Book Reviews

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Anthology #1

Dolphin Junction, by Mick Herron

It’s always a pleasure to find a book by this author, and this is a collection of his short stories, one of which features some of his Slow Horses characters; there are also two featuring his private investigators Zoë Boehm and her hapless, erstwhile husband, Joe Silvermann. Herron seems to have the knack of being able, cosynchronously, to write both contemporaneously and classically; although maybe by that I mean that his writing is cogent, a quality not always found in current fiction; and he is very clever in how he sets the reader up for a conclusion, only to often turn these assumptions on their head. There are eleven stories in this collection, and they are all of the right length, so each new one is anticipated with pleasure. This hardback was published in 2021 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7126-0; there is also a paperback, ISBN 978-1-5293-7127-7.

Our Man in New York, by Henry Hemming

This non-fiction book deserves to be read very widely: I say this as the author of a non-fiction biography, but the remit of this biography is arguably much wider than was mine, so I have every sympathy for this author with regard to the research he must have had to undertake. He is the grandson of a very good friend of the subject, William [Bill] Stephenson, but that notwithstanding, his documentary & anecdotal sources in his family were more limited than he would have liked; nevertheless, he has produced what I consider to be a very well-researched & important record of the British government’s efforts to influence American opinion enough, in 1940, when Britain was on its knees against the merciless onslaught of Hitler’s Germany, to persuade President Roosevelt to bring America into the war on the side of the Allies. Whether Stephenson’s background as a Canadian made a significant difference to his attitude & effect in this campaign is debatable, but suffice to say that, by the time Japan attacked America in December 1941, American opinion had revolved enough to make the country’s contribution a foregone conclusion. A must-read! The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2019] by Quercus editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7874-7484-0.

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, by Alexander McCall Smith

I have already alluded to this series; the 44 Scotland Street stories, set in Edinburgh; in a review of another series, the Inspector Varg novels, by this author [no diaeresis over the first A of his name here, as I expected], and I was curious to read how different, or otherwise, this might be from the aforesaid Malmö-set Varg stories. This is trumpeted as “now the world’s longest-running serial novel”, and it is with no little regret that I have to say that this reads like it; that said, it is very pleasant reading, which does have some measure of closure for a couple of the characters, but otherwise, it is a gentle meander through the lives of the characters during a short length of time in “Auld Reekie”. One thing I did find slightly irritating is that, for all the writing is cogent, there is an ever-so-slightly supercilious air about the latin quotations which are used without translation: some I knew, and some I wasn’t 100% sure of. Nevertheless, as said, this is very pleasant, undemanding reading, so I will be very happy to find another instalment in the series, whenever it is in the timescale. The hardback I read was published in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-8469-7483-0.

Admissions, by Henry Marsh

This name might not mean a thing to many people, but is you are a supporter of assisted dying, as I am, you might have seen his name as one of the high-profile supporters. He was a neurosurgeon [aka brain surgeon] before he retired, although he had not completely retired when he wrote this book; he was only working part-time though, and he also did stints in Ukraine [before the most recent Russian invasion] and Nepal, working with erstwhile colleagues. These foreign sojourns were partly altruistic, but it is fairly apparent from his personal musings that he has something of a restless nature; he has also seen, in his working career, which has encompassed many aspects of the medical profession, the despair which can overtake human beings who are suffering terminal illnesses, and the anguish which this can cause their loved ones, so this explains why he supports the concept of assisted dying. This has been decriminalised in many countries, and other countries are engaged in rational discussion about its advantages, but Britain doggedly refuses to countenance this humanitarian change, despite many well-informed & high-profile supporters: I can only hope that this resistance is dropped in the not-too-distant future. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-0387-4.

Book Review

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Deadlock, by Quintin Jardine

In common with the other one of Jardine’s books which I have reviewed, The Roots of Evil, which immediately precedes this one in the timeline, there is a plethora of characters, and their relationships & individual characteristics might become more comfortably familiar after reading a couple more [and there are plenty to go at!], but I still struggle, occasionally, to always remember who does what [if job designations aren’t given], and how they are related; but I feel I am, at least, starting to get to know them. As this is set in Scotland, and the structure of policing there is somewhat different from that of England, there is a division of labour between the two primary police bases in Glasgow and Edinburgh, although it is not unknown for officers from both cities to work on the same cases, as happens here, eventually. I use this qualification advisedly, because I was beginning to wonder, by the time I had nearly reached the half-way point in the book, if I was going to read about anything other than the complex personal & professional relationships between some of the characters, and the machinations arising therefrom.

