Review - THE WHITES, Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Writing as Harry Brandt, Richard Price has adopted a transparent pseudonym for this brilliant thriller about a rogue NYPD detective dragged back into his dark past by a murder in the present
Richard Price is well known for gritty crime dramas in a number of forms. His early novel Clockers, about crime on the streets of New Jersey brought him favourable attention. He went on to write film scripts (Sea of Love, a crime thriller starring Al Pacino) and award winning episodes of TV’s The Wire. Price claims he created the writing persona Harry Brandt as a way of divorcing himself a little from this output and focusing on a more down-the-line police procedural genre piece. The Whites proves, in a good way, that this has turned out as a bit of a lost cause. The Whites has some genre elements, but it is about much more than life on the beat in New York City.
The first issue to deal with is the name of the book. At first glance, it might be assumed that The Whites is some sort of reference to race relations, always a fertile source of material for American crime novels. But the name actually has a much more literary source. A "white" is the one that got away, a cop’s personal Moby Dick. These are criminals who have committed despicable crimes but managed to dodge the system whether it was through lack of evidence or some technicality. Many of the cops and ex-cops of the book carry their whites around with them, keeping an eye on their quarry and staying in touch with the families of the victims even after they have left the police force. As the plot unfolds, the term “white” starts to take on a broader meaning, referring to any obsession or lifelong pursuit that, much like Captain Ahab, can drive people to dangerous extremes.
Billy Graves heads the Night Watch. His team take the streets of New York between midnight and eight am. When the story opens it is St Patrick's Day, one of the most violent nights of the year. But as the book wears on it is clear that most nights are violent, just some are more violent than others. While there is a plot the swirls around and centres on Billy, the pressure of his job, and the constant crime that he has to deal with never lets up and creates an undercurrent of tension through the book.
On that opening night Billy is called to a murder at Penn Station. He immediately recognises the victim as the “white” of one of his former partners. Billy was part of a group of detectives who called themselves the Wild Geese and ruled the city in the 1990s. He is the last one left in the police force, the others having left to go into other roles including private security, property development and undertaker. Each of them has their own personal white. And when Billy notices that the Penn Station victim is not the only white to turn up dead, he has to dig back into his past and test his relationship with his old partners.
At the same time, another cop, Milton Ramos, has his own mission: avenging the death of his brother many years before. A mission that causes him to target Graves' family in an escalating program of terror. The story spirals around the two men as they are slowly pulled into each other's orbit.
The Whites is, on its surface, the crime procedural that Price was after. Much of it is about cops, doing their business, managing other cops, trying to juggle a private life, while dealing with the unending tide of crime. But it is also more than this. The book explores the impact that this life has on those people: why they became cops, why they continue to be cops, and the ties that bind them together. It is a story that explores the twisted byways of love and loyalty, regret and the price of vengeance. It is Richard Price's Moby Dick, which is probably why, after creating Harry Brandt, he put his name back to it.
Review - CLOSE CALL, Stella Rimington
The next instalment of the Liz Carlyle series: a pacy, intelligent espionage thriller from the woman with true insider knowledge
In 2012, in a food market in Yemen, MI5 agent Miles Brookhaven was attacked. At the time he was infiltrating rebel groups in the area. No one was certain if his cover had been blown or if the act was just an arbitrary attack on Westerners. Months later, the incident remains a mystery.
In the early books of this series, Liz Carlyle was a young MI5 operative out in the field learning spycraft and often finding herself in danger as a result. Now, eight books on, Liz has climbed the ladder within the British Secret Service and is more likely to be directing operations than participating in them. This does not necessarily detract from the tension that Rimington, a former head of MI5, manages to create in Close Call, but it does create a slightly different beast.
Close Call concerns itself with the rise of Jihadi organisations, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. The focus of the secret service agencies in this book is the illegal arms trade. As the book opens, the British and American secret services are investigating illegal arms shipments into Yemen. Through the course of their investigation they find that many of the plotters are French and English nationals and that the threat posed by these arms might be closer than they thought.
