A case of the ‘sweats’ …

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

plague times 1 I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading this, the first volume in Louise Welsh’s planned Plague Times trilogy (the second was published earlier this month), for it turned out to be a taut suspense thriller combining a murder mystery with a deadly pandemic – just my kind of book! Equally, I don’t know why I’ve never read any of Louise Welsh’s books before – I own several others after all.

Stevie Flint has just been stood up in a Soho Club. Irritated, but understanding, for Simon is a doctor and often gets called away she goes home, although ‘he had always phoned, or got someone to phone for him’ before.

The next evening she’s at work with Joanie – the pair are presenters on a TV shopping channel, you name it they sell it – dual action toasters today ‘My husband Derek, he likes his golden brown…’ says Joanie. Stevie and Joanie are good friends in real life too and make a great double act on TV with Joanie acting the married housewife and Stevie the smart singleton, roles that are close enough to real life, although Joanie and Derek are separated now. After the end of her shift, Stevie rings the hospital where Simon works only to find that he’s ‘on holiday’, and heads off to his flat to collect her things!

She finds him dead – in bed – with no obvious signs of murder. She does the right thing and calls the police. Later, having called in sick to work, she really is ‘gut-wrenchingly, jaw-stretchingly, horribly sick.’  It takes several days for the fever to work its way through her system. Stevie is one of the first survivors of what they’ve called ‘the sweats’, and few, if any others, are surviving, but it’s not the end of the world – yet!

When she discovers an ‘in case I’m dead’ type letter from Simon in her tea caddy telling her that he’s hidden a package in her loft, Stevie realises that he was probably murdered for it. The instructions he’s left her are to give it only to Dr Malcolm Reah. When Stevie finds that Reah is dead, and Simon’s colleague Dr Ahumibe is unnaturally interested in Simon’s package, she realises that something’s going on, and that she may become a target too. She has to investigate Simon’s death, so she can protect herself. Finding that the package contains a password protected laptop, who can she turn to? She asks Joanie’s ex Derek, a policeman, for help…

It’s a race against time for Stevie, people are dropping like flies all around her but she is obsessed with finding out who killed Simon, for she had been beginning to think their relationship may have been going somewhere. The question is will she like the answers if and when she gets them?

survivors-1972The spread of the pandemic is well-realised. At first it’s just a nasty virus that’s going round and the world must go on, but as the days go on and more people get the sweats, life begins to break down bit by bit. It brought back strong memories of Terry Nation’s TV series Survivors from the mid-1970s (not the poor 2008 spin-off, and how I loved Greg, Ian McCulloch, in that series, although he had to vie with Robin Ellis in Poldark for top spot in my affections back then!).

By combining the thriller with the pandemic, Welsh has created a wonderful hybrid which made for compulsive reading.  If pushed, I’d say that I was more interested in the pandemic strand than the medical thriller one, but the two themes have a synergy (I can’t believe I just used that word in a review!) that makes the novel more than the sum of its parts. The tension is palpable and the pace rarely pauses for breath.

In the early stages, I particularly liked the behind the scenes view of the TV studio. Welsh could have made Stevie a news or magazine programme presenter, but her choice of the shopping channel was absolutely brilliant. Being that cheesy on screen is not as easy as it looks.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to read volume two, Death is a Welcome Guest, which I have on my pile. The proof copy arrived complete with a kit of surgical mask, gloves and a forehead thermometer strip!  A Lovely Way to Burn would make perfect summer reading for fans of thrillers and dystopias alike, I enjoyed it very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further via my Amazon UK affiliate link, please click below:

A Lovely Way to Burn: Plague Times Trilogy 1 by Louise Welsh. Pub 2014 by John Murray, paperback Jan 2015, 368 pages.
Death is a Welcome Guest: Plague Times Trilogy 2 by Louise Welsh. Pub Jun 2015 by John Murray, hardback 384 pages.

A double helping of Maigret

One of the great things about Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels is that they’re short. Each features a story told in full, but achieved within 160 pages or so – in this he resembles Muriel Spark. No words are wasted and there is no flowery language. Indeed, Simenon was known for cutting out ‘beautiful sentences’, editing out unnecessary descriptives and adverbs – in this he also resembles Elmore Leonard. Or rather given that Simenon started writing decades previously, perhaps they resemble him in these respects. More recently, Pascal Garnier has been labelled as the heir to Simenon; true, his novels are short and noir, recalling Simenon’s romans durs, but they are deliciously comic in their nastiness, whereas I wouldn’t say that any of Simenon’s works are overtly funny – although as a character, Maigret is not without a sense of humour!

I read a lot of Maigrets when I was a teenager, but none since except for The Bar on the Seine back when this blog was new and I’d acquired a cheap set of nine Penguin ‘Red’ Maigrets from The Book People in 2006. Now, with the Penguin reissues in wonderful new liveries, and mostly new translations, I plan to make reading his novels a regular thing, not least because their length makes them perfect for the train journey to and from London or as palate cleansers between other tomes.

