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Archive for the ‘crime / spy / thriller’ Category

I’ve been spending a lot of time in France lately in the company of Inspector Maigret.  I’m all up-to-date with the Penguin reissues (and my piece will be appearing in the next issue of Shiny New Books).  It seems though that France is a very popular destination with 3 other recently read crime novels set there.  Let’s start at the beginning and if I get my Normandy mixed up with my Brittany, forgive me.  I’m beginning to lose my bearings.

Death In Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec

Bretonische Verhältnisse translated from German by Sorcha McDonagh

The first in a new series establishes its literary credentials on page one.  Firstly in the name of its detective – Dupin – it is following in the footsteps of Edgar Allen Poe’s creation, and secondly with a nod to Maigret.  Bannalec’s Dupin is drinking his coffee in the Amiral in Concarneau, the Breton village which appeared in Simenon’s The Yellow Dog.  Where Maigret’s visit to Brittany was fleeting, Dupin’s stay will be longer.  He has been relocated to this remote backwater due to certain disputes. (We never find out why in this volume – perhaps it will become clear, later in the series?) Still there are certain other similarities with Maigret – his bulky physique, his love of coffee, and his modus operandi – he prefers to be alone to work things out.  Dupin’s misfortune is that he is a modern detective and that comes with all the pre-requisite apparatus – a team, forensics, press intrusion.  He is not allowed to operate alone, but he skirts that issue when he can, much to the irritation of his team.

Things are quiet until the day Dupin is called from his coffee and croissants in the Amiral to the scene of the brutal stabbing of the amiable 91-year old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec.  Investigations into the last days of the victim’s life reveal that he knew he was living on borrowed time, and he had arranged to change his will.  Motive, motive, motive, except that all suspects and potential heirs are reconciled to the change which involves a precious painting.

Cue link to the artists’ colony in Pont-Aven and the undiscovered Gauguin that lies at the heart of this mystery.  A thoroughly enjoyable seam involving art experts and the mechanisms they use to establish a painting’s authenticity. So too, the details regarding the Breton landscape.  The author is half-Breton, so landscape and cultural detail are lovingly drawn and the nod in the original German title. Just one word of warning – those cliffs can be dangerous as the second victim discovers ….

 

Dog Will Have His Day – Fred Vargas 

Un peu plus loin sur la droite translated from French by Sîan Reynolds

Bannaluc’s second victim shares the same fate as the first in the latest translation from Vargas’s back catalogue.  The second installment in her Three Evangelists series has taken its time getting to the English audience.  It was originally published in 1996! Circuitous too the path to the murderer.  No-one even realises there’s been a murder until a dog does his business in a Parisian park and, Kehlweiler, an eccentric intellectual with a pet toad, spots a bone in it.  Time to bring in a former housemate, one of Vargas’s Three Evangelists, a specialist in prehistoric bones.  He declares it to be a human toe.

Vargas is nothing if not quirky and how this discovery leads to a body at the bottom of the Breton cliffs is both bizarre and surreal, and one you won’t find in any other writer. Nor the characters – one eccentric after the next: the network of old people and tramps that Kehlweiler uses to track down the offending dog, the typewriter restorer plus Kehlweiler and toad.  For all the eccentricity, there is a nasty crime at the centre involving long-hidden secrets … and something even nastier from the days of Vichy France. All of which is uncovered because the dog had his day ….

Cold Winter In Bordeaux – Allan Massie

Talking of Vichy France, the third in Allan Massie’s quartet takes us to the winter of 1942-3.  At the front the war is turning against the Germans though there’s no relaxation of the iron fist in Bordeaux.  Superintendent Lannes is under pressure to collaborate with the deportation of the Jews and the new German supervisor won’t countenance the passive-aggressive delaying tactics hitherto employed.  Lannes is on the edge in other ways also:   One son happily serves the Vichy government,  the other has left home to join De Gaulle’s Free French, his daughter’s romance with a Fully-fledged collaborator  leaves him uncomfortable and his wife’s depression is creating an unbridgable gap in the marriage.  Outside home, the safety of his Jewish friends is under threat and the “rather sweet tart” (as the author described her at Aye Write in March) consorts openly with the Germans.  In the midst of this world gone mad, Lannes tries to remain ethical, particularly during his murder investigations.

