Tuesday, 24 February 2009

“Judas Strain”, James Rollins

I suspect we all guiltily enjoy things we know we probably shouldn’t. Just as knowing how good Belgian chocolates are (and having reasonably ready access to them) doesn’t stop me popping out for a Mars bar every once in a while, an awareness of how much better so many other authors are doesn't stop me, every once in a while, picking up one of James Rollins' books.

Let's get one thing out of the way first of all. His stories, and "Judas Strain" is no different, are very silly indeed. They're not high literature, and they're the sort of works that, at times, you almost want to hide behind a different cover, almost to say "I'm not really reading this, and I'm certainly not enjoying it", which is a shame, because they can legitimately sit alongside some of the wilder parts of the likes of Clive Cussler (albeit without a little of Cussler's charm) in this particular canon of 'literature'. "Judas Strain" was read in the fairly relaxed environment of home, and oddly suffered for it. Past Rollins tomes have been airline fodder, highlighting where we should really locate him, and really where he comes into his own. Previous works have sped long flights past in a perfectly happy way. "Ice Hunt" in particular managing to distract me from the terrifying experience of a post Soviet 'airliner' rattling its way from Nizhny Novgorod to Kaliningrad - for this, if nothing else, I owe James Rollins quite a debt of gratitude.

In terms of plot, "Judas Strain" is effectively a fusion of Steven Seagal meets the Da Vinci Code, fused with 28 Days Later and a dash of Indiana Jones. Rollins has developed a universe reasonably well rounded with colourful characters, shadowy organisations, and monumental conspiracies. Where "Judas Strain" falls down a touch, is the central plot with its overarching threat to the globe's population is too severe and proceeds too far. Conspiracy techno thrillers such as this work best when they could, if only just, be a retelling of what has actually happened; global incidences of a zombie inducing pandemic stretch this beyond breaking point. I'm the first to argue that the strength of fiction is that disbelief is suspended and you allow yourself to be entertained, but in a really imprecise way, there seems to be a threshold that really successful works stay below, and when it's exceeded the overall impact is lessened.

I'm pleased I read "Judas Strain", I'll read more by James Rollins, and I do quite look forward to learning the fate of the emperilled heroes, but by the same token, I'm actually also quite pleased to move onto something a little more sensible next.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

“Chicane”, Colin Peel

On paper this should have it all, exotic locations, enigmatic characters, fast cars, a femme fatale, and a conspiracy just big enough to be engaging, while remaining (just) within the bounds of possiblity. As a thriller (Beckenham library getting its classification right) it's a nicely measured work that generally avoids falling into the usual traps one associates with the sometimes hackneyed techno-thriller genre. Ultimately there are perhaps one or two too many contortions in the plot, but overall sitting down with this book is a satisfying experience.

There was, however, a degree of wistfulness in reading “Chicane”. I've been reading thrillers of some variety or another for many more years than I care to remember, and there's an overwhelming sensation that this would have been much more at home in a pre-1989 world. Peel makes a brave effort to clad what is fundamentally a Cold War spy thriller in 21st century garb, but despite all the arguments from the likes of Ed Lucas, and the undeniable frostiness discernible from unpleasantness in the Caucasus last year, “Chicane” still feels like an anachronism. One can't help wondering if the result would have been more convincing had it been restyled as a period piece; a few simple tweaks (substitute fax for email, Ferrari 308 for 360 Modena) and it could have been a convincing pseudo-retelling of the late Cold War, and quite possibly have been better for it. Interestingly, the feel of the book given by the cover, typeface, and most of all the deeply curious author photograph feel exactly like a book from the 1980s, and make it surprising to realise it was published in 2003.

Not having come across Peel before, it's unclear if there is a deeper long running story underpinning the central character, Fraser. Taken in isolation he is inherently far too capable, even if he's still perfectly likeable. Throughout others, most notably the female lead, speculate with some validity about his background, seeing him as so much more than a simple photo-journalist. If “Chicane” is part of a wider universe this would make sense – if it's a standalone work then there are probably too many questions for the characterisation to be wholly convincing.

