Review: Naked to the Hangman by Andrew Taylor

28 October 2007

nakedtothehangman.jpgAndrew Taylor is an excellent writer. This has been shown in his previous books in the Lydmouth series, with Richard Thornhill as his troubled Detective Chief Inspector in a 1950s provincial town. It is also apparent in The American Boy, an intriguing and well-crafted story set in Regency England and involving Edgar Allan Poe as a young boy. And it is especially apparent in the dark and compelling Roth trilogy. Andrew Taylor (as Andrew Saville) also gave us Bergerac, and a number of other books, including the Dougal series, now being reissued.

In Naked to the Hangman, Richard Thornhill seems to have moved on from his sporadic affair with Jill Francis, the local newspaper editor, to a new source of guilt. This revolves around a period he spent in Palestine in the late 1940s attached to the police force operating in the last years of the British Mandate there. Thornhill got involved in questionable activities which led, in part to the inadvertent shooting of a young Jewish girl, sister of a member of Jewish terrrorist organisation. The past has caught up with Richard Thornhill as the brother seeks his revenge.

The action moves in parallel with torrential rain and flooding in Lydmouth that heightens the tension of the inhabitants, who are soon faced with violent death and kidnapping, not to mention the loss of a purse. There are unforeseen consequences for many of Lydmouth’s inhabitants, and their relationships. These include a nicely drawn picture of adolescent lust, and the tensions of two women living together. We also learn more about Thornhill’s wife, Edith, and his children, especially Elizabeth, who is at the centre of much of the action, and about his colleagues

The atmosphere of the time and place is well caught, especially the social norms and prejudices, but somehow the plot is not compelling and is not satisfying. Perhaps we will need to await further books in the series to find out what the impact really is on Richard and Edith Thornhill, and on Jill Francis – this book feels as though its setting the scene for something. So, a bit of a disappointment, but that won’t put me off continuing to read Andrew Taylor.

Details: Publisher Hodder ISBN: 978 0 340 92150 0 (A format) 978 0 340 89521 4 (B format)

Other books by Andrew Taylor:

Lydmouth series (1994- ) – An Air That Kills, The Mortal Sickness, The Lover of the Grave, The Suffocating Night, Where Roses Fade, Death’s Own Door, Call The Dying
Roth trilogy (1997-2000) – The Four Last Things, The Judgment of Strangers, The Office of the Dead
Dougal series (1982-1993) – Caroline Minuscule, Waiting for the End of the World, Our Fathers’ Lies, An Old School Tie, Freelance Death, Blood Relation, The Sleeping Policeman, Odd Man Out
Blaines trilogy (1987-1990) – The Second Midnight, Blacklist, Toyshop
Bergerac (1985-1988, as Andrew Saville) – Bergerac: Crimes of the Season, Bergerac and the Fatal Weakness, Bergerac and the Traitor’s Child, Bergerac and the Jersey Rose, Bergerac and the Moving Fever
Other books – The American Boy (An Unpardonable Crime in the US)
Hairline Cracks, Private Nose, Snapshot, Double Exposure, The Raven on the Water, Negative Image, The Barred Window, The Invader, A Stain on the Silence

Review: Never End by Åke Edwardson

22 October 2007

neverend.jpgÅke Edwardson is another Scandinavian writer, in this case Swedish, whose translated books are a welcome addition. I had previously read Sun and Shadow, which introduced Chief Inspector Erik Winter, of Gothenburg, described on the jacket as “the youngest chief inspector in Sweden; he wears sharp suits, cooks gourmet meals, has a penchant for jazz…” In Never End, Gothenburg is sweltering under an unusually hot summer sun, and Winter and his team are faced with a series of rapes and murders that seem to be linked with an unsolved crime from five years before. The victims are all young women, girls really, with no apparent link except that they have all just graduated from school and are on the threshold of their lives.

The heat of the summer gives a sense of suspension and unreality that adds to the frustration of the police team, as they struggle with uncooperative witnesses and the increasing awareness of breakdown and inevitability. The resolution moves between the sun and light of sunbathing teenagers to the depths of the city’s clubland and crime scene, with a shaded spot in a city park as their nexus.

