Elective Procedures by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) sees us back in the confusing world of Elle Harrison. For those of you who have yet to read The Trouble With Charlie, the first in the series, a few words of explanation are in order. This is a woman formally diagnosed with dissociative disorder. This means her awareness of events around her can abruptly cease and then restart some little time later. If she’s involved in conversations or listening to others speak, that means she can miss vital elements in what’s being said. If there are high stress events, she’s likely to suffer amnesia. Indeed, at times, her grip on her own identity can be less than secure. The author, in other words, has carefully decided to feature an unreliable narrator. To add a further layer of confusion, there’s also the suggestion of possible supernatural powers at work. In particular, the first-person narrator regularly sees her husband Charlie whom we know from the first book to be dead. In this book, there’s a similar confusion as to whether she’s seeing real people, or ghosts, or merely hallucinating. To compound this confusion, she and a friend consult a fortuneteller who makes the usual generic predictions for the friend, but asserts our protagonist attracts the dead to her and that she’s likely to be in some danger (now there’s a surprise).
This is a kind of cozy mystery masquerading as a thriller. We have four women who decide to go to Mexico. One has decided to have cosmetic surgery (without telling her husband). She wants moral and physical help from her friends to get her through the door of the operating theatre and then to recover from the surgery. One of the remaining three is a lawyer who finds herself online for most of the time in the resort, dealing with urgent problems from the firm she works for. This leaves the other two with the chance to engage in a little holiday romance. The “other” decides one of the entertainment officers is for her. Our hero finds herself involved with the cosmetic surgeon who sees nothing ethically wrong in dating the friend of a patient rather than the patient herself. So far, we’re running along fairly predictable lines.
Early in the book, our hero finds herself attempting to rescue the woman occupying the next suite in the hotel where they are staying. But before our hero can cross from her balcony to the next, the woman falls to her death. At this early stage, it’s uncertain whether this is a murder, accident or suicide, but since the victim has just had cosmetic surgery and should be feeling good about herself, suicide looks unlikely. When another woman is killed in the same suite two nights later, we have the mystery set up and ready to run. However, our author obviously believed the plot would not sustain itself over the usual running length of a mystery novel, so there’s a further level of complexity introduced. For the record, it’s obvious from quite early on, given this particular protagonist, who the killer in the hotel suite must be. This leaves it up to the grafted element to carry the thriller aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, this is less than successful, leaving the whole novel somewhat thin. The romance plays out along predictable lines as well, so on balance, Elective Procedures is not a particularly impressive second book in what’s obviously intended as a growing series.
For a review of the first in the series, see The Trouble With Charlie.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
There are times when reviewers describe a book as a “fast read” and mean it in a dismissive way, implying it’s the kind of book you might pick up in an airport that might entertain you for the length of the flight. In the case of Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn (St Martin’s, 2014), I’m using the phrase in a more positive light. Let’s start with the prose. It’s not completely minimalist, but it does have an elegant, stripped-down feel to it that places no barrier between the author and the reader. These are words strung together in a way that attractively say what they mean. The fastness of the read is enhanced by the nature of the plot. It’s one of these long-reveal books and, once the seeds of interest have been planted, the reader is going to keep turning the pages to find out what has happened. So far, all this is positive and, if I were to stop here, you would assume I would be giving this book an unhesitating recommendation. Unfortunately, I have to enter a caveat.
By way of explanation, I have to explain that as a professional reader, I’ve read thousands of books. I have so many t-shirts boasting I’ve been there and done that, I need never buy another item for my wardrobe. It takes something unusual to elicit the unhesitating recommendation. Sadly, this does not quality. From the opening paragraphs, it’s obvious we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator. This is a young man who suffers from acute panic attacks which not only affect him physically with some degree of paralysis to his hands coming as the precursor to unconsciousness and some memory loss. All we know for sure about him is that he and his sister were adopted, and that his sister was later sent to jail for an arson attack in which a young girl was seriously injured and some horses were killed.
