Book Review

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Guilty Not Guilty, by Felix Francis

In case the reader should be in any doubt about the provenance of the author and the genre to which this book appertains, there is a helpful attribution at the bottom of the front cover; of the paperback anyway, published in 2021 [2019] by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-4711-7319-6: this is a Dick Francis novel. Now, not being either an aficionado or a connoisseur of this particular genre, I don’t know what qualifies this book to be so described: unless there is a specific character or characters who recur in every story, it strikes me as odd that another author, however closely related or otherwise, should claim some sort of continuity with & from the original; in this particular case, it seems unlikely, other than the tenuous connection with the world of horse racing. All that said, on the evidence of this one, I might be tempted to read one of this author’s father’s books, having been reticent previously, given my general lack of interest in the so-called sport [and my growing concerns about the animal welfare aspect], a not insignificant dislike for the more well-heeled patrons, and an inherent disdain for the compulsive & addictive gambling entailed.

The horse racing element is minimal in this story, which is a murder mystery, in which the main character, Bill Russell; aka the Honourable William Herbert Millgate Gordon-Russell; has to deal first with the news, given to him while he is volunteering as a Steward at Warwick racecourse, that his wife, Amelia, has been found by her brother Joe, strangled in her kitchen at home while he has been away; then he has to contend with being accused of this awful crime, and all the repercussions for his life which proceed therefrom. He suspects that he has been accused of the crime by his brother in law, who had latterly become an abusive and potentially violent individual, targeting Bill, Amelia, and her mother in roughly equal measure. Much of the story is written in the first person, narrated by Bill, and it is reasonably clear that he is truly innocent, and not schizophrenically deceiving himself, or spinning a fictitious narrative, in the style of the protagonist of one story by another well known [arguable the best known] murder mystery writer, in which the narrator is eventually proved to be the killer.

Endeavouring to prove that Joe Bradbury was the killer is doubly difficult, because initially, the police cloddishly believe that Bill is guilty, but also because Bill has to contend with the grief of losing the wife he loved desperately, and it is this aspect of the story which is handled with a good degree of sensitivity. Not unexpectedly, the media cast Bill in the rôle of villain, and this opprobrium only exacerbates his feelings of guilt, despite having been as accommodating as he could possibly have been with Amelia’s depression and suicide attempts, aggravated to no small degree by her brother’s venom. He needs to find the real killer, but when nearly everyone, with a few notable exceptions, believes that is he, that is a very difficult task. The story is nicely paced, and there is a twist at the end which is suitably poignant. I would certainly be willing to entertain another of this author’s books and, given that he has written eight others, and co-authored four with his late father, I would say that was an even money bet.

Book Review

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Defend or Die, by Tom Marcus

Tom Marcus doesn’t exist: given that he is a former member of MI5, the use of a nom de plume must surely be not only recommended, but essential, for reasons too obvious to list. This book is his second novel, succeeding Capture or Kill, and they both follow his first book, Soldier Spy which, according to the bio at the front of the book, was cleared & vetted for publication by his former employer, so it must be a safe assumption that the two novels were too. I will refrain from further comment about his background, not least because of my beliefs about the way national security is manipulated globally, but murderous outrages have been perpetrated around the world and will continue to be, whatever the security services do, so whatever can be done [within reasonable limits] to prevent them should be done, failing more accommodation at a global level of differing belief systems, which I fear will only arrive very slowly, and probably painfully. While reading this book, I had to suspend my dislike of authoritarianism, and see it as a street-level spy yarn, which I did.

