June reading, and an archive update

I read eleven books in June (or will have done, I should have finished Sweet Money by Thursday). Taken together with my June Euro Crime reviews (see below) there are two clear favourites for my book of the month – Outrage and The Rage (!) Neither book is written in a “rageful” way, though, both have a calm authorial voice. The rage in both cases gradually becomes apparent in a slow burn of a read. Superb. Of my other reads this month, I would recommend almost all of them, with only a couple being a bit substandard. Links below go to my reviews.

Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo (currently reading)
Cold Justice by Katherine Howell****
Outrage by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated by Anna Yates (review to be submitted to Euro Crime)*****
A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes***
Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah*
Blood Harvest by S J Bolton****
Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel**
The Rage by Gene Kerrigan*****
A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow***
Snowdrops by A D Miller**
Overkill by Vanda Symon***

Also in June, the following reviews of mine were published at Euro Crime:
The Track of Sand by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli.***
The Dinosaur Feather by Sissal-Jo Gazan, translated by Charlotte Braslund.***
The Winter of the Lions by Jan Costin Wagner, translated by Anthea Bell.***

I have now updated the Petrona review archive so that it contains all the reviews I’ve written up to today – mostly here or on Euro Crime, but some in other publications and places. When the review has been first posted here, however, I have not pasted-in the entire review to the archive, but instead posted a link and applied the relevant categories. This means that if you want to search my book reviews by country, region, genre or other factors (such as whether translated), you can do so by clicking through to the archive (link at top right of the sidebar) and choosing the appropriate category.
I’ve also archived some reviews at Amazon, just in case of a fatal WordPress crash at some point.

Book review: Cold Justice by Katherine Howell

Cold Justice by Katherine Howell
UK publisher Pan Macmillan, July 2011.
First published in Australia, 2010 (Pan Macmillan).

Having very much enjoyed the author’s previous novel, The Darkest Hour, I was looking forward to Cold Justice, and I was not disappointed. The structure of the books is similar, each concerning a police investigation led by Ella Marconi as well as a stand-alone story about the paramedics of Sydney’s ambulance service. In Cold Justice, the investigation that is assigned to Ella is an old case, the unsolved murder of a schoolboy 19 years ago. The boy’s cousin is now a leading politician and has used his clout to force a re-opening of the case. Ella is a professional, enthusiastic and dogged detective, so soon begins to create some new leads from her reading of the case history and re-interviewing of the boy’s extended family and witnesses involved in discovering his body as it lay by the roadside. Ella suffers various distractions in the shape of her over-protective mother who is always asking her round for meals, and in having an unwelcome partner foisted on her when the mother of the victim makes a public fuss about the resource levels assigned to the case. Perhaps her most challenging distraction is Ella’s boyfriend Wayne, who is oppressively domestic – one can see that Ella is soon going to be tired of him even before he buys her mother a mobile phone and teaches her how to text her daughter.

The paramedic part of the plot is provided by Georgie Riley, recently reassigned to Sydney after being involved in an accident at her old station. Although not her fault, Georgie is being persecuted by her sexist and nasty supervisor, who is related to the accident victim. Eventually Georgie is put on a kind of probation, finding herself in Sydney and under the supervision of a senior paramedic who will report on her work at the end of two weeks, whereupon it will be decided if Georgie can stay in the service. On starting her first day at work, Georgie is shocked to find that her superivsor is Faye, her best friend at school who abruptly left one day without leaving any message for Georgie, who was devastated. Faye is evasive, and given the nature of the job there is very little time for conversation inbetween rushing to various disasters and false alarms. The author was herself a paramedic for many years and these aspects of the novel are very excitingly depicted, with seeming authenticity. Whether it would seem authentic to the reader when it turns out that Georgie was the girl who discovered the boy’s body in the case that Ella is investigating, and that Faye is clearly implicated in some way but uses her power over Georgie to stop her from telling the police that Faye knew the victim, is less clear.

