A body is recovered from a peat bog on the Isle of Lewis. The male Caucasian corpse is initially believed by its finders to be over 2000 years old, until they spot the Elvis tattoo on his right arm. The body, it transpires, is not evidence of an ancient ritual killing, but of a murder committed during the latter half of the 20th century.
After listening to the first two books in the Lewis Trilogy pretty much one after the other, I've done it at all the wrong time of the year. I'm a bit partial to listening to, or reading, books from cold, wet climes in the heights of our summer, and all predictions are indicating we're in for a stinking summer. Hot, dry as a chip and dangerous. So I'll be looking for some seriously cold, wet reading material - including the third book in the trilogy to come.
Aside from the climactic conditions, this is a wonderfully atmospheric series, with some seriously beautifully descriptive writing that works perfectly as an audio book. It's immersive listening, with the narrator able to enhance the atmospherics with perfect pronunciation and accent. The stories themselves are interesting - very much in the closed room vein in many ways - not surprising given the island setting, but with enough local touches to create something particularly interesting. The idea here that a body discovered in the peat could be ancient, but turns out to be more recent, is at the core of this plot. With the local customs of peat cutting and storing, the way that island life revolves around the need to survive the long-harsh winters, and the idea that even in a small community, people can drop through the cracks particularly intriguing and engaging.
The novels have had a tendency to be finished off in a bit of a flourish but that's very forgiveable when everything else about this series has been absolutely perfect. They would be good as reading material, but this is a series I'm particularly pleased to have opted for audio on. It's been a listening pleasure.
Transcription, Kate Atkinson
In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’
There are some writers who you’d like to read but just never seem to get around to. Until I’d read Transcription, in my case Kate Atkinson was one of those authors. For crime/mystery fans Kate Atkinson wrote the Jackson Brodie novels which were adapted for television as Case Histories with Jason Issacs in the lead role. Having enjoyed Case Histories, I’d planned to read the Jackson Brodie novels but just never did. Even with Transcription I’d picked it up a few times but put it down because there was something else which caught my eye. Happily, I did finally purchase Transcription and I’m certainly glad I did, I just may also get around to those Jackson Brodie novels as well.
Transcription begins in 1981 with Juliet Armstrong lying on a pavement having just been hit by a car after attending a Shostakovich concert in Wigmore Hall, London. She’s thinking of the rest of the Shostakovich series she’ll miss, her son in Italy, the impending royal wedding and, at 60 years of age, had her life been long enough or was it an “illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else”. From there Transcription takes us back to two important periods in Juliet’s life, 1950 when she’s working for the BBC in London and 1940 when she was recruited to work for MI5 during the Second World War, those periods are about to collide.
There are a number of aspects to Transcription which I enjoyed. The first of these is the strength of Juliet Armstrong as a character and first-person narrator. This style of novel is often difficult and although the narration does grate a little towards, especially in the 1950 sections of the book, there is always a gem of a thought which reminds you just how enjoyable this book is to read. Secondly, Kate Atkinson is a master at highlighting the mundane parts of life. The sheer boredom of Juliet transcribing secret meetings with German sympathisers, and yet almost getting to know them personally through their voices, is expertly captured. Also, there’s the unexpected sacrifices which war brings like being no longer able to get a good coffee because the Italian owner of her favourite café is now interned and the embarrassing task of going to the toilet in Wormword Scrubs, which MI5 used as a headquarters during WW2, because there’s no doors on the cubicles. Lastly, Transcription is also a very good thriller which carefully builds Juliet’s sense of doom that the things that she, and others, did during the war are now coming back to haunt her and she doesn’t know the price she’ll need to pay.
I started this review with a quote from Winston Churchill. It’s the epigraph at the beginning of Transcription and it perfectly encapsulates this beautiful book. Now, I must do something about those Jackson Brodie novels.
