Archive for the ‘review’ Category

UntitledWhen analysing crime fiction I usually consider ten very simple factors. 

1] Is the plot exciting, believable and gripping?

2] Do I like and care about any of the characters?

3] Is it written in an easy to read style which is decipherable to an ordinary reader?

4] Does it have the correct atmosphere  for a crime novel?

5] Is it set in an interesting location?

6] Does it overdo or concentrate on violence against women and children?

7] Does it contain a social commentary or message in the narrative?

8] Is it original?

9] Do the detectives exhibit some humour or give a glimpse of human frailty?

10] Has the book been ballyhooed  and overhyped?

The Caveman comes out very positively when considered with these parameters. From the back cover:

For four months Viggo Hansen’s body has been sitting, undiscovered in front of his television, close to the home of Chief Inspector William Wisting. Has Norwegian society become so coarsened that no one cares? Line, Wisting’s journalist daughter wants to know.

Another body is discovered in the forest that also has been left for four months, and as Wisting and his team meticulously work on that case, Line conducts her own investigation into the sad lonely life of Viggo Hansen, and very gradually the reader begins to suspect a connection between the bodies. 

This is Nordic Noir of the highest quality, a real treat for lovers of accurate police procedural novels, with two great protagonists. The novel has a lot of systematic police and journalistic work with just enough personal details about the characters to keep it really interesting. The author Jorn Lier Horst was a policeman for eighteen years and this shows in the accuracy of his narrative. This is definitely a contender for the prestigious Petrona Award. 

‘How is it possible to be so lonely and forgotten that it takes four months before anyone makes the chance discovery that you are dead. I think it would be a good story to print over Christmas. W’ve just been hailed by the UN as the best country in the world to live in but, in research into citizens experience of happiness, Norway is in 112th place……..’  

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Ann CleevesI moved on to read The Moth Catcher by Ann Cleeves. I am ashamed to admit that this is first novel I have read by this author, having watched and enjoyed the adaptations of her Vera and Shetland book series on television.

The Moth Catcher is the seventh book in the series featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, and it is the sort of novel that if you have become jaded with too much crime fiction will reinvigorate your interest in the genre. This story has everything with a setting in beautiful Northumberland, an interesting plot, superb characters, a biting social commentary and a great trio of detectives lead by the idiosyncratic Vera.

Silver earrings. Make up. Vera wondered if she was on her way out to a special lunch or if she always made the effort. It was clear her husband doted on her.

Vera thought for a moment that she might have found a man if she’d scrubbed up a bit better, then decided no man was worth the time it took to plaster stuff on your face in the morning, when you could have an extra cup of tea instead. 

Vera, Holly Clarke and Joe Ashworth are interesting characters, who investigate a double murder in an isolated valley in Northumberland. The plot is becomes complex when it is discovered that the two victims  are both moth collectors. Vera’s investigations centre on the claustrophobic group of people, who live in the upmarket barn conversions and call themselves the “retired hedonists”. The lives of these comfortably off retirees are contrasted with that of the locals, and the detectives delve deeply into the past histories of the victims and suspects.  

Highly recommended, a very enjoyable read. This is definitely one of the best English detective novels I have read for some time, and shows you don’t necessarily have to go Nordic to get a great crime story. Time permitting I hope to go back and read the earlier books in this series.     

cobenI picked up Harlan Coben’s The Stranger in our local supermarket simply because the main character was called Adam Price.

The book was a typical quick read airport novel with Adam’s American Dream life coming to an abrupt end as a stranger tells him something about Corinne, his wife, he does not want to hear. In typical Coben style Corinne mysteriously goes missing. This is the third Harlan Coben novel I have read and in Tell No One, Six Years and The Stranger the main protagonist is searching for his woman. It seems to be a winning formula? 

The setting is in one of those idyllic American small towns where everyone seems to have a plenty of money, but there is an undercurrent of trouble. The reader realises the suburban town is very wealthy, because Adam’s sons play lacrosse at high school. The plot features embezzlement, corporate greed, murder, blackmail and computer hacking. 

One of the book’s failings is that many of the characters lack any depth. They seem to have been selected from a box of standard stereotypes, but Coben sells millions of books simply because his novels are such easy reads.  

