G FileI found deciding on one book to recommend to dear Maxine a difficult task, but after several weeks prevarication I have selected The G File by Hakan Nesser translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. The G File is a very long book weighing in at 601 pages in my hardback version, but that wouldn’t have put off Maxine, she was a lady who read Trollope for relaxation; Anthony [1815-1882] not Joanna [1943-].

Hakan Nesser is an author who creates memorable characters and manages to include in his dark plots about violent acts a smattering of wit and humour. I feel that if one likes an author it improves your enjoyment of his or her books. Maxine and I were lucky enough to meet and chat with the charming Hakan at CrimeFest 2009 in Bristol, so I am fairly certain that she would have devoured The G File with the same enthusiasm as I did. P1010568_2

The G File is the tenth and last book in the Van Veeteren  series, one of the few detective series I have read in the correct order. The story begins back in 1987 when private detective Maarten Verlangen, a drunken ex-policeman struggling to survive financially is hired by a beautiful American woman, Barbara Hennan, to follow her husband and report on his activities. She gives him no idea of her reasons, but Verlangen knows her husband Jaan G. Hennan from his time in the police.

Trustor had wanted a sort of detective who could investigate irregularities using somewhat unorthodox methods- and what could possibly be more appropriate in the circumstances than a police officer who had been sacked-or rather, ‘had chosen to leave the force rather than be hanged in a public place. A gentlemen’s agreement.

 The pathetic failure Verlangen is contrasted from the start with the successful Jaan G Hennan, who seems to have it all. 

And ten times more desirable. No, not ten times. Ten thousand times. Why on earth would anybody want to be unfaithful if they had a woman like Barbara? Incomprehensible.

A dozen years previously when Verlangen had been a functioning policeman he had been one of the team who had put Jaan G Hennan in prison for two years  six months for drug dealing. 

Verlangen spends his time drinking and watching Jaan G. Hennan and when instructed by Barbara not to let him out of his sight one evening he follows him to the Columbine restaurant, and they both have a meal. Jaan G. Hennan joins a shocked Verlangen at his table, introduces himself and they drink together, Verlangen getting very drunk. And as Henman drops him off at his hotel he thinks….

On the whole Hennan had behaved reasonably , and the reason his wife wanted him to be kept under observation was more enveloped in mystery than ever.

When Jaan G. Hennan returns home he discovers that his wife Barbara has fallen from the high diving board into their swimming pool which happens to be empty. Murder, manslaughter, accident? Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, who also knows Jaan G Hennan from their schooldays is convinced that G was behind his wife’s death, but G has Verlangen and others as a cast iron alibi.

G is a man with a very dark past, he was the school bully and his casual brutality lead to the suicide of another pupil. A few years later G had treated a girl friend of Van Veeteren very badly. Van Veeteren had persistent feelings of guilt for not standing up to G at school.

When further investigations of the Hennan’s finances reveal a large life insurance policy taken out on Barbara Hennan, Van Veeteren is distraught at the inevitable outcome the result of a Northern European liberal justice system.

: the accursed G had been able to sit back and relax, and wait for the inevitable outcome- a not guilty verdict and one point two million guilders.

The narrative jumps forward 15 years to 2002 [the book dates from 2003 English readers have had a long wait for this series to reach us] when Van Veeteren is retired from the police, running Krantze’s Antiquarian bookshop and settled into a less stressful new life.

A young woman comes to see Van Veeteren, sent by his former colleague Munster, she is Maarten Verlangen’s daughter. She tells Van Veeteren that her father continued to drink excessively brooding  about G and the death of Barbara Hennan. Now the private detective has disappeared leaving an A4 sheet of lined paper from a spiral bound pad on his kitchen table.

Written on it were  “14.42” and “G. Bloody Hell”.

The former Chief Inspector Van Veeteren begins a search for Verlangen.

They had eaten turbot, if he remembered rightly, and drunk a bottle of Sauternes…..That was before the antiquarian bookshop. Before Ulrike. Before Erich’s death.

It wasn’t even a decade ago, he thought. But nevertheless my life has changed fundamentally. I’d never have believed it at that time.

Bausen cleared his throat, and Van Veeteren came back down to earth.

The G File is a well constructed detailed police procedural. There are few plot pyrotechnics, it does not need them, and while veteran crime aficionados might be able to guess the solution to the killing of Barbara Hennan the writing [and translation by Laurie Thompson] are of such a high quality that 600 pages soon whiz past. The G File is all about compelling characters, thinking about life’s mysteries, the creation of a dark brooding atmosphere, and the question how does a liberal justice system deal with really bad people.

