching a young woman try to be ahead of the curve as feminism begins to develop a more positive edge, you’re likely to be disappointed. That makes No Stone Unturned good but not as good as it might have been.

For a review of the first in the series, see Styx & Stone.

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

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

June 28, 2014 4 comments

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

Back when I was young and still somewhat naive, I was rather taken by the idea of history following a cyclical pattern. I think I first encountered the idea in The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A E van Vogt. At the time, I was studying the classical languages at school and had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which was a somewhat ironic book for a European historian to be writing as the then major European powers were full of optimism and engaged in creating their own Empires. But the idea of a man writing about the fall of one empire as all the other emergent empires were doomed to fall seemed eerily prescient. Anyway, my understanding of history did seem to register Golden Ages followed by Dark Ages as different civilisations rose, prospered, and then fell. It also seemed attractive to believe that, after each Dark Age, the next civilisation would be better than the last. Young people always want to believe the later generations learn from the mistakes of the earlier. Sadly, that’s rarely the case. As each society reaches the point where agriculture and raw material resources can no longer support the local population, there tend to be wars and social collapse (if climate change wrecks enough of the world’s agriculture, the next collapse may not be very far away).

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2014) is rather elegantly playing with this idea as John “Black Jack” Geary begins the book doing a tour of Earth (as the cradle of the now interstellar civilisation). Appropriately, he’s visiting Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England close to where I was born (not, you understand, that I was there when Black Jack visited). There’s much for him to chew on as he considers how the wall came to be built and, more importantly, why it was later abandoned and largely allowed to collapse over the centuries that followed. He also views other sites where the damage caused by the collapse of an empire remains as a reminder of past failure. He sees this alongside his own experience of helping the Alliance beat the Syndicate and then fight off aliens who might have done considerable damage. The state of the two human combatants remains fragile with the Alliance caught in a difficult economic situation as their worlds try to shift from a war to a peace footing. The Syndicate has fragmented with many planetary systems going through local rebellions against the old regimes who continue to holdout. No-one is doing well in this situation.

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

The book is full of discussions and insights into the collapse of order on both sides of the political divide. Before the war, there were political tensions but, along the border between the two sides, there was considerable trade and movement of people. Now that the war is technically over, there are the usual problems of recovering prisoners of war and dealing with refugees and economic migrants whose arrival from Syndicate space is stressing the resource-poor economies on the Alliance side. This leaves Black Jack with two major issues to address. The first is the enigmatic presence of six ship from the alien race called the Dancers. Their command of standard English is no doubt good, but they choose to communicate in a very odd way. Indeed, the retired general who’s been given the job of liaison officer finds trying to get anything approximating a straight answer out of them a challenge. Nevertheless, there does seem to be some method to their alien strangeness as they suddenly take off on an apparently random tour of human space with the general in tow. Fortunately, it becomes clear towards the end of the book that they have been able to see signs all is not well in human space.

The second issue relates to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding some of the activities of the Alliance. It seems factions have been taking long-term decisions without any public disclosure let alone discussion. Until the end of this book, it’s not entirely clear exactly what’s been done. Now we have a better view of the outcome, it’s obviously a disaster that’s waiting to rampage out of control. As a warning sign of the capacity for decision-makers to believe they are doing the right thing, we get an early visit to the moon of Europa where a secret lab was trying to create the perfect bio weapon. Unfortunately, it escaped the lab and everyone of the moon died. A permanent exclusion zone has been established and no-one is allowed to visit. This latest discovery may well be characterised as an infection of sorts. It will be interesting to see how Black Jack deals both with the politics of how such a thing came to be created and, more importantly, what’s to be done about it now. Putting the problem shortly, the Alliance and the Syndicates had some degree of stability through maintaining the status quo of the conflict. When Black Jack broke the impasse, the Alliance feared for its own stability as victor. Those who had been leaders on a wartime footing might not maintain their hold over power if there was a return to peacetime democracy. For some this would be unendurable. Such is the way in which leaders sow the seeds of their empire’s fall. Putting all this together, The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast is rather a thoughtful book with quite a lot of fighting for those who like military SF.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

