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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Terracotta Dog. Andrea Camilleri. Stephen Sartarelli (Translator) Picador (2002)

A wonderfully atmospheric crime story set in Sicily with a clever plot, an engaging cast and a superb leading character. Inspector Salvo Montalbano has a most unexpected meeting with a leading Mafioso which ultimately leads to a hidden cave which proves to have multiple secrets. A pair of lovers, embracing in death, was laid to rest there fifty years before, with a large terracotta dog keeping watch over them. The story twists and turns as the inspector tries to unravel the mysteries of the cave. The reveals are cunningly staged, the cast are bursting with life and vigour and the conclusion is heartfelt and very satisfying.
The major character in the story is Sicily itself in all its contradictory glory. The extraordinary sense of place that Andrea Camilleri is able to conjure up without it ever becoming a travelogue is vital. The context provides the stage for the wonderful strutting cast to play upon, they are so strongly at home that the action feels completely natural. The epidemic corruption and the accommodations to it as well as the struggle against it saturate the story without ever obscuring it.
Inspector Montalbano is as much a pleasure to read about as it would be a terror to work with. He is clever, forceful, terrified of public speaking and utterly dogged. He is a great mix and emerges with force and clarity, the rest of the cast are to a lesser or greater extent in his shadow, they all are demanding to be noticed too. It is the determined vitality of the cast that gives the book its weight and grip. This is a great story brilliantly told.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Zimmerman Telegram. Barbara Tuchman. Papermac (1958)

This is the extraordinary story behind the event that finally propelled the USA into the First World War. The event was a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary to the German Ambassador in Mexico sent via the German Ambassador in the USA on the17 January 1917. The telegram announced that unrestricted submarine warfare would be recommenced and much more significantly Germany would support and attack by Mexico on the USA. Barbara Tuchman provides both the wider context for the plans announced in the telegram and the impact it had as well as the amazing story of how it was intercepted, decoded and finally revealed.
At the heart of the story about how the telegram was found and used is the essential problem that any spying activity has to confront, how to use the information that has been discovered without revealing the process used to uncover it. This was particularly acute in this case as the British had cracked the German codes early in the war and the Germans never knew and this provided a steady stream on critical intelligence. Any risk to this had to avoided, yet the information in the telegram was recognised as the key to getting the USA into the war which was the only chance the Allies had to survive let alone win the war.
The German plan was based on both sound strategy and wishful thinking, unrestricted submarine warfare would quickly and efficiently bring England to economic ruin and military standstill. This strategy was recognised as being very likely to bring the USA into the war, the wishful thinking was that a domestic war front could be opened with Mexico that would distract the USA from Europe. As Barbara Tuchman makes clear it was not an entirely implausible plan, it fatally misjudged the situation due to the overwhelming need for it to be true.
The espionage aspect to this story is beyond the wildest realms of spy fiction, fiction is constrained by the need to be credible and the actual events are absurd in the extreme. In particular the events surrounding the acquiring of a releasable version of the telegram in Mexico are jaw dropping.
The whole book is superbly written, the gripping story in given force and clarity and the whole context of the war provided in just the required level of detail. Unmissable.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Princess of Burundi. Kjell Eriksson. (Translated by Ebba Segerberg). Thomas Dunne Books (2006)

A low key, engrossing and sad story of a crime and its consequences. A man is reported missing and is found tortured and murdered in a park in a park. While his brother has a long criminal history the victim has been settled for a long time. At the same time Vincent Halm is planning on revenge on those who bullied him in school. The police investigation unfolds with care and attention to detail as the impact of the crime is revealed on the large cast. The setting for the story, in a Swedish city in winter is brilliantly conveyed and the large, and largely depressed cast struggle with their lives and the results of the murder. The reveals are nicely done, the conclusion is thoughtful and unforgiving.
Kjell Eriksson does not hurry the story along, it meanders along the intersecting lives of the cast all of whom seem to be having some sort of a crisis in their lives, either as a result of the murder or made worse by it. It is very striking that this cumulative weight of misery does not render the book unreadable, the cast are self aware rather than self centred. They are trying to manage their lives and this gives enough momentum to make them engaging rather than tiresome.
The police investigation and Vincent Halm's quest for revenge form the spine of the story and both are skillfully developed, they provide the context for the cast and consistently provide enough action to propel the narrative forward. The book takes the opportunities provided by the genre to travel quite widely, the author respects the genre enough to ensure that it is a very thoughtful crime story too.
This story has a quiet compelling force and a willingness to invest in its cast that make it a strongly flavoured pleasure.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tainted Relic. The Medieval Murderers. Simon & Schuster UK (2005)