Despite this unlikely coincidence, this novel is everything that crime fiction should be. There’s a good plot that may not, in the end, be a huge surprise in its revelation of what really happened to the dead boy, but which is satisfying, taut and solid. There are strongly depicted characters, particularly Ella and Georgie, who are dealing not only with typical workplace and relationship issues but also in Georgie’s case, much more danger. The descriptions of the work of the ambulance service are convincing and exciting – overall this is a great story which I raced through in a day; it beats me why a book like this is not on top of the bestseller lists compared with some of the lazy, formulaic offerings by authors whom I have long since stopped reading.

I thank Pan Macmillan for my copy of this novel, a paperback original.

My review of the previous Ella Marconi novel, The Darkest Hour.

Read other reviews of Cold Justice at: Reactions to Reading, Sunnie’s Book Blog and Mysteries in Paradise.

See reviews of Katherine Howell’s books and more about this author at Fair Dinkum crime. See also the author’s website for more details of her and her books.

Books to take on holiday

Last year, Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise encouraged bloggers to recommend books to give for Christmas. I made my selections last November in a post that seems to have failed to migrate here from my old blog (so here it is!). In that post I made some recommendations for regular readers of crime fiction and some for those new to the genre (that is, general fiction with a crime element). On looking at this list again now, I think that any of these books could suffice for the summer holidays (or winter holidays in the case of Kerrie and fellow residents of the Southern Hemisphere) if you have not read them yet. So please go here for the list.

If, however, you’d like some fresh recommendations, I can perhaps point you to my ongoing list of my favourite books among those I’ve reviewed this year so far. The list is in no special order. If you are not a regular reader of crime fiction or aren’t particularly keen on crime fiction, Intuition and Turn of Mind are not in this genre and are both superb, readable novels. The rest of the books on this list are crime fiction, in the sense of being suspenseful reads concerning character, psychology, conflict (thanks, Bernadette!), atmosphere and, in most of them, a strong sense of place, rather than being about violent crimes or dwelling on descriptions of murders. Please do give some of them a try! Below are my one-line summaries of the books; links go to my reviews of them. Happy reading.

Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder.
“Impressively rounded debut crime novel about small, isolated Swedish community.”
The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell
“Intriguing but in the end disappointing crime plot, yet very strong on character and atmosphere. Last in a well-regarded series.”
Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar
“Second outing for Inspector Caldas in Galician fishing villages. Authentic atmosphere but crime plot rather mechanical.”
The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly
“The usual reliable read from a masterly author. This one is a Mickey Haller novel, a courtroom drama.”
Open Season by C. J. Box
“First of an excellent series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett and family. I’ve read/reviewed all the books to date this year, recommended.”
Intuition by Allegra Goodman
“Not only a highly readable novel but an authentic depiction of the realities of modern biology research.”
Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen
“Excellent police procedural that goes much further than that. So far (May), my best book of the year.”
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
“Gripping, well-structured and moving novel told from the point of view of a surgeon with Alzheimer’s disease. Very, very good.”
The Rage by Gene Kerrigan
“Excellent cops and robbers novel set in post-crash Ireland. Great plotting, pace and characters.”

Book review: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

A Rage in Harlem, original title La Reine des pommes (The Queen of Fools), first US publication entitled For Love of Imabelle. The author’s own title is The Five-Cornered Square.
1957; Penguin classics edition 2011.

Looking eastward from the towers of the Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of grey rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of the sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in a desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
That is Harlem.

This passage, occurring just over half-way through this compelling short novel, is one of the very few objective descriptions in it, but it suffices to set the scene of the blistering, relentless account that comprises this classic yet totally relevant book. Jackson is a “square”, who works for an undertaker. He’s besotted by his girlfriend Imabelle, who has introduced him to a man who can turn $10 bills into $100s. In the opening section, Jackson scrapes together all he can for this procedure, but it all goes horribly wrong and he finds himself without a job, without any money, and without Imabelle. Desperate to find her, he seeks out his brother whom he believes can help. The brother lives with two other men, all three of them making a living in such inventive fashions that I can’t spoil anyone’s fun by revealing them here.