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

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Mike Resnick

June 27, 2014 7 comments

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof Mike Resnick

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Mike Resnick (Seventh Street, 2014) is the third outing for Eli Paxton who’s one of these throwback PIs. For no terribly good reason other than he’s getting on in years, this is a man who has studiously avoided the adoption of any of the modern technology the rest of the world takes for granted. That means no cellphone, no computer or internet connection, no GPS in his clunker, and so on. Like one of these actors waiting for the next bit part to break his name into the big time, he spends most of his time watching classic Hollywood noir movies on cable while keeping his dog, appropriately named Marlowe, by his side. Fortunately, he has a stellar reputation with some of his buddies in the local Cincinnati police department, and this leads to him being called out at an unGodly hour of the morning to attend the scene of a homicide. Jim Simmons believes in his own power to solve the murder, but the distinctly unhappy widow (not grieving, you understand) wants her cat, Fluffy, found ASAP if not before. This sets our dogged detective off on the trail. When Marlowe finds other cats but not the missing moggy, the angry widow has him arrested. Apparently she thinks Paxton must be finagling with the feline (possibly for ransom purposes). Having talked his way out of the calaboose, he decides to persist in tracking down the kitty, wondering why the widow thinks it so valuable. The answers are very entertaining.

Mike Resnick has been nominated for more awards than any other writer

Mike Resnick has been nominated for more awards than any other writer

One of the reasons I enjoy first-person PI novels is the opportunity to watch a mind thinking through a problem. While this has no pretensions to apply strictly deductive reasoning to the analysis of facts and the process of investigating, the common sense approach on display here is a positive delight. To get the best value out of the situation, Paxton gets a sidekick. While by no means stupid, this individual is there largely to make all the elementary mistakes and to sit there applauding as Paxton sets him right. Since he’s a mob enforcer from Chicago, he’s hardly the most reliable of partners when it comes to slapping the manacles on the mouser but, in the end, he does prove his worth when the Bolivian connection comes out to play.

The first two Paxton novels are tied fairly directly to a competition or sporting event involving animals. This allows Resnick to show off his considerable knowledge of dogs and horses. This novel features a tabby as the catalyst for the whole shooting match to get underway, but the whole is really a classic PI novel with no inside knowledge of felines required (although some state law might be useful). Putting the whole package together with considerable wit and style, Resnick delivers a genuinely amusing trail of breadcrumbs for our hero to follow, and although he might not end up rich on the fees earned, he does at least get the see a Bengal and live to tell the tail (sic).

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Blasphemy
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire

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

Shroud of Evil by Pauline Rowson

June 26, 2014 2 comments

shroud-of-evil-9780727884114

Shroud of Evil by Pauline Rowson (Severn House, 2014) sees the eleventh outing for Detective Inspector Andy Horton as he makes a guest appearance in the courts on the Isle of Wight and reviews the state of his ignorance as to what happened to his mother thirty years ago. A newspaper article read while waiting for the case to be called suggests he should try contacting Lord Eames again. Although the man has denied knowledge of his mother’s disappearance, Horton does not believe him. He therefore decides to make an unannounced visit at his estate on the coast. He’s been quietly investigating an old photograph which shows a group of six young men. Three are dead. Apart from Lord Eames, he’s not been able to track down the other two even though he has names for them: Anthony Dormand and Rory Mortimer. When he walks along the beach outside the estate, he meets an interesting man. With no-one apparently at home, he returns to base in Portsmouth, where he’s given a missing persons case. It seems a private investigator has gone AWOL. That his body later turns up on the beach outside Lord Eames’ estate on the Isle of Wight is not the kind of coincidence our hero likes. Particularly when the fact of his visit to the fringe of the estate has been recorded by surveillance cameras but not reported to the police. It seems everyone has complicated motives in play.

Which leads to a more general structural point about how best to plot a long-running series. Obviously, the first books can be introductory as to characterisation and be more-or-less standalone as police procedural cases to investigate. But there comes a point when the broader narrative arcs of who these people are and how they relate to each other comes to the fore. This will tend to be when the author has begun to make decisions about how some of the plot lines are going to be resolved. There’s just one problem. Unless the main series character is going to quit his or her job and devote all available resources to solving the key personal mystery, we’re left with an uneasy balance between the cases that come along for investigation and the steps necessary to move the metanarrative along.

