Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

galvestonwencelaskolymskyprovidenceI managed to read four books in March, three and two thirds actually but I will count it as four.

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto [reviewed here]

The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson [1960]

Kolymsky Heights also by Lionel Davidson [1994]

Providence Rag by Bruce De Silva

It was  interesting to read Lionel Davidson’s first and last thrillers. He won the CWA Gold Dagger on three occasions, and the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement award in 2001. Both books were excellent exciting reads in very different styles.

The Night of Wenceslas was full of fun, despite the Cold War setting, as Nicolas Whistler tells the reader of the way he was “persuaded” to travel to Prague, in what was then Communist Czechoslovakia a country from which his parents had emigrated, to obtain a secret formula for an unbreakable glass.  Of course things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, and Nicolas has a very difficult time despite the amorous attentions of Vlasta Simenova, the girl with the bomb-shaped breasts. 

‘I haven’t any qualifications, Mr Cunliffe,’ I told him slowly and desperately.’Before you go any further, you’ve got to understand that. I am not qualified to do anything. I am also a coward. I don’t know what it is you want me to do, and I don’t want to know. I’d be less than useless to you.’

Kolymsky Heights  is a very different animal. This is a great adventure story, called by Philip Pullman in the introduction the best thriller he’s ever read, and compared by him and others to the The Lord of the Rings, Smiley’s People, Treasure Island and Casino Royale it is indeed a superb book. It is also a very complex story, packed full of detail some of which is inclined to slow the narrative slightly. But the quest by the Native Canadian Jean-Baptiste Porteur, a brilliant linguist among his other skills, to discover the purpose of a top secret establishment is full of excitement and action. The reader is taken from the dreaming spires of Oxford to British Columbia and Canada’s Far North, and then to Japan and Siberia, among the various peoples of that region. 

The house of Dr Komarov had stood a hundred years-a long time for a simple one of wood, but the wood was good. It had seen out Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II, and also the entire communist regime.

Providence Rag by Edgar Award winning author Bruce DeSilva is a serial killer novel, but one that is very different and far superior to the usual run of the mill efforts. The book explores the vast gulf between the law and justice, and the chasm between the letter of the law and plain common sense.

In 1989 the police with the help of reporter Liam Mulligan arrest the serial killer, a fifteen year old, who has slaughtered five people including young children. When the cops and reporters are celebrating their success, state prosecutor Malcolm Roberts spoils things.

“There is something you all need to know,” he told the revelers. “Rhode Island’s criminal codes haven’t been updated in decades. When they were written , no one envisaged a child as twisted and dangerous as ****** ***** . The law says juvenile offenders no matter what their crimes, must be released and given a fresh start at age twenty-one. The attorney general is going to ask the legislature to rewrite the law so this won’t happen again. But they can’t change it retroactively. “In six years, the bastard will get out and start killing all over again.”

The narrative jumps forward to 2012 when the killer is being held illegally for crimes that he is supposed to have committed inside the prison. The authorities realise he is a psychopath and are desperate not to release him. Crimes have been fabricated with false evidence by prison officers, and when Mulligan’s reporter pal Mason decides that the Dispatch should campaign for the killer’s release, the failing newspaper is faced with a difficult ethical issue. 

An excellent read although the stupidity of the law is not such a shock to a British reader, where someone can kill five people be released after 16 years, and are then able to build up an arsenal of weapons.      

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Viper is the sixth book in the Commissario Ricciardi series set in Fascist Italy during the 1930s, and this story takes place in Naples during the week before ricciardiEaster 1932.

Viper the most enticing and beautiful prostitute in Il Paradiso, Naples most famous brothel is found murdered. Commissario Ricciardi and Brigadier Maione are sent to investigate a case that has several possible suspects; Madame Yvonne the proprietor of the luxurious establishment, Lily- Bianca Palumbo, a jealous rival, and Viper’s only two clients who are dedicated to her in different ways. 

Vincenzo Ventrone the owner of a respectable business selling sacred art to the wealthy of Naples, has a staid conservative twenty year old son Augusto, who thinks his father’s trips to Il Paradiso are bringing shame and financial ruin to the business. 