This brings us right back to Maigret, who too was concerned with higher justice, not necessarily the law.  Maigret, however, wasn’t operating in Vichy France, and so was not subjected to the external, political and, frankly impossible pressures that Lannes faces on a daily basis – Pressures that create unpalatable realities namely a) it’s not always possible to see justice served (politics gets in the way) and b) Lannes cannot always keep himself on the side of right.

For those who have read the first two in this series (reviewed here), one of the big questions is whether Lannes will actually be allowed to prosecute the murderer of Gabrielle Peniel, who is found dead with a silk stocking round her neck.  His subordinate, Inspector Moncerre, calls it a “pre-war crime”, so there’s every likelihood …..

… provided the events of the war don’t interfere.   As the novel draws to the end, it is becoming increasingly clear that the war has turned, but can it turn quickly enough to ensure the survival of Lannes friends?  And what about those who haven’t exactly struggled against the German yoke?  We know what is to come but Massie’s characters do not.  They really are pinned on the horns of the present and Massie paints them realistically, without judgment, purposely so.  

“I hope so,” he says, “because once you become judgmental, you’re feeling superior to your characters. In novels such as this you are placing your characters in positions that you have never been in yourself, and what you are really asking is, how would you behave in these conditions? And I don’t think you have any right to say I would have behaved much better than they would.” (Interview with The Herald 15.02.14).

Over the course of three novels Massie’s characters have become real and, while they have a growing awareness (hope?) of a German defeat in the offing, we are certain of it and know of the dreadful reprisals that will follow in the Épuration. What I am not sure of is the definition of culpable collaboration, nor how Lannes will fare.  Massie admitted that he was rather worried for his “sweet, little tart”.  Well, I’m terrified on her behalf, and yet, the concluding part of this quartet can’t be published quickly enough.

A Death In Pont-Aven 3stars.GIF / Dog Will Have His Day 3stars.GIF / Cold Winter In Bordeaux 35_stars.GIF

 

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Translated from German by John Cullen

A new release from Juli Zeh is a cause for celebration in these parts.  I loved the combination of philosophy and page-turning suspense that I encountered in Dark Matter.  So too the utopic dystopia of The Method. I’m saving her debut Eagles and Angels for a rainy day (and as there are plenty of those in Scotland,  I must be waiting for a deluge.)  Decompression, however, had to be read in the week that Rossetti went gallivanting to Lanzarote with a pal.  (I don’t do beach holidays.)

Set – you guessed it – on Lanzarote, Decompression must be Juli Zeh’s most accessible novel to date.  I believe it reflects her new-found-but-real-life passion for deep sea diving and there’s a lot to be learned about it in these pages.  Nothing, it must be said to entice me below water but nevertheless, interesting – no, terrifying.  I don’t like being out of my depth.

The protagonist, Sven,  a trained lawyer, has escaped Germany – not because he is a fugitive but because he finds it too constricting.  Together with Antje, his live-in girlfriend, he has established a diving school. Antje is the reason for his success.  She does all the grafting and the paper work so that Sven can concentrate on his passion, the diving, the underwater world.  She has loved him since forever.  Sven, however, isn’t even comfortable calling her his girlfriend.  She’s nothing but a convenience and he’s not even grateful.  Unsympathetic?  I’d say so.

But he’s not a patch on the pair that are paying 14,000 Euro for exclusive access to his tuition for a fortnight.  The beautiful, German soap opera starlet, Jola, and her partner Theo, a middle-aged author with writer’s block, are, on the face of it, a dream team for Sven, but they are locked in a toxic relationship, the whirlpools and maelstroms of which Sven simply isn’t equipped to negotiate or avoid.    As the three of them dive deeper and deeper, Sven is sucked with centrifugal force into a trap.  The question to be answered is why Jola and her partner, Theo, would even bother.  The answer to that is the key to the novel and it’s not pleasant.  In fact, it’s downright shabby.

