Eyejaybee is back to try for 100 again
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I am James, a 55 year old civil servant, working as a ministerial drafter in the Ministry of Justice.
It is great to be back for another year's reading challenge, and I am very grateful to Jennifer for setting this Group up.
I am looking forward to seeing how everyone fares, and to picking up loads of book bullets as the year progresses.
Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2018.
Here are my counters for the Challenge:
Before getting properly to grips with the new year, I thought this might be a good point at which to look back over my reading in 2017.
My highs and lows for 2017 (in chronological order of reading rather than preference) were as follows:
New to me fiction read during the year:
1. Slow Horses by Mick Herron (although I could almost have included any of his marvellous novels featunring the grotesque Jackson Lamb).
2. Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash.
3. Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift.
4. The Power by Naomi Alderman.
5. The Nix by Nathan Hill.
6. The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig.
7. A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre.
8. If We Were Villains by M L Rio.
9. Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.
10. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman.
If I had to pick one out of those, I think it would probably have to be If We Were Villains.
My favourite Non-Fiction books of the year (and for some reason, I found myself reading a lot of non-fiction - far more than I usually manage):
1. The Long and Winding Road by Alan Johnson.
2. At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell) (although, as with Mick Herron I enjoyed everything that I read by her this year.
3. Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale.
4. Lonely City by Olivia Laing.
5. East West Street by Philippe Sands.
6. Never Had it so Good and its companion volume, White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook.
7. Kind of Blue by Kenneth Clarke.
8. Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein.
9. Just Kids by Patti Smith.
10. The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley
My favourite re-reads of the year:
1. Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer.
2. Sicken and So Die by Simon Brett.
3. Jumpers by Tom Stoppard.
4. Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel (When will we have a nnew book from her! I have been waiting for it for ages.)
5. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.
6. Right Ho, Jeeves! by P. G. Wodehouse.
7. Paradise City by Elizabeth Day.
8. John Macnab by John Buchan.
9. Living Proof by John Harvey.
10. Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey.
And the books I enjoyed least during 2017:
1. Codeword Cromwell by Ted Allbeury.
2. The House at Bishopsgate by Kate Hickman.
3. The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet.
4. The Night Watch by Patrick Modiano.
5. Timekeepers by Simon Garfield.
6. Walking with Plato by Gary Hayden*.
7. Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes.
8. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce.
9. Athenian Blues by Pol Koutsakis.
10. Autumn by Ali Smith.
1. Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979 by Dominic Sandbrook.*
I have to admit that I started this one last year, but didn't finish it until yesterday morning.
This fourth volume of Dominic Sandbrook’s immense history of the 1970s and 1980s opens with 1974, now best remembered as a year of two general elections, and, as it happens, comes into the period from which my clearer awareness of politics begins. Sandbrook catalogues the trials and success of the Labour Governments under Harold Wilson and then Jim Callaghan in close, but never intrusive detail. While he focuses on the politics of the day, he sets them against a fascinating portrayal of the prevailing social and cultural context (including the horrors, and occasional delights, of 1970s rock music and television programmes).
One figure who looms large in the political toing and froing is Tony Benn, although for much of that period he was still in his intermediate incarnation of Anthony Wedgwood Benn (the persona that he initially adopted after successfully renouncing his title of Viscount Stansgate in order to remain eligible for the House of Commons). Indeed, although he remained in the Cabinet throughout the Wilson and Callaghan administration, he represented one of the Government’s most trenchant opponents, frequently undermining, or even directly opposing, policies agreed by his colleagues. I certainly remember him as a divisive figure from that period, and one who frequently provoked the bitterest tirades from my father when his latest ‘enormity’ was announced on the television news. There was little indication then of the figurehead of respect into which he would metamorphose by the end of his political career just a few years ago.
The historian and political thinker Sanatyana famously observed that those who do not study the past may be condemned to relive it, and Sandbook’s marvellous book certainly seems to offer proof of that worthy dictum. Harold Wilson has gone down in history as being paranoid, and convinced that he was being undermined, and conspired against, by various factors within the Establishment, including MI5 and the rest of the security and intelligence services. His paranoia was not groundless, and his own Cabinet remained a hotbed of dissension, featuring broad church of left wing views. Tony Benn followed his own path on the far left, hurling money at workers’ collectives indiscriminately and with scant regard of the economic realities for their business plans (if anything so elaborate ever existed beyond the crumpled back of an envelope or fag packet), while other prominent figures (Callaghan and Denis Healey prominent –though not alone – among them) veered far further towards the right of the party (despite Healey’s youthful membership of the Communist Party). Other more stalwart figures, such as Barbara Castle and Anthony Crosland, tried to hold firm to socialist principles while conceding the pragmatic need for occasional compromise.
What emerges most clearly from Sandbrook’s account is the extent to which Wilson seemed desperate to retain power, while simultaneously acknowledging how little he enjoyed it and the extent to which high office robbed all pleasure from his life. In recent years, we have become obsessed by the extent to which political advisers and consultants, lurking in the background at Number 10, have come to exert undue influence, almost to the extent of subverting the democratic process. After all, the New Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 had the likes of Damian McBride, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls coming to the fore as special advisers (before the latter pair’s election to Parliament in their own right), while the Conservatives had their own Machiavellian figures such as Dominic Cumming and Henry de Zoete functioning behind the scenes during the Coalition and beyond. This is not a new phenomenon. Marcia Williams (later Lady Falkender) was Harold Wilson’s political adviser, and seemed to exert unprecedented control within Number 10, even to the extent of managing the Prime Minister’s diary to the exclusion of his officials. Sandbrook’s account suggests that Wilson may even have been physically scared of Ms Williams – certainly not likely to help him overcome his paranoia.
The greatest political issue ion Britain today is the continuing reverberation of the country’s decision, in the referendum of 2016, to leave the European Union. Brexit dominates every political report, and has cluttered the current legislative agenda within parliament, to the extent that manifesto commitments across other departments have had to be dropped for the moment, despite the current parliamentary session being stretched to double its customary length. In 1975, the country faced its first referendum on Europe. While Edward Heath had taken the country into what was then the EEC without a referendum, leaving the elected parliament to ratify entry, in its manifestos in 1974 Labour had committed to holding a referendum to confirm that membership should continue. What struck me most sharply was the prescience of some campaigners against continued membership, pointing to the threat of eventual loss of legislative sovereignty. I still think that the referendum decision was wrong, but I was intrigued to see what I had conceived as relatively new concerns voiced by the ‘Brexiters’ had been articulated (often far more articulately) forty years earlier by the likes of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. Harold Wilson allowed his Cabinet free reign as to their views, and took virtually no part in the campaign himself, beyond an early indication that he believed we should stay in.
Another precursor to more recent times arose in the form of referendums in Scotland and Wales about devolution and an element of home rule. Indeed, it was the Government’s insistence upon specific victory requirements (i.e. in addition to a majority of votes actually cast, that forty per cent of the whole electorate must vote in favour of devolution) that led to the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists withdrawing support from the embattled Labour administration. This in turn led to the Government losing the vote of confidence that led to the spring election in 1979 (Callaghan had decided to try to hold out until the autumn, by which time he hoped that improvements in the economy would have become more evident). ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’ was Callaghan’s judgement.
I turned eleven in 1974, and the elections had a particular relevance for me as in September, I entered Loughborough Grammar School. This school was one of a few ‘direct grant’ schools scattered around the country. Some of each year’s intake of new pupils at these schools (around half, in the case of Loughborough Grammar School in 1974) were supported by the local authority while the remainder were subject to fees paid by their parents. During its period in opposition, the Labour Party had committed to abolishing direct grant schools, leaving great uncertainty among the parents of prospective pupils scheduled to join in September 1974. This uncertainty was, of course, replicated across many other policy areas when the general election in February proved so inconclusive.
Sandbrook deals with education in great detail, offering an entertaining insight into life at Crichton School in North London. In the early 1970s this school was experimenting in a liberal approach, under the headship of Molly Hattersley, wife of future deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley. I found this, too, particularly engrossing as Crichton subsequently metamorphosed into Muswell Hill’s Fortismere School (situated across the road from me as I type this) which, after sinking to seeming limitless depths of inadequacy during the 1980s, is now the flagship school of the London Borough of Haringey.
Sandbrook extends his clarity of insight into the troubles in Northern Ireland, which he covers with equanimity and neutrality, as well as documenting the emergence, and almost as meteoric decline of punk rock, while plumbing the depredations of progressive rock.
Following on from his previous books, Never Had It So Good, White Heat, and State of Emergency, this volume bring a triumphant conclusion to a supreme feat of academic endeavour. His greatest success is his ability to approach complex subjects and render them accessible to the modern reader.
Nice to see you doing a consolidated thread again, Ian. I am tempted to do likewise.
>4 john257hopper: The 100 Book Challenge is always looking for new members, and you would be very welcome, John.
Details are available at: http://www.librarything.com/groups/100booksin2018challe
Welcome back, James. Thanks you for Mick Herron, one of last year's best discoveries.
2. The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch.
I first read this novel some thirty odd years ago, shortly after it was published. At that point I hadn’t read anything else by Iris Murdoch, and had picked it up on the basis of a newspaper review and a recommendation from Lucy, the manager of the old branch of Dillons in Covent Garden who had the most amazing green eyes, and could easily have persuaded me to buy virtually anything, or even everything, in the shop.
Lucy spoke with straight tongue, and I remember being enthralled as I slowly worked my way through it. (It is a large book and Iris Murdoch’s writing, while rewarding to the reader, is never quickly consumed.) I recently had a conversation about Iris Murdoch with one of my colleagues, who suggested that this book was probably her finest. Having always been an advocate of The Sea, The Sea as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, I felt that I had better revisit it to see what I thought.
I have recently been very disappointed when returning to reread favourite novels from the past. No such worries on this occasion. It remains, of course, a substantial read, and it has taken me a long time, but the complexities of the plot and the depth of detail in the characterisation amply compensate the reader for their effort.
As with so many of Iris Murdoch’s novels, the characters live in a strange world, slightly removed from the ordinary cut and thrust of life, and operate within a dense maelstrom of moral conflict. This book opens at a Commem Ball at an unspecified Oxford College, attended by a group of alumni and their friends, all of whom are stunned by the revelation that David Crimond, formerly of their ‘set’ is also there. We then learn that some thirty odd years ago, following their graduation, the group of friends had been deeply committed to left wing politics. Within their group, these views were most clearly and passionately articulated by Crimond, who went on to enjoy a certain notoriety as a Marxist campaigner and agitator. The group of friends had undertaken to support him in the writing of a book that would synthesis his views into a new Marxist manifesto. This undertaking became known as the Crimondgesellschaft, modelled on the Musilgesellschaft which supported Robert Musil throughout the writing of his The Man Without Qualities series of novels.
As time wore on, the group became estranged from Crimond and his views. Their political inclinations mellowed while his remained firm. Despite this estrangement, they had continued to fund the research and writing of his book, although they became increasingly alarmed about what form it might take.
Their estrangement was not, however, solely a consequence of the divergence of their respective political ethos. Some years before the novel opens, Crimond had had an affair with the wife of one of the group. While she had subsequently returned to her husband, the bitterness that this had caused seemed almost insuperable. His entirely unforeseen emergence at the College Ball sends reverberations through the group, with devastating effects.
While most of the novel attends to the interactions between the various members of the group, whose relationships are certainly intricate and unconventional, there are some key crisis points, where it seems as if Iris Murdoch has suddenly slipped a gear or switched on the overdrive, with the novel suddenly lurching to a completely new level. There are some quite shocking incidents, too, yet while they come as a surprise at the time, they fit entirely into the greater scheme of the novel.
I believe that iris Murdoch wrote all her novels by hand, in a series of exercise books, and that they seldom required any significant editorial reorganisation. For a novel as complex as this, that must have been an awesome feat of mental discipline. She was, of course, first and foremost an academic, engaged throughout her career at Oxford in the study of philosophy. She always denied that her novels were works of philosophy, but I am not convinced of that. This one fairly crackles with philosophical dialogue and exploration, although divining which views were most closely aligned with her own would be more of a challenge than I would care to take on.
3. Spider Girl by Peter Lovesey.
I was very disappointed with this novel. I have read a lot of books by Peter Lovesey, and generally found them very entertaining, not least for their great plausibility.
I had never heard of this book until I discovered it on the Kindle Store, and I now realise why it is so little known - it simply isn't very good. Too many of the characters were mired in stereotypes, and the plot seemed utterly contrived.
I found it very difficult to believe that this could have been written by the same novelist who created the excellent series featuring Peter Diamond.
4. The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes.
One of my friends from university days is now an established journalist, and her most frequent advice to aspiring cub reporters is not to ‘bury the lead’, as many readers have a relatively short attention span. One should, she insists, instead pitch your key message as near the start of the piece as possible. As someone who spends much of his working day drafting correspondence on behalf of government ministers, I often find myself relying heavily upon that waning attention span. Still, out of respect for her, I am happy to try it her way. Here goes …
I have read well over four thousand books since I started listing them, back in January 1980, and this book would certainly rank in the top twenty or thirty. It is, quite simply, marvellous, with an alluring combination of powerful and utterly credible characters, watertight plotting, and a story that manages to encompass the full palette of emotions while simultaneously rendering an unobtrusive but enlightening course in classical Greek tragedy.
I first encountered Natalie Haynes through her engaging programmes on BBC Radio 4, in which she discusses classical literature and displays its enduring relevance, and the prism of understanding it can cast on modern life. Having been won over immediately by her radio performances, I was delighted to find that she had written a few novels, and by chance lighted upon this one as my starting point.
Another of my all time favourite novels is Donna Tartt’s debut, The Secret History, and I found myself recalling it often as I read The Amber Fury. Donna Tartt’s novel famously recounts the experiences of a group of students at an exclusive, private college in America as they study the Greek classics and find themselves drawn ever deeper into the ancient world, seeking arcane enlightenment through Bacchanalian excess. Natalie Haynes’s novel is set in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh, where a group of fifteen-year–old pupils who have been expelled from their mainstream schools for a variety of instances of extreme behavioural problems are brought together for a final chance to gain some sort of education. As the novel opens they are met by Alex Morris, a new teacher who wants to engage them in the study of drama.
Alex has her own problems being distraught with grief at the loss of her partner Luke. Following his death she has fled her former life in London, returning to Edinburgh where she had studied drama as an undergraduate. Her early encounters with her new pupils are difficult, and their challenging behaviour, which frequently morphs into outright hostility, almost drives her to give up. She does, however, persevere, and through her odd mix of patience and empathy, she manages to hook their interest, even to the extent of considering some classical Greek plays. These pupils have, after all, been acknowledged by their respective previous schools as being highly intelligent, though their behavioural issues have prevented them achieving academic progress to date.
One of the first things that Alex asks them to do is to keep journals. She doesn’t ask to read them, but explains that the discipline will help them understand their changing responses to the plays that they study. As the story progresses, we start to read one of the journals, from which we see that one of the pupils has developed a fascination with Alex.
Haynes manages the development of the story admirably, keeping the reader hooked, intrigued to discover exactly what had happened to Luke to drive Alex to such extravagant excesses of grief. Natalie Haynes obviously loves the Greek tragedies, and is clearly highly knowledgeable about them. She happily shares her erudition without ever seeming to preach to the reader. It is, for example, completely plausible that the unruly pupils should become so enamoured of Ales as a teacher. I felt a bit that way myself!
To say that this is my favourite book so far this year is rather meaningless so early in January, but I shall be very surprised (and extremely fortunate), if I am not still citing this as one of my favourite books of the year when we get around to the end of December.
5. Bloody January by Alan Parks.
Over recent years, Scottish Noir has become established as a major genre within crime fiction, and the works of Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride and Val McDermid have become bestsellers all around the world. All three of those authors have favoured dark crimes committed against grisly settings, investigated by gritty cops who are prepared to cross the customary lines of propriety and fair play in order to secure a result.
Harry McCoy, protagonist of Alan Parks’ debut novel Bloody January, is another decidedly gritty detective who makes John Rebus or Logan McRae seem like Dixon of Dock Green. The book is set in Glasgow in the bleak, freezing opening days of 1973, and McCoy sometimes seems almost to be fighting the wintry city itself. As the book opens he has been summoned to Barlinnie Prison to speak to an inmate who has an urgent message for him. That message turns out to be a warning that a woman called Lorna will be killed the following day. The inmate does not have, or, at any rate won’t reveal, any further information. McCoy does what cursory investigation the meagre time allows, and identifies a potential victim, but is sadly unable to prevent her murder, or the grotesque events that follow it.
It has become rather a cliché now for fictional detectives to be at least as troubled as the criminals and victims among whom they function. McCoy is no exception, and he has enough emotional baggage to fill a freight wagon, and might struggle to spell ‘unassailable rectitude’, far less wallow in it. His woes and angst are all too plausible, however, and his off-duty hours are spent drinking heavily, downing speed and consorting with prostitutes in a relentless cycle of dissolution.
At the most basic level, the plot is grim, the setting is bleak and the characters are, for the most part, ghastly. The book is, however, utterly compelling. Parks has a straightforward style that snags the reader’s attention from the start, and won’t let go. I am wondering whether this might be the first novel in a series and am already looking forward to the next instalment.
After reading your enthusiastic review, I've downloaded The Amber Fury onto the Kindle. Looking forward to it.
>13 pamelad: Hi Pam. I hope you enjoy it. I always feel a little nervous when people buy things on the basis of my reviewsd. I did, however, think it was absolutely marvellous, and that opinion is still as strong despite the passage of 'cooling down period' of a few days.
Ian, people respect your opinion, and rightly so (even if they may not like the things you like, or conversely with dislikes, your opinion is always worth reading).
Yes, I'm sold on The Amber Fury now too. Top 0.75% is high praise, as is a comparison to The Secret History.
6. Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her by A. N. Wilson.*
I ought, perhaps, to express a personal interest in this book. Iris Murdoch was a friend and, intermittently, a colleague of my mother during their respective academic careers at Oxford, and she even assumed the role of ‘unofficial godmother’ to one of my sisters (who is quite a few years older than me, although it might not be very gallant of me to say so). Although her and my mother’s paths diverged as time went on, I was fortunate enough to meet Iris Murdoch a few times as a teenager, and it was only natural that I should later come to enjoy her novels.
I was, therefore, torn between great curiosity to read A N Wilson’s insights into her life, and a certain trepidation about how her reputation might be eroded by any unseemly and unnecessary revelations. Wilson seems to have harboured the same concern himself, and reiterates his ambivalence about the reminiscences published by John Bayley, Iris’s long-suffering husband, which spawned the film Iris. Wilson has established a reputation as one of our leading literary biographers – indeed, I would suggest that his biographies have come to outstrip those of his novels that I have read, which seldom left any lasting imprint on my mind. This book is, however, not a conventional biography, being instead a series of Wilson’s recollections of time spent with iris Murdoch and John Bayley
As a consequence of Bayley’s books, it is now fairly common knowledge that iris Murdoch led an adventurous and promiscuous private life (indeed less private than might have been advisable for such a celebrated woman), conducting affairs with numerous men and women throughout her circle. Bayley was generally considered to have accepted all of this with a fairly good grace. Wilson speculates, however (and I agree) that perhaps his published memoirs of Iris’s life were really represented a means of securing revenge for a lifetime of indignities, tarnishing her reputation though allegations of rampant nymphomania, although, of course, for many people such a revelation might serve instead to enhance her reputation.
Wilson came to know both Iris Murdoch and John Bayley well, the latter having been his tutor during his undergraduate days. Wilson was already a fan of Murdoch’s early novels, having been introduced to them as a teenager, and he and his first wife become fairly close to the Murdoch-Bayley household. That closeness to the couple gave Wilson considerable insights into how their relationship worked, and yielded some unexpected revelations. One of the discoveries that came as the greatest surprise came from one of Wilson’s conversations during the 1980s with Bayley in which the latter professed (quite proudly) never to have read any of his wife’s novels, beyond a quick glance at the opening pages.
Wilson’s own reminiscences further detract from any shred of glamour that might have been left to Murdoch and Bayley, depicting them as relentlessly consuming vast amounts of cheap alcohol, eating bizarre and unappetising meals, and sinking into argumentative rancour. On balance I think I would have been wiser not to have read this book, which has only detracted from my recollections of her novels.
I liked The Amber Fury, with a few reservations. Good recommendation.
It sounds as though A. N. Wilson disliked Murdoch and Bayley. I had to stop reading Joan Schenkar's biography of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Miss Highsmith, because of the snide, nasty, jeering, judgemental tone. Why choose to write a biography, only to sneer at the subject?
7. The Ice by Laline Paull.
This is a novel that defies ready categorisation, containing elements of dystopian science fiction, thriller, courtroom drama and eco-political tract, with significant elements of the history of polar exploration thrown in. A heady mix, perhaps, but it all works, effectively woven together by Laline Paull.
It is set in an unspecified, but presumably not too distant future (there are a few subtle pointers, such as the description of a couple of barristers as KCs, rather than QCs) in which the Arctic icecap has largely melted. As the novel opens, a luxury liner is crawing slowly along the shores of Svalbard, searching for polar bears to sate the appetites of demanding wealthy tourists. A bear is finally found, and the passengers are all merrily taking photographs of it when, without any warning, there is a sudden tremor, and the glacier oin which the bear starts crumbling into the sea. As huge boulders of ice collapse away from the glacier, a human body is revealed. Once stability returns, the body is retrieved.
It turns out that the corpse is Tom Harding, a renowned eco-protester and former leader of Greenpeace and other campaigning bodies. He was also a university friend of Sean Cawson, Chief Executive and senior shareholder in Midgard Lodge, a luxury hotel site in Svalbard that caters to exceptionally wealthy guests who are eager to enjoy highly exclusive retreats. Harding and Cawson had been exploring a network of ice caves near Midgard Lodge when a sudden shift in the ice (possibly caused by the impact of warming compromising the integrity of the glacial structures) had left them stranded under the ice. Cawson had been rescued while Harding had never been seen again until his body emerged from the glacier, three years later.
Cawson is a self-made man, though despite his immense commercial success, he is riven with self-doubt, and has found himself alienated from his wife and daughter. His business empire had been formed through hard work, fortuitous investments and the support of a mentor, Joe Kingsmith. Under Kingsmith's mantle, he had first learned his business craft, and then gradually started to establish himself in his own right. Recognising his debt to the older man, he had invited Kingsmith to invest in Midgard Lodge.
The discovery of Tom's body leads unavoidably to a formal inquest, which forms the central core of the novel, and offers a stage for the compelling scrutiny of the nature and extent of the business and political contacts that both Harding and Cawson has followed during their respective careers. This allows Laline Paull to explore the conflicting arguments supporting and opposing mineral exploitation of the Arctic Circle. She manages this deftly, using separate characters to put forward their respective ideas, all handled objectively through the filter of the inquest.
Interspersed with the story, in between each chapter, Laline Paull interpolates extracts from various classic accounts of Polar explorations, which offer intriguing contextual insights into different aspects of the emerging story. She controls the plot very effectively, gradually letting more information and new avenues of thought emerge and continuing to throw up new twists. All in all, a very effective and gripping novel, and I look forward to reading more by her.
8. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Unfortunately, this book represented another of those occasions when I found myself entirely at odds with the prevailing opinion. The book has been almost universally lauded and has landed all sorts of plaudits and awards.
I, however, found it utterly impenetrable. I tried to read it three times, but just could not get on terms with it
9. A Reconstructed Corpse by Simon Brett.
Down at heel actor Charles Paris has experienced many indignities throughout his lengthy but conspicuously unsuccessful career, but as A Reconstructed Corpse opens he finds himself plumbing new depths. He is back on television, playing the role of Martin Earnshaw, a property developer from Brighton. He is not, however, participating in a drama series, nor even one of the ghastly situation comedies in which he has occasionally landed a supporting part. Martin Earnshaw has disappeared in rather suspicious circumstances, believed to have fallen foul of local loan sharks after his business became over-extended following some imprudent deals. Charles Paris is, therefore, playing the role of Earnshaw as part of a reconstruction for a real-life crime investigation programme (clearly modelled on BBC's "Crimewatch"). This represents a new low for Charles as he was clearly selected for the part more for his apparent resemblance to the man who has disappeared than in recognition of any acting expertise. There is, however, a positive side to things, as for various reasons the disappearance of Martin Earnshaw (or, more accurately, the plight of his immensely attractive wife) has captured the public's imagination, and Charles's appearance on the programme develops into a continuing role as the investigation into the disappearance gathers pace.
As with all of the books in this entertaining series, Simon Brett manages to retain the integrity and plausibility of his plot while offering a very entertaining portrayal of the jealousies and egos that are manifested in the production of any television series. Charles Paris seems an immensely sympathetic character - not especially gifted as an actor, and certainly flawed as a man. He remains sensitive to the conflicting personalities amongst whom he has to operate, and the reader feels for him throughout the vicissitudes he has to face.
Very entertaining, both for the plot and Charles's continuing struggle to wring any drop of dignity out of an awkward situation, and also for its sardonic insight into the shameless world of television, in which any vestige of good taste is immediately satisfied if there is the merest chance of a boost to a programme's viewing figures.
10. Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover.*
I have always been interested in Thomas Telford, largely because he was perhaps the most famous person to have come from the area of Dumfriesshire where my mother grew up. Telford is, of course, now best remembered as a prolific civil engineer, responsible for scores of bridges, canals and prominent building projects around the British Isles, with the Menai Bridge possibly his crowning glory.
Such an outcome could not have seemed less likely given his humble start in life. He was born into considerable poverty in Dumfriesshire in 1757, and was plunged into deeper financial straits when his father died two years later. The young Telford and his mother took refuge with other family members, and he seemed destined to follow his father's path and become a shepherd. He did, however, have the good fortune to receive an excellent education at the local school in Eskdale, and was, as a consequence, able to embark upon an apprenticeship in Langholm, the largest town in the area (and still known today as 'the Muckle Toon'). His first bridge was built in Langholm across the River Esk, and still stands today.
One of the principal premises driving Glover's book is the extent to which Telford, despite his considerable achievements, has faded from the modern public consciousness. He cites as an example the list of Great Britons curated by the BBC in the approach to the millennium, in which Brunel, advocated by Jeremy Clarkson, was placed second, while Telford merited scarcely a mention. Glover suggests that this might reflect bad luck on Telford's part. While his achievements were marvellous, and represented the cutting edge of engineering techniques at the time, many of them were either endeavours in areas that would subsequently become a technological cul-de-sac (such as his work on canals that would be rendered largely irrelevant with the explosion of the railway network shortly after his death) or were superseded by later developments. After all, even his amazing Menai Bridge would soon be supplanted by George Stephenson's Briatannia Bridge.
Telford's success reflected his separate though complementary talents as a mason, an architect, and engineer, but also as an early master of the art of project management. He developed impeccable skill at organising his projects (including the adroit lobbying to secure the requisite political endorsement for them). He was also one of the first prominent engineers properly to understand the importance of infrastructure as avital ingredient in the national development.
While Telford was certainly a high achiever, Glover makes clear that he had a commensurately high opinion of his own abilities and achievements, developing a form of apparent self-deprecation that actually served principally to stress how clever and gifted he was. He did, however, have much to be proud of. Always an earnest and voracious reader, even from his earliest childhood, he was also a fairly accomplished poet, and may well have cultivated a friendship with his fellow Lowland Scot, Robert Burns. They certainly corresponded with each other, and Telford appears to have written a moving obituary upon Burns's death.
Glover has clearly researched his subject exhaustively, and has produced an accessible and engaging biography. The paradox is that while I certainly enjoyed the book, I don't feel that I really like Telford. His achievements speak for themselves, and he certainly deserves more public acclaim than he now receives, but he seems to have been a rather pompous and overly self-righteous man. Given the scale of his achievements, and the penury of his beginnings, I feel mean in making that judgement, but I just can't make myself feel more favourably towards him.
Very interesting review of Thomas Telford's biography. I had not previously heard of him. Interestingly enough George Turnbull, who had a big hand in building railroads in India trained with him when he was younger.
>23 iftyzaidi: The construction of the Indian rail network must have been an extraordinary undertaking, given the distances and the challenging terrain involved.
11. Gnomon by Nick Harkaway.
I so wanted to like this book - apart from anything else, it just looks so appealing, with its striking orange and black cover, and its orange-edged pages - but I can't help feeling that it simply tried too hard to be very clever, without quite pulling it off. Indeed, it reminded me very strongly of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, another book that I tried desperately to enjoy but whose self-conscious cleverness ultimately defeated me.