This is a very engaging and enjoyable anthology of linked stories that start in 1100 at the sack of Jerusalem and finish five hundred years later in London, all the stories are linked by the tainted relic of the title. The stories are all very enjoyable with a couple standing out.
The opening story by Simon Beaufort sets the scene, at the sack of Jerusalem, a relic is cursed by its murdered guardian. Whoever touches the relic will die a gruesome death as soon as the relic leaves their possession. The tension between the value of such a relic, said to be part of the True Cross and the danger of possessing it drive the plots of the following stories. The force of both of these elements are nicely captured in the story as the relic is moved from Jerusalem. It appears in England, in the possession of a man heading to Glastonbury to sell it, he is murdered and robbed before he can do so. Bernard Knight writes how Crowner John, one of the newly created coroners, investigates the crime. The story has a vivid cast and a strong plot, the relic is central and is used to provide a sharp focus for the cast, the politics and personal tensions of the era are strongly drawn.
A decapitated monk in Oxford in 1269 is the start for a search by William Falconer to uncover the truth in a story by Ian Morson. The story is very well constructed, a big cast are introduced effectively, story threads are cleverly woven and sharp humour is welcome.
In 1323 in Exeter, a number of murders seem to have links to the relic and Michael Jecks' Sir Baldwin has a problem in making sense of what has happened. This is one of the two best stories in the book, the plot is very cleverly constructed, the reveals excellent, the cast are forceful and engaging. Michael Jecks manages the constriction of space with ease. The following story set thirty years later in Cambridge , written by Susanna Gregory is the other stand out story. It is a remarkable piece of compression, the story feels much more expansive than it is, the cast are superb and the plot gripping.
The final story by Philip Gooden and set in London is clever and amusing. It features the most unusual and effective court witness I have read about and and very neatly resolves a question about the relic. An epilogue set in 2005 provides a very sharp final sting for this excellent collection.
As with any period stories the detail in the stories is crucial and in all cases it is woven into the context of the stories with skill and care. The strong plots allow the cast to move through their various locations and times with confidence and the reader gets to enjoy the story and the scenery with equal pleasure. Great fun.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Prince Valiant. Volume 1: 1937 - 1938. Hal Foster. Fantagraphics Books (2009)

A stunning outsize production that presents the first year of the Prince Valiant pages in the vibrant colours that Hal Foster intended. Prince Valiant, the son of an exiled king who lives on an island in a marsh in England, leaves home after his mother's death and heads for the mainland. After encounter with Sir Launcelot, Valiant decides to go to Camelot and become a knight. He become a sqire to Sir Gawain and launches himself on a series of adventures that include battling Morgan Le Fey and Viking pirates. The stories are superbly staged, the details are beautifully portrayed, the action is fierce and compelling and the cast are busting with life and energy.
The art dominates this book, it is extraordinary. There is a very rapid development from the initial pages as Hal Foster hits his stride and his flowing mix of panels, art and captions. The art is detailed and dramatic,the panels are full but never crowded. The varying size of the panels is used to strong effect to drive the story forward. The colouring is one of the most striking features, it is used to very dramatic effect to give depth and detail to the context.
The stories themselves are suitably dramatic and romantic, high adventures that have enough twists and turns to maintain the tension and suspense. The stories read very well in a collected volume, they do not trip over each other nor does the small recap at the start of each page get in the way. Hal Foster was willing to assume that he had the attention of his audience from week to week and concentrated on forward motion.
The large format of the volume allows the story room to be read to the full and the art room to breathe. This is comics archeology at its best,using technology to present comics in a way they deserve. Wonderful.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Railway Detective. Edward Marston. Allison & Busby Ltd. (2004)

This is an engaging and enjoyable period crime story. In 1851 the London to Birmingham mail train is robbed in a very carefully executed operation. In addition to robbing the train, it is also derailed. Detective Robert Colbeck is in charge of the investigation and he quickly comes to appreciate the intelligence and ferocity of his opponents. As he steadily uncovers the wider plan at foot he finds that the closer he gets the greater danger he and those about him are in. The reveals are neatly staged, the plot is thoughtful, the cast are lively.
The story does not quite ignite as it should, there is a restraint in the book that keeps the tone and action just too low key. Robert Colbeck is thoughtful and credible, a man who has nice shades of character. He is a dedicated police office who is just ahead of existing police policy. The villains are well detailed and the motives are mixed and natural. The friction between the police and the criminals never produces heat, there is not enough thrills.
The period details are lightly woven into the book and serve the story well. The disruptive impact of the railways on English society is captured with skill. The large cast are all given clear voices and the space to make an impression. Edward Marston treats his cast with considerable sympathy and the story benefits greatly from it. The major strength of the book is the way the cast draw in the reader and bring the context to warm life. This a good fun book, it needs a slightly sharper edge.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mr. Holmes & Dr. Watson. Their Strangest Cases. Mark Ellis (Editor). Transfuzion Publishing (2010)

