TV review: Single-Handed

Single-Handed (2007) is an Irish TV drama series consisting of three one-and-a-half-hour films. I was given the DVD as a Christmas present by someone who had never heard of it before – neither had I – but the quote on the cover “The most impressive non-American policier in years” (Time Out) gave the purchaser reason to think that I might like it.

And very good it is, too. Each of the three films tells a different crime story, but are linked by the character of Garda Sergeant Jack Driscoll (Owen McDonnell), who has abruptly left his job in Dublin and transferred to the remote, small town in Connemara where he grew up. Jack’s father was the Garda sergeant there for years, but has recently retired and has in some way swung the job for Jack. The younger man is very much under his father’s thumb, therefore, enduring his network of “good old boys” who may or may not be stretching their interpretation of the law a bit too far. Jack has his work cut out to establish his niche and gain the respect of the community. The first two films have a strong theme of Jack’s conflicted feelings about his father, both on a personal level and about the extent to which he may have been corrupt.

As crime stories, the plots are solid and resist cliché. In the first film, the body of a young woman is discovered in a caravan. It turns out that she was from eastern Europe, and only Jack seems to care enough to find out her identity and what happened to her. The second film is about a young mother whose two-year-old baby is abducted. Everyone assumes the boy’s father is responsible, but Jack’s discoveries begin to point to other, darker possibilities – while his father is giving evidence at a tribunal investigating the possibility of past false confessions and other aspects of police wrong-doing. In the final film, Jack tries to rescue a drowning man, eventually becoming tied up in a drug-smuggling ring.

I liked these films because they avoid all the usual TV stereotypes of car chases, heroics and so on. There are shades of grey in almost all the characters – hardly anybody is a hero or a villain, and the pressures they come under are well-depicted, whether or not they are driven to contemplate criminal activity. The scenery is beautiful – as are Jack’s girlfriends (the exception to the lack of cliché is that Jack has a new one for each film). Jack himself is no slouch in the looks department, either.

I highly recommend these films for crime-fiction enthusiasts who want to watch something that is not bogged down by formula. I found them a perfect mix of thought-provoking plots, interesting major and minor characters, strong atmosphere and sense of place – all in all, the stories are unsentimentally dark and yet entertaining. A second series was made and first shown in November/December 2010; I’ll be looking out for it when it comes out on DVD in April.

Single-Handed series 1 was written by Barry Simner and directed by Colm McCarthy.

Single-Handed at Wikipedia, including links to various reviews and articles about the series.

Single-Handed series 1 at Amazon UK.

Book review: The Brotherhood by Y. A. Erskine

The Brotherhood
by Y. A. Erskine
Bantam, 2011.

The Brotherhood is a superb police-procedural with a difference, set in Hobart, Tasmania. The Brotherhood in question is the police force: a group of men and women who have a bond in some senses stronger than family, but with as many underlying dark secrets.

The prologue takes place at 11.30 p.m., in which a Detective Inspector is going through the possessions of a dead colleague. What he finds makes him despair, but the reader does not know why. After this hook, the novel shifts in time to 8 a.m. that day, when the police are informed of a break-in at a house in the suburbs. The rest of the novel takes place over the course of that long day, ending where it began. Each of the next ten chapters is told from the point of view of a different person as the day pans out: a young probationary police officer, the police commissioner, a journalist, a wife, an ex-girlfriend, a suspect and so on. I wondered if this approach might make the narrative rather disjointed, but far from it, it’s a fascinating 360 degree account of a crime, providing a full emotional effect as the victim’s life is gradually fleshed out by seeing him as he was perceived by a variety of people. At the same time, the aftermath of the crime, in particular the criminal justice system, are seen with all their flaws – both structurally and via the people supposedly working for good.

