Wednesday, 21 January 2009

“Death on the Holy Mountain”, David Dickinson

The Lord Francis Powerscourt series of mysteries, largely set in Victorian/Edwardian Britain, fall comfortably into the arena of entertaining light hearted silliness. In general they don't take themselves too seriously, have an engaging cast of characters and an ability to make the reader interested. Perhaps the key strength of the series is that it covers a period that lends itself to over pompous mawkishness with a refreshing tone of humour. Be it a rainy afternoon in London, or in one engaging case, a shady deck on a Greek ferry (with “Goodnight Sweet Prince”) a Dickinson novel can generally be relied on to while away the hours in an eminently pleasurable manner; “Death on the Holy Mountain” broadly adheres to these criteria, if at times becoming a touch too bedded into the author's comprehensive background research.

The central character, Powerscourt, is a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and the series has visited Ireland in the past, but “Death on the Holy Mountain” is the first to set itself primarily there. The Ireland of the period should offer plentiful raw materials for Dickinson to work with, and he draws on many of the obvious candidates such as the faded glory of the rural Protestant nobility, the role of the church in the struggle for independence, and the growing Irish cultural movements. He does, however work on contextualising all of this a touch too much. Great swathes of text devoted to the death of Parnell and his funeral, with a very tangential link to the core plot, and while interesting, serve more to slow down Dickinson's usual pace. Perhaps it's my Irish upbringing suffused with the Irish history of the period, but I suspect leaving some of the historical narrative on the research shelf would have benefitted the book.

The Powerscourt series generally have art and crime related to art as a theme, and “Death on the Holy Mountain” conforms to this, with a series of thefts of ancestral portraits. I do worry however that the threat posed by this lacks a serious level of menace. It doesn't get too much in the way of the story, and reinforces the point that you actively shouldn't overanalyse the plots of these books.

Some of the subplots are, a touch disappointingly, left hanging, in particular a rather engaging adulterous affair conducted by two of the more minor protagonists lacks a satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps in part this helps show the effectiveness of the techniques of 'latent suasion' used in the Irish independence struggle, but stylistically the absence of any real closure in this area disappoints.

None of this should give the impression that this is anything other than a highly entertaining and pleasurable read. The Powerscourt series isn't high literature, but has no pretensions to be so, and is so much the better for it.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

“Isle of Dogs”, Patricia Cornwell

Sometimes reading moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. The experience of finishing Steig Larsson's “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and moving on to one of Cornwell's non-Scarpetta books is almost enough to make one despair.

It takes a while to work out what Cornwell is attempting with “Isle of Dogs”. Let's be clear, this is not another police procedural in the manner of the Scarpetta series, just with a different suite of characters. Herein lies the problem. Since “The Last Precinct” Cornwell has clearly been bored by the formula that served he well, the later Scarpetta novels, and the Andy Brazil series show a distinct change of tone, Scarpetta's story taking a profoundly darker turn, and Brazil representing an experiment with magic realism. Having made her reputation with Scarpetta she may well have sought to escape being typecast as just another formulaic crime novelist. As such something like “Isle of Dogs” can be seen as a completely understandable step. The trouble is it doesn't really work.

The problems start with the character of Andy Brazil. The persona of the state trooper cum blogger-journalist simply doesn't ring true. One role or another might work, but the way in which they are fused, and the concept that a police superintendent could readily allow one of their staff to work with such freedom, or that they would see the value in them doing so stretches credibility beyond breaking point. Furthermore, the “Trooper Truth” series of columns fail utterly to convince me that they would inspire a frenzy of public attention, reading instead like countless other bland unread blog entries. It's to Cornwell's credit that she sees the power of the changing media landscape, but sadly Trooper Truth doesn't seem like the Web2.0 phenomenon he's cut out to be.

Stylistically “Isle of Dogs” clearly attempts to be a comic novel. There's nothing wrong with novels raising a smile, and there's no particular reason not to find humour in crime, however I just don't think Patricia Cornwell is very good at it. All too often humour resorts to crude toilet gags and simplistic pokes of fun at Virginia patois, in neither case really succeeding in achieving even a wry smile.

Magic realism is a dangerous concept to try and use. It's genuinely rare to find a case of it being used effectively and the attempts to introduce it in “Isle of Dogs”, with sentient crabs and zippers impervious to bullets don't work. I'm not saying this to be horrible or cruel, it's just the case that the the book would ultimately be better off without them.

