Magic DeborahAuthor Deborah Johnson in The Secret of Magic tells a story set just after the Second World War in 1946. 

M.P. Calhoun sends a letter to Thurgood Marshall, head of the NCAACP Legal Defense Fund [who was to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice] asking him to come down to Mississippi to investigate the death of Joe Howard Wilson, a decorated black Lieutenant and veteran of the Italian Campaign, who was returning to his home town of Revere. M.P.Calhoun is the reclusive author of  The Secret of Magic, which was a book that was banned after publication because it told a tale of childhood friendship across the races, a magical forest and an unsolved murder. 

The letter, containing various newspaper cuttings, is opened by one of Mr Marshall’s assistants Regina Robichard, who because of her family history is very keen to go down to Mississippi. Reggie loved the book The Secret of Magic as a child and is intrigued to discover that M.P.Calhoun is a woman, Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun. Thurgood Marshall gives her three weeks to delve into the case, and she travels south by segregated train and bus to a very different world from New York. 

I am not going to say any more about the plot because it is a story that brought tears to my eyes. The narrative is beautifully written, so hlpvery evocative of the South at that time, and for a long time after. The story brings to life a cast of  characters who leap off the page. Especially memorable is Willie Willie, Joe Howard’s father, with his stories of teaching all the children both black and white the secrets of the forest. In Revere there is almost a symbiotic relationship between black and white, for example between Miss Mary Pickett and Willie Willie, but also a distinct social divide between the old wealthy white families, and the descendants of poor white sharecroppers. 

The Secret of Magic is a book that will hopefully educate and perhaps even bring an improvement in race relations, because although the USA now has an African American President, Attorney General and Head of Homeland Security, recent events have shown there is still an enormous distance to travel. 

Not that she hated white men, not really. Still…..after what they’s done to her father….she couldn’t help herself.

But that had been in New York, and New York, she had to admit, was nothing like Revere- a place where black people and white people were all jumbled together, had built up a land, and still lived, in a sense right on top of each other, constantly traipsing in and out of one another’s lives. So close they couldn’t just be naturally separated,…………..

No, you needed Jim Crow laws for that, and Confederate flags waving over a courthouse, and separate drinking fountains, and separate schools, and poll taxes and literacy tests for voting, and substandard schools-and in the end a good man like Joe Howard Wilson dead.

Deborah Johnson was a worthy winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and readers shouldn’t be put off by a narrative containing words commonly used in 1946 Mississippi to describe African Americans. Otherwise they will miss a book that is pure magic. 

gray mntnI was encouraged to keep up with John Grisham’s books again after reading posts about the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction on Bill Selnes impressive blog Mysteries and More. Bill is a lawyer in Saskatchewan and he seems to be the sort of legal representative we would all like to have on our side.

Gray Mountain is a novel that shouts out at the injustices in this world. The fact that these injustices are being perpetrated in one of the most advanced economies in the developed world, and a country with a constitution and legal system that should protect the poor from the tyranny of big business got me boiling. In the novel Big Coal aided by $900 an hour law firms crush poor miners affected by black lung, and destroy the beautiful forests of Appalachia.

Last night as I finished reading Gray Mountain I watched a television program about the poorest town in England, Jaywick on the Essex coast, where disadvantaged people many with health problems have seemingly been abandoned by central government. A once thriving holiday resort, Jaywick is now the nearest thing we have to a shanty town in England. 

thanks 2The very poor who live in Appalachia, and in Jaywick happen to be white, but they do have a lot in common with the African Americans of Mississippi, who feature in the brilliant book I began last night, The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson [more on that later].

In that they have no real political power or influence, and little money. You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel for these people.

Political rant suspended, on to the book. 

appalachiaSamantha Kofer, a New York lawyer, is a victim of the recession tossed into the street by Scully & Pershing, the biggest law firm in the world. Andy, a $2.8 million a year partner at the firm, explains the situation, a “furlough”.

” Here’s the deal. The firm keeps you under contract for the next twelve months, but you don’t get a paycheck.”

