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Terminal Life by Richard Torregrossa

November 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Terminal-Life-A-Suited-Hero-Novel-819762-2d248029268010829d3d

When I was beginning to explore adventure fiction back in the 1950s, the jokey approach was always summed up in the line, “. . . and with one bound, Dick was free!” The source of this line was the Dick Barton radio serial and, almost immediately, the phrase was hijacked to refer to any situation in which the hero appeared to be caught in an impossible situation by a villain determined to kill him but, with an ease that defied explanation, the hero was able to escape. Although mass market entertainment did quite deliberately adopt many of the clichés of cliffhanging, there was a emerging trend against the too-easy escape as we moved through the 1960s and 70s. Although the cinema continued to contrive almost parodic escapes, the written form of thrillers settled down into a more thoughtful mode in which the heroes actually had to fight to survive.

Then, as with one bound, we come to Terminal Life by Richard Torregrossa (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) which I take to be a kind of homage to the silliness of all the heroes who have found themselves in a hole and managed to dig themselves out without breaking sweat. Perhaps appropriately, the series has picked up the title, The Suited Hero. This is the sartorial elegance of Men in Black applied to an ex-SEAL who, after returning from the wars to find his wife dead, determines to take revenge. To explain the title, our hero who is always impeccably turned-out in bespoke suits, has been diagnosed with cancer. He decides he has no interest in seeking treatment and so has an externally imposed time limit on his investigation. This means he’s not going to sit around waiting for information to come to him. Rather he’s going to keep moving until he has all his ducks in a row and then he’s going to blast them all to pieces. When reading this, I was mentally playing “The Devil’s Gallop” written by the redoubtable Charles Williams. There’s a great sense of pace about the writing as the plot rapidly spins us from one fight to a chase to another fight. It deserves some period background music to match the style of storytelling.

Richard Torregrossa

Richard Torregrossa

Does that mean the book is a throwback to the 1940s and so of little interest to contemporary readers? Obviously, as an old geezer with the memory of an elephant, I’m always throwing up odd associations and finding past examples of contemporary phenomena. Modern readers would perhaps not be aware of the plotting styles of years gone by and might think this farrago of absurd chases and escapes to be fresh and original. After all, there’s a trend to acknowledge and embrace absurdity as being hyperreal. In other words, we’re invited to accept the obviously fake as authentic and real. Umberto Eco and other philosophers suggest postmodern writers are using simulations and fabrications as a way of creating something that’s supposedly better than real. That way, we readers find ourselves suddenly immersed in stories that are more exciting, more terrifying, or merely more interesting than the rather boring stuff we’re used to encountering in the real world.

Well, there’s one truth about Terminal Life. The hero has a remarkable level of indestructibility as he takes on the mobster’s world and wins. He may have been born with the instincts of a coldblooded contract killer but, as a man who was rehabilitated through the Navy SEAL training course and then killed for America, he now views breaking bones and variously exterminating those in his way as an entirely justifiable means of finding out who killed his wife and why. So if you want a nonstop brutal action story with a high body count somewhat in the same vein as the Jason Statham Transporter films, disconnect your brain, sit back, and enjoy this romp through all the conventions of thrillerdom as filtered through postmodern conventions of hyperreality. Otherwise, you might decide you prefer a thriller supposedly involving real humans to have some better roots in reality, e.g. by avoiding the need for FBI agents to be trained snipers and everyone able to walk away from all the legal consequences for what they have done, give this a miss.

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

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

November 23, 2014 1 comment

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus

Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus (Minotaur Books, 2014) (translated by Steven T Murray) sees a return for Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Detective Oliver von Bodenstein who are senior officers in Hofheim’s Police Department. I should note the repeat of an appalling practice by the publisher. This is quite a long-running series from an initially self-published, now leading, German author. In their wisdom, the first book published in english was Snow White Must Die and this is the second. In fact, the first book was Swimming With Sharks which saw the light of day in 2005. If you go back to the original German bibliography, Snow White Must Die and Bad Wolf were respectively the fourth and sixth books. There’s also an english version of The Ice Queen so those of you who want to catch up can begin to do so. One of the reasons why people read series is their growing interest in the major characters and their lives. Although each book is focused on a single investigation, there’s a metanarrative which has continuing arcs for many different characters both major and minor. We have therefore been denied the chance to watch the evolution of these characters over the whole series. This is the same problem that blighted the Harry Hole novels.

