Book Review

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A Dance of Cranes, by Steve Burrows

This is a bit of a curate’s egg of a book; not least because the main character, DCI Domenic Jejeune, happens to be away from his usual ‘patch’ for most of the book, albeit for a specific reason closely connected with the plot; but also because it is presented as a “birder mystery”, which seems a somewhat abstruse sort of hobby for a senior police officer, but that is, no doubt, the result of my prejudice & ignorance of the subject — there’s no earthly reason why a Detective Chief Inspector of police shouldn’t be a birder [not a twitcher, apparently]. There are several different threads running concurrently, primarily because of the DCI’s absence from Norfolk, to locate his brother Damian, who has gone missing in one of Canada’s national parks in Ontario; the absence also serves the purpose of distancing himself from his erstwhile girlfriend, Lindy Hey, who he believes is still at risk from a crazed criminal who has already tried to kill her, although he hasn’t actually elucidated that to her, so she thinks he has dropped her for no good reason; that she is aware of, anyway.

The book is also, for me, a slightly irritating mix of British & American spellings & terminology, probably because the author is Canadian, I presume; although his bio at the front doesn’t specify this, only that he now lives in Ontario. One real howler that always sets my teeth on edge is the use of “hone in”, instead of “home in”, but either the editor missed it, or was [misguidedly] happy to accept it as correct. The sections of the book in Canada & the USA, which obviously have to be allowed time to develop, do risk slowing down the plot development; but they are connected, even though they aren’t germane to the action at ‘home’, other than for keeping Jejeune removed from the assumed protagonist of the story: this thread is left to Jejeune’s trusted subordinate, DS Danny Maik to undertake and, in a parallel thread, newly promoted Sergeant Lauren Salter has her own investigation to occupy her mind & time.

I can’t honestly say that this is the most enjoyable book I have read recently, but the story hangs together, even if it is slow to develop; sometimes, it’s good just to enjoy the ride, and ignoring thoughts of the destination, until it arrives! The ending is ambiguous, but whether this a device common to these books—leaving possibilities open for subsequent stories—I can’t confirm categorically, only having read this later episode; I hope this doesn’t deter you unduly. If detective stories with a high avian content float your boat, there are five previous novels by this author you might like to investigate, all with the, presumably, correct collective noun for a specific bird in the title. The paperback version I read of this book was published by Oneworld Publications, in arrangement with Dundurn Press Limited, in 2019, ISBN 978-1-78607-577-2.

Book Review



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Launch Code, by Michael Ridpath

This novelist’s name is not one I have encountered before, but he has written eleven other novels, as well as five novels set in Iceland, during the writing of which he “fell in love” with that country: he now also publishes a blog called writinginice, from which a non-fiction book, Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, has sprung. The bio on his website tells us that he was privately educated and worked first as a credit analyst, then a ‘junk bond’ trader, so it is unlikely that his experience could be categorised as the ‘school of hard knocks’, but nevertheless, he seems to have an impartial take on humanity’s character flaws: “Working in the City, I had come across some pretty dodgy characters … the shades of grey interested me.” This novel starts off as a thriller, time-shifting between what became known as the Cold War, specifically 1983-4, and the present day; it then morphs into a murder mystery, and quite a tense one at that.

Former Lieutenant William (Bill) Guth, USN, previously assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, has made a home for himself and his five daughters in Norfolk, after being transferred to England by his American employer; unfortunately, his wife, Donna, died some years ago, but she still figures very strongly in his memory, and in this story, which is played out by the use of regular flashbacks. An incident occurs on board the nuclear missile carrying submarine which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war, but it was clearly averted, or else there would be no present day story to relate. As the narrative develops, details are released gradually as to what occurred on the sub, but only enough details to give the reader one version of the story, which is then changed as new information is released, of necessity in response to the death of a British researcher who is trying to discover the true extent of the danger the world faced, and how close to destruction it came.

The main character of Bill Guth is deliberately, but also cleverly, presented as being ambiguous in his motives, and for a while suspicion falls on his eldest daughter Alice, to the consternation of her loving, but increasingly concerned British husband, Toby; the security services of both countries are also in the mix, which adds another layer of intrigue to the story. I think this is a worthwhile effort, because it throws some light, albeit guesswork to some extent, on the procedures designed to prevent the accidental release of nuclear weapons, and the questionable value of them as a deterrent (all the more so, given Boris Johnson’s pig-headed determination to ill-advisedly increase the size of Britain’s nuclear ‘arsenal’), and the fairly obvious fact that the world has escaped destruction only because brave individuals on both ‘sides’ were prepared to risk their careers, and possibly also their lives, to overrule the automatic systems that were supposed to be foolproof; commendably, the Russians are portrayed as being no more belligerent, and just as fallible as the Americans, as the two quotes at the beginning of the book illustrate:

Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.


Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986

We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.


Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense

I will certainly look out for other books by this author, and look forward to reading them as & when I find them. This one is published in paperback by Corvus, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78649-701-7.