Category Archives: Fiction

Steffan Green: Richmal Crompton

“Has life played any practical jokes on you?”

In Richmal Crompton’s Steffan Green,  a look at village life in the 30s,  freshly divorced Lettice Helston decides to escape the prying eyes of her London friends by fleeing to the countryside. A wrong turn leads her to the picturesque village of Steffan Green and she finds herself renting a village cottage on a whim. Although Lettice thinks she’ll live in quiet solitude, she quickly becomes embroiled in village life.

The problem with ‘village life’ books is that they can become too quaint, but Steffan Green contains darkness combined with strong characterization, and the result is an interesting tale of life right before WWII.

Steffan Green

One of the main characters in the book is former suffragette, Mrs. Fanshaw, now the vicar’s wife, who believes that reading the old testament gives one a “certain sense of proportion.” Mrs. Fanshaw, a marvelous character who understands what people need and who tries to ‘mend’ problems in the village as they occur, has an entire philosophy built around her metamorphosis from suffragette to vicar’s wife. She makes Lettice one of her ’causes’ and slowly and relentlessly involves the newcomer in village life.

“Things are never as bad as they seem to be when you’re right up against them,” she said.” You’ve got to get away and look at them from a distance with other things round them before you can see them in the right perspective. On the whole, life treats us better than we deserve.”

Lettice’s neighbours are a married couple, Lydia and Philip Morrice and their new baby. As outsiders they aren’t quite embraced by the locals and Lydia, who wears trousers, is considered “indelicate” by the local gentry, the impoverished Mrs. Ferring who lives up at the castle. Even though Mrs. Ferring, who keeps informed through gossip, doesn’t ‘descend’ into the village much, she still rules local society.

There’s a strict hierarchy of class within the village, and while Mrs. Ferring and her two granddaughters live in penury in the old castle, traditions have not yet melted away. Further down the ladder of class, there are two village widows who each live with a son. There’s the snobby, insufferable Mrs. Webb who rules her poor son Colin with a rod of iron, and the toothless Mrs. Turnberry who is beloved by all the villagers. Mrs. Turnberry lives with her son, Frank, who can’t hold a job, steals and gets drunk. There’s a rivalry between Mrs Webb and Mrs Turnberry which rears its head whenever there’s a social event:

Lettice’s thoughts went back over the afternoon. Mrs. Webb, a plump little woman with smooth unlined skin and fair frizzy hair, slightly overdressed in beige georgette and pearls, conveying in voice and manner the elusive suggestion of the second-rate, had talked incessantly about her son, enlarging on his devotion to her and by implication on her own perfection as a mother. Mrs. Turnberry was dressed in a shabby navy-blue costume and not over-clean striped blouse. She had a swarthy gipsy face, bright brown eyes alive with humour, and she poked fun demurely but incessantly at Mrs. Webb, deflating her pretensions one by one as she tried to impress Lettice, and making sly little digs that were yet devoid of ill-humour.

Mrs. Webb rules her son, Colin, as she once ruled her husband, and Colin is manipulated by his mother’s suffocating ‘concern,’ her headaches and coldness. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Turnberry should be social equals–after all Mrs. Turnberry’s other son, is a “respectable” solicitor. Mrs. Turnberry’s social position, however, has been assaulted by her wayward son, Frank’s behaviour, and this is one of the reasons the villagers love her–she’s chosen her son over class and status.

Further down the social scale, There’s also the “large, powerfully built”  Mrs. Skelton (who had ten children) who seems to clean for all of the village ladies.

Village life begins to shake up with the arrival of Mrs. Fanshaw’s “old school friend,” Miss Clare Lennare, a “fourth-rate Bloomsbury” writer who rents Honeysuckle Cottage in Steffan Green and stirs up all sorts of trouble while ferreting out her next plot. According to Mrs. Fanshaw:

She’s a novelist with quite a fair public. Her heroines are gentle helpless little women–stupid but appealing–the sort we meant to wipe off the face of the earth.

Miss Lennare employs Mrs. Skelton’s youngest child, Ivy to be her cleaner but instead makes the girl a ‘companion.’ Mrs. Fanshaw sniffs problems with the way Ivy is given expectations and promises that will not be met, and she makes a connection between Miss Lennare’s behaviour and Jane Austen’s Emma:

No, I think it’s just an Emma and Harriet Smith affair, except that Clare lacks the saving graces of Emma, and Ivy the saving graces of Harriet Smith. Clare’s stupid, and it’s the stupid people who do the most harm in the world.