As one reads on, the book becomes gradually darker. At first, one sees the corruption at the top in the police force and its interface with the state’s government. Later, the author provides an unvarnished account of the Aboriginal population of the state: how the laws are organised to protect them and how people use these (as well as manipulating their own ethnic identity) to their own advantage. As if this were not cynical enough, at its core the book is about rotten corruption at the heart of the “brotherhood” itself – by the end of the novel, there are very few at any level of the police force who are not tainted by it in some way.

I very much enjoyed this fast-paced, muscular novel, as intense as it is dark. It tells of a tragedy in the best way: by letting the reader make up her own mind as all the evidence gradually emerges. It uncovers a Tasmania that is as crime-ridden, corrupt, racist, cynical and devious as the regions of the world more familiar to crime readers. And there is a nasty twist to the tale. A great debut novel by former police officer Yvette Erskine: I am already looking forward to her next.

I purchased this book. Although it is as yet published only in Australia, it is available on UK and US Amazon. It isn’t a cheap book but worth every penny or cent.

I thank Bernadette for making this one of her two books of 2011 and hence a must-read for me. Her review of the book is at Fair Dinkum Crime.

Other (glowing!) reviews of The Brotherhood: AustCrime, Sisters in Crime Australia, Mysteries in Paradise.

Author’s blog post on writing The Brotherhood. See more in an interview at Booktopia.

ABC radio interview with the author.

Book review: Long Gone by Alafair Burke

Long Gone
by Alafair Burke
Avon (Harper Collins), 2011

Long Gone is a readable thriller set in New York and environs. Alice Humphrey is the daughter of a rich, famous movie star. However, she wants to make her own way in the world so has been living off her own salary and was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until the organisation had to downsize. Now, Alice is unemployed and desperate for a job before she has to turn to her father for help.

By chance, Alice meets the handsome Drew Campbell at an art exhibition. He offers her a job running his new gallery – with the catch being that the first artist to be shown there has to be a young man who is in a relationship with the (inevitably) anonymous man who is putting up the money. The “art” consists of distasteful photographs of parts of the body, but Alice sees nothing illegal in these so leaps at the chance, soon becoming absorbed in the details of launching the new venture. She does not see Campbell again; he communicates with her via text messages from a withheld number.

Of course, all goes horribly wrong, as the reader, if not Alice, has come to suspect. The gallery opens but is soon compromised by a demonstration on the street outside by some “religious extremists” who think the pictures in the exhibition are child pornography. After Alice makes many failed attempts to find out more about the provenance of the photographs to see if she can prove they are legal, and to contact Campbell, he finally calls her and arranges to meet her the next morning at the gallery to decide what to do about the protesters. When Alice arrives, she finds a dead body.

Alice finds herself to be the chief suspect in the murder enquiry that follows, and the rest of the book mainly concerns her attempts to prove her innocence while the evidence seems to be piling up against her. She has two friends, but can they be trusted? Some of these aspects are well done, for example the use of Facebook in various key plot points. At the same time, the narrative is fleshed out by Alice’s troubled relationships with her parents and brother Ben, as well as a couple of subplots – one involving an FBI agent’s obsession with a man who was responsible for his sister’s death; the other involving a missing girl from New Jersey. This last story is by far the darkest in the book, depicting unsentimentally the ruthlessness of teenage group behaviour, abetted by social media, as well as another bleak parental theme.

Up until about half-way through the book I found the story to be predictable. Alice does seem extremely naive for a 30-something woman living in New York. Nevertheless, in the second half the story picks up quite a bit, as we learn more about Alice’s family and how current events are related to dark deeds from the past. The plotting is good even if some of the developments are rather heavily signalled; Alice is an attractive protagonist who becomes more independent and more of her own woman as the book pans out and she is able both to confront her fears about her father as well as to follow up some leads that the police will not. I found the subplot about the missing girl very uncomfortable, as well as rather tacked-on to the main story. The climax to the book is somewhat clunky, in that almost everyone turns out to be not what they seem, and there is one dramatic section very near the end which I felt was dealt with in an over-hasty fashion. To sum up, I’d say this is an engaging “romantic thriller”, not a great one but one that, if you are happy to suspend belief for the duration, will pass the time while you see if you can work out the various threads of plot, and which are red herrings, before the author chooses to reveal them.