The crime aspect of the narrative starts slowly, and is not actually recognised as such immediately: Bob Skinner, now happily retired from his Chief Constable position with Police Scotland, is an executive with an international media organisation, although he still maintains contact with officers he has latterly been a mentor for, and is prepared to offer advice on cases, if requested; he is also still a Special Constable. The pandemic is now a regular feature of recently-written stories, and as part of his personal public service remit, he joins a group set up by a friend, author Matthew Reid, for the purpose of helping local elderly people who might be struggling in one way or another as a result of the lockdown [which doesn’t seem to unduly restrict Skinner’s freedom of movement, however]. Unfortunately, two of these ‘clients’ die in quick succession and, whilst the circumstances of their deaths don’t give rise to any cause for concern from all the usual authorities, Bob Skinner’s instincts begin to worry him; the husband of one of the deceased also died not so long ago but, again, in ostensibly unsuspicious circumstances, and this fact is brought to the attention of a mid-rank police officer, by a daughter who persists in thinking something was missed in the original verdict of natural causes. The only common link between these cases that can be found, initially, is the presence of a young lad on a bicycle, but no-one knows who he is, or what his involvement might be.

The story, whose only crime-related interest hitherto has been this low-level investigation, is then given a significant injection of excitement when a particularly gruesome murder is discovered in Glasgow, and there are implications of security service involvement. Bob Skinner still has connections with MI5 which, as far as the public is aware anyway, does not operate in Scotland, so there is an obvious incentive for this status quo to be maintained. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the recently retired Chief Constable, Andrew Martin, could be the perpetrator but, given his previous status, and his current political ambition—reckoned to be a shoo-in—this is an investigation that will have to be handled extremely sensitively; his fractious relationship with Bob Skinner doesn’t help, of course: Martin had a liaison with Skinner’s daughter, Alex, while he was still married to another police officer, which doesn’t endear Martin to Skinner in any way. Until very near the end of the narrative, it appears that the deaths of the elderly people, if they were, in fact, murders, might have been motiveless crimes, but Skinner discovers that someone of his acquaintance has been deviously clever: identifying the person is one thing, but can the person be found, given that the person has made very strenuous and well planned efforts to disappear?

I am very happy for a narrative to unfold slowly, providing a reason for a crime story is presented before too long; otherwise, it is a story about a potentially confusing network of personal relationships which, on its own, is not really my cup of tea. This story really delivers, however, using the pandemic as a plausible background to the story, and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the plotting, and the planning of the killer are worthy of the Mistress of Murder, Agatha Christie: there is even a major clue in the narrative, but of course, hindsight is very useful in recognising this, and I will certainly not be revealing it! A new Bob Skinner story, The Bad Fire, is already available, so I will eagerly await its arrival in my local library! The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-8285-9.

Book Review

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Tooth and Nail, by Ian Rankin

This is another of Rankin’s early Rebus books; number three in the series, so the character is still developing, to some extent, but compared to the only other one of the Rebus canon I have so far reviewed, A Question of Blood, he is easily recognisable as the character we know—those of us who are already Rebus aficionados, that is. He is, however, out of his comfort zone, transplanted from his Edinburgh stamping ground to the glowering, febrile fleshpot that is the sassenachs’ capital. The story was originally entitled Wolfman, but Rankin’s American publisher thought this made it sound like a horror novel [although it is, of a sort], so recommended changing the title to the current one for the American market, and Rankin thought it sensible to do the same for his domestic audience.

Rebus has been somewhat unwillingly seconded to the Met, because of a perceived skill—unwarranted, in Rebus’s opinion—in catching serial killers; one of whom, who has acquired the sobriquet Wolfman, has been latterly terrorising London. This being the case, Rebus has to operate without the support of his Lothian and Borders Police [as it was then—the early 1990s—known] colleagues, especially his trusted lieutenant, DS Siobhan Clarke, and he is unsure, with some justification, it has to be said, how well he will be received south of the border; or understood, come to that. He is partnered with Inspector George Flight who, it later transpires, actually requested Rebus to assist them, having read about his prowess, which Rebus considers, not exclusively modestly, to be unnecessarily glamourised. As usual, Rebus is something of a maverick in his conduct, compared to the stolid Flight, but whose fastidious attention to detail & procedure Rebus comes to admire, only too well aware of the ease with which police prosecutions can be derailed by clever barristers [Advocates in Scotland] zeroing in on sloppy police work or behaviour.

