Book Review

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The Man with the Silver Saab, by Alexander McCall Smith

This is an author whose name I certainly recognise, and of whose work I know I should be more aware, if not actually familiar with, but the series which I might previously have come across, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, some of which has already been televised, so I believe, didn’t have any specific appeal for me, but for unknown reasons; now that I have read this quirky little story, I would be prepared to investigate other books by him, and there are at least four other series, apart from the Detective Varg, of Sweden, series, of which this book is a member: the aforementioned The No1. [etc.], the 44 Scotland Street [apparently “the world’s longest-running serial novel”], and The Corduroy Mansions series, and the Isabel Dalhousie novels.

The Varg stories have been described by one reviewer as “Scandi blanc”, which I would consider cleverly accurate. Ulf Varg is the head of a police department in Malmö, the Department of Sensitive Crimes, which does have a somewhat ‘politically correct’ ring to it, but I don’t think the author is trying to make a political point here: one has to assume that he must have some minimal knowledge of the Swedish police system to qualify him to write these stories, so perhaps there is such a thing? This is certainly not an all-action, ‘gung-ho’ type of story, but there is a lot of inner dialogue, predominantly from the main character, but also from some of the supporting characters. The main storyline concerns a potential art fraud, which has impacted negatively upon the career of a respected art historian & expert assessor, so the possible suspects have to be treated with great sensitivity; not least because of the potentially large sums of money which can be involved.

Concurrently with this, at the beginning of the story Ulf has to deal with a bizarre attack on his beloved deaf dog, Martin, by a malicious squirrel in a local park, which results in possibly incompetent surgery by his veterinarian: Martin’s nose, almost severed in the attack, requires reattachment, but it appears to have been reattached upside down. The surgeon dismisses this as unlikely, despite the visual evidence apparent to Ulf, citing the difficulty of the procedure, and Ulf feels inhibited to ask for any sort of restitution, and during Martin’s recuperation, he seems unaware of any problem, which has to be more important to Ulf, ultimately. The incident does have a positive outcome though, apart from Martin’s recovery, because Ulf, who is currently single and has been in emotional turmoil because of his infatuation with a married colleague, finds the temporary secretarial replacement in the veterinary practice sufficiently attractive to ask her on a date. The other metaphorical thorn in Ulf’s side is another of his colleagues, Blomquist, who is a pedantic & somewhat verbose individual, holding forth on personal dietary regimes at tedious length; he is also, however, fastidious in his work, so Ulf tries hard to accommodate him and appreciate his good qualities, such as they are!

The resolution to the main aspect of the plot is the result of steady & thoughtful work on Ulf’s part, so there are no car chases, or shoot-outs, but there is a fair amount of psychological evaluation of suspects, of the type that might be employed by Holmes or Poirot: there are no mentions of “little grey cells” though, thankfully. The use of the classic Saab [I couldn’t find a photograph of a silver one, so a yellow one will have to do] driven by Ulf is undoubtedly a deliberate device to elevate Ulf from what could, otherwise, be a bland character, so if you enjoy thoughtful crime stories without undue stress or jeopardy [perhaps an inaccurate generalised assessment on the evidence of only one book, but nevertheless], then I can happily recommend these books, and Smith’s writing style is erudite, but not too obviously or irritatingly so. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021; Little, Brown] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14478-8.

Book Review

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Dead at First Sight, by Peter James

This story actually precedes one I have previously reviewed here, Left You Dead, so one major decision taken by Detective Superintendent Roy Grace towards the end of this narrative might suggest a certain course of events which appears not to have been followed, according to the situation in which Grace & his entourage find themselves in the later story; having said that, this possible disjunction should not deter anyone, especially ‘fans’ of the Grace canon, from reading either story. Grace is, for the most part, ‘in a good place’, apart from the regular [and unwelcome] monitoring of his activity by his superior, ACC Cassian Pewe which, although he is generally able to ignore it, nevertheless forms an irritating background buzz to his work environment.