The Brazil series has clearly sold, and I suspect there may be those to whom it will appeal, but too much of it trades on the Cornwell name. Reading it is too much like hard work – it's neither a comic novel, nor an effective police work, and too much of the time it comes across as just silly, and not in a good way.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, Stieg Larsson

Before reading this I deliberately avoided the hype surrounding Stieg Larsson, first by accident, and then, once deciding to give him a go, quite deliberately. Invariably when an author's reputation soars to these sort of heights, especially when combined with Larsson's early death, expectations can be built up to an unachievable level. For once however, I suspect this is a case where you should believe the hype, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” really is that good.

Readers of crime fiction should be more than usually familiar with the context of Sweden, and the world portrayed here is more than usually Swedish, at times breathtakingly so, showing that Scandinavian crime fiction really is a lot more than an episode of “The Bill” with Ikea furniture. In terms of cultural signposts, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” probably resembles the Sweden of Liza Marklund somewhat more than that of Henning Mankell, more urbane, somehow grittier in terms of the flaws in Swedish society, and critically, a move away from the often too familiar police procedural.

The premise, a disgraced investigative journalist employed by an industrial magnate to solve the disappearance of his niece 40 years beforehand provides an engaging cast of characters and using unashamed cultural namechecks, offers an alternative take on a Dorothy Sayers style locked room mystery. Significantly however, the plot moves in such a way that the reader cares about what happens, can identify with most of the major characters, and can appreciate the method whereby the journalist, Blomqvist, gradually unpicks the mystery. Larsson pulls few, if any, punches in the telling of the story, unflinching in describing the true unpleasantness behind the crimes committed, and arresting in the way in which violence is perpetrated. Make no mistake, there are some very unpleasant scenes in this story.

The girl with the dragon tattoo transpires to be the only really problematic character. A troubled woman made a ward of the Swedish state (this in itself being a powerful expose of one the less savoury aspects of Sweden's caring' state system), Salander is computer hacker whose ability to see into people's most closely guarded secrets works as a mechanism for revealing what would otherwise be altogether too coincidental and serendipitous. Salander however is a little bit too much of an achiever. As a gnomish dweller of cyberspace she works, even if she is perhaps a little too effective (I'm open to correction from any cyber security professionals out there though!). However she often transcends this, more resembling Stefanie Patrick / Petra Reuter from Mark Burnell's “Rhythm Section” series, and here, credibility is stretched.

Other plot elements are left hanging, Blomqvist's relationship with one of the Vanger daughters ends abruptly and acrimoniously, with no real explanation. Is this a flaw or a true reflection that relationships do sometimes just end for reasons you can't really explain?

As a whole however “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” fundamentally works. Okay, I read this on holiday, and books do seem to get read more quickly on the beach at Sharm el Sheikh than they do when they have to be fitted around the more mundane aspects of life such as work and commuting, but this is gripping to a miss meals sort of level. Larsson has created a universe I want to know more about, to the extent that there's an urge to find, almost at any cost, his next work, and a profound sadness that we will only ever have three works of his to read.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

“The Maze of Cadiz”, Aly Monroe

Heat suffuses Monroe's first novel, set in the stultifying atmosphere of Cadiz in September 1944. While set during World War II the context is almost irrelevant – by late '44 the war feels already over, from the perspective of south-western Spain the titanic conflict looks like little more than the combatants going through the motions. This is echoed in the slow pace of life against which the small personal tragedies, otherwise lost in the greater tide of history, unfold. The triumph of the story is that really, even had the grand conspiracy not been foiled the chances are the ultimate course of history would have been completely unchanged.

The protagonist, Cotton, a seemingly reluctant British intelligence officer with a mundane assignment is a curious character. At times he comes across as almost Pooterish, struggling with catering on Spanish trains, embarrassed by the social mores of expatriate life, yet at others he seems a debonair man of the world, and almost James Bond like in his approach. The other characters, not least the aged antique book dealer, the foppish policeman, and the borderline incompetent diplomat, are all somewhat more two dimensional, however their interactions and dialogue inherently work, and serve to keep the pace going through the slow background.

It's not Alan Furst, and stylistically it, at times, reads too much like a lesson in conversational Spanish, but it serves to immerse the reader in an interesting part of Spain in the shadow of the civil war.

Perhaps most fascinating for me was the realisation that while Alan Furst's typically cold works are best read with a slate grey sky and the threat of stinging rain, “The Maze of Cadiz” with its immersive warmth can be readily enjoyed in cold British January.