Matt Logan is a member of a British ’black’ government organisation [i.e.: totally secret & deniable] known as Blindeye; which is certainly not an original idea; and it is tasked with neutralising threats to the UK’s national security. The latest threat [because there always is one, isn’t there?] comes from our favourite bête noir, Russia, so the prime candidate, a billionaire oligarch living in London, is put under surveillance. At the same time, but seemingly unconnected, initially, two people with prior connections to MI5 have died from a heart attack and a car accident, but at least one of the team finds this suspicious: the problem is finding evidence linking their deaths & the circumstances surrounding them. There is a network around the oligarch, including the inevitable security operatives, but surveillance doesn’t immediately reveal anything obviously suspicious. Logan is compromised to some extent, because he is still traumatised by the recent deaths of his wife & young son, whom he ‘sees’ and talks to when he is on his own, but he manages to operate at a tolerable level of efficiency, even when he has to undergo total isolation to facilitate a ‘spiritual cleansing’ as part of the latest undercover operation.

It takes a while for the reality of the threat to be discovered, but when it is, inevitably there is a race against time to neutralise it: Logan is totally lacking in scruples or emotion when it comes to dispatching people who stand in his way, but he hasn’t completely lost his humanity in the process. How believable the characters in this story are is very difficult to assess: there is no shortage of previous associated fiction with which to make comparisons, but given that we are never going to learn the true extent of how any country’s security services work, we have to treat such stories as fiction with an arguably greater or lesser degree of truth to them. For my own part, I think I enjoy reading this genre more if I think the fiction quotient is higher, because it is easy to become prey to so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ [many of which subsequently are found to be true, incidentally, when more evidence comes to light] when grains of truth of governments’ duplicity, deception & thuggery are revealed. This story was published in 2020, by Macmillan, and as yet, no sequel is in evidence; the paperback, ISBN 978-1-5098-6364-8, was published in 2021 by Pan Books, London.

Book Review


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The Man That Got Away, by Lynne Truss

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the Daily Mail reviewer of this book, that it is a “farce”, knockabout or otherwise, but there are some amusingly implausible elements in it. This is by no means her first fiction book; she is best known as the author of a best-selling book on punctuation, would you believe [in these less grammatically aware days], called Eats, Shoots & Leaves; but it is the second outing for her police series featuring a character whose name is surely chosen to refute nominative determinism: Detective Constable Twitten. This book was published in 2019, by Raven Books, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, paperback ISBN 978-1-4088-9057-8; a further story, Murder By Milk Bottle, has also been published. Aside from the [for me] uncomfortable title of this book*, which could be the author’s little joke, given that popular songs of the 1950s figure in it, I would have expected this to be a well-constructed & articulate story [notwithstanding the “farce” element], which it mostly is [although like 99.9% of the British-writing world, she commences sentences with And & But, but I’ll leave that there], and that is a pleasant change.

Another literary convention of the police procedural which Truss stands on its head is the one which dictates the middle-ranking officers are the cleverest, whereas the top brass are hidebound and often corrupt, and the novices are too green to be of much help. Here, Constable Twitten is not long out of police training at Hendon and only a couple of months into his sojourn at Brighton police, but he is by far the cleverest officer there [although obviously well-bred, evidenced by his habit of using “bally” as an expletive]; his immediate superior, Sergeant Brunswick is well-meaning but slow and somewhat naïve; Inspector Steine [my own preference here is that the final vowel should be pronounced, as with Porsche, given that the word clearly has German origin] is next to useless, and a chauvinist at that, but it is 1957, so not unexpected. The cleverest person in the station is a civilian, the charlady Mrs. Groynes, who might give the convincing impression [to those of a credulous disposition] of being a cheerful & regularly foul-mouthed cockney, but Twitten has every reason to believe that she is a devious criminal mastermind [not mistressmind, then?] who is in the ideal position to have her finger on the pulse, and her ear to the ground, when it comes to access to often confidential information which could be crucial to planning & perpetrating heinous crimes.

