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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Outrage. Arnaldur Indridason. Anna Yates (Translation). Harvill Secker (2011)

A gripping and slow burning crime story that slowly releases its terrible secrets. A man is found murdered in his apartment, there is no sign of a break in, the victim was wearing a t-shirt that did not appear to belong to him and there was a woman's shawl under the bed. Detective Elinborg leads the investigation which very rapidly goes nowhere. The victim was extremely secretive and there were no witnesses. When Elinborg does find a possible witness she is very unreliable. Still a line of investigation that includes the rape of a woman and the disappearance of a young woman many years before starts to emerge. A suspect is identified and the case heads for a bitter and dark conclusion.
The story is very skillfully paced and structured, the story threads lop and flow across each other until they are carefully and sharply woven together. The reveals are very well staged and the dark undercurrent come to the surface in a very satisfactory way. The investigation is orderly, logical and very determined. The final unraveling  is done with considerable and quiet force.
Arnaldur Indridason  does a number of unexpected things in this story, he gives the victims of sexual assault a chance to be fully rounded characters rather than be locked into victim hood. They have been battered by the appalling crime they were subjected to, they are not defined by it. This care for the person is equally evident with Detective Elinborg, she is pressed hard by her job and the demands that it makes on her. She has a credibly mixed home life with a loving husband and some strife with one of her sons. She is never the cliche of a hard worn police officer, she is doubtful and dedicated, trying to make the correct decisions. She also has a strong professional care and strength, she is open minded enough to trap an elusive and vital clue.The rest of the cast are given the same care and attention and as the coils of the plot tighten around themselves respond in credible and engaging ways.
The murder victim remains a shadow at the heart of the book until the investigation starts to stir up long hidden actions and he starts to come into dreadful focus. The final portion of the book is a triumph of storytelling as the past is dragged into the present and the dangling threads are tied up. Arnaldur Indridason has an unflinching eye for responses to evil, they way that it can be easier to look away and pretend and then how maintaining the pretense becomes and end in itself. This is a very unsettling and engrossing book, a pleasure to read. The translation is transparent, there Icelandic context is vivid and direct, there is no sense that it is being filtered in anyway.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Certain Justice. P.D. James.Penguin Books (1997)

This is a beautifully constructed and engaging crime novel. Venetia Aldridge successfully defends a man against a murder charge. She is poised for another professional advance when her daughter reveals that she has become engaged to the man Venetia has defended, a man Venetia believes to be a murderer. As Venetia tries to prevent the engagement she is found murdered in her office. Commander Adam Dalgliesh investigates the death and discovers that there are multiple suspects and motives. The plot reveals are perfectly staged and the slow, cold unwinding of the story is gripping. The final revelations are stark and satisfying.
This is a purposefully unhurried book; the set up for the murder of Venetia Aldridge is long and extensive. It creates a vivid picture of a proud, compelling and very unpleasant character. Venetia is never monstrous in her dealings, she is hard and unflinching, lacking in any human sympathy to cloak her cold brilliance. When she turns to others for help she reaps a bitter harvest, which does not spare anyone. Her male colleagues are as unsympathetic as Venetia, they have a mixture of small cowardice in them, which her presence magnifies and makes them look shabby by comparison.
P.D. James has written a wonderful modern version of a revengers tale, where the revenge, initially appearing justified becomes a greater outrage than the first offence. With a stubbornly flinty character like Venetia Aldridge, this is a very considerable feat. The plot slowly becomes clear through the investigation of the police team and the terrible consequences of revenge become clear. The cast are wonderfully realised, they are, for the most part, unlikeable, they all possess a clear vigour and individual life. They are not shadows or puppets, they move across each other with force and weight. The impact of the many crimes in the story is forceful and vivid. Written with a tightly controlled ferocity, this sharply and sourly satisfying book is a great read.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Showcase Presents: Jonah Hex Volume 1. DC Comics (2005)

A collection of very entertaining Western stories with an engaging lead character, great art and a dry as dust black humour. Jonah Hex with his mutilated face and worn Confederate officer's uniform is a bounty hunter in the post Civil War West. A fast draw and a merciless hunter of outlaws he is described like this,"He was a hero to some, a villain to others;and wherever he rode, people spoke his name in whispers. He had no friends, this Jonah Hex, but he did have two companions: one was death itself...the other...the acrid smell of gun smoke." Happily the stories in the collection live up to the promise of that description.
The West that Jonah Hex rides through is a brutal and savage place, the most significant difference between Hex and those who hire and despise him is that he is honest about his actions, the others hide their murderous greed behind a thin veneer of polite society. In "Bigfoot's War" written by Michael Fleisher with art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Hex is hired by a rancher to recover his daughter who has been kidnapped by Indians. It becomes clear that the rancher has a nasty secret and his daughter is a very unpleasant, utterly spoilt woman. The story is fast and bitter, the action is very well staged and Hex emerges as the most honest character.
What all the writers of the stories in the collection get exactly right is that Hex is never pleasant or likable, his bitter humour and bleak honesty about his own self interest would make him unbearable in any other context.
In "Showdown with the Dangling Man" written by Michael Fleisher, art by Noly Panaligan, one of the outstanding stories in the collection, Hex's indifference to others is given full rein. The beautiful art captures the vivid details of the locations and the cast, the very grim conclusion is everything it should be. This is unheroic Western storytelling at its compelling best.This collection is packed with great art, excellent writing and hard-bitten spirit of the mythical American West, a pleasure.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Best of 2000AD. Rebellion (2008)

While it is not as wide ranging as the title would suggest it does contain a big slab of very engaging and entertaining stories from the comic. The dominant themes are violence, sport, war and black comedy, all together where possible.
Harlem Heroes is one of the least violent stories, Aeroball "The Sport of Tomorrow" is a mixture of Football,Boxing, Kung Fu and Basketball played by teams equipped with jet packs. The all black Harlem Heroes are a star team until an accident kills some of the team and a new squad has to be recruited. Rebuilt with a rookie, two reserves and a forty-year old veteran they set out to win the world championship. The story breathes life into this cliched set up with vigour and energy, the art gives the action energy and aerial grace, the cast are given a chance to step out of their stereotypes a little.
Flesh is a much bolder and considerably more violent story, time travel has enabled the Trans-Time corporation to go back to the Triassic era and build a huge fishing station to farm the pre-historic seas for food for their 23rd century customers. The details of the factory and the work are superbly laid out and the plot mechanics are set up with economy and skill. It is big and loud science fiction with a sharp edge. Shako is concerned with a polar bear who has swallowed a capsule that the C.I.A. want back and they hunt after the bear. The bear responds by hunting the humans and eating them. The bear is easily the most sympathetic character in the story and the black humour is nicely pitched to give the story a lift.
Rouge Trooper, featuring a biologically engineered soldier, designed to fight in the poisonous atmosphere of Nu-Earth who has gone rouge on a private mission is the stand out war story in the collection. The art is bold, the ideas are focused and tightly written and the lead character has a strong presence. It is Judge Dredd who has emerged as the most famous character from 2000AD, there are some early stories about him, they are in a distinct second place to the extraordinary Judge Death episode. The art is stunning, the details are precise and the cast are given breath and depth. The story idea is bitingly sharp and superbly realised.
The stories the 19 different strips in this collection are distinctive, brutal and delivered with wonderful energy and a willingness to push an idea very hard, well worth reading.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Give Me Liberty. Frank Miller (Writer), Dave Gibbons (Art), Robin Smith (Colours). Penguin Books (1990)

