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Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd

August 7, 2014 2 comments

Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd

Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd (the mother-and-son team) (William Morrow, 2014) is the sixteenth to feature the shell-shocked Inspector Ian Rutledge. This time, we’ve reached September 1920, and see our hero sent off into the Fen Country, a rather bleak but then quite beautiful part of the English countryside (it’s subsequently been rather spoiled by drainage to make the vast area of flatlands one of the most agriculturally productive parts of Britain). There have been two shootings. In the first, Captain Gordon Hutchinson was shot as he was about to attend a wedding in Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire. In the second, a local solicitor, Herbert Swift, had been persuaded to stand for a vacant parliamentary seat. As he was about to give a speech in one of the Fen villages, he too was shot. In both cases, this is a shot from a distance but there’s no evidence showing exactly where the shot was taken, nor is there any evidence of how the killer came and went. Whoever is responsible is meticulous in planning and expert when it comes to shooting. As a slight aside, history tells us there was a strong prejudice in the British army against the use of people we would call snipers. It was not considered gentlemanly to shoot one of the enemy from a concealed position and at a distance. This is not to say none of the men who went out to fight for the British were poor shots. Inevitably there were some who were expert marksmen but, if they were used as snipers, it was kept secret.

 

The local police are completely baffled. Although they have interviewed more than one-hundred people who were either outside the Cathedral or gathered in the square to hear the speech, there’s no information of any apparent value. Worse, there’s nothing to suggest the two men had ever met so there’s a real problem of motive. It’s at times like this that Chief Constables pick up the telephone and call Scotland Yard. This brings the lone figure of Rutledge into play, although he’s still haunted by the spirit of Hamish McLeod, the Scottish sergeant who was executed on the battlefield when he refused an order given by Rutledge. This gives our hero a heavy burden of guilt and the temptation of suicide is with him constantly.

Caroline and Charles Todd

 

The way in which the plot unwinds gives us a snapshot of the tragedy that hit the countryside after the end of the war. So many young men who left in such high spirits to fight the Hun either never returned or were so damaged, they were never good company. This left the farms desperately short of labour and the women coping on their own. It was a race against time as the older men kept things going until there were enough young men to take up the responsibility. All would have been well except for the arrival of the Second World War. Then the new recruits went off the war.

 

However, in 1920, the world was still running on the pre-war model of privilege and a servant class. Even the lower middle class often had at least one person to do the cooking and cleaning. Against this background, we have an insular village structure in which there’s little or no mobility between the communities although everyone still contrives to know everyone else’s business. Many of the families can trace their histories back several hundred years and, for better or worse, there have been many marriages to consolidate the ownership of properties and hold positions of authority. This is not to say all the births were legitimate. Sometimes people in loveless marriages or having recently lost a spouse, would drift into other relationships. Some of these children endured the badge of shame and lived their lives in the local communities. Others were spirited away or left when they were old enough.

 

Although it seems the killer is an expert marksman, the problem of motive requires Rutledge to explore the relationships of the people who have lived for generations in this fairly desolate area. Only when the connection between the two victims is uncovered can he begin to track who had the motive and opportunity. The result in this case is wonderfully ambiguous. Our tortured detective unearths two possible connections. This would give him one fairly obvious suspect, but right up to the end, he’s not certain. Indeed, it’s only when he comes closer to the solution that he realises he’s made a serious misjudgment. Fortunately, he’s been running the investigation without any active supervision, so he can carefully edit the facts presented to the local Chief Constable and the senior officer at Scotland Yard. In this instance, Hamish McLeod as his conscience would approve the decision to leave many of the sleeping dogs undisturbed.

 

In the immediate period after the Second World War, I knew men like Rutledge. Today we give this condition the slightly more grandiose label of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But no matter what the label, their psychological wounds were profound and disabling. It’s still relatively unusual to have a series character carrying such serious injuries. In this case, it’s not just the claustrophobia, but many different stimuli can send him into a distracted state (which is not a good idea if he’s driving at the time). Of course, his awareness of another person would mark him out as less than sane in modern terms. That he continues to function at a high level is a testament to his stubborn courage. Many weaker men would undoubtedly have committed suicide. What makes this case more challenging is the need to talk with many in the Fens who had been in the trenches. Meeting so many other wounded soldiers adds to the psychological pressure. Yet, for all his problems, he not only elicits new information from the communities, but is also able to draw inferences that had escaped the local police. It’s as a fine a piece of “follow the breadcrumbs” investigating as you could hope to find. Indeed, not only as a historical mystery but also as a puzzle to solve, Hunting Shadows is a particularly impressive book.