Let me tell you about the two Maigret novels I read last week – one from the new series, one from the old:

Pietr the Latvian

Maigret 1 Pietr the Latvian This was the first Maigret novel, published originally in serial form in 1931 – yes that long ago! At the beginning Maigret is stoking his office stove when a message comes from Interpol that a wanted international conman known as Pietr the Latvian is due to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Maigret hurries off to meet the train:

He stood still. Other people were agitated. A young woman clad in mink yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down, stamping her heels.
He just stood there: a hulk of a man, with shoulders so broad as to cast a wide shadow. When people bumped into him he stayed as firm as a brick wall.

Just as he has spotted his man with a retinue of hotel porters in the crowds getting off the train, a shout alerts him that the police are needed – a body, shot,  has been found on the train, and his quarry gets away. No worry, Maigret knows where they were headed. However the corpse also matches the description of the Latvian, but Maigret has a hunch about the other man and goes to the Hotel Majestic, where he openly stalks ‘Mr Oppenheim’ who dines with a wealthy couple at the hotel – later all three will vanish from the hotel.

Back at the office, a strand of hair in a glassine envelope that had stored a photograph was the only posession on the body from the train. An address in Fécamp, a town on the Normandy coast, has been faintly imprinted on it. Dispatching Torrence to the Hotel Majestic, Maigret goes to Normandy and stakes out the house of the envelope’s owner, standing in an alleyway in the pouring rain:

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

That last quote encapsulates to me the essence of Maigret’s style of detecting. Waiting and watching. Maigret, however, doesn’t always do this passively – he is not beyond pushing buttons to see what happens, more often than not confirming his hunches.  Needless to say, Maigret clears up the mystery of the identities of Pietr the Latvian and the body on the train, but not without some psychological intrigue, twists and more gunfire.

In this first Maigret novel, we may get to know the figure of Maigret – his solid presence and how he works, but little of his personality – that will surely follow.  In the last chapter of Pietr the Latvian, we also briefly meet Madame Maigret who bustles about looking after him, an unexpectedly jolly woman, I can imagine the pair of them, her gently henpecking him, and him indulgently letting her do it in subsequent outings.

David Bellos translated this new edition and it certainly didn’t disappoint – it was fresh and reflected the character of Maigret in the prose – a great start to the series. (7.5/10)

The Yellow Dog

simenon-the-yellow-dog-penguin

2006 Penguin Red Classic cover

This is the fifth or sixth Maigret book depending on which source you read (I’m finding the Maigret Bibliography and other pages at Trussel.com very helpful. There, The Yellow Dog is the 6th book, also published in 1931). The edition I read, the Penguin Red Classic from 2006 was translated by Linda Asher, and this translation has been retained for the new editions (although I don’t know it it has been changed at all).

It is set in the fishing port of Concarneau in Brittany, a location which Simenon must have known well, for at the bloggers’ reception I went to last weekend, John Simenon told me that many of the buildings described in the book actually exist, including the bar and hotel which are at the centre of the story (see here for an article in French by John Simenon about them).

One November evening, a shot rings out in Concarneau. One of the town’s notables, the wine dealer Mostaguen was shot at point-blank range through a letter-box as he sheltered in a doorway to light a cigar after leaving the Admiral Café. A large yellow stray dog is seen in the vicinity, assumed to belong to the would-be murderer. Maigret, who has been helping the Rennes police force, attends the next day bringing the young detective Leroy with him.

Installed at the hotel, Maigret goes to drink with Mostaguen’s circle of friends, when Michoux, a former doctor, notices grains in their drinks which are identified as strychnine. Next day, another of the group, Servières disappears, his car found abandoned and blood-stained. Sensing a potential serial killer story, the town is besieged by journalists and in coming days the Mayor presses Maigret constantly to find the killer, whom they presume to be a vagrant – with a yellow dog…

Maigret lets Leroy do all the conventional detecting, while he assumes his usual waiting and watching alongside cultivating the waitress Emma who works at the bar:

Maigret’s gaze fell on a yellow dog lying beneath the till. Raising his eyes, he saw a black skirt, a white apron, a face with no particular grace, yet so appealing that throughout the conversation that followed he hardly stopped watching it.
Whenever he turned away, moreover, the waitress, in turn, fixed her agitated gaze on him.

Yellow dog new

New edition

The Yellow Dog is a great yarn – everyone involved seems to have something to hide, especially Emma perhaps? Maigret obviously has his suspicions as to whodunnit early on, but we don’t find out the full story until the cast are gathered together for the denouement, very much as Hercules Poiret so loves to do. The younger Leroy gives Maigret a chance to offer fatherly advice about more intuitive detecting style based on observation rather than forensics, which was a nice touch, but Maigret’s co-star in this short but complex tale is Concarneau itself. The events happen in the depressed off-season, when the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in town are at their greatest – in the summer everyone works. The notables believe that only an unemployed social outcast could be capable of these dastardly acts, but Maigret’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of poor downtrodden Emma and the vagrant, whom we’ll meet in time.