Set in a near, yet unspecified, future, it opens with an investigation into the death under custodial interview of Diana Hunter, once a celebrated novelist and latterly a recluse who had withdrawn from the technological overloaded norms of life. Her interview had been conducted through mental probes, administered under the direction of Mielikki Nieth, and Inspector of The Witness, the investigative body that supports The System, the faceless administration that currently governs Britain.
Nieth herself is not a faceless bureaucrat, and upset by the death of her interviewee and intrigued by some of the responses that she had detected immediately prior to Hunter's death, she undertakes her own investigation into Hunter's past. While conducting this review, she finds herself encountering (both physically and psychically) a number of strange characters, all of whom had been absorbed into Hunter's psyche.
The book is liberally strewn with references to Greek and Norse myths, and throughout there is the recurring sense of great catastrophes being set in motion through the tiniest mischances. I found all of this very diverting, and hugely enjoyable. Unfortunately, author Nick Harkaway seemed incapable of knowing where to stop, adding layer after layer of complexity. Rather than giving depth, however, these served simply to render the novel too incoherent to be truly entertaining.
So nearly very good, yet, sadly, in the end the book just sank under the weight of its own self-awareness and complacency.
12. Reservoir 13 by John McGregor.
I wonder whether the literati have gone a little bit overboard about this novel. I certainly found it engrossing and well written (although I couldn't say I enjoyed it - whatever else this novel might be, I don't think it is exactly 'enjoyable'), and it adopted an unusual and enlightening perspective on an unpleasant crime. I am not sure, however, that I could go quite so far as critic George Saunders, who described it as 'a rare and dazzling feat of art' or The Guardian, where it was dubbed, 'an extraordinary achievement'.
The story surrounds the disappearance of Rebecca Shaw, a teenage girl who went missing while on holiday with her family in an unspecified locality 'at the heart of England'. A tragic, and sadly all too familiar a scenario. McGregor certainly captures the bleakness of the situation excellently, and also portrays the impact upon the local community. While everyone rallies around to help with the search for the missing girl, life does also go on, and as time goes by a sense of resentment grows among the locals. After all, everyone now remains under suspicion, and the village struggles to slough off its association with the disappearance.
McGregor's style has a starkness that becomes oppressive (and potential readers should perhaps be aware that there is no shred of light relief, at all), yet suits the bleak nature of the story. It also matches the landscape. This is a working countryside, not one of bucolic rhapsody, in which farmers and local businesses struggle to make a living, and the distractions and disruptions arising from the search for the missing girl only add to the bleakness and despair of life.
13. The Photographer by Craig Robertson.
Craig Robertson has produced a chilling police procedural novel, set in Glasgow, and revolving around the police investigation of a series of brutal rapes. A suspect is identified, and subsequently arrested, and a discovery during the search of his property sends the police off in a completely new direction.
The plot is well-constructed, and sadly all too plausible, which makes the book very gripping. I was struck by the absence of any particularly empathetic characters, even among the victims who suffers some particularly awful ordeals, though this did not impinge upon the quality of the book.
14. London Rules by Mick Herron.
Be warned: Jackson Lamb is back and even coarser and more objectionable than ever. Even more entertaining, too, of course.
This is the fifth novel to feature Lamb and his dysfunctional 'slow horses' - his band of disgraced intelligence officers whose respective records have been too heavily compromised to allow them to continue in the front line, yet represent too great a risk of embarrassment for them to be released from the service into an unsuspecting world. They are, instead, assigned to Slough House, a run-down establishment near the Barbican where their time is spent in thankless tasks. They are overseen in this administrative purgatory by Jackson Lamb, himself a former operative, who has, one presumes, his own considerable past peccadilloes. Over the previous novels he has emerged as a foul-mouthed, gloriously politically incorrect, heavy drinking, permanently smoking and relentlessly flatulent tyrant, never happier than when unleashing his acerbic disdain for everyone whom he encounters. He is, indeed, a character of a grotesquery that Dickens would have relished, but never dared to create, yet is also strangely likeable. The nearest character I can call to mind as an analogue might be Superintendent Andy Dalziel from Reginald Hill's novels, though Lamb make him resemble a Sunday School teacher on their best behaviour at the Bishop's tea party.
Herron's crowning achievement is to have created such a comic masterpiece of a character without compromising the integrity of his plots. All five of the Jackson Lamb books would work perfectly well as serious espionage thrillers without the humorous element. That merely pushes them into a new dimension.
This novel opens with a devastating terrorist attack on a quiet village in the Peak District, followed by a further attack on London Zoo. Meanwhile the growing public following for a leading Brexit campaigner is causing concern to the Prime Minister, who (utterly correctly) distrusts their political ambitions and fears for the long-term safety of their own position within the Party's hierarchy. Well, that all seems to testify to Herron's topicality! From this difficult start, things simply go from bad to worse, and that is before the 'slow horses' become involved with their own brand of rampant disorder.
It is far too early to start thinking realistically about the most enjoyabvle book of the year, but I am confident that this will feature when I come to draw up such a list in eleven months' time.
15. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.
This novel was one of a series by various authors commissioned to mark the four hundredth anniversary in 2016 of the death of Shakespeare.
Felix Phillips seems well-established as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival in Canada, and is making arrangements for a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. He has, however, has bargained without the duplicity of his assistant, Tony Price, who has schemed with the Theatre's Board to have Felix removed. Removed from his post at a moment's notice, Felix is resolved to seek revenge, though he is prepared to play a long game to secure it.
Several years later, Felix is working under an assumed name at the Fletcher Correctional Institute where he givens dram training to several of the prisoners. The inmates are initially resistant to the very idea of drama, and particularly when they learn that Felix will be concentrating exclusively on the works of Shakespeare. They are, however, gradually won over, and some to enjoy and even benefit from the programme that Felix delivers.
His opportunity for revenge comes when Tony Price, now an ambitious politician and Minister for Culture, and along with some other figures of hate from Felix's past, is invited to attend a performance at the Correctional Institute. Felix starts to form his plan, which he will achieve through a new production of The Tempest, performed by his band of prisoners.
Felix's discussions of the themes and historical context of the play offer Margaret Atwood the opportunity to dissect the work with her sharp, writer's acumen. Themes of revenge, liberty and enslavement prove particularly pertinent to the prisoners, and provokes their close engagement with the project.
This is an impressive demonstration of Atwood's great flexibility as a writer. My previous experience of her novels had been principally among her dystopian novels, which I had found compelling. The ending of this novel was not what I had expected, and came as a slight disappointment, but I was still impressed with her dexterity in a completely different field.
16. The Great British Dream factory by Dominic Sandbrook.*
In recent years Dominic Sandbrook has established himself as one of the leading historians of Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. He has published several huge and comprehensive books that detailed the politics of the period and Britain’s fluctuating international relations. One of the great strengths of those books has, however, lain in the detailed context that he weaves by exploring the prevailing social and cultural trends. He has that happy knack of being able to address complex and challenging ideas in a readily accessible manner.
In this latest book, he looks more closely at British cultural development from the end of the Second World War up until the end of the twentieth century, considering how domestic tastes in art, fashion literature and music have changed, and also the impact that British culture has had upon the rest of the world. He also draws an illuminating comparison between the boom in British cultural dominance around the world and the demise of the huge manufacturing base that had seen Britain as one of the leading industrial exporters.
There is scarcely a facet of British life that escape’s Sandbrook’s scrutiny, and he is not afraid to court controversy by criticising so-called ‘national treasures’. John Lennon, seemingly canonised by dint of dying young at the hands of an assassin, emerges with his reputation sullied after an intriguing analysis of the song ‘Imagine’, whose exalted ideals Lennon himself failed to espouse. While conceding his musical talent, and his valuable cultural legacy, Sandbrook exposes Lennon as a hypocritical, selfish, materialistic monomaniac.
He also looks in detail at the most successful novelists over the period, with lengthy consideration of some writers often sneered at by the literary establishment. One such was Catherine Cookson, who sold hundreds of millions of books, and is generally categorised as a writer of romance novels. In fact most of her books have a gritty reality, reflecting her own bleak upbringing through a childhood and youth of immense deprivation, both financial and emotional). Ian Fleming, meanwhile, brought product placement to a previously unparalleled pitch with his James Bond books, though Sandbrook suggests that he always felt he was struggling in the shadow of his older brother Peter, who wrote travel books that were feted by the literati. Meanwhile, the novelist who racked up the greatest volume of sales of all (reckoned to be around two billion books) was Agatha Christie. Like J R R Tolkien, her writing reflected the devastating impact on her family of the first World War, and Sandbrook demonstrates that, far from writing just about the upper class, as claimed by many of her literary detractors, most of her characters inhabit almost exclusively the middle or lower classes.
All in all, this is an entertaining and informative book, and represents a fine companion volume to his previous history books.
Thanks for the great review of Dominic Sandbrook's book. I picked it up recently but a quick browse-through aside, haven't had the wherewithal to read it yet. I have been in the mood for light genre fiction of late. But your review has rekindled my interest - hopefully I will get round to reading this in the summer.
I am also interested in these sweeping historical narratives and want to read more. Thanks, Ian.
17. M Train by Patti Smith.*
Thirty-five years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Patti Smith by chance at CBGBs, the legendary punk rock venue in New York. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I were visiting America for the first time, about to embark on a year’s postgraduate study in California, and had managed to obtain tickets for a gig (any gig!) at the iconic venue. At this remove of time I can’t even recall who was playing, although I do remember that the concert was pretty ropy. None of that mattered, of course, as we were simply starstruck by the surroundings and enjoying what amounted to a pilgrimage. We ventured to the bar and found ourselves standing next to Patti Smith and, emboldened by the adrenalin surge prompted by the occasion, plucked up the courage to talk to her. We had a pleasant conversation, and she seemed intrigued by the books poking from our respective pockets. So much so, in fact, that she asked us to meet her the following day at one of her favourite cafés. As our time in New York was very short, every moment had been strictly accounted for in advance, but our schedules went straight out of the window and we agreed in a nanosecond.
Cafés, or at least regular doses of strong coffee, clearly play a huge part in Patti Smith’s life, and form the unifying theme of this volume of memoirs. Indeed, T. S. Eliot’s line, ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ might have proved a worthy epigraph. She describes her travels around the world, both with her late husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (who died in 1994), and later on her own, and wherever she goes, she finds a café to use as a refuge. Her displeasure when someone else ‘steals’ her customary seat at one of her regular haunts is something that many of us can recognise and empathise with.
Her prose style is frequently beautiful and moving – somehow rather at odds with the ferocity of her early stage persona. I remember being both exhilarated but also almost frightened while watching her performances from the 1970s, when she would shout and rage at the audience. While the strength of character and self-assurance (I know, I know, a dirty word!) that underpinned those performances clearly remains, age appears to have mellowed her, and there is a contemplative tranquillity about many of these pieces.
18. Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson.
I have had occasion to remark in this forum before about my apparent inability to learn from experience and my consequent tendency to persevere with authors despite evidence suggesting that I do not like their work.
A few years ago I read Howard Jacobson's Booker Prize winning novel, The Finkler Question. I found that amusing in parts but, overall, I struggled to derive much enjoyment from it. I found it unpleasant and sneering, and initially swore never to bother with anything written by Howard Jacobson again. Since then, I have, however, found myself listening to several of his talks on BBC Radio 4's 'A Point of View', and given that this particular novel formed part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, commissioned to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the Bard's death, I decided to give him another chance.
Well, I walked into that one. The book is certainly very clever (although I found the allusions to The Merchant of Venice rather convoluted), but once again seems to demonstrate Jacobson's unpleasantly superior style, and is too liberally strewn with downright unpleasantness. I don't know if the fault lies with me - I may simply be too middle aged and middle class properly to acknowledge Jacobson's writing. Whatever the explanation, I did not enjoy this book, and I will not make the error of buying anything else by him.
19. Servants of the People by Andrew Rawnsley.*
I have read Andrew Rawnsley's accounts of the Blair and Brown Labour administration that governed Britain from 1997 until 2010 in the wrong order. Having lived through the period, however, and having worked in Whitehall throughout most of that period, I don't think that reading the second volume first spoiled the story as I was already pretty confident that I knew the outcome!
I had, however, already forgotten a lot of the details. Reading this book, I was reminded of the utter weakness and lack of organisation of the Conservative Party following Blair's landslide electoral victory in 1997, that it was unable to offer any constructive challenge at the end of the first term in 2001.
There were some considerable achievements for New Labour during that first term, but Rawnsley's account reveals the relentless internecine struggles within the Cabinet. Right from the election victory in May 1997, Blair and Brown were at loggerheads, with the latter resolving to go his own way, and put his stamp on the Cabinet. Rawnsley clearly favours Blair over Brown, though he is not reluctant to criticise the former, too.
Rawnsley offers some startling revelations about the utter lack of empathy between Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, and her 'junior' minister, Frank Field (who had been led by Blair to believe that he would be given the Cabinet level post), both of whom repeatedly went running to Downing Street to complain about the actions of the other. Of course, Frank Field (now Sir Frank) had always been a bit of a maverick, frequently at odds with the official party line, but that very individuality perhaps always precluded him from a Cabinet position. He did, after all, show himself willing to work with the Coalition after 2010 in the interests of pursuing a policy that he considered right, regardless of partisan party labels.
An even more divisive figure was Peter (now Lord) Mandelson. Seen by many as the architect of New Labour and the eminence grise responsible for making Labour electable once more, he had initially been a close confidant of Gordon Brown. That all changed, however, and as Blair became party leader, Mandelson moved ever more closely into his camp. As a consequence, by the time Labour came into government, Brown and Mandelson were incapable of exchanging a civil word.
Mandelson's contribution to that first Labour Government term will now probably best be recalled for having to resign from the Cabinet … twice. Having pledged to wash away the tainted memory of eighteen years and four electoral terms of Conservative Government, which had come to be associated with sleaze in the public perception, the New labour administration seemed to lurch from one scandal to another. Having already resigned over a questionable and previously undisclosed loan from fellow Cabinet member Geoffrey Robinson, Mandelson was lucky to be allowed back into the Cabinet (as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) without the ratification of a renewed electoral mandate. It seems particularly bizarre, therefore, that he should be sufficiently reckless to allow himself to be brought down again through the injudicious endorsement of applications for British passports by the immensely rich Hinduja brothers.
Rawnsley writes in a lucid and entertaining style, and has clearly had access to conversations and documentation from many (perhaps most) of the principal protagonists. I would be interested to read his take on the subsequent internal travails of the Coalition government.
That's amazing about your Patti Smith meeting! I loved Just Kids, she just seems like such a wonderful human being.
>37 mabith: It was one of the highlights of my life. She was so nice and friendly. Catherine and I correspondence with her for a few years after that meeting.
20. Need to Know by Karen Cleveland.
Vivian Miller finds herself in a nightmare scenario. As an intelligence analyst for the CIA, her job entails intricate computer-based investigations, searching for Soviet sleeper agents. As the novel opens she is on the cusp of a major breakthrough, about to penetrate the last level of protection before the names of the latest cell are revealed. Unfortunately, the outcome is not at all what she had expected, and now her whole life seems to be falling apart.
The story is well constructed, and rather more plausible that my synopsis above might suggest (I was trying not to leave any too obvious spoilers). Vivian is an engaging and empathetic character, struggling to maintain a viable work-life balance as she wrestles with her demanding job while she and her husband bring up their four children, one of whom has challenging medical issues. Meanwhile, she finds herself harbouring a moist unwelcome secret, and seeing everything she believed in starting to crumble.
This is Karen Cleveland's first novel, but she shows great deftness balancing the conflicting demands of family, work and patriotism. I did occasionally feel that she laboured Vivian's worries about her family. Not that this was implausible - given the circumstances in which she found herself, that was entirely understandable - but it did sometimes leave the reader feeling a little bogged down. Overall, however, this was an exciting and gripping story.
21. Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed.*
John Reed's story of the Russian Revolution has become established as possibly the finest account of any revolution, anywhere, and the Penguin Classics edition has the additional allure of two separate introductions: a brief preface written by Lenin himself, and a more analytical essay by the feted historian, A J P Taylor. Interestingly, as Reed had bequeathed the royalties from the book to the government of the Soviet Union, Taylor was not allowed to append his comments until after the copyright had expired.
Reed was both a renowned poet and an experienced journalist, and was also known for the strength of his Socialist views. His account is not, therefore, an impartial account crafted for the later delectation of a neutral reader. He wanted the revolution to succeed, and like Lenin and the other 'professional' revolutionaries who made their way back from exile, felt that the earlier risings that had led to the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government under Kerensky, were merely the opening acts.
His account has an immediacy that reads almost like a film script, reflecting his journalistic skills, and his proximity to the actions he recounts. He also published his book within a couple of years of the Revolution, providing one of the earliest coherent accounts available in the West. Taylor suggests that, in some instances, Reed may have massaged the facts, or at least allowed a certain latitude with regard to timings. He does not, however, challenge the validity of Reed's overall portrayal of the events.
One hundred years on, the clarity and excitement of Reed's story remain impressive.
I'm always looking for older non-fiction that's still worth reading, so definitely putting Ten Days that Shook the World on my list.
22. A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill.
Over the years I have read, and enjoyed, many of Reginald Hill's series of crime novels featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his protégé Detective Sergeant (later Inspector) Peter Pascoe. As a pairing they formed a powerful fictional partnership: the gruff, often almost Neanderthal (and determinedly unreconstructed) Dalziel, raised in the 'school of hard knocks' complementing the younger Pascoe's university education and essentially liberal views. That contrast was, paradoxically strengthened by the odd occasion when their roles seemed to be reversed, with Dalziel showing uncharacteristic sensitivity and emotional acuity, while Pascoe suffers lapses into Dalziel's capacity for caustic coarseness.
The initial books translated well to the small screen, with Warren Clarke admirably capturing Dalziel's extravagant grotesqueness, capably assisted, or as frequently resisted, by Colin Buchanan as Pascoe. Unfortunately, as so frequently happens with television adaptations, the embarrassing, and all too often politically incorrect, aspects of Dalziel's character were ironed out, no doubt with a view to protecting the worldwide sales where that aspect of British humour might not play so well. The later books, however, retained their glorious rumbustiousness. I came to the series in mid-flow, so to speak, first encountering the partnership probably five or six novels on from their debut. Reginal Hill had, by that stage, found his stride, and I was captivated straight away.
A Clubbable Woman is the first in the series, set around the local rugby club in the unnamed mid-Yorkshire town (represented by Leeds in the subsequent TV version), and mired in the rivalries and aspirations of the members. Sam Connon is nearing forty and had thought that his playing days, in which he had once looked set to play for England until untimely injury intervened, were over. Against his better judgement, however, he is persuaded to turn out for the club's fourth team one Saturday afternoon, and sustains a blow to the head in a scrum. Dazed and confused, he withdraws from the game, and, after a quick 'medicinal' dram at the bar, he heads home, aware that he is already late for the evening meal with his wife. When he returns home, his wife is sitting in front of the television, and ignores him when he calls through a greeting to her. Still feeling ropey, he goes upstairs to lie down for a while, waking up a few hours to find that his wife is still downstairs, but closer inspection shows that she is dead, having been clubbed with a blunt instrument.
Dalziel, himself a member of the rugby club, and Pascoe end up investigating, and it soon emerges that there are a number of bruised and sensitive egos within the club, and that any semblance of team unity is merely a brittle carapace concealing seething and violent passions and hatreds. This all contributes to an overwhelming sense of gloom from which even Dalziel's gallows humour is powerless to rescue it. Even the plot lacked the watertight quality that came to characterise later books in the series.
While I was interested to discover the genesis of Dalziel, I was left feeling relieved that this had not been my first encounter with the series. If this had been the first Dalziel and Pascoe book that I read, it would also have been the last, and I would have missed out on a lot of fun.
23. Ovid by David Wishart.
I have always been a voracious reader of crime fiction and have been particularly struck by the great explosion over the last twenty years or so in the number of historical crime novels. Some periods seem to have yielded more fertile ground than others, with the Middle Ages and then the Tudors seeming especially popular. Classical Rome has been far from fallow, too, with the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis offering a pleasing mix of historical setting, clever plots and humorous narrator.
David Wishart Studied Classics at university and then went on to teach the subject at school for a few years, before becoming a professional, and indeed prolific, author of crime novels. This was a similar career path to that followed by Colin Dexter, creator of Chief Inspector Morse, who briefly taught Classics at my old school (though he left several years before I was even born). Unlike Dexter, who only displayed his dexterity with Latin and Greek through the often arrogant musings of Morse, Wishart has chosen to apply his knowledge more directly, setting his novels in the reign of Emperor Tiberius, in the opening years of the Current Era.
His narrator and protagonist is Marcus Corvinus, a young man from a prominent family, though one who has eschewed the traditional path into Roman politics and has instead established a reputation as an investigator. As the novel opens he is visited by Perilla, stepdaughter of the exiled poet Ovid. She commissions Corvinus to secure permission for the dead poet's ashes to be returned to Rome for discreet but respectable burial. Expecting this to be a straightforward task, and eager to impress the beautiful Perilla, Corvinus accepts the commission, only to find that the quest is far more sensitive than he, or indeed Perilla, had anticipated. Serious obstacles are placed in his way, and it rapidly becomes apparent that vested interests with very powerful contacts are anxious to prevent any examination of the reasons behind the poet's exile.
Corvinus is an engaging character, with a scurrilous and refreshingly bawdy outlook on life. Wishart is a gifted writer to, managing to impart a vast amount of knowledge about Imperial Rome without ever seeming to preach or adopt too didactic a tone. The plot (presumably founded on sound history) is very complicated, and I felt that the book might have benefitted from being perhaps fifty or sixty pages shorter. It was, however, very enjoyable as well as being informative, and I am looking forward to reading other novels in the series.
24. New Boy by Tracy Chevalier.
Tracy Chevalier wrote this novel as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, commissioned in 2016 to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the Bard's death. Ms Chevalier has already established herself as one of leading exponents of the literary historical novel, combining comprehensive research with accomplished storytelling, and a great capacity to render much of the minutiae of everyday day life enthralling.
This novel is a retelling of the Othello story, set in an elementary school in Washington DC in 1974. With just a month of the school year left to go, Osei Kokote, son of a Ghanaian diplomat, joins the school as a new boy - the only non-white child ion the whole school. Everyone seems amazed at his arrival. The children have never met an African American child before and are curious yet also slightly alarmed by their new companion. Even the teachers seem uncertain how to react to the new boy, bending over backwards to avoid using the word 'black', with their efforts to try to act as if there was nothing unusual about the newcomer actual serve only to highlight that this is a special day. Chevalier captures the uncertainties of all the children, and in particular of Osei with great accuracy. I understand that in her own elementary school in Washington during the 1970s she was in the reverse position, being one of very few white pupils.
Osei is, obviously, the counterpart of Othello. The unwitting role of Desdemona is filled by Dee, one of the prettiest and brightest girls in the class who forms an instant rapport with Osei. Lurking in the background is Ian, a clever but surly malcontent, already functioning on the margins of the class, bullying some of his weaker classmates and keeping mental tabs on the ever-fluctuating statuses of the rest of them. Immediately envious by the flourishing camaraderie between Dee and Osei, he determines to spoil things as quickly and comprehensively as he can.
Chevalier has produced another great book. Her story pays homage to the plotline of Othello but is not constricted by it. There is no appearance of contrivance in the way the story falls together. The interactions between the children are all utterly plausible, and very reminiscent of my own primary school days in North Leicestershire. Brilliantly thought out and elegantly written, this is a great rendition of a classic tale.
It is the third book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, and by far the best.
That definitely sounds like the best premise for the Shakespeare series books (of the ones I've looked into).
25. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee.
This is a book that defies the standard genre categorisation. On the face of it, as a novel which recounts the investigation of the murder of a high ranking British official in Calcutta in 1919, one could easily classify it as a crime novel, or even a historical crime novel. The risk with that categorisation is that it might lead people to overlook the fact that it is simply a very good novel, regardless of genre.
In 1919 Sam Wyndham has just arrived in Calcutta to take up the post of Detective inspector in the colonial police force. He is a haunted and grieving man, having suffered severe shellshock during the first World War, and then returned to civilian life to find that his wife had died during the dreadful influenza epidemic that followed the close of hostilities. Having previously served as a policeman in London, including a spell in Special Branch investigating Irish nationalist extremists, he is looking for a fresh start to life. An additional consequence of his horrendous war experiences is that he has developed a mild addiction to morphine.
Wyndham finds Calcutta bemusing and oppressive. The novel opens in April, just as the hot season is starting to take hold, and the weather presents a huge challenge to someone fresh from Blighty, and the heat, humidity and lack of morphine take a heavy toll on Wyndham’s equanimity. There is also an atmosphere of unrest, with growing cries among the huge indigenous population for independence, or at least a relaxing of the colonial stranglehold. Rather than complying, the colonial administration has strengthened the anti-insurrection legislation. Wyndham finds himself working with Sub-Inspector Digby, who demonstrates many of the more traditional opinions and prejudices prevalent throughout the British Raj administration, and Sergeant Srindranath ‘Surrender-Not’ Bannerjee. Paradoxically, coming from a privileged Indian family, Sergeant Bannerjee was sent to Britain for his education and attended Harrow and then Cambridge University.
Wyndham has barely arrived in Calcutta when he finds himself despatched to the scene of a murder. A senior British civil servant has been found dead in an alley in a poor part of the city, and a message warning the British Imperial Administration to withdraw has been attached to the body. Because of the prominence of the victim, Wyndham is left under no illusions that an arrest is needed as soon as possible. Indeed, barely has his investigation properly begun before he finds himself encountering, and indeed being largely thwarted by, British Military Intelligence in the guise of ‘H Division’.
Abir Mukherjee has delivered a fine detective story, with the added bonus for the reader of an entertaining and intriguing of Calcutta in the early twentieth century, in which the various social strata are in constant competition with each other, both within and across racial divides. The historical context is well developed, and interesting parallels are drawn between the struggle for Irish Independence, which had taken a great leap forward following the Easter Rising just three years earlier, and the growing threats of insurrection within India itself, despite the conflicting aims and rivalries of the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities.
This is an impressive debut, and I was pleased to see from the book jacket that a further instalment of Captain Wyndham’s adventures will be following shortly.
>46 Eyejaybee: Looks promising. I've added it to the wish list, which I'm trying to use as a loading dock rather than a black hole.
26. Monsieur Ka by Vesna Goldsworthy.
I first encountered Vesna Goldsworthy, for whom English is probably at least her third language, through her wonderful debut novel Gorsky, an homage to The Great Gatsby translated to the twenty-first century London of émigré Russian oligarchs. That novel was beautifully written and effortlessly conjured all the hopes, anguish and despair that resonate so powerfully through Fitzgerald's novel.
Her latest novel, equally beautifully written, defies easy classification. The strongest theme is that of displacement and the difficulty in conforming to new worlds following seismic upheavals, whether on an individual or global scale. Albertine Wheeler is a French Jew, who after being orphaned in her youth had fled the Nazi occupation, initially relocating to Romania, and then escaping via Greece to Alexandria where, in the final months of the Second World War, she worked as an administrator in the military hospital. There she met, and subsequently married, Lieutenant Colonel Albert Wheeler, an English officer who was recovering from a shrapnel wound to his shoulder.
Following the war, the couple move to London. Albert takes on an undefined role within the Foreign Office that requires him frequently to travel back to Europe, and particularly Berlin, to assist with the administration of the peace, and reconstruction of countries left even more devastated by the war than Britain. The novel opens in February 1947, the coldest month of what was the coldest recorded British winter, and the cold and the snow are a constant presence, almost becoming characters in their own right.
Frequently left alone while her husband travels around Europe, and looking for some constructive occupation with which to fill her time, Albertine answers and advert in a newsagent's window looking for someone a French speaker who can read to an elderly gentleman. She replies to the advert, and finds herself regularly visiting the enigmatic Sergei Alexandrovich Carr, a Russian émigré who had lived in London for the last thirty-five years. Albertine begins her role by reading from the original French edition of Madame Bovary. As her acquaintance with the Carr family develops, she learns that Sergei Alexandrovich's original surname was Karenin, and that he is, in fact, the son of Anna, whose story Tolstoy had appropriated for his famous novel. A further fascinating twist is thrown on this tale as the family has been invited to watch progress on the production of Alexander Korda's film version of the book, in which Sergei Carr's grandson is playing the part of Anna's son (i.e. Sergei himself). There are marvellous cameo appearances of Vivien Leigh and, later, Laurence Olivier.
Albertine is drawn increasingly into the Carr/Karenin household, and learns of Sergei's amazing life, ending up in Petrograd during the russian revolution, and his subsequent departure with his wife and young son, ending up in exile in West London during the austere post-war years.
