Tag Archives: series novel

The Road to Ithaca: Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor’s novel, The Road to Ithaca, from Bitter Lemon Press is the 5th novel in the Martin Bora series (Goodreads lists it as number 10). This book finds Wehrmacht officer Martin Bora in Moscow in June 1941 (the period of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression pact is about to dissolve), hobnobbing (somewhat nervously) with the likes of Stalin, Beria and Erskine Caldwell, when he is ordered to Crete to pick up 60 bottles of “choice Cretan wine” for the monstrous Beria. It seems like a fool’s errand–a lot of bother just to curry favour with a Russian ally  but once Bora arrives in Crete, he’s diverted to the investigation of the murder of a Red Cross representative who was a friend of Himmler’s. With the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau fearing the “potential repercussions,” Bora is assigned to investigate and solve the “grave incident involving the illustrious citizen of a neutral country.” 

On one hand, it looks like an open-and-shut case. During the recent German invasion of Crete, German paratroopers apparently approached the home of Swiss national Dr Professor Alois Villiger and murdered everyone inside–the professor, his housekeeper and other employees. This was observed and photographed by British Sgt Major Powell whose whereabouts are currently unknown as he’s hiding in the mountains. POW Lt Patrick Sinclair is in possession of the camera. Sinclair subsequently reported the incident to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

the road to ithaca

Accompanied by a coerced American woman as a guide and a local police inspector, Bora approaches the crime knowing that “the conquest of the island had been a bloodbath,” with the German paratroopers hostile to the combative Greek civilians. Bora is under pressure to close the case “before the International Red Cross intervenes or Reichskommisar Himmler sends someone,” and he’s given just one week to come up with answers. …

Martin Bora is a morally complex character who is shown to be caught in a knotty labyrinth of treacherous shifting political allegiances, and unbeknownst to Bora, the war is about to take a dramatic turn. Bora is torn between duty, honour, integrity and loyalty, and in order to survive “the habit of hiding his thoughts had become second nature.” This explains why Bora’s ruminations are not vocalised, so we read this character’s internal dialogue. Bora possesses a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as the title suggests, many of Bora’s thoughts centre on Greek mythology. Part of the interest I felt was in knowing that the things Bora struggles with will shortly overwhelm him. To paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘he has miles to go….’

This is a crime novel, and one that captures a tragic moment in human history:

More and more, the street resembled a funnel of liquid sunlight; its narrowness crowded with litter and vehicles dissolved, human shapes malted into it. Purgatory must be something like this, Bora thought, a cramped pass that is we only slide through it leads to the Throne of God. But there’ll be no stench of death there. 

I’ll admit that I had a bit of a problem feeling sympathy for Bora, but I did feel interest. On another note, Wikipedia has an interesting page on the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau.

Note: Although this is Book 5, other translated books in the series take Bora farther ahead in the war. Tin Sky is set in 1943, Liar Moon is set in 1943, A Dark Song of Blood is set in 1944. At some point, I’d like to go back and read these books in order. (Lumen is set in 1939)

Review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Pastor Ben

Black Widow: Christopher Brookmyre

“Just because you’re a psychopath doesn’t mean you can’t have emotional intelligence.”

Black Widow is the page-turning story of a talented, female surgeon who falls into disgrace through social media, only to recoup her life with a whirlwind romance with the seemingly perfect man. But six months later, he’s dead and she’s accused of his murder. …

black-widow

Diane Jager once had a job as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital, but she led another life, online, as Scapelgirl, running a blog in which she revealed the sexism she endured as a female surgeon and the difficulty of balancing personal and work lives. The problem is, when anonymity is used to push a personal agenda, well sometimes people go overboard, and that is certainly the case with Diane. Her blog became a cause celebre amongst other female doctors, for Scalpelgirl as an anonymous agent tackled issues (and people) she would not have wrestled in person. The rage of the blog took over, and Scapelgirl becomes known as Bladebitch by her detractors, her identity was revealed (along with some of her sleazier moves) and she was forced to resign. She takes a job at Inverness, her “penitential northern gulag.”

Despite the baggage she brought, she was too valuable a prospect for them to pass up, like a provincial football team happy to take on a flawed talent who had fallen from grace at one of the major clubs.

At her new place of employment, Diane meets IT tech, Peter, and against all the odds, they hit it off, rapidly becoming absorbed in each other. With Diane’s biological clock ticking away,  there seems no need to slow down.

Six months later, Peter’s car is pulled out of a freezing river. Peter’s sister Lucy contacts investigate reporter, Jack Parlabane, and tells him that she thinks her brother may have been murdered.

Black Widow is a very cleverly structured tale which begins in a courtroom and then goes back over time through several points-of-view. We see events through the eyes of two constables: Ali Kazmi and Ruben Rodriguez who are the first on the scene of Peter’s accident–the ones who break the news to Peter’s not-so-grieving widow. Then there’s Parlabane’s view. He’s still bruised from his divorce and a catastrophic dip in his career, so the Bladebitch case offers not only distraction but also possible career redemption. The third viewpoint comes from Diane aka Bladebitch herself; there’s a lot to like there (she’s driven, talented, extremely intelligent) but there’s also a lot to dislike: she’s cold, unapproachable and prickly.

This is someone you do not want to fuck with. This is a woman who will make it her purpose in life to settle the score. They say payback’s a bitch? Then believe me: you don’t want payback from the Bladebitch.

