Review: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

8 July 2008

A Dave Robicheaux book from James Lee Burke tends to have a fairly predictable plot – someone does evil things, often involving threats to Dave’s womenfolk; Dave responds with the help of Clete Purcell, often with violence; and there is a lot of agonising over what is the right thing to do, often unresolved.  This book is no different, on the face of it, but given the context – Hurricane Katrina and the desolation it caused, even more so the weaknesses of the human spirit seen in the response to the misery – and especially given the wonderful luminous writing of James Lee Burke, it is new, and it is even more powerful than its predecessors.

Burke’s use of words and the rhythms of the language he puts on the page is pure poetry, and make for compelling reading.  Some examples:

Fear was a gray balloon that floated from place to place, object to object, and each time he tried to confront it, it moved someplace else, transforming the most innocuous of situations into dilemmas that he would never confess to anyone else, lest they know him for the frightened man he was.


The world has become an unforgiving prison where the images from a mistaken moment have not disappeared with sleep and instead pursue you wherever you go.

In Dave Robicheaux’ Louisiana, everyone is special, everyone has a story, everyone has come to the place in the world that they now occupy through a series of decisions in which they were not necessarily a willing participant, but the consequences of which they must now confront.  What Burke succeeds in doing is to illustrate the sheer immensity of the impact of Katrina by focusing on the impact it had on the lives of several people when their intersecting stories come together at a point in place and time, and the tragedies and violence, but also the redemption, that unfold as a result.

The key stories are those of an insurance man, Otis Baylor, and his daughter; Bertrand Melancon, a young black “street puke” who had been involved in the rape of the daughter, the death of a priest, and the looting of something valuable from the flooded house of a mob boss.  And of course there is Dave Robicheaux, former New Orleans cop, recovering alcoholic, now working for the New Iberia Sheriff.  The violence and misery of the events they are involved brings forth a figure of evil, Ronald Bledsoe, who threatens Alafair, Dave’s daughter and is determined to get his hands on the valuables that Bertrand has hidden.  Dave continues his lifetime journey through the underworld of crime and pain, trying to do good, often succeeding, but dependent on the goodwill of Sheriff Helen Soileau, his boss, and the dubious assistance of Clete Purcell, his friend.

The fight between good and evil takes place between and within the characters, but there is another force that looms large – the ineradicable fact of the failure of much of the US government to recognise and address the extent of the tragedy and its impact on the people of New Orleans, and the futility and cruelty of those who preyed on their neighbours.  Against this Burke recognises the individuals and groups who, like the US Coastguard, toiled unceasingly to try to save lives and restore some faith in the human spirit.  In introducing the story, Dave Robicheaux recalls the tragedy of Vitenam and says:

When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.

But that was before Katrina.  That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana.  That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature.

This is the Dave Robicheaux novel you must read.

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, published by Phoenix (2008, paperback), ISBN: 978-0-7538-2316-3

See the Wikipedia entry for James Lee Burke, including bibliography.

Listen to a podcast of Kim Hill’s 5 July 2008 Radio NZ interview with James Lee Burke.


Review: Blind Faith by Ben Elton

3 July 2008

Ben Elton has been getting bleaker and bleaker.  Blind Faith, which is an update of and homage to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, pulls together a number of trends and shows us where they could go.  These include the surveillance society that Britain has become, with CCTV and mobile phones allowing the authorities to follow and trace your movements; ubiquitous use of social media including blogging (compulsory) and always-on video chat rooms; global warming that has flooded London; the attacks on science represented by those who believe in faith alone as the answer; and the dumbing-down of entertainment and social intercourse that Elton has charted so brilliantly, especially in Dead Famous and Chart Throb;  As the blurb has it “In this world, nakedness is modesty, independent thought subversive, and ignorance is wisdom”.

Trafford Sewell is the modern-day Winston Smith, a “civil servant of sorts” who works for NatDat, the National Data bank, which collects and stores “Every single recordable fact about every single person in the country…Every financial transaction, every appearance on a CCTV camera, every click on every computer, every quirk of every retina, every filling in every tooth, captured and entombed in the mainframes of NatDat…”  But Trafford wants some degree of privacy, somewhere he can think thoughts that he doesn’t have to blog about.  He would also like some privacy with his wife Chantorria, and to protect their baby, Caitlin Happymeal, in a world where vaccination is abhorred, and child mortality is rife.  He hesitates to Tube the birthing video and is reprimanded by his Confessor.

