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The Last Taxi Ride by A X Ahmad

July 30, 2014 3 comments

last-taxi-ride-ax-ahmad

The Last Taxi Ride by A X Ahmad (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the second book to feature Ranjit Singh and it proves something of a revelation. We meet our hero driving a taxi in New York. As everyone else who finds themselves trapped in this job will tell you, “It’s only temporary.” meaning there’s little chance of escape. Nevertheless, our hero knows large numbers of the drivers and, despite differences based on nationality and religion, he’s fairly well-liked by everyone. As we get underway, he’s lucky enough to pick up a very familiar figure from India. It’s none other than the Bollywood movie star Shabana Shah. Of course, taxi drivers all over New York have the chance of picking up the rich and famous, but this actress has made a real career out of natural acting, something of a rarity in Indian cinema. When he drops her off at the Dakota, he’s amazed to see an ex-colleague from his days in the Indian army. Mohan has fallen equally far down the ladder and is now a doorman. They agree to meet later that night for a drink. Later, Ranjit realises the actress has left an expensive dress in the back seat. It’s therefore convenient he should be going back to the Dakota because he can return it when he meets his friend.

 

The evening moves slowly because our hero has an evening job as a security guard, but it ends well because, with Shabana Shah away, Mohan shows Ranjit her apartment and they eat food from her refrigerator. When the body of Shabana Shah is found dead the following morning, her head smashed by a statue of the elephant god Ganesh, the police find Mohan and Ranjit’s fingerprints everywhere. We experienced readers should not be surprised Mohan is missing, so the police not unnaturally arrest Ranjit and propose to bring him before a grand jury to decide whether there’s a prima facie case to charge him. This gives our hero ten days in which to find Mohan and clear his name.

A X Ahmad

A X Ahmad

 

What follows is a twin track narrative. On one track, we follow the backstory of Shabana Shah and her family, watching as she proves to have the photogenic quality her sister lacks. This means stardom beckons for Shabana while the best her sister can hope for is the role of manager. She gets to count the money and organise her sister’s appointment diary. At first, everything seems to be going well, but problems emerge when criminals muscle into the production side and take control of the lives of the stars who can earn such large amounts of cash. Then one, and then a second film fail to find box-office success. As she ages, Shabana is forced to come to New York, but even that fails to rescue her career.

 

On the other, we meet Ranjit who’s trying to find his feet after all his troubles as a caretaker for a US Senator. Inevitably, he finds problems when he meets “ordinary” Americans who fail to distinguish between Sikhism and Islamic extremism indicating membership of a terrorist organisation. Now add in the antisocial hours and the difficulty of making enough money to put down as a deposit on a good place to live, and you begin to get a sense of life in New York for all the different ethnic groups who take on the job of taxi driver. The other factor is that many of the Indian and Pakistani service workers are beginning to feel the threat of violent gangsters arriving from Mumbai. Just as America has experienced waves of criminals coming from Italy, Russia, China and other slightly lawless places, Indian gangsters have also begun to realise just how much money can be made in America. But, in addition to the traditional drugs, alcohol and prostitution as sources of profit, they are also exploiting new commercial opportunities like providing human hair for wigs and hair extensions. In fact, Ranjit works as a part-tine security guard for one of these importers who, perhaps, has less than savory connections in India.

 

It’s fascinating to compare this book with the unsuccessful Invisible City which dealt with the Hasidic Jewish community in New York. This exploration of Indian and Pakistani immigrants (plus some Guyanese as well) is completely fascinating as our hero finds the only thing he can rely on is the fragile strength of his community. Although there’s a moment of melodrama at the end which would not be out of place in a Bollywood film, the overall tenor of the book is quietly thoughtful and entirely plausible. With everything told in crisp prose, The Last Taxi Ride delivers a genuinely pleasing package combining a reasonable mystery for us to solve all wrapped up in beautifully rendered pictures of life in India and New York.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

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Invisible City by Julia Dahl