Jackson, his brother, various hoodlums, religious leaders and madams of Harlem’s mean streets populate this novel, whose pace never slackens. The plotting is incredibly deft, as we move from set-piece to set-piece seamlessly, with a hilarity that creeps up on the unsuspecting reader as events spiral out of control of character after character who is convinced that he or she has it taped. Jackson’s essential innocence among a city of violent opportunists provides the heart of the novel, as he yearns for his beautiful, lost Imabelle.

Two black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, become involved in tracking down the perpetrators of the scam in which Jackson and his brother are themselves becoming involved. Although the book is billed as the first in the series about these detectives, they don’t feature very much here apart from in one ambush fairly early on and in the end-game. Nevertheless, their presence, as black detectives charged with keeping the lid firmly on the heaving mass of crime, sex and violence that is Harlem, is pivotal, both in terms of the action and the underlying morality.

This brief novel is compelling and full of humour – humour underlying a dark anger with the plight of the characters living in such grim, relentless poverty and desperation, under different laws from the whites: but never does the social conscience of the novel become obtrusive or even explicit. The constant pace and the effortless sequence of places and circumstances not only draw the reader in but do a much better job at depicting the despair and cruelty of everyone’s lives than any primer of social injustice could convey.

In a wonderful introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel that sets it into context, Luc Sante describes how Chester Himes came to write the book; how he never lived in Harlem nor was acknowledged in the USA at that time. It was when he went to France that he became accepted and was eventually commissioned to write this book, where it was first published.

I received this book free via the Amazon Vine programme.

About Chester Himes (1909 – 1984) at Wikipedia.
In the absence of book reviews on the web, read other reviews of this novel at Amazon.

Book review: Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

Lasting Damage
Sophie Hannah
Hodder & Stoughton 2011.

The hook of Lasting Damage is, as usual with Sophie Hannah, inventive and addictive. A young woman creeps out of bed at night so as not to disturb her husband, boots up her computer and begins looking at a virtual tour of the interior of a house that is for sale in Cambridge. As she watches, the camera swings round to show the dead body of a woman on the floor of the living room. In a panic, Connie (the woman) runs to her husband (Kit), knocking a picture off the wall and injuring her foot in the broken glass. After attempting to calm down, Connie and Kit look again at the “tour” and find that the body has vanished, never to return (!).

So far, so good. Unfortunately the next 250 pages of this novel are mostly one long side-issue, again as I’ve come to expect from this author. We learn a great deal about Connie’s state of mind, her relationships with her homoeopathic therapist Alice (a character from an earlier book), her parents, sister, husband and so on. We are also told more events in the lives of the confused romantics who inhabit Spilling police station. The uber-neurotics Charlie and Simon are now married and on their honeymoon, which we see through the constantly agonising eyes of Charlie, who still can’t make up her mind whether she loves Simon, whether he loves her, and daren’t talk to him about it. For some reason they have rented an entire hotel just for themselves, and are obsessive about nobody knowing where they are. Charlie’s sister Olivia, the only person entrusted with the secret location, begins a fling with one of Charlie and Simon’s colleagues.

Connie tells Alice about her experience, whereupon Alice persuades her to report the “murder” to Simon, with whom Alice has had previous dealings. Simon’s on honeymoon of course, so Connie ends up dealing with his colleague Sam. When she is interviewed by Sam, she tells him endless details about her life, her thoughts and emotions – Sam listens to all this and after investigating the house and finding no evidence of wrongdoing, cannot help further even though he mentally beats himself up as he is convinced Simon would have worked out whether Connie is deluded or whether a crime has in fact occurred.

Eventually, another woman comes forward who has also seen the same body while taking the same virtual tour. After much agonising by Olivia and Sam (separately), Sam calls Simon and the honeymoon is cut short. In the meantime, Connie has made contact with the doctor who owns the house, a woman called Selina, but Selina is scared of Connie and has moved out into a hotel while her house is being sold. Connie is very confused by this turn of events; as she is constantly fainting and having panic attacks, she becomes worried about her sanity as well as her physical health. Another part of the puzzle is provided by occasional insert pages of bits of paper from a police evidence file. They all relate to a family called the Gilpatricks, consisting of children’s school reports and poems. Somehow, these must be relevant to what is happening to Connie (we’ve been told this in the preview chapter).