At a early point in this book, we meet Frank Behnke, a colleague of Pia’s who was disgraced and has now returned as a member of Internal Affairs, determined to exact revenge. We also get a quick introduction to Hanna Herzmann. She’s a television personality who runs a form of investigative journalism show which, if she’s able to acquire the information, has not been afraid to take on bigger stories. Her ambition, however, first seen in Snow White Must Die, the first published in the english version of the series, is going to lead her to take on more than she can chew. The police investigation is triggered by the discovery of a body floating close to the Eddersheim locks courtesy of some teens who were drinking themselves insensible on the river banks. It’s immediately clear she’s been the victim of physical abuse for years. It’s not just the bruises, but the malnourishment and general lack of care suggesting she’s been held a captive for many years. From this brief introduction, you will realise this book is not for everyone. Thematically, we’re dealing with the abuse of children and the network of individuals who trade in them. Although the book is not overly explicit, it nevertheless does not flinch from descriptions which some readers may find distressing.

Nele Neuhaus

Nele Neuhaus

Structurally, the book has multiple points of view and, for the first part of the book, it’s a little difficult to keep track of who everyone is. Obviously, the longer you read, the more clear the links become between the different individuals, but there’s quite a large cast to accommodate and the plot itself is quite complicated. Adding to the resistance to a smooth reading experience is the denseness of the prose. This is not a criticism of the translation as such. Some books are written with a mass of detail about most of what characters see and experience. This book does require some commitment to get through the opening sections. However, once we emerge into the central section where the investigation gets into its stride, the pace begins to pick up and we have an ending which is both reasonably dramatic and fairly realistic in that the establishment closes ranks and the outcome of the investigation is merely an inconvenience to the remainder of the abusers. We only have to look at the way in which investigations in Britain have been manipulated and suppressed when powerful individuals have been threatened with exposure. For all we like to believe we live in civilised societies in which abuse is always forcefully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, the practical reality is that members of Parliament, the judiciary, and senior businessmen have always managed to avoid exposure. We even had to wait until he died before Jimmy Savile’s serial sexual abuse could be exposed. The same happens in Germany and whether you want to read about this in Bad Wolf is a choice only you can make.

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

Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley

November 22, 2014 1 comment

Cold Storage Alaska

Back when I was growing up, one of the more interesting varieties of film that used to cross over the Atlantic and find its way up to our northern shores was the so-called screwball comedy. For those of you who like explanations of jargon, the screwball was a pitch in baseball. The ball spins and travels in unexpected directions. Primarily made during the Depression and the early part of the war, these movies were farces that played both with the struggle between the sexes and, in economic terms, between the social classes. They were often illogical and not a little impossible as different elements were juxtaposed, so poverty and wealth, upper and lower classes could be thrown together as in My Man Godfrey in which even the rich can be saved if given a chance. In some senses these films were romances but, insofar as they did deal with relationships, they were more about the attitudes of those involved than about the decision whether they were to marry. In more modern terms, I’m reminded of films like Get Shorty in which a debt collector decides it’s actually easier to get a Hollywood movie made than continue in a life of explicit crime. These are films with a general comedic sense that play with boundaries in crime and other genres to generate a satirical feel and considerable amusement.

All of which brings me to Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley (Soho Crime, 2014) This is the story of Clive McCahon’s decision to return to his home community of Cold Storage in Alaska after completing a seven-year term in jail for drug-dealing. Since he left at the age of fifteen, not that many people remember him or have any conception of the man he’s become. His brother who served a tour in Afghanistan, acts as the community’s “doctor” while the rest of the inhabitants survive through a combination of fishing (although the cannery that used to provide employment has now closed), some small tourist activity, and sheer bloodymindedness not to be driven away from the inhospitable piece of land. They gossip about the possibility of his return and, as is required in books like this, he times his arrival just as his mother dies (of natural causes). This gives him the chance to meet everyone as they come together to mourn one of the last links with the original settlers who built the huddle of buildings dignified by the name of a town. On his way back up north, he has acquired a healthy pile of cash from Jake Shoemaker, his former business partner, and a potentially savage dog of fairly massive size. The cash pays for the flights and the dog ensures no-one will bother him on his journey.