July 28, 2014 1 comment

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

It’s always fun to see how coincidence can play a part in this reviewing game. It can throw up very interesting comparisons when you’re least expecting it. A few books ago, I was transported back in time to Japan. This is, as you might expect, an opportunity for culture shock since, even at the best of times, Japanese culture can be very difficult to understand. Although we’re in contemporary America with Invisible City by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books, 2014), we’re dealing with the equally opaque world of the Hasidic Jews. As is always required when I approach a subject that may have controversial overtones, I always disclose any personal factors that might skew my opinion. Through this disclosure I give readers the chance to judge the extent to which I may be biased in the opinions I offer here. So, as I have mentioned on several occasions, I’m a confirmed atheist. But what I have not mentioned earlier is that through the paternal line, I have Jewish blood. Since Judaism is matrilineal, I’m therefore not officially Jewish, but you may feel this influences my views of this book. I should also say that, some twenty-five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet some members of the Hasidic community. This means I started this book with some insight into the lives of the people who live according to this strict code.

 

In a way, this book is a coming-of-age story on several different levels. This is a young woman who’s looking to convert her theoretical knowledge of journalism into the practical working skills a reporter needs to get the story that will sell newspapers and bring traffic to the website. Not everyone can make this transition and so a portion of this book is devoted to discussing how a new graduate survives in her first freelance job. The problem with this and the other elements is that there’s a fair amount of exposition. Instead of there being content embedded in conversations or internal monologue that can pass by seamlessly, there’s quite a lot of young person angst and some infodumping to get through. Our protagonist, Rebekah Roberts, is slightly more naive than I was expecting and she’s lucky to survive on the journalism front since she seems to have little or no enthusiasm for the activity of writing. All we do see is a slowly emerging curiosity to put pieces together to make up a possible story, but she remains extraordinarily diffident until quite near the end. I have the published articles, books and more than one-million words on this site to prove I’m a writer. This protagonist has no interest in writing for fun. In my “book” that makes her an unrealistic hero.

Julia Dahl

Julia Dahl

 

At a personal level, she’s also unexpectedly pitched back into a personal identity crisis. By coincidence, the first major crime she’s sent out to cover involves the death of a woman who turns out to be a member of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. This is not what she would have wished because her mother was a Hasidic Jew who had left the Brooklyn community with a Christian man. Immediately after her birth, her mother disappeared and there’s been no contact with her mother since. When she goes to the house of the woman who was killed, there’s a second major coincidence because she meets a man who knew both her mother and father. He proves to be the major catalyst to get her started in the more serious business of being a reporter.

 

And then there’s the Hasidic community itself. Although it does its best to insulate itself from the outside world, it’s inevitable that some members are contaminated by external ideas. Some of those who grow weak in the faith, like Rebekah’s mother, look for ways to either distance themselves from the community or to leave entirely. For this purpose, there’s a kind of halfway house and an underground railroad for those who want to leave altogether. We therefore see the community as a whole held together by the ties of shared history. To that extent, an outsider might say the community is refusing to come of age, i.e. it remains a historical anomaly because it refuses to adapt itself to contemporary culture. For the few who find it impossible to remain, there are emotional and practical problems in adjusting themselves to a different pace of life outside.

 

This leaves me with two questions to answer. The first is the obvious, “Is this a good mystery for our rookie journalist to solve?” To this, I give an unqualified yes. This is a tragedy because the culture refuses to adopt what the rest of the world would consider a proper investigative approach to deaths within the community. The protocols to be applied for dealing with the bodies and the speed with which they are to be buried, raises barriers to a thorough investigation. The second question is, “Is the delivery of the plot handled well?” The answer to this is negative. Ignoring the horrendous coincidences (there are others which I have not mentioned), there’s altogether too much exposition and not all the behaviour on display is convincing. Now some of you may say it’s hardly surprising the behaviour is not very credible because the focus of our attention is the Hasidic community and, by modern standards, they do not act in a very reasonable way. In some respects you would be right. But that’s where my original point of comparison with Japanese culture comes into play. At the time the shogunate was at its full power, Japanese society was distinctly dangerous and unpleasant. Yet the way in which the author approaches the analysis of this very different culture is nonjudgemental. We see people treated in an appalling way, but the events are explained and the author passes on. Sadly, this author comes with an agenda to find fault. She’s into conspiracy theories about implicit corruption with the Hasidic community buying themselves power and influence with their money. Not only does this lead to a distortion of the usual process of divorce and issues of child custody, but it also potentially enables people within the community to get away with murder or other serious crimes. It’s entirely possible this is true, but the author’s approach smacks of tabloid journalism with all the facts lined up to reach her damning conclusions. I concede that, in the final pages, there’s a brief balancing explanation both for this community’s insularity and for the general desire of Jewish communities to be low-profile. But if you were not looking for it, you might easily miss it. This is a shame. Invisible City could have been a very interesting book. Instead it’s something of a disaster.

