Monday, February 19, 2018

Review of The Deep Dark Sleep by Craig Russell (Quercus, 2011)

Glasgow, 1955. A body is dredged from the bottom of the River Clyde. The monogrammed cigarette case suggests it is Gentleman Joe Strachan, a pre-war criminal mastermind behind some of the city’s biggest robberies. Strachan had disappeared after a policeman was killed during his final heist. Lennox, a former Canadian commando during the war and journalist, is hired by Strachan’s twin daughters, Isa and Violet, to discover the corpse’s true identity. Since Strachan’s disappearance the twins have received a substantial payment each year which they had assumed was sent by their father. If the body isn’t their father, then they want Lennox to track him down. If it is him, who has been sending them money? Lennox starts to hunt around for clues in the criminal underworld, while also working on a blackmail case involving an American movie star working on a film in the city and surrounds. It seems, however, that someone doesn’t want him to find answers and is prepared to kill to stop his progress.

The Deep Dark Sleep is the third book in the Lennox series set in 1950s Glasgow. Lennox is still haunted by his time as a commando during the war and has wound up in Glasgow, working as a private investigator rather than return to his native Canada. Through guile and favours and he manages to navigate the criminal underworld of the ‘three kings’, while also maintaining friendships with policemen prepared to help him with his cases. As such, he’s the logical choice of PI for those who need difficult cases solved involving some criminal element. In this outing, he’s hired by the twin daughters of the most feared and successful criminal in the city before the war to discover whether a body dredged from the Clyde is their father, and by a solicitor acting on behalf of an American movie star who is being blackmailed over some explicit photographs. While the latter case seems relatively straightforward to resolve, the former soon turns deadly. Someone it seems is prepared to kill to keep the mystery of Gentleman Joe Strachan a mystery. Lennox is an engaging character, 1950s Glasgow is well portrayed, and Russell keeps the tale moving at pace. The twin threads, plus Lennox’s slow romantic pursuit of his landlady, is compelling and entertaining. However, while each thread is interesting, their entwining as the story progressed felt like a somewhat clunky plot device that didn’t ring true. The result was an enjoyable tale that progressed to a seemingly inevitable and staged conclusion.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The first of my ordered non-fiction reads turned up during the week, so I've slid The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson to the top of the to-be-read pile. I was also given a copy of Karin Slaughter's The Kept Woman. For some reason I've not read one of her books before, so I might give it a try in the next month or so as well, though I'm trying to read only one US-set book a month at present to give other places a go.

My posts this week
Review of The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski 
King Canute

Saturday, February 17, 2018

King Canute

‘Just forget it, Gerry. It’s inevitable.’

Gerry glanced at Mary, then across the lawn at the slowing rising water. He thumped the spade into the sodden earth.

He was soaked to the skin, the rain sweeping in from the west as it had been for the past week.

‘You’re going to catch your death.’

‘It’ll drain round to the side, you’ll see.’

‘Drain to where? There’s nowhere for it to drain to.’

‘I’m not giving up. It’s our home.’


‘It’s not beating me this time, Mary.’

‘You’re acting like King Canute. Come and help me move our stuff upstairs.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review of The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski (2003, Polish; 2010, Maclehose)

New York, 1960. Eberhard Mock is on his deathbed and wants to confess to his actions during his separation from his first wife in Breslau, 1927. At the time his marriage is imploding in domestic violence, rape and sexual promiscuity, Mock is trying to track down the ‘calender killer’, who is committing horrendous, brutal murders, leaving a page ripped from a diary with the victim. While Mock stews in alcohol and uses his officers to track his wife rather than the killer, his wife is taking revenge on his neglect by exploring her sexuality with her best friend and a baron. Despite his brutish flaws, Mock has a reputation for genius in investigating crimes and he’s soon approaching the murders from an unusual angle that points to mysterious sect.

The End of the World in Breslau is the second book in the Eberhard Mock series set in 1920s Breslau (present day Wroclaw). In this outing, Mock’s first marriage is ending at the same time as he’s trying to track down a serial killer obsessed with the past. At one level the tale is interesting enough as Mock tries to solve the crimes by focusing on the place it was committed rather than the crime or perpetrator. However, the story suffers from a couple of issues. The first is the thorough unpleasantness of Mock. Usually the bad cop is softened by a lighter side or the quest for redemption. Mock is embittered, vindictive and brutal: he beats and rapes his wife, he destroys careers, blackmails his boss, uses public resources as if his own, and tortures suspects. It may well be realistic, in the sense that some cops might be cut from that cloth, but it’s a brave move to have such a lead character as it’s difficult for the reader to find a point of connection. It’s not helped by every other main character in the book being almost as flawed or selfish, and every aspect of the storyline being rooted in immorality, violence and corruption. I appreciate that was probably the intention, but having no points of light in the darkness was wearing after a while. In addition, part of the problem of the storytelling is that is supposedly set out as a confession by Mock. Yet it’s told in the third person and has sections that relate specifically to his wife or colleagues that he could not know the intimate details of; he also claims to have no knowledge as to what happened to her after 1928, yet she became famous, making that unlikely. Moreover, the end became very messy and difficult to follow. All round, not a very satisfying read, though there was enough intrigue to keep my turning pages to find out the resolution of the murders.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been over twenty books since I read a non-fiction tome, but without one on the TBR (other than academic work books) I was stymied. After some browsing online I've just bought a handful. One on the periodic table, one on practices of geology, two medical histories, and five military histories (three naval, one codes, one aerial). The plan is to slot these a bit more consistently into the mix. Of course, I also ordered a handful of novels as well.