John Straley

John Straley

The other major characters are Lester Frank, a Tlingit Indian who, while observing the foibles of the white folk around him, is actually trying to write the definitive Alaskan novel, young Billy who plans to paddle his way down the coast to meet with the Dali Lama, the young couple who teach at the local school, and the local State Trooper who’s convinced the town is a hotbed for Satanic practices and likely to be overwhelmed by the return of the newly released crime lord. When Clive does return, he decides to renovate and reopen the local bar. There’s just one problem. The local planning ordinances require that there be a church to counterbalance the lure of the demon booze. That’s no problem, of course. Clive will be only too willing to hold services every Sunday as the price of running the bar.

Some of you might sense this is not a crime or mystery novel and you’d be right. There are no murders and no detective, amateur or otherwise, stalks the boardwalks of this northern village to declare whodunnit. Yet, in a way, this is a serious crime novel because we’re dealing with a number of people who will stop at nothing to get their own way. Put a gun in someone’s hand and there’s no saying what mayhem may follow. Indeed, if they take the time and trouble to travel to Cold Storage, there’s no knowing what damage they may do, even if it’s no more than start a band with progressive tendencies. So if you put aside your prejudices, you should embrace this character-driven farce in which men and women, a large dog and the occasional salmon, spend time with each other and sometimes avoid injuring each other. I was delighted and massively entertained.

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

Shark Fin Soup by Susan Klaus

November 20, 2014 1 comment

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Shark Fin Soup by Susan Klaus (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is not a book that hides its light under a bushel. It believes in starting out with its message in the title and then relentlessly pushing it through the rest of the book. So here we go with fiction’s equivalent of fantasy ecoterrorism as applied to the habit of many in China and Asia to enjoy soup made solely from the fin of a shark. It might not be so bad if they would eat all the meat (and use the bones for stock), but the exclusivity of their interest means the fish are hunted for their fins and the rest is thrown away. This is waste on an epic scale as these predators are being hunted to extinction. Of course, the rest of the world is relatively indifferent to the fate of sharks. Just as the majority seem unmoved by the number of land animals that are either dying out naturally or being hunted for their valuable qualities, so humans seem not to care too much so long as they have enough to eat at a reasonable price. Of course, if overfishing were to mean the more common species disappeared or climate change inflated to cost of staples like wheat and corn to unaffordable levels, there would be an outcry. But until there’s a direct threat, only a few care.

This leaves activists to carry the burden alone. Many of these people take the view that all fish and animals have an intrinsic value. In Kantian terms, this would create a moral absolute to protect them because their value would be beyond all price, i.e. it would be morally acceptable to damage and destroy property and, in more extreme cases, to injure and kill the humans responsible for the exploitation or destruction of the given fish or animals, or their habitat. This is morality moving beyond mere beliefs, emotions, opinions or dogma. It’s seeking a justification for terrorism that will rank alongside divine law for those of a religious persuasion, or the philosophical analysis that will appeal to the rational. Obviously, this is not the place to debate the merits of such attempts to intellectualise and justify making all classifications of flora and fauna more important than the needs of the human community. However, you will understand that this book is firmly on the side of those who take direct action, including murder. This particular terrorist, the impressively named Christian Roberts, is to be the hero of this book and the author evidently expects readers to approve the outcome of what he does.

Susan Klaus

Susan Klaus

The first third of the book explains the circumstances in which the hero’s wife died and how this has come to motivate him to save the sharks. It also sets up a psychological study of the man who’s essentially depressed, sometimes drunk or high on drugs, and suicidal as a result of losing his wife (and what happened immediately afterwards). In practical terms, this loosens the man’s inhibitions. He no longer cares what happens to him. In this reckless state, he’s quite happy to commit a range of offences from arson, planting explosives, to murder. In this man’s mind, the end of saving the sharks from being hunted into extinction justifies all the means he adopts. Given that he’s a physically attractive man, he breaks the mould of terrorist stereotypes. Adopting the name Captain Nemo, he constructs ever more elaborate plots to disrupt the supply chain and indiscriminately kills diners to deter people from continues to hunt, kill and distribute the fins.