 

This book was sent to me for review. If you are interested, the book is also available as an audiobook from Macmillan Audio. Here’s a sample clip from the audiobook.

 

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

July 25, 2014 3 comments

Blade of the Samurai Cover

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann (Minotaur Books, 2014), the second Shinobi Mystery, is attempting something inherently difficult. As a historical mystery, it’s always problematic to take the reader back in time to a different culture. The challenge is perhaps less demanding when the number of years travelled is relatively small and the reader is moving back to an earlier time in his or her own country. As a British reviewer, I’ve had a lifetime to immerse myself in contemporary culture, but I also have the benefit of oral history from family members and older friends about how the culture has changed over the years. School began the process of introducing earlier times and subsequent reading has filled in some of the gaps. However, this all breaks down when the reader comes to a completely different culture and, in real terms, you can’t get much more different than Japanese culture in June, 1565. Our heroes are Matsui Hiro, a shinobi assassin, and Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. For reasons unknown, someone has paid the relevant guild of assassins to send one of their more experienced members to guard the priest while he’s in Japan. Ostensibly, our ninja is a translator but, through his guidance and practical assistance, he actually keeps the priest alive. From our point of view, it also gives us the chance for a running critique on how well (or badly) the Portuguese man is fitting in with local culture. This is an elegant device because it unobtrusively allows the author to explain how this rather opaque class structure and less overtly emotional culture actually works. For once, an author has satisfied my Goldilocks tests. Too often, authors overexplain, leaving the book as dry and rather didactic. This is just right!

Susan Spann

Susan Spann

The second impressive feature is the prose. If you’re going to write about Japan. it’s better to do so in a minimalist style. If you pick up any modern Japanese text in translation, authors do not go in for flowery language. It’s an essentially functional means of conveying meaning with very little adornment. As in the spoken version, there’s an implied subtext of meaning the reader is expected to supply from the few pointers given. While allowing for the need to explain much of what’s going on, Susan Spann has contrived to produce a text that’s surprisingly Japanese in spirit.

This leaves me with the plot which is set against a fairly well-travelled background of practical politics in the higher levels of the shogunate. As the shogun is the most powerful man in Japan, more important than the emperor, there’s always plotting to depose him and then control who succeeds based on family status and political power. Since a visit between the shogun (one of the Ashikaga clan) and one particularly powerful faction led by Lord Oda is about to take place, the murder of Saburo, a senior individual (and the shogun’s cousin) within the shogunate, is a dangerous warning sign, particularly because it was this individual’s job to set the schedule of guards within the shogun’s enclave. Because his knife was used, suspicion first falls on Ito Kazu, Matsui Hiro’s drinking companion and fellow assassin, who makes life difficult for himself by refusing to say where he was. When it’s explained why this man is unlikely to be the killer, suspicion then falls on Saburo’s wife, the current mistress, the stable boy who also loved the mistress, the master carpenter, and so on. This is also an excuse to look at different people within the rigid Japanese class structure and to see how they relate to each other. Put all this together and you have a beautifully balanced historical mystery with a clearly articulated murder puzzle to solve set in a particularly unstable time at the top of the political tree with different factions pushing for more power and influence. Blade of the Samurai is strongly recommended.

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

Beware Beware by Steph Cha

July 13, 2014 1 comment

Beware Beware by Steph Cha

Beware Beware by Steph Cha (Minotaur, 2014) has an immediate point of interest. When it comes to characterisation, I’m completely indifferent as to who the author picks as the point of view. My only requirement is that the individual feels reasonably credible and that I can learn something about what it feels like to be that person. So, as a now semi-fossilised man who first got a clear understanding of the world before the excitement of feminism moved the 1960s forward in the debate about liberation and gender equality, I often find myself depressed by the failure of contemporary writers to show the appalling discrimination still visited on women and the other marginalised sexual communities. With seminal books like The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer becoming best-sellers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had hoped for better.