One thing Rimington does particularly well in this book is give the reader a glimpse into the world of international intelligence. While Close Call is clearly fiction, the interactions between the British, French and American secret service organisations, the way decisions are made, the character types that Rimington describes, have the ring of truth about them. There are few bells and whistles here but there is plenty of solid and fascinating spy-craft.
While Liz Carlyle’s character is the one that brings this series together, Rimington’s authorial eye roves across a wide cast of characters in Close Call. Given Carlyle’s necessary remove from some of the action this allows Rimington to create small moments of tension and illumination within the larger plot. But Liz is still the centre of the action and it is her relationships, both current and long past, which carry much of the emotional weight of the novel.
An interesting observation that Rimington seems to make in this novel is the way humans can compartmentalise and ignore the consequences of their actions when they involve people they don’t or can’t know. While a French arms dealer has no compunction in providing arms to be used in the Middle East, he reconsiders his position when he learns that the weapons might be used in Europe. Similarly other characters in the book take the issue more seriously when they realise that the impacts of their actions may not be occurring somewhere on the other side of the world.
Close Call is another solid entry in this long running series from the former head of MI5. While there are plenty of call backs to previous books in the series, and some of the impact will be greater if the reader is familiar with previous events, there is enough background information provided for this novel to easily stand on its own. One for anyone, but particularly the Spooks crowd, to enjoy.
SIGN OF THE CROSS - Thomas Mogford
Just as a degree of calm returns to Spike Sanguinetti's life in Gibraltar, he receives the shocking news that his Maltese uncle and aunt are dead after a domestic dispute escalated into a blood-soaked murder-suicide.
SIGN OF THE CROSS is the second Spike Sanguinetti novel, in a series that really does need to be read in order. Not that it's any trial to have to do so, as this is shaping up to be a standout.
It's not just the brutality of the murder, there's a fundamental sombreness about these books which works. The first book, THE SHADOW OF THE ROCK, was also set partly outside Gibraltar in Morocco, yet somehow that idea of a Shadow being cast carries through both stories. Sanguinetti is troubled in this book. By the brutal death of a loved aunt and uncle, the increasing frailty of his father, life itself. That's not to say he's morbid or tedious, it's a reflective man who struggles with the relationships around him - the lost and the failing.
A strong character study, with a clever and engaging plot, SIGN OF THE CROSS also has a very strong sense of place. Malta is as complex a society and history as was Morocco and Gibraltar in the first book. The books aren't travel guides, or postcards from, but they weave the place and the history into the story. The sense of culture and location informing the actions of the people now as it obviously has done for generations. Pulling the multi-generations of Sanguinetti's family into the action echoes those aspects beautifully.
Neither of these books are fast thriller styled crime fiction. They are enthralling, involving, intriguing studies of places and peoples, mistakes, history and relationships. And so far, two books down, very worth reading.
THE HAMMER - Lotte and Soren Hammer
One morning before school, two children find the naked bodies of five men hanging from the gym ceiling. The case leads detective Konrad Simonsen and his murder squad to the school janitor, who may know more about the killings than he is telling. Soon, Simonsen realizes that each of the five murdered men had a dark and terrible secret in common. And when Simonsen’s own daughter is targeted, he must race to find the culprit before his whole world is destroyed.
Normally when I get to the stage of actually finishing up a review and publishing it, I've had a good long think, a work through the notes I take as I read, and have formed an opinion that I'm confident I can support. I therefore cannot, for the life of me work out, why THE HANGING still has me unsure.
A confrontational plot, THE HANGING starts out with a death scene that's particularly uncomfortable. The possible reason for the death of five men, left hanging in a school gym, comes much later, with the likely motive a long time before a possible perpetrator. Of course, identifying the victims was obviously going to be a problem as there is a level of disfiguring of the bodies which clearly flags the initial problems the investigation will have. The second major problem, the reaction to the deaths of the public, and even some sectors of the authorities, takes a while longer to reveal itself, but it definitely creates issues for the investigation team.
The team itself, headed by Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen develops as an unusual combination of colleague, competitor, boss, subordinate, friends, lovers, possible lovers, enemies and all levels in between. This is a very difficult group to get a handle on, not just because Simonsen is taciturn, flat, dark and quite distant for a fair part of the novel. Even allowing for a mid novel decision that perhaps there's a dry, desiccated sense of humour going on here, this is still a difficult bunch to get to know. Which doesn't help with connection with the storyline.