…..“You keep your health benefits , but only if you intern with a qualified non-profit.”

Samantha is competing with thousands of associates culled by their firms, rejection after rejection follows and then number nine on her list, Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, run by Mattie Wyatt offers her an interview and then a position. Brady is a very different world from New York’s rat race.

“Well dear, here at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic, we love our clients and they love us.”

Samantha meets up with Mattie’s nephew Donovan Gray, young handsome lawyer with a tragic past, and learns the harsh reality life of for the poor in Appalachia. Donovan is fighting the destruction of the mountains to get at the “black gold”, and battling mining companies to get meagre benefits for miners crippled by the debilitating black lung disease. It turns out to be dangerous work as Big Coal is quite prepared to use hired goons and well as ruthless lawyers to preserve their lucrative business. 

Gray Mountain another fine book from the master of legal fiction that is both an excellent holiday read, and a campaign on behalf of the beautiful mountains of Appalachia. 

I haven’t managed to save the world yet but I am making progress. My clients are poor people with no voice. They don’t expect me to work miracles and all efforts are greatly appreciated.   

Liza MarklundThis is the tenth book in the continuing saga of journalist Annika Bengtzon, and takes place a few months after the events of Borderline. I am a great fan of these books which mix crime, details of modern journalistic technique, and the chaotic personal life of Annika, a flawed but likeable character. Annika’s skill as an investigative journalist is contrasted with her poor choice of men, a failing that has caused her much trauma in the past.

The story begins with the discovery of the brutally tortured body of business man and former politician, Ingemar Lerberg. His children are being looked after by his sister-in-law, but his wife Nora is missing. Annika begins to cover the case, and then a second body is discovered hanging from a tree. Karl Ekblad, a man with a business in Spain.

Something to do with property and industrial rights of ownership, the acquisition of property, unlimited trade and acquisition, leasing, sales and rental….. 

The other plot lines in the book, involve the return of Nina Hoffman to policing as she becomes an analyst at National Crime, Annika’s ex-husband Thomas attempting to readjust to life handicapped by the loss of his hand cut off by kidnappers in Somalia, and the internet trolling of Anders Schyman, Annika’s boss, with reference to a story that won him the Best Journalism award almost two decades earlier. The narrative is like a lot of  Swedish crime packed full of detail, of which a small portion is about torture, but is very readable and not too long at 346 pages. 

Annika is now living with Jimmy Halenius, with whom she began an affair in Borderline, and not only has to look after the needs of her own children, Kalle and Ellen, but his twins Serena and Jacob as well. The twins live with Jimmy all the time, and their mother Angela Sisulu, works for the South African government living in Johannesburg. Annika’s family life has become even more complicated as her relationship with Serena is rather strained, and Jimmy may get a promotion which requires him to move away from Stockholm. 

Nina stood outside the front door looking at the nameplate. Four surnames, a mixture of Swedish and foreign. These people had clearly chosen to live together (well, maybe not the children).

Some readers might be irritated that some of the plot lines are not completely resolved, and left for another book, but devotees of the Annika Bengtzon series will simply look forward to the next good read. Without a Trace is a very good example of why Swedish crime fiction has become so popular over the past decade.   

OT: Summer Distractions

Posted: July 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

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rickmanThe author Phil Rickman was recommended to me by Philip in British Columbia, a reader who knows a lot more about crime fiction than I do. 

I chose The lamp of the Wicked because there was a link to the real life killings perpetrated by the notorious serial killer Fred West. I enjoyed the book with its clever plot, and memorable characters especially the vicar Merrily Watkins, and her troubled teenage daughter Jane. The social commentary was very up to date with comments on  how rural areas are ruined by both new buildings to accommodate those fleeing from the overcrowded cities of the UK, and rich city folk buying cottages in pretty villages and only using them as  weekend retreats or holiday homes. The interesting theory that all that electricity around us, power cables, phone masts, computers, mobile phones etc can affect the brain waves of sensitive individuals is covered brilliantly in the story. 