After going round and round in circles for so long, the book picks up for the last 150 or so pages. Simon and Charlie return to England and, with Sam’s help, work out what is going on, mainly by dint of Simon doing some basic police work that any one of his colleagues could have done on day 1. At the same time, Connie decides to take matters into her own hands. The final section of the book consists of two long pieces of exposition, one by the three police officers who take the opportunity of being stuck in a traffic jam en route to the scene of the presumed crime to explain the entire plot to each other in great detail; and the other by Connie and the person/people she encounters in their own particular end-game. These two long explanatory sections are quite compelling in their own right, and certainly tie together all the micro-clues and strangenesses that have cropped up earlier with many neat touches. However, they certainly aren’t realistic, relying as they do on characters explaining everything to each other.

One appeal of this loose series of books is for readers to find out more about the personal lives of Charlie, Simon and their colleagues and families in the context of each book’s new mystery centred on non-series characters. Lasting Damage is structured quite strangely, though, as all the ongoing developments among the series regulars are provided in the first (longer) part while the crime investigation essentially gets nowhere; then in the second, shorter part of the book, the crime, motivation and modus operandi are all revealed – but the series “story” is jettisoned and so several characters are left in mid-air from earlier in the book.

The strengths of the novel are in the “how and why” of the crime, rather than the “who”. Personally, I’d prefer much less of the interpersonal agonising of the recurring characters and hence a leaner novel that focuses on the particular mystery and the psychologies of those caught up in it; but if you do like a rather grand guignol story, and don’t mind a lack of realism in the police procedural aspects (for example witnesses wandering out of the police station in the middle of crucial interviews) then this is a series for you.

I had decided I would not read any more Sophie Hannah books after the last one, but as Lasting Damage was in the library last week I borrowed it to give her another try.

Read other reviews of Lasting Damage at: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham), The Book Whisperer, Novel Insights and Crime and Publishing.

About the book at the author’s website.

Book review: Blood Harvest by S. J. Bolton

Blood Harvest
S J Bolton
Bantam, 2010.

Imagine a tiny, isolated Lancashire village on the edge of the moors. There are two churches, one a ruined abbey and one recently re-opened. There’s a massive crypt under the churches that connects them. There is a graveyard whose wall, as the book opens, collapses in the heavy rain, causing the ground to sink and graves to open up. In one of these graves, that of a little girl, the bodies of two other young children emerge. The vicar, a handsome young chap, almost faints.

That’s the setting for Blood Harvest, which after this lurid opening flashes back to the previous few months, introducing us to a family, the Fletchers, who have just moved into a new house built on the ground that used to be part of the abbey, and hence overlooks it and the graveyard. The Fletchers have three young children, the eldest of whom, Tom, is bullied by lads at his local school and sees visions of a young girl among the graves and fields. Is he imagining her or not?

Harry is the recently arrived vicar, who is getting to know the community and encouraging them to attend his newly opened church. He rapidly finds that the village is in effect owned by one family, and finds himself taking part in various traditional activities under its auspices, which seem harmless enough but have an unsettling edge to them. Evi is a psychiatrist who is treating Gillian, an unstable young woman whose daughter was burned to death in a house fire a couple of years ago, and who now spends her time wandering the moors looking for the little girl – whose body, she tells Evi, was never found. Gillian acts as a link between Harry and Evi, threatening to destroy the budding romance between them. About half way through the book, we arrive in time at the events described in the beginning, when it is obvious that murders have taken place. The rest of the novel is about the police investigation as well as Harry and Evi’s attempts to uncover what happened and who is responsible.