Because of the motive behind the murders, the terrible and dark secret that the victims have in common, there's a lot about the plot that not serviced well by a narrative that plods and moves forwards in erratic leaps and bounds. Whilst there are stages when things teeter close to a direction, it always seemed to end up meandering. I'm still not 100% sure if that was actually because of the plotting or simply reader disconnection.
Not being the sort of reader that automatically wants to like or sympathise with a novel's protagonist, understanding is more than enough. Achieving that was a struggle no matter how much slack I sought to give this lot. Perhaps Simonsen's loner pretensions, his illness, his taciturn nature was a little too derivative. We all know that in Scandinavian crime fiction it's been done before with considerable panache and in those days originality. Perhaps it's also because the public reaction to these murders, so easily stirred and built by the perpetrator was somehow a little preachy or manipulative of the reader at the same time.
But strangely, and for reasons that I still can't quite put my finger on, finishing the book wasn't a total chore. There is something there, somewhere that's sort of promising, despite THE HANGING not playing out as well as you'd think it should have from the blurb and the hype. Maybe it is a sense of humour that hasn't translated well. Maybe it was that slight feeling of having been there before. Either way, if the series continues, then I'd like to try another book. After the heavy lifting of the team introductions are out of the way, there might be room for a bit more character development and maybe a plot point or two that stay on message.
DOGSTAR RISING - Parker Bilal
It is the summer of 2001 and in Cairo's crowded streets the heat is rising...
The unsolved murders of young homeless boys are fanning the embers of religious hatred.As tensions mount, Makana - who fled his home in Sudan a decade ago - has a premonition that history may be about to repeat itself.
Summer (northern hemisphere), 2001, and religious and political tensions in Egypt form the basis of the second Makana crime novel by Parker Bilal. Whilst there's nothing new in the use of crime fiction as the vehicle for exploring society on the edge, DOGSTAR RISING set, as it is, in that place at that time, provides an illuminating alternative viewpoint. Not automatically that of the "opposing", it is a look at pressures and perspectives from another angle. It's edgy fiction based in a very edgy world.
Whilst it's obvious to Makana, Private Investigator and Sudanese refugee, that the rise of religious hatred and intolerance is history repeating itself, other outcomes are less obvious. The plot of the book revolves around the connections between the murder of a number of young boys mostly forgotten, abandoned children and the persecution of Coptic Christians. Into this mix must fit the State Security Services, the local police, religious leaders, a lowly travel agent and his family connections and a disreputable Sudanese businessman. There is also the story of Makana himself, a refugee from war-torn, corrupt Sudan, his family gone, his life lived now somewhere on the outskirts. Partially as a result of being a refugee, partly because of who he is.
Bilal works his way steadily through a plot which, whilst complicated, never bogs down. He does that whilst continuing to draw a picture of a place and a culture which is searingly honest and instructive.
DOGSTAR RISING is the second book in the Makana series, and in two books it's proved itself extremely impressive. Tackling a range of issues in a society that is particularly on edge, neither book (THE GOLDEN SCALES is the first) pull any punches, albeit without beating the reader around the head and shoulders. Clever, intelligent and extremely thought-provoking, in two books, in the space of a couple of months for this reader, this has become a series to follow closely.
Lucile Garrett is just thirteen when she meets Clint Palmer, a charismatic stranger who will forever change her life. The year is 1934, and as the windblown dust of the Great Depression rakes the Oklahoma plains, Palmer offers Lucile and her father, homeless and hungry, the irresistible promise of a better future.
But when they follow Palmer to Texas, Lucile's father mysteriously disappears, launching man and girl on an epic journey through the American Southwest: a spree of violence and murder that culminates in one of the most celebrated criminal trials of the era.
The Great Depression is one of those eras in history that has been depicted in books and movies over and over again. Perhaps it's the obvious case of the more dire the circumstances in which people must find a way to survive, the more opportunity there is to explore those extremes, to consider how it is that the best and worst in people can emerge at times of great distress. It's also a period that lends itself to a certain style of cinematic portrayal, dark, dirty, deprived, depressed, it's hard not to think grey and bleak.