Giussepe Coppola, a dealer in vegetables, who knew Viper back in her home village when she was simply Maria Rosaria Cennamo, and who had proposed marriage to the beauty. His brother, Pietro is upset at the prospect of Viper joining their family.

The investigation may be interesting, but it is the subplots and characters that make these books one of the best historical crime fiction series around. Firstly the conversations and political jokes between Ricciardi, Maione and pathologist Dr Bruno Modo sum up some of the difficulties of working in a non-democratic state, where a misplaced word or look can get you in deep trouble.

Secondly the love triangle between Ricciardi, a man terrified of love having seen the damage it can do, and the two women who desire him. Enrica, the shy bespectacled woman, who is being taught to cook by Rosa, Ricciardi’s tata, and the beautiful worldly widow Livia Lucani, who seemingly has all the advantages in this battle for the Commissario’s affections.

In this episode Dr Modo argues with fascist bullies, and later is taken away by members of the party to be sent into internal exile.

The idea that Benito Mussolini, because of his appearance was some kind of joke dictator is misplaced. His secret police were every bit as frightening as the Gestapo, and while Hitler had many of his closest associates murdered, Il Duce also executed his son-in-law, Count Ciano. 

On that occasion he’d understood that Fascism was a very complex phenomenon, and that the seemingly fanciful tales that circulated about OVRA-the notorious secret police agency that beat back all anti-Fascist activities, real or imagined with stealthy brutality- were, if anything, understating the case.

Viper is a very good addition to this excellent series, and because of the compelling atmosphere and the number of interesting personal relationships it is a great read.

For Lucia Maione, just like all the mothers in the city, Easter began with Carnival, forty-one days before; and therefore with preparations for the feast of Fat Tuesday, Mardi gras, a feast for which she was renowned throughout the quarter, if she did say so herself: his majesty the lasagne, the dish of kings, with ragu and meatballs; sausages and rapini, the fagatini nella rezza, pork livers cooked in a mesh made of pig’s intestines and laurel leaves, and most important of all, the sanguinaccio, a sweet blood pudding made of cocoa, milk, and pig’s blood garnished with candied citron, a treat that the children dreamed of all year.  

cc2zagrebricciardiarmsMy reading in February included A Colder War by Charles Cumming, a very good spy thriller, and The Lady From Zagreb, the tenth book in the Bernie Gunther series. My review of Philip Kerr’s  novel will appear on Euro Crime in due course. I also got about halfway through the excellent Viper by Maurizio De Giovanni, but we were going away for a few days and Viper’s cover includes an image of a dead prostitute sprawled over a bed.

I therefore decided to take  Arms and The Women [2000] by Reginald Hill to read at our luxurious bed and breakfast. This is a 611 page reg hillblockbuster, but a brilliant read, and I am now totally engrossed at page 237 by those quirky characters, Ellie Pascoe, Peter Pascoe, Andy Dalziel, Wieldy and Novello.

My reading over the last few years of Reginald Hill’s body of work has convinced me he is one of the greatest crime writers produced by this country since the war. I wonder if the failings of the later Dalziel and Pascoe television series have contributed to him not being rated as highly in some circles as some less deserving writers. That pesky WH Smith poll still really annoys me; Peter James 1, Val McDermid 3, Ian Rankin 4, Ruth Rendell 13, P.D.James 18, and Reginald Hill 48! 

Unfortunately once the television series lost Edgar Wield and Ellie Pascoe it never had that special quality retained in the novels. 

I haven’t read the Dalziel and Pascoe books in order, but when I started in 2010 to read them again after a long break I began with the  last in the series Midnight Fugue [2009], a pastiche of the TV series 24. In 2012 I read On Beulah Height [1998] and then went back to Deadheads [1983] and Underworld [1988]. I had a Dalziel and Pascoe addiction by now, and they became my holiday reading material of choice. In 2013 I read Bones and Silence [1990], Recalled to Life [1992], Pictures of Perfection [1994] , and The Wood Beyond [1995]. Last year I jumped forward, perhaps put off a little by the sheer bulk of some of the next books in the series, to The Death of Dalziel [2007] and A Cure for All Diseases [2008], a pastiche of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Reginald Hill did love his Jane Austen.

You would think you might become bored reading so many books by the same author with the same characters, but Reginald Hill alters his approach to each novel keep each book fresh, vital and full of humour. 

