Archive for June, 2012

Back from holiday

Posted: June 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

We had a few days away and for once I did very little reading so I have some catching up to do. The photograph might, or might not, be a clue as to where we went.

I read a book review a few weeks ago that began ‘ ***** ****** is a hero of mine’.  As the author ***** ****** in question is alive and has not accomplished anything of note I wondered about the sanity of the reviewer.

But that has not put me off starting this post with ‘James Garfield is a hero of mine’. Garfield accomplished a great deal rising from abject poverty to become a scholar, a Civil War hero, a congressman and finally to reach the White House; but sadly like Lincoln before him was assassinated.

My copy of Prague Fatale was a bit too bulky to take to the garage for the two hour wait while my small economical car had new tyres and laser digital computer rebalancing. Frankly I think I could do with a bit of laser digital computer rebalancing after paying the bill!

Therefore I took along my newly arrived paperback copy of the Edgar Best Fact Crime winning book by Candice Millard- Destiny of the Republic, A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. It proved to be packed with absolutely fascinating  details about the lives of President Garfield, Charles Guiteau, his crazed assassin,  Alexander Graham Bell and others. Who knew that when President Hayes travelled to Philadelphia for the opening ceremony of the Centennial Exhibition, he bought a ticket and boarded the train like everyone else?

In two hours I was on page 127 and entranced even more by General Garfield’s character and wisdom.

“Assassination can be no more guarded against than death by lightening’, he wrote, ‘and it is best not to worry about either.”

And from his inaugural address:

” The emancipated race has already made remarkable progress. With unquestioning devotion to the Union, with patience and gentleness not born of fear, they have ‘followed the light as God gave them to see the light’……..They deserve the generous encouragement of all good men. So far as my authority can lawfully extend they shall enjoy the full and equal protection of the Constitution and the laws.”

But in a book dealing with some very serious subjects author Candice Millard manages to lighten matters a little with her accounts of the antics of the “insane” Charles Guiteau. 

Guiteau made several failed attempts to become an evangelist when arriving in a town he would distribute handbills announcing his lectures. 

On most nights, only a handful of people showed up, and after Guiteau began to speak they either heckled him or simply left.

After he gave a lecture titled “Is There a Hell?” to an unusually large crowd at the Newark Opera House, the Newark Daily Journal ran a jeering review with the headline

” Is there a hell? Fifty deceived people are of the opinion that there ought to be.” 

In Philip Kerr’s 8th Bernie Gunther book, after a very brief introductory 1942 preamble, we are taken back to September 1941. Bernie has returned from the Eastern Front where he has seen and participated in terrible crimes. His suicidal feelings of disgust and guilt are not improved by the rundown state of wartime Berlin. Back as a homicide detective Bernie is investigating the murder of a Dutch railway worker, when he meets Arianne Tauber a local good time girl who has been attacked in the streets. A common occurrence in the blackout. 
But Bernie has to drop the investigation when he is summoned to Prague by Reinhard Heydrich, who has just been appointed the new Reich Protector of Bohemia-Moravia, as he wants Bernie to be his personal bodyguard.
‘Klein, my driver, is quite capable of pulling out a gun and shooting some witless Czecho. As am I. But I want someone around me who understands murder and murderers, and who can handle himself to boot. A proper detective who is trained to be suspicious.’
Heydrich has invited a group of SS officers to stay as guests at his country retreat of Jungfern-Breschan, a late nineteenth-century French-style chateau. The house was previously owned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish sugar merchant, whose femme fatale wife Adele, was famously painted by Gustav Klimt. A copy of the painting sits on the wall during Bernie’s stay because the original had been stolen ‘by that greedy fat bastard Hermann Goring.’
It was a modest little place, but only by the standards of Hermann Goring, or Mussolini, perhaps.
When Captain Kuttner, one of Heydrich’s four adjutants is found murdered in his bedroom with the door locked from the inside, the story becomes a pastiche of the classic English country house murder mystery with a lengthy list of suspects all seemingly with secrets to hide.  The irony in searching for a murderer in a house full of mass murderers is not lost on Bernie. As Bernie questions the suspects the reader learns about their careers, their rise through the Nazi ranks, and their weaknesses and hatred for each other.
This is a superb book written in a brisk first person narrative, a technique that emphasizes the horror of the events described. The suspects are almost all monsters with slightly varying degrees of guilt, and a welcome author’s notes at the end charts their respective fates. Crime fiction can be an entertaining, or can make telling social commentary, or it can educate.
Prague Fatale, whether it was intended as such or not, is almost all an education about evil; and because of the subject matter it cannot be called a pleasant or entertaining read. Even Bernie Gunther’s wit and the country house mystery format can’t hide the fact that this is mostly a story about man’s terrible inhumanity to fellow human beings.  Perhaps Prague Fatale should be required reading for the sort of scum who appeared on the recent BBC Panorama program on Football supporters and Racism in Poland and Ukraine chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and abusing Asian fans and black players. 
One advantage that Philip Kerr has in selecting this particular historical period to write about is that the real life situations are the stuff of fiction, and the characters more evil than any possible fictional creation. 
‘But the real reason why Dr Jury likes opera so much is every bit as vulgar as you describe. Rumour has it he’s been having an affair with a young singer at the Deutsches Oper in Berlin. Rather an attractive creature by the name of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.  And that would be vulgar enough were it not for the fact that she’s also singing a duet with Doctor Goebbels. At least, that’s what General Heydrich says.’  
The plot of Prague Fatale is not a complex as some as the earlier books in the series with their back stories and repeated flashbacks, but it is equally as hard hitting.  Perhaps more so as the contrast between the luxurious lifestyle at Jungfren-Breschan and what goes on outside is so stark. There are some moving passages where Bernie gets food to help the elderly Jewish sisters who live in the apartment below his, or where he stands up for an elderly Jewish veteran, with the Knight’s cross with oak leaves on a ribbon round his neck alongside the yellow star on his coat. But this is a bleak tale because it is based on reality. 
Prague Fatale is a thought provoking and at times difficult read, but an important addition to a fine series, and made me want to fill in my gaps in the Bernie Gunther story.
The Bernie Gunther series with links to my reviews.