I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work out whodunnit in The Yellow Dog; for a mystery of a mere 130 pages, the plot was surprisingly complex. I  really liked Maigret more in this novel – his non-judgemental support of the underdog, not suffering fools like the mayor gladly and his ability to say no comment without actually having to say it. Translator Linda Asher is able to bring the town and the tail-end of autumn’s weather alive, whilst giving Maigret some joviality and a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which made this such fun to read. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pietr the Latvian: Inspector Maigret #1 by Georges Simenon, trans David Bellow. Pengiun classics, 2013 edition, pbk 176 pages.
The Yellow Dog: Inspector Maigret #5 by Georges Simenon, trans Linda Asher. Penguin classics, 2014 edition, pbk 144 pages.

Small town secrets and lies…

Orient by Christopher Bollen

P1020504

Proof copy – you cant see the black page edges.

This is a thriller about small town America writ large – and chunky, weighing in at 609 pages. However, it was totally gripping right from the start as each page peels away all the secrets and lies that foster in the particular community on Long Island where it is set.

Amazingly, Orient is a real place, a village of less than 1000 people right at the tip of the North Fork of Long Island; an island itself connected by a strip of causeway to L.I.  The people of Orient are, of course, nothing like the characters in the book – and appear to have welcomed the attention that Bollen’s novel has brought to the area. Bollen wrote this article about the real Orient for the New York Times T magazine, and makes it sound rather a lovely place. I haven’t been to Long Island, but I have holidayed on Cape Cod and can imagine many similarities between the two areas.

The Prologue sets up the novel for us right from the start:

When people try to picture me, they undoubtedly recall only the last time they saw me, just before I went missing. There’s been a lot of speculation about the night I left the far North Fork of Long Island – how a nineteen-year-old wanted for questioning in a string of murders managed to elude police and vigilant local drivers, both parties hurrying too slow through the pale marsh frost and winter Sound winds that turn the coast beds into grisly scrap yards of ice. That part is simple: I ran. What seems lost, in the growing storm of blame, is how I got there in the first place. …

I came to Orient at tail end of summer, and I went by the name MIlls Chevern. I arrived mostly innocent. Do you remember seeing me on those last warm days?

UK Hardback cover

UK Hardback cover

Mills Chevern is rescued by New York architect Paul Benchley when he finds him sprawled in the hallway in front of his neighbour’s appartment. Mills is a sofa-hopping junkie trying his luck in NYC, a frequent visitor to Paul’s neighbour. When Paul offers to save him by taking him out to his late parents’ house in Orient to help clear it, nothing more expected other than hard work and some company, Mills jumps at the chance to clean his act up becoming Paul’s defacto foster-kid.

They arrive in town on the day of the annual end of summer picnic hosted by Paul’s Orient neighbours, the Muldoons. It’s obvious from the start to Mills that there is no love lost between the Muldoons and Benchley. Nearly everyone is suspicious of Mills, and Paul’s motives for bringing this edgy outsider into their community – except for Beth Shepherd, an artist who has recently returned to Orient from the city too with her Eastern European artist husband.

It’s not long before the tensions in the small town are exposed.

  • The Muldoons are stalwarts of the Orient Historical Society, that seeks to preserve the area and is promoting a new scheme to buy property owner’s development rights to stop Orient becoming like the Hamptons
  • Adam Pruitt, who has started a security firm to rival Bryan Muldoon’s is trying to drum up business by raising residents’ paranoia over what goes on at the Plum Island Animal Lab – a government facility on a nearby island.
  • There are huge tensions between the ‘year-rounders’ as exemplified by the Muldoons, and the incomers, like the rich artists Luz and Nathan from NYC who bought the old Oysterponds Inn and putting in pools etc.
  • Beth’s husband Gavril is friends with Luz and Nathan, but now they’re all here, Gavril is so absorbed in his art, her own has faltered and she’s pregnant but can’t tell him… yet.

Then Jeff Trader is found dead, his body tied by rope underwater so he drowned. Is it murder or suicide? Jeff was the local handyman, he had keys to all the houses in Orient so he could do everyone’s odd jobs and they’ve gone, he was often drunk. Magdalena, an old lady and long-time resident who is the voice of reason on the Orient Historical Society board, knew there was something wrong and thinks he was murdered – and the jar of keys is missing. She asks Beth to find his workbook, she’s sure there’s something in it, and Beth takes Mills along for the ride.

The Bug Lighthouse, Orient

The real Bug Lighthouse, Orient

Mills will, in coming weeks, find himself always in the wrong place at the wrong time as the tensions in the village ratchet up and more people die. They want a scapegoat, and as we know from the prologue, Mills is it. Mills and Beth place themselves in great danger, but are compelled to pick away at all the secrets and lies that everyone in town has, including their own!  Watching over it all is the Bug Lighthouse, a metaphor for an all-seeing eye that knows everything.