This volume reprints newspaper strips that ran for a short period in the 1950s, and which were written and illustrated by Edith Meiser, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Frank Giacoia, carefully reconstructed by Melissa Martin-Ellis. There are two original stories and two adaptations in the volume, the two original stories are by far the better. The adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is frankly terrible, its sole value is as a curiosity.
The first story "The Adventure of the Thumbless Man" is a first rate adventure. The murder at the docks of the newly appointed Governor of Jamaica leads Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson on to smuggling,piracy and very great danger. The art is lovely, the context is drawn with skill and care and the story has strength and grip. Sherlock Holmes shows his full range in the story.
The second story "Black Kill's Ghost" is even better, it has Sherlock Holmes battling against the vengeful ghost of a pirate. The story is full throttle melodrama and benefits hugely from it. It has all the elements of a Victorian pot boiler, a dispute over a house, a damsel in distress, a bloodthirsty ancestor come back to seek revenge and best of all the observant, scientific Mr Sherlock Holmes. Great pacing and striking art give the story additional punch.
The third story, an adaptation of "The Sussex Vampire", suffers from trying to be too faithful to the original, a greater willingness to reshape the story would have been better. Still the art is very nice.
The first two stories are more than enough reason to get this book, along with the informative essays by Martin Ellis. They may not be the strangest adventures, they are exciting and gripping ones done with care and energy. A pleasure.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Land of the Blind. Jess Walter. Coronet Books. (2003)

An interesting book that uses the form of a police procedural to tell a story that does not really fit into the genre. It does not quite succeed, it is an honorable failure. Caroline Mabry is a Spokane detective in the middle of a distinct career slump. She is on duty when a down and out is brought in, then man wishes to make a confession, Caroline lets him do so. His confession is of a murder and as it develops Caroline find herself investigating it. The two narratives overlap, the confession and the investigation, the action is low key, the reveals slight, the climax is subdued.
The most significant problem with the book is the underlying lack of momentum,the crime that is the subject of the confession and investigation is of secondary importance to the two lead characters. Both are attempting to deal with lives that have slipped away from them. The confession becomes a biography that attempts to provide the context and explanation for the man's life, addressed to the detective, it becomes an elaborate shaggy dog story. The investigation provides Caroline with a means to recover her sense of purpose. The lack of intensity in the book lowers the stakes for everyone.
There appears to have been a murder, a violent death at least, it proves to be a slippery topic and never actually central to the story. The unreliable narrative of the confession is punctuated by the investigation and a greater picture emerges. All told the form does not support the intent of the story, the cast are engaging enough to follow down to the end, it has an unsubstantial flavour.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our Little Secret. Kevin Flynn, Rebecca Lavoie. Berkley Books (2010)

An engrossing and frequently very surprising account of a murder in New Hampshire in 1985 and the twenty year delay before the murderer was arrested and brought to trial.
In November 1985, Eric Windhurst shot a man he had never met because he believed that the man was a child abuser who had sexually molested a girl he knew. The twenty years that elapsed between the crime and his arrest were not due to his ability to stay quiet and lay low, they owe much more to a unspoken consensus that the victim, Danny Paquette had it coming.
The very nature of the crime made it very difficult to investigate from the start, Danny Paquette was killed by a single shot from a considerable distance, a level of skill that created a persistent concern of an unlucky accidental shot. The brutal simplicity of the crime also meant that unless those directly involved confessed there was no way that they could be convicted.
Kevin Flynn and Rebecca Lavoie tell an extraordinary story with great restraint, skill and detail. By its very nature the people in the story all have a stake in the story and are more or less unreliable. The authors do not stand in judgement, they are more concerned to have as complete a story as possible. The person who is treated the most sympathetically is one of the most unlikely, Danny Paquette's brother Victor. Victor fought for twenty years to bring his brother's killer to justice, he is a man of very rough edges and ultimately the reminder that murder frequently has multiple living victims.
The most interesting aspect to the story is the unenforced silence so many people maintained for so long. Eric did tell a lot of people about the murder, they chose not to tell the police. How the crime came to be solved is as unexpected as the way it was hidden. This is a great story, skillfully told.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Anubis Slayings. Paul Doherty. Headline Book Publishing (2000)

This is an excellent crime story with a vividly realised setting and a superbly crafted plot. In Egypt the female Pharaoh, Hatusu, had defeated King Tushratta of Mitanni and was organising a peace treaty to seal her victory. In the temple of Anubis, the jackal headed god,murder and the theft of a very valuable and sacred jewel place the negotiations under strain. Hatsu calls on the judge Amerotke to solve the crimes. The story unfolds with great pace and, the threads of the plot are very cleverly woven together, the reveals are brilliantly staged and the final unravelling is a sharp pleasure.
Ancient Egypt is brought to credible life with deceptive ease and telling detail.There is no slabs of information that interrupt the flow of the story, the context is revealed in a natural and light handed way. The emphasis is on the cast and the way that they interact with each other. The leading players are developed very strongly, Hatusu emerges as a powerful and supremely confident leader. Her will to achieve and retain power does not define her, she is a complex and engaging woman. Amerotke is thoughtful and very capable, nicely he is not an Egyptian Sherlock Holmes, he is astute and observant. The rest of the cast are all given room to breathe and the story gains strongly from the layers that each cast member brings with them.
Underneath the wonderful clothing of Ancient Egypt a cunningly constructed plot drives the action. It is credibly tied to the cast and the context, the plot mechanics are lightly laid down and the cast drive the action themselves. The shifting reveals give the cast new chances to reveal themselves and they do so. Utterly engaging, smart and very satisfying, a pleasure.