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. 

night managerFrom the back cover:

At the start of it all, Jonathan Pine is merely the night manager at a luxury hotel. But when a single attempt to pass on information to the British authorities – about an international businessman at the hotel with suspicious dealings – backfires terribly, and people close to Pine begin to die, he commits himself to a battle against powerful forces he cannot begin to imagine.

In a chilling tale of corrupt intelligence agencies, billion-dollar price tags and the truth of the brutal arms trade, John le Carré creates a claustrophobic world in which no one can be trusted.

The Night Manager was written in 1993, and tells of the efforts by a small section of British Intelligence lead by Leonard Burr to bring down a ruthless international arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper. Jonathan is involved because the exotic Madame Sophie confides in him a document listing arms deals with her lover, Freddie Hamid, who with his brothers owns a large chunk of Cairo. Jonathan passes the information on to a “friend” at the British Embassy, and becomes very close to Sophie. She is murdered, and Jonathan leaves Egypt, becoming night manager of the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich. It is there that he meets Roper, his young mistress Jeds, and his thoroughly unpleasant entourage.

‘Roper?’ Mama Low retorted incredulously. ‘You mean you don’t know?’

‘I mean I don’t know.’

‘ ‘Well sure as hell, Mass’ Lamont, I don’t. And I sure as hell don’t ask. He’s some big company from Nassau that’s losin’ all its money. Man’s as rich as that in recession time, he sure as hell some mighty big crook.’

Burr begins to construct a background for Jonathan that will allow him to infiltrate Roper’s organisation. The action moves from Cornwall, where Jonathan “murders” a man, to Canada, where he obtains a false passport, and on to the Caribbean where he stops a kidnapping and enters the Roper organisation.

The Night Manager is a very good book and hidden within my edition’s 472 pages is a probably a great 350 page story. John Le Carre is a very clever author, he gives his readers great descriptions, memorable characters, and wonderfully convoluted plots. But sometimes the machinations of the intelligence agencies, who seem to spend more time plotting against each other than planning to bring down Roper, just hold up the action.

After the Royal & Ancients came Burr’s pet hates, and probably Roper’s too, for he called them the Necessary evils, and these were the shiny-cheeked merchant bankers from London with eighties striped blue shirts and white collars and double-barrelled names and double chins and double breasted suits, who said ‘ears’ when they meant ‘yes’ and ‘hice’ when they meant ‘house’ and ‘school’ when they meant ‘Eton’;

Le Carre’s extremely clever suave dialogue, which he puts into the mouths of  public school educated Englishmen is almost timeless, as are the arrogant characters.

Richard Onslow Roper, Major “Corky” Corkoran, and Lord Langbourne could be regarded as modern versions of the bully Flashman  in Thomas Hughes novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. We have another literary link when Roper’s entourage of upper class Englishmen finds itself in a Central American base reminiscent of the movie Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. 

But the maddest part of Faberge was not the walldaubings or the voodoo statues, not the magic words of Indian dialect sprinkled between Spanish slogans or the rush roofed Crazy Horse saloon with its bar-stools and juke boxand naked girls cavorting on walls. It was the living zoo.

It certainly seems that John Le Carre’s view of the world has become one where  duplicitous Englishmen and Americans from intelligence agencies and big business persue personal pride and self gratification at the expense of the downtrodden. This view is certainly emphasised in some of the later novels.

A fine wordy novel, and I suspect that if the television series is edited down and the novel’s extraneous padding is removed it will be a big success.

I am reading The Night Manager by John Le Carre, and after watching the excellent first episode on Tv have decided to postpone watching further episodes till I have finished the book. 

Viewers of Happy Valley, the award winning TV series, have already seen a promotion when James Norton went from playing psychopathic rapist and murderer Tommy Lee Voyce to playing the dashing Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace. With Happy Valley series two now on our screens Norton is demoted back to Tommy Lee Voyce. Happy Valley is a brilliant  program that has kept the excitement and high standards of series 0ne.

The Night Manager also involved a considerable change of status as glamourous French actress Aure Akita played Sophie, the mistress of crook Freddy Hamid, only to move on to play Gabrielle Tackichieff, Madame Secretary General at the Elysee Palace, in the second series of Spin [Les homme de l’ombre].  

nate nashThanks for the good wishes I have received for a continued recovery.

Palace of Treason is the sequel to Red Sparrow and features the return of those memorable characters Domenika Egorova and Nate Nash. The book’s author Jason Matthews was for 33 years an operations officer for the CIA, and the story is packed with details of espionage trade craft. Various aspects of the work of the CIA are covered. Nate is running a “walk in” disaffected Russian General given the code name LYRIC. While Domenika, a Captain in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service the SVR, is deep undercover attempting to turn an Iranian nuclear scientist, and sabotage their program to create a bomb. The story is incredibly complex with treachery from a passed over American official likely to expose Domenika as a double agent, despite her past successes and closeness to one of the major characters in the book, Vladimir Putin.

There are some very interesting features in this novel, some make it an easy interesting read, for instance the recipes at the end of the chapters that refer to food eaten or mentioned in the preceding section. Others become irritating and detract from the progress of the narrative.

Firstly there is too much descriptive violence and sex, which probably means I am not the target demographic for the novel.

Secondly there is an enormous amount of detail which results in the book coming in at 533 pages. It almost seems as if Jason Matthews has so much information and has done so much research he doesn’t want to waste it. Everything is described at great length, frequently when it refers to violence at too great a length. 

Thirdly the book does feel like soemthing from the past with a Cold War antagonism to the Russians going beyond that period back to the time of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond novels, where racism and xenophobia were normal. In Sapper’s novels the bad guys began at the Channel, or sometimes even Goldaming, and the villains were always nasty looking foreigners. Matthews’s  Russian bad guys are uniformly ugly, the short vicious dwarf like Zyuganov, the hairy ape Yevgeny, and the repulsive brutal female assassin Eva Buchina, while Domenika, Nate and young agent Hannah are attractive and sexy. Perhaps it is this immature attitude that makes the story so readable? 

But more important than the ridiculous fictional uglies is the very unflattering use of a real life character Tsar Vladimir Putin. Legal Eagle Bill Selnes of that intelligent blog Mysteries  and More in Saskatchewan discusses the legal ramification of using real life characters here

In Palace of Treason the Tsar is venal, corrupt and only interested in his persoanl wealth and power. I suspect in real life all is not as black and white as in the novel. He and his crew do enrich themselves at the expense of the Russian people, but Putin does seem to care for Russia and her interests. British politicians might learn something about putting their own country first.

And of course some of our British politicians have allegedly greatly enriched themselves after leaving office, and others seem to conduct their affairs with one eye on future jobs in the United States. 

Despite my criticisms I did enjoy Palace of Treason especially the Russian humour, and the food. It may not be subtle and not reach the standards of maturity set by John Le Carre, or Joseph Kanon, but it is a fine espionage story.

The Cold War never ended. Rebuild Russia’s former power and majesty. Putin himself liked to tell the story:

It is discovered that Stalin is alive and living in a cabin in Siberia. A delegation is sent to convince him to return to Moscow, assume power and restore Russia to greatness. After some reluctance, Stalin agrees to come back. 

‘Okay, ‘ he says, ‘but no Mr Nice Guy this time.’