So this is the second book to feature Juniper Song. In theory, this is my chance to learn something of the life of a Korean American woman and about Koreatown in LA. She has completed the transition from Yale graduate into a job learning the ropes as a private investigator. For those of you who missed Follow Her Home (2013), her efforts as an amateur sleuth got her best friend killed. Now, under the supposed guidance of Chaz Lindley, she’s handed-off to Daphne Freamon, a painter who lives in New York. It seems the client’s boyfriend, Jamie Landon, is currently in LA acting as a ghostwriter for film star Joe Tilley. That he may either be snorting coke or dealing it, is offered as a possible explanation for him failing to stay in touch with Daphne. When Joe Tilley is found dead in his hotel bath tub after what seems to have been one of his traditionally debauched parties, Jamie becomes a person of interest. This brings Daphne to town and the show can get on the road. As a subplot, a sinister man is stalking Lori, Song’s roommate. Fortunately, he’s shot before he can do any serious damage. This gives us two deaths to think about.

First as to the plot: this is one of these deceptively simple stories. I suppose it follows in the classic PI novel tradition of having a dogged detective go round the town talking with people. Some our detective manages to extract useful information from. Others clam up when the wrong questions are asked. Such are the highs and lows when you pound the mean streets. The point of the exercise is, of course, to work out who everyone is and, more importantly, what their history is. This all works well as our PI slowly peels away the layers of onion, all the while finding the tears beginning to flow. Indeed, at one point, her questions are the direct cause of another death. This is chastening (i.e. psychologically traumatic). When you look back, this is nicely constructed and elegantly simple both as a mystery and a thriller.

Steph Cha

Steph Cha

But I have a problem with the Korean connection. I recognise the physical places and, in more recent years, I too have sipped my way through some high ABV soju with appropriately pleasing results. To that extent, the book does justice to the transplanted food and alcohol. But apart from one brief mention of racial tension, there’s no effort made to deal with the sometimes difficult relationship between the Korean community and the surrounding cultures, nor between the older and younger generations of Koreans. We do get some indication of both alliances between Koreans and Mexicans in gang culture, and involvement in more general crime by some in the Korean community. The author, however, prefers not to deal with the often quite serious racism afflicting the non-white communities, save that there’s some reference to the difficulty African Americans have in gaining acceptance by Hollywood. But it’s when we come to the sexism the author steps out of the real and into a fantasy PI world.

In the interests of balance, I admit one of the themes of the book is the willful failure of male-dominated organisations including police forces to investigate allegations of rape. Even at the best of times, it’s assumed the women are partly to blame even though it’s the men who force women to wear sexualised clothing. This is also seen in the failure of the courts to give priority to Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” to create real sex discrimination provisions, e.g. to prevent decisions as in the Hobby Holly case which makes the notion of a woman’s autonomy over her own body subject the the religious scruples of others. With the disapproving allowed to picket outside clinics providing abortion services to discourage women from entering, even rape victims find it difficult to terminate the unwanted child.

It may be bad for women in general, but Juniper Song is a Korean American woman who’s trying to navigate her way through the currents of Korean culture, the slightly rarified world of Hollywood stardom and the agents and managers who protect the illusion of magic, and the sceptical world of the police. Let’s start in Korean culture. This is one of the more extreme examples of patriarchal control. Despite the modernity of the country, South Korea has not progressed very far beyond mediaeval times when it comes to the question of gender equality. This male dominance has come under pressure through the move to America. The older Koreans have therefore resorted to ghettoisation in an attempt to retain the old values by holding themselves aloof from the surrounding world. But the young inevitably mix outside the ghetto walls and are infected by Western ideas of equality. This produces sometimes quite violent responses. When it comes to the police, our hero is given a female homicide detective to deal with. How convenient! No-one of any race or gender refuses to speak with her or is less than polite to her (at least, when she’s sober). The only feature that marks her out from the norm is her willingness to drink excessive amounts of alcohol and thereby put herself in danger. Sadly, this recklessness is not limited to Korean American women.