This story represents a return to a subject which James has tackled before: online dating, in Want You Dead; but in this one, the focus of the story is the money-extraction scams which heinous criminal organisations perpetrate, targeting lonely individuals who sign up to online dating agencies, hoping to find a partner, generally after a previous partner has died, or otherwise left their lives, so the majority of them tend to be in an older age group and, unfortunately, not always as discerning as they should be, when it comes to ‘hard-luck’ stories spun by ostensibly genuine [and obviously physically attractive, of course, going by their profile photographs] individuals who are evidently very much in love with their targets, but desperately in need of large amounts of cash, for various reasons. These schemes normally work very efficiently, fleecing the poor victims with no chance of recompense, especially as the criminal organisations tend to be based overseas, outside British legal jurisdiction, but in the story, two of the perpetrators, albeit originating from Ghana, are actually based on Grace’s ‘patch’, in Brighton.

Two women who have become suspicious about the identity of their online amours, have ended up dead: one in Germany, and the other one in Brighton; the latter one has been in contact with a local gay motivational speaker, telling him that his image has been found on several online profiles, of which he was completely unaware—this leads him to become dangerously involved in the situation. Into this mix is thrown a returning character, an American contract killer, known as “Tooth”, with whom Grace has previously come into contact, but despite being injured, managed to avoid capture & arrest by Grace. Tooth is under contract to a crime boss based in Jersey, Channel Islands, although the relationship is fractious, to say the least, and Tooth is seriously considering retirement upon completion of this contract.

As should be apparent from the foregoing, because of the number of different characters in this narrative, there are several different strands operating concurrently, but as ever, James manages to keep the action flowing smoothly, without becoming bogged down in detail, but the reader can be assured that all the procedural details have been meticulously researched, so are undoubtedly accurate. The dénouement is not reached without any hitches, but the conclusion is satisfying, and should leave the reader eager to read further instalments, ideally in sequence, but that should not necessarily be a priority. The paperback I read was published in 2019, by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-1641-5; as usual, two very helpful maps of Brighton, and the surrounding area of Sussex, are printed at the front of the book, before the commencement of the story.

Book Review

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Many Rivers to Cross, by Peter Robinson

A new [to me] DCI [sorry, update: DS!] Banks book is always a pleasure, even if, as I have remarked in connection with other televised fictional police character groups, the dramatis personae might have diverged from the original setup in the book, which is certainly true in this case, with one main character in particular, but I am able to keep the book and TV character sets in different mental compartments. I have previously reviewed one of Peter Robinson’s very early Banks stories [A Dedicated Man], in which he had only, relative recently, arrived in post from London, but now, he has progressed at the same place in North Yorkshire to Superintendent, although he is still undertaking operational duties, which is the way he likes it. This must have been written at least two years BC [before Covid] so, notwithstanding the specific events in this narrative, life is continuing very much as normal [whatever normal actually is, of course].

A youth of apparently middle eastern origin, aged around twelve years, is found dumped in a ‘wheelie’ bin, on the edge of a local housing estate; he was stabbed to death, and a single packet of cocaine is found on him: otherwise, he has no possessions, and he cannot initially be identified. The local press immediately assumes he was an illegal immigrant, but the national press is more concerned in the knife crime aspect. Immediately following the first death, a semi-disabled drug addict is found dead, from an apparent heroin overdose, in his house on another estate, but this time it is less salubrious than the first one. Initially, there is nothing obvious linking the two deaths, other than the narcotics, but Banks feels that they could be connected, if he can only find the link. A local businessman, Connor Clive Blaydon, is currently under investigation, under suspicion of involvement with the local drugs trade, as well as prostitution, but he has been too clever to become personally involved, so it has not hitherto been possible to find any conclusive evidence. He is also wanting to develop the sink estate where the drug addict was found, and he has enlisted the help of some potentially very dangerous allies, including local twins modelled referentially on The Kray Twins, and an Albanian gangster, who uses two brothers from Moldova as his muscle.