In this story, the characters and motivations of the Winter and his colleagues are as important as the plot and its mechanisms. Relationships, especially, are key, whether hinted at or obvious. Much of this is conveyed through dialogue, and the effectiveness says much for the skills of the translator, Laurie Thompson. The flow and rhythm of the writing is effective in maintaining the tension as well as illustrating the characters and the relationships.

The book was originally written in 2000 and while forensic technology has a part, it does not obtrude to take over or solve things. That is left to the hard work and insights of Erik Winter and his friends and colleagues. It also reflects their dedication, perhaps obsession, with their job that is in danger of outweighing the rest of their lives. This is especially illustrated through Winter’s relationship with his partner Angela and their baby daughter, Elsa.

In his books, Åke Edwardson shows us Gothenburg,the second-largest city in Sweden, so its not the rural/provincial flatness of Henning Mankell’s Skane, or the intrigues of Liza Marklund’s Stockholm. But it does reflect the changing nature of Swedish society and the responses to it.

Details: Publisher: Vintage Books ISBN: 978-0-099-47206-3

Other books by Åke Edwardson (in English) – Sun and Shadow, Frozen Tracks.

For a fuller list, including untranslated books, see the Wikipedia entry on Åke Edwardson.

Film Review: La Vie en Rose

14 October 2007

Edith PiafLa Vie en Rose (La Môme) is the story of Edith Piaf as told by director Olivier Dahan, and lead Marion Cotillard. This is certainly Piaf behind the scenes, chronicling a childhood of being constantly separated from the people and places she gets to know, to a life as a street singer, before being discovered and making the big time. In the end, living her life for the moment catches up with her, and the moment is passed at only 47.

In a way this could be just another drugs, sex and rock and roll movie, albeit with some nice period touches – Paris, New York and California in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. But what makes it different is its quality, whether it is the acting, the writing, or their realisation on the screen.

Marion Cotillard brings us Edith as an impatient, troubled woman, who looks to St Therese de Lisieux to help her through life, with support from lots of alcohol and drugs. Edith’s first rescuer, nightclub owner Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) is murdered and she is suspected of complicity but is acquitted. However, this was a setback to her career until she came under the wing of Raymond Asso, and the rest is history.

After the war, Edith Piaf toured the USA, where she met the love of her life, the married boxer Marcel Cerdan. The importance of this relationship to her is illustrated through a fantasy scene when she learns of his death in a plane crash. After that, it seems to have gone downhill on the relationship side, even if the career was taking off big time. In the end the drugs and rehab, the booze, and the car crashes, all took their toll on the body, including the liver, and the end is inevitable.

The movie flashes around Edith’s life, beginning with a collapse on stage, going back to her childhood, and then working its way backwards and forwards to the end. The effect is successful. It illustrates and emphasizes the nature of her life and the relationships in it, including that with her half-sister, Simone. Although names are dropped, e.g Cocteau has her in a play, and we see Marlene Dietrich drop by at New York club, most of the action is with Edith’s circle.

Marion Cotillard becomes Edith Piaf, and while the big-eyed look is perhaps overdone, her performance is extraordinary, and she carries the movie with her. She uses the whole of her body – the damaged walk of later years, the arm gestures, and the joyfully bad manners – to give us the character. In the end, this is a very good movie, because it explains something to us about a life that has become a legend and a symbol.

For more details go to the IMDB site for this movie. To see a great review, and links to YouTube videos of Edith Piaf, go to Roger Ebert.

Review: End of Chapter by Nicholas Blake

7 October 2007

EndofChapterIt is sometimes instructive to look again at some of the English writers of detective fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, in order to remind ourselves of just how the marriage of clever plots and good writing can produce satisfying books. In particular, there were a number of authors, famous in other spheres, writing under pseudonyms, who brought these qualities to their work. Examples include John Innes Mackintosh Stewart, a university professor who, as Michael Innes, created Inspector (later Sir) John Appleby; and the composer Robert Bruce Montgomery, who wrote as Edmund Crispin about the Oxford don Gervase Fen, who solved complex and fantastic crimes. One of the more illustrious of these writers was C Day Lewis, the university professor and poet who became poet laureate from 1968-1972. His private detective was Nigel Strangeways, an Oxford graduate who works closely with the police.