I will return to Viper, which is also a very good read, when I have finished Arms and the Women.  

Well for once the postie didn’t ring our bell today. He probably thought his delivery time was too early in the morning for retired old age pensioners, but he did leave two very nice parcels on our doorstep. 

cc2Well timed as I had just finished this morning reading A Colder War by Charles Cumming. I had made slower progress with this exciting spy drama, number two in the series featuring disgraced agent Thomas Kell and his former boss the glamorous Amelia Levene, simply because of the wonderful early spring weather we have been having on the English Riviera.photo

When MI6’s top man in Turkey is killed in a plane crash Kell is called back again to track down a possible mole. After a suitably slow start, with Kell mixing work and pleasure [no spoilers], the action and the trade craft becomes fast and furious as Kell journeys from Ankara, and Istanbul, to London and Odessa to track down the mole. An excellent read with an ending that makes you want to read the next in the series. I am usually not keen on endings that leave the reader wondering what happens next, but this is cleverly done and probably more authentic than a nice cosy finish. My copy had bonus content including the author’s interesting essay on The Changing Face of Spy Fiction, making A Colder War a very good read. 

But what was in those two parcels?

ricciardizagrebIn the first was thanks to Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions a copy of Maurizio De Giovanni’s new Commissario Ricciardi novel Viper. I have read and reviewed the first three books in this fine series, but the next two sit unread on my shelf. But I have now promised myself that I will read Viper first, and catch up with the others at a later date.

Karen from Euro Crime knowing that I have read all of the previous nine Bernie Gunther thrillers very kindly arranged for the folks at Quercus to send me an uncorrected proof of The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr, the tenth book in the series. 

Now I don’t mind if it rains, my reading for the rest of February is planned out.   

17-john-le-carre-books-blog480As I commented earlier as I am reading some hefty non-crime fiction books alongside my usual crime fiction diet I will only be making the briefest comments on the books I read, unless there is something particularly interesting to note.

Since my last review I have read:

Entry Island: Peter May:- Neither of the two plot strands in this long book were particularly original, but the descriptive writing was excellent. The historical back story set in 19th century Scotland was exceptionally good, and a little bit superior to the modern day story set on Entry Island off the coast of Canada. 

Duet in Beirut: Mishka Ben-David translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg:- After a failed mission in Beirut agent Ronen is dismissed from Mossad, and when his former commander Gadi discovers he has gone to Beirut to redeem himself he follows to prevent another disaster. There is some discussion about the morality of targeted assassinations that inevitably lead to tit-for-tat killings, and a lot about the interpersonal relationships between the characters, a situation that is complicated by Ronen’s wife having been Gadi’s lover in the past. A good read with much more about planning an operation rather than the actual action.

The Golden Egg: Donna Leon:- The Guido Brunetti books are usually enjoyable, and his close family life with Paola and the children make such a interesting contrast to that of so many other detectives. But this was such a miserable slow paced story that even a devoted Donna Leon fan was struggling at times. 

From Eden To Exile: Eric H. Cline:- The author discusses the archaeological evidence that might explain some biblical mysteries. An interesting read although no easy answers were found.

This Dark Road To Mercy: Wiley Cash:- A gripping story told from several perspectives set mostly in the author’s home state of North Carolina. This book deservedly won the 2014 CWA Gold Dagger.

A Mad Catastrophe: Geoffrey Wawro:- One of many books published in 2014 on the centenary  of the outbreak of the Great War. This long book deals with the disastrous conduct of the war by Austria-Hungary in 1914 on both the Serbian and Russian Fronts. Full of unpleasant details of ludicrous offensives that lead to horrendous losses, and the ultimate fall of the Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties. With a few exceptions most Great War Generals seem to have been out horse riding, playing polo, or chasing women when their military schools covered the tactical lessons of the American Civil War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, and the Russo-Japanese War. The Great War was a dreadful tragedy that cast a long dark shadow over the last century, and we are still living with the results today.

I also tackled two very different spy thrillers A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre, and A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming [winner of the 2012 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger] which was my favourite read in January. The contrast between these books was fascinating, and in some ways surprising as the veteran was surpassed by the comparative newcomer.

