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Posts Tagged ‘espionage’

Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry

November 26, 2014 1 comment

Death on Blackheath

Sometimes, it takes a book as good as this to remind you how enjoyable a novel set in Victorian times can be. For my sins as a reviewer, I’ve been reading quite a lot of steampunk lately and, set against Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry (Ballantine, 2014), the majority of such books are shown to be shallow and rather pedestrian. This has all the best features of proper historical fiction with a little real science thrown in and a lot of genuinely thoughtful detection work in pursuit of a murderer or (if such a thing is possible) someone worse. In terms of quality, this matches my other favourite historical drama from a different medium. Foyle’s War is a television detective series set during World War II with each murder or other crime growing organically out of the culture and events of the time. What makes this series so enjoyable is its willingness to see all the shades of moral gray with a police officer prepared to bend the rules to both catch “criminals” and let them go as circumstances dictate. It’s also fascinating to see television prepared to deal with corruption both in the police force itself, the armed services, and among some of the supposedly higher reaches of society.

 

This novel sees us in the world of Special Branch with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt joining up with the cast of regulars to keep the British Empire safe. We start off with the body of a young woman discovered in a gravel pit almost on the doorstep of the home of a leading British scientist. This makes it a Special Branch case because anything that may affect a key member of the scientific establishment has to be investigated by those able to “see the big picture”. In this case, the investigation is made difficult because, although a maid has gone missing from the house, the identity of the woman in the pit is not at all clear. Her face has been completely disfigured although her hair is just about the right colour. However, she does have in her possession two objects which apparently link her to the house. The first is a handkerchief which is marked with the same initial letter as the lady of the house. The second is a pocket watch which belongs to the scientist. When he sees it, the scientist asserts that it was stolen from him some weeks earlier in Oxford Street. The theft was not reported to the police and there are some possible lies when he’s asked to account for his movements during the weeks leading up to the discovery of the body.Anne Perry

 

I’ve seen the basic idea of this plot used before, but this particular application is one of the most extreme examples of the trope. This makes the underlying mystery challenging for the armchair detective to solve and, in a way, it’s also slightly contrived. Indeed, in the real world, I seriously doubt people would actually behave in this way, but I forgive the author because it does make for a rather pleasing problem for the team to solve. I also note a slightly pleasing modern parallel as we approach the end. This juxtaposition between the historical and the modern does point the difference in the way honour worked back in Victorian times. When people felt indebted to each other, they were more prepared to bend or even ignore rules in order to discharge that debt.

 

Put all this together and you have a good mystery with some impeccable social commentary both on the class system as it then applied and on the role of women. Although one of the elements of romance proves to be a little predictable, there’s a generally plausible feel to the relationships that underpin the working of the plot. The characters generally feel right for the time. For those who enjoy intelligent writing in service to a good plot, Death on Blackheath is excellent value for money.

 

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

 

Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow

May 24, 2014 2 comments

Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow

 

Traitor’s Storm by M J Trow (Severn House, 2014) continues the series of historical mysteries and espionage thrillers featuring Christopher Marlowe. This time, we’ve arrived at the month of May, 1588. In terms of productions at the Rose, we’re up to the Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd which is rather convenient given that King Philip of Spain is now more seriously planning an attack on Britain even though we have a rather good navy and well-trained gunners (if the reports from their spies are to be believed). On the other side of the Channel, Sir Francis Walsingham is worried he’s not had word from Harry Hasler, one of his spies, who had been sent to the Isle of Wight — one of the more likely places upon which an invading Spanish fleet might disembark its beachhead troops. So he decides to send Marlowe to find out what’s what. After minor diversions to find a suitable conveyance to the island, Marlowe is welcomed by the discovery of a body. Instead of the missing spy, the deceased proves to be a local landowner or gentleman farmer. He’s been found dead, lying head-first in a culvert. After dancing the night away, our heroic scribbler does his CSI thing on the body and concludes the victim was out to meet a lady and was murdered for giving attention to the wrong place (husbands having a tendency to kill off anyone who engages in a criminal conversation with their wives).