The novel’s clever structure (which is just a teensy bit manipulative but forgivable and within the realms of acceptability–unlike Gone Girl which crossed the line IMO) is bolstered by a certain synchronicity, so we see PC Ali Kazam concerned about a possible pregnancy while Diane longs for a child. We see PC Rodriguez leaving London for exile in Inverness (echoing Diane’s trajectory), and one chapter in which Diane comes to an important revelation is immediately followed by Parlabane experiencing a realization of sorts. The portions narrated by Diane are the strongest and the most compelling in the book; she’s a terrific character, and over the course of her narration, we begin to see exactly how her character became crafted by experience.

I guessed the book’s solution and that’s probably due to all my crime reading, but I still enjoyed the book very much indeed. Work-life balance, sexism in medicine, the mirages often encountered in relationships, all these issues are tackled rather well here, so combine that with a page-turning crime novel, and you have an excellent read.

Black Widow is the seventh in the Jack Parlabane series, and in spite of the fact that this is the first one (so far) that I’ve read, I had no problem reading this as a stand-alone.

Review copy

19 Comments

Filed under Brookmyre Christopher

Open Wounds: Douglas Skelton

“Maybe he’s reached the end of his shelf life.”

Open Wounds, the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall Scottish crime series, finds the series protagonist, now 38 years old, still leading  ‘The Life,’ ten years since a prison sentence. McCall works for “Glasgow Godfather” Big Rab McClymont but wants out of the violence, something he confides to childhood friend, Bobby, a former crim who now owns a decorating store and leads a quiet family life. McCall, who was brought up in an incredibly violent home, stepped into The Life seamlessly, but now some of his past actions chew away at the dark reaches of his consciousness; he’s beginning to question his actions, and in the type of work he’s in, where loyalty is premium, conscience and questioning orders are both luxuries he can’t afford.

A violent job with explosive sidekick, Jimsie, a man who enjoys inflicting physical punishment and has a “tendency to go over the top,” leaves McCall with the definite feeling that he no longer has the stomach for the work.

open wounds

When McCall’s boss tells McCall to ‘fix’ freshly released Jerry O’Neill who’s talking to The Criminal Case Review Commission, the object is to shut the man up, but O’Neill claims he was framed by McClymont, and with McClymont seizing O’Neill’s former business concerns, there’s something about O’Neill’s story that rings true. McCall starts digging into the case on his own assisted by former cop, Donovan, now private detective. On the other end of the spectrum, McClymont leans on bent cop, Jimmy Knight, aka The Black Night for help.

“It happens,” Knight went on. “Guy gets older, slows down, doesn’t have the heart for things he used to. Man like McCall, without the ambition or the brain to be anything other than what he is, well, he can outlive his usefulness. Time to be put out to pasture, maybe.”

A complication in McCall’s life occurs when he becomes involved with a woman who lives in the same apartment complex. In his line of work, McCall can’t afford personal relationships, but the desire for a normal life proves to be a testing point.

The author presents an interesting portrait of a much-feared enforcer whose reputation causes those he visits to quiver at the knees, and yet, through the narrative, we see a man, in early middle age, developing doubts about the world he embraced, unquestioningly, decades earlier. There’s an edge of humour in the novel that lightens this dark, violent tale, and McCall’s deep attachment to his dog wins this character a lot of points.

Blood City, Crow Bait, and Devil’s Knock are the first three books in the series, and although it was no problem to read and enjoy Open Wounds as a standalone (the backstory and past events are woven in well), I feel as though I’ve missed some excellent books and that I should have read the series from the beginning for maximum enjoyment. Other reviews across the internet express the same sentiment.

Special thanks to Crimeworm for pointing me to this book.

Review copy

 

5 Comments

Filed under Skelton Douglas

Honky Tonk Samurai: Joe R. Lansdale

the front windshield collapsed like a Baptist deacon’s morals at a strip club.”

Honky Tonk Samurai is the eleventh book in author Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series. For those who are unfamiliar with this excellent series, Hap and Leonard are an East Texas pair, who live surrounded by rednecks and racism, are unlikely friends and consider themselves brothers. While the two aren’t exactly itinerants, they are content to live outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Their close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, blood brothers if you will, at other times, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple.

Honky Tonk samurai

Hap Collins is white, Leonard Pine is gay, black, a Vietnam vet. Digging back in Hap and Leonard history, Hap, who was a member of the counter-culture, refused to go to Vietnam, and served time for his opinions. The two men operate as a team, with Hap as our narrator, so the novels clearly lean towards the Hap side of things. Hap is often troubled about acts of violence that take place while Leonard isn’t troubled by moral questions. In all the Hap and Leonard books, somehow or another they are dragged into crime–not that they go looking for trouble; somehow trouble always looks for them. Sometimes it’s a returning ex that heralds trouble (Savage Season), and sometimes it begins with a friend asking for help.

I don’t think we ask for trouble, me and Leonard. It just finds us. It often starts casually, and then something comes loose and starts to rattle, like an unscrewed bolt on a carnival ride. No big thing at first, just a loose, rattling bolt, then the bolt slips completely free and flies out of place, the carnival ride groans and screeches, and it jags and tumbles into a messy mass of jagged parts and twisted metal and wads of bleeding human flesh.

Honky Tonk Samurai finds Hap and Leonard aging and working part-time for a detective agency. Not far into the tale, Hap’s long-term girlfriend, Brett, decides to give up nursing and takes over the company, and the first case appears in the shape of a crotchety, foul-mouthed, sinewy old woman who looks like a “retired hooker.