I haven’t read John le Carre since The Looking Glass War [1964] back in 2010, a novel nowhere near as good as the Karla trilogy, or Theforeign country Constant Gardener. Since then I have re-watched the TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and seen the 2011 movie with Gary Oldman, and am now watching the TV version of Smiley’s People with the brilliant Alec Guinness. The amusing thing about The Looking Glass War was that the three sections were introduced by quotations from Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan and Rupert Brooke,  a choice hardly representative of  le Carre’s political stance today.

The problem with A Wanted Man is that the narrative is so turgid, and lacks the subtlety of the Karla trilogy and many of the earlier books. I read a ranking of le Carre’s novels somewhere on the internet that puts A Most Wanted Man at 20 out of 22.

I think this book could have been so much better. The author hints that the “most wanted man” Issa Karpov, a Chechen who has been tortured by the Russians,  might not be everything he seems, and there might be a clever twist to the story; but unfortunately there isn’t and the ending is both predictable, and abrupt. What was most disappointing was that most of the characters seemed more like walking political statements than real human beings. I will be extremely interested to see what the movie starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as German intelligence agent Gunther Bachman makes of the book. 

Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country also begins slowly, but it has plenty of trade craft and action as it follows disgraced agent Thomas Kell as he attempts to track down the missing newly appointed head of MI6, Amelia Levene. This is more nuanced novel with some intriguing little twists in the plot, and a very exciting ending. This was a book  that definitely deserved the award of the 2012 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. I enjoyed it so much that I am now reading the sequel A Colder War, which also features Thomas Kell.   

Anne Holt Lions MouthWhen Norwegian Prime Minister Birgitte Volter is found slumped across her desk shot dead, the investigators are faced with a variation on a ‘locked room mystery’, and the question whether the shooting is politically motivated, or relates to a personal matter in Birgitte’s background.

Hanne Wilhelmsen is in the USA living with her partner Cecilie, and only returns to assist lead investigator Billy T part way through the book.

Three factors make this book, with its neat blend of police work, political intrigue and social commentary a good read.

Firstly it was published in 1997 eleven years after the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, when a supposed Kurdish connection hampered a proper investigation. The utopian view of the Scandinavian democracies had been brought shudderingly into the real world by this event.

Secondly the book deals with a possible neo-Nazi plot to murder leading figures in Norway fourteen years before the country was shocked by Anders Breivik’s massacre of young people perpetrated on Utoya Island.

Thirdly it was jointly written with Berit Reiss-Andersen*, a Norwegian lawyer and member of the Nobel Committee, and state secretary to the Minister of Justice and Police when Anne Holt briefly held that government post. Therefore the details of the political background and infighting between the characters have a ring of authenticity.

The reader learns about Birgitte, her family, husband Roy Hansen, and son Per, and her swift rise to power. Her childhood friend Supreme Court judge Benjamin Grinde, chair of a commission looking into a spike in deaths of young babies back in 1965, comes under suspicion as the last person to visit Birgitte in her office. And while most of the politicians and journalists in the book are fairly unlikeable Benjamin’s mother Birdie is probably the most unpleasant character, although Health Minister Ruth-Dorthe Nordgarden runs her pretty close. 

He [Tryggve Storstein, the new Prime Minister] had crushed her. It astonished him that he did not feel even a scintilla of regret or sorrow. When he took stock, he realized he felt pity for her, but that was all. Someone should have destroyed her long ago. 

1997 was an interesting year, because although it is clear that Anne Holt may not think that highly of her political colleagues, we in the UK naively believed in the newly elected Labour Government. Some of us actually celebrated the result of that election.

There have been two great political rivalries in British history. In the Nineteenth Century that between Tory Benjamin Disraeli and Liberal William Gladstone, and in recent times that between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The only problem was that Blair and Brown were supposed to be in the same political party. The populace awoke from a thirteen year long nightmare to discover the country was virtually bankrupt, and after a new election we were now ruled by a different bunch of incompetents.

What happened to an “end to boom and bust” and the “golden age of banking”?

But I digress Anne Holt sums up the state of most Western democratic systems quite succinctly in The Lion’s Mouth in a passage that bears a strong resemblance to the situation in the UK as the powers that be search for someone to chair a commission on child sex abuse.