While not denying there’s a certain level of ingenuity to the way in which he achieves his aim, the practical mechanics of each step do rely on being able to find people who will help him, both in carrying out his attacks, and in escaping the consequences. Because this is a series character with a third book presumably already in the works, he emerges from the courtroom at the end without having to face trial and to the cheers of the now supportive citizens of New York. In the next book he has a choice of targets. He could hunt down those who tap baby seals on the head in Canada, or those who cut off the horns of rhinos in Africa, or those who stun and kill cattle in American slaughter houses. There’s no end of cruelties to avenge once you open the door to action against abuses in the food chain. Personally, I think the message gets in the way of the book without seriously evaluating the protagonist’s mental state and deciding whether he’s genuinely motivated by some degree of altruism to protect the sharks or is merely on a personal crusade because he’s enjoying the destruction and death. So, sadly, I find Shark Fin Soup unpalatable as a piece of writing. Worse, it also fails as a piece of propaganda. I might have forgiven the book if it had made out a good argument for preventing the further destruction of endangered species for human food production. But it emotes emptily and fails to construct even a token argument that might convince people to rise up and force lawmakers to enact and enforce strict controls.

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

Death in the Dolomites by David P Wagner

November 19, 2014 6 comments

Death in the Dolomites vt David P Wagner

I’m toying with the idea of describing Death in the Dolomites by David P Wagner (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) as “efficient”, but I’m not sure this is quite the right word. This is the second book to feature Rick Montoya, a bilingual Italian/American who lives in Italy and makes his living as a translator. As such, the book has to confront a number of different problems and to meet a number of expected goals. Let’s start with the question of language. As we read it, we’re supposed to believe that, except where expressly stated, all the relevant parties are speaking colloquial Italian. Obviously, apart from the occasional buon giorno to signal the start of a morning conversation, the vocabulary and syntax are that of contemporary American. Since this is a book aimed at native English speakers, the book cannot be written in a foreign language. However, I do sometimes wonder whether more of an effort might be made to reflect some of the “local” rhythms of speech.

Then there’s the question of culture. Italy is not just about the language, it’s also about the social dynamics. People born and bred in different parts of Italy have quite different attitudes when it comes to how they react in different situations. So, for example, the relationship between the sexes, the reaction to people visiting from different parts of Italy, or dealing with foreigners, will vary quite significantly depending on where you are. Because this is also difficult to show, this author tends to define the local culture in terms of its food and wines. There are several quite detailed descriptions of the meals the characters eat and the alcohol they drink. Hence, this description of an Italian resort town is efficient. It does enough through the odd word or short phrase in Italian to remind people where they are supposed to be, and the culinary arts are firmly Italian. As to the rest, apart from a description of the cemetery and one rather nice story about why relationships can change, this could be Jackson Hole Mountain Resort or Squaw Valley.

David P Wagner

David P Wagner

In fact, the setting is the Dolomites which is used to “welcoming” holidaymakers who come to ski during the season, so this particular group of people should be sufficiently open to maximise the amount of euros they can absorb during the visiting season. Hotels, restaurants, cafes and all the usual run of artisanal tourist-oriented shops are lined up ready to supply what their visitors expect to find at a price that’s not a deterrent. This shapes the local politics with the two candidates for mayor being a woodcarver and a baker, both determined to keep their town popular with skiers.

The death of an American is therefore potentially bad for business, and the current mayor is determined the whole matter must be investigated and forgotten as quickly and quietly as possible. An experienced detective arrives from the nearest city and needs a translator to be able to interview the sister who reported him missing. Our hero is the ideal candidate because his uncle is a senior police officer in Rome and has used his influence to have his nephew accepted as an informal consultant. This pitches our hero in the forefront of the investigation and it’s interesting to watch how both the experienced officer and translator arrive at the same answer at the end, but by travelling slightly different routes. In practical terms, the mystery element is high quality. We have a limited pool of suspects which fairly quickly comes down to a choice between two. There’s a minor twist towards the end. The mechanics of the murder and the aftermath are well worked out. The result is satisfyingly logical. I was also reminded of an early episode in the Inspector Morse television series in which our detective was engaging in some gossip at a college function and it was only at the end that he realised how he had been misled. This uses the same device to steer us in completely the wrong direction until evidence to the contrary emerges at the end. Put all this together and you have a book that very efficiently places us in Italy and expertly gives us armchair detectives a rather pleasing puzzle to chew on. Although the thriller elements are somewhat unsatisfying, Death in the Dolomites shows an author developing the craft and delivering a highly satisfying mystery read.

