Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, has retired to his family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London are to be scrutinised by a generation with no memory of the Cold War. Somebody must be made to pay for innocent blood once spilt in the name of the greater good.
George Smiley, cold war warrior for “the Circus” (ie MI6), first appeared in 1961 in Call for the Dead. and was the character who established John leCarré as one of the masters of the cold war spy genre. Smiley appeared in seven books between 1961 and 1979. It seemed, as the cold war was coming to a close, so too was Smiley’s work and leCarré moved on, returning briefly to Smiley’s world in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim. With Russia well and truly back in the news and spycraft, arguably, not what it once was, it seems like the perfect time for leCarré to once again revisit this old stomping ground.
A Legacy of Spies focuses around Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s people. At the start of the novel he is living a quiet retired life on a farm in his native France. But the past is never far away and he is called back to England to answer for his part in the death of two people at the Berlin Wall many years before. The deaths themselves were part of an operation called Windfall, one that Smiley and his boss, Control, kept from their superiors for a very real fear of a mole within the organisation.
In two timeframes, A Legacy of Spies tells the story of Windfall and Guillam’s often unwitting part in the tragedy. At the same time he tries not to tell the modern day investigators the whole story of how the operation came about and who it involved. This technique allows leCarré to have his cake and eat it. He is able to tell a classic cold war spy story but wrap it in a modern day morality play as the consequences of that operation play out in the next generation.
A Legacy of Spies builds heavily on leCarré’s world and it would help to be familiar with all of the side stories and back stories of the characters, developed over the earlier Smiley books. But it has been a while between instalments and leCarré does enough to describe and flag those events to keep the current story flowing. And the amount of unspoken backstory gives the novel a much greater depth than just the simple tale may have had.
Some of leCarré’s more recent output has been a little on the polemical side. But in A Legacy of Spies he returns to ground that allows for much more grey. The question is how far the government and its agents should go for the common good. At the time the decisions being made seemed to be those of the very future of civilisation, but in the hindsight of the novel, and knowledge of what has come after, there is a real question of whether any of those actions were worth the cost.
Review - Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley, M.C. Beaton
After six grueling months back in London, Agatha Raisin returns to her beloved Cotswold village of Carsely - and to the charms of her neighbor, James Lacey. True, James is less than thrilled to see her, but Agatha is soon distracted by a sensational murder. The victim, hiker Jessica Tartinck, spent her life enraging wealthy landowners by insisting on her walking club's right to hike over their properties. Now she has been found dead....
Off again on my and Agatha Raisin's travels - this time she's out in the countryside, meeting up with Sir Charles Fraith for the first time, getting involved in an investigation around a Rambling Society seemingly populated by militants, lesbians, lost souls, IRA sympathisers and a hefty-dose of class warefare. Agatha and James find themselves masquerading as a married couple, albeit shacked up together in a furnished apartment, with James barricaded into his own bedroom by way of a chair propped under the door knob. Another good, non-distracting audio book read by the inimitable Penelope Keith who sounds like she was born to narrate exactly this sort of thing.
Review - Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardner, M.C. Beaton
Agatha Raisin has a crush on James Lacey. In order to endear herself to him, she takes up gardening, hoping to participate with him in the prestigious Carsely Horticultural Contest. But as the contest approaches, plants are being mysteriously uprooted, poisoned, and burned. When the prime suspect turns up dead, Agatha must solve the murder mystery.
Nice combination of societies full of mildly potty types (pun intended) and a nicely dotty murder, once again we have Agatha off on the trail of a killer, getting herself threatened and nearly bumped off along the way, moping about after James, having fun with friend Bill Wong, and generally indulging in a spot of silliness in the Cotswolds. If you've not read any of these books but are coming to them on the strength of the TV series then you are going to be confused. The book version of Agatha is older, bitchier and considerably less "perky" than the TV version. There's a different cast and all in all, they are very different in style although much of the plots is vaguely recognisable. Again another driving book which is probably one of the better of those listened to so far.
Review - Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet, M.C. Beaton
Feisty Agatha Raisin, former London PR exec, retired to quiet Cotswold village. Handsome vet Paul Bladen accidentally kills himself while attending Lord Pendlebury's horse. Agatha and attractive neighbor James Lacey investigate the curious lack of sorrow shown by his divorced wife while a killer plans another "accident".
Perhaps don't do what I'm doing and binge listen to these.
As much as I prefer something light, not necessarily requiring steely attention to catch the various nuances when I'm driving, I will admit there have been points where if I hear something about Agatha's middle age, bear-like eyes and good legs again I'll probably cause a major traffic incident. Having said that I don't mind these audio books as a companion for the constant kilometres or in the sewing room when I'm trying to fathom what goes where and how the hell are you supposed to achieve that!