Kolymsky Heights, Lionel Davidson
Kolymsky Heights. A Siberian permafrost hell lost in endless night, the perfect setting for an underground Russian research station. It's a place so secret it doesn't officially exist; once there, the scientists are forbidden to leave. But one scientist is desperate to get a message to the outside world. So desperate, he sends a plea across the wildness to the West in order to summon the one man alive capable of achieving the impossible
Welcome to the second in my series of favourite books which I’ll be reviewing over the summer. Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heightsis one those books which I, although I hestitate to say it, would put in the ‘best you’ve never heard of’ category. I know that’s a cliché but it’s how it was described to me when I was first given it to read in 2008, the person who gave it me probably had the same conversation with the person who gave it to them and so forth. After reading Kolymsky Heights the first time I didn’t disagree
The novel begins with a Prologue which appears to be a letter written by an unnamed Russian scientist to an old acquaintance. The scientist tells the story of how he came to be head of a secret research facility in a remote part of Northern Siberia. A position from which he is never allowed to leave or even have contact with the outside world. If there is no contact with the outside world then how is it that he is able to tell his story, Kolymsky Heights is the much bigger story of how this feat was achieved.
The synopsis itself is fairly simple, a single man must enter a heavily restricted part Russia, then enter an even more heavily restricted research facility, extract the required information and return safely to the west. It’s a classic quest story and Kolymsky Heights has been compared to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, I personally think it’s closer to Greenmantle, the second of Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels than it is to The Thirty-Nine Steps. Instead of Richard Hannay as the civilian thrown into the deep end, in Kolymsky Heights we have Johnny Porter, a native Canadian Indian who has a gift for learning indigenous languages. He’s also not unexpectedly very resourceful and in a step too far he’s a bit like James Bond when it comes to seducing women.
The other important character of the story is not a human, it’s the deep frozen lightless Siberian winter. Kolymsky Heights is one of the best novels I’ve ever read in terms of capturing and using the sense of place to the advantage of the story. Finally, I should also mention the pacing of Kolymsky Heights. It is almost a master class in building and releasing tension, each time building the tension slightly higher until the last part of the novel when all that built up tension unleashes itself in a frenetic chase across Siberia.
Kolymsky Heights is a hugely enjoyable read and it really is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read.
Quite Ugly One Morning, Christopher Brookmyre
Yeah, yeah, the usual. A crime. A corpse. A killer. Heard it. Except this stiff happens to be a Ponsonby, scion of a venerable Edinburgh medical clan, and the manner of his death speaks of unspeakable things. Why is the body displayed like a slice of beef? How come his hands are digitally challenged? And if it's not the corpse, what is that awful smell? A post-Thatcherite nightmare of frightening plausibility, Quite Ugly One Morning is a wickedly entertaining and vivacious thriller, full of acerbic wit, cracking dialogue, and villains both reputed and shell-suited.
My return to series in the car is currently alternating between Terry Pratchett's Discworld books and all of Christopher Brookmyre's early work. Both of them are an utter joy to listen to, and a potential threat to life and limb.
Car journeys here are, by necessity, long. Everywhere is around an hour away - at 100ks, on country roads, dodging potholes big enough to lose the car in, huge grain or hay hauling trucks, assorted wildlife from the kill you type (kangaroos) to the don't you dare kill them ones (echidna's and blue tongue lizards at this time of the year). It requires concentration, it requires focus. Tricky when you're laughing so hard you're crying.
QUITE UGLY ONE MORNING does a particularly good line in funny - provided gross, grotty and silly are things you find funny. Hearing the more grotesque, grotty and silly things in this book being read out by David Tennant made it even funnier.
If possible I'd forgotten how much I love Christopher Brookmyre's books. I am alternating backwards and forwards between these and the Discworld novels. I might have to start driving more.
Heaven Sent, Alan Carter
Detective Sergeant Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong is light on sleep but high on happiness with his new wife Sharon Wang and their baby girl. But contentment is not compatible with life in the Job, and soon a series of murders of Fremantle’s homeless people gets in the way of Cato’s newfound bliss. As New Wave journalist Norman Lip flirts online with the killer, it becomes apparent that these murders are personal — every death is bringing the killer one step closer to Cato.
