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Friday, January 12, 2018

A Legacy of Spies. John Le Carre. Viking (2017)

A masterful and gripping story about spies, the bureaucracy of spying and the long term consequences of clandestine decisions. Peter Guillam is recalled to London from his farm in France to explain his part in a log ago covert operation. A legal case is proceeding that is causing a considerable problem for the British Secret Service, sometimes called the Circus. If the issue cannot be smothered by a Parliamentary inquiry then it is probable that Peter Guillam may find himself left holding the can. The story unfolds the background to the operation and the present day maneuverings of the Circus to escape liability. The reveals are superbly staged and the story unfolds with tremendous confidence and control as the past comes to a reckoning in the present.
This superb story works as a straight stand alone story about the business of spying and the human cost for the non professionals that get involved by choice or accident in it. An opportunity presents itself to the Circus and they exploit it with thorough professional competence until it starts to unravel. The final consequences of that are felt in the present and the damage that was done is given its due with care and deep sympathy. The resolution is a treat, unexpected and utterly logical and fitting.
For any reader who is familiar with John Le Carre's other Circus novels this is a masterclass in how to use continuity to create a new story and enhance other related stories. All the way through the story the past from other books is visible to those who can see it. No prior knowledge is required for the story to work, it is all in the reader.
Peter Guillam is a engaging lead, he is not surprised at the reckoning however much he may have hoped to escape it. He smartly demonstrates that it is not a matter of luck he is a living retired spy, he understands the currents in the secret world and moves carefully within it. The staff of the Circus that Peter Guillam encounters should be caricatures, the chief legal office is a loud, almost chummy operator who is verging on an upper class professional cliche, the ruthlessness that is not at all disguised gives him a a weight and credibility. He is a shark in a suit and he will be straight with you only as long as it serves his purposes and undermines yours. The History chief is not quite as successful, tough , ambitious and very capable she does not entirely come to life as the rest of the cast do.
John Le Carre never misses the brutal necessity of spying, he gives a human dimension to strategic and operation decisions in a system that is based on deception and betrayal and is pursued by honorable people. Unmissable.

Toothville Issue 2. Kim Roberts (Writer), Denis Pacher (Art), Chris Allen (Colours & Letters ) Swampline Comic (2017)

Action paced second installment pushes the story forward with energy and momentum. Tilda Hilfairy, the worst tooth fairy in history , hopes to be the savoir of Toothville with her invention, Tooth Rot. Unfortunately Dr Dippelurger  has created Decayless toothpaste which may mean the extinction of tooth fairies. Tilda investigates Dr Dippelurger and this leads her to Birchard Pharmaceuticals  where Tilda finds out the real purpose of Decayless and realises that the problem is much, much bigger than she had thought.
Kim Roberts packs a lot of story into the issue, this is wonderful, economical, compressed comic storytelling. The reveals are neatly staged, the action is loud, fast and great fun.The story has moved from being a very smart idea into a very engaging narrative that has the strength and depth to keep a reader engaged, satisfied and happily anticipating more.
Denis Pacher's art is striking and wonderful, he uses the whole page in a playful way that catches both the fairy tale roots of the story and its very contemporary delivery. The pages are designed as much as drawn, the gutters and panels are used imaginatively to contribute to the overall impact, they have a tremendous energy and expressiveness. The cast are as cartoony as they should be, Dr Dippelurger has the smirking villainy that he should have. Tilda Hilfairy is shinning rebuke to the anatomically impossible females that litter comics, she is glowing confident, uncertain, snarky and confused and always just wholly herself. 
Chris Allen's colours are loud and expressive, they pop off the page and give the art the the lift it deserves to capture the subtly and the details that should be relished. The way that all the bright colours work with each other instead of being confusing or chaotic is a significant indicator of the skill and discipline that Chris Allen has brought to bear on the work. His lettering is quiet, unobtrusive and natural,. except where the sounds effects need to be loud, eye catching and dominant.A great fun comic that wears the enormous work and care that it took to make it very lightly.

The Vanished. Lotte & Soren Hammer (Writers). Martin Aitken (Translation). Bloomsbury Paperbacks (2017)

