Archive for the ‘China’ Category

51FLkOS0cLL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_David Downing is the author of six John Russell spy thrillers set in World War II Berlin one of which, Stettin Station, I read and reviewed for Euro Crime back in 2009. That series is now completed so I was interested to get an ARC from publishers Soho Crime of the first book in what promised to be a fine new spy series set around the Great War. Jack McColl, a luxury car salesman, is also working  for British spymaster Cumming and hoping to obtain a full time post in the fledgling intelligence service.

Cumming is based on George Mansfield Smith- Cumming, the original C, first director of the Secret Intelligence Service SIS whose top agent during the Great War was the “Ace of Spies” Lieutenant Sidney George Reilly, the man Ian Fleming probably based his creation James Bond. It has always amused me that the quintessential British secret agent was based on a  man going by the name Sidney Reilly, who was actually Georgi Rosenblum from Odessa.

The story starts with McColl in Tsingtao, a German colony on the Chinese mainland, where along with his younger brother Jed and his friend Mac he is marketing the Maia luxury automobile. McColl, the spy, uses local prostitutes to obtain pillow talk information from German officials and naval officers about their East Asian Squadron. Tsingtao fell to our Japanese allies early in the war, but this German colony left the legacy of a beer sold widely in our supermarkets. When one of his young Chinese information gatherers asks too many questions and the German officer becomes suspicious, McColl has to flee Tsingtao travelling by rail to Shanghai. 

McColl himself was thirty-two years old, and had been born into a world without automobiles or flying machines, phonographs or telephones, the wireless or moving pictures. Who in his right  mind would exchange this thrilling new world for battle fields soaked in blood? 

Well that question was answered earlier in the chapter by a supposed German water engineer, talking about the Kaiser.

He grew up playing soldiers and can’t seem to stop.

Simplistic but probably not too far from the truth.

McColl begins an involvement with the beautiful  suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley, and the story moves rapidly on as he journeys from Shanghai across the Pacific to San Francisco; enjoying Caitlin’s company at every opportunity despite worries about her family’s affiliations and her antagonism to British colonialism. There is much more to McColl’s journey, and the reader learns about  working conditions in American factories, India’s struggle for independence, the Irish problem, and the Mexican revolution.  

This book was an easy read and there was tension and excitement in places, but I could not get over the feeling that there was more than enough international incidents packed into the 338 pages to fill another couple of books. I wondered if some of the plot, that occurring at Tampico and Vera Cruz, was added later with thoughts of an American readership. Unfortunately the frenetic action meant the characters were a bit predictable and somewhat naive, with McColl’s ability to sustain punishment and get out of impossible situations a bit more James Bond than Richard Hannay. A good, but slightly disappointing read, and I will be very interested to see how the rest of the series develops.  

P1040347I was rather pleased to have made the following comment on my previous post, and then to discover the books had become joint winners of the International Dagger

“The International Dagger should be between three time winner Fred Vargas, with her eccentric novel The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, and Pierre Lemaitre with another quirky French offering Alex.”

Obviously my critical faculties are still functioning. Although after nearly seven years of constant blogging about crime fiction I intend to take a short break. Therefore I am going to do a brief summary of the six books I have read while on holiday, although I will probably come back with  reviews of one or two of the better books. 

An American Spy: Olen Steinhauer-

This was a big disappointment considering I have enjoyed  other books  by this author.  Not enough of over weight German secret service boss Erika Schwartz and far too much American and Chinese complexity that I had trouble following.  


P1040383Live By Night: Dennis Lehane-

An easy read and this novel won the Edgar, but I kept on getting the feeling I had read this book before and that Lehane was parodying himself.


At the End of a Dull Day: Massimo Carlotto translated by Anthony Shugaar- 

Anti-hero is too mild a classification of the main protagonist of this very noir novel, Giorgio Pellegrini. He could be described as a violent misogynist bastard, who discovers he is being screwed by a politician “friend”, and plots revenge.

I quote:

‘Nicoletta described the Chinese girls as “the dolls that Italian males grew up wishing they could play with.” That was true only in part. Actually, they were just sex slaves with long practice at satisfying their masters’ wishes.’

At the End of a Dull Day is a short novel packed with violence, whores, politicians, and the ‘Ndrangheta. Not everyone’s cup of tea but an interesting example of Mediterranean noir.


Death of Demon: Anne Holt translated by Anne Bruce-

Another top class novel in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, and one which packs a lot of back story, and tension into a short book. A lesson for those authors who think they have to write 500 pages to attract the reader. I will come back to this book later.

The Caller: Karin Fossum translated by K.E.Semmel-

An original twist on the crime fiction novel. A story about actions and the unthought of effects they can produce. A beautifully constructed and thought provoking novel.

P1040444The Glass Rainbow: James Lee Burke

The Glass Rainbow proves that you can produce the same plot over and over again and the fans will enjoy it. But your characters have to be larger than life, your social commentary like a sharp dissection, and your writing so lyrical and evocative of  the location that the reader expects a hurricane to tear through their back garden at any moment. Another great book [number 18] in the Dave Robicheaux series 

There are only a limited number of plots so readers and judges are always on the lookout for originality. Fred Vargas and Pierre Lemaitre both wrote books that were that bit different from the usual ‘hunt for a serial killer’, ‘solve a current murder connected to an old unsolved crime’ stuff that is constantly churned out by crime fiction authors and TV producers. I once read a very unkind crime fiction review that said that this particular book was written for people who can’t read by someone who can’t write.

I worry that many crime fiction books today are written for people who don’t read crime fiction. They have plot twists that are obvious and are just variations on a theme. Agatha Christie is the mistress of plot twists, for a great example read the superb Peril at End House [1932], but even she managed to use a similar plot device in Endless Night [1967]  to that in Death on the Nile  [1937]. But perhaps we can forgive her after a gap of 30 years.

The search for the crime fiction series that is original and has something different within its pages is what makes reading so much fun. 

” You must promise you’ll never leave me. Never never never.”

“Never in this world and universe and all eternity,” Cecilie whispered into her hair. [Death of a Demon: Anne Holt]   


Posted: April 2, 2012 in China, review

Thanks to publishers Sort Of Books I have just finished an ARC of Border Run by Simon Lewis, whose Bad Traffic was so well received by critics. This involved me in making  a metaphorical long  journey from Scandinavia [after reading three Nordic books] to the border area between China and Burma. 

Will, a keen photographer, and his friend Jake are on a gap year jaunt to South East Asia, when they are offered a one day trip to see a secret waterfall near the border with Burma. 

Howard the man making the offer has a jeep, and is only slightly weird but….

He told me about this amazingly beautiful spot that only the tribals know about, it isn’t in any guidebooks or anything. It’s so lovely…..

What sold the trip to Jake was a chance to meet up with Wa girls. “Tribal girls, the one’s deep in the forest, they haven’t got hang-ups like the brittle city bitches you always meet.” 

We expect things are going to go wrong and they do, and Will begins to wish he had gone to see the tea factory and taken the next bus to Laos.

Simon Lewis is a very talented writer because his vivid descriptions of the forest and the antics of three main characters make you feel you are right there with them on the borderland. The fast moving action is a blur of pangolins, penknives, drugs, forest, Jeeps, China, tribal peoples, smugglers, waterfalls and struggling with crossbows. Perhaps there is a little too much discussion of their situation by Will, Howard and Jake, but this is because you want the action to continue and find out what happens next. At just over 200 pages this book seems almost like an extended short story or novella, but the ending interestingly leaves you wanting more.