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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The Talented Mr Varg, by Alexander McCall Smith

I can’t remember if the cover of the previous Varg story I’ve reviewed, The Man with the Silver Saab, showed the author’s given name with a diaeresis over the first A, as it is on this one, but I have eschewed using it here, because it looks superfluous to me, and something of a self-indulgence: perhaps it makes Smith feel more exotic—especially given the prosaic nature of his family name. That aside, I remember enjoying the previous book, so I was looking forward to reading this one and, thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. That said, notwithstanding that this latest story continues with the same characters as the previous one [a perusal of my aforementioned review would be beneficial here], there is one slightly odd element: in the previous story, Varg strikes up an amorous relationship with the temporary receptionist employed by his dog’s vet, but here, there is no mention of this when Martin, the deaf, lip-reading dog, is taken for a routine visit to monitor his depression & serotonin levels [half-way through the story] so, given that many readers do enjoy following books’ protagonists’ progress in succeeding stories, we are left in the dark as to whether Varg’s previous attachment was successful, or not—we have to assume not, unfortunately, as there is no mention here of a love interest.

There are two main story threads here and, as previously, they are dealt with in a slow, laid-back way by Varg: he’s much too thoughtful & considerate to go blundering in aggressively, as some other detectives might—I can’t speak for other fictional Swedish detectives, of course. In addition, one element from the earlier story which does overlap here is Varg’s suppressed infatuation with his colleague, Anna; this is thrown into some confusion when she confides in him that she suspects her husband of having an affair. Naturally, Varg is conflicted: he would love this to mean that Anna’s marriage can be terminated, and he could confess his true feelings; this also makes him feel guilty, for his selfishness, and he is ambivalent about whether he could condone his complicity in Anna’s subsequent unhappiness, until she accepted him: but would she?

The ongoing cases are the possible blackmailing of a university lecturer, and the possibility of a scam involving wolf-like domestic dogs being sold abroad purporting to be real wolves. As before, Varg includes his uniform colleague Blomquist in these investigations, and Varg suffers the same mixture of emotions about working with this man who can be tedious & irritating, but also has surprising & unexpected insights. Varg also has to work hard not to alienate his neighbour, Mrs Högfors, who is very accommodating with her care for Martin, but she has a pathological dislike of Russians, and she is not immediately dismissive of the political views of Varg’s brother, who is leader of the rather Pratchett-like Moderate Extremists; surely an oxymoron? That’s Smith’s little joke, of course.

These stories are always, for me, a pleasant meander without too much jeopardy, whilst still dealing with real-world issues, albeit in a tongue in cheek way. There are occasional allusions to peculiarly Swedish nastiness, but I enjoy not having to confront them continually in these books. As before, I am happy to recommend this one, and I would be pleased to find the third book, albeit the first of the trilogy [so far], naming the locus of Varg’s professional work: The Department of Sensitive Crimes. The paperback I read was published in 2021 [2020] by Abacus [Little, Brown], ISBN 978-0-3491-4408-5.

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.