Review: A Long Shadow by Charles Todd

31 August 2007

A Long ShadowIt was Sherlock Holmes who said, “It’s my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Well, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard could certainly bear out the truth of that observation. The series of books by Charles Todd that chronicle the Inspector’s investigations seem invariably to take him to distant villages and isolated farms to solve murder and mayhem. The point of difference is that this is 1920, and Rutledge is a Great War victim, forever haunted (literally) by the ghost of his Scottish sergeant, Hamish, who he executed for desertion.

In fact, Charles Todd is the pen name of American Caroline Todd and her son Charles. But this doesn’t prevent them from very nicely using the period and the place to provide an effective back drop for the tortured but gifted Inspector Rutledge as he worries his way through the mystery of the moment. At times the plots and their mechanisms seem a trifle forced, the conversations with the ghostly Hamish can get a bit of a pain, and after a series currently up to nine, all set over a seven-month period in 1919-20, the Inspector’s anguish and inability to entertain, let alone sustain, a relationship, is getting just a bit too familiar to us.

A Long Shadow, number eight in the series, is a case in point. There are three mysteries rolled into one – Rutledge is receiving mysterious threats via a series of cartridge cases incised with poppies and skulls; he is sent to investigate the shooting of a village policeman with an arrow; and ends up searching for the body of a young girl missing for several years, possibly with the involvement of the skewered bobby. Throw in a mysterious woman medium, a strangely- belligerent publican, and several other suspicious characters of both sexes, and there is plenty for Rutledge to ponder. All of these mysteries are effectively resolved through a single event, after Rutledge has sorted out the means and motive, leaving him to contemplate his own demons ready for the next, apparently immediate, challenge. It must be very exhausting for him.

The interesting features of the series are that the sidekick is a ghost, and that the period and place are satisfyingly (and surprisingly) evocative. The forensics are extremely limited compared with the miracles we have come to expect from television crime shows, which leave a lot for the little grey cells and an awareness of human nature to work on – much more satisfying.


Publisher: Harper ISBN-10: 0060786728 ISBN-13: 978-0060786724

Inspector Ian Rutledge series:

A False Mirror, A Long Shadow, A Cold Treachery, A Fearsome Doubt, Watchers of Time, Legacy of the Dead, Search the Dark, Wings of Fire, and A Test of Wills

Review: The Dead Hour by Denise Mina

28 August 2007


The Dead HourPaddy Meehan is the kind of character who stays in your brain and has you wanting more. Like Maureen O’Donnell in Denise Mina’s earlier Garnethill trilogy, Paddy is a plucky battler in a grim Glasgow. The Dead Hour is set in Thatcher’s Britain against the backdrop of epoch-ending changes to the newspaper world.

This is the second of Denise Mina’s books about Paddy Meehan, who has moved from a copy boy at a traditional daily newspaper to being the night shift crime reporter. Although it’s recognised that the night shift is there only as insurance against the death of the Queen Mother or similarly major event, Paddy does take it seriously as a stepping stone to something better.

While attending a police call-out to a noise complaint, Paddy sees an injured woman, but does nothing, nor do the police. The rest of the book is a tense and thrilling unravelling of events at the house and subsequently. Thanks to the author, we get to see the action from the vantage points of different characters directly involved in the story and the chain of tragic actions that underpin it. This means that we get to see and appreciate the dogged and clever way that Paddy works through what she knows and sees in order to resolve the story, at some risk to herself.

T he brilliance of the writing is in the way that Paddy’s character and spirit are conveyed by her interactions with the journalists and police, family and friends that make up her Glasgow. The lives of poor, unemployed, Irish Catholics, the corruption of some policemen but the dedication of others, the unthinking chauvinism of the men she works with, not to mention her own battles with food and figure, and her engagement with them, all make Paddy Meehan a memorable character.

But its not just Paddy. All of the characters are carefully drawn – the cocaine queen Kate, who brings it all about, Paddy’s ex-boyfriend Sean, her mother Tricia, the policeman George Burns, who is also a comedian and more, and Farquarson, the editor – and the plot rattles along to a conclusion. There are a couple of stings to the tail to ponder about for the next book in the series, The Last Breath. I can’t wait.

Details: Publisher: Bantam Books; ISBN-10: 0553818937; ISBN-13: 978-0553818932

Other novels by Denise Mina:

Garnethill, Exile, Resolution – Garnethill trilogy; Sanctum; The Field of Blood – Paddy Meehan

Review: Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks

24 August 2007

cruelpoetry_cover.jpgBack when I was starting to make crime fiction the main source of my reading, I was strongly influenced by John Williams’ 1991 book, Into the Badlands, about a journey through America talking to crime writers. He met people like Elmore Leonard, James Crumley, James Ellroy, Sara Paretsky, Tony Hillerman, George V Higgins, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, James Lee Burke, Gar Haywood, Joe Gores, Eugene Izzi, Joseph Koenig, Nick Tosches, and Andrew Vachss, with cross-references to many more. What was compelling about the book was the way that Williams wove in the locations which are so much part of the writers’ achievements – Elmore Leonard’s Miami and Detroit, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago, George V Higgins’ Boston, James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, James Lee Burke’s Louisiana. Anyway, these and many others now fill my shelves and have given much pleasure. And its not just the combinations of character, place and plot, it’s also the styles and language – Burke’s compelling use of words to describe places and moments and people, and the wonderful ways that both Leonard and Higgins use dialogue to tell the story and fill in the character.