Discerning the truth of the matter isn’t that easy because the story has two narratives – a third-person written from Sven’s point-of-view and a first-person diary written by Jola.  The two stories harmonise at the start but as the fortnight passes by, discrepancies appear and soon they are worlds apart.  There’s a master manipulator at work here  … 

…. and the climax identifies the person clearly.  My only gripe is that it is too clearly sign-posted and I would have preferred a more ambiguous outcome but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Recommended for book groups (psychological analysis of the main characters is fodder for hours of discussion), fans of Patricia Highsmith and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

4_stars.GIF

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When a book revealing the secrets of crime fiction , written by multiple Australian authors, dropped through the letter box earlier this year, I determined that 2014 would be the year for essay reading.  Having scoured the table of contents and discovered that I’d heard of only one of the 22 authors featured – Michael Robotham – and, even then hadn’t read him, I felt a bit non-plussed.  Where was I to start?

Given that the black humour of the book’s title – If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you – makes my toes curl with pleasure, I decided I’d start with the essay with the most pleasing title.  The crime-fiction-loving rock chick in me adjudged that to be essay #5 – I know it’s only noir (but I like it) written by Lenny Bartulin.  I suspected I was about to meet a kindred spirit ….

Noir is timeless, like jazz, like rock ‘n’ roll.  The thrill of reading, say, The Big Sleep or The Blonde on the Street Corner or Double Indemnity for the first time has never left me.  And apart from the stories themselves, it was the writing that blew me away: all that style, the sharp dialogue, the cynical humour, the flawless craft.

It was writing with intent and purpose, writing that delivered and gave the reader real pleasure.  It had bottom-end.  Weight. It could take you into tight-bends, at speed and you were never going to flip.

Yes, all that and more and Bartulin details many of those other reasons in his essay and shows how Chandler, Cain et al inspired him to continue in their vein: this despite the challenges of creating character-driven but honest and authentic plots, the necessity of giving characters heart, blood and muscle before they can show the author where the story is going, and the panic of being about two-thirds of the way through my first novel when one day, just like that, the earth split open beneath my feet and I found myself plummeting into molten lava.  … I thought my novel was a waste of space, absolutely terrible, and I had no idea how to finish it.

He was given a piece of advice: The solution is in your book.

At which point I was curious to find said debut and sample it with the intention to critique according to the conventions of noir that Bartulin outlines in his essay and to see if the problems he had hinted at were visible in the finished product.

All such rational thought left me when I discovered the US title of Bartulin’s debut novel: Death by the Book. Who? Where? Why? Funnily enough, the 3 questions Bartulin asks himself as he writes.  And no, it has nothing to do with the near brush with death permanent injury I had last night when one of my towering stacks toppled over with such force that it missed me by inches, even though I was a good six feet away ….

… although there must be plenty of towering stacks in Jack Susko’s second-hand bookshop. Now I know I’ve met a kindred spirit – who knew this reading trail was going to lead me straight to a bookshop and offer a salutary lesson on the dangers of obsessive book collecting.

Jack Susko is approached one day and made an offer he can’t refuse. A wealthy collector offers him 50 dollars per copy for as many copies as he can find of the work of a certain obscure poet. Easy money. Deal! Except that events start spiralling out of control when Jack finds himself in the middle of a bitter family feud, seduced by a blacker than noir femme fatale in the middle of a bitter divorce, life and limb endangered and that’s before his less than innocent past raises its ugly head. …

It’s all action, all authentically character-driven and if Bartulin got stuck 2/3rds of the way through, I can’t see the joins.  My only critique relates to the finale which is a little too – shall we say – exuberant? I can’t actually figure out how the good cop knows where to be …..

… but I’m glad he’s there, because he secures the continuation of what has become a trilogy. Expect my discovery of Bartulin to continue.

Death by the Book (US) / A Deadly Business (UK) 35_stars.GIF

This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Reading Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.

