Revenge is one of the natural human responses, but it’s a more complex moral issue. The implication is that injuring someone in return for an injury suffered is justified as payback in kind but, if everyone engaged in this form of personalised justice, there would be chaos. Violence would escalate and so, to protect society, we delegate the policing function and the administration of justice to the state. In one sense, it takes revenge for us. There’s a balancing of harms and the honour of the victims is upheld. Theoretically, future wrongdoers are deterred and current criminals can be rehabilitated if everyone accepts the idea that the punishment meted out is fundamentally fair.
So let’s say a woman is raped. She’s the immediate victim. If she dies in the attack, her family members are also victimised. In our constitutional systems, the state usurps the right of the individuals to seek personal revenge. By doing so, it denies the experience of the victims and their need to strike back. Indeed ironically, if the victims decide to take action, the state is obligated to protect the rapists. This is not satisfactory to the victims. Further, if the state does not administer a punishment the victims feel is appropriately severe, a further loss of confidence emerges.
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014) is a Korean version of the novel Samayou Yaiba by Keigo Higashino (a Japanese film version of the novel was released in 2009). The primary character is Sang-Hyun (Jung Jae-Young). He nursed his wife for three years while she died of cancer. When she dies, he sinks into depression. He has no time for his young daughter, Soo-Jin (Lee Soo-Bin). All he can do is go to work, earning enough to pay the bills despite the unforgiving nature of the work itself. When his daughter is kidnapped and dies while being raped, his life completely falls apart. He haunts the police station but all Detective Eok-Gwan (Lee Sung-Min) can tell him is that they are working the case. He can do nothing to help. He should go home and wait for news.
After a while, he decides to act and spends his savings on fliers which feature photographs of his daughter and his telephone number. Plagued by his feeling of guilt, one of the three juveniles sends the name and address of one of the other attackers who has video recordings of all their attacks. When the father breaks in and watches the video of his daughter’s death, he’s deeply wounded. Unfortunately, the young man comes home at this point and the father beats him to death with a baseball bat. Before he dies, the youth indicates where the third participant may be found. This sets the father off on the hunt. The detectives quickly realise who must be responsible and, with the evidence from the video recordings in their hands, they begin to contact all the families of those involved. Not all these parents where aware their daughters had been raped and their anguish is plainly on display. The problem for the police is that all these offenders are juveniles and unlikely to spend more than a few months in jail for their crimes. Now they know one parent has already killed one of the rapists and is on the trail of another, the senior officers decide they must not speak too publicly about this situation. If they give out the name and photograph of the young man at risk, the parents of other victims or vigilantes may get to him first. Detective Eok-Gwan is to lead the hunt without alerting the media. The father gets to the man who bought the videos of the rapes and sold them on as porn. They fight and, again, before he dies, the pornographer indicates where the missing young man may be hiding.
Conceptually, this is a marvellous film. It shows in detail how so many individuals and the state are broken. Two of the young offenders are callous and feel no guilt as to their behaviour. The third who blows the whistle was weak-willed and participated because he feared what the others would do to him if he did not actively support them. Their families are dysfunctional. The families of some of the victims were also dysfunctional offering little emotional support or practical care to their daughters. The detective is already being investigated because he reacted with some violence when arresting a juvenile offender in an earlier case. He’s deeply frustrated that the state’s justice system is broken and fails to dispense real punishments or positive treatment for offenders to effect their rehabilitation.
The pace of the film is terrific during the first two-thirds, but it then overplays its hand and goes through an unnecessary contortion to produce a grand climax. While not disputing the power of the final scenes, it took too long to get there and the impact was slightly diluted. Nevertheless, Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 is a thoughtful and above average thriller that gets to the heart of the problem of how to deal with juveniles who commit serious offences.
For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Salvation of a Saint
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ～劇場版・新参者～ (2012)
Memory is a strange double-edged ability to possess. When it’s working properly, it mines the past for all the strategies that worked the best. With the benefit of that experience comes wisdom. But that same memory can recall all the mistakes we made. Unless there’s a filter of some kind, self-confidence can be fatally punctured and depression becomes the new norm. So if the psychologists are right and we become the sum of whichever memories we choose to rely on, we can either become very successful by avoiding all the mistakes of our past, or we can never amount to a hill of beans. Disclosures by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2014) rather elegantly gives us a model from the past and then invites us to consider which strategy will work best for the present.