The book’s touch of melodrama seems misplaced and mars the story overall–still I really enjoyed this (mostly) gentle tale of village life with its strict, stubborn societal gradations, and its not-so-disappointed suffragette turned vicar’s wife.

Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) is best known for her Just William books for children. She was a schoolmistress, and a suffragette. For health reasons, she left teaching and began writing full time.

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The Hotel of the Three Roses: Augusto De Angelis

Earlier this year I read The Murdered Banker, one of the new titles from Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo crime books. The book, written by Augusto De Angelis, featured series detective Inspector De Vincenzi. I was disappointed in the book as it didn’t match the quality of the earlier Vertigo titles I’d read: She Who Was No More, Vertigo, and The Disappearance of Signora Guilia. Those three titles all had something new to offer to the crime genre, and all three novels were disturbing reads for various reasons. The Murdered Banker was a standard police procedural, and although the set-up was good, the denouement was disappointing. This brings me to The Hotel of the Three Roses, with its rather promising title. I should add that I have a soft spot for books set in hotels (boarding houses and asylums)–primarily for the way the setting throws various types together in forced intimacy.

The hotel of the three roses

It’s Italy 1919. Someone sends the Inspector an anonymous letter complaining about the Hotel of the Three Roses, claiming that it’s a den of iniquity, a “gathering of addicts and degenerates” and that a “horrible drama is brewing, one that will blow up if the police don’t intervene.” De Vincenzi takes the letter seriously, and requests a guest list. Immediately he senses that there’s something odd. Many of the guests are from London, and De Vincenzi wonders how all these foreigners know about the existence of this obscure third-rate hotel as “it’s not the kind you just stumble upon.” He decides to check the hotel that night. Just then he gets a call that a murder has occurred at the hotel, and this is the beginning of his investigation.

The murdered man was found hanging in his room, but according to the doctor called to the scene, the man was strung up after his death. Was this some sort of sick decision by the killer, or was the killer trying to hide the real cause of death? De Vincenzi begins questioning the strange assortment of guests and it becomes quite apparent that something peculiar is afoot at the hotel….

The Hotel of the Three Roses, a touch overly dramatic at timesis a good little mystery, and the police procedural is elevated by a cast composed of the strange, diverse assortment of guests, including a young gambler, heavily in debt and the doll-toting widow of a British army officer.  It’s clear that there’s a great secret between the guests, but De Vincenzi, driven by the desire to stop evil, must work hard to crack the silence.

With each step of the investigation, he found unexpected connections between all these people when it seemed there shouldn’t be any.

Italy seems to be a setting in which an author can capitalize on sun and glorious weather (thinking The Enchanted April and Where Angels Fear to Tread), but here Italy is portrayed rather differently, with incessant rain–a climate that matches the murky origins of a long-brewing crime:

The rain was coming down in long threads that looked silvery in the glare of the headlamps. A fog diffuse and smoky, needled the face. An unbroken line of umbrellas bobbed along the pavements.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

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The Death of Bunny Munro: Nick Cave

What on earth can be done with a man who sneaks off from his wife’s funeral in order to have a quick wank in the bathroom? …

In Nick Cave’s novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, the perpetually libidinous travelling salesman Bunny doesn’t stop to mourn his wife when she tops herself in their small Brighton flat. Libby may be dead, and that may leave Bunny Munro in sole charge of his nine-year-old son, Bunny Junior, but it’s not going to cramp this Casanova’s lifestyle. He hits the road with his kid in tow “learning the ropes.”  You can’t help but feel sorry for Bunny Junior, a bright little boy who suffers from untreated blepharitis and who carries around an encyclopedia, a gift from the mother who “loved him to bits.”

the death of bunny monro

Bunny Monro is a ladies’ man–cocky, infused with “irrepressible optimism,” and happy in the knowledge that women “with no coercion step into the slipstream of his considerable sexual magnetism.” But is that strictly true? When we meet Bunny on page 1, he’s hired a prostitute and later he recalls a scene in which his wife Libby caught him with an unconscious girl. As Bunny, driving a battered Punto, hits the road with his son, he has encounter after encounter in which reality crashes into fantasy. With his life coming apart at the seams, Bunny, who fantasizes about various celebrity vaginas, continues to see women as “walking fuck-fest[s]” or available vaginas walking into his life. Somewhere deep inside there’s a recognition of what he’s become and what he’s done, but with a lifetime of avoidance, it’s easier for Bunny to carry on with business as usual. Rather than take any responsibility for his wife’s death, Bunny decides he’s “victimized ” by  circumstance.

