Holy Orders – Benjamin Black

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Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of Booker prize winning Irish author, John Banville, and Holy Orders is a detective story.  It’s one of a series set in Ireland in the 1950s, and based around Quirke, a pathologist verging on alcoholism, and toying with depression. Quirke is a great name for this character as he’s got enough of them to easily fill a series like this, which consists of about 5 or 6 novels.

I first came across him in a televised mini-series which seems to be no longer available on the BBC here:

Quirke – Episode Guide

The Telegraph gave the series a poor review here

Telegraph Review

and though I hate to publicise that right wing rag, owned by non-domiciled non tax paying billionaires, who campaigned to leave the EU so they could maintain that cost efficient tax status, it is worth reading the review as it’s such a stinker.

Back to Holy Orders, which is the story of the death of a journalist in Dublin, a dark and sinister setting unredeemed by modernity and beset by gangsterism and corruption. During the course of the novel both the perpetrator of the murder, and the motive become clear, and the mystery is solved, but to be frank that’s not really the most important thing here, and it passes as a sort of afterthought in a novel that really focuses on Quirke and his dysfunctional personality.

Quirke was an orphan, adopted as a boy into a wealthy family and educated at a series of Catholic schools. In England these would be called public schools, though they offer a private fee paying education, and are not run by the state. In Ireland they are commonly sponsored by the church. I was reminded frequently of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a popular A level text at one time, though much more rarely studied these days I think. In it there is a famous quotation in which Stephen Daedalus, the cipher for the author in this semi-autobiographical novel, describes Ireland as:

the old sow that eats its farrow. 

an image of the country destroying, indeed feeding on its own children. Benjamin Black takes the whole concept a step deeper into darkness than Joyce appeared to, by focusing almost uniquely on the abuse that Quirke suffered at the hands of his teachers. When forced to return to a school similar to his own during the course of the investigation he has a panic attack and suffers hallucinations. In observing his thoughts, we see these formative experiences as the root of his current alcoholism and the problems he has in maintaining long term relationships.

Indeed the novel does focus on these relationships more than on the murder mystery, though Quirke’s journey of investigation takes us into a few interesting places, including the police department, the newspaper business, a tinkers’ camp and the unhappy home of a wealthy Irish couple.

Quirke has a daughter who he allowed to be brought up by his own adoptive brother after Quirke’s wife died in childbirth. Quirke felt he couldn’t cope with the responsibility, but has recently let her know the truth of her parenthood. As you can imagine this is not an easy relationship, and when the girl has to deal with a dawning awareness of her own lesbianism the situation is complicated further.

There is another woman in Quirke’s life. She is an actress just returned from a tour of Ireland where she played in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. That in itself is an interesting choice – a play in which the female protagonist is in a terminally unsatisfactory relationship. But this woman is not at all like Nora: instead she is compliant and needy, seeking a long term and meaningful partnership that Quirke cannot provide.

Much of the novel focuses on these two characters, including the daughter’s burgeoning romantic feelings for the sister of the murder victim, and the murder itself is solved in a brief conversation buried away towards, but not quite at the end of the book.

As you might expect Banville writes very well. The characters are all interesting in their different ways, and the setting is well described, though it’s a dark and suffering place. The writer does create a real sense of Dublin in the 1950s. Because there are no modern appliances, few cars, no mobile phones or gadgets the setting becomes much more generic or universal, with the atmosphere of a film noir. Banville /Black does go overboard in describing the fashions of the time which he uses as a sort of shorthand to introduce and give life to the different characters, who all wear ties, or bow ties, or nylon stockings, or heavy dark suits depending on their gender and role.

However, I would certainly recommend this book. It’s rich and vibrant with character, reflection and description. It’s well written and I plan to read others in the series.

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Darktown – Thomas Mullen

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Darktown is an unusual detective story set in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1948. It tells the story of the first group of black policemen appointed to patrol that city, and explores the social and political issues related to this step towards racial equality. The book was recommended to me by a friend of a friend, and I suppose what really attracted me was its obvious connection with the Black Lives Matter campaign.