Trafford does find a way to think for himself and to learn about ideas and science, and above all about reason.  Just as Winston Smith saw that the proles provided hope for the future, so Trafford sees that reason and the theory of evolution are the way the world will be saved – perhaps not soon enough for him, but the tyranny of the Temple will certainly be overcome.  It would be interesting to spend more time on the parallels with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I said that Ben Elton was bleak, but what reinforces the bleakness is that the awful world of Blind Faith is already happening, in parts, and it is easy to see us going there.  Elton shows us that the trends he works on are related and interconnected, and come down to the importance of ensuring that individual thought can be maintained; that privacy, whether physical, mental or spiritual is essential to us; and that blind faith should not trump reason and science.  There are lessons for how we use technology to support society, and importantly there are unforeseen (but perhaps inevitable) consequences that will arise whenever new ways of communicating and sharing become universal, and subject to human behaviour.

Blind Faith by Ben Elton, published by Black Swan (paperback, 2008), ISBN: 978-0-552-77391-1

Other books by Ben Elton – Stark (1989), Gridlock (1991), This Other Eden (1993), Popcorn (1996), Blast from the Past (1998), Inconceivable (1999), Dead Famous (2001), High Society (2002), Past Mortem (2004), The First Casualty (2005), Chart Throb (2006)

Review: Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson

19 May 2008

Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks makes a welcome return in Friend of the Devil, by now a wiser more reflective man than when we first met him in 1987, then newly moved to Yorkshire from London. Banks still likes his music and savours his beer, and his attention can be caught by an attractive woman.

In Friend of the Devil, Peter Robinson creates an intricate plot that intertwines past and present crimes and links together different murders being investigated by Alan Banks and by Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot. Annie is facing her own demons, including her feelings for Banks, and she doesn’t handle them all that well.

The crimes they are investigating are the death of a girl in The Maze, the ancient cobbled alley ways in fictional Eastvale, and that of a tetraplegic woman in a wheelchair on the coast. The links are to two separate crimes in the past, including a possible serial rapist and his death, and a shocking trail of death and sexual attacks by a sadistic couple. The story reflects on the impact of crime on the victims, and the tragedies that ensue. Events do stray towards the unlikely, but the skill of the writer makes them believable and in a sense inevitable, given what we learn about the people concerned

Banks has some of the characteristics of the typical fictional police detective – independent thought, but he recognises the political reality of his profession; relationships that generally avoid the permanent, but with plenty of promise at the start; and an unexpected attachment to different kinds of music, in his case not exclusively the jazz or classical tastes of some of his fictional contemporaries. Peter Robinson also knows how to write interesting sidekicks – not just Annie Cabbot, but also Winsome Jackman and Kevin Templeton, and not to forget Detective Superintendent Catherine Gervaise. The families of the victims are beautifully drawn and seem very real. Current technology, whether recreational or forensic, is also well-handled without taking over.

For me, this has been a very satisfying series, with the quality maintained all along. The writing is unobtrusive, the characters real, and the resolution of the crimes satisfying. This includes the books where Banks has gone into his past, or into his family, to resolve a mystery.

Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson, published by Hodder (2008, paperback), ISBN 978 0 340 83691 0

See Wikipedia entry

Other books by Peter Robinson:

Alan Banks series – Gallows View (1987); A Dedicated Man (1988); A Necessary End (1989); The Hanging Valley (1989); Past Reason Hated (1991); Wednesday’s Child (1992); Dry Bones That Dream (1994); Innocent Graves (1996); Dead Right (1997); In A Dry Season (1999); Cold is the Grave (2000); Aftermath (2001); The Summer that Never Was (2003); Playing with Fire (2004); Strange Affair (2005); A Piece of My Heart (2006); All The Colours Of Darkness (2008).

Other books – Caedmon’s Song (1990); No Cure for Love (1995); Not Safe After Dark (1998); (short stories)

Review: Jacquot and the Fifteen by Martin O’Brien

28 April 2008

As in a previous book, Jacquot and the Master, Martin O’Brien cleverly develops a plot that follows the course of a series of murders with several possible motives and several possible perpetrators. In the case of Jacquot and the Fifteen, the action is based on the event that made him famous – the winning try scored against the English rugby team 18 years earlier. The eponymous Fifteen are the members of the French team on that glorious day, which marked Jacquot’s one and only international experience.

The team is assembled for a reunion at the mansion of their captain, now a multimillionaire, but there is a death that Jacquot isn’t prepared to accept as suicide, despite the efforts of the local judiciare to downplay things. It turns out that there have already been several deaths around the country of team members that, on Jacquot’s deeper inquiry, start to look a bit suspicious. When more team members start to die off suspicion becomes certainty and it’s a race to unmask the murderer before they all go the same way.