Another thread which appears to have continued from previous stories is that of a young Moldovan woman named Zelda [although we soon learn that this is, in fact, a pseudonym she has adopted]. She is currently living locally with Raymond, the artist father of Banks’s close colleague DI Annie Cabbot, but she works two days a week in London for the National Crime Agency [NCA], as a ‘super-recogniser’: she has the ability to remember a face permanently, which is very useful to the NCA in its work, identifying men [predominantly] involved in the sex-trafficking & people-smuggling crimes. She is also on a personal, secret, mission, to find & kill one of the Moldovan brothers who abducted her from the street in front of the orphanage she was released from when she was deemed to be too old to continue living there: both of them raped her many times before forcing her into prostitution, but one was more casually & sadistically violent than the other; now that she is free, she is confident that her work will give her the opportunity to find this depraved individual.

No great surprises in this story, and the resolution does not become clear until very near the end, but it is a competent & enjoyable* edition in the series and, as is generally the case with this sort of character-driven canon, it is possible to read this as a standalone story, but some foreknowledge of characters’ arcs does make it, for me at any rate, more satisfying; a subsequent story, Not Dark Yet, is advertised at the back of the book, as “Coming in 2020”, so it is very likely that some unresolved plot points will be continued there. The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2019] by Hodder and Stoughton, London, ISBN 978-1-444-78700-9. Finally, I apologise if this blog doesn’t look as well-presented as others hitherto: it looks like WordPress is trying to suppress the use of CSS code in free plans [apparently, “This block contains unexpected or invalid content.”]; no doubt, when you pay, “anything goes”. I will not be paying, and if this company continues to make life difficult for free users, as appears to be the trend, I will be discontinuing these posts: I can quite happily live without reviewing books, so I apologise if readers have enjoyed them, but I have plenty of other things to occupy my time with.

*apart from a grammatical howler on page 1! “The youngest of the two women”: comparative, not superlative!

Book Review

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London, Burning by Anthony Quinn

To people of a similar age to me, the name Anthony Quinn will suggest a well-built actor who starred in many acclaimed films [Wiki here], but this is not the same man: unfortunately, the flyleaf of the paperback for which this review is intended had a very unhelpful barcode sticker inconveniently placed over the author’s admittedly minimal biography, but I could ascertain that Quinn was born in Liverpool in 1964, and as well as being an author of seven fiction and one non-fiction books, he has also been a film critic, so quite culturally fluent. This comes across in the story under review, although it doesn’t strive to be highbrow: it reads very easily, and the characters are adequately believable.

The title is a reference to a famous song by The Clash, which suggests the timeframe of the story, which is 1977: the fag end of the Callaghan government which, like several others for various reasons, was a very poor advertisement for democratic socialism, which had been so successfully implemented by Clement Attlee after the ousting of Churchill in the 1945 general election. The trade unions were responding to the government’s austerity policy [sound familiar?] by flexing their considerable muscles; union membership being then much higher than it is today; and bringing the country to its knees, apparently totally oblivious to the hardship that this was causing ordinary people, thereby paving the way for the disastrous régime of Margaret Thatcher, which was then heralded as a return to common sense and that much-vaunted [and misused] concept: freedom.

The IRA was also active on the mainland, and one of this story’s characters, Callum Conlan, is inadvertently caught up in a terrorist incident. During the narrative, he comes into contact with some of the other characters: Freddie Selves, who is a self-absorbed theatre impresario; Vicky Tress, a young policewoman [as they were then called], who is encouraged to move from uniform to CID duties, and is supported by a senior officer, for only partially altruistic reasons; and an ambitious, as well as obviously noticeably intelligent reporter for a left-leaning news magazine, Hannah Strode. In order, Conlan is an academic who moved away from his native Newry to escape “The Troubles”, but unfortunately, they catch up with him in the form of a younger former school acquaintance, whom he meets when he is working on a building site adjoining the place of Selves’s employment, the National Music Hall. Selves is a lothario, and his latest adventure is discovered by Hannah Strode, who sees a scoop in revealing this. Vicky Tress becomes involved in an anti-corruption investigation at work [very common then and, sadly, not entirely eradicated even now], but she suffers a traumatic incident in the line of duty.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, I feel that the narrative slightly fails to deliver the tension promised by its title; having said that, I wouldn’t want that to be a disincentive for potential readers. Also, without wanting to spoil the plot in any way, there do seem to be some loose ends left at the conclusion, so I wonder if a sequel/continuation is on the cards? The acknowledgements at the end don’t support this inference, but it would strike me as odd if characters are introduced to a narrative, but left with unfinished business; or perhaps, this is just my desire for completeness in a narrative: presumably, time will tell. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021, Little, Brown, London] by Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, ISBN 978-0-349-14428-3.