A very engaging and enjoyable Danish crime story. Detective Superintendent Konrad Simonsen returns to duty after a heart attack and is assigned a case to tidy up, a man found dead at the foot of his staircase that may not be accidental. Konrad is not the only officer who is recovering, another officer is recovering from being kidnapped and they two are on the case together. Konrad Simonsen investigates the case diligently and finds something in the dead man's attic that opens up the case in a very unexpected direction. There is a sub plot regarding a school shooting that neatly intersects the main plot line and a issue about the death of a woman who had been involved in a previous investigation. All the plot threads are steadily drawn together and the conclusion is deeply sad.
The story is a slow burn, the investigation is slow because it was intentionally set up as a exercise in tying up a loose end rather than an active investigation. As the evidence of wrong doing slowly comes to light and the investigation starts to crystallize the investigation starts to gain momentum. This threads of the plot lead back into the past and a lot of people have every reason to resist them being brought into the light. The final unraveling is unexpected and sad, revealing a situation that has a sharp inevitability given the cast and the circumstances.
Konrad Simonsen is an engaging lead character, full of sharp edges he does not invite sympathy, his strong moral sense and deep competence draw the reader in. Lotte & Soren Hammer put him in a corner which they resolve with confident and very enjoyable skill, it is both credible and satisfying. Lotte & Soren Hammer are such capable and confident writers that they manage to make a group of very awkward and difficult characters deeply sympathetic. There is never any absolution , there is an unexpected depth of understanding that gives the story great depth and force.
The translation by Martin Aitken is transparent, the story is clearly Danish and the English is natural and unforced.
The Vanished is a slow burn story, it is unhurried and deliberate while never being slow,  Lotte & Soren Hammer are confident in the strength of the cast and the emerging plot mechanics to be willing to give the story the room it needs to unfold to its full glory. Great crime fiction.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Tomb of Horror-Festive Frightmare Edition. EKim Roberts (Editor). Swampline Comics (2017)

A very enjoyable and blood splattered horror comics anthology  with a seasonal theme that delivers a great selection suitable for any time of year. Festive Frightmare is a great collection of hugely talented creators making great comics. An anthology stands or falls on the editorial decisions that allow the content to combine happily to create a whole.This anthology has a big tent approach that allows a very diverse range of styles and content to support each other and deliver a very enjoyable result that showcases the talent involved.
A Christmas Feast. Russel Hillman (Writer), Patrick Halpin (Art). A hungry inmate murderously escapes from a mental institution and settles in an abandoned building. When a group break into the building to have a urban picnic and explore it goes very wrong. Smart set up and bleak humour drive the story. Patrick Halpin's art is a pleasure, the panels are used to dive into gory detail where required and control the pace of the story with care and attention to detail. The muted colours draw in the reader and bring out all the horrifying details.
A Christmas Drink. Sean McFarland is clever and very engaging, a couple knock on a door to compliment the homeowner on their Christmas decorating and are invited in. This is a mistake. The gray toned art is lovely, relaxed and inviting, the story is paced beautifully and the pay off delivered with flair.
For Goodness Sake. Matt Smith (Writer), James Francis (Art) is a superb, short, black joke, really well set up and with a brilliant pay off. James Francis' art gives nothing away and them gives the finale all the lift off it richly deserves.
The Full Moon Christmas. Troy Vevasis (Writer), Aleksandar Jovic (Art). Santa is bittern by a werewolf elf and there is a full moon at the North Pole as he start to head out on his travels. The result is delightfully unexpected. Charm is unexpected in a horror anthology and it speaks to the strength of the editor that it is there and works so successfully in the context. Aleksandar Jovic's art is lighthearted and engaging, exactly what the story needs.
The Naughtiest Boy. Brendan Hykes (Writer), Ramon Gil (Art) is one of the two stand of stories in the collection. Santa goes down the chimney and comes into a cellar to a deeply unexpected reception. The story twists brilliantly in a short space and the ending is just a joy. Ramon Gil's art is striking and beautiful, it catches the tension and the set up with vivid colours and sharp lines, the cast are bursting with life.
Ho-Ho-Holidays. Jackie Smith (Writer and Art) is the other stand out story. Delivered in one page the idea and execution is a marvel of economical precision, capturing seasonal horror with biting, wintry humor that is simply breathtaking.

The Burning. Jane Casey. Ebury Press (2010)

