In the beginning, before there was any recognised form of writing, oral narratives were the only way of preserving memories of what had happened. People passed down the experience that would benefit those who followed. As writing developed, generational knowledge was easier to preserve. Faster progress could be maintained. Except, of course, people can lie to each other whether by spoken or written word. History is one of the more abused cultural artefacts, with facts misrepresented or manipulated to gain future advantage. Today, we’ve developed a multiplicity of different forms for transmitting information. However, one thing remains true. The line between history and fiction can and will always be blurred.
Stalked: The Boy Who Said No by Patti Sheehy (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is the second and probably concluding volume that tells the life history of Frank Mederos, a Cuban who escaped from his native country and made a life for himself in the United States. It’s relevant to draw your attention to the author’s name. In other circumstances, this might have been an autobiography, ghosted by Ms Sheehy. As it incorporates a significant number of fictionalised scenes, recreating what the protagonist assumes happened, the “author’s” input is too substantial to ignore. We perhaps should therefore view this as a novelised autobiography, or a straight biography, or consider the whole a piece of historical fiction. Why, you ask, should this question of the label matter? Well, the book is presented to the readers as a “true life story of romance, suspense, and intrigue”. If we take this as an accurate version of what Mederos told his scribe, we can attribute all the prejudices on display to him. The American amanuensis is doing no more than channel his words to us. She is not at fault in any way. But if she is promoting the notion that everything that happened in Cuba was evil and most of what happens in America as the land of opportunity is good, historically speaking, that’s not uncontroversial.
For example, Mederos arrives in New York in 1967 and pays a quick visit to the race riots in Newark. What makes this interesting is that the riots are not given any real context or explanation. Even more interesting is that Mederos himself never seems to be the victim of any discrimination based on his nationality or his inability to speak English. His can-do attitude is lauded and he gets the results he needs in order to become a successful small-scale businessman. He’s the epitome of what’s often held up today as everything that’s wrong with America. By welcoming immigrants, America is depriving its own citizens of jobs, and so on. Ironically, the federal government passed a “dream act” in the form of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1959. Any native or citizen of Cuba who was physically present in the US after 1st January, 1959 and lived there for a year, was automatically deemed a permanent resident. In many circles, this was not a popular law and, under pressure, it was repealed in 1966. This book calmly glosses over all the racial and ethnic problems of the day and, instead, focuses on the inefficiency and corruption in Cuba to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, Mederos is a hero because he defects and Lazo, who stays behind and spies for the CIA, is held up as an example of how every right-thinking member of a society should react when confronted by a regime he finds repugnant.
In other words, this is a book written with every conceivable bias an American author should include to sell a book about the Cuban experience to the great American public. No matter what the truth might be, the black and white portrayed here is what sells the book. Even the fanatical communist who’s sent to stalk and kill Moderos questions his orders, seeing no threat to “his” country in the activities of this sandwich-maker. Hooray for America when even a trained assassin is subverted just by observing the lifestyle of a Cuban exile. This is not to say the book is without merit as a story of a man who joins the woman he loves in America, and tries to make a life for his family. I just wish that, as a book that’s promoted as “history”, it did not whitewash away all the problems in America, and see only the worst in Cuba. So if you are an American who wants a book to confirm your prejudices that America did everything right in dealing with the “threat” of Cuba on its doorstep, this view of American history from 1967 to 1980 or so is probably for you. But if you would prefer a book that presents the history with a little more depth and balance, Stalked: The Boy Who Said No is definitely not for you.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to the nature and morality of war. Putting this in context, over the years, a number of nations have attempted to characterise the initiation of hostilities as being “just” in the abstract philosophical sense of the word. The preemptive nature of each attack across national boundaries is said to be moral when the utilitarian rule of proportionality is satisfied. That the harm resulting for the few injured or killed during the attack will be outweighed by the good for the majority of citizens who survive. Of course, this requires us to overlook the morality of inflicting the actual injury or death of all the victims in the first wave of the attack and assess the extent of the benefits retrospectively: something the victor has no difficulty in doing when in control of the measurement process. One of the wars in which neither side thinks the proportionality test was satisfied is the ironically named Great War. This was war by attrition. The side still having some men able to fight would win. Indeed, so many died that any measurement and balancing process became rather meaningless. So chaotic was the management of this war that any progress made in the ebb and flow of the conflict was often due to simple luck or accident.
