Thursday, March 31, 2011

A strange month

Haven't managed to get the reading pace I wanted this month but it's been difficult because there has been a lot of uncertainty at work which culminated in an announcement that the magazine I work for has been sold.

That has obviously led to a lot of conversations in corners and a dip in concentration as we all try to work out what it means for us all.

One fact is already clear, that it will change a daily routine I have been in for years and will change relationships with colleagues that stretch back in one case over a decade.

As a result the reading has been hard because the mind has been elsewhere but hopefully April might improve reading-wise.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

book review: Headed for a Hearse by Jonathan Latimer

"'I remember Sullivan, that's the house detective, gave a sort of snort when he went into the living-room from the hall. We all ran in behind him, and there she was on the living-room rug. She looked just like she was asleep, except for her pretty brown hair.'
'her hair?'
'It was all soaked with blood.'"

It's always going to be hard to play with the hard-boiled detective format but one option, used here by Latimer, is to wait a fair bit before you introduce the private eye into proceedings.

Not only wait a bit but then even when he has been introduced play the character in a minor key until they suddenly emerge towards the last third as the principal driver of the action.

Does it work? Only to a degree. While you wait for the detective to take centre stage you naturally search for alternatives and even when the action is in full flight you find yourself as a reader holding back from giving the hero your fulsome support.

The reason for the mechanics of the book stem from the clever premise that a man who has just a couple of days before facing the electric chair suddenly decides to fight to clear his name.

Robert Westland is rich but starts the book almost happy to take the rap for the murder of his wife. But after a conversation with one of the real murderers in the cell next door to his own he decides he will fight.

Money being no object he hires a crack lawyer and a tram including colleagues, his girlfriend and a couple of recommended private detectives.

As one of the private detectives Bill Crane seems to take an age coming to the foreground of the action but once there he moves swiftly, aided by heavy doses of alcohol, to start to piece together what really did happen to Mrs Westland.

Part classic locked room part Chandler in feel the book does finally spring into life and deliver. But for me it took slightly too long and the plot twists that are unwound so quickly at the end happen before the reader is introduced to the story and as a result lose their ability to interest slightly.

Perhaps the book just hasn't aged as well as some of its contemporaries. In 1935 it might have had the reader gripped but in 2011 it struggles in places and that's not good for any 'hard-boiled' crime novel.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of Headed for a Hearse

A man finds himself on death row for killing his wife. But with just a few days left until his visit to the electric chair he snaps out of his shock and grief and decides to fight for his innocence.

Hiring a tough Chicago lawyer and a detective to help find out who framed him the chapters start to count down the days until hope runs out.

In-between great description of the prison and the feelings of those awaiting death there are passages that have not aged as well but overall so far it's not too bad a reading experience.

A review follows on completion...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of Talking about Detective Fiction

If you like reading crime and detective fiction then most of the big names will be instantly familiar but this guide fills in some of the blanks.

Starting at the most logical starting point, with the literary reaction to the creation of the police force and detectives, this charts through the ages of crime fiction.

By halfway you have been introduced to Sherlock Holmes and the imagination of Edgar Allen Poe and James fills in very concisely the features and writers that constituted the 'golden age' between the wars.

this book has the feel of being a guide that will throw up inspiration for a while to come and will be re-read.

A review will follow on completion...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of the Mournful Demeanour of Liutenant Boruvka

The idea of a detective who finds the idea of solving a murder and discovering someone has lied and killed one that is depressing is more entertaining than it sounds.

The key moment when Lieutenant Boruvka has solved the case comes with a sigh as the murderer usually pushes their luck too far and makes one lie too many.

Although presented in the style of a collection of short stories, there is a continuos narrative and you start to discover about the life and the problems of the detective and some of those that work around him.

You can't help but admire the way he not only fails to lose his temper when surrounded by incompetence but also the way he allows a murderer to feel they have almost got away with it before he sighs and pulls the rug out from underneath them.

A review will follow soon on completion...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Brilliant St Patrick's Day

Enjoyed reading the short story Brilliant by Roddy Doyle today. It came about because of Dublin’s UNESCO City of Literature designation and the decision by the St. Patrick’s Festival Parade to specially commission a short story by Roddy.