He is afforded no insights, no illuminations, no great wisdoms but he can see immediately why the ladies dig him. He is not a toned, square-jawed lover boy or cumberbunded ladies’ man but there’s a pull, even in his booze-blasted face, a magnetic drag that has something to do with the pockets of compassion that form at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, a mischievous arch to his eyebrows and the little hymen-popping dimples in his cheeks when he laughs. Look! There they are now! 

Banned from a number of McDonalds for life, Bunny hits the road with his “pomaded forelock” along with “new-found pulling power” and continues his job as a salesman while poor Bunny Junior is neglected in the process. Bunny claims he needs the work in order to deal with his grief, but the trip is really just an excuse to meet women and have as much sex as possible. As a mad horned killer stalks England, the killer’s continuing movement south seems to coincide with Bunny Monro’s misfortunes on his road trip which is peppered with a few ghostly visitations. Armed with a list of potential clients, Bunny tries to sell beauty products and his own questionable charms.

The first was a Mrs Elaine Bartlett, who lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats in Moulsecombe. Lying on the floor of its only working elevator was a bombed-out kid with a can of air freshener in one hand and a Tesco bag in the other and a Burberry cap on his head. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except the boy had emptied the contents of his bowels into his shorts and these were pulled down around his skinny, little ankles. The boy had managed, rather heroically, thought Bunny, to graffiti in green spray on the elevator wall, ‘I AM A SAD CUNT’. Bunny had stepped into the elevator, then stepped out and allowed its doors to judder shut. He contemplated momentarily climbing the four flights of stairs to Mrs Elaine Bartlett’s flat and realized, to his credit, that there was no way he was going to make it up them in his present condition, so he staggered back to the Punto.

The Death of Bunny Munro is a wickedly funny book with large dollops of the humour (often at Bunny’s expense) taking potshots at various societal taboos. One of the best scenes in the book (and it was hard to pick one) takes place as Bunny describes a girl in “gold hipster hotpants.” While reading through the oversexed sponge of Bunny’s brain is definitely raunchy, author Nick Cave never sinks to the puerile. Instead Bunny is a very real character, a retro male who deludes himself into thinking that his leering, drooling, drunken attentions are welcomed by every female on the planet.

There’s a quote on the back of my copy from Irvine Wells: “Put Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka and Benny Hill together in a Brighton Seaside guesthouse and they might just come up with Bunny Monro.” I don’t agree, but the quote does make a point. Bunny is a morally reprehensible human being, and while he thinks he’s charming to all the ladies, the truth is that his limited appeal ensnares a certain type (comatose, mentally incompetent and/or indiscriminate are attributes that Bunny likes in his women). With this sort of character at the fore of the plot, it’s fun to just sit back and read about Bunny as he careens from disaster to disaster. But again, when a character lacks an iota of self-awareness, the plot usually aims in certain limited directions. I didn’t care for the book’s ending, but I’m not sure that the plot could have gone in any other direction.

For another take on the novel, see Lisa’s blog.

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The Snow Kimono: Mark Henshaw

“There are times in your life when something happens after which you’re never the same.”

In Mark Henshaw’s multi-layered novel The Snow Kimono, retired police Inspector Auguste Jovert is a man with an uncomfortable past he’d much rather forget. Since retiring, he’s had the “feeling that he was lost.” With more time on his hands, “fragments from his past had begun to replay themselves in his head.” It’s Paris 1989, and Jovert, who spent some shady years in Algeria, has just received a letter from a young woman who claims she is his daughter.

It was as if, now that he was approaching the end of his life, the overall pattern of his existence was about to be revealed to him. But the moment of revelation never came. Instead, he began to have doubts, to wake up at night. What’s more, he constantly had the impression that something was about to happen. Then something did happen. The letter arrived.

The letter from the woman claiming to be his daughter is thrown away, and Jovert thinks that’s the end of the matter, but then he meets his neighbor, Japanese law professor Omura, a man with a sad past of his own. Jovert, a distinctly solitary individual, initially rejects Omura when Omura begins to be more than just a casual fixture in Jovert’s life, but there’s some thread, some commonality that ties them together, and while Jovert struggles against Omura’s friendship, he’s really struggling against coming to terms with his past. Omura’s conversations yield stories about his own life, but somehow the stories, the situations, make Jovert extremely uncomfortable.

