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Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk

March 13, 2014 11 comments

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This book forces us back to basics. As a social phenomenon, racism leads one race to treat one or more other races differently. Under normal circumstances, this difference is based on some easily identified feature such as skin colour. Whatever the feature, it’s perceived as making one race superior to the other(s). This perception of superiority is then used as a justification for the differential treatment. In practical terms, racism is also a measure of relative physical power because if the race(s) considered inferior resent(s) the difference in treatment, the individual victims may object. Self-evidently, if the race considering itself superior is able to enforce its will through the use of violence, we get into a self-reinforcing cycle which produces a stereotype of superiority and consolidates the prejudice and associated discrimination. The most obvious way in which this dominance/subservience is entrenched into local cultures is through the practice of slavery where the members of the inferior races are treated as property to be owned and, where relevant, inherited as a part of the land.

 

Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk (Pyr, 2014) The Book of the Black Earth 1 is set on the same fantasy world as his previous series featuring Caim. This time, most of the relevant action takes place in a country called Akeshia which is a version of 1001 Arabian Nights overlapping Egypt to give us sword and sorcery with factional political infighting. The magic system depends on zoana which allows the manipulation of the traditional elements: earth, wind, fire and water, plus the void. All children in this part of the world are tested and those with the ability to manipulate one or more of the elements, get higher status and potential access to political power. Those with the highest abilities get to be rulers, whether in the overt political domain or in the religious cults which train their sorcerers from young to be blindly obedient to the “faith”. Of course everyone is really interested in secular power but, for now, there’s an uneasy balance between the secular rulers and the priests of the Sun Cult which has emerged the victor in the “godwars”.

Jon Sprunk

Jon Sprunk

 

We start off in a period of this world’s history not entirely dissimilar to our own with the “European” races setting off on another “Crusade” to suppress the inferior races. Horace Delarosa, our “hero”, joins one of the ships as a carpenter but, in a sorcerous storm, the ship is lost and he washes up on the shore of Akeshia. So here comes a man not speaking the language and having no idea of local cultural norms of behaviour. Not surprisingly, he’s immediately arrested and, although shown some kindness by local villagers, he’s soon going inland on a forced march. However, as an inherently “better” human being, he defends the weak and befriends the downtrodden. “Europeans” have nobility of spirit written into their DNA. They are also gentle and humble and awfully nice, even when provoked by the soldiers guarding the slaves. We then get into the substance of the book through the arrival of another sorcerous storm. Two adepts go out in front of the caravan to defend themselves and their property (the slaves) but their skills are not up to the task. At this point, our hero discovers he can just switch off the storm. Yes, our superior European can instinctively do what no other local can do even after a lifetime of training.

 

And here comes the big plus to this discovery. No-one who can use the zoana can be treated as a slave. So through this inherent ability, he goes from the bottom of the heap to a launching pad which could enable him to be king one day. Yes, you can’t keep a good “European” down. No matter where he ends up, he’s always superior and will rise to the top. A few pages later, he’s being introduced to Queen Byleth of Erugash, one of the ten city-states controlling Akeshia and, wowser, is she a looker! Yes, she takes one look at our hero and she wants his genes in her children. There’s just one problem. Her political state is parlous. She’s about to be married off to a puppet of the Sun Cult so unless our hero can pull a rabbit out of his hat (that’s a euphemism but, in this instance, not one referring to sexual activity), she’s going to lose her role as de jure leader and become a mere baby producer for the puppet king.

 

Into the mix, comes Alyra who’s a spy working undercover as a slave in the Queen’s household and Jirom, an ex-soldier and gladiator whom our hero met as a fellow slave. Naturally, Alyra is also taken with our hero and Jirom is gay which makes their relationship confusing and explains why, despite his best efforts, Jirom is kept away from our hero lest he be tempted to the dark side (or something). So with just a few words of encouragement, our hero is soon demonstrating powers not seen in more than two-hundred years. When Europeans are good at something, they are really, really good at it! It was never a fair contest really and, before you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, he’s the number 1 warrior to the Queen and all-round nice guy. So he fights a few good fights and, despite not knowing how he’s doing what he’s doing with this magic thing, he’s doing it so well, he’s winning all his fights. Better still, when the locals use their powers, they develop stigmata and bleed from their wounds, but our hero ends up as good looking as when he started (once he’s combed his hair, of course).

