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Archive for the tag “crime fiction”

The Psalm Killer (review)

The Psalm KillerThe Psalm Killer by Chris Petit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty years ago I read The Monkey House, where a detective has to try to solve a murder case in the middle of a civil war, where different factions are taking pot shots at one another in war-torn Sarajevo. This one, published about the same time, is very similar, except that it is set in war-torn Belfast about ten years earlier.

In both cases the temptation is not to bother too much, and simply ascribe any unexplained deaths to “sectarian violence” and leave it at that. But of course if they did that there would be no story. But there is also the danger that if the detective solves the crime, the interests and deeds and loyalties of powerful figures might come to light.

In this case, the killer publishes verses from Psalms in newspapers with each killing, almost as if wanting to be found.

The two main detectives in the case, Cross and Westerby, have no first names, or at least the reader is not told them. This calls to mind Inspector Morse of Oxford, whose first name was not known even to his closest colleagues on the force. I’m not sure what the purpose of that is — to depersonalise them? But they are the strongest characters in the book. Perhaps to show that they are puppets, manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Despite a few puzzling plot holes this one is a very good read, and shows how the exercise of trying to find the “good guys” in conflicts like these is almost impossible. There is no “war on terror” here, there are just terrorists against terrorists, with ordinary people as the victims.

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A churchy whodunit

The Martyr's ChapelThe Martyr’s Chapel by Dudley J. Delffs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An American Episcopalian (or Whiskeypalian, as one of the characters puts it) version of Father Brown solves the mystery of a murder in an almost disused chapel in a quiet university town in Tennessee. Father Griffin Reed’s sister Bea is also a would-be Miss Marple, but she doesn’t solve the mystery, so doesn’t actually make it.

It also reminded me a bit of the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman, with its diocesan exorcist-turned-detective protagonist. I wonder if the murder-mystery in a churchy setting is becoming a genre in its own right.

It is not, however, quite up to the standard of G.K. Chesterton or Phil Rickman. For one thing, Dudley J. Delffs doesn’t get the church background and setting quite right. “Divine” seems a very improbable name for an Anglican/Episcopalian cathedral, and the author clearly doesn’t have a clue about the role of deacons and the diaconate in an Anglican setting, which makes it feel rather inauthentic.

The author tends to go into great detail about the characters’ clothing. Perhaps to those familiar with the culture this will send cultural signals that I, having never been to Tennessee, may miss. I was picturing wing tips as a kind of collar, until the author described them as tapping on the floor. There is also an almost Enid Blytonish feel to the descriptions of food and eating.

In spite of these shortcomings, however, it’s quite a readable story, and as a whodunit it kept me wondering who the villain was until almost the last chapter.

I also learned things about American culture that I hadn’t known before. Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving I’d heard of, as important US cultural festivals, but apparently there is a third, at about the same time of the year — Homecoming. I had to Google to look it up — perhaps it isn’t as controversial as the other two, and so seems to be less discussed on the Internet. It also seems that, as the US academic year finishes with Commencement, it commences with Homecoming. I suppose the nearest thing to that in my student days in South Africa was the annual charity Rag, but I don’t know if they have those any more.

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A gun for sale

A Gun for Sale: An EntertainmentA Gun for Sale: An Entertainment by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spy novels seemed to flourish in the Cold War, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps they were revived by the James Bond romances of Ian Fleming and given more impetus by the more serious and realistic novels of John le Carre, but they had been around for quite a while before that, and this is one set in the period of tension leading up to the Second World War. It’s only about a third of the length of many of the Cold War spy thrillers, but that, if anything makes it more readable and more sharply focused. In looking for a postwar novel in the same genre I suppose the one that comes closest is The day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

It’s not just a spy story, it’s a crime novel as well, and perhaps even more so. In that respect the contrast with postwar crime novels is quite marked. I’d just finished reading Blood on the Tongue, which is set in much the same area of England, and what stands out is the difference in police procedures. In the prewar novel, the police circulate numbers of stolen banknotes to shops and railway booking offices in a town the size of London with remarkable efficiency for pre-Internet days. and everyone throughout the country is aware of the description of a wanted man. This makes it very easy to trace the suspect. In post war crime novels, the police have suspects, but can’t find them, and when they do find out that they are not the perpetrators. They discover the real perpetrators by chance as often as not.