Although I am not a fan of “sinister villager” books, especially those with a possible supernatural element in which apparently sane people like Harry constantly feel they are being watched in the vestry, I can highly recommend Blood Harvest as a very exciting read. S J Bolton cleverly weaves her web of suspicions and paranoia, drawing the reader inexorably in to the concerns and emotions of her vividly drawn main characters, as Alice Fletcher fears for her daughter’s safety – but is she worried about the child who is really in danger? Will Evi believe in Tom’s mysterious “friend” before tragedy strikes? Are various strange events practical jokes gone wrong or nasty warnings? The creepy atmosphere of the moors, as well as the abandoned church and other buildings in the area, are used to excellent effect to increase the tension. I was waiting with bated breath to find out whether the author was going to be able to pull all the strings together in the end into a credible conclusion or whether she’d cheat- and she does indeed pull it off – although I have to say it was not too difficult to work out the identity and motivation of the criminal (partly due to a dearth of potential suspects). Despite the rather overblown climax, this novel is quite a storytelling achievement, and one I very much enjoyed reading.

I borrowed this novel from the library.

Read other reviews of Blood Harvest at: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham), The Observer (Alison Flood), The Independent (Barry Forshaw), A Work in Progress, Lost in Books.

S J Bolton’s website.
S J Bolton at Euro Crime, including reviews of her earlier books (Sacrifice and Awakening), and her latest novel Now You See Me. (These books are individual novels, not a series. My review of Sacrifice, the author’s debut novel, is here.)

Petrona’s choice from the Internet (14 June)

When I received this comment on my blog today: “you have put together one of the worst pieces of writing that I have come across for sometime” I was a bit hurt but duly got my revenge by marking it as spam. I was quite heartened, then, to read this article at Guardian Education by the esteemed Marc Abrahams “Don’t let the trolls get you down” in which he reports, unsurprisingly if you know his work, an academic study in which a lecturer has come up with a scientific definition of a troll, and advises on how to deal with one: “Trolling can (1) be frustrated if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but are not provoked into responding, (2) be thwarted if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but counter in such a way as to curtail or neutralise the success of the troller, (3) fail if users do not correctly interpret an intent to troll and are not provoked by the troller, or, (4) succeed if users are deceived into believing the troller’s pseudo-intention(s), and are provoked into responding sincerely. Finally, users can mock troll. That is, they may undertake what appears to be trolling with the aim of enhancing or increasing effect, or group cohesion.” (inevitably there are lots more suggestions in the comments to this academese (why can’t academics write plain English?), including some that have been “removed by the moderator”).

In a different type of Internet abuse, Nature ran a couple of thought-provoking articles on cyberwarfare last week. An Editorial opines that “National cybersecurity plans should go beyond the cold-war mentality of an arms race and focus more on linking traditional computer security with protections for industrial control systems.” And an accompanying News story focuses on a new type of threat to critical infrastructures, for example underlying water and energy supplies.

While on the topic of Nature, the Internet and threats, I can’t resist a linguistic-association link to this News story: “Underwater spiders use webs as gills”. Fascinating stuff.

Back to more on-topic subjects for this blog: someone has just decided to share my opinion that Atonement is Ian McEwan’s masterpiece. It’s a great book and as it was written in 2001 it would be the first on my list of “best novels of the last decade” if I ever get around to writing it (which I doubt I will as I haven’t read enough good novels published over that time period – What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn would be another one, though).

Someone on the Internet runs a recurring post “questions to which the answer is no”. Here’s one for the collection: Would you fund your favorite [sic] author? Actually, I might fund my favourite author but that isn’t what this is about, this is about a new service called Unbound that “lets authors pitch ideas and collect funding from readers”. Sounds awful, when added to the tsunami of self-published e-books that are swamping Amazon and all points webwise.

However, if you are an author who publishes in academic journals, I smiled at this intriguing tool to see how close you are to having published with your nominated Nobel laureate (or anyone). Sabine does not mention Kevin Bacon but if I do you’ll get the drift.

Links in brief:

250 books by women that all men should read. (It’s a riposte!)

Swedish book review is online! (I may be the last to know.) Often this magazine carries articles by the English translator of a Swedish novel before the book is actually published in English – these insights are fascinating. Here’s a taster of Camilla Ceder’s second novel, Babylon, by translator Marlaine Delargy.

