Archive for the ‘Scotland’ Category

1946: It is a very hot summer in post war Glasgow and there are plans afoot for a redevelopment of the bomb and slum scarred city. But when Councillor Alec Morton, head of the Finance Committee, is found murdered it is clear that some people want to take more than a fair share of the profits of regeneration.

The newest reporter on the Glasgow Gazette Douglas Brodie, formerly a Major in the Seaforth Highlanders,  is asked by a strange man calling himself Ishmael to get his friend Advocate Samantha Campbell to defend an ex-serviceman on  charges of armed and attempted burglary at the home of the Chief Constable’s sister. The defendant Sergeant Johnson had been a prisoner of war for five years captured during the Fall of France in 1940, and while he was away he had lost his wife and home. Living rough and hungry he had broken into the house looking for food. But the ex-soldier was found guilty and sentenced to five years at His Majesty’s pleasure. Ishmael is furious and when Johnson is found dead in his cell hanged, he launches a campaign of vigilante attacks across the city aimed at those who have escaped regular justice. The action widens as several homosexuals are murdered, but Ishmael denies his men, known as the Glasgow Marshals, are the perpetrators of these crimes. 

Meanwhile the newspaper runs a story about the new found wealth and lifestyle of Councillor Jimmy Sheridan, of the Planning and Regeneration Committee, who is subsequently found with his mistress in a Morris Eight at the bottom of Loch Lomond. How will the two strands of the story, corruption and vigilantism, become one?

This is the second book, the first was e-book best seller The Hanging Shed, in the story of ex-policeman Douglas Brodie and it is told in a convincing first person narrative.

A metal grate and two gas rings, a sink, a coal hole and a rickety table and one wooden chair. Gas lights one with a broken mantle. Two strips of lino that didn’t meet and were riddled with holes. A wardrobe surely salvaged from the Clydebank blitz topped by my empty suitcase.

The writing is so evocative of the harshness of the period that it is a surprise to read the back flap and discover that the author, Gordon Ferris, was a computer expert for the Ministry of Defence and a partner in a Big Four accountancy firm. He has come a long way from humble beginnings in a small flat in Kilmarnock, but has not forgotten the details of life during that period, no inside toilets, tin baths, gas mantles, and freezing temperatures. 

The Glasgow Marshals, ex-soldiers, who found that the country to which they had returned was not a land fit for heroes, but one of rationing for some and black market excess and fat profits for others. Some things never change. Their leader, Ishmael, is a frightening character with his biblical quotations and vigilantism, but does get some sympathy in the narrative for his time in a prisoner of war camp working alongside the enlisted men even though he was an officer. There is no sympathy in the violent denouement for those who want to exploit the opportunities that the war has created. Gordon Ferris in this series proves you  don’t need mobile phones, DNA or modern problems to write an exciting crime story.

‘Why aren’t you lot at school?’

A grinning ragamuffin replied, ‘We’ve a’ got impetigo, mister. The hale class.’ 

I looked round them all and now saw the tell-tale red blisters and dried scabs. They all looked mighty pleased with themselves. 

Bitter Water is well written top quality crime fiction that was both entertaining, exciting and a social commentary about a period that is becoming more popular with crime writers. The gap in lifestyle and attitudes between the 1940s post war period, and the world of the Edwardians and 1920s and 1930s is far less  than that between the 1940s and the present day. Therefore the characters Douglas Brodie and Samantha Campbell would also seem to be perfectly at home in a book by Sapper, or John Buchan, and the cover blurb “The New Ian Rankin” is a bit misleading. 

There was no third man. But they didn’t need any help. They looked grubby , but alert and competent. Their steady , gloved hands had held guns before. Ex-forces. But who wasn’t?

The possible resolution of Brodie’s tentative relationship with Samantha Campbell, who has had an unfortunately traumatic life, is one reason why I will be on the look out for the third book in this promising series.

[Spoiler alert: Obviously it would have been better to start with The Hanging Shed and there are plenty of references/spoilers in Bitter Water to the events that occurred in that book.]

Bitter Water has been shortlisted for the 2012 CWA Ellis Peters Award.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaye paused, angling his head towards the newspaper.