For a review of the first in the series, see Cold Tuscan Stone.

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

Hell With the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey

November 18, 2014 1 comment

Hell-With-the-Lid-Blown-Off-An-Alafair-Tucker-Myste-819826-840fde3e0a8d308f04df

As I was thinking about this review, I began to wonder whether “folksy” had pejorative connotations. At a literal level, I suppose the word means that something is characteristic of the life of common folk. The problem is that “common folk” are often the victims of class prejudice. Their interests and lifestyles are thought simple in the less flattering sense of the word. They are considered one of the downtrodden masses, often unimaginative, less well educated, and suffering a life deprived of many features of life we might take for granted. They will be patronised or treated with some degree of contempt. In America, they might be thought scroungers and ne’er-do-wells. In Britain, we might have tried to redeem them by calling them the “salt of the earth”, but that’s hardly the most flattering way of describing their life on the land. Perhaps it would be safer to talk about folk or oral histories which take the stories of the common or ordinary people as the point of view. History is too often presented to us as a top-down phenomenon which tends to marginalise or ignore the situation of the majority of people at the bottom of the social heap. Many prefer to talk of prime ministers and presidents as the exemplars of success rather than individuals who are poor and disadvantaged. Indeed, if too much attention was to be focused on these people, there might be stirrings of sympathy and some pressure to ameliorate their situation, and that would never do. Redistribution is the enemy of the 1% who control most of the wealth in all societies.

Donis Casey

Donis Casey

Hell With the Lid Blown Off by Donis Casey (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) brings us another in the series featuring the Tucker family in rural Oklahoma. The time is 1916 and the community of Boynton is about to be hit by a major storm and big twister. While we wait for The Big Blow (the best of the descriptions of a major hurricane by Joe R Lansdale), we get a slice of life on both sides of metaphorical tracks. On the majority side, the God-fearing, self-satisfied majority do their best to maintain their values against the hardship of their lives. On the other side are the Beldons, a family whose existence is a blight on the lives of the majority. The worst “offender” is Jubal, the eldest son and not only a physical bully, but also a blackmailer when he identifies facts those at risk would prefer untold. However, when the facts are missing, he’s not averse to rumour-seeding falsehoods which the self-righteous majority often pick up and treat as true. Either way, Jubal is actively disliked and avoided whenever possible. So few are unhappy when his body turns up in a field after the twister has barrelled its way though the outskirts of this tiny township. There’s just one problem. He may actually have been dead before the wind picked him up and dropped him again.

A combination of individuals then investigates this death and there’s something of a conclusion about which of the better citizens might have done it. However, because this is a period piece, the judge who travels to the township and holds a form of inquiry is unable to say with any degree of certainty whether this was a murder and, if it was a suspicious death which might give rise to the possibility of criminal charges, who might actually be charged. As one might therefore expect, none of the God-fearing are charged and the remaining Beldons end up moving away. Hence, this is not exactly a conventional historical mystery. Although some of what occurs in the first two-thirds of the book is relevant to investigating the death, what we really have is a slice of Oklahoma life circa 1916 with recipes for the best dishes included in the appendix. So as I began by saying, this is somewhat folksy in the more literal sense of the word. Had there been hills, we might have met Billies. As it is, this is hardscrabble with the storm elevating the usual struggle to moderately epic proportions. The first third of the book was not so interesting to me—if you wish, you can put this down to my being British and therefore less caught up in the struggles of the rural poor of South Central America. It rehashes many of the conventions of life at that time with the bad apple family and their appalling sons terrorising the younger women and many of the men in their neighbourhood. I’ve read better descriptions of storms and tornadoes, so this section of the book was merely adequate. However, it does come to life when the multiple points of view begin piecing together what happened before the storm hit. So taken overall, Hell With the Lid Blown Off will appeal to the readers of folk history with a mystery thrown in at the end to keep people like me happy. The result is marginally better than average.