In the blue corner of this twin narrative track comes Esther Davidson who had the responsibility of policing the imminent fight between Pasque Uno and Opal Render, two London gangs bent on bringing a turf war to a conclusion and so determine the right to distribute drugs in this particular neighbourhood. She had good intelligence of the impending gunfight, but instead of intervening early to prevent casualties, she decided the best interests of London would be served by having as many dead or serious injured criminals as possible. She got her way, although perhaps not all the shots were fired by the criminals. The survivors duly ended up in jail, and some degree of peace was established for a while in a London that remained ambivalent about this hands-off strategy.
In the red corner stands Ralph Wyvern Ember. He was supposed to be one of the combatants but, when the dust settled, there was no sign of him. He’s now running The Monty, a club which he would like to be upmarket but, in this neck of the woods, there’s no way he can raise the class of the place to match the Athenaeum, The Garrick or any of the other London clubs he dreams of emulating. He makes do as best he can. From this you’ll understand he’s rather a shallow man who has shamelessly embraced pretentiousness. This helps him maintain a veneer of apparent sophistication and some level of self-deception that he’s not a coward. This involves him in not thinking about the past too much lest it disturb his self-image, whereas Esther quite often replays the tapes she’s kept of the briefings she gave before the shootout.
Having seen what went before, we now come into the reality of today with Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur meeting up with an informant who believes this Christmas may be more than usually dangerous for Ember. When this news is passed on to Assistant Chief Constable (Operations) Desmond Iles, they have the same dilemma as faced by Esther Davidson all those years ago. If surviving gang members have now been released from jail and feel like paying Ember a Santa-like visit to spread a little good cheer, when, if at all, should they intervene? The answer provided is elegantly practical and not without its amusing side. Indeed, the whole is told with a kind of deadpan humour. If it had gone a little further, it might have become a farce. As it is, there’s the opportunity to smile when things go right or wrong, depending on the point of view. Put all this together and you have a very British take on the practicalities of policing given the general rule that, for most of the time, officers do not carry firearms. In such cases, the police may wish the informers would keep their mouths shut. If they don’t know, there’s no obligation to be there and potentially get in the way of the bullets. As it is, Disclosures is an entertaining book that poses some interesting questions.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus (Minotaur Books, 2014) (translated by Steven T Murray) sees a return for Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and Detective Oliver von Bodenstein who are senior officers in Hofheim’s Police Department. I should note the repeat of an appalling practice by the publisher. This is quite a long-running series from an initially self-published, now leading, German author. In their wisdom, the first book published in english was Snow White Must Die and this is the second. In fact, the first book was Swimming With Sharks which saw the light of day in 2005. If you go back to the original German bibliography, Snow White Must Die and Bad Wolf were respectively the fourth and sixth books. There’s also an english version of The Ice Queen so those of you who want to catch up can begin to do so. One of the reasons why people read series is their growing interest in the major characters and their lives. Although each book is focused on a single investigation, there’s a metanarrative which has continuing arcs for many different characters both major and minor. We have therefore been denied the chance to watch the evolution of these characters over the whole series. This is the same problem that blighted the Harry Hole novels.
At a early point in this book, we meet Frank Behnke, a colleague of Pia’s who was disgraced and has now returned as a member of Internal Affairs, determined to exact revenge. We also get a quick introduction to Hanna Herzmann. She’s a television personality who runs a form of investigative journalism show which, if she’s able to acquire the information, has not been afraid to take on bigger stories. Her ambition, however, first seen in Snow White Must Die, the first published in the english version of the series, is going to lead her to take on more than she can chew. The police investigation is triggered by the discovery of a body floating close to the Eddersheim locks courtesy of some teens who were drinking themselves insensible on the river banks. It’s immediately clear she’s been the victim of physical abuse for years. It’s not just the bruises, but the malnourishment and general lack of care suggesting she’s been held a captive for many years. From this brief introduction, you will realise this book is not for everyone. Thematically, we’re dealing with the abuse of children and the network of individuals who trade in them. Although the book is not overly explicit, it nevertheless does not flinch from descriptions which some readers may find distressing.