Sometimes you start reading a series book about a favourite character, and really start to wonder if the author is annoyed with them, subconsciously punishing them for being too popular, or just enjoying applying the thumb screws for a change. Whatever is going on, Alan Carter isn't making it easy for the popular, easy-going, and seemingly content Philip 'Cato' Kwong in HEAVEN SENT.
Settled in his personal life with a new wife, new daughter and a tricky but improving relationship with his teenage son, Kwong's professional life is relatively stable as well - at least he's not serving his time in the remote reaches of WA on the "stock squad". He's back in Fremantle, and seconded to major crime when a series of murders of homeless people escalates. Whilst Kwong is dealing with the more traditional elements of a serial killer investigation, journalist Norman Lip is taking a more dangerous path - flirting online with the killer. Especially as it starts to look like this killer has thought this through much more carefully than Lip and has a very personal grudge against Cato Kwong.
For readers new to this series, you'll find plenty here to give you hints and tips about Cato Kwong's background - including the acquiring of his nickname. You'll find out enough about his policing past to fill in the gaps, and more than enough about his personal life to explain his satisfaction with his current circumstances, and his almost wilful blindness to some of the struggles his wife Sharon is experiencing with new motherhood. If it's any consolation his domestic blindspot also includes his teenage son who is struggling with two parents who have moved onto other partners, other kids, and other lives. There's plenty there to make the reader really want to give Kwong a good shouting at in places. Which is the great part of this series - Kwong feels like a real person, he's a good cop, who is capable of making good, inspired and profoundly daft decisions. He's a good bloke who loves his family and totally and utterly doesn't get what's happening around him all at the same time. He's caring, concerned, blithely ignorant and utterly interconnected. In other words he's real, and annoying and endearing all at the same time.
The plot here is also something that readers who are new to the series will be able to go with also, as will welded on fans (HEAVEN SENT is book number 4). As always there's a social issue at the core - in this case homelessness in a society that's seemingly well off and privileged. The sense of community is strong, with homeless support services, police and local government all too aware of the people who live rough in the place. The fact that the killer is also able to tap into that local knowledge creates a claustrophobic overlay, reminding you that few people are ever really truly under the radar.
Dotted throughout, as always, are perfect little observations, Sharon Wang in her struggles with new motherhood and isolation, is still able to summons a bit of fierce when required. Kwong's old love interest and colleague Tess, reminds us of the never-ending problem of toxic male violence that many women live with. Naomi Lip, journalist Norman's sister, wheelchair bound and physically restricted reminds us that mental acuity, wit and ability are often less visible, but much stronger.
HEAVEN SENT has been much anticipated, as it's been a bit of a gap since the last outing with Cato Kwong. Let's hope there's plenty more to come.
Call For The Dead, John le Carre
After a routine security check by George Smiley, civil servant Samuel Fennan apparently kills himself. When Smiley finds Circus head Maston is trying to blame him for the man's death, he begins his own investigation, meeting with Fennan's widow to find out what could have led him to such desperation. But on the very day that Smiley is ordered off the enquiry he receives an urgent letter from the dead man. Do the East Germans - and their agents - know more about this man's death than the Circus previously imagined?
Over the summer, along with reviewing new novels, I’m also planning to review some of my favourites starting with John Le Carre’s Call For The Dead. Although Le Carre is arguably the greatest spy novelist of all time his first two novels, Call For The Dead and A Murder Of Quality, fit more closely within the crime/mystery genre. It was only after the release of Le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, that he became known as a writer of espionage novels.
Call For The Dead was released in the same year as Thunderball, the tenth James Bond, and it’s hard to imagine two more opposite characters than James Bond and George Smiley. One an all action figure, the other, in Le Carre’s unflattering opening description of George Smiley’s wedding, a bullfrog who had ‘waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince’. Despite this less than flattering introduction, George Smiley has not only endured, he’s become one of the greatest literary characters of all time.