There is something cinematic about HARD TWISTED which incorporates lyrical passages of writing and descriptions, creating a sense of that grey bleakness. It provides a very realistic feeling of a dire world in which lives are lived on the extremes of hardship and people struggle with the endless grind of hunger and homelessness with no obvious way out. It's a story that resonates through lots of hard economic times.
Winner of the Best Historical Novel of 2010 in the South West Writers International Writing Contest, there are strong echoes here of other classic depression and hard-times based fiction with dysfunctional worlds, people on the move, on the lookout constantly for a way out, some relief from the inevitability. Told mostly from the viewpoint of 13-year-old Garrett, HARD TWISTED is the story of an ex-con, hustler, charismatic charmer who is really a dangerous, murderous psychopath. It's also the story of a 13-year-old girl in an impossible situation.
The book employs a number of different viewpoints and timeframes. Much of it is the direct relating of current day events, mostly from Garrett's viewpoint, interspersed with the voices of other characters. Parts of the book are introduced by snippets of testimony at what is obviously a trial, the nature of which is revealed as the book progresses.
There is much to admire about this book, and yet, there were problems which meant that this reader often found herself lost and fighting a growing sense of disinterest. Which confounded me completely. Whilst there is absolutely no doubt that the word pictures being drawn were beautifully done, there was something indistinguishable about the character's voices, not helped at all by a total lack of quotation marks to indicate what was / wasn't dialogue. No idea why, all it did was make me toil backwards a lot - checking what / who / said / observed / saw / did / didn't. Confused... moi... frequently.
That confusion meant that whilst the multiple questions of why - why he did what he did / why she stayed - the interesting and instructive bits, especially as you knew who, and what wasn't that hard to work out, kept disappearing. It was disappearing into beautiful, dense, poetic, lyrical writing no doubt about that, but it was there, just out of reach, for so much of the book whilst this reader worked backwards and forwards through the text, trying to get focus.
Maybe it was ultimately that I came away from HARD TWISTED feeling like I'd been invited to a party where everybody else spoke in a different language. Beautiful to listen to, lovely to watch people interact, no idea why I was there. I got so bored with the constant tracking backwards and forwards, with the low-key, laid back glacial advancement, with the cleverness of the structure that I got frustrated with myself. It's doubtful that anybody else is going to have that reaction - the authority with which the time period is described, the way that the life is so beautifully drawn, undeniably mean it's going to be a book that other readers are just going to get. As much as I kept thinking I should be loving this book, I didn't loathe it, but I certainly obviously didn't get it.
THE GOLDEN SCALES - Parker Bilal
The ancient city of Cairo is a feverish tangle of the old and the new, of the super rich and the desperately poor, with inequality and corruption everywhere. It's a place where grudges and long-buried secrets can fester, and where people can disappear in the blink of an eye.
Being a bit of a sucker for a strong sense of place, and culture I was intrigued by the Makana series, and lucky enough to get the second book - DOGSTAR RISING for review. But this seemed to me to be a series that should begin at the very beginning, so I shouted myself the first book, THE GOLDEN SCALES.
In terms of sense of place, and the society in which the book is set, it was extremely well done. The ancient city of Cairo is not just the backdrop for the story, it inhabits the action. There's a physical feeling of the souks, and alleys, the dark corners in which the unknown lurks. Part fascinating and compelling, part frightening and threatening, THE GOLDEN SCALES paints Cairo as a place in which people could disappear. Some willingly, some not. It also paints Cairo as a place that provides some refuge for Makana, a former Sudanese policeman, who lives physically and emotionally on the outskirts of the society to which he fled when things in his homeland got very dangerous.
That idea of Makana, a refugee from violence, ex-policeman now living and working on the fringes, as the person that one of the most powerful, wealthy and dodgy men in Cairo would turn to when a player from his team goes missing sort of makes sense, just as the fact that the missing player is treated as a son of Saad Hanafi, gangster, developer, father, and man with a very chequered past, means that the choice of investigator doesn't make sense. There's obviously a reason buried deep in the mire of those who work for and against Hanafi, and somewhere in the middle of a corrupt and compromised political and policing system. In the middle of all of this an Englishwoman returns to Cairo, still searching for the daughter that has been missing now for many years.