Goldsworthy writes beautiful and delivers a sad but triumphant story that is part historical fiction and part paean to the enduring allure of great literature and the power of language. A very heady and addictive mix.
27. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben*
Peter Wohlleben manages commercial forests in his native Germany, which has given him the opportunity to amass a lifetime of observations of trees at all stages of their life cycles. His sole has also given him access to a huge body of research papers from all around the world.
The premise of the book is extremely simple, yet remarkable in its impact. Naturally occurring forests (as opposed to those generated principally for commercial yield) are highly connected, delicate networks, in which individual trees actively collaborate with each other. He cites examples such as African acacia. These are particularly vulnerable to giraffes, which will eat the higher placed leaves. The tree can sense this happening and responds by releasing a hormone which is borne by the wind to neighbouring acacia trees. These neighbouring acacia plants will then release a bitter tasting toxin into their leaves, which will deter the giraffes. Of course, evolution being the wonder that it is, giraffes have developed ways of countering this, starting with one acacia and then moving upwind, so that the warning hormone will be of no avail.
Wohlleben produces a vast array of equally amazing examples of trees’ proactive engagement with their surroundings, and the manner in which individual trees will interact with fellows, both within and beyond their own species, for the greater good of the wider forest.it is down to such constructive collaboration that some of the great ancient forests have survived.
Knowing precious little about the biology of trees I found this book fascinating, although it was not without its petty annoyances. Wohlleben is clearly very knowledgeable on his subject, but seemed unsure whether he was writing for an equally well-informed audience or for people like myself who are largely ignorant of the technicalities of botany. This led to an irritating mix of the scientific with the patronisingly chatty, which I found simply irritating. I would have preferred a straightforward, technical account, without attempts at happyish humour with talk of tree love happening every year, or other syrupy attempts to make the book humorous. I was certainly left wondering whether all the critics whose encomia were splattered all over the cover had read the same book as me: this was an enjoyable and informative volume, but fell rather short of being ‘a paradigm-smashing chronicle of joyous entanglement’, as Charles Foster asserts!
28. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.
This clever novel takes the form of a selection of manuscripts relating to the brutal murder of three members of the Mackenzie family in the Scottish Highlands during the late nineteenth century. One of these manuscripts is a confession by the man accused of the murders, which recounts his actions and offers a detailed family history. Other documents include witness statements from a number of other residents of the small settlement where the murders occurred.
Graeme Macrae Burnet masterfully varies the tones and styles of the different documents offered up for the reader’s consideration, with sufficient variation, and even occasionally apparent contradiction, for the needs of verisimilitude.
As an exercise in style, this works very cleverly, but that was as far as my interest went. I applaud the detail with which Burnet has given depth and realism to the characters. Sadly the story simply left me cold. I could not summon any empathy towards any of the characters, and reading this book sadly became little more than a chore. Having started, I was resolved to finish it, but the spark of engagement that I so eagerly sought never ultimately appeared.
29. Cast, In Order of Disappearance by Simon Brett.
I always find it interesting to revisit the first outings of characters who subsequently go on to feature in lengthy novel sequences. Ian Rankin’s celebrated detective, John Rebus, is very different in his early outings from the thrawn, beer and whisky drinking rock and roll fan of the later novels. In Hide and Seek, the second book in the series, he favours cultivated jazz music, and shows signs of developing into a wine snob. Rankin was careful, however, to ensure that Rebus aged in real time, and that process of ageing, and growing disgruntlement, was central to his considerable success and verisimilitude as a character.
Another character who went on to enjoy a long career of detection is Simon Brett’s marvellous creation, Charles Paris. As the series developed, Charles Paris also underwent a metamorphosis, although his development seemed to occur without any aging process. In the later books in the series, Charles is a down at heel actor who has managed to pass through his career without any notable success. Frequently finding himself called upon to don a disguise inspired by one of his former roles, he can only ever recall the painful reviews he has received. Another key aspect of the later books is their comic nature, which is wholly absent from this first book in the series, which was written as a straight crime novel with a vaguely theatrical background.
It may be different in style to its successors, but it shows the same high quality. The plot is well constructed, and Charles Paris is just as empathetic a character, even though he seems to have had far more past success on the boards.
It is set in a bleak 1973, during the run up to Christmas, with cold weather exacerbated by the oli crisis, with petrol in short supply and hideously expensive, while miners’ strike has taken hold, ensuring that television shuts down at 10.30 each evening, shops are left dark all night, and everyone struggles to keep warm. Against this grim background, impresario Marius Steen is found dead in his Berkshire home. All the early indications suggest that the aging tycoon has merely succumbed to a heart attack brought on by the strains of over-zealous business. Charles, however, has reason to suspect that all is not as it seems, and embarks upon his own investigation.
I have recently gone back to early novels in successful series, and found that if I had read the first book at the time of its initial publication, I would probably not have bothered with any subsequent volumes. That is not the case here. With his Charles Paris books, Simon Brett started well, and then got even better.
30. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Once again, I find myself seemingly in a minority of one, completely at odds with the tide of critical acclaim. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel seems to have met with almost unanimous plaudits, and found its way on to several prize shortlists.
Sadly, I found it too overwhelming, and was ground despite my earnest attempts to like it. That is not to say I found it wholly without merit. It is cleverly plotted, and hums with piquant observation. I did struggle, however, with the complete absence of any even vaguely empathetic characters. That in itself need not be a problem, and I am not one of those readers who has to ‘like’ the principal protagonists. It did, however, leave me feeling absolutely no interest in whatever might befall any of them, which in turn eroded much of my commitment to the novel. I also suspect that, like far too many novels these days, it was far longer than was necessary, and might have benefited from some rigorous editing.
31. The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch.
I have been struggling adequately to capture my thoughts about this novel. Iris Murdoch was one of the most prolific British literary novelists of the twentieth century, and at different times I have considered several of her novels to be among my favourites.
Her characters are invariably divorced from reality, existing in closed circles, often featuring intellectually self-sufficient (and, let’s be honest, self-satisfied) cliques. She may have begun her career as a writer in the 1950s, at the same time that the ‘Angry Young Men’ were making themselves heard, but hers are not kitchen sink dramas. Neither are they comparable to the later literary phenomenon of aga sagas.
She was, of course, a highly accomplished academic as well as a novelist, lecturing in philosophy in Oxford for many years. While she always maintained that her novels did not reflect her philosophical ideas, that claim is sometimes hard to accept, and many of her most successful novels positively ripple with philosophical byplay.
Sadly this novel does not ripple at all. Many of her characteristic features are here: isolated young women, raised is unconventional circumstances, a man (in this case an ordained priest) troubled by a sudden loss of faith in ideas that had previously formed his principal raison d’etre, and essentially inadequate or unfulfilled onlookers troubled by the main protagonist’s anguish. Here the central figure is Carel, a priest and father who, as the novel opens, has been relocated to a parish in East London. He lives with his daughter Muriel, who has meandered through life without significant challenge, and his niece Elizabeth, who suffers from an unspecified illness which has left her physically dependent upon the rest of the household. Carel’s household is looked after by Patricia (Pattie), who had been raised in an orphanage after her seemingly feckless mother had been compelled to give her up. We are, therefore, even from the opening pages, in a fairly typical Murdoch setting of rampant dysfunctionality.
In many of her other novels, Murdoch has fused such unpromising characters into a scintillating brew, igniting the reader’s attention and firing their empathy. Sadly, there was no such dazzling writer’s performance here, and at no stage did the seventh cavalry come over the brow of the hill to bring succour to the embattled reader. This novel was simply hard work, with no dazzling denouement or relief on offer at the end.
I was also struck by the change of attitudes. The novel is liberally strewn with casual racism and sexism of a sort that now seems especially repellent, especially as the characters making such ghastly remarks would probably have congratulated themselves on their liberal views. As the BBC often cautions when broadcasting a work set in less enlightened periods, the novel reflects attitudes that were prevalent at their time.
Iris Murdoch’s books are always interesting, and this contained some intriguing passages, especially those in which Carel discusses his crumbling faith, but it was not one of her better works.
I find Murdoch kind of hit-or-miss (when she's good, she is very, very good. When she is bad... ugh) and I think the reason some of the books don't work for me is summed up by your sentence Her characters are invariably divorced from reality, existing in closed circles, often featuring intellectually self-sufficient (and, let’s be honest, self-satisfied) cliques. Yes, exactly.
32. So Much Blood by Simon Brett.
One of the most intriguing aspects about reading a series of novels that features a continuing protagonist is the opportunity to see how the author allows the character to develop. Those changes are, of course, even more evident if one chances to re-read some of the novels in the sequence. This was the second of Simon Brett’s books featuring Charles Paris. Later on in the series Charles will metamorphose into an almost terminally unsuccessful bit part player, reduced to accepting the offer of almost any cameo role, regardless of whatever lack of dignity it might entail. In Murder In The Title, for example, he will play the part of a corpse discovered in a cupboard in the first scene of a traditional whodunit, although he will subsequently sink even further down the thespian pecking order to represent a man who is believed to have been abducted in a reconstruction for a programme of the Crimewatch ilk in A Reconstructed Corpse.
At the stage of So Much Blood, however, Charles is still portrayed as a fairly successful figure, recognised by several other characters from work he has done on television, and renowned for his work as a director. As the novel opens he is heading north to Edinburgh to join the Derby University Dramatic Society (which revels in the unfortunate acronym D.U.D.S.) which has secured several slots in the Festival Fringe. Owing to an unfortunate accident to one of the troupe there is now a vacancy which has been offered to Charles to perform his one man show, So Much Comic, So Much Blood, a selection from the works of Victorian poet Thomas Hood. To help enlighten the reader about Hood's works (and I have to admit that I knew very little beyond the frequently anthologised "I remember, I remember the house where I was born" and 'No-vember') Brett uses quotations from several of his poems as chapter headings.
After some brief scene-setting (Hey! I can pun with the best, or worst of them) we realise that D.U.D.S. is seething with tensions between over-inflated egos and artistic sensitivities. Consequently it really comes as no surprise when, during a publicity photo-shoot, Willy Mariello, who was to play Rizzio, lover of Mary, Queen of Scots, in a new play which was to be the centrepiece of D.U.D.S.'s contribution to the Festival, is stabbed. But was it an accident, or was it a carefully orchestrated murder? And if the latter, then orchestrated by whom? Charles worries over this and, as we all knew he must, he starts to delve more deeply.
This novel is engrossing, with affectionate (and accurate) descriptions of many favourite locations around Edinburgh, and captures the dynamism of the city during the Festival, neatly contrasting traditional theatrical ideals with the wealth of avant-gardism that has always been rife across the Fringe.
The relative success of Charles Paris is not the only difference from the later books in the sequence. This is still a straight crime story with a theatrical setting. Later instalments would move towards the comic (although Brett was always careful to ensure the integrity of his plots). Even without the humour that pervades the later books in the series, the theatrical insights are all there, and Charles is as self-effacing and vulnerable as ever.
Very enjoyable all round!
33. The Late Show by Michael Connelly.
Michael Connelly is probably best known for his gritty crime stories set in and around Los Angeles and featuring Hieronymous ‘Harry’ Bosch. He has, however, created several other leading protagonists such as former FBI special agent Terry McCaleb and the Lincoln Lawyer, Micky Haller, who have gone on to feature in their own series. Their paths often cross, adding a feel of verisimilitude.
His latest novel follows a new protagonist, Detective Renee Ballard who seems set to feature in a series of her own. Like Bosch and Terry McCaleb, she has already had run-ins with senior colleagues, as a consequence of which she has been consigned to the graveyard shift, on call to attend any incidents reported in the seedy and crime-ridden Hollywood Division that require a detective. As the novel opens she is attending a report of a credit card theft. While on her way back from this relatively trivial incident she becomes embroiled in a couple of far more serious crimes: the aftermath of a vicious abduction and rape of a transgender streetwalker and a mass-shooting in a local night club which leaves five dead.
As always, Connelly is all over the police procedural aspects, although he never allows the flow of the story to be bogged down. Ballard is an unconventional detective, having grown up in the world of competitive surfers and paddle-boarders, but she is also the consummate professional, following procedure and missing nothing. Her attention to detail leads her to make some uncomfortable discoveries, that lead her to disturbing conclusions about the mass murder in the club.
Ballard is a convincing character. Sufficiently unconventional to be interesting, although her background quirks are not allowed to intrude upon, or distract from, the progress of the plot. The story moves forward steadily, and the reader’s attention never strays.
A very accomplished and entertaining story.
34. Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.*
This was certainly an uncomfortable read, which was, I suppose, the point. As a middle-aged, middle class, white man who likes to think of himself as holding fairly liberal views, I probably fall right into the group at whom Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book is aimed.
Having heard a few people discussing this book, I think that part of me was hoping I could dismiss it as a collection of exaggerated grievances that struggled to make an overly emotive point. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ms Eddo-Lodge has written a clear, coherent and essentially incontrovertible account of the institutional and structural racism that abounds, in the most self-perpetuating, way throughout society.
It also serves to reinforce the fact that one of the greatest disappointments in life is not how nasty or unfeeling the bad people can be – that is, after all, what one would expect. Sadly, it is the inadvertent and occasional, even casual, but no less damaging, unpleasantness from the decent people that often comes across as most painful. The sad irony is that it is the self-satisfied liberals who constantly tell themselves that they aren’t racist so don’t have anything to worry about on that score who represent one of the biggest factors hindering the eradication of racism.
Eddo-Lodge’s book arose from a blog post that she wrote which drew thousands of comments, provoking an extensive, and often heated, online debate. As a consequence of the response to her blog, she has expanded the book, covering a lot of the history of the black and non-white community in Britain, and its frequent invisibility. For instance, hundred thousands of servicemen from the Caribbean and the rest of the Empire participated in Britain’s armed forces in the two world wars, but their huge contribution has scarcely ever been acknowledged.
The book is well-written, comprehensively researched and definitely worth reading, regardless of how uncomfortable its impact might be.
>Adding this one to the pile. I suspect I may fall into the target audience as well.
>57 Eyejaybee: I read it recently, and it made a big impression. The very first chapter reminded me that in the past we'd unquestioningly accepted so many racist stereotypes. Then there were the sobbing, guilty white liberals asking for consolation; the middle class feminists who see the racism directed against black women as an irrelevant issue; police violence; the lack of justice for black victims of crime.
A few months ago I saw The Book of Mormon, which represented Ugandans as naive fools, rotting away with AIDS. Obviously we're meant to take this representation as ironic, but I wonder. Perhaps ironic racism is just another brand of racism, the kind perpetrated by white liberals.
>59 pamelad: Anopther problem is that it is all too easy to fall into complacency, saying that things are better than they were a few years ago, and are continuing to improve, as if the fact that the extent of inequality is reducing is sufficient to justify not doing everything possible to eradicate it now.
35. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo.
I know that Scandinavian Noir has been one of the most popular genres of fiction over recent years, making writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell household names, even in such literarily insular and conservative, if not actually xenophobic, countries as Britain. I have, however, failed to understand why, having never managed to steel my literary resolve sufficiently to mange to finish any such book. I don’t know where the problem lies, and I genuinely don’t think I am guilty of my own uber-insularity or xenophobia, but I just find them unreadable.
Jo Nesbo is one of the leading proponents, and his novels have sold in their millions all around the world. I was, therefore, intrigued when I learned that he had been commissioned by the Hogarth Shakespeare programme to write a novel inspired by Macbeth, one of my favourites among the Bard’s works. Throwing caution to the wind, I took a chance and plunged straight into Nesbo’s reworking of that famous tale. Unfortunately, my verdict is that I chose poorly, and my prevailing view of Scandinavian Noir remains unchanged.
The story is updated to a decaying and crime-ridden 1970s city, where control of the police has passed to Duncan, a force for good struggling to overcome a long history of corruption and collaboration between those in power and the leading criminals. Among his committed deputies are Inspectors Duff and Macbeth. Duff is insanely ambitious, desperate to clamber as far up the greasy pole as he can, convinced of his entitlement to advancement and recognition. Macbeth, meanwhile, is more capable, yet also more modest in outlook, and not as transparently driven by the desire for career progression.
The scene would seem to be set for a fascinating novel, especially when Macbeth is chosen over Duff to replace the fallen Cawdor. Sadly, it was at that stage that I started to feel that the characters, and the tortuous plot shifts were just a little too contrived. Perhaps it works as a straightforward crime story, but for someone eager for a deft reworking of Shakespeare, it just doesn’t quite work.
36. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
This is a remarkable book, and all the more impressive for being author Gail Honerman’s first novel. It is so good, in fact, that although I have well over four thousand books since I started my list, Eleanor Oliphant has already staked a very strong claim to being one of my favourite fictional characters.
As the novel opens, Eleanor is working as a filing clerk for a small business in Glasgow. The work is poorly paid and repetitive, and makes little use of Eleanor’s considerable abilities, as manifested by her first class degree in Classics. Very precise in everything she does, Eleanor is not impressed with most of her colleagues, whom she considers loud, feckless and immature, and her disdainful asides about them are very trenchant, and extremely funny. We soon realise, though, that Eleanor’s experience of ‘ordinary’ life is limited, and that she tends to take her colleagues’ banter and throwaway comments very literally. There are also dark hints about a dreadful past, and there is certainly something unhealthy about her relationship with her mother, with whom she undergoes an excruciating telephone conversation every week. Eleanor’s life is, however, about to undergo an almost seismic shift as she has fallen in love.
This is simultaneously one of the funniest, yet also one of the saddest, books I have ever read. Gail Honeyman has a masterful observation of the minutiae of day to day life, and the comfort that can arise from extreme orderliness (I wouldn’t know, having never achieved it). It is, however, a novel suffused with hope, and one that resonates with the glory of life, even at the most mundane moments.
37. Angels Flight by Michael Connelly.
Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch is back, fighting crime in Los Angeles, and for once he finds himself almost a part of the establishment, although naturally, Bosch being Bosch, things prove to be far from straightforward.
The novel opens with Bosch being called in the middle of a Friday night in 1999 by the Deputy Chief of Police for Los Angeles, demanding that he gather together his team and proceed, as soon as possible, to Angels Flight, the landmark funicular railway in Bunker Hill, downtown LA. Having arrived, he learns that there has been a double murder, and that one of the victims is prominent lawyer. Howard Elias had made many enemies (mainly cops) during his successful career that revolved around suing LAPD officers and detectives over claims of police brutality, racism and corruption. His latest case, charging four LAPD detectives with the torture of an African American suspect being held on suspicion of murder, was scheduled to start during the following week.
All too conscious of the rioting and mayhem that had followed the clearing of the officers charged with beating up Rodney King, the Deputy Chief asks Bosch to lead the investigation, and to keep him advised of every new development. Feeling that he is being set up to fail in the glare of extreme public and media scrutiny, Bosch is reluctant to take the case on, but is given no room for manoeuvre by the Deputy Chief. As if to add insult to injury, aware that suspicion is bound to land on rogue police officers, the Deputy Chief orders Bosch to work alongside four detectives from Internal Affairs Division, including john Chastain, who had twice investigated disciplinary charges levelled against Bosch himself. As if these factors were not enough to leave Bosch feeling sorely tried, his marriage to former FBI agent Eleanor Wish is also facing difficulties, and she seems to have gone AWOL.
Michael Connelly’s talent lies in his tight plotting and creation of highly plausible characters. In this novel there is greater consideration of the political context against which the plot unfolds, but this never intrudes to the detriment of the books, there is lots of action, although this time there a fair amount of political intrigue is adept at keeping the plot moving, and he does just that here.
A gripping and entertaining thriller.
>63 Eyejaybee: My hubby watches all of Bosch's TV shows; I've seen a few, but have never read one of Connelly's books.
>64 tess_schoolmarm: I haven't seen any of the Bosch TV series yet but will definitely look out for them. There are elements of meta-fiction in some of Connelly's more recent books as Renee Ballard, the protagonist of his most recent book The Late Show, knows of Bosch, and has also seen the television series inspired by his more prominent cases.
38. A Comedian Dies by Simon Brett.
Charles Paris is a very engaging character. Now middle-aged – there are hints in this novel that he has just entered his fifties, although, paradoxically, in some of the later books the approaching milestone of fifty looms over him menacingly – he is more or less resigned to playing out the remainder of his acting career in minor roles.
As the novel opens we find Charles enjoying a temporary rapprochement with his long suffering wife Frances, and they spending a week in Hunstanton, on the Norfolk coast. Now long beyond its Victorian heyday, the allure of Hunstanton has faded, and finding the weather relentlessly miserable, Charles and Frances take refuge one afternoon in a ‘summer’ revue matinee, an old-fashioned variety show featuring a selection of musical acts, dancers, conjurers, jugglers and a couple of comedians. Even when this book was published, some forty years ago, the live variety show was already a fading and dated phenomenon, and the ensemble performing at Hunstanton was unlikely to reverse that downward trend. Charles is, however, intrigued to see that one of the comedians on the bill is Lennie Barber, who many years ago had enjoyed considerable success as the leading partner in Barber and Pole, one of the most popular comic double acts of the 1950s. One of the acts, Bill Peaky, is tipped for future stardom and has already secured a certain fanbase from occasional television appearances. However, his career is truncated in the most brutal fashion when he is electrocuted on stage as a consequence of a faulty connection on the stage sound system.
As usual, Charles Paris suspects that there is more to this than simple mischance, and becomes involved in one of his amateur investigations, which also affords him the opportunity to try out a selection of disguises, and to use some of the different voices and accents that he has employed throughout his startlingly unsuccessful acting career. This novel marked one of the first occasions in which Charles accompanies his disguises with reminiscences of the generally negative comments from critics. Like so many actors, he tends only to remember the particularly cruel comments that reviewers have offered up.
Also as usual, Charles end up suspecting virtually everyone in turn before eventually discovering the actual culprit. I realise that this might all sound rather bland and predictable, but Simon Brett writes in an appealing manner, and the insights into different aspects of the theatrical and televison worlds that his books afford are always enjoyable
39. Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris by Agnes Poirier.*
Put most simply, this is a marvellous book: informative, enlightening, well researched and also highly entertaining. (Less importantly, but worthy of mention, it also has the most delightful cover, featuring lovely line drawings of several of the leading characters in the intellectual and literary café-based society that thrived around Paris’s fabled left bank throughout the 1940s, both during and after the German occupation.)
Around this time last year, I took a punt on buying Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. That was a serendipitous purchase that pitched me into the lives of the Existentialists, a field of which I had been lamentably ignorant. It was the unbridled joy that I derived from that chance purchase that prompted me to buy Agnès Poirier’s book, which proved to be equally felicitous.
I was intrigued by the dates cited in the subtitle. Knowing that Paris had been occupied by the Germans for the few years of that decade I had assumed that there had been very little intellectual, cultural or political activity or progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, the intellectual class was depleted, with members either having fled to Britain or America, or signed up to fight the Germans. Jean Paul Sartre, for example, had been drafted into the French army in 1939 and had served as a meteorologist before being taken prisoner. He escaped and returned to Paris where he resumed his former role teaching at the Lycée Pasteur. Back in Paris, and reunited with his life partner Simone de Beauvoir, he found a large circle of his former associates still living and writing, with the help of some judiciously turned blind eyes from various benign individuals within the Nazi administration. Their activity flourished around the cafes of the Left bank of the River Seine. Food and money were in short supply, but somehow, they always managed to find the means to visit a café, where in addition to holding lengthy tobacco- and alcohol-fuelled debates, most of their writing was undertaken. That is not to say that their synthesis and expression of ideas was always safe. Many of their circle were arrested, or simply vanished, but it still proved a period of immense fruitfulness.
That literary, philosophical and political fertility exploded after the Liberation, augmented by returning French writers and thinkers such as Albert Camus, and the influx of foreign artists and writers, and in particular a host of Americans such as Irwin Shaw, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Alongside them were Arthur Koestler and Samuel Beckett who had been based in Paris throughout.
Such a concentration of intellectual and artistic talent could not fail to yield durables riches. Not only did this group spawn existentialism as a philosophical concept, but it would facilitate the development of a brand of socialism wholly opposed to communism, and, in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, yield one of the first and most enduring feminist manifestos.
The proximity of oppression and relentless distillation of ideas proved a heady aphrodisiac, and one of the most telling aspects of the book was the interlaced relationships between the leading protagonists. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre enjoyed a long term off and on relationship, though that in no way inhibited them from taking on other lovers in between times. Similarly, Arthur Koestler seemed intent on sleeping with as many of his female associates as possible, while still wishing to retain almost proprietorial rights over Mamaine Paget, his long-time partner and eventually (if only briefly) his wife. Meanwhile Saul Bellow was openly dismissive, almost disgusted, by the constant round of infidelity among his French writing colleagues, although that did not prevent him from embarking on his own affairs while his wife and son were kept out of the way. As Agnes Poirier points out, life on the Left bank cam to resemble Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde.
All this might lead one to expect a sombre and dense tome, but Ms Poirier deploys an elegant and engaging lightness of touch, and scatters the book with lovely pen portraits of these cultural giants.
I think this is the most enjoyable non-fiction book I have read for a very long time.
40. The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes.
Natalie Haynes is probably best known for her BBC Radio 4 programmes, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, in which she talks amusingly yet also very informatively about ancient Greek and Latin texts. An accomplished classics scholar herself, she has helped salvage them from the hinterland of public awareness, highlighting the richness of their observations of human relationships and their enduring relevance to modern life.
In this marvellous novel she revisits the Oedipus story, telling it from the perspective of Jocasta. (Do I need to offer a spoiler alert before suggesting that it doesn’t end happily? Ah, well, too late now …)
Indeed, in Natalie Haynes’s version, Oedipus himself is an almost peripheral character, not appearing until more than half way through at the time of the death of Laius, Jocasta’s husband and King of Thebes, and thereafter playing a relatively minor role. This is a reversal of the emphasis in the original, in which Jocasta has only 120 lines (although they do include all the prescient understanding of the enormity of the gradually unfolding catastrophe). Haynes does, however, retain the essential smugness that Oedipus exudes in Sophocles’s original. Oedipus is very clever, and revels in his superiority, but that cleverness is outdone by his capacity for denial, despite the growing weight of evidence suggesting that all is not well.
Jocasta’s story is interwoven of an account of the life and trials of Ismene, younger sister of Polynices and Eteocles (who passed alternate years as King of Thebes after Oedipus and Jocasta) and Antigone. At the start of the story, Ismene is attacked within the palace grounds by an unidentified assailant, and we and she are left beguiled as to what might be behind the assault.
Haynes has an engaging and clear prose style, and the story moves ahead briskly. She also offers pragmatic and entirely plausible explanations for various aspects of the story that might trouble modern readers. For example, she offers an entirely new interpretation of the Sphinx that had troubled the close environs of Thebes for so long. The fateful encounter between Oedipus and King Laius is also handled in a pragmatic and credible manner.
Haynes’s enthusiasm for the classics is infectious, and this entertaining reinterpretation of a story broadly familiar to all of us deserves great success in its own right.
>40 Eyejaybee: I used Antigone in my Western Civ class. This sounds right up my ally! Off to Amazon.......
>69 tess_schoolmarm: you might also find Natalie Haynes’s other novel, The Amber Fury, interesting. It is set in a pupil referral unit in Glasgow, and revolves around a new teacher assigned to help teach s selection of bright but very difficult pupils who have been excluded from their conventischools as a consequence of behavioural problems. After struggling initially to make much progress, she hits upon the use of Greek drama to try to engage with them, and uses Antigone.
I thought that it was marvellous.
Left Bank, Children of Jocasta, and Amber Fury all sound great, thanks for the reviews mate !
41. Insidious Intent by Val McDermid.
I find myself in two minds about this novel. I thought that the development of the plot was very well done, as one would expect from Val McDermid, although the resolution seemed very hurried. Indeed, I almost wondered whether McDermid simply became bored, or found herself running up against a publishing deadline and had to bring the novel to an earlier close than she had intended.
In accordance with Val McDermid’s plea inserted at the close of the book, I won’t say much about the ending, beyond saying that it did, as she anticipated, come as a surprise, although I found it most unsatisfactory and at odds with the rest of the book. It did, however, support my suspicion that the book was finished more quickly than had initially been planned.
The story does develop well. Having suffered considerable personal tragedy and upheaval in the previous novel in the series (which I must have missed as there was a lot of back story with which I was unfamiliar), Carol Jordan is now running ReMIT, a newly-formed Regional Major Incident Team. Despite her considerable success in the past, she finds herself at odds with many of the local police chiefs, all of whom find themselves yielding a portion of their budgets to support her team. As a consequence, when the ReMIT is called to take on a case, there is even greater pressure than usual for an early result. Unfortunately, the murderer is more careful, and more cynically motivated, than any that Carol and her team have previously encountered, and early progress in not forthcoming.