This book is a production by enormous talents using skill, craft and intelligence. Martha Washington is a child of an enclosed ghetto in a very unpleasant future America. She escapes from the ghetto via the imprisonment in a mental hospital, finding freedom when the asylum is closed due to budget cuts. Martha joins PAX, the Peace Force, who promise to wipe your record clean. Martha then finds herself at war in Brazil, fighting a renegade fast food corporation call Fat Boy. She falls foul of Lieutenant Moretti and the story of their conflict, and how Moretti’s hatred for her entwines itself through his plans for power, forms the core of the book. The bigger story is the collapse of the United States of America as environmental disasters, civil unrest, and military mistakes all combine to undermine the country. The ease with which Frank Miller manages his large cast and the way that splintering of the country is described is amazing. The book has fake newspaper and magazine articles, now a bit of a cliché, but still they give great depth to the book, adding greatly to the portrait of the society. Frank Miller also uses television newscasts, much as in The Dark Knight, I think to better effect in this book. The connection between Martha Washington’s story and the larger story is natural and unforced, they strongly reinforce each other to deliver a hugely satisfying whole.
Martha Washington herself is a great leading character. A first-rate action hero, brave, confident and very resourceful, the story treats her harshly but never disrespectfully. I think she is easily one of the best female characters in comics.
Give Me Liberty lies far away from the constrictions of copyright characters like Batman or Daredevil and far, far from the repulsive sexual politics of the Sin City sequence. The creative team of Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons are both at the top of their powers in this book; the colouring by Robin Smith is fantastic also. Dave Gibbon’s art is astonishing, very different from the formal layouts in Watchmen, it flows with the action and yet is packed with telling detail. The characters are individual and expressive, they move like humans, their faces are eloquent, and he gives the terrifying implosion of the USA real weight and substance.
A masterpiece, a powerhouse of a comic that should not be missed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Tenth Case. Joseph Teller. MIRA Books (2009)

A highly entertaining courtroom drama that has a great cast, a smart plot and strong current of sharp humour. Jaywalker is a criminal defence lawyer who is about to be suspended for the methods he has employed to defend his clients. He is allowed to finish of ten of his current cases before the suspension comes into effect, the tenth case is a murder case. Samara Ross is accused of stabbing her husband to death, he was a billionaire and she was a waitress in Las Vegas before she became his third wife. The case against Samara gets more damming at every turn, in the face of it all Samara protests her innocence. Jaywalker commits to the case in the face of mounting evidence, determined that Samara should have the best chance she possibly can. The courtroom schemes are very well played out, the reveals are cunningly staged and the conclusion is entirely fitting and satisfactory.
Joseph Teller uses an interesting strategy in this story, he provides a very strong and visible authorial voice, so much so that it is a very significant character in the story. The effect is that the reader is being directly told the story about Jaywalker and his case with the editorial questions and opinions that would come naturally. What is impressive is that a process that could be distracting or overbearing adds greatly to the story. When required the storyteller steps back and allows the events to unfurl on their own, the switch is smoothly done and matches carefully to the requirements of the story.
Jaywalker is a great character, his headlong commitment to providing a defence for his clients, his passionate belief in the requirement to have a well prepared and thorough defence is stimulating and deeply engaging. His opponent is allowed to be a decent man who is trying to do is job as a prosecutor as competently and professionally as possible. Their courtroom actions are smart, articulate and gripping. Smara is nicely under explained, she has enough shadow to remain a question and to test Jaywalkers commitment to the limit.
This is a book with an opinion, willing to be angry and articulate without ever sacrificing one iota of tension or skimping on thoughtful plot mechanics. It is a pleasure to be buttonholed by Joseph Teller and to hear his story about Jaywalker.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Price of Darkness. Graham Hurley. Orion Publishing Group (2008)

A gripping police procedural with a very engaging cast and a sharp plot. A property developer is murdered in his house in Plymouth with brutal efficiency and a professional attention to detail. Detective Inspector Joe Faraday is assigned to head up the investigation, which is hampered by the scrupulous care with which the murder was carried out. A second murder follows, that of a Government Minister, shot to death when waiting in traffic. DI Faraday is involved in the second investigation until he is pushed out to focus only on the murder of the developer. At the same time disgraced ex-policeman Paul Winter has joined the ranks of Bazza MacKenzie ans major criminal. Winter is on an undercover operation, he finds that his position is growing more and more unclear. The murder investigations unfurl with great care, the reveals are cleverly staged and the evidence gathered in a plausible and engaging way. Winter's position with MacKenzie becomes more and more questionable. Both threads conclude in entirely satisfying ways.
Graham Hurley has written a genuine mystery story, the investigation follows leads, loops back on itself and gradually finds a focus in an gripping and thoughtful way. The cast are given the opportunity to be competent, capable and sometimes simply smart. DI Faraday is a very engaging character, with a passion for bird watching, a deaf mute son and a loving partner he is as committed, cranky and engaged with his life as a experienced professional would be. He is nicely countered by Paul Winter, a policeman who always prided himself on cutting to the heart of a case regardless of the rules and policies. Working without a safety net undercover with a man he is coming to respect Winter is facing life shaping decisions. The thread of police politics that ties the two story lines together is unobtrusively effective.
The tone of the book is low key, the action is is more in the clash of character than in physical confrontation. The depth of the cast and the great context give the action a genuine edge and danger, conversations have heavyweight consequences as much as a gunshot. This is a deceptively straightforward book, there is a great deal going on and Graham Hurley is masterfully directing and controlling the story. A treat.

Down into Darkness. David Lawrence. Penguin Books (2007)

A very grim, brilliantly structured and superbly written crime story. A woman is found hanging from a tree in London, she has the words "DIRTY GIRL" written on her body. Detective Sergeant Stella Mooney is part of the team investigating the murder, it is hampered by the difficulty of identifying the woman. A second death and a second message on the body do not help clarify matters. As the team try to understand links that may only exist in the killer's mind, the return of Stella's mother to the notorious Harefield estate create problems for Stella. The events in Harefield and the killers plans starts to slowly interact as the plot cunningly develops and grips like a vice right up to the ice cold conclusion.
Matching a superbly developed cast with a cunningly constructed plot, David Lawrence creates a compelling vision of a seething, corrupt city. Stella Mooney is driven, competent and deeply committed to her job. The investigation she is involved in is run with care and attention to detail. The rest of the cast pulse with life and have a chance to develop and have lives outside the investigation that never slows the book down. The extra detail about their lives gives a greater context to their actions and gives the story depth and heft.
The most important character in the book is not human, it is the Harefield estate itself. A housing complex it is alive with criminal activity, creating opportunities and destroying lives with carefree indifference. It is a huge factory creating tainted money that swirl corrupt eddies throughout the city and further. This pulsing lawlessness is repeated in greater and lesser degrees all over the city as the story ranges across London. The context for the story is a vivid city where serious trouble is always breaking out. This hothouse atmosphere adds to the pace an force of the story. Lush, cynical and unforgiving, this is a great read.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dynamo 5. Volume 1: Post Nuclear Family. Jay Faerber(Writer), Mahmud A. Asrar(Art),Ron Riley(Colours),Charles Pritchett(Letters). Image Comics (2009)

Fresh, crisp and unexpected, a superhero comic that avoids the usual cliches and is gripping and engaging. Captain Dynamo was a multi-powered superhero, protector of Tower city and deeply unfaithful husband. After his death his wife, Maddie discovered that he had fathered five children with other women and that after his death his enemies were treating Tower City as wide open for business. Maddie locates the five children and releases one each of the Captain's powers in each of them creating the Dynamo 5 team to protect Tower city. The problems of having a bunch of teenagers who do not know each other, have superpowers and need to work together to defeat enemies considerably more experienced than they are is the heart of the story. Adding in the fact that Maddie clearly has an agenda she is not sharing and a very unhappy law enforcement agency to the mix creates a great context for the super heroics.
Jay Faerber has taken a very clever idea and done something rather wonderful with it, he has developed it into a gripping and unexpected narrative that does not cheat on the big action nor on developing the cast beyond their costumes. The team feel fresh and raw, uncertain not only because of their new powers but because they are teenagers who have had their identities shaken up in a fundamental way. They are not given a chance to cope with the revelation that they are not who they think they are before they have to trust their lives to equally uncertain strangers and a rather dangerous mother figure. The cast have a real depth and heft as individuals, the mix between their civilian and costumed lives is pitch perfect. All of this is then placed in a superbly wrought plot context drives the action in a very natural way while neatly suggesting bigger stories going on in the background.
The art by Mahmud A. Asrar is flowing and graceful, it captures the dynamism of the super heroics without ever being too super heroic. The cast look like humans in motion, the costumes avoid the sleazy coyness rife in comics and settles for costumes teenagers could possibly wear. The cast are wonderfully expressive , their faces and bodies are eloquent and they occupy the physical spaces they are in naturally and comfortably. The quieter moments are given as much care and attention as the wonderfully staged action sequences. The art brings out all the dimensions in the story. Smart superhero comics, a pleasure.

