Well the day has almost arrived the Republican Party, the party of Presidents Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, the party of such distinguished African Americans as Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condi Rice is now lead by Donald Trump. We certainly live in interesting times. 

But we Britons can’t scoff because the Labour party that was once lead by politicians such as Clem Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, John Smith and Tony Blair [whatever happened to him] is now lead by Jeremy Corbyn.

American History has always fascinated me, one of my pleasant memories was when at Gettysburg National Park the official guide complemented me on my knowledge. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago and I have lost a few million brain cells since then, but I thought I would compose a short mini quiz for those of my American friends who don’t want to watch the ceremony. This might keep them occupied for a few minutes. No prizes, try and do it without google, good luck and send your answers to willtecumseh2003@gmail.com

1] Which Presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery? 

2] Which Governor of two different states was also a President?

3] Which President was called “a majestic figure who stood like a rock of consistency” and it was said “May God ever give to our country leaders as faithful, as wise, as noble in spirit, as the one we now mourn.”

4] What did Presidents 17, 21, 26, and 36 have in common?

5] What did Presidents 6, 17, 22, and 27 have in common?

 

 

 

It was by complete chance that the first book I read this year was The Zimmerman Telegram by Pulitzer Prize winning author Barbara Tuchman. My son had bought me a copy and although I had read it about forty years ago I thought it was appropriate to re-read it again. 

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the day the coded telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to the Imperial Ambassador to the USA Count von Bernstoff arrived at Room 40 in Whitehall. 

This superb non fiction book reads like a modern spy novel, and many of the themes seem curiously similar to modern developing situations.  An American President struggling to deal with Mexico, the British Secret Service sending documents to the Americans some of whom believed them to be forged, “fake news”.

In this case actually Zimmerman acknowledged the telegram was genuine and the words: we make Mexico a proposal of an alliance on the following basis: make war together; make peace together, generous financial support, and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to conquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona……

This telegram was instrumental along with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare in bringing the USA into the Great War on the side of the Allies. As with a good novel this book has a cast of fascinating characters, among whom were, Woodrow Wilson, a President determined to confer democracy on Mexicans ready or not; von Bernstoff the Ambassador who struggled to keep the Americans out of the war, a man who had the good sense to leave Germany the moment Hitler came to power, the shrewd Franz von Papen, who served the monarchy, the Weimar Republic and the Nazis and managed to survive into old age; Mexicans President Carranza and his opponents Emiliano Zapata, and Pancho Villa, as well as the charismatic Admiral Sir William Reginald Hall, the Director of British Naval Intelligence, and many more. 

Two hundred pages full of history, intrigue and perhaps some lessons for our current leaders, a highly recommended book.

 

 

 

The Return of Crimescraps

Posted: January 14, 2017 in Uncategorized

It has been many months since I last blogged [May 2016] because of serious health problems, and although I never fell off the Reichenbach Falls it has at times felt like it.

But now after my brilliant surgeon and his team performed a robot assisted operation, I am enjoying every day as a bonus, even when the weather is as dismal as it is today. I feel obliged to try to live a few more years in view of the enormous amount of time and money the National Health Service, and the wonderful people who work at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital have devoted to my care. Never has a hospital and its staff been more deserving of the title “Royal”.  My energy and concentration levels are still very low so my blogs will be briefer and less frequent, but I am going to try to make a bit of a come back.

 My choices of my best reads of 2016, can be viewed at Karen’s Eurocrime. Karen was kind enough to include me among her reviewers even though I haven’t contributed anything for a long time.

 

UntitledWhen analysing crime fiction I usually consider ten very simple factors. 

1] Is the plot exciting, believable and gripping?

2] Do I like and care about any of the characters?

3] Is it written in an easy to read style which is decipherable to an ordinary reader?

4] Does it have the correct atmosphere  for a crime novel?

5] Is it set in an interesting location?

6] Does it overdo or concentrate on violence against women and children?

7] Does it contain a social commentary or message in the narrative?

8] Is it original?

9] Do the detectives exhibit some humour or give a glimpse of human frailty?

10] Has the book been ballyhooed  and overhyped?

The Caveman comes out very positively when considered with these parameters. From the back cover:

For four months Viggo Hansen’s body has been sitting, undiscovered in front of his television, close to the home of Chief Inspector William Wisting. Has Norwegian society become so coarsened that no one cares? Line, Wisting’s journalist daughter wants to know.

Another body is discovered in the forest that also has been left for four months, and as Wisting and his team meticulously work on that case, Line conducts her own investigation into the sad lonely life of Viggo Hansen, and very gradually the reader begins to suspect a connection between the bodies. 

