Book Review

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The Lonely Hour, by Christopher Fowler

This book, the [somewhat unbelievably] eighteenth in the series featuring this detective pairing [although two of those are short stories], would appear, if the dénouement is anything to go by, to be pivotal; although, having not read any of the previous books, it is altogether possible that this outcome might be a regular occurrence, which is actually quite possible, given the nature of the setup. The two principal characters, British police detectives by the name of Arthur Bryant & John May—Bryant and May: more than a match for any other police duo, har har!—work for a fictitious department of the Metropolitan Police, called the Peculiar Crimes Unit which, to quote the book, is “A specialized [sic] London police division with a remit to prevent or cause to cease any acts of public affright or violent disorder committed in the municipal or communal areas of the city.”  It should be said, by way of context, that this description comes courtesy of the Unit Chief, Raymond Land [only semi-affectionately referred to as “Raymondo”, by Bryant], who is a rather pompous & ineffectual individual.

Despite these characters not existing in a fantasy world, there is something a bit Pratchett-like in the humour, which is definitely a plus, for me, and Philip Pullman is also given a nod; not that it is largely whimsical, because it does deal with the mundane problems of ‘real’ life. There is also an interesting mix of cultural references, including bang up to date with Uber, but also more whiskery ones, including “Ruth Ellis curls”, and the characters Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne. I was gratified that Fowler is careful with his writing, using the correct plural form of cul de sac [culs de sac, not cul de sacs, as I often see], and the feminine filipina, when referring to a Philippine woman; I did wonder, however, if he was trying just a tad too hard to impress us with his articulacy, albeit via the voice of Bryant, who is old enough to have retired years ago, but persists in working to keep his mind occupied; I used to enjoy the increase your wordpower [correct me if I’m wrong] section in Reader’s Digest, but there are too many arcane words in the narrative to list here, and it does become a wee bit tiresome encountering yet another word which one is never likely to need in normal situations [and don’t forget: “Nobody loves a smartarse!”].

The PCU has a pioneering approach: its founding principle is “to seek new ways of dealing with criminality and to ensure that these experimental methods found [sic] purchase within the legal system, creating precedence.” Given “the unit’s unprofessional approach to policing”, and the fact that the PCU only handles homicides, this unfortunately serves to infuriate every one of the twenty-four murder investigation teams within the Met. This story isn’t a whodunnit, because we encounter the perpetrator, albeit initially anonymous, right at the outset, although his backstory slowly emerges, so it is a whydunnit, and the tension builds through the narrative as the PCU team struggles to discover who is murdering a succession of apparently unconnected individuals, and why; although there are two elements which provide a link, albeit tenuous: the murder weapon, and the time of despatch—04:00, referred to eponymously as the lonely hour. Unsurprisingly, there are disruptive dynamics within the department, which hinder its operation somewhat, plus the ever-present threat to the department’s very existence, from the more dogmatic & less flexible overseers in the Met.

I appreciate that I have come to this series at a very late stage, by accident rather than design, so as stated, I don’t know how the pairing of the two detectives originated, and how the PCU was set up, but I like to think that this won’t be any sort of impediment to my enjoyment of any previous stories, should I find any, which I would be more than happy to, having enjoyed this one. Standard police procedurals can be easy to read, even undemanding, to some extent, but I think there is something attractive about the inclusion of slightly quirky characters, as some of these are; if only as an opportune avenue for offbeat humour. The paperback I read was published in 2020 by Bantam; first published in 2019 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, London, ISBN 978-0-8575-0408-1. Happy New Year!

Book Review

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La Belle Sauvage [The Book of Dust, Volume One], by Philip Pullman

The Belle Sauvage in the book’s title is a canoe, owned by the hero [a designation which can be given without reservation, which the book will reveal], Malcolm Polstead; interestingly, I don’t remember reading how the canoe acquired that name: perhaps this will be revealed in the next instalment of the trilogy, for this book is the first of three which form a prequel to the highly successful His Dark Materials trilogy [HDM] by the same author. They are ostensibly children’s books, but many adults [of which I am not ashamed to admit I am one] have also read & enjoyed them: I like to think that they broadened my daughters’ minds, for they are both avid readers. Philip Pullman is acknowledged to be an important modern critical thinker, and his books have won awards too numerous to mention, including the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Amber Spyglass, the third in HDM: the first time that award has been given to a children’s book; the trilogy has also been translated to the big screen—debatably successfully—and to television, by the BBC, much more accurately and, consequently, successfully.