Jovert had never liked conversations like these, conversations he did not control, which reversed the natural order of things.

But you must know, Omura said abruptly.

Why must I know? Jovert replied. It’s got nothing to do with me.

Jovert watched as a gust of wind scooped up a plastic bag lying in the gutter opposite. Its ghostly form swept up through the lamp light. For a moment, it skimmed back and forth across the façade of the building opposite, as though it was pursuing something. Then without warning, it shot up into the sky above their heads and disappeared.

Omura has a “strangely mesmerizing voice,” and he tells Jovert the story of his friend from university, the malignant, charismatic writer, Katsuo Ikeda, who has “a talent that is poisoned.” Ikeda, a user of women, a chronic seducer who left many disillusioned lovers on the way to his success is a “merciless observer of people. He had a sixth sense about a person’s weaknesses, their foibles, their fears.”  There’s tragedy in Omura’s life and as Omura, an epic storyteller, reveals his past through his stories, Jovert gradually begins to see connections with his own life, and he’s shaken to the core.

the snow kimono

The Snow Kimono is a hypnotic read, and although afterwards it feels a little contrived, Omura’s history is so well told and constructed, all contrivance is forgiven. Although both Omura and Jovert’s stories are about people who are either dead or lost somewhere in the past, nonetheless, these characters pulse with life–even in their absence. This is a complex tale–stories within stories. In one section, Omura describes the Japanese jigsaw puzzle:

Ours is an ancient tradition, quite distinct from what you have here in Europe. Each piece of a puzzle is considered individually. No shape is repeated, unless for some special purpose. Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truths about the world.

After I finished the book, that seminal quote came back into my mind. Omura’s story, after all, is a jigsaw puzzle, and its “greater” truth is finally revealed.

There are two central mysteries to the tale concerning Jovert and Omura, and they are connected by moral considerations. Can one man learn from the mistakes of another? This is ultimately a story about the slipperiness of the truth, facing up to one’s actions, acknowledging the past, and assuming one’s responsibilities–no matter how unpleasant that might be.

review copy

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A Fine Line: Gianrico Carofiglio

Unlike the main character of Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrieri series, I’m not a lawyer, but as a crime junkie, I find myself asking questions: what does it feel like to be a defense lawyer? Yes I know that everyone is supposed to deserve a decent defense but ….Do you always believe that your client is innocent? If not, how  do you cope, morally, with the knowledge that your client is guilty? Are you picky about the cases you take–for example, do you reject accused pedophiles or heinous murder cases? Can you afford to be that selective or do you decide on a case-by-case basis? All these questions are answered in A Fine Line, which can be read as a standalone, the most philosophical Guido Guerrieri novel in the series.

a fine line

A Fine Line finds Avvocato Guido Guerrieri defending a rape case, the sort of thing he normally avoids, but in this instance, it’s a clear case of sloppy investigation. Soon after the case wraps up, he’s approached by Judge Pierluigi Larocca for representation. Larocca has just learned that there’s a bribery case brewing against him with a “Mafioso who’s turned state’s evidence” as the star witness. Guido has “never heard the slightest gossip” about Larocca who has a reputation for being incorruptible. For Larocca, who hopes to gain a promotion in the next few months, the case could not have come at a worse time. He hires Guido and Guido goes to work digging into the case against Larocca.

Guido hires Annapaola Doria, a bisexual private detective to ferret out information about the case, and since the prosecution is keeping everything hush hush, some of the PI’s methods aren’t orthodox or legal.

Although a few scenes take place in the courtroom, this is not a courtroom thriller. As the most meditative Guido Guerrieri novel to date, A Fine Line examines the Italian legal system, facing middle age, and how to maintain integrity in one’s profession. If you are hoping for the usual crime novel or even something hard-boiled, you are likely to be disappointed. Instead we follow Guido as he goes through his daily life and this includes the conversations he has with his punching bag, arguments he debates with himself, making observations about people in a café, and even a chance meeting in a bookshop. So in other words, the book mirrors life with all its trivia;  it’s not 24/7 crime busting.

I enjoyed A Fine Line more than the other novels in the series that I’ve read. There are five books so far, and I’ve read three, and I liked this one for its philosophical meditations which addressed many of the questions I had about being a defense lawyer. It’s through the Larocca case, that Guido comes to terms with his life, reaching mature decisions while recognizing his own weaknesses and foibles.

