Archive for the ‘England’ Category

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.     

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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].  

OT: Spring on the way, we hope

Posted: February 25, 2016 in England

 

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For the first time in weeks we have some sunshine in Devon!

And as a result I am up and about enjoying the seaside. For four weeks during the dark days of January and February I was too ill to read. I am pleased to report I am feeling a lot better over the past week, and have dashed through two and three quarter espionage thrillers.

Two of the books I am not going to review, they are excellent easy reads, but politically inconvenient to discuss. The third Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews also takes a strong political line, but I will review that in a few days.

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.  

rickmanThe author Phil Rickman was recommended to me by Philip in British Columbia, a reader who knows a lot more about crime fiction than I do. 

I chose The lamp of the Wicked because there was a link to the real life killings perpetrated by the notorious serial killer Fred West. I enjoyed the book with its clever plot, and memorable characters especially the vicar Merrily Watkins, and her troubled teenage daughter Jane. The social commentary was very up to date with comments on  how rural areas are ruined by both new buildings to accommodate those fleeing from the overcrowded cities of the UK, and rich city folk buying cottages in pretty villages and only using them as  weekend retreats or holiday homes. The interesting theory that all that electricity around us, power cables, phone masts, computers, mobile phones etc can affect the brain waves of sensitive individuals is covered brilliantly in the story. 

This book was more than crime fiction it was a virtually a social history of rural communities, and the stresses they face. Merrily, the diocesan exorcist, or more correctly deliverance consultant, is a wonderfully flawed character, but her heart is in the right place, and she is surrounded by cast of many interesting characters. If the book has any minor faults it is there are too many plot strands, too many characters, and too many pages. But the book kept my interest for the whole 610 pages, not an easy task.  

The narrative starts with a disagreement between Gomer Parry and wide boy Roddy Lodge about the installation of septic tanks. That grabbed my interest because during the fifteen years I lived in a Devon longhouse I unfortunately became a bit of an expert on septic tanks! People would sometimes actually phone and ask my advice. That advice was usually “move to a house on the main drainage system”. Septic tanks situated close to the house are trouble, although there are ways to get round the problem. 

The Lamp of the Wicked was a very good tense read, but perhaps a bit too long for some readers.

Despite the fog, the square was collecting its nightly quota of upmarket 4x4s: well-off couples coming to dine-on a Monday night for heaven’s sake-at the Black Swan and the restaurant that used to be Cassidy’s Country Kitchen. 

The Monday diners were mostly the youthfully retired with up to half a century to kill before death.  

childsI read Personal by CWA Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child as a bit of light relief after the dark Nordic angst of The Silence of the Sea. It would perhaps be impertinent of me to review a book by the author of so many best sellers, and this is only the second Jack Reacher I have read.

But here are a few comments……….

That first Reacher I read was not particularly memorable, and this one after a great start faded away and the ending was rather weak. 

I also found it amusing that Personal seemed to be written for an American readership who know next nothing about England. 

‘Don’t you think? MI5 could trace it.’

‘To a cash payment in Boots the Chemist. Doesn’t help.

‘ ‘What’s Boots the Chemist?’

‘Their pharmacy chain. Like CVS. John Boot set it up in the middle of the nineteenth century. He probably looked just like the guy who built the wall around Wallace Court. It started out as a herbal medicine store, in a place called Nottingham, which is way north of here.’

Do American CIA/state department agents operating in England not know where Nottingham is, and do they need a geography and history lesson every few pages?

….then I saw the arch of a big soccer stadium, which meant we had made it to a place called Wembley.

Jack Reacher, an American, actually seems to me to be descended from a long line of British thriller heroes such as Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and James Bond. The style of the narrative, action packed reminded me a lot of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond books although obviously without the xenophobia, that distinguished those novels. For Sapper anywhere west of Godalming was bandit country.

In Personal Reacher sets out to save the ministers of the G8 from a sniper. There are only a few men in the world who could hit a target from 1,400 yards, and Reacher knows one of them personally. He sent him to prison years before. The reader is taken from Arkansas and Paris to exotic Romford, with Reacher leaving bodies in his wake, and we learn the unfortunate truth.

The problem with Personal is that any book that starts with the attempted assassination of a French President is going to be compared, by readers of my age, with The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Perhaps not a fair comparison one is a great crime fiction thriller, the other a pleasant read for a couple of sunny afternoons.

Lee Child is great fun to read if you treat the books as enjoyable beach novels that don’t strain the intellect too much. 

 

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I read Pierre LeMaitre’s Camille [reviewed here], Death’s Jest-Book by Reginald Hill, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and only just started the Petrona Award winner The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. 

Death’s Jest-Book is another big blockbuster of a novel being both a sequel to Dialogues Of The Dead, and also having several new intriguing sub-plots. The fact that two 600 page books can be read without too much of a struggle is a tribute to one of our greatest crime writers, and the wonderfully quirky characters created by Reginald Hill. It was quite sad to say goodbye, even temporarily, to Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe, Ellie, Wieldy, Hat Bowler, “Ivor” Novello, Franny Roote, and their relationships and problems.

The Ghost by Robert Harris is a brilliant read, but not quite my cup of tea, I much prefer his historical fiction books Fatherland, Enigma and An Officer And A Spy, simply because modern politics seems still a bit too raw as we still face the problems discussed in The Ghost. 

The Ghost is roped in to rewrite the autobiography of an ex-British Prime Minister called Adam Lang, who despite the usual disclaimer that any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental bears a strong likeness to a recent British politician. The real Lang was a master of illusion, won three general elections, and was surrounded by political colleagues some of whom spent more time plotting his demise than running the country. 

In the book the previous “ghost” writer has met an untimely end apparently falling off the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Our new ghost, a man who does not know anything about politics, and who is never named, discusses the manuscript he is to rewrite with Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant.

‘Honestly? I haven’t had so much fun since I read the memoirs of Leonid Brezhnez.’ She didn’t smile. ‘I don’t understand how it happened,’ I went on.

‘You people were running the country not that long ago. Surely one of you had English as a first language?’

Author Robert Harris fell out with New Labour, and our ex-PM, over the Iraq War, a conflict which may well go down in history as one of the greatest strategic mistakes since Cornwallis marched his army into Yorktown. But who knows………..