Needless to say this is a complex plot, with Makana at the centre of the swirling current day events, dealing with his own past and an overriding sense of loss and guilt that he battles on a daily basis. His personal story is slowly revealed as is the truth about a missing Football Player who is more than he seems, an ageing Gangster who is both more and less than he seems, a daughter with secrets, and close colleagues of all who aren't as straightforward as they seem.
THE GOLDEN SCALES is a beautiful balancing act. The bleakness of the place, the society, the state of the world in which Makana operates is matched sometimes by the bleakness of his mood, and lightened frequently by a dry, acerbic observational wit which is quiet, subdued and often cutting. A thriller set in an Islamic world, the story touches on the volatility of power, religion, influence and corruption with restraint, intelligence and expertise.
What really works in THE GOLDEN SCALES is the balance between plot, character, events and place. The plot is persuasive and believable, incorporating the reality of current day scenarios where conflicts cause personal disruption and refugees who must find a way in a new world, whilst dealing with the demons from their past. The characters are compelling, human, brave, damaged, thoughtful, introspective, forceful, good, bad and the whole thing. One of the particular aspects of the characterisations that I appreciated was the idea that everyone, both the good and the bad, was nuanced. Everyone has their good and bad sides, and you could see the reasons why they took the path that they chose. The events and the place are inextricably linked, although the sense of place was all pervading. Needless to say, THE GOLDEN SCALES bodes very well for anyone who wants their thriller / crime fiction layered, thoughtful, instructive and clever, whilst not letting up on the thrills and chills.
A FATAL DEBT - John Gapper
Ben Cowper, an attending psychiatrist at the prestigious New York–Episcopal Hospital, is stunned to learn the identity of the emergency patient he’s just been assigned to treat: Harry Shapiro, a Wall Street colossus and one of Episcopal’s most prominent donors. But a high-profile reversal of fortune has left the once powerful investment banker jobless, bitter, and possibly desperate—judging by the handgun his wife finds him clutching. In Ben’s expert opinion, Shapiro is a suicide waiting to happen.
The problem with setting fictional books within real life events is that you seem to run the risk of alienating readers who aren't particularly interested in the subject, environment, or even the event itself. Particularly when the subject matter is something that could be perceived as a bit dry or more than a bit outside the average person's own experience. Hands up to being one of those people - financial system crashes, financier's behaving badly, guaranteed to have me humming The Girl From Ipanema loudly and looking for the closest exit.
Luckily I don't often pay a lot of attention to book blurbs and the next one that pops up on the Review Queue will be the one I at least have a go at reading. Half a dozen chapters in and the urge to go looking for a bit of detail about the author's background became quite overwhelming because A FATAL DEBT was shaping up to be extremely engaging. Gapper is chief business commentator and associate editor of the Financial Times and a regular on the BBC and CNN. His previous books are non-fiction discussions of real-life financial disasters. He has now written a very good thriller.
It won't be surprising at all if those with more financial world knowledge are able to match up the circumstances and the people to real life versions, as it was difficult to ignore the sneaking suspicion that there's some facts behind the storytelling. It will also not be particularly surprising if that level of recognition makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to enjoyment levels of the book. A FATAL DEBT worked particularly well for a reader with absolutely no idea who anybody could be based on, nor what particular High Finance scandals were recognisable.
Part of what makes that work so well is avoiding making the central protagonist a financier. Instead Attending Psychiatrist Ben Cowper is dragged into that world via his very high profile patient. It's not until Cowper's in way too far, and things have gone very wrong for investment banker Harry Shapiro that Cowper realises he's stepped right into a very deep hole, that may actually have been dug with intent. This device cleverly allows the author quite a few opportunities to explain the world to the fictional outsider, allowing the reader to eavesdrop on the clarifications. Allows the reader to learn a few things along the way without having to feel like the only neophyte at the altar of High Finance.