 

For the review of another book by Charles Todd see A Bitter Truth.

 

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

 

Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman

work done for hire

Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman is a very interesting book from a man better known for his science fiction. For the most part, this is a contemporary or near future thriller which adopts a somewhat metafictional structure. Since the nature of the plot is clearly intended to build up to an unexpected outcome, I will be careful to avoid anything too explicit in this review. I’ve probably read too many thrillers and SF novels to be taken by surprise. One of the flaws of the book is that, once you are given confirmation your suspicion is correct, there’s no effort made to retrace steps to explain how it was all done. I’m not saying setting this up in the real world would be impossible, but it would have felt more reassuring if Haldeman had offered a few words. Perhaps the US military really does surgically implant tracking devices into its key assets and another group could hack the device and follow him around. Or there’s some other near-future technology in play here. Whatever it is, the author should come clean. As to the actual ending, it’s less than rational and rather perfunctory. As one of the US military might say, this has grown into something of a clusterfuck and wrapping up all the loose ends and consequences in a single paragraph is the worst kind of lazy writing. This seems to be an author who thought of a plot which nicely got our protagonist into a mess and then couldn’t work out how to resolve it. So he threw down a few paragraphs at the end and hoped no-one would notice the arbitrary way in which everything came screeching to a halt.

 

So what can I safely say about this? Well, meet Jack Daley who was a sniper in the latest conflict. He picked up a wound in his leg and was invalided out. This leads to the usual PTSD problems and he’s heading for the usual scrap heap when he meets the right young lady. He writes a book about his experiences which is not unsuccessful, but no publisher seems very interested in his next book. Then his agent comes back with an offer from a film producer. They have a script outline and are looking for someone to novelise it. Actually, the studio doesn’t want a full novel. Novelette length is sufficient. If the studio likes it, they will build it into a shooting script with a big bonus if it’s made into a film. Note this is pie-in-the-sky future financial security. He’s only sure of the small advance. Throughout the book, we therefore get to read the chapters in this novelette as they are written. Indeed, it’s not impossible to see the emerging science fiction horror story as offering at least two points of interest. The hook for the story is a man down on his luck who’s paid to act as bait for a serial killer. It’s left ambiguous as to whether this Hunter is human or an alien. All we can say about this creature is that he eats those he kills. The second feature is the writing process influences the direction the fiction takes. As our writer as protagonist feels threatened, so his novelette becomes more gory. Obviously a sniper has a different view of the process of killing. His subconscious may therefore be taking the novelette in a direction the studio might consider unfilmable.

Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman

 

Everything is moderately conventional for the first third of the book. Our protagonist begins to demonstrate he’s not the greatest writer of horror which may be sfnal and we get to meet the woman in his life. He then receives a rifle with instructions to set it up for a hit and then stand ready for instructions. If he fails to obey, the voice on the telephone makes the usual threat that “they” will kill his girlfriend. So begins an exploration of how far each side of the potential bargain is prepared to go. Although Daley is not a banker, he’s used as a literary device to explore the phenomenon of moral hazard. He’s been a paid killer for the government. Now he’s asked to continue in his trade for private hire. This plot development might be more interesting if he was told who he was supposed to kill, but because the precise details of what he’s expected to do are never made explicit, the extent of the dilemma is not allowed to develop. Put simply, what we see of his writing suggests he’s never going to make it as a novelist, and he has no other real skills with which to earn a living. Resuming his life as a well-paid killer would pay all the bills and enable him to live a comfortable life. Unfortunately, the details remain largely theoretical and this aspect of the plot loses its impact.

 

This leaves me thinking Work Done For Hire is undercooked. Far more could have been done to bring the near-future technology into focus. The inclusion of an entire novelette inside the novel slows down the action and leaves less room for the thriller to build and be resolved coherently. The metafictional opportunity to use the fiction as an internal mirror is never seriously exploited. Although the characterisation of Jack and Kit is good, particularly when they go on the run, the book itself never really decides what it wants to do with two such interesting characters. The actual plot mechanism used in the final quarter of the book is very clichéd and makes little sense given what has gone before. So even though there are good features, I can’t really recommend you read this which, for a novel by Haldeman, is disappointing.

 

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
The Accidental Time Machine
Earthbound.