Ultimately it's books like these that justify the existence of public libraries. As hardback buy (even as a cut price deal airport exclusive) this would probably have left the nagging feeling that it wasn't quite worth it (absurd and illogical in the context of what everything else costs – yes – I know), and even as a cheap charity shop rental there might have been more of a ho-hum about some aspects of it. However as a speculative punt from the library it's transformed into something altogether more satisfactory.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

“Death in a Strange Country”, Donna Leon

I came to Donna Leon almost by accident. She's one of those authors of whose existence you're always aware of, more through peripheral vision than actually considering them. The beauty of a public library means that you can experiment, and in that sort of line a month or so ago I ended up with her “Friends in High Places”. As is perhaps obvious from the title of this post, Donna Leon was sufficiently engaging to make me want to start right at the beginning of her series about criminal Venice and her somewhat lachrymose protagonist, Guido Brunetti.

“Death in a Strange Country” is a very Italian crime novel. Written in the early 1990s it captures the manifold complexities of Italian society, running the gamut of political corruption, the divides between left and right, the difficulties of making money in late 20th century Italy, the omnipresent mafia and the lawless South, and the central point, the impact of the American military presence in Italy. All of this enriches the story, with the impact that the traditional crime narrative, with a process generally leading to an arrest or conviction, is much less achievable. Justice, when served, is less a function of due process than emotion, not all loose ends are tied up, yet all of it is couched in the terms of what passes for a police investigation.

The label 'police procedural' is one that I profoundly dislike; it does nothing to erode the impression of crime fiction being synonymous with trash fiction, and as a term it conveys little in the way of excitement. Perhaps depressingly however Leon's books, and “Death in a Strange Country” is as good an example as any of the three I've come across so far, fits so closely with what we should see as a 'police procedural'. Brunetti exists within the context of a tightly defined criminal justice structure, crimes are committed, investigated, and some form of closure is arrived at. It is to Leon's credit that the way she executes plot keeps attention, build affinity, and applies a gritty veneer to Venice, a city most of us will associate with almost theme park levels of packaged tourism. The Venice we see here really is a fading sinking edifice, loved by its inhabitants, still full of tremendous grandeur, but nonetheless a city exposed warts and all. In short, Leon writes police procedurals, but they are very Italian.

One of the aspects that has struck me in reading this series so far is that it has, for me, struggled somewhat with characterisation. Brunetti, the archetypal frustrated diligent cop is a touch too good. Patta, his superior is altogether too bleakly incompetent. Paola, Brunetti's wife is one dimensional, and almost too good. In fact the road to Damascus experience I had while reading “Death in a Strange Country” was that perhaps the most real character, and one easiest to identify with is Brunetti's father-in-law. His wife's father plays a key role in many of the works as serving as a vehicle for the happy coincidence in moving the plot along, but here his persona is scratched more deeply. The father-in-law (and I apologise for not giving him a name, but my cat is very contentedly asleep on my feet, and it seems cruel to shift him to go and dig out the book to check precise details) comes across maybe as the truest Italian, certainly corrupt, largely trying to do the right thing for his family, and struggling with the compromises that his life revolves around. It is in this unexpected richness in character that really adds to the enjoyment of the book.

Thus far Donna Leon's not quite at the level where there's a desperate hunger for the next book, but there's undeniably a richness here that makes me happy that there are many more in the series. Maybe my opinion will change as I read more of them and get a more rounded view of them, but thus far it's all pretty positive.

Finally, an apology for the gap in posting. Generally when I'm busy at work I'll be on the road a lot, which means I get to read a lot, and thus this should be translated into posting. Unusually February so far has entailed a lot of sitting in the office toiling away and the only real travel being done has been a case of sitting in a car through a South London commute. Book reading overall has fallen through the floor recently, so it's a real pleasure to draw a line under this one and, thankfully, get back to expressing some opinion.