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Thursday, 15 February 2018

Book review - The Pale Criminal

‘It didn’t need much explaining. That’s the thing about being a detective: I catch on real fast.’ (p272)

Philip Kerr’s second Bernie Gunther novel The Pale Criminal was published in 1990. 

I read the first, March Violets (1989) in January 2016. [Glowing review here]

I ended that review by saying I was looking forward to reading #2 ‘soon’. So much for ‘soon’…! To reiterate, it’s most remiss of me to only be reading these books at this late juncture, when they’ve been on my shelf for quarter of a century!

Kerr exploded on the crime book scene with March Violets and has consistently produced best seller after best seller – to date there are 12 novels in this series; he has written standalone books too. He’s popular because he inhabits his character, a typical private eye with a wise-cracking jaundiced view of the world. But these books are more than PI novels; they’re set in Berlin before and after the Second World War. An inspired choice: Berlin is almost a living breathing character in itself. The research and detail - without being overdone - provide believability.

March Violets was set at the time of the Berlin Olympics, 1936. The Pale Criminal jumps to 1938 (for an historical reason).

Gunther used to work in the police but has since gone private.

‘My business doesn’t exactly suit those who are disposed to be neat. Being a private investigator leaves you holding more loose ends than a blind carpet-weaver.’ (p246)

Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich tends to use Gunther from time to time and this second foray is no exception. Ironically, Heydrich has got wind of secret plans for a pogrom against the Jews; he’s more concerned about the cost to German insurance companies than the fate of the citizens of that race, so he wants Gunther to stymie the plot.

Meanwhile, Gunther is investigating the brutal murders of Aryan girls; not for the squeamish. There’s a definite link, it seems between the deaths and the pogrom plot.

Taut and gripping, and steeped in period detail, the book races along. Complete with repulsive and intriguing characters:

‘Certainly time had stood still with his prognathous features – somewhere around one million years BC. Tanker could not have looked less civilized than if he had been wearing the skin of a sabre-toothed tiger.’ (p117)

And the plot neatly chimes with a terrible real historic event.

The book title fittingly comes from a phrase in a Nietzsche quotation.


[Interestingly, the third book in the series is set in 1947. Some other later books jump back to the early 1940s. I’m not sure which way to jump in reading more – go for the publishing sequence or the chronological timeline. It probably doesn’t matter.]

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Pulp Den Awards

Publisher, author and avid reader Tom Johnson issues a variety of awards at the end of each year, and these are for stand-alone science fiction novel, best new pulp novel, best SF/horror novel, best mystery/thriller, best fantasy novel that he has read in 2017. See here

"The 2017 PULP DEN AWARD for the best Spy series I read in 2017 is the Tana Standish female psychic spy from Britain. There is good action in this well written series, and the stories flow smoothly. This is a great new series for spy fiction fans."

Thank you, sir!


Friday, 26 January 2018

Book review - Leviathan (Erast Fandorin #3)

Boris Akunin’s third Erast Fandorin adventure Leviathan was published in 1998, English translation from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2004.  I read and enjoyed his first adventure, The Winter Queen in October, 2004. The second book in the series is The Turkish Gambit.

Fandorin started out as a police detective, and then worked for the secret police, and in this book he’s a diplomat, destined for service in Japan.

Leviathan possesses several idiosyncratic features. It begins with notes from French police commissioner Gauche’s file, regarding the mass murder of ten individuals in a Parisian mansion. Then there’s a medical report concerning the deaths – all but one being poisoned. A statuette of the Indian god Shiva was stolen, together with a painted shawl. The owner of the house, Lord Littleby was bludgeoned to death. Next, we have two press cuttings – one of which reveals that the statuette is found… A single clue suggests that the murderer would be a passenger on the luxury British steamship Leviathan sailing from Southampton to Calcutta. Gauche booked passage.

Gauche deduces that the criminal he seeks is one of the following: Sir Reginald Milford-Stokes, exhibiting signs of mental aberration; Mr Aono, a Japanese nobleman, silent and diffident; Mrs Renate Kleber, a pregnant wife of a Swiss banker en route to join her husband; Miss Clarissa Stamp, a newly rich English spinster; Mr Truffo, the ship’s chief physician; Mr Sweetchild, an opinionated Indologist; Mr Boileau, a tea trader and philanthropist; and, finally, the Russian diplomat, Fandorin.

The story is told from the point of view of a number of characters: Gauche himself (third person narrative), Milford-Stokes writing first person to his absent wife, Renate Kleber and Clarissa Stamp (both third person), Mr Aono (printed in two columns sideways on, no doubt to suggest the first person diary entries are written in Japanese [gimmicky, but not distracting]).

To be expected, there are other deaths and suspicion builds. There are revelations, and some poignant tales to tell. Gauche comes across as a bombastic self-important detective (‘It was possible to tell a great deal about a man from his moustache’) (p26) who tends to arrive at the wrong theories, often corrected by the imperturbable Fandorin.

