Saturday, 29 August 2009

“Blood Money”, Tom Bradby

Journalist and Royal Correspondent Tom Bradby has been slowly but surely carving out a niche for himself with a loosely connected series of historical crime thrillers ranging in scope from revolutionary Russia to World War II Cairo. "Blood Money", topically in today's environment, sets a police corruption and sexual serial killer story against the background of 1929 New York and the Wall Street Crash. Covering the decisive few days that saw the end of the 1920s boom and the run up to the New York mayoral elections of 1929, it sees honest detective Joe Quinn seeking to unpick a series of murders and disappearances linked to his family and which exist in the context of a deeply corrupt city. As a story it is absorbing and immersive, the core police procedural being overlayed with historical detail and the complex family relationships of the Quinn family.

"Blood Money" exists in the same universe Bradby has created for his other historical crime novels, and thus there is a level of interconnection that slightly frustrates. The gap between publishing the books meant that for me, the details of characters in other books were a touch hazy, which led to undue effort early on trying to plot the relations between characters in this novel and those in his others. This serves to lessen the force that underpins the start to "Blood Money", which otherwise is powerful and sets the frenetic noirish pace that carries throughout the novel. Ultimately however you realise that this is entirely a standalone work, and the linkages really don't matter in the wider scheme of things, which allows you to concentrate on the really rather good central story. This raises the question as to whether somehow Bradby would be better off creating entirely new characters with no real relations to the other books each time?

For all the depth of historical detail, Bradby is deliberately unspecific about precise dates. This allows you, with a vague grasp of what happened in the Wall Street Crash, to start to locate events and understand where in the climacteric period of late October 1929 the story takes place. The time period covered ends as rumours abound that the collapsing market has been stemmed, appearing to offer closure in a wider sense than just the central crime story, however broader historical events, such as the outcome of La Guardia's mayoral campaign, are left unanswered, relying on history to relate what ultimately happened . This is an oft recurring theme with Bradby, and it's effective. Just as "The God of Chaos" finishes just before the seismic battle of El Alamein, the reader is left understanding how much more of a cataclysm awaits the central characters they have grown to identify with, reinforcing the picture of ordinary people's overwhelming dramas being carried away by the great sweep of history.

While Bradby has developed an unmistakable style of writing, one of his key strengths is to avoid producing boilerplate fiction. This is achieved partially through his mastery of different historical settings, all of which have an air of authenticity (and his depiction here of New York is no different), but there is sufficient diversity in detail in the way his superficially similar plots are delivered. While there is betrayal in "Blood Money", it differs in scale and nature from that found in his other works, similarly the corruption of characters' souls takes a subtly different form to that which we've uncovered in the past. This combination of sticking to what he's genuinely very good at, and simultaneously tweaking the formula keeps his writing fresh and makes for a reading experience that's genuinely enjoyable

Thursday, 20 August 2009

“Powersat”, Ben Bova

Ben Bova's “Powersat” is an intriguing neither fish nor fowl book. Classified by Bromley libraries as Science Fiction, probably legitimately given the author's background, at heart it is a near future techno-thriller centred on a private enterprise attempt to harness solar energy. Throughout there is the impression that this is a case of a Sci Fi author trying to write a post 9/11 terrorism related thriller – and this reveals a number of cracks. Bova is clearly accomplished in writing the science fiction aspects, the overarching technological vision, the clever cues showing how the present could morph into the future, and the grandeur of harnessing space all work well. He is however less convincing writing about the more earthly issues of terrorism, where somehow it doesn't quite work.

Core character Dan Randolph is a curiosity. As a successful entrepreneur, engineer, and obsessive amontillado enthusiast, has some slightly curious tastes – for such an urbane bon viveur is it really credible that he has never heard of Armagnac? In his personal life he is annoyingly petulant in a teenage like manner with his lovestruck obsessing about his now-US Senator ex. Professionally however he has an air of credibility and his vision has an appealing clarity to it.

The writing does at times frustrate stylistically – early on in the novel I was swearing if Julian Scheer's “rain makes applesauce” phrase was used once more I'd become ill and violent, and the delivery of this phrase is pretty unrelenting. Equally Randolphs's reference everything slightly wrong, from a late starting FBI agent to the IRS to terrorists meddling with his satellite is “double damned”. I'm as much of a swearing enthusiast as the next man, but in such things variety really is the spice of life. In a similar vein some plot lines, such as the environmental protests against Randolph's power generation satellite are left somewhat hanging, and a number of characters, including the appealing FAA investigator, Dr Passeau, are not satisfactorily closed out.