My problem is that, about sixty pages into the book, I developed a detailed working hypothesis about what had happened in this young man’s past, and what would happen at the end. Sadly, I was right in almost every detail. This is not to say the book lacks originality. It’s just that there are only a limited number of probable scenarios that fit the setup and what I took to be the right one proved correct. So here comes the summation to this review. For an old and tiresomely know-it-all reviewer like me, this is a by-the-numbers plot which is very nicely constructed and elegantly written. If you are similarly experienced in reading thrillers, you will not be even remotely surprised at the ending. But if you are young and, as yet, relatively inexperienced, this plot may very well strike you as a breath of fresh air. You will be stunned by the revelations, mesmerised by the ingenuity with which the reveal is managed, and shocked by the ending. This is how it should be if the thriller is a good one. Now you can make an informed choice. Look into your heart and decide whether you have read many unreliable narrator novels. If not, then I unhesitatingly recommend Complicit. Otherwise, don’t bother.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (http://us.macmillan.com/tor.aspx, 2013) is both literally and metaphorically a weird book. As to the title, a moment’s thought should tell all those of you burdened by a classical education that the Latin for “across” is trans. This book is set in an Eastern European state. The first reference to this particular piece of the map was ultra silvam, i.e. beyond the forest. Following the success of Bram Stoker’s novel, everyone now knows the home of Dracula. From this you will understand this novel is an unpredictable mixture of supernatural thriller, political allegory in a somewhat Kafkaesque mode, mystery, and espionage/secret police adventure. It all begins with our potentially unreliable narrator, an American who writes travel books, seeking entry to a country that’s proving elusive. When he tries to book a flight, he fails to get a seat or the flight is cancelled. He therefore decides to make a more direct approach and takes the train. It seems he crosses the border while he’s asleep for the first he knows of his arrival is his arbitrary arrest for entering without a visa. Removed from the train under arrest, his passport confiscated, this leaves him stranded in one of this country’s slightly unusual cities. He’s commanded to stay in the house of a local couple. If he leaves, the secret police will execute them.
So, at a stroke, our seasoned traveller is ripped untimely from the familiar and dumped in a country where he does not speak the language and does not know the local customs. Even at the best of times, it would be difficult to negotiate a route to escape but when he’s not entirely sure who has his passport nor how to open a dialogue about its return, he’s forced to explore his immediate surroundings to see what comes to light. During this early time, it’s possible he meets a vampire and the wolves he commands. He also discovers an empty house which is associated with a long-missing treasure. Then he’s kidnapped and literally shipped off to the capital city. This brings him into William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) territory in which he makes radio broadcasts as an American. The state in which he’s being held prisoner is a dictatorship and, if an American is critical of the leader, this gives the underground opposition party greater credibility. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter what he says. Not many in this country speak English. Nor do they have access to any of the technology we take for granted. Even access to telephones is tightly controlled. Think of this as being a country in a kind of time warp. It’s not unlike East Germany but without any of its more obvious virtues. The secret police has almost complete power and is remarkably unaccountable for whatever its operatives do.
In allegorical terms, we’re supposed to be questioning how a country could regress into such a state. It’s a variation on the Edmund Burke “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Put another way, the only thing standing between a working democracy and a dictatorship is the quality of those who step forward to represent the people in the elections. If you get too many of the “wrong” type, they vote themselves into a more permanent position of power. Fortunately, our hero and forced radio personality is first arrested (again) and then released on condition he helps one of the senior operatives investigate some of the events that have been happening around him. In political terms, this means probing the “opposition” except they may actually be literally “evil”, i.e. able to use dark forces (or, if the dictator is on the dark side, the opposition may be on the side of the light). When it comes to naming and shaming the scapegoats, the dictator has control of the media and can say whatever he likes about those who oppose him. Indeed, when individually and collectively the Church may also be investigating whether society has been possessed and should therefore go through a process of exorcism, the battle-lines take on more significance. It’s at this point the book begins more seriously to conflate a police procedural investigation with a formal supernatural thriller as a hand of glory is discovered.
Although this has moments of obscurity and some of the political subtext is slightly naive, this proves to be one of Wolfe’s more accessible novels as we slowly discover more about this country and its political system. There are some quite pleasing aspects to the investigation itself and the process of deduction is moderately rigorous. I suppose one more cynical responses to this narrative might be to see it as a dream. Our hero falls asleep as the train approaches the border and what happens after that is just the product of his subconscious. This would help explain the sometimes quite arbitrary way in which our narrator skips over events and sometimes refuses to elaborate on the bare bones of description offered. Since no country this backward exists in Europe (North Korea might approximate this level of poverty both in political and material terms) and no-one today seriously believes in vampires or supernatural devices such as a hand of glory, we could safely treat this as an allegory. Yet, there always comes a moment when our narrators wake. This could be when the border guards invade his compartment on the train, or it might be as the last page turns. You should read the book to find out. The Land Across really does hold interest and arrives at an intriguing ending.