Orient is a complex thriller. The different tensions in the town drive the plot first this way, then that, adding more and more questions that need to be answered as events happen and new information comes to light. I never guessed whodunnit until their identity stared me in the face. It’s cleverly constructed too – starting with the entire large cast of characters nearly all together in the one place at the Muldoon’s picnic. This pool of possible perpetrators gradually declines throughout the novel as they die or are otherwise eliminated from Mills’s and Beth’s enquiries.

You can see how inhabitants such as the Muldoons come up with their schemes to protect their heritage with, so they think, good intentions – for the benefit of their community, not realising that such conservative views will polarise local opinion, and probably lead to the wrong kind of rich people being the only ones who can afford to buy properties there like Luz and Nathan.  The conflicts between new and old money, history versus progress set against family infighting and unneighbourly selfishness, add a rich texture to Orient and the characters are intriguing, all getting their spots in the limelight.

Summer may be gone and winter approaching – but things are just beginning to hot up in Orient, and the suspense (maintained throughout the 609 pages) is killing!  Highly recommended. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK via affiliate link, click below:
Orient by Christopher Bollen. Pub April 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 624 pages.

Keywords: Thriller, Vatican, Relics!

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

fifth gospel

No! This isn’t a lost thriller by Dan Brown! Far from it (although at times I wish it had had a bit of Brown’s rip-roaring pace). The Fifth Gospel comes from the co-author of a best-selling religious thriller of ten years ago – The Rule of Four, and has taken author Ian Caldwell that ten years in the writing.

The Fifth Gospel is set in the Vatican City during the twilight of the pontificate of John Paul II, who has a starring cameo to play in the closing stages of the novel. An historical note, without which I’d have been completely lost, sets the scene for the relationship between the original Green and Roman branches of Christianity who split around 1000 yrs ago (the Great Schism of 1054 I learned later) becoming Orthodox and Catholic churches. This division was further reinforced by the Crusades in 1204.  Importantly though, one group, known as Eastern Catholics decided to sit in the middle following Eastern traditions but obeying the Pope. John Paul II wished to reunite the two churches.

So we have a pair of brothers, both priests – Simon and Andreou, who come from an Eastern Catholic family, but Simon had converted to become a full Catholic and has risen up the Vatican ladder. Andrew has remained a ‘Greek’ and thus was married, and has a young son, Peter. I didn’t know that there are types of Catholicism where celibacy is not compulsory. Ironically, Andreou’s wife Mona has left him!

To cut a long story short, the Vatican Museum is to mount an exhibit which is being curated by Ugolino Nogara. Its absolutely top secret and there is not long to go before the exhibit’s opening. When Andrew gets a call from his brother who is in trouble, he leaps in the car to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence half an hour’s drive from Rome, to rescue him. Upon arrival he finds Simon and the body of Ugo.

Both brothers had been working, unknown to each other, on different aspects of Ugo’s project. Simon travelling in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Andreou helping Ugo to understand the differences between the New Testament Gospels – how the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are more factual and sometimes copy each other, while John is more theological and philosophical in its intent – changing some of the details to fit. Before this novel is over, we will become quite familiar with many of the differences and similarities in the four gospels – particularly in relation to the crucifixion – because… you’d guessed it – that old fake relic the Turin Shroud is to be one of the key features in this exhibit.

Shroud_of_Turin_001

The Turin Shroud (detail, plus negative image) Wikimedia Commons

As Ugo said:

“Yet even now,” Nogara continued, “when we exhibit the Shroud, it attracts millions of pilgrims. At a recent exhibition it drew two millions people in eight weeks. Eight weeks. All to see a relic that has allegedly been disproved. Put that in perspective: the Shroud draws five times as many visitors as the most popular museum exhibit in the world. So imagine how many will come once I prove that the radiocarbon dating of the Turin Shroud was wrong.”

Did Ugo find new evidence about the shroud? Was he killed for it?

Simon is arrested for his murder, and refuses to say anything. Andreou is thrown into turmoil – he suspects that Ugo had discovered something in the Diatesseron, the ‘Fifth Gospel’ their copy of which has gone missing. The Diatesseron was (really) created by an Assyrian Christian called Tatian around 160AD – in it, he attempted to pull together all the four gospels into one single narrative, reordering, getting rid of duplication, adding bridging passages etc.

The next bombshell to hit Father Andreou is that his home is broken into, he gets sent ‘we know who you are’ type threats etc – and from that point on, he moves himself and his son around a variety of ‘safe’ locations within the Vatican’s walls. Cue next bombshell: Simon is to be tried, starting tomorrow, under Canonical Law. The ultimate punishment being to be stripped of his priesthood and have his Vatican passport taken away. We are thrown into an extremely complicated trial, full of twists and turns, discoveries, betrayals, and more before it is time for the exhibit to open, and we discover the full extent of what happened!

Somewhere inside this sprawling novel which runs to 427 pages, was a good thriller trying to get out. However, due to it being based upon real artefacts and the intricacies of Canonical Law in the Vatican, both of which need a lot of explanation, the thiller had to play second-fiddle to the artefacts and theological discussion. Indeed, by the end I was more interested in whether this book considered the Turin Shroud to be real or fake than in Ugo’s murder (something they are still disagreeing about!). I also got rather fed up with Andreou the devoted father, passing his son around all his friends while he wrestled with the trial and the facts – this aspect of emphasising the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholics was quite heavy-handed (although I agree that relaxing the celibacy restrictions would be a good thing).