 

There’s not a little humour in the description of England’s state of readiness to repel the predicted invasion force. This is the Tudor version of Dad’s Army with few locals having any interest in developing military skills, and the usual petty divisions and jealousies among the senior officers of the Crown actually charged with the task of mounting a defence. At the heart of the book, therefore, we have Spain with ambition and a fleet, but no patience to wait for the weather to calm down. While Britain is following the model laid down by Ethelred who wasn’t quite ready to be King at the first time of asking so had two goes at the job. All of this leads people in the know to focus on the Isle of Wight because, if taken by the Spanish, it would make a very good base from which to disrupt British naval dominance of the Channel and a logistics hub from which to invade the mainland. In theory the Crown has done the right thing by putting a relative of the Queen in command of the local garrison. Unfortunately, the locals are more interested in maintaining good communication with the continent for smuggling in all the good food and wine they have come to enjoy. So patriotism be damned when money’s at stake.

M J Trow

M J Trow

 

So if it’s to be war, we’ve already lost which leaves Marlowe with the tasks of finding the missing spy (whose loss may be due to action by Spanish agents) and solving the murder of this landowning Lothario. When a second body appears, there may be a hint of a motive but, without more evidence, it’s rather difficult to say. So, to pass the time, our scribbler is prevailed on to write a short masque. This will take everyone’s mind off the threat. He therefore summons his trusty stage manager from London and this sparks the smugglers into life. They fear an investigation of their activities is underway and kidnap the incoming stage hand to determine if Marlowe is a threat.

 

So there you have it. The Armada is just over the horizon where the wind is getting up. Drake is stuck in port. There may be a Spanish cuckoo in the Isle of Wight nest. And the smugglers are up in arms against the British no matter what the Spanish may be doing. Against this background, Marlowe works his way steadily around the Island, exchanging gossip with locals as to who is sleeping with whom (which ironically includes Hasler who’s know for sowing a few oats, wild and otherwise) and, dashing off the odd speech which might even sound good on the lips of the Queen. The resolution of the historical events is well-known (my Spanish accent does not show through the written form of English) and the solution of the criminal and espionage matters proves reasonably engaging. For those who prefer their historical mysteries to err on the slightly more humorous than gritty side of the line, Traitor’s Storm is just the teacup in which to arrange a storm of enjoyment.

 

For a review of another book by M J Trow, see Crimson Rose

 

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

 

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014)

May 17, 2014 2 comments

Elementary poster

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

“I’m sorry, did you say I was being framed?” asked Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans), “That’s bollocks!” (a British English term of endearment). “You just invented that to break up Joan and I!” (British English speakers are always so precise in how they speak). “Well,” says Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), “what do you think about your car when we start the engine from up here?” “Oh, well, perhaps you have a point. Could you not just have shown me the bomb? I rather liked that car.” Isn’t it wonderful when brothers get on so well together. So with the injunction not to touch the first editions, Sherlock leaves Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) with Mycroft and gives his permission for them to resume rutting (British English for, “I’m not really jealous, just mildly upset.”). Once they are alone together (again) this actually gives Mycroft the chance to explain why he didn’t follow his father into business and never became the detective Sherlock once thought he might become (deliberate ambiguity). Instead he became a failed restauranteur and sometime operative for MI6, now surplus to requirements. Meanwhile Sherlock has broken into a car because he wants somewhere comfortable to sit while watching the bookstore that may hold the clue to the mole’s identity. Later he and Watson confirm the bookstore owner is an Iranian agent and, once the code on the arms is cracked, they confirm Mycroft’s handler, Sharington (Ralph Brown) as the mole (not really a surprise).