This is Nordic Noir of the highest quality, a real treat for lovers of accurate police procedural novels, with two great protagonists. The novel has a lot of systematic police and journalistic work with just enough personal details about the characters to keep it really interesting. The author Jorn Lier Horst was a policeman for eighteen years and this shows in the accuracy of his narrative. This is definitely a contender for the prestigious Petrona Award. 

‘How is it possible to be so lonely and forgotten that it takes four months before anyone makes the chance discovery that you are dead. I think it would be a good story to print over Christmas. W’ve just been hailed by the UN as the best country in the world to live in but, in research into citizens experience of happiness, Norway is in 112th place……..’  

Ann CleevesI moved on to read The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves. I am ashamed to admit that this is first novel I have read by this author, having watched and enjoyed the adaptations of her Vera and Shetland book series on television.

The Moth Catcher is the seventh book in the series featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, and it is the sort of novel that if you have become jaded with too much crime fiction will reinvigorate your interest in the genre. This story has everything with a setting in beautiful Northumberland, an interesting plot, superb characters, a biting social commentary and a great trio of detectives lead by the idiosyncratic Vera.

Silver earrings. Make up. Vera wondered if she was on her way out to a special lunch or if she always made the effort. It was clear her husband doted on her.

Vera thought for a moment that she might have found a man if she’d scrubbed up a bit better, then decided no man was worth the time it took to plaster stuff on your face in the morning, when you could have an extra cup of tea instead. 

Vera, Holly Clarke and Joe Ashworth are interesting characters, who investigate a double murder in an isolated valley in Northumberland. The plot is becomes complex when it is discovered that the two victims  are both moth collectors. Vera’s investigations centre on the claustrophobic group of people, who live in the upmarket barn conversions and call themselves the “retired hedonists”. The lives of these comfortably off retirees are contrasted with that of the locals, and the detectives delve deeply into the past histories of the victims and suspects.  

Highly recommended, a very enjoyable read. This is definitely one of the best English detective novels I have read for some time, and shows you don’t necessarily have to go Nordic to get a great crime story. Time permitting I hope to go back and read the earlier books in this series.     

cobenI picked up Harlan Coben’s The Stranger in our local supermarket simply because the main character was called Adam Price.

The book was a typical quick read airport novel with Adam’s American Dream life coming to an abrupt end as a stranger tells him something about Corinne, his wife, he does not want to hear. In typical Coben style Corinne mysteriously goes missing. This is the third Harlan Coben novel I have read and in Tell No One, Six Years and The Stranger the main protagonist is searching for his woman. It seems to be a winning formula? 

The setting is in one of those idyllic American small towns where everyone seems to have a plenty of money, but there is an undercurrent of trouble. The reader realises the suburban town is very wealthy, because Adam’s sons play lacrosse at high school. The plot features embezzlement, corporate greed, murder, blackmail and computer hacking. 

One of the book’s failings is that many of the characters lack any depth. They seem to have been selected from a box of standard stereotypes, but Coben sells millions of books simply because his novels are such easy reads.  

Too bad. Too bad his old man couldn’t see how his only son had become such a big man in this town. Bob no longer lived on the crummy side of town where the teachers and blue-collar guys tried to survive. No, he bought the big manor with the mansard roof in the ritzy “country club” section of town. He and Melanie drove his-and hers Mercedes. People respected them.

I have noticed reading Le Carre, and some Nordic authors, that “happy endings” are not in vogue, and Harlan Coben follows this trend. Does ending a novel with a tragedy make it great literature?   

Anzac Day

Posted: April 25, 2016 in Australia, Historical, New Zealand, Off Topic

anzac-07Anzac Day has some significance for our family even though we live on the other side of the globe. 

My wife’s grandfather Percy Kempster DSM served in the Royal Australian Navy and sadly did not survive the war. His daughter, who remembered him as a kind father, died a few years ago at the age of 98. 

Australians and New Zealanders came in very large numbers to help defend Britain in two world wars, and one of my heroes was the Australian General Sir John Monash, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Prussia. He commanded a brigade at Gallipoli attempting to preserve the life of his men, and rose to become commander the Australian Imperial Forces during the last decisive campaigns of 1918.

The great sacrifices made by these countries with such small populations was brought home to me  some time ago when I was searching online for the cemetery in France where my uncle was buried. I came across a small cemetery where there were only 46 soldiers buried….. 2 British and 44 New Zealanders.

Thank you brave ANZACs for your service.   