So as a murder mystery, this book doesn’t quite pass muster; as a theological mystery it was rather more exciting. I learned masses (pun!), and cross-checking some of the facts against Wikipedia for this review, could appreciate the amount of research that went into this book. As a non-believer, for a book to get me reading up about the last days of Jesus and his crucifixion, at Easter-time, must mean something.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate link), please click below:

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. Published March 2015 by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 448 pages.

The first in a long line of crime novels

Naked in Death by J.D.Robb

naked in deathLast week, Victoria over at Tales from the Reading Room wrote a post about Obsession in Death, the latest in J.D.Robb’s long-running crime series featuring detective Eve Dallas. In fact, it turns out that Obsession in Death is the fiftieth in the series! I knew that I had the first novel in the sequence somewhere on my shelves, and felt compelled to dig it out and see how Dallas began…

As Victoria said, Robb/Roberts is known for her philanthropy which is lovely. She is also known for being a writing machine, producing countless novels each year, romances as Roberts, crime as Robb. Naked in Death was published in 1995 – the first of fifty, so that’s two or three per year of this series alone.

Eve Dallas is thirty. She’s a Lieutenant in the NYPSD (the ‘S’ is for Security). At the start of the novel she is called out to a murder – it turns out to be the grand-daughter of a senator who is running for his party nomination on a ‘moral’ ticket. His grand-daughter in one of those f***-you type career choices has been working as a ‘licenced companion’ – a prostitute. The scene is grisly – she was killed with 3 bullets from a hand-gun. There’s a note under the body saying 1 of 6.

Naturally, the senator is all over the department wanting to keep things closed down, but Dallas knows there may be more deaths – and there will be.  The killer seems to be expert at bypassing security systems and leaving no trace, but in true psychopath style he sends Dallas videos.

One of the immediate suspects is Roarke, an Irishman. He’s a tycoon, he owns the building she was killed in, he collects guns – which are now antiques. He has to be a suspect – if only he wasn’t so sexy – because you just know that Dallas and him will end up in the sack for some truly purple prose – lancing spears and all that!

Enough of the plot, for it was entirely predictable, I guessed whodunnit halfway in, but the pieces didn’t fall into place until later.

You don’t really read series like this for the crimes. They’re incidental, you read them for the characters. You hope for some development – and reading between the lines in Victoria’s review I can surmise that apart from Dallas and Roarke ending up married, that little has changed in fifty books. However: Naked is set in 2058; Obsession is set in 2060. So these fifty books move forward just two years.  My – that’s a full case-book of murders for anyone!

Note that near-future timeline. In 2058, guns have been outlawed, become collectors items only. Prostitutes have become legal, licenced. Various gadgets make modern life easier, but as far as I could see offer no improvements in quality of life. None but the rich can afford real coffee. Roarke is planning a space resort – so Richard Branson may continue to dream on. Yet, it’s all too familiar – in a way it’s not futuristic enough in its detail. Apart from the guns, there seemed no need to set it in the future, and even now there are collectors of old firearms – the perp could have used contemporary collectibles.

What of Dallas and Roarke? Well she is of course a feisty superwoman, and Roarke may as well be a superman, not so much Clarke Kent, but Bruce Wayne – his money can buy him anything.  Dallas is damaged goods, abused as a child – holding it all in ever since. Roarke is a chancer who hit lucky and made enough money to go legit.  She is a good policewoman with the appropriate contempt for authority and is not afraid to bend the rules. He is just sickening – too handsome, too rich, too lovey, too much!

So there we have it. Naked in Death combines crime with a steamy romance.  I liked the crime part, and squirmed a bit with the romance. As a whole, I enjoyed reading Naked in Death in exactly the same way as I enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code. With no expectations, it was very easy to read throwaway grisly fun. (5.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
Naked In Death: 1Glory In Death: 2 etc by J.D. Robb. Piatkus paperbacks, around 400 pages.

 

 

What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

accidents-happen-978033054501301

I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

Taking the plunge into the waters of popular thriller-dom…

The Nemesis Program by Scott Mariani

nemesis

Occasionally I read a mindless thriller, something a bit Dan Brown, just to remind myself that I’m not really the target audience for such stuff, although secretly I do enjoy them – a little!  My teenage reading diet was absolutely full of thrillers – Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and later Colin Forbes, Frederick Forsyth et al – I loved them all, and many of these were well written taut books that got on with things with little padding. I was offered a copy of The Nemesis Program – the latest in a long series by British thriller writer Scott Mariani, and based upon one word in the blurb, thought ‘Why not.’