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Like many I experienced a feeling of desolation when I turned the final page of The Lewis Trilogy last year.  So I was delighted when I realised that Peter May’s new standalone novel was once more to take me to an island setting.  Even more so, when I realised not one, but two.

The eponymous Entry Island is located inside the St Lawrence Gulf and was the place where Scottish immigrants, forcibly evicted from their homes during the Highland Clearances, were quarantined.  In May’s novel it is also the setting of a contemporary murder investigation during which the sometimes erratic behaviour of the lead interrogator, Sime, is coloured by a) his failed marriage, b) his insomnia, and c) his conviction of knowing the prime suspect, Kirsty, despite never having met her before,

It is this third strand that leads us back to the Hebridean past via two pieces of jewellry and the journals of Sime’s ancestor; a past that is both evocative, informative and engrossing, detailing the harsh lives in the blackhouses on the Isle of Lewis, the even harsher realities of the Atlantic crossing and the difficulties once the Canadian shore has been gained.  Not forgetting the doomed love story that continues to haunt the contemporary narrative …

which I confess, convinced me less. Complex human relationships are authentically drawn and the landscapes, as ever, finely and lovingly painted.  BUT (yes, a big one) was there ever such an incompetent set of detectives?  (Sime is part of a team.). My disbelief turned to incredulousness when they completely disregarded a major incident ….  May also reuses plot elements from The Blackhouse – similarities to Finn’s background and for a moment I thought we were going to see a repeat of the denouement on Sula Gheir. On second thoughts, perhaps these are playful nods to the fan base. If so, I, like that.  Also echoes and foreshadowings of the past leaking into the present.  Yet, like Sime, there was something that wouldn’t let me go, that preoccupied me. The Gaelic pronunciaton of Sime is Sheem but, in my English head, he was Sime, short for Simon. Combine that with the surname of the prime suspect, Cowell, and somehow it wasn’t as atmospheric imagining you-know-who running around ….  

 

 

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The end of the year approaches and with it thoughts re the best of 2013 and objectives for 2014; one of which is usually a book-buying ban.  Not this year, in fact not for the next 6!  The plans of Penguin Classics to publish Simenon’s Inspector Maigret chronologically over the course of 75 months (73 months remaining) have seen to that.  Particularly as multiple translators are involved in the project.  I’m not sure whether 75 translators are involved.  Only time will tell.  Certainly the first 6 in the series have different translators and there’s got to be some scope for a few translation duels somewhere down the line.  For now though, let’s just sit back and enjoy the first two in the series.

1) Pietr The Latvian (1931) – translated by David Bellos 

2) The Late Monsieur Gallet (1931) – translated by Anthea Bell

The simplified and modernised English titles are the first items of note. Originally translated as The Strange Case of Peter The Lett and The Death of Monsieur Gallet.   Like the directness of Pietr The Latvian – it’s more engaging in this age of economic  migration, even though that isn’t an actual theme.  And besides, who,would have known that Lett meant Latvian?  The Late Monsieur Gallet is quite simply more elegant and focuses attention on the person of Monsieur Gallet, whose enigma Maigret must first solve before he gets a real handle on what turned him into a corpse.

I’m not going to go into details here because the plots aren’t very complicated and certainly don’t compare to the sophistication of some contemporary crime fiction or even Simenon’s romans durs (psychological thrillers).  However, they do  demonstrate the same fascination with human psychology, which lies at the heart of Maigret’s investigative technique.  Maigret cracks the case of Pietr The Latvian which involves foreign crime gangs and doppelgangers through the analysis of the faces in an old photograph.  Monsieur Gallet’s secret is discovered when Maigret identifies the motivation of the dead man who lived in poverty while prioritising the payments for a seemingly extravagant life insurance.

So the crimes at the heart of these novels remain current, and good, old fashioned logical deduction (minus spurious Sherlockian flashiness) together with psychological insight solves the cases. Neither are there any hints of the artificiality of a typical Agatha Christie setting.  (See footnote.) Very enjoyable. 2 down, 73 to go …..

Footnote: Nothing against Agatha, everything against Sherlock!

