Jack Parlabane: books 1–3

As of April this year, there are nine books in Chris Brookmyre’s series about Glaswegian investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. I read a lot of Brookmyre back in the early 2000s, so I had read the start of this series before, but then years elapsed and rather than pick up where I left off, I thought I’d start from the beginning again. It’s been a real pleasure.

Quite Ugly One Morning
by Christopher Brookmyre

Parlabane is introduced in style in this action-packed romp. Recently returned to Scotland from LA after a difference of opinion with someone powerful who wants him dead, he is laying low in Edinburgh, until suddenly he’s face to face with police. It turns out there’s a dead body in the flat directly below his, which he discovers when he has locked himself out of his own flat, half undressed. By the time he has persuaded the police that he’s an innocent bystander, his journalistic interest has been piqued and he is pulled into a complex plot involving nefarious businessmen and Tory Party shenanigans. Each of these books has a political angle and in this case Brookmyre’s target is the Tory restructure of the NHS. It sounds like a dull basis for satire, but he efficiently finds the interesting angle and digs the knife right in, mercilessly mocking Tory policy. I can’t say I mind, as a fellow liberal lefty, but I do wonder how right-wing or non-political readers would take this. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. And I do love the character of Dr Sarah Slaughter.

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Relationships are about stories, not truth

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty

This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.

I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.

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The shadows resumed their jerky dance

The Silence of the Sea
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

I picked up this book because Sigurðardóttir was recommended by Gav Reads and Savidge Reads, whose taste I often share. I managed somehow to start this crime series with the sixth book about lawyer Thóra, but I don’t think that spoiled the story and she seems pretty badass.

In this episode of Icelandic noir, a luxury yacht crashes into Reykjavik harbour wall with no-one on board, not one of the seven people known to have boarded in Lisbon. The parents of one of the missing people employ Thóra to prove that their son Ægir is dead – they really need to claim his life insurance money to be able to afford to raise their (now presumably orphaned) granddaughter.

A second timeline follows Ægir from the day he, his wife and their older two children leave Lisbon on the yacht. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience luxury beyond their means – the yacht is being repossessed by the bank Ægir works for. But from the surly skeleton crew to hideous seasickness, it’s a nightmare from the start. One that only gets worse.

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The numbness didn’t happen all at once

monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter
by Michelle Pretorius

My knowledge of the history of South Africa is a little sketchy, or at least it was before reading this book. But it’s so much more than a historical novel. This is genre-bending fare, combining crime, science fiction, social and political history – and it works.

The book opens with the discovery of a murder in a small town called Unie in 2010. The head of the police investigation, Sergeant Johannes Mathebe, is a straight player and he’s not getting on well with his recently appointed assistant Constable Alet Berg. She drinks, she swears and she resents being in this small town – a punishment for having an affair with one of the senior officers during her training.

The next chapter opens in 1901, in the midst of the Boer War. British troops are clearing out the Dutch farms, taking the people they find – mostly women and children – to concentration camps. A young woman called Anna is picked out from the Bloemfontein camp for something else, something worse, something that will echo through the next 109 years in its awfulness.

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Stirring, like a sleeping monster about to wake up

blood-harvestBlood Harvest
by SJ Bolton

Last year one of my books of the year was Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton, a crime drama set in the Falklands that I found beautiful and gripping. So I had been on the lookout for other books by her and was excited to spot this one on sale. You can tell it’s an older title from the fact she was still using the pen name “SJ Bolton”, presumably to disguise her gender, but also from the fact it’s a slightly less ambitious undertaking.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s just less impressive than one of my favourite books of last year. Now that’s out of the way I’ll explain what it’s all about.

Heptonclough is a fictional Lancashire village surrounded by the Pennine Moor. It’s a classic atmospheric setting, both wide open space and spookily claustrophobic thanks to the residents effectively being trapped at night or in bad weather by the danger of the surrounding countryside. New vicar Harry is not a local and neither are the Fletcher family, residents of the village’s only new build in decades thanks to the Church of England selling off some land next to the church. Both the church and the Fletchers’ home are loomed over by the ruins of an ancient abbey, giving the village a gothic centrepiece.

The book opens with Harry being shown a crime scene by local policeman DCS Rushton – a mudslide has caused a 10-year-old grave to collapse, revealing not one but three bodies, two of which should not be there. The story then skips back two months to the arrival of Harry shortly after that of the Fletchers. He’s a groovy young vicar who wears shorts and sometimes swears, and he’s nervous about the task ahead of him – Heptonclough’s church has been shut up and unused for 10 years.

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Washed gently by the lapping waves of time

high-windowThe High Window
by Raymond Chandler

Tim and I have both been working our way gradually through the Philip Marlowe books since I picked one up in 2011. He’s now a couple ahead of me and assures me there are no duds.

While Chandler may not have invented pulp fiction or purple prose, he really and truly mastered the art. From the first page, the language is exquisite. In the wrong hands this would be overwritten, or artificial, but Chandler uses it as the perfect reflection of his hero’s highly coloured view of the world.