220px-TeslaOscillatorThat word was ‘Tesla‘. The Szerbian scientist Nikola Tesla was a genius – he pioneered AC electricity, but Edison pushed him out of the way with his inferior DC current. He let go of his ideas for radio telephony and Marconi leapt at it. No wonder he got disillusioned and turned his mind to more controversial ideas – like the Tesla Oscillator a steam-powered electricity generator which could be tuned to resonate and with which he allegedly caused earth tremors in his building in New York, having to smash the device to stop a potential disaster. The Mythbusters TV team have determined that although you can set up a decent amount of resonance with such a device, you can’t amplify it to make an earthquake. But hey! – it’s perfect for a schlocky thriller as the weapon of choice for a mad scientist.

Ben Hope is ex-SAS, now a theologian, and about to get married to his girlfriend Brooke, when an old flame, Roberta Ryder turns up at his door in a Cotswold village in a mad panic – someone is after her. Roberta, an American in Ottawa, had received a coded letter from a friend in Paris, but by the time she reached Claudine – she had been murdered. The police think it was the work of a serial killer they’re tabbing Le Bricoleur because he used DIY implements to murder his victims. Roberta, however, knows a little of what Claudine was working on – a modern version of Tesla’s Oscillator, and sure enough she thinks she was followed in Paris, but she managed to evade them (she thinks) and headed for Ben – he’d know what to do.

Ben, three days away from his wedding thinks it is all a bit mad, but takes Roberta off to have a talk much to Brooke’s disgust, and then guys with guns arrive and he realises it’s real. He is duty-bound to help a damsel in distress, so after seeing off the would-be attackers, he postpones the marriage – Brooke tells him it’s over, and he and Roberta return to Paris thanks to Hope’s sister’s airplane that just happens to have landed at a nearby airfield bringing her to the wedding.

Already that’s one convenience too far isn’t it? The action continues from Paris to Lapland to Indonesia using the plane, always with the baddies following behind. The body count is high – there’s more excess than in any James Bond novel, and without the humour – it’s non-stop action.  Hope, of course, always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, as in the quote below, a high-speed car chase in which he’s just driven over the edge of a raised section of the Périphérique …

For just a second or two, it was like floating. Ben experienced a strange sensation of weightlessness that was somehow liberating and not unpleasant. […] Then reality cut back in with terrifying speed as the Mercedes dropped like a missile towards the road below and the traffic lumbering in and out of the Port de Sèvres. Ben caught a glimpse of a huge articulated truck coming the other way and he was utterly convinced they were going to plummet right into its path and be smashed and rolled and twisted into tiny pieces all across the tarmac. But then the bone-jolting impact as the taxi’s spinning wheels touched down on the truck’s roof told him that death wasn’t going to be quite so instant. […] An inch difference in its trajectory and the car and its occupants would have been mangled against a steel rubbish skip.

It’s always an inch that saves Ben Hope every time.

Some of the dialogue is so cheesy too. When Hope finally encounters the criminal mastermind behind the Nemesis Program, it’s shortly after he’s dispatched another of his men…

‘…You’ve cost the project a great deal of resources and robbed me of several of my most capable agents. Men not easily killed. Yet you dealt with them with almost embarrassing ease.’ His lips wrinkled into a smile.
‘You mean McGrath?’ Ben said. ‘I’m afraid he went all to pieces.’
‘So it would seem. And now it appears you’ve disposed of Mr Lund just as efficiently, albeit without as much mess.’ The old man shook his head. ‘I don’t know how I’ll replace him. It’s so hard to find personnel of calibre these days.’
‘Have you tried Scumbags R Us?’ Ben said. ‘I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.’

It was going so well in a sub-Bond way until Ben’s last reply…

Roberta as his girl-Friday is tough but subservient as all Bond girls are, but Hope is made of strong stuff and doesn’t bed her (she’d have been willing though).  So this is a sexless thriller – rather an oddity in this day and age – even Jack Reacher finds a girl in every town.  Also, Hope comes across as a soldier through and through – he knows what to do in an emergency – he’s rarely a fish out of water which makes him predictable and more than a bit boring.

At 431 pages, it took too long to read – under 300 would have improved it and sustained the tension better – it felt too episodic in the transitions. The bits of explanatory techno-babble are obvious and jar too, for babble they are. The thing about Bond villains and their weapons of mass destruction is that they’re pure fantasy, and the story is told with wit which makes it fun.  Here we had a fantasy weapon, a villain who wasn’t involved enough until the later stages, and very little humour to leaven the gore.

These books are extremely popular though – this was actually Ben Hope’s tenth outing.  Would I read another?  Well – if I was on holiday and the airline had lost the bag with my books in and one of these was on the shelf – of course I would.  But that’s an unlikely scenario. Fans will devour this instalment, I’ll go and read something else. (5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nemesis Program (Ben Hope)by Scott Mariani – pub Avon, June 2014, paperback original, 431 pages.

Jumping into a new to me crime series…

Murder in Pigalle by Cara Black

Murder-in-Pigalle-397x600

I usually like to read a series of crime novels from the beginning, to get any back-story in the right order and to see how the recurring characters develop. Sometimes, however, it’s good to jump into a series knowing that if you enjoy a later volume, that you may have the pleasure of reading all the earlier ones to come. This is what I did with Cara Black’s latest crime novel – her fourteenth featuring chic Parisian P.I. Aimée Leduc.