“You’re Hap Collins, aren’t you?”

“I am,” I said. “Do we know each other?”

“No, but when I was forty I’d like to have. You and me could have burned a hole in a mattress then. Course, you may not have been born. But you might want to lose a few pounds, honey. You’re beginning to chub up.”

“He’s taken,” Brett said, “Pounds and all.”

The old lady studied Brett. “Aren’t you the Southern belle? I bet you could earn a pretty penny on a Louisiana shrimp boat and never have to cast a net.”

“Listen, you old bag,” Brett said.
“Either say what you want or I’m going to stick that cane up your ass and throw you down the stairs so hard the dye will come out of your hair.”

Turns out the old lady, Lilly Buckner, is the first client of the Brett Sawyer Detective Agency, and she wants Hap to find her missing granddaughter Sandy. Sandy, who graduated with a journalism degree and “found that the newspapers and magazines that did hard news had gone the way of the dodo bird and drive-in theaters” ended up working at a “high-end” used car dealership, but one day she just disappeared. Five years have passed and the case is cold. Hap and Leonard go undercover as potential car buyers at the high-end dealership and discover that the business is selling more than just cars….

On the hunt for Sandy, Hap and Leonard stir up trouble in the form of a biker gang and a mysterious hitman known as the Canceler who has a habit of collecting trophy testicles. Cheap hustlers, petty cons, thugs and psychos populate Hap and Leonard’s colorful world, so expect some old familiar faces (including Jim Bob and his car, the Red Bitch), and some new weirdos. I haven’t read the entire Hap and Leonard series; I read a few of the early books and a couple of the later books, so I’d recommend that if you come to Honky Tonk Samurai you should also have at least Vanilla Ride under your belt.

As always with series characters, the adventure/case runs parallel to developments in the personal lives of the main players. In this instance, Leonard, who never baulks at using violence, is deeply torn over the behaviour of his lover, John who’s struggling with guilt for being homosexual. Hap and Brett face a surprise development when Hap’s past arrives on his doorstep.

It was a pleasure to read Hap and Leonard’s latest adventure. Author Joe R. Lansdale is clearly fond of these characters, and it shows. This is another excellent entry in an excellent series. It’s no surprise that someone finally saw the sense of picking up this unlikely crime fighting duo for a TV series, and I’m certain that this will brings Lansdale a new audience of fans.

Review copy

 

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lansdale Joe R

The Travel Writer by Jeff Soloway

“I’m a travel writer, and corrupt as they come. I’d sell my journalistic principles for two nights at the Four Seasons with a free meal and a massage.”

Jeff Solway’s debut novel, The Travel Writer, the first in a new series, is for those who enjoy reading mysteries set in exotic locations. This is a modest little book, and as I write this, it’s being offered for the modest sum of $2.99 on Amazon US. I’m mentioning this because The Travel Writer probably won’t get a great deal of attention when compared to the GIANT blockbuster novel I just read: Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair–a novel which overreached and failed. The Travel Writer, in comparison, is a novel that accomplished what it set out to achieve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising as the author was an editor and writer for travel guides.

the travel writerThe self-imagined hero and narrator of The Travel Writer is Jacob Smalls, a man who scrapes together, barely, a marginal living as a travel writer. This isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds–at least not at Jacob’s bargain basement level. He has a matchbox sized studio apartment in Queens which he shares with an amphibian turtle. If you think about it, both Jacob and his turtle live in their own tanks:

At home in my tiny studio apartment in Queens I cook massive meatless stews and freeze the leftovers or, when I’m feeling flush, order pan-Asian takeout by the pint. But when I’m working I live like a vacationing CEO, eating for free at multi-Michelin star restaurants and staying for free at hotels that charge two months of my rent per night. Some travel writers call themselves journalists; I refuse to debase the term. Just that morning I’d been trying to book another fact-finding trip for my yet hypothetical Ritziest Ritz series. Whether or not I could sell the thing hardly mattered.

The novel begins with a press conference given by a Bolivian luxury hotel’s PR agent, Pilar Rojas. The press conference is supposed to help satisfy the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of New York based travel editor, Hilary Pearson. Hilary, young and attractive, vanished without a trace from the prestigious Hotel Matamoros, “the Xanadu of the Andes, the super resort that had risen up like Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome.”  Local police, and even the FBI have failed to find even the smallest clue about Hilary, and it’s feared that she’s been kidnapped and murdered. Pilar, who has a past romantic history with Jacob, asks him to come to Peru and help her find the missing woman. There’s a great deal at stake here as Bolivia’s entire tourist industry is threatened by Hilary’s disappearance. Pilar offers Jacob free plane tickets and a week’s stay at the Hotel Matamoros, and she hints that she’s in danger.

Jacob, who after all, lives for free trips, takes the bait, and under the guise of writing a puff piece for the Hotel Matamoros, flies to La Paz. Stringing along is the uninvited 26 year-old Kenny, another work acquaintance of Hilary who’s nursing a giant crush for the missing woman.