I found that the first three quarters of the book worked very well. McDermid always excels at her planning, and has that great knack of conjuring empathy for her characters. Even the insight into the murderer’s planning seems quite rational (within the context of his twisted, solipsistic and craven mentality). Having established how carefully he plans, and the elaborate steps he takes to avoid leaving clues, McDermid seems to lose her normally tight reins on the story, and the police make a sudden breakthrough, after which everything seems to fall into place with great simplicity.
I did still enjoy the book, despite my doubts over the ending, but I have come to have such immensely high expectations of Val McDermid that this book did leave me a bit disappointed.
42. A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly.
Among the aspects that has set Michael Connelly’s series of novels featuring jaded detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch in a class of its own have been the plausibility of the characters and plots, and the verisimilitude of police procedure. Connelly clearly knows his material well and has conducted exhaustive research.
He also maintains a clear audit trail and timeline, which enables him to refer back to previous stories, and also to interlace different characters between the successive books. For instance, former FBI Special Agent Terry McCaleb, who was the lead protagonist of Blood Work and has his own sequence of books, plays a prominent part in this novel, as does reporter Jack McEvoy, who played a pivotal role in The Poet, which had previously constituted a standalone novel.
As the novel opens, Bosch is preparing to play a significant role in the trial of a film producer accused of the rape and murder of two actresses. The producer is a particularly odious character, and has hired a top-notch defence attorney who deftly counters each new facet of the prosecution case. Meanwhile, Sherriff’s Officer Jaye Winston calls on Terry McCaleb, seeking his advice on an unsolved murder that she has been investigating that displays the hallmarks of an unusual killing. McCaleb is initially reluctant to participate, knowing that his wife will object. He is, however, too deeply ingrained an investigator to be able to resist, and succumbs to temptation. His review of the papers leads him to some unexpected conclusions, all of which seem to suggest that Harry Bosch, with whom McCaleb once worked a case deep in the past might be involved.
Connelly manages the two strands of the story very adeptly, never compromising the plausibility or integrity of the plot. He also captures the relationships between McCaleb and Winston, and between Bosch and McCaleb very believably.
43. Books Do Furnish a Room by Anthony Powell
This is the tenth volume of Powell's autobiographical epic, "A Dance to the Music of Time", and sees his fictional avatar Nick Jenkins return once more to civilian life after his service in the Second World War, as chronicled in The Valley of Bones, The Soldier’s Art and The Military Philosophers. However, before resuming his former place in London's literary world, he returns to academia, staying in his old Oxford college while researching the life of Robert Burton, and in particular his classic renaissance volume, The Anatomy of Melancholy. There is a certain poignancy about this choice of subject for Nick Jenkins: while A Dance to the Music of Time has frequently been praised for its humour and piquant observations of life, beneath the jolly carapace the predominant theme is one of cyclical melancholia.
His return to a post-war Oxford offers an opportunity for another encounter with Sillery, one of the principal influences during Jenkins’s time as an undergraduate. Still steeped in his intricate webs of political intrigue and relentless snobbery, underpinned by his particularly delicious form of personal malice, Sillery has been ennobled by the new, post-war Labour administration, and seems agog for any snippets of gossip or speculation about life in London, although his energies are principally directed to editing his journals for publication.
Jenkins’s spell in Oxford is cut short by news of the sudden death of his brother in law, the socialist peer Lord Warminster (known to friends and family as Erridge). Erridge’s funeral is one of Powell’s set piece masterpieces, with the Tolland family demonstrating all of their own respective foibles while also having to contend with the unexpected appearance of Kenneth Widmerpool (now an ambitious Labour MP), and his wife, along with J G Quiggin and Gypsy Jones, among others, who had lately been involved with Erridge and, in particular, his plans to fund the launch of a new, left-leaning politico-literary magazine called ‘Fission’
Returned to civilian life and back from his brief hiatus in Oxford, Jenkins now finds himself "doing the books" for ‘Fission’ while also struggling to complete his exegesis of Burton, which will eventually be published under the title 'Borage and Hellebore'. Working for Fission brings Jenkins back into regular contact with J G Quiggin who has now relinquished his own aspirations as an author and taken to publishing. The magazine is edited by Lindsey Bagshaw, known to all his acquaintances as 'Books Do Furnish a Room' Bagshaw, or simply 'Books'. Bagshaw is a veteran journalist and lifelong student of the numerous strains of socialism.
Through Bagshaw, Jenkins also makes the acquaintance X Trapnel, a highly accomplished yet dangerously volatile writer who strides around the icy capital in an old RAF greatcoat while brandishing a swordstick.
Jenkins was surprised to find that Kenneth Widmerpool, recently appointed as Principal Private Secretary to a member of the Cabinet, was involved with the magazine as one of its financial backers and a regular columnist. In this latter role he churns out wordy pieces espousing the merits of increased cultural and trade links with the Soviet bloc countries. After an inauspicious first encounter with her, Trapnel becomes utterly enchanted by Pamela, Widmerpool's unconventional wife. Pamela has hitherto been a fairly ephemeral character but takes a more prominent role in this volume, leaving her husband to set up home with Trapnel in the dim hinterland of Kilburn. Needless to say, life with Pamela is far from tranquil, which drags Trapnel down, and compromises his health (he has never been physically robust) and his writing. The portrayal of Trapnel is based upon the equally melancholic life of Julian Maclaren-Ross, who promised so much but died regrettably young without ever fulfilling his potential.
As Jenkins becomes more deeply immersed in Burton's work he sees ever more characteristics of different forms of melancholia among those people with whom he works, and Trapnel in particular. Trapnel does display a certain style, but is ill-equipped for the vicissitudes of post-war London, and the Dickensian winter that shows no sign or thawing. Often very funny this novel is also very closely observed and offers pellucid insight into the difficulties endured by the professional writer.
44. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
I don’t propose to say much about this book other than I did not like it at all.
It was selected as this month’s subject for the Justice League Book Club, among my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice. Unusually, however, the member nominating it had not read it herself, but had heard someone talking about it and thought it sounded interesting.
I think that the basic idea behind the book may have seemed very clever when it was originally published back in 1966, but the style of writing irritated me, and I felt that the book has not aged well.
I think that this is definitely the poorest book that I had read this year, and I resent having to have squandered time over it.
45. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi.
This was an intriguing and imaginative book, based around a very clever central premise, although it never quite managed to deliver on all its potential.
Amidst the mayhem of the post-war period in Baghdad, following the demise of Saddam Hussein and the initial attempts by the invading forces to establish a sustainable administration, Hadi is roaming the streets, finding parts of bodies. He takes these home where he stitches them together, compiling a composite corpse. He recognises that this is bizarre, even grotesque, behaviour, but sees his work as a form of commentary or protest on the butchery that surrounds him. As the book opens, he has just ‘retrieved’ a nose which renders his work complete.
Shortly afterwards, while Hadi is away celebrating with friends, Baghdad is subjected to an unusually fierce storm. When Hadi returns home, he finds that the composite corpse has gone. Meanwhile, a series of strange, and increasingly horrific murders, occur across the city.
While the idea is diverting, I found the pace of the book, and the laboured characterisation, very frustrating. As always, of course, with works that I have read in translation, I was left wondering whether the deficiencies were down to the writer’s original work, or a dislocation of tone arising from the translator’s spin. I am glad to have read it, and wouldn’t have done so if it had not been for the hype surrounding the book’s nomination for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, but I suspect that that nomination might owe more to motives of political correctness than to assessment of genuine literary merit.
46. The History of Bees by Maja Lunde.
Over the last few years we have all become more conscious of the crucial part played by the bee in our ecosystems, and the dependency of fruit farming upon their role as natural pollinators. Our fascination for the bee extends, however, far beyond their providential impact on our agriculture. Like ants, the bee displays an intricate but clearly defined social hierarchy, with each individual fulfilling their prescribed role for the benefit of the wider bee society.
Maja Lunde’s novel builds upon all these roles and aspects of the bee’s existence, and our attempts to harness and replicate them. The novel alternates between three separate narratives. In nineteenth century England, having trained as a scientist before commencing trade as a seller of seeds, William has sunk into depression and lethargy, oppressed by his struggles to support his wife, son and seven daughters. As the novel opens, William is starting to recover, and is inspired to design a new sort of bee hive that he believes will lead to improved honey yields. His happiness at his success is diminished by the contemplation of his son, who has succumbed to a form of melancholia, although the reasons behind this remain obscure to William.
In the second narrative, set in Ohio in 2007, George is struggling to keep his farm operating as a profitmaking concern. His collection of one hundred and eighty hives are spread around his land, and he has lately come to depend upon the income they generate to subsidise his other operations. As his narrative starts, his son Tom has returned home from college for a week, and George realises that the two of them are finding it increasingly to understand or communicate with each other.
The third strand of the story is set in China in 2098 where Tao and her husband work on a huge collective farm. Since the disappearance of the bees from their region, Tao, along with hundreds of colleagues, are employed to climb fruit trees in spring and to lightly dust their blossom with grains of recovered pollen. Tao is ambitious for her young son, and spends most of her free time trying to teach him arithmetic and spelling, with a view to helping him secure admission to one of the advanced schools, so that he might avoid the life of drudgery to which she has been condemned. Unfortunately he is not responsive to her urgent efforts. Things go from bad to worse when he suffers an accident and becomes ill. The authorities remove him to a special hospital hundreds of miles away in Beijing. Tao pledges to search for him, and finds herself being consumed in a world of red tape and maladministration.
Lunde drip feeds advances in each story, and allows the characters to develop solid and plausible personalities. It is clear that there will be a connection between the three interlaced narratives, but she manages the revelation very deftly. It was, however, like so many novels these days, unnecessarily protracted. While I can understand the arguments in favour of allowing a story, or in this case three stories, to mature gracefully, I felt that this book was allowed to move forward too haltingly, as if Ms Lunde were anxious to meet an arbitrary minimum word tally.
On an unrelated note, the hardback edition is sumptuously presented, featuring a striking dust jacket over a beautifully black and gold hard cover.
47. Body and Soul by John Harvey.
John Harvey will be eighty later this year and has said that henceforth he will confine his literary output to short stories, and will not write any more novels. An understandable decision, perhaps, but it is a shame as this latest (last?) one shows that he is still at the top of his game.
Harvey is best known, of course, for the marvellous series of crime novels set in and around Nottingham and featuring the melancholic cat- and jazz-loving Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, brought to life on the small screen by Tom Wilkinson. He has, however, written a number of other novels, including a shorter series featuring Frank Elder who, after a long and uneventful career as a sergeant in London, had moved to Nottingham on promotion to Inspector, although the novels recount his exploits after taking early retirement and fleeing the job and a failed marriage and relocating in Cornwall.
Like Resnick, Elder is no stranger to melancholy and self-doubt, both characteristics being exacerbated by the events related in Ash and Bone, in which his daughter Katherine (Kate) is abducted and then raped. Kate also features at the heart of this new novel. Several years on from the awful incidents referred to above, she is now living in a flat share in London, living largely from hand to mouth and working as an artist’s model. The artist, who is on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the biggest names in his field, seems obsessed by Kate, and they drift into an uncomfortable relationship which gradually becomes unwholesome, if not exactly abusive. Having had enough, Kate ends the relationship but is ill suited to cope with the consequent emotional upheaval.
Having been all but estranged from Kate (through her choice rather than his), Frank welcomes the opportunity to come back into her life when she comes to visit him in Cornwall, although the reunion is short-lived. After the briefest of visits, she returns suddenly to London. Her emotional fragility is then further challenged when the artist is found brutally murdered in his studio, and she is, unavoidably, cast as one of the prime suspects. Franks comes back to offer whatever support he can, and seems to be making headway, bringing Kate back to a degree of emotional stability.
At this point, however, following a bizarre accident, the man who had abducted and abused her all those years ago escapes from prison.
Harvey brings all these threads together with great ease, making it all flow so much more coherently than my synopsis above. He is a past master at the police procedural, and knows how to convey sharp, plausible dialogue, and to develop tight, concise plots. This is certainly a strong note on which to bow out, although I hope he might let himself be persuaded to return to his keyboard again very soon.
48. Black Roses by Jane Thynne.
This atmospheric novel is set in Berlin in 1933, following the rise to power of Hitler’s Nazi Party. Clara Vine, an English actress from a prominent British family, flees from conventional torpor at home to take up a vague offer of a part in a film being made in Berlin. When she arrives at the studio, she finds that the producer appears to have disappeared without trace. This comes as a severe blow to Clara, who does not know how she might survive, and fears that she might have to face the ignominy of an early return home and surrender to the social life being mapped out for her back in England. By chance, however, she meets Helga, a feisty German actress who has been living on her wits for years, and who introduces Clara to other figures within the burgeoning German film industry.
Clara is completely bilingual, having had a German mother, and soon finds herself at home in the German studios, although she is concerned to find that most aspects of the film industry have already been permeated by senior Nazis. Helga is happy to make herself amenable to these men, recognising that that might be the only way in which she, as an actress of limited histrionic talent, might progress. Clara is more reluctant, until a chance encounter with Leo Quinn, who works in the visa section of the British Embassy, as cover for his real role as Deputy Head of Station for the Secret Service. Leo convinces Clara of the valuable work that she might undertake while posing as an actress and allowing herself to become close to the various Nazi officials who abound around the studio.
The combination of her acting skills and good looks lead to her being chosen to work for Magda Goebbells, wife of the Nazi propaganda chief, who is leading an initiative to promote German fashion. This allows her a golden opportunity to mix with prominent figures in Hitler’s newly empowered regime, although she is left to make some devastating and stretching choices.
The story is very well crafted, and excellently written. Ms Thynne admirably captures the atmosphere of the time, and Clara Vine and Leo Quinn come across as immensely plausible characters (far more so than my hasty synopsis above might suggest). There is a wide range of characters, all complementing each other, and the cameo appearances by Hitler and several of his senior supporters are compelling and chilling. All in all, a successful blend of adventure, espionage, suspense and romance, that captures the reader’s attention from the opening paragraph, and doesn’t relax its grip at all.
49. Jaws by Peter Benchley.
This was probably the first ‘grown up’ book that I read, back in the second year of grammar school (what I suppose we would now call Year 8). Of course, we are all familiar with the film (which I think I had probably seen before reading the book), which was one of Stephen Spielberg’s early blockbuster successes.
After a gap of more than forty years, the novel seems to have held up fairly well. It is definitely a plot-driven story: Benchley doesn’t loiter to flesh out his characters in any depth, and even Police Chief Brody (the Roy Scheider character) remains fairly two dimensional. Indeed, Peter Benchley spends almost as long on the personality of the shark (Oops … I have just thought … Should I have given a spoiler alert before mentioning the shark? Ah, well, too late now!) as on any of the other characters. Don’t, however, view that as necessarily a bad thing. This is a thriller, and the author unfolds his story rapidly, without unnecessary lets or hindrances. In the same way that ice cubes, straws and fancy adornments might simply represent unwelcome and peripheral impediments to an alcoholic seeking urgently to down a drink and bask in the relief of a decent shot, there are some novels that do need to rely on gushing pen portraits of lovingly created protagonists.
There is, however, an interesting sub-plot that was less prominent in the film. Spielberg’s film certainly acknowledged the fact that Amity, the island-based community being terrorised by the shark, was dependent upon the summer holiday trade from wealthy New Yorkers. It did not delve into this financial morass as deeply as the book, though, where the Mayor’s insistence upon opening the beaches to lure the holiday trade has more sinister undertones founded on organised crime.
This is a solid, well thought out story that has stood the test of time. The edition I read was also beautifully produced as part of the ’70 Years of Pan’ series.
I am sorry if I spoiled it for anyone by mentioning the shark.
>49 Eyejaybee: Loved the movie; should get around to reading the book!
50. City of Bones by Michael Connelly.
Michael Connelly’s series of novels featuring Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch seems to go from strength to strength, and City of Bones is a powerful addition to the canon. There are plenty of trademark characteristics from a Bosch novel, such as Bosch clashing with the upper echelons of the police hierarchy and a run in with Internal Affairs, but there is nothing formulaic about these novels.
Connelly has a business-like prose style. There are no distractions, and no poetic flights of fancy. Instead he lets the story unfold in a straightforward way. All too often that approach goes hand in hand with two dimensional characters who lack any empathy or plausibility. Connelly never falls into that trap. His characters are always well defined with clear and consistent personalities. He also benefits from retaining a central core of characters from one novel to the next, and the consistency of the interactions between them convey a deeper verisimilitude.
This novel opens on New Year’s Day, with Bosch working alone and receiving a call to a property in the Laurel Canyon area of LA, where a resident’s dog has uncovered what appears to be an old but clearly human bone. Further investigation leads to the (literal) uncovering of the skeleton of a young boy hat had apparently been buried for several years. The age of the corpse and the lack of ready identification of the victim are not the only obstacles that Bosch has to overcome. There are more than enough current homicides to keep the LAPD busy, and Bosch knows that if he can’t make some headway quickly, the boy’s death will become just another cold case, with no hope of resolution.
51. Disclaimer by Rene Knight.
I am generally wary of thrillers that emerge from nowhere with terrific media hype, but my suspicions were not justified at all in the case of this book.
The book takes the form of two interspersed narratives: one written by Catherine Ravenscroft, a prize-winning producer of investigative journalism documentaries; with the other by Stephen Brigstocke, a widower and retired teacher. The book opens with Catherine in a state of shock, reeling after having started reading a book that she found on the bedside table in her new flat. Just a few pages in to it, she realises that the story it tells is her own, and recounts unspecified events that she has never talked about to anyone, including her husband and twenty-five year old son. She does some basic checks and establishes that the book has been privately published under a pseudonym, and is initially stumped in her desire to discover more about it. Stephen’s account, meanwhile, revolves initially around the shock he encountered after having gone through his late wife’s things and coming across a packet of old photographs of her which suggest that she had been unfaithful. He also finds her manuscript of a story which alarms him 9aalso for unspecified reasons) and inspires a deep dislike of, and wish to harm, Catherine Ravenscroft.
As the story unfolds, Catherine starts to use her experience as an investigator, and the resources available to her as a member of a film production company to try to discover who wrote the book, while Stephen develops his plans to cause her further distress. The pair end up engaged in distant stalking of each other, and the impact of their conflict draws other people in.
Ms Knight maintains the tension between the two narratives very carefully, not least because the reader is left wondering what the specific cause for the enmity is. This is very effectively and powerfully written, and all the more impressive given that it is her first novel.
52. All Out War by Tim Shipman.*
It is now almost two years since the referendum on whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union. The resultant decision to leave has proved to be the single most significant political event in Britain throughout most of our lifetime’s, and its reverberations are still being felt.
From the outside it might seem simply to have been a fairly straightforward binary option, with followers of either side campaigning against adherents of the other. Oh, if only it had been that straightforward! Tim Shipman’s comprehensive, and admirably non-partisan, account shows how seriously divided both sides, but particularly those advocating that Britain should leave, really were.
Indeed, for the various Brexiteers, simple discussions about the relative merits of staying or leaving were the easy part. Their own side was bitterly riven apart, with four or five different organisations fighting tooth and nail to secure formal designation as the official campaign for leaving. This was not just a matter of ideological purity, although Shipman has great fun involving the bitter schism between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea from The Life of Brian. Securing the formal designation brought with it access to substantial public funding, and entitlement to subsidised campaign broadcasts on terrestrial television. It also carried significant implications for the leading individual campaigners, and any positions that they might hope to occupy following a successful outcome.
Things were slightly easier for those advocating that Britain should remain in the EU, although it proved far from plain sailing. Although individual members of the government were given autonomy to campaign for whichever side they preferred, staying in the EU remained official government policy. Personal gripes still manifested themselves during the remain campaign, even though there was only one central organising body. Perhaps the Remainers simply weren’t hungry enough. Campaigning to maintain a status quo is always likely to be less energising that pushing for significant change, and it seems as if the Brexiteers simply wanted their outcome more.
Shipman has drawn on a vast selection of sources, including an impressive journalistic archive and his own (often unattributed) conversations with most of the leading participants. Even though we all know the outcome, the book is gripping throughout, presented almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. At times hilarious, there are also episodes that provoke fury at the utter incompetence of leading figures on both sides of the issue, who frequently displayed emotional illiteracy or an utter incapacity for empathy.
The bitterness and personal enmity (not to mention the Shakespearean similarities) continued after the referendum, as manifested in the bizarre machinations within the struggle to secure the Conservative leadership. Machiavelli, Iago and Bosola would have been in their element within that farrago of pledges and sleights of hand, as one by one the challengers to Theresa May fell by the wayside.
The ‘what if’ counterfactual novel has become very popular over recent years, with works such as Robert Harris’s Fatherland or the late Philip Roth’s the Plot Against America exploring alternative historical outcomes. I feel sure that within a few years we will start seeing novels considering alternative outcomes of the Brexit.
Tim Shipman’s book is both informative and entertaining, proving once again how much stranger fact can be than fiction.
53. The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes.*
A few years ago, while I was working in the Department for Education, I was talking to a colleague about our respective experiences at school. To sustained hoots of derision from my colleague, I announced that I believed that the most valuable subject I had studied throughout my whole school career was Latin. I had not been aware that Michael Gove, then our Secretary of State and known (and frequently vilified by elements of the press and some representatives of the teaching profession) for his traditionalist view on the subject of education, was standing directly behind me. He immediately cut in to our conversation, apologised for having inadvertently and unavoidably eavesdropped, and said that he had been delighted with what he had heard. He then invited me to a roundtable meeting he was having with some leading stakeholders in the field of education later that week. The Secretary of State and I proved to be in a minority of two at that gathering, and his aspirations to revive the teaching of Classics in English schools never came to fruition.
I don’t know where Natalie Haynes stands within the political spectrum, but she is an ardent, compelling and eloquent advocate from the Classics. She is, of course, now well known for Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, her series of talks broadcast of BBC Radio 4 in which she combines observational stand-up comedy with an erudite assessment of classical literature. She has also written a couple of excellent novels that are heavily influenced by the Classics: The Amber Fury, which is reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Children of Jocasta, a chilling and plausible reinterpretation of the story of Oedipus.
The Ancient Guide to Modern Life is non-fiction, and offers an enthralling analysis of classical politics, philosophy and literature, in which she capably demonstrates that some of the strong literary themes really are immortal. She is particularly entertaining when discussing Juvenal and his satires – I think that, having established herself as a successful stand-up entertainer, she recognises him as a fellow acute observer of life, although she avoids his trenchant misanthropy. Clearly highly knowledgeable about the field, she writes with great clarity and an infectious enthusiasm.
Like Natalie Haynes, I was fortunate enough to have some charismatic and engaging Classics teachers at school, and my greatest regret now is that I only studied Ancient Greek for one year. Given that I was to become a medievalist, that seems more short sighted than ever, and to have had the opportunity to study it, and then spurn it after having done the hard, introductory bit, now strikes me as unforgiveable foolish. Of course, I choose not to emphasise that aspect of my experience to Mr Gove.
You name dropper, Ian;).
Seriously, it sounds like an interesting book.
54. Void Moon by Michael Connelly.
One of my favourite films is Charley Varrick, directed in 1973 by Don Siegel and starring Walter Matthau, in which the title character and three associates mount a raid on a bank in a small New Mexico town. They think that they have planned the escapade well, down to every last detail, and expect to net around $20,000. Unfortunately, the raid does not go smoothly, and two of the gang, including Charley Varrick’s wife, are killed. Charley and the final member of the gang, the hapless Harmon, manage to escape and hole up in a trailer park a few miles away. When they finally get around to counting the swag, they find that they have actually got away with over $750,000. They are even more perplexed when the bulletins on local television put the sum stolen at around $18,000. Harmon is overjoyed but Charley is immediately concerned, suspecting that they have inadvertently stumbled upon a Mafia laundering operation. This proves to be the case, and the paid find themselves hunted down by a contract killer, sent not just to recover the money but also to lay down a lesson to deter anyone else from following suit in the future.
This novel has many similarities. Cassie Black is working for a Porsche dealership in LA, having been released from prison on parole. She had been inside for her part in a series of audacious burglaries in Las Vegas in which she and her late partner Max had identified successful high stakes gamblers at the large casinos and then broken into their hotel rooms to steal their winnings. Now she is out and trying to go straight, but still dreaming of one last big job that could set her up for life. Max’s half-brother Leo contacts her, thinking that he may have just such a job for her. Cassie havers but takes the job on, only to find herself in the same position as Charley Varrick, having netted a huge amount more than anticipated, and worrying to whom it really belongs.
This was the first of Michael Connelly’s books to feature a female protagonist and also the first in which the central character is a criminal rather than working for law enforcement. It is written with his customary tautness – just as gripping as ever, with a fine attention to detail that stops short of being intrusive or tedious. Cassie Black is an engaging and immensely plausible character. Like all of Connelly’s characters, she has her flaws, too, which simply lends to the credibility of the story.
Very entertaining, and immediately gripping.
>90 Eyejaybee: This one went straight onto the wishlist - sounds wonderful.
55. The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe*
At the risk of succumbing to cliché, I am not sure whether to laugh or cry … or scream in rage and frustration … or (as a career civil servant) simply hang my head in shame for the failings of my caste.
Professor Anthony King and Sir Ivor Crewe have compiled a highly entertaining anthology of governmental incompetence drawn from the three decades from Margaret Thatcher's arrival in Downing Street to the general election in May 2010 that brought down the curtain on the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They are also exemplary in their even-handedness, and there is no hint of a partisan stance in their exposition of the array of blunders that they include in their selection. There is no hint from reading their accounts where their own political allegiances lie.
They are also gracious enough to concede that the cast of Ministers and Prime Ministers, whom they ruthlessly (and rightly) pillory both for their short-sightedness and their oblivion to precedent or advice, did also achieve considerable and lasting successes during their respective times in office. I draw some scant relief from the fact that they generally place the blame squarely on the shoulders of ministers' failure to undertake sufficient reviews during the initial formulation of policy. Officials (i.e. civil servants) are clearly not entirely blameless, but they are assigned less of the responsibility than their ministerial overlords. 'Phew! That was close!
The opening section is devoted to a definition of what King and Crewe consider constitutes a blunder, and this is then followed with a dispassionate explanation of how ten of the greatest blunders of that period came to pass. The third section explores the various causes of these astounding blunders, while the final section considers how they might have been avoided.
The descriptions of the blunders are simultaneously amusing and enraging. Some of the woeful tales seem desperately reminiscent of some of the more outlandish episodes of 'Yes Minister', and have the reader sniggering along until he suddenly remembers that, as a beleaguered taxpayer, he or she had been paying for it.
The blunders under review are varied in their scope but frighteningly similar in their woeful waste of public money that might, if wiser counsels had prevailed, have been utilised to far greater benefit. It is interesting to see how completely several of these scandals had faded from memory, even though they had been the subject of huge public outrage at the time. Some of them remain more prominently in the memory than others (the poll tax fiasco during the early 1900s being a prime example), though the debacle of the Rural Payments Agency, presided over with imperious incompetence by Margaret Beckett had slipped my mind.
Very few Whitehall departments escape unscathed, and the Department for Education and Employment (forerunner of my own former employer, the Department for Education) was guilty of one of the more ludicrous embarrassments - the ill-fated attempt to introduce individual learning accounts at the start of the current millennium. Indeed, while that woeful escapade had occurred before I joined the department Phew, again – nothing to do with me, guvnor!, I remember the coverage of our Permanent Secretary, David (later Sir David) Normington, squirming before the steely gaze of the Public Accounts Committee as the found himself unable to explain why some of the more ridiculous decisions had been taken. To be fair to Sir David, like me, he had only joined the department after the decision had been taken to terminate the programme and put it out of everyone’s misery. A link to the footage of Normington’s appearance before the PAC was placed on the front page of the finance guidance section of the department’s intranet as a reminder of why proper modelling, detailed research and rigorous risk assessment were required when making any commitments with public money. Perhaps they should have had a desktop icon of a stable door swinging open.
The accounts of the various debacles are detailed without being at all inaccessible. I was left wishing that Ministers had been given a similar volume as a handbook of what might, so easily, go astray with even the best-intended policies.
#94 - yes it's a very good analysis, that generally avoids cheap populism. I thought the analysis of the dangers of groupthink and mission creep, and unclear objectives and lines of accountability were very pertinent.