Too bad. Too bad his old man couldn’t see how his only son had become such a big man in this town. Bob no longer lived on the crummy side of town where the teachers and blue-collar guys tried to survive. No, he bought the big manor with the mansard roof in the ritzy “country club” section of town. He and Melanie drove his-and hers Mercedes. People respected them.

I have noticed reading Le Carre, and some Nordic authors, that “happy endings” are not in vogue, and Harlan Coben follows this trend. Does ending a novel with a tragedy make it great literature?   

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dimitriosOne of the books I read during the last few weeks of 2015 was The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler which was originally published in 1939. It was the third or fourth time I had read this masterpiece, and because it was about a decade since my previous reading I noticed some interesting features in the novel. There is a blurb on the front cover ‘The source on which we all draw” by John le Carre, and it appeared to me that many of the techniques used by Ambler have been taken up by so many crime writers especially the Swedish school.

The Mask of Dimitrios is the story of how an English crime novelist Charles Latimer becomes fascinated, almost obsessed, by the story of  master criminal Dimitrios, whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer retraces Dimitrios’s steps across Europe hoping to gain material for a new book. The simplicity of this plot device is quite brilliant as it allows the author to include passages about the history of the various locations.

Unable to destroy the Turkish army, the Greeks turned with frantic savagery to the business of destroying the Turkish population in the path of their flight……………….Assisted by the few half-crazed Anatolian peasants who had survived, they took their revenge on the Greeks they were able to overtake……….

But the main Greek army had escaped by sea…… the Turks swept on. On the ninth of September 1922, they occupied Smyrna.

For a fortnight, refugees from the oncoming Turks had been pouring into the city to swell the already large Greek and Armenian populations. They had thought that the Greek army would turn and defend Smyrna. But the Greek army had fled. Now they were caught in a trap. The holocaust began.

We have to remember that this was published in 1939. The destruction of Smyrna, a multicultural community, was a sad prediction of what was to happen to so many communities in Europe between 1939-1945, and what is happening to many in the Middle East today. 

The assassination of politicians arranged by corrupt banks, spies, murders and the activities of criminal drug distributing organisations are contained in a narrative that packs more events and details in a mere 226 pages than many of today’s heavy 600 page doorstops. The very detailed slow paced descriptions of how master spy Grodek, and Dimitrios, while working for Italy entrap a Yugoslav civil servant into getting hold of top secret information, and the activities of Dimitrios’s drug gang in Paris, are almost a blueprint for this detailed approach in later novels for example those by le Carre and Stieg Larsson. 

Any discussion of this novel without mentioning the enigmatic loquacious Mr Peters would be unacceptable. He is one of the great characters of spy/crime fiction, and when a movie of the book was made his part was taken by the portly Sydney Greenstreet. Greenstreet had starred in The Maltese Falcon, as the villainous Gutman, and was an fine choice. He had been accompanied in that movie by Peter Lorre, they made an excellent combination. But someone thought he should play opposite Greenstreet in The Mask of Dimitrios, and so Charles Lambert was changed into Cornelius Leyden to explain Lorre’s central European accent. I thought Peter Lorre was miscast as he was too good a villain to play the hero. But Sydney Greenstreet was the quintessential Mr Peters…..

The fat man spread out large, soft hands on one of which twinkled a rather grubby diamond ring. ‘I am a citizen of the world,’ he said. “To me, all countries, all languages are beautiful. If only men could live as brothers, without hatred, seeing only the beautiful things. But no! There are always Communists, etcetera. It is, no doubt the Great One’s will.”

There is a brooding almosphere of corrupt evil that permeates the narrative, because we are as it states in the introduction in a Europe that is a jungle and its rules set by the Stock Exchange Year Book and Mein Kampf.

Ambler succeeds brilliantly in informing a population that had been fed a diet of cosy country house murders, and village green cricket matches, about the harsh realities of life across the Channel. 

Almost as Ambler finished the book the Nazis marched into Prague in the spring of 1939.     

BoschRecently I did not finish a book sent to me for review, something that I have never done in the past. The book set in an unnamed Northern Italian city was violent and involved corrupt police and conflicts within the ‘Ndrangheta. After about 100 pages I decided that life was too short at my age to waste it on a book containing not one sympathetic character. A little sad and depressed with winter closing in, I turned to one of those authors who I know will provide me with a great crime fiction story, Michael Connelly. 