 

So there you have it. Our hero saves the Queen (several times), incinerates lots of enemies, dispatches various demons and other creatures from “beyond”, and generally shows these primitive savages how a gentleman from “Europe” behaves. This makes all the women swoon and most of the ruling elite hate his guts — jealousy is a terrible curse even when magic is real — yes, my curse is bigger than your curse! The political machinations are somewhat simplistic and the increasingly divergent narratives arcs featuring Jirom are not as well integrated as they might have been making the pacing uneven and, at times, distinctly leaden. Summing up, at almost every level, Blood and Iron is overtly racist and sexist — at some points by my standards, offensively so. This may not be a problem for some readers. If all you want to see is people fighting using various levels of magical skill, this is a “classic” fantasy novel and you’ll probably enjoy this. Anyone else should steer well clear.

 

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

 

The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini

January 28, 2014 5 comments

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One of the litmus tests for the quality of any book is the extent to which it inspires the reader to thought. In this case, The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini (translated by N S Thompson) (Quercus Books, 2013) and the first of an intended trilogy featuring Commissario Michele Balistreri, persuades me to spend a little time thinking about the nature of corruption. For some who prefer questions to be answered in strictly black-and-white terms, it’s simply a situation in which money changes hands to adjust the expected outcome. Yet the reality is rather more subtle. In every culture, there are norms of behaviour and we judge the extent to which people conform by assessing whether they aspire to the ideals they claim to uphold. So, for example, authority figures might be expected to be role models, leading by their example. Or religious figures might be expected to clearly demonstrate a sincere belief in the tenets of their faith and avoid hypocrisy. Or those in political positions might be expected to take decisions for the benefit of society as a whole and not use their office for personal gain. It’s not necessary for money to change hands. People can be influenced into departing from the behaviour expected of them by the promise of favours or by withholding a threat. It can be small scale or systemic depending on the likelihood the manipulation will be discovered and those involved held accountable. In some societies, there’s a perfect storm when the majority of those in the interlocking positions within the government, judiciary, policing agencies and religious institutions are willing to abuse their power for personal gain (in the broadest sense of the word).

So if we take Italy as an example, there’s an inherent imbalance between secular and religious power. With the Holy See sitting as a separate sovereign state in the heart of Rome and exercising power over Catholics around the world, there’s always going to be pressure on the political classes not to antagonise or undermine the Pope and the administration of the Church. Then you have the rump of the nobility which has survived as a part of the elite alongside the upwardly mobile rich, and the aggressively criminal vie with extremists from both the left and right to ensure a rich blend of influences when it comes to critical decision-making. Yet if there’s one thing that captures the Italian spirit, it’s that corruption is never really seen as morally wrong. It’s merely getting your own way by cunning. You should therefore not be surprised that a recent report from Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated about 10% of all the public contracts awarded by local and central government were affected by corruption. That’s billions of pounds, dollars or, if you’re desperate, Euros.

Roberto Costantini

Roberto Costantini

So people like Michele Balistreri are an easily recognised symptom of an interesting social phenomenon. When he did his teenage rebellion, he went out to an extreme but, when the group stopped being political and decided to become more terrorist oriented, he did a deal through his father who was a police chief. He signed up as a supergrass and, when many of the group were rounded up, he suddenly found he had a degree and a sinecure in the Rome police force as a Captain in an undemanding neighborhood. Yet instead of becoming everything he despised, he abused his position to treat the work less than seriously, engage in serial womanising, drink, smoke and gamble. All this would probably have led to an early grave through excess but, in 1982, Elisa Sordi is murdered. This proves to be a watershed. He thinks he’s cracked the case but, just as the triumphant arrest is made, the rug is pulled and evidence emerges showing the suspect could not be guilty. His boss is old and close to retirement so takes the blame to protect the young firebrand. We then move forward to 2006 and find Balistreri playing the difficult political game of protecting a small crew of firebrands from themselves in a less than popular unit.

People deal with guilt in a number of different ways. Balistreri has never forgotten the catastrophic failure to get justice for the working class family that lost its beautiful daughter. When his conscience is further pricked by the suicide of Elisa’s mother, he decides he has to reopen the case. Except he rapidly discovers this is going to expose everyone in his team to danger. In Italy, once a crime goes cold, it’s supposed to stay that way, particularly when the truth might threaten the interests of the nobility or the Vatican.