I purchased this book as a Kindle promotion. Every major US crime writer seems to have contributed a positive comment in the Amazon product description! (Coben, Lehane, Lippman, Connelly, Unger, Gerritsen, Grafton, Reichs, Fairstein, L. Gardner, etc.)

Other reviews of Long Gone are at Murder by Type (the post that made me decide to read the book), A Bookworm’s World, Dot Scribbles, The Washington Post, and Jen’s Book Thoughts.

Book review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

The Blackhouse
by Peter May
Quercus, 2011.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Blackhouse, so much so that I have immediately ordered the sequel, The Lewis Man. However, I am not sure why I liked it so much, as the book is exceedingly slow, very little happens in the detective story sense, and the denouement is a bit of a cheat. Yet, it’s a very good book indeed, I think, mainly for its atmosphere and dramatic sense. There is a strong Nordic element to the novel; from the famous Lewis chessmen which are thought to have been created by Norwegian Vikings, to the ways of life of the islanders which have much in common with their Scandinavian neighbours (not to mention the local weaving craft, responsible for Sarah Lund’s jumpers).

An Edinburgh police detective, Finn Macleod, is on leave because of a devastating family tragedy. He’s recalled to work and sent to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where he is from. A man has been murdered there, in a similar fashion to a crime committed a few months ago in Edinburgh. Because Finn was born and grew up on the island, and because he speaks Gaelic, the police computer (HOLMES) has suggested that he is assigned to help the investigation. Finn is only too happy to go, to escape his current misery, but is nonetheless apprehensive about returning to a place where there are many negative undercurrents for him.

The novel then splits into alternating parts: the present day (told in the third person), in which Finn and local detective George Gunn sporadically assist the crime investigation; and the past, told in the first person, in which Finn recalls episodes from his childhood and his memories of school friends and others, many of whom he meets again now. For both of these narratives, the reader desperately needs a map, not provided in the book, sadly, but provided here (click on it for enlargement), as much of the stories depend on local geography. This is particularly the case in the annual trip to the treacherous rock An Sgeir (pictured below), when selected male islanders are allowed to go and kill hundreds of nesting guga (also pictured), young gannets which are much prized as a delicacy. We know from near the start of the book that this annual “hunt” is going to be a pivotal event, but it is not until about page 200 that we read the description of the one time that Finn, who had just left school, travelled with the men and took part. The description of how the men get to the rock and how they live there for 2 weeks, killing and collecting the birds, is as well as pivotal to the plot, totally engaging and fascinating. (For more about this ancient rite, see Wikipedia and links to articles therein.)

In the present-day, Finn is made unwelcome upon his arrival on Lewis by DCI Tom Smith, the irascible detective from Glasgow in charge of investigating the crime. A man has been found hanging from a rafter in a shed: when he hears the victim’s name Finn realises he knew him: he was the school bully. Smith sends Finn and George off to the post-mortem so that Finn can compare the death to the Edinburgh case. Finn quickly concludes that the MO is different, but does not want to tell Smith as he wants an excuse to stay on the island and talk to the people who knew the dead man. He carries out this task, filtered through his memories and emotions at being back on the island – so it takes him almost all the book to talk to about half a dozen people in total.

The alternating narrative, the story of Finn’s past, takes up the bulk of the book: he lived in a croft with his parents until he was eight. During this time, he went to the local school and we are introduced to characters who as adults become relevant to the story: the murder victim and his even more horrible brother; Finn’s best friend; a girl who lives on a farm and attaches herself to Finn; the son of the preacher (the community is very religious); and one or two others. Most of the past history is told in a very leisurely manner, as the ways of life on the island are depicted. Occasionally, there is a burst of tragic action which moves the story on to the next section.