This book was more than crime fiction it was a virtually a social history of rural communities, and the stresses they face. Merrily, the diocesan exorcist, or more correctly deliverance consultant, is a wonderfully flawed character, but her heart is in the right place, and she is surrounded by cast of many interesting characters. If the book has any minor faults it is there are too many plot strands, too many characters, and too many pages. But the book kept my interest for the whole 610 pages, not an easy task.  

The narrative starts with a disagreement between Gomer Parry and wide boy Roddy Lodge about the installation of septic tanks. That grabbed my interest because during the fifteen years I lived in a Devon longhouse I unfortunately became a bit of an expert on septic tanks! People would sometimes actually phone and ask my advice. That advice was usually “move to a house on the main drainage system”. Septic tanks situated close to the house are trouble, although there are ways to get round the problem. 

The Lamp of the Wicked was a very good tense read, but perhaps a bit too long for some readers.

Despite the fog, the square was collecting its nightly quota of upmarket 4x4s: well-off couples coming to dine-on a Monday night for heaven’s sake-at the Black Swan and the restaurant that used to be Cassidy’s Country Kitchen. 

The Monday diners were mostly the youthfully retired with up to half a century to kill before death.  

carlottoGang of Lovers is a taut sharply written shortish novel which is a good example of Italian hard boiled noir. Marco Buratti, aka The Alligator, and his associates, Max the Memory and Beniamino Rossini have been traumatised by the events of a long gang war against new style criminals, people with no honour or standards. 

The modern world, in that sector, was by then all mafia: multinational, a cross section of every and all kinds of corrupt institutional power. Corrupt and toxic.

When enriching yourself illegally means poisoning people and the places they live, devising latter-day slave trades, and working hand in glove with politicians, businessmen, and moguls of high finance, then free men with a conscience decide it’s time to leave the party.

When Oriana Pozzi Vitali, an elegant wealthy Swiss lady asks for help in finding out the fate of her lover, who was kidnapped, Marco after a lot of hesitation takes the case. Oriana had failed to pay the ransom demanded by the kidnappers and as a result her Guido had disappeared.

It was usually a missing person. Maybe her daughter had run off with a stable boy, or her husband had run off with the cook. As I stubbed out my cigarette I mused on the fact that once upon a time, nobody would have dreamed of running away with a cook, male or female.

Times have changed. These days, chefs were stars and had opinions about everything.

Before long, we’d have a chef running the country. 

 

The story is told from the three different perspectives of Marco Buratti, a cop called Campagna, and the villain of the story Giorgio Pelligrini, an amoral brilliant criminal with a “talent” for exploiting and abusing women. The narrative contains accounts of eating in numerous restaurants, and discussions about food, as well as murder and mayhem. The dialogue is sometimes brutally cynical as Marco, and Giorgio indulge in an addictive game of cat and mouse.

It is a fact that most crime fiction is read by women, and I wonder what they make of  the character of Giorgio Pellegrini, a man who totally dominates his women. 

Sweat was streamming down her body, her hair was matted to her head. Complete physical collapse was imminent. I helped her off the bike and laid her down on the wall-to-wall carpeting. I ripped off her panties and yanked open her legs.

Martina welcomed me gratefully.

Gang of Lovers is Italian “hard boiled” noir but with the shell left on. 

childsI read Personal by CWA Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child as a bit of light relief after the dark Nordic angst of The Silence of the Sea. It would perhaps be impertinent of me to review a book by the author of so many best sellers, and this is only the second Jack Reacher I have read.

But here are a few comments……….

That first Reacher I read was not particularly memorable, and this one after a great start faded away and the ending was rather weak. 

I also found it amusing that Personal seemed to be written for an American readership who know next nothing about England. 

‘Don’t you think? MI5 could trace it.’

‘To a cash payment in Boots the Chemist. Doesn’t help.

‘ ‘What’s Boots the Chemist?’

‘Their pharmacy chain. Like CVS. John Boot set it up in the middle of the nineteenth century. He probably looked just like the guy who built the wall around Wallace Court. It started out as a herbal medicine store, in a place called Nottingham, which is way north of here.’