Let’s now offer a hypothesis: that moral men are never going to prosper in the senior ranks of the Italian police. Whereas saints find their own niche in the Church, considerable political adaptability is required to avoid being scapegoated when the better organised are planning how to deflect blame if they are suspected of wrongdoing. Balistreri has seen it all in a long career and he’s strongly into survival mode until he’s forced to acknowledge that the safe way is never going to catch the killer from 1982. What makes this search all the more urgent is that there seems to be a link between new bodies and the deaths in 1982. Perhaps more importantly, the latent racism against the Roma community is being stirred up. If these new deaths are tied to this community, the reaction could be violent. So this is homicide resonating with political significance at the highest levels in Rome’s local government and at a national level. The challenge for Balistreri is to keep his team alive and on track to catch all those involved.

The result is a completely riveting police procedural. We see the original investigation come unstuck and watch the same thing threatening to happen again as people continue to lie or refuse co-operation. This is the eternal problem for any police force. Unless the community consents to the policing activity and supports it by passing on reliable information, the police will never collect enough evidence to secure convictions. There’s uncertainty as to who killed Elisa right up to the end and, when we have the answer, the question is whether Balistreri is better off with that knowledge. Sometimes success in an endeavour does not bring the redemption you are seeking. The Deliverance of Evil is a masterclass in the extent of the privilege and patronage that permeates Italian society and the problems a motivated police officer faces when he tries to find a killer among the ranks of the powerful. It runs slightly long but is never less than thought-provoking. This should be required reading for everyone who enjoys police procedurals and thrillers.

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

A Price to Pay by Chris Simms

December 23, 2013 Leave a comment

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A Price to Pay by Chris Simms (Severn House, 2013) is the second book in the series featuring Detective Constable Iona Khan, and it strikes out as if it’s going in an interestingly cosmopolitan direction. The protagonist has a Scottish mother and a Pakistani father, perhaps appropriately being named Iona Khan, drawing names from both cultures. In the real world, mixed-race couples often face active discrimination from both side of the family and from the community in which they establish their home. For the child of such a marriage to be the hero of a contemporary police procedural is a brave decision. Not only is this a woman as a detective in a police force known to be institutionally sexist, it’s a mixed race individual in a force known to be institutionally racist — a double whammy for our hero to duck and weave her way around. Add in the fact she’s a maths graduate and her capacity for a different way of thinking is also clearly staked out. She’s going to run into all kinds of problems simply because she’s a graduate — with the fast-track career structure, many direct entrants face considerable discrimination regardless of race. But here we come to the essential paradox in mixed-race characters.

For her to be acceptable as the protagonist, she can’t be too “foreign”. In effect, she must be British in almost everything she says and does (since there are no illustrations of her, readers probably don’t discriminate against her on the basis of her appearance, but some of her colleagues and random people she encounters may well react adversely to her skin tone and physical difference. Indeed, in some books of this type, the protagonist’s character almost becomes a walking stereotype of what it means to be British (whatever that does mean). In other words, the contribution of the non-British parent is rather more theoretical in the face of the socialisation the child has received by going through the British education system. The fact our hero has ended up in a counter-terrorism unit adds to the potential for mistrust. Some will inevitably question whose side she is on if those to be investigated are Pakistani.

Chris Sims

Chris Sims

The perennial problem when writing books with a female protagonist in police procedurals is how strong to make her. Since we live in a patriarchal society, there are certain norms to observe if the author is to produce what might be described as a mainstream book. Recently, I’ve been reading about a fourth wave of feminism building on support generated online. It’s stating the obvious that the previous three waves have been less than successful in disturbing the tranquility of the male-induced power structures. Hence, books like this can show a woman doing her limited best in the face of male obstruction. Often this will mean her brains and enthusiasm are ruthlessly exploited so that, if she happens to come up with the right answers, her male bosses can take the credit. Should the investigation take a wrong turn, she will be a convenient scapegoat. If there’s physical danger, there should always be men around to rescue her and so emphasise her essential weakness.