The G File is a worthy finale of this series, and I am sure Maxine would have agreed with me that Van Veeteren deserves a place alongside Morse, Maigret, and Rebus in the panoply of great police detectives.

There was no point in speculating on that as well, of course, and he soon grew tired of trying to find alternative ways through the swamp that was life. His own path and turned out the way it did, and if he thought about it at all nowadays, it was with gratitude. Despite everything.    

3card

A short pleasant read ideal for a summer afternoon.

This is the second book in the Bar Lume series where we are once again introduced to barman Massimo Viviani, and the four elderly patrons of his bar. The small coastal town of Pineta near Pisa in Northern Italy comes alive as an international conference arrives. Massimo is the caterer  and when one of the delegates a Japanese professor named Asahara is found dead in suspicious circumstances, Massimo becomes once again an amateur detective.

The plot is nice and simple; Aldo, Ampelio, Del Tacca, Rimediotti, the elderly patrons are irascible, Tiziana the barmaid is beautiful, the policeman Fusco is useless, and Massimo is constantly amusing as he solves the crime.

Remarkable, Massimo thought. A man who looked about a hundred and six and could barely keep awake was, according to the doctors , in the peak of condition. What constitutions the Japanese have. Obviously sushi, green, tea and puffer fish keep you fit  even if you lead a crap life. Getting up in the morning, the subway, the work., the bowing…..

Three-Card Monte may be lightweight, but it is full of fun, and the charm of the series is in the interactions between the cast of  characters in a small provincial town, where sometimes the monotony is broken by a “nice murder”.

Whoever is toughest wins. 

History is full of such episodes. Think for example , of Caesar and Anthony. Think of Churchill and Stalin. Think of Zidane and Materazzi. 

An example of the author’s wit and also  placing this story very firmly in Italy where football is rather important. [The reference is to the World Cup Final 2006 Italy versus France]

I particularly liked this passage among  the dedications at the end: 

Ampelio is a fairly faithful portrait of my grandfather Varisello, who spent ninety-three years commenting on everything he didn’t like about the world ( and that included a lot).   

My review of Game for Five  the first book in the Bar Lume series.     

51RqOrvgisL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_Gallowglass [Gaelic: galloglaigh] An elite Scottish mercenary warrior. 

Gallowglass is the final instalment in the Douglas Brodie series set in the harsh world of post Second World War Scotland.

Brodie, a crime reporter for the Glasgow Gazette is recovering from chasing Nazi war criminals across Glasgow is asked by the wife of a distinguished banker to carry the ransom money to his kidnappers. But Brodie is being set up and is arrested for the kidnap and murder of Sir Fraser Gibson of the Scottish Linen Bank. The world was a very different place in 1947…..

Viscount Louis Mountbatten had just announced the intended partition of India and the creation of the two independent states of India and Pakistan. It meant the loss of the shiniest jewel in our imperial crown. Violence was already erupting as the citizens of these nascent states took sides. I’d given it a local spin by suggesting it might put up the price of Lipton’s. 

Some things never change, but in 1947 the UK including Scotland had the death penalty, therefore Brodie’s friends including his lover advocate Samantha Campbell, and those in MI5 who remember his exemplary war service and his efforts to uncover the Nazi ratline, engineer an escape. Brodie must deal with crooked cops, local gangsters and  a privileged elite for whom embezzlement is a way of life in order to save himself from the gallows. 

Brodie as a character, his relationship with Sam Campbell, and the detailed accounts of Glasgow with its social divisions between rich and poor, are the reasons I like the series. Brodie is a bit like a Scottish Bulldog Drummond, but one without the nasty jingoism that spoils Sapper’s books for a modern reader. But he does go rushing around righting wrongs and putting villains in their place. The first person narrative flows easily and there is always a little humour as when Brodie is in prison and Sam brings him his reading material.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, the tale of a man wrongfully imprisoned, who escapes and then metes out justice and revenge on the men who’d arranged his incarceration. My plan exactly.

Gordon Ferris has written an exciting adventure story with some relevant comments for our time. I am quite sad to see the end of Brodie, he was an interesting man, a veteran who had gone through the trauma of war and its aftermath to return home at a very difficult time for Britain. 

Halfway along stood the Scottish Linen bank, its solid red sandstone facade proclaiming rectitude and propriety. 

Your money is safe with us and we might let you have some of it back if you ask politely and do a bit of grovelling.    

