Review: Not In The Flesh by Ruth Rendell

17 October 2008

Chief Inspector Wexford is a lovely creation.  He is also an excellent example of how it is possible to write well-constructed and perceptive detective fiction around a long-running character without worrying too much about the passage of time.  Wexford is clearly satisfied with his lot, he has been a Chief Inspector since first making his appearance in 1964 in From Doon With Death, and his sidekick, Inspector Burden, seems to be similarly, well, unburdened.  Both are clearly aging very well!  Nevertheless, they both seem to have handled the increasing use of technology as an aid to detection, while retaining that awareness of unchanging human nature that marks Ruth Rendell’s writing.

In Not In The Flesh, Wexford and Burden are faced with a body that has been buried for 10 years until unearthed by a truffle-hound.  A second body turns up in a cellar not too far away, and the plot then revolves around determining who these people were and are their deaths related.  This is all very well done. The characters involved are often not very good people, and it is their human frailty and imperfections that are nicely depicted through the writing.  The crimes result from moments of human weakness, but their consequences for the perpetrators and for the families of the dead live on and affect their lives forever.

But running alongside the plot is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) that Ruth Rendell is campaigning against, in the House of Lords and in this book.  Wexford is placed in a situation of knowing what might happen to a five-year-old girl, but is unable to do anything definitive to prevent it happening.  A link through to the main plot is provided by DS Hannah Goldsmith, who tries to ensure that Wexford and Burden remain politically correct by avoiding sexist, racist or class-based language and attitudes – the message of the book being (I think) that traditional cultural practices are not per se ok simply because they are traditional in some cultures.  Female genital mutilation is wrong, full stop, and political correctness can sometimes blind us to wrongness.  The irony is that both Wexford and Burden are in fact sensitive and perceptive men – they have to be to do the work they do – and they do think and act correctly because they know the right thing to do – but Hannah doesn’t see this.

In the end, this twenty-first Wexford novel stands up in terms of the mystery that the Chief Inspector works his way through, and the Kingsmarkham background maintains its apparently inexhaustible supply of murderers and victims.  Did we need the distraction of the FGM campaign?  I don’t see why not, such issues are part of life, and to present them in the way that Ruth Rendell does here could well make us think a bit more about what is involved, and why people think and act the way they do.

Not In The Flesh by Ruth Rendell, published in paperback by Arrow Books, ISBN:9780099517221

For the full list of books by Ruth Rendell, including those as Barbara Vine, see the Wikipedia site

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: 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: Saturday’s Child by Roy Banks

2 January 2008

saturdayschild.jpgSaturday’s Child is another example of the man going down the mean streets who is, at heart, not really mean, but is forced to act that way. Roy Banks paints a dismal picture of the violence and desperation under the surface of the apparently prosperous North. Neither the places nor the people are attractive, and prospects look bleak for his main character, Callum Innes.

Cal Innes has done a stretch in prison and is desperately trying to stay away from a repeat as he operates as a shadowy PI (private investigator, not private detective, apparently an important distinction relating to licensing). His goal is not helped by a liking for the booze and certainly not by the call from the local crime lord, Morris Tiernan, to find an absconding dealer from his dodgy casino. Morris has a pill-popping, evil son, Mo, who fancies himself in his father’s role and isn’t too happy with Cal being given the tracking job. Cal gets on the track of the dealer, Rob Stokes, who has not only gone off with some of Tierney’s money, but also his 16 year-old daughter, Alison.

The story is told from two alternating perspectives – from Cal and from Mo. The language and tone is very effective in conveying the different characters and in keeping up the suspense as the lines of action inevitably merge into a climax. We see that Cal is not really bad, and that his inability to be really mean is his fatal flaw in terms of surviving in his milieu. Mo, on the other hand is very mean, and although a lot of it is talk and bluster, he is capable of evil.

The action is regularly punctuated by violence, some attributable to Cal, some perpetrated on him, as the search moves from Manchester to Newcastle, with the regularity and viciousness of the various beatings apparently in inverse proportion to the victims’ ability to recover from them and still move the action forward. Note the effective use of a cricket bat in this context.

In the end, Cal has to make a decision about how to act, which is not really a decision at all, but certainly provides Roy Banks with plenty of scope for further action for this character.

Saturday’s Child, Paperback 2007 by Polygon, ISBN 10: 1 84697 011 3; ISBN 13: 978 1 84697 011 5

Other books by Roy Banks:
The Big Blind (2004), Donkey Punch (2007), No More Heroes (2007), Beast Of Burden (2008)

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

Rugby: Winning the World Cup

22 September 2007

The 2007 Rugby World Cup is getting to an interesting stage, but is the result inevitable? What sparked this post is an article in the New Zealand Herald by Robbie Deans, Crusaders coach and formerly part of the All Black coaching team, in which he sets out the view that:

To win the World Cup, a team has to think it can. It then has to transfer this into a series of meaningful actions that grows belief.