On the other side of the fence, a fourth wave book might have the woman solve the case that has defeated all the less than competent men around her, beat any criminals who attack her with cool judo moves, and be rewarded with a commendation and a promotion by a grateful nation (it’s a terrorism case so the Queen would have to give her a gong for preserving world peace). Depending on the model to be adopted, this woman might be able to drink all her male colleagues under the table, love them and leave them in the sack, or swagger with that indefinable quality that marks her out as an instinctive leader. In short, she would be an inspirational role model for all women readers, showing them that any glass ceiling would shatter the moment she happened to catch sight of it and that she would rise to the top, often with the support of the men who realise submissiveness is required when they are in the presence of a superior being. She will become a focus for individual and group action to call out men who are sexist and misogynistic, and challenge the assumptions underpinning patriarchalism. She will lead a vanguard of women towards a future of greater gender equality in a more global community. Yes, well you know the type of book I mean. Both patriarchalists and feminists can write propaganda.

I’ve diverted myself in this way because the book proves to be unadventurous in its gender politics. Ms Khan actually proves to be intelligent but perhaps necessarily rather paranoid. She’s competitive and suspicious of others which prevents her from being a real team player. Thus, even if the men around her were actually well-intentioned and trying to make her feel one of “them”, she would be unco-operative. This weakness makes her a less than engaging protagonist. Indeed, she proves to be somewhat reckless and has to be rescued. Even at the end when what’s probably an olive branch is extended in her direction, we’re left uncertain whether she’s capable of grasping it. This is a clear signal to women readers. The entire investigation was hurtling in the wrong direction, yet she did not have the self-confidence to open her mouth and insist on being heard. Indeed, when she did talk to a colleague and he passed on her ideas to their boss, she assumed he was her enemy and ceased co-operating. I’m not saying this is unrealistic. Women react differently in such situations of institutionalised racism and sexism. But her performance is less than stellar. In the end, she does “solve” the case but it’s only by accident, and because she didn’t follow protocol and tell people where she was going and why, she had to be rescued. This is embarrassing and not a little sexist.

I wanted to like A Price to Pay. The basic plot idea is sound and the reason why the investigation hares off down the wrong track is nicely worked out. But putting aside the slightly horrendous coincidence that kicks into operation as a plot dynamic about halfway through, I couldn’t warm up to Ms Khan at all. The fact I might understand the reasons for the protagonist’s actions does not make her likeable. Worse, almost all the women who appear in the pages of this book are victims in one way or another. Even the protagonist’s mother who had shown such good judgement in marrying for love, is shown completely misjudging the man who had been in her daughter’s life. And that’s quite fatal to enjoyment. So even though it works as a police procedural with an international dimension giving it contemporary relevance, I was disappointed.

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

I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus

December 6, 2013 Leave a comment

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I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus (Apex Publications, 2013) Apex Voices: Book 2 gives me pause for a slightly nonstandard reason. Some years ago, I ran my own small press. For reasons which need not concern us here, it was not a great success but, rightly or wrongly, I believed in the authors and their books. It would not have occurred to me to publish something that I thought poor or second-rate. I note with some degree of derision, the emergence of a new breed of small press publisher who sees crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo as removing the risk from their decision-making. Instead of backing their own judgement with their own money, they raise the necessary cash from future customers. This does not apply to Apex Publications. They have the confidence to put their own capital at risk. My apologies. I’m diverting from my theme. This collection of two stories from Maurice Broaddus contains a somewhat ironic pair of effusive panegyrics as to the author’s worth. Why ironic? Because the shorter piece is titled, “Pimp My Airship” and these two prefatory pages are implicitly titled, “Pimp My Author”.

Anyway, this excess takes nothing away from the actual quality of the two stories, the first of which is the longer “I Can Transform You”. We’re immediately pitched into a noir science fiction police procedural in which Mac Peterson, an on/off police detective is called in when his ex-partner has taken a dive off one of the tallest buildings in the neighbourhood. Like Icarus, she did not make a soft landing. Sadly, she’s one of a growing number of people who have taken their leave of the world by this extravagant swan-diving and no-one has been able to come up with a convincing explanation for this aberrant suicidal gesture. His boss, Hollander, introduces our hero to Detective Ade Walter who’s to take lead on this case. On top of the building, there are signs of a struggle and she has trace amounts of DNA under her nails suggesting defensive action on her part. This sets the plot in motion.