The Skull of Set. Doug Moench(Writer),Paul Gulacy(Penciler),Gary Martin(Inker),David Jackson(Letterer),Steve Mattsson(Colours). Marvel Comics(1989)

A very entertaining and hugely enjoyable Conan story that mixes up the usual ingredients with flair and imagination. After a fight in a tavern Conan takes the job of leading the escort for a wagon of weapons heading for a strategic location in the war between Koth and Argos. Attacked by bandits Conan finds that the wagon has much more than weapons on board. Following an encounter with another group fleeing the city, the entire group lands among the ruins of a small city and under siege from both bandits and Argossean soldiers pursuing a traitor. At this point the real trouble starts and continues with great style and energy right up to a nicely judged and very satisfying conclusion.
The great pleasure of this comic is not that it tries anything new rather that it takes the familiar and makes them fresh and smart. The women are beautiful and frequently very dangerous, the demons are big, nasty and very bloodthirsty, the wizards are clever, the action is fast and furious. Best of all Conan has all the barbarian swagger, cunning, courage and wit that makes him the fabulous character that he should be. He has to solve difficult and life threatening problems by being smart as well as fast, he has to enjoy the adventure. Doug Moench delivers all of this with great craft, the dialogue is just the right shade of purple, the structure of the story is thoughtful, the plot threads are beautifully tied together.
The art is a luscious pleasure, the panel structure is used with care and skill to pace the story and to zoom in and out to considerable effect. The cast are the exact mixture between types and individuals that they should be, the aristocrat who is full of contempt for others, his beautiful, scantily clad and lonely wife, the merchant and the mysterious female priest. They move through the action with grace and clarity, their actions as much as their features are expressive and involving.
The colouring by Steve Mattsson is stunning, it is virtually a character in its own right while at the same time not drawing undue attention to itself. It is bold and striking, the colours catch the straightforward mood of the story and deepen it at every turn. Deeply satisfying and a pleasure to read.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Fall of the West. The Death of the Roman Superpower. Adrian Goldsworthy. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2009)

Engrossing and compelling history of the long and slow decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. In the year 476 AD the final Roman Emperor was deposed and such was his insignificance, allowed to retire off to private life and to die of natural causes. While this was the historical full stop for five centuries of the Roman Empire in the West, it was an essentially soft ending after a very long and frequently, very brutal fall.
The central process that drove the steady decline of the empire was the issue of how power was gained and transferred, steadily the road to running the empire was via civil war. This had a defining impact on the organisation of the empire and the role of the emperor within it. The key actor in deciding who would be Emperor was the army, whoever commanded or bought the loyalty of the biggest army would become emperor. This meant that each new emperor had to be greatly concerned with a usurper arising from the same route they followed, this dove a re-organisation of the empire to reduce the size of the armies to reduce the chance of revolt. This re-organisation also drive the development of an extensive non-military bureau racy and the increasing distance of the emperor for the various armies in the empire, creating room for usurpers.
This steady development lead first to multiple emperors , then the development of a Western and an Eastern Empires and finally the complete separation of the two, with the Eastern Empire going on to last for many hundreds of years after the demise of the Western one.
External forces were very significant in the decline and decay of the Western empire, Adrian Goldsworthy makes the point that there was never any genuine competitor to the Roman Empire. There was no group or kingdom that could remotely match its wealth or reach, its cultural and political dominance was colossal, the internal decay allowed external forces to take advantage of it, they did not bring it to its knees.
Adrian Goldsworthy tells a vivid and exciting story with clarity, flair and a keen sense of the absurd. He follows the evidence and limits the distance he is willing to go beyond it in search of an explanation or conclusion. At the same time he creates a convincing argument that provides a strong context for the events he describes. The enduring legacy of the Roman Empire is astonishing, the wonderfully lucid and thoughtful book is a great testament to its enduring nature.

The Emperor of Dreams. The Lost Worlds of Clark Ashton Smith. Gollancz (2002)

This is a collection of superb fantasy stories by Clark Ashton Smith, carefully crafted, beautifully written and drizzled with gallows humour they are a dark pleasure. The selection is thoughtful and inspired, the stories are uniformly excellent, still there are a handful of stand-outs. The Empire of the Necromancers uses one of Clark Ashton Smith's frequent themes, necromancy, magic used to revive the dead to slavery is a sharply satisfying way. Two necromancers use their magic to revive the long dead of an ancient empire in a deserted city, the arc of the story is a joy, it concludes with utterly satisfying brutality. On the other hand The Seven Geases has a undertow of wintry humour that gives force and bite to the story of the harsh results that come from interrupting a wizard. Humour is much more lighter and more significant in the The Theft of the Thirty-Nine Girdles which has a lot of fun with the old idea of a carefully planned robbery that does not quite go to plan. The best story in the collection, it has a depth and mournful compassion beyond the others, is Necromancy in Naat, a superbly crafted story that finishes with a melancholy fall that cuts to the heart.
The language used in these stories is very striking, Clark Ashton Smith has a marked preference for archaic and unusual versions of words, this does not disguise the meaning, it gives the stories an slight stiffness which serve them well. Atmosphere is of critical importance and the ornamental language adds greatly to it, it allows for a great range of suggestion and colour, to pile up description without overwhelming the story.
These are superbly structured short stories, they are tight and careful without ever seeming less than generous and complete. The action can be widespread or closely confined, in every case it has the required room to grow without ever wandering.The stories are bursting with telling and striking turns of phrase that set a scene or establish a character with precision and astonishing economy. Clark Ashton Smith has managed a remarkably difficult feat, he has written precisely overwrought fantasy stories and provided a luscious feast for the reader.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Cruel Stars of the Night. Kjell Eriksson (Writer), Ebba Segerberg (Translation). Thomas Dunne Books (2007)

A subtle and very engaging crime story that follows a superbly described arc of despair. In Uppsala in Sweden a woman reports that her elderly father is missing to the police and it remains unresolved. The murder of an elderly man without any clear motive has the police at a loss. A second murder of another elderly farmer drives the investigation to try and seek out any links between the two murders, a third murder does not clarify the situation. Laura Hindersten, the missing man's daughter finds that her life has reached a crisis and she struggles to find a way out her confusion. The two threads are slowly and carefully knotted together into an increasing dangerous situation that finally arrives at a tension filled and ultimately harsh and fitting conclusion.
The skill with which Kjell Eriksson ties the narrative knot of the story is breathtaking, it is done with precision and extraordinary skill. The disintegration of Laura Hindersten's life is developed with sympathy and no pity. Her mismatched parents emerge from the story with a relationship that seems almost inevitably leading to trouble for their daughter. In particular Laura's father, a stranded academic is a relentless influence on his daughter's life.
The police force, in particular Inspector Anne Lindell, struggle with three apparently motiveless murders that have enough in common to strongly suggest some submerged links waiting to be identified. The cast of police officers are given a wide context which allows them to develop as very rounded and grounded characters. The focus on Ann Lindell, a single mother, very competent professionally, full of doubt and uncertainty in her private life is a great counter point to Laura Hindersten.
Kjell Eriksson has a deep unsentimental concern for his varied cast, they are tested very severely and for the most part cope very badly with the stresses and strains they come under. They are not diminished or belittled for their poor decision making, they are allowed to make mistakes and recover enough from them to continue. This wise humanity drives the story and makes the crime plot credible and gripping. The translation by Ebba Segerberg is transparent, there is no sense that this is not written originally in English except for the utterly non Anglophone tone and spirit that pervades the book. Utterly satisfying to read and relish.