It is a story for our times causing you to smile at the response Doyle comes up with to banish the recession blues that grip Dublin and Ireland.

it doesn't take long to read and is available here as a PDF

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chandler on the BBC

Although sadly I think it's gone from iPlayer the BBC Saturday plays of Chandler's Marlowe stories that aired last month were brilliant. Toby Stephens played the private detective and managed to drag you into a world of mystery and intrigue within just a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon.

The series resumes in the autumn and if you get a chance to make a mental note and listen in then it is well worth it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thoughts at the half-way point of The Long Good-bye

There is a real difference between the Philip Marlowe books written before the second world war and the one I'm reading this week which came afterwards.

The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely introduce you to a wise but clevcer Philip Marlowe who has the wise cracks and is prepared to take the punches to solve the case. The people he mixes with tend sto be at both ends of the social spectrum with the blondes living off daddy's money down to the thugs trying to intimidate him out of solving the case.

In The Long Good-Bye Marlowe seems to be tired, vulnerable and although the wise cracks keep coming they just don't have the zip of earlier attempts. The brutality of the war seems to have made his run-ins with hoodlums and casino owners lose that bit of tension.

There are also references to technology that didn't seem to be there pre-war. Then it was all about guns, cars and cocktail mixers but now it's television, coffee makers and electric shavers.

It can't have helped that Chandler's wife was dying as he wrote the book. It is still enjoyable but so far in it's sad to come across this Marlowe compared to the one from the 1930s.

A review will follow on completion...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

book review: Parallel Lives by John Tagholm

"In a sense, Majorie had saved his life and he realised this was her role, to give back to others what had been denied herself. he shook his head, as much for himself as for the dead therapist."

This is a thriller in the sense that it starts with a body being discovered and somewhat towards the end the reason for the death is revealed.

But aside from those points of crime novel construction this book moves away from the medium and is much more of a study of human beings and the way that therapy offers some people hope of finding an answer to their problems.

But once the therpaiset Majorie Nielson has been removed, abruptly in this case because it is her body being discovered that opens the book, those that depended on her for answers have to look into themselves for answers.

Not only do they have to look into themselves but for three of them, the main characters of the book, they look to each other and find that sharing their problems, fears and anxieties with others can bring some sort of resolution.

Tagholm writes character well and in this small cast you start to connect and care about the love story between Toby and Perdita. You want them to come through their darkness into the light.

Worrying about how and who might have killed Marjorie is part of answering the problems for the other remaining patient in the trio Peter Harrington. He works out what secrets he shares with the therapist and why she had to face the end she did.

But by then the focus is on happy endings and unlike most crime novels the sense of solving the crime comes almost as an after thought to the reader who has been focused elsewhere.

It's only after reading and thinking about it you realise how the death of the therapist is the crux of the whole book and even the reaction to the truth of her demise at the end is part of showing how her patients have moved on a developed in her absence.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thoughts at the halfway point of Parallel Lives

It's hard at the start with a book where one of the main characters is a therapist after you have read All in The Mind by Alistair Campbell.

But once you shake of a certain sense of de ja vu you get into a story that is fundamentally different. For a start the therapist here dies at the very start of the book leaving her patients bereft as they were working their way through their problems rather than having got to a stage where the therapy had ended.

Tagholm uses three characters to start to build a story around what happened to the therapist. As a 78 year old woman with diabetes the initial view of the legal establishment is that this is a case of suicide. But her patients and secretary dismiss that idea and start the process of trying to piece together what happened.

It is made harder of course because firstly they don't know anything about each other and they know not a great deal more about the therapist.

It's going to be interesting to see how the plot unravels as the three patients meet at the funeral and start to look to each other to provide some of the answers about the therapist's death.

A review will follow on completion...

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Reflections on the Beck series

When you come across an author you really like there is always that dilemma that as you plough through their catalogue and get closer to the end of their output you know that the moment when you finish is getting nearer.