So it was with some interest that I approached Back To The Badlands, in which John Williams recounts his 2005 revisiting of crime writing in the US. Some of it is a rehash of his earlier trip but much of it is new. Williams goes to Washington DC and talks to George Pelecanos, which is interesting because I lived there in the 1980s when a lot of his writing is set. Then its back to Miami, to meet Vicki Hendricks (you see, there is point to this), who he describes as “one of the very few women writing contemporary noir fiction. That’s noir as opposed to hard-boiled or simply crime fiction”. Turns out that Williams is Hendricks’ editor, but what he wrote about her made me put her on the list of people to read. Next was South California and Kem Nunn; Texas for Jesse Sublett and Kinky Friedman (during his campaigning for Governor); Missouri for Dan Woodrell, who Williams describes as “one of the very best writers, in or out of crime fiction, in America”; and finally in Hollywood with Terrill Lankford. Well, Kinky I’ve read, and now Kem Nunn and Dan Woodrell (who is very good), so when I found Vicki Hendricks’ Cruel Poetry in Dymocks I was well pleased. Cruel Poetry is full of sex and death, but it never seems to be sleazy or obsessively violent. Perhaps this is because the prose is clean and clear and the blood and pain is a natural and inevitable consequence of the action and of the characters’ interactions with each other.

Read the rest of this entry »

Film Review: Breach

18 August 2007

Breach is about betrayal. Based on actual events, it explores why a man would want to betray his country, but also questions why someone would want to live in a world of secrets and lies.

Robert Hanssen, brilliantly portrayed by Chris Cooper, was the FBI agent who sold secrets to the Soviet Union. The film covers the last couple of months before his capture as Eric O’Neill, a young and ambitious FBI employee (Ryan Philippe) who wants to make agent is put next to Hanssen to try and flush him out. The FBI want to catch him making a drop so that no amount of legal dexterity can save the spy.

The story is about how Eric gets close to Hanssen and gains his trust, at some cost to Eric’s relationship with his wife. Juliana, and eventually to his ambitions to be an agent. Hanssen believes that he is smarter than his colleagues, but hasn’t received adequate recognition – he doesn’t have a corner office. You get the impression that he is passing on secrets because he can, and perhaps because of a troubled relationship with his father. There are hints of some strange behaviours – Hanssen films videos of himself making love to his wife and sends them to someone in Germany. In the end, unmasking and capture are inevitable, but perhaps that’s part of the game: he wants to be caught, he wants to be guilty, he wants to be as hard on himself as he is on everyone else, and as his father was on him. Also in the end, he is outsmarted by Eric, or is it because he wants to be?

The acting by Chris Cooper is great, and the main supports, Ryan Philippe and Laura Linney as Eric’s handler, help build the mood of the film. This is not a full-on action special spy thriller, but it is a clever and thoughtful story that does leave you thinking.

The director is Billy Ray, more details of cast and crew can be found at the IMDB page for Breach.

Review: The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin

14 August 2007

John Rebus is another Chandlerian hero, another flawed but true pursuer of justice, another cynical idealist. In The Naming of the Dead, Ian Rankin gives us Rebus at his most reflective and introspective as he examines his motives and beliefs.

The book is set in July 2005, with the G8 taking place at Gleneagles, and the 7/7 bombing in London. The place is full of various security experts, Scotland is awash with protesters of all ages, and Rebus is facing his traditional foes – the police hierarchy, Big Ger Cafferty, and his own relationships. There are recurring themes of death and guilt, of power and corruption, of deception and disguise. There are bodies, a serial killer is on the loose; a politician falls to his death, George Bush falls of his mountain bike.

The boundary between good and evil also becomes blurred – Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’ sidekick, succumbs to the temptations offered by Cafferty; Rebus, also, sups with this particular devil. It is this, perhaps, that suggests just a hint of seriesitis – the hero’s evil protagonist starts to loom larger, and is not a totally unsympathetic figure; the plot mechanisms are complex and many. But it’s still great.

Review: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

7 August 2007

Mark Haddon brought us The Curious Incident of the Dog In the the Night-time, which was excellent. I don’t think that this next book quite matches it. It’s about families, and how they work, or don’t work some of the time (perhaps all of the time). It’s about what makes a family and what is important in a relationship.

George is retired and losing his mind as his body seems to be letting him down; his wife Jean is contemplating a new life with her lover; Katie, the daughter, is about to get married to Ray but isn’t sure why; and Jamie, the gay son, has split up with Tony because he doesn’t want him at the wedding. The book chronicles George’s descent into confusion as the wedding comes closer and the various characters have to confront the relationships in their lives and try to work out what is important.

Review: Echo Park by Michael Connelly

5 August 2007

Michael Connelly gets better and better. This latest in the Harry Bosch series has a great plot, with lots of twists, plus a suitable set characters, many of whom we have met before. The action is driven by Bosch’s attachment to a case from 1993 that he couldn’t solve then, even when he thought he knew who his most likely suspect was. When a killer arrested on other charges offers to cough for the cold case in exchange for his life, and leads the police to the body, it looks like a slam dunk. But this takes us to only half way through the book so you know that its not quite that simple, especially when there’s a lot of politics involved.

A risk that a lot of series writers face is making sure that their books are not too formulaic and that their fascination with their character and his development (or lack of it) doesn’t take over the story. Many of those characteristics are here – cop partner loyalty, protagonist inability or unwillingness to address issues thus pushing away those who want to get close, uncooperative and bureaucratic police hierarchies, amazingly smart and well-read serial killers etc, etc – but they don’t get too much in the way. So provided you don’t get too frustrated with Bosch’s obsessions, he’s a good illustration of Chandler’s vision of the hero of crime fiction:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, 1944