My review of Pilgrim Soul.

51MLwvIJgBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_Red Sparrow won the 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel, and this modern spy novel is an exciting read and worthy prize winner. I don’t think it quite compares to the  best work of John Le Carre, Charles McCarry or Len Deighton, but it is a very good debut novel. 

I mentioned Epigraphs when posting about Colin Dexter’s The Secret of Annexe 3, well Red Sparrow is all about Experience, Espionage and Epicure. 

Experience: author Jason Matthews has 33 years experience as an officer in the CIA’s Operations Directorate, now the National Clandestine Service.

Espionage: Red Sparrow is packed full of spy tradecraft, as CIA operative Nathaniel ‘Nate’ Nash is targeted by the beautiful Dominika Egorova, a trainee of the Sparrow School of seduction. Dominika  is the niece of Vanya Egorov, Deputy Director of the Russian Federation’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, the Foreign Intelligence Service. Nate is running a CIA mole MARBLE who is embedded deep inside the SVR, and while Dominika is attempting to recruit Nate, Nate is also trying to recruit her because of her relationship with Egorov.

Like most spy stories there are lots of complexities, and love affairs, betrayals but the characters are dealt with in a mature fashion, and the writing is of a quality that makes the 500 plus pages go smoothly. Matthews makes you care about what happens to these people. In Red Sparrow there is more thinking, and eating than shooting.

Epicure [a person who appreciates fine food and drink]: One feature I loved about the book is that every chapter ends with a recipe that refers to a meal eaten by the characters during the preceding action. These vary from simple Beet Soup to Caviar Torte to Shrimp Yiouvetsi as the action moves from Moscow to Helsinki, Washington, Rome, Athens and a climax at the Narva River. 

A spy thriller with believable characters and tense situations, blended with a tempting cookbook; an original concept, and a very good read. 

The Germans would have found him shuldhaft, culpable, and given him three years. The Americans would have pegged the poor sap a victim of sexpionage and sentenced him to eight years. In Russia the predatel, the traitor, would have been liquidated. French investigators handed down a stern finding of negligent. Delon was transferred home quickly-out of reach-consigened to duties without access to classified documents for eighteen months. 

A beautiful woman, quoi faire? What could you do?      

51wV+VzQqbL._February 1987. Filippo a petty criminal escapes along with his cellmate Carlo, a Red Brigade activist, from an Italian prison through the rubbish shute. They separate when Carlo goes off with some associates, and as Filippo makes his way north he reads in a newspaper that Carlo has been killed during an attempted bank robbery in Milan.

Fillipo goes to Paris where he meets up with Lisa Biaggi, Carlo’s girlfriend, whose address he has been given. Fillipo is given an apartment to rent owned by Lisa’s friend Cristina, and he gets a job as a night security guard. 

The time for tears is over. He dreams of conquering the two women, the way you conquer a land, for the pleasure of conquering, and then leaving for pastures new.

Fillipo partly to impress these two women, who respect politicos like Carlo, but look down their pretty noses at him, writes a novel inspired by the words and stories related by Carlo, while they were in prison. The narrative tells the story of the jail break, but he embellishes the subsequent events giving his character a key part in the bank robbery. The novel is a stunning success, and while Lisa rages at the situation trying to prove Carlo was lead into a trap, Filippo becomes the darling of the Italian diaspora and the intellectual elite in Paris. But he is in danger because the police, the security services and even his publishers begin to believe his mostly fictional novel is a true account of events.

Like most of Dominique Manotti’s books Escape is short, 160 pages, hard hitting and very thought provoking.  I would suggest that the gulf between the intellectual activists and the real working class is sharply drawn in this story. Most revolutionary movements are started by red wine radicals, and France and Italy are no different. Real working people are usually too busy.

Escape is an original novel about the dangers of writing a novel, and while not Manotti’s best work certainly well worth the read. You will learn something about the terrible traumas Italy suffered during the ‘Years of Lead’ as the Red Brigades, Fascists and Mafias battled for control of the country.

Filippo is ashen, he feels mounting panic. He stares at the floor. Adele continues undaunted: ‘Let me be clear. If you’re possibly a cop-killer, that makes you an attractive young hoodlum. But if you are a declared cop-killer and proud of it, then you become a criminal no one wants to be associated with. It’s a delicate balance.    

51BCw8MGoXL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_The Secret of Annexe 3 published in 1983 is the seventh book in the thirteen book series featuring Inspector Morse  authored by Colin Dexter, a P1050117former Classics teacher.