The Echo Man. Richard Montanari. William Heinemann (2011)

Wonderfully assured and confident thriller, a great cast and superb construction with a solid plot. In Philadelphia a murder victim is found in a basement, he has been tortured and the body staged with care. It emerges that the basement was the location of a previous murder with striking similarities to the recent one. More murders appear that have links with unsolved previous murders. Someone appears to be avenging cold case murders with killings of their own.For detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano, both trying to manage significant personal issues of their own, the investigation leads down a dark and bloody path. When it starts to point to an episode in Kevin Bryne's past the story arcs to a superbly staged and unexpected climax.
The terrific pleasure of this book is the way Richard Montanari confidently takes control of the reader and heads off with the story. There are a lot of threads in the story, it moves around its large cast with care and skill, giving each of the characters enough time space and energy to come to life. The control of the story never wavers, the various sidelights and sub-plots are paced and placed with thoughtful expertise and add greatly to the story rather than diluting it. The reveals are cunningly staged and Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano are committed and forceful, driven by a belief in law based justice.
The main plot is wonderfully, operatically melodramatic and overblown and within the confines of the story gripping and utterly plausible. The cast are engaging enough and the momentum of the investigation great enough that the theatrical elements of the plot add to the pleasure of the story. A unmitigated joy.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Fifth Witness. Michael Connelly. Orion Books (2011)

A sheep in wolf's skin, excellent writing, a great structure and an engaging cast cannot hide the fatal failure of imagination and nerve that compromise this story. Mickey Haller is a criminal defence lawyer finding that his business has changed due to the recession. He has many more clients fighting foreclosure that criminal indictments. When one of his foreclosure clients, Lisa Trammel is charged with murdering the CEO of the bank she is fighting against, Mickey finds himself returning to criminal defence. Facing off against a tough and very capable District Attorney, Mickey has a challenging case on his hands. The story develops extremely well, the courtroom scenes are gripping and the various trial strategies used by both sides are explained in a natural and engaging way. The corkscrew conclusion is a culmination of the fatal ambiguity in the story and leaves the reader shortchanged by the whole experience.
The positive aspects to this story are many and very strong. The context for the case, the ongoing whirlwind of foreclosures that resulted from the selling of wildly unsuitable mortgages to equally unsitable customers for overpriced properties is topical and very well drawn. The way that the defence strategy is developed and implemented, the need to manage a wayward client as well as deal with the prosecution is gripping done. The cast are given space and time to make an impression and the sheer struggle involved is conveyed expertly.
The problem is that Michael Connelly does not believe in defence lawyers as a component of the legal system. He can understand that they are required, he chokes on the fact that they are defending people who did commit the crimes they are accused of, he wants them to only really defend the innocent. Assertively defending the probably guilty, that is doing the actual job of a competent criminal defence lawyer, is just a step too far for him. He allows Mickey Haller be an effective defence lawyer, then weasels at a critical moment so he can square his troubled consciences in the most appalling manner, he also uses Mickey's divorced wife and daughter as cover for this piece of shabby action. This sad squeamishness robs an otherwise excellent thriller of its force. Worth reading for the set pieces, skip the rest.

The Priest. Gerard O'Donovan. Sphere (2010)

A gripping thriller with two very engaging leading characters, a vivid supporting cast and a very well structured story. When the daughter of a prominent Spanish politician is brutally assaulted in Dublin, Detective Inspector Mike Mulchay, recently returned from a posing in Spain, is reluctantly drawn into the investigation. Detective Inspector Claire Brogan of the Sex Crimes unit does not welcome his involvement in the case and the investigation develops a strong internal Garda political aspect. Siobhan Fallon is a journalist who finds the story and is determined to follow it, as well as developing a credible relationship with DI Mulchay. The story twists and turns without ever lowering the tension, the reveals are cunning staged and timed and the climax is enjoyably melodramatic, the conclusion satisfyingly sharp.
Gerard O'Donovan has got all the elements of the story woven into a very engaging whole. Mike Mulchay and Siobhan Fallon are great characters, both ambitious professionals they manage to respect each others opposing agendas enough to make an entirely credible, if a little uneasy, couple. The swirl of internal politics within the Garda is a complicating factor that is handled with tremendous skill and care. The structure of the investigation, nicely counterpointed by the media story, effectively developed, none of it feels forced to accommodate a plot point.
The supporting cast are all lively and sharply drawn, they are more than walk on parts,they provide genuine force and momentum to to book by the way they act.
A nice aspect to the book is the minimal role played directly by the villain, the focus of the story is on the horrific actions, the victims and the investigation. He is given an interesting context, he never controls the story. A great read.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Jacques Audiard (Director). Artifical Eye (2005)

This is a very engaging drama that darts away from the expectations it sets up in a very satisfactory fashion. Thomas Seyer (Romain Duris) is a violent real estate broker, willing to resort to extreme methods to remove tenants from property and keeping them out. When he is offered the opportunity to audition as a concert pianist for his late mother's manager he comes into conflict with his father and his partners. His father (Niels Arestrup) is in the same business as Thomas, he wants Thomas to recover a debt he is owed by a Russian gangster, Minskov (Anton Yakovlev). Thomas's partners are unhappy with his being distracted by the music. The film juggles the two threads of the story with care, capturing Thomas's increasing frustration and impatience with his musical progress. The reveals are cleverly staged and the film builds to a savage,surprising and very satisfying conclusion.
Romain Duris is superb in the lead role, he has a ferocious charisma full of tightly wound and barely controlled energy. The conflict between the grip of the obligations of the present to his father and his partners and the possibility of a new life via music is vividly conveyed in his performance.
Niels Arestrup gives an equally outstanding performance of waning force and power, dependant on the son he loves while being a touch resentful of it. He wants Thomas to stick to the business as he needs him to help, the music is both a distraction and an unwelcome reminder of Thomas's mother. Linh Dan Pham delivers in a savagely difficult and unforgiving role with subtle dignity and care, she plays Miao Lin, the non-French speaking piano coach Thomas's hires to help him prepare for the audition.
The whole film has a taut atmosphere that never gives way, a great structure that brings the cast together in unexpected and engaging ways and delivers a great payoff, intriguing and very enjoyable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

If I Never See You Again. Niamh O'Connor. Transworld Ireland (2010)

A big angry heart and a very engaging lead character and strong momentum pretty much overcome an over reliance on genre stereotypes in plotting and casting. Newly promoted Detective Inspector Jo Birmingham finds a mutilated body while completing a training exercise. After being put in charge of the investigation she realises that it has links with some other brutal murders that also involved mutilations. Ryan Freeman, a crime reporter, is also pursuing a investigation concerning his daughter's abduction and eventual return. She had been kidnapped by a leading Dublin gangster who was one of the murder victims that Jo Birmingham had identified as part of a pattern. The two lines of inquiry are nicely set up before being knotted together in a brutal and effective fashion leading to a violent climax.
The biggest weakness in this story are that other than Jo Birmingham and Ryan Freeman the cast are one dimensional cut outs designed to push the plot forward as required. Dan Mason, Jo Birmingham's ex husband and current boss can never escape his purpose as a plot device to have any hope of independent life. The surrounding cast are given a little more air but never enough to free them. The plot is slightly more boilerplate serial killer than not, it does has some force, it does not quite manage the very difficult task of breathing fresh life into an much used idea.
What lifts up Jo and Ryan is also what lifts the entire book, there is a genuinely angry heart pulsing within this book, Jo is a really angry character, the plight of victims caught up in the coils of the Irish justice system drives her. This anger propels her into life as a character, she is involved a fight with the Dept of Justice that does not appear to be heavy handed editorialising by the author. Niamh O'Connor has created a genuine voice in Jo Birmingham and her struggle and cause seem natural and unforced. For Ryan the grief for his daughter is crisp and sharp, it gives him depth and weight. Rising above its limitations this is an engaging read.