The German Agent by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2014) is built around the history of the Zimmermann Telegram which, in 1917, was a backdoor deal between Germany and Mexico that the latter would enter the Great War should the US decide to intervene against Germany. The idea was that Germany would assist Mexico to recover Texas and so tie down US forces on home soil. This book explores the political and dangerous physical world of negotiation when an equivocal America is to be tempted into joining with Britain in fighting against the German Empire. The problem from Britain’s point of view is twofold. It must be able to satisfy the Americans the telegram is genuine. But in doing so, it must attempt to conceal the fact the intelligence service has cracked the code in which it was written. Once the Germans realise the telegram has been intercepted, they need to prevent it from being delivered to the Americans. In this, they rely on an agent, Max Volkman.
His background is not quite standard. He managed to survive one of the many futile charges across No Man’s Land, killing an impressive number of the “enemy” in the process. He was decorated for his heroism but, when he showed little enthusiasm for returning to the frontline, they retrained him as a spy. He should be the perfect weapon. He’s gone beyond fear, facing death and not flinching. But in reality, the experience has left him damaged. He’s not the coldblooded killer the Germans think him to be. This does not mean he’s incapable of killing. Far from it. But this is a man whose mind is trying to decide what’s right for him. After two years in America as a sleeper, he’s to intercept the British man thought to be carrying the Telegram. Almost immediately, he has to kill a local, an innocent civilian, an old man who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In trench warfare, death is dispensed anonymously. This is the first time he has killed someone face-to-face. This is murder. It’s unsettling to a man like this agent. In a war, killing the enemy is the job. By killing the enemy, you are shortening the war and protecting your comrades in the trenches. In a neutral country, killing an old man is what? Perhaps this is a question only a man with a conscience would ask. Well, as this book’s plot develops, the question becomes more personal and less avoidable.
The problem with the book is easily stated. Because the actual history of the Great War is reasonably well known, there’s little suspense. The average reader will know whether the agent succeeded in preventing the Telegram from being delivered to the US President. This does not mean the book is without interest and some excitement. Obviously, the agent is initially determined to carry out his role and there are some good chase sequences and the way in which he stalks the British man carrying the relevant information is fascinating. But the focus of the book fails to create any real degree of empathy with the protagonist. It would have been possible to give us a better view of the man as his fledgling conscience comes back into play and he has real decisions to make. Those with a more jingoistic view of the world will want to cheer if the German fails and boo if he succeeds. In the end, perhaps, neither response is appropriate because he proves just as human as the rest of us. This leaves me slightly ambivalent. The German Agent is beautifully written and the details of the period hold great interest but, for me, it lacks dynamic tension. It’s a book I admire but I’m not entirely convinced it succeeds as a historical thriller.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street Books, 2014) answers the old chestnut. When an author has just finished one of the best thriller trilogies of the last decade, what does he write next. The answer delivered here is completely fascinating. In one sense, it could not be more different, yet underneath the literal text, it’s a different perspective on the same themes. So first a few words about The Troubles Trilogy featuring Sean Duffy. Our hero is the Catholic who doesn’t fit into the majority Protestant police force. In the eyes of many, he’s not welcome in many parts of the community. (Northern) Ireland has been bedevilled by the sectarian divide between the Protestants (who hold themselves out as British Unionists) and Catholics (who identify themselves as Irish nationalists) for the last few centuries. Since people tend to become more emotionally involved in conflict once the sides are drawn up based on religious beliefs, this has been one of the world’s most enduring social battlegrounds with discrimination rife and violence never far from the surface. Even today, people still hide behind protective barriers in some parts of Belfast, Derry and other flashpoint areas.
In this new book, we meet Lieutenant William Prior who’s serving as a military police officer in South Africa during the Second Boer War. He happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the people bottled up in one of the British concentration camps make a break for freedom. In the heat of the moment, he sees it as his duty to prevent the escape and protect his troops. Coming under attack, he orders the troops to use a Maxim machine gun against the malnourished and unarmed internees. Many are killed but, such is the morality of the time, he’s congratulated for doing what was necessary to protect the men under his command. This leaves him suffering what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder and he finds a way of getting out of the army with no chance of ever being re-enlisted. By a circuitous route, he ends up theoretically responsible for running a rubber plantation in the Deutsch Neu Guinea.