We have to see Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24 The Great Experiment (2014) on multiple levels. First it has to bring this four episode narrative arc to an end. That’s achieved with little mystery element involved. Watson identifies the vital link with a murder in New York. Sherlock understands how the blood splatter was generated (they make a great team even when not firing on all cylinders), and once they have the emails, the blood evidence and the wife’s testimony, they have enough to crack the Iranian spy’s morale. No need to threaten him with water-boarding. Just ten seconds watching Sherlock produce the evidence is enough for him to confess and give up his MI6 link — the Iranians don’t go in for hardening their spies to resist interrogation. They are not the fanatics we in the West believe. I suppose this is mildly successful as the solution to a murder goes in television series land. Let’s pass on.

Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller),  Joan (Lucy Liu) and Mycroft, (Rhys Ifans)

Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller), Joan (Lucy Liu) and Mycroft, (Rhys Ifans)

The other two elements plus one contingent question for the cliffhanger are how the triangle between the Holmes boys and Watson can be resolved and what Sherlock will then plan to do. For an American serial, one of the more interesting moments comes in the confrontation between Mycroft and Sharington. It’s making the cultural point that the British are still caught up in the class system and, if you come from the wrong side of the tracks, there’s a glass ceiling. No-one can be promoted unless they have the right family, the right school and university, and right view of the world. Recognition that a worthless member of the aristocracy is valued more highly than a grammar school boy is enough to drive our MI6 operative into the arms of the Iranians. Wow! on two levels. No matter whether it’s true of the British secret service, this is an epic stereotype to place before an American audience. Obviously this is the reason we Brits lost the Empire. The other extraordinary factor is that our slighted spy should have chosen the Iranians. Did they just pay better than everyone else?

So what do we think of this blood-is-thicker-than-water approach to the relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft? I can perhaps see it working from Mycroft to Sherlock. He’s the more human of the two and would be more prepared to act out of sentiment. I’m even quite pleased to see Sherlock considering an apology to Mycroft as part of his addiction rehabilitation step program. But I’m not convinced Mycroft and the NSA would suddenly become best buddies. Even Sherlock is disgusted at the lazy solution to the problem. Watson, of course, is disgusted because she and Sherlock were making good progress toward resolving matters and now Mycroft has to disappear. This suggests he cared so little for her, he would not wait to see how the dynamic duo might be able to solve the problems. You would think he would be strongly motivated to stay around and would work with them to achieve that end. This is self-sacrifice for the plot and avoids the need to keep paying an imported British actor to continue in the show. I’m also pleased to see nothing changes for Watson. Creating her own space is still a good idea. As she puts it, staying in Sherlock’s gravity well does rather lock her into a fixed orbit. But I’m less convinced Sherlock has the temperament to go off with MI6. This almost certainly means breaking up the team with Watson which is bad emotional news for him. From the other side, I don’t really believe MI6 would accept him anyway which gives the scriptwriters an excuse to leave him in New York for the next season. So all of this leaves me reasonably satisfied. Elementary: The Great Experiment was inevitably convenient in the way it ended everything in the time available and had pleasing emotional resonance in Sherlock’s responses to a difficult situation. When the series returns, it will be interesting to see whether Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) and Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn) get more screen time. The show has a better balance when Sherlock and Watson have someone to play off.

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

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

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)

May 10, 2014 2 comments

Elementary poster

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

Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014) starts off by confirming the most probable scenario for the behaviour of Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans). His Diogenes restaurant in London had been in trouble. He was approached by the criminals some ten years ago. Their visit was followed by MI6 operatives who turned him into an “asset” — what a nicely ambiguous word to apply to a human being. Anyway, the new version of reality is that brother Holmes had a flair for duplicity and was also possessed of a highly retentive memory. His collaboration with the first criminal gang led to other contacts. In due course, he was in the first rank of people capable of becoming a supergrass and giving evidence to bring down multiple criminal organisations. His handler had suggested removing Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) from New York, fearing he might queer the pitch. Sadly, the handler’s fears were not unfounded, but now we have Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) back. So is everything alright? She’s remarkably calm about the entire experience. At no point during her kidnapping did she seem unduly worried. Either she had perfect confidence Sherlock would rescue her or, as the director of the episode, she’d read the script. Now the handler has tasked Sherlock with a New York case. It’s a quid pro quo for saving Watson’s life and sweeping the bodies under the carpet in a way that should prevent the criminals from coming after our heroes for revenge.

Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller

Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller

The case is being handled by NYPD as a robbery gone wrong, but the man who died was a retired MI6 agent. He’d become bipolar, hence his rustication. But a week or so before his death, he’d contacted London claiming intelligence (sic). MI6 ignored him as mentally unstable. Now he’s dead, they are worried he might actually have discovered something important. Holmes and Watson therefore insert themselves into the police investigation to find out what’s what — it also gives a fleeting moment of screen-time for Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) and a glance of Captain Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn). When our detective duo go to the mortuary, they find someone has removed the arms from the dead body. It seems there are no good locks on mortuary doors these days. Anyway, with an hour gap in the surveillance tape, we’re into the devious world of spying and, after interviewing the ex-wife who wasn’t wholly ex, Sherlock has a theory about why the arms were taken. This leaves us with a refreshing moment between Watson and Mycroft. He wants humbly to apologise and seems to hope they can go back to where they were before. In what represents a quite impassioned speech from Watson, she considers the full extent of Mycroft’s dishonesty and, for all his faults, explains why Sherlock is preferable. Later Sherlock offers a lengthy sharing (about five seconds) about how it feels to be deceived by someone “you” love. Yes, our platonic couple are just about to have an intelligent conversation when the ex who wasn’t turns up. She didn’t want to say anything in front of the police but she has photographs and, potentially, they explain everything. Now all we have to do is rerun the dancing men decoding game to solve the case and keep British secrets safe. Everything would be just dandy if Watson did not chose this moment to tell Sherlock she’s going to move out of the brownstone. Life never runs smooth for these couples in television series.

Lucy Liu and Rhys Ifans

Lucy Liu and Rhys Ifans

Let’s treat all this as the set-up because, after this point, the episode takes off into higher levels of ingenuity. Keeping this slightly hypothetical, let’s assume there’s a mole inside MI6 and that, despite his mental disorder, the dead ex-agent had come up with a way to identify him or her. There might be suspicion about a particular New York bookstore but no evidence. Now more people know about the death of the ex-agent (the theft of the arms does rather elevate the profile of the case), there’s a chance to resolve matters. Holmes could identify the mole, or the mole could frame Mycroft. If the latter was a correct supposition, this would give Sherlock an interesting dilemma. This is the brother who has consistently lied to him, tasered him when he might have interfered too much, and the man who might take Watson away from him. Should Sherlock listen to the title of this episode, act as if blood is thicker than water, and save Mycroft (assuming he’s innocent, of course)? In the meantime, let’s assume Watson has discovered more about the lies Mycroft has been spinning. If he had previously been inside MI6 and then got out, what might persuade him to return to the fold? The answer, of course, is a threat to Sherlock. If we can believe Mycroft this time, it seems he might just have been his brother’s keeper, i.e. keeping him out of jail. Such a disclosure might persuade Watson to forgive Mycroft and get back into bed with him. Quite how Sherlock would react if he discovered their resumption of sexual activity is uncertain in the long run.