The novel opens with two black policemen patrolling their neighbourhood. They come across a minor street accident involving Underhill, a white driver with a black female passenger. Their own power to arrest is limited and so they call in white officers for support.  One of these white policemen laughingly condones the behaviour of Underhill, but his partner, a younger man named Rakestraw, is shocked.  Later the black girl is found shot in the heart. Boggs, the black officer and son of a local preacher, makes a report only to find that the name of the white man has been removed by other officers.

As the novel develops, and the Atlanta police force ignore the death of this black woman,  both Rakestraw and Boggs become determined to right the wrong and to discover the truth about her life and death. Their investigations lead them across the city of Atlanta and into the countryside beyond. Doors that are shut to Boggs open to Rakestraw and vice versa, so we gain an insight the whole of that southern society.

This is a story of corruption and racism. We learn about the histories of the different characters, gaining insights into life in the southern states. We learn of their memories of the lynchings and violent racism, memories of cowering in dark houses whilst the streets are full of white men rioting and lynching. We visit brothels in black neighbourhoods and the homes of more privileged black ministers and leaders of society. We meet police who are corrupt and greedy, and others who have been cowed by the system or turn a blind eye to the corruption of their fellow officers. We go into the countryside where the lives of black people are even more constrained than in the city. There are corrupt white politicians, there is scandal and hypocrisy. On the surface all may seem well, but there are really few heroes in this book.

Mullen tells the story mostly in a sequence of alternating chapters in which we see events from first Boggs’ and then Rakestraw’s viewpoint. This has the effect of creating some tension as the narrative switches from one character to the other, but I found it a bit frustrating actually. The book is full of detail, and contains lots of violence, all of which is described realistically and convincingly, but it does tend to drag a bit in places – so much attention to detail in such a dark and unforgiving environment made the whole thing quite a depressing read. There are no heroes, no conventional happy endings, no sense of redemption for reader or character. It’s a grim read.

 

A Florentine Death – Michele Giuttari

A Florentine Death by Giuttari is an easy and pretty lazy read.  It won’t challenge you at any level, telling a simple story of murder and revenge in plain language with little attempt to flesh out characters in detail, or to use description to enhance the mood and suspense. A good holiday read.

Michele Giuttari, the author, was an Italian policeman and the procedural aspects of the novel are detailed and accurate, whilst the criminal elements are convincing to some extent – the different roles of the officers and investigators, the Italian nature of the police force.  He spends some time exploring the nature of serial killers and again shows some expertise in this area, as far as I can conclude.

The story itself is about an Italian detective involved in solving a series of crimes which appear to be leading to his own murder. He is an engaging enough character, painted in a few simple details, and part of a police force similarly consisting of OK blokes doing blokeish things.  Alternate chapters deal with other characters who fit into the puzzle of the story in different ways.  There are red herrings as the plot flows along – antique dealers, homosexuality, the FBI, the Mafia, black magic, and the Catholic Church are all strewn across the pages as possible motives for the murders. There is a simple but basic common element that links the deaths, and which Ferrara the protagonist identifies before anyone else. The writer also throws in some office politics to keep us interested and attempt to create some variety. 

However the characters and their motivations are a little unconvincing and shallow.  There is a revenge motive which is very basic; whilst it seems likely from early on that revenge is an issue, the details are only revealed in the last chapter. In fact there are two separate revenge motives, which does strain credibility a bit.  The most interesting characters form part of a doomed lesbian relationship, and the murderers own sexual proclivities are explored to some extent but in a simplistic, not in an interesting or credible way.

All in all this was an easy read but quite formulaic with a fairly predictable and uninspiring ending.  I’m planning to leave it on the bookshelves of a holiday cottage – its natural environment.

Real Tigers – Mick Herron

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This is the third in the Jackson Lamb series about Slough House, a last resting place for failed MI5 agents who have been kept on salary as low grade clerks in a central London office.  I reviewed and enjoyed the first two – Slow Horses and Dead Lions, and was looking forward to this coming out in paperback, which it recently did in the UK.