However, this book has the basic shortcoming of Jacquot and the Master that I noted in my earlier review – key facts not made available to us before the denouement – that robs it of any of the satisfaction that the cleverly worked atmosphere might otherwise promise. Also, in this book, we hear a bit too much of how gorgeous and desirable Jacquot is (still), about how beautiful his friend Claudine is, and how every meal is a masterpiece of culinary perfection. It’s not very good, really.

And by the way, if he really was a reserve who came on in the last ten minutes, he wouldn’t be Number 6, he would be 18 or something like that, but I guess that wouldn’t fit too well into the story.

Jacquot and the Fifteen by Martin O’Brien, published in paperback by Headline (2008), ISBN: 978 0 7553 3508 4

Other books by Martin O’Brien – All the Girls (1982), Jacquot and the Waterman (2005), Jacquot and the Angel (2005), Jacquot and the Master (2007)

Review: Gone to Ground by John Harvey

12 April 2008

John Harvey has given us the Charlie Resnick books, about a detective inspector based in Nottingham, then the shorter Frank Elder series about a retired detective inspector, Frank Elder, who keeps getting called back to Nottingham to sort out cases that have a connection with his past. Gone to Ground, however, is a one-off, and we move to Cambridge, to the investigation of the death of an academic involved in writing about a dead film star. Nevertheless, and as in previous books, there is a bit of name-checking going on, including Lynn Kellogg from the Charlie Resnick series, and Radio New Zealand’s “redoubtable” Kim Hill. This last because a key figure in the story is Lesley Scarman, sister of the deceased, who is a radio journalist fairly recently returned from a stint in New Zealand.

At first, the murder looks like a gay lovers’ tiff gone bad, but as detectives Will Grayson and Helen Walker from the Major Investigation Team, and Lesley Scarman, investigate further, it looks as though the killing may have something to do with what the victim, Stephen Bryan, might have find out about as he researched his book about a dead British film star. It seems that the film, that caught the attention of film buffs, had some similarities with her own life. Along the way we get mixed up in shady dealings at the Council, racist and homophobic attacks, not to mention some nasty family secrets. There is some stretching of coincidence when it turns out that Lesley’s former husband does PR for the soap star niece of the dead film star, but it all hangs together even if at times there seems to be lot of material stuffed into the story.

The action moves between the three main protagonists, and we get a good balancing look at their private lives and issues, which help make it all seem more real. This is especially useful in dealing with the relationship between Will and Helen – and it is interesting that John Harvey does keep a bit of tension there. The use of Lesley as an investigator, not of the police but with key reasons, experience and relationships to help move the process forward, is an interesting device. It will be interesting to see if John Harvey takes these characters anywhere other than a passing reference in future books.

Gone to Ground by John Harvey, published in paperback by Arrow (2008), ISBN: 9780099489962

See the Wikipedia entry on John Harvey.

Other books by John Harvey:

Charlie Resnick series – Lonely Hearts (1989), Rough Treatment (1990), Cutting Edge (1991), Off Minor (1992), Wasted Years (1993), Cold Light (1994), Living Proof (1995), Easy Meat (1996), Still Water (1997), Last Rites (1998), Now’s the Time (short stories) 1999, Trouble in Mind (novella) (2007), Cold in Hand (2008).

Frank Elder series – Flesh and Blood (2004), Ash and Bone (2005), Darkness and Light (2006)

Other books – In A True Light (2001)

Review: Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon

6 April 2008

Donna Leon has been writing about Commissario Brunetti since 1992. Over the period since then the books have addressed particular issues through the Commissario’s investigation of the crime that provides the focus for each book, in the case of Suffer the Little Children it is the issue of illegal adoptions and the fate of the children involved. Alongside the action, Commissario Brunetti observes and ruminates and eats, while his own life with his wife Paola and his two children, by now nearly grown up, provides a counterpoint and balance. Of course, and like any fictional policeman, he has his regular sidekicks, Vianello and Elletra Zorzi, the boss’s secretary who is able to crack any computer system and database, and a boss he is at odds with, the questionable Patta.

In Suffer the Little Children, there are two story lines that come together at the end. The Carabinieri (not Brunelli’s lot) undertake a dawn raid on a pediatrician who has an illegally adopted son, beating him up in the process. Meanwhile, Vianello is pursuing what looks like a fraud against the system by pharmacists and doctors conspiring to make claims for phantom specialist appointments. The action seems to meander over time and at one stage involves Brunelli and Signorina Elletra pretending to be a couple with fertility problems. In the meantime, and in the background, influence is being brought to bear (this is Italy) and the charges against the pediatrician are reduced to a manageable minimum – but he has still lost the son he now loves dearly. On the other case, it turns out that pharmacists have been misusing the system, and this has been made possible by their access to medical records, which leads us to the coming together of the story lines. In the end, not a lot of justice seems to have been done, and the people concerned are unhappy or scarred. The enduring miasma of corruption continues, despite the efforts of Brunetti and his colleagues to tread a virtuous path down the mean streets – if that is possible in a city of canals.