So it was perhaps for that reason that completing the tenth and final Martin Beck crime story from husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo took a bit longer to get to than I planned.

Having completed it and as a result finished the Beck books I'd like to just make a few comments about the experience.

Firstly, this was my first introduction to Swedish crime writing, which is so much in vogue now but was virgin territory when these books were written back in the 1970s. As a result through the pages of these books I was introduced to a country that was cold most of the time, windswept and had the same problems you find anywhere else with drugs and murder occupying the police.

But these books also provided a political and social context as a backdrop to their stories so the changing nature of the police, becoming armed and more authoritarian, is also a feature along with references to anti-Vietnam war protests and some of the demands for the legalisation of drugs.

Throughout the series of books a small team of police officers that operate around the central character of Martin Beck are introduced and one of these Kollberg, a good policeman, goes as far as to leave the force because he cannot live with the changes that are happening to the police.

Secondly, the style of the books introduces a reader into a world where crimes can take months and years to solve and often it is a bit of luck that helps solve them rather than the great ability of a master detective. The first book Roseanna had just one such case that took the police months to solve.

Given that the action can be slow to come to a head you could be forgiven for wondering why you stick with it. The answer is a mixture of great characteisation, you want to know more about Beck and his colleagues, and an ability to pull out some of the detail from the background into the foreground.

Although these days it's all about girls and dragon tatoos and snowmen the Beck books are some of the orignials and for those who enjoy a good crime read and police procedural it's hard to beat these books. I'm sad to have finished them but very grateful that I came across them.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

book review: The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

"'The motorcade is now passing Haga southern gates,' said the radio announcer. 'The streets are absolutely seething with demonstrators. They're shouting slogans in chorus. It's even worse at Haga Courthouse.'
Heydt looked at the television screens to see for himself. The slogans could be heard less well on television and the reporter did not bother to mention them. Instead, he said, 'The Senator's bullet-proof, custom-built car is now passing Stallmastaregarden, where the government is giving a gala banquet tonight.'
The moment was very close.
'At this moment the car with the Senator and the Prime Minister is leaving Solna and crossing the Stockholm city boundary.'
Very, very close."

The idea of knowing the face and final movements of terrorists is something that has become all too common in the last few years as the video taped final statements are broadcast after the suicide bombers wreak their terrible havoc.

But back in the 1970s terrorism was a faceless secret activity where people planted bombs with out the intention of either taking their own lives or getting caught. It is this type of terrorist, ruthlessly efficient but a career bomber and political assassin, that the Swedish police find themselves trying to defend a visiting US senator against.

Weaving through this story is not just a couple of sub plots, plenty of detail on character and the personal lives of the main protagonists but also plenty of social context. Sjowall and Wahloo don't just write books that contain policemen solving crimes they put those crime fighting efforts in a context that is not always a good one. The Vietnam war is in its final stages and the police have become an armed force of repression against not those that protest against the war but against too many normal citizens.

In this environment Martin Beck has to coordinate attempts to stop the assassination of the deeply unpopular US senator. There are moments in the cat and mouse game with the terrorists where the book is so visual you turn the pages as if watching a film.

The police know the identity of one of the terrorists Richard Heydt and in the end it becomes a personal battle between him and Gunvald Larsson who sets his sights on bringing him to justice.

The sense of failure is always in the air and there are numerous points where your faith in Beck, well established over nine previous books, is seriously tested.

But if there is one thing the couple know how to do it is to deliver a story that kicks into a higher gear as it reaches the final third and the pace is evident again here.

Putting this alongside all the other Beck novels it has to be considered one of the better ones. But you could never come to this without knowing about the past laid down in the previous books. Neither is it possible to get top the end of this 10 book series without a deep appreciation and respect for the husband and wife team that wrote them. Reading them has been one of my best reading discoveries of recent years.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of The Terrorists

There is something rather odd reading a book penned in the 1970s that covers terrorism in a way that seems almost fresh. We are so familiar with the idea of bombings, political assassinations and explosions designed to disrupt society that it is almost taken for granted.

