Book Review

Photo by Ian Cylkowski on Unsplash

A Dedicated Man, by Peter Robinson

This is only the second DCI Banks story, first published way back in 1988, and it is quite a different Chief Inspector Alan Banks we find here from the one with which we [those of us who have watched the excellent TV dramatisations] have become familiar: for a start, he is described as being short, dark and wiry—“in appearance rather like the old Celtic strain of Welshman”, not like the tall, well-built Stephen Tompkinson, who fills the role admirably; plus, he smokes—initially a pipe, then later, when he realises he can’t get on with it, cigarettes—as does everybody else, copiously. Perhaps, by the time he reached the small screen, his character [and peripheral ones] had been subtly tweaked because of health concerns; but it has been some years since I watched early episodes of this canon, so I am prepared to be corrected on that. His familiar colleagues are also conspicuous by their absence: perhaps they were introduced in later stories.

He is also still happily married, living at home with his wife & 2 children: a situation which will deteriorate, sadly, as the stories progress. Banks is still conscious of his outsider status, having only lived in the area [a fictitious area, perhaps in West Yorkshire, possibly based on Helmsley, in North Yorkshire] for 18 months, after relocating from London, but he is also aware that he can use that to his advantage, a notion originally suggested by his superior, the unusually kindly Superintendent Gristhorpe. I was surprised how firmly rooted in the classical & folk traditions his music tastes are, because in later stories he has comfortably embraced a more contemporary catalogue, albeit clinging to what I would, as a “baby boomer”, consider to be the sine qua non era, the 1970s. Murder is always shocking, wherever it occurs, but seemingly more so in small, quiet country areas, where life seems to progress at a comfortable, safe, leisurely pace, so when a retired, but still relatively young University lecturer is found dead by a local farmer, partially buried by a stone field boundary wall, Banks initially struggles to discover a credible motive and, thereby, a likely suspect for the crime.

The victim only had a small social circle, and an evidently loving wife, and no-one was prepared to say anything negative about him: he was the eponymous dedicated man, which makes Banks’s job significantly more difficult, so the enquiries progress slowly; but this makes for a very enjoyable [for me, anyway] pace of narrative, and plenty of opportunities for the reader to speculate on the identity of the killer. Unfortunately, a local teenager takes it upon herself to pursue her own line of enquiry when she feels that Banks hasn’t taken her concerns sufficiently seriously, and suffers drastic consequences as a result. Banks is convinced that the key to solving this murder lies in the past lives of the possible suspects, but as ever, seemingly, people are reluctant to open up about that, for a variety of reasons. Not for the first time in a murder mystery, Sherlock Holmes’s wisdom is invoked to give Banks the final clue to the puzzle, and the killer is identified at an opportune moment although, sadly, not for the previous victims. This is a recent reprint, for which I am grateful, because I always enjoy the opportunity to broaden my knowledge of characters with whom I have become familiar, to learn how their story arcs develop. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [1988], by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-5704-3.

Book Review

Photo by Soyoung Han on Unsplash

A Study in Crimson, by Robert J. Harris

In common with his near namesake, this Robert Harris seems to enjoy writing books which are tributes to historical characters such as Leonardo da Vinci & William Shakespeare; but he has also written two Richard Hannay books and, more pertinently for this review, The Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries, “a series featuring the youthful adventures of the creator of Sherlock Holmes”, which I am presuming are young adult stories, despite the front blurb nor specifying that. The inspiration for this iteration of the inimitable sleuth, subtitled Sherlock Holmes 1942, was the series of British films featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Watson: “films which…have been favourites of [his] entire family for many years.” As far as he is aware, “it has never occurred to anyone to base a novel on this version of Sherlock Holmes.” He felt that he could “remain faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal characters, while at the same time viewing Holmes and Watson in a new light.” I suppose that is perfectly reasonable [although purists would probably disagree], and characters as strong as these would probably work in any timeframe, as evidenced IMHO by the success as the oft sobriqueted Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman in current times.