While there will be up to eight so-called contenders who will be trying to convince themselves that they can win the tournament as we head towards the quarter-final phase, the reality is just two teams know they can win it: New Zealand and South Africa.

He then goes on to outline why this is so, i.e. that the South Africans have experience of winning, with the nucleus of the side beating New Zealand at under-21 level, plus the success of South African sides in the Super 14, plus strength of key players, plus effective leadership. He doesn’t elaborate on why New Zealand assumes it can win but I think we can take that as axiomatic – the All Blacks always assume they will win.

I agree with Robbie Deans, and I think his thesis is confirmed by the English win at the 2003 World Cup. It’s my belief that England knew they could win the Cup when they beat the All Blacks in Wellington in June 2003, even when down to thirteen men at one stage. This confidence took them through to ultimate victory in Sydney later in the year. New Zealand contributed to England’s Wellington victory through selection decisions and a lack of agility to adjust the game plan. In particular, that game marked the All Black debut of Ma’a Nonu, and the selection of a still green Rodney So’oialo at No 8. Now don’t get me wrong, Rodney is now a great player and one of the most effective All Black forwards, but in 2003 he was still learning. Similarly, Ma’a Nonu was very promising, still is, but to debut against a strong England side was a risk. The outcome was that New Zealand were reactive, played the game the way England wanted it played, and lost.

The risk that now arises, and which also derives from a New Zealand decision, is the point Robbie Deans makes about South Africa’s success in the Super 14. The winning records established by South African sides in this year’s competition can be largely attributed to the decision by New Zealand Rugby to rest key All Blacks for most of the Super 14 as part of the conditioning campaign for the World Cup (I know, I know, this could be challenged – but what are the Hurricanes without Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo). While the conditioning programme may well contribute to the All Blacks reaching the finals, it would be ironic if it also served as a mental conditioning for the Springboks, who should be their opponents in that final in Paris.

Today saw France defeat Ireland, and neither country looks, or plays, as though they believe they can win the World Cup. I was surprised that Robbie Deans didn’t include Australia in his list of believers, especially since they are the only side to have beaten the All Blacks this year, and also because they have the star players and are the most agile thinkers of the major contenders. While some of their star players might be just too old this time around, there are others who are still young, fresh and fast.

So things are starting to get a bit interesting, even if it is only around whether England, Ireland, Wales and France can stagger into the quarter-finals, or suffer some ignominy at the hands of more lowly-ranked nations.

One thing, though, is that this World Club has been clearly marked by the triumph of the blogs as a means of communication about the events and people’s take on them. Great engagement!

Review: The Mission Song by John le Carre

14 September 2007

The Mission SongA John le Carre book is immediately recognisable. It is something about the way that the story is conveyed by the characters talking directly to you, confiding in you and flattering you into believing that you share in some arcane knowledge of how the world really works. The Mission Song does not disappoint.

In the earlier Cold War books of Smiley and Karla, the struggle between good and evil was, in the end, difficult to resolve – it was more of an espionage game played between professionals. In The Mission Song, as in The Constant Gardener, the stakes are higher, the anger is real and the sense of outrage palpable. This is another of le Carre’s stories of the small man caught up by more powerful forces, naive, perhaps, but not entirely innocent, and complicit to an extent in his own plight.

In this book, Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, is a part-time, contract interpreter and translator for the British Secret Service. Through accident and coincidence of genes, geography and fortune, and especially for his knowledge of Central African languages, Salvo finds himself sub-let by the British Secret Service to interpret at a meeting where a mysterious syndicate is trying to get the agreement from the hostile factions in a potentially wealthy region of the Congo that would give them independence in exchange for mineral and trade concessions. The events take place on a remote North Sea island where every room and and even the gardens are bugged. Salvo is privy to all of the conversations, and the story is about his increasing engagement with the unfolding of the plot to seize power in that part of the world that is his real home. In particular, he feels a chord of empathy with Haj, the son of a wealthy East Congolese trading family, who seems to respond to and recognise the link between them – exhibited, for Salvo, by Haj’s humming of an old Mission church jingle to show that he remains defiant, despite the pressures applied by the syndicate. The beauty of le Carre’s writing is that this complex set of events and characters and relationships seems entirely clear, logical and compelling. The rhythm of the book is well nigh perfect for the most part, which makes it very hard to put down.

Of course, nothing runs smoothly; it all ends in tears of one sort or another; the really guilty tend to go free; the pawns are destroyed or damaged. This includes Salvo, but having lost so much, he also finds something that may well be more important to him.

Details:Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton ISBN-10: 0316016756 ISBN-13: 978-0316016759

Other books by John le Carre: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Small Town in Germany, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, The Secret Pilgrim,The Night Manager, Our Game, The Tailor of Panama, Single & Single, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends

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: 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.