A very entertaining and engaging British police procedural. A murderer has beaten four women to death and set fire to the bodies and a fifth body has been found. Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan is part of the team investigating the murders and she is assigned to investigate this fifth victim, an opportunity she is very happy to take on. The investigation is pursued with professional competence and confidence and as the details of the victim's life are revealed more questions arise than answers.  The story twists very satisfactorily and the reveals are very well staged, the conclusion is suitably sour.
The plot mechanics and the context for the investigation are very well set up, the fifth victim poses a serious and credible problem for the investigation, the chance to investigate the victim is an opportunity and a possible problem for an ambitious police officer. Jane Casey balances the possibilities of the story with great flair, an ambitious, clever female lead in a male dominated context creates story tensions that are exploited very smartly without ever feeling contrived to make a point. One of the pleasures of the story is that Maeve Kerrigan is unashamedly ambitious, conscious of the politics of developing a career and determined to embrace them to advance herself. Doing this as a ordinary part of working and being capable, confident and female is a striking only because it is written as being so ordinary.
Maeve Kerrigan is a great lead, she has the self confidence needed to bring the reader along with her without annoying them, also has a a interesting and credibly creaky private life that is neither a mess nor dysfunctional. The second major narrator is a nice contrast to Maeve, driven rather than confident, she is brutally self conscious ans never quite comfortable in her skin and context. The supporting cast are treated generously, they are given the time and space to make an impression and have an individual voice. Jane Casey has a gift for conjuring a character in a very short space so that they can catch the reader. There is a significant cast member who is a bit of a blank, this is not a problem it is just interesting that this character in particular should be so shadowy, in most similar stories they would be much more developed.
The structure of the story work a little against the general intent of the story, as the plot becomes clearer a question that should be a surprise become a little less so. If a cast member gets a lot of attention then it would seem logical that there is a specific reason for it, within the genre there are relatively few reasons for this attention and at some point in the story it becomes more likely what the reason is.
Smart crime fiction is a pleasure and The Burning is all that.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Soulless No 1. Kim Roberts (Writer), Chris Royal (Pencils), James Johnson (Inks), Chunlin Zhao (Colours), Ken Reynolds (Letters). Swampline Comics (2017)

Very enjoyable and engaging first issue that neatly sets up the story, delivers a great hook ending and has a generous story to tell in its own right. The Carnival of Souls comes into a small town, it is followed by two people, Raul an ex-priest and Claudia a carnival survivor . The carnival sets up and Rail and Claudia join the customers and it all gets nasty, exactly as it should. The carnival has a deliberate purpose and Rail is determined to prevent it succeeding, a process Claudia may be helping or may be complicating.
Kim Roberts has packed a great deal of story between the covers, the major players are economically and confidently introduced and the action is kicked off with a bang. The reason why the carnival is touring is given, Raul and Claudia are going to be involved in a very serious fight.
The art is lovely, the cast are strongly expressive, they have energy and physical force as they move, they move as individual members of the cast and react to each other credibly. The female member of the cast, in particular Kali and Claudia are treated with respect and given the opportunity be be actual personalities. Kali burns with purpose, all the people she meets are just means to her end. Claudia is in slightly over her head and determined to push ahead. Raul is slightly more conventional, an experienced demon hunter he is not really tested yet. The use of panels to control the pace of the story and create variety on the page is a pleasure to read.
The colouring catches and emphasises the details of the cast and context as well as the emotional tones of the story with precision. The carnival is a riot of bright colours that smartly brings out the dark ideas that swirl around it.The lettering is quiet and natural until it needs to be loud and obtrusive in the sound effects.
Soulless is a great fun comic that showcases strong comics storytelling by very talented creators. It is going to be a thrill ride.

Cold Comfort. Quentin Bates. C & R Crime (1 Nov. 2013)

An enjoyable Icelandic police procedural. Sergeant Gunnhildur, just promoted to a position in Reykjavik has two problems, an escaped convict who is settling  violently settling scores and the murder of a fading celebrity in her apartment.The shadow of the financial crisis that racked Iceland is everywhere, from the pressure on resources for the police to the ripples of bankruptcy and debt that are still spreading. The escaped convict is a puzzle, he was close to the end of his sentence, escaping will simply create more trouble for him. Clearly he has strong reasons for his actions and as they slowly come to light the connections with the death of the celebrity fitness instructor also come into view. A varied group of people who have a great deal to loose ans well as those who have already lost a great deal find unexpected connections with each other. The investigation is managed with confident competence and the plot threads are nicely tied up to the satisfying conclusion.
The plot mechanics are very well done, a smart use of sub plots complicates the story very nicely and allows for a large cast to be involved. The Icelandic context is never window dressing , it is essential to the dynamic of the story and the way that the excesses of the boom are drowning the present is skillfully done.
Gunnhildur is a well developed character, she is given the chance to establish herself as a competent professional who has a credible personal life. Operating out of her comfort zone in a new position in a new location, she has an edge that is never dysfunctional.The supporting cast are all given the opportunity to make an impression and they do. The plot threads and the sub plots give the whole cast a lot of room to act and react and they give the story a lot of range and depth.
I found the book a little dry and not fully engaging, the plot mechanics and the cast moved the story forward effectively, they just never aught fire and captured me as a reader. I kept anticipating a pivot in the story as the shape of the plot started to emerge, there is not one, the story follows a fairly straight line. This is not a problem, they story has enough depth to carry it off, my expectations were slightly baffled and that did not seem to be part of the plan for the story.
Cold Comfort is a very good crime story set in a very interesting context, I did not completely catch it, I did enjoy it.