Unfortunately, despite Mrs. Groynes being well aware of Twitten’s suspicions, neither of his superiors is prepared to believe him [considering him obviously deluded by a stage hypnotism act], so he has to act alone most of the time. This story is somewhat convoluted, involving confidence tricksters, murder, an old mansion house, behind which [occupying the site of its former orchard & ornamental garden] are a nightclub run by a criminal family, and an adjacent waxworks, in the style of [but nowhere near as good as] Madam Tussaud’s in London, so there are plenty of different characters to remember, but it is an enjoyable romp, even if it isn’t as knowingly [or even archly] funny as Terry Pratchett’s books, for me anyway. All the threads in the narrative are neatly tied up at the end, so that the next story [and there are a couple of chapters as a taster at the end of the version of the book which I read] can follow straight on from this one, without it being a sequel, as such. I’m not sure if this decade is the most popular for books set in Brighton, but there are quite a few of them; Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is actually mentioned as context for one element in this story. I would be happy to read the other two books in this series, anyway.

*This clunky habit would appear to be virtually ubiquitous, so I must be one of the few abstainers who prefer to refer to people as who, not that: I blame my grammar school education. I shall continue to be a voice in the wilderness with this little peccadillo [with no prophetic aspirations, I hasten to add].

Book Review


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The Accomplice, by Joseph Kanon

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, although as is often the case, the cover drew me in initially, with its grainy monochrome image [and the now almost ubiquitous shortcut of using one or more characters walking away from the viewer, to simplify the design process], and the supporting information under the author’s name, that he is the “bestselling author of Leaving Berlin”; also, the author’s bio informs us that, among his other works [some or all of which have won “the Edgar Award”: nope!] he wrote The Good German, which made me think of John le Carré, but it’s not one of his. This latter book, incidentally, has been made into a film, starring George Clooney & Cate Blanchett, although Kanon didn’t supply the screenplay; the film was given a lousy review in The Guardian, but it includes this sentence, which makes no sense to me [although I can’t be bothered to get to the bottom of it!]: “The Good German is culpably feeble and detached, especially considering that the original was released in 1942, and conceived far earlier:…” Kanon’s book was published in 2001, according to Wikipedia, [never knowingly incorrect?], so I wonder if the review was confused, having compared the film to “the kind of 1940s movie we know and love”: whatever, as previously stated… heigh ho, no such problem with this book.

The book is set in 1962, a febrile period in itself and, just for once [although, to be fair, this isn’t le Carré: Kanon is American], despite opening in Hamburg, no mention is made of East Germany and/or Communist machinations [normally associated with Berlin, the popular east-west interface, of course]; neither do our lovable moptops from the ‘pool get an honourable mention, which is a somewhat surprising omission, given that they performed in various clubs in that busy port of Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962, according to this Wikipedia article: presumably, this local colour must have been seen as an unnecessary distraction from the narrative. Aaron Wiley is visiting his elderly uncle Max, a Nazi-hunter, albeit not in the same league as Simon Wiesenthal, about whom Max is somewhat dismissive, seeing him as a publicity-seeker: Max is more methodical, preferring to work his way through dusty files & archives to achieve his results. He is trying to convince Aaron to join him, despite the latter having a solid but also unexciting desk job with the CIA at home in America. A chance sighting of an old enemy, while the two of them are drinking coffee outdoors, is such a shock to Max, that he suffers a heart attack, but he is able to tell Aaron that, although the man he saw is by all supposedly reliable accounts already dead, Max is in no doubt whatsoever that he was not mistaken, so it would be the crowning glory to his career if this fugitive was brought to justice.

Unfortunately, Max dies, so after much soul-searching, Aaron decides to continue Max’s work, but although it will be unofficial, as it is a personal matter, one of his local colleagues is able to give him limited assistance; also, he hooks up with a local news photographer who scents a very good story. It transpires that the fugitive, Otto Schramm, has a daughter, and Aaron establishes a relationship with her, to get to her father but, inevitably, Aaron falls for the woman. I can’t really go any further than this with the story, but there are a few unexpected twists in the narrative, before the dénouement, which is somewhat bitter-sweet. Overall, this is quite a good story: one which is very firmly set in its timeframe, because much later, and none of the original perpetrators would be left alive. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., ISBN 978-1-4711-6268-8.