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is really growing on me as a character. Deeply cynical and ever-so-aware of the worst of humanity, he is somehow not a morose pessimist who has given up on the world. Instead, he is ever hopeful, ever the gentleman, in his quiet take-no-notice-of-me way. Plus, he’s funny.

“I looked into the reception-room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond…a framed licence bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hat-rack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out like the lips of a toothless old man sleeping. The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.”

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The world has fallen into the shadow of something sinister

little black liesLittle Black Lies
by Sharon Bolton

I had a long train journey coming up so I thought I’d buy something for the Kindle and I’d heard rave reviews of this book from bloggers I trust. The book turned out to be so good that I snatched every moment to read it until it was over. It’s really good. And it’s crime, which I hardly ever read. Maybe I should read more crime?

The story is set on the Falklands, which is a setting I hadn’t read about before. We appear to be told in the first few chapters what the crime is going to be, but it then gets complicated by another crime having been committed – a young boy has gone missing – and the question becomes whether these things are linked and whether the planned crime will go ahead.

The book opens with Catrin diving for samples for the environmental organisation that she works with. Like the rest of the book, it is a lyrical piece of writing that combines nature, science, memory, contemplation and emotion to wonderful effect. I have zero desire to go diving in any sea or ocean but while reading those pages I was transported to a self that was right there with Catrin enjoying the experience.

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Dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning

The Most Remarkable Woman in England

The Most Remarkable Woman in England:
Poison, celebrity and the trials of Beatrice Pace

by John Carter Wood

I think I first heard about this book in the Guardian, which goes to show that I do still occasionally read newspaper review pages and like something I see there. Now, I mostly liked the sound of this book because it’s about a historical event (okay, a death that may or may not have been murder) in the Forest of Dean, but it’s about so much more than that, tapping into issues around celebrity, poverty, gender equality, domestic violence and depression.

The history being recounted here is that of Harry Pace, a quarryman and sheep farmer who died in 1928 slowly and painfully, aged just 36, and his wife Beatrice Pace who was accused of murdering her husband by poisoning him. The long-drawn-out inquest and subsequent trial were the sensational news story of their day, not just locally in the Forest of Dean but also nationally, with details both revealed and (amazingly) kept hidden about infidelities, domestic violence and other dark secrets.

“[Harry Pace’s death might have] remained as obscure as that of any other working-class person. But investigations by the local police were soon accompanied by dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning. The local coroner’s decision to postpone the funeral and order an urgent post-mortem suddenly made Harry’s demise newsworthy, especially when it was later proven that he had died from a large dose of arsenic. Precisely how it had gotten into his body was anything but clear, but there were only three obvious possibilities – accident, suicide or murder – and, at first, no way of deciding among them.”

You might think that a book about a mysterious death in (or very near to) my hometown back in the 1920s sounds a bit gruesome and/or specialised. But while the setting was certainly the reason for my initial interest, it was the way the story was told that kept me hooked.

Because this is a really well written book. Wood, a historian, acknowledges himself on his blog that he was trying to write for both a general audience and an academic one, and I think that shows, but not at all in a bad way. I have tried to read a few historical books written for a popular audience and generally I’ve struggled. Even the super successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which it’s hard not to compare this to, didn’t entirely get it right in my view.

The way in which Wood does get it right is, to begin with, his identifying what it was about the case that made its players instantly famous. He has some very smart things to say about celebrity culture being tied to social and political changes, such as women’s liberation or distrust of the police force. Wood quotes extensively from original sources, which serves two purposes: you are left in no doubt as to where each fact/opinions comes from, and you get a real flavour of the time and place. Papers quoted Beatrice and other key witnesses extensively (and indeed both Beatrice and her oldest daughter had their stories serialised in the national press) so there’s lots of material to be drawn from and Wood has done an admirable job picking out the right lines to tell his story.

“The ‘seemingly interminable’ inquest stretched through April and May, attracting ever more attention. By mid-May, the World’s Pictorial News observed: ‘Throughout all these months of inquiries, throughout all the ten hearings before the Coroner, the widow has been called upon to face the gaze of curious eyes. Crowds flocked into Coleford from villages for miles around to see the woman who had become such a figure of public interest.'”

Because this is after all Wood’s story above all. He works at the Institute of European History in Germany, specialising in the history of crime, policing, violence and media; and those interests are very much at the fore. Which is in many ways what makes this book interesting – it doesn’t just lay out the facts and then have a stab at “solving the case”, instead it uses the case as a detailed case study. And they’re all fascinating subjects that are still relevant now.

I know that this book worked in a narrative sense because for most of the time I was reading it I felt a prickling at the back of my neck that I only get from a good crime book, whether true or fictional. It really is a very readable book, despite its extensive references. I’ll keep an eye out with interest for the next research interest Wood decides to expand into a whole book. I’d also like to thank Wood for e-mailing me with the genuinely interesting fact that the journalist most involved in covering the Pace case, Bernard O’Donnell, was the father of Peter O’Donnell, who created (and wrote the many many stories about) the character Modesty Blaise, who I really like. That’s a good fact.

Published 2012 by Manchester University Press.