All this notwithstanding as a thriller it works as it should – it preserves tension throughout and genuinely keeps you wondering about how it will resolve itself. The fact that the plot isn't suffused with saccharine happy ever after fates for all concerned reinforces the underlying impact of the book. It moves at an unremitting pace, from the graphic disintegration of a spaceplane and the death of its test pilot in the opening pages to the high drama of the denouement it's the sort of book that's an ideal easy reading companion.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

“Murder at Deviation Junction”, Andrew Martin

There was a pleasing circularity to reading Andrew Martin's “Murder at Deviation Junction” last week. Back in 2006 when proximity to Beckenham library prompted me to start using public libraries the first book I borrowed was Edward Marston's “Railway Detective”. This first exposure to 19th century rail based crime fiction wasn't all that auspicious, while the story was reasonably absorbing and the book happily finished, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was all a bit silly and far fetched – and not in a good way.

It is thus a particular delight that Andrew Martin's treatment of crime and the railways is much more fulfilling. Rob Kitchen, in his very good “View from the Blue House” blog, has highlighted the importance of location in crime fiction, and “Murder at Deviation Junction” undoubtedly recognises this. One of the keys to this is the way in which the author immerses the reader in the industrial power house that was the North East of Edwardian England. The opening scenes amongst the blast furnaces of Middlesbrough in the snow set the tone, summed up neatly by Harry Stringer, the three year old son of lead character, Jim Stringer, when he comments that “Everything's on fire, Dad”, when looking out over the night skyline outside Redcar. Fittingly for the long 19th century, the railways lie at the heart of this cauldron and their description too is evocative, with scenes such as the 'Gateshead Infant' (a Class V Atlantic, fittingly now in 2009 being resurrected by the Great Northern Steam Company) crossing the Ouse capturing the scale of the railways in the period.

Jim Stringer is a delight as a character. In many way's he's the antithesis to the eminently capable Edwardian detective often presented to us; a failed train driver, flailing with police work, and somewhat henpecked by his bluestocking wife, he nonetheless is thoroughly appealing. His commitment to tracking down the secret behind the Whitby-Middlesborough Travelling Club and the murder of photographer Paul Peters is driven not so much by an earnest quest for truth as a means to resuscitate his police career. As such, for all he is at times a touch crude and rough around the edges, it's impossible not to warm to him, and see him largely come good in the end.

The rich character of Stringer is just one reflection of the keen way in which Martin observes the human condition and brings his story to life. Characters comment on the mundane, such as the almost plaintive opinion on spectacles, that “ it's not so much being able to see that I miss as taking them of to rub on my sleeve” the somewhat hapless reporter, Steve Bowman expresses, and this all serves to deepen our appreciation for the world depicted for us.

It is somewhat disappointing that the denouement is a touch drawn out and doesn't really hang together. This reflects some of the greater shortcomings to the plot. Ultimately it doesn't quite live up to the rich universe, the crime eventually exposed seeming almost disappointingly mundane and some aspects of the storyline leaving the reader scratching their heads about why exactly things have happened.

All this notwithstanding “Murder at Deviation Junction” is a genuinely good read, and follows enjoyably in the footsteps of other fusions of railroads and murder, such as “Murder on the Orient Express” and “North by Northwest”. It may not be such a glamorous picture of travelling by train as these other, later, works, but shows the combination of crime and the steady relentless progress offered by the railway is one, when well done, consistently works.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

“The Alamut Ambush”, Anthony Price

Anthony Price is one of these authors whose popularity in the 1960s and 1970s has sadly not proved persistent into the new century. Now, with just a few of his books in print through Orion's Crime Masterworks series finding his work is a case of luck in libraries and earnestly hunting through charity shops.

This is a real pity. At his best, with books such as "Other Paths to Glory", his writing is compelling and the fusion of history and Cold War espionage provides an interesting and informative new angle on the well trodden terrain of spy fiction. At other times he doesn't quite fire on all cylinders, and you somehow have to be in the humour for him. "The Alamut Ambush" is one of these 'not quite' sort of books. It's been lurking on the bookshelf for well over a year now, teetering on the brink of going back to the charity shop and joining the ranks of abandon-ware. Thankfully, largely down to happenstance, it coming to hand when idly looking for something to read, and, prosaically, it easily fitting in my pocket, it got a second chance.