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus

Mac is, of course, a man with a past. He was ousted from his role as a full-time detective because he busted a ring of paedophiles with connections to the rich and powerful. He’s retreated into the demimonde as a problem-solver or PI if you want to dignify what he does for cash to fuel his increasing dependence on the drug called Stim. Just about holding himself together, he sets off to ask questions of the “gang” of desperate homeless people who had connections to this latest “suicide”. As a piece of noir science fiction, it’s similar to Michael Shean’s Shadow of a Dead Star and the rather better Bone Wires. In this type of story, our hero finds himself forced to work outside the formalised law enforcement structure in a world suffering environmental damage to investigate the activities of a shadowy “organisation”. He may or may not be augmented or, as in Guy Haley’s Omega Point, he may have a cyborg as a friend. As a basic plot, it’s not very original. What saves this version to some extent is the quality of the characterisation. There’s some heft to the protagonist but, in comparison to Clean by Alex Hughes which also deals with a consultant to the police (he’s a telepath) struggling with addiction in a future noir dystopia, Broaddus is a little thin.

The shorter “Pimp My Airship” is a political steampunk allegory in which the American revolution failed and Britain retained control. The colony prospered by exploiting the free labour force and building on the backs of the slaves. The status quo of corruption and racism would have continued, filling the coffers of the British masters, but for the arrival of automation. Since machines, once deployed, are easier to manage than slaves, the newly redundant were ghettoised and left to their own devices (sic). Pacification through opium was the norm, with imprisonment for any who chose to speak out against the racial oppression. This story sees a very public blow being struck for the practical emancipation of the ex-slaves. It initially requires a group to be freed from imprisonment rather along the lines of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille. For this purpose, an airship is required. The Afronauts fly to their destiny and the appropriately named “Sleepy” must decide where his loyalties lie.

In the confines of a short story, it’s a challenge to develop beyond broad brush strokes. The problem with this particular vehicle for mirroring modern racial discrimination is the lack of an economic context. In contemporary America, the racially oppressed groups are maintained in a state of dependence with just enough earning capacity to sustain life, doing the work the racially advantaged consider beneath their dignity. In time, this will change as the better paid jobs dry up and the bare subsistence jobs are all that are left. But for now, the potential for revolution is lacking. The oppressed have been brainwashed into apathy, convinced they are powerless to effect change. In this story, there are no low paid jobs for the poor to fight over. They have been condemned to slum wastelands. So who feeds them and provides shelter from the elements? If automation replaces all the low-pay, no-pay jobs, the elite should be thinking in terms of eugenics and a final solution, rather than picking up a bill for charitable works and free opium for all (cf “This Peaceable Land” by Robert Charles Wilson).

I might have thought these two stories published as I Can Transform You rather better if the book had begun without the broadside of unrelenting praise. Having raised expectations with a concerted sales puff of epic proportions, the actual stories were almost bound to disappoint. In American terms, the politics underpinning both stories is probably quite edgy. In European terms, it’s superficial and unchallenging. Though the writing style is above average, the substance is lacking for a European reader like me. Perhaps American readers will find more grist.

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

Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic

Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic

Downtown Strut by Ed Ifkovic (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the fourth mystery featuring Edna Ferber and is set in 1927 as our heroic wordsmith prepares for the dual launch of Show Boat and The Royal Family on Broadway. This book is interesting on two counts. The first is that we have a man writing a first-person narrative as a woman. The second is that the subject matter of the book is essentially an exploration of the racism in the Flapper Years before the Great Depression hit. The title of the book is, of course, a reference to “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” and sets the tone rather appropriately. This was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917 and it’s gone on to become what we politely call a “jazz standard”, but it’s perhaps rather better known today with the title sanitised to “Downtown” rather than Darktown. In other words, we no longer feel comfortable referring to Harlem as Darktown. This area of New York is something of an anomaly. In the forty-year period between what’s still fondly called the Gay Nineties and the Great Depression, Harlem changed from being predominantly Jewish to African American. A symptom of this transition was the “Darktown Follies”, a review produced in 1913 at the Lafayette Theatre on 7th and 132nd Street — a review that, thanks to Florenz Ziegfeld, moved to Broadway within a year of its opening. As you might imagine, there was real co-operation between African American musicians and Jewish impresarios when there was money to be made. The rest of the time, the relationship between the races was not so good.