A German Requiem
The One from the Other
‘Like all the General’s henchmen he’s a bit of a golem. Except that he’s a German, of course. The original Golem of Prague was-‘
‘Jewish. Yes, I know.’
‘Like his master.’ Doctor Jury smiles. ‘Rabbi Loew that is . Not General Heydrich.’   
[Warning: there is an unpleasant example of torture towards the end of the book.]

The only books by Ian Rankin I had read were Strip Jack, Resurrection Men, Fleshmarket Close and The Naming of the Dead. Therefore when the Scottish author bravely retired his aging detective Detective Inspector John Rebus, and started a new series I knew I must eventually read The Complaints. Would his new protagonist be as interesting a character as Rebus?

The narrative of The Complaints develops over a couple of weeks in February 2009. This was the period when the economy collapsed and Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh, the headquarters of several major banks, was suffering from the worst of a property price implosion and the disruption from a project  for a tram system that would cost millions. 

Inspector Malcolm Fox works in ‘Complaints and Conduct’, the cops who look into both minor and major infractions of the rules by the police. Fox works in the Professional Standards Unit  who deal with the most serious matters such as racism and corruption. They are naturally very unpopular with their colleagues, who regard them as beneath contempt. At the start of the story Fox has successfully wound up an enquiry into the activities of Glen Heaton , a CID detective who has been bending the rules for many years. Fox has sent the case evidence on to the Procurator Fiscal, the official who decides on prosecutions in Scotland. 

Malcolm Fox is a policeman in his forties, he is divorced, wears unfashionable braces, is teetotal because he is an ex-alcoholic, has a sister Jude with a violent boyfriend, and an aging father Mitch living in an expensive care home. Is there any other kind? He listens to the birdsong station on the radio, eats Chinese takeaways or curry, and spends his leisure time not rearranging his books on his bookshelves. Fox is ordered to liaise with Annie Inglis at CEOP [Child Exploitation and Online Protection] and assist with an investigation into a worldwide child pornography ring  apparently involving a local detective, Jamie Breck. Breck’s credit card has been used to join the ring, but he hasn’t yet sent any of  images to the group. Is Jamie Breck a paedophile, or a victim of an online scam? 

The situation becomes extremely complicated when Jude’s violent partner Vince Faulkner is found brutally murdered and Breck is one of the detectives assigned to the case, along with his boss Billy Giles, a close friend of Glen Heaton. 

Up to this point the story had gripped me, and I was even ready to go straight on to the sequel The Impossible Dead. Rankin had set the scene brilliantly, as he knows his territory and his cops. But then suddenly the story went wildly off at a tangent with the reader bombarded with a plethora of fairly standard crime fiction characters. Property developers, cops, robbers, tough men and glamourous women all mixed up in a complex plot, with Fox not able to trust anyone.

The woman who stepped out was wearing high heels, black tights and a black knee-length skirt. The skirt clung to her. White silk blouse open at the neck to show a pendant of some kind. 

There is nothing extravagant about Rankin’s prose, or his terse dialogue.

Kaye paused, angling his head towards the newspaper.

‘ She’s a looker, though-wonder what first attracted her to the pot-bellied, balding tycoon.’