If you once understand an author’s character, the comprehension of his writing becomes easy. ( Longfellow ) 

 

Many people are surprised that there are only thirteen novels in the series because Morse [played so superbly by the late John Thaw]and his trusty subordinate Lewis [Kevin Whately] have seemingly been on our TV screens for ever. Thirty three episodes of Morse, were followed after Morse’s and John Thaw’s tragically early deaths by thirty episodes of the popular spin off series Lewis with Kevin Whately joined by Laurence Fox as DS James Hathaway, and later a prequel series Endeavour set in the 1960s with Shaun Evans as the young DC Morse. 

But to me the most surprising and amusing fact about Colin Dexter is that the author, whose detective novels are set in Oxford, and whose detective will be inexorably linked with that city read Classics at Christ’s College, Cambridge. 

Colin Dexter, now 83, has won two Silver Daggers and two Gold Daggers, and a Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime achievement so I won’t impertinently classify my post as a P1050110review. But  I’ll make just a few comments about the book, and the thought that it would probably be a good series to read in order.

I could have subtitled this post epigraphs and episodes, because each of the forty four chapters is introduced by an epigraph. The reader knows he is in the hands of an intelligent writer, who by changing perspective between the various characters is able to give a slightly different twist on the standard police procedural. 

When Thomas Bowman discovers a letter that proves that his wife Margaret has been unfaithful the scene is set for a series of events centering around festivities at the Haworth Hotel, where after  a fancy dress party a body is discovered in Annexe 3. The relationship between Morse and Lewis is definitely the best aspect of the books and it never fails to amuse.

‘ I know the place, Lewis. And so should you! It’s the street where Jude and Sue Fawley lived!

“Should I know them?’

‘In Jude the Obscure, Lewis! And “Aldbrickham” is Hardy’s name for Reading, as you’ll remember.’ ‘

Yes, I’d forgotten for the moment,’ said Lewis.

Most of the elements of a good police procedural are in The Secret of Annexe 3; great detectives, love affairs, lust, jealousy, the teasing problem of whether to dispose of your husband or your lover, disguises, muddled identities and some rather sad lives. While I don’t think this is Dexter’s best work it was a pleasant holiday read in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, and the epigraphs were a stimulating read. 

Love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave. ( Song of Solomon viii,6 )

[ Photos show the 14th century Great Coxwell Barn in Oxfordshire, somewhere I am sure Inspector Morse would have visited on a rare day off. Epigraphs from the Song of Solomon and Longfellow are in the book along with forty two more.]      

51BCw8MGoXL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_It has been a few weeks since I last posted due to another mini holiday break and some minor health problems.P1050107

I am a great believer that reading books or listening to music in the correct location puts you in the right mood to enjoy the experience.

I remember back in 1993 rushing into a book shop in Occoquan VA to purchase In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke [and other books] as we drove to the Jefferson Davis Highway [Is that Highway One still named for the Confederate President?] and travelled south to Fredericksburg avoiding the busy Interstate 95. A couple of years before we had listened to Sibelius in Alvar Aalto’s beautiful Finlandia Hall in Helsinki with it -15 outside and thick snow, it wouldn’t have sounded as good in the Royal Festival Hall in London on a summer day. 

P1050055I had struggled with the Arctic setting of Olivier Truc’s Forty Days Without Shadow  during a warm spell, and I decided that although the current book I was reading was brilliant [more on that later] it was a 600 page hardback doorstop, and I was not going to carry it to Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. There was an obvious solution I took a shortish 301 page Colin Dexter, The Secret of Annexe 3, and although it is set in a snowy Oxford at New Year, the quintessential dated English setting meant I was in the mood and whizzed through this one, returning home a few days later to lap up the hardback. 

51U8X7q1IhL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_I suppose after reading a lot of books by Fred Vargas I should be used to that very Gallic quirky crime fiction of which The Cemetery of Swallows is a good example.

The multitalented author Jean-Denis Bruel-Ferreol writes under the pseudonym Mallock, and his detective is Superintendent Amedee Mallock, a tactic that throws the reader slightly off balance. I assume this is the first book in a series to be translated into English, because we are told in the narrative about the police superintendent’s detective team operating from “Fort Mallock”, and Amedee’s personal tragic loss of his wife and son, Thomas. 