It might be interesting to compare this iteration with the Sherlock Holmes pastiche, set in a similar time period [but with Holmes ageing from his original setting] by Michael Chabon, The Final Solution, which I reviewed here; this story retains the traditional Baker Street setting, merely transposed to 1942, and I feel that the only hint of criticism which could be levelled is that, notwithstanding the relatively quieter atmosphere after the exigencies of the Blitz, the war impinges on the story hardly at all—that aside, it is easy to accept that this is the natural temporal home for Holmes. There is a slightly odd prologue to the story; although not listed as such, and it runs over three chapters; which doesn’t seem to have any connection to, or bearing on the main story, other than to introduce the characters, but I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of readers would already be well acquainted with them? No matter: at worst, it is an amusing diversion before the gore of the main story is encountered. It appears that someone; presumably a man; has taken it upon himself to emulate the ghastly exploits in London of Jack the Ripper, in 1888, ‘operating’ under the moniker of Crimson Jack, hence the book’s title. Aside from Holmes’s inherent disgust at such heinous activity, given the setting, there is also the national security aspect to consider, which is where Holmes’s less well known, but arguably [not least by himself] more intelligent older brother, Mycroft, comes in; all too briefly, unfortunately, as the interplay between the two brothers can be a very rewarding source of amusement.

As for why that particular time was chosen for this awful repetition, more cannot be revealed without spoiling the nuance of the plot, but suffice to say that Holmes solves the case with his usual aplomb; albeit not immediately; but the motivation for the murderer might not be what it initially seems, and the perpetrator is very clever at leading most of his pursuers in a merry dance. Watson is suitably mystified, although not to the point of potential ridicule: Harris is keen to point out that, despite Watson being “sometimes made a figure of fun for the sake of comic relief”, he has “not followed that course in the novel, though Watson remains suitably baffled by Holmes’s brilliance.” Well, it wouldn’t be a Holmes & Watson story otherwise, would it? Incidentally, towards the end of the story, Holmes reveals that he knows the identity of the original Jack, who is actually a fictional character, but he is apparently based upon one of the real suspects in the Whitechapel murders [you’ll have to read the book to find out whom!]; this will be moot, of course, given the lack of supporting evidence, especially DNA, and the time elapsed—I make no further comment, other than to observe that any further entries in this canon would be welcomed. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2020] by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-84697-596-7.

Book Review

Photo by Tam Nguyen on Unsplash

The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon

This is not a Holocaust story, per se [but see below], but a Sherlock Holmes story [I seem to be reading a few of these pastiche/hommage stories latterly: is this synchronicity? Or is it just fantasy?]; except that it isn’t: nowhere in the narrative is this revered name mentioned, although the narrative is structured in such a way that no alternative can be considered. There has to be a reason for this, although Chabon, whilst not specifically evasive, is somewhat elliptical in his explanation, in the “About the Book” end section, which is the transcription of an interview with Steve Inskeep, host of NPR’s Morning Edition, in December 2004, following this book’s publication. He says “The first writer that [ouch!] I really fell in love with was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and in particular his Sherlock Holmes stories, and the first story that I ever wrote was a Sherlock Holmes story. It was a kind of pastiche. … It was called ‘The Revenge of Captain Nemo’.”

Asked if he went back & reread that story to prepare him for this latest book, he says: “No, I didn’t.” Other than that, the only reasoning which throws any light on his decision to leave the protagonist unnamed is a desire to direct more credit to the original author: “I found it was all just still so vivid to me, and I think that’s a testimony to what a truly fine writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is, and I don’t think he is really given enough credit for the quality of his writing. … [Inskeep: Do you hope that there might be people who will pick up this Sherlock Holmes story, this mystery that you’ve written, who might not otherwise have read some of your work?”] You know what I would really hope would be that a lot of people who might be inclined to pick up this book and read it because it’s one of my books, might then think, ‘Hey, maybe there’s more to this Arthur Conan Doyle than I thought there was’, and go back and pick up some of those fantastic stories.” So: still no categorical admission — I’ll keep my observations to myself, but I find this somewhat uncomfortable.