Book Review

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A Dance of Cranes, by Steve Burrows

This is a bit of a curate’s egg of a book; not least because the main character, DCI Domenic Jejeune, happens to be away from his usual ‘patch’ for most of the book, albeit for a specific reason closely connected with the plot; but also because it is presented as a “birder mystery”, which seems a somewhat abstruse sort of hobby for a senior police officer, but that is, no doubt, the result of my prejudice & ignorance of the subject — there’s no earthly reason why a Detective Chief Inspector of police shouldn’t be a birder [not a twitcher, apparently]. There are several different threads running concurrently, primarily because of the DCI’s absence from Norfolk, to locate his brother Damian, who has gone missing in one of Canada’s national parks in Ontario; the absence also serves the purpose of distancing himself from his erstwhile girlfriend, Lindy Hey, who he believes is still at risk from a crazed criminal who has already tried to kill her, although he hasn’t actually elucidated that to her, so she thinks he has dropped her for no good reason; that she is aware of, anyway.

The book is also, for me, a slightly irritating mix of British & American spellings & terminology, probably because the author is Canadian, I presume; although his bio at the front doesn’t specify this, only that he now lives in Ontario. One real howler that always sets my teeth on edge is the use of “hone in”, instead of “home in”, but either the editor missed it, or was [misguidedly] happy to accept it as correct. The sections of the book in Canada & the USA, which obviously have to be allowed time to develop, do risk slowing down the plot development; but they are connected, even though they aren’t germane to the action at ‘home’, other than for keeping Jejeune removed from the assumed protagonist of the story: this thread is left to Jejeune’s trusted subordinate, DS Danny Maik to undertake and, in a parallel thread, newly promoted Sergeant Lauren Salter has her own investigation to occupy her mind & time.

I can’t honestly say that this is the most enjoyable book I have read recently, but the story hangs together, even if it is slow to develop; sometimes, it’s good just to enjoy the ride, and ignoring thoughts of the destination, until it arrives! The ending is ambiguous, but whether this a device common to these books—leaving possibilities open for subsequent stories—I can’t confirm categorically, only having read this later episode; I hope this doesn’t deter you unduly. If detective stories with a high avian content float your boat, there are five previous novels by this author you might like to investigate, all with the, presumably, correct collective noun for a specific bird in the title. The paperback version I read of this book was published by Oneworld Publications, in arrangement with Dundurn Press Limited, in 2019, ISBN 978-1-78607-577-2.

Book Review

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Fool Me Twice, by Jeff Lindsay

I’ve never watched the Dexter television series, but I am aware of it, and the fact that the main character is a medical professional who also happens to be a serial killer; so, an antihero, who evidently is able to work while cosynchronously indulging his murderous obsession, but only on criminals, so that’s all right, isn’t it? Coincidentally, this premise is similar to that of another television series, starring the ever-dependable Michael Sheen [and, latterly, another south Walian, Catherine Zeta Jones], although in the latter case, Michael Sheen’s character, referred to as The Surgeon [because that was what he was, ya know?] was caught and incarcerated in a New York high-security penal institution. Anyway, all this preamble is to provide background information to the author, who also wrote the Dexter source books, of which this is, however, not one. That said, the main character in this book, Riley Wolfe, is an antihero career criminal, for whom we are presumably encouraged to root; similarly to Dexter, and Dr John Whitley, Michael Sheen’s character in Prodigal Son [Sky One].

The Wolfe character was introduced in a previous book, Just Watch Me, but the stakes have been raised to an extreme level in this sequel; I was debating whether to use the adjective implausible but, given that this is fiction, I suppose it should be possible to allow a certain latitude in this assessment. Wolfe is being coerced into what is, ostensibly, an impossible theft, on behalf of the world’s richest & most dangerous arms dealer, who lives in impregnable security on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, and also has a passion for great art, which generally happens to be ensconced in very secure facilities, such as museums; unfortunately for Wolfe, the coercion doesn’t only apply to him, but also to his lady friend [and potential partner], Monique, and Wolfe’s mother, who is living in a persistent vegetative state, so requiring round the clock care. Just to add another level of jeopardy to the situation, the second most successful arms dealer in the world is also aware of Wolfe’s plight, and is therefore using Wolfe to facilitate the elimination of the top man. Oh, and did I mention that the FBI is also highly desirous of curtailing Wolfe’s criminal career, and is aware of the latest developments?