I read The Travel Writer before knowing that it’s the first in an intended series of novels. As the first of a series, this is a good start, so if you like light-hearted mysteries with a touch of humor, set in exotic locations, this series should appeal. Jacob Smalls makes a humble interesting hero. He leaves New York with images of being a prize winning journalist, saving Hilary (a woman he’s never met but knows through e-mails), and winning back Pilar, and while those are all, perhaps, fairly predictable daydreams, the author injects a fresh aspect to the storyline by sticking Jacob with Kenny. Jacob has a tendency to patronize and pity Kenny, and once down in Bolivia, Jacob, who’s a seasoned traveler, can very easily dominate the relationship. But there are a couple of moments when, through his relationship with Kenny, Jacob realizes that he’s being unkind, and there’s not such a huge difference between the two men after all. Since he views Kenny as a pathetic loser, it’s an uncomfortable realisation for Jacob, and one that makes him a better human being.

As for the location, readers get a tourist’s view of La Paz and its marketplace as well as the hungry tourist industry desperate for an injection of foreign money. The magnificent Hotel Matamoros, which will be to expanded with new branches deeper in the jungle, is a vital concern for Bolivia’s tourist industry, and the fact that an American travel writer has gone missing while staying there just isn’t good for business. According to another hotel owner, “Matamoros was all built on narcotrafficking money,” and Jacob discovers that Hilary’s disappearance is a topic of concern for a Bolivian political group.

The novel, built on the idea of tourism, takes a insider’s skeptical view of the industry, and while the issue is never overworked, the idea of a ‘genuine’ tourist experience is lampooned through scenes with the Kallawaya and mention of the “handful of Amazonian medicine men” hired by the hotel for a “splash of color.” The novel takes the position that tourism is a artificial construct, and that by its very nature has built in voyeurism and paranoia. There are moments of shameful self-revelation for Jacob when he realizes his life of privilege is based on freebies from Bolivians who live on pennies a day. Jacob’s character was a little fuzzy at times–a little too Walter Mittyish at the beginning with his fantasies of heroism, but I liked the framework of a small-time travel writer leveraging freebies through hints about glowing articles.

Review copy

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Soloway Jeff

The Guts by Roddy Doyle

For fans of the much-loved book and film,  The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who managed the Dublin soul band, is back, but Roddy Doyle’s latest novel finds Jimmy Rabbitte, in his late forties, leading a middle class life and facing a recent diagnosis of bowel cancer. The novel opens with Jimmy at the pub breaking the news to his dad. Doyle cleverly constructs this scene so that Jimmy’s dramatic announcement is meshed with Jimmy Sr’s attempting to catch up with the modern world–more specifically to grasp the concept behind Facebook.

-D’yeh do the Facebook thing?

-What d’yeh mean?

-They were in the pub, in their corner. It wasn’t unusual anymore, having a pint with his father. In the early evening, before he went home after work. he’d phone, or his da would phone. It wasn’t an organized, regular thing.

It had started the day his da got his first mobile. His first call was to Jimmy.

-How’s it going’?

-Da?

-Yeah, me.

-How are yeh?

-Not too bad. I’m after gettin’ one o’ the mobiles.

-Great. I’m usin’ it now, like.

-Congratulations.

-Will we go for a pint? To celebrate.

-Grand. Good. yeah.

In between Jimmy Sr trying to understand exactly how someone “gets off with older women on Facebook,” his son drops the bomb of the cancer diagnosis. Jimmy has told his dad first and from that moment he has to break it to the rest of his family–his wife Aoife and their four children, and his business partner,  Noeleene.  Along the way with his battle with cancer (which includes chemo and surgery) he reconnects with back-up vocalist from The Commitments, Imelda Quirk  (“a few kilos heavier“), Outspan (another character from The Commitments) who’s even worse off than Jimmy, finds his long-estranged brother Leslie, decides to take trumpet lessons, and begins a project to track down some Irish songs from 1932.

the gutsThe Guts is essentially a mid-life crisis novel with the twist being a serious life-threatening (and altering0 experience instead of just the standard affair which grows from ennui, and in spite of the subject matter, the book manages to keep light and positive. It’s all in the attitude, Jimmy seems to think, which probably explains why he keeps telling everyone he’s “grand.” But of course he really isn’t, and Doyle depicts the swings that occur within Jimmy–the bitter and the sweet moments of life as he tries to carry everyone through his experience.

While the novel drifts into sentimentality at times, I’d argue that this is also an aspect of facing one’s own mortality–it’s a bitch to grasp, and the effort comes with understandable self-pity and a little teariness. Doyle was spot on to include sentimentality here, and it serves to reinforce the situation. Jimmy’s search for distractions and goals also seems real–a serious diagnosis leads to a self evaluation and a determination to re-direct one’s life, and we see that force here through Jimmy whose life was drifting along pleasantly enough until the diagnosis. But more than sentimentality, the novel is a nostalgic trip for fans of Doyle’s earlier work. Our hero, Jimmy has managed to surf the boom, the bust and internet commerce through his company, which sells old punk songs for download, and while the book may ostensibly be about disease and aging, on the flip side, it’s also concerned with showing the importance of living every wonderful moment given to us.

Roddy Doyle originally wrote The Commitments as the first part of The Barrytown Trilogy. The Snapper, and The Van (also both turned into film) form the rest of the trilogy. Doyle’s addition to the series now makes this a 4-parter.

review copy

13 Comments

Filed under Doyle Roddy, Fiction

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

I’d intended to read Fred Vargas ever since Emma first mentioned this French crime writer, so when she announced that The Chalk Circle Man was one of my Virtual Gift Exchange books, I had no more excuses. Well here it is, almost 6 months later, and I finally read the book–the first of a series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

The book begins with Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg freshly transferred as the new commissaire to the 5th Arrondissement in Paris. Adamsberg is originally from the Pyrenees and there’s the general impression from those he works with that he’s more than a bit strange and “primitive,”  but in reality it’s truer to say that he’s not exactly the most socially competent person on the planet. He certainly hasn’t been promoted due to any glibness or ability to swing office politics in his favour. No, he’s been promoted thanks to a wonderful reputation gained through the solution of four murders.