I have read the MickeyHaller stories but I prefer the police procedural investigations featuring Detective Harry Bosch.

The Burning Room is a great example of how to make the hard graft of real police work interesting for the reader. Harry now working cold cases is drawn into two investigations, because his new partner the young inexperienced Lucia Soto is trying to solve the deaths by arson of nine children in a day centre fire in which she was one of those children who were lucky to be saved.

The main case involves the shooting by a sniper of a Maraichi musician, Orlando Merced. Merced has lived paralysed with the bullet inside him for ten years. Now he has died and the bullet is recovered at an autopsy that states that Merced died as a result of the shooting, even ten years on from the actual shooting it is a murder case. Both investigations are complex with a lot of forensics, ballistics and travelling to interview characters about events in the almost forgotten past.

Latino gangs, white supremacists, police politics and political corruption as well as the private life of a great detective, Harry Bosch, in the twilight of his long career make this an excellent read. 

Bosch got out his notebook to write the name down. “You won’t be able to talk to him,” Walling said.

“He died twelve years ago. Killed himself after being indicted for tax evasion. He knew he was going to go away. That’s how we got most of these guys-they stopped paying taxes.”    

 

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.  

leaving berlinJoseph Kanon’s best known book is The Good German, which was made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. Leaving Berlin would probably make an even better movie. I would agree with distinguished author Alexander McCall Smith’s back cover blurb that this is a very exciting book. But it is also a thriller for grown ups, which discusses political topics that are still extremely relevant today.

From the back cover:

Berlin 1949….a city caught between political idealism and the harsh reality of Soviet occupation………Alex Meier is a young Jewish writer who fled the nazis before the war….in the cross hairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of family, Alex makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin.

Of course things are never that straightforward, Alex has a son in America and a back history in Berlin which he left in 1935. The Russian military government, and their German fellow travellers, have invited “socialist” writers, playwrights, architects to work in the New Germany. Many of them in a similar situation to Alex.

“You still have family in Germany?” Martin was asking.

“No. No one,” Alex said. “They waited too long.” He turned to Martin, as if it needed to be explained.

“My father had the Iron Cross. He thought it would protect him.”

I read a lot of historical political thrillers simply because I enjoy learning about the past and perhaps being able to judge current trends. This novel is full of lessons for us and future generations. I loved the way Alex is given his Kulturband membership documents and told the food is excellent there, but for members only. In 1949 Germany had not yet formally split into two states but much of the structure of the oxymoronic German Democratic Republic, GDR, was in the process of being created. 

Alex’s aunt Lotte married into the von Bermuth family, who lived a life of comparative luxury before the war, and he had indulged in a secret affair as a young man with the beautiful Irene von Bermuth. Irene is now the mistress of Russian officer Sasha Markovsky, deputy to Maltsev an important cog in the Soviet Military Administration. Alex’s American minders want him to revive his relationship with Irene, and question her about Markovsky’s pillow talk. 

This novel is well written in an easy to read style, but the plot is very complex because such a lot happening. German POWs working in terrible conditions in a secret uranium mine. Decent men and women facing trial for treason for expressing deviation from the Party approved line, or simply it seems being Jewish.

Espionage. Shady deals. Murder. Betrayal upon betrayal. The use of old Nazi camps to house prisoners.

When Erich, Irene’s brother escapes from the uranium mining camp, and seeks her help in Berlin, and Sasha, Irene’s protector, is suddenly recalled to Moscow. The danger begins to escalate.

For all the excitement of the car chases, espionage and murders, it is the educational value of the story that makes this such a good book. Were the dedicated socialists who returned to work in their hoped for utopia very naive?

Herb Kleinbard, an architect makes fun of the plans for rebuilding the new Berlin. He calls the structures “Stalin wedding cakes”, and Alex discusses his situation with his wife.

“He could go to the West. A German. They take in any German.”

“The West? And work for the old Nazis? Another Speer? No, thank you. This is the Germany he wants. You’re here too. You understand how he feels. You don’t go.”

“I’m not in Sachsenhausen.”