[reposted from 2014 but it is worth repeating in my opinion]

The announcement of the Petrona Award Shortlist is always  a bit of a sad time as I remember my friend the late Maxine Clarke.  

Maxine’s blog Petrona was an inspiration to so many, and she was one of a very small group of bloggers who spread the word concerning  Scandinavian crime fiction at a time when very few had even heard of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, or Stieg Larsson. 

This year’s shortlist looks very impressive with books from Norway, Finland and Sweden. I have read two of these books Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless and Hans Olav Lahlum’s Satellite People and I enjoyed both immensely. I hope to read at least two of the others before the announcement of the winner at Crime Fest in Bristol. 

Last year for the first time I totally disagreed with the judges on their choice of a winner. I think that one important criteria for the award should be that the book that wins should be one that Maxine would have enjoyed reading. 

A few thoughts about the contenders. I noticed the Lagercrantz on a half price offer in our local Waterstones. I haven’t read anything about this book but my natural reaction, possibly misguided, is that the series should have ended with the death of Stieg Larsson, and that the original fans of the series may regard this novel as an exploitation. 

On a more serious subject when I met Karin Fossum at Crime Fest several years ago we very briefly discussed her social work with children with Down’s Syndrome. She is a charming lady and does know what she is talking about on this subject.

The judges comments about her book The Drowned Boy are very interesting:

After the drowning of a young child with Down’s syndrome, Chief Inspector Sejer must ask himself if one of the parents could have been involved. The nature of grief is explored along with the experience of parenting children with learning difficulties. 

This is a subject about which I know a great deal, but reading this novel in the circumstances might be too traumatic. In our case for the wonderful twenty seven years our son Jacob was part of our family we thought we were looking after him, but in reality he was looking after us.  

I have linked to my reviews of two of these books. 

THE DROWNED BOY by Karin Fossum tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)

THE DEFENCELESS by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

THE CAVEMAN by Jorn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB by David Lagercrantz tr. George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

SATELLITE PEOPLE by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway)

DARK AS MY HEART by Antti Tuomainen tr. Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland)     

In the past few weeks I have read three thought provoking John le Carre novels; The Night Manager [1993] Our Game [1995] and Absolute Friends [2003] all of which I enjoyed immensely despite reservations about their politics. 

635878802254689284-The-Night-Manager-AMCThe TV series based on John le Carre’s book The Night Manager reached it’s climax last week. As with many television adaptions of a novel you realise how good the author is when the TV version plot starts to deviate from the original. The classic case of this phenomenon was the Dalziel and Pascoe series based on the novels of Reginald Hill which when the original plots were exhausted, and some of the great characters abandoned, was a shadow of the earlier programs. 

In The Night Manager’s tv adaptation the alterations in the plot and the changes in chronology, geographical locations, and the sex of Burr had worked quite well up to the last episode. In the final episode the novel’s plot was totally abandoned with the result that much of the political message was lost. Of course  the female audience was was catered for with scenes featuring Tom Hiddlestone, and if you have an elegant beauty such as Elizabeth Debicki constantly wandering around in floaty dresses and expensive lingerie you are likely to have a television success on your hands. But I did not approve of the scenes where her character Jed was water-boarded, this was totally unnecessary. There is enough violence towards women in real life without having to watch this sort of thing on TV.

A lot of le Carre’s emphasis in the novel was lost, and although I disagree with most of his politics, I felt the novel’s ending should have been retained. If a book is good enough to put on television surely the key message should be retained. But overall this was a gripping series, but I would respectively request there is no Night Manager Two, or we may face another Broadchurch Two debacle. 

gameOur Game was the next book le Carre wrote and apparently it was not as successful as some of his previous books, only reaching number 3 on the NY Times bestseller lists.

I have to admit finding most of this novel hysterically funny, although I am not sure le Carre intended it to be a black comedy. Perhaps I was amused by the fact that most of the book is set in North Somerset rather than the North Caucasus.

Bath University, Bristol, the Mendips, and Priddy, where retired civil servant Tim Cranmer tries to batter his old friend Larry Pettifer into submission are fairly familiar to me.

The story begins with the disappearance of Larry, a double agent whose dedication to left wing causes includes the seduction of Tim’s mistress the beautiful young Emma. Tim has inherited a run down estate with a failing vineyard from his uncle, and more luckily a large amount of money from an aunt. He and Larry were at school together at Winchester. In the past our security services were overrun by the alumni of Westminster, Greshams, Marlborough and Eton, which did not work out too well. 