The Chalk Circle ManIn some ways, The Chalk Circle Man doesn’t feel as though it’s the first book in a series. There’s a definite sensation that we’ve slipped into a certain time slot of Adamsberg’s life. He’s 45,  in love with Camille, a free-spirited woman who has disappeared by choice, and even though Adamsberg had casual affairs, Camille is always in the back of his mind. The book begins with Adamsberg solving the murder of a textile merchant in his own inimitable fashion. It’s the conclusion to this case that begins to build respect for Adamsberg from his skeptical colleagues.

Adamsberg’s next case involves the appearance of blue chalk circles drawn in the wee hours in various sections of Paris. Items, seemingly random items, are placed within these circles, and while it’s the general consensus that the circles, accompanied by a cryptic message, are the work of some harmless nutcase, Adamsberg is clearly disturbed by them, and he fears the worse. With the discovery of a body inside one of the blue circles, Adamsberg’s predictions are realized. Adamsberg has a serial killer on his hands.

Series books rely on a main character strong enough and interesting enough to pull in a repeat audience. I’ve always seen the appeal of a series character–after all, if you, the writer create a really interesting character–a police inspector let’s say or a PI, why drop them once the last page is turned? The most successful series balance the crime solving with the main character’s personal life, so we readers buy the next book–not because we want to read about the next crime, necessarily, but because we want to hang out with the main character again. And again. Adamsberg is a very appealing character, and his unique approach to crime struck a chord for this reader. There’s a scene early on between Adamsberg and Inspector Danglard (who incidentally is the perfect foil for Adamsberg) in which the two men discuss the subject of murder, and Adamsberg brings up a story from his past, concerning a dog, and he tells this story to illustrate some fundamental beliefs:

“The point of this story, Danglard, is the evidence of cruelty in that little kid. I’d known for a long time before this happened that there was something wrong with him, and that was what it was: cruelty. But I can assure you that his face was quite normal, he didn’t have wicked features at all. On the contrary, he was a nice-looking boy, but he oozed cruelty. Just don’t ask me any more, I can’t tell you any more. But eight years later, he pushed a grandfather clock over on top of an old woman and killed her. And most premeditated murders require the murderer not only to feel exasperation or humiliation, or to have some neurosis, or whatever, but also cruelty, pleasure in inflicting suffering, pleasure in the victim’s agony and pleas for mercy, pleasure in tearing the victim apart. It’s true, it doesn’t always appear obvious in a person, but you feel at least that there’s something wrong, that something else is gathering underneath, a kind of growth. And sometimes that turns out to be cruelty–do you see what I’m saying? A kind of growth.”

“That’s against my principles,” said Danglard, a bit stiffly. “I don’t claim my principles are the only ones, but I don’t believe there are people marked out for this or that, like cows with tags on their ears, or that you can pick out murderers by intuition. I know, I’m saying something boring and unexciting, but what we do is we proceed by following clues, and we arrest when we’ve got proof. Gut feelings about ‘growths’ scare me stiff. That way you start off following hunches, and end up with arbitrary sentences and miscarriages of justice.”

Both men have stories to illustrate their theories about crime and murderers, and these stories, which involved early cases in their respective careers, shaped their thinking. Adamsberg has a level of intuition about crime, so for example, he immediately intuits that there’s something sinister about the blue chalk circles while everyone else think they’re just the work of some harmless nut. Adamsberg, however, does not rely on intuition alone. There were several times in the novel when one small detail doesn’t quite fit with the established narrative of crime, and even though other people are satisfied with the solution, Adamsberg is not.

The crimes in The Chalk Circle Man are conducted by a somewhat implausibly adaptable and clever killer, and the best parts of the novel are the refreshingly bizarre characters connected to the story.  Adamsberg has his own unique approach to solving crimes (which involves a great deal of solitary rumination and scribbling), and his sidekick, the melancholy Danglard, who doesn’t quite know what to think of his new boss, is a single parent swamped with children–including one dumped on him by his ex and her lover. There’s also unpredictable oceanographer Mathilde Forestier who has temporarily given up watching fish to watch humans, including the Chalk Circle Man. She believes in salvaging lost souls–not by charity or pity, but with her warm personality and  generous nature. She has already salvaged seventy year-old Clémence, a creepy spinster who obsesses over the personal ads, now employed to do a little work for Mathilde. Mathilde meets a blind man, Charles Reyer, seemingly by accident, who’s struggling with bitterness at his condition, and she rents a room to him while refusing to allow him to wallow in self-pity.  All these characters are somehow or another connected to the case, and the characters are so much fun, that they lighten the darkness of the crimes.

Lucky for me, there are 8 Commissaire Adamsberg novels in English from Vargas (including one graphic novel & the eighth in the series to appear this year). I have some catching up to do. So many thanks to Emma for choosing The Chalk Circle Man.

Translated by Siân Reynolds.

11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Vargas Fred

Point and Shoot by Duane Swierczynski

“Wait, wait, wait.” Hardie said. “Water evacuation? Knocked unconscious? What happened to all that shit about a gentle splashdown.”