They are a bit of silly fun. Agatha's mooning about over James is tedious definitely, but overall the plots are okay, and her detection style of irritating everyone about everything until somebody spits it and does something to her consistent with the overall personality of the characters, and the style of books.
If you're a fan of something that's on the cozier side, albeit with more than a bit of race, and some unexpected sex (more so in later book's so far) then this is not a nice series on audio.
The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts
An impossible murder. A ticking deadline. A political coup. A Hitchcockian thriller set in a chilling near future.
Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. But most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country is decaying.
Adam Roberts never does the same thing twice. While he has written novels with a crime element it is safe to say that The Real-Town Murders is something completely different again. It is a locked-room mystery but in the nature of all good crime novels, the murder is about something much deeper. But that something is connected to a heightened version of our current connection to technology, the freedoms that we give up to interact with that technology and the influence that that might bring to various players.
The Real-Town Murders opens with an impossible murder. A body has been found in the boot of a car that was built by robots. Private detective Alma is brought in by the company that runs the factory to investigate. The process of the car’s construction was fully captured by camera and shows that there is no way for the body to have been placed in the boot before it was discovered. But in the way of all good noir detective novels, Alma is then bought-off and removed from the case by the authorities before she can investigate too deeply. When she finds there are deeper forces at play, she gets drawn back in.
A couple of aspects of this tale make it stand out. The first is the milieu – the future Britain portrayed is one that is mainly silent. The majority of people live in a virtual reality world known as the Shine. Alma occasionally runs into bodies being “walked” by mesh suits to keep them exercised while their owners consciousness is elsewhere. The second is Alma herself who is locked into a regime where every four hours she must treat her partner Marguritte for a man-made disease that will kill her if Alma herself does not understand and apply the correct treatment. This timeline puts an edge on every situation that Alma finds herself in over and above the usual strain of shadowy government agents trying to kill her.
But above all else is the fun that Roberts has with the genre and the language. The text is littered with references, quotes and call backs to famous crime and science fiction film and novels from North-By-North-West to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This from an informant who, in a nod to All the President’s Men, Alma dubs “Derp Throat”:
“Are you a common-or-garden paranoid, or one of the more refined sort?” [Alma asks]
“I’m the paranoid who knows. I’m the individual people should be paranoid about. I spend my days surveilling people and keeping the state happy. I’m not the paranoid. I am the one who paranoies.”
And it turns out there is plenty to be paranoid about. Alma never really knows who to trust or why as the plot branches out into deeper conspiracies and a behind-the-scenes war. But Roberts even manages to flip this, with a satisfying resolution of his locked car mystery and an even deeper conspiracy hanging in the background.
The Real-Town Murders is packed to the brim with crime and thriller tropes, science fiction concepts, word play and philosophical discussion. If nothing else it demonstrates Roberts’ range and depth and his ability to cherry pick from across the genre spectrum to deliver something original, engaging and thought-provoking.
Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre
Million-copy-selling Chris Brookmyre takes his fiction further than ever before in this wildly inventive and sharply-plotted novel set in the unforgiving emptiness of space.
"This is as close to a city without crime as mankind has ever seen."
Ciudad de Cielo is the 'city in the sky', a space station where hundreds of scientists and engineers work in earth's orbit, building the colony ship that will one day take humanity to the stars.
Space is the final frontier. So it is no surprise that fictional towns in space – on the moon, on space stations on generation ships – are portrayed as frontier towns. And usually not in a positive way. Recently Ian McDonald’s Luna series portrayed a fairly lawless lunar colony run by dynastic families and Andy Weir’s protagonist in his recent Artemis, also on the Moon, makes a living running contraband. So when Places in the Darkness begins and new security chief Alice Blake is told that mankind’s first space station is totally crime free, the reader knows there is more to it. That and the fact that the book has opened with parts of a dismembered body floating in zero gravity.
Nicky “Fixx” Freeman is part of the local Seguridad but she moonlights as a fixer. Collecting protection money and helping a local alcohol smuggler and enforcer as part of a local gang war. Because mankind’s first space station, Cuidad de Cielo (“City in the Sky” or CdC) is riddled with corruption. A state of affairs to which the four ruling corporations (known as the Quadriga) turns a blind eye. But the locals know that the global government might be interested, given that the CdC is also where the first generational star ships, the hope for humanity, are being constructed. A blatant murder, followed by the opening shots of gang warfare puts Nikky in the frame and Alice, a representative of the global government, on the case.