I know Ian Rankin is a Scottish icon, and even mild criticism appears to be  like trying to reverse the result of the Battle of Bannockburn, but in my opinion this book was a little too long, had too convoluted a plot without any real surprises, and the conclusion was frankly unbelievable. 

It was a great pity because Malcolm Fox was a likeable character and had a lot of potential. Rankin is an easy read, and the descriptions of the dark side of the city and the social comment were excellent. Perhaps I was expecting more from such an experienced crime fiction writer, whose frequent television appearances I enjoy so much. I got the impression he had tangled up the various plot threads and then he struggled to unravel and explain them in the last hundred pages.

Interestingly I read the other day that Ian Rankin is bringing back Rebus ………….. 


I respect other reviewers who might have enjoyed this book a lot more than I did. But what I find mildly irritating is those reviewers who appear to have read an entirely different book. For instance the newspaper review which boldly states that “Fox copes admirably with whatever Rankin throws at him: getting beaten up, being suspended from duty, a romance with a colleague.”  If what occurs in the pages of The Complaints between Annie Inglis and Malcolm Fox can be regarded as a “romance” then life must be incredibly dull north of the border.

I haven’t posted anything in this series for quite a while but a couple of weeks ago the weather was more like  a proper summer, and I was able to photograph some genteel English gardens. Miss Marple would be quite at home in these places where time has thankfully stood still.

An Interval from Nazis

Posted: June 12, 2012 in notes

I thought that before I went on to tackle Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale, which is shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award, and after reading Rebecca Cantrell’s A City of Broken Glass I would need a break from Nazis. Therefore I have started on a new series to me, by an author about to bring back an old friend. 

The photograph might give you a less than subtle clue about where the book is set, and it is not exactly a relaxing break as one plot theme in this book concerns CEOP [Child Exploitation and Online Protection].

‘You sit at your computer at home, surfing, maybe buying stuff or reading the gossip, and you’re about four clicks away from hell.’

This is almost as depressing and sad as  watching politicians giving “evidence” at the Leveson Inquiry. 

1938: Journalist Hannah Vogel is sent by her Swiss newspaper to cover the Saint Martin’s Day Festival held in Poznan, Poland. This was Europe’s largest parade to celebrate the saint known for his kindness to the poor. Hannah hears about the deportations of Polish Jews from Germany to Poland. She travels, along with her son Anton, to Zbasyn to see for herself the dreadful conditions where the refugees are being detained in stables and flour mills. 

Hannah sees the pregnant Miriam Keller, married to her longtime friend Paul, who has a Christian father, and is told about Ruth her two year old left in a cupboard in Berlin during the deportations. When Hannah returns from getting a doctor to treat the refugees Miriam and her unborn child are dead. 

Hannah is then kidnapped by the Gestapo and taken across the border into Germany, where she is rescued by Anton and her former lover Lars Lang [from A Game of Lies]. Hannah is injured and the three go on to Berlin, where they are stuck in the build up to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a series of state sanctioned attacks against Jews. Stuck in Berlin can Hannah trust Lars? Will they be able to find Paul and rescue little Ruth? Also who has been sending threatening letters to Hannah’s Swiss newspaper? 

Rebecca Cantrell in this the fourth book in the Hannah Vogel series has once again written an exciting first person narrative tale about a German female journalist who hates the Nazis. She cleverly uses the format of the old fashioned adventure story to impart lots of information about the treatment of Jews, the Nuremberg Anti-Semitic Laws, the classification of “mischlings” of the first and second degree based on the number Jewish grandparents, the blood libel, the wild west novels of Karl May and lots more. This series is very well researched and it is the details that give the reader the atmosphere of the 1930s, when the world was on the brink of  a great tragedy.

It seemed appropriate to read this book at the same time as the English football team at the Euro 2012 Championships were visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, and the problem of racism and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe was being discussed in the media. 

Award winning author Rebecca Cantrell majored in German, Creative Writing and History at the Freie Universitaet of Berlin, and Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Hawaii with her husband and son.
My review of A Night of Long Knives with links to my four part interview with the author.

Celebrating Reginald Hill the tribute co-hosted by those two criminal masterminds Rhian Davies [It’s a crime! Or a Mystery…] and Margot Kinberg [Confessions of a Mystery Novelist] has reached my own contribution today. I was very pleased to be asked to participate in this month long tribute to Reg, who sadly died in January, because it has reminded me that he was a great crime writer with a fantastic sense of humour. 

Trackers: Deon Meyer translator K.L.Seegers

The Potter’s Field: Andrea Camilleri translator Stephen Sartarelli

Phantom: Jo Nesbo translator Don Bartlett

Until Thy Wrath Be Past: Asa Larsson translator Laurie Thompson

I Will Have Vengeance: Maurizio De Giovanni translator Anne Milano Appel

The Dark Valley: Valerio Varesi translator Joseph Farrell

This is the official CWA International Dagger Shortlist of which I have now read five out of the six. I am not going to read The Dark Valley as I don’t think it is a contender based on Maxine of Petrona’s excellent review, and my own reading of the first book in the series, River of Shadows.