It’s been over a year since I read part II of the Charlie Hardie trilogy by pulpmaster Duane Swierczynski. The first novel in the series Fun and Games is the story of middle-aged, washed up former police consultant Charlie Hardie who’s split from his wife. Hardie’s latest gig is housesitting; it may not sound like much–no pension, profit sharing or career expansion, but hey, with a heavy burden of guilt, all Hardie wants these days is the quiet life. He’s looking forward to his job housesitting for a Hollywood music producer, but all hell breaks loose when he steps inside the Hollywood Hills home and encounters a terrified bit part actress, Lane Madden who claims that The Accident People–a secret team who specialize in Hollywood whack jobs are outside of the home and about to murder her….

Part II Hell and Gone finds Hardie incarcerated in a secret underground prison compound, site 7734, owned and operated by The Accident People. For those under lock and key in the facility, it’s hell on earth with no parole, daily brutality and an on-going mind-fuck.

point and shootNow that brings me to Part III, and for this Hardie/Swierczynski fan, the book was a long time coming, but well worth the wait. With a trilogy, there’s always the concern that the action will flag, but no, Swierczynski, who creates micro worlds of paranoia and violence loaded with sophisticated, adrenalin-high, pulp-action, Point and Shoot brings the Hardie trilogy to a phenomenal conclusion. Fans of the earlier two books will not be disappointed, and if you haven’t read any of the Charlie Hardie books, you need to start at the beginning.

For those who have read Fun and Games and Hell and Gone, some old, familiar characters are back in action–including Hardie’s arch-enemy, Mann  “with Charlie Hardie blinking neon in her brain,” hot on his trail, and thirsting for revenge. Mann is one of The Accident People –Hollywood Star Whackers who then stage grubby “narratives” to support the death scenes they create.  The Accident People are just one arm of The Cabal–power brokers whose tentacles of control and manipulation extend far beyond Hollywood. Hardie is the only person to cross The Accident People, dig into the structure of The Cabal and still live to tell the tale. Part III: Point and Shoot finds Hardie trapped in a secret satellite, in orbit 500 miles above the earth. He has a food and water supply, a list of duties to perform along and an order to kill anyone who shows up–not that that seems to be a likely scenario. There’s no communication with the outside world, and Hardie has been told that he must ‘behave’ or that his estranged wife and son, back in Philadelphia will have “an accident.” Just in case Hardie gets any big ideas, and in order to keep Hardie focused, he receives a daily transmission from a hidden camera inside his family’s home. Hardie, who’s gained a reputation of being unkillable, sees no choice but to behave, and he plugs along stoically and stubbornly, but then one day, he receives a visitor….

That’s as much of the plot as I will reveal. To those new to the trilogy, you will discover Duane Swierczynski’s unique style which blends non-stop action with humour. After all, here’s Hardie, this geezer, an unlikely hero, no spring chicken, who keeps on truckin’ with stubborn tenacity. Hardie is a loner, a one man-show, and this is one of the facets of his personality that has kept him alive. Reading the books in the Hardie trilogy is a unique experience in a literary Die-Hard sort of way.  If you want action, if you want distraction, then Swierczynski is the author for you. Honestly, no-one does this sort of pulp action better. Please someone out there make films from these books; they’re begging for movie adaptation.

“Whoah. You okay, man?”

You twist your head around to see a bearded guy standing there with a notebook in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Even upside down you can tell he’s a hipster douchebag, central California version. The chunky glasses, the greasy hair, the tight unbuttoned shirt. He’s in dire need of a shower and a hug.

“I’m doing just great,” you say.

“Where did you come from?”

“Space.”

The hipster douchebag, probably a fucking poet or something, doesn’t quit know how to respond to that, so he focuses on the big dude lying facedown in the sand next to you. He crouches down next to you both.

“What about him? Is he okay? wait a minute…are you guys wearing spacesuits? I thought you were just fucking around with me there.”

Can’t get anything past this guy.

“Can I show you something?” you ask, reaching for an imaginary pocket, and the moment his eyes track down to you hand you nail him. It feels good to take out some aggression on someone who totally doesn’t deserve it. By the follow-up rabbit punch he’s already out cold on the sand. Leaving you with two unconscious bodies on the beach. Let’s hope hipster douchebag has car keys.

The best thing about the books of Swierczynski are that they may be works of the imagination but they are not that far-fetched that they seem impossible. We’ve probably all read a story in the paper that somehow doesn’t smell right. Duane Swierczynski writes pulp novels, but he does a great deal more than that; he mines the depths of the weirdest stories out there, and then with imagination and humour pushes the boundaries of fiction until the impossible, the conspiracy theories, the shadowy power-brokers, and our deepest fears and paranoias becomes strangely, and terrifyingly, possible.

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Swierczynski Duane

Still Life with Volkswagens by Geoff Nicholson

“You don’t think there’s something eye-catching about jack-boots, Nazi uniforms, death’s head insignia?’

