I am in danger of becoming a television addict and my reading is suffering. My excuse is the plethora of great miniseries dominating our screens in the last few weeks. My recorder has been overworked, and I have even discovered Van Veeteren lurking among the mysteries on my Tivo boxed sets.

BBC 4 are playing the second series of Young Montalbano. I have now got accustomed to the youthful Salvo, Livia, Mimi, Favio and Catarella and even Mrs Crime Scraps is a fan of this excellent series.

More Four have also gone continental with the French policial thriller Spin [Les Hommes de l’Ombre] which stars the gorgeous Nathalie Baye, as a Presidential candidate, Bruno Wolkowitch, and Gregory Fitoussi. Fitoussi played Pierre Clement in Spiral, and sent many female hearts of my acquaintance throbbing, so it is nice to see him playing a real nasty piece of work managing the presidential electoral campaign of the Prime Minister, an even nastier guy. The sexual relationships of these fictional characters are nowhere near as intricate as those of the last two French presidents, Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. Obviously true life is stranger than fiction and power must be the ultimate aphrodisiac. 

On Channel Four we have the spy thriller Deutschland 83 in which we see both that the GDR [East Germany] was part of the evil empire and the FDR [West Germany], or at least their army, seems to have been part of an incompetent empire. Some people are rooting for the GDR spy Martin in this series seemingly failing to see his predicament as the ruthless cynical exploitation of a decent person by a foul regime. Part of Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech is used in the trailer and it is unfortunate that the fall of the Berlin Wall has not changed the ideas of many influential politicians in this country. They still won’t accept that Chairman Mao and Uncle Joe killed more people before breakfast on any single day than the British Empire in the last three centuries. 

I have seen that it won’t be long before a new series of Happy Valley will be back on our screens, and I was surprised to realise that the rapist from that series Tommy Lee Royce was played by James Norton, who stars as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the visually magnificent War and Peace currently on BBC One. I am really enjoying that series although it would be nice if Pierre Bezukhov, played with great intensity by Paul Dano, sent his slutty wife Helene [Tuppence Middleton] off to a convent somewhere near Irkutsk.

War and Peace has lead me to start reading a book that has lived on my bookshelves for nearly twent years. I have decided it is time I read How Far From Austerlitz by Alistair Horne so less crime fiction and a bit of history for a change. In my pre-Crime Scraps days I read Alistair Horne’s magnificent trilogy on modern French History, The Price of Glory:Verdun 1916;  To Lose a Battle: France 1940, and A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. 

CoptownMagic DeborahI read two outstanding books from the USA in 2015. The heartrending The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson, which deservedly won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and Cop Town by Karin Slaughter, which won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Thrillers.

Both were set in the South and dealt with racism, in all  its ugly incarnations. And interestingly both had female leading protagonists, always a good start in societies, the Deep South 1946, and Atlanta police force 1974, where women were regarded with a degree of circumspection. An excellent reminder for devotees of Nordic translated crime fiction that there are still great books coming out of the USA.  

 

leaving berlindefencelessHummzagrebricciardiYou can read about my selection of the best European set crime fiction books I read during 2015 over at Euro Crime.

As you can see from my choices I would much rather read books with a relevant political message than crime fiction novels that are merely variations on the theme of the serial killer. 

 

OT: The Summit: Ed Conway

Posted: January 11, 2016 in Off Topic, Uncategorized

The SummitFrom the back cover: The idea of world leaders gathering in the midst of economic crisis has become all too familiar. But the meeting at Bretton Woods in 1944 was the only time countries from around the world have agreed to overhaul the structure of the international monetary system. And, what’s more they were successful-it was the closest to perfection the world’s economy has ever been. Drawing on a wealth of unpublished accounts, diaries and oral histories, this gripping book describes the conference in stunning colour and clarity.

Author Ed Conway is the economics editor of Sky News, and was previously economics editor of the Daily Telegraph. He has written a fine book that is in fact more than an account of the Bretton Woods Conference, it is an economic history of Europe between the end of the Great War to our current situation. I did not understand most of the economics in the book as I am a believer in the simple Wilkins Micawber school of fiscal responsibility. 

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

I sometimes think that many British Chancellors of the Exchequer hope that David Copperfield, the magician, will conjure some money for them rather than obeying Dicken’s mantra. 