Scottish author Chris Brookmyre is much better known for his gritty, often tongue in cheek crime fiction novels many featuring investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. He brings much of that sensibility to Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre understands that crime fiction is a great way to dig under the surface of a society. The only issue here is that he needs to do a fair amount of setting up and exposition (including a full on lecture early on) to get to the point where he can start digging. So much so that early on this feels like two different novels shoehorned together. But this feeling quickly subsides. And much of this is due to the characters – Nikky Fixx, an ex-LA cop who is carrying around an ancient pain and has become part of a completely corrupt system and Alice Blake, the straight-laced investigator having her eyes opened to how the world really works.
There is plenty going on here and it takes a while for Brookmyre to put all of the pieces into place. But once he does this becomes a classic buddy cop adventure (in space) as the situation spins dangerously out of control and repercussions of failure become more serious. Plenty of cliffhangers, clues and action. And along the way, also a fair amount of contemplation of issues like the nature of consciousness, how societies operate and what constitutes free will.
In the end it does not matter whether this can be considered science fiction with crime genre stylings or crime fiction set in a science fiction universe. In fact what it displays is the limitations of bothering at all with genre. Places in the Darkness is a great read, period and recommended for crime readers, scifi aficionados or just anyone who likes a good book.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband's crumbling country estate, The Bridge.
With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband's awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself...
Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake.
It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure of a girl and the diary of one of Rupert’s ancestors. As the companions start to multiply around the house and the creepiness factor increases, the potential metaphysical source of the trouble is revealed through diary entries from 1635.
As already mentioned, Purcell throws every Gothic horror trope in the book at this tale and yet somehow she makes it work. Her descriptions of the house and the landscape are evocative, the narrative builds a sense of cloying unease and the creepy companions are… well, creepy. And just to keep readers on their toes, Purcell introduces a strain of ambiguity to the whole thing, heightened by the sections in the asylum.
So if 1980s horror homages are starting to wear a little and you feel like dipping back a little further into the more classical roots of the current jump-scare fad, The Silent Companions may be the way to go.
Review - Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, M.C. Beaton
Putting all her eggs in one basket, Agatha Raisin gives up her successful PR firm, sells her London flat, and samples a taste of early retirement in the quiet village of Carsely. Bored, lonely and used to getting her way, she enters a local baking contest: Surely a blue ribbon for the best quiche will make her the toast of the town. But her recipe for social advancement sours when Judge Cummings-Browne not only snubs her entry--but falls over dead! After her quiche's secret ingredient turns out to be poison, she must reveal the unsavory truth…
I've spent a lot of time driving recently, and these really work as a background to the endless kilometres.
Having kind of liked the TV Agatha Raisin series, I thought trying one of these as an audiobook for one of the recent long drives would be worth a go. I personally prefer things on the lighter side when I should be concentrating on driving, and a change of options was required after having spent a lot of hours with Phryne Fisher.
Obviously the Agatha Raisin of the books is nothing much like the TV version - so if you're hoping for a direct match you may be disappointed. Here the unpleasant aspects of Raisin's personality are more stark, and there's no way she looks anything like the TV blonde bombshell. But in this example, Penelope Keith does a wonderful job of the narration, the story is obviously from the cosier side of crime fiction, Agatha fluctuates between annoying and endearing and Roy ... well Roy is Roy.
There is a nice plot with lots of village shenanigans and enough smiles to keep you interested, if not out and out laughing, which is probably just as well as it was a perfect background to a lot of Australian country drive.
Review - All the Wicked Girls, Chris Whitaker
Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she's a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama - especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.
Then Summer goes missing. Grace is already simmering, and with this new tragedy the police have their hands full keeping the peace. Only Raine throws herself into the search, supported by a most unlikely ally.
But perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye . . .
Chris Whitaker's debut novel TALL OAKS garnered a lot of positive publicity and a CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award. Haven't had a chance to read the first novel yet, but when ALL THE WICKED GIRLS arrived it bounced to the top of the pile based on reputation and expectation alone.
Whitaker is an Englishman, but ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is set in the Alabama of many movies and American mythology. A depressed place, populated by struggling families, dirt poor but tight, close, loving and caring. Deeply religious, these are the sorts of people you feel would be wheeled out when you want to explain "salt of the earth".
When fifteen-year-old Summer Ryan packs a bag, leaves a note saying "I'm sorry", and disappears, the biggest surprise seems to be that it's the "good girl" who has gone. Her twin Raine is the one most likely to get into trouble. Not Summer, the music prodigy, the model student, the golden girl (obviously there's deliberation in the choice of names for these characters). Raine, fortunately, is exactly the sort of person that isn't going to let something like Summer's disappearance roll into yet another mystery. She's the one who is prepared to ask the question their parents, the town and the local Police Chief are trying to avoid - is "the Bird" back? This unknown perpetrator was assumed responsible for the abduction of five young girls in a neighbouring county, but everybody had hoped he was dead or gone. Everybody also assumes the girls are dead - although no sign of them has ever been found.