“This kind of thing has become worryingly common in our society,” Professor Brynjestad continues.

“Namely, that members of the social elite increasingly have links to one another, allowing them to operate beyond the usual boundaries and without being accountable to ordinary citizens. We end up with an invisible network of power we cannot control.” 

My reviews of the first three Hanne Wilhelmsen books:

The Blind Goddess

Blessed Are Those That Thirst

Death of the Demon       

Anne Holt Lions Moutha

Von Bora 3A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor [Maria Verbena Volpi] is grown up crime fiction, a fine book that raises difficult moral questions concerning loyalty to one’s country, a cause and the church.

The third book in the Major Martin Bora series finds the anguished war wounded officer in Rome during that period in 1944, when the Allies were battering the German defences round Monte Cassino, and shortly after the start of the book have landed at Anzio. It has been said that the Second World War was simple you shot everything in front off you. The situation in Rome is much more complex for the anti-Nazi Martin Bora. He mixes with the upper echelons of Italian society, and the Vatican hierarchy, but has to watch his back as Italian Fascists, German SS, Gestapo, the Resistance, and the Wehrmacht are all struggling for a fleeting advantage in a rapidly deteriorating situation. DSC00301

Martin Bora and Italian policeman Sandro Guidi must investigate the suspected murder of  Magda Reiner, a German Embassy secretary, who has “accidentally” fallen from a fourth floor window to her death. Magda has had several lovers, and one of them Merlo is Secretary General of the National Union of Fascists. Dr Caruso the head of Rome’s police tells Guidi……

“Keep looking into the dossier, there’s plenty about His Excellency’s goings-on. The Germans want his neck so prove he killed her.”

When Bora’s elderly university teacher now a cardinal is found with a Roman society lady in a compromising position, both shot dead, he has to examine his conscience and face the corruption all around him and investigate two more murders. 

DSC00297As well as the relationship between the Third Reich and the Vatican, the fate of Rome’s Jews, and the civil war in Italy, A Dark Song of Blood also deals with the less serious subjects of Sandro Guidi’s lust for the mysterious and pregnant Francesca, Bora’s rocky marriage to the ice queen Benedikta and his obsession with the glamorous Mrs Murphy. 

“Sometimes you leave people to set them free, as I did with your stepfather. Of course it was impossible, in our position, to stay married after Sarajevo started the Great War. It worked out for the best. He found your mother and married her happily, and I fell in love with D’Annunzio.”

A Dark Song of Blood is one of the best books I have read this year, cleverly blending real life events and characters, such as Field Marshall Kesselring, in with the fictional narrative producing a work that is both a mystery and a worthy historical record.

Ben Pastor was born in Italy but lived for thirty years in the United States working as a university professor in Vermont. 

My review of Lumen at Euro Crime. 

My review of Liar Moon at Euro Crime.

LumenLMoon

The good news is that the next Martin Bora novel Tin Sky is due out in April next year.

 

 

 

photoxii The unusually mild and dry autumn weather in Devon this year has affected my reading, simply because we have been out a lot enjoying the sunshine. I do have another of my quizzes in preparation to keep readers busy over the holiday period. These were a feature of the blog in earlier years and I hope this one will tempt people to enter for the prize. More about this in a few weeks.

Interestingly the folks at Thriller Books Journal seem to approve of  some of my efforts as they informed me of their item Crime Fiction Blogs Worth Investigating [part eight]. 

Crime Scraps Review:

News, reviews and thoughts about crime fiction by Norman Price, a man with NOIR written through him like a stick of rock. Tremendous.

I would have thought that if there was a word written through me at the moment it was probably RHEUMATISM, but it was very pleasant to read such a flattering appraisal. 🙂

It has encouraged me to make a few comments on the recent CWA Daggers handed out a few days ago at the Specsavers Crime and Thriller Awards.

ctacutoutweb-300x263The Best Actress Dagger: Keeley Hawes, Line of Duty

 The Best Actor Dagger: Matthew McConaughey, True Detective

The Best Supporting Actor Dagger: James Norton, Happy Valley

The Best Supporting Actress Dagger: Amanda Abbington, Sherlock

The TV Dagger: Happy Valley

The Film Dagger: Cold in July

The International TV Dagger: True Detective.