 

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

 

Penance by Dan O’Shea

July 13, 2013 2 comments

Exhibit.A.Penance.cover (3) 2nd for Mike Dec 4

Appreciating style is highly subjective. It would be so much easier if society had agreed metrics so we could dismiss a book as too florid if the percentage of adjectives in a text exceeded 20% or that consistently more than three clauses in a sentence made it a literary rather than a genre book, and so on. Indeed, the moment you open the Pandora’s Box of analysis, you’re immediately caught up in judging the way language is used in the text. Let’s start asking questions. Are the words more important than the ideas? Is a poetic style using metaphor able to address a more sophisticated set of images than a conventional prose style? Where do we rank credibility, originality, psychological depth, and the morality of the acts and omissions described? So because no-one has ever defined a coherent set of criteria against which to measure the quality of any given artistic work, we’re left with all these vague feelings which crystalise into like and dislike as we read.

So here comes Penance by Dan O’Shea (Exhibit A, 2013). This is his first novel after publishing a collection of short stories. It introduces Detective John Lynch of the Chicago Police. He’s of Irish ancestry and, because of his family, has connections to the powerbrokers in the Windy City. His father, Declan Lynch, was a straight cop who was killed on the job. Taking that as his inspiration, John Lynch has steered clear of the corruption. His uncle, on the other hand, has always been a player, working for Paddy Wang, the regional kingmaker. Those with the real power always need people to front for them. That way, the puppet masters can stay in the shadows while getting the results they want. The plot therefore depends on a political drama that was played out in 1971. To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say, an unfortunate incident is exploited to achieve a number of significant results. Many different people had to be involved. All those who could be trusted were given rewards of different types. The remainder met unfortunate ends.

Dan O'Shea

Dan O’Shea

Coming forward to the present time, the title to the book sets the tone of the plot. This is a sins of the fathers story. Most of the original players are now dead, but their children live on, some continuing in their fathers’ footsteps. One of these children decides to do penance by killing the guilty who survive from 1971. This man has highly refined skills, having trained as a sniper and then worked off the books for the US government. When he goes off the reservation, his agency is tasked with killing him before he can do any real damage. This leads to a direct conflict of interests when the first victim is shot in Chicago and the case is given to John Lynch. My first problem is with the mounting scale of the debacle as the body count rises and the cover-ups swing into place. The different factions in government all have slightly different agendas depending on whether their interests are threatened or not. As their motives do not align, co-ordination breaks down and there’s in-fighting. In the midst of all this, John Lynch very conveniently finds a file his father had hidden away. This clarifies many of the facts in the 1971 cover-up and suggests his father was murdered. We then get into John Lynch collecting a small number of trusted people around him to hold down the Chicago end. He’s also approached by one government faction who supply self-interested support. This leaves our man in the middle trying to do the boy-scout thing of keeping as many people alive as possible while taking down all the bad guys, no matter who they are.

I’m not convinced much of this is even remotely credible but, I suppose, if you’re going to write a modern thriller, you don’t worry too much about keeping a lid on your imagination. If the detail all fits into a coherent plot and you’re writing about a group of people with sociopathic tendencies, you stop worrying whether they would shoot people. As sociopaths they would not only shoot them, they would double cap them in the head to make sure they were dead and then look for the next person to shoot. If there were witnesses, they would be unfortunate collateral damage. And so on. Politically, this is all sanctioned because people in government office prefer to stay in office. Morally they are no better than the killers they send out to clean-up the damage. The result is a depressing litany of corruption and criminality.

Then we come to the style which I confess to not liking very much. In part, it’s a judgement of taste, e.g. a man parks his Jaguar sedan in a portico big enough to hold Bill Clinton’s libido. I suppose similes like this are amusing to some readers. There’s actually one joke close to the end which did make me smile. But I think a lot of the humour badly misjudged. I’m also disturbed when an author refers to characters as, “the small Chinese sociopath”. We have a range of different killers paraded before our eyes: from America, Israel and, yes, China. But it’s the casual attribution of nationality that somehow distinguishes between degrees of efficiency in killing. Sadly, the Israelis don’t come out of this pissing contest very well. I could go on listing all the different ways the text made me flinch but all that does is give my subjective impressions. You might very well think this type of police procedural which rapidly shifts gear into a flat-out political thriller is your kind of book. If so, you’ll no doubt find Penance a top-class read. But if you prefer a book to have a reasonable amount of credibility and some psychological depth to the characters (the sociopaths outnumber the sane characters by a significant margin), this is not for you.

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

The Five by Robert McCammon

We are who we are. If we’re lucky, we’re reasonably happy with who we are. That helps us through this vale of tears without too much pain. For the less lucky, there’s the constant grind of having to do our best when not enough people around us care what happens to us.

