I have just discovered that the links, which I have been giving to the ISBNs at the end of my book review posts, are incorrect. The reason I have been showing the ISBN, which is the unique code for any book, rather than a link to a selling site such as, say Amazon, is because I do not want to promote sites such as this, for ideological reasons. If you want to purchase any of the books which I review, rather than obtaining them through your local library [which is what I do], if you click on this link, it will take you to an ISBN search site [apologies for the tautology of “ISBN number”], where you can enter the number, and then search for available new and/or used copies in your country. I will correct this error in future posts so, again, apologies if you have tried to find a book from its ISBN, only to end up on an error page.
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.
Rayne and I have now finished a new book, Writing and Publishing a Book Series: Success Strategies for Authors. The book contains everything we’ve learned all these years about creating a book series rather than publishing a series of stand-alone novels. If you’ve ever wondered how to turn your book into a series that readers recognize and love or how to boost your books’ potential by creating a series, this is the book for you.
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.
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  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!
If you have a few seconds free, I’d really appreciate your opinion…..
I’ve written a book which, subject to any late changes, I’m going to self publish in the coming weeks.
It’s a suspense/thriller novel of around 95,000 words called ‘I Know She’s Out There.’
I’m preparing the cover and tidying/editing the text at the moment.
To assist I’ve included the elevator pitch below:
After her release from psychiatric care Chrissy Clews is quietly rebuilding her life working at a motorway service station when her former teacher walks in and tries to discreetly buy a porn magazine. He doesn’t recognise her, but when he drops his wallet she hides it and can’t resist looking inside. She’s shocked to find a tatty passport photo of Laura Duggan, a school friend who went missing 30 years ago and was never seen again.She decides to investigate…
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.
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 [https://wilfredbooks.wordpress.com/2022/01/01/book-review-57/], 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.
Wilfred Risdon was passionate about animal welfare, and Hilda Kean is another campaigner on the same subject, as well as women’s rights, and the rights of working people, both now and in a historical context, in her capacity as an academic. She blogs on hildakean.com, and her latest post deals with her interest in four women teachers she has been researching:
Decades ago I had researched and had published a book I called Deeds not Words. The Lives of Suffragette Teachers, arising from my earlier PhD on history and education. Then I was a school teacher at Quintin Kynaston, a progressive London school, and active in the local Westminster NUT. To be honest I had never been that interested in the suffrage movement, apart from Sylvia Pankhurst, but suddenly came across the way many women teachers activists organised in the NUT to try and get the union’s support for the vote.
Please visit her blog, and leave a comment if you find her work interesting: she will be very glad to hear from you—she was very helpful to me with research material for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black shirt and Smoking Beagles.
This is a promotional post for aspiring authors, from QueryLetter.com, a company which helps them with the technical aspects of publishing. Occasionally, it posts lists of writing competitions on its website, so this post is a link to the latest list, with a synopsis of the advantages of entering these competitions:
A successful entry in a writing competition can be a significant boost for an author’s career, providing exposure and potentially even leading to a publishing deal. They also provide fantastic motivation to get a work finished, to hone your writing, and to test yourself against your peers. Some also offer cash prizes—always welcome! In this list, we showcase over 270 of the best writing contests out there, in a variety of genres.