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

Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes

November 17, 2014 1 comment

under a silent moon cover

I’m slightly going to break with my convention by starting with a headline. Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes (HarperCollins, 2014) has too many words in it. Yes, I’ve finally come up with the ultimately damning feature for any book. Although this runs in at a modest 359 pages, it’s definitely too wordy. “Ah ha!” you’re saying, “There’s some inconsistency there!” But the number of words employed in telling the story has nothing to do with the length of the book. Take this opening paragraph as a classic example of the phenomenon. It would have been possible to construct a few sentences that delivered the critique in a short and simple way everyone could understand without a second thought. But, no, I had to go rambling off into the long grass, not caring whether anyone was really following or not. So, if you want the nutshell version, this is a book that thinks it makes itself a superfine police procedural by incorporating the jargon and a number of details from the real world of policing. So we have witness statements incorporated into the text, and charts displayed in the appendix. This is what we might expect when a crime novel is being written by a person who has worked as a police intelligence analyst. She has the knowledge and expertise and has not been afraid to use it.

So now comes the crystalisation of the point. Looked at objectively, this is a very good plot. With two deaths on the same night in a small village, one a probable murder, the other a possible suicide, DCI Lou Smith, our new series heroine, is in charge of her first major incident inquiry. We have the usual skewed social dynamics because she had an affair with one of the team, breaking it off when she discovered he was married. This has left the atmosphere tense between them. Despite this, the investigation gets off to a rapid start and we’re soon accumulating details of who was where and what they might have been doing. However, I find the change of format and style of conventional prose to incorporate formal witness statements, intelligence reports and other documents distracting. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my police characters to interview witnesses and the authors to write down the answers as dialogue. To my mind, this is putting realism on a pedestal and allowing it to dominate the more natural narrative dynamics.

Elizabeth Haynes

Elizabeth Haynes

We then come to the characterisation which is somewhat perfunctory. We have a multiple point of view format and so there’s not that much time to get any real sense of who everyone is. There’s a general impression they are servants to the plot and moved around to get the desired results. There’s also one plot element surrounding a fairly important character that’s completely unresolved. I suppose this could be carried over into the next book in the series, but it feels unsatisfactory as it stands. And then comes what is slightly becoming the mandatory soft porn element in many of these detective/police procedurals. In this, I’m also including television serials like The Fall which, more often than not, seem to be celebrating misogyny and the objectification of women in a distinctly unpleasant fashion.

This book contains fairly explicit scenes depicting one particular form of BDSM. Although I can, to some extent, understand an author and the publisher believing that sex sells books, this level of description strikes me as unnecessarily explicit. Not that I think people do not engage in activities like this. It’s just we know so little of the individual who becomes a sub that it’s impossible to say whether this ready acceptance of this particular practice is plausible. It’s ironic that an author who aspires to introduce realism into the police procedural side of the book, should avoid realism when it comes to the BDSM. If authors are going to include content involving dominance and subservience, it’s useful to lay the groundwork to show some level of predisposition. D&S depends on safety protocols based on explicit consent. Without discussion between the parties to agree what can and cannot be done, and informed consent, where does the trust and the claimed enhancement of sexual pleasure come from? No matter what we might think of Fifty Shades of Grey, it does give some background to the characters so we can understand why they come to engage in their particular behaviour. Without this, the content just looks like exploitative smut intended to help the marketing department sell the book.

Put all this together and you have a genuinely poor book with everything possible done to kill interest in what could have been quite a successful story. Under a Silent Moon is not recommended.

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

Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo

November 16, 2014 3 comments

Phantom-Limb-A-Daniel-Rinaldi-Mystery-908738-2c2ad9425128f8704862

In the medical world, one of the more unusual psychosomatic conditions is phantom limb pain. This is where an amputee continues to “feel” the presence of the missing limb and experiences a range of sensations from a mild itch that can’t be scratched to quite severe pain. This fourth book in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi is called Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) deals with both the physical and its mirror image psychological condition. One of the characters we meet reenlisted and lost a major part of his leg in Afghanistan. It should not surprise us that one of the many problems he has to confront is pain from the missing limb. However Rinaldi, our protagonist with the hero syndrome, has a comparable problem that just happens to manifest in potentially self-destructive behaviour.