As I also do with the book’s title, notwithstanding the subtitle: A Story of Detection. Chabon is quite open about his Jewish heritage; in 2005, his latest novel, entitled The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was set in Alaska, in Chabon’s imagined alternative Jewish homeland. That said, I am ambivalent about the title of the book under review; it feels uncomfortable to borrow the notorious title of a ghastly genocidal scheme for a novel, despite the association, in a different context, with the story’s main character being appropriate [although, *Spoiler Alert!* — given that he survives to potentially continue detecting at the end, it might not be his final solution to a mystery?], and that the other main character, a nine-year old boy called Linus Steinman, is evidently an escapee from the Holocaust, by virtue of having been allowed to leave Germany during that awful period; but, on the other hand, it could be argued that Chabon has more right to claim ownership of the reference than someone not of his heritage, so perhaps I’m just being pernickety.

The boy is lodging with a family consisting of a high-church Anglican vicar, the Reverend Panicker, who is “a Malayalee [sic] from Kerala, black as a boot-heel”, his wife, “a large, plain, flaxen-haired Oxfordshirewoman [sic]”, their son Reggie, and several other lodgers. The boy is mute, possibly the result of some past trauma, but he also has an African Grey parrot, who speaks mainly, but not exclusively, German which consists predominantly of strings of seven single-digit numbers; although it also is given to singing, and “reciting bits and scraps of poems of Goethe and Schiller known to every German schoolchild over the age of seven.” The boy had already encountered the retired detective, when the latter was concerned enough to tear his thoughts away from his beloved bees to persuade the former to remove himself from the electrified railway line at the back of the detective’s house, along which he was walking.

When one of the Panickers’ lodgers is murdered, and the parrot disappears, the detective, despite currently having no appetite for the vicissitudes of his former calling, is persuaded to investigate; there is, of course, a local police Inspector, the grandson of an Inspector of the detective’s former acquaintance, Sandy Bellows, who, along with his lumpen colleague, DC Quint, defers to the great former detective in this curious case. The case is solved successfully, inevitably, but I did feel that Chabon was trying too hard to emulate the contemporary style in which Conan Doyle wrote, making it feel, for me anyway, unnecessarily verbose. That said, it is a short novel; perhaps more accurately a novella, at 120 pages in length, including some quite good full-plate monochrome pencil drawings; so it is not an onerous undertaking to read it, and the conclusion is neat, as should be expected. The paperback edition I read was published in 2008 by Harper Perennial, London, ISBN 978-0-00-719603-6.

Book Review

Photo by Neenu Vimalkumar on Unsplash

The Sentence is Death, by Anthony Horowitz

If you recognise this author’s name at all, it is probably from the credits of a television programme such as Foyle’s War, but he is also a respected published author, having written stories in the contemporary Sherlock Holmes canon, but also young adult spy stories featuring the Alex Rider character. This book, published in 2018 by Century, London, in hardback; ISBN 978-1-78089-709-7, is a bit of an oddity: it purports to be a true story, the second of a three-book deal undertaken apparently under some duress from his new publisher, detailing the work of an ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector, who is currently working as a technical consultant to film & television companies, after having been fired from the Police Service for assaulting a suspect in a child pornography case. The question that is uppermost in my mind when reading this story is: “how true can this actually be?” Horowitz does make it very clear in the acknowledgments at the back of the book that “some of [the people who actually appear in the book] made my life very difficult while others have demanded that I change their names or remove them altogether: one of them has even gone so far as to threaten me with lawyers, although I would say my depiction of her is entirely accurate.” For obvious reasons, he doesn’t specify which character this is.