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and this time it’s the second volume of the author’s Volkswagen trilogy: Still Life with Volkswagens. This follows Street Sleeper, and there are so many repeat characters with continued history that readers should begin with the first book and then read on. In Street Sleeper, Barry Osgathorpe aka Ishmael, the Zen Road Warrior, bought a battered old VW Beetle, dumped his long-suffering girlfriend, Debby, and took to the road to ‘find himself.’ Along the way he met Fat Les, a VW mechanic, who converted Barry’s junker into Enlightenment, a loaded Beetle that is the envy of those who see this gleaming machine, and together with Enlightenment, Ishmael had many adventures and met the woman of his dreams–even if the feeling wasn’t mutual.

still life with VolkswagensBack to Still Life with Volkswagens which finds Barry (yes, back to plain old Barry) dossing in a caravan in Yorkshire. His short-lived days of adventures are over, and Enlightenment is permanently parked and covered due mainly to Barry’s current obsession about the planet, greenhouse gases and global warming. He’s considering forming a club called the Green Beetles for those committed to never driving their cars:

They may clean and polish them once in a while, even sit in them from time to time with their friends and families. The important thing is; they will never drive them. They will leave their cars parked next to their house or caravan, never start the engines, never pollute mother earth with their deadly fumes.

Debby is still in Barry’s life, and she’d still like to travel a bit but Barry defensively argues that he “never want[s] to go anywhere or do anything.” Problems begin for Barry when Volkswagens mysteriously begin exploding all over England, and banking scion Carlton Bax, the world’s “foremost Volkswagen collector[s]” goes missing. Involved whether he likes it or not, Barry is forced to abandon his inertia. Not only is Barry a prime suspect for both crimes, but the love of his life, Marilyn, now a weather-presenter on television, reappears in Barry’s life and begs for his help. Marilyn suspects that her father, Charles Lederer, recently released from a mental asylum may be responsible  for the war against Volkswagens and the disappearance of her lover, Carlton Bax. (If you’ve read Street Sleeper, you’ll remember both Marilyn and Charles Lederer, and it’ll also make sense to you why Lederer hates Volkswagens).

Since author Geoff Nicholson developed some many great characters in Street Sleeper, it’s wonderful to see them back for the second part of this trilogy. After all, why waste characters by only using them once? So Fat Les reappears–now the proud owner of a “clean and flawless Volkswagen emporium” near Southend. It’s in this building, an “exhilarating piece of Odeon-style seaside deco” called  ‘Fat Volkz Inc,’ that Fat Les runs his very lucrative VW business.  According to humorless Detective Inspector Cheryl Bronte, Fat Les is yet another suspect in the disappearance of Carlton Bax. Also making a re-appearance is Marilyn’s nymphomaniac mum, Mrs. Lederer who gets her “revenge”  on her neglectful husband by offering her body to cab drivers which is a bit difficult when a man she mistakes for a cab driver is driving a custom Beetle.

Add to this crazy list, Phelan, a sicko, cunning neo-Nazi who likes to be whipped (amongst other things) by leather-clad dominatrix Renata Caswell (who also appeared in Street Sleeper). Phelan’s master plan is to organize a gang of yobos or as he describes them: “A band of supermen, roaming this great country of ours in chariots of fire, by which I mean Volkswagen Beetles.”

Naturally Still Life with Volkswagens is full of Nicholson’s brand of dark humour. Here’s Barry having a conversation of sorts with Phelan:

“You’re like me Barry. You look at all these people and what do you see? Do you see your equals? Do you see creatures made in god’s image? I don’t think so Barry. I think you see a lot of useless clutter. Don’t you think a lot of that clutter could be tidied away?”

“I’ve never thought about it,” Barry says.

“Oh, I think you have,” Phelan says insinuatingly. “Haven’t you ever thought to yourself that the world would be a much better place if only there were more people like you in it?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m here to tell you Barry that there are more people like you in the world than you might think.

Take a drive around the M25 Barry. What traits are displayed by your fellow man? Aggression, selfishness, bad temper, competitiveness, madness brought on by stress. that’s not what the world ought be like, is it?”

“No,” Barry admits.

“When Adolf Hitler conceived of the idea of the autobahn that’s not what he had in mind at all. He saw long straight fast motorways uncluttered by riff raff and deviants.”

“What?” says Barry.

“You’re a good citizen, aren’t you Barry? You’re law-abiding, moral, politically middle of the road, not sexually or socially deviant. You’re male and you’re white.”

“Well, to an extent,” Barry stutters.

“Why deny it Barry? Why be ashamed? You don’t want the world left in the hands of extremists and perverts, do you? Of course you don’t. In your heart of heart you’re just like me, just like us. You know Hitler was right.”

“About motorways?”

In this tale of the battle of ‘good’ vs. the forces of evil, Geoff Nicholson’s humour knows no taboos, so he’s just as ready to poke fun at neo-nazis as he is at any type of extremism–be it perversion, obsession and collectors (all favourite themes for this author), so it should come as no great surprise that while the book includes a fair amount of trivia about Volkswagens, somehow or another, various Volkswagen drivers and collectors are mentioned: Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Hitler and even the Fabulous Elvis also find their way into these pages. And for anyone who plans to scream in outrage at the very idea, let me say that Nicholson’s black humour diminishes Manson and Hitler into the pathetic, sick human beings they were, empowered by people misguided enough to sign on for their madness (and no I’m not comparing Manson to Hitler. They just both happen to appear in the book). Who knew so many weirdos were attracted to Volkswagens, and what does that say about me? Oh never mind.