When I wrote the review of the last episode, I confess to scepticism the scriptwriters could get out of the corner into which they had painted themselves. I humbly admit I was wrong. The way this episode plays out is beautifully judged and represents a new high in the series. Everything is left poised for the season conclusion next week. Only seven more days to wait to see how the script ties up all the loose ends. At this point it’s appropriate to commend the acting from the three principals. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu haven’t been given a great deal to do in the early part of the season, but this episode sees both of them demonstrating a significant emotional range. In part, this is due to the chemistry with Rhys Ifans who has proved outstanding in all the episodes in which he’s appeared. It’s also interesting to see two MI6 senior officials in Jim Norton and Ralph Brown. These are very experienced British actors and it shows. The only slightly false note in the episode was the establishment where the British agents were hanging. Does such a place exist in New York? It just looked too like an old-fashioned London club to be convincing. Other than this, Elementary: Art in the Blood was outstanding.

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

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

Beloved Enemy by Eric Van Lustbader

Beloved-Enemy-A-Jack-McClure-Novel-Jack-McClure-All-311170-0402845eab65ea203cbe

Beloved Enemy by Eric Van Lustbader (Forge, 2013) is the fifth and final novel featuring Jack McClure and something of a conundrum. The question, always lurking at the back of a reader’s mind is why bother to read this particular book. The answer, of course, is we all travel in hope. Although the majority of books on the market are terrible, the thought this might be the one really good one this month keeps us motivated. Having thought the last book in this series pretty awful, I surprised myself by agreeing to review this. I think it was the news this was to be the final contribution to the series that tipped the scales. Often intermediate books in a series mark time and the best is saved for the last volume when all the loose ends are gathered together and tied up neatly. This allows us thoughtful ones to step back and admire the creativity of the author in having thought up something so ingenious or to walk away shaking our heads even more frustrated we got suckered into reading another one.

 

So where’s the conundrum? Well everything in a series often stands or falls by the situation at the end. For a moment, let’s think of books which were deeply annoying. Obviously there are so many to choose from but let’s focus on those mysteries or thrillers in which it turns out the hero is a criminal. Specifically, those books in which the detective or first-person narrator admits to one or more murders at the end. Or even worse, where it turns out the first-person narrator is killed in the last line. This runs so contrary to expectations that such books are either hailed as classics (like some by Agatha Christie) or they have been consigned to the pile of books we wish we’d never read. So when we start off reading this book, Jack is meeting with Dennis Paull, the Secretary of Homeland Security. They think there’s a mole at the highest level of the US Administration. Paull has a lead and passes the information over to Jack. The same night, Paull is murdered and Jack framed. He must therefore go on the run in the hope of clearing his name and identifying the mole.

Eric van Lustbader

Eric van Lustbader

 

This takes us first to Bangkok and then to Switzerland. On the way, we get to meet up with Jack’s (ex)lover, Annika Dementieva, and Iraj Namazi, aka The Syrian an all-round bad guy who’s actually having trouble accessing his money and so finds his influence slipping a little. I suppose the first thing to complain about is the extraordinary way in which our hero is able to fly out of America. You would think with all the security around airports, it would be next to impossible for anyone to get on the to tarmac and then from a cargo warehouse on to the right plane while it’s waiting for taxi clearance. But, with the help of a tiger, our hero makes it look easy. Don’t ask. It’s completely absurd. However this sets the trend for the rest of the book. There’s an escalating trail of violence as the pursuit of our hero is picked up by an “assassin”. As in the previous volume, there’s an amazing amount of brutality with our hero killing one of the people attacking him and seriously messing up the assassin’s shoulder with a knife. Fortunately, the assassin is impervious to pain and can continue the pursuit after a few well-placed stitches are inserted. The helper never did learn to bounce properly when dropped from a tall building. In due course there’s a lot more mayhem as, amongst other things, our hero is almost cooked in a sunbed and finds that jumping on to a helicopter in flight is actually quite a tricky thing to manage.