Mallock is sent to the Dominican Republic to bring back to France to face trial Manuel Gemoni, the brother of police Captain Julie Gemoni one of his detectives. One morning the mild mannered Manuel after viewing a documentary video travels to the Dominican Republic, and kills an old man who he has never met.

Mallock discovers that the old man Manuel killed was Tobias Darbier, a man who inspired fear and loathing. A man with a past full of violence and terror.

“His story [Darbier's] is the same as the island’s. he arrived in 1946 and spent the first three years working for the dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo.”

He ruled by terror, torture, and political assassination.

The Cemetery of Swallows is not a “who did it mystery”, but a “why did he do it enigma”. As the story moves from the jungles, mountains, trigger happy gunmen and voodoo of the Caribbean island to the frozen streets of Paris Mallock tries to connect a story of terrible Nazi atrocities that occurred before Manuel was born, but of which he has detailed knowledge, to the killing of Darbier. 

The book is well written with interesting characters, and a clever but predictable plot in which clues are presented to  the detectives, but ignored as more bizarre explanations are pursued. I should warn that when authors write about men like Darbier, Trujillo and the Nazis you have to be prepared for descriptions of extreme violence, and the tactics of terror, but nothing more than we can read in our newspapers every day.  

Mallock, the author, provides his readers with little snippets of wisdom, in a very dark story.

Master Long is not at ease in France. He always resented Western intellectuals, Sartre and his dirty hands and his pathetic imitators gulping down champagne when the Khmer Rouge entered Hanoi. Lenin, Mao, Stalin: the radiant “past” of communism consisted of at least a hundred million dead.

But this is a French crime story set partially in Paris so we also see a different side of  Amedee Mallock.

Around 7 P.M., Amedee decided to prepare his bass.

He cleaned the fish and filled it with sprigs of fennel, peppercorns and salt before frying it on bothsides. Then he wrapped it in foil and let it cook while he opened a bottle of Pouilly-Fume. After taking off its aluminium carapace, he sprinkled the fish with a mixture of vinegar, finely sliced papper, olive oil and sea salt.     

I can recommend The Cemetery of Swallows if you want a crime fiction book that is original, and gripped this reader from the first page.    

The photos I posted yesterday tell the story of both a lost generation and a lost way of life. We are very lucky that the National Trust can preserve the houses, gardens and the stories behind some of the sites for future generations. 

From the top left going clockwise the photos are: 

The pond in the garden of Batemans, the house of Rudyard Kipling; Smallhythe Place, home of actress Ellen Terry; the lawn at Batemans;  Batemans, a view of the house; Igtham Mote, locals tell me it is pronounced Eye Tam; View of the house from the white garden at Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville -West and Harold Nicholson; A Bentley in the streets of Rye, where a new version of E.L.Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books [1920-1939] are being filmed; Sweet peas at Igtham Mote.

Our visit to Batemans was a moving experience, Rudyard Kipling, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1907, may be considered controversial today, but he was a patriot when patriotism was considered a virtue.

In 2007 the film My Boy Jack starring David Haigh as the author and Daniel Radcliffe as John Kipling told the story of how Kipling obtained a commission in the Irish Guards for his only son, and how Jack was killed in the disastrous Battle of Loos on 27 September 1915. On that same day Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon of the Black Watch was also killed in action, he was the older brother of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen and mother of our present Queen Elizabeth. Exactly three years later my own uncle was killed serving with the Royal West Kents in the assault on the Hindenburg Line.

The wife of Prince Charles, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall’s three great uncles were all killed on the Western Front between September 1916 and March 1918, and the Prime Minister Henry Asquith’s eldest son Raymond was killed on the Somme. Although I very much doubt it was much of a consolation to my mother, whose eldest brother was killed, or my mother- in- law, whose father was killed, the nation was seemingly “all in it together” during those terrible years. 

Later when we visited Igtham Mote, they had a recording playing of Ralph Fiennes, I think, reading the war poetry by Wilfred Owen, alongside a book containing photographs showing the Royal West Kents in training before going off to France. The owner of Igtham at the time Sir Thomas Colyer -Fergusson’s son Captain Thomas Riversdale Colyer-Fergusson aged 21 won a posthumous Victoria Cross in 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres. 

So much of what those brave men fought and died for has gone, destroyed by lack of thought or neglect that it is very pleasant to wander through the homes of the wealthy elite of a century ago, and realise that for all their many faults they were prepared to make sacrifices for their country.     

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute,

With sixty second’s worth of distance run,

Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it,

And -which is more- you’ll be a Man, my son!

From If… by Rudyard Kipling [1910]   

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