Not only does the author show some of the weirder aspects of the Volkswagen enthusiasts, but by interjecting fact into his fiction (there’s even a bit of the author’s own life in these pages), somehow the craziness blends, and neo-Nazis of the Apocalypse and Volkswagens exploding nationwide just don’t seem that far-fetched:

Manson starts to live out more of his fantasies. He sets up a production line behind the Spahn Ranch, which he calls the Devil’s Dune Buggy Shop. Volkswagens are stolen from town, taken to the ranch, stripped down, converted into vehicles of the Apocalypse. Some of them can be bartered for drugs and weapons, and he hopes they’ll be useful in some of his other fantasies, like kidnapping busloads of schoolgirls, raiding a military arsenal, murdering a few rich pigs.

Pride of the fleet is Manson’s own command vehicle. It is one Hell of a dune buggy. It looks both futuristic and ancient. There is a ‘magic sword’ sheathed in the steering column. locks of human hair tied around the roll bar, a sleeping platform, armour plate, a machine gun mounting, a fur canopy. It has been recently resprayed, then desert sand thrown onto the paint while still wet, to form a kind of camouflage.

When the whole shooting match is over, this Command Vehicle will be displayed at a car show in Pomona, California, and get a lot of admiring attention from the custom Volkswagen fraternity.

Charles Manson Family Dune buggy graveyard Spahn Ranch Dec. 27, 2011 Santa Susana Pass Road

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

Say You’re Sorry by Michael Robotham

“We disappeared together, Tash and me. That was a summer of hot winds and fierce storms that came and went like, well storms do. It was on a clear night at the end of August after the Bingham Summer Festival, when the funfair rides had fallen silent and the coloured lights had been turned off.”

A few years ago I read Australian author Michael Robotham’s Suspect, the first in the Joe O’Louglin series.  In this novel, the London-based clinical psychologist, just diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is drawn into a murder investigation and lies about his past relationship with the victim. Say You’re Sorry is the sixth novel in the series (Suspect, Lost, Shatter, Bleed for Me, & The Wreckage). Since I have a weakness for books that feature psychologists, I’d been meaning to get back to this series, but somehow, 4 of them have passed me by, so here I am with number 6. I’ve missed a bit along the way. Joe has moved back to London, and he takes medication for Parkinson’s which seems to be helping. He’s separated from his wife, Julianne, and his daughter Charlie is now a rebellious teenager. Joe works 2 days a week for the NHS and the rest of the time he works on “referrals [from] the Crown Prosecution Service.” There’s the sense that Joe’s work has become a little too routine and predictable, but all of that is about to change when Joe is pulled away from his commitments to make a psychological evaluation of a murder suspect.

The plot revolves around two crimes: the disappearance three years earlier of the two 15-year-old “Bingham girls” Piper Hadley and Tash McBain, best friends from school. Good-looking and confident Tash came from a rough home life and had a bad reputation. Fully aware of her attractiveness, she played teasing games with many of the males in her circle. Piper, who came from an upper-class background, seems an unlikely friend for Tash, and when Piper’s friendship with Tash began to lead to trouble, her parents shipped her off for to a re-education centre. But intervention from Piper’s parents inevitably backfired, and the two girls disappeared without a trace one summer night. The consensus is that the girls ran off to London.

The second crime takes during a blizzard at the remote farmhouse which used to be the home of Tash’s family. Joe is heading for a long weekend in Oxford “to talk at a mental health symposium” when he’s co-opted to provide a psychological evaluation on the suspect of a bloody double homicide. Initially the crime has the hallmarks of a classic home invasion. The husband was trying to run when his assailant bashed in his skull with a blunt object. Nasty, but the wife met a worse end. She was tied down onto the bed and set on fire. The police have a suspect–Augie Shaw, a handyman employed by the victims. The handyman has a history of mental problems and he’d recently been fired over a matter of missing underwear. The police are happy with an open and shut case, but Joe can’t fit the crime to the handyman, and then again there are some very troubling clues at the crime scene that leads Joe to think that the double homicide was linked to something else that occurred at the farmhouse.

Joe makes an interesting series character, and in this novel, former Det Insp. Vincent Ruiz (from Suspect) is back and joins Joe in his hunt for the truth. Joe finds himself investigating the cold case of the missing Bingham girls, and just as a crime scene can become contaminated as people inadvertently trammel clues, the stories about the girls have become distorted with time, and Joe has to wade through the myths built up around the two missing teenagers.

Everyone had a story about us–even the people who never liked us. We were cheeky, fun loving, popular, hard-working; we were straight A students. I laughed my ass off at that one.

People put a shine on us that wasn’t there for real, making us into the angels they wanted us to be. Our mothers were decent. Our fathers were blameless. Perfect parents who didn’t deserve to be tormented because of the posters and my collection of crystals  and my photo-booth portraits of my friends.

Narrated in turn by Piper Hadley and Joe O’Loughlin, Say You’re Sorry is the perfect distraction read, and by that I mean that you can be on a train or a plane or surrounded by annoying conversationalists, but you won’t hear them; you’ll be turning the pages of this book. On the down side (and this may seem a strange comment), I didn’t want to put this book down as by doing so, I was prolonging a crime. There’s an uncomfortable complicit feeling of reading a book while a crime is in process. I had the same feeling when I watched the film, The Cell. Almost fast forwarded the DVD for that one.

While Say You’re Sorry is a crime novel with a strong psychological bent, it’s also qualifies as a thriller towards the end. I didn’t guess the perp for this one, and the book kept me guessing to the end….

Mirrors have an interesting effect in interview rooms. People struggle to lie when they can see themselves doing it. They become more self-conscious as they try to sound more convincing and truthful

Review copy.

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Robotham, Michael