Our real-world narrator and other historically significant people of that period portrayed in this novel occupied an awkward gatekeeper role. The problem when one group of immensely talented people are the victims of discrimination, is where you draw the line between a patron, a benefactor and an exploiter. By definition, patrons control access to different levels of social acceptability and confer certain rights to what we might term privileges. In some cases, this can be the power to give people work and thereby some dignity in the world. In other cases, it’s the power to use the casting couch for sexual exploitation, giving people hope and ultimately denying them respect. Nominally, America might have abolished slavery but, in 1927, the practical experience of African Americans had only marginally improved. Even in the North which had been the driver of social change, the status of African Americans remained equivocal.

Ed Ifkovic

Ed Ifkovic

It’s against this background that our narrator returns home unexpectedly and discovers a group of writers and artists meeting in her living room. This is the “fault” of Waters Turpin, her housekeeper’s son, who had decided to host Bella Davenport and her boyfriend Lawson Hicks, Ellie Payne, Roddy Parsons, Harriet Porter and Freddie Holder. Once our heroine has overcome her surprise, she recognises some from a previous meeting, and is sufficiently interested to get to know them all better. This immediately feels fake — a necessary plot device to get the story going, particularly when Jed Harris walks in on the group. Although it gives our amateur sleuth a chance to assess each individual, make a rough assessment of their relationships, and then study their reaction to the “powerful” Broadway producer, it’s one of these horrible coincidences. She just happens to return home and then, not expecting her to be there, Jed Harris walks in. There are many less contrived ways to get the show on the road. As if that’s not enough of a coincidence, a few pages later, our heroine is discovering the body of Roddy Parsons in his Harlem apartment. Yes, the overt racism of the detective who comes along to investigate and the innuendos in the press as to what Edna Ferber was doing in Harlem to find a young African American dead in his bed are credible. But the whole set-up is unsatisfactory.

As we might expect, the white detective rounds up the local older black guy with a record and mental health problems, and pins the murder on him as a burglary gone wrong. This offends the sensibilities of our heroine who’s convinced there’s a lot more at play. We then get a densely written set of meetings between our heroine and the group members during which it becomes obvious they all have doubtful alibis as to where they were at the relevant time. More intriguingly, it’s also obvious that Jed Harris is lying about his connections to members of this group and that they all had reason to resent both Harris and the dead guy. Sadly I stopped reading about two-thirds of the way through and skipped to the end to see whodunnit and why. It’s not that it’s badly written. In fact, the prose is, at times, quite powerful and reasonably convincing using a female protagonist. It’s the feeling the tone of the book is wrong. Whenever anyone sets out to write an historical novel, there’s an immediate question of how much history to include.

In this instance, the technical challenge is how to make the text informative using a first-person narrator. By definition, this woman has no need to think critically about her own life and her reactions to everyday events. She is what she is — a Pulitzer prize-winning author and informal member of the Algonquin Round Table (a fact not mentioned in the parts of this book I read carefully). With an omniscient author, it’s easier to make judgements of the various characters involved. If someone is acting in an overtly racist manner, the author can use appropriate signifiers to communicate an emotional response. Even in a book intended to be an accurate historical portrayal of racist attitudes, the author can communicate the awfulness of the behaviour on display. What might have been considered entirely normal then, can seem outrageous today. But this author carefully avoids being judgmental. He does not condemn his female protagonist for being a creature of her time. Whereas he could have shown her debating whether to confront the racism of the day, he chooses not to because that would focus on her moral cowardice in not, for example, going into a convenient eating establishment with a young African American in tow and demanding service. She never gives a second thought to having a live-in African American servant. Slavery by dependency is just as much slavery. The result is all rather mealy-mouthed and unsatisfactory.

I was seriously disappointed that a modern white man could not write a better book about the racism in the early part of the twentieth century. What the book needs is a moral centre from which the author can comment on and, if appropriate, disapprove the events and attitudes described. In my opinion, the failure to produce a coherent subtext of disapproval leaves it to the readers to approve the racism on display. There’s a simple rule of interpretation at play here. If an author intentionally writes about racist behaviour and does not condemn it, it must be within the scope of the author’s intention that readers approve what they read. Put another way, the author is, at the very least, reckless whether readers will approve. Indeed, it must be foreseeable to the author that some who read this book will be racially prejudiced. Silence from an author can therefore be seen by such readers as passive approval or encouragement to those readers to approve racist behaviour. Downtown Strut is a book that communicates information in a moral vacuum. It offended my sensibilities to read it.