56. Lost Light by Michael Connelly.
This novel marks a new departure in the Hieronymus Bosch canon. For a start, it is the first of the Bosch books to be recounted in the first person, rather than by an omniscient narrator, which works very effectively. More significantly, at the end of the previous book in the series, City of Bones, a disconsolate Harry had handed in his badge and gun, and decided to ‘pull the pin’ and retire, having already racked up sufficient years to qualify for the maximum pension. Of course, this is a regular occurrence with maverick, misfit detectives such as Harry Bosch, Harry Callaghan and John Rebus, so I had assumed that it would simply be a hollow threat and that the next novel would find Detective Bosch still in harness and causing as much disciplinary angst to his senior officers as ever.
Not so. The novel opens with Harry having been retired for eight months, and starting to find time hanging on his hands. The threat of boredom had driven him to look over some of his older and unresolved cases, and in particular to the murder four years previously of a young woman working as a production assistant for a film company. She had been murdered outside her home, and despite the best efforts of Bosch and his team, no progress had been made towards identifying the perpetrator. A few days after her murder, the film company that she worked for had been the scene of an audacious crime when two million dollars had been stolen from the set, despite elaborate security measures.
Michael Connelly has always been very strong on continuity, which augments the strong verisimilitude of his books. Even those stories which don’t directly feature Harry Bosch will often refer tangentially to incidents in which he has been involved.
That trait is reversed here, with the film for which the money was required being clearly based upon the exploits of Cassie Black in the standalone novel, Void Moon.
Harry pursues his investigations revisiting the murder of the production assistant and the subsequent robbery, but before he has made any significant progress he is called by Kiz Rider, one of his former partners who is now working in the office of the Chief of Police. Kiz Rider tells Harry that his private investigation has already caused ructions within the upper echelons of the police and hints that other bodies would also like hi to desist, in case he compromises more wide-ranging and high-level operations. True to form, this merely pricks Bosch’s obstinacy, and he refuses to stand down without knowing which organisations are involved.
Bosch’s investing\ations proceed, and start to extend ever more widely, encompassing several other old cases, including both the shooting three years ago of two LAPD detectives which left one of them dead and the other paralysed for life, and the disappearance at the same time of an experienced FBI Special Agent.
As ever, Connelly maintains the suspense throughout, and while the plot is very intricate, it always remains wholly plausible. The first person narration lends a new urgency to the unfolding of the story. It is almost as if Connelly is experimenting with different formats to keep the series fresh for himself, as well as for the reader, and it certainly seems to work.
57. Temporary Kings by Anthony Powell.
The eleventh volume of Powell's masterful Dance to the Music of Time sequence opens in Venice where the narrator, Nick Jenkins, has been lured to attend a literary conference. Among his fellow delegates are the erudite but rather intimidating academic, Dr Emily Brightman, and Russell Gwinnett, an American professor who has taken a sabbatical break to work on a literary biography of the talented yet personally disordered novelist, X Trapnel, (based upon Julian Maclaren-Ross) whose chaotic life formed much of the backdrop to the previous volume, 'Books Do Furnish A Room'.
Gwinnett advises Jenkins that he is particularly eager to meet Pamela (now ‘Lady’, following her husband's receipt of a life peerage) Widmerpool, who had been instrumental in Trapnel's decline following her wanton destruction of the manuscript of his unfinished novel "Profiles in String". This encounter duly happens as the senior attendees of the conference are invited to visit the palazzo where the Widmerpools are staying. One of the principal attractions of the palace is a ceiling painted by Tiepolo which depicts the story of Candaules and Gyges, as recounted by Herodotus. Candaules, King of Lydia, had frequently boasted of the beauty of his wife, and arranges for his friend Gyges to lurk in their chamber where he can see for himself. The particular poignancy of this situation revolves around the fact that nakedness was a near taboo among the Lydians. The Queen, however, glimpses Gyges watching her naked form and subsequently confronts him, telling him that he must either kill her husband and marry her himself (en secondes noces), or she would arrange for him to be killed, thus either formalising his illicit knowledge of her nakedness, or removing him all together. Not surprisingly Gyges opts for the former course, and after killing Candaules and marrying the Queen, he ruled the Lydians for forty years.
Pamela is intrigued by the painting and seizes on its voyeuristic theme as an opportunity to denounce some of her husband's own unsavoury habits. Widmerpool is surprisingly unfazed by revelations as he has other worries to consider - he is currently under investigation following allegations that he had been a Communist spy with connections to Burgess and Maclean. Meanwhile Jenkins gets to visit his former boss, Daniel Tokenhouse, who turns out to have extreme left wing sympathies which have brought him into contact with Widmerpool. Pamela pursues, or is pursued by, several prospective suitors, including Gwynnett and Louis Glober, a larger than life American film producer, who is not without his own sexual idiosyncrasies.
Powell manages all this with consummate ease, and right up to the end of the novel one is never quite sure whether or not we are going to witness Widmerpool's final demise. Yet again, Powell demonstrates his extraordinary ability to write a novel in which precious little actually happens yet throughout which the reader is kept at a pitch of excitement and expectation comparable to the most rip-roaring thriller.
58. The Scandal of Christine Keeler and John Profumo by Lord Denning.*
I suppose that John Profumo might be the only viable contender with Jeremy Thorpe for the title of ‘Greatest British Political Scandal of the Twentieth Century’. The Profumo Affair certainly offers a cornucopia of those ingredients guaranteed to titillate enduring public interest: a beautiful woman of questionable propriety in thrall to a Machiavellian and mischievous Svengali following his own anguished social aspirations, a dashing, prosperous and successful government minister, a Soviet military attaché, a peer of the realm, some minor West London gangland wannabes and a sprinkling on intelligence officers. If this was pure fiction, readers would be nodding their heads in disbelief fearing that the author had seriously overegged his pudding.
It is now fifty-five years since John Profumo resigned from his post as Secretary of State for War in Harold McMillan's already faltering government, and his name has become synonymous with political sleaze. The basic story is well known: Profumo had met the young Christine Keeler at a house party at Cliveden, ancestral home of the Astor family and site of many political weekends at which prominent members of the Conservative government led by McMillan would gather to relax. Keeler had fled from her poverty-stricken home and, after time spent as a dancer in a Soho Revue show, had found herself living in the flat of society osteopath, Dr Stephen Ward. Ward was a strange character who moved on the fringes of the Cliveden set and was aware of, and occasionally present at, their extravagant parties. Christine Keeler was young, beautiful and available, and within a short time of their first meeting she had embarked upon a brief affair with Profumo.
Unknown to Profumo, however, she was also conducting occasional liaisons with Sergei Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché on the staff at the Russian Embassy. Naturally it was not long before such a salacious situation came to the attention of the press and the Whitehall rumour mill. Profumo was questioned by several of his fellow ministers, but constantly denied that he and Christine had ever been more than just good friends, even going to the lengths of making a personal statement to that effect before the House of Commons. Of course, as we all now know, Profumo subsequently had to confess that he had indeed had an affair, and his resignation and removal from public life became inevitable. In the same way that it was the failed attempt at a cover-up that rendered the Watergate incident so toxic for President Nixon, it was essentially Profumo’s lies to parliament, rather than the affair with Keeler itself, that less his position untenable.
This book is the report of the official inquiry that was commissioned by Parliament and headed by Lord Denning, and it covers in great detail the events leading up to the resignation, considering the roles of Profumo, Christine Keeler, Stephen Ward, the police, the press and the security services. However, while it might be an official report, it is far from dry. Lord Denning has a lively (if often surprisingly grammatically questionable) style, and the pace of the story never flags.
All in all, a very enjoyable, and very informative, book.
59. Fall Out by Tim Shipman.*
Tim Shipman’s previous book, All Out War, gave an engaging and detailed account of the lead up to the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union, and the immediate aftermath, covering the resignation of David Cameron and the subsequent internecine strife within the Conservative Party that led to Theresa May becoming Prime Minister. Fall Out picks up the story, and covers the year that followed her ascension to Downing Street, culminating shortly after the unexpectedly inconclusive general election of June 2017.
I seem to have read a lot of volumes of political history over the last few years. I had always been interested in politics, anyway, and that preoccupation has been piqued through working in a number of different ministers’ private offices across a couple of government departments. This was, however, the first time that I had read such an impartial account published quite so soon after the events that it relates. Much of Shipman’s mastery lies in the immediacy of his account.
I don’t know where his own political preferences lie. I remember most of the events that he recounts very clearly, and feel that he has maintained an impartial perspective throughout. While never reluctant to convey disdain of certain politicians’ obtuseness, he scatters his scorn even-handedly. I was particularly impressed by the range of politicians and senior officials with whom he seems to have spoken, also right across the political divide.
One of the most illuminating aspects of the book is his account of the reign of terror conducted by Theresa May’s senior political advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Their scorn was distributed fairly evenhandedly, too, and they were clearly just as happy bullying and ridiculing ministers of state as they were to terrorise mere officials. Disappointingly, Theresa May seems, at best, to have turned a blind eye to their disgraceful behaviour, although the insinuation that she approved of, even if never specifically commissioning, their activities is difficult to challenge.
Regardless of the political complexion of the government, I have always believed that it is in everyone’s interest that we have a strong opposition. Shipman makes clear that, following the as yet unhealed internal divisions within the Conservatives following their post-Referendum leadership contest, the Government seemed holed below the waterline, and offered an easy target for Her Majesty’s Opposition. Only there was no Opposition. While the Conservative tore themselves apart following David Cameron’s resignation, they did at least manage to appoint a new leader within a matter of a few weeks. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, having gone through one painful leadership contest that resulted with apparent rank outsider Jeremy Corbyn emerging as runaway winner, chose to plunge itself into a second contest, rendering the same result but with an even bigger margin, although it took several months to do so. All of which makes the Labour resurgence in the 2017 general election such a surprise.
The clear lesson from Shipman’s book is the enduring peril of political hubris. Labour centrists refused to believe that the party could appoint a genuinely socialist leader, while Theresa May failed to acknowledge the possibility that she would not be returned to Downing Street with a Thatcheresque landslide majority. As in a Greek tragedy, in which the oracle has offered its occluded prophesy, both those conceits would be punctured in the most brutal fashion. Unfortunately, amusing though such outcomes and fractured vanities might appear in the abstract, the consequent uncertainly currently remains unresolved. I am intrigued to know what Mr Shipman’s next book might be, but suspect that I might find the ending rather frightening.
60. The Narrows by Michael Connelly.
When I was younger I was a voracious reader of American crime fiction. I was introduced to the genre through my parents’ collection of Ed McBain’s books featuring Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues from the 87th Precinct, and I branched out from there, taking in the sudden explosion of feisty female private detectives, such as V. I Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone, while also continuing to enjoy the police procedural.
At some point, however, perhaps around ten or fifteen years ago, I suddenly lost my taste for it, and went several years without even glancing at an American crime book. I don’t know why … there was certainly no conscious decision. I just gradually became aware that it was some years since I had ventured into the genre.
A couple of years ago I found myself qualifying for a free book for my Kindle, but the selection on offer seemed rather meagre. I opted for Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, more on a faux de mieux basis than from anything else. That proved to be a very lucky choice. That book was Connelly’s first, and introduced the character of Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, the troubled and troubling LAPD detective. I was struck by the intensity of the writing, the authenticity of the scenes and the empathy and plausibility of Bosch himself. Since then I have been working my way through Connelly’s extensive canon, and finding that, even from such a strong starting point, each one seems to be even better than its predecessors.
One of the characteristics of Connelly’s novels has been his tendency to cross-refer his novels to each other, introducing characters from one series into others, replicating the way that networks within the law enforcement community will overlap in real life. The Narrows includes an intriguing element of meta-fiction, too. One of the earlier novels (which, as it happens, did not feature Bosch) was Blood Work, which introduced former FBI Special Agent Terry McCaleb who had been compelled to take early retirement following a heart transplant, and who would subsequently work alongside Bosch in a later novel. Blood Work was made into a film starring Clint Eastwood, which was in turn referred to throughout subsequent novels. The plot of The Narrows arises from the death of McCaleb, whose funeral had been attended by both Harry Bosch and Clint Eastwood.
As in its immediate predecessor, Lost Light, Harry Bosch is still in retirement, half-heartedly pursuing a career as a pribate investigator. In that capacity he is approached by Terry McCaleb’s widow and asked to investigate his death. This had initially been treated as a straightforward case of a death by natural causes, and one that was not unduly surprising given the context of his previous medical history. She had, however, established that his medication appeared to have been tampered with.
Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating the discovery of a collection of bodies of victims of a serial killer who may be ‘The Poet’, a murderer who had preyed on retired police officers several years ago, but who had been believed to be dead. The case is very sensitive for the Bureau as The Poet had turned out to be one of its own senior profilers. He had been identified and shot by Special Agent Rachel Walling, who had worked on occasion with Terry McCaleb and had also briefly encountered Bosch on an earlier case.
Connelly weaves the stories together in a wholly convincing manner, and maintains the dramatic tension throughout. The narrative switches between first person accounts from Bosch (as in the last novel, Lost Light) and the more customary omniscient third person, which lends a sense of immediacy to the unfolding story.
Once again, another very competent, entertaining and gripping thriller from Michael Connelly – the series still manages to go from strength to strength.
61. Dark Blood by Stuart MacBride.
It is always a little bit sad to consider a writer whose work I have previously enjoyed, but who seems to have lost their way or, to put it a little more brutally, to have exhausted their stock of talent.
There seem to be several examples among recent crime writers. Patricia Cornwell’s early books featuring Kay Scarpetta were taut thrillers with well-constructed plots and a cast of highly plausible and empathetic characters, liberally seasoned with intriguing insights into the techniques and wonders of forensic pathology. Unfortunately, about six or seven novels in, she jumped the metaphorical shark, and was reduced to simply trading on the Scarpetta ‘brand’, churning out increasingly weak stories with ever more fatuous plotlines.
Peter Robinson went the same way. He wrote a few perfectly serviceable novels featuring Alan Banks before suddenly hitting mid-season form with a run of five or six very strong book. Unfortunately, he too lost his grip and succumbed to simply recycling the same old set of scenarios and disputes between his now rather weary characters.
The latest example I have uncovered of this sad waning of crime writing talent is Stuart MacBride. I thought that his early novels featuring Logan McRae were excellent, with a mix of very strong, gritty storylines and a set of characters that complemented each other marvellously. His foul mouthed, chain smoking, raucous lesbian, DI Steel is one of my favourite characters from recent Scottish fiction. Unfortunately, however, MacBride has also succumbed to this malaise. This addition to the canon seemed far too formulaic. I almost wondered whether MacBride himself had become bored with the exercise, and decided to keep the pot boiling with a remix of former favourite scenes, mashed together in haste, and with no ‘Scottish noir’ cliché knowingly overlooked.
I am pretty confident that this is the last of his books on which I will squander any more of my time.
62. The Raphael Affair by Iain Pears.
Iain Pears wrote two of my favourite literary novel. With the majestic Stone’s Fall, he essentially redefined the historical novel, while his The Dream of Scipio features three parallel storylines that seamlessly transcend a span of nearly two thousand years.
Before ascending to those lofty pinnacles of literary fiction, Pears had been an art historian and journalist, and he drew upon that background to write a series of highly entertaining crime novels set in and around the world of the fine arts in Italy. As a simple country boy, this is far from my own comfort area, most of my knowledge of great art having been garnered through the medium of biscuit tin lids or gift calendars, with a distant and hazy recollection of the odd school trip to a local gallery (generally conspicuous by their absence in North Leicestershire during my childhood). That could not matter less, however, as Pears is highly informative without ever seeming to preach to, or patronise, ‘Patronise! Now that’s a good word … and you used it correctly too.’ his readers.
In this first volume in the series, graduate student Jonathan Argyll has been on the trail of a missing Raphael. We tend to think of state restrictions on the export of items of national heritage as a relatively recent phenomenon, but it is a well-established trait. Argyll’s researches revolve around an attempt conspiracy during the eighteenth century to smuggle a Raphael owned by a noble, yet poverty stricken, Italian family out to a wealthy English purchaser. The particular modus operandi selected was to have the old master carefully varnished and then painted over by a lesser artist, with a view to subsequent delicate restoration by the new owners a few years later. Unfortunately, having succumbed to temptation to sidestep the regulations by underhand means, the prospective purchaser then found himself double-crossed, being fobbed off with a perfectly charming yet relatively valueless painting by the lesser artist, while the disguised Raphael disappeared.
Argyll’s researches appear to have been vindicated when the painting he believes to be the missing and disguised Raphael is bought from under his nose just days before he can formally identify it. The purchaser, esteemed art dealer Edward Byrnes has the painting cleaned and what purports to be a hitherto unknown Raphael is duly discovered. It is eventually sold through one of the prominent London auction houses for a world record sum, being bought by the Italian government. But that is just the start of the fun, and a string of crimes is unleashed, stretching from an act of grotesque artistic vandalism to fraud and even murder. All of this is watched, initially with bemusement but then with growing concern and horror by General Bottando, head of Italy’s Art Theft Squad, and his glamorous and gifted assistant, Flavia di Stafano.
Written with an appealing lightness of touch, this is a highly entertaining crime novel, that blends valuable insight in to the foibles, peccadilloes and fragile egos of the art world with a perfectly plausible plot, a delightfully evocative Italian setting and some highly empathetic characters.
63. Chasing the Dime by Michael Connelly.
It seems that after every three or four of his novels featuring Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, Michael Connelly likes to shake things up a bit, and bring in a new protagonist. Some of these ‘stand-alone’ ventures have led to their own series, while others remain simply as one-off episodes. Yet even these are grounded in the universe of Harry Bosch, and there is normally some overlap through the medium of appearances by peripheral characters from the Bosch series, or an oblique reference to one of his previous cases.
This particular standalone novel follows Henry Pierce, a chemist on the brink of an astounding breakthrough in the field of molecular memory, potentially worth billions to the computer industry. Having recently split up with his partner Nicole, Henry has moved into a new apartment. On his first night there, the phone (a newly installed line with what he had understood to be a completely new number) starts ringing, with a series of men wanting to contact ‘Lilly’. Bemused, he does some basic research and identifies Lilly as an escort whose services are advertised on an exclusive website. Now intrigued, and seeking a diversion from both the considerable work pressures he has faced bringing his start-up company to the brink of a major flotation and his emotional travail following his split from Nicole, he resolves to try to find out more about Lilly.
This plunges him into a shady world of sexual exploitation, violence and organised crime, all of which emerges with Connelly’s customary facility to craft a gripping plot. Connelly seems particularly gifted at ensnaring his readers. I know nothing at all about the science behind Pierce’s business interests, and ordinarily the explanation of them might well have made my eyes glaze over. Connelly, however, succeeds in conveying the technical wizardry behind them without making even the most scientifically ignorant reader (i.e. me) feel at all bogged down.
Another gripping and successful story written with Connelly’s characteristically effortless prose.
64. Death Among the Dons by Janet Neel.
Janet Neel succeeds with this novel on a number of levels. At the most simple level, it is a tautly-plotted whodunnit, with all the clues available, although I remained in the dark until very nearly the end.
Of even greater appeal to me, however, it touched on two separate aspects of what I laughingly call my career, offering a fascinating insight into the rivalries between the Fellows of an aspiring college, and into the musings of senior officials within the Civil Service. I was disappointed to see the untrammelled disdain with which the Department for Education (or, rather, one of its many former incarnations) was dismissed by oficials from other government departments, though that was merely personal bias! Having now moved to another government department myself, I am also less inclined to challenge that portrayal myself.
Following the sudden death of the previous Warden of the College, and as a consequence of the crumbling ineptitude of its previous Bursar, the Department for Education insists upon the appointment of Dame Sarah Murchison (a noted academic administrator) and Francesca Wilson (a high-flier on secondment from what was the Department for Trade and Industry when the novel was written) respectively as Warden and Bursar of Gladstone College. Gladstone is an all-female establishment falling under the aegis of London University. Already aware that there were some serious irregularities within its finances, Francesca and Dame Sarah soon discover that the history of mismanagement stretches further than previously imagined, and that the looming financial crisis is even worse than feared.
As if that were not enough, students start being attacked within the grounds of the College, and then the police (principally in the person of Superintendent John Macleish, equally high-flying husband of Francesca) start to re-investigate the death of the previous Warden. The story moves briskly on to a well-managed denouement.
When I first read this book, as an official in the Department for Education, I found it particularly appealing simply for the frequent appearances by Sir Neville Allason, its Permanent Secretary. The strong plot and the rest of the story were very pleasant bonuses. On a second reading that view is reinforced.
65. Days in the Sun by Neville Cardus.*
This book proved an immense disappointment, and I now wish that I had not finally found the opportunity to read it.
From boyhood two of my favourite pastimes have been reading and cricket, and I have always particularly savoured well-written books (either factual or fiction) about that noble sport. Indeed, of all sports, cricket is possibly the one that has been best served by literature. I put that down to the regular pace, and episodic nature of the game. With the likes of football or rugby, the action is potentially too fast paced and seamless to lend itself to purple prose; with cricket, the lengthy timeframe and the gentle stop-start approach, with each delivery a discrete and self-contained incident offer a steadier and broader canvas for the artist to express themselves.
There is a positive cornucopia of glorious writing about cricket. Perhaps the most famous is the match at Dingley Dell recounted in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, although the oddities described in that game lead one to speculate that Dickens himself was largely unfamiliar with the realities of the game. Any catalogue of other fine fictional examples would have to include Tom Brown’s Schooldays, any number of P. G. Wodehouse’s early school stories (and Mike in particular), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, ‘Spedegue’s Dropper’. The epitome of fictional representations of cricket would, however, have to be the chapter in A G McDonnell’s England, Their England, in which the novel’s Scottish protagonist joins a team of boozy journalists to play against a village team.
There has also been a wealth of non-fiction inspired by the game, often venturing into areas far removed from the playing area. For instance, C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary addressed a political agenda about equality and exploitation through the prism of the cricket pavilion window.
For many follwoers of the game, Neville Cardus represents the apotheosis of the cricket journalist, lauded for his evocative prose and boundless love of the game. I was, therefore, delighted to find a copy of Days in the Sun, an anthology of some of his best-known pieces, and eagerly began reading it on my way home from work, expecting a treasure trove of delights. I was sadly disappointed. I found the writing very stilted and strewn with clichés. The first piece, in which the writer falls asleep at Lords and dreams he is watching a classic test match from thirty years earlier, felt woefully wooden, but proved to be the strongest work in the collection. Rather than evoking the Corinthian glories of the sport, these articles seemed to me to be mired in self-congratulation, and also to have been churned out at great speed, possibly with an eye on a clock rapidly whirring around towards a deadline, and wholly failed to convey any sense of love or savour for the game. I realise, of course, that Cardus was writing for his own times, and that these pieces are now nearing their own century, but they have aged less gracefully than many of their contemporaries. Indeed, they seemed to me to be redolent of all the alleged self-satisfaction and complacency that are so often latched upon by people who despise cricket as a distasteful relic of a sullied and Imperial past.
66. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.
I first read this novel just weeks after its initial publication in 1988 and thought it was spellbinding then. Thirty years later I think it has lost none of its power to enthral. In a lengthy introduction to this recent edition, Tom Wolfe cites William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as one of his inspirations. Like Vanity Fair, this is quite definitely a novel without a hero, though it is knee-deep in victims.
As with so many great novels, the basic premise is very simple. High flying Wall Street bond dealer Sherman McCoy, scion of one of New York's leading 'WASP' families and self-styled Master of the Universe, is conducting a clandestine affair with Maria, the young, sexy wife of an ageing multi-millionaire. Having told his wife that he has to work late, Sherman collects Maria from the airport but, in a moment of inattention, he finds himself stuck in the wrong lane on the freeway and ends up taking a wrong turning. Instead of heading home to Manhattan, he and Maria find themselves lost in the depths of the Bronx. As they drive around ever more frightening streets, an incident occurs, as a consequence of which a young African American boy is accidentally knocked down by their car. In their panic, they drive away, unaware of the injuries that the boy has suffered, and return to their insulated life within New York's beau monde.
It transpires, however, that the young man, Henry Lamb, has been badly injured. Having called at hospital for treatment of a badly hurt wrist he returns home but subsequently complains of head pains, and subsides into a coma. Through the intervention of a radical activist in the African American community, aided by veteran radicals desperate to find a new cause, a crusade for justice for the stricken boy gathers pace. Gradually the foundation stones of McCoy's existence, that had previously seemed so secure, are pulled away and his enviable lifestyle starts to disintegrate.
In the meantime, Peter Fallow, a particularly odious British journalist who had been struggling to make his way in New York, finds himself being given exclusive after exclusive as the campaigners harness the tabloid press to press their cause. Fallow is a desperate parasite with a rapidly-escalating drink problem (some of the descriptions Wolfe offers of the journalist's morning hangovers are quite astounding), but he gradually finds his fortunes waxing as McCoy's wane.
Wolfe captures the racial tensions and jealousies with a pellucid sharpness that he also directs against the vagaries of the American criminal justice system in which, during a year when the local District Attorney has to seek re-election against an increasingly volatile political landscape, Sherman McCoy becomes the ‘Great White Defendant’, the token box-ticking target for whom every prosecutor has yearned.
As I said at the beginning of this review, there are no heroes in this book. Everyone, except poor Henry Lamb, is seen to be tainted and self-serving to some degree. Sherman McCoy, indeed, emerges as one of the better characters. He recognises that he has, inadvertently, done something dreadful and he acknowledges the hollowness of many aspects of his life as a Master of the Universe, although ultimately he remains unable to summon the strength of spirit to opt for a different lifestyle.
There is a Dickensian acuity of observation throughout, perhaps best exemplified in Wolfe's pillorying of the higher end of the legal profession. Top 'WASP' law firms are given names such as 'Dunning, Sponget and Leach' or 'Curry, Goad and Pesterall', reminiscent of 'Private Eye's parody firm, 'Sue, Grabbit and Runne'.
67. The Story of Spedegue's Dropper and other Sporting Miscellanea by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a great cricket fan and actually played a fair number of first class matches. Indeed, while he only ever took one first class wicket, it was that of W G Grace so he does carry a certain cachet within the sport.
Crocket is the context for this decidedly unmemorable story. I am fairly certain that if it had been written by anyone else, it would not now be remembered or anthologised at all. Definitely one just for the Conan Doyle purists or completists.
>108 Eyejaybee: It is so interesting how people can have such strongly different reactions to the same book. I hated Bonfire of the Vanities (and interesting that Vanity Fair was an inspiration, as I loved it and Becky Sharp almost as much as I hated Bonfire). It was awhile ago, so I can't remember quite why I hated bonfire so much (the characters? the writing? both?)
>110 jfetting: Yes, funny how differently we react to books, especially when we have often coincided in our views. I think I liked the way he captured the shallow nature of so many of the characters, and the unbounded hubris of Sherman McCoy and his peers
68. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth.
I don’t propose to spend too long writing about this sordid and utterly unamusing novel – I have already wasted more than enough time reading it. The edition that I read was even more heavily strewn with critics’ encomia than usual, all of them suggesting that this is a comic masterpiece, and it seems to have played a significant part in launching Philip Roth as one of those authors striving to bring off ‘The Great American Novel’.
I wonder whether this is another case of the Emperor’s new clothes, with no one daring to rock the boat by suggesting that, rather than funny and acutely observed, it is simply a clumsy attempt to shock, which left no crass stereotype knowingly overlooked.
69. The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester.
As far as I am aware, John Lanchester has written four novels, and three of them would feature in my absolute all time favourites - definitely in the top fifty out of more than 4,500 read over the last 40 years.
This is a dazzling book, and all the more impressive in that it was John Lanchester’s first novel, although he had already established himself as a respected journalist and columnist. Beautifully written, it defies ready classification, hovering between high class cookbook, murder mystery and espionage handbook.
Self-appointed (indeed, self-anointed) aesthete Tarquin Winot regales his readers with mouth-watering descriptions of seasonal dishes while recounting various episodes from his life. It is only as the novel progresses that the reader comes to recognise that an unusually high proportion of Winot’s family, entourage and acquaintances seem to have met untimely and sudden deaths.
As we join Winot, he is embarking on a journey from Portsmouth to Provence where he arranges a "chance" encounter with a journalist who is attempting to write a biography of Winot's elder and more celebrated brother Bartholomew (more generally referred to as "Barry"), who has become an established artist and sculptor. Engineering this seemingly fortuitous encounter is fairly easy for Winot, as we come to learn that one of his favourite books, and one which accompanies him wherever he goes, is the "Mossad Guide to Secret Surveillance".
Tarquin has nothing but disdain for the unstructured output of his brother, or his all too proletarian habits, and does what he can to disillusion the biographer. While doing so, we see beautiful glimpses of Winot’s relatively opulent childhood, although even early on there are signs of deeply-rooted dysfunction. Winot’s descriptions of the meals that he recommends at different seasons, and his appreciations of the countryside through which he travels, are perfectly sumptuous.