For a review of another book by Gene Wolfe see Home Fires.
This book was sent to me for review.
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Titan Books, 2013) qualifies as one of the most interesting books of the last year. In part, the interest lies in what the book is not. Ah. . . so now we immediately come to the heart of it. In some senses, this is a story about the nature of relationships rather than a book sitting comfortably in a genre such as science fiction or fantasy. The word selected as the title gives us the theme. When two or more people, places or things are adjacent, they are next to each other, perhaps even sharing a common boundary or border, but they do not overlap. You could pass from one part to its neighbour, e.g. from a city centre to a suburb or, in American terms, a more distant exurb. This gives us a potential paradox to resolve. Two people may be “close”, but no matter how intimately involved they may be, they do not physically become one person. They retain their individual traits and characteristics. Ironically, the law used to proclaim husband and wife were one person for legal purposes. So, for example, spouses could not give evidence against each other or, in some cases, property originally owned by one before marriage fell into the ownership of the other after marriage. Laws create their own fictions or distortions of reality to fulfill their social policy purposes.
When it comes to literary purposes, Christopher Priest is playing a complicated game with us. None of the first- or third-person narrators who feature in this novel are intentionally unreliable. It’s not their fault that they fail to grasp exactly who they are nor what purpose their presence advances. All they can do is tell their stories, believing them to be true, and leave it to us to decide how much of what they say might be true in the context for their contributions. We start off with Tibor Tarent and his wife Melanie. They are in a version of Anatolia, Turkey. He’s a professional photographer and she’s a nurse. In earlier times, their marriage was strong, but their enforced stay inside this medical camp for refugees puts their relationship under pressure. Normally, Tibor displaces his personal problems into the passivity of observing life through the lenses of his cameras. When the dangerous war-torn conditions outside the camp deny him this release, he grows frustrated and angry. She’s endlessly useful to those in need. He’s in the way. Unfortunately, when she leaves the camp, she’s the victim of a terrorist attack with a different type of weapon and disappears. He’s loaded into different forms of transport which carry him back to the Islamic Republic of Great Britain (IRGB). Up to this point, we might have been in our version of reality, but it now seems we’re in an alternate history version of the world in which Arab states rule Europe with Islam as the dominant, but not the exclusive, religion. Or perhaps the different forms of transport with closed windows have carried us into new somewhat Kafkaesque spaces.
It’s also at this point we become aware of another feature of the narrative structure. The IRGB Government is interested in Tibor because he met with Thijs Rietveld just before the latter committed suicide. This man was a theoretical physicist who discovered the adjacency equations. It was meant to be a defensive system which could divert an incoming missile into an adjacent quantum dimension. Unfortunately, what can be used defensively can also be modified to displace enemies into different dimensions. Having let the technological cat out of the bag, the world now faces attack by anyone with the technical skills to build the weaponised form. This use of “adjacency” randomly pokes holes in space-time. Consequently, everything gets mixed together unpredictably. When we start the story, Tibor has no memory of meeting Thijs. Later the meeting is described in detail and he has the photographs to prove it. Depending on where you stand, walk or fly, you can see buildings or not (watch shells disappear and appear). What happens in one dimension can also be an echo of events in a different dimension. Even more confusingly, Tibor may be able to meet both living and dead versions of himself. So we come back to the problem of what adjacency actually means.
One part of the story is told by a stage illusionist named Tommy Trent who makes a wasted trip to the battlefront in World War I in the company of H G Wells. He’s been asked to advise on whether it’s possible to camouflage an aircraft in flight. Dismissing the use of blue paint to “hide” the craft against a blue sky, he theorises it might be possible to use two or three planes flying close together, using one or, perhaps, two of them to distract the audience on the ground so that the third might effectively become invisible. This is adjacency used to distract attention so that a magic trick can be performed, e.g. using a beautiful and scantily clad assistant to take the eyes of the audience at just the right moment. What makes the sequence of stories interesting is the way they are placed next to each other, i.e. some elements may be distracting our attention. This process becomes all the more fascinating with the diversion into the fictional landscape of the Dream Archipelago to meet one Tomak Tallant who’s also a magician, this time with a rope trick much loved by fakirs. An avatar of Melanie flies a World War II Spitfire into this dimension which just goes to show how malleable the boundaries can be between the different spaces.
