Book Review

Photo by Hala Al-Asadi on Unsplash

Art of Death, by Laurence Anholt

This book, published in 2019 by Constable, London, ISBN 978-1-47212-999-4 [Paperback, 2020] is the first of what promises to be a series of books featuring a character called The Mindful Detective, which suggests that the stories are not going to be run-of-the-mill police procedurals. On the evidence of this first one, the series promises to feature an ‘odd couple’ detective pairing, which is by no means unknown, but the male detective in the pair is somewhat unusual in that, first & foremost, he is taking an extended period of leave, so he has to be subtly persuaded to join his colleague in this unusual murder case, but also that he has pursued a path of spiritual enlightenment to help his recovery from a distressing trauma. He is Detective Inspector Vincent Caine, and prior to his detachment from full time police responsibilities, he was already sufficiently different from the average detective to have acquired the sobriquet The Veggie Cop. His perplexed colleague is Detective Inspector Shantala [aka Shanti] Joyce, who is divorced, with an eight-year old son.

The story is set in Devon and, although that is not specifically my old stamping ground, it does roam about sufficiently from Cornwall in the west, via Somerset, to west Dorset in the east, for me to feel somewhat at home in the locations. Shanti has recently been transferred to Yeovil from London, after a humiliating failure in a recent case, so she is keen to repair her reputation by turning in a good result on her first murder case in her new ‘patch’. The murder of a “famously narcissistic performance artist”, whose public profile had slipped somewhat since her early controversies (and who might just bear a passing resemblance to Yoko Ono), is sufficiently perplexing to persuade Shanti to ask her subordinate Benno (Detective Sergeant Bennet) to recommend a suitable partner to assist her, hence DI Caine. The 43-year old artist, Kristal Havfruen, had been found immersed in a transparent tank of formaldehyde, when it was revealed at a public event in Devon; it was supposed to be a lifelike effigy of herself, something the artist made regularly, in the tank, but by the time it was realised that this was the real thing, it was, unfortunately, too late.

The banter from world-weary Shanti does seem slightly forced, as she initially tries to persuade Caine to relinquish the world of mindfulness & lack of urgency, and then keep him in a conventional police mindset to identify & apprehend the killer, but thankfully for me, it didn’t become irritating, so the contrast between the two different approaches worked quite well. There are also the beginnings of a “will they or won’t they” [i.e.: get together] scenario which will, undoubtedly, be developed in forthcoming stories. The author, Laurence Anholt has an interesting background, coming from a Dutch family with roots stretching back to Persia, and he also knows very well one of the locations in the book, Falmouth School of Art, having studied there, as well as the Royal Academy in London; also, his interests include meditation and walking on the Undercliff at Lyme Regis, another location in the story. The dénouement is not too much of a stretch, and it is certainly plausible, so this makes for a very pleasant and undemanding read: I will be quite happy to read any further adventures of The Mindful Detective and his gnomic utterances!

Book Review


The Disappearance of Tom Pile, by Ian Beck

This is a relatively new book (published in 2015 by Penguin Random House UK, ISBN 978 0 552 56776 3), whose full title, too long for the paperback cover, is The Casebook of Captain Holloway: The Disappearance of Tom Pile, and the author is new to me, but I have to confess that I was drawn to the book by the cover (thereby refuting the well-worn adage) and, given the author’s background, I was surprised that he didn’t design the cover himself: “Ian Beck has worked as a freelance illustrator for many years (including such notable artwork as the record [remember those?] cover for Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). Ian turned to writing and illustrating children’s books when his own children were born.” This isn’t a particularly long book at 267 pages, so it is an easy read, especially if, like I do, you enjoy science fiction which has a reasonable plausibility, even if one’s disbelief does have to be suspended to some extent. The book also includes some monotone photographs which have been edited to support the narrative although, somewhat perversely, they don’t always exactly match the section of the story they support; that’s only a minor quibble, however.

Without wanting to give away too much of the plot, the story concerns the eponymous Tom Pile who, we learn, went missing and was quickly presumed dead, in the year 1900, only to inexplicably return forty years later, having not aged at all, in exactly the same location, which is a part of Dorset I know slightly, having had family whom I occasionally visited with my parents, living there, and some still do. The area, according to the story, has been subject to strange lights in the sky going back to some years before Tom’s disappearance; the author claims not to “know if strange lights have ever been seen over the hills of Dorset…”, and that could well be true, but there are military establishments not too far away (although they possibly didn’t exist when the lights were first noticed), so that would lend some credibility to the theory that curious extra-terrestrial visitors (since that is the obvious, albeit not initially stated inference to draw from these events) have been investigating earth’s military capability. However, to use a well-known saying of the time, “there’s a war on”, so the fictitious (probably) government department investigating these phenomena has to use the threat of a German invasion to cover its enquiries, in the person of a young, precociously gifted Londoner by the name of Jack Carmody, who is sent to deepest, darkest Dorset, to see what he can find.

There is a twist at the end which is not entirely unexpected, and the dénouement could have been extended somewhat, but what could have been a tragedy turns out not to be so, entirely anyway, and it would appear that this is the first book in what could be a series, given that there is at the end of the book an “exclusive extract of the next story about Captain Holloway [Jack’s superior officer], Corporal Carmody and Tom Pile: The Miraculous Return of Annick Garel”; however, one disappearance (this book) and a “miraculous return” (the next book) don’t necessarily suggest an open-ended series: time will tell, of course. This is definitely not hard-core science fiction (apologies if that upsets hard-core science fiction aficionados), but I think that will make it more attractive to a broad audience, including perhaps a lucrative demographic, the ‘young adult’ readers, although this book doesn’t appear to be specifically targeted there. If the paranormal and/or unexplained phenomena irritate you, this is probably a book best avoided, but given that there are indeed many reports globally of people who have mysteriously vanished, and/or experienced time loss (they can’t all be mad or looking to make an easy buck, surely?), as I said earlier, it does (in my opinion, of course) have a reasonable plausibility, so if you can handle that, give this little book a whirl. If it helps to convince you, on the Penguin Books page marketing the book, no less an icon that Philip Pullman gives the book a glowing, albeit oddly brief, endorsement: “A cracker . . . Utterly convincing”: it works for me!