Real Tigers is about the in-house politics of British government special services, and involves Peter Judd, who is supposedly the Home Secretary, but is as good a fit for a certain Brexit minister as you are likely to find anywhere this side of the libel courts.  Arrogant, manipulative, lascivious and untrustworthy, with a shock of blonde hair and a public school upbringing, Judd is behind a dastardly plot to do away with Slough House and put the head of MI5 in the unenviable position of being at his mercy.  Judd is ambitious, and PM is the job he wants next.  He can achieve this more easily with a compliant secret service, one willing to do the dirty on the current PM.  All this back stabbing is so apt in the light of the Machiavellian machinations of the Tories this Brexit summer that it certainly does not strain credibility.

Judd’s aim is to destabilise the Head of MI5, and to achieve this he employs a group of freelance Tigers – agents tasked with testing the efficiency of the service by attempting to subvert it. The exiles at Slough House are chosen as the weakest link, and so a good point of entry.  One is kidnapped, a second makes a foolish call: there is soon a dead body, and the plot is unleashed.  The story involves revenge and dishonesty at high levels of government and the civil service, and reaches at the same time into some of the most disenfranchised and uninspiring spots of modern London.

Real Tigers has all the excellent qualities of the earlier Jackson Lamb stories.  It is well written and develops the major protagonists from the earlier stories without relying too much on caricatures, though there are some elements of stereotyping. There is Jackson, unkempt, fat, lazy and unsympathetic, and Ho, computer whizz and geek.  There is Catherine Standish, former alcoholic, and River Cartwright, failed hero.  Others at Slough House trail along – a heartbroken and beautiful female agent, a frustrated, irresponsible, tough black gambler and a short, fat, hard, lesbian junkie.  So there is definitely an equal opportunities element to the casting!  Between them these flawed heroes need to foil Judd’s plot, and to save Slough House from the axe.

Mick Herron is a good writer and the plot moves along quite well.  Herron always sets the scene effectively, describing settings in detail, though he tends to adapt the same techniques in each of the novels to achieve this, and in Real Tigers especially the descriptions of settings seemed to be adjuncts to the story rather than part of it.

I found the story in this novel a little less interesting, and less tense, than the first two.  There seemed to be longer periods where the plot did not move very far or very fast, and the denouement is complicated and full of rather uninteresting violence.

Nevertheless, if you are a fan of the series and the spy genre it is well worth reading, and if you have not yet met Jackson lamb and his incompetent brood I recommend you do.

DetectiveStories/ Thrillers Author A-Z

Baldacci, David                                          Absolute Power

Camilleri, Andrea                                      The Shape of Water

           The Potter’s Field

Fallada, Hans                                             Alone in Berlin

Fitzgerald, Conor                                       The Dogs of Rome

Furst, Alan                                                   Mission to Paris

Griffiths, Ely                                                A Roomful of Bones

            The Crossing Places

            The Janus Stone

Grisham, John                                              Gray Mountain

Harris, Joanne                                              Gentlemen and Players

Hawkins, Paula                                           The Girl on the Train

Herron, Mick                                                Dead Lions

Slow Horses

Real Tigers

Hoggart, Paul                                               A Man Against a Background of Flames

King, Stephen                                               11/22/63

Leon, Donna                                                 Drawing Conclusions

Little, Robert                                                Young Philby

Lucarelli, Carlo                                            Carte Blanche

Mankell, Henning                                       Faceless Killers

Mawer, Simon                                              The Girl who Fell from the Sky

Mullen, Thomas                                         Darktown

Pryce, Malcolm                                            Aberystwyth Mon Amour

Robb Smith, Tom                                         The Secret Speech

Sansom, Ian                                                   Mr Dixon Disappears

             The Book Stops Here

             The Case of the Missing Books

              The Norfolk Mystery

Sutton, Henry                                               My Criminal World

Aberystwyth Mon Amour – Malcolm Pryce

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Aberystwyth Mon Amour is a light hearted pastiche of the Philip Marlowe novels written by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep and so on.  It’s set in Aberystwyth, a remote town on the west coast of Wales, and replaces Chandler’s mafia with the druids, and his hard liquor with ice cream cornets and ninety nines!

It’s quite a feat to transpose the culture and mood of the Los Angeles criminal underworld to a small Welsh coastal town and make everything somehow fit – so there are all kinds of odd quirks and to some extent unacceptable plot elements to Aberystwyth Mon Amour.  Nevertheless it does work in many ways even though, or maybe because, the whole premise is so ridiculous. I have just put the book down, but don’t ask me to explain the plot.  Well, I’ll try.