Put all this together and Beware Beware is a good story (the title referring to a painting), but I’m greatly saddened by the failure to be honest about the problems faced by non-white women in a fundamentally racist and sexist society. Just singling out rape and the problems faced by women who try to complain of sexual assault highlights the tip of the iceberg. This is not to say I’m for a more literary style of books that examine social issues at a deeper level. I’m just against the idea books by women, presumably written for a mainly female readership, should conform to patriarchal expectations. Unless, of course, I’m perversely undervaluing the message of this book. Perhaps this book is really a rallying cry for women of the world to rise up in a wave of vigilanteism and, whenever a women is raped, advocating she and her sisters seek out the man responsible and string him up from the nearest tree (or street lamp if in a city). Now that would be radical feminism in action.

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

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton

May 20, 2014 3 comments

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the fourth in the series featuring Lacey Flint and, from my point of view, presents the usual problem of having to tune into a new set of characters with already established relationships. Although it’s always necessary to start somewhere, this may be a series that it’s genuinely better to start at the beginning. Put another way, reading is very much a matter of mood and, for a while, I was seriously considering giving up. Let’s take a quick look at the set-up. For reasons not made clear, our detective has voluntarily reverted to the uniform branch of the River Police and, when not swimming in the Thames for fun, she’s cruising up and down the river, always alert for folk doing things they didn’t oughta. To complete this redirection in her life, she’s also running a fake identity. This sometimes gets her caught out in mistakes about where and when she was born, learned to swim, and so on. Don’t ask. I have no idea why she’s in hiding in plain sight on her boat moored on the river, nor why she makes a regular 450 mile roundtrip to a prison to visit a woman she arrested (in the last book?). She has a lover called Mark Joesbury, but he’s an undercover officer currently infiltrating a criminal or fringe terrorist organisation and, for obvious reasons, is uncontactable. This leaves us with a senior police officer and her lover deciding to go down the IVF route to have a child together, the usual colleagues (some more wise than others), the crusty pathologist, and the caring neighbours who look out for her and her boat.

Sharon Bolton

Sharon Bolton

Anyway, our heroine is out swimming in the Thames and finds a body. This is not in itself unusual. There are lots of the things floating around waiting to be found. Except this particular body may just have been left for her to find. Ah ha! So someone is watching her, knows where she swims, knows where there’s a body or two, and decides to leave one for our heroine to find. Now both in fiction and real life, people do things for a range of different motives. Body drops like this can be a kind of vigilanteeism where an altruistic member of the public decides the police need a helping hand, or the reasons can be more complex or even absurd, e.g. the killer behaves like a cat and leaves the latest body on the middle of the bed for the owner to admire. In this case, having arrived at the end of the book, I still think the motive is strongly tending to the absurd but, for once, I’m going to accept it. Even though the basis of the dump and subsequent visits to our heroine’s boat is not very rational and, indeed, may have serious consequences, there’s just enough in the characterisation to convince me this might happen. In the real world, people do absurd things without actively assessing what the outcomes might be. They fly by the seat of their pants. Sometimes the pants catch fire. That’s life.

So I arrive at the middle section of the book and begin to find events more interesting. Although some of the intercut scenes feel more like background filler to make the required word count, the broader features of the plot come into view, and then we switch up from police procedural into more positively thriller mode. Our heroine is one of these people who runs into burning buildings shouting, “Follow me!” to the other more reluctant rescuers. This inevitably propels her into some dangerous situations. However, at some point coming into the final third, the book does get exciting. From a purely technical point of view, the plot brings everything together as our heroine gets closer to identifying the killer(s) and finds herself at risk. So long as you accept the thriller premise that the major protagonist will confront the killer(s) at some point and end up facing death, this ticks all the right boxes and creates the expected thrills. Looking back, what makes the plot work is the law of unintended consequences. It all starts years ago and the effects ripple through time as cultures change, knowledge advances, and people adapt. Some adapt more successfully than others, accepting the new culture and the benefits it provides. Others feel the need to intervene, to try to improve the lot of those who may be suffering. In this book, for example, a gay couple can decide to change their relationship by producing a child or a police officer may try to maintain a more objective view of the world by having a murderer as a close friend. There are a number of interesting ideas explored in A Dark and Twisted Tide and, despite the slight predictability about some plot elements, the end result is a real thriller. Hopefully, you will have read the preceding three books before you come to this. It will presumably make the earlier stages of the story more accessible and generate tension from an earlier point in the novel.

