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.


BoschRecently I did not finish a book sent to me for review, something that I have never done in the past. The book set in an unnamed Northern Italian city was violent and involved corrupt police and conflicts within the ‘Ndrangheta. After about 100 pages I decided that life was too short at my age to waste it on a book containing not one sympathetic character. A little sad and depressed with winter closing in, I turned to one of those authors who I know will provide me with a great crime fiction story, Michael Connelly. 

I have read the MickeyHaller stories but I prefer the police procedural investigations featuring Detective Harry Bosch.

The Burning Room is a great example of how to make the hard graft of real police work interesting for the reader. Harry now working cold cases is drawn into two investigations, because his new partner the young inexperienced Lucia Soto is trying to solve the deaths by arson of nine children in a day centre fire in which she was one of those children who were lucky to be saved.

The main case involves the shooting by a sniper of a Maraichi musician, Orlando Merced. Merced has lived paralysed with the bullet inside him for ten years. Now he has died and the bullet is recovered at an autopsy that states that Merced died as a result of the shooting, even ten years on from the actual shooting it is a murder case. Both investigations are complex with a lot of forensics, ballistics and travelling to interview characters about events in the almost forgotten past.

Latino gangs, white supremacists, police politics and political corruption as well as the private life of a great detective, Harry Bosch, in the twilight of his long career make this an excellent read. 

Bosch got out his notebook to write the name down. “You won’t be able to talk to him,” Walling said.

“He died twelve years ago. Killed himself after being indicted for tax evasion. He knew he was going to go away. That’s how we got most of these guys-they stopped paying taxes.”    


AmblerCrime fiction not only can cover today’s important topics, such as immigration [The Defenceless by Kati FurstHiekkapelto], but also take the reader into the past to discover what went wrong, and why. 

Two very different books  published seventy four years apart both deal with the subject of the methods by which Nazi Germany degraded France’s will to defend itself. Spies, payments for influence, threats of violence, and ruthless exploitation of weakness were the methods used. 

In Eric Ambler’s 1938 classic thriller Josef Vadassy, a Hungarian refugee and language teacher in Paris, is holidaying in a small hotel on the French Riviera. When he takes his holiday photographs to the chemist to be developed he is arrested as a spy, the photographs show Toulon’s naval defences. Vadassy has picked up the wrong camera in his hotel lounge. Beghin, a sweaty individual from the Surete Generale attached to the Department of Naval Intelligence sums up the situation.

“The Commissaire and I agreed”, he said at last, “that you were one of three things-a clever spy, a very stupid one or an innocent man.

I may say that the Commissaire thought you must be the second. I was inclined from the first to think you are innocent. You behaved far too stupidly. No guilty man would be such an imbecile.”

One of the other guests at the hotel, or the owner or his wife, must be the spy. Vadassy is sent back to discover who among the twelve suspects is guilty in an Agatha Christie type, who did it investigation. He is not a master detective or even a passable one and his blunders make for an interesting story as he surreptitiously gathers information about his interestingly varied fellow guests. Each of them has a secret and we learn something about the Europe of the 1930s. One of the guests tells him about post -war German social-democracy…

Its great illusion was its belief in the limitless possibilities of compromise. It thought that it could build Utopia within the Constitution of Weimar……

Worst of all, it thought you could meet force with good will, that the way to deal with a mad dog was to stroke it. In nineteen-thirty-three German social-democracy was bitten and died in agony.

Mission to Paris by Alan Furst, is much more of a modern style political thriller but also set in the corrupt France of 1938.

…but a small bureau in the Reich Foreign Ministry undertook operations to weaken French morale, and degrade France’s will to defend herself…..

Or rather German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs-tens of millions of dollars-had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933.

Frederic Stahl, an emigre from Europe, now an American movie star is sent to Paris to make a film. Frederic had spent the Great War in the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona after having run away to sea at seventeen. The Nazis want to use his Austrian ethnicity as a propaganda weapon, and make various efforts to recruit him. The narrative moves rapidly and Stahl’s love affairs, clashes with German agents ,and meetings with American diplomats lead him to get more involved in very dangerous situations.

‘Excuse me , sir’ she said to Stahl in French, ‘but there is finally good news. Very good news.’

‘Hello, Inga,’ Renate said. ‘Hello, Klaus.’

‘They’ve made a deal with Hitler,’ Inga said, now back in German. ‘He takes the Sudetenland, but promises that’s the end of it, and he signed a paper saying so.’

In another quote from the book, but something that many people thought at the time, 

You appease a thug like Hitler, it just makes him greedy for more, because he smells fear.

Have we learned anything from the past?

I don’t think so our politicians still allow vast amounts of foreign money to enter the country. They “kowtow” to foreign leaders, who run various forms of dictatorships, and appease loud minority groups, while ignoring the silent majority. Recently the Labour Party members and their associates voted in a leader, who advocates a “kinder gentler politics”. His “friends” and those who he has gone the extra mile to support over the years have a somewhat different agenda, and are not kinder gentle people.