Leduc runs her own detective agency, aided by best friend René and computer hacker Saj. They appear to specialise in cyber-crime, but there’s not much going on at the moment for Aimée is five months pregnant.  Her lover, Melac, doesn’t know – he’s in Brittany near his ex-wife, and where his daughter lies in a coma. Aimée, who has obviously had parent issues of her own, is confused by her own impending motherhood – the baby is beginning to really kick.

A quiet life is not going to be for her though.  In Pigalle, the night-life heart of Paris, a serial rapist is following young girls home from school and raping them, and one has died.  Aimée has been helping Zazie, the young teenaged daughter of her favourite café owner with a school project, and one day she disappears.  Zazie’s mother enlists Aimée’s help as the les flics won’t respond until she’s been missing for 24hrs and awash with hormones Leduc flings herself into the case with a passion and zeal that will land her in big trouble.  It appears that Zazie has been shadowing a man whom she thought was the rapist…

With a sub-plot involving a robbery gone wrong by one of the girls in danger’s fathers, things get quite complicated quite quickly. Leduc finds that none of the parents of the raped girls are telling the full story – whether from guilt, shame or ignorance, and her blundering in puts her in danger too.

It’s hard not to like Aimée.  Think of a pregnant and French V.I.Warshawski and you’re getting there with regard to her character, however she’s not as good a detective as Sara Paretsky’s V.I.  Like most Parisian women, she’s typically BCBG (Bon chic, bon genre) – well as a P.I. maybe less of the BG – but still wouldn’t dream of going anywhere under-dressed, (nearly) every item of clothing has its labels.

The Dior shirt stuck to her back. She had to change. In the back armoire she picked one of Saj’s gifts, a loose, Indian white-cotton shirt – the soft fabric breathed, thank God. She pulled her short jean jacket over it, stepped into an agnès b. cotton-flounced skirt with a drawstring waistband and slipped into a low-heeled pair of sandals.

Black clearly does her homework in Paris for these novels. The detail feels authentic, but using the odd French words and phrases scattered throughout feels a bit unnecessary – the police are nearly always les flics, a bloke is un mec, no-one ever says sorry – it’s always désolé and so on.  If it were a French novel translated into English a translator wouldn’t do this.

Thirteen year old Zazie, although better behaved in general and certainly less potty mouthed, has echoes of Raymond Queneau’s independent spirit of Zazie in the Metro from 1960 (my review here) – I don’t know if that was deliberate or a happy coincidence.

Of course, I missed some of the back-story in her friendship with the dwarf René, her love Melac and her Godfather Morbier a Commissaire in the police, but even without that, this mystery stood pretty well on its own. I don’t know whether I’ll read the whole of the rest of the series, but I will look out for some of the previous titles as it would be fun to get to know Aimée Leduc a little better. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Murder in Pigalle: (Aimee Leduc Investigations) by Cara Black, pub Mar 2014 by Soho Press. Hardback, 310 pages.

No frog in my throat, ‘min P’tit’

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

frog music
I haven’t read Donoghue’s famous, or even infamous novel Room. I own a copy, but its dark subject matter requires a certain frame of mind to read and we haven’t coincided yet.

I was very keen to read her latest novel Frog Music though, as it’s set in San Francisco in the late 1800s. An exciting city in which to make a living, given that it is the port of entry to the US for many nations and is quite cosmopolitan. However, in 1876 it is in the midst of a stifling heat-wave and a smallpox epidemic too.

So it’s a tough time for three Parisians now living in Chinatown. Former stars of the French circus, Blanche works as an exotic dancer at the House of Mirrors and as a high-class whore on the side; Arthur is her lover, and there’s his friend Ernest. Ernest is supposedly engaged to Madeleine, but spends most of his time at Blanche’s house, which she has bought with her earnings, when he’s not out gambling with Arthur. Arthur used to ‘fly through the air with the greatest of ease’, but he missed Ernest the catcher and fell injuring his back.

One day Blanche is out shopping, when she gets knocked over by a bicycle…

Machine explodes one way and rider another, smashing Blanche to the ground.
She tries to spring up but her right leg won’t bear her. Mouth too dry to spit.
The lanky daredevil jumps up, rubbing one elbow, as lively as a clown. ‘Ça va, Mademoiselle?’ French much the same as Blanche’s own; the voice not a man’s, not a boy’s even. A girl, for all the gray jacket, vest, pants, the jet hair hacked above the sunburned jawline. One of these eccentrics on which the City prides itself – which only aggravates Blanche’s irritation, as if the whole collision was nothing but a gag, and never mind who’s left with merde on her hem.

Blanche’s first meeting with the notorious Jenny Bonnet, a cross-dresser (illegal at that time) didn’t go well, but as Jenny walks the hobbling Blanche home, the girls really hit it off and fast become close friends. Jenny is even more Bohemian than Blanche. She has no fixed abode, and alternates between spending time catching frogs to sell to the restaurants for cuisses de grenouilles, drinking, and riding her penny farthing which it appears she has nicked.