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Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Right through the middle of the picture ran the long, gleaming scar of the sector border, dividing everything according to compass points, beating its way through everywhere, ripping the thin spider-web into halves, jagged, ruthless, lit up like a long, thin playing field, the length of a city, for whatever triumphs and defeats might come along.

Berlin, October 2011. The Wall is still standing and East Germany is on the edge of bankruptcy, its continued existence dependent on the successful conclusion of economic talks with the Federal Republic of Germany.  Then an old man is found hanging from the pipe-line leading from Russia to the GDR and all clues point to the Stasi – just the thing to jeopardise those crucial talks.  It’s not a case you’d volunteer for but someone has to draw the short straw.  Enter Detective Martin Wegener, 56.

Was there ever a more unfortunate entrance and introduction to a character than that first paragraph?  I am not going to quote it but let me just say I have an aversion to toilet scenes.  I was also afeared that it indicated an obsession with genitalia. I wasn’t wrong.  There’s some highly sexual and graphic content scattered throughout the book.  Some of it surreal, distasteful and quite baffling in that it adds nothing the plot.  If it’s symbolic, it was lost on me.

That said, let me tell you about the good things and there are many.  This is a terrific thriller, with twists and turns aplenty.   Naturally Wegener is caught between a rock and a hard place.  Forced to work on the case with a colleague from the West, he is damned if he solves the case and damned if he doesn’t.  He is a victim of the state among many victims – some of whom are broken and smashed, others (like Wegener himself) believe they still have some say in their life, even as it spirals out of control. Like all good detectives, his personal life is a shambles.  He has recently broken up with Karolina and is struggling to come to terms with that (hence the sexual preoccupations and fantasies(?) mentioned above).  More disturbingly his trusted colleague, Früchtl, has recently disappeared yet his voice inhabits Wegener’s mind, every hour of every day. Früchtl continues to mentor Wegener, to bully and cajole him.  He acts as Wegener’s conscience.   This dialogue between Wegener and his presumed-dead colleague was the real highlight for me.  Full of dry deadpan humour, it adds a touch of lightness to the proceedings.  But like all things in this repressive state, everything sours in the end, even this relationship.

The political satire is biting.  The failing dictatorship is shown for what it is but the West comes under fire too.

Martin, the only difference between East and West Germany is that the citizens of the Federal Republic don’t talk about the crap their state gets up to because they’ve got their mouths full of organic fillet steak.

The premise in Urban’s thriller is firmly rooted in political probabilities and an understanding of the history of the DDR, while not necessary, does add depth to the story.  Mrs Peabody Investigates has helpfully compiled a glossary of the salient terms and key persons.

At 512 pages, this is a long book and apart from the bits I mentioned at the start of my review they flew by.  I didn’t even mind when the final paragraph returned me to the scene and action of the opening.  It’s a very effective mirror image and I’ve got to give credit for that.

35_stars.GIF

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Start talking about tartan noir and chances are you won’t get past the first sentence without the mention of William McIlvanney. Tartan noir began with his novel, Laidlaw and his trilogy is spoken of with reverence by those in the know. Ian Rankin credits McIlvanney as the inspiration behind his own decision to become a crime writer. Yet, two years ago, when I first heard him talk at EIBF, his novels were all out of print. I trawled Edinburgh’s second hand bookshops for a copy of Laidlaw but still had to resort to buying online. Good old abebooks, I say. However, the editorial director of Canongate books was sitting in that same audience, obviously as horrified as the rest at this state of affairs. Two years later and Canongate have republished the whole trilogy in splendid new livery.

Do these crime novels stand the test of time? Without a doubt, despite the lack of technology in the detecting methods employed. I suppose if McIlvanney had written them more recently, they would be replete with profanity. Personally I am very happy that they are not.

I first read Laidlaw (1977) last year and then Canongate announced republication. At which point I decided to save my review until the whole trilogy became available. I gave Laidlaw 5-stars last year and enjoyed it so much that I decided to reread it again for this post. And you know the 5-star rating remains intact.