Source: Christmas present from my Mum.

The sadness and loneliness of death

Ritual

Ritual
by Mo Hayder

Many moons ago I blogged about the lack of books set in Bristol and a couple of people pointed to Hayder as an author who has set multiple novels here. Crime series don’t tend to be my bag but that’s a combination of prejudice and unwillingness to get sucked into something that makes me add another 20 books to my TBR. Crime books have a history of strong settings so I decided to give this one a go.

This isn’t actually the first book in the series, but it’s the first one set in Bristol. Hayder’s hero policeman Jack Caffery has moved from London to the West Country, just a few weeks before the novel begins. However, the real central character in this book is Sergeant “Flea” Marley, a police diver whose personal life is a bit of a mess. She’s interesting, though perhaps loaded with a few too many foibles. But by the end of the story I really liked her and found myself hoping she’s a major part of the next few books as well. So does that mean I have become a fan of the series?

Well, yes and no. The early chapters suffer a little from a habit of describing physical appearance a bit too much, or maybe too cheesily or clunkily. It was made abundantly clear from the start that Hayder was setting up a physical attraction between Flea and Jack that, in tried and tested fashion, begins with mutual dislike/distrust.

“She had something kind of kinetic about her, something in her face that suggested her thoughts didn’t stay still for long. He hated the way he’d noticed these things about her…He hated the way he’d wanted to leave, because suddenly all he could feel was his body.”

But another apparent flaw, one that had me quite annoyed for a few days, turned out to be a prejudice of certain characters that was suddenly turned around and dealt with eloquently towards the end of the story. I can’t really explain more than that without giving away major plot points, and I am torn as to whether it shows skill or lack of it that it took so long for it to become clear that the prejudice wasn’t Hayder’s own.

But back to the plot. The story opens with Flea diving for a hand in Bristol Harbour, after someone called the police claiming to have seen one. There’s a lot of discussion about the scenarios that might lead to a severed hand being found without a body in that particular spot. Descriptions of water flow from various sources, not to mention where corpses tend to come from, seemed detailed and accurate without being at all boring. In fact one of the novel’s strengths for me was the realism of the police procedures and conversations. I completely believed in those scenes of police work, even if only Flea and Jack ever got to have the limelight.

“It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last body part she would fish out of the mud around Bristol, and except for what it said about the sadness and loneliness of death, usually a severed hand wasn’t remarkable…Only she, Dundas and the CSM knew that this hand wasn’t commonplace at all.”

One hand becomes a pair of hands and they are quickly linked to a South African witchcraft ritual in a plot that seems at first highly unlikely before eventually becoming cleverer and darker than I had expected. There are plenty of red herrings thrown in, some a little more contrived than others, but arguably it was less of a whodunit and more of a “will the police figure it out in time?”.

It was a fairly easy, enjoyable read. It’s not great literature and I’m not in a big rush to pick up the next book but I do want to read it. Not just for the Bristol setting, either, although that was done pretty well.

Published 2008 by Bantam Press, a division of Transworld.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

I may break a few rules

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler

The first book in the Philip Marlowe series (though not the first I’ve read) this blackly funny story of the darker side of LA confirmed my love for Chandler and his purple prose. I read it for book club, which led to a hilariously highbrow conversation about what has never aspired to be more than pulp fiction. But it’s good pulp fiction.

The plot is…complicated. I was beginning to think I had missed something towards the end and then Marlowe explains the whole thing to another character, which I suspect his publisher made him put in there. The story begins with the private detective being hired by dying millionaire Sternwood to deal with a pesky blackmailer. It seems straightforward but one bad guy leads to another and Sternwood’s two daughters are both troublesome, turning it all into one big knot of murder and intrigue.

Marlowe himself is an intriguing character. He’s a good guy and has a strong moral code that he imposes on himself, yet he delights in pissing off the police or letting people believe that he’s up to no good. And he’s not above kissing a girl and then discarding her. He’s clever, but not so clever that he’s pieced it all together from the start. He gives the impression of a devil-may-care attitude but looking closely at his actions you realise he actually cares very much. As he explains to Sternwood, “I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour.”

Chandler’s LA is of course marvellously seedy. Even the rich Sternwood girls are caught up with gangsters and crooks, from the petty to the top of the pile. It is his (and by extension Marlowe’s) understanding of the criminal world, and how several seemingly distinct cases are tied up together by the associations between people, that makes the book brilliant and confusing.

And it’s funny. Marlowe’s narration is full of sharp observations and ironic humour. I love lines like “You have to keep your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.” The language in general is gorgeously overblown, which is a style some members of my book club found offputting. But I can’t help adoring a book that sets a scene: “I got down there about nine, under a hard high October moon that lost itself in the top layers of a beach fog.”

For a book written in the 1930s, there is an interesting attitude towards homosexuality. Marlowe uses language that would be considered homophobic today but elsewhere he appears open-minded about such things. When joking about his impending death, he says “Don’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?”

I think I preferred Farewell My Lovely, but this was still a great read and I fully intend to read the rest of the series.

First published 1939 by Alfred A Knopf.