Do American CIA/state department agents operating in England not know where Nottingham is, and do they need a geography and history lesson every few pages?

….then I saw the arch of a big soccer stadium, which meant we had made it to a place called Wembley.

Jack Reacher, an American, actually seems to me to be descended from a long line of British thriller heroes such as Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and James Bond. The style of the narrative, action packed reminded me a lot of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond books although obviously without the xenophobia, that distinguished those novels. For Sapper anywhere west of Godalming was bandit country.

In Personal Reacher sets out to save the ministers of the G8 from a sniper. There are only a few men in the world who could hit a target from 1,400 yards, and Reacher knows one of them personally. He sent him to prison years before. The reader is taken from Arkansas and Paris to exotic Romford, with Reacher leaving bodies in his wake, and we learn the unfortunate truth.

The problem with Personal is that any book that starts with the attempted assassination of a French President is going to be compared, by readers of my age, with The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Perhaps not a fair comparison one is a great crime fiction thriller, the other a pleasant read for a couple of sunny afternoons.

Lee Child is great fun to read if you treat the books as enjoyable beach novels that don’t strain the intellect too much. 

 

A luxury yacht arrives in Reykjavik harbour with nobody on board. What has happened to the crew, and to the family who were on board when it left Lisbon?

TPA2015SThora Gudmundsdottir is hired by the young father’s parents to investigate, and is soon drawn deeper into the mystery. What should she make of the rumours saying that the vessel was cursed, especially given that when she boards the yacht she thinks she sees one of the missing twins? Where is Karitas, the glamorous young wife of the yacht’s former owner? And whose is the body that has washed up further along the shore? [taken from the Amazon introduction]

Kathy commented on the 20 May:

I’d like to read an explanation of why this book [The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir] was chosen. I say this as a fan of Yrsa’s series.
But you gave a compelling argument for The Hummingbird and another blogger preferred Hunting Dogs. So I’d like to see why this book was chosen, in particular, i.e. atmosphere, plot, characters, etc.

I finished reading The Silence of the Sea yesterday, and I would like to ask the judges that same question.

 

The story is told in two timeframes with Thora’s investigation trying to prove that the family on the yacht are dead so that the parents and surviving daughter can claim the very large life insurance policies, interspersed with lengthy flashbacks to the voyage from Lisbon to Icelandic waters. It is perhaps a measure of the success of the story that the author drew me into her world so much that I was shocked, and very upset by the ending. I did not enjoy reading the book, but then I don’t think it was a story the reader was supposed to enjoy.

As I read I had hoped that we were not heading for one of those dark Nordic conclusions that leaves me emotionally drained, and searching for a Reginald Hill, or even a Massimo Carlotto for light relief. 

The ending perhaps even crossed the line from horror to horrid. Maybe that says more about my fragile emotional state than it does about the book. Also I cannot believe that any police force in the world would treat a yacht arriving in port, without the seven people meant to be on board, in such a lax manner. Perhaps in the numerous lengthy flashbacks to life on the voyage I found the actions of Aegir, the father, unbelievably stupid. Perhaps I am just an old curmudgeon, who can’t cope with miserable endings. 

In the books I read I am looking for the following features; a good plot, teasing subplots, believable interesting characters, an easy to read style, originality, a few red herrings, new locations, telling social commentary, even a little humour, and some empathy with the reader.

In the case of the Petrona Award winner I feel it should also be a book that the late Maxine Clarke would have enjoyed, a difficult judgement to make unless you knew her very well.

I am going to quote one of the judges, in her own review of the book.

“I found the book to be both compelling and shocking and was, ultimately, glad to reach the end.”

I totally agree. Frankly, even if you loved the rest of the book the ending was so shocking, that it would have disqualified it in my mind from receiving the award. 