Pauline Rowson

Pauline Rowson

So here we have Horton beginning to make progress in the investigation of his mother’s disappearance but, for now, Rowson wants to keep him in the Portsmouth CID. This is a convenient vehicle for providing him with appropriate resources and some degree of cover for his activities. But this also requires a series of coincidences to enable him to meet the people he needs to meet to acquire the next pieces of the puzzle. I’m not raising this issue as a complaint. In fact, this book is a very fine example of a series character making significant discoveries. The emerging backstory and explanations feel credible. For these purposes, there’s also a clever justification for there being a Portsmouth connection both when his mother disappeared and now. So I’m still impressed by this series and it’s left in a very interesting position at the end of this episode.

As to the actual murder to be investigated, this has everything going for it. The murder method is unusual. Where death occurred is uncertain. The disposition of the body in an old sail as a shroud is intriguing. And there’s a serious problem in understanding the character of the victim and precisely what work he was doing. Although there seems be a reasonably clear private investigation in progress to determine whether a husband is cheating on his wife, it’s going to be a stretch to tie the potentially errant husband to the killing. Despite the links to him, he looks to have an alibi for the time the killing is likely to have taken place. This leads to the general conclusion Shroud of Evil is an excellent continuation of the series but, to get the best out of it, you must have read some of the previous books. Knowing who everyone is helps give the book added value. So there you have it. We continue to edge slowly towards a thriller or possibly MI5, more political scenario giving the broader narrative considerably more heft.

For a review of another book by Pauline Rowson, see Death Surge.

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

Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11

Galileo_2-p1

Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11 are an adaptation of the novel Salvation of a Saint although the translation offered for the television adaptation is “redemption”. Having read and signalled serious admiration of the novel, there was considerable expectation as we worked through this series. No matter how superficial some of the earlier episodes might have seemed, there was enduring confidence the quality of the source material would enable the scriptwriters to produce a blockbuster ending leaving everyone impressed. Sadly, this proved not completely the case. In reaching this conclusion, I speculate my reaction to this adaptation might have been more forgiving if I had not read and enjoyed the book. By definition, novels are more detailed and allow the author the chance to build to the most effective conclusion. Even at two hours, television and cinema can struggle to capture the essence of even a short book. Look at the agonising over whether the television version of Game of Thrones is as good as, or better than, the novels from which it is drawn, or whether Peter Jackson should be burned at the crossroads for what he has done to the works of Tolkien. People who love the written word often hate what happens when their favoured novel is translated into the visual form. So, for example, there are the purists who hate the adaptations of the work by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and so on.

Yūki Amami

Yūki Amami

 

So here we go with more detailed thoughts about this plot, carefully avoiding spoilers. First, the good news. Yūki Amami as Ayane Mashiba is outstanding. She carried the two series of Boss and proves devastatingly effective as our saint. Had she failed, the entire ending would have been dead in the water. We need to be clear about the nature of this role. This is an older woman who runs her own successful nursery school. She’s desperate to have children and, not caring so much about the consequences, she dates an entrepreneur who’s also seeking immortality for his genes through producing a child. He has two women. When Ayane is the first to prove her pregnancy, he dumps the other and marries Ayane. Shortly after their marriage, Ayane is walking near their matrimonial home when she’s knocked down by a woman on a bicycle. The shock causes her to miscarry. The cyclist is never identified. Thereafter, Ayane goes above and beyond the call of duty as a wife. She regularly attends a fertility clinic and spends the rest of the time at home, attending to her husband’s every need. Nothing is too much trouble for her.

Yuriko Yoshitaka and Masaharu Fukuyama consider the impossible

Yuriko Yoshitaka and Masaharu Fukuyama consider the impossible

 

When she goes away on a short holiday with two friends, her husband is very obviously alive, communicating with his employees by video conference, answering the door to their home, talking with the security guard, and so on. But at some point, he dies of arsenical poisoning. The fatal dose was obviously administered through his afternoon cup of coffee using freshly ground beans and newly boiled water. Misa Kishitani (Yuriko Yoshitaka) therefore thinks someone gained entrance to the home, placed the poison in the kettle, and waited for the man to die. The book goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate how he was not killed. In this endeavour, the book shows Professor Manabu Yukawa (Masaharu Fukuyama) aka Galileo and the forensic team working together to analyse every aspect of the kitchen. This even includes looking at the amount of dust under the sink to show no-one has touched the water filter during the last year. In any event, he made a coffee in the morning without ill effects. So it would be impossible for the water supply to have been contaminated.