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

The Bat by Jo Nesbø

The-Bat-Jo-Nesbo

The Bat by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Books, Random House, 2013) translated by Don Bartlett (originally published as Flaggermusmannen in 1997) is the first of the novels featuring Inspector Harry Hole and it’s a fascinating study of guilt and racism. Taking the question of guilt first, Harry is trapped in an official conspiracy to preserve the reputation of the Norwegian police and the peace of mind of the parents of the police officer Harry killed. People do many different things when they are in public office. Sorry, that’s a rather silly way to put it. Being human and so fallible, people act irresponsibly no matter what their status or role in society. It’s not, you understand, that they believe themselves above the law or that they can manipulate the law enforcement agencies into taking no action. Rather it’s that they become self-absorbed and fail to understand the risks they run. So when something goes wrong, senior management often decides to cover up the problem. It’s not directly to protect the individual wrongdoer although that’s the effect. It’s to maintain public confidence in the institution and, perhaps, help the families of those who die. So in a friendly-fire incident, it’s better to blame the enemy on the battlefield than the panicking squaddie who pulled the trigger. Or for the Police Commissioner to overlook the alcoholism and regular incapacity of the officer who was driving.

Aborigines are also central to the plot. Harry is partnered with an aboriginal police officer — obviously Australian officialdom has a sense of humour in matching the two social outsiders — he meets Toowoomba a younger man fighting against the institutionalised racism of the country, and relies on Joseph to find a witness and for guidance on how to accommodate the wrongful judgments of others. The opening part of Harry’s journey through Australian society is presented as a form of learning experience. He has to resolve his own reactions to his status as a barely-tolerated outsider. The Australian police are not overjoyed that a Norwegian has been sent to “help” investigate the local death of a Norwegian woman. They hide their resentment but prefer this inconvenient man to sit quietly in a corner and not disturb them. From an early point, Harry begins to engage with the local gay community which, despite official tolerance, is also struggling for acceptance. He’s also trying to find the right way to relate to Aborigines. The irony is that the Aborigines who know Harry is Norwegian and has only just arrived in Australia, will not relate to him in the same way as the locals. There should be no history or cultural baggage to get in the way of a more open set of relationships. Yet because Harry feels he doesn’t know how to relate to the Aborigines, he creates tensions where none should exist.

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Racism is a bit like how humans keep fish in an aquarium. Like mammals, fish also have a day/night cycle and if keepers disturb these circadian rhythms, the fish grow anxious and their health is threatened. So when the whites came to this big country and found “people” already there, the first reaction was to kill them. There was no possibility of sharing all this empty land. Later the whites felt guilty so they put the surviving locals on display. They tried to make them comfortable in the prevailing white culture, separated the children from their parents, introduced them to cities, and gave them an education. The expectation was that this well-intentioned forced relocation would make the new generation happy. The Aborigines would be assimilated and the whites wouldn’t have to feel guilty any more. Except, like the fish in the aquarium, many of the relocated children grew up alienated, rejecting the imposed environment as false, and wanting to return to their roots.

Harry’s like that too. The secrecy surrounding the fatal accident is forced on him. He’s even given official recognition for his good work in trying to catch the escaping criminal. How is he to expiate his own sins if they cannot be admitted? How can he be rehabilitated if there’s no public shame and punishment imposed to reflect his blameworthiness? The result is that he ends up as alienated, depressed and self-destructive as the Aborigines. The punishment he chooses for himself is cold turkey and obsessive dedication to his work as a detective. He quits drinking and drugs. He becomes a better than average detective. But he fails to become a better person because he can’t adjust to the knowledge he’s responsible for the death of a fellow officer. So when he falls off the wagon, the results are more extreme than might normally be the case.