Of the remaining five books I really enjoyed I Will Have Vengeance, which is also shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Award, and was pleasantly surprised it was shortlisted for the International Dagger. My own personal interests in Italian opera and Italian history [and Italian food] were obviously shared by the judges. 

The Potter’s Field is the best and funniest offering from Andrea Camilleri in the Montalbano series for some time, and perhaps a good outside bet.

Phantom seems to have a big following in the Eurocrime polls, but I was a little disappointed with this one. It lacked the cleverly intertwined plot of Trackers, or the atmospheric feeling and tension of Until Thy Wrath Be Past. I may well be in a minority of one on this, but I will be shocked if a brilliant book like Trackers does not get the recognition and the award it deserves. The result will be announced on the 7 July 2012, along with the Ellis Peters Historical Award. [more on that later in the month]

In Phantom [the 7th Harry Hole book to be translated into English] a cleaned up sober Harry Hole returns to Oslo to investigate  the shooting of a handsome young  junkie, Gusto Hanssen. The case has already been solved and another young addict is being held for the crime. Harry is personally involved, but told not to investigate this case by his old boss. From the moment he came back Harry was being watched by the forces that now dominate Oslo’s drug scene, the suppliers of a new very addictive synthetic drug called ‘violin’.

Harry begins a personal odyssey through the dark side of city he once knew so well in order to discover who really killed Gusto.

‘Mm. Thought it was just Moroccans who sold hash here.’

‘Competition has moved in. Kosovar Albanians, Somalis, Eastern Europeans. Asylum seekers selling the whole spectrum. Speed , methamphetamine, Ecstasy, morphine.’  

The narrative is in two parts with Gusto telling his story in flashbacks as he lies bleeding to death, and Harry in the present coming across old friends, old adversaries, and police and political corruption in his quest to uncover the truth. Harry wants to find the real murderer and in the process unmask the drug lord known as Dubai [from the Fly Emirates Arsenal shirts his pushers wear], and also as the Phantom because he is said to wander the city at night.

Despite the book’s length the smooth translation by Don Bartlett makes this a fast compelling read. 

I don’t know if it was the bleakness of the narrative, the paucity of characters the reader could care about, or the constant details about addicts and the drug trade but I was slightly disappointed in Phantom. The were none of the plot pyrotechnics that distinguished some of the earlier books. The twists that were there were fairly predictable and I felt that I had possibly been spoilt by previous Harry Holes. Author Jo Nesbo was coming down to earth with a more straightforward story concentrating on Oslo’s drug trade. 

‘Heinrich Dreser. He discovered aspirin in 1897. Afterwards he worked on modifying diacetylmorphine. Not a lot needs to be done, molecule here, molecule there, and hey presto, it fastens on to other receptors in the human body. Eleven days later, Dreser had discovered a new drug. It was sold as cough medicine right up to 1913.’

‘And the drug was?’

‘The name was supposed to be a pun on a brave woman.’

‘Heroine,’ Harry said.

Jo Nesbo has said that in Phantom he wanted to explore Harry as a father figure, and go into the dark side of Oslo with detailed research on the drug scene. Giving the reader large chunks of detailed information is one of the most interesting features of Nordic crime fiction. However in Phantom some of the information and minor plots lines almost seemed to be there to pad out the narrative and some seemed repetitive. I thought this detracted from the flow of the plot and the suspense. There is nothing new or particularly inventive in Phantom’s sad tale of the ruin of young lives from addiction. There is nothing unique in the Oslo drug scene described in such detail in Phantom as it probably exists in some form in every town and city in Europe. 

I wondered if  perhaps Scandinavian crime fiction series are designed to reach a natural end at number 10 [Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck], and as this is the ninth Harry Hole he was becoming more vulnerable.  

Don’t get me wrong this is still a very good thriller, but in my opinion it is not as inventive nor does it have as many surprises as previous books in the series. There are plenty of nasty villains, lots of red herrings, some exciting set piece action sequences, and thrills galore, but it did not have that unique “Harry Hole-what the hell is going to happen next” feel about it for me.

A very good read but not near Jo Nesbo’s best, simply because he set such high standards. That said I will be waiting expectantly for the next book to be published, and despite my reservations Phantom will probably be a favourite for the International Dagger.  

Nor did the tattooist know that the pistol in the drawing, a Makarov, the Russian police’s service weapon, denoted that he, Sergey Ivanov, had killed a policeman.