 

The television adaptation, however, omits all this detailed work. Galileo is shown wandering around the kitchen, opening and closing cupboard doors, looking inside the fridge, and so on. He then demonstrates a possible murder method to Ayane Mashiba and the children in her school, but dismisses it because the offscreen forensic work has shown it to be impossible. In other words, by cutting out the spadework performed to show just how impossible this murder is, it undermines the shock value of how she did it. It is and will always remain, one of my all-time favourite murder methods. That said, people watching this show will understand how it was done and appreciate its cleverness. It’s just so much less than it could have been. We now come back to the question of “salvation” vs “redemption”. What the adaptation does right is bring out the quality of the woman and to explain very clearly what her motive was and why the world was right in viewing her as a saint in her marriage. You may very well wonder why a woman who endlessly proved her love for her husband should want to kill him. Read the book. If that’s not available to you, watch this television adaptation. It’s entirely understandable. So if Galileo succeeds in proving how she did it, can she be “saved” or find redemption? There are some who might say that the deliberate killing of another human being can never be forgiven. Unlike a theft where the money or the value of the thing taken can be returned to the victim, only society, perhaps influenced by the wishes of the victim’s family, could ever forgive and allow rehabilitation. I leave it to you to decide.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For the Galileo novel on which this pair of episodes is based, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

Jack Strong by Walter Mosley

June 24, 2014 11 comments

Jack Strong by Walter Mosley

Like most people, I have many faults. Some are minor, others neutral in their effect on me and my life. Among the latter is my somewhat obsessional approach to reading. If I find an author who hits the spot, I try to read all his or her work. Numbered in this select band is Walter Mosley whose work I’ve been reading for the last twenty years. Although I confess to finding some of his science fiction and more metaphorical fiction didactic and less interesting, I have persevered. Which brings me to Jack Strong (Open Road Media, 2014) This boasts the subtitle: A story of life after life. This is novella length and obviously intended as the first two chapters of a novel, which is slightly unfortunate, because unlike a formally constructed short story/novelette which reaches a natural conclusion, this stops rather arbitrarily as our titular protagonist leaves the nest of his awakening and sets off on his quest.

Walter Mosley as seen by David Burnett

Walter Mosley as seen by David Burnett

We’re back in the land populated by one of the fairly standard SFnal ideas. This time, we’re following along the track developed by Lois McMaster Bujold in Mirror Dance where a man not only develops multiple personalities, but gets some degree of control over which personality shall take the wheel, given the needs of the particular circumstances. Our protagonist, Jack Strong, seems to be in the same situation as Donovan in the series of Spiral Arm novels by Michael Flynn in that the multiple personalities have been induced artificially. In the first pages of this ebook, Jack dreams scenes from the lives of many people.

When he wakes, he finds himself in a fairly anonymous hotel room. When he comes down to reception, he discovers his room has been paid in advance and that his car is parked outside. As he slowly comes to full consciousness, he begins to realise he has access to the memories and abilities of many people. These are real people but they seem to be dead, i.e. we’re blurring the genre line with fantasy and supernatural elements. They represent a cross section of the community including individuals from both ends of the spectrum of good and evil. One might be a serial killer who moved around the country hitch-hiking. Another might have been a priest of rare knowledge and high spiritual morality. In between comes the mass of humanity. Some faceless and only possessing minor skills and abilities. Others were highly trained as soldiers or gamblers, grifters and criminals. In other words, Jack has a wealth of experience and abilities to call on but, if this is a democracy, getting many of these personalities to agree on any particular course of action is challenging.

The first personality to begin influencing Jack’s actions turns out to be on the hit-list of some local gangsters. Because this fact is not immediately obvious to Jack, he inadvertently finds himself in extreme danger and has to go on from there. Fortunately, he has another personality who was in the FBI and is able to make contact with a real-world person who can help out. So, for the length of this relatively short extract, we’re in fairly well-travelled territory as our hero who finds himself in the body of a crook has to extricate himself and find somewhere safe to hide. While this is playing out, he also becomes aware of a man monitoring his actions. Presumably, as the novel progresses, we will see this as representing the essential mystery to solve. Who has performed this “scientific marvel” by collecting all these people together in one body? What is their purpose? and so on. As it stands, it’s pushing all the right buttons and ends frustratingly as he leaves Las Vegas for points unknown. Hopefully, the rest of the book will be completed soon and we’ll all be able to see whether the idea develops coherently and finishes satisfactorily. So far, so good, i.e. I recommend it as vintage Mosley and, hopefully, he’ll keep away from his tendency to didacticism and stay with the action plotting.