As I write this, I confess to watching the fifth episode of the television series The Flash. Barry Allen is the type of man who runs into burning buildings (or up them) to save people because, (a) he can do so without exposing himself to too much risk, and (b) he wants to help people. Daniel Rinaldi has the latter motivation, but lacks the superpowers to be able to act in this way with impunity. Indeed, in this series, he finds himself attacked in a variety of different ways and nearly always ends up injured to some degree. The question is therefore why he’s driven to embrace danger. The answer is probably that he has, to some extent, given up on life. This loosens his inhibitions and enables him to confront danger to save others, not caring as much as he should whether he survives. This is not bravery and, so far as those around him are concerned, is not something that earns him real praise and recognition. It’s also distinguishable from the acts of a parent or lover who sacrifices him or herself to save a child or partner. That’s a much more immediately emotional reaction when a loved one is threatened. So the ending of this book suggests the basic cause of this behaviour and, more importantly, gives him a way in which he might scratch the itch on his metaphorical phantom limb.

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

As to the plot of this book, it could not be more simple. A woman comes for an appointment with our therapist and confesses her desire to commit suicide as soon as she returns home. Unsure whether he’s talked her out of it, he ushers her to the door at the end of their session. When he opens it, a large man man applies a sap to his head. Some hours later, he surfaces to discover his office overrun by police officers. His celebrity client who’s married to a financially very powerful older man, has called in all the troops. The woman has been kidnapped. This starts us off on a no-holds-barred first third of the book. When we have a chance to draw breath, it looks as though our hero may be out of the firing-line. But, as is required in books like this, the kidnappers have different ideas. It seems they are intent on asking him a few questions.

Once it becomes apparent this has somehow become personal, Rinaldi has to both survive and begin to put together a working hypothesis as to what exactly is going on in this very expensive household that can find five-million dollars in bearer bonds just by picking up a telephone. Has the missing wife really been kidnapped? Why has the nurse looking after the older husband disappeared? What happened to so sour the relationship between the father and his son? The answer to these proves highly entertaining as the plot resolves itself into a fascinating explanation of who’s doing what to whom and why. In the midst of it all comes the one-legged veteran who may have a larger role in all this. Frankly, you can’t ask for more entertainment than this in thriller book form. Phantom Limb is great fun and highly recommended for everyone who enjoys white-knuckle rides with real brainwork involved in the solution of the underlying mystery.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Fever Dream
Night Terrors.

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

Nobody’s Home by Tim Powers

November 15, 2014 4 comments

Nobodys Home by Tim POwers

In the land before time forgot (that’s when my health and strength were good, and memory was still working properly), I could actually recall what happened yesterday. On such a day, I went out of my then home to the Andromeda Book Company in Birmingham and bought a copy of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. This proved to be a good buy both in terms of enjoyment when I read it, and in terms of investment when I later sold it along with the rest of my collection. This sad tale of a collector forced to sell his books through force of circumstance (I was relocating to a different country) is a way of introducing a new novelette called Nobody’s Home (Subterranean Press, 2014) set in the same universe.

It features a young woman from the source novel called Jacky, an ambiguous name which suggests to her that moving through London’s less salubrious quarters would be less dangerous if she was a man. So she arms herself with a false moustache, cuts her hair short, and affects a deeper voice. Somewhat surprisingly, this enables her to duck and dive her way through London in pursuit of Dog-Face Joe. Now this is a fascinating creature. It’s one of these body-hopping beings that, after the transfer, begins to sprout body hair. In one sense, this makes it somewhat like a werewolf except that the process of transformation continues regardless as to the phases of the moon. Over time, this increased hairiness becomes somewhat conspicuous, so it takes a slow-acting poison in the current body and transfers to a new body. This makes it very difficult to track. But our young Jacky is determined. Her fiancé was one of those occupied by Dog-Face Joe and, after ingesting the poison and being released by Joe, he went to the home of the young woman he loved. She saw only a monster and, as is the way of young women who feel threatened, she shot him through the heart. When she realises the terrible crime she has committed, she wants revenge. Hence her search for the Dog-Faced beast that deprived her of her life-partner.