My worries about this man becoming Prime Minister are lessened by the fact that he and his crew appear from recent events not to be able to run a bath, yet alone a Gestapo or a Stasi. 

But our present Conservative government can not be trusted to look after my budgie, or even the British steel industry, and I fear for the future. 

Eric Ambler and Alan Furst are always worth reading, and these two books are excellent examples of their work.  

leaving berlinJoseph Kanon’s best known book is The Good German, which was made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. Leaving Berlin would probably make an even better movie. I would agree with distinguished author Alexander McCall Smith’s back cover blurb that this is a very exciting book. But it is also a thriller for grown ups, which discusses political topics that are still extremely relevant today.

From the back cover:

Berlin 1949….a city caught between political idealism and the harsh reality of Soviet occupation………Alex Meier is a young Jewish writer who fled the nazis before the war….in the cross hairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of family, Alex makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin.

Of course things are never that straightforward, Alex has a son in America and a back history in Berlin which he left in 1935. The Russian military government, and their German fellow travellers, have invited “socialist” writers, playwrights, architects to work in the New Germany. Many of them in a similar situation to Alex.

“You still have family in Germany?” Martin was asking.

“No. No one,” Alex said. “They waited too long.” He turned to Martin, as if it needed to be explained.

“My father had the Iron Cross. He thought it would protect him.”

I read a lot of historical political thrillers simply because I enjoy learning about the past and perhaps being able to judge current trends. This novel is full of lessons for us and future generations. I loved the way Alex is given his Kulturband membership documents and told the food is excellent there, but for members only. In 1949 Germany had not yet formally split into two states but much of the structure of the oxymoronic German Democratic Republic, GDR, was in the process of being created. 

Alex’s aunt Lotte married into the von Bermuth family, who lived a life of comparative luxury before the war, and he had indulged in a secret affair as a young man with the beautiful Irene von Bermuth. Irene is now the mistress of Russian officer Sasha Markovsky, deputy to Maltsev an important cog in the Soviet Military Administration. Alex’s American minders want him to revive his relationship with Irene, and question her about Markovsky’s pillow talk. 

This novel is well written in an easy to read style, but the plot is very complex because such a lot happening. German POWs working in terrible conditions in a secret uranium mine. Decent men and women facing trial for treason for expressing deviation from the Party approved line, or simply it seems being Jewish.

Espionage. Shady deals. Murder. Betrayal upon betrayal. The use of old Nazi camps to house prisoners.

When Erich, Irene’s brother escapes from the uranium mining camp, and seeks her help in Berlin, and Sasha, Irene’s protector, is suddenly recalled to Moscow. The danger begins to escalate.

For all the excitement of the car chases, espionage and murders, it is the educational value of the story that makes this such a good book. Were the dedicated socialists who returned to work in their hoped for utopia very naive?

Herb Kleinbard, an architect makes fun of the plans for rebuilding the new Berlin. He calls the structures “Stalin wedding cakes”, and Alex discusses his situation with his wife.

“He could go to the West. A German. They take in any German.”

“The West? And work for the old Nazis? Another Speer? No, thank you. This is the Germany he wants. You’re here too. You understand how he feels. You don’t go.”

“I’m not in Sachsenhausen.”

This novel is a reminder that there is not a cigarette paper between Fascism and Communism, and in the long term very little between hard left Socialism and National Socialism. I am old enough to remember how the German Democratic Republic was admired by some as the new socialist Germany, the artistic achievements a revival of German culture, the sporting success one of the results of a true socialist state.  These people ignored the existence of the Ministry of State Security [Stasi] with its hundreds of thousands of secret informers, which must have seemed so familiar to those who had lived through the National Socialist years.

In the long history of walls from The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Israeli separation wall, the fence round the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, to the Hungarian razor wire, walls were designed to keep people out. 

Only the German Democratic socialist utopia had a wall to keep people in!  

Leaving Berlin is a great book well worth reading as both a fine thriller, and a warning from history.    

defencelessLooking out for crime fiction books that would have interested the much missed Maxine Clarke is always a bittersweet experience.

Sweet because she was such an excellent judge of a good crime fiction novel, and her own choices would almost always exhibit superb characters, complex plots, and an easy to read style, important themes and evocative atmosphere.

Bitter because when I read through the hundreds of emails we exchanged [we only met in person twice] I realize what a good friend I have lost. Maxine encouraged and inspired so many bloggers that I am certain I am not alone in missing her influence.  

I have to admit a certain bias in choosing The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, because I thought her first book The Hummingbird should have won last year’s Petrona Award. Kati is a punk singer and author; she lives in a 150 year old house on the island of Hailuoto in the Gulf of Bothnia in Northern Finland. She has a Masters degree in Special Education and studied racism and bullying among young immigrants in Finland.  