So putting all this together, Tibor could passively look through the lens of his camera and see an image of Melanie in relation to himself. Now think of this as a photograph of the street forming the boundary between the city centre and a suburb. He could actively change the image so the street appeared to be six inches or six-hundred miles wide. But changing the image we might see does not change the reality of the relationship between the city and its suburb. They remain in close proximity, divided only by the designation of a street on a map as a border. So people may resonate with each other in their relationship and, no matter whether we’re persuaded to see them as physically close or widely separated, they remain close even though a magic trick might make it appear one had disappeared. The Adjacent is strongly recommended to everyone who enjoys thoughtful fiction.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Season 6, episode 3. Endless Night (2013) starts with an unfortunate accident on the ice in 1948 where Mike Rogers (Tom Hughes) tries unsuccessfully to save the brother of Robbie Hayman (Aneurin Barnard). They were skating on thin ice as Robbie looked on from the bank reading a book. Ah, such memories can haunt a man. So nearly the hero. . . Then we wind forward to 1956 where Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) is staying with a recently widowed friend Marjorie Phillpot (Wendy Craig). In the high street, she meets Mike Rogers, now earning a living as a chauffeur. They see a poster advertising Gypsy’s Acre for sale, but it seems no-one wants to buy it — it’s reputed to be cursed. When he goes to view the rundown ruin, Mike meets Esther Lee (Janet Henfrey) who, by way of fortune-telling, quotes William Blake in Auguries of Innocence: some are born to endless night (some gypsies know too much for their own good).
So here we go with familiar twin themes of unlikely romance and the supernatural, stolen kisses, curses and portentous dreams of death. And in the background, Robbie Hayman has been announcing he’s going to die so this gives him a licence to do whatever he wants including shooting people (hopefully no-one he knows). This plot is playing with the stereotype of the lower class chancer who meets and marries the rich American heiress Ellie Goodman (Joanna Vanderham). Since we’re invited to watch this story from his point of view and he’s not necessarily the most reliable of narrators, we’re invited to suspect he might marry for money and then find a way in which his wife might meet an accident and so make him rich — assuming the estate is set up to allow him to inherit (which it proves to be).
Coincidentally, the couple meet up with Miss Marple and Marjorie while on their honeymoon in Italy. When the family of the heiress realise she’s married in secret, they go through outraged shock to bitter acceptance. Meanwhile, the house is being built on Gypsy’s Acre. They knock down the crumbling pile and erect a square glass monstrosity — no wonder local people want to kill them. On their first visit to their new home, a rock flies through one of the windows — someone has a great throwing arm to reach from a hidden position in the woods to an elevated window. The breaking glass cuts Ellie’s face — a gypsy’s warning, perhaps? There’s a folly in the woods. What a classic touch and plenty of opportunity for spookiness.
Ellie has a Swedish friend, Greta Anderson (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). When she asserts the right to share the modern nest with the newly weds, Mike is outraged. He wants Ellie all to himself. Greta begins looking for a home nearby. It then appears the new wife may have a heart problem and then there’s the question of what pills she might be taking. Later a dead bird and threatening note appear on their doorstep. Lee is suspected but she’s not around. Miss Marple finds a large bankroll of cash in her cottage. And finally. . . a riding accident: Ellie lying next to a horse out in the countryside. The doctor says she’s been dead three or four hours. The doctor diagnoses heart failure brought on by the shock of falling. Of course, none of these stories work if such diagnoses are correct. To understand the problems with this adaptation, we need to go back to the beginning.
The original novel is a first-person narrative told by Mike Rogers and introducing Miss Marple into such a plot creates an unfortunate tension because she’s required to keep appearing in the most unexpected places in order to see the relevant key events. We even have her investigating the folly and speculatively kicking over the traces in the quarry so she can work out what must have happened. It seems she’s become a stalker and exercises a more or less free right of entry into the couple’s modern house. The less said about the melodrama of the ending, the better. Kevin Elyot, the scriptwriter, never resolves the dilemma. Either this is to be a slightly different version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in which we see the story slowly reveal the reality of how Ellie comes to die, i.e. that’s why we have Mike’s voiceovers at strategic moments, or we have Miss Marple investigating a suspicious death.