The first chapter was all the more enjoyable for me for several reasons; I have enjoyed watching Foyle’s War, not least for its period setting, and the vicissitudes of location film & television work are quite well known to me from another life; but also because the director of the episode, The Eternity Ring, which is featured in the story, albeit in parallel with the main plot, was Stuart Orme, with whom I have worked on two occasions, the more memorable of which was Ghostboat in 2005, and I have many happy memories of location work in Rome (at Cinecittá studios) and Malta, all expenses paid, which for a lowly supporting artist (and credit to Horowitz for using that term, rather than ‘extra’, which I dislike), albeit a featured one, which I was in that production, was very possibly a once-in-a-lifetime gig. The story is something of a cross between a biography and a diary, and the entrance of its subject is right at the end of the first chapter, when he blithely blunders onto the set in a real, modern taxi, thereby ruining the take in progress, which certainly stretched my credibility: Horowitz does write “It was impossible of course. The police should have blocked off the traffic. We had our own people at the end of the street, keeping back pedestrians. There was no way any vehicle could have come through.” It obviously did, though, so the only conclusion we can draw, if the event did actually happen, is that Daniel Hawthorne, the interloper, had sweet-talked both the actual policemen (as opposed to the background artists in period uniform) and the crew who had been charged with preventing interruptions to the shoot, to allow him to cause mayhem with his inconsiderate arrival: I would say that the evidently lax crew runners or third ADs would have been lucky to escape summary dismissal for such a transgression, given that Stuart Orme, “usually a pleasant, easy-going man” (which I can endorse), but who had been under tremendous pressure to finish this shoot successfully, displayed a face that “was thunderous as he looked up from his monitor to see what had happened”, and he was not amused when Hawthorne picked out Horowitz as his intended contact.

However, after that fraught beginning, the story proper can commence when Hawthorne, who is occasionally also called in by the police to assist with cases referred to as a ‘sticker’: “that is, a case which presented obvious difficulties from the start.” comes to Horowitz, albeit with blithe disregard for the mayhem he has caused, with a real murder which could be the subject-matter of their next shared book. Again, I have to say that this stretches my credibility, given that it has echoes of the “consulting detective”; the best-known of whom are Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot; but, having said that, I am not very familiar with real-life police procedures, so I suppose I have to accept that it must be possible. The officers with whom Hawthorne & Horowitz have to liaise on this case are eminently dislikable, and if detectives such as Inspector Cara Grunshaw (surely a pseudonym) really exist, it would be very difficult to have much faith in the integrity of the current London police. She makes it her business to make life near impossible for the author, even going so far as to physically assault him to frighten him into informing her of Hawthorne’s progress, to ensure she ‘cracks’ the case before he does: she is mostly successful with this intimidation, although Horowitz does rebel occasionally, even if only in his own mind; Hawthorne seems to maintain swan-like serenity through all this intimidation. The murder of a high-profile divorce lawyer, known professionally as “the blunt razor”, because of his scrupulous integrity, has taken place in Hampstead, and initially the police are baffled, hence Hawthorne’s importation. Initially, there is one obvious suspect, but surely the reason for this is so obvious that she wouldn’t be so stupid? Especially giver her reputation for erudition; also, she has an alibi for the time of the murder.

After this, more potential suspects can be considered after being interviewed by the detective & the author; I must also confess to being somewhat dubious that potential suspects would consent to an author being present at their interviews, although only one suspect objects to this, and potentially violently; also, the author’s identity & occupation is not always revealed to the interviewee, if at all. Throughout the investigation, Hawthorne is fairly unforthcoming to Horowitz with his theories, and he discourages the author from asking his own questions in interviews, for fear that his inexperience in these matters might prejudice the investigation. Nevertheless, Horowitz tries his best to arrive at a sensible solution to the conundrum, partly to spite Hawthorne for not trusting him further, although his theories change quite frequently as new information becomes available; he also has to contend with the ongoing tribulations of the Foyle’s War shoot, not least because his (presumably real) wife, Jill Green, was the producer of the series. The reader is kept guessing until very late in the book as to who the murderer was and, as is often the case, historical events prove to be crucial in unravelling why this murder occurred. Overall, and notwithstanding my scepticism about the veracity of the facts of the case as presented, I found this an enjoyable book, and can happily recommend it, especially if insights into the real world of television are enticing to the unconnected reader, and I would happily read the other two in the series, albeit with the first book I read being out of sequence, but that is a minor reservation.