This is a man who found he did not fit in the British army and therefore moved to a German-controlled colony where, equally, he did not fit. Moving forward a few years, we find he’s gone “native”, living with a local woman in the bush. His peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of Hauptman Kessler who wants a man with experience as a police officer to accompany him to a nearby island where there’s been a suspicious death. The occupants are what we would describe as a cult. Although the inspirational leader and the woman supplying the money to make their encampment viable are German, there are several other nationalities represented in their ranks. This gives Prior, Kessler and the real-world Bessie Pullen-Burry an interesting group of people to investigate. Bessie is along as an observer, and later writes a book about her experiences in the German colonies of New Guinea, describing several of the characters we meet in the first part of this book. The basis of the cult’s lifestyle and belief system is that they will achieve physical immortality by living a life dominated by the sun. They spend many days simply bathing in its light, only eating coconuts and bananas which grow at the top of the trees and therefore capture the sun’s goodness. This will purge the body of toxins and, helped along by substantial quantities of heroin, their meditation will produce a lifespan of at least one-hundred years. It’s unfortunate the man who died had not been there longer. With only ten weeks on the regimen, he had yet to develop the physical and spiritual strength to throw of the malaria alleged to cause his death. The fact the local doctor performed an autopsy and found evidence the man was drowned is dismissed as the incompetent ravings of a Jewish doctor. The fact Prior has also seen the peri-mortem bruising to the shoulders where he was held face-down in the water is also dismissed as fantasy. The group of cultists is adamant the man died of malaria. What, they demand, would their motive be for killing a new recruit to their order? Initially, of course, no-one can suggest any motive. Yet, as Prior picks at the story these cultists tell, one of two inconsistencies emerge. The result has considerable power and remains consistent with the historical records, such as they are.
So this is a book about a man who morally and culturally finds himself on a no-man’s island to investigate a cult. The very fact of his presence inevitably represents a challenge to the obsessional belief system which holds the group together. He’s therefore an enemy. When he turns to Hauptman Kessler, he finds no support. The politics are not to rock the boat. The Germans are in competition with the Dutch when it comes to administering colonies and getting a financial reward out of the plantations. If it was even hinted there was a cult murdering people, this would be very damaging to the Reich’s reputation. Malaria is the preferred answer for everyone. Even Bessie seems to be siding with the cultists, surprisingly adopting their nudity which disconcerts both Prior and Kessler who expected her to remain a “proper” English woman. The author is skilfully inviting us to consider just how individuals should act when confronted by groupthink. The British army had their view of how to keep order in their concentration camps. The German administration is embarrassed by what this group led by Germans is doing. Albeit for different reasons, the cultists want to be left alone. So should Prior actually take the investigation seriously? If he does come up with evidence of possible wrongdoing, should Kessler tell the Governor? The answer to these and other questions is presented in a slow-burning, but ultimately powerful, historical mystery which is recommended.
Follow this link for An interview with Adrian McKinty.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings by Raymond Benson (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) is the final book in the tetralogy featuring this female “avenger” of the 1960s. Before coming to the detail of the review, I need to express real admiration for the craftsmanship that’s gone into the writing of this set of four books. Some degree of honesty is now required. Authors and publishers could sell their wares in monster packages of more than 700 pages (as in the books forming A Song of Ice and Fire saga by George R R Martin). For some reason, a surprisingly large number of titles in science fiction, fantasy and horror have achieved their own epic proportions when it comes to word counts. So it would have been perfectly possible to publish these four books as a duology or trilogy if we’re only thinking in terms of packaging. Yet here comes a single, coherent book that’s conveniently divided into four “diaries” plus other content to give the history a modern context. Each book has a nicely controlled narrative texture and reaches an appropriately cliffhanging climax at the end of each book. Indeed, just judging the whole on a technical level, it’s a masterclass on how to build and control the dynamics and tension of the narrative over four volumes. For the record, this is a single story. Although there could be more books featuring a female “avenger”, the title of this last volume tells you it would be a different hero.
In this final volume, our slow-reading son finally gets into the fifth and last section of the diaries while his mother’s health steadily worsens, his intended realises there may be more to this man than first met the eye, and his daughter begins to think her interest in martial arts may just come in handy as the killers close in. She’s already despatched two of them — they were about to discuss family relationships with her father towards the end of the last book. The legal overhang from this intervention is resolved quite early on as the DA decides she was acting in defence of her father and so deserves a free pass. Now more bad guys are on the way and the family must work together to avoid the repercussions from events fifty years ago.