I had an image of myself and tried to live up to it. One way or another. Whenever there was a clash with reality, it was reality that had to adapt. But that’s a mechanism that can’t work forever. Gradually you lose your sense of balance

translated by Howard Curtis

review copy

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A Short Walk in Williams Park: C.H.B. Kitchin

My copy of A Short Walk in Williams Park, from British author C.H.B. Kitchin (1895-1967) includes a marvelous introduction from the author’s close friend, L.P. Hartley. This is a wonderfully written essay which gives a sense of the author’s character, life and work, but since it includes some detail about the story, I recommend saving it until you’ve finished the book.  Hartley acknowledges that A Short Walk in Williams Park isn’t Kitchin’s best novel, and on the surface, the story, running about 120 pages, seems simple enough, but there’s a richer vein to be tapped here–a sense of not taking life, love and the glories of nature for granted.

a short walk in williams park

Francis Norton, a wealthy bachelor who’s “retired from active business,” fills his days “exploring the London parks.” He has his favourite spots, and one of those is Williams Park:

It was so unexpected-a gem in a setting of down-at-heel gentility struggling against destitution. On the whole, he liked his parks small, and shunned the wide open spaces of Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. It was exquisite. The officials from the curator (if there was such a person) to the men who swept up litter and dead leaves, must have been experts and enthusiasts. It had a lake (which all true parks should have), a gothick band-stand of singularly intricate beauty and a fine statue of William IV, in whose reign the park was conceived. The king’s outstretched right hand now directs one’s gaze to a neo-Georgian tea-room, built of red brick, with an enclosed garden of its own, bordered by an artificial stream that washed the feet of willows and in due season generated a display of water-loving irises, primulas and hydrangeas. The trees are noble and never too dense, though they give shade enough to those who seek shade.

On one of his excursions, Francis overhears a conversation that takes place between two people–an unhappily married man and a young woman. Circumstances occur which lead Francis to take a role in the lives of Edward Harness, a teacher who’s married out of his class, and Miranda who works as a supervisor in a large shop. The extra-marital romance is complicated by Mrs Barbara Harness’s jealousy and also her “expectations.”   

While the story would seem to be about the young lovers, it’s really not; it’s about Francis, his sense of “vicarious romance” through his involvement with the couple, and also some vague sense of loss which Francis never specifies. But above all, there’s a sense of “ecstasy” as L.P. Hartley describes it–taking joy in the physical world.

He loved the moments of increasing lethargy-the astral body half emerging from the physical-when moral problems dissolve into an ethergic sensuality and even the inner mathematics of the brain transform themselves into purple and pink anemones or perfume the consciousness with hyacinths and carnations,-when a small cloud passing over the sun suggests images altogether unsorted by the optic nerve, and the quiver of a breeze against one’s hand cheers the self-doubting soul with a caress such as only a lover can give.

This is not a perfect novel, but in spite of its flaws, the book has something that I was drawn to. You know how it is–you sometimes run across an author who’s not perfect, but you connect with the work and its themes.

I didn’t quite understand Francis’s categorization of people into pigs or birds. Pigs seemed to be an unflattering categorization–although I’m not sure it was meant to be. Hartley says that Francis acts as a “deux ex machina” in the novel, and since I can’t put it better, I’m quoting Hartley on this one. But once again, there’s a lot here under the fairly simple plot thread. Miranda adores her married lover, and while Edward is certainly handsome, he’s also weak. And then what of Barbara, who’s described as a rather common woman, a domestic tyrant, and yet when confronted, she’s not altogether unsympathetic.

Ultimately, the novel argues for appreciating what we have and not taking anything for granted. Again that hint that this is a mistake that Francis made.

He paced for a while among the lime-trees, watching them walk together down the hill-side, and when they were out of sight, turned his gaze to the deserted tea-garden and the ruffled waters of the desolate lake. And with a sadness which refused to leave him, he thought, “They have gone down the slope to the level, conventional plain. And she, who would now be in tears if he were two minutes late, will soon be saying, ‘Why can’t he be punctual?’ and moan about the spoiling of a soufflé. And when he comes in, perhaps she’ll nag him a little. But does that mean everything’s gone? Or do these rare and precious ecstasies, which give a new shape and meaning to the universe, never die, but somehow survive in themselves, leaving us the hope that some day we shall recapture them?

Francis also ruminates on the nature of love–love that grows through familiarity and habit which he sees as a fairly common thing (“mate any dog with any bitch, and let them share the same quarters, and they will become devoted –after a fashion,“) and the much rarer love that few of us are fortunate enough to find–the “love of two burning souls–two indestructible atoms of passionate desire, who have sought one another from all eternity.”  There is also a hint about homosexual love in the sentence “to be safe, you must link love to procreation–the production of cannon fodder.”