Tim Powers

Tim Powers

During this pursuit, she rescues a young woman called Harriet. She’s haunted by the ghost of her husband. Under normal circumstances, this would not be too serious but, in life, he was an Indian national and now he wants her to follow him into death through sutee. The fact she’s missed out on the funeral pyre to throw herself on is not something the ghost cares about. He comes armed with his own pyrotechnic skills and aims to finish off the job himself. The rest of this elegantly atmospheric tale takes us through this dark and dangerous version of London in search of a way to rid herself of this ghost. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, nobody’s prepared to help.

It’s not actually necessary for you to know the original novel to enjoy this novelette. It reads well as a standalone. But it’s a richer experience if you can remember what happened in the source novel. So my advice, should you not have read The Anubis Gates, is to read it immediately. It was and remains a highly successful time travel novel with Gothic overtones. This will set you up to read this very enjoyable backstory element for Jacky.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

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

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

November 14, 2014 2 comments

The Severed Streets

There are times you read a book and you know in your bones there’s a good story in the content, but it’s buried and left unfulfilled. Well, The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2014) Shadow Police 2, is just such a book. Following on from London Falling, our team of four are doing their best to adjust to the reality of their newly acquired supernatural powers. So, if you wanted a thumbnail sketch of the book, this is a dark fantasy grafted on to a police procedural. In theory, this is a good blend because stolid and, up to the moment their eyes are literally opened to the “reality” around them, reliable police officers (plus one intelligence analyst). Suddenly they have to adjust their thinking to accommodate the “impossible”.

In this case, we have a beastie on the loose which may be the original Jack the Ripper or a new incarnation of some sort that wants the world to label him or her as a modern version of Jack. Either way, this razor-wielding creature literally passes through walls and the sides of motorcars, hacking away at the white powerful men inside. Ah yes, you noticed the difference. Instead of killing prostitutes, this modern Jack has a completely different agenda. At this point, it’s appropriate to point out the have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach of the author. I don’t mind him creating characters who can see a different version of reality as an overlay on the London around them, but I strenuously reject the idea that this alternate reality could be captured by digital cameras and then viewed by our “sighted” heroes. Supernatural powers vested in an individual by an accidental exposure to a trigger give the sight. Digital cameras, no matter how advanced their design, cannot see supernatural events and, if they could record them, they would presumably then be visible to all viewers.

Paul Cornell

Paul Cornell

It’s this kind of annoying lack of logic that bedevils the book. That and the fact it’s badly overwritten in the first third so that the pace is leaden and the development of scenes interminably boring, e.g. in the pub called the Goat and Compass. There’s also one other seriously odd element. In historical mysteries, it’s relatively common for real-world characters to appear. This is the first time I can remember a living person featuring as a character. In this case, we meet Neil Gaiman who proves to have an important role to play as the plot develops. Of course, Paul Cornell asked Neil Gaiman for permission and got approval for the use of his name. For some, I suppose, this adds an extra frisson of excitement. I thought it a dissonant note. If you are writing fiction with a dark fantasy twist, including a real person as a player is crossing the line between fiction and reality. I don’t think it works at all.

That said, the basic plot is sound with a nicely balanced threat to destabilise London as an excuse for imposing a little more order — the usual right-wing conspiracy theory made real by a man able to manipulate the zeitgeist and hack into dreams to see where there may be problems to solve. Some of this works really well as we progress into the second third of the book and the pace picks up. There are stresses and strains on the group of four police officers, and one inadvertently finds a very original way of interviewing the key characters who can speak truth and out the villain of the piece. So I’m faced with a minor problem. Because it finishes strongly, I could deem the whole a success. Or I could declare the flaws to be sufficiently serious that I cannot recommend the book. On balance, with some reservations, I think there’s enough good to make The Severed Streets worth reading. Perhaps more importantly, it’s been left in a very interesting position so the next book in the series will be starting off from a good position.

For a review of the first in the series, see London Falling.

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

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