Structurally, the book has multiple points of view and, for the first part of the book, it’s a little difficult to keep track of who everyone is. Obviously, the longer you read, the more clear the links become between the different individuals, but there’s quite a large cast to accommodate and the plot itself is quite complicated. Adding to the resistance to a smooth reading experience is the denseness of the prose. This is not a criticism of the translation as such. Some books are written with a mass of detail about most of what characters see and experience. This book does require some commitment to get through the opening sections. However, once we emerge into the central section where the investigation gets into its stride, the pace begins to pick up and we have an ending which is both reasonably dramatic and fairly realistic in that the establishment closes ranks and the outcome of the investigation is merely an inconvenience to the remainder of the abusers. We only have to look at the way in which investigations in Britain have been manipulated and suppressed when powerful individuals have been threatened with exposure. For all we like to believe we live in civilised societies in which abuse is always forcefully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, the practical reality is that members of Parliament, the judiciary, and senior businessmen have always managed to avoid exposure. We even had to wait until he died before Jimmy Savile’s serial sexual abuse could be exposed. The same happens in Germany and whether you want to read about this in Bad Wolf is a choice only you can make.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I’m slightly going to break with my convention by starting with a headline. Under a Silent Moon by Elizabeth Haynes (HarperCollins, 2014) has too many words in it. Yes, I’ve finally come up with the ultimately damning feature for any book. Although this runs in at a modest 359 pages, it’s definitely too wordy. “Ah ha!” you’re saying, “There’s some inconsistency there!” But the number of words employed in telling the story has nothing to do with the length of the book. Take this opening paragraph as a classic example of the phenomenon. It would have been possible to construct a few sentences that delivered the critique in a short and simple way everyone could understand without a second thought. But, no, I had to go rambling off into the long grass, not caring whether anyone was really following or not. So, if you want the nutshell version, this is a book that thinks it makes itself a superfine police procedural by incorporating the jargon and a number of details from the real world of policing. So we have witness statements incorporated into the text, and charts displayed in the appendix. This is what we might expect when a crime novel is being written by a person who has worked as a police intelligence analyst. She has the knowledge and expertise and has not been afraid to use it.
So now comes the crystalisation of the point. Looked at objectively, this is a very good plot. With two deaths on the same night in a small village, one a probable murder, the other a possible suicide, DCI Lou Smith, our new series heroine, is in charge of her first major incident inquiry. We have the usual skewed social dynamics because she had an affair with one of the team, breaking it off when she discovered he was married. This has left the atmosphere tense between them. Despite this, the investigation gets off to a rapid start and we’re soon accumulating details of who was where and what they might have been doing. However, I find the change of format and style of conventional prose to incorporate formal witness statements, intelligence reports and other documents distracting. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my police characters to interview witnesses and the authors to write down the answers as dialogue. To my mind, this is putting realism on a pedestal and allowing it to dominate the more natural narrative dynamics.
We then come to the characterisation which is somewhat perfunctory. We have a multiple point of view format and so there’s not that much time to get any real sense of who everyone is. There’s a general impression they are servants to the plot and moved around to get the desired results. There’s also one plot element surrounding a fairly important character that’s completely unresolved. I suppose this could be carried over into the next book in the series, but it feels unsatisfactory as it stands. And then comes what is slightly becoming the mandatory soft porn element in many of these detective/police procedurals. In this, I’m also including television serials like The Fall which, more often than not, seem to be celebrating misogyny and the objectification of women in a distinctly unpleasant fashion.
This book contains fairly explicit scenes depicting one particular form of BDSM. Although I can, to some extent, understand an author and the publisher believing that sex sells books, this level of description strikes me as unnecessarily explicit. Not that I think people do not engage in activities like this. It’s just we know so little of the individual who becomes a sub that it’s impossible to say whether this ready acceptance of this particular practice is plausible. It’s ironic that an author who aspires to introduce realism into the police procedural side of the book, should avoid realism when it comes to the BDSM. If authors are going to include content involving dominance and subservience, it’s useful to lay the groundwork to show some level of predisposition. D&S depends on safety protocols based on explicit consent. Without discussion between the parties to agree what can and cannot be done, and informed consent, where does the trust and the claimed enhancement of sexual pleasure come from? No matter what we might think of Fifty Shades of Grey, it does give some background to the characters so we can understand why they come to engage in their particular behaviour. Without this, the content just looks like exploitative smut intended to help the marketing department sell the book.
Put all this together and you have a genuinely poor book with everything possible done to kill interest in what could have been quite a successful story. Under a Silent Moon is not recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
There are times you read a book and you know in your bones there’s a good story in the content, but it’s buried and left unfulfilled. Well, The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2014) Shadow Police 2, is just such a book. Following on from London Falling, our team of four are doing their best to adjust to the reality of their newly acquired supernatural powers. So, if you wanted a thumbnail sketch of the book, this is a dark fantasy grafted on to a police procedural. In theory, this is a good blend because stolid and, up to the moment their eyes are literally opened to the “reality” around them, reliable police officers (plus one intelligence analyst). Suddenly they have to adjust their thinking to accommodate the “impossible”.