Myfanwy, the gorgeous Welsh night club dancer approaches Louie Knight, private detective, to ask his help finding her missing cousin, George the Boot.  During his investigations he discovers a plan to re-colonise the Welsh Atlantis – the sunken city in the Irish sea off the coast of Wales.  Various bullying and corrupt Welsh school teachers are building an arc and selling tickets.  They have a history with our heroic detective.  It involves cross country runs and forged parental notes – and a death.  The work of Brainbocs, an incredibly intelligent Welsh schoolboy, is a key to the plot.

There is a hunchback dwarf who is very protective of the workings of a town hall clock.   There is the historical misadventure of the Welsh Vietnam – the abortive attempt to conquer Patagonia – the accompanying war crimes and the war veterans gathered in groups as down-and-outs on the beaches of Aberystwyth.  There is Bianca, the tart with a heart, and Iola Jones the museum manager and missing person.  There’s Eeyore, Louie’s father – the man who sells donkey rides on the beach.  And there’s Brainboc – and how will they float the arc? That is the real burning issue!

Well you kind of get the picture?  It’s a ridiculous load of nonsense with a pretty complicated plot that’s really subservient to Malcolm Pryce’s often witty and usually entertaining pastiche of the stereotypes of film noir and the verbal tics of Raymond Chandler’s hard-bitten prose.  There are times when its so inventively weird that it’s completely bonkers.  And lots of it is Welsh of course – stove pipe hats and other sorry Welsh costumes are involved along with all the paraphernalia of British sea side holidays – sticky rock and bad weather.

I have to admit to having had this book on my bookshelf once years ago and not being able to get past chapter one.  I gave it to a charity bookshop but a friend recently recommended it, and lent me his copy.  Maybe it was mine coming back?  He’s a keen second hand book reader!

In any case it was a lot better than I’d originally feared though I did skim the last twenty or so pages as it was no longer gripping me, and most of the jokes had been played out by then.

Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train

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The Girl on the Train is a narrative in three voices – each one in the simple form of a diary, and each diary really not distinctive from the others, from a linguistic point of view.  What makes the characters different is their feelings and experiences, not their language.

At least one of these narrators is of the unreliable kind in that she is an alcoholic who only remembers in patches.  The doubt introduced by this device allows the writer to instil some tension in the novel and create a sense of alternative narrative possibilities.  The diaries are given dates, though I didn’t find this affected my reading, as it was too much trouble to look back and compare them, and they were of different periods, and not consecutive.  In a way this odd chronology made the whole thing rather puzzling at times, but I was able to overlook that and get on with the story.

The main narrative voice is that of an overweight woman in her thirties who has turned to drink after the breakup of a relationship. She isn’t looking after herself and has gained weight – generally she feels she is unattractive and is on a downward spiral.  She has lost her job but continues to travel to work in order to conceal her lack of employment from her friend / landlady.  From the train she watches the flat that she used to share with a boyfriend who has moved on to a new relationship and is now a father.  At the same time she watches a couple down the same street who she sees as in some way idealised, in a perfect relationship.

The second and third diaries are from the point of view of this idealised girl, and from the viewpoint of her old boyfriend’s new partner.  As the novel develops we find out more about these characters and their relationships.  Eventually there is a report that the idealised girl is missing – later she is found to be dead.  The solution – the murderer – is somewhere in this little world and the story unfolds in a way that eventually leads us to discover the culprit.

It’s fairly standard stuff – a mystery death, several possible perpetrators and in the climactic scene two possible victims locked together in a room with the deranged killer.

This is an international best seller, so it clearly has something of interest to some people – otherwise I would have thought word of mouth would have done it down before now.  My wife and I both read it recently and found it rather predictable, tedious and uninteresting. The character development was limited and a bit cliched – based largely around stereotypes of feminine beauty and idealistic images of family life.  The male characters were really only ciphers or caricatures – images of male violence or beauty.

I suppose in the end we both finished the book – so that’s an achievement of a kind, and if you want something light and easy to read on holiday or during a long journey you can’t really go wrong with this.  It’s not very challenging, it’s an easy read and it’s got some basic suspense!