Not that it really matters, but I’ve no idea where the Hamburg newspaper clipping came from. So this leaves us with a plot which has a suspicion of interest and an overwhelming flood of bad judgement. The faint interest lies in the decision to leave Mike’s point of view more or less in place. The Marple and Poirot formula of stumbling across a body and then working out whodunnit does grow slightly wearisome over time. This format avoids the cast of likely suspects and the strewing of herrings, red or otherwise. As a piece of television, this actually starts quite well until we get these endless coincidences to insert Miss Marple into the plot. The ending with her running around like a world-class sprinter and the dramatic fire does nothing to explain the psychology of the killer. Consequently, Endless Night proves to be a rather linear version of the plot, lacking any real twists and turns, or grand reveal at the end. The set-up is good enough, but then there’s no real mystery and absolutely no suspense. This leave us disappointed to say the least.
For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)
When children and young adults sit in classrooms around the world, the omniscient teachers of English always instruct aspirant authors never to use animals as first-person narrators. They point to the brilliance of White Fang where Jack London allows the reader to see the world through a dog’s eyes, but using the third-person. The problem for readers is one of credibility. By definition animals are not sentient and therefore cannot use natural language for thinking and communication. Even if the author decides to cheat, the animal is inherently an unreliable narrator. Given the majority of humans get confused and have problems in understanding the world, animals are even less able to understand what’s going on around them. One of the few examples of a successful canine protagonist is The Last Family in England (published as The Labrador Pact in America) by Matt Haig — one of the safest points of view from which to describe the breakdown in a marriage.
Yet here comes The Sound and the Furry by Spencer Quinn — a pseudonym of Peter Abrahams (Atria Books, 2013), the sixth book to feature Chet and Bernie as a crime-fighting pair of PIs. Chet is one of these rather large and powerful dogs that police forces around the world train and rely on when it comes to protecting static sites and chasing after potentially dangerous criminals. Except Chet allowed himself to be distracted when going through his final testing and so flunked out of the course. Instead of walking the mean streets as one of the dedicated K9 squad, he’s relegated to second string PI work. Fortunately, Bernie Little is an ideal partner and they settle into a comfortable routine in which Chet is able to offer help and support as investigations proceed. Sometimes he’s allowed the pleasure of attacking humans. That’s what his natural aggression and taste for human flesh were channelled into. The rest of the time is divided between sleep, eating and chewing the fat with Bernie as the most intelligent human in the room (which is not saying much) struggles to understand the complexities of the immediate case. With his keen sense of smell and acute hearing, Chet usually has a much better idea of who’s around and what their intentions are. Although Bernie is usually quite quick to pick up on the hints Chet barks or growls, they are still working on their communication skills.
In this episode, our pair are out driving when they encounter a road gang of criminals. Among them, they spot Frenchie Boutette, one of many now behind bars because of their best efforts. Coincidentally, Frenchie has need of PI help. The white sheep in the other wise black family, Ralph, has gone missing. This is completely out of character and the blame is laid at the door of the no-good Robideaus. When a $3,000 retainer appears, Chet decides he would like to investigate the sights and smells of Bayou Country. This is not to say the tail wags the dog, but Bernie understands which side his bread is buttered on. Then after a brief run-in with a member of the Quieros, a homicidally inclined gang of bikers who work in the drug distribution business, our pair find themselves in Louisianna with humans less than thrilled by Bernie’s arrival and a gator called Iko thinking Chet is a bite-sized nibble before lunch.
When this first-person convention first got going, there was an endearing quality about the humour. We traded on the notion that dogs have relatively short attention spans, not very reliable short-term memories, poor impulse control, and a total lack of awareness as to how strong they are. Now we’re arrived at the sixth outing, all the best jokes have been told and retold in several different ways. This leaves us with a slightly tired quality to the venture. Worse, we’re now in a different stamping ground which is populated by southern stereotypes including suspiciously helpful oil executives paid to handle reports of environmental damage. Putting all this together and The Sound and the Furry is a rather disappointing book. There are some moderately amusing moments and some of the situations develop in slightly less predicable thriller fashion due to the different point of view. But the plot is not terribly original and there’s one absurd example of survival against the odds. So unless you’re a die-hard fan of this PI duo, I would suggest letting the sleeping dog continue dreaming of rabbits or whatever he prefers to chase.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.