 

Meanwhile back in Washington, the powers-that-be suspect each other and generally run around like headless chickens. In various places Annika and The Syrian dance around each other in mutual distrust until, quite near the end, all the interested parties come together to debate who should have access to the legacy left by Annika’s grandfather — the McGuffin that’s been driving the series from the word go. Now any sensible reader is going to look at the title and understand the point of the book is that Jack and Annika, having been lovers in previous books, will get back together again. All we have to do is wait to see precisely how the stars will align to make the old romance blossom again. As to what happens. . . Well let’s just say it was not quite the plot twist I was expecting. Of course one way of interpreting it would be that the world will now be a somewhat safer place although we’re left uncertain as to the mechanics. The other way of seeing it would be that Annika’s grandfather was a better judge of character than we realised.

 

So there you have it. I thought Beloved Enemy painfully silly and the ending rather annoying. But if you like people running around doing thriller things, shooting at each other and fighting hand-to-hand, this is for you.

 

For a review of the last in the series see, Father Night.

 

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

 

The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor

December 25, 2013 Leave a comment

The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor

The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor (Seventh Street Books, 2014) is the third outing for Hugo Marston, the Regional Security Officer for the American Embassy in Paris. This time, he’s to babysit a rising star in the US political firmament who’s filling in at a session designed not to resolve anything about the future of Guadeloupe which, for those of you not so well versed in geography, is a group of islands currently under the protection of France. These citizens, in their more disloyal moments, toy with the idea of embracing the benefits of democracy as peddled by the US. Given the semi-traditional tension between the US and France, it therefore suits the US to posture its willingness to accept administrative responsibility (just as soon as they work out where it/they is/are). Hence, this meeting is arranged out of the public’s view so that, even though the fact of its existence can be admitted if pushed, privacy can be maintained and both sides can then say whatever they want about why nothing was resolved. Reluctantly, Hugo accepts this mission only to find it triggers an investigation which has “ramifications”.

The trigger is that the isolationist Senator gets unexpectedly drunk at the evening meal designed to be an icebreaker and, when he surfaces the following morning, he’s insistent someone was in his room during the night. To keep the peace, Hugo agrees to call in his friend in the Paris police force. Of course no-one expects anything of interest to surface. What do drunk Senators see if they briefly wake during the night? But, among the many fingerprints found in his bedroom is one that matches a print taken at the scene of a murder/robbery south of Paris. Naturally, the police are not allowed to barge in and take the fingerprints of anyone attending this international conference. Even the staff of the château refuse co-operation, alleging that they, along with the high-powered whom they serve, are above reproach. Given the identity of those involved, no French judge is prepared to authorise what is thought a fishing expedition without anything to link the two locations or the people involved. It’s just a surprising coincidence, i.e. just the kind of knotty puzzle Hugo likes to get his teeth into.

Mark Pryor

Mark Pryor

The pleasing feature of this series is that all the characters are evolving. Although this could be read as a standalone, half the interest lies in the metanarrative as we watch the relationships shift through time and circumstance. What adds additional drama to the dynamics of the plot is the death of one character who had been important during the first two novels. This is brave of the author. The majority of writers put together a cast of stock characters and then run permutations on them as the series develops. It also helps build loyalty among readers if they believe the same team will be rolled out to solve each book’s crime(s). George R R Martin has rather broken the mould by killing some of the most interesting characters as his series progresses, but introducing new talent for us to get to know and then worry about. While Mark Pryor hasn’t killed off one of the lead protagonists, the victim is important and the loss hits everyone hard. This additional layer of realism enhances the emotional depth of the book and helps bring people together.

As to the mystery, we’re given very good value this time round. I had absolutely no idea what was going on until arriving quite close to the end. Looking back, the motive is clear so long as you draw the right inferences from the historical interpolations. I’m not absolutely sure everyone acts with complete credibility but, in a sense, I don’t think it matters. There’s enough done here to make it feel right. Even when we’re all at sea at the end, the discussion and its consequence have a resonance which just about perfects the emotional forces at work. Fear at the loss of status, the humiliation and, perhaps, derision that might have followed exposure of those particular facts. . . We can only guess.