End of Chapter is set in a traditional book publisher, Wenham & Geraldine. Nigel Strangeways is called in to investigate the sabotage of a printers proof which has reinstated libellous material. Strangeways meets the partners, readers and other employees of the firm who could have done the deed, including one of their authors – an unpleasant woman – who eventually provides the corpse. The investigation turns up the usual possible motives of sex (sort of) and money, and the importance of past events, leading to the unmasking of the culprit and the resolution of the crimes.

The characterisation is fairly stereotyped (as this sort of book tends to do, it reeks of class snobbery), and if the plot machinery creaks a bit it still works. But it is the quality and precision of the language that shine through in a way that is not always apparent in more modern writing.

Details: Publisher (Mastercrime edition) J M Dent ISBN: 0-460-02408-6

Other books by Nicholas Blake:

Nigel Strangeways –

A Question of Proof , End of Chapter, Head of a Traveller, Malice in Wonderland, Minute for Murder, The Beast Must Die, The Dreadful Hollow, The Morning After Death, The Sad Variety, The Smiler with the Knife, The Whisper in the Gloom, The Widow’s Cruise, The Worm of Death, There’s Trouble Brewing, Thou Shell of Death

Other stories:

The Case of the Abominable Snowman, A Penknife in My Heart, A Tangled Web, The Deadly Joker, The Nicholas Blake Omnibus, The Private Wound

Review: Jacquot and the Master by Martin O’Brien

6 October 2007

Jacquot and the MasterThe defining characteristic of Daniel Jacquot is that, as a loose forward for France’s rugby team, he scored a famous try to defeat England at Twickenham. Two decades on he is a homicide Chief Inspector with the Marseilles judiciare, but after a fight with a colleague has been banished up-country to Cavaillon. That story is told in Jacquot and the Waterman, in which he tracks a serial killer. The underlying theme of these books is Provence, both the countryside and the city of Marseilles, and the combination of scenery, food and people, which make this such a magical part of the world. Oh, and Jacquot has a ponytail and smokes dope – clearly an outlaw.

In Jacquot and the Master, the chief inspector does not appear until page 99, and the first body is not found until page 321. This allows O’Brien time to build the suspense, which revolves around the Master, Auguste Vilotte – an aging artist, a relic of the great days of Picasso, Dali, Dufy and Chagall – and the intrigues going on to capture not only Vilotte’s works, but also his fabled collection of his contemporaries’ masterpieces and memorabilia. The scene is set in a luxury hotel, a remodelled castle-cum-monastery with a magnificent kitchen, and a cast of potential murderers, conveniently cut off from the world by a storm at a crucial point, and nearly all with a range of motives and opportunities.

The story has Jacquot finding out more about each of the suspects, with a number of clues and red herrings being sown for us to look back at and make the connection. In the end, and following a climactic fire and another body, it is a combination of information about the past (which we are not privy to before the denouement – bad mark) and the sorting of motives, which allows for the responsibilities for the murders to be sheeted home. It also allows Jacquot to be the arbiter of justice, which is not quite satisfying (although the fate of Vilotte’s collection is a brilliant stroke). The plot is very carefully planned and the action moves along, including Jacquot’s meeting up again with Claudine Eddé, from an earlier book, which hints at a future for them that we see achieved in Jacquot and the Angel. But somehow its all a bit too pat, and the characters don’t somehow match up adequately to their back stories, and the denouement to the main murder is a bit too sudden and unheralded. The outcome does suggest questions about what is true justice (given that the book starts with an old murder) and about who should determine life and death, but doesn’t really examine those questions.

So, as with the earlier books, I am left with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction that something that started out so promisingly has not ended quite so well. But O’Brien does write beautifully about the food and the places and the people of Provence (he has been a travel writer after all), and Jacquot can be added to our list of the men who can go down mean streets without themselves being mean.

Details: Publisher: Headline ISBN: 978 0 7553 3505 3

Other books by Martin O’Brien – All the Girls, Jacquot and the Waterman, Jacquot and the Angel, Jacquot and the Fifteen