As in the previous books, we get a rotating point of view between the primary characters. The original Black Stiletto takes us through the history of what happened when she worked out the identity of the copycat Stiletto and began more seriously to consider how she might clear her own name and protect the child now growing inside her. We also get the child’s father explaining his point of view while the boy, now grown into a man, gives us his often rather pitiful efforts to protect those around him. Fortunately, courage skips a generation and finds contemporary residence in his daughter who becomes the more active solution to the growing problem. The result is a delightful confection of outright thriller and historical mystery as the Black Stiletto puts together the pieces to bring down a major part of the southern mafia’s operation. In this, it’s interesting to see how the original naive young woman has evolved into a slightly more circumspect mother-to-be. Once the son is born, she becomes even more cautious, but contrives to acquire enough money to be able to live on after she disappears, and to make an interesting use of the diamond that featured so strongly in the last exciting instalment. This is not to say she becomes “bad”, but she does begin to take a more flexible approach to the opportunities as they present themselves to her. It all makes for a great read and I recommend the whole tetralogy as great fun with a thriller edge, finishing on a high with The Black Stiletto: Endings and Beginnings.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Edison Effect by Bernadette Pajer (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) is the fourth Professor Bradshaw mystery and follows on in September 1903, just a few days after the end of the excitement in the last episode. His courage has firmed and he’s about to propose to Missouri Fremont when Edison arrives to quiz him about the electrical device Oscar Daulton had created to kill President McKinley. Partly out of an excess of moral scruples, Bradshaw refuses to disclose his thoughts on how the machine might have worked. He contents himself by confirming it lost at sea. Unable to get anything useful, Edison leaves and we quickly skip forward to December 9, 1903 with Bradshaw agonising over what to do about Missouri. After loving her from afar for two years, he’s made the right noises about marriage (his first wife having committed suicide). In return, she’s tasked him with coming up with a plan to reconcile his desire for marriage with her wish to qualify as a homeopathic physician. She’s due back in a week and he’s done little to clarify his thoughts. Adding to the problem is his Catholicism. This will be a second marriage — he has a ten-year-old son — and he feels obliged to seek guidance on the Church’s rules about “mixed marriages”. For better or worse, his deliberations are interrupted by the arrival of Henry Pratt. It seems the electrician at the Bon Marché store has been electrocuted by some of Edison’s new Christmas Lights.
Thematically, we therefore have the opportunity to explore the social issues of the day from courtship rituals to the question of female emancipation, from the control exercised by religion over peoples’ lives to the predatory nature of some rich men who seek to further enrich themselves, from honest toil with proper rewards to exploited salaried employees expected to work eighteen hours a day, child labour, and so on. As in previous books, the historical detail is fascinating. Then we have the meticulous set-up of the death by electricity and the scorching of the handkerchief in the shop window lights, and prepare ourselves for deep sea diving. This is all done with great skill as the detail including cutting-edge technology from one-hundred years ago is gently introduced and explained. It’s surprising to find some of the innovations, e.g. timer switches and alarm systems, in operation. I’d tended to think such developments came later. After all, when I began taking an intelligent interest in the world, the 1950s were still using mechanical and pneumatic systems for moving cash around stores with the applications for electricity still somewhat limited. This nicely researched history of technology is a genuine eye-opener on just how advanced we were at the turn of the last century (even showing how to make a toasted cheese sandwich).
In earlier reviews I’ve been impressed by the quality of the mysteries, but slightly less satisfied by the quality of the prose. This time around, the author has significantly improved, fleshing out the more minimalist style into a more richly descriptive style. This helps give the relationship between Bradshaw and his son a great deal more emotional substance, particularly when they discuss his wife’s suicide. The mystery itself also proves to be a nice piece of misdirection with the waters in the store muddied and distracting us from the “big picture”. Although mostly unseen, the presence of both Edison and Tesla looms large and provides a context for some ingenious manoeuvres as the interested parties try to maximise their opportunity to profit from Oscar Daulton’s work. Watching Bradshaw resist the temptation to exploit his knowledge of matters electrical and solve the puzzle of this “murder weapon” is pleasing. No matter how weak or strong his Catholicism, the Professor remains a moral man who struggles to maintain his values in a world partly corrupted by greed and the desire for profit at any cost. This leaves me thinking The Edison Effect significantly better than the last in the series and hopefully evidence this is an author who will continue to develop her craft and go on to great things. The only other mystery left to solve is now how to fly, but that’s for another history book.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.