Lost collection: Art left on public transport – a new exhibition made up of art that’s been left unclaimed on the London Underground, buses, London Overground trains and Black Cabs.

How Nicola Morgan became a top trend on Twitter via her idea of asking users to nominate #lessinterestingbooks. Examples include Lord of the Files (which I think sounds quite interesting!), Jude the Fairly Obvious, Mein Kampsite, War and Peas, etc. As well as on Twitter itself, there are lots of suggestions at Nicola Morgan’s blog post and a Facebook group (link at post). Very droll.

Obama lets Dominique Strauss-Kahn know where the boundaries are….. in 2009!

The official media has finally caught on to sofalising- “people sitting at home watching a programme on TV while at the same time discussing what they are watching on another screen with friends, or indeed strangers, on social media sites.” Everyone under the age of 25 seems to do this automatically, it seems to me, and more than a few who are older than that if my Twitter feed is anything to go by (cue for a cull when it does happen, though).

Sad: US postal service faces collapse. “Delivery of first-class mail is falling at a staggering rate. Facing insolvency, can the USPS reinvent itself like European services have—or will it implode?”

Which author should write the next Bond novel? (Guardian open thread). Many of the suggested authors/titles/parodies are so funny, eg “The Good Man James and The Scoundrel Bond”, “From James, With Love & Squalor” and “Alexander McCall Smith: “I’ve been expecting you, Rra Bond.” “

One last laugh: tell us about your worst night at the theatre. (Guardian again). Alexis Soloski writes “in my time as a theatre critic I’ve been stalked in my seat and groped onstage. What’s your lowest theatrical moment?”. Read if you dare.

Book review: Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel

Officer Down
Theresa Schwegel
UK publisher Quercus, US Macmillan, 2005

Officer Down has a very exciting start, in which Chicago police detective Samantha Mack fills in for a sick colleague on patrol, hence becoming directly involved in taking down a drug dealer. Unfortunately, though, it is Sam’s partner Fred who is shot and not the drug dealer. Sam is injured in the process and when she regains consciousness from her head wound it transpires that she’s being held to blame as there is no evidence of any other perpetrator and, of course, she and Fred had not waited for back-up before entering a dark house alone so there are no witnesses to Sam’s befuddled version of events.

So far, so good – the book is written in gutsy, hardboiled prose (albeit in the present tense, which I don’t usually like but is done well here), and the protagonist is a tough, professional yet emotional female. Yet, once Sam is put on administrative leave while the incident is investigated, the pace slows down for about 150 pages and I found it hard to remain engaged in her see-saw emotions, hair-trigger behaviour and a general lack of forwards motion in the plot.

Essentially, Sam decides to investigate the botched takedown herself in order to clear her name, as she cannot tell who to trust among her police colleagues and the Internal Affairs department, who are supposedly getting to the bottom of what happened. Sam’s task is complicated because of her feelings for a fellow officer, as well as her feelings for her dead ex-partner. She becomes involved in rounds of alcoholic binges (she often buys take-out food but is usually distracted before she can eat it), then visits the widow and, later, another woman who is part of a love-triangle which includes Sam. Inbetween the bars and inconclusive encounters, she gets embroiled in an occasional subplot that turns into a red herring.

Of course, Sam’s initial work to track down the drug dealer and his snitch messes up the official investigation, bringing down even more suspicion onto her as well as making her hopes of rehabilitation fade. After what seems like an awful lot of Sam’s emotional agonising over police colleagues and witnesses alike, the book picks up towards the end as she finally (after several backs and forths) realises who she trusts and who she doesn’t, and attempts to outwit everybody in order to get her beloved job back.

This novel has much going for it: the setting is very well realised and the author seems to know a great deal about the police and police work. Sam is a potentially interesting character from what we are told of her back story, but she is far too boring in that she is constantly upset about some man or other, and her impulsive, outspoken and aggressive behaviour is pretty hard to identify or sympathise with on several occasions. As the book pans out, she does find some fairly damning evidence in her favour, but chooses not to call it in. There are lots of incidents like this that draw out Sam’s exile before the various plot elements begin to come together, but I think many of them have the effect of slowing down the pace too much by their circular nature, rather than increasing the tension or providing more clues for the reader to work on.