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

The Harlot’s Tale by Sam Thomas

May 11, 2014 1 comment

A Harlots Tale by Sam Thomas

The Harlot’s Tale by Sam Thomas (Minotaur Books, 2014) provokes me into more idle speculation about the nature of the experience when reading historical fiction. Here’s a perfectly respectable book set in 1645 during the English Civil Wars. It describes seventeenth century York as the local government switches from Royalist to Parliamentarian. This comes as something of a shock to many of the citizens given the enthusiasm with which those of a more religious persuasion seek to impose their morality on the ungodly. However, no matter who’s in charge, one feature of life in particular does not stop. Pregnancies must come to term and the services of a midwife are required to give the child the best chance of being born alive. Of course the other factor of life that never stops comes some nine months before the births but, more often than not, some degree of hypocrisy covers up the male contributor’s identity if it was out of wedlock. Anyway, I’ll come back to the plot in a moment.

As you can imagine, considerable investment of time and effort is needed to produce a full-length book set in one of England’s great cities. So my speculation is whether I would have enjoyed the book more if it had been written in British English. Now let’s be clear. I’ve no particular axe to grind when it comes to the merits of either form of English. And I concede the idea of an author actually adopting seventeenth century vocabulary and syntax would leave all readers gasping for breath, forsooth. But if an author is holding out the words in a first-person narrative as being thought and spoken by a person born and bred on English soil, should those words not be in British English? American readers are worldly and cosmopolitan. Surely, they could cope with British English if it was presented to them. Or is there a prejudice among American readers against British English such that it would seriously damage the commercial prospects of a novel if it was offered for sale in British English? Put the other way around, should I want to write a novel set in, say, Las Vegas, should it be written in American English?

Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas

Of course, this is rather by the way because it distracts us from considering the merits of the book as written, rather than how it might otherwise have been written if writing style had been on anyone’s radar, forsooth. So back to the book itself, egad! I learned a lot about the early practice of midwifery. Curiously these Brits seem to have forgotten how to do a Caesarian — those Romans did a poor job of transferring medical know-how (although the method is described in Irish oral history and written text dating from the twelfth century). This leaves it open to two of the lead characters to have a moral epiphany during one birth which is not uncontrived, but highlights the question about C-sections. I suppose the reason for its abandonment was the high mortality rate among the women. This midwife is focused on saving the lives of the mothers so this might explain her attitude to the best surgical approach. Since the author is a professional historian, I’m prepared to accept he knows his stuff and therefore all the medical background here is accurate. Knowing York, the street names are still the same. The politicisation of religion also strikes me as accurate for the time. But the murder plot using this setting is rather modern in style.

Thematically, we have Hellfire preaching and aggressive tactics from law enforcement to impose a new code of morality. It’s therefore not wholly surprising the motive of the serial killer should be religious in the broadest sense of the word. He or she is out to punish the ungodly for their sins, particularly fornication with a prostitute and/or adultery. In spirit, this book is not unlike Revelation by C J Sansom which is set in 1543 and has a serial killer select his/her victims based on prophesies in the Book of Revelation. Like Sansom who has qualifications both as a lawyer and a historian, Thomas has the killer(s) leaving biblical references at the crime scenes. Like Se7en (1995), these murders are somewhat gore-splattered. Unfortunately, although the series characters are well-drawn, the development of the mystery is strangely muted since we’re immediately told the pool of suspects is limited to one small group of newcomers plus one local. I understand it’s inconvenient to formulate a plot which has to search for possible suspects, but that’s how the investigative process works in the real world. Just having the plot hang on the tried and trusted, “It’s the newcomers wot dun it!” is a little unimaginative.

So The Harlot’s Tale is very interesting on the English Civil War and medical history, but the mystery plot is underwhelming. As written, the prose zips along and delivers an interesting first-person woman protagonist who does her best to hold the line in difficult circumstances. This leaves the book slightly above average for historical mystery so long as you don’t mind short but mildly graphic descriptions of what happens to the bodies.