It’s extraordinary we should have had to wait fifteen years to read this book in English. Although there are elements which some might consider controversial, there’s nothing so extreme to justify this form of censorship. That said, the continuing work of Don Bartlett has produced another outstanding result. Obviously I can’t say how this book reads in Norwegian, but it’s a wonderful piece of English. The way the plot works is also terrific. While the inclusion of the allegory and metaphor threatens to distract, the speculation and detailed analysis leading to the final conclusion is nicely balanced by the Australian context. As the outsider, Harry literally comes with a fresh pair of eyes. Except unless and until he knows something of the local culture, it’s impossible to use those eyes effectively. How can the newcomer attribute salience when he’s not aware of local significance? First he must learn and then think about what he has seen. The resulting investigation is completely engrossing. The murder of the Norwegian woman is linked to other deaths. There’s some very pleasing misdirection and Harry almost loses the game because he takes another drink. But the final conclusions are immensely satisfying. For those of you who have been wondering why Harry Hole is so dysfunctional, this is a must-read book!

For a review of the film version of one of Jo Nesbø’s books, see Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
Cockroaches
Police
The Son.

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

A Murder in Passing by Mark de Castrique

May 16, 2013 2 comments

A Murder in Passing

A Murder in Passing by Mark de Castrique (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the fourth Sam Blackman Mystery based around the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency. Sam and Nakayla have a growing reputation as investigators despite the fact their work ethic is more on a hobby level. Their finances are sound without having to work too hard. Sam was a Chief Warrant Officer working for the military police. He’s now retired with a prosthetic leg replacing the one he lost in Iraq. Having overcome the inevitable self-pity, he’s proved his ability in civilian life, making loyal friends and the inevitable enemies as a private investigator.

The book starts with our couple part of a small group investigating the woods for wild mushrooms in the Kingdom of the Happy Land. This historical estate was established by a group of emancipated and runaway slaves but has long been abandoned. Few disturb the land making it an ideal place for mushroom hunting. Embarrassingly, Sam falls over on to a rotten log covered in edible fungus. His hand goes through into what proves to be a hollow space containing a decomposed body. Just the luck of the draw, really. As the police begin their efforts to identify the body, Marsha Montgomery arrives in their offices with a story about the Kingdom, a stolen photograph, and her missing father. This quickly establishes the core of the story as based on a mixed race relationship in 1967 between Marsha’s parents. This year was significant in that the law was changed to allow such couples to marry. Obviously changing laws does not change people’s attitudes and prejudice may have been a significant factor in the white man’s disappearance. Almost immediately after they begin their own informal investigation to decide whether they will take on the case, an overzealous police officer arrests Marsha and her eighty-five year old mother without waiting for evidence to identify the corpse. The reason for the arrest is that Marsha, fearing her mother might have shot her father back in 1967, was seen burying the possible murder weapon in their back yard.

Mark de Castrique

Mark de Castrique

This makes the legal situation of the defence interesting because, if the prosecution can’t prove the identity of the victim, they can’t begin to prove a murder case against the mother and Marsha was only five at the relevant time. There are also some really nice bits of reasoning like the analysis by a ex-sniper of the scene where the shooting is assumed to have taken place. Taking an overview of the plot as it’s slowly rolled out, this is a very elegant rerun of an “idea” that used to be quite common in mystery and detective fiction. Because culture evolves and changes over time, it’s been some years since I last encountered it which makes it all the more pleasing to see an author demonstrate a contemporary relevance. Even if you understand the significance of one piece of evidence when it emerges, the enjoyment of the book is not disturbed. The theme just changes from a mystery to an understanding of the family tragedy as it played out all those years ago and the effect it still has today. The author enhances the theme by including a modern couple weathering prejudice against people in a gay relationship.

Although the plot itself is interesting, the real attraction of the book is the characterisation of our two detectives and their friendly attorney. So avoid the need to repeat myself, you should look at the introduction to my review of Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham on the question of lead characters with a disability and at Beyond the Bridge for a discussion of alcoholism. In this instance, our hero only finds the body because he’s disabled. Having put the coincidence of the right person in the right place at the right time, he’s also very strongly invested in helping other Vets adjust to their newly acquired disabilities. Indeed, he takes a direct interest in helping a young man with a prosthetic hand find employment. When so many in the real world are reluctant to look beyond the financial cost of the wars the US has been engaged in over the last decade or so, it’s distinctly refreshing for an author to be telling a positive story about someone who has lost lost a leg but gained a new perspective on life. All this makes A Murder in Passing a great read.

For a review of another book by Mark de Castrique, see The 13th Target.

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

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