Shifting Skin. Chris Simms. Orion Books (2006)

A very engaging and sharply written police procedural. Partially skinned bodies have been dumped around the Belle Vue area and Detective Inspector Jon Spicer is struggling to get a grip on the case. At the same time a battered woman felling from her home is sure she has heard a murder at the hotel she was sheltering at. She only has a card from an escort agency as proof and embarks on her own investigation when the police do not. Jon Spicer is assigned a new partner and together they start to find a trail to follow, unlicensed cosmetic surgery. The two investigations slowly start to draw together and overlap in a very satisfactory and effective climax.
Chris Simms has written a very well constructed crime story that stages it reveals with care and at the same time allows its cast to breathe and develop and deal with some very interesting issues. Rick Saville, Jon Spicers' new partner is gay and Chris Simms handles the story thread this leads to very nicely. Jon Spicer is a very macho character, it is not Rick's sexual orientation that bother him, it is his competence as a police officer. Once that is established the matter of his being gay is still relevant but minor. This allows Rick emerge as a rounded character rather than a token.
Fiona, the battered wife, slowly emerges as character, her investigation is as much as assertion of her control over her own life, long absent, as anything else. The way the threads of the story are drawn together and the horribly plausible well of hate and bile that lie behind the murders is expertly revealed. A gripping and very enjoyable story.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ghost In The Shell:Man Machine Interface. Shirow Masamune (Writer & Artist). Dark Horse Magna (2005)

Wonderful, if not quite successful, ambitious full tilt science fiction busting with big ideas, humour and fantastic art. Motoko Aramaki, a counter-terrorist net security expert works for the giant Poseidon Industrial corporation. An attack at one of the companies facilities leads to greater puzzles and elusive enemy. Motoko is as much at home travelling the information lines of the net as she is in any of her cyborg bodies. She slips from one body and information nexus to another as she tracks the threat, along the way she encounters a entity from the Channelling Agency, a mysterious official organisation. As Motoko fights physical and cyber battles she draws closer to the extraordinary secret at the heart of the events.
Shirow Masamue's reach exceeds his grasp in this story, there is a wonderful density of detail matched against a flow of big ideas that does not quite cohere in a successful way. The details start to drown out the ideas and the ideas are not quite carried off with the force required. None of which detracts from the astounding journey that the story takes. The overall concept, of humans being equipped with cyber brains that have a constant connecting with a global cyber network, the significantly increased use of cyberisation of bodies blurring the lines of what is human is superbly exploited. Motoko is a an evolved creature,her physical bodies are all cyborgs, her consciousness, in essence her humanity or her ghost, is anchored in the infrastructure of the net.
This allows Shirow Masamune to have Motoko roam the globe easily, dropping into bodies storied at various locations to engage in stunning action set pieces. A propensity for panty shots is unfortunate and jarring. The cyber action is managed with explosive artwork that means that the information network is visualised in the most engaging and astounding way. The strategy of piling on the detail, including very funny footnotes from the creator, is effective for most of the story but becomes overwhelming at the end. As the big conclusion is approached the story falters instead of flying.
As a partial failure is is wildly more successful that most comics and extravagantly more successfully than than most science fiction, in comic form or not. The willingness to embrace and exploit the possibilities if both comics and science fiction is exhilarating and joyous, not to be missed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Out of the Past. Director: Jacques Tourneur. RKO Radio Pictures (1947)

A superb film noir with a great cast, cleverly constructed plot and a bruised romantic heart. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) answers a summons from Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a gambler he had done a job for and had hoped to have left behind. On the journey to see Whit, Bailey tells his girlfriend the story of how he had been a private investigator hired by Whit to find Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who had robbed and shot Whit. Bailey found Kathie and fell in love with her, their attempt to escape together from Whit had ended very badly and now Whit had found Bailey again. Whit wants Bailey to recover some papers for him, when Bailey finds that Kathie had returned to Whit the job starts to look dangerous. The plot coils and twists thought carefully staged reveals and double-crosses down to the grim climax and nicely ambiguous conclusion.
Robert Mitchum is superb, he has an easy charm and self-awareness about how he landed himself in the situation he finds himself in. He is devoid of self-pity, reacting with a sardonic competence and assurance to the ever increasing danger. Kirk Douglas, with his wide smile and held in rage is smooth and compelling. When the rage is finally unleashed, it is a quiet fury that has a frighteningly sincere intensity to it.
The dark heart of the film is Jane Greer, a sinuous and subtle performance, as a woman who is hell bent on surviving regardless of what she needs to do so. The men in the film are her playthings, none of them have her willingness to take any step necessary. In the last scenes of the film she emerges as truly herself, holding all the cards ands and ready to play them, the power of the moment makes her sparkle like a blood covered diamond. Men are sentimental fools who fall for her lure of romance, the price they pay for this is betrayal and death. The division between the wholesome world of small town America and the bleak urban underworld of Whit and Bailey is cunningly evoked to sharpen the shadows in the story. Unmissable.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Darkness and The Deep. Aline Templeton. Hodder & Stoughton. (2006)

Very engaging and enjoyable crime story, a smart mix of a modern police procedural and village murder story. The loss of the Knockhaven lifeboat with the three crew is a huge blow for the small village, when it is found to have been deliberately engineered it exposes the fierce tensions and struggles that are swirling through the community. Detective Inspector Marjory Fleming is aware that drug smuggling has steadily replaced fishing as the most important local industry and has to establish if the wrecking was related to it. With tensions within the investigating team complicating matters, the mixed motives and agendas of the large, superbly drawn, cast are cleverly woven together and finally lead to a very satisfactory conclusion.
Aline Templeton makes very effective use of the context, the small community with is suffering from the terminal decline of the fishing industry and everyone knows some version of everyone else’s business. As with the best of village murder stories, the community has a multitude of motives and plausible suspects, the disentangling of which is one of the pleasures of the book. The cast are given room to breathe and grow into themselves, the reveals are cunning staged and arise very naturally from the action.
The counter pointing and overlapping of the tensions within the police investigation with the villagers is very neatly structured, Marjory Fleming's domestic troubles are plausible and expertly woven into the story. The final unravelling reveals something very nasty, it anchors the brutality of the wrecking of the lifeboat with grim strength and effectively bitter action. Great crime fiction, a pleasure.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Runners, Book 1: Bad Goods. Sean Wang (Writer & Artist) Serve Man Press (2005)

A superb space opera with a solid plot, great action, a superb context and a very engaging cast. Roka Nostaco and his crew are smugglers-for-hire, runners, en route to make a collection when they find that the space ship they are due to meet is under attack. They beat off the attack and rescue the ship and most of the cargo. Complications follow when that take a woman they found on the cargo ship on board and find that they have a bounty on their heads. A visit to a huge space station for repairs and rest proves to be very difficult. The action is sharp and fast, carefully balanced with information, back story and dry humour. The conclusion is satisfying and open ended enough to provide a platform for new stories.
Sean Wang has taken a very familiar template of footloose adventurers getting caught up in action that pulls at their wallets as well as their residual sense of right and wrong and gives it fresh and focused momentum. He is faithful to the genre requirements for a diverse, bickering crew, very competent in action if preferring to avoid it with a nice slice of back story to give them hard knock experience. The quality of his writing means that the requirements do not slide into cliche, the cast are lively, individual and very engaging. The situations they find themselves in are superbly set up, logically sequenced and give the cast a opportunity to shine individually and collectively.
The art is equal to the writing, it strongly expresses the story and provides a glorious space opera context. The cast are expressive and individual, the space ship hardware is given enough detail and functional thought to ground the action very firmly. The big scenes of space conflict are loud and impressive, close quarter combat is fast and intense. This is a very thoughtfully constructed comic that wearing its considerable craft lightly, it is so good it makes it look easy. A pleasure to read, re-read and savour, wonderful.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Case Histories. Kate Atkinson. Black Swan (2004)

