Monday, 28 September 2009

“The Kingdom of Light”, Giulio Leoni

Set in 14th century Florence “The Kingdom of Light” presents the poet Dante Alighieri as a clerical investigator probing the mysterious appearance of a ship aground in the Arno, its crew all dead, with the sole clue being a strange broken machine.

From this beginning a complex story involving the Guelf and Ghibbeline conflict that dominated much of medieval Italian history, the clash between secular and religious power, and the legacy of the Emperor, Frederick II, unfolds, all set against the rich background of Florence in the middle ages. Leoni appropriates an intriguing set of historical characters to populate his story, Dante being joined by Cecco Angiolieri and Guido Bigarelli, embellished by artistic licence, but adding genuine colour to the story.

Leoni is also not above the occasional historical joke allowing the reader, with the benefit of wider hindsight, the periodic wry smile. Perhaps best of these is the throwaway comment by the philosopher Arrigo, when Dante fells a urinating member of a rival family with a well thrown stone, that Florence should consider erecting a statue of David.

The fusion of magic and reality in medieval Europe is vividly captured, with 'miracles' such as the Virgin of Antioch presented and the genuine puzzlement of intellectuals such as Dante when faced with what they feel should be impossible but cannot rationally explain is fascinating. As the story progresses, and 20th century physics merges with the scientific exploration inspired by Frederick II the background to the murder story grows more engaging and the broadening of the medieval mind becomes the real interest, almost dwarfing the central crime story.

In linking to Frederick II Leoni has access to one of the more intriguing and mysterious aspects of medieval history. As a ruler fascinated by scientific exploration that bordered on heresy, with a turbulent relationship with the Papacy, and through his Sicilian background, a ready openness to both Eastern and Western cultures, he provides a wealth of background material to work with. To those familiar with the history of the period the references to octagonal structures will bring to mind the strangely spectacular Castel Del Monte in Puglia, and it will be no surprise when this building does indeed come to play a role in the story.

The Frederick II story does however present a challenge for Leoni. The life of Stupor Mundi and the tragic tale of his successor, Conradin, told to gripping and moving effect by Steven Runciman in “The Sicilian Vespers”, is a considerable act to follow in fiction and it is to Leoni's real credit that he has managed to take this raw material and shape it into an utterly absorbing novel. It's a more vivid and lavish world than that populated by other medieval crime writers such as Michael Jecks or Bernard Knight, and in its Italian setting cannot fail to be likened to “The Name of the Rose” - to those that like their crime fiction in a distant historical setting, it should be on their must read list.

Monday, 21 September 2009

“The Dead of Winter”, Rennie Airth

Sometimes you come across a book that try as you might defies description beyond a somewhat bland "quite good". Rennie Airth's latest work was eagerly anticipated. His previous two John Madden mysteries were highly effective historic crime novels, combining a developed sense of tension with the bucolic idyll of Britain shortly after the Great War.

It's been some time since John Madden's previous outing, in 2005's "A Blood Dimmed Tide", and this, the final book in the trilogy sees time passing in Airth's universe too, with much of the book set in London during the winter of 1944. This inevitably invites comparisons with John Lawton's magisterial "Black Out", and sadly it doesn't quite live up.

"The Dead of Winter" suffers from what seems like a very slow start - taking a while before you're really gripped and multiple strands of the story being introduced without really making reader particularly care about the characters or the crime. This may be a reflection of John Madden's relatively low profile in the initial parts of the novel. His character is a rich and absorbing creation, and it's something of a shame that more isn't made of him. Admittedly this is rectified later in the work, but the slow start may make the reading experience more of an exercise in perseverance than it should be. This is compounded by dialogue which at times feels stilted and a feeling that Airth is trying too hard to set the wartime scene of rationing and bomb damage.

In parts two and three, there is a steady increase in pace and tension with a perceptible notion of building menace towards the inevitable dramatic denouement in the snow. The final 200 pages go a long way towards redeeming the book's earlier shortcomings. There is an ominous feel to it, and you feel that Airth is returning to where he really has form, threatening horrific violence amidst a peaceful countryside and finally making the book a lot harder to put down.

On reflection this is a troubled book that isn't quite as good as it should be. The core problem is the question as to whether the criminal is really believable? Layers of complexity are piled on, yet strangely it's unsatisfying, and slowly, steadily elements of credibility are easily unpicked in the readers' mind, ultimately leaving you somewhat flat. This means you're relying a lot on Airth's ability to portray the distant world of 1940s England, and here there's not quite enough.

The pace towards the conclusion saves "The Dead of Winter", but to be seen as a really good book this should have started much earlier. Sadly, while "quite good", it's not really a patch on the previous two books and not quite the conclusion to the Madden trilogy hoped for.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

“Rules of Vengeance”, Christopher Reich

Over the past 10 years or so Christopher Reich has made the progression from an author of somewhat erudite fiction (such as “Numbered Account” or “The Runner”) to the rather more populist and fantastic terrain of “The Patriot's Club”. As a frequent reader of his work I was surprised that I managed to miss the release of “Rules of Deception”, the first of the Jonathan Ransom books, and a chance purchase in Gatwick's WH Smith of “Rules of Vengeance” was all that alerted me to the existence of the predecessor and the “Rules” series.

“Rules of Vengeance” stands on its own and not having read its predecessor did not overly hurt, however there are sufficient references back to the previous book that one suspects a lot of the tension would be stripped out of it through knowledge of what takes place in book 2.