It is clear from the start that Arthur doesn’t like her. Jenny has a habit of speaking her mind, and she wonders why Blanche is happy to work so hard, whoring for all those michetons (clients), and what about Blanche’s baby? It’s the baby, P’tit Arthur, as he is known, that sets it all off. Arthur had farmed out the caterwauling baby so Blanche could go back to work, and when Blanche finds he has been kept in a house that reminds one of those scenes in Romanian orphanages where the toddlers were kept in bed all day, ignored, she liberates him. P’tit Arthur is now nearly a year old and has rickets, and is in a bad way. Blanche has to dig deep to find any maternal instincts. The arrival of Jenny and the baby totally upsets the triangle of Blanche, Arthur and Ernest. There are too many secrets that begin to come out, and one of them will end up dead.

Donoghue has based her story upon real events. Most of the characters including Blanche and Jenny existed, and smallpox was rife that hot summer. There was also an unsolved murder in San Francisco, and although it’s clear from the first page of the novel who lives and who dies, as the book starts in the plot’s present before flashing back, I’m not going to tell you who it was.

What I can tell you is that after 416 pages (including appendices) I was mighty fed up of Blanche though. She may be a lusty sex-machine, but the rest of the time she is such a fusspot. Always cross about something, she fair wore me out, and as she features on every page of the novel I did nearly give up reading it, but I kept on because of Jenny who is a wonderful character and we had far too much Blanche and not enough Jenny for my liking.

As I’ve already said, the novel starts near the end of the story with a murder, and thereafter it flashes backwards and forwards constantly as more of what happened gradually gets revealed. It was confusing at times though whether we were in the past, the time around the murder, or the time after the murder for the entire novel is written in the present tense. Combine that with Blanche’s fussing, and you have tangled layers just like her petticoats, and I found it all just too messy.

Scattered throughout the text are snatches from many popular songs of the period, Blanche in particular is always singing to herself and always shares her tunes with us, many of which are in French of course. In the afterword, after an article by the author on her sources for the characters and the murder is a comprehensive listing of all the songs with their individual histories and translations where necessary – I skipped this bit. After that though is a glossary of the French terms used and I did refer to it occasionally. If you want to learn some French swear words here’s where to go! When you’re British, swearing in French seems exotic, even romantic – but bar one scene, there is little true romance in this novel, it’s mostly bump and grind among the petticoats. (6.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Pub March 2014 by Picador, hardback 416 pages.

 

True Grit’s inheritor…

The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

Robert Lautner Road to Reckoning UK coverI’ve turned out to be a big fan of good westerns – this debut novel is one such book.

Young Tom Walker is twelve when this novel begins in 1837. His mother is lost to the pock, his father is a ‘quiet man in a noisy world‘ – a spectacles salesman, when he hears of an irresistible opportunity that could bring in enough money for a comfortable living. Escaping the depression and the disease-ridden boroughs of New York can only be a good thing.

His father agrees to become a salesman for Samuel Colt’s new handgun with a revolving chamber. They set off westwards from Colt’s factory in New Jersey a wooden model gun and twelve of the real thing, which can be sold to clinch an order, or for expenses on the road.

I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve.

It’s in a small town in Pennsylvania that Tom’s life changes forever, when they encounter Thomas Heywood in the back of the hardware store where Tom’s father was about to clinch a good order. Heywood, drunk, won’t take no for an answer when he confronts them. Tom and his father change hotels, and then leave town – but Heywood and his pals jump them, robbing them of the remaining pistols. Tom’s father is shot in the back in front of him, leaving Tom an orphan – but with a full order book.

Tom resolves to return to NJ to collect their commission, and it is on his way back that he meets Henry Stands, a retired US marshall. Stands is large, gruff, and although he is heading east, he has no wish to be saddled with an orphan, he’ll only take him so far. Tom persists, and eventually earns Stands’ grudging respect as they make their way east – a journey not without adventure.

There are many parallels between The Road to Reckoning and True Grit by Charles Portis (reviewed here), the former could be viewed as an east coast version of the latter. Although both Tom and Mattie are orphans, Mattie is single-mindedly hunting the murderer of her father; Tom just wants to go home to his aunt with his father’s last pay packet. Both eventually manage to awaken paternal instincts in their chosen protectors, but whereas Mattie sees Marshall Rooster Cogburn as the best man for the job, Stands is the only man around who can help Tom. Both books also have their narrators recounting their childhood from old age, adding the veneer of wisdom that comes with the years to the story.

The Road to Reckoning may owe a debt to Charles Portis, however it did feel very real – you don’t need to be in Texas or the canyons of the West to achieve that  – just leave the city and you’re a pioneer. This book is an assured debut, well-written and emotionally involving and I really enjoyed it. (9/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine ARC. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner, pub 30 Jan 2014 by The Borough Press (HarperCollins), 240 pages.
True Grit by Charles Portis