I suspect that the recent ones are more accurate, and the pre-war ones give an exaggerated idea of police efficiency and resources. Back then they never seemed to discuss the budget available for their investigations, though Graham Greene does have some digs at differences in medical treatment for people of different classes.

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Bad boy

Bad Boy (Inspector Banks, #19)Bad Boy by Peter Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read most of Peter Robinson’s detective novels featuring Alan Banks (now Detective Chief Inspector or DCI), and enjoyed them all. This one stands out as being better than most.

It’s a police procedural rather than a whodunit, so you get to know fairly quickly who the villains are. The plot turns on how the police go about catching them and getting enough evidence to make a charge stick.

It won’t be a spoiler to say that in this one the plot turns on how DCI Banks’s daughter gets involved with one of the villains, and gets in over her head. It tells you that on the front cover: “A policeman’s daughter should know better.”

So the reader is not kept guessing about the identity of the bad guys. What is left as an exercise for the reader is the moral issue of the use of firearms by criminals and the police. This has bean a contentious issue, especially since the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London in 2005.

Peter Robinson does tend to bring such issues into his novels, and some other social issues are not absent from this one as well — the position of gay, black or female officers in the British police, for example, and relatively new crimes like people trafficking.

But the main issue here is the use of firearms by the police, and the procedures for controlling that use. I’ve noticed that in news stories about crime in the UK one increasingly sees images of armed and armoured police, intimidating Darth Vader-like figures, running around shouting at people with weapons ready to be fired. Here one gets a glimpse of how such things are ordered and controlled, and how things can go wrong.

One of the things I like about Robinson’s books is the way in which they compel the reader to try to exercise moral judgement. I know it’s fiction, “just a novel”, but I wonder whether, if South African policemen read books like this, we might have avoided events like the Marikana Massacre.

The book is not moralising, or morally didactic in the sense of the author telling people what to think. Rather he stimulates the reader to think about moral issues.

From the broad sweep of moral judgement, I descend to the level of nit-picking about Robinson’s use of language.

Peter Robinson was born and brought up in Yorkshire, where the novels are set, but he has lived for many years in Canada, and I wonder if he had perhaps lost touch a little.

Robinson rather selfconsciously draws attention to one of the senior police officials using American slang in referring to one of the villains as a “scumbag”.

But he passes over, without comment, one of them using “momentarily” in its American sense of “in a moment” rather than “for a moment”.

I would have thought that “scumbag”, though it may have originated in the USA, has become fairly universal by now, and is therefore unremarkable. It does not surprise me that a British policeman would
use the term.

But it would surprise me if a British police officer used “momentarily” in its American sense. It is a far more remarkable use of American slang than “scumbag”.

Or have I missed something?

Has the US slang use of “momentarily” spread not only to Canada, but to the UK as well?

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The Unburied: a historical murder mystery

The UnburiedThe Unburied by Charles Palliser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second historical murder mystery I’ve read in as many weeks, the previous one being Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. This one, however, is far more complex.

Dissolution is set in the sixteenth century and stays there, and though there are lots of deaths, they all take place in the 1530s. The Unburied is set in the nineteenth century, in the fictitious English cathedral city of Thurchester, but as the primary narrator, Dr Edward Courtine, is a historian, it harks back to several mysterious, or at least historically-disputed deaths in the past, in several different periods.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but perhaps that is because history is a topic that interests me a great deal. An interest in history, however, is not enough to make one enjoy historical novels, and in fact can impair enjoyment of them. A historian reading historical novels is always on the lookout for anachronisms (and yes, there are some in this book — the use of the word “teenager”, is but one example). But because the protagoinist is a historian, as are some of the other characters, perhaps one could call this a historigraphical novel, and that would make it of more interest to historians.