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

A Killing of Angels by Kate Rhodes

killing of angels

When it comes to writing a book, the first question to decide is how naturalistic to make it. Some authors decide they will write the story as it is and leave out all the clever stuff. Others decide to play literary games. So, for example, the author can use the settings as a mirror for the action in the foreground. An earthquake might be used to signal fractures in human relationships. Or weather can become a kind of commentary on the emotions on display: it rains when people are sad, there’s thunder when they argue, and so on. As you can see, this approach can easily drop into cliché and, unless the author is particularly good at the craft of writing, is to be avoided. In A Killing of Angels by Kate Rhodes (Minotaur Books, 2014) which is the second book to feature Alice Quentin, a thirtysomething psychologist at Guy’s Hospital, London, the febrile hothouse atmosphere is mirrored by the record-breaking hot weather afflicting the city. Needless to say, it rains at the end to signal a tragedy has occurred and our protagonist needs therapy. Frankly, this metaphorical weather is clunky and overdone.

Note the reference to tragedy. From the classical world of Greece, we recognise the elements of a tragedy when all the main characters spend their time on stage suffering. From the outset, we know it’s not going to work out well for anyone, and yet the experience of sitting through all this misery is intended to be cathartic, i.e. the protagonist struggles to understand what’s happening in the world around him or her and, because we identify with the protagonist as he or she goes through this experience, we shed some of our own fears and uncertainties, and emerge feeling better. This works well when the plot has universality. No matter when the work was written. No matter who we are. The words speak to us. Unfortunately, many works featuring more extreme emotions often descend into melodrama and lose their therapeutic effect. In fact, we’re more likely to consider such works rather silly or somewhat amusing.

Kate Rhodes

Kate Rhodes

So in this book we meet our protagonist and begin to explore her emotional baggage. She was a wreck after events in the last exciting instalment, and she’s struggling to hold herself together as we watch her at work. Early on, she’s assaulted by one of the men attending the anger management program she runs. She decides not to call the police even though he causes severe bruising to her ribs. This is symptomatic of a deep-seated problem. This protagonist takes decisions most likely to cast herself in the role of a victim. Although we might applaud her altruistic decision to accept the injury without retaliating, all she’s doing is create a stalker. It’s exactly the same when Detective Inspector Don Burns invites her to consult in a new case. At an early stage, she meets a stereotypical misogynistic policeman and simply accepts his psychological abuse (although she does refuse his sexual overture). In other words, we’re expected to empathise with a leading character who’s seriously damaged and likely to break into pieces at any moment. If it was to be suggested she might date, this would instantly be dismissed. She’s not in a state where she can see herself as attractive or want to lift any of her emotional defences. Indeed, adding to her problems are a self-destructive brother and a sociopathic mother, both of whom unload their unhappiness on to her.

Anyway, the plot has someone killing off individuals associated with the Angel Bank. The signature of our serial killer is to leave behind a picture of an angel and a sprinkling of white feathers with each body (not quite chickens coming home to roost). Because our psychologist has no first-hand experience of bankers, we get to ride shotgun as she meets city grandees and their minions both at work and play. For the most part, these individuals prove to be stereotypes and have little substance. The only person allowed to emerge is a man who “retired” from banking and now runs a charitable operation. He’s both the potential sex interest and an enigma. Even though it would be obvious to anyone with eyes to see that our protagonist is in a highly fragile state, he sets about trying to break down her defences. In part, he does so by spending money but pretending not to (it’s a bit complicated). The only other character I should mention is the high-class prostitute who services the men of the City, politicians and celebrities. She’s remarkably unsophisticated, falling more into the tart-with-a-heart class rather than the escort who launches a thousand ships.

The experience of reading this book is one of watching credibility drop away as the pages turn. The body count is phenomenal as people are variously shot, stabbed or incinerated. As we get near the end, we’re actually running out of suspects as almost everyone dies off. It’s a tragedy but in the potboiler style. So A Killing of Angels is a brave attempt to create a flawed protagonist who sees what’s invisible to those around her, but the result is not a woman we can easily empathise with or root for. Perhaps the character is more convincing in the first book before she comes under attack. As it is, I’m less than convinced she has retained the right level of professionalism to command respect whether in the hospital setting or as a police consultant.

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

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