The body of a young woman is discovered in a Glaswegian park.  She is a gangster’s daughter and her murderer also has contacts with the criminal underworld – some of whom wish to get him safely out of the city, others to render rough justice.  The third hunt is by the police, by the eponymous Laidlaw. The question is who will get there first?

What makes this such an outstanding read?  Simply put McIlvanney’s pacing and use of language.  Character studies nailing their subjects in just a few sentences, the streets of Glasgow appearing full of menace and threat (and definitely no advertisement for next year’s Commonwealth games) and surprising, unforgettable metaphor.  If ever anyone tells me that crime novels cannot be literary, this is the example I will thrust into their hands to convert them.

The opening sentence of The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) is a prime example of a metaphor that punches above its weight.

It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of the stare.

You don’t pay homage to Glasgow, says McIlvanney.  You meet it on even terms.

An alcoholic vagrant dies a slow and painful death but before dying he asks to speak to Laidlaw. In that conversation he suggests that someone had spiked his drink.  Then a gangster is murdered and Laidlaw uncovers an unexpected link between the two corpses – Tony Veitch.  Tony, a rich dropout student with a propensity for writing deep introspective letters to his friends and family, has disappeared.  Once again Laidlaw must find his man before the Glaswegian heavies. At last year’s Bloody Scotland McIlvanney read out the scene when Laidlaw finally catches up with Tony.  It sent shivers down my spine.  Then he explained that this was something taken from real life.  I have yet to defrost.

What of Laidlaw himself?  In his private life he is a loving father but a difficult and unfaithful husband.  The same contradictions are present in his professional life.  A fine detective, though not a team player, gruff and abrasive yet with a streak of compassion for those less fortunate members of society.  If it wasn’t for Laidlaw insisting on foul play in the death of the vagrant, where others saw none, there would have been no novel!  But let his less experienced partner decribe the man.

Laidlaw came on hard, could be a bastard, sometimes gave the impression that if God turned up he’d want him to take a lie-detector test.  But he obviously cared about people, was so unmistakably hurt by what happened to them, sometimes through his own doing, that he would have put a stone under pressure to feel things.

McIlvanney puts this teeming mass of contradictions centre stage in Strange Loyalties (1991) which is narrated in 1st person by Laidlaw himself as he tries to come to terms with his brother’s sudden death.  It may have been suicide and Laidlaw wants to retrace his brother’s last days to establish the facts. We are taken out of Glasgow into the countryside of Ayrshire and The Borders.  While the scenery may be uplifting, being inside Laidlaw’s head is anything but. There are no monsters, said McIllvanney.  Laidlaw is just screwed up.

Suspicions are aroused as Laidlaw meets a conspiracy of silence from his brother’s wife and friends. Unhinged by his grief,  Laidlaw appears to lose whatever mechanism enables detectives to differentiate between personal and professional with the result that his unofficial investigation comes with a heavy personal price tag. When he unearths the dark secret at the centre of his brother’s death, he wishes that he’d never looked.

Can he recover?  Someone must persuade McIlvanney to write the 4th novel to answer that.

Laidlaw  / The Papers of Tony Veitch  / Strange Loyalties 

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Translated by Baida Dar

With pseudonyms in the news, I offer you a pseudonymous German thriller. The authors’ identities were never secret as the German publishing house originally planned to publish using their real names. For the record Stefan and Andreas Lebert, journalists and brothers.

I know nothing more about them other than their first novel is intelligent and pacy and just a little bit grisly in parts.  I certainly turned the pages quickly (and not just because I wanted to finish the book before my plane landed!)

Max Tretjak is a fixer.  This means that other people pay him to sort out their problems.  A wife wishes to divorce her husband but hasn’t got the courage  to tell him herself.  Send in Max who will not only deliver the message but will ensure the settlement and deliver the package that is her future life as well.  His powers of persuasion are second to none, especially when, with homework completed, he knows something that proves to have irresistible bargaining power.  This job means that he has collected many secrets, many contacts and, inevitably, a few enemies.  He needs to watch his back and pay heed to the skeletons in his own closet, particularly when many of his former colleagues turn up dead in a series of murders that put his name centre frame.