Given that, as previously stated, this is a prequel, some of the characters & locations will be known to those familiar with the alternate world which Pullman has created. The timeframe is now, approximately, and the setting initially Britain; specifically Oxford & its environs; but the technology is slightly different; or, at least, its terminology is: there are Zeppelins for long-distance air travel, but also gyrocopters, and there does appear to be internal combustion available for small vehicles, but electrical power is referred to as anbaric. Not Steampunk specifically, but different enough to be noticeable: if you accept the concept of parallel or adjacent universes, this one is only one or two steps removed. The main protagonist in HDM, a young girl named Lyra, is here introduced to us as a baby, who is entrusted to the care of nuns at a nearby priory, Godstow, because she is in need of special protection: primarily from the ruling religious authorities, which exert a near-total control over the country’s moral development. This is a relatively recent manifestation, but the observance of Christianity is now being inexorably enforced; one of the aspirations of the authorities in this mission is the suppression of research into any areas of science which might contradict Christian dogma.

Lyra’s parents are either unable, or unwilling to participate in her upbringing, but they are both aware of her potential to upset what is regarded by the authorities as the natural order; there is no risk of plot spoilers for new readers of HDM, because this parentage is revealed quite early in the trilogy. Her father is Lord Asriel, a rich explorer who is convinced that there is some unifying force which can explain the functioning of the universe, and he is relentlessly searching for it: a quest which he knows cannot include a baby, however much he might like to spend time with her. Lyra’s mother, however, has no maternal instincts, but she has been made aware of Lyra’s potential, so she sets out to reclaim the child. Mrs Coulter’s husband was killed by Lord Asriel, but the circumstances were such that the latter was not held responsible for the death, so he is free to pursue his quest.

Eleven-year-old Malcolm, the son of the proprietors of The Trout pub in Port Meadow, a village three miles outside Oxford, opposite the priory by the Thames, helps out at the priory, as well as working for his parents. He learns about the arrival of Lyra, and is instantly smitten: this might seem strange for a young boy, but he is obviously sensitive, as well as being very practical. One aspect of this world hitherto unmentioned is that all human beings have physical familiars of the opposite gender, referred to as dæmons: they serve many functions, but they always stay in close proximity to their owners, primarily because physical separation is painful. Children’s dæmons can take any form, albeit youthful, until they become fixed; after puberty, if I remember correctly. Malcolm’s dæmon, Asta, forms an instant rapport with Pantaleimon, Lyra’s dæmon, which is helpful for the later events. The action of the narrative is Malcolm’s escape from Port Meadow when a disastrous flood [whose proportions could be described, ironically, as biblical] destroys the priory and threatens Lyra’s safety, so he decides to head for London to find Lord Asriel, taking with him Alice, a fifteen-year-old girl who also works for Malcolm’s parents.

Luckily for the three passengers, La Belle Sauvage has been upgraded somewhat after Malcolm lent it to Lord Asriel for a few days, so it is better able to withstand the foul weather & onslaught of not only the flood on its journey, but also the trio’s pursuers. Although this first volume is 546 pages [and this makes a heavy hardback, not ideally conducive to bedtime reading!] it is very easy to read: not only because the prose is well written, but also because the font & line-spacing is just right for the page size. This hardback was published in 2017 by David Fickling Books, Oxford, in association with Penguin Books, London, ISBN 978-0-385-60441-3 [a trade paperback is also available, ISBN 978-0-857-56108-4]. Admittedly, this type of material might not be to everybody’s taste, but this is one of the few fantasy genres I can accommodate, so I will certainly be keeping my eyes open for the next book in this trilogy.

Book Review

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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!