By the end of the novel, we have come to know Finn well as a child and then a young man studying at Glasgow University. One of the last people he speaks to during the crime investigation provides the last part of the novel with emotional depth and pace, as Finn begins to grasp who committed the crime and why. Everyone is waiting for the results of the DNA test that Smith, the policeman in charge, has asked all the men on the island to undertake. When the results are in, they can be matched to a sample at the crime scene and the identity of the killer will be known. Finn, however, gets a heads-up because of a clue he and the pathologist found at the post-mortem. Because of this, Finn knows that he has to take some very dangerous action, and heads off into a literal cliffhanger climax.

Although the identity of the killer, and the motivation, is relatively obvious to some extent as the reader can work it out, the full explanation depends on information being deliberately withheld, which may annoy some readers. Nonetheless, the story is a powerful one, and the preceding history of island life, particularly the choices open to the islanders as they grow from children to adults, provides it with an emotional resonance that is present in the best crime fiction: indeed, fiction without the adjective. I shall certainly be reading more by this author.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Read other reviews of The Blackhouse at: Euro Crime (Amanda C M Gillies), Bookgeeks (Mike Stafford), Shots (Calum MacLeod), Mysteries in Paradise, and many other publications and blogs.

About the book at the author’s website. Includes links to many reviews, as well as videos by the author of his research on the island, and his post about his inspiration for one of the characters in the book. The Blackhouse won the CEZAM Prix Litteraire Inter CE last year and the Prix des Lecteurs the year before.

January reading report

The year has started well, reading-wise. In January I’ve reviewed four books for Euro Crime and ten at Petrona, ranging from Scotland (2), Australia (1), United States (3), Romania (1), Austria (1), Korea (1), Finland (1) and England (4) – though only two of these are translated. This year, I am using a new scoring system* to replace the stars I used previously, as I found that too many books were three-star reads when they are a bit more granular than that (not stellar, not formula). Going a bit wild, I’ve therefore introduced the 2.5 and 3.5 rankings for those books I’ve found not quite as good as, or a bit better than, “good”.

What are my books of the month? Well, as usual I am spoilt for choice, but have selected three:

Third: The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin: a well-written and constructed crime novel that is enhanced by a political story reaching back into the 1980s and affecting public life at all levels today. This novel pulls off a very difficult trick – it is a political thriller without being daft or with “boys’ toys” elements.

Second: The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst. In any other month this would easily be my top pick, and indeed it is as far as crime fiction is concerned. It’s an inventive, beautifully written story about the meaning of reality and perception, structured as a crime plot, as a book about writing, and as a literal reinterpretation of significant events in the characters’ lives. Simply the most original novel I’ve read for a very long time.

First: Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland. It isn’t fiction, it isn’t crime – but this account of the bush fires that swept parts of Australia in February 2009 is everything a book should be – gripping, measured, fair, intelligent, thorough, emotional, informative and influential.

The books I’ve reviewed in January, with links to my reviews:

Euro Crime:

The Mattress House by Paulus Hochgatterer, translated by Jamie Bulloch 3.5

A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths 3

Good Bait by John Harvey 3

Finders Keepers by Belinda Bauer 2.5

Petrona:

Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland 5

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst 5

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin 4

Attack in the Library by George Arion, translated by Mike Phillips et al. 3

Dead in the Water by Aline Templeton 3

Lucifer’s Tears by James Thompson 2.5

Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst 2.5

Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman 2

Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson 2

Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan 2

*Scoring system:
5: excellent; 4: very good; 3.5: a bit better than good; 3: good; 2.5: not quite as good as good; 2: average or not distinctive; 1: not recommended. Points are awarded for a range of factors: good writing style, plot, character, atmosphere, sense of place, emotional engagement, excitement and originality being the main ones.