There were at least three much more readable books suitable for the general reader on the shortlist than The Silence of the Sea, and my choice would have been The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto.      

ghostCamille671934

 

 

 

 

 

I read Pierre LeMaitre’s Camille [reviewed here], Death’s Jest-Book by Reginald Hill, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and only just started the Petrona Award winner The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. 

Death’s Jest-Book is another big blockbuster of a novel being both a sequel to Dialogues Of The Dead, and also having several new intriguing sub-plots. The fact that two 600 page books can be read without too much of a struggle is a tribute to one of our greatest crime writers, and the wonderfully quirky characters created by Reginald Hill. It was quite sad to say goodbye, even temporarily, to Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe, Ellie, Wieldy, Hat Bowler, “Ivor” Novello, Franny Roote, and their relationships and problems.

The Ghost by Robert Harris is a brilliant read, but not quite my cup of tea, I much prefer his historical fiction books Fatherland, Enigma and An Officer And A Spy, simply because modern politics seems still a bit too raw as we still face the problems discussed in The Ghost. 

The Ghost is roped in to rewrite the autobiography of an ex-British Prime Minister called Adam Lang, who despite the usual disclaimer that any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental bears a strong likeness to a recent British politician. The real Lang was a master of illusion, won three general elections, and was surrounded by political colleagues some of whom spent more time plotting his demise than running the country. 

In the book the previous “ghost” writer has met an untimely end apparently falling off the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Our new ghost, a man who does not know anything about politics, and who is never named, discusses the manuscript he is to rewrite with Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant.

‘Honestly? I haven’t had so much fun since I read the memoirs of Leonid Brezhnez.’ She didn’t smile. ‘I don’t understand how it happened,’ I went on.

‘You people were running the country not that long ago. Surely one of you had English as a first language?’

Author Robert Harris fell out with New Labour, and our ex-PM, over the Iraq War, a conflict which may well go down in history as one of the greatest strategic mistakes since Cornwallis marched his army into Yorktown. But who knows………..

 

CamilleAnne Forestier, the beautiful new woman in Commandant Camille Verhoeven’s life is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is severely injured during a violent robbery at a Paris jewellery store in the Galerie Monier.

Camille is distraught and gets the case assigned to him in breach of regulations failing to tell his superiors of his relationship with Anne. The story of the hunt for the perpetrators is told from multiple perspectives in a sharp frenetic narrative, with very vivid descriptions of the violence. The reader is taken through the thoughts and actions of the unnamed villain, and this is contrasted with Camille’s  efforts to track down the man identified by Anne from photographs of criminals with a similar modus operandi.

This is a dark police procedural with the difference that Camille breaks every rule risking his career in an attempt to protect Anne from further injury, or death. 

Every time he thinks about her, Camille cannot help but wonder what she sees in him. He is fifty years old, almost bald, and most important he is barely four foot eleven. 

When a book contains descriptions of violence it has to have in my opinion a redeeming feature to put it at the highest level. Alex, Pierre LeMaitre’s International Dagger winning novel had a brilliant plot twist, unfortunately the plot twist in Camille is rather obvious from the beginning.

I wanted to rate this book as a potential winner of the International Dagger, after all as a reader of below average height I feel a certain affinity and a lot of sympathy for Camille. His character dominates the novel, but surely after the murder of his wife, Irene,  the man has taken enough punishment. 

But despite the wonderful swift pace of the narrative I was slightly disappointed with Camille, which I thought was slightly let down by the fairly obvious plot twist. 

Art the end of the book there is a useful translator’s note about the judicial system in France [and much of Europe], which is so very different from that in the UK and USA. I remember a documentary about the International serial killer Jack Unterweger, when Florida police travelling to his trial in Austria were slightly confused by the absence of a jury. 

Camille is a good crime fiction read, but not in my opinion as good as number two in the trilogy Alex, or Deon Meyer’s Cobra or Leif G.W. Persson’s Free Falling As If In A Dream, the two other contenders for the International Dagger that I have read.

The catalogue of his lies is becoming dangrously long. But it is not this that terrifies Camille. It is knowing that Anne’s life is hanging by a thread. And he is utterly powerless.