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams

June 23, 2014 4 comments

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams

Day of Vengeance by Jeanne M Dams (Severn House, 2014) the fifteenth Dorothy Martin Mystery, sees the process for appointing a new bishop rudely interrupted by the death of one of the four on the shortlist. By virtue of his long-term involvement in church affairs and his status as a retired senior police office, Alan Martin has been made a member of the Crown Appointments Commission and is at the heart of the appointments process. Dorothy as an ex-pat American can’t formally be a part of the process but, as a disinterested observer, she can play a part in untangling the web, particularly because, as one of those responsible for making the appointment, Alan is a potential suspect. Despite Alan’s retired status, the Dean of the cathedral asks our dynamic duo to do what they do, which is to investigate quietly. The selection of the candidates has been bad-tempered and, once the shortlist was announced, the anger has grown.

It’s a sad fact of life in an increasingly secular society that the minority Christians feel more under pressure. In this case, there’s a significant political element involved as conservatives (with both big and little cs) despise and agitate against reformist and socialist candidates. Meanwhile, women campaign with placards proclaiming a sexist church that refuses to consider appointing a woman to the position of bishop. There are also problems with the Church’s attitude to homosexuality. The Commission meetings have been acrimonious with passions high on the extremes, and the moderates trying to hold the balance of rational debate in the centre. This identifies several on the Commission itself who might have a motive for eliminating this particular candidate. The remaining three on the shortlist might also be suspect. Our duo set off for London where one of the shortlisted candidates has his parish. There are dark mutterings about him being a man who misuses his charisma to extract money from susceptible women in the congregation and then pockets some of the money. The candidate from Birmingham is a social agitator who has been arrested on demonstrations against local factories for polluting the landscape and employers for their poor pay and bad working practices. Then off to Rotherford, near Oxford, for the final candidate. And then, to add a little spice to the somewhat staid proceedings up to this point, a man goes missing.

Jeanne M Dams

Jeanne M Dams

The problem for solution in this book is somewhat diffuse. There’s a death which may or may not be a homicide. Because our couple are not official investigators and, by virtue of his membership of the Commission, Alan may be on the list of possible suspects, there’s no access to the police forensic reports. With an inquest there would have been public information, but we and our investigators are left to get into investigative mode on the assumption someone has rid the cathedral of a turbulent priest. If this was a Golden Age novel, there would be a way in which the number of possible suspects could be kept within reasonable bounds. But the moment you start thinking seriously about who might have had motive and opportunity, there’s a potential country full of suspects who would have to be investigated. Obviously, despite their prowess, our couple don’t have the time or resources to do anything more than commute between the three parishes in which the other three candidates hold sway. By necessity, therefore, we readers know we must meet the probable murderer at some point. For this reason, I’m not entirely sure the author is playing fair with us. A lot of what happens is interesting, but not really moving us forward. It’s local colour or scenes of life in the different parishes. Yes the couple are investigating, but so little of what they see and hear is ultimately relevant to explaining what has happened.

For me as an atheist, the book is a sober warning about many of the types of people who become involved in church affairs. As skeletons come out of cupboards, we’re allowed to see how bigoted, prejudiced, criminal, or just plain awful some of the people holding positions of power and influence can be. This is not to say society would become a better, safer place if full secularisation were to be achieved. I’m not so naive. Human nature produces some terrible behaviour no matter what the belief systems. But if the veneer of respectability was to be stripped away and society allowed fewer roles through which such people can exercise power over others, we might see some improvement. All forms of politics are better when there are fewer opportunities for self-righteousness and hypocrisy around.

As to the content, I confess to finding the exploration of the way in which different belief sets influenced preaching styles and the management of parishes deeply boring. That some parishioners were gulls and played as suckers was depressing. It reflects the general rule that vulnerable people who come under the sway of charismatic individuals, are more easily led astray. Taking the overview, Day of Vengeance has an interesting plot underpinning the investigation of the initial death and all that follows. But, in parallel, there’s a more literary intent to consider the weaknesses of many who are involved in the management of this religion. Yes, some are sincere and a force for good, but this book is a disturbing exposé of distinctly unhealthy forces within this particular denomination. That this church fails to be self-policing completes the more pervasive sense of despair. It seems the few men who could take action to root out the evil do nothing. A more complete condemnation would be hard to find.