Book Review

Abstract people silhouettes against glass, 3D generated image.

Hall of Mirrors, by Christopher Fowler

This book is a prequel [not the only one, according to the author’s website, and Arthur Bryant’s ongoing memoirs appear to be the regular source] to the only other book in the Bryant and May Series by this author which I have reviewed, The Lonely Hour [], and it is informally prefaced by a current-day chapter, in which Arthur Bryant’s publisher’s editor is treating him to lunch, and trying [without an appreciable degree of success] to pin him down on the potential for further volumes of his memoirs, the first one having “sold rather well”, albeit “Considering they’re written by an elderly police detective with a faulty memory”. The narrative which follows is not so much, as Simon Sartorius the editor had hoped for, a whodunit, but “more of a when-is-someone-going-to-do-it-and-to-whom. To use our technical parlance.” Set in 1969, as well as being the end of the so-called “swinging sixties”, both sociologically as well as chronologically, “The investigation began and ended in a single weekend, although I suppose its roots went back further than that. It was at the end of the summer of 1969, an extraordinary time to be young. …” This after the editor had observed that “some less charitable critics have suggested that your first volume should have been filed under Fantasy.”, and remonstrating that “I do think that telling them you were investigating crimes during the Blitz is pushing it a bit.” In his usual mischievously straight-faced fashion, Bryant ascribed that to mistakes in translation from his notes, which he writes in Aramaic; “It’s a three-thousand-year-old language so I have to make up a lot of words.”: well, of course!

As Bryant stated, the action does, indeed, unfold over a single weekend, and the pace is so slow that it almost feels like the narrative is being described in ‘real time’; although that’s physically impossible for a modestly-sized book, of course. Both men are young, still quite eager; although Bryant is nowhere near as ‘with-it’ as John May, and uncomfortably aware of that, but he conceals this discomfort behind a bookish demeanour which might today be described, albeit not entirely accurately, as ‘young fogeyish’; we also learn, towards the end of the story, how Bryant acquires his trademark long, rainbow-coloured scarf [similarities to a certain fictional time-traveller not entirely unintentional?]. After an introductory chapter, describing the tragic partial collapse of a new tower-block building, with similarities to the actual Ronan Point collapse in May 1968, the main narrative commences. After the unfortunate sinking of a canal barge, during the course of an unsuccessful attempt to apprehend a man known [only to Bryant, at the time] as Burlington Bertie from Bow; “…once the East End’s most notorious hitman — until he went bonkers.”, the pair are forced to face what Bryant describes as “a kangaroo court that’s already been briefed on how to get rid of us.”, presided over by the magnificently named Horatio Kasavian, “some kind of Home Office-appointed intermediary by the sound of it.” He is actually surprisingly astute, and while their long-term future at the Peculiar Crimes Unit is considered, he allows them to take on “a freelance job” for “a chap at the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] with a problem…”; this turns out to be protecting a witness in a high-profile London criminal court trial, for the weekend preceding the commencement of the proceedings.