In Tarquin Winot, John Lanchester has created a grotesque, yet oddly enticing, character, , and the book is a joy to read (or, is in the current case, re-read with heightened – and not disappointed – anticipation).
>21 Eyejaybee: Hope I've worked out this reference to entries?
I am a great fan of Simon Brett's Charles Paris
I love that he is a real and faulty person and I loved, for the same reason, the Dangerous Davies character, author Leslie? Thomas (I'll have to check)
As an animal rescuer, I love that he rescues a huge wolfhound/x dog and in most books, it would be milked as a devoted dog who ultimately saves his life but instead, it's a bad tempered bully of a dog that scares him - and yet he tries to live with this dog, because he is so kindly. His friends, having experienced the dog once, refuse to mind it for him, when he needs to travel for cases... and I recall him taking the window seat on a train trip with the dog on the corridor seat, who then snarls every time he tries to stand and leave for his station, so that he has to remain on the train until it reached the last stop and then retrace his trip.
I love these characters who are flawed and unfit and real.
The tv series of Dangerous Davies was made with the chap who played Tristan Farnon in the James Herriot tv series, (and later, was a Dr Who), was a great disappointment.
The dog was changed to a good natured St Bernard, the ex wife was whitewashed and the series could have been made with a new name and no link with the books - tho I guess the author was happy to just take the money...
>114 roomsofbooks: I agree with you about the flaws of Charles Paris contributing to his appeal. Several of the books have been dramatised on BBC Radio 4, slightly updated (the earliest episodes having been published in the mid-1970s), with Charles Paris being played by Bill Nighy. They are very enjoyable, although in the radio versions, Charles seems to have been rather more successful in his career than the books suggest.
I have never read any of the Dangeroud Davies books, but will look out for them now. I quite enjoyed the two of three episodes I saw on television, but of course could not compare them with the originals.
70. The Closers by Michael Connelly.
There have been several series of crim novels that I have enjoyed in the past, but all to often, after a run of strong novels, the author loses his way. Some prime examples of this falling off would be Patricia Cornwell, Peter Robinson and Stuart MacBride, all of whom started off so promisingly, only to find themselves trotting out either woefully predictable and repetitive reworkings of earlier success, or, particularly in the case of Cornwall, succumbing to increasingly facile story lines in a literary equivalent of jumping the shark.
Some ten or twelve novels into his series featuring Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, Michael Connelly shows no hint at all of such falling off. This novel sees Bosch returning to the LAPD after having taken and spent a couple of years working for himself. Whether coincidentally or not, Connelly has returned to third person narration, which I think suits his style better.
Bosch has been brought back to participate in a cold case unit, reinvestigation some of the thousands of unsolved murders still on LAPD’s books, and finds himself once again partnered with Kiz Rider, a colleague from the past. They are assigned to the case of a young woman abducted from her home and murdered eighteen years ago, at the age of sixteen. In the intervening years, investigative technology has advanced, and a DNA trace from a gun believed to have been used in her killing has now been associated with a known felon. It all seems pretty straightforward, but nothing could be further from the case. Bosch and Rider find themselves uncovering a web of hate crimes and possible police corruption.
As always, the police procedural aspects of the book seem perfectly plausible, and the plot is very strongly constructed. Bosch is very far from being an angel, but despite his own clear frailties and self-doubts, he is a generally sympathetic character, and always believable.
Another strong addition to an appealing collection.
>115 Eyejaybee: I liked the series of Dangerous Davies as a show to watch, just was terribly disappointed that it wasn't actually Dangerous Davies and especially not that wonderful dog depiction.
I loved the books, but as I said, the tv series could have been simply a series with no link to the books.
His wife on tv was a reasonable woman and I think? in the end, there was a suggestion of or an actual getting back together? In the books, she is a much nastier character, who seems to have set out to use him and has taken the house and left him trying to find a boarding house, so he has to put up with a dodgy landlady, making life even harder for him.
I have rescued well over 100 dogs and easily the same number of cats and I recognise the very gentle, kindly man he is, turning his life upside down in order to keep safe a dog he is scared of and doesn't even like, and I ITCH to fix things with the dog. It sounds to most people, as tho the dog is a happy bully but it's behaviour shows unhappiness and I see so many people living awkwardly because their dog is the unhappy boss in the house. They are such gentle, kind people but dogs are happiest as followers. Only then, can they totally relax.
I long to give him a hug and tell him, "We can fix this..." but I get such a wry grin from the description of him trying to avoid confronting the dog...
It's a reality that I see - and delightful to recognise in a book - and goes perfectly with the description of a middle aged, gentle man who is taken for granted, given all the rotten and boring jobs at the police station and laughed at, by younger, smug policemen with careers on the rise.
PS Have you read
Howards End is on the Landing A year of reading from home
by Susan Hill?
Such books tend to make me take a deep breath and dive into my own stuff and knock off more TBRs
It's nice to play snap, as well - and sometimes, you want to say
"Have you tried so and so..."
71. The Titian Committee by Iain Pears.
This is another highly entertaining novel featuring Flavia di Stefano, from the Italian Art Crime Commission and Jonathan Argyll, the generally hapless but well-intentioned scholar, now working for prominent London dealer, Sir Edward Byrnes.
Over recent years, the Italian art authorities had become increasingly concerned at the proliferation on the market of paintings allegedly by Titian but lacking robust provenance. They had, therefore, set up a committee to review all known works in Italy attributed to Titian, to determine whether or not the attribution was legitimate. The Committee is made up of academics and gallery curators, and it meets every few months in a variety of notable settings. All seems to be goiung well, until one oif its member, an ambitious American academic, is found murdered in an exclusive garden in Venice, near where the Committee had been meeting.
Because of the victim’s background, the case is referred to General Bottando, head of Flavia’s unit, who delegates her to liaise with the local police authorities in Venice. While there she happens upon Argyll, who has been attempting to negotiate the purchase of several works from a wealthy Venetian widow. As luck would have it, the widow’s name had appeared in the deceased woman’s notes.
While his later works such as An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio occasionally proved challenging (yet also highly rewarding) to the reader, his earlier novels are far lighter in tone. Flavia and Argyll are very engaging, and Pears writes with a humour that was absent from his later works. The plots are soundly constructed, too, and the clues to the identity of the villains are there (even if I didn’t pick them up myself).
72. The Dates by Mark Lawson.
I used to enjoy listening to Mark Lawson's "Front Row" programme on BBC Radio 4, and was looking forward very eagerly to reading this novel, though, as always in such circumstances, there was a slight fear that I might prove disappointed. Such fears were groundless, however, as Lawson definitely delivers in spades with this finely crafted novel about life in Middle England during the recent economic downturn and the Government's austerity measures.
The novel is based around four families living in a village in the commuter belt of Buckinghamshire. Self-styled as 'The Eight', the four couples occupy the four largest houses in their village and have gradually created their own exclusive social circle. Despite their closeness, however, a degree of stratification is already evident as the novel opens. At the pinnacle of the inner society stand the Dunsters, Max and 'Jenno', whose position is supported by Dunster Manor Ltd, the family firm that Max inherited and which makes high class diaries and calendars and similar products popular around the world. Next in line come the Crossans, Jonny and Libby. Jonny, son of a now ennobled former Tory Minister from the Thatcher and Major administrations, is a very successful barrister while Libby sits as a local magistrate and also features in countless local committees. Former soldier Tom Rutherford is chief executive of his own security firm while his wife Emily is a local doctor. The fourth couple is made up of Natasha ("Tasha") and Simon Lonsdale. Tasha owns a catering company while Simon is a senior executive in a PR firm which is currently struggling to rehabilitate the image of a failed bank that had required a massive bail-out from government funds. All four couples have children who go attend the same local private school, and almost all of their socialising seems to be conducted within the clique.
Alternating chapters of the story recount the discovery of a brutal mass murder in which one of the families is presumed to have been killed by the husband/father who has then shot himself. The other chapters show the lead up to this awful crisis, taking the families through a chaotic series of set pieces, each more splendidly extravagant than the last. Lawson handles this crescendo of conspicuous expenditure with great deftness, sowing clues to the startling denouement that might feasibly apply to any of the four families.
It was very reminiscent of John Lanchester's "Capital" (one of my favourite novels ever), with the scene transplanted from South London to rural Buckinghamshire. Lawson is just as capable as Lanchester at making telling observations about the state of the nation, and the ever-widening chasm between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' in divided Britain.
73. The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly.
This novel introduces a new character, Mickey Haller, to Michael Connelly’s oeuvre. He is an adept, pragmatic defence attorney working in Los Angeles, and has come to be known as the Lincoln Lawyer because of his love of Lincoln Town Cars. Indeed, in a throwaway line halfway through the book, we learn that he still has two brand new Lincolns in storage – after a high-paying windfall case, he had bought four at once in order to benefit from fleet discount rates, planning to use one at a time, selling them off to limousine chauffeur services once they had reached fifty thousand miles. While he has an office, maintained by one of his ex-wives, Haller tends to do most of his work in the spacious back of the Lincoln, and employs a former (now rehabilitated) client as his driver, who is working to pay off the legal fees that had run up during his defence.
As the novel opens he is in conference with one of his regular clients, a prominent member of one of California’s motorcycle gangs, who has been arrested for drug dealing. Haller has constructed a strong loophole defence challenging the FBI’s search of his client’s property based on a technical infringement of the warrant provisions. The client has, however, proved dilatory in servicing Haller’s fees, and they have had a Mexican stand-off in an interview room in one of California’s more harsh penitentiaries. Haller lays down an ultimatum that, if he is now paid his outstanding fees within forty-eight hours, he will withdraw from the case, leaving the client to take his chances with an unsympathetic judiciary. Such is the strength of the underground communications network that while Haller is being driven back towards LA, his car is surrounded by a group of riders from the biker gang, and the outstanding fees are paid in cash.
When he returns to LA, Haller is called by a bail bondsman with whom he has frequently done business, advising him of a potential new client. While many of his previous customers have tended to come from the ranks of habitual criminals that proliferate across the city, this new client is rather different. Louis Ross Roulet, a wealthy real estate agent working around the more prosperous areas of the city, has been arrested for the brutal attack on a woman working as an escort. Everything about the case is unusual, but first the bail bondsman, and then Haller himself, sense the massive financial allure of taking on such a case. Haller is far from flawless, but his frank explanations of the financial realities of his profession simply serve to render him an appealing character.
As always with Connelly, the plot is very robustly constructed, with rigorous testing for plausibility. It offered an intriguing new perspective on the nature of crime. His previous novels have been recounted either from the police investigator’s perspective or, in the case of Void Moon, from the viewpoint of the criminal. Seeing things from the defence attorney’s stance flags up a completely different set of priorities. Very well written, and gripping right from the start.
74. Crudo by Olivia Laing.
Sorry, everyone, but I am about to strew some sand in the Vaseline of zeitgeist once again. Last year I found myself reading both more non-fiction and more books written by women than usual. Both of these were certainly favourable developments although they were not the result of any conscious plan; it just seemed to happen that way. One consequence was that I made some glorious, serendipitous discoveries, one of which was Olivia Laing’s ‘The Lonely City’, which I picked up entirely by chance on a post-payday splurge at Waterstone’s. I found it a beautifully written and courageous book, in which Ms Laing explored the nature and impact of living alone in a big city, and attempted to consider the effects of prolonged loneliness on the human psyche. It proved to be one of my favourite books of the year.
I was, therefore, pleased to hear that she had written a novel, and delighted to see the highly favourable reviews it picked up in the more literary newspapers. I wanted, indeed expected, to enjoy it, and struggled to defer reading it until I found myself on a few days leave from work, so that I could wallow in it properly. Sadly, try as I might, I could not make myself like it. It has been lauded as a novel of our times, capturing the agitation, fear, suspicion and restlessness of life in the world of Trump, Brexit and global summits, blending personal hopes and dreads with the prevalent neuroses of the time.
All of that was there, which is saying a lot given that the book is only about 130 small pages long, but the frenetic, staccato prose left me entirely unmoved. At times I felt as if I was thumbing through a series of eclectic tweets, and I struggled to find any sustained cohesion. ‘The Lonely City’ was notable for the clarity and cadence of its prose, while ‘Crudo’ seemed more reminiscent of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ I am yet to be convinced that the stream of consciousness approach to writing ever really works, and it certainly left me cold here.
What a shame!
75. The Bernini Bust by Iain Pears.
This is the third instalment in the adventures of Jonathan Argyll and Flavia Di Stefano, and it lives up to the charm and fun of its predecessors.
It opens with Argyll visiting Los Angeles, where he is celebrating the virtual completion of a sale of a Titian on behalf of an Italian owner to the ambitious Moresby Museum, a new player in the art world backed by the multi-billion fortune of its owner, Arthur M Moresby II. Still working for Sir Edward Byrnes, Jonathan is confident that if the sale goes through, he will collect an impressive, well-earned and much needed commission. He is, however, also ruminating on Sir Edward’s recent decision to pull him back from his base in Rome to help man his London gallery. News of this imminent departure has cast a pall over his friendship with Flavia di Stefano, with whom he has resolved a couple of murder investigations back in Italy.
Meanwhile, Jonathan encounters another of his acquaintances from Rome – Hector di Souza, a Spanish dealer who has become a fixture within the Roman art markets, and who has a reputation for cutting corners and a tendency to subvert the strict Italian regulations surrounding the movement of national treasures, although nothing has ever been incontrovertibly proved against him. He has accompanied a selection of minor artworks that have also just been acquired by the Moresby Museum. A party is held to celebrate Mr Moresby’s imminent commitment of a further tranche of his substantial fortune to the museum. Jonathan is invited, and is consequently present when the curator of the museum announces that one of the pieces that di Souza has brought with him is actually a bust by Bernini. Before the news of this major coup can be properly absorbed, (and, indeed, before the final papers securing the transfer of funding can be signed), the billionaire is murdered, and the Bernini bust disappears.
Having fortuitously withdrawn from the party, Jonathan is conveniently in the clear for both crimes, and finds himself helping Lieutenant Morelli from the LAPD (who seems clearly to have been modelled on Lieutenant Columbo). Of course, Jonathan being Jonathan, his help is of questionable value, especially when, shortly after having nearly been run over while crossing the road, he finds himself temporarily incapacitated by a car crash. Sanity and pragmatism are restored when Flavia di Stefano flies out to Los Angeles, ostensibly to lend her expertise on the Italian art world to Morelli’s investigation, but also strongly motivated over concern for Argyll. There is a second murder, the victim of which was the principal suspect for the perpetration of the first killing, so the plot thickens nicely.
Pears brings off the happy combination of providing an entertaining (and technically viable) plot, while also painlessly informing the reader about Italian art and the skulduggeries of the art dealers’ world.
76. My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan.
I was intrigued to find this small book stacked on the counter of Waterstone’s in Knutsford, Cheshire, last week. It had been published to mark Ian McEwan’s seventieth birthday which made me stop and think – surely it wasn’t so long ago that he was being fêted, along with Julian Barnes and Graham Swift, among the up and coming young novelists to watch. Further sobering thought then made me also recall that friends and I had pored over his then newly-published ‘The Cement Garden’ while we were still at school, probably now some forty years ago.
This story shows he has lost none of his invention in the intervening decades. It is always entertaining to read writers writing about writing. In this story, the narrator, a published author himself, looks back to his university friendship with a writer who went on to enjoy considerably greater success and become part of the literary establishment. There is a scattering of references to some real members of that literary establishment, including a throwaway mention of ‘another novelist, the one (memory fails me) with the Scottish name and the English attitude’.
Marvellously crafted and beautifully written, this story was an absolute delight – a joyful birthday present from a writer to his readers. Happy birthday, Mr McEwan
77. Watling Street by John Higgs.*
John Higgs has produced a marvellous book that manages simultaneously to be informative. Entertaining and thought-provoking.
The basic premise is very simple: Higgs follows the route of the old Watling Street from the Kent coast right across England and North wales to Anglesey. I have been aware of Watling Street in one form or another for most of my life. My first encounter with the name was probably around fifty years ago while I was at infants’ school. Then, Watling Street was described to me as one of the major Roman roads across Britain whose route had survived across the centuries and could still be clearly seen today. That was of particular interest to me for two reasons – like most schoolboys of my generation, there was a general fascination with anything Roman, while I also had experience of another enduring Roman road as the Fosse Way passed, arrow straight, not far from where I was growing up.
What I had not appreciated was that both the route, and also the name, of Watling Street predate the Romans. There was an ancient route long before the Roman occupation of the British Isles – they merely served to improve the construction of the road, to such an extent that much of their refurbishment work still remains today. Like the Icknield Way, which it crosses in what is now Dunstable (at the site of the decidedly unmemorable Quadrant shopping arcade), it was a long-established route valuable to traders, and serving to link coastal ports with the interior of the country, from time immemorial.
Higgs undertakes his exploration of the route, not straying more than five miles from the road at any stage, and generates an enchanting history of England. Starting from Dover, the route goes through Canterbury, then the Medway towns before reaching London and then heading northwest along what is now the Edgware Road and onwards up the MI and then the M6.
The great beauty of this book is the miscellany of potted histories that it offers, with diverting insights into all sorts of ephemera along the way.
Popular history at its best!
78. Echo Park by Michael Connelly.
This latest instalment in the career of Detective Harry Bosch finds him still working in LAPD’s ‘cold case’ unit. Almost predictably, he soon finds himself revisiting a case that he had formerly worked on himself – the hitherto unsolved disappearance (always treated as a suspected murder) thirteen years ago of Marie Gesto. Bosch had always remembered that case and had frequently reviewed the files in the intervening period, but had failed to make any progress.
The case has resurfaced because Raynard Waits, who had been arrested while driving a van containing body parts from two other unrelated murders, has confessed to the killing of Marie Gesto, in a bid to bargain his way out of a certain death penalty by admitting to several other unsolved murders. An ambitious senior prosecutor, who is standing for election for the post of District Attorney, wants to score a high profile success with the case. As part of the preparation for the trial, he arranges for Waits to take police officers to the grave of Marie Gesto, so that her body might finally be recovered.
While on the field trip to review the burial site, Waits manages a daring escape, killing a couple of the officers set to guard him, and goes on the run. While the senior police chiefs and the Prosecutor’s Office become increasingly embroiled in politicking to ensure that the other side takes the blame, Bosch, temporarily reunited with FBI Special Agent Rachel Walling, digs deeper into Waits’s background and tries to hunt him down.
Bosch is as obdurate, yet also as empathetic and plausible, as ever. He is far from perfect, yet he is able to recognise and confront his flaws. Connelly has a simple and direct style that snares and then holds the reader’s attention immediately. Perhaps not the strongest book in the series, but still very good.
79. Ultimatum by Frank Gardner.
As a respected journalist and the BBC’s Security correspondent, Frank Gardner certainly knows his material. His first novel, Crisis, introduced Luke Carlton, formerly an officer in the Royal marines and then the Special Boat Service, who was recruited to help MI6 on a special operation against South American drug cartels. Carlton emerged from that escapade as clearly resolute, robust and brave, characteristics which might also readily be applied to Gardner and his uncompromising journalism.
Unfortunately, while Carlton retains those characteristics in Ultimatum, the principal attribute that I discerned this time around was his irredeemable woodenness, matched only by the turgidity of the writing and the general implausibility of the plot. Carlton now finds himself formally recruited into MI6, and assigned to an urgent operation to discover the extent of nuclear weapon research and development in Iran.
I wonder whether Gardner was struggling to meet as publication deadline, and decided to try and palm off an early draft on the publisher. Certainly no espionage novel cliché was knowingly overlooked, and what I had hoped might be an appealing series seems to have stalled at the start of the second lap.
80. Death's Bright Angel by Janet Neel.
Janet Neel’s novels featuring the dynamic and accomplished civil servant, Francesca Wilson, and the competent and ambitious Detective Inspector John McLeish are a delight. Not only do they deliver highly polished and well-plotted crime mysteries, but they capture the atmosphere of Whitehall marvellously. Although they are now around thirty years old, and many aspects of working life in Whitehall has changed, their portrayal of the role and attitudes of the civil service remains valid.
This novel opens with the brutal murder in West London of Bill Fireman, a management accountant working for the Yorkshire textile manufacturer Britex. He had been down in London to attend a conference and to visit some suppliers, and was attacked on the way back to his hotel. The discovery of the body is reported to Edgware Road police station, and the investigation is assigned to Detective Inspector John McLeish. Initial indications suggested that Fireman may have been the victim of a random mugging, probably by someone desperate to fund a drug addiction. McLeish is not convinced, and huis copper’s intuition tells him that there is something further behind it. While returning from the scene of the murder, McLeish has a chance encounter with local resident, Francesca Wilson, with whom he is immediately smitten.
In the meantime, Britex has come to the attention of Francesca Wilson and her colleagues in the Department for Trade and Industry. Having traded successfully, if never spectacularly, for many years, Britex has recently found itself struggling to compete with cheap imports from Easter Europe and Asia. Orders are diminishing, and the company’s future looks bleak. The DTI has become aware of the difficulties and is considering whether it might intervene. Mcleish’s inventigation becomes increasingly entwined with the DTI review of britex, and before long there are further murders.
Francesca and McLeish are both appealing characters, being assertive and very capable in their respective fields, yet also sensitive and alert to the emotional currents swirling around them. Francesca also has a beguiling family – her considerable self-assurance (I know, I know, a dirty word) stems from having four younger brothers whom she helped bring up following her father’s tragically early death. All of her brothers, and indeed Francesca herself, are excellent singers, and the book is liberally strewn with enchanting references to different choral works, and several plugs for the various departmental and civil service- wide choirs.
All told, a very entertaining novel and the first volume in an appealing series.
81. The Overlook by Michael Connelly.
Veteran Homicide Detective, Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, finds himself enmeshed in the war against terror in this novel. Unable to sleep, he is wide awake at home when a call comes through from LAPD’s Homicide Division, directing him to attend the scene of a murder on the Mulholland Overlook, which affords a glorious view (especially spectacular at night) across the whole city. Arriving there, Bosch finds the aftermath of what seems to have been a professional assassination. The victim is a medical physicist who has been killed by a close-range shot to the back of his head.
While reviewing the scene and garnering whatever clues might be available, Bosch is approached by two FBI Special Agents, one of whom is Rachel Walling. Bosch and Walling have a lot of history, having worked on various investigations before, and had briefly been lovers. It emerges that the victim’s name had been flagged as being of interest to the FBI.
After the usual Mexican stand-off between Bosch and anyone from any other law enforcement organisation, Walling explains that through his work, the victim had had access to various chemicals which might be of interest to a terrorist group that wanted to make (or at least be considered to represent a plausible risk of having made) a ‘dirty bomb’. Once his name had been put forward as the possible identity of the victim, the Bureau had become involved.
Bosch and Walling go to check out the victim’s house where they discover that his wife had been the victim of a serious assault earlier that evening. Two masked assailants had entered the house, stripped her, and then bound her to her bed. They had then taken photographs which they emailed to her husband to ensure his cooperation. Further investigation shows that, shortly after receiving that email, he had gone to one of the hospitals where he supported radiation therapy work, and had removed a sizeable supply of caesium pellets in a quantity which could cause considerable mayhem in the wrong hands.
As always, Connelly’s writing is immensely gripping, and he offers the reader a powerful blend of sharp dialogue, watertight plotting and immensely plausible characters. In this novel there is also a deftly-nuanced political subplot, with complicated trade-offs between the various law enforcement bodies, further complicated by deep power plays within LAPD itself.
This book is up there with Connelly’s best work – I am impressed at how he manages to sustain the quality of this series, of which this is the fourteenth instalment.
82. I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.
I know that this book was an immense commercial success, selling millions of copies around the world. I also recognise that a lot of people whose opinion I respect have told me how marvellous it is. Somehow, though, I can’t quite see why.
Certainly, it came close to being so good. The underlying premise of the plot was clever, and I felt that the opening sequence worked very well. Even the principal characters seemed well constructed, but Hayes seemed to lack any understanding of plot structure. Having started the novel with a gruesome murder scene the narrator then spends an inordinately long time going through ever more convoluted reminiscences of his past life and his involvement in the fight against terror over the previous twenty years.
The story suddenly moves to Saudi Arabia, with the arrest and subsequent public execution of an ordinary man who had, apparently, chanced to offer injudicious criticism of the Royal Family. Overheard by a state informer, this led to him being arrested at work, bundled away in a van and then, after having been held in solitary confinement while urged to sign a confession to his unspecified acts of treason, he was publicly beheaded. His family are allowed to decamp to Bahrain, where his fourteen year old son seeks to become a jihadi, sworn to undermining and attacking Western decadence. I wasn’t quite sure why the acts of apparently despotic regime under the house of Saud led him to swear such undying enmity towards the infidel West. I assume my attention must have lapsed, ground down by the sheer weight of verbiage. It is not often that one can suggest that a book would be better if it had been at least three hundred pages shorter, but that seems to apply here!
By a huge coincidence, as I neared the end of the book this morning I heard a programme on BBC Radio 4 hosted by Mark Lawson (one of my favourite arts broadcasters, and one whose own novels I have heartily enjoyed and whom I sorely miss from his former slot on Front Row), which was considering the way in which the nature of television programmes has changed to encompass the merging new platforms through which we access them. The growing predomination of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon prime has led to a growing tendency to binge watch series, which in turn has led to the introduction of regular cliff-hangers. One of the people on the programme suggested that this approach was having an impact on the nature of books, and particularly thrillers. Lawson cited this particular book as an example of how people have started to binge read, which has led to novels becoming unnecessarily overlong, with the introduction with almost metronomic regularlity of a new twist, not to enhance the story but merely for the purposes of spinning the book out. One of the contributors made a very telling point about thrillers written by the likes of Graham Green and his contemporaries who were publishing during the Second world War and period of austerity that followed it, during which paper was rationed. They mastered the art of writing an absorbing thriller, but keeping it down to between two and three hundred pages. Obviously I am not advocating a maximum page limit, and some very long recent novels have been simply marvellous, whether despite or even perhaps because of their length (Donna Tartt’s The ~Goldfinch leaps particularly to mind), but I do wonder whether some writers set great store simply upon the number of pages they can fill.
>135 Eyejaybee: some interesting observations about the size (number of pages) of books, today. I've been an avid reader for 59 years. I have noticed that the length of books today are for the most part, too long! It's not that I'm averse to a lengthy read, but in general, the "average" novel just can't sustain 300 pages plus. Personally, I abhorred The Goldfinch because it was so repetitive; too lengthy! I read this article in The Guardian which addresses this very fact: publishers can't find an audience for mid-length books; short stories and large tomes are the best sellers. Pity that......
135/136 - I agree that novels tend to be longer these days, often without justification, though I think this predates TV streaming services. Taut 200 page novels just don't seem to exist any more.
83. The Billion Dollar Spy by David E Hoffman.*
I am always a bit wary of publishers’ blurbs that assert that a new non-fiction book tells a story more fascinating than fiction, but one of the encomia splattered over this book describes is as ‘non-fiction as rich and resonant as a spy novel by John le Carre or Graham Greene’, and that claim seems more than justified in this case.
David E Hoffman is a renowned journalist, whose account of the end of the Cold War arms race, The Dead Hand, won the Pullitzer Prize. In this book he directs his forensic research skills to the story of Aldolf Tolkachev, a Russian military engineer, who volunteered his services as an espionage agent, and who throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s fed a vast amount of highly valuable intelligence to the Americans.
The field of spy fiction seems polarised either by the technology-strewn James Bond end of the spectrum, with marvellous gadgets designed to help capture the raw intelligence, or the slow, methodical approach dependent upon painstaking human endeavour, as in the world that le Carre has created in which the individual is paramount, and any hi-tech device is a rare boon, often more trouble than it is worth. This non-fictional account seems to encompass both aspects in equal measrures.
There is no hint of Bond- or Bourne-like derring-do, but over the years during which Tolkachev continued to mine the rich seam of military intelligence, he was supplied with a succession of exceptionally innovative cameras with which to capture the documents that came his way. These devices were certainly absolutely at the cutting edge of innovation at the time, and enabled Tolkachev to photograph literally hundreds, or evens thousands, of documents over the years.
He wasn’t just copying any old files, either. Tolkachev had access to immensely significant papers covering the Soviets’ efforts to enhance their radar capacity. Indeed, in the early days, the quality of intelligence that he was offering was so impressive that it almost served to convince the Americans that he was a plant.