 

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Still the Same Man: Jon Bilboa

In Spanish author Jon Bilboa’s taut, tightly written ominous novel, Still the Same Man, middle-aged Joanes has a chance encounter which leads to a terrible appointment with fate. Joanes was once a top student with a promising career ahead of him, but now in middle age, Joanes, the owner of a dying air-conditioning company, is facing failure. Dependent on the charity of his bombastic, wealthy artist father-in-law, Joanes, his patient wife and his teenage daughter, find themselves in a Mexican resort to attend the “teeth-grindingly tasteless” destination wedding of his obese father-in-law and his new wife, the employee of a tanning salon.

still the same man

On the night of the wedding, a hurricane alert changes everyone’s plans. Tourists are “desperate to fly out,” and with overcrowded airports, the wedding party has no choice but to move inland. Right before they leave, Joanes is ordered to take a sauna with his loud, crude, father-in-law where he is grilled about a promising looming air-conditioning contract:

The sauna was, in fact, a typical Mexican temazcal sweat lodge. Right next to the pool, there was a small, dome-shaped adobe construction that looked like an igloo or a bread oven. You entered by a door so tiny you had to crawl in on all fours, so tiny the father-in-law’s great carcass almost got stuck in it. From outside, Joanes spent a moment staring at that fat, tanned, waxed ass, only partially covered by its yellow Speedo, fighting its way through the door, then he averted his gaze.

While everyone else evacuates to Valladolid, Joanes is sidetracked and finds himself driving alone to join his family who are already on safe ground. Along the crowded roads where he joins thousands of other people also trying to escape the hurricane, Joanes spies a couple by the side of the road–an older man and his wheel-chair bound wife. Incredulous, Joanes realizes the man is none other than his old professor–the man he holds responsible for scuttling his career.

The professor has a tale about being ejected from an evacuation bus, and his version of events seems to be missing some salient details. The professor, an autocratic man who sails through life with the attitude that everyone is inferior, at first, doesn’t seem to recognize Joanes–even though Joanes was a stellar student.

Joanes, the professor and his wife, find themselves fleeing the hurricane and seeking refuge in a rudimentary Mexican hotel. With no power, and dying cell phone batteries, tensions between the hurricane evacuees explode. Ironically danger doesn’t come from the hurricane, although the hurricane exists as an unpredicatable background driving our characters relentlessly towards their violent fate. The savagery of nature seems nothing compared to the savagery of humans.

This compulsively readable, shocking novel takes an extremely dark, twisted path in its exploration of damaged psyche, simmering resentments, and horrific revenge. Author Jon Bilboa describes the professor’s absolute, tyrannical power in the classroom and his “aristocratic indifference” towards the students with a painful echo of accuracy. Many of the students hated the professor for the way he demeaned his students. Joanes admired him–a reflection perhaps on the hidden side of Joanes’s nature. But when Joanes’s promising career is snatched away, over time “the professor became
the virtual stooge for Joanes’s problems.” In an apparent act of kindness, Joanes gives the stranded professor and his wife a lift. How can this possibly end well?

The professor became a vessel for all his frustrations and rage. And the vessel gradually filled up, and its contents grew more and more viscous, until eventually they became as hard as stone; the professor was no longer a mere emotional device, a fantasy for self-exoneration, he’d become the one true culprit of everything bad that had ever happened to Joanes.

Translated by Sophie Hughes

Review copy.

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Murder in the Museum: John Rowland (1938)

In spite of the fact that the subject is murder, John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum starts on a very light note. The book opens in the British Museum with the introverted bachelor, pince-nez-sporting, Henry Fairhurst, researching an assignment on an obscure 17th century courtesan. While the British Museum Reading Room is a highly respectable place, Rowland shows us its sinister side:

Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him. There was an air of deathly stillness in the place, and a silence broken only by the occasional rustle of pages and the subdued murmurs of a borrower discussing books with an official.