Set in the early 1970s against the backdrop of the Arab-Israeli conflict the atmosphere of Britain at that time is richly captured. The setting is one of tired tawdriness, Britain still has aspirations and a role to play, but it's starting to look a little shabby and threadbare.

The core character, RAF pilot and intelligence officer Hugh Roskill, is a rich and well rounded character. The intersection of personal and professional interest as he unpicks the murder of a young intelligence technician and links it with the complexities of Middle Eastern politics provides pace to the novel and keeps the reader consistently interested as he moves through London clubland at night and the rainy Hampshire countryside. The underlying plot, of a nascent Israeli-Egyptian rapprochement as terrorism rises to be the means of interaction between Arab and Jew is prescient, coming as it does, well before the Camp David accords, and reflects the political ambiguities and shifting allegiances running beneath what often can seem a blunt zero sum conflict.

Price often leaves the bigger picture unstated, focusing on what individuals do and leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. This works effectively here, the details of the wider conspiracy, the precise threat posed by the 'Alamut' group (which will come as no real surprise to those familiar with history of the region) and the 'ambush' of the title, are largely left unsaid, and this makes them all the more real, and allows Price to build up a story of real and engaging depth in a scant 189 pages.

This probably isn't the best of Price's books, but I'm still very glad to have had another go at it. It's a shame his work is now so hard to find. In the endorsements on the back he's likened to Eric Ambler, and there are certainly echoes of this here, and there are also notes of John LeCarre, with parts feeling very similar to some of his John Smiley works and "The Honourable Schoolboy" in particular. If you happen to stumble across one of his books, most likely these days in a jumble sale or dusty second hand bookshop, you could do a lot worse than give him a go.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

“Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: the Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan”, Antonio Giustozzi

Honesty up front, even though I first met Antonio Giustozzi at a MacArthur Foundation conference in the mid 1990s, and generally appreciate what he has to say - I haven't read "Khoran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop", even if it does seem a reasonably interesting read.

The current issue of "Asian Affairs" has a review of it which is testament to how to damn with faint praise. The last sentence in particular is particularly breathtaking.

This book provides interesting data on insurgent recruitment, problems within the Afghan army and police, and more: America spends $15m for every insurgent it kills. Yet the book lacks context of any kind. No maps are provided, nor history, and there is little background on key individuals or tribal complexities. If the reader does not know his Achikzais from his Alizais, or the background on Hazrat Ali or Jalaludin Haqqani, most of the book will be inaccessible. It is a pite, for a substantial re-write would have produced a volume of tactical and historical value.

While this seems harsh, I should stress that this is just the concluding paragraph from S. J. Masty's longer review of this and another work on Afghanistan (on pp.297-298 of the July 2009 edition) it strikes me as a genuinely effective review. It flags up the strengths and weaknesses of a book in an effective way, highlighting who is likely to be the best audience for it, and critically doing so in an engaging and memorable way.

In a world where people all too often are reluctant to speak their minds, this is really refreshing.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

“Stop Me”, Richard Parker

Explicitly aimed at the holiday reading market, most clearly shown by the innovative marketing approach taken by publishers Allison & Busby in having author signings in airports through August, Richard Parker's debut novel, "Stop Me", is a novel about murder, kidnap, insanity, and mistrust.

The central premise is that of an email chain letter with a deeply dark edge. The killer starts a chain email, describing the victim and asking the recipients to pass on the message if they want them to be saved. If they receive the email back through the usual chain mail process the victim is saved, otherwise they are killed. This is a somewhat unsettling premise; it plays to our fears of randomness in the world, and our awareness that most of us would delete a message like that, regarding it as an obvious case of spam. However it does raise an interesting question. Spam is very much an internet age phenomenon, transcending the familiar territory of junk mail into something much more intrusive. In this day and age however there is the real question of whether a chain letter ever really works. Reading "Stop Me" made me think when last I'd opened an obvious piece of spam even remotely akin to that sent by the "Vacation Killer"? Spam still unquestionably exists, but the vast majority of it is swept unseen into spam or junk mail folders in our email clients. In this light, is "Stop Me" destined to be a curiosity piece representative of a fleeting period in the late 20th and early 21st century?