Indeed, the Americans seemed reluctant to take him on. During the 1960 ans 1970 there had been a series of failures emanating from Moscow Station, the CIA enclave within the American Embassy, and its activities designed to recruit loval agents had more or less ceased. Tolkachev himself tracked down various American Embassy staff and contacted them, passing on documents as a sample of what e might provide. It was, however, almost two years before he was ‘formally’ recruited as an agent. Thereafter he proved to be the most prolific source of high quality intelligence that the Americans had. The title of the book is a reference (almost certainly an underestimation) of the sums of funding that he is believe d to have saved the American defence industry as the information he yielded enabled the Americans to focus their research and development into areas where the Russians were weak.
The book has certainly been exhaustively researched, but the tone is never oppressive or heavily laden. As the blurbs suggest, the story does indeed read like a well written thriller. Highly entertaining and also highly informative.
84. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke.
This novel, set in 1981, introduces Jay Porter, an African-American defence attorney based in Houston, who will reappear in as protagonist of Pleasantville, set some quarter of a century later in Dallas. As the book opens, Porter and his heavily pregnant wife Bernie are about to board a rather dilapidated boat to sail down the bayou while having a romantic dinner to celebrate her birthday. Money is tight, and Porter has arranged the trip on the cheap through a recent client, although he hadn’t been prepared for the boat to be quite so run down.
Still, the trip goes well and Bernie seems to be enjoying herself until, as they are nearly back at the dock, they hear a woman scream, and then two shots ring out in the night, followed by the sound of running and then someone plunging into the water. Jay and the boat owner are reluctant to become involved, but Bernie persuades them to turn around to investigate. Having done so they find a white woman in an elaborate ball gown swimming in the bayou. They pick her up, and, after they have disembarked, jay drives her to the nearest police station where he lets her out, but does not offer to accompany her inside. Indeed, he drives away before even checking that she has gone in herself.
We learn that Jay is nervous of any contact with the police because he had previously been a prominent figure, at least locally, in the Civil Rights movement, during the 1960s, and had encountered the rougher side of law enforcement all too closely. Through some extended flashbacks we learn that he had faced trial
The novel is set in 1981, although it offers frequent flashbacks to periods in Porter’s past during which he had been on the periphery of the Black panthers, and had arranged for Stokely Carmichael to speak to groups at his university. During that time, he had become friendly with a white woman who was herself prominent in several politically active groups. She is now the Democrat mayor of Houston, now a thriving city riding high on oil wealth, and is struggling to maintain peace and order as the city’s docks are faced with the threat of concerted trade union agitation, although there is fierce rivalry and bitterness between the separate unions representing low paid (and predominantly black) longshoremen and the mainly white stevedores and middle management. Against this backdrop, Porter finds himself representing an African-American woman ‘with a looser understanding of social responsibilities’ (a rather gentle euphemism for prostitute) who is seeking damages from a leading white businessman. As that case proceeds by fits and starts, Jay finds himself being followed by a threatening-looking man perpetually wearing dark glasses.
Like Pleasantville, this book is a fascinating blend of political intrigue, courtroom confrontation and whodunit, with a fair sprinkling of the history of the civil rights movement thrown in. Locke crosses genres with ease, and manages the story with great dexterity. Jay Porter is a good man, and an empathetic character, grappling with self-doubt, money worries and the pressures of supporting his family.
85. The Man Between by Charles Cumming.
I wonder whether there are elements of metafiction here. The protagonist of Charles Cumming’s latest novel, Kit Carradine, is a writer of spy fiction who is approached by a member of the intelligence community with a request to take on a small task on their behalf, under cover of their imminent visit to a literary festival in Morocco. Well, fair enough, In Cumming’s own case, it was his work with the intelligence world that came first, but he is certainly well provide with insight on both aspects of Carradine’s life.
Cumming always writes engagingly, and his books resonate with plausibility about the life of intelligence officers and agents(at least to my uninitiated view). Carradin e is certainly an empathetic character, and one that is sufficiently flawed, or at least afflicted with self doubt, to win the reader’s affection and support.
The story moves rapidly between London, Casablanca (sadly now far removed from the romantic image spawned by the film), Marrakesh and Rabat, and the tension does not flag. One of Cumming’s traits is that he is always right up to the moment. The background to this novel involves tensions around the world following a series of terrorist acts attributed to ‘Resurrection’. This was originally an idealistic anti-capitalist movement that was seeking to give a voice to the socially, politically and monetarily disenfranchised, though it seems to have swayed from its high minded origins, pandering to an ever-hungry world media by undertaking ever more audacious attacks.
Against this backdrop, Carradine is asked simply to deliver some cash to a contact in Casablanca, and then to keep an eye out for a woman who might attend the literary festival at which Carradine is scheduled to speak. By chance, he realises that the woman whom he is to look out for is Lara Bartok, one time girlfriend of the founder of Resurrection, now hunted by law enforcement agencies from all around the world.
The story is, I can reassure you, far more enticing and coherent than my stuttering synopsis above might suggest. Cumming keeps bowling googlies, adding twist after unexpected twist, yet these enhance rather than hamper the story.
One of the most enjoyable spy stories I have read for a while.
86. Angle of Investigation by Michael Connelly.
This collection of short stories spans the career of Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch with the Los Angeles Police Department. One of them offers an entertaining insight into his second day off the force, as a rookie in uniform, when he and his mentoring partner discovered the body of a middle aged woman who had been bound and then drowned in her own bath, along with her pet dog. That investigation was immediately turned over to the Homicide Division, and Bosch had no further involvement. However, more than thirty years later, after having retired and then been re-recruited to work on cold cases, that death (still unresolved) is still playing on his mind. A potential new lead is found and sets Bosch off on a completely new angle. The other two stories are equally engaging, and resonate with all the characteristics that we have come to savour when Bosch is involved.
I am not generally keen on short stories, feeling that all too often one has no sooner fully engaged with the emerging scenario and characters than it is all over. These stories, however, work excellently. Connelly's spare writing style is as well suited to the shorter format as it is to the novel, and the short stories offer Connelly the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in Bosch's life.
87. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer.
I do not understand why Simon Mawer does not have a higher profile among contemporary British novelists. I am sure his novels sell well, and they are always well received by the critics, but for some reason his name does not seem as prominent or as widely recognised as it should be. Indeed, even though this book was well reviewed in The Times, it was buried away in a composite review of recent crime novels or thrillers, rather than meriting a dedicated review of its own.
That is a shame, because fear that too few readers will have the opportunity of enjoying his work, all of which I have found very rewarding. He seems to have been mining a particularly rich seam recently, and this latest book is a fine addition to his oeuvre and can happily sit alongside such great novels as The Glass Room, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Tightrope.
Those previous three books were set in, or at least related heavily to, the Second World War. This latest one, as the name suggests, is set in 1968, and addresses the events leading to the Warsaw Pact ‘intervention’ in Czechoslovakia where a surge of liberalisation was threatening the totalitarian status quo.
Mawer tells his story principally through the agency of two couples. Ellie and James are students at Oxford, from starkly contrasting family backgrounds, who decide to spend the long vacation hitchhiking across the continent, without a fixed itinerary but with a vague hope of getting as far as Italy. As they travel, and as their relationship develops, they take instead to determining their route by tossing a coin. This brings them into contact with various people, including an eminent cellist who tells them that she is shortly to go to perform at a special festival in Prague. Ellie and James decide to alter their route with a view to seeing her concert there, and to try to capture some of the spirit of emancipation that they have heard is prevalent there.
Sam Wareham is an ambitious diplomat working in the Chancery office of the British embassy in Prague. We first encounter him saying goodbye to Stephanie, his girlfriend, who also works in the Embassy but has been reposted to London. Very soon, however, Sam encounters Lenka Konechkova, a Czech student and aspiring journalist, and they quickly establish a close relationship, which provides Sam with a valuable insight into the hopes and ambitions of the young Czech population which is taking advantage of concessions allowed by the current government led by Dubcek. There is, however, already a sense of menace as armed forces from each of Czechoslovakia’s Warsaw Pact neighbours mass around its borders.
Mawer’s gift as a writer is to snare the reader’s attention completely. His characters are well drawn and plausible: each of them is flawed in one way or another, but that somehow renders them more, rather than less empathetic. Ellie is reckless and domineering; James is consumed by northern inverted snobbery and actively looks for slights over which to fume; Sam is desperately ambitious but also slightly pompous; Lenka is headstrong and rather reluctant to compromise. The story fairly races along, and the various plotlines are pulled together very deftly. Of course, we all know what happened and how the political situation was resolved, but wondering how that will impact upon the individual characters simply offers additional savour.
This is another very enjoyable and well crafted book from Simon Mawer.
88. The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly.
Mickey Haller meets Harry Bosch and, in several ways, it gets personal.
This is Michael Connelly’s second novel featuring Mickey Haller, known as the Lincoln Lawyer because of his predilection for working from the back of his Lincoln Town Car, rather than from a conventional office. The opening chapter is set in 1992 and presents Haller acting as defence attorney for a client facing two murder charges. The prosecuting counsel is Jerry Vincent, an Assistant District Attorney well known to Haller. They have faced each other in court several times and have even occasionally socialised together. This time, although the case should really have been a slam dunk for the prosecution, Haller lights upon a convincing line of defence, and secures an astonishing acquittal. Vincent is left so devastated that he throws in the towel as a prosecutor, setting up instead as a defence attorney in his own right.
Fifteen years later, Vincent has a fairly thriving defence practice, and has come to view his embarrassing defeat at Haller’s hands as an epiphany. Indeed, not only does he hold no grudge towards Haller, but has entered into an unofficial pact whereby they both stand in for each other in case either should be indisposed. However, as he prepares for his biggest ever case, the defence of Walter Elliott, a prominent and immensely wealthy film producer accused of murdering his wife and her lover, he is murdered outside his office. As a consequence of their pact, Haller, who had been on a sabbatical for a year following the climax of his previous case in which he ended up being shot by his client, finds he has inherited Vincent’s caseload.
Initially this galvanises Haller, and he throws himself at the work with renewed vigour. As he reviews the caseload, however, he discovers certain anomalies in some of the cases, and in particular that of Walter Elliott. He also finds himself being interviewed by the detective leading the investigation in Vincent’s murder – a certain Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch.
This allows Connelly to drop into a new gear. Previously we have encountered Bosch as the protagonist of his own novels, with everything focused around him. Indeed, two of them were even narrated in the first person by him. Here we get to see him from a new perspective. Connelly handles this well, and Bosch, already decidedly plausible as a character, solidifies even further.
Connelly also shows his ability to switch sub-genres within the crime field. While there is a murder investigation wound throughout the book, it is principally a courtroom drama, and Connelly manages this with the same adroitness as John Grisham. He also manages to throw in several wholly unexpected twists, including the final resolution of the story, which I didn’t spot coming at all.
Another fine addition to a fine series.
89. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.
There was extensive coverage of the death a few weeks ago of Philip Roth who was widely feted as one of the greatest American novelists of his generation. Nearly twenty years ago I read, and enjoyed, I Married a Communist, but had struggled to finish any of his other books. Since his death I have read books from either end of his lengthy career: Portnoy’s Complaint, his first major success, and now The Plot Against America, one of his last novels.
I found Portnoy’s Complaint utterly unappealing, and frankly embarrassing: one of the most distasteful and disappointing books I have read. The Plot Against America is cut from entirely different cloth – an assured and imaginative novel from an established writer still completely in command of his powers. It also has a particularly strong poignancy just now.
The novel offers an alternative history in which in 1940, having experienced the extremes of the huge success of his first solo flight across the Atlantic, and then the tragedy of the kidnap and then death of his infant son, celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh enters domestic politics. Having already raised eyebrows by his apparent praise for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, he makes a series of injudicious comments that are increasingly anti-Semitic in nature. As the Republican Party struggles to find a candidate who could feasibly stand against the incumbent, President Roosevelt, Lindbergh enters the fray, and romps away with the nomination. While the electorate looks on in disbelief, his campaign on an American isolationist platform at a time when Roosevelt was clearly veering towards entering the war in Europe starts to gain traction. Come November, in a devastating turnaround, he wins the Presidency.
This is all recounted through the eyes of Roth himself, who was seven years old in 1940 and living in a Jewish community in New Jersey. As Lindbergh reveals his own anti-Semitism, and then advances in the opinion polls, the community grows increasingly alarmed, yet still can’t believe that he could possibly win. Roth captures the growing disbelief and paranoia very acutely.
Of course, there are strong parallels between the rise of Lindbergh, an ‘amateur’ politician with no experience in government, offering divisive and isolationist policies, and ‘stealing’ an election against what appeared to be a better experienced ‘insider’ from the establishment, and the election of Donald Trump. It also reminded me closely of Sinclair Lewis’s equally prescient 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.
Its resonances were not, however, restricted to America. The British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been riven over the last few months by constant allegations of anti-Semitism, and counter claims that these are backed by pro-Zionist factions within the party. Of course, there is a certain irony that in Roth’s book, anti-Semitism is seen as the province of the Right, while in Britain at the moment it is so much of an issue with the Left.
But back to Roth’s book ...
While I found it interesting and clever, I just couldn’t make myself like it. It was certainly better than Portnoy’s Complaint (well, for one thing I didn’t feel I needed to take a cleansing shower after reading it), but somehow it just didn’t quite appeal to me.
90. Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare.
My first job after graduating from university saw me joining the Civil Service (for the first of three separate careers as humble functionary), and being assigned to Bloomsbury Tax Office. Despite its name, the office was neither situated in, nor presided over, Bloomsbury. Instead, it was located in a particularly shabby office on the corner of Euston Road and Melton Street (reminiscent of one of the more rundown buildings that housed the peripheral branches of the intelligence services in John le Carré’s books) and covered the Inns of Court. As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of its taxpayers were either barristers or solicitors, spanning both the knights of the legal profession in the form of immensely successful QCs whose exploits featured regularly in the Times Law Reports, and also the waifs and strays of the Bar, perpetually struggling to survive from one dock brief to the next, often going months without ever seeing the inside of a court, or receiving even a sniff of a client. I found the traditions of the Bar and its archaic working practices mystifying, yet also utterly captivating, and I have nurtured a fascination for them ever since, and have always loved any literature that touches on the intricacies and vagaries of the legal world.
This book sates that appetite comprehensively, offering a glorious perspective on the pomposities of the Southern Assize Court Circuit. Set in October 1939, as the country gradually subsided into war but before the subsequent privations became apparent, this novel tells of the tribulations of Frank Pettigrew, a down-at-heel barrister (perhaps an early forerunner of John Mortimer's Rumpole) and Mr Justice Barber. Shrouded in pomposity, as in an armour of triple steel, the Judge stumbles through the proceedings, dependent upon the ministrations of his youthful and far more intelligent wife to preserve him from embarrassment. To add a little savour the reader subsequently discovers that before she married the Judge Lady Barber had previously been engaged to Pettigrew.
However, Lady Barber is not on hand to prevent her husband from deciding to drive home after a lawyers' mess dinner in the blackout and knocking over a stranger who suffers damage to his hand and may have to lose a finger. Distressing enough for anyone, this injury is particularly awkward for the victim as he is a fêted classical pianist. Meanwhile the Judge has been receiving threatening but anonymous letters.
The pianist consults his own lawyers who threaten to sue the Judge if a satisfactory settlement cannot be reached out of court. This would, of course, signal the end of his career on the Bench. With all these elements Cyril Hare concocts a fairly heady brew, which eventually culminates with the murder of the Judge outside the Central Criminal Court. Hare, himself a successful barrister, manages his plot masterfully, with a deft lightness of touch. One feels great empathy for Pettigrew, and shudders at the occasional loathsomeness of Barber.
This blend of traditional whodunit and ‘legal procedural’ is an all round success and reads as well today as it did on its original publication more than seventy years ago.
91. Broken Ground by Val McDermid.
Val McDermid is one of our most prolific novelists (this is, I believe, her thirty-second fiction book), and along with a few ‘stand-alone’ stories she has written several series. Perhaps the best known is the series featuring Detective Inspector Carol Jordan and Dr Tony Hill, which transferred (with questionable success in my view) to television as Wire in the Blood. Other than Ian Rankin’s novels featuring John Rebus, I struggle to think of a television adaptation that has proved quite as disappointing, and which might actually have served to deter newcomers from trying the books. I am surprised that her series of books featuring private investigator Kate Brannigan has never made it on to the small screen.
Her most recent recurring character is Detective Inspector Karen Pirie, who leads the Historical Crimes Unit based in Edinburgh’s Gayfield Square police station. McDermid specialises in strong, assertive female characters, and Pirie is no exception. She is also immensely empathetic, and in this novel still finds herself struggling to surmount her grief at the loss of her partner. McDermid also has a fine track record at delivering plausible and well-constructed plots, and this is no exception. In fact, in this novel we have two cleverly balanced criminal plots (one stretching back to the end of the Second World War, while the other is current), with internecine police politicking thrown in as well.
The novel opens with a family treasure hunt in Wester Ross, with an English couple commissioning a local crofter to help uncover two crates buried in peat bogs more than seventy years earlier. In addition to the packages that they were seeking, they uncover a perfectly preserved dead body. The police are summoned, and they in turn summon forensic anthropologist Dr River Wilde, who is the acknowledged expert for such investigations. It soon becomes clear that the body had been the victim of murder, and because of the apparent age of the body, it falls to Karen Pirie’s team to lead the case.
Meanwhile, a bizarre chance encounter in an Edinburgh coffee bar has piqued Karen’s curiosity, though her boss, with whom her relationship could not be much worse, is concerned at her extra-curricular straying. McDermid makes Pirie so empathetic that I found myself absolutely fuming at the outrageous and unfair behaviour of her boss.
Very entertaining and engaging.
92. The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies.
I think that Robertson Davies was really a literary alchemist, with a rare facility to transmute the base metal of daily life, through gentle application of his own blend of arcana, to create the purest storytelling gold. I had the privilege of meeting him once, just a few months before he died, when he appeared at a signing event arranged by the sainted Muswell Hill Bookshop. Of course, I was familiar with his appearance from the small photos that adorned the backs of his books, but somehow, I was still surprised that he sported quite so charismatic a mage-like appearance. By then looking slightly frail, he still effortlessly commanded the room, and I and all of my fellow acolytes were soon swept into epiphanic rapture as he read some pre-selected passages in his tremulous voice. This was like encountering Anthony Powell’s Dr Trelawney at the height of his powers, and I would not have been surprised if he had started his talk by declaring that ‘The Essence of the All is the Godhead of the True’.
I think it would be fair to say that this was not Robertson Davies’s finest novel, although that still leaves considerably scope for it to be very good. Similar in narrative form to ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’, it begins with a stark account of the death of a close friend of the narrator, in this case, an Anglican priest who succumbed to a seizure while assisting the celebration of mass at a High Anglican church in Toronto. The narrator is Doctor Jonathan Hullah, and the priest had been one of his lifelong friends, first encountered when they both attended a classy boarding school in Toronto in the years between the First and Second World Wars. One of their teachers is Dunstan Ramsay, himself the narrator of Davies’s ‘Deptford Trilogy’ and also a peripheral character in ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’ and ‘The Lyre of Orpheus’, and a character whom I have always thought of as an archetype for Davies himself.
In the days following the death, Hullah is approached by a local journalist (who happens also to be the fiancée, and subsequently wife, of his other close schoolfriend), who is eager to build up a picture of the dead cleric’s life, and in particular the truth behind stories from earlier in his life in which he was considered to have wrought a miracle. The novel takes the form of Hullah trying to set straight his memories, in order to avoid any risk of misrepresenting his friend.
This gives Davies the opportunity to recount a potted history of Canada’s cultural life from the nineteen-thirties onwards, and allows him to loose his own acute (and occasionally stinging) barbs at a number of politically and socially prominent figures. Although Hullah is a doctor by profession, he is, like so many of Davies’s protagonists, a Renaissance man, with a deep insight into the arts (especially the theatre), theology and philosophy, and we are given a glittering romp across the academic disciplines.
This was the last book that Davies published. It has close resonances with ‘Murther and Walking spirits’ and is widely believed to have been the second volume in what would have become yet another trilogy. We will never know how that would have worked out, but it may explain why I felt that there was something missing. ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’ works perfectly, both as a self-contained novel, but also as the pivotal novel in ‘The Cornish Trilogy’. With ‘The Cunning Man’ I was left feeling that there were underlying themes that were not properly resolved. That is not to say that it was not a very good, entertaining and satisfying novel, which it was, but I feel we have been robbed of its full splendor … unless, of course, that was all part of the great mage’s scheme. I certainly wouldn’t have put that past him.
93. The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly.
This novel represents Michael Connelly taking one of his regular breaks from the chronicles of Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, although there are a few oblique references to him. The principal character this time is Jack McEvoy, who has figured peripherally in a couple of the Bosch novels, and who was the main protagonist of ‘The Poet’.
McEvoy is an experienced reporter, and for the last nine years has been chief crime correspondent for the LA Times. By 2010, however, the paper is struggling to keep its head above water, as hard copy sales diminish, and even its internet version finds difficulty competing with its rival titles. It is, therefore, ‘downsizing’, and McEvoy falls victim to an austerity drive. Because of the exploits recounted in ‘The Poet’, he had come to the paper as a celebrated journalist who could command a high salary. Nine years on, that high salary puts him on a list of reporters that the paper chooses to ‘let go’, giving him a fortnight’s notice and, to add insult to injury, he is asked to train up his young (and therefore much cheaper) replacement.
Still dazed from his bruising encounter with the newspaper’s HR department, he receives a call from a woman complaining about the way her son has been represented by both the paper and the police. It transpires that he has been arrested for the murder of a young woman whose mutilated body was found in the boot of her car. McEvoy had run a brief story which closely followed a press notice issued by the police. Conscious that there may be some mileage in investigating further, thinking it might make for an interesting final case with the paper, he resolves to look into the case more deeply.
Working with his prospective replacement, who emerges as already highly capable, and desperately ambitious, he uncovers some anomalies in the police handling of the case. Having reviewed the available evidence, he comes seriously to question the conclusions that the police have arrived at, and believes that the man in custody may be innocent. He and his new partner also uncover some strong similarities to a previous murder.
Like ‘The Poet’, this novel is principally recounted in a first-person narrative from Jack McEvoy, occasionally interspersed with third person authorial narration following the actual murder. He is a computer expert and accomplished hacker, who is able to follow McEvoy’s investigation from afar.
This is Connelly being as accomplished as ever: a strong, watertight plot and highly plausible characters. Connelly just seems to get even better as time goes on.
94. Mulholland Drive by Michael Connelly.
Three more very accomplished short stories from Michael Connelly. As ever, he displays his great versatility. These stories are completely different from each other, yet each display his trademarks of direct, effective prose, believable characters and plots that work on all levels. He also sucks the reader in from the very first word.
Connelly is as good at short stories as he is at novels.
95. Transcription by Kate Atkinson.
A new novel from Kate Atkinson is always a bit of an event for the literary world. Not only does she devise intriguing and captivating plots, but she is keen to experiment with formats and perspectives in a way that keeps the reader guessing. This latest novel is perhaps more conventional than her last two, eschewing the raft of alternative futures used to such marvellous effect in Life after Life, and more irritatingly in A God in Ruins, although the story does move around in time, starting in 1981 before moving back to 1950 and 1940.
Juliet Armstrong is an orphan and was recruited more or less from her school into the Secret Service during the final run up to the start of the Second World War. She is not, however, one of the dashing heroines parachuted into France to bolster the Resistance, or sent to work behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe. Indeed, most of her work falls within the purview of administrative support, and it is her secretarial rather than espionage skills that are most in demand.
After going through various roles and tasks she finds herself working in a flat in Dolphin Square, typing transcriptions of conversations recorded from the neighbouring apartment. There one of her associates, Godfrey Toby, holds court to a range of disaffected women who all complain bitterly about the descent into war, maintaining that Germany is being misrepresented and also expressing sympathy for the Nazi cause. From that starting point many of them move on to collecting potentially useful information, such as the location and layout of military establishments, which they gleefully report to Toby. The women are convinced that he is reporting all their information back to Germany.
This book has all of Atkinson’s trademarks … close observation of intriguing detail, and an array of finely drawn characters. Juliet is not exclusively likeable, but is utterly plausible. She has her own moral compass, which allows for a certain degree of pragmatic opportunism as well as some very funny internal dialogues. Of course, as this is Atkinson’s world, there are some potentially farcical moments, juxtaposed with others of great gravity, and some of grotesqueness. Somehow she always manages to get the balance just right.
96. 1222 by Anne Holt.
Well, the Guardian’s Books Section really sold me the dummy here! Over recent years it has taken to publishing lists of the Ten best examples of different niche genres of books. Last week I read its contributors’’ list of the best ten crime stories based around rail journeys, and this book figured prominently. Having read and enjoyed several other books quoted on the list, and finding myself in the gloriously-stocked Piccadilly branch Waterstone’s, and needing to buy something to start reading on my journey home, I decided to take a chance and bought this.
Even as I bought it I had a few doubts. Despite the burgeoning popularity of ‘Scandinavian noir’ as a genre, I have never yet managed to finish one. It is, of course, recognised as one of the signs of incipient madness to keep performing the same action while expecting a different outcome, so perhaps I may need some sort of therapy in that direction.
I certainly won’t be buying any further examples of Scandinavian noir without compelling evidence that the book in question is worth it. I did not like this novel at all.
The premise is one with great potential. The novel is narrated by Hanne Wilhelmsen, a disabled former police investigator who had been travelling on a train from Oslo to Bergen, just as the worst storm for decades begins to gather strength. Without warning, the train is derailed and crashes into the opening of a tunnel. As darkness falls, and the temperatures plummet, the survivors (and everyone on the busy train survives apart from the driver) are helped off the train. As luck would have it, a vast hotel is close to hand, and as the tourist season has not yet begun, there is ample space to put up the survivors. The storm continues to gain force, and the hotel is soon cut off from the rest of the country. During their first night in the hotel, one of the survivors is murdered.
All this is set up for a taut reworking of the old-fashioned isolated household murder with everyone left suspecting each other, and anxiously waiting for the next murder to happen. Sadly, this potentially promising scenario never came to decent fruition, and it wholly failed to ignite my interest.
I don’t know whether the problem was predominantly one of style (emanating either from the original Norwegian text, the English translation or - most probably - a combination of both), or simply the fact that, without exception, every character was desperately unpleasant (with Hanne Wilhelmsen being the worst of all of them). Whatever the cause, I found myself wishing that the murders might accelerate so that I could be spared further suffering. This story would have been far better if all the characters had died in the original crash along with the poor train driver.
97. A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott.
What a marvellous book! I bought it as a bit of a punt during a post-payday book spree, largely on the basis of a very favourable review in The Times. I have been sold the dummy by those reviews before, of course, but I am glad I heeded this one.
It moves between the present day and various points during the Second World War and the years immediately following it. It opens in the present day with the grim discovery of the corpse of an elderly woman, killed in a car in the parking lot of the main railway station in Orleans. Police Captain Inès Picaut is called to the scene, and immediately recognises the killing as a professional assassination, rather than a random theft-driven crime. Picaut and all her colleagues are also struck by how beautiful the victim had been.
It is not easy to identify the victim, although Picaut and her team eventually establish that she was using the name of Sophie Destaville. This doesn’t advance their investigation very far as Ms Destaville seems to have left no computer footprint, suggesting that it was merely a pseudonym, or perhaps more appropriately a nom de guerre. They do, however, find a business card sewn into the lining of the dead woman’s jacket. Picaut is additionally concerned because the killing has all the hallmarks of a terrorist act: significant enough in France in these sombre days, but more poignant still as a major conference of senior international security service personnel is currently in progress in Orleans itself. The business card leads Picaut’s team to a film company that has been making a documentary about the Maquis, the Resistance Forces that led the fight against the German occupation of France during the War.
Meanwhile, the narrative flits back to the Second World War, focusing on various French members of the Resistance, and on their close contacts among the British intelligence services and the newly created Special Operations Executive. We see them going through commando-style training in the Scottish Highlands and receiving intensive initiation onto the world of cryptology. The chapters set in the war paint a fascinating picture of the grim nature of life for the Resistance, and for the people living in the areas in which they were active. It has seemed all too easy in recent years to talk about rampant collaboration in Vichy France, but this book shows how much more complex the issue was. In many ways this was reminiscent of Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and Sebastian’s Faulks’s Charlotte Gray, although though I think it was even better than either of them.
All the key ingredients of a great novel are here: a gripping plot, a mystery story, and a cast of immensely plausible characters, complete with an enigmatic protagonist in Picaut. As if all that were not enough, Scott writes with great elegance, too
All in all, a very serendipitous selection, and one of the best books I have read all year.
98. Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks.