An interesting mix of a book that does not quite catch fire. Jackson Brodie, an ex-policeman now private investigator working in Cambridge becomes somewhat haphazardly involved in three case histories. The first and most significant is the disappearance of a very young girl from the garden of her home. Decades later two of her sisters find her favourite toy in their recently deceased father's desk. They hire Jackson to investigate Olivia's disappearance. The second case is the 10 year old murder of a young woman in her father's office. Theo, Laura's father is determined to understand why his daughter was killed and hires Jackson to find out. The third case involves a young woman who murdered her husband, her sister hires Jackson to find the woman's daughter. The cases snake around each other without connecting, the reveals are nicely staged and the conclusion is generous and compassionate.
This story is a character drama for crime fiction fans and a crime story for character drama fans, it balances both very well without quite developing into a forceful,unified entity. The murders at the heart of the three case studies are smart and thoughtful and they do propel the drama in an effective fashion. The long echo from the disappearance of the young girl and the murder of Theo's daughter on the survivors is acutely drawn. The criminal element is much more muted in the third case and feels somewhat unfinished,the drama is considerably sharper and significantly more unkind to the cast.
The cast are given plenty of room to breathe and develop, they do not quite come off the page. They feel constrained by the framework of the violent actions that have marked them, at the same time the investigations lacks the force and focus to drive the narrative. All of the major characters are facing profound challenges which are forcing them into changes and choices they would rather avoid. The strength of the book is the way these changes are used to reveal the cast, the wide spread of focus within the book means it does not quite get to grips enough with any one thread to really engage the reader.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sherlock Holmes. Soul of the Dragon. Northstar Press (1995)

This is an anthology of three short Sherlock Holmes stories within a framing sequence all written by Joe Gentile with a different artistic team on each story. All the stories are black & white. The framing sequence shows Holmes granting Watson permission to publish some more cases from his records. The first of these is "The Much Maligned Musician", art by Dave Ulanski & Bill Halliar,in which a very talented and egotistical musician commits suicide after being publicly revealed as gay. Sherlock Holmes finds that the evidence points to murder.In "Man of Medicine:Doctor of Despair", art by Alison McDonald, Sherlock Holmes becomes involved in an unusual kidnap case that uncoils nicely into something more. The final story "The Assassin's Lament", pencils by Pav Kovacic, inks by Lynda Licin, Kate McCoole and Joe Gentile starts with Dr.Watson assisting a woman and leads to murder and links with Professor Moriarty. All the stories are neatly constructed, capture Holmes and Watson effectively and give the great detective a chance to shine.
The art in the three stories varies very considerably and does not equally serve the story in each case. The art in the first story has clarity and depth, it is too rounded and clean to be entirely successful. The figure work is slightly static and feels a touch overdrawn. Dave Ulanski & Bill Halliar do have a very strong design sense and the variety of angles used in the panels is distinctive and effective.
With "Man of Medicine:Doctor of Despair" Alison McDonald's art is too flat, it illustrates the story without illuminating it. The style does nit capture the dynamic action needed by the story, it slows the narrative down too much and there is too much line work in the panels to allow them to breathe.
The art in "The Assassin's Lament" is the only one to try to actually exploit the possibilities of black & white, using the contrasts very assertively to create mood and action. The cast are the most individual and developed and the action is sharp and forceful. All told these are enjoyable stories created with interesting artistic choices and strategies which provide mixed results.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hollywood Station. Joseph Wambaugh. Quercus (2007)

Very engaging and frequently laugh out loud funny police story. A mosaic of incidents and anecdotes slowly coalesce around the story of two couples, one a set of armed robbers the other a pair of tweakers, crystal meth addicts. The very large cast is expertly shuffled and reshuffled as the story threads emerge and knot together in a brilliantly staged, brutal and very unexpected fashion. The reveals are superb, surprising, frequently funny and always perfectly judged to reveal the character in the situation.
That this book is not a meandering mess is due to Joseph Wambaugh's skill in structuring and writing the narrative. The action is episodic and apparently random, following the large cast as they pursue their legal and criminal activities across the area covered by the Hollywood Station. Joseph Wambaugh is passionately in favour of the patrol staff of the LAPD, without being in any way sentimental about them or their work. He captures exactly why a police office would start and remain in the job in spite of the extraordinarily difficult conditions they work under. The most difficulties coming from their own organisation.
The cast are memorable, vital and all demanding the readers full attention as they live life at full speed, the dialogue sparkles and crackles with energy and bite. The structure of the book captures the chaotic life of the police and their opponents and the story of disastrous collision between the armed robbers and tweakers gradually comes into focus. The criminals are given as much time and care as the police and the action arises naturally and forcefully from the characters themselves. Joseph Wambaugh's romantic and heroic vision of police work is tempered by a vivid sense of the harsh and violent reality of Hollywood, they combine to make a superb book.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Woman With Birthmark. Hakan Nesser. Laurie Thompson (Translation) Pan Books (2010)

Vivid and compelling crime story that has smart structure,superb cast and powerful emotional undertow. A man is shot and investigation reveals that he had received odd phone calls prior to his murder, when a second man is murdered in the same way and having received similar calls the police struggle to find the connection and the killer. As the police investigation proceeds two other men realise the the cause of the deaths and the fact that they too are in danger, unwilling to involve the police they plan their defences. The reveals are superbly staged, the various strands of the story are brilliantly drawn together to a bitter and satisfying conclusion.
The most striking aspect to the story is the way Hakan Nesser solves the story problems in deeply satisfying and unpredictable ways.Two of the cast know they are being hunted and they know why, this does not release the tension as surprise murder becomes a deadly battle of will and wits. The police investigation is thoughtful and competent, it drives the story as a nearly random factor in the deadly duel between the hunter and the hunted.
The cast are vivid and sparkle with life, all of them are given the space to emerge as fully fledged characters, the reader becomes involved with them all. Inspector Van Veeteren has a cranky forcefulness that is entirely engaging, the woman who finally finds a life purpose in revenge is brilliant, believable and finally, truthfully unheroic. The men she hunts are discovering that actions can have consequences very much after all thought of them had gone, they struggle to understand just how utterly their lives have been torn asunder. A must read.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Savage Sword of Conan. Volume Six. Dark Horse Comics (2009)

This volume collects issues 61 to 71 of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian black & white magazine. It includes all the original covers as well as the various pin ups from each issue. The volume is packed with great stories and outstanding art.
The stories are written by Roy Thomas, Michael Fleisher and Bruce Jones all of who understood how to manage the story formula with skill and care. The mixture between sword and sorcery is a delicate one and requires subtle skill to bring off successfully. The ingredients are obvious, scheming politicians, kings and queens, power hungry wizards, beautiful women and lots of fighting. The hinge of the stories is that Conan with his taste for wine, women and swordplay and his instinctive dread of magic is also possessed of a sophisticated understanding of how power works. His wits and observation are as quick as his sword arm and knowing how and when to highlight one or the other is the craft in these stories. With the extended length provided by the magazine format and no requirement for issue to issue continuity the writers had the scope to mix plot and character to great effect.
The art is the most obviously striking aspect to the stories, it is as subtle and sophisticated as the stories, providing a nuanced and detailed flow for the stories that draws the reader in. My favourite artists on the stories are John Buscema and Ernie Chan, together they have a detail and texture that is unrivalled. In the "The Lurker in the Labyrinth" there is a single panel of a brawl in a tavern that shimmers with action, the details are crisp and clear, the physical reality of Conan's world is made plain. This volume is a slab of unadulterated pleasure.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Red Wolf. Liza Marklund (Writer), Neil Smith (Translator). Corgi Books (2010)

A Swedish thriller with a great plot and a very engaging cast lead by a intriguing protagonist. Annika Bengtzon is a journalist, recovering from a severely traumatic event, she becomes interested in the death of a fellow reporter. The dead reporter had been working on the story of the worst terrorist incident in Sweed that had taken place years before, the same story Annika was interested in. As Anniks takes a closer look at the death she discover it may not have been accidental and that the incident at the airfield may not be ancient history. The reveals are very well staged and the conclusion is sharp and satisfying.
Annika Bengtzon is a very engaging and somewhat unsympathetic character. She is struggling to regain her equilibrium after nearly loosing her life and her work and home life are coming under pressure. She responds in unexpected and dynamic ways to her circumstances, is never willing to give up or knuckle under. She is very willing to fight dirty to protect her interests and this adds depth and force to her character.
The context of the enthusiasm of a lot of young people in the early 1970's for both Russian and Chinese communism and the unexpectedly long shadow it would cast in their lives is carefully explored. One of the nice aspects to the book is that the honest idealism of the times is not undermined by the bitter aftermath and weary hindsight. The cast are allowed to managed their own choices and the fallout from them as individuals. Liza Marklund sidesteps any stereotypes or cliches by giving her cast such strong personalities, the story is unexpected because they are happily unpredictable. There is also a very strong and pointed thread in the book about the Swedish media and the steps its owners would go to to preserve their assets, it is backed up a nice afterword by Liz Marklund which shows how skillfully she created fiction out of fact. Great fun.