The Five (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a book about people who are professionals. They all want to succeed at what they’re good at. It can be playing music, or making deals as a manager, or remembering what it was like when you could hold a rifle and put a bullet through a man’s head at 500 or more yards. Yet life has a way of not co-operating. When you want to push forward, it pushes back. So what do you do?

Let’s approach the answer to this question from a slightly obscure direction. Whether you’re young or old, it’s strange when you look back at your life. In your head, you can remember so clearly when, against the odds, you triumphed. How you threw the perfect pitch when it was needed or played the best guitar solo since the days of Jimi Hendrix. Yet most of the time, you were just average. You had your own high standards and, by those, you were rarely any good. Except, every now and then, you did raise your head up above the parapet. You joined a group and, when everyone gave you their emotional support, you were accepted as good enough most of the time. At some point, maybe you even became good enough to make a living out of the skills that gave you the most satisfaction. Well, perhaps it might be an exaggeration to say you earned enough to live on. Particularly those in the creative world. The stories of writers starving in garrets and bands on the road using their own savings to pay their way round the circuit of no-hope dives, playing for pride, ever watchful for the A&R men who might recognise their talent and give them a recording contract. . . They’re all true. It’s the pursuit of dreams that keeps them going. It’s trying to make a consistent reality of those few memories of greatness they treasure in their heads.

Robert McCammon. You remember him. He wrote all those great horror novels years ago and then dropped off the radar. Sad when that happens to a talented author. Then he was back with the Matthew Corbett books. Now comes The Five. Well, perhaps the title is a little off since there are actually six of them on the road if you count the manager, but that would make it even less clear who the thumb is (sorry, in-joke). And then there really are only five still alive, albeit with one in a hospital ICU, as a deranged sniper stalks them. Let’s face it. There’s nothing like being the tethered goat to bring out the best in people. Hey, that’s not very fair, is it? Tethering the damn goat. Perhaps it might be better to let it drive around the countryside with the words, “human target” stenciled on the side of the van — the FBI hijacked the description from the comic book and television series as a challenge to keep the stalker motivated and therefore catchable.

There are wonderfully evocative passages like the time the band sees the girl give water to the blackberry pickers and the explanation of how Stone Church got its name. This is the old Robert McCammon, magically weaving words to hint at supernatural threats, at menace beneath the surface. Yet the whole is a taut and economical thriller about a band on the run (literally), albeit with ambiguities about how they may just be pawns in a greater game. Except, of course, all such supernatural shit has no place in a rock musician’s world. If the band is going to move people and change the world, the only way it can be done for real, is through the lyrics to a perfect melody. That would be an example of art. Yes, even a rock musician has a holy grail. In this case, the quest for the song they will still enjoy playing in twenty years time. Not some anthem they can belt out to get a club full of fans to sing back to them. But something that can speak to everyone who hears it and, as individuals, they can all believe the song is speaking directly to them, giving them a message about life, the universe and where the next burger is coming from.

So how do you write such a song? The answer is by accepting all the shit the world throws at you and soaking it up as part of life’s great experience. As a naive youngster, you can rarely ever say anything profound enough to appeal across the spectrum of cultures. You haven’t lived enough. You need maturity. You need to have been there, got the T-shirt and have the wit to write it down in a way that allows others to share in that experience. So this band goes through the mill and comes out the other side with a song. Not all survive and, in the end, the survivors accept change in their lives. This means they are growing as artists and thereby better able to inspire others.

Irrespective of how you might choose to classify this book by genre, e.g. as mainstream fiction with rock n’ roll overtones, a thriller about a band pursued by a sniper, or faintly supernatural fiction, The Five is one of the best reads so far this year. Here we can observe a beautifully detailed set of characters struggling to survive in a hostile world. The stresses and strains of communal existence in a band on the road are nicely captured. It all feels authentic. Everyone we meet on this journey gets their moment in the sun as we see into their lives and understand how their family and other relationships work. Even the crazed killer comes out as someone we can understand even if we have little sympathy for him. This is Robert McCammon on his very best form and I unhesitatingly recommend The Five to you.

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

Here’s a piece of good news: nine of McCammon’s early books, The Wolf’s Hour, Mine, Blue World, Swan Song, Mystery Walk, Stinger, Gone South, Boy’s Life, and Usher’s Passing are back in print as e-books. If you have not already read them, now’s your chance to catch up. These are classic horror novels!

For a review of another book by Robert McCammon, see The Providence Rider.

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