The Specsavers ITV3 Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read: Peter May, Entry Island 

 Crime Writers’ Association Goldsboro Gold Dagger for the Best Crime Novel of the Year: Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy 

 Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for the Best New Crime Writer of the Year: Ray Celestin, The Axeman’s Jazz 

 Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the Best Thriller of the Year: Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy 

Last year I read the Gold Dagger novel Dead Lions by Mick Herron, which I enjoyed very much, and will certainly read this year’s winner This Dark Road To Mercy by Wiley Cash, a previous winner in 2012 of the John Creasey New Blood Dagger. I will also try and get round to reading Entry Island by Peter May.

I was very pleased to see that An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris won this year’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, it was one of my best five reads of 2013photoxx1

An Officer and a Spy is not only an exciting read, but perhaps might educate those who read it to the dangers of  anti-Semitism, and politicians attempting to cover up gross miscarriages of justice. That list of my best reads of 2013 also included the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger winner the masterly Norwegian By Night by Derek B. Miller

In picking the Robert Harris book for the 2014 Steel Dagger the judges have chosen a quality novel after last year’s poor choice of Ghostman by Roger Hobbs. I read Ghostman and deciding that I did not want to be too negative deliberately did not review it. My failing memory and time have mollified my feelings somewhat, but I still do not think it warranted a prestigious dagger.

My reasons were that Ghostman was a first person monologue by Jack, a professional armed robber, a man who lives off the grid, and who gave readers  a series of laundry lists of how to get in through a locked door, how brilliant he was, how a shovel makes a terrible weapon, how clever he was, and how he blended into the background by arriving in a simple private jet, and how successful he was. But despite being this master criminal he failed to notice his car had a tracking device installed etc etc etc etc…..

I can’t remember much more about it except all the characters were totally amoral thugs, and criminal geniuses, one proved that by telling Jack how he had made a young child drink drain cleaner. Personally I lost interest in Ghostman at that point, but in reality that probably means it will be made into a high grossing movie starring Brad, or Ben or Tom, or all three. 

On a more positive note TV programs that I watched and enjoyed received three daggers: James Norton-Best Supporting Actor in Happy Valley, Best TV series-Happy Valley, and Best Actress-Keeley Hawes in Line of Duty [written by Jed Mercurio].

Happy Valley was written by Sally Wainwright, the creator of another brilliant TV series Scott & Bailey, which has unfortunately  just ended on ITV. In any other year Sarah Lancashire who played police Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley would have won Best Actress, but Keeley Hawes did produce a mesmeric performance as Detective Inspector  Lindsay Denton in the superb Line of Duty. 

I think that Happy Valley, Line of Duty, and other gritty series like Southcliffe, and Mayday prove that the best of British TV crime series can match any Nordic or American  series, with the possible exception of the Dickensian brilliance of The Wire. But then of course almost everyone in The Wire was British. 😉  

sycamore row 2014I was encouraged to read Sycamore Row by John Grisham 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. Sycamore Row is billed as the sequel to A Time To Kill [1989] Grisham’s first book, famously rejected by publishers, and deals with the challenging  racial atmosphere in rural Mississippi in the late 1980s.

Seth Hubbard has secretly built up a vast fortune in timber and real estate but has terminal lung cancer. He decides to commit suicide as he can’t stand the pain and prepares a new handwritten will disinheriting his worthless children, and leaving 5% to his church, 5% to his long lost brother Ancil, and 90% to his black housekeeper and carer Lettie Lang.  He sends a copy of his will and a covering letter to arrive after his death to lawyer Jake Brigance explaining his family will challenge the new will and entreats him that ” he wants this will defended at all costs…”

Fight them, Mr Brigance, to the bitter end . We must prevail.

Sycamore Row is an excellent book with a strong message against racism, and although the reader is given a hint about why Seth leaves so much on his estate to Lettie this does not spoil the story. The reader is given a lot of information about lawyering in small towns, and learns that although the sheriff of Ford County Ozzie Walls is black the county is still “segregated” socially.

old natchezFord County was 74 percent white, but Ozzie had won his election and reelection by wide margins. The blacks adored him because he was one of their own. The whites respected him because he was a tough cop and a former football star at Clanton High. In some aspects of life in the Deep South, football was slowly transcending race.