This novel is a reminder that there is not a cigarette paper between Fascism and Communism, and in the long term very little between hard left Socialism and National Socialism. I am old enough to remember how the German Democratic Republic was admired by some as the new socialist Germany, the artistic achievements a revival of German culture, the sporting success one of the results of a true socialist state.  These people ignored the existence of the Ministry of State Security [Stasi] with its hundreds of thousands of secret informers, which must have seemed so familiar to those who had lived through the National Socialist years.

In the long history of walls from The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Israeli separation wall, the fence round the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, to the Hungarian razor wire, walls were designed to keep people out. 

Only the German Democratic socialist utopia had a wall to keep people in!  

Leaving Berlin is a great book well worth reading as both a fine thriller, and a warning from history.    

defencelessLooking out for crime fiction books that would have interested the much missed Maxine Clarke is always a bittersweet experience.

Sweet because she was such an excellent judge of a good crime fiction novel, and her own choices would almost always exhibit superb characters, complex plots, and an easy to read style, important themes and evocative atmosphere.

Bitter because when I read through the hundreds of emails we exchanged [we only met in person twice] I realize what a good friend I have lost. Maxine encouraged and inspired so many bloggers that I am certain I am not alone in missing her influence.  

I have to admit a certain bias in choosing The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, because I thought her first book The Hummingbird should have won last year’s Petrona Award. Kati is a punk singer and author; she lives in a 150 year old house on the island of Hailuoto in the Gulf of Bothnia in Northern Finland. She has a Masters degree in Special Education and studied racism and bullying among young immigrants in Finland.  

The Defenceless is the second in the series featuring a mismatched pair of detectives. Anna Fekete is a young attractive woman, an immigrant as a child from the former Yugoslavia. She is Hungarian by ethnicity and her family, apart from Akos, her alcoholic brother who lives near her, still lives in the Hungarian speaking area of Serbia. Esko is a middle aged Finnish “redneck” with health problems, who hates all immigrants. The only thing they have in common is their desire to catch criminals, and their problem with alcohol and smoking. Anna is no virginal Miss Marple, and her drinking sometimes lead to sexual activity with some pathetic men that she regrets the next day.  

The stark contrast between Esko living a pathetic lonely physically inactive life in a tiny apartment and worried at the dangerous age of 56 about his heart and lungs, and Anna a keen runner and skier makes for an interesting story.  

Not everybody could be sporty health-freaks in top physical condition. Society needed the drunk, the obese, the depressed, as examples to the rest of us and to provide statistics with which to frighten people.  

In both books we see that Esko who starts off as a horrid racist misogynist, may have a softer centre to this hard outer shell. Perhaps he is merely terrified at getting older, and the enormous changes that have occurred in his country. The arrival of 300,000 immigrants into the UK may create difficulties in providing schools, housing, and health services, but in a country like Finland with a much smaller population it alters the whole ethnic and social make up of the country.   

The Finnish authorities and all the tree-hugging humanists should visit Copenhagen and Malmo and take a look at what an open-door immigration policy really means, thought Esko.   

The story opens with Viho, an elderly Finn having an argument with his noisy drug-dealing neighbour, Macke, while Sammy, a drug addicted Pakistani Christian is trying to get a supply of subutex from the dealer.  

But first he had to find some subs. Bupe. Orange guys. A dear child has many names.   

When Gabriella, a Hungarian au pair is arrested for dangerous driving as she has apparently knocked down and killed an old man on a snowy road, and Anna is called to deal with the case because she speaks Hungarian, although she finds her ability to converse in her native language has faded over the years.

The book investigates the themes of, immigration, drug gangs, the status of minorities, racism and human rights, along with the loneliness of old age. Anna’s kindness towards Sammy, and her friendship with gay immigrant pizza restaurant owners show her internal struggle with her identity, and her hopes for the future.   

The idea of a Hungarian man, and especially one from Kanisza, seemed quite tempting, at least in theory., but in practice, in reality, it was something quite different. It was a culture that reared boys into a world in which women could never become their equals.   

With the story being told from the perspective of Anna, Esko and Sammy I am sure it would have been the sort of book Maxine would have enjoyed, and we could have discussed it at length.   

Could there be a more topical book in Europe 2015 than one about the problems of immigration, and the scourge of drug gangs?   

The police procedural with a team of detectives working with Anna and Esko, and the social commentary reminded me of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

There can be no better recommendation for this brilliant book.   For more great book recommendations for Maxine go to Petrona Remembered