Someone has the audacity to sully the hallowed atmosphere of the British Museum by snoring. Henry, “an assiduous reader of detective stories,” and a self-confessed ‘people-watcher,’ decides to rouse the snoring man from his slumber, but as he shakes the snoring man, the stranger falls dead onto the floor.

murder in the museum

Enter Inspector Shelley (who was also the detective in charge of the case in Calamity in Kent). Fairhurst is awed to be in the presence of the great Scotland Yard detective and he’s especially thrilled to be involved in the investigation. The British Museum snorer, as it turns out, was murdered with a cyanide laced sugar-almond, and the victim, the prominent Professor, Julius Arnell, “the world’s greatest authority on the minor Elizabethans,” has left a substantial amount of money to his only daughter, Violet. In the event of her death, the money is to pass to the professor’s nephew, Moses Moss. To complicate matters, the professor’s daughter is in love with a man her late father did not like.

At first, the book concentrates on the endearing character of Henry Fairhurst, a timid man who lives vicariously through crime books and gangster films, while in real life, he’s dominated by his spinster sister. As an amateur detective, Fairhurst makes an exciting link between the death of one Elizabethan scholar and another. With a fertile imagination, he imagines himself “as the principal witness for the crown in a case against one University Professor for the murder of another one.”

The novel reflects the attitudes of the times, so the character of Moses Moss is referred to as a Jew. There’s also a Jewish moneylender, and there’s a sentence that mentions that “he’s one of those unpleasant people whom the fascists are so fond of portraying as the typical Jew, Nothing of the sort really, of course, and to call him such is a libel on the Jewish race.”

There’s a lot here that seems tongue-in-cheek: the poisoned sugared almond, the bitter rivalry of Elizabethan scholars, and that makes Murder in the Museum a well-written romp of a crime story. While more than one person dies, there’s a dastardly villain (in the style of ‘The Perils of Pauline’) and also a few red herrings. The ending is marred by a coincidence that seems a bit too neatly contrived, but then it was a way to drag Fairhurst back into the story.

The rain was descending in sheets, and alone the lengthy road ahead of them the yellow glow of the street lamps stretched in a seemingly endless line into the distance. The paler colour of gas lamps took their place, and then the hideous sheen of the newer type of daytime lamps made their faces look ghastly as they peered at the road where it slipped away, an endless shiny ribbon ahead.

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The Exiled: Christopher Charles

The Exiled, from Christopher Charles, opens at the scene of a horrendous murder at the Wilkins ranch, a place owned by an older married couple. This is not the sort of crime usually found in the sparsely populated deserts of New Mexico.

death here seemed governed by natural law. What happened in that bunker belonged to another place. It was urban, something from what Bay had called Raney’s past life, something that would have made sense on the basement of a Lower East Side tenement.

Raney, a former New York narcotics detective, is the sole homicide investigator covering an area over 200 sq miles, and he’s used to cases “that solved themselves.” The blood and carnage he finds at the Wilkins ranch echo scenes from Raney’s past when his life as an undercover cop derailed with horrible consequences.

The exiled

The Wilkins ranch, “over a thousand acres of pinon-dotted slopes,” is owned by a husband and wife well known to Bay, the local sheriff who oversees the small nearby town. Inside a bunker on the ranch, there are three dead bodies along with the telltale signs of a major cocaine operation. The cocaine, approximated at ten kilos, is gone, and the widow Mavis Wilkins, who doesn’t even bother to pretend she cares, professes she knows nothing about her dead husband’s drug activities or the identities of the two other victims who have connections to a major Mexican drug cartel.

Their search of the house turned up nothing-no drugs, no ledger, no hint of who Wilkins bought from or sold to–nothing but the portrait of a relationship that had long since become something less than a marriage.

While Sheriff Bay takes Mavis Wilkins’s story at face value, Raney, who has much more experience in the world of narcotics, knows that she must be involved. Mavis Wilkins owns an art gallery in the nearby town, and yet the local economy hardly seems likely to support such an improbable business venture. Raney gets a tip to track down a man with a bad toupee, and that brings Raney to the local Indian casino. It’s here that Raney spots some signposts to help him solve the case. As he delves into the complex investigation and Mavis’s shady past, the body count savagely rises, and Raney realizes that he’s chasing someone who’s looking for revenge.

The case, for its violence and its drug connections, opens a window to Raney’s past, and the book goes back and forth between the Wilkins case and Raney’s life as an undercover narcotics cop. Interestingly, there’s an 18 year gap between Raney’s exodus from New York and the Wilkins case. We know little of his life in that time; permanently damaged by events in New York, he’s stayed single and has no relationships.