Of course the book is styled as a thriller, and there has to be a bit of action, a few lurking villains and a bit of romantic tension. The big difference is that in A FATAL DEBT the action isn't all energiser bunny and over the top heroics and the lurking villains have expensive tastes in suits and transportation methods. Perhaps the romantic interest could have been shelved in the "oh no not that old chestnut" drawer as it didn't contribute a whole lot to a plot that was, overall, a refreshingly excellent look at the world of white collar crime.
SHADOW OF THE ROCK, Thomas Mogford
On a humid summer night in Gibraltar, lawyer Spike Sanguinetti finds Solomon Hassan, an old school friend, waiting on his doorstep.
Accused of murdering a Spanish girl in Tangiers, Solomon swears his innocence. He has managed to skip across the Straits, but the Moroccan authorities demand his return.
If you're going to be a business lawyer dragged into criminal matters by an old school friend who gets himself into a heap of trouble, then the mean streets you walk somehow seem considerably more exotic when they are the laneways, byways and desert tracks of Gibraltar and Tangiers.
SHADOW OF THE ROCK is the first Spike Sanguinetti novel from UK author Thomas Mogford. An old-fashioned hard-boiled style thriller, this book is not short of a lot of running around, some lurking, a lot of our hero lost in a strange new world, a love interest, some unexpected threats, a big business styled conspiracy, and a very big allocation of action.
Fortunately, unlike in a lot of these big, bold thriller style books, there are some very engaging characters who behave in a surprisingly real way. Sanguinetti in particular is brave when pushed, daft when required and a son, a lawyer and a friend way before he's any sort of an action hero.
The sense of place delivers strongly as well, although most of the action does take place in Tangiers and surrounds. Obviously this provides a lot of the tension and difficulties for Sanguinetti to resolve as he's very out of his depth, in places and a culture that is outside his own experience. There are some early scenes in Gibraltar however, but not a lot actually happens in the Shadow of the Rock. Which if you want to think about it this way, could be a good thing. Now there's hope that the next book in the series looks locally at Gibraltar providing the same view of a place, and a culture, which is very different from the mean streets of ... say Melbourne, Glasgow, or New York.
THE GENEVA TRAP - Stella Rimington
Geneva, 2012. When a Russian intelligence officer approaches MI5 with vital information about the imminent cyber-sabotage of an Anglo-American Defence programme, he refuses to talk to anyone but Liz Carlyle. But who is he, and what is his connection to the British agent?
At a tracking station in Nevada, US Navy officers watch in horror as one of their unmanned drones plummets out of the sky, and panic spreads through the British and American Intelligence services. Is this a Russian plot to disable the West's defences? Or is the threat coming from elsewhere?
It's always intriguing, who or what will be the next threats that espionage writers can employ in their thrillers. I'm not sure what it says about the world that we live in but there does seem to be no shortage of possible scenarios and nefarious goings-on to occupy the intelligence world. THE GENEVA TRAP is the 7th book in the Liz Carlyle series, and the main plot elements, as you'd expect from a writer with Rimington's background, have a ring of truth and absolutely credibility about them.
Liz is a very strong character. Strong enough to survive this particular reader's tendency to wander around in this series, as there are a few books that I've missed. Most obviously, it's her personal life that I'm behind with, but at no stage did I really get lost or feel at sea. Which was particularly pleasing as there is a sub-plot in THE GENEVA TRAP which involves her mother's partner, his daughter, Liz's own partner, a French commune, and the possibility of armed protest and personal violence.
Not everything, however, worked perfectly, particularly some of the technicalities of computer hacking. Now granted I'm not as technically expert as some around me, but there were elements in the "techy talk" that simply didn't make any sense, and lacked credibility. To the point where I had to give myself a little "it's fiction - get over it" talking to at one point. Nitpicking undoubtedly, but it did make those parts of the book hard to swallow. What wasn't so hard to chew was the spy craft, right down to the surveillance aspects, the not quite as clandestine as required meetings in parks, generational sleeper agents and all the other covert goings on.
There's good pace and action, some very nice twists and turns and a complicated but clever plot that does pull everything together in a believable finale, although that's tempered a little by some very stereotypical villains and the requisite inept upper echelons. But THE GENEVA TRAP, and the whole Liz Carlyle series are very much espionage based thrillers, and despite a few minor quibbles, this was a book that was hard to put down.