My posts this week:
Dreaming of being structurally sound
Review of Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser
Special issue: Data-driven Cities? Digital Urbanism and its Proxies | Tecnoscienza
Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Dreaming of being structurally sound

Jimmy sighed. He could stare at the equation until next Thursday and he still wouldn’t understand. If Einstein or Hawking were to explain it to him, it would remain a mystery. He just wasn’t cut out for maths. Yet he dreamed of being an engineer. Of building bridges like Brunel and Telford. Forging great spans of elegant steel and concrete. Or burrowing long, snaking tunnels through mountainsides. He had notebooks full of grand, intricate designs, shelves of balsa models, but no notion as to whether any would be structurally sound. He stared at the page, prayed for insight, and doodled.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review of Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser (1936, German; 2004 Bitter Lemon Press)

Sergeant Studer tracks down and arrests a former convict who is suspected of murdering a travelling salesman. After dropping the man off at prison and leaving, Studer returns as something is nagging at his subconscious. He finds his suspect hanging in his cell and manages to revive him. It suggests the man was guilty of the crime, but Studer is not convinced. He returns the village where the victim was shot and starts to hunt around. It’s clear that all is not well among a set of Gerzenstein’s citizens and Studer’s presence is not wanted. When his initial suspect confesses, the case seems to be closed. But the canny sergeant is a master at solving difficult cases.

Published in 1936 Thumbprint was the first in five Sergeant Studer novels written by the troubled Fredrich Glauser, who spent much of his life as an addict and in-and-out of prison or psychiatric wards, plus a couple of years in the French Foreign Legion. His unsettled personal life, however, is not evident in this assured and well-plotted tale of murder and conspiracy. Sergeant Studer used to be a promising inspector until he refused to drop a politically charged case. Now he works in the canton of Bern as an ordinary policeman, but he’s still blessed with good observational and deductive reasoning skills. And he knows how to unsettle people and prompt them into acting rashly – though sometimes they don’t respond as expected, which is almost the undoing of his investigation in this case. In this outing, Studer is investigating what seems like an open-and-shut case involving the death of a travelling salesman from a village. Despite the evidence he has an inkling that something is awry and seeks to find the truth and the real killer. As well as Studer, the strength of the tale is the quite complex puzzle and the show-not-tell voice. An interesting story that has aged well.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Picador, 2013)

Northern Iceland, 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to death for her part in the murder of two men, one of whom was her master and lover. After months in a local holding the district commissioner sends her to an isolated farm to await execution. The family are mortified to have a murderer amongst them, but rather than keep her under lock and key they put her to work in the house and farm. The landscape and weather are harsh and escape would lead to nowhere except death. Agnes asks for Tóti, a local trainee priest, to be her spiritual guardian and gradually tells him, and her host family, the story of her life and the death of her master.

In 1829 Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be formally executed in Iceland, her head lopped off by an axe wielded by the brother of the man she was accused of murdering. A range of stories still circulate about the case, many portraying Agnes as a monster. Hannah Kent takes a different tack providing an in-depth and sympathetic character study of Agnes from the time she is sent as a prisoner to a local farm to the time of her execution. The story is somewhat of an existential tale, in part examining the mind and actions of a person awaiting death, in part charting the path that led to this fate. Kent uses both a first person perspective of Agnes and a third person general narrative to chart her last few months and the crime for which she has been convicted. In the main this is done through reminiscences, discussions with her priest, and interactions with the family charged with housing her until she is taken to the site of execution. In combination with some wonderfully evocative and lyrical prose, a strong sense of place and time, the result is a compelling, thoughtful-provoking read in which the nuances and circumstances of the crime are laid bare. In particular, the characterisation and social relations between Agnes, her priest, and the farm household are beautifully realised. While the telling drags a little in the middle, as a whole the tale is a first rate literary piece of crime fiction.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

For no particular reason, I haven't read a crime fiction novel set in Switzerland. That changed this week as I read Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser, first published in 1938, a police procedural in the Simenon tradition that charts a canny sergeant's investigation into the death of a salesman. My review will follow later in the week.

My posts this week:

Review of Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch
Review of The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
January reviews
I have a confession

Saturday, February 3, 2018

I have a confession

Cally met James at the hospital doors.

‘Come-on, she’s barely holding on.’

‘I came as fast as I could; got a standby flight.’

‘She won’t start until we were all together.’

‘Aidan’s here?’

They sped up the stairs.

‘Yes. There’s been lot of tears.’

They entered a private bedroom.

‘We’re all here now mother – Cally, Aidan, Sally and James.’

The elderly woman opened her eyes. ‘I have a confession, I … I murd ..’

She tailed off.


‘I think she’s gone.’