Symbolism is writ large in ALL THE WICKED GIRLS. From the Summer and Raine names of the twins, through to a town called Grace, which is anything but, and the massive storm that is brewing - meteorological and psychological. Combined with references to good and evil, and the twins aligned with the different sides, God, the Devil and the Church, and the darkness of the atmospherics matches the overwhelming message being delivered. The narrative is supported by the sense of a very odd place, populated by some very odd people, including the morally ambiguous, looming presence of the local Pastor. The idea that Raine's obsession with her sister's disappearance, supported by some of the classic outsiders in the community like this, eventually putting pressure on a dispirited, almost lackadaisical Police Chief does make sense, as does the stirring of the twin's father and his redneck mates.
The narrative switches viewpoint between Summer's voice in the lead up to her disappearance, and the third person telling of the story of Raine and her fellow seekers - Noah (hero cop's son), Purv (son of a local construction worker, victim of shocking violence from his father) and Police Chief Black as he finds his cop's instinct and drive again. Grace, is, it turns out, a town steeped in religious fervour, and not short of possible suspects in Summer's disappearance, and that of the five earlier possible victims.
The sense of this place, the culture and the society in which the action takes place is palpable, uncomfortable and overwhelming. The characters all turn out to have hidden depths and secrets, and it often feels like the whole place is operating on lies. It's deep, dark and beautifully written, with not a hint of an outsider author. The message is, like the atmospherics, on the heavy side - part noir / part morality play, and because of that there's no way you could call this entertaining reading. ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is, however, extremely involving reading, requiring commitment on the part of the reader to empathise and eventually understand that not everything here is what it seems.
Review - From the Shadows, Neil White
He hides in the shadows, watching, waiting, until the time is right . . .
Mary Kendricks, a smart, pretty, twenty-four-year-old teacher, has been brutally murdered and Robert Carter is accused of killing her.
When defence lawyer, Dan Grant inherits Carter's case only weeks before the trial starts, everyone expects him just to babysit it, but Dan's not that kind of lawyer. He'll follow the evidence - wherever it takes him.
Neil White is a new to me author, and one that is now on the to be read list. FROM THE SHADOWS is the first in the Dan Grant / defence lawyer series. It appears that there is also a 5 or so book series based around DC Laura McGanity, 3 books in the Joe & Sam Parker series and at least one standalone. Which begs the question why did it take so long for me to notice? Now I'm really kicking myself as if FROM THE SHADOWS, lawyer Dan Grant and his investigator Jayne Brett are anything to go by, I've got quite a few books to slot into the impossibly large reading queue in these parts.
Legal thrillers can sometimes be a little hit and miss for this reader, with the reason for a lawyer doing a bit of investigating on the part of their clients not always absolutely believable. The inclusion in this novel of Jayne Brett smooths a lot of that, as is the idea that Grant finds himself handling the case of accused murder Robert Carter at the very last minute. All of the setup items in the plot work well, providing context and motivation without the need for suspension of disbelief.
The two main characters, Dan Grant and Jayne Brett are well defined, flawed and capable of working closely together. The relationship is friendly, the reasons for their working partnership and brand of friendship are feasible, plus there's co-operation with just enough angst to make them believable. Grant might be the good bloke in the scenario but that's not overblown or sanctimonious, his difficult relationship with his disapproving father an ongoing thorn in his side. Brett on the other hand has a more dangerous spectre hanging over her head, with the family of her dead abusive boyfriend out for revenge. The inclusion of a strong supporting cast of different types of people gives the human factors of the plot much to work with - from Grant's business partner, through to the lawyer originally tasked with the defence of Robert Carter, and those close to the victim.
The plot's well done, with a good contrast between the requirements of defending the accused and a search for the truth come what may. Brett is a good investigator - dogged, determined and fearless without being overly reckless, she's able to work her way into conversation with many people, quietly looking for the reasons behind so much reluctance on the part of witnesses to get involved, or if they do, why they are telling so many lies. All the while there's an unknown person lurking and threatening. This aspect isn't overblown, it bubbles along in the background, adding to the tension, without feeling manipulative or staged.
A terrific thriller, FROM THE SHADOWS, is fast-paced and populated by extremely interesting characters embroiled in a clever story plot that twists, turns and sneaks around more than enough to keep the reader guessing until the end.