The history and economics are interesting, but it is the larger than life characters in the book that make this book so gripping. The two dominant economists at Bretton Woods were the British John Maynard Keynes and the American Harry Dexter White. Two very different people Keynes, from an early age outshone his intellectual parents, father a Cambridge lecturer, mother a social reformer and politician, was educated at Eton and Cambridge. A member of the Bloomsbury set he was a conscientious objector. White, a First Lieutenant during the war, was the son of a Boston Hardware merchant, who had changed his name from Weit, after arriving in America from Lithuania. It is the contrast in backgrounds between the main protagonists that is part of the fascination of the story of Bretton Woods.

The book is full of historical vignettes about the period and the characters, some not flattering to the Bloomsbury set as they partied while men died in the trenches, and some vital to understand the very different standards of the period. The Bretton Woods conference was held in the slightly run down Mount Washington Hotel, one reason being that its owner Bostonian David Stoneman was Jewish. Both Henry Morgenthau Jr, US Treasury Secretary and Harry White, the US chief negotiator, had been turned away from other New England hotels in the past because they were Jewish. 

But some things never change:

Among the latter category was the Greek delegate Varvaressos, who seemed, to judge from his interjections, not to have absorbed the fact that the Fund was to be used only in emergencies rather than providing a steady stream of cash for his country……..He is a decorative creature and an entertaining companion, but I am convinced that, despite the high esteem in which he is held by the Treasury, he is fundamentally a bit of a fraud.

And in recent times we have seen a leftist finance minister with a millionaire lifestyle represent Greece, and achieve more self publicity than concrete help for the Greek people, who I might say deserved far better.  

We shouldn’t be too hard on any of the people of that time after all only twenty one years after the end of the Great War the world had been plunged into another catastrophe of mind blowing proportions.

one in five of the entire Polish population was killed; one in eleven of the Russian population; one in fourteen Greeks; one in fifteen Germans; one in seventy-seven French; one in 125 Britons. In those countries occupied by the Nazis, the fatalities were disproportionately among the educated population.

The Summit was one of the best non fiction books I have read for some time, highly recommended.  

 

dimitriosOne of the books I read during the last few weeks of 2015 was The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler which was originally published in 1939. It was the third or fourth time I had read this masterpiece, and because it was about a decade since my previous reading I noticed some interesting features in the novel. There is a blurb on the front cover ‘The source on which we all draw” by John le Carre, and it appeared to me that many of the techniques used by Ambler have been taken up by so many crime writers especially the Swedish school.

The Mask of Dimitrios is the story of how an English crime novelist Charles Latimer becomes fascinated, almost obsessed, by the story of  master criminal Dimitrios, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer retraces Dimitrios’s steps across Europe hoping to gain material for a new book. The simplicity of this plot device is quite brilliant as it allows the author to include passages about the history of the various locations.

Unable to destroy the Turkish army, the Greeks turned with frantic savagery to the business of destroying the Turkish population in the path of their flight……………….Assisted by the few half-crazed Anatolian peasants who had survived, they took their revenge on the Greeks they were able to overtake……….

But the main Greek army had escaped by sea…… the Turks swept on. On the ninth of September 1922, they occupied Smyrna.

For a fortnight, refugees from the oncoming Turks had been pouring into the city to swell the already large Greek and Armenian populations. They had thought that the Greek army would turn and defend Smyrna. But the Greek army had fled. Now they were caught in a trap. The holocaust began.

We have to remember that this was published in 1939. The destruction of Smyrna, a multicultural community, was a sad prediction of what was to happen to so many communities in Europe between 1939-1945, and what is happening to many in the Middle East today. 

The assassination of politicians arranged by corrupt banks, spies, murders and the activities of criminal drug distributing organisations are contained in a narrative that packs more events and details in a mere 226 pages than many of today’s heavy 600 page doorstops. The very detailed slow paced descriptions of how master spy Grodek, and Dimitrios, while working for Italy entrap a Yugoslav civil servant into getting hold of top secret information, and the activities of Dimitrios’s drug gang in Paris, are almost a blueprint for this detailed approach in later novels for example those by le Carre and Stieg Larsson. 