I am not sure if I’ll read more in the series: it depends on whether Sam ups the quotient of investigations in future, and acquires more self-knowledge and maturity, hence lowering her amount of inner vacillation about her love life with a cast of identikit males which can only be of limited interest to anyone other than her, including the reader. The book has strong potential and could develop as a series into a police-perspective counterpart to Sara Paretsky‘s V. I. Warshawski novels: one could imagine Sam and V. I. meeting as they certainly share not only some character elements but also a particular perspective of their joint city. But on the evidence of this first novel, there is a little way to go.

Quite a lot of this book reminded me of one I read early last year, Blood Sunset by Jarad Henry.

I purchased my copy of this book, which won the Edgar award for best first novel in 2006.

About the book and the author at the US publisher‘s website. See Wikipedia for more about the author and her books (listed in series order). Author website.

Read other reviews of Officer Down at: The View from the Blue House; Mystery Ink ; and Reviewing the Evidence.

Unwritten rules of TV thrillers

Owing to some unusual circumstances, I have recently watched a couple of crime thrillers on TV. One was a two-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories; the other was a five part original series by Anthony Horowitz called Injustice.

I rarely watch contemporary TV, preferring to be highly selective and wait a few years after a programme has aired to give it a chance to mature into something that many people think is good (eg The Wire), or see it consigned to oblivion so I don’t need to bother watching it. These two recent series, and another one I watched a few weeks ago called Exile, all had several features in common which makes me wonder whether all TV series have to obey a set of laws?

  • Even when someone has written a script, certain scenes are repeated several times (especially if they concern a scantily clad woman and/or someone being killed, ideally both). We see endless shots of Jackson Brodie running; Brodie as a boy running through woods calling his sister; woman being shot in head against wall; Injustice lawyer staring at same images of cctv footage; woman in black underwear on bed; man shooting other man at least 3 times per episode; Dad beating up son (Exile) and so on – over, over and over again. Does someone think viewers are automatically stupid? In the case of Case Histories this was particularly annoying as far too many storylines were being crammed into a kind of superficial roundabout inbetween the repeated rehashes.
  • Perfect production values. Houses interior and exterior are perfect, as if in an upmarket magazine: Jackson Brodie; his client whose daughter has been killed; Mr Perfect Ipswich lawyer and wife; even the slightly more downmarket properties in Exile looked more like design museums than places in which real people exist: the impoverished animal activist in Injustice lived in a shack, true, but with stylish posters on his walls and in the middle of a very tastefully photographed field. Costumes, similarly, are beautified and over-perfect: even when people wear jeans, they are careful jeans.
  • Use of music to signify plot elements, or even not to signify anything but to obscure the dialogue. Case Histories in particular had lots of noisy music that seemed to jar with the plot and atmosphere.
  • Excellent acting, over and above the call of duty for these choppy, unevenly directed dramas. The actors are so much better than their material! This effect is exacerbated in cases where some talented, famous person is wheeled out for one scene, eg Imogen Stubbs in Injustice and Timothy West, reduced to a spluttering, dialogue-less blimp in his one main scene in Exile. The acting, like the production values, overwhelms the mediocrity of the plotting.
  • Boredom at the end. Throughout these series there are threads and story elements that seem to be building up to something – but by the final episode most of these are jettisoned mid-air in favour of some cod-action finale as if everyone concerned has just run out of steam or interest.