As I said, it is complex, and you have to keep your wits about you when reading it, to follow the motives not only of the characters, to see who had a motive for murdering whom, but also the motives of the historians who left their written accounts of the events, and the motives of the current characters in the story who interpret the documents and other evidence — part of the evidence is in the fabric of Thurchester Cathedral itself.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Dr Courtine’s visit to Thurchester, which lasts five days. He visits an old friend, from whom he has been estranged, and also visits the cathedral library in search of a manuscript that he believe’s may throw light on the death of a ninth-century bishop, which may in turn illuminate the character of King Alfred. During his visit there is another murder, in which Dr Courtine is a witness, and uses his skills as a historian to try to work out what actually happened, but to some extent he is blinded by class prejudice, and so misses some important clues. So we have to read his account with a critical historian’s eye, looking for unjustified assumptions and other historical errors.

It’s a good and challenging read, especially if you like history.

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Friend of the devil — book review

Friend Of The Devil (Inspector Banks, #17)Friend Of The Devil by Peter Robinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A student is murdered in “The Maze”, a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. His colleague Annie Cabbot, seconded to another division, is called to investigate the murder of a disabled inmate of a home in the coastal town of Whitby. Subsequent investigations reveal links between the two cases, which have historical roots going back to previous cases, and events in described in some of Robinson’s earlier books.

As a police procedural/whodunit it is up to Peter Robinson‘s usual high standards for the most part, though it seemed to get off to a rather shaky start. Having been a student myself, albeit a long time ago, I’m pretty sure that if one of my friends had disappeared after we’d been to pubs in town, we would have been very concerned about it, and would have been anxious to contact the police before they contacted us (though in South Africa in those days we might also have considered the possibility that the police themselves might have been responsible for the disappearance). So there is an air of unreality about the first few chapters of the story, where the friends of the missing student seem quite uncaring, and even after discovering that she was murdered, seem reluctant to get involved.

Though Peter Robinson lives in Canada his books, set in Yorkshire, have generally seemed fairly authentic to me. But in this one I noticed a transatlantic drift. He used “momentarily” in the American sense of “in a moment” rather than the more usual one of “for a moment”, and also used “moot” in a transatlantic sense of “not worth debating” rather than “debatable”. Most notably several of the characters are described as rolling their eyes.

Now it’s quite a long time since I lived in the UK, and for all I know people there may have adopted eye-rolling widely, and similarly the other modes of expression, but it struck me as a bit out of place.

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Dead Cold (book review)

Dead Cold (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #2)Dead Cold by Louise Penny

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first detective story I’ve read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, and try to solve the mystery. Most of the others these days withhold such clues from the reader, perhaps to resist spoilers, and the detective protagonist trots out the solution at the end, revealing for the first time the clues that enabled him to solve the case. Perhaps that’s because most of the crime fiction publishjed nowadays are police procedurals or psychological examinations of the criminal mind — the whydunits.

In any case, I managed to work out the identity of the perpetrators about halfway through, because the clues were available.

Of course crime fiction is not true life crime. The author can go around scattering clues for the detectives (and the readers) to pick up, but in real life criminals rarely do that.

Dead cold is the second of a series of books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, We actually bought the sixth one (Bury your dead) on a sale, and discovered references to earlier books featuring some of the same characters, and tried to get the first one, but it was not available, so I’ve started reading the series with the second book.

Chief Inspector Gamache is dealing with two murders — one of a homeless woman in Montreal, and the other of an interior designer in the village of Three Pines, 100 km away. The first case is not really his, but one that he is giving a second opinion on, by an informal arrangement with a friend in the Montreal police. One of the biggest difficulties is to find the identity of the victims.

A minor mystery is that Dead cold was originally published under the title of A fatal grace, and one wonders why the title was changed. The most notorious example of this was the change of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, but it seems to be a confusing and unnecessary practice. Is it done for copyright re4asons, or just because publishers like to confuse readers, or perhaps dupe them into buying two copies of the same book, thinking that, becxause it has a different title, they haven’t already read it?