After an introductory first chapter the story begins in earnest in chapter two with George Smiley being summoned to the Cambridge Circus at 2am to explain why Samuel Arthur Fennan, a career civil servant whom Smiley had interviewed a few days earlier, had committed suicide. Smiley has no explanation, other than the fact that Fennan’s suicide note doesn’t tally with his recollection of the meeting, and he is sent to Fennan’s home in Surrey to investigate. Smiley very quickly senses something is wrong and after being ordered to not investigate any further, he resigns and continues the investigation privately. Joining Smiley in his investigation are two familiar characters, Peter Guillam and Inspector Mendel, in whom he both trusts and you can see the beginnings of the loyalty he has towards both of them. I’m a huge fan of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spytelevision series and one of the few criticisms I have of it is that the character of Mendel is condensed. In Call For The Deadyou learn more of his past and why he’s someone who Smiley would trust.
At 160 pages Call For The Dead is probably the shortest of all the John Le Carre novels, it is still however an interesting read for anyone who likes a mystery novel in which the brain is more important than brawn or someone who just wants to know where it all began for George Smiley and John Le Carre.
In a House of Lies, Ian Rankin
In these dark woods, many schlocky movies were once made. It was universally agreed that they were mostly rubbish, but they did sell well enough to a certain market and many wild drug fuelled parties were enjoyed in the making of the low budget horror flicks.
So we are rolling along with all the old gang (though the lovely wee dog is relatively new); Rebus, heir apparent Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, Big “Ger” Cafferty etc. There’s a huge comfort in the familiarity of seeing the same people in each outing, though you do wonder how much longer Rebus’s involvement in current police investigations can be justified or explained away. Cafferty, who seemed to be beginning to slide into the background in series priors, appears to have found his mojo again IN THIS HOUSE OF LIES. Very curious to see what will happen with Cafferty’s empire, and as to what tolerance level the ‘newer guard’ will have with Cafferty’s possible criminal resurgence.
All Rebus’s street contacts are still there, as is the snappy dialogue, the pithy observations and the uncanny ability of Rebus to insert himself into police investigations that interest him in retirement. It is a credit to Rankin that he manages to pepper his series with both old characters and new and its not a hard task for the average reader to keep all of them straight, even with the characteristically complex plotting that Rankin is a master of.
IN THIS HOUSE OF LIES features all the trickery we expect from an Ian Rankin crime novel and is quite likely the best possible way a crime fiction reader can choose to while away a few hours. Each encounter with John Rebus continues to be a rewarding one and the novels have evolved with the times. Police procedurals seem to have slipped a little as market dominators and they need to navigate constant social and cultural changes, many of which may challenge the traditional constructs of works of this type. That graduation has been a skilful and subtle process in the hands of Ian Rankin. Fans will already have snapped this up and if there is anyone out there new to the Rebus series, it won’t be a problem to dive right in with this twenty second novel featuring Scotland’s finest.
Long may Rebus reign.
All the Hidden Truths, Claire Askew
The fact that the term ‘school shooting’ is even part of our modern vernacular is tragic enough. This seems to cover anything from the mass murder of children and staff at primary schools to that of adult students and staff at universities. It is a dissection of the aftermath of a single shooter university killing spree that is featured here in ALL THE HIDDEN TRUTHS.
ALL THE HIDDEN TRUTHS is an examination of the circumstances that result in one young man choosing to take the lives of his peers. This is not a complicated novel to follow and the mounting of any soapboxes via the mouths of the characters is subtly done. ALL THE HIDDEN TRUTHS does not rely upon graphic descriptions of the slayings but instead deep dives into the complexity of grief felt by blindsided communities when school shootings occur. How do we find the reasons why, when there are no clues left behind? Why do we look elsewhere for blame, when it could only sensibly be laid at the feet of the shooter?