But here the idea of a terrorist cell turning up on Swedish soil to target the visit of a US senator is one that throws the police into confusion. As usual Mart Beck emerges as the calm in the storm and is given responsibility for protecting the senator.

But before the senator arrives there is the case of a bank robbery to be dealt with and the lessons from the latest political assassination which is witnessed by a Swedish policeman sent to watch and learn how an anti-terrorist campaign is run.

The failure of those efforts to prevent the bombing and the poor state of the anti-terrorist forces in the Swedish police indicate that any attempts to stop the bombing in Sweden are going to be a close run thing.

A review follows on completion...

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The experience of giving

Months ago I send my details and waited to see if I would be chosen as a book giver for World Book Night. Rather than choose one of the more contemporary and probably sought after titles I chose a classic, All Quiet on the Western Front. It also helped that I'd read the book so if challenged I could recommend it with a degree of confidence.

But I just wanted to share some observations here about the experience of giving.

* Suspicion - the first reaction of most people I tried to give a book to was one of suspicion. Did it cost anything? What was it in aid of and why were they being given a copy?

* Confusion - the more I tried to explain about World Book Night the more it became obvious very few people knew about it.

* Satisfaction - get over those hurdles and the reward was a smile, thanks and that wonderful feeling of having passed on a good read.

Really hoping that the books I have given out will circulate and bring pleasure to a large number of people. They say that giving is better than recieving and when it comes to books it certianly can be.

Well done World Book Night and I hope those that got copies from me really enjoy them.

Friday, March 04, 2011

World Book Night

If you love books then the idea that they are to be celebrated in Central London is something rather special. World Book Night in Trafalgar Square was an occasion that was worth braving the cold for.

The women next to me had come down from Shrewsbury because "this is part of history" and it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement and agree with them. As Graham Norton took to the stage and introduced a host of literary household names the feeling that all these people had come together to celebrate books was a palpable one.

The highlight of the evening was not just watching the likes of Alan Bennet and Margaret Atwood take to the stage but to meet other 'givers' of books and to share an evening with so many book lovers.

Hope that when the feedback comes and the million books are tracked those behind it deem it to have been a success and can then extend the concept beyond the UK and Ireland.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

World Book Day

This year more than ever with libraries closing left, right and centre and charities like Book Start getting its fuinding cut the need to celebrate books and reading is more important than ever.

Getting the young to develop a passion for reading is so important and yet again the selection of books for children is great this year. The flip books, with two stories, provide two experiences that children really enjoy. Over the last couple of years my household have been strong supporters of World Book Day and already the sights are set on the Spy Dog book that is in this year's offering.

Happy World Book Day to you all and may a love for reading long continue to be something that hits headlines and grabs attention across the globe.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A month of crime

Carrying on the idea of themed monthly reading the theme for March is crime. I have a stack of thrillers on the shelf and so this month is going to be a chance to get through some of them.

A good thriller can be a great reading experience as you go through the ups and downs trying to work out who is responsible for the growing body count in parallel with the detectives also trying to crack the case.

Some of the greatest literary characters have been involved in cracking crime from Sherlock Holmes to Inspector Morse and I'm starting the month wrapping up the last of the Martin Beck books, The Terrorist, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The ten books the husband and wife team wrote together have been a real joy to read. Some are better than others but in terms of style and plot the bar is always high with a Beck story.

So it should be a bloody but fun month ahead.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Month in review - February

It felt like a very short month and so getting the usual seven books under the belt was a challenge and the rteading went to the wire.

Didn't get a chance to read some of the Balzac I had put to one side but happy with what I did manage to get through. As a result of some good charity shop buys managed to discover some fresh voices, particularly Desplechin and Ferranti. Both are authors that given a bit more time and a chance would read more of.

Ended with De Maupassant who really is starting to stand head and shoulders above the rest with his writing ability. Books read in February:

Count D'Orgels Ball by Raymond Radiguet
Taking it to Heart by Marie Desplechin
The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide
Holiday in a Coma by Frederic Beigbeder
Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky
The Princess of Mantua by Marie Ferranti
A Day in the Country and Other Stories by Guy De Maupassant