Curiously though Max is somewhat detached from his own life..  A firm believer in the ability to walk away from the past and start over, he gives it not a moment’s thought beyond philosophising with a variety of psychologists and psychiatrists.  But can the past, in particular his own not always glorious one, be expunged? Can the future be fixed so simply? The events in these pages certainly challenge his core beliefs.

They challenge the reader too, particularly as there isn’t a sympathetic character to be found.  I certainly don’t like Tretjak as a man, as a son, as a lover.  He can be careless of others.  Then again, neither do I like his father or his girlfriend.  But I did enjoy the plot and though I guessed the outcome (a question of pin-pointing the moment when Tretjak, the detail-obsessed fixer, misses a trick),  I do recommend you pack this in your suitcase for an entertaining holiday read.

Not only will you be packing a great summer read, you’ll be helping me out. I might not like the man but I do want to know what happens to him next.  And for that to happen, this must sell in sufficient quantities to merit the commissioning of the sequel’s translation …

3hstars

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Philip Kerr has just released his 9th Bernie Gunther mystery, A Man without Breath. Meanwhile, despite my best intentions (or more likely because of all the literary distractions that come my way thanks to this blog), I was trailing behind at #5. Checking the library catalogue I found that unabridged audios were available for titles 5-8. A couple of months ago I decided to start working my way through them.

For those who don’t know Bernie Gunther, he is a one time Berlin cop, forced into the SS during the Hitler years. When I last left him, he had somehow managed to get himself branded a war criminal and was on a boat fleeing to Argentina along with more infamous members of the Nazi hoi polloi. The thing about Bernie is that he is a basically good guy, resolutely and vehemently anti-Nazi, but with shades of moral ambiguity. I’m never quite sure whether I believe all his protestations of innocence, because in the present he shows a ruthless streak which can be disproportionate to current circumstance.

All he wants to do is outrun his past but, in A Quiet Flame, seeking sanctuary and an Argentinian passport in the age of Peron, it’s unlikely that people will let his sleeping dogs lie. So when a young German girl goes missing and another is found sadistically murdered, he is enlisted as a gumshoe by the Argentinian secret police. Simultaneously he is approached by the beautiful Anna and asked to find out what happened to her missing Jewish relatives. His motivation for taking on this case – one that will bring him into mortal danger because the Argentinian government just relish foreigners hunting for their disappeared: “It’s not that I love Jews,” he says, “it’s that I love anti-Semites just that little bit less.” (And he can’t say no to a pretty girl!)

The murder echoes an unsolved Berlin case from 1932 – something horrible and seedy which is matched by something just as bad in post-war Argentina. The past mingling with the present is a staple in the series. Its purpose as Bernie jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, from Argentina (A Quiet Flame) to Cuba (If the Dead Rise Not) before being extradited back to Germany to face a potential war crime trial (Field Grey) is to show the amorality of political dictatorships, be they left or right wing. Forgive me for the misquote here but this is from memory of an audiobook “A rat, be it black, brown or white, is still a rat” muses Bernie at one point in Field Grey.

He might be talking about political dictatorships and even the Amis themselves (it’s their pretence of civilised behaviour that sticks in his throat) but during Field Grey serious questions begin to arise about Bernie’s moral rectitude. Given that most of the novel is the account of Bernie’s war, his not always innocent time on the Eastern front and his incarceration in a Russian PoW camp, it can’t really be called a thriller. But it is intriguing to discover how Bernie survived when so many others did not. Kerr takes some huge risks here: a) trying his readers’ patience, particularly if they had come to this expecting a thriller and b) risking Bernie’s reputation. There’s no way he can always be cast as a victim here. As for the final twist, it left me speechless and for the first time willing to cast an adverse judgment.

I need some time to digest this before moving onto #8 – not only to answer the question whether all is fair in love and cold war but because I was finding the cumulative effect of all this political corruption overwhelming. I also need a break to steel myself because if Bernie has been jumping from frying pan to fire up to now, something tells me that he’s just landed in an inferno.