    Well, that’s about it for my rant. These three series were all “OK” but Case Histories should have either been longer or dropped at least one of the “histories” because what one ended up with was a confused mish-mash, if you hadn’t read the book, or an unsatisfactorily superficial precis of some really rather moving stories if you had. Injustice and Exile were both far too drawn-out for their slender material (Exile was almost entirely dependent for its impact on good acting) – they should have been half the length, each.
    All of these series could have been a lot more: Exile had a powerful theme about a man with Alzheimer’s disease and his relationship with his two adult children, all three played by superb actors. But it degenerated into a risibly and lazily “plotted” thriller. Injustice picked at some interesting themes about the prison system and the book publishing industry (with one or two nice little allusions for readers), and had some inventively repellant characters (including one who would easily win Worst Mother of the Year award) – but ended up with a plot twist that was so clunky and predictable as to be embarrassing, and a “punchline” that was not so much signalled but endlessly shown to the viewer beforehand to be sure there was absolutely no suspense whatsoever. Case Histories went for a mish-mash of styles and clichés over the individuality and substance provided in the source material that could have been imaginatively reworked into something a bit different for the visual medium.

    Oh well, I don’t suppose I shall be watching more contemporary TV for a while, but will stick to old series that have stood the test of a few or more years; or films that have similarly been well-received. Most of the time, of course, I shall be reading a book instead.

    [Images are, from the top, from Case Histories, Injustice and Exile]

    More about Exile, Case Histories and Injustice, including video trailers and excerpts, episode summaries and so on.

  • Book review: The Rage by Gene Kerrigan

    The Rage
    Gene Kerrigan
    Harvill Secker, June 2011
    The Rage is an excellent book, and a lot more subtle than its title implies. I loved Gene Kerrigan’s first two novels (Little Criminals and The Midnight Choir) and though I liked the third (Dark Times in the City), I did not think it quite matched up to the first two. Here, the author has come up with a real cracker that I think is his best yet – although it is very well written, it mostly lacks the beautiful yet brutal poetic language of the earlier novels.
    The novel opens with Garda detective sergeant Bob Tidy experiencing an epiphany at a crossroads in his uneasy life of trying to maintain his integrity in a profession plagued by compromises with criminals, with lawyers and the justice system, with the victims and the families of crime and criminals, with journalists and hangers-on, and increasingly, with political deals that go on above his head and which make a mockery of the peace he is sworn to uphold. Most of the book tells the story of how Tidy has arrived at this point.
    This is a gripping yet multilayered novel of individuals caught up in their own fates. Vincent Naylor is a petty, impulsively violent thief just out of prison who is told by his brother, Noel, of a chance opportunity to make some real money. We follow some, but not all, of the brothers’ preparations for their crime, at the same time witnessing their daily lives, concerns and passions. Tidy has been in the police force for a long time (he has featured in previous novels as have one or two other characters, but The Rage isn’t a sequel and can be read without knowledge of earlier events). Though somewhat world-weary, he tries to do the right thing particularly by the ordinary people he has got to know over the years because their sons or grandsons were criminals or victims, or because they helped him as witnesses, or similar. Inevitably, he’s divorced, but has a rather touching relationship with his ex-wife and has much concern for his daughter – all laconically but movingly conveyed.
    There are plenty of threads to this novel, in its account of crimes that seem to have no connection to each other, all set in context by the implosion of the Irish economy and its multifaceted knock-on effects on the wealthy and the average earner, the chancer and the law-abiding, alike. The book is full of neat and telling little observations, while at the same time never deviating from its sense that we are experiencing small brush strokes on a broad canvas – and that we’ll see the whole picture when the author chooses to reveal it.
    I won’t provide more details of the convoluted, clever and involving plot here, suffice it to say that the story is very exciting, yet at the same time somehow elegiac as we see events mainly through Tidy’s eyes, and see his self-disgust at the compromises he’s been forced to make and that he realises are made by those running the police force who have completely lost touch with the ordinary people they are supposed to be protecting and serving. The final part of the book, in which Tidy makes the decision that is overwhelming him at the start, and how that plays out, is filled with tension and pace, not least because we even have a bit of sympathy for the least attractive characters in the novel, and have decidedly mixed sympathies for those who are apparently innocent bystanders. I highly recommend this superb novel by an extremely talented author at the top of his game.

    I obtained this novel free of charge from the Amazon Vine programme.

    My reviews of the author’s earlier novels are at Euro Crime.
    Read other reviews of The Rage at The Bookbag and The Independent (Ireland).
    Gene Kerrigan’s columns at the Sunday Independent (Ireland).