How on earth could Wolfe get out of this one intact, you might very reasonably ask? Well, I can’t tell you, of course, and the way he recovers from physical punishment does stretch credibility somewhat, but he is a fit young man who is adept at parkour, so that much is just about plausible; also, the technique which is used to apparently facilitate the robbery, whilst not currently existing, is at least, theoretically, feasible. I could see this making a very enjoyable film, but I will refrain from any casting suggestions, which is generally a minefield! I would certainly recommend this book, if you like high-tension heist stories, but be aware that there is no shortage of profanity in it! The paperback version I read was published in 2021 by Orion Fiction, ISBN 978-1-4091-8668-7. I will definitely keep my eyes open for Lindsay’s previous Wolfe story and any Dexter books which I might happen to find.

Crime fiction: the writer as adult educator

The author of the Vera stores helps to support mental wellbeing.

thelearningprofessor

In a rare sortie into the outside world this summer, we spent half a day in August visiting the Farne Islands. A group of 15-20 rocky islands in the North Sea (the precise number depends on the tide), they are managed by the National Trust, and are rightly famous for their wildlife and for their association with Grace Darling. They also featured in Series 7, Episode 1 of Vera.

The Vera novels, written by Ann Cleeves, are fine British police procedural novels. Cleeves’ central character is Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is a dishevelled, badly dressed, irrascible, overweight, stubborn, compassionate yet solitary-minded woman who is also an inspired investigator. Her character and appearance were softened for television, where she is played by the superb Brenda Blethyn. I enjoy both series, different though they are, not least for their Northumberland setting, but…

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Book Review


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Paris Spring, by James Naughtie

Listeners to BBC Radio Four (of whom I have to confess I am not one) will very likely be familiar with this name, but as a presenter, rather than an author (unless either or both of his novels to 2016 has/have been reviewed on that august station). His previous, first, novel was called The Madness of July, and it also featured this book’s main character, Will Flemyng, and was set in the mid-1970s; it garnered a 2.78 star rating on Goodreads. This current book is a prequel to the first, being set in 1968, and Flemyng is stationed in Paris, at a very volatile time for the world in general, but for Paris in particular, with revolution in the air. A handful of years later, Flemyng will be a Foreign Office minister, but the use of the term stationed should indicate that previously, he was, according to the blurb on the back of Paris Spring, a “secret servant at the British Embassy”. Will has two brothers: Mungo, who lives at the ancestral home (not a mansion, however) in Scotland, and lives a relatively hermetic life; and Abel, who does a similar job to Will, but for the Americans, for reasons which are best explained by the narrative.

The primary element of the narrative is the contact that is established between Will and a young man who presents himself as being implicitly East German, and who obviously wants to either set himself up as a contact on the communist side for the British, or who perhaps even wants to defect. This is where the aspect of the book which I found slightly irritating is evident; it soon becomes apparent that the young man is not what he seems, but establishing exactly what he is becomes complicated by the elliptical nature of the dialogue: by this, I mean that people & situations tend to be alluded to, rather than specified clearly. Perhaps Naughtie is trying to emulate the author who must indubitably be a guide for him in these endeavours: John le Carré, given that there is a cast of Secret Intelligence Service bods who don’t seem to be able to operate without letting their own tensions and social resentments influence their activities. Having said that, Flemyng’s superior, Freddy Craven, as well as being experienced & capable is a likeable and avuncular figure who is very protective towards Will, and is clearly and easily worth whatever he might have been paid, not that he would have accepted that this was the primary motive for his employment.