So I’m back on track with Mark Pryor. His first book was promising and The Blood Promise confirms him as definitely someone to watch. Hopefully, he can maintain consistency as we look forward to the next in the series.

For reviews of the two previous books in the series, see The Bookseller
The Crypt Thief.

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

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan

October 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Good Thief's Guide to Berlin

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the fifth in the series featuring the burglar as author Charlie Howard. It’s always said an author should write about what he knows. Well, this fictional author writes thrillers loosely based on his own experiences as a thief. Because he needs to make ends meet while waiting for the next royalty cheque to arrive, he continues to delicately tease doors open, gracefully extract money from safes, and remove objects of value easily fenced through his network. After arriving in Germany, his writer’s block is being more blocky than usual so his nefarious activities have become more necessary. Not surprisingly, this rash of burglaries has not gone unnoticed by the Berlin police. Perhaps he would have been preparing to move on but he’s waiting for his agent to visit after attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. If they were the type of people to make a commitment, they would be a couple but, as is often the way in books like this, their romance remains on hold.

So it is that, on the day Victoria arrives, his fence brokers a meeting with a client who has an urgent problem to solve. It’s not something that should be a challenge to a thief with the skills of our hero. All he has to do is break into four addresses within the confines of Berlin to recover something that’s been stolen. To make it interesting, all four burglaries have to be committed on the same evening when it’s known the occupants will not be at home and the client won’t say what he’s looking for. The only helpful information the client will vouchsafe is that Charlie will know it when he sees it. So who’s the client? None other than the British embassy in Berlin. Why is potentially dangerous? Well there are these people called spies who have a tendency to violence when their wishes are ignored.

Chris Ewan

Chris Ewan

With Victoria as his agent to negotiate the fees for this task — a ladder fee for each burglary and a finder’s fee for the “object” — our hero reluctantly sets off to the first address. After thirty minutes of fruitless searching, he looks out of the window and, in the best traditions of Alfred Hitchcock, witnesses a murder through the window of the apartment opposite. Being a responsible citizen, he telephones the police and quickly exits his building. After hearing sirens arrive, he and Victoria walk past the target building, see the lights on in the right apartment, but find the police leaving, alleging a false alarm. This is surprising to our hero. He’s not used to have his anonymous word doubted. So, as he sets off to the next address, he begins to plan a return to the scene of the “murder” so he can unravel what must have happened in the few minutes between his call and the arrival of the police. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, he finds a file appropriately marked “Top Secret” hidden in the hotel room of his second target. Unfortunately, when he and Victoria return home, they find two Russian agents waiting for them. It only takes a little persuasion for Charlie to pass over the file. Fortunately, we have the rest of the book to see how it plays out.

I’m amazed that Simon & Schuster, who have been publishing this series in the UK, should have refused to pick this title up. It’s every bit as good as the last in the series. All I can say is more fool them and kudos to St Martin’s Press who have continued with the series in the US. This is a fast-paced plot with plenty of surprises and the usual smiles as we track our hero through a Berlin positively bursting at the seams with spies. The only person not clued into what’s happening is our hero, of course. The client not only failed to identify precisely what Charlie was supposed to be looking for, but also neglected to mention certain other facts which might have assisted in resolving the situation. As it is, Charlie is forced to take a couple of beatings, face intimidation and finally pick up a gun in self-defence. This is not something you would have expected of our hero who usually manages to talk his way out of trouble. These spy people are so terribly insistent when it comes to this missing “package”. So this is taking Charlie into uncharted territory where he’s going to have to make decisions about his relationship with Victoria and, perhaps more importantly, decide what kind of person he really is. Put all this together and you have a highly entertaining thriller. The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin marks an interesting, if not cliffhanging, point to pause the series. New free-standing books have begun to appear from this talented author. The first on the shelves, Safe House, has been shortlisted for The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award and is an Amazon UK bestseller. It’s on my list of books to read.

For a review of the last in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice.

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

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