Ever since his immense critical and commercial success with Birdsong, a new novel from Sebastian Faulks has always been a major event in the literary world. His A Week in December is one of my favourite novels (although I think that Capital by John Lanchester – and how eagerly I await a new novel from him – covered similar ground even more effectively), but I struggled to engage with some of his more recent books.
As a regular participant in BBC Radio 4’s literary quiz programme, The Write Stuff, he has showcased his ability to produce marvellous pastiches of established icons, although I found his contribution to the ‘official’ James Band canon, Devil May Care, rather disappointing, and his officially sanctioned addition to P G Wodehouse’s corpus, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells was simply an embarrassment to all concerned. I was, therefore, a little uncertain as I embarked upon this latest novel, although all the reviews that I had seen had been very favourable.
On this occasion, those reviewers spoke with straight tongue. This is a clever and engaging novel, and features several of Faulks’s soundest characteristics. It is set in Paris in 2006 and takes the form of two counterpoised narratives, one related by Hannah, an American academic who has returned to the city after a gap of ten years. In her previous visit she had been a postgraduate student, embarking upon an academic career. While there she had fallen into a passionate, but ultimately damaging, relationship with a Russian playwright who, after a few months, simply moved away, returning to his wife in Russia. This time, Hannah is commissioned to write a chapter for an academic study of life in Paris during the German occupation between 1940 and 1944.
The other account is related by Tariq, a disaffected young Moroccan who reaches such a pitch of frustration with his family life that he decides to leave, making his way by ferry to France. Having landed in Marseille, he befriends a young French woman, Sandrine, who is trying to make her way to Paris. Sandrine is clearly unwell, and once they reach Paris, Tariq shows unwonted initiative and manages to find them a room to live in, and to secure a job for himself. Meanwhile, Sandrine’s health deteriorates, to such an extent that Hannah comes across her lying ill in a doorway, and takes her into her own rented apartment. Tariq joins them there shortly afterwards, at which point a recuperated Sandrine suddenly departs, trying to make her way to England.
The rest of the novel revolves around Tariq’s attempts to establish himself in Paris, and to develop sufficient maturity to encourage Hannah to allow him to continue to occupy a room in her flat, while Hannah pursues her researches, with mixed success. However, as this is Faulks, the are some of his characteristic quirks of time and place, with both Tariq and Hannah experiencing momentary displacement, as the depth of the city’s history exerts its power upon them. The sense of history at work is heightened by Faulks’s use of stations on the Paris Metro as chapter titles. Perhaps more than any other underground system, reading the line maps of the Paris Metro is like a history lesson in itself, and Tariq is made increasingly aware of the city’s past as he wanders the streets and rides the subway to pass his time.
This may not quite be up to the standard of A Week in December, and will probably fall well short of the commercial success enjoyed by Birdsong, but it is a thoughtful and well written novel, and shows Faulks coming close to his former high standards.
99. Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly.
In his previous homicide investigations Bosch has encountered some of the hundred (perhaps thousands) of gangs that operate in Los Angeles, but the murder of John Li, a Chinese-American owner of a convenience store, brings him into contact with the Triads for the first time.
Li is shot in his own store one evening, and after uniformed cops have attended the scene, Bosch and his partner, Ignacio Ferras, are called out from the Homicide Unit to take over. There are initially very few clues available, and although there had been a security camera in place, the assailant has been sufficiently composed after the murder to remove the recording. Bosch does, however, uncover one unusual feature- before he died, John Li had picked up one of the shells from the shooting, and had put it in his mouth.
Bosch and Ferras initially struggle to make headway until Bosch discovers that Li had separated out the DVD recordings from the security camera for two previous days. Study of these suggests that Li was making a regular pay-off to someone who arrived at the same time each week, which match the time in which he had been shot. Bosch suspects that this might represent a protection payment to a Triad gang, and liaises with the specialist unit run by LAPD to deal with such crimes. With their help, the man collecting the previous payments is identified and arrested.
Out of the blue, Bosch then receives a message from his daughter who lives in Hong Kong with Eleanor, his ex-wife, or at least from her phone – it is a picture showing her tied up and gagged. Convinced that Triad connections have targeted her in order to force his compliance, he flies over to Hong Kong to try to find her. Thousands of miles from his home turf, and distraught with fear over his daughter’s fate, Bosch enters a wholly different world, with devastating consequences.
As ever with the Bosch novels, the story surges along with a compelling plot and very plausible characters. Perhaps not the strongest instalment of the canon, this is still an impressive and gripping novel.
100. Love is Blind by William Boyd.
In my opinion, William Boyd is probably the finest living British writer … indeed, perhaps the finest living writer from anywhere, and this novel is a worthy addition to his canon. He seems capable of taking on any genre and in his previous works has served up intricate espionage thrillers (Restless or Waiting for Sunrise), bildungsroman works (The New Confessions), or often hilarious comedies such as A Good man in Africa or Stars and Bars. He has also excelled in the pseudo biography, such as Sweet Caress or Any Human Heart. One theme that underpins all of these is his ability to deliver a compelling and embracing love story.
This book tells the story of Brodie Moncur. Born in the Scottish Borders in 1870, son of a querulous, bullying clergyman, Brodie was identified early in his childhood as possessing perfect pitch, and was trained as a choirboy. Sadly, his voice broke so completely as to rule out any future career as a singer, but he retained his pitch, and was encouraged to learn how to play the piano. He didn’t excel at playing the instrument, but because of his gift of perfect pitch, he became a very accomplished tuner of pianos.
As the novel opens, he is working for Channon and Co, the most prestigious Scottish piano manufacturer, and is shortly despatched to work as assistant manager in the firm’s Paris showroom. Full of ideas, he suggests that the firm should commence a partnership with a noted concert pianist, paying them a fee and hoping to reap the benefit of such celebrated endorsement of their pianos. Pursuit of this idea brings Brodie into contact with John Kilbarron, a celebrated and enigmatic Irish virtuoso, perhaps slightly past his best but still a draw across the European classical music circuit. Brodie and Kilbarron strike up a mutually successful relationship that brings in a lot of money for both parties. The relationship is never entirely comfortable, however, not least because Brodie falls in love at first sight with Lydia (“Lika”) Blum, an aspiring opera singer and Kilbarron’s companion. Beset with a series of setbacks, Brodie remains obsessively in love with Lika, and ends up following the Kilbarron entourage across Europe, ending up in St Petersburg where Kilbarron finds a wealthy patron who wants him to be the focal point in her bid to establish her own prestigious musical theatre. The course of true love never did run smooth, of course, and Brodie and Lika soon find themselves deep in tribulation.
As always, Boyd’s prose style is beautiful – he writes with clarity and elegance, and ensnares the reader’s attention within a few lines. He also manages to convey a huge amount of technical information about the construction and tuning of pianos, as well as painting enticing pictures of a number of locations across Europe, without ever taxing the reader’s patience or seeming to preach. The various denouements (and the book has several twists that I never saw coming) are brilliantly constructed and delivered – put together as masterfully as a Channon & Co grand piano.
As it happens, this was the hundredth book I have read this year, and I seriously believe that it is the best, by a considerable margin.
Congratulations, Ian. I'm currently on my 77th and 78th books, so some way to go.
101. The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk.*
The phrase ‘The Great Game’ has been immortalised through Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. The eponymous young protagonist becomes a vital link in the intelligence network developed by the British administration in Northern India during the 1880s to monitor, and then thwart, threatened incursions into central Asia by the Russians. Kipling did not coin the phrase, which was first employed by Captain Arthur Connolly, who was executed in Bokhara in 1842 at the order of the Emir, after having been captured on a spying mission.
Throughout the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, Russia expanded its already considerable sphere of influence at a vast rate, gradually annexing and then consolidating the largely barren tracts constituting Siberia to the east. It also turns its attention towards British-occupied India to the south, seeking to expand through Afghanistan and surrounding lands. Britain was acutely aware of these expansionist ambitions, which were exacerbated by alliances between Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, which had the express aim of conquering and then sharing India. British diplomats were, consequently, relentless in their bids to make a succession of treaties with the rulers of neighbouring territories in a bid to establish a buffer zone between Russian-held areas and the borders of its own Empire.
The lands in question were certainly worthy of colonial consideration. Names such as Bokhara, Samarkand, Trebizond and Khiva had already been romanticised as sources of exotic eastern splendour and came to feature regularly in military intelligence despatches. The terrain was inhospitable in the extreme, but the lure of the hypothesised riches was stronger still.
This, then, is the rich vein of history upon which Peter Hopkirk draws for his comprehensive history of British engagement in intelligence missions throughout Central Asia. I had previously read, and enjoyed, his books on the derring-do of the members of the Secret Operations Executive during the Second World War. With those books, however, the ambit was narrower, and his accounts focused on the detail of the missions. I found this book less engrossing, and wonder whether Hopkirk had misplaced his efforts. He had clearly conducted exhaustive research, but seemed unsure whether he was writing a formal history of the period or, instead, a fast-paced thriller. I suspect that as a boy Hopkirk probably devoured the works of G. A. Henty (and why not? so did I!), and this book adopts a similar tone. Henty’s books have long been out of fashion, both because of their dated content but and also their stilted style. Having read a host of modern history works that combine rigorous research with clarity of address, I found this book sadly dated. Overall, I found its rather outmoded attempts to inject immediacy failed, and the tone of the book reminded me of the rather patronising history text books that I had to wade through as a thirteen year old.
102. In A House of Lies by Ian Rankin.
John Rebus may finally have retired, but he has not noticeably mellowed at all. Ian Rankin originally made a point of ageing his curmudgeonly protagonist in real time, taking him from being forty years old on his first appearance in Knots and Crosses in 1987 to his initial (and largely enforced) retirement from the police force at the age of sixty in 2007, as detailed in Exit Music. Since then, however, Rankin seems to have allowed the ageing process to slow down, and Rebus seems still to be in his mid-sixties as this new novel opens. He has, however, been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD – as one character remarks, trust him to have a condition with ‘COP’ in its name), and has finally (almost unimaginably) given up smoking.
Of course, retirement does not stop him from taking an interest in the doings of his former colleagues. When an old corpse is recovered from a car that had been dumped in Poretoun Woods , on the fringes of the capital, he is particularly intrigued, and is quick to contact his former protegée Siobhan Clarke, now herself an inspector. The dead person is eventually identified as a private investigator who had disappeared twelve years ago. At that time, he had been retained by a film producer to investigate the affairs of a local property magnate with whom the producer was competing in a bid to buy Poretoun Woods.
At the time of the disappearance the investigator’s family had lodged numerous complaints against the police, ranging from incompetence and apathy through to outright corruption. Because of that, the discovery of the corpse draws additional public interest beyond what might have been expected, and the investigator’s family whips up a media storm to demand an inquiry. We soon learn that Rebus himself had worked on the original investigation, with an assortment of incompetent colleagues who each had their own secret vice to hide. Being under a cloud was, of course, Rebus’s default setting, but back in the present day, Siobhan Clarke has also had her own brush with disciplinary action. If not exactly vindicated, she has at least emerged with the equivalent of a ‘not proven’ verdict, but the two officers who investigated her seem also to loom large over the present case, not least because they too had been involved in the original investigation twelve years ago.
Rankin has always been dextrous at maintaining several storylines, but this novel has his most complex plot yet. Indeed, perhaps the ageing process has not been as gentle with me in recent years as it has with Rebus, because I did wonder at times whether Rankin was simply making it as interlaced as possible simply for the sake of it.
All the customary features are present – Rebus is as ‘thrawn’ as ever although perhaps Siobhan Clarke is a little less patient than in the past. Rebus’s bête noir, Maurice Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty is present, as beguiling and menacing as ever, and relative new boy, Malcolm Fox (formerly of the Complaints Division) is there too.
The mixture works, although I wonder how many more novels Rankin can wring from these ingredients before the quality starts to fall away. I can think of several writers of long detective novel series that outlived their sell by dates - Peter Robinson and Patricia Cornwell being clear examples to my mind of writers whom I previously admired but whose recent books have lurched from one embarrassment to another, eroding their former reputation a little further with each new outing. I suspect that Rankin is a far better writer than either of them, even at their best, so I hope he has sufficient insight to know when he ought to bring down the curtain.
103. The Moscow Sleepers by Stella Rimington.
I remember that when the Berlin Wall came down, and the Russian suzerainty over the Warsaw Pact countries dissolved, some commentators speculated that the spy novel was more or less obsolete as a consequence.
Obviously, subsequent events demonstrated that nothing could be further from the truth, and the various intelligence services, both in the West and the former Soviet demesne are busier than ever, prompting a commensurate explosion in the spy fiction genre. Old hands such as John le Carre merely moved the focus of their novels away from the traditional Cold War to embrace the tensions emerging in the former Soviet republics, and then the War Against Terror.
Stella Rimington wasn’t writing spy novels back in the Cold War period – she was living the life in her role as Director General of MI5, a provenance that naturally imparts a strong assumed verisimilitude to the novels she has written since her retirement. Certainly, her protagonist Liz Carlyle is very capable, likeable and above all plausible. While she can call upon a fair degree of technical support from her team, she does not exist in James Bond’s product endorsement world, and has to rely upon her own resourcefulness.
As it happens, the plot in her latest novel seems to be bringing us back to the cold war. As it opens, MI5 and MI6 are still disinterring the full ramifications of the outcome of Rimington’s previous novel, in which a Russian spy cell involving deep-placed sleeper agents was uncovered. It now appears that the network extending further than previously believed, and the British intelligent services and their American counterparts are trying to round up the final participants. Meanwhile, a German official working in the European Union Commission in Brussels has been living a double life for years, and is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the burden that his secret is placing upon him. Liz Carlyle finds herself and her team called upon to intervene as they receive intelligence from reliable sources that suggest an extensive cybersecurity threat is being developed.
Rimington’s experience enables her to deploy a range of frighteningly contemporary issues, giving this novel has a vivid topicality.
@103 - Hi Ian, I read the first of Stella Rimington's novels back in 2010 but have not read any since, though I have a few of the others - must pick up number 2.
104. Nat Tate; An American Artist 1928-1960 by William Boyd.
In a departure from the novels for which he came to fame, William Boyd devotes this book to a brief life of Nat Tate, a largely unrecognised and sadly short-lived American artist, best known for his series of paintings and drawings of bridges. Boyd recounts Tate’s all-too-short life and the book is illustrated with a selection of Tate’s better works.
Boyd’s account is sympathetic and engaging, and liable to draw in new admirers of Tate’s works, many of whom might find themselves wondering why they had not encountered his art before. Hints to the reason for that might be found in Boyd’s account, one of the most prominent sources for which is the journal of British man of letters, Logan Mountstuart. Mountstuart himself is, of course, the subject of what many consider to be Boyd’s masterpiece, Any Human Heart (although I now wonder if he has now surpassed even that novel with his latest book, Love is Blind).
The truth is that Nat Tate is as fictional as Logan Mountstuart. With support from David Bowie and Gore Vidal, Boyd launched the life and works of Nat Tate as part of a prank against the New York art world, many of whose members initially claimed to rem ember the subject from years before.
The tone of the brief life is brilliantly captured, and certainly feels entirely credible. Some of the artworks cited as being by Tate were actually by Boyd himself, with the others being drawn from the photograph collections of some of Boyd’s friends who were in on the act.
All very amusing and entertaining. I rather wish that Tate had been real.
105. Into the Fire by Manda Scott.
One of my favourite books so far this year has been Manda Scott’s A Treachery of Spies, set principally in modern day Orleans but also flitting back to the Second world War and following the exploits of members of the French Resistance and some of the British comrades who helped to train them. When I read that book, I hadn’t appreciated that it was the second in a series featuring Capitaine Inès Picaut.
Into the Fire is the first book in that series, and while entertaining, I found it less readily engaging. I suspect that if I had read this book first, I might not have made much effort to discover the second, and would, as a consequence, have missed out on a gem. That is not to say that Into the Fire is a bad book – there is considerable scope for being less good than A Treachery of Spies but remaining a diverting read.
Here the principal action driving the story is a series of arson attacks across contemporary Orleans. Responsibility for the fires has been claimed by a hitherto unknown radical Islamist group. A corpse is found in the aftermath of the fourth fire, subsequently identified as a Scottish doctor. The death puts additional pressure on Picaut’s police squad which is investigating the fire. Additional media attention arises because Picaut’s estranged husband is currently campaigning to be mayor in an imminent local election.
Interspersed with events in modern days Orleans are chapters recounting the gradual rise to prominence of Joan of Arc during the Hundred Years War. These sections focus on the exploits of Tod (or Tomas) Rustbeard, and Englishman who has gone under cover in the French forces with a view to learning more about the mysterious Joan.
I think that this novel was probably rather longer, and far more complicated, than it needed to be. The seemingly endless series of twists, particularly in the historical back plot, seemed contrived, and I wondered whether they were there simply to demonstrate the writer’s dexterity.
I am glad I read this book, but my primary response is to consider how much better its successor was.
106. The Reversal by Michael Connelly.
Veteran attorney Mickey Haller (known within LA legal circles as ‘the Lincoln Lawyer’ because of his tendency to work from the back of his Town Car rather than a conventional office) has established a reputation as one of the city’s leading defence advocates. This novel sees him crossing the void and agreeing for the first, and almost certainly last, time to represent the prosecution.
It is, of course, no ordinary case. The defendant, Jason Jessup, had already served twenty-four years after having been convicted of the murder of a young girl, abducted from her family garden. Following a review of some cold cases, new evidence has emerged that potentially weakens the original prosecution case, although it falls far short of exonerating Jessup. Indeed, having reviewed all the remaining evidence, the District attorney’s office decides it wants to retry Jessup but, as this is an election year, the DA decides to appoint an ‘independent’ prosecutor. Based upon his successful career as a savvy defence lawyer, he decides that Haller might be the best person for the role.
Haller is a natural supporter of the defence, but is enticed by a number of factors. Connelly handles this reversal of attitudes very adeptly, and we see Haller making a number of tactical errors early on, as his old defence habits get the better of him. He has a few things going for him, though, such as his former wife (a seasoned prosecutor) acting as his prosecution partner, and his half-brother, veteran LAPD detective, Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, acting as lead investigator to support the new case.
Connelly’s books are always gripping, and one of his strengths is his ability to keep taking the detective story into different areas, yet still making it work. This novel successfully blends the John Grisham school of legal thriller with a traditional exciting police procedural. As always, his characters are very plausible, and his dialogue utterly convincing.
107. Moscow, Midnight by John Simpson.
I was very disappointed with this novel. I have admired John Simpson as one of the BBC’s leading foreign news correspondents for many years, so my expectations were all for a well written topical thriller, bristling with acute insights. Somehow, despite an intriguing opening, it never quite came to fruition.
Veteran journalist Jon Swift is called to attend the scene of death of Patrick Macready, a prominent backbench Conservative MPO who appears to have succumbed to a misjudged attempt at autoeroticism. Swift is shocked as Macready had been one of his closest friends. The circumstances of the death appal him, seeming entirely at odds with the man whom he knew. Shortly after the death, Swift comes into possession of Macready’s iPad, which contains details of certain investigations he had been following. Swift becomes increasingly convinced that the bizarre death was actually a murder, arranged to stop Macready’s research while publicly discrediting him.
So far, so good, but a potentially strong plot scenario was smothered by unexpectedly turgid writing. Swift himself is a particularly unpleasant character, and the book might have been more enjoyable if it had been him who was found dead at the beginning. Given that he was the narrator, it would all have been over a lot more quickly, too.
108. Slow Horses by Mick Herron.
I heard a radio programme over the weekend in which an established journalist offered some advice to aspiring cub reporters. One of his key tips was never to ‘bury the lead’, as many readers have a relatively short attention span. One should, instead, pitch your key message as near the start of the piece as possible. As someone who spends his days drafting replies to correspondence received by government ministers, I often find myself counting upon that waning attention span. Still, let’s try it the other way. Here goes …
This is one of the best spy novels I have ever read, and I have read a lot of spy novels. What made it even better was that I came across it entirely fortuitously in my local bookshop, so I had an enjoyable feeling of serendipity, too.
Jackson Lamb heads up a branch of MI5 based in Slough House in East London. His officers are not, however, engaged on active operations, and instead spend their time on repetitive strands of background research. The truth is that they have all messed up previously in their careers, and have been consigned to Slough House as a form of internal exile, and have come to be known as the ‘slow horses’. They are a disparate bunch, too, each of them seeming to have their own dysfunctional aspects. These are difficult times, however, and the slow horses gradually become immersed in the sidelines of a major developing crisis as a young man is kidnapped and held hostage, with his captors threatening to behead him in forty-eight hours.
Jackson Lamb is a marvellous character: perpetually angry and crushingly impatient, he shows a relentless disdain for the officers under his charge. He does, however, have operational pedigree. He needs it: internal intrigue is about to rip the service apart, and Lamb will have to dig deep into his long experience to try to hold things together.
The plot is elaborate, but always plausible, and holds together despite the many twists and turns. Herron writes with great immediacy – the reader is gripped from the start, and is immediately completely engaged.
109. The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly.
When I was younger, I was a bit of a crime fiction junkie, and used devour one thriller after another, never imagining that I might become sated with them. That appetite crossed subgenres, and I was equally happy reading traditional ‘cosy’ whodunnits or grisly police procedurals, but I developed a particular liking for American crime fiction, and would eagerly await a new offering from the likes of Patricia Cornwell or Sue Grafton. Then, perhaps as I moved into my early thirties, something happened and that appetite vanished. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision, but I went for several years, perhaps even a couple of decades without reading a transatlantic thriller. By chance, however, I was given a couple of Michael Connelly’s book a few years ago, and dipped my toe back in the water, being won over by his tightly written early stories featuring Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, the cynical LAPD homicide detective.
This was not a sudden or lasting reversal, like a recovering alcoholic lapsing one night and finding himself plunged back into the throes of addiction, and the rekindled taste seems to be restricted solely to Connelly’s books. I have tried to read some of his peers, such as Harlan Coben and Robert Crais, but can’t come to terms with them, and despite making several attempts, I have never managed to read more than a couple of chapters of any of Lee Child’s books. (Yes! I know Lee Child is actually British, but Jack Reacher seems so effectively to have cornered a substantial part of that particular market as to have secured his author at least honorary American citizenship.)
It seems, however, that for me this has definitely become the year of Michael Connelly. The Fifth Witness must be about the twentieth book by him that I have read so far in 2018, and I am impressed that I have not found any significant wavering in their quality, and I haven’t found myself become bored with them. That is, I believe, because Connelly has a gift for plausible but gripping plots, and convincing characters. He has two principal protagonists: Harry Bosch, the hard-bitten police detective and Mickey Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer, so called because he tends to work from the back of his Town Car rather than a conventional office. As it happens, the two of them are half-brothers, both sons of Michael J Haller, also a renowned defence lawyer, although their lives had been entirely separate until well into their respective adulthoods.
On balance, I think I prefer the stories in which Bosch is the principal character, but the Mickey Haller stories are all very effective courtroom dramas. Among Connelly’s gifts as a writer are his flexibility and penchant for topicality. In this novel, Haller finds himself defending Lisa Trammel who has been accused of murdering a bank executive. As it happens, Trammel was already a client of Haller’s before the murder took place. In the wake of the economic downturn of 2008, Haller had found a new, lucrative avenue of business helping people fight the wave of mortgage foreclosures that had swept through America in general, and Los Angeles in particular. Trammel had been one such client, and she had gained some degree of celebrity after having started a campaign against what she portrayed as immoral and unfair foreclosure practices.
Haller is far from perfect, and is above all an opportunist, prepared to surrender his position of unassailable rectitude if he sees a chance to strengthen his client’s case, although he does retain an overall respect for the principal of justice. Consequently, Connelly is careful never to ensure that Haller’s opponents (in this case, prosecuting counsel Andrea Freeman) are portrayed as equally professional. There are also intriguing complications. Haller has two ex-wives, one of whom is a lifelong prosecutor and colleague of Ms Freeman, which throws up additional tensions as he attempts to balance his conduct of the case with his personal and family life.
Overall, a very compelling and convincing courtroom drama, with numerous twists and catches along the way.
110. Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald.
During the 1980s, Penelope Fitzgerald became a (or should that be ‘an’?) habituée of the Booker Prize shortlist, after having won with her third novel, Offshore, in 1979. She was, however, rather a late starter when it came to novels, waiting until nearly the age of sixty before publishing her first book. She had, however, had a long literary career, editing the magazine World Review along with her husband during the 1950s, and through it being responsible for the initial publication of several significant works, including J D Salinger’s collection For Esme, With Love and Squalor. Prior to that, she had worked for the BBC during the Second World War.
This novel draws upon her wartime experiences at Broadcasting House, which she portrays in a loving, though far from hagiographical, way. In this novel, set in 1940, just after Churchill’s accession to Downing Street, truth was paramount, and the Beeb strove to render as impartial an account as possible of the progress of the war. Of course, for the overwhelming majority of the country, the BBC meant radio in those days, television being very much a minority interest.
While its campaign to retain independence from governmental influence was being maintained, it was also riven by internal strife, between the Department for Recorded Programmes and the Directorate of Programme Planning, responsible for live broadcasts. Sam Brooks, the head of the former, is a dreamer, forever seeking to capture the essence of Englishness through recordings of everyday activity (perhaps not too dissimilar from the segments of ‘Slow Radio’ that have become so integral to Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme on Sunday mornings), while his live broadcast counterpart, Jeffery Haggard, is eager to have every news bulletin, and any political speeches, delivered live across the air.
Fitzgerald indulges in some gentle and entertaining satire, such as when the ageing French General Pinard, having freshly escaped from the German Occupation back home, is invited to address the country. His speech goes off at a wholly unexpected tangent before he succumbs, almost fortuitously, to what proves to be a fatal coughing fit.
It is, however, principally a novel about individuals, and their relationships, and Fitzgerald deftly captures the friendships, interdependencies and petty jealousies of people from different backgrounds forced to work together in often uncomfortable proximity. Reflecting its time, all of the women fulfil sadly subservient roles within the BBC, although they emerge as by far the stronger characters. How different might the story have been if there had been a Carrie Gracie on hand to galvanise their spirits.
111. The Drop by Mick Herron.
This novella picks up from Herron’s previous long short story, The List. While it lies outside the general Slough House narrative, it does serve to explain how one of the team of ‘slow horses’ found themselves being sent to that administrative limbo.
It is an intricately plotted story, and while it lacks a lot of the dark humour of the novels, it does showcase Herron’s capacity to capture the essential characteristics of his protagonists in just a few telling words. It is difficult to say too much about the story without risking compromising the twists of the plot. I found it very entertaining, and it has simply whetted my appetite for the next full length instalment of the slow horses chronicles, which I believe is due for publication early next year
112. Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh.
Around forty years ago, in my early teens, I devoured traditional mystery stories. I worked my way through one Agatha Christie novel after another, with that dogged obsessive urge to ‘complete the set’ which is common to boys. When I had finished all the Agatha Christie books I could lay my hands on, I moved on to Ngaio Marsh’s novels featuring her upper crust copper, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Once again, after having started with Death at the Dolphin, selected at random from my parents’ bookshelves, I read one of her books after another.
Looking back, I recognise now that I was a wholly undiscerning reader. I read those Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh books solely for the plots, and took everything at face value. Of course, now I recognise that there was a vast ferment of tacit social comment lying hidden in Agatha Christie’s stories, and when I have revisited some of them recently I have enjoyed her gentle satire of social conventions particularly in the largely rural settings that so many of them enjoy.
In my teenage dalliance with Ngaio Marsh I was similarly oblivious to the settings, and the slightly wry commentary on the socially elevated circles in which so many of her stories were set. Coming back to them now, I feel that they have not aged as well as those of Agatha Christie. I struggled with this book, set against a context of debutantes’ balls and the coming out process. I don’t think that this was a judgement on that now archaic world itself, but more a difficulty accommodating the slightly smirking condescension with which Dame Ngaio portrayed it all. In Death in a White Tie, the plot develops very slowly. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing and initially came as a welcome relief to the tendency among today’s thrillers to pitch the reader headlong into an already developed situation. In this case, however, it seemed to move with glacial slowness, establishing in intricate detail a social circle in which a blackmailer was taking his toll on various targets among the debutantes’ mothers and guardians. I am by no means reluctant ti have a scene set carefully, but this was like watching a normally slow 3D printer on a work to rule protest.
Inspector Alleyn was as decorous and discreet as ever, and the actual construction of the crime, and the manner in which he found the solution, seemed as sound and entertaining as it had forty-odd years ago. Unfortunately, I am not sure that the enjoyment afforded by the kernel of the plot was sufficient to outweigh the annoyance I found in the tone of the writing.
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