The witness is Monty Hatton-Jones, one of the “clubroom pals” of the defendant, Sir Charles Chamberlain, “a millionaire property developer who lives in Belgravia.”; the former has “decided to turn whistleblower” on the latter, because of “a bit of hot water” he’d got himself into “and covered it up smartish”, so Hatton-Jones apparently needs protection before the trial begins; because of the threat to Chamberlain’s reputation & livelihood, naturally. Just to complicate matters, the protection needs to be afforded at a country house in Kent, owned by an imperious matriarch with a batty hippy son, who has a commune in the grounds with hangers-on in various stages of intoxication; there is also a motley collection of other invited guests, including the secretive American millionaire who is buying the visibly crumbling pile, together with his British wife; the lawyer who is handling the sale [although he is not currently resident, but staying in the nearby village]; a young & attractive singer, who is generally acknowledged as being the millionaire’s mistress; a flamboyant interior designer, contracted to the millionaire; a modestly successful female novelist; the local vicar; and six staff, several of whom are ancient and/or disabled. The detectives also have a man ‘on the inside’: the one-armed, one-legged gardener, Brigadier Nigel “Fruity” Metcalfe. During the course of the weekend, several unsuccessful attempts upon Hatton-Jones’s life are made, but the culprit always seems to vanish into thin air; apart from which, none of the guests seems to have an obvious motive for wishing to silence the putative whistle-blower. An apparent grisly murder does occur but, notwithstanding the reticence of the detective pair, who are initially masquerading as house-guests: acquaintances of their charge; to hand the investigation over to the official police in Canterbury, they are somewhat hampered by local army manoeuvres, whose organisers have erroneously assumed that the house is currently unoccupied, and the fact that it won’t stop raining…..

This is another unassailably worthy member of the B&M canon, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it, especially if you enjoy eccentric characters, one of whom [Bryant] is written in a way that very gently, but also respectfully, pokes fun at fictitious amateur sleuths, such as Holmes and Agatha Christie’s two best-known and -loved characters. Fowler’s writing, for me, strikes just the right balance between humorous economy and erudition [B&M’s quick-fire word games, for no other reason than to stave off boredom, usually end in May’s defeat, with his characteristic response of “Bollocks!”, and the handing over of the penalty of a tanner (six old pence; 2½ ‘new’ pence)], so finding a new, hitherto unread story in this series is always an enjoyable prospect. The paperback I read was first published in 2018 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London; Penguin Bantam edition published 2019, ISBN 978-0-8575-0311-4.

Book Review

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The Night Hawks, by Elly Griffiths

This is the latest paperback murder mystery for the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway character, and it was published when Coronavirus was known about, but the narrative’s start date is September 2019, so it must have been written before Covid was starting to cause real concern. There is a later story, The Locked Room, commencing in February 2020, which should have been published in February this year, but not yet in paperback; from the taster of five short chapters at the end of this book, it is clear that Coronavirus is being taken seriously. At the beginning, Ruth is still single and, after a stint at Cambridge University, back living in her beloved cottage in Norfolk with her now nine-year old daughter Kate, Ruth’s previous lover & putative husband having been gently spurned and returned to his native America. Ruth is now Head of Archaeology, superseding her former boss Phil Trent, and she has engaged a lecturer, David Brown, to work under her, but she is already starting to wonder if he was a good choice, because he seems somewhat arrogant, and she conducts a silent monologue of things she would like to say to him, but prefers to refrain from.

Instead of an ancient body, or the remains of one, the first one to be found this time is very much contemporary, by the eponymous Night Hawks, nocturnal metal detectorists, whom Ruth considers to be a nuisance: “They’re not archaeologists. They’re amateurs who charge around looking for treasure. They’ve no idea how to excavate or how to read the context. They just dive in and dig up whatever looks shiny.” David considers this elitism, however: “Detectorists are valid members of the community and these finds belong to the people.” Ruth’s professional opinion is sought by her daughter’s not-so-secret father, DCI Harry Nelson, but David Brown also invites himself along, much to Ruth’s irritation; his comments about the Night Hawks don’t endear him to her either. It appears that the Night Hawks also found something more attractive, which Nelson categorises as “a lot of old metal”, but Ruth is intrigued, and a superficial excavation reveals a broken spear head, possibly Bronze Age; then part of a skull is found, so David is happy, because he was advocating for a dig for his first year students, but Ruth’s primary concern is that the site should be protected.

At first, the contemporary body, that of a young man, is assumed to be a refugee who drowned in the course of trying to enter the country, but his identification leads the inquiry in an unexpected direction, and before long, there is a second death, so perhaps the first death was murder? Ruth is soon called in to excavate the garden of the isolated Black Dog Farm, where there has been an apparent murder/suicide, and after this, events take a distinctly dangerous turn for her… I have come to really enjoy reading the exploits of these characters, and they always seem somehow more relevant when they are set within the context of current circumstances; also, their lives evolve, they are not preserved in aspic, so they are realistic, whilst still being fictional. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-78747-784-1.