Hypothermia. Arnldur Indridason (Writer), Bernard Scudder (Translator). Vintage Books (2009)

A quietly effective crime story that delivers a considerable punch. Icelandic police detective Erlendur is approached by the friend of a suicide victim who has doubts about the death and he agrees to investigate it further. At the same time a thirty year old missing person case is weighing heavily on his mind. As he steadily pursues his investigations into both cases it becomes clear that there are significant questions regarding both that need to be answered. The reveals are quiet and superbly staged, the apparently irrelevant investigations into the two cases starts to reveal unexpected turns. The conclusion is as cold and gripping as the hypothermia of the title.
Arnaldur Indridason has taken an interesting route in this book, the investigations are shrouded in questions of memory and loss and how they can overshadow the the present. Erlendur is conducting the investigations as a private crusade, there is no official reason for them and the question of why he is undertaking them is nicely woven into the story. The Icelandic context is strongly drawn in the story and adds to the flavour of the book.
The structure of the narrative is clever, the suicide victim emerges as someone looking for answers all her life and seeking them in increasingly strange places. the way her search to understand her past collides with the present is subtly and effectively woven together. The missing person case stirs a dark pool of memory and long term loss with skill and a melancholy grip. Thoughtful and gripping, a great read.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Beast Triology. The Dormant Beast/December 32nd. Enki Bilal (Writer & Artist), Taras Otus,Sasha Watson (Translation.). Humanoids/DC Comics (2004)

Piping hot science fiction delivered with outstanding art, this volume is the first two chapters of The Beast Trilogy and a really compelling comic. Nike Hatzfeld is a man who can remember all of his life down to the first days after his birth. He was an orphan in war torn Sarajevo, in a damaged hospital with two other children Amir and Leyla and Nike is looking for them. He lives in a world where memory and knowledge are under violent ass ult from the Obscurantis Order who are determined to reshape the world, Nike's memory is a valuable prize for them. Leyla is a astrophysicist who is involved in investigation a stream of messages from space, Amir is a bodyguard about to start a new contract. The story is dramatic and far reaching, the reveals are superbly staged and the cast very engaging.
Enki Bilal carries of the mix of big ideas and a believable cast and context with flair and energy. The context is a future that has been battered a great deal by some series of conflicts, information is provided as the cast require it not the reader. This is neither frustrating nor confusing as the clarity and momentum of the story is so strong. The plot reveals itself steadily, nicely growing in depth and force as the unexpected twists and turns are revealed. Nike, Leyla and Amir emerge as very forceful characters, linked in subtle and sharp ways. Doctor Warhole is a superb creation, an evil genius with plans for global domination, he provides the controlled menace that drives the story.
The art is simply astounding, it has a dark and almost unfinished look to it as though Enki Bilal drew with chalk and brushed his sleeve lightly over the pages. It gives the physical context of the story a slightly unreal quality, it feels like science fiction art. The technology does not shine, it is all in use and showing it, the grit of the plot is matched by the grit of the art.
The very best thing about this story is that it could only be told properly as a comic, the interplay between story and art, the limitless budget of comics and the frozen timeline of sequential panels do more than frame the story, they allow it to be told. This story exploits the possibilities of comics in a genuinely exciting way, a star burst of controlled creativity, astonishing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Labyrinths of Echo Book 1: The Stranger. Max Frei (Writer), Polly Gannon (Translator). Gollancz (2009)

An exuberant and highly entertaining fantasy with a well thought out alternative world and a very engaging cast. Max Frei, an insomniac and self described classic loser, finds that his dreams have more substance than he imagined. In his dreams he meets Sir Juffin Hully, Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force in the city of Echo. Sir Julian, recognising talents that Max does not realise he possesses, offers him a job as his Nocturnal Representative in Echo. Max travels across dimensions to Echo and takes up his post. His department investigate unusual crimes, activities that are likely to involve the illegal use of magic. Max has cases that range for mysterious deaths in a neighbours house to a haunted prison cell to a case where a cook is converted into a meal.
The book does not have an overarching plot, it is constructed as a progression of episodes that steadily reveal more about the city of Echo, Max's developing abilities and his fellow officers in the Minor Secret Investigative Force. The city of Echo is an nicely developed context, it sidesteps the frequent quasi-medieval stereotypes of a lot of fantasy, and manages to create a lively location for the action. The structure of the book means that the information about Echo is delivered steadily to the reader as Max himself finds it out, the city and its inhabitants emerge in a natural and intriguing way.
The cast are lively and hard working, Max himself is pleasantly calm and ready for adventure, he develops a willingness to become involved in his adopted home which brings the reader very much into the story. The rest of the investigators are given a chance to shine and develop across the episodes and they are strongly varied and vivid. Max's unsurprising romantic entanglement with one of his fellow investigators is given substance by the unexpected handling.
The writing is noticeably not Anglophone in origin, there is a slight formality to the book that suits it very well and marks it is coming from a different context. The episodes are cleverly constructed and enjoyable, the final one trails off a little, not so much as to injure the book, it tries a little too hard. Overall very good fun.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

BLACKLANDS. Belinda Bauer. Corgi Books (2010)

Astonishing and utterly compelling thriller that drives relentlessly forward to a white knuckle conclusion. Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor looking for the grave of his uncle who had been abducted and murdered years before by a serial child killer, Arnold Avery. He does so in hope of repairing the damage done to his family by Billy's abduction. Steven finally writes to Avery in prison seeking his help in locating the grave and Avery seizes the opportunity that has come his way to have something new in his life. The story unspools in a very gripping and creepy fashion, the events have a horrible inevitability about them until the final heart squeezing conclusion.
This astonishing book manages to disguise the plot as the natural outcome of the actions and reactions of its brilliantly realised cast to their circumstances. From the very slightest of beginnings, the story moves carefully and calmly through the increasing escalation of events. There is nothing blatant about the progression of the story, it moves without many set pieces, the story is nudged along by wickedly believable actions and collisions. The increasingly uneasy atmosphere conjured up arises almost unseen and gathers paces as quietly as a descending fog on Exmoor.
Belinda Bauer has created a memorable cast and gives everyone, from the principal to the smallest walk on part, the breath of life. The ebb and flow of the story is so deeply entwined with the lives of the cast that the author's breathtaking craft in shaping the story is invisible. Arnold Avery is a triumph, a monster of terribly comprehensible proportions, never sympathetic and utterly engaging, a ruthless mixture of self-discipline and appetite, he still does not quite dominate the book. Steven Lamb, twelve years old, struggling to repair his shattered family and to survive his friends and enemies, emerges as the deep heart of the book. This book is enthralling and is simply unmissable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Empire of Blue Water. Henry Morgan and the Pirates who Ruled the Caribbean Waves. Stephan Talty. Pocket Books (2007)