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

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

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

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

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

Reading a crime fiction series can be a bit tricky at times because:

1] The author has written the series out of chronological order.

James Lawton’s Troy series and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon books are two examples of this particular quirkiness. At the moment I am reading Exposed by Liza Marklund, the first chronologically of the five books published in English, and the young inexperienced Annika is feisty but obviously immature in comparison with the Annika of Red Wolf [number 5]. This is the fourth of the Bengtzon series I have read and I have tackled them in the order 4, 2, 5, 1 -reading The Bomber [4]  some years ago before I began blogging. New readers to Liza Marklund will be able to read the series in the correct order, and not become confused. 

2] The publisher has had the series translated in the wrong order.

The worst example of this foible was the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, where book 5 [The Devil’s Star] in the Oslo trilogy of connected stories was translated before book 3 [The Redbreast] and book 4 [Nemesis]. 

This happens fairly frequently, or the publisher dives into book 11 of a 15 book series for some unknown reason. So for once it is a pleasure to read a long running series in order such as the Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri.

3] The author switches perspectives between characters

The multi award winning S.J Rozan writes each book in her series alternately from the different perspective of her two protagonists Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. When you are not expecting it such as in Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason, where his usual lead character Erlendur does not appear and Elinborg takes over it can be a pleasant surprise, and give a new lease of life to the series. Hakan Nesser even had his Inspector Van Veeteren retire to run an antiquarian bookshop, but still have his advice sought by his former subordinates. When you have a team of investigators as in the Martin Beck series [Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo] or a cast of quirky characters as in the Adamsberg books by Fred Vargas the author can alter the emphasis from book to book, or within each book. This must make it much more interesting for the writer and ensures a better experience for the reader.

I particularly like this method of continuing to keep a series fresh.

4] The reader comes to a series late.

Some series have been running for so long that if one comes to them late and decide to catch up you face a marathon reading session, and have to absorb a lot of back story about the character. Diamond Dagger winner Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone alphabet series started with A for Alibi in 1982, and has reached V for Vengeance in 2011. But Sue Grafton is a beginner when it comes to keeping a protagonist going on and on for years. 

Ruth Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, began her Chief Inspector Wexford series back in 1964 with From Doon with Death and last year the 22nd Wexford, The Monster in the Box was published. In the new Wexford The Vault the former Chief Inspector is enjoying his retirement. Ruth Rendell could be almost considered the first Scandinavian crime writer to make it big in the UK as her mother was born in Sweden, and brought up in Denmark. 

5] The characters do not age in real time

Some characters age for example Ian Rankin’s Rebus in the 17 book series which ran from Knots and Crosses [1987] to Exit Music [2007]. This series did not really take off until the 8th book Black and blue which won the CWA Gold Dagger, and Exit Music is set during the period before Rebus is due to retire. 

Hercule Poirot, probably the best known Belgian in the world, was imagined by his creator Agatha Christie as an old man in her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles published in 1920. He had been a policeman in Belgium for many years, retired and a refugee in the Great War. 

‘That is not true,’ said Poirot. ‘I had a bad failure in Belgium in 1893.’  [Peril at End House]

Elephants can Remember was published in 1972, and Curtain: Poirot’s Last case was published in 1975, although that was written in the 1940’s and locked away to be published after Miss Christie’s death. A disconcertingly long  career for the great detective, but hours of pleasant reading for crime fiction fans. 

A crime fiction series can raise a lot of questions for readers.

Do you continue to read them even when they have lost their early promise? Should authors take their characters to the Reichenbach Falls, or allow their protagonist to quietly retire to tend their vegetable garden, or run a bookshop? Do authors run out of plots and just rely on their idiosyncratic characters to carry a book? Do authors eventually get bored, or even begin to hate their creations? When authors who are best known for a series write a one off  will a fan of the series buy that one off, or wait for the next book in the series? What is the ideal length for a series? What part has television played in the popularity of crime fiction series? ……………

The svenska översatta kriminalroman [Martin Beck Award] for 2011 has been won by Denise Mina with The End of the Wasp Season. This award has been won previously by some of the elite of the crime writing  world including Deon Meyer [shortlisted again this year], Andrew Taylor, Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Fossum, Alexander McCall Smith and Thomas H. Cook.