Akunin captures the period – it’s 1878 – and the opulence of the steamship. ‘The breakfast served on the Leviathan was not some trifling Continental affair, but the genuine full English variety: with roast beef, exquisite egg dishes, blood pudding and porridge.’ (p43) He also reveals Mr Aono’s culture with great effect – which is not surprising since under his real name the author is an expert on Japan, has translated Japanese and served as the editor-in-chief of the 20-volume Anthology of Japanese Literature.

He exhibits a fine eye for detail and imagery, too. ‘in the flickering lightning the rain glittered like steel threads in the night sky, and the waves frothed and foamed white in the darkness. It was an awesome night.’ (p188)

The set-up, the mix of characters and the crime itself echo Agatha Christie, and this is not surprising since Akunin apparently set out to write Fandorin novels in every sub-genre of the detective novel. His first was a conspiracy, his second a spy case, his third this Agatha Christie homage, and so on. He has identified sixteen sub-genres, in all, and has written fourteen so far. In addition, he wanted to create different types of human characters. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for Grigol Chkhartishvili (Boris Akunin) makes fascinating reading in itself.

In the entry List of best-selling books the Erast Fandorin series has sold in excess of copies. Typically, a new book in the series sells about 200,000 copies in the first week.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Mule women die in stampede

The border between the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and Morocco [in North Africa] is daily crossed by female porters who carry large loads, some often heavier than their own weight, strapped to their backs. They are called ‘mule women’ or ‘hamalat’.  

Last week, two such women in their forties – Ilham and Souad – were crushed in a stampede of fellow porters.

While it’s difficult to corroborate figures, it is estimated that between 4,000 and 15,000 female porters use the route each day. These human mules are impoverished and carry the loads to earn a pittance.

More details can be found in my book Catacomb (pp36-37); these ‘mule ladies’ also work between the Spanish enclave of Melilla and Morocco:

“Before the 1990s there was no serious border between Morocco and Melilla. Then, membership of the EU meant that Spain was expected to strengthen its border controls. So now a few hundred million euros’ worth of goods arrive in Melilla’s port each year,” Abdel explained. “And the women are used to avoid import taxes because any package that is hand-carried in to Morocco is considered as luggage and therefore duty-free.” (p36)

Catacomb (published by Crooked Cat Books, 2015). Paperback and e-book available here

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Fantastic fiction

Any keen reader of books must know about this website, but on the off-chance that you don't, it's a useful resource and definitely worth exploring.

fantasticfiction here

Thursday, 18 January 2018

'A compelling read!'

The Bread of Tears

'I found it refreshingly different and a compelling read!'
Joy Lennick, author of My Gentle War (Memoir of an Essex Girl), Hurricane Halsey, Running Your Own Small Hotel and Jobs in Baking and Confectionery

Thank you, Joy.

The Bread of Tears available as a paperback and e-book here

When she was a cop, she made their life hell.
Now she’s a nun, God help them!

Before taking her vows, Sister Rose was Maggie Weaver, a Newcastle policewoman. While uncovering a serial killer, she suffered severe trauma, and after being nursed back to health she becomes a nun. In her new calling she is sent to London to run a hostel for the homeless. Here, she does good works, and also combats prejudice and crime.
            As she attempts to save a homeless woman from a local gang boss, events crystallise, taking her back to Newcastle, the scene of her nightmares, to play out the final confrontation against drug traffickers, murderers and old enemies in the police.
            She finds her spiritual self and a new identity. She is healed through faith and forgiveness. It’s also about her surviving trauma and grief – a triumph of the human spirit, of good over evil.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Book review - WONDER WOMAN – The art and making of the film

Titan Books has produced yet another lavish offering. This is a big book - 27.9 x 2.2 x 31.1 cm and a weighty 192 full-colour pages. Written by Sharon Gosling, foreword by Patty Jenkins, director.

If you’ve seen the film, you might want to own this book. If you haven’t seen the film, this tells you a great deal – through pictures and words! – about the film without providing too many spoilers. Certainly, we could have done with more text (though what is there is enlightening), but it's clear that the writer and company have gone for the credo 'a picture is worth a thousand words' - and it works well enough.

The layout is broken down into various parts: Themyscira features short chapters on the design of the island, the armoury, the characters, the weapons and the exciting beach battle – all enhanced with anecdotes from the production team and artwork and stills. The Journey is a brief account of Diana’s departure from the island and the construction of the boat – a vessel that never in fact touched water, thanks to CGI wizardry. The final part is Man’s World with chapters about London recreated in 1918, Etta Candy, Steve Trevor, the villains, and the trench warfare, again enhanced with illustrations and movie stills.

Reading this book it’s obvious that Director Patty Jenkins found the film a labour of love, as did so many others involved. The palettes of colour were deliberately chosen – the bright shades for the Themyscira section, the sombre leached shades of Man’s World at war.

Like the film itself, this book is an excellent homage to the icon created in 1941, Wonder Woman.

See also