This book give the impression of being a bit vague, in that the main action doesn’t seem to want to be with the plot or even really with the issue of illegal adoptions. Apart from patches of didacticism, the real subjects are food, Venice and the love of a parent for a child, and probably in that order. Brunelli seems to spend a lot of time thinking about and savouring food, and coffee. In this book, perhaps more so than some of its predecessors, both Brunelli and Elletra stop and look about at Venice and think how lucky they are to be part of this place. The art of Donna Leon is making us think the same thing.

Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon, paperback published by Arrow (2008), ISBN: 9780099503224, see Wikipedia entry for Donna Leon.

Other books by Donna Leon – Death at La Fenice (1992), Death in a Strange Country (1993), The Anonymous Venetian (1994) aka Dressed for Death, A Venetian Reckoning (1995) aka Death and Judgment, Acqua Alta (1996) aka Death in High Water, The Death of Faith (1997) aka Quietly in Their Sleep, A Noble Radiance (1997), Fatal Remedies (1999), Friends in High Places (2000), A Sea of Troubles (2001), Wilful Behaviour (2002), Uniform Justice (2003), Doctored Evidence (2004), Blood from a Stone (2005), Through a Glass Darkly (2006), The Girl of His Dreams (2008).

[edit] External links

Review: Saturnalia by Lindsey Davis

16 March 2008

saturnaliauk.jpgThe defining characteristics of Lindsey Davis’ long-running series featuring Marcus Didius Falco are that it is set in Ancient Rome – well that’s pretty obvious – but also that the tone and language are refreshingly contemporary. By this I mean that Lindsey Davis makes Falco and his Rome real to us because he and his family and the inhabitants of the Eternal City talk and act the way that we do (well, sort of). She reminds us that people are pretty much the same, whatever the time and place – they have the same emotions, the same drivers and the same responses, as we do. Human behaviour is, well, human.

In Saturnalia, which is set in the festival season we now know as Christmas, Falco is called upon to find the beautiful barbarian leader, Veleda, who has been brought back to Rome as a captive, but has escaped, and may have been involved in the nasty murder of a young man. Needless to say, the unravelling of the mystery involves rivalry with Anacrites, the Chief Spy, drinking and detection with Petronius Longus, and saving Falco’s brother-in-law, Quintus Camillus Justinus from his own folly. Falco’s wife, Helena Justina, as usual plays a major role in resolving matters, and all is sorted to some degree of satisfaction.

When I first started reading these books, I did have some difficulty with the many names, both Roman and non-Roman, and remembering who was who (perhaps that’s why there’s a cast of characters at the beginning). I think I’ve pretty much got that sorted, but I also had the feeling, reading Saturnalia, that it did go on a bit, or perhaps was not as well-paced as most of its predecessors.

In fact, the plot is a bit ho-hum and not all that strong, except in the way that it allows Lindsey Davis to expand our knowledge of the practice of medicine in the Roman age, and the different theories surrounding it, as well as other bits and pieces, like the ownership of slaves and the Saturnalia traditions, that help place the story firmly in its time and place. At the same time we see that many things don’t change – bureaucracy, for example, and family behaviour. It’s all great fun, and one of the real beauties of it all is that technology plays a minimal role. This means that while there is a bit of the old forensic pathology squeezing into this book, for the most part it’s old-fashioned fact-finding linked to knowledge and awareness of human behaviour that sees Falco through (with quite a bit of help from Helena).

Falco does go down some very mean streets, but he’s not a first century equivalent of the hard-boiled PI – he has a wife and family, and while he may sound cynical he’s really a softy, even to Anacrites. He does, however, have the requisite police-type side-kick in Petro, and the dodgy relationship with the authorities, so perhaps he is in the tradition of the PI.

Saturnalia by Lindsey Davis, Arrow Books, 2008 (paperback), ISBN: 9780099493839

Other books by Lindsey Davis:
Featuring Marcus Didius Falco – The Silver Pigs (1989), Shadows in Bronze (1990), Venus in Copper (1991), The Iron Hand of Mars (1992), Poseidon’s Gold (1993), Last Act in Palmyra (1994), Time to Depart (1995), A Dying Light in Corduba (1996), Three Hands in the Fountain (1997), Two for the Lions (1998), One Virgin Too Many (1999), Ode to a Banker (2000), A Body in the Bath House (2001), The Jupiter Myth (2002), The Accusers (2003), Scandal Takes a Holiday (2004), See Delphi and Die (2005)

Other Novels – The Course of Honour (1998)

See Wikipedia page for Lindsey Davis