Book Review

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A Dedicated Man, by Peter Robinson

This is only the second DCI Banks story, first published way back in 1988, and it is quite a different Chief Inspector Alan Banks we find here from the one with which we [those of us who have watched the excellent TV dramatisations] have become familiar: for a start, he is described as being short, dark and wiry—“in appearance rather like the old Celtic strain of Welshman”, not like the tall, well-built Stephen Tompkinson, who fills the role admirably; plus, he smokes—initially a pipe, then later, when he realises he can’t get on with it, cigarettes—as does everybody else, copiously. Perhaps, by the time he reached the small screen, his character [and peripheral ones] had been subtly tweaked because of health concerns; but it has been some years since I watched early episodes of this canon, so I am prepared to be corrected on that. His familiar colleagues are also conspicuous by their absence: perhaps they were introduced in later stories.

He is also still happily married, living at home with his wife & 2 children: a situation which will deteriorate, sadly, as the stories progress. Banks is still conscious of his outsider status, having only lived in the area [a fictitious area, perhaps in West Yorkshire, possibly based on Helmsley, in North Yorkshire] for 18 months, after relocating from London, but he is also aware that he can use that to his advantage, a notion originally suggested by his superior, the unusually kindly Superintendent Gristhorpe. I was surprised how firmly rooted in the classical & folk traditions his music tastes are, because in later stories he has comfortably embraced a more contemporary catalogue, albeit clinging to what I would, as a “baby boomer”, consider to be the sine qua non era, the 1970s. Murder is always shocking, wherever it occurs, but seemingly more so in small, quiet country areas, where life seems to progress at a comfortable, safe, leisurely pace, so when a retired, but still relatively young University lecturer is found dead by a local farmer, partially buried by a stone field boundary wall, Banks initially struggles to discover a credible motive and, thereby, a likely suspect for the crime.

The victim only had a small social circle, and an evidently loving wife, and no-one was prepared to say anything negative about him: he was the eponymous dedicated man, which makes Banks’s job significantly more difficult, so the enquiries progress slowly; but this makes for a very enjoyable [for me, anyway] pace of narrative, and plenty of opportunities for the reader to speculate on the identity of the killer. Unfortunately, a local teenager takes it upon herself to pursue her own line of enquiry when she feels that Banks hasn’t taken her concerns sufficiently seriously, and suffers drastic consequences as a result. Banks is convinced that the key to solving this murder lies in the past lives of the possible suspects, but as ever, seemingly, people are reluctant to open up about that, for a variety of reasons. Not for the first time in a murder mystery, Sherlock Holmes’s wisdom is invoked to give Banks the final clue to the puzzle, and the killer is identified at an opportune moment although, sadly, not for the previous victims. This is a recent reprint, for which I am grateful, because I always enjoy the opportunity to broaden my knowledge of characters with whom I have become familiar, to learn how their story arcs develop. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [1988], by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-5704-3.

Book Review

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The Night Gate, by Peter May

Once again, Peter May has produced a layered and tense thriller which delivers in spades. The book’s title could be considered a distraction, given that it takes a while for its significance to be realised, but this is a very minor concern: overall, the narrative is well constructed, and it is bang up to date, embracing, rather than avoiding or ignoring the inexorable tide of infectious illness which has swept the world over two years, and is only now showing signs of abating. The protagonist, Enzo Macleod, is slightly unusual, in that he is a Scot by birth, with an Italian given name, but living & working in Cahors, south west France for enough years to allow him to become established, but without necessarily considering himself entrenched, in his chosen profession, forensic criminal investigation. His past personal life is somewhat complicated, and doesn’t really require exposition here, but suffice to say that he is now happily married to the significantly younger Dominique, who worked as an investigating officer in the Gendarmerie, and he has, in addition to a Scottish adult daughter, Kirsty, an adolescent son, Laurent, and another adult daughter, Sophie, who is currently in the late stages of pregnancy, hoping for a safe delivery after two previous miscarriages.