This is, however, also an opportunity for Rebus to catch up with his ex-wife, Rhona, who is now living in London with their daughter, Samantha, whose current boyfriend is definitely the sort who sets alarm bells ringing in Rebus’s head, and not just from paternal or proprietorial concern. Rebus’s alienation & solitude is alleviated somewhat by a young psychologist, Dr Lisa Frazer, who coincidentally has Scottish ancestry, and has offered to profile the killer they are seeking; she is also not immune to Rebus’s grizzled charm, so a very probably unprofessional, if not actually unethical, relationship quickly develops, but it does focus Rebus’s mind, to some extent, on the psychological makeup of the man they are seeking; although it is safe to reveal that they also have to consider that they could be looking for a woman. This allows me to say that this is part of the delicious red herring which Rankin throws into this story—I thought I had worked out who the killer was, but nope: I was wrong.

The final section before the killer is caught is quite amusing, and could make for very good television, if the right supporting actor could be found [I’m not suggesting myself here—not because of false modesty—because I know my appearance would be inappropriate], but I fear Rebus’s television career is now in the past, which I regret; the stories, however, will continue to be read & enjoyed for a long time to come. To those of us who already know & love the character, there is no need to recommend this story; other than to add it to the collection, if not already in your possession; but if it should be your first Rebus story, you will not be disappointed and, hopefully, it will ignite a desire to find all of them if possible. The paperback I read was published in 1998 [1992, Wolfman, Century] by Orion Books, London, ISBN 978-0-7528-8355-7.

Book Review

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A Question of Blood, by Ian Rankin

This is one of Rankin’s books that have been dramatised for television which I have seen, albeit some months ago now: it was not in the first series, with John Hannah playing the rôle of John Rebus, and with no disrespect intended to Hannah, he never quite seemed comfortable playing the part to me, whereas Ken Stott was a much better fit, with his lived-in face & sardonic personality. I only remember some of the details of the TV version, although I have a feeling that the story was changed in some respects; but I digress. It was enjoyable being able to visualise the faces of Rebus and his sidekick DS Siobhan Clarke as the actors playing them: lazy perhaps, but it makes the story seem somehow more real.

Rebus is under investigation, although still working, following the death in a fire of a local small-scale criminal who had been stalking DS Clarke, and had even struck her during one encounter; Rebus was, ostensibly, the last person to see the man alive and, coincidentally, his hands are bandaged at the beginning of the story: his story, to which he is sticking, is that his hands were scalded, not burnt: the primary difficulty is that Rebus was intoxicated [not an unusual occurrence, it must be said] when he returned home, so he remembers little of the conclusion of the evening. He is expecting to be called in for an interview any time soon, but in the meantime, he is asked by an erstwhile colleague, DI Bobby Hogan, to assist him in investigating what drove an ex-army man to murder two male pupils at one of the local private schools, wound another, then turn the gun on himself. In Rebus’s words: “…there’s no mystery … except the why”. Unfortunately, it transpires that one of the victims was a blood relative: hence one explanation for the title of the book.

There is a very useful introduction at the beginning of the book which, in addition to giving background information on a couple of the peripheral characters found in the story, also explains a possibly less well-known fact about Edinburgh: “Around a quarter of all high-school pupils in the city attend fee-paying institutions — a much higher percentage than any other city in Scotland (and maybe even the UK).…I already had it in mind that my next book would discuss the theme of the outsider.” In this observation, he also includes his protagonist: “Rebus is a perennial outsider, of course, incapable of working as part of a cohesive team.” Another connection to the perpetrator of the school murders, which proves to be useful as the narrative progresses, is that Rebus has an armed forces background: the shooter, Lee Herdman, was ex-SAS; Rebus failed the ‘psychEval’ for this elite unit, and suffered a mental breakdown as a consequence, so he is very conscious of the effects of combat on serving soldiers.