At the conclusion of ALL THE HIDDEN TRUTHS the reader has some post book homework to do as the novel will require that you invest some time in pondering exactly where it is that our current culture places such killings. It is felt that it was quite a deliberate choice to frame the murders from the perspective of three women around the (past) passages of the male killer. The focus here is not on the victims and what it was about them that put them into the path of a spree killer, but instead the novel examines the ripple effect of the shooting on all those left behind. There are always the helpers, the survivors, the investigators and those that not deemed worthy to be allowed to mourn.
ALL THE HIDDEN TRUTHS is a thoughtful piece about surviving horrendous loss and the need to find rational explanations for the increasing occurrence of such acts of violence. Another day, another school shooting.
Claire Askew is a poet, novelist and the current Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh.
Fault Lines, Doug Johnstone
A little lie … a seismic secret … and the cracks are beginning to show…
Imagine a very different Edinburgh, one where constant earthquakes, tremors and aftershocks are a regular part of life. This is the setting for Fault Lines which opens with Surtsey setting foot on Inch, a small island in the Firth of Forth which was formed after a volcanic eruption 25 years earlier. Although Surtsey has always felt an affinity with Inch, having been born on the day it was formed, she is not there to go sightseeing, Surtsey is there to meet her boss, PhD supervisor and lover Tom. When Tom is found dead on the shoreline Surtsey panics, quickly grabs Tom’s phone and flees Inch, leaving him to a grisly fate. With every decision there is always a consequence and Surtsey soon finds that she’s not very good at making the right decisions.
After reading Jack’s Return Home Fault Lines was not only a welcome relief, it was also a very enjoyable read and one which made me wish I’d discovered Doug Johnstone many years previously. Surtsey is an excellent lead character and one which, as she often makes angry and rash decisions, you struggle to maintain sympathy with. Some of the other characters, notably friend and fellow student Halima, Surtsey’s sister Iona who she has a fiery relationship with, their terminally ill mother Louise and Donna, who’s a nurse at the hospice where Louise resides, are equally good. For me as a reader it was a joy to read a novel where almost all of the main characters were female and although each of them had their own faults, some of them deeply flawed, they were never caricatured.
Summer is well on the way and with many of the current crop of Australian novels being set in our drought ridden country towns the setting of Fault Lines in the cool waters of the Firth of Forth is not only a pleasant cool change, it’s also a darn good read. Highly recommended.
Jack's Return Home- Get Carter, Ted Lewis
It’s a rainy night in the mill town of Scunthorpe when a London fixer named Jack Carter steps off a northbound train. He’s left the neon lights and mod lifestyle of Soho behind to come north to his hometown for a funeral—his brother Frank’s. Frank was very drunk when he drove his car off a cliff and that doesn’t sit well with Jack. Mild-mannered Frank never touched the stuff.
In 1971 the film Get Carter starring Michael Caine was released and it has since become arguably one of the greatest gangster films of all time. The film was so successful after it's release that the book upon which it was based, Jack's Return Home, was renamed after the film. For this review I'm using the original title.
"The rain rained. It hadn't stopped since Euston. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you're doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting."
With those opening words to Jack's Return Home Ted Lewis changed British crime writing forever and the modern British crime novel was born. Reading it almost 50 years after it was published is an equally fascinating and disturbing experience. Fans of the film, of which I'm one, will recognise much of the dialogue because large parts of it were used in the film. Much of the narrative also doesn't change until the last third of the book with notable exception being the book's location of Scunthorpe as opposed to Newcastle Upon Tyne for the film. The violence is also there but more sharply focused because the humour, dark and bleak as it was, is missing.
As I mentioned before Jack's Return Home is also a disturbing read, I say this because the violence towards women, verbal, physical and thought, is unrelenting throughout the novel. In many respects reading the book is harsher because of the first person narration adding another layer of male violence towards women. It has also made me rethink my views towards the film and although I still intend to watch it again I expect it be a deeply uncomfortable viewing.
In conclusion, for anyone who's either a fan of Get Carter or wants to read the book because of its historical importance to crime fiction I recommend reading it, just don't expect Jack's Return Home to be an enjoyable experience.