While on tenterhooks about the forthcoming birth, Enzo is invited, via an erstwhile almost-lover, a Gendarme named Hélène, by an old acquaintance, a forensic archaeologist named Professor Magali Blanc, to assist in investigating a very ‘cold’ case: a recently unearthed unsolved murder in a village, Carennac, situated on a bend of the Dordogne river, roughly an hour north of his home in the Lot valley. Enzo is initially reluctant to get back ‘in harness’, given that he is “retired from all that these days…Five years since I packed in my position at Paul Sabatier.” His former position is unspecified, but Paul Sabatier is a prestigious university in Toulouse, and he is revered as having “forensic talents”, so it is likely that he would have specialised, and probably lectured in one of the Life Sciences. When he learns that the seventy-five years old, or possibly more, remains are those of “a ranking officer of the Luftwaffe with a bullet hole in his skull, shallow-buried in a tiny medieval village…[which] wouldn’t exactly fit a conventional wartime scenario”, he is sufficiently intrigued to make the trip. When he & Dominique get there, they are informed by the local Gendarmerie Capitaine Arnaud, who happens to be a fan of Enzo’s skill, that the reason he is there is because there was a murder in the vicinity the previous day and, given his reverence for Enzo, persuades him to also take a look at this crime while it is still fresh.

There is a suspect for the new murder, but he has absconded, and thereafter, when Enzo starts investigating, the narrative broadens out to encompass events which took place in the early years of world war two, contemporary participants in these events, and how it becomes clear that these two murders are inextricably connected. The narrative alternates between the present, and wartime France, with the earlier events partly narrated by a current resident of the house where the latest murder occurred, and partly in third-person exposition; this could be a recipe for confusion, but May holds these temporally distanced threads together well. The main premise of the story is a proposition which is plausible, given the circumstances of the war in question, but which is impossible to prove, given its audacious nature; more cannot be revealed here! There is also added jeopardy as the hunt for the perpetrator intensifies, because a new lockdown was imposed in France at the end of October 2020, so Enzo only had a limited time in which to resolve the case, before his freedom of movement was curtailed. The description of the landscape in which the case unfolds is quite enticing, and I found it helpful to have a good map of the country to follow the characters’ movements. I can happily recommend this book, and the paperback I read was published in 2021 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-78429-508-0.

Book Review

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A Study in Crimson, by Robert J. Harris

In common with his near namesake, this Robert Harris seems to enjoy writing books which are tributes to historical characters such as Leonardo da Vinci & William Shakespeare; but he has also written two Richard Hannay books and, more pertinently for this review, The Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries, “a series featuring the youthful adventures of the creator of Sherlock Holmes”, which I am presuming are young adult stories, despite the front blurb nor specifying that. The inspiration for this iteration of the inimitable sleuth, subtitled Sherlock Holmes 1942, was the series of British films featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Watson: “films which…have been favourites of [his] entire family for many years.” As far as he is aware, “it has never occurred to anyone to base a novel on this version of Sherlock Holmes.” He felt that he could “remain faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal characters, while at the same time viewing Holmes and Watson in a new light.” I suppose that is perfectly reasonable [although purists would probably disagree], and characters as strong as these would probably work in any timeframe, as evidenced IMHO by the success as the oft sobriqueted Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman in current times.

It might be interesting to compare this iteration with the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, set in a similar time period [but with Holmes ageing from his original setting] by Michael Chabon, The Final Solution, which I reviewed here; this story retains the traditional Baker Street setting, merely transposed to 1942, and I feel that the only hint of criticism which could be levelled is that, notwithstanding the relatively quieter atmosphere after the exigencies of the Blitz, the war impinges on the story hardly at all—that aside, it is easy to accept that this is the natural temporal home for Holmes. There is a slightly odd prologue to the story; although not listed as such, and it runs over three chapters; which doesn’t seem to have any connection to, or bearing on the main story, other than to introduce the characters, but I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of readers would already be well acquainted with them? No matter: at worst, it is an amusing diversion before the gore of the main story is encountered. It appears that someone; presumably a man; has taken it upon himself to emulate the ghastly exploits in London of Jack the Ripper, in 1888, ‘operating’ under the moniker of Crimson Jack, hence the book’s title. Aside from Holmes’s inherent disgust at such heinous activity, given the setting, there is also the national security aspect to consider, which is where Holmes’s less well known, but arguably [not least by himself] more intelligent older brother, Mycroft, comes in; all too briefly, unfortunately, as the interplay between the two brothers can be a very rewarding source of amusement.