The reader is drawn in to the early chapters as we see Seth’s children Hershel and Ramona treat Lettie apallingly in such an offensive manner that it reminded me of the hlpfilm, The Help, even though that was set two decades earlier. Jake is fighting against bigger legal firms who will use any means to influence the mainly white jury that will be selected in Ford County. Jake represents the estate of Seth Hubbard, and when Simeon her disreputable husband persuades her to hire her own firm of black lawyers from Memphis the situation becomes more complex as her kinfolk arrive in droves to share in her predicted good fortune.

Sycamore Row is a long book and while the trial preliminaries drag on for months Grisham keeps the reader glued to the page with character sketches, and tales of life in rural Mississippi. 

“If you say so. You ever have a restrainin’ order?”

“No, but my brother did. Bitch convinced a judge he was dangerous, which he was, and a judge told him to stay away from the house and keep his distance in public. Didn’t bother him. Killed her anyway.”

Sycamore Row won the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction awarded by the University of Alabama to a book length work of fiction that illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change. 

I think John Grisham’ Sycamore Row  was a worthy winner of the prize, because this book despite its length and the very serious and important subject matter was an easy read.      

My previous post about Philippe Georget’s second book in the Inspector Sebag series said that it had a promising beginning. That promise was definitely fulfilled and my dettaglio_282interest was maintained throughout the entire 430 pages. The three strands of the plot are cleverly interwoven with back stories of the murderous activities of an OAS group in Algeria in 1962, the hunt, lead by Gilles Sebag, for the murderer of elderly former Frenchmen from Algeria [Pied-noir], and the intriguing family life of the detective who is constantly worried by thoughts that his beautiful wife Claire has had an extra marital affair.

The reader is also given insights into the mind of the elderly murderer although we don’t get fully informed about his motives until the conclusion. Although the interactions between the team of detectives are quite well done this book concentrates more on the character of Gilles Sebag, a man perhaps too nice to be a policeman. He listens to the Pied-Noir and it is pointed out that not all were supporters of the OAS.

The politics of France have always been complex and you would need to be a Talleyrand or a Mitterand to stay on the right side of history.

Our France was the France of the 1930 centenary celebration of the conquest of Algeria. At that time, the colonization of Algeria was the glory of France, and the colonist was seen as a courageous and hardworking man, a hero, a veritable cowboy of the Far South. Those of us who lived in Algeria saw things that way in the autumn of 1954, when the war began, and we still did in 1962, when the war ended………

For the metropolitan French, we were no longer heroes but rich exploiters, unjust and racist. The glory of France had become its shame.

And this biased view became the historical truth.

The Algerian War 1954-1962 was a vicious conflict, and since independence hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have died in Algeria’s disastrous civil conflicts. I think Philippe Georget managed this incendiary subject rather well  in Autumn All The Cats Return and gave readers something to think about because some of the world’s present conflicts date back to the age of colonialism when France and Britain drew lines on maps to create nations without much thought as to the ethnic makeup of those countries. 

Parts of this novel reminded me of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal as Sebag and his team hunt for the elderly killer on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border  from the rugby playing towns of Southern France to the soccer territory of South Catalonia. Jacques Molina, Sebag’s colleague, is a rugby fan, and ….

Sebag was looking at the photos that Jacques had put up behind him. They all dated from June 2009, the year the local rugby team had finally won its seventh national championship after fifty-four years of trying. One of the pictures particularly impressed Sebag. It showed the team’s return to Perpignan the day after its victory: an enormous dense crowd of fansin red and yellow was massed in front of the Castillet………

On that day…………he’d been sorry not to be a Catalan.

The author wrote that in 2012 and in a bittersweet reversal of fortune Perpignan, champions of France in 2009, in 2013 were relegated to the second division of French professional rugby. 

This book is an excellent read, a contender for the CWA International Dagger, and you don’t have to be an historian or a rugby fan, Sebag isn’t, to enjoy the story of the hunt for a geriatric assassin. The character of Sebag is compelling and I will hopefully read the next book in the series to discover what secrets Claire may be hiding from Gilles.