Raney’s past bleeds into his present and his future, and it feels as though Raney could become a series character. While the author creates two distinct, violent worlds and starts very strongly indeed, a plot twist involving revenge seemed a little implausible to this reader. The New Mexico terrain, however, certainly adds a flavorful dimension to the tale; the sleepy little town has just one “commercial street” and tries to maintain its “pioneer charm.” But there’s an ugly side to the town that even the locals seem blissfully unaware of, and that ugliness comes bubbling to the surface in the wake of the Wilkins Ranch murders.

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The Night the Rich Men Burned:Malcolm Mackay

“It’s not about winning. It’s about winning with as few losses as possible.”

The Night the Rich Men Died from Scottish author Malcolm Mackay is a brutal look at the Glasgow criminal world through the lens of debt collection.  Alex Glass and Oliver Peterkinney left school, joined Glasgow’s unemployed and have no prospects whatsoever, so working odd jobs for flashy criminal Marty Jones sounds like a good idea. It’s Glass who eagerly pulls a disinterested Peterkinney into the game when Glass takes a muscle job beating up a man called Holmes who’s skimmed money from Marty.

The job goes well thanks to Peterkinney, but it could have so easily have gone badly due to a total lack of planning. This short, swift act of brutality is Peterkinney and Glass’s introduction into the criminal life. Glass is the one who glamorises the life, attending parties, snorting coke and playing house with a hooker, while Peterkinney, living in his grandfather’s depressing flat, initially just goes along with Glass’s plan, yet he turns out to be a natural.

Both young men begin their criminal life on the same rung of the ladder, but whereas Glass very quickly becomes a bottom feeder, Peterkinney, who “loves the feeling of power, of intimidation,” with cold unflappability and intelligence soon rises….

The night the rich men burned

Mackay once again thrusts the reader firmly into the criminal world but this time it’s money lending and debt collection with tendrils out to all avenues of organization. Are there coppers out there somewhere? Yes, bent copper, the slippery Greig, makes another appearance here, once again lining his own pockets while creating his own paradoxical moral code. Mackay’s exploration of the vicious nuances of debt collection, “economy in the gutter,” explains each step of how this ugly world works. Obviously if people go to moneylenders and desperately sign up for 6,000% interest, then we are talking about punters who have no access to regular avenues of credit. This is a slice of the population who are already the underclass, and if they’re desperate enough to borrow, how will they repay sums of money that grow, exponentially, with interest daily? This is, of course, where debt collection comes into play. Unpaid debts with accumulated interest are sold for a percentage to debt buyers. Marty Jones, protected by the powerful Jamieson organization, runs clubs, women, drugs and has his fingers in all aspects of debt lending and collection, but there are also “dedicated” debt buyers. The morbidly obese Potty Cruikshank, who runs an old, well-established business inherited from his uncle used to own this world but now Billy Patterson,”clever and ruthless,” he’s “built a reputation as being relatively harmless[…] Nothing the big movers need to worry about.” Yet Patterson is moving up, is cutting into Potty’s business buying debts at a higher rate in order to elbow Potty aside.

That’s the business. They have to fall out so that they can try to take market share from each other. And they have to take market share from each other. Have to be seen to be growing, otherwise they stagnate. Stagnate, and you become a target. The industry turns on rivalry. Everyone knows this.

Debt buyers need debt collectors, and that’s how most of the trouble in this novel emerges. One debt collector skims off of a buyer, another debt collector ruffles the feathers of a rival organization, and yet another, in a drunken rage, goes far beyond his assignment. There’s a circular sense of fate to this novel that somehow lends a dark twisted morality to this tale of Peterkinney’s cold, calculating meteoric rise.

I read Malcolm Mackay’s: The Glasgow Trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and  The Sudden Arrival of Violence .) The trilogy focused on the power struggle between the well-established Jamieson organization and the up-and-coming ambitious Shug Francis. This turf war is seen mainly through the role of hitmen as independents and as integral to the criminal organization. While the focus on The Night the Rich Men Burned is on Glass and Peterkinney, other characters from the trilogy make appearances–usually as mere mentions. In this novel, Mackay, who has stormed his way into the world of crime fiction with four extraordinary books in the last year, applies his signature bleak staccato style to show the same brutal, cannabalistic world introduced in the trilogy, but we see it from a different angle, so while The Night the Rich Men Burned can be read as a standalone, you’re going to get a richer read if you read the trilogy first.

Patience is an uncommon virtue. Patience is often profitable. In this business, people like to rush things. They worry that if they play a long game someone else will blow the final whistle before their pay-off arrives.

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Filed under Fiction, Mackay Malcolm