Any discussion of this novel without mentioning the enigmatic loquacious Mr Peters would be unacceptable. He is one of the great characters of spy/crime fiction, and when a movie of the book was made his part was taken by the portly Sydney Greenstreet. Greenstreet had starred in The Maltese Falcon, as the villainous Gutman, and was an fine choice. He had been accompanied in that movie by Peter Lorre, they made an excellent combination. But someone thought he should play opposite Greenstreet in The Mask of Dimitrios, and so Charles Lambert was changed into Cornelius Leyden to explain Lorre’s central European accent. I thought Peter Lorre was miscast as he was too good a villain to play the hero. But Sydney Greenstreet was the quintessential Mr Peters…..

The fat man spread out large, soft hands on one of which twinkled a rather grubby diamond ring. ‘I am a citizen of the world,’ he said. “To me, all countries, all languages are beautiful. If only men could live as brothers, without hatred, seeing only the beautiful things. But no! There are always Communists, etcetera. It is, no doubt the Great One’s will.”

There is a brooding almosphere of corrupt evil that permeates the narrative, because we are as it states in the introduction in a Europe that is a jungle and its rules set by the Stock Exchange Year Book and Mein Kampf.

Ambler succeeds brilliantly in informing a population that had been fed a diet of cosy country house murders, and village green cricket matches, about the harsh realities of life across the Channel. 

Almost as Ambler finished the book the Nazis marched into Prague in the spring of 1939.     

NWUnforgottenHappy New Year. Let us hope that 2016 is a more peaceful year for our world, and that our political masters and mistresses start to act in a more sensible fashion. 

You can read about my 2015 discovery, Nicola Walker, and some excellent choices by the other Euro Crime reviewers at Karen’s encyclopaedic website Euro Crime

 

CoptownI read Cop Town because it won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger as the best crime thriller of  2015. Cop Town is a worthy recipient of the award that last year was won by the superb An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris.

Set in Atlanta in late 1974 the story begins as a search for a serial cop killer known as The Shooter. Jimmy Lawson’s partner Don Wesley has been shot and Atlanta’s police force is on the warpath to find the killer. Jimmy’s violent uncle Terry leads a group of cops who are determined to dispense their own brand of justice. Two policewomen begin their own investigation as something is not quite right about Jimmy’s account of the details of the shooting. The female cops are Maggie Lawson, Jimmy’s sister, and rookie Kate Murphy, a young women widowed by the Vietnam war.

Maggie comes from a real blue collar police family, and Kate doesn’t. I won’t say any more because a large part of the interest in the story for this reader was the discovery of Kate’s background, and the gradual change in the storyline from a straightforward police procedural into a combative plea against homophobia, misogyny, and racism. 

Maybe there was a reason Atlanta was statistically one of the most violent, criminal cities in America. As far as Maggie could tell, the only thing black and white male officers could agree on was that none of them thought women should be allowed in uniform.

This is a brilliant book with great characters, plenty of social comment, and a plot that is just complex and convoluted enough to keep the reader’s interest.    

Mid EuropeAlan Furst’s espionage novels set during the turbulent years of the 1930s encapsulate so many features that 350px-PicassoGuernicashould be in a good thriller that I usually read them in one of two sittings. Midnight in Europe was no exception, and seemed an appropriate title to read at the time of the dreadful Paris terrorist attacks.

The book’s dedication page is a quote by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, on the eve of the Great War, 3 August 1914.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Europe has faced great threats in the past but let us hope we have learned a little from the traumas suffered during the twentieth century by our parents and grandparents generations.

Midnight in Europe begins in late 1937 when Cristian Ferrar, a handsome Catalan lawyer, is recruited to work for the Spanish Republic’s arms buying agency. He is a senior partner at the well respected firm of Coudert Freres, fluent in several languages he is an anti-Fascist and a good candidate to deal with the numerous problems he will face. Along with Max de Lyon, a former arms trader with a Swiss passport, Ferrar will travel across Europe to Gdansk, Berlin and Odessa dealing with gangsters, spies, and Fascist agents in various attempts to obtain arms for the doomed Republic.  The Spanish Civil War was like most civil wars a dreadful conflict in which both sides committed atrocities. The  disunited Republican left backed by Stalin’s Russia proved no match for Franco’s Nationalists backed by Hitler and Mussolini. The real tragedy was that Britain and France refused to sell arms to either side, which in reality meant the Republicans were always short of weapons and planes. [above right Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting depicting the bombing of Guernica] 

Ferrar will manage to meet beautiful seductive women along the way, and the reader will learn about Europe’s dire situation in the late 1930s. The book is full of great characters, exciting incidents, historical information and the accurate atmosphere of that terrifying time. 