In this case, we have a beastie on the loose which may be the original Jack the Ripper or a new incarnation of some sort that wants the world to label him or her as a modern version of Jack. Either way, this razor-wielding creature literally passes through walls and the sides of motorcars, hacking away at the white powerful men inside. Ah yes, you noticed the difference. Instead of killing prostitutes, this modern Jack has a completely different agenda. At this point, it’s appropriate to point out the have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach of the author. I don’t mind him creating characters who can see a different version of reality as an overlay on the London around them, but I strenuously reject the idea that this alternate reality could be captured by digital cameras and then viewed by our “sighted” heroes. Supernatural powers vested in an individual by an accidental exposure to a trigger give the sight. Digital cameras, no matter how advanced their design, cannot see supernatural events and, if they could record them, they would presumably then be visible to all viewers.
It’s this kind of annoying lack of logic that bedevils the book. That and the fact it’s badly overwritten in the first third so that the pace is leaden and the development of scenes interminably boring, e.g. in the pub called the Goat and Compass. There’s also one other seriously odd element. In historical mysteries, it’s relatively common for real-world characters to appear. This is the first time I can remember a living person featuring as a character. In this case, we meet Neil Gaiman who proves to have an important role to play as the plot develops. Of course, Paul Cornell asked Neil Gaiman for permission and got approval for the use of his name. For some, I suppose, this adds an extra frisson of excitement. I thought it a dissonant note. If you are writing fiction with a dark fantasy twist, including a real person as a player is crossing the line between fiction and reality. I don’t think it works at all.
That said, the basic plot is sound with a nicely balanced threat to destabilise London as an excuse for imposing a little more order — the usual right-wing conspiracy theory made real by a man able to manipulate the zeitgeist and hack into dreams to see where there may be problems to solve. Some of this works really well as we progress into the second third of the book and the pace picks up. There are stresses and strains on the group of four police officers, and one inadvertently finds a very original way of interviewing the key characters who can speak truth and out the villain of the piece. So I’m faced with a minor problem. Because it finishes strongly, I could deem the whole a success. Or I could declare the flaws to be sufficiently serious that I cannot recommend the book. On balance, with some reservations, I think there’s enough good to make The Severed Streets worth reading. Perhaps more importantly, it’s been left in a very interesting position so the next book in the series will be starting off from a good position.
For a review of the first in the series, see London Falling.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
There are times when it’s right to begin a review with a headline that will signal whether people want to take the time to read the rest. This is such a time. Making no apologies for the alliteration, The Son by Jo Nesbø (Alfred Knopf, 2014) is magnificently malevolent. From this you will understand that there’s a significant amount of violence, mayhem, and not a little murder delivered with considerable flair and in often quite stunning detail. So if you’re of a nervous disposition and easily shocked, this is not a book you should pick up.
Continuing now with those of you who enjoy a book which explores the darker side of human nature with unbridled enthusiasm, this is a story of revenge and, despite the level of criminality and corruption that’s revealed as the plot unwinds, it speculates on whether taking revenge in cold blood can ever be redemptive. In this, you should understand, there’s a considerable lack of plausibility. But if the plot is going to get everyone relevant to the right places at the right time as the end approaches, physical and emotional laws need to be flexible. Escapes must be possible, bullets will miss their targets, and human hearts prove weak and strong as the situation dictates. In spirit, this reminded me of Headhunters which is the other non-Harry Hole novel and which became a wonderful film. Such a resonance has also occurred in the boardrooms of Hollywood because Warner Bros bought this book in 2012 and is developing it for a big screen debut sometime in the future.
So what’s it about? We begin by examining the existence of one Sonny Lofthus who’s one of these remarkably laid-back prisoners in what’s supposed to be one of Scandinavia’s superprisons. Somehow he’s managing to score a continuous amount of almost pure heroin which keeps him docile and tractable over the twelve years of his imprisonment. He surfaces just enough to have become a father confessor figure to all the other prisoners and to admit to murders when it’s convenient to those that control him. At this point in his career, he was allowed out on a day visit and, as if by magic, a woman was murdered. Despite there being another more credible suspect, Sonny is soon admitting to the killing. Except, during one of his informal confession sessions, one of the other inmates tells him a story about the circumstances in which his father died. This inspires him to go cold turkey and, in due course, to escape from this magic prison. This sends him on a rampage of revenge. He’s been a listening ear to so many stories told over the years and, of course, he had to learn all the details of the murders he was to admit. This means he knows exactly who’s guilty and should be punished for their sins.