The irritating nature of the dialogue aside, the tension in the story develops quite nicely, building on a slightly unexpected murder in a world-famous location, and the revelation of the identity of the young man who makes contact with Will on a local train at the beginning is something of a surprise; this is after the three brothers have spent more time together intermittently than the schedules of the two peripatetic siblings have allowed hitherto, and this is something of a relief for the predominantly homebound brother, who is almost permanently concerned about Will; although his lifestyle, and at best sporadic contact were primary causative reasons for that. I found the dénouement, with the death of one of the main characters genuinely moving, so overall I would say that this novel is a success, and I would relish reading the first book ‘in the right order’, chronologically speaking; other readers might not find the elliptical dialogue quite so irritating! Paris Spring was published by Head Of Zeus Ltd. in 2016, ISBN 9781784080211 .

Book Review

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Train Man, by Andrew Mulligan

This book is the author’s first adult novel; he is apparently “best known as a children’s author”, although I would correct that to: best known as an author of children’s literature [not the author of children!], and his experience as a teacher in the Philippines, as well as India, Brasil & Viet Nam, after ten years as a theatre director, was used to good effect in this story, albeit indirectly until the very end. The story was intended for a radio drama; again, he has ‘previous’, as a writer of radio plays & film scripts; but for unspecified reasons, that didn’t work out, so he turned it into a novel. Given that a large part of the book is given over to the thoughts & images which are running through the head of the main character, Michael MacMillan, I can understand that a radio drama would have worked quite well [difficulty of presenting images on the radio notwithstanding], but a novel is what was produced, although it can occasionally be a bit difficult to keep up with the instant changes of context which are all too easily conjured internally.

Michael is a deeply troubled man, and it is irrefutably not a plot spoiler to reveal that from the outset, he is planning to end his life. He considers himself a failure in all aspects of his life, not the least of which are his three romantic liaisons, only one of which came close to culminating in marriage; only staying alive, albeit unhappily, until the present moment could be considered any sort of success; so he is using some of the money which remains available to him, by using his sole still-valid credit card, to take a train journey north to an unprepossessing location to allow himself to be hit by a train and, inevitably, killed. He has left an explanatory note in his squalid flat, the only place he could afford to buy after having to sell his previous house, having virtually run out of money; and he has also left his mobile ‘phone behind. Unfortunately [or, possibly, fortunately, but that remains to be seen] for his plan, he is a very indecisive man, a character trait which has been significantly responsible for the morass of guilt & self-pity in which he currently finds himself, and with each new encounter, he visualises himself in potential outcomes, both as his current adult self, and the child who experienced certain things which moulded his personality, for better or worse; but almost inevitably, he construes it as the latter.

Along the way, during which time his plans change, for various reasons, he encounters other individuals, most of whom also have their own inner turmoil to deal with; he does also, however, encounter a few people who, merely by virtue of their helpful & accommodating nature, go some way toward restoring his faith in human nature, but this doesn’t initiate a change of plan, until he meets a Filipina woman: this is not the stereotypical ‘love conquers all’ scenario, though, but I won’t reveal any more, as it would spoil the plot. Maria is married, with children back at home in the Philippines, and she is travelling, expenses paid, to a beauty spot in the north of England in her holiday, as a favour to one of the rich residents of the care home in Dumfries, where she works.

Ruth Jones, the actor, who is also now an established novelist, describes this book as “Brilliant…Profoundly affecting”, and “A beautiful story. It broke my heart…but it also made my heart sing.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I found the book an engaging read; a change from murder mysteries & police procedurals; and I do like a happy ending. This paperback was published in 2020 by Vintage, London, a part of the Penguin Random House group of companies, ISBN 978-1-784-70975-4.

Romance Book Promotion

Free romance books & samples, including a free sample of Stevie Turner’s (partly true) novel, ‘A Rather Unusual Romance’.

Stevie Turner

A free sample of my (partly true) novel ‘A Rather Unusual Romance‘ is available in the following two Book Funnel promotions:

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