Undeniably fast paced and engaging “Rules of Vengeance” is a fine example of the chase thriller genre, taking its nod from classics such as “The 39 Steps” or “North by Northwest” with elements such as mistaken identity and a mysterious dynamic femme fatale. The way it overlays layer upon layer of action keeps up the relentless velocity of the story, and this in many ways serves to paper over the cracks that undeniably exist in the plot. The conspiracy at the heart of the novel is perhaps a touch over complex and stretches credibility when really thought about.

What Reich has in mind for core protagonist Ransom is somewhat enigmatic. Is he a subtle pawn of Connor, ensuring the core plot is foiled – but only just – to further high espionage aims? If so then why is so much left to chance and the whim of some of Connor's disillusioned agents? In terms of how the plot unfolds some of the core events, such as the opening murder of Robert Russell, ultimately pose questions as to why they had to take place in furthering the central story – or whether they were simply well executed set pieces that were inserted to keep the attention of the reader.

The character of Emma – another superhero like female character in the vein of Nikita, Stephanie Patrick, or Lisbeth Salander is also hard to completely unpick. Multiple levels of complexity in her background and motivations are revealed which causes the reader's sympathy towards her to swing radically over the course of the book, and ultimately one is left wondering how such a creation came to pass.

Interestingly, a degree of kudos must go to British political consultancy Oxford Analytica for managing to get quite such a significant plug in the course of the book. While not mentioned in the credits, as a real-world organisation this must constitute a highly successful piece of product placement.

As an erudite spy thriller there are simply too many holes in “Rules of Vengeance” for it to be truly satisfactory. It does however function superbly as a fast moving thriller. One cannot help however thinking that a touch more effort put into polishing the manuscript and ensuring loose ends were tied up and that a clearer narrative pathway to the highly surprising conclusion were provided. This aside, it's still a competent work that happily fulfils the needs of a relatively undemanding holiday read.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

“Halfhead”, Stuart MacBride

Over the last few years Stuart MacBride has become one of the authors whose output is anxiously awaited and enthusiastically read, having moved from the pool of writers who I'll happily pick up in the library or as an airport paperback to one whose hardbacks grace the shelves soon after release. As such it was a particular pleasure when Harper Collins Voyager saw fit to send me a copy of “Halfhead” in advance of release, and equally gratifying to discover that MacBride reveals himself to be so much more than a Logan McRae one trick Aberdonian pony.

Highlighting the problem posed by penning a largely successful series set in a particular milieux the complete departure from the contemporary Aberdeen of his previous work, “Halfhead” initially surprises the reader with its tone and setting. As such it will almost certainly irritate a number of hitherto loyal readers by being so fundamentally different to what has come before.

MacBride has often made the point of how if one writes about a murder in the middle ages this is seen as historical crime fiction, write about the present day, and it's crime fiction, yet set crime in the future and all of a sudden it's science fiction. I can see his point, science fiction carries with it a label that restricts its audience and has a lot of geek related intellectual baggage coming along with it. All this notwithstanding, despite “Halfhead” at heart being a remix of the police procedural versus serial killer theme the setting, role of technology, and manner in which society works all serve to justify labelling it as, at the very least, futuristic fiction.

Leaving labels aside “Halfhead” works very well at painting a picture of Scotland somewhere in the future. If you've wondered what Glasgow would be like cast by Philip K Dick (think Bladerunner or Total Recall) where the police are armed by someone who's spent lots of time playing Resistance Fall of Man on their PlayStation then “Halfhead” will fit the bill perfectly. As “future-crime” lots has changed, and initially there's the impression that all that's the same is the name, but as the novel progresses points of familiarity emerge and outside the dystopian towers of Sherman House and Monstrosity Square a more identifiable Glasgow emerges.

The process of 'Halfheading' – removing the lower jaw and lobotomising criminals – is designed to provide a vivid lesson that crime doesn't pay, but the point is also made that really the message is that getting caught doesn't pay. Despite the all pervasiveness of the surveillance society, the banishment of the disenfranchised to sprawling out of town developments, and obviously the draconian punishments available to the state, crime still takes place, and as Will Hunter discovers, walking through Kelvingrove Park at night is not an entirely safe or sensible choice.

Make no mistake, this is a different MacBride to what we've seen before. Even leaving aside the setting and sci-fi nature there is a lot less humour than is to be found with Logan McRae, and in its darkest moments extraordinarily deep depths are plumbed – with one of the most appalling pieces of sexual violence being just one of the side crimes perpetrated in the course of the book. Throughout however it's a compelling read and shows why the manuscript got MacBride his publishing deal. It's easy to separate it from his Aberdeen works and he's put in place an intriguing universe that one hopes will be revisited in future. In short, very good.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Kids are Alright

Summers are generally accepted to be about recharging batteries, spending time on things more pleasurable than daily toil, and building up a head of steam for a new school year - or - for those of long departed from the groves of academe, the ever tense run in to year-end. I chose to spend a week on the northern coast of Mallorca (of which more later) in an attempt to get a final fix of balmy idleness before September really took hold, but strangely it was on the flight back that the most positive experience of the whole time took place.

The young studenty couple in front of me on the British Airways 737 didn't do anything particularly extraordinary. They watched a bit of a film on his slightly oversize Acer laptop then opened up a Word 2003 document on "Is there such a thing a just war?". Over summer work for a pair of undergraduates? A Masters thesis soon to be submitted? General interest in just war theory? Who knows, and really who cares? It just makes such a refreshing change from what you often see, particularly when a holiday island such as Mallorca is involved.

Summer's ending and new academic years are beginning and people are still capable of creative thought. Holidays should be life affirming but this sight more than anything else fills me with hope and enthusiasm for getting on with things.

I don't know who the people in 12 E and F on BA2709 from Palma to Gatwick on Sunday night were, nor if they're even remotely likely to read this, but they deserve my thanks.