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Not dead yet (book review)

Not Dead YetNot Dead Yet by Peter James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can they search for the killer if they don’t know who the victim is?
And then a film crew want to use the Brighton Pavilion for a new film on King George IV and his mistress, and Roy Grace is put in charge of security for the film set and the star Gaia Lafayette,
whose temperamental fans can turn adoration to detestation in an instant, and has already received several threats to her life. There are others too, with grudges against the producers of the film, who are planning to disrupt it. Some of the threats are known, but some are unknown to anyone other than the plotters.

Peter James has written several whodunits featuring Roy Grace, and I think this is one of the best. As with many such books it is not easy to say much about it without giving away too much of the plot. But this one is definitely a good read for lovers of murder mysteries.

Are there flaws?

Yes, it is difficult to write a book that has none. But in this book the most obvious flaw does not affect the plot and is peripheral to the story, though it could quite easily not have been. And that is that I can’t imagine any circumstances in which one would take a newborn baby home from the hospital in a car seat.

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The bat: a Scandiwegian whodunit set in Australia

The Bat (A Harry Hole Thriller)The Bat by Jo Nesbø

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Jo Nesbø’s best novel yet — the only problem is that it is his first.

Nearly four years ago I read The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.I thought it was the best Scandiwegian whodunit I’d read till then, and it was the first one I’d read by Nesbø. But the later novels of his that I read were rather disappointing (see reviews here). Perhaps if one reads them backwards, there will be a steady improvement.

In The bat Norwegian detective Harry Hole is sent to Australia to help with the investigation of the murder of a Norwegian citizen in Sydney. The book is therefore quite an interesting guide to Australian geography and culture, which Nesbø explains to his Norwegian readers, to whom it would be unfamiliar. Books set in Australia and written by Australians don’t generally do this, since the authors no doubt assume that their readers will be Australian, and therefore familiar with the social demographics of Sydney suburbs, and the appearance of the Queensland countryside. I found that Nesbø’s explanations of these added to the interest of the book

There are also some Australian folk tales (the title of the book is based on one of them) and more about the different cultures in Australia — as seen through Norwegian eyes. I found all this far more interesting than the lengthy descriptions of Harry Hole’s hangovers, which seem to take up more and more space in the later books, though even in this one they are not entirely absent. One of the plot holes of this one is that one is never told when he stops drinking and is able to function again.

If anyone in Australia is reading this, and has read the book, I’d be interested in your take on Nesbø’s descriptions of Sydney suburbs, and Australian culture generally. I got a fair bit of it in The slap, which I read a few months ago, but that was written in Oz and for Australians.

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The girl who disappeared twice — book review

The Girl Who Disappeared TwiceThe Girl Who Disappeared Twice by Andrea Kane

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A child is kidnapped and within minutes the local police, the New York State Police and the FBI are on the case, along with several other experts from groups with various initials. But despite all their effort they are unable to find any trace of the missing girl.

The desperate mother then calls in the private team of Forensic Instincts, and these are all joined by another detective who investigated the kidnapping of the mother’s twin sister 32 years previously, but had failed to solve the case.

It’s not a bad read, in spite of the fact that one begins to suspect whodunit about a third of the way through. It is also rather tiresome because the good guys are presented as perfect and super competent, and never make mistakes — not only the team of Forensic Instincts, but the members of all the other law enforcement agencies involved in the case. This begins with the first officer on the scene, who, within twenty minutes of the alert being sounded, not only has secured the scene and interviewed witnesses, but has information on what everyone else involved in the case is doing, and one wonders how he managed to get this information when he spends most of the available time explaining it.

With such perfect investigators, the only thing that can prevent them from solving the case instantly is the machinations of the bad guys, or unforeseen failures of equipment, or rash and panicky actions on the part of the victim’s family. The good guy investigators do everything right, though not always by the book.

But in spite of being rather unconvincing, it’s not a bad read, and one reads on to see how it all turns out in the end.

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