A wonderfully engaging and informative study of the extraordinary career of Henry Morgan and the pirate city of Port Royal. Henry Morgan and his fellow buccaneers were the last wave of the privateers,private ships and captains with commissions from governments to attack their enemies shipping. They were not pirates, pirates were outlaws with no legal standing, privateers were recognised part of official military and naval strategy. In Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean the privateers fought a war against the Spanish Empire under their own rules, organised as the Brethren of the Coast and with their home in Port Royal, the "richest and wickedest city in the world".
Henry Morgan sailed out to Jamaica in 1654 to make his name and his fortune, the possibilities in the New World were spectacular for the brave and the willing. The Spanish Empire was mining the fabulous riches of South America and shipping them back to Europe. Its was inflexible, unimaginative and deeply autocratic, everything that the Brethren of the Coast were not, and they were to exploit the weakness of the empire in a astonishingly ruthless and effective fashion.
No one did this more effectively than Henry Morgan, the fiercely democratic and open structure of the Brethren suited his talents perfectly. His steady string of successes made his followers rich and allowed his increase the scope and reach of his raids until he his most specular raid on the city of Panama. It was his greatest success and ultimately his most profound failure, it marked the breaking point for social and political structure that allowed the privateers to flourish.
Stephan Talty tells the extraordinary story of Henry Morgan, placing him firmly into his wider historical, political and economic context. He shows how the strengths of the Brethern were closely allied to their weaknesses and how, inevitably, privateers became pirates. This is a superbly written book, Stephan Talty has a glorious story to tell and tells it with tremendous style, momentum and a keen eye for the telling detail. The blazing Henry Morgan is given a fitting stage to stride on, unmissable and unputadownable.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

S.O.S. Meteors. Edgar P. Jacobs (Writer and Artist). Jerome Saincantin (Translator). Cinebook Ltd. (2009)

A very well crafted science fiction adventure. Extreme weather has been plaguing Western Europe and Professor Phillip Mortimer goes to Paris to meet with his friend, Professor Labrousse, the chief French meteorologist. After his taxi crashes, the driver vanished and he nearly drowns, Mortimer finally arrives at Prof. Labrousse's house. Mortimer has some suspicions about the cause of the weather and when he finds himself a suspect in the disappearance of the taxi driver decides to investigate on his own account. Captain Francis Blake of British Military Intelligence is also on Paris on a mission and when his friend Mortimer disappears and his case seems to be related to the weather, Blake finds he has stepped on a hornets nest. The plot is very well set up, the reveals are clever, the action is excellent, the conclusion is thoroughly enjoyable.
The story is very well crafted both as an adventure and science fiction,both elements are cleverly woven together. There is a strong big idea in controlling the weather, the comic book science that underlies the plan is cleverly set up and delivered with the suitable degree of seriousness. It is also hitched nicely to a political agenda which gives it an edge over the the anticipated mad genius trope. The action is superbly choreographed, one of the great pleasures is that no one has it easy, both the heroes and the villains have to fight hard for what they want. Each has hair's breath escapes and face competent and forceful opponents, this makes the struggle considerably more interesting. The end may not be in doubt, the journey is unexpected.
The art is a joy, the detail in each panel is a pleasure, it never overcrowds the story nor slows the momentum, it gives a solid context to the action. There is a sequence involving a flight and fight over Paris rooftops in a rainstorm that is a model of pacing and clarity. The cast are full of life and energy, they are clearly individual, down to the extras, and push the story forward with vigour. There is a little bit of telling and showing in the comic, it is more of a period charm than a distraction. Great fun, first rate comic storytelling.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Frozen Tracks. Ake Edwardson. Vintage (2008)

This is a gripping police procedural, a thoughtful plot and a very engaging cast. A number of small children are taken for a drive by a man they do not know and are returned unharmed. The incidents are all reported to separate police stations and the children are not upset by the experience. A number of attacks on college students is being investigated by Detective Chief Inspector Winter, all of them have been struck by an unseen assailant, one being very badly injured. When a student escapes his attacker DCI Winter begins to pick up the threads of the case. After small boy is picked up in a car and found injured, the other cases come to light and the pattern becomes visible. Gradually the two plot lines converge in the same brutal secrets. The reveals are superbly staged, the investigation is thoughtful, deliberate and effective, the resolution is grim and satisfying.
The story is superbly structured, the various strands of the story are expertly woven together and the links are cunningly forged. The professional and the personal context for the police officers is very well drawn, DCI Winter defying expectations by having a stable happy relationship that he is deeply committed to. One of his colleague's has a personal crisis which nicely explores the theme of the story.
The student victims of the assaults and the child kidnapper are nicely ambivalent, they have secrets that they are trying to both embrace and escape at the same time. It gives a welcome and melancholy flavour to the story and a naturally and effective complicating factor to the investigation. A pleasure.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Man with No Name: Saints and Sinners. Christos Gage(Writer), Wellington Dias (Art), Bruno Hang (Colours), Dynamite Entertainment (2009)

A very enjoyable sequel to the film, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" that follows the Clint Eastwood character, the Man with No Name. He is being actively hunted by both Union and Confederate soldiers for different reasons. While trying to evade both sides he is drawn into a siege of the Mission of San Antonio where he had spent some time recovering his health. The mission is under siege from a mixed group of Union and Confederate deserters and The Man with No Name joins the fray with explosive results. The story is very engaging, the back story is filled in effectively and naturally. The action is fast and smart, the story has momentum and pace, the cast are full of energy.
The comic has a very difficult task to complete, it has to pick up the threads from a brilliant film and use them to create a comic that can stand by itself. To a considerable degree it does so, Christos Gage does an excellent job of both linking the story to the film and moving beyond it. The main story stands squarely by itself as a solid western adventure. He sensibly does very little with the title character beyond what has already been established in the films. He uses the surrounding cast to really give the story some depth and push, none are passive observers or victims, they are all driving forward as hard as they can. This gives the story a great texture as they collide in interesting ways. The ending of the story is smart and does point to a way beyond the boundaries of the film.
The shortfall in this comic is the art, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it, it is expressive and clear, it is simply too clean. One of the most notable aspects to the films is the grimy and dusty context, it is a harsh environment and it was as much a character in the films as the human cast. The art does not capture this, it is too polished, the cast look as though their clothes were laundered. This would matter less if the story was not following on so closely from the film, in future stories it will probably matter much less.
This comic is neither insulting to fans of the film nor obscure to those not familiar with it, it is a western that understands the demands of the genre and responds to them with flair and thoughtfulness. The cover gallery featuring the series covers by Richard Isanove is stunning, they grace the story the way the epic score graced the film. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Secret Friend. Chris Mooney. Penguin Books (2008)

A gripping and entertaining thriller with a twisting plot and an engaging cast. When a woman's body is found floating in Boston harbour, it becomes clear that her murder is related to the earlier murder of the daughter of a very rich and influential man. CSI Darby McCormick is assigned to the case and starts working with detective Tim Bryson. The murder kidnaps another young woman, answering the commands of the Virgin Mary to do so, to keep her captive and to be her friend. When Malcolm Fletcher, an ex-FBI profiler wanted for murder himself, appears to be taking a strong interest in the case and elaborate game of hide and seek takes place. The plot threads are developed with care and attention to detail, the reveals are very cleverly staged and the conclusion wholly satisfying.
The kidnapper is the least interesting member of the cast, Chris Mooney works very hard to spin a character out of a cliche and succeeds as far as it is possible to do. He is considerably more successful with the rest of his cast. Darby McCormick is a striking character, smart, confident and competent she is a pleasure to spend time with. Malcolm Fletcher is a wonderfully ambiguous villain,his version of justice has a dangerous attraction. It is Jonathan Hale, grieving father of the first murdered girl, who emerges as the most interesting character in the book. He is trapped in the horrible ripples of grief and his presence places a strong focus on the victims, which adds great weight and depth to the crimes.
The two victims who are given space are allowed to be considerably more than breasts and screams, they fight and struggle to escape and to maintain their independence. Chris Mooney puts his cast through the wringer, the grip of the book comes from the fact that the cast make us care about it. A great read.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Rainbow Orchid. Volume Two. Garen Ewing (Writer and Art). Egmont (2010)

This is a very engaging and highly enjoyable comic, a really well done adventure story with a strong plot and an engaging cast.Julius Chancer, Lily Lawrence and Nathaniel Crumpole fly to India in pursuit of the fabled Rainbow Orchid. They need it to