Defiance? The stationmaster would not stand for it. His face knotted with anger, his voice raised, he said, ‘Don’t you dare contradict me, Monsieur Cohen or Levy or whatever your name is. I say what goes on here, so don’t you try any of your sneaky little tricks on me! We’ve had more than enough of your kind in Poland.’

Crack. The speed of the blow was astonishing. De Lyon’s hand, as though on a coiled spring, swept backhand across the stationmaster’s face. Shocked, his mouth open with surprise, the stationmaster put his hand to his cheek. 

‘How’s that for a little trick? de Lyon said.

Furst’s thrillers are unequivocal in their stance that evil must be confronted. The plots are thrilling but not overcomplicated, the characters well drawn, the locations varied, and the clarity of the writing means that the social and political commentary is easily absorbed by the reader. 

‘To fight Franco, to  fight them all; Hitler, and those who aspire to be Hitlers……..I don’t mean to give a speech but the subject forces you to, doesn’t it?………

From de Lyon a dry laugh. Then, ‘True. And if a time comes when the phrase to fight turns into fight back, it will by that time be too late.’   


meyer icarusReading very good crime fiction can take the reader into a different environment, and allow you to forget even for a few seconds the terrible events taking place in a real world that frequently is more terrifying than anything thought up by a fiction writer. 

Icarus by Deon Meyer is yet another superb book set in modern South Africa featuring the troubled alcoholic detective Benny Griessel, and his colleague Vaughan Cupido. The story has two strands that come together very satisfactorily at the conclusion of the book.

The major plot has the Hawks-the elite Directorate of the Priority Crimes Investigations, the DCPI- investigating the murder of high flying internet entrepreneur Ernst Richter. Richter’s company Alibi is notorious for arranging cover stories for people having affairs, which means the number of suspects who might want to kill him is quite high. Benny has fallen off the wagon after 602 days sober, because of a traumatic family murder suicide. His partner Vaughan Cupido, a Cape Coloured detective, has to take the lead in the investigation while covering up for his friend Benna. 

The subplot is set a few days in the future where wine farmer Francois du Toit narrates a family saga to Advocate Susan Peires in her chambers. Some readers might feel that this lengthy story of farmers, wine and rugby stars slows up the progress of the main narrative but I found it fascinating, and it helped build up the tension. 

Advocate Susan Peires SP: Please, Mr du Toit…..

F. du Toit FdT: Call me Francois…..

SP: No, I shall call you Mr du Toit. We are not friends; we are advocate and client. It is an official, professional relationship,  for which you will pay me a lot of money.

Immersing the reader into the atmosphere of Deon Meyer’s books is helped by the liberal, but not excessive, use of Afrikaans and some of the Rainbow Nation’s 10 other official languages, as well as township slang. Luckily there is a comprehensive glossary in the back of the book to assist the English speaking reader. Cupido’s efforts to find Richter’s killer are complicated by his attempts to get Benny to get his life back on track, and his strong feelings for the very desirable Desiree Coetzee, the beautiful Cape Coloured woman who in effect ran Alibi for Ernst Richter.

The investigation becomes more complex as Alibi’s clients become concerned that their names would be revealed by someone who had obtained the database of unfaithful spouses. 

She told him about the pressure from above. She said the dude doing the database reveal had already exposed one ANC politician, one TV newsreader and a whitey former soap star. 

All the complexities of the case come together at the end. Benny continues to fight his alcoholism as his colleagues try to protect him, Cupido wonders if he can form a relationship with Desiree.

Cupido was on the point of saying Let’s go. Because he struggled  with impulse control, he wanted to ask Benna, What do you do with a dolly who is out of your league, but you think about her day and night:

With the interesting location in South Africa, the social commentary and with so many other characteristics that I want in a good crime fiction novel I can highly recommend Icarus.  This is a series well worth following.   

OT: The rugged terrain of England

Posted: November 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

Jose Ignacio posted some wonderful photos of the mountains outside Madrid.

Inspired by his post I had to show that England is not all big cities and green fields with my own photos taken in September. I have to admit no hiking or climbing was involved just a gentle stroll along the base of the cliffs in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.

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