For a review of the preceding book in the series, see Shadows of Death.

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

Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9

Galileo_2-p1

Continuing with Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013), episode 7 breaks the mould by having Professor Manabu Yukawa (Masaharu Fukuyama) aka Galileo front-and-centre from start-to-finish. The role for Misa Kishitani (Yuriko Yoshitaka), the new detective, is limited to sitting in his lab to bully his students into translating his receipts for expenses into the type of language the police accounts department can understand. While waiting for them to do the work, she tries to assemble the model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex sent by the detective despatched for further training to America. Needless to say, this does not please the scientist when he sees her at work using a remote camera system. Anyway, on his way back from a conference with Hiromi Kuribayashi (Ikkei Watanabe), his assistant, and one of his students, he’s diverted to consider whether it’s possible to view the inside of a tomb when the opening has been concreted over. There’s a complicated story about a local mythological animal that may have been trying to steal the body from the tomb and the priest sealed it up to prevent this from happening. The priest then died and his skeleton was picked clean by local birds and predators. Anticipating the difficulties, the student has brought along a high-powered portable drill to get through the concrete and a camera to poke through the hole to view inside the tomb. They are able to establish the body is missing.

The monster signs his name above his victim

The monster signs his name above his victim

 

Meanwhile, what looks like a double murder takes place in the village and the name of the mythological beast is written on the wall. The front door of the house was locked and all the windows were locked from the inside with the shotgun used to kill the man outside the house on the grass at the back. The inexperienced local policeman hypothesises the beast used the gun and then walked through the wall, dropping the gun as he retreated into the woods. The professor is particularly interested in the rocking chair in which the dead man is found and the wet umbrella by the front door. The result is an elegant mystery to unravel and a quite sophisticated moral judgement at the end. It actually makes quite a pleasant change to see the professor in the real wold without having the spiky new detective by his side to provoke him. Although he’s still essentially disinterested, he shows some ability to judge the emotional qualities of those around him. He does listen to people and, to some extent, empathise with them.

 

Episode 8 has a slightly different form of impossible crime. It’s the unbreakable alibi but multiplied by two. The most obvious suspect is miles away in the presence of a colleague when, in sequence, they both receive a telephone call from the victim but neither results in actual words exchanged. When they go to his apartment, they find him dead with a knife through the heart. So the first part of the alibi is working out how the suspect might have arranged for the two calls to be made after the death of the victim. Once that is clear, the police further examine the phone and find a photograph stored in the phone’s memory. It was taken at about the time of the murder, but the only place from such a picture could have been taken was some miles from the scene of the murder. For once, I got the answer to this in principle although the detail of the execution eluded me. This is two interesting ideas padded out to fill time available. The result lacks pace, repeating itself a couple of times and distracting itself with a few fireworks.

The ultimate in method acting

The ultimate in method acting

 

Episode 9 deals with the inevitable situation when the mass media become aware that a reclusive university professor has become a consultant to the police. This outing is accomplished by an unbalanced physicist who, in a conference ten years ago, was profoundly embarrassed when the young professor pointed out an error in the man’s presentation. This led to his loss of a job with a lesser university. In short order, he went through several other jobs. Each time he was fired, he felt he was able to blame others. It wasn’t that he was not good enough. It was the fault of others in failing to recognise his genius. Anyway, after being out of work for six months, he decides to take his revenge on the professor who had originally shown him up. He dubs himself The Devil’s Hand and takes the credit for a death the authorities had considered an accident. In due course, he claims a second death.