The Defenceless is the second in the series featuring a mismatched pair of detectives. Anna Fekete is a young attractive woman, an immigrant as a child from the former Yugoslavia. She is Hungarian by ethnicity and her family, apart from Akos, her alcoholic brother who lives near her, still lives in the Hungarian speaking area of Serbia. Esko is a middle aged Finnish “redneck” with health problems, who hates all immigrants. The only thing they have in common is their desire to catch criminals, and their problem with alcohol and smoking. Anna is no virginal Miss Marple, and her drinking sometimes lead to sexual activity with some pathetic men that she regrets the next day.  

The stark contrast between Esko living a pathetic lonely physically inactive life in a tiny apartment and worried at the dangerous age of 56 about his heart and lungs, and Anna a keen runner and skier makes for an interesting story.  

Not everybody could be sporty health-freaks in top physical condition. Society needed the drunk, the obese, the depressed, as examples to the rest of us and to provide statistics with which to frighten people.  

In both books we see that Esko who starts off as a horrid racist misogynist, may have a softer centre to this hard outer shell. Perhaps he is merely terrified at getting older, and the enormous changes that have occurred in his country. The arrival of 300,000 immigrants into the UK may create difficulties in providing schools, housing, and health services, but in a country like Finland with a much smaller population it alters the whole ethnic and social make up of the country.   

The Finnish authorities and all the tree-hugging humanists should visit Copenhagen and Malmo and take a look at what an open-door immigration policy really means, thought Esko.   

The story opens with Viho, an elderly Finn having an argument with his noisy drug-dealing neighbour, Macke, while Sammy, a drug addicted Pakistani Christian is trying to get a supply of subutex from the dealer.  

But first he had to find some subs. Bupe. Orange guys. A dear child has many names.   

When Gabriella, a Hungarian au pair is arrested for dangerous driving as she has apparently knocked down and killed an old man on a snowy road, and Anna is called to deal with the case because she speaks Hungarian, although she finds her ability to converse in her native language has faded over the years.

The book investigates the themes of, immigration, drug gangs, the status of minorities, racism and human rights, along with the loneliness of old age. Anna’s kindness towards Sammy, and her friendship with gay immigrant pizza restaurant owners show her internal struggle with her identity, and her hopes for the future.   

The idea of a Hungarian man, and especially one from Kanisza, seemed quite tempting, at least in theory., but in practice, in reality, it was something quite different. It was a culture that reared boys into a world in which women could never become their equals.   

With the story being told from the perspective of Anna, Esko and Sammy I am sure it would have been the sort of book Maxine would have enjoyed, and we could have discussed it at length.   

Could there be a more topical book in Europe 2015 than one about the problems of immigration, and the scourge of drug gangs?   

The police procedural with a team of detectives working with Anna and Esko, and the social commentary reminded me of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

There can be no better recommendation for this brilliant book.   For more great book recommendations for Maxine go to Petrona Remembered  

OT: More Summer Distractions

Posted: September 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

Crime Scraps is now nine years old so to mark that milestone I have posted some more photos I took this wonderful summer. 

P1050393photoxxxphoto 3photo 2-1

HOL sat peopleFrom the back cover: Oslo 1969.

When a wealthy man collapses and dies during a dinner party. Norwegian Police InspectorKolbjorn Kristiansen, known as K2, is left shaken. For the victim Magdalon Schelderup, a multi-millionaire businessman, and former resistance fighter, had contacted him only the day before,  fearing for his life.

This is the second book in the series featuring K2, and his brilliant young associate, the wheel chair bound Patricia, and is dedicated to Agatha Christie. The narration is in the first person by K2, and the plot is a classic in that there are a limited number of suspects, the ten that attended the dinner party, and that the victim is a thoroughly unpleasant character. Therefore the book comes over as being very similar in atmosphere to The Human Flies, the first book in the series. One persistent theme, like the previous book, is events during the German occupation of World War II.

One misconception about Agatha Christie’s body of work is that she wrote the same English country house mystery over and over again, when in fact by varying the location and producing new plot twists she kept her work fresh. If she did parody herself there were usually thirty or forty years between the books.

The ten guests at the Schelderup dinner party, include a wife, two ex-wives, three children from the various wives, a young attractive secretary, and friends who go back to his wartime activities. K2 must negotiate his way through this plethora of suspects, numerous red herrings, and of course in true Christie tradition some of his suspects will not survive till the end of the book. 

The combination of K2 and Patricia is unlike Poirot and Hastings, or Holmes and Watson, and much more like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. K2 tells the story and does the legwork, but Patricia is very much the brains behind the duo.

I found myself faltering while reading Satellite People, as I was distracted by advancing old age, the serious political problems facing this country, and very much more pleasant events. I would not say that Satellite People is a great read because the plot lines are very derivative, as they were intended to be, but this means that it lacks a freshness and the ability to grip the reader. But if you haven’t read a lot of classic crime fiction it is a very interesting take on the genre.

Patricia stared at me wide-eyed for a moment.

‘You surpass yourself,’ she remarked, apparently serious.

My joy lasted for all of ten seconds. Because when she continued it was far less pleasant.

‘I would not have believed it was possible to get so much wrong in two sentences, and at such a late stage of a murder investigation.’ 


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.