It is often held that the higher the body count the lower the overall level of shock, as the reader undergoes a process of desensitisation. Put cinematically a drama with a lone death will remain with the viewer much longer than a hackneyed 'slasher movie'. "Stop Me" is unflinching in its violence. In the first two brief chapters 12 people die, and the central kidnapping takes place. However, this is less a story about murder as one man's attempt to come terms with the disappearance of his wife. The shock experienced by protagonist Leo Sharpe at the utterly unexpected disappearance of Laura and the freefall his life enters into in its aftermath is compelling, if at times perplexing.

The book is written in a sparse, minimalist style and predominantly told from Leo's internalised perspective. This won't work for everyone, and isn't usually what I would go for. It has upsides and downsides. Positively, it keeps the plot moving along with the minimum of distraction, and focuses the reader on the core story of Leo Sharpe's quest for his wife, driven by his unshakeable conviction that she is not dead. Conversely it means that the plot lacks a level of richness and sense of place, and in missing out in some more subtle narrative tools the reading experience at times feels on the shallow side. This also has the effect of leaving questions in the back of the reader's mind about the deeper motivations of characters such as the enigmatic Dr Mutatkar and the sinister Cleaves.

Declan Burke on the Crime Always Pays blog, writing about John Banville, makes the point that "crime fiction fans tend to favour character, plot and narrative over the inventive use of language". This is probably a fair point, and in the case of "Stop Me", at times the emphasis is placed on plot to the exclusion of almost anything else; and thankfully, the plot is great. Tension is maintained throughout the full 336 pages, with a deep curiosity about the motivations underpinning the "Vacation Killer", exploring Leo's journey through the crisis his life has fallen into, and ultimately waiting to discover what precisely is the tableau being presented by Parker is, and this is certainly not one easily predicted. The effect of this is to overwhelm any reservations about linguistic sophistication and comparatively one dimensional characterisation and ensures that at no point is there a temptation to cast the book aside.

It's not great literature, it's probably not the best crime novel of 2009, but as an engaging take on how the internet mixed with celebrity culture can complicate the traditional serial killer story, delivered in a fast paced way, it works.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

“The Headhunter”, Paul Kilduff

There is a certain poignancy to reading an early 21st century financial thriller in late 2009. The wholescale discrediting of the financial sector over the last 12 months has led to an inherent and unsurprised linkage in most people's minds between criminality and banking, which lends a crime novel set in a more earnest era, where there was a grain of respectability to the profession, a somewhat quaint air. Indeed it almost feels natural, that if bankers are capable of destroying livelihoods, then why should it be surprising that at least one of them is capable of being a serial killer?

Highly reminiscent of Michael Ridpath's series of crime novels with a financial setting, "The Headhunter" capitalises on the rich background provided by the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, to set a tale of corporate corruption and murder. While the identities of the perpetrators is revealed comparatively early (and in retrospect there are a couple of additional cross-cultural clues that should make it obvious from the outset) the motivations are explored progressively over the course of the novel, and Kilduff manages to preserve mounting tension and genuine curiosity about how the book will pan out.

The main characters, Adam the young, new FX trader, Samantha the harassed woman trader, Bruce the consummate player, and Henry, the city recruitment consultant, are rounded, well painted, and can be identified with, and they are ably backed by a cast of supporting figures, all of whom are believable. That is, of course, not to say that they are all sympathetic, indeed some are truly odious, but given the setting this comes as no surprise. The main characters however are ones that you can readily identify with and care about their fates, which is critical for a novel such as this.

In a book like this authenticity is key, and here Kilduff, drawing one assumes on his personal experience in banking, scores highly. The lives of bankers are seen as lavish, but transient, luxury flats being furnished by letting companies, or strangely empty, while there is a warmth to where those of more ordinary aspirations live. The only slightly jarring note is the staggeringly low aspirations of the various characters regarding their cars – no Aston Martins or Porsches here – but instead BMW 320s and Audi A4s being seen as the height of desirability, which, if true, might gives rise to some worries among the manufacturers of such exotica. Cars aside, this emptiness in the lives of many hints at the central point, made by several characters, that few want to live in the financial sector forever, instead spending some time there, making some money, then doing something else. Indeed, the characters more wedded to the financial life are by far the more contorted personalities. This warts and all portrayal goes a long way towards taking any remaining gloss from the Square Mile.

I note Paul Kilduff, following his dalliance with budget airlines, is returning to the broad genre of crime or mystery fiction, which based on the quality of "The Headhunter", is enormously good news. I very much look forward to reading more.