 

The way it works is that, the night before the death is due to take place, he posts a message to a website forecasting the victim. After the death, he writes a letter to both the police department and the professor pointing to the message. What interests Galileo is that the written letter claiming the first death followed immediately the next day, whereas there was a gap of three days between the next announcement and the letter. When the detective asks the right questions, she discovers it took three days for the man to die. So whatever method the man us using, it’s fallible and he has to wait to see whether each attack is successful. Galileo sets his research students working on trawling the internet to find other messages announcing deaths. When one is discovered, the detective finds the woman survived without injury. As Galileo talks with her, he realizes how the man is attacking these people and why they do not always die. So this is quite an interesting mystery, somewhat enlivened because our less successful physicist befriends Hiromi Kuribayashi, Galileo’s assistant, and tries to pump him for inside information on how the investigation is progressing. Naturally, the assistant quickly gets drunk and is a useless source of information. So far, Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) is not as good as the first season, but I live in hopes because the last two episodes are an adaptation of Salvation of a Saint, a superb Galileo novel.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino‘s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

Ride Away Home by William Wells

June 21, 2014 1 comment

Ride Away Home by William Wells

Ride Away Home by William Wells (The Permanent Press, 2014) provokes me into firing up Google to check my increasingly fallible memory on just how many stages of grief there are supposed to be. Although I suspect such a question is inherently flawed because the notion we can compartmentalise our emotions into convenient little boxes is rather absurd, it’s potentially a useful guideline. This progression was first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in On Death and Dying (1969). On a pick-and-mix basis, therefore, people theoretically move from denial, through anger, to bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In this book, a young woman is going through her first year away from home at college when she disappears. Naturally, her parents are quickly on the scene and, as is always the way, her boyfriend is immediately under suspicion. He lawyers up and stoutly refuses any comment. Since there’s no evidence he did anything “wrong”, he remains only a person of interest. As time passes, the probability increases the girl is dead but, not unnaturally, the parents keep hope alive and so live in denial for months. The mother then moves rapidly into depression, decamps into a home for those damaged by traumatic events, and plays little part in the affairs of the world. The father loses his position as a partner in a firm of attorneys — he’s not been putting in the billable hours and a business is a business. As it comes up to the two-year anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance, he decides this is the time for his midlife crisis.

He buys a Harley (something of a departure from his normal BMW approach to comfort on the roads). His private inquiry agent tells him the boyfriend has dropped out of college and moved down south. He therefore plans a road trip. At this point, he has no clear feelings on whether he will actually ride all the way to Key West. Even if he does make it all the way from Minneapolis, he doesn’t know whether he will confront the boy. By temperament, he’s not the archetypical vigilante. The book therefore represents a form of allegory or parable. Much as heroes in classical Graeco/Roman literature set off on a journey not being certain whether they were “free-agents” or being manipulated by the Gods, so our tax warrior feels caught up in inchoate anger. He knows the denial can’t continue, but hasn’t decided whether the boyfriend is a target. As a man whose life has revolved around the dispassionate analysis of tax statutes and accounts, he’s always tried to stay detached. The author therefore invites us to ride with him on a first-person quest to establish a framework of values by which to live the rest of his life. On the way, he meets various stereotypical characters who, whether deliberately or inadvertently, challenge his worldview and strip away some of the outer layers of his emotional defences. Slightly changing the metaphor, think of a meteorite entering the outer fringes of the atmosphere on a collision course with Earth. As the friction builds, the outer layers of the rock are abraded away. For those on the surface of the planet, the question is whether the entire rock will burn up in the atmosphere or will an irreducible core resist the high temperatures and hit the surface?

Because of the nature of the set-up, this is a book that avoids being overly sentimental. Too often, books with grief as their theme end up mawkish and bathetic. This has a sufficiently hard edge throughout that we can watch the man make decisions and not feel embarrassed by how well or badly they turn out. Because he reserves judgement on whether he will actually take revenge (assuming the boyfriend is guilty, of course), our newly-minted biker remains likeable. He becomes a form of Everyman who, like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, leaves his hometown to find out what is to come. It proves to be a journey with some heartwarming moments, and some times of despair and doubt. Such is life when you’re on the road. Why is Ride Away Home an allegory? Because the opening sections are so deeply rooted in reality, we have the emotional problem very clearly defined. But the mechanism for enabling him to answer the questions he has posed himself is deliberately deus ex machina. We’re also presented with coincidences and contrivances which enable all the loose plot ends to be tidied up. Real life is never this neat. Hence when we arrive at the final page and have our answer as to whether this everyman is a saint or a revenge-driven murderer, it feels as though it has emerged organically from the events as described. And, if you were minded to read the book as an extended parable, it could teach you a valuable lesson about life for those who remain after a loved one has disappeared. As a first novel, this is an impressive piece of writing and worth reading if you like your “crime” novels to have a slightly more literary approach.

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

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