‘Was she just saying what I thought she …’

‘Get a nurse.’

‘None of us heard anything, okay.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

January reviews

An interesting month of travelling round fictionally in January, visiting the US, Russia, Turkey, New Zealand, Italy, Norway and England. My read of the month was A Gentleman in Moscow, a wonderful tale about an aristocrat indefinitely confined to a hotel post-revolution.

Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch ****
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn ***
Blood Curse by Maurizio de Giovanni ***
Death on Demand by Paul Thomas ****
Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel ****.5
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles *****
The Sugar House by Laura Lippman ***.5

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review of Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz, 2012)

When a man is found stabbed to death on the tracks at Baker Street tube station, the murder squad would prefer it to be a straightforward case, but there’s no indication as to how he got there. Peter Grant is asked to check out the site to see if a trace of vestigia (a whiff of magic) present. His bosses are not best pleased when he reports that the shard of pottery used to kill the victim is somewhat other-worldly. To add pressure to the case it turns out the murdered man is the son of a US senator and a FBI agent has been assigned to shadow the investigation. While his colleagues chase down the usual kind of leads, Grant and his colleague, Lesley, pursue a different line of inquiry. That path leads them underneath the city, into its conduits, sewers and chambers.

Whispers Under Ground is the third book in the Peter Grant urban fantasy/crime series set in contemporary London. In this outing, Grant is investigating the death of an American, stabbed to death on the tracks in the London underground. As well as continuing his sorcerer's apprenticeship in the secret unit that investigates magical and uncanny crimes, he’s running around at the beck-and-call of the murder squad and jousting with a smart and sassy FBI agent who seems to making better progress with the case than the Met. The joy of this series is Aaronovitch’s engaging voice, the sense of place and potted history of the London, the characterisation, the streak of dark humour, and the everydayness of the magical elements. The case is interesting and forms a nice puzzle and the story winds its way to a very nice chase through underground rail and sewers network, the destination of which was telegraphed from the start. After that the tale seemed to fizzle out a little, with the murderer identified and caught in a relatively straightforward manner, and it wasn’t really clear as to the future of what was found underground. An entertaining story, which I picked up at every opportunity given the compelling qualities of the voice and characters.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Review of The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn (Orenda, 2016, original Norwegian 2013)

After an affair with her boss that ends in scandal, TV presenter Allis Hagtorn flees her job and partner, taking a job as a housekeeper and gardener in a remote fjord. She has little aptitude for either, but her new boss doesn’t seem to mind. Sigurd Bagge is a distant, surly, secretive middle-aged man whose wife is travelling. The pair form an uneasy relationship that gradually evolves into something more romantic but sinister. Allis is unsettled but drawn to Sigurd and has nowhere else to go, Sigurd alternatively pulls her close, then pushes her away. In the background the pair are haunted by Nor, Sigurd’s wife. Despite the tension, neither seems prepared to end their tryst despite the possible consequences.

The Bird Tribunal is a psychological tale of understated passion between two troubled souls set in a remote fjord in Norway. The story charts the unfolding relationship between Allis, a former TV presenter fleeing her past, and Sigurd, her new employer whose wife is travelling. The house and garden Allis has been hired to tend is isolated in a forest and perched above a fjord and boathouse, with the only transport a bike. Allis is unsettled, isolated and vulnerable; Sigurd is guarded and distant. Part of the house is closed off to Allis and initially she only sees Sigurd at meal-times and odd occasions. Ravatn charts the development of their tense relationship, haunted by Sigurd’s absent wife, Nor, and occasionally drawing on old Norse mythology. The strength of the story is the character development, the social interaction between Allis and Sigurd, and the sense of place. However, the narrative is linear and sparse, the psychological tension does not really increase in intensity (being relatively suffocating from the start), and the story works its way to a somewhat inevitable conclusion that didn’t quite deliver on all the foreboding. The result was an interesting and tense, but not quite fulfilling and compelling tale that had a few too many unanswered questions about Allis and Sigurd’s respective lives.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

The internet is often a wonderful thing. On Friday evening I posted a one-line moan on Facebook. By Saturday evening I had two dozen offers for short contributions to an edited book on the topic of my moan (city's being run on the ethos/business models of companies), plus an offer of an outlet for publication. From vent to unanticipated, half-organized project in a few hours. Now all I have to do is invent time to slot into existing workload!

My posts this week:
Review of Blood Curse by Maurizio de Giovanni
Review of Death on Demand by Paul Thomas
New paper: Being a ‘citizen’ in the smart city
Review of Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel
Front grill

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Front grill

Kiely double-parked next to a police cruiser, its lights flashing.

As he exited, a uniform yelled. ‘You can’t park there!’ Quickly followed by ‘Sorry, boss!’

The sheriff approached a fireman whose yellow hat was tipped back.

‘How the hell did it get up there?’ He gestured at the car, most of which had penetrated the second story wall above a pizzeria.

‘Good question,’ Jones said. ‘Beats me.’

‘Anyone injured?’

‘Just the driver. Scared a mother and her teenage son half to death. And a man half-killed himself choking on a slice of pizza.’

‘Miracle he wasn’t eating a front grill.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.