This leads us to Chief Inspector Simon Kefas, an older but very experienced detective now working homicide. When he was younger, he was one of three cadets entering the force. One has now achieved high rank as the police commissioner. The other was Sonny’s father. Now he’s caught up in investigating the emerging series of homicides as Sonny works up to full rampage mode. In the midst of all this, there’s time for some sentimentality and various interacting themes of love. It all works up to a superior climax in which the “heroes” prevail and, albeit in slightly bloodthirsty terms, justice prevails. There’s terrific narrative drive as we turn the pages to find the next major incident. This is not a book you read for realism but, in its own kind of way, it rises above the corruption and general nastiness of human nature and ends on a positive note as peace and calm once again descends on Norway. The Son is recommended as police procedural meets violent crime with a little horror thrown in to spice up the plot.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When I went to university I was, to all intents and purposes, a country bumpkin. I’d spent more or less all my time in a small village on the North-East coast of England. So suddenly coming into a major city with one of the top universities just as the counter-cultural revolution was getting into its stride in the 1960s (later epitomised as the time of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” by Ian Dury) ripped off my rose-tinted spectacles and invited me to make decisions about a whole range of issues I’d never thought about. Coming forward to the modern young adult leaving the nest to study, the difference could not be more pronounced. Whereas I was completely naive, today’s young have been exposed to the internet from their earliest years and are aware of most aspects of human behaviour long before they crack the teen barrier. To that extent, prejudices have been formed earlier and so can be more difficult to dislodge when later confronting the reality.
My reason for starting in this way is the theme of Unnatural Murder by Connie Dial (The Permanent Press, 2014). Today, it’s almost impossible to avoid knowing something about the range of behavior which exists on the curve from the fetishistic use of individual items of clothing, through transvestism, to transsexualism which may involve the use of hormones and/or surgery to make adjustments to external appearance. This book begins with the murder of a cross-dressing male who’s about to begin the process of gender reassignment. Just before he dies, he goes into St. Margaret Mary’s for confession. Unfortunately, instead of offering a helpful and supportive ear, Father O’Reilly’s hostile indifference drives the man away. Feeling guilty, the priest follows only to find the man killed just a few yards from the church.
The technical problem for the author to solve is one of authorial attitude. It would be possible to construct a judgmental plot in which many readers’ prejudices might be confirmed about what can be characterised as perverse sexual behaviour. Yet as the current cultural climate has shifted in favour of same-sex marriage and against stereotypical homophobic and other gender-based attitudes, the author should really be aiming for at least a neutral point of view. In a case involving transvestism, it would not be unusual for the partner to completely accept the decision of the other to dress in clothing considered appropriate to the other gender. If there are children from such a relationship, they are often even more supportive, accepting the decision of their father or mother as being true to his or her essential nature. The reaction can be different in cases of transsexualism where feelings of abandonment and rejection can be more prominent.
Since this is another book in which we see inside the police station run by Captain Josie Corsino, this problem is magnified because, as a woman in a role more often than not seen as “rightfully” belonging to a man, she has to protect herself, navigate the difficult sexual politics in the ranks of the officers serving in her station, and enforce a general sense of respect for the victim(s), no matter what the officers’ private opinions. Thematically, therefore, we’re confronted by a number of different situations in which gender politics are relevant. Women in the Hollywood Community Police Station have to confront prejudice just as some of those who cross-dress and appear in public can also find themselves in emotional and/or physical danger. In both cases, individuals are deliberately stepping outside the roles attributed to them by conservative culture. That they choose to confront conventional beliefs and expectations shows considerable bravery.
From a purely technical point of view, the author makes no clear distinction between the male transvestite who’s entirely happy to retain male status and often has entirely successful relationships whether comprising the same or different biological sexes, and the individual who seeks a surgical intervention to reassign gender identity. There seems to be an implicit assumption that all cross-dressers are unhappy with their biological sex. No-one with experience in psychosexual cases would agree with this proposition.
This lack of clarity and a failure to avoid a number of clichés in the relationships of those around Corsino herself, leave the book feeling emotionally superficial and unsatisfactory. This is rather a shame. Just as there have now been a number of books which deal with the situation of an African American who can pass as a Caucasian, there’s a real need for a book to constructively engage either with the individuals who can pass as a member of the opposite sex or who elect to dress in nonconforming clothing without any wish to be taken as a member of that sex. Sadly, this is not one of them. As to the mystery element, it’s somewhat mechanical and depends on some slightly unlikely events for the “right” outcomes to be achieved. The general sense of life in the Hollywood Community Police Station, however, retains the authentic feel of the first novel I read from this author. So Unnatural Murder is socially interesting in the authorial attitudes revealed. It starts with the title and goes downhill from there. All murders should be considered unnatural, but I suspect this author intends readers to infer this is the murder of a man with unnatural tendencies. Worse, I can’t particularly recommend it as a murder mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.