A Quiet Flame 3hstars / If The Dead Rise Not 3hstars / Field Grey stars3

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With only one week to go to the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I am pleased to say that I’m on track to complete 20 books that were sitting in my TBR mountain range as of 31.12.2012. I have diverted from the trail only once, and that was because I attended a literary event. It would have been rude not to have read the book first. However, I deem this year’s effort a success and once I have finished my current read, I am going to unpack those bright new shiny books and indulge myself.

Strategies that helped me succeed in 2013. Firstly, the mindmap – it has changed somewhat since first shown. I’ve now transferred it to digital format – using a newly discovered and affordable software package, MindHD. Once I’ve worked out how to export it to a blog displayable format, I shall share.

I also took inspiration from CB’s 5-star event badge.

Double dog dare

Inspecting the TBR, I discovered a veritable kennel full of shaggy dog stories. Given that this was a double dog dare, I decided to read two of them.

Rebecca Hunt’s Mr Chartwell looks like a friendly and companionable chap on the 1st edition cover. He’d like you to think that and to inveigle his way into your affections in order to suck the lust for life out of you with the dark clouds of depression that he triggers. For Mr Chartwell is the black dog of depression that – er – dogged Churchill throughout his life. Churchill though was aware of his inherited weakness and with the help of his formidable wife, Clementine, managed to deny his adversary the victory. Lesser mortals, such as Churchill’s daughter, and Michael, husband of the fictitious Esther, succumb to his seductions and take their own lives.

I use the word seduction deliberately because that is what Mr Chartwell sets out to do when he pays his first visit to Esther, close to the 2nd anniversary of her husband’s death. When he knocks on her door in search of lodgings he is, if you accept the conceit, ignore his threatening size and earthly smell, a traditional lodger.

Mr Chartwell’s black lips carved a cordial smile …. he extended a paw the size of a turnip. “Hello, I’ve come about the room.”

At first, he is a well-behaved dog but he in just 5 short days he invades and wrecks Esther’s physical space and seeks to do the same to her mind. He moves seamlessly from polite, witty and intelligent lodger (his literary frame of reference is tremendous), through personal space invader to all out psychological attack. It is a war although Black Pat, as Mr Chartwell prefers to be called, insists he and Esther are fighting on the same side.

Churchill’s story shows the conscious and determined efforts that must be undertaken to deny Black Pat. The two narratives eventually converge in a scene where Esther, a secretary at Westminster, is taking dictation from Churchill on the eve of his retirement. Black Pat is in the room and Churchill counsels Esther in the vein of we will fight them on the beaches without once referring to him. Simply masterful.

The dog in Kate Atkinson’s fourth and final Jackson Brodie novel is the abused not the abuser. Fortunately he is rescued by Brodie and serves as his companion throughout a case which begins fairly innocuously (Brodie is trying to find the origins of an adopted girl, now living in New Zealand) but soon becomes life-threatening. The dog has to return the life-saving favour to Brodie at one point. This Brodie/canine drama is reenacted in the human sphere when Tracy Waterhouse, ex-cop, spontaneously takes a young child, being dragged through a shopping centre, from her prostitute and foul-mouthed mother. Money exchanges hands, making Tracy’s adoption of the girl illegal and scuppering any plans Tracy had for a quiet retirement.

Brodie’s investigation leads to the 70′s and the police force to which Tracy belonged. Events then eerily echo the present: murdered prostitutes, illegal adoptions and the key to it all perhaps locked in the fading memory of a soap actress named Tilly. This thread, which for me was an utter irrelevance at the start, actually became the most satisfying. An inversion of expectations that is probably what the author wanted to achieve. Because Brodie in these pages is a grey soul, recuperating still from previous traumas and certainly not the centre or the cohesive force of this narrative. Atkinson said on completing this novel that she was done with him. At times it felt as though she had put him to one side while in the act of writing. Still, at least, she let him walk off into the sunset with a new four-legged friend. There’s plenty of comfort for the man that.

Mr Chartwell  4stars  / Started Early, Took My Dog  stars3

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