As for why that particular time was chosen for this awful repetition, more cannot be revealed without spoiling the nuance of the plot, but suffice to say that Holmes solves the case with his usual aplomb; albeit not immediately; but the motivation for the murderer might not be what it initially seems, and the perpetrator is very clever at leading most of his pursuers in a merry dance. Watson is suitably mystified, although not to the point of potential ridicule: Harris is keen to point out that, despite Watson being “sometimes made a figure of fun for the sake of comic relief”, he has “not followed that course in the novel, though Watson remains suitably baffled by Holmes’s brilliance.” Well, it wouldn’t be a Holmes & Watson story otherwise, would it? Incidentally, towards the end of the story, Holmes reveals that he knows the identity of the original Jack, who is actually a fictional character, but he is apparently based upon one of the real suspects in the Whitechapel murders [you’ll have to read the book to find out whom!]; this will be moot, of course, given the lack of supporting evidence, especially DNA, and the time elapsed—I make no further comment, other than to observe that any further entries in this canon would be welcomed. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2020] by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-84697-596-7.

Book Review

Photo by Moira Dillon on Unsplash 

Left You Dead, by Peter James

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace’s latest case is not an easy one; although it probably wouldn’t make for a particularly engaging story if it was, would it? There are three main reasons for this: first of all, a distressed husband’s missing person case is very quickly converted to a murder inquiry, but without the aid of a body; secondly, he is being oh-so-politely hounded by his superior, ACC Cassian Pewe; and thirdly, before he can really get to grips with the case, he is beset by a family tragedy. The first two can be deconstructed, but to do this with the third would unhelpfully forewarn the reader, so I will eschew that. The disappearance of the wife appears to be straightforward, albeit mysterious, the way it is presented at the commencement of the narrative, but the husband is not the most attractive of human beings, in a rounded sense, and it is this which sets the ‘Spidey-senses’ of Grace and his colleague, DI Glenn Branson, tingling in very short order [notwithstanding the proclivity of the police, albeit possibly stereotypical, to suspect the messenger in preference to investigating the message], and before long, they have accumulated enough circumstantial evidence to arrest the man.

Further evidence is uncovered by Grace & his sizeable team, which includes a surveillance group, but the use of this facility is jeopardised, and it is even temporarily removed by Pewe, which Grace inevitably interprets as malicious, despite the operational reasons being justifiable, however debatable. What Pewe doesn’t know, at the outset, is that Grace has a source of ostensibly credible & reliable evidence against him, which could end his career, although Grace is painfully aware that this venture could also go badly wrong, because the source is a discredited police officer, so he has to bide his time and continue to be acquiescent with Pewe, and avoid being too obviously insubordinate. On the plus side for Grace, he has a very happy marriage with Cleo, who is a medical examiner [pathologist] and currently pregnant, but they also have a toddler, Noah, and these provide him with welcome solace from his tribulations; although the family tragedy inevitably involves Cleo, as Grace’s wife. Other dimensions to the ‘missing body’ murder inquiry are fed into the narrative as it progresses, but these cannot be revealed here! Suffice to say that Grace & his team have to revise their assessment of the situation [and perhaps, in the process, examine their preconceptions?] several times before a dénouement is reached.

This is a substantial hardback of 482 pages, but it does mean that the pacing can be relatively slow, so the development of the narrative can be savoured & enjoyed, like a gourmet meal. A second TV dramatisation of a Roy Grace book has now been produced, following on from the first story, Dead Simple, reviewed here, and very sensibly, it is the second book chronologically, Looking Good Dead, again starring the ever-capable John Simm as Roy Grace; although the screenwriting duty was assigned to Russell Lewis in both cases—having enjoyed the first, I look forward to watching the second, as soon as it becomes available on one of the ITV channels. The hardback I read was published in 2021 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-0424-3.