Of course, Rebus doesn’t accept the official explanation for this terrible event, nor the discovery of a significant quantity of narcotics on one of Herdman’s boats by two investigators who are clearly with the armed forces, and prove to be a thorn in Rebus’s side during the investigation. Rebus’s scepticism proves to be well-founded, and the explanation for the train of events is one which takes nearly everybody by surprise. The narrative is nicely paced, and we learn enough about John Rebus to be able to understand him that bit better; there is also Rankin’s trademark catholic taste in music in evidence in Rebus’s choice of listening. The book was first published in Britain in 2003 by Orion Books, London; it was reissued in 2012, and the paperback version I read, ISBN 978-0-7528-8366-3, was published in 2004.

Book Review

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The Roots of Evil, by Quintin Jardine

The final quote on the back cover about this book, from the Glasgow Herald, tells us: “If Ian Rankin is the Robert Carlyle of Scottish crime writers, then Jardine is surely its Sean Connery”; notwithstanding that I’m not sure how complimentary (if at all) this is to the excellent Robert Carlyle, I think the comparison of Jardine’s writing to an actor, someone whose modus operandi is to believably become different people on a regular basis (although in Connery’s case, he could never quite relinquish his ‘shtrong’ Scottish accent, even when playing his best-known character, Bond), perhaps doesn’t convey the message that it was supposed to? In addition, whilst I endeavour to eschew judging a person by his appearance, I think it’s fair to say that one could be forgiven for thinking that the upper body photograph of this author, accompanying the short bio on the inside rear cover, especially by the way he is scowling straight down the lens, could easily be that of one of the ‘villains’ he is accustomed to writing about (although that is undoubtedly presumptuous, on the basis of only reading one of “more than forty published novels”), rather than a man in any way resembling the estimable Mr. Connery. Still, all that said, in Jardine’s defence, his Bob Skinner character (aka Sir Robert Skinner) is a horse of a different feather than Rankin’s Rebus, notwithstanding his predilection for copious use of the f-word; so, this is definitely ’grown-up’ fiction.

This was another book that felt, at first, like it might be ‘hard going’ (although that is probably more a reflection of my capacity to absorb new information than it is of the beginning of this story); and, be warned: there is no shortage of characters whose names must be memorised if the narrative is to be followed, especially given the size of Skinner’s family, as a result of a few different relationships/liaisons. However, it only took me a few chapters to start enjoying the story (and the layout, a very important factor in my enjoyment, of the hardback edition I read, was conducive to easy reading). There is a whiff of nepotism about the relationships between some of the characters, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when some of these relationships are with currently serving or ex-police officers, surely corruption can only be a half-step away (Line of Duty anyone?). The thread which holds the story together, and which provides the strands that have to be unravelled, is the murder of two police officers; one serving and the other now a civilian; whose bodies are left in a car which is dumped outside one of Edinburgh’s main police stations in the first hour of the first day of 2020 (so it is bang up to date, including a reference to concerns about a new respiratory infection that has surfaced in China at the end of the previous year, and Zoom calls; although I’m not sure how prevalent they were before the pandemic affected Britain): both have been shot, in similar, but crucially different ways.

The clues are revealed slowly, to enable the reader to piece the motivation of the killer or killers together; but of course, they are not revealed in a linear fashion, so a certain amount of mental dexterity is required to put each new nugget in its appropriate pigeonhole. There are international connections as well, so although the action might be confined to dour Edinburgh & its environs, the tentacles of the criminality behind the murders stretch far beyond it. Skinner is in an unusual position, in that he is now Chair of the UK division of an international media company, which among its many activities publishes one of Scotland’s top newspapers, The Saltire, so this can be useful to prevent, or at least mitigate unsavoury scrutiny of police actions and scurrilous speculation thereon; however, he hasn’t completely severed his police connections, because he mentors rising CID officers, and if it aids his investigations as & when required, he can produce a Special Constable’s warrant card. The investigation is brought to a successful conclusion, thereby also solving an outstanding case in another, distant, country, although this is not necessarily satisfactory for all parties involved. I can recommend this book, and I will certainly keep my eyes open for other books by Quintin Jardine. The Roots of Evil is published in hardback by Headline Publishing Group, London, ISBN 978-1-4722-5591-4; trade paperback is also available.