The only possible benefit in having these people as spies was that if they were thrown into the Lubyanka, however badly they were treated the food was bound to be superior to that served up in an English Public school in the 1950s and 1960s.

The police investigate Larry’s disappearance……

Yet who did they think he was? -Larry, my Larry, our Larry?-What had he done? This talk of money, Russians, deals, Checheyev, me, socialism, me again- how could Larry be anything except what we had made him: a directionless middle-class revolutionary, a permanent dissident, a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejector, a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted semi-creative failure, too clever not to demolish an argument, too mulish to settle for a flawed one? 

Strangely this passage from a 1995 novel instantly made me think of one of today’s leading British politicians. 

Tim is questioned by both the police and his old employers in the security service, as they suspect he is involved in a financial scam.

In a minute you’re going to tell me it’s all in Checheyev’s weaselly imagination, he forged Larry’s signature. You’ll be wrong. Larry’s in it up to his nasty neck, and for all we know, so are you. Are you?

Tim naturally begins a convoluted search for a missing 37 million quid and the beautiful young Emma, both of which have been expropriated by Larry and Tim’s former agent Konstantin Abramovich Checheyev.

The money is intended to help the oppressed Chechen and Ingush people in the Caucasus. Tim’s search takes him from to Bristol, Paris, and Moscow and eventually to the conflict in the Caucasus. John le Carre views the situation there as very black and white but in these far away conflicts things are usually shades of grey. I wonder what the author felt when nearly decade after this novel the events took place at a place in North Ossetia called Beslan. 

Absolute Friends, le Carre’s first post 9/11 political novel also had me laughing out loud on many occasions, and perhaps again I wasabsolute not supposed to find this novel so amusing. The narrative tells of the long running friendship between Ted Mundy, son of a British army officer, conceived in India and born in Pakistan on partition day; and Sasha, a son of Nazi Germany brought up in the GDR. The friendship begins among the revolutionary students of West Berlin in the turbulent 1960s, and ends in ………..I won’t spoil the ending.

Endings are not John Le Carre’s strong point, and however nuanced the narrative he seems to want to leave the reader feeling somewhat bruised, and hopefully convinced that the Americans and British are responsible for every evil in the world. 

Mundy becomes a secret service agent by chance after his experiences in Berlin.

“What is the purpose of our revolution, comrade?”

Mundy had not expected a viva voce, but six months of Ilse and her friends have not left him unprepared. ” To oppose the Vietnam War by all means…To arrest the spread of  military imperialism….To reject the consumer state….To challenge the nostrums of the bourgeoisie…To awaken it, and educate it. To create a new and fairer society ….and to oppose all irrational authority.”

” Irrational? What is rational authority? All authority is irrational, arsehole.”

The Soviets classified these fellow travellers as useful idiots, and unfortunately they are still around today even in the UK waving Mao’s Little Red Book and forgetting the millions who died under Communism, and it’s close relative National Socialism.

Sasha’s father was a Pastor who became a Christian Nazi, and later decamped to the obnoxious West from the GDR socialist paradise, installing a deep personal and political hatred in his son. The story explores both men’s relationship with their fathers, and the secrets they uncover. 

This is a long, but highly readable book, that has many complexities as the friends frequently lose touch and then meet up again after several years and catch up with events. Mundy is never sure which side Sasha is on, or even at times which side he is on. 

As a prized Stasi agent, Mundy receives a fat retainer, bonuses and incentive payments. The conventions of the trade, however require him to turn those sums over to his true masters, whose remunerations are more modest, since London unlike the Stasi, takes his loyalty for granted. 

These books are well written, and are fascinating reading perhaps enhanced by our knoweledge of recent events. 

happy_valley_600-211x300The second TV series of Happy Valley finished last night. It was probably the most succesfull sequel since The Godfather Part II, and I found the program was a good antidote to the duplicitous world of Richard Onslow Roper in John Le Carre’s The Night Manager also on our TV screens at the moment. The people in Happy Valley had real problems, not connected with lobster salads in Michelin star restaurants, and it represented some of the sad struggling lives of many people in England. I don’t expect many of the characters in Happy Valley went to Winchester and Oxford, or holiday in Switzerland or Nassau.

Happy Valley was an excellent series, with gritty writing from Sally Wainwright [Last Tango in Halifax, Scott and Bailey] and Sarah Lancashire’s iconic performance as Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood. Sarah was supported by a brilliant  ensemble cast in which Kevin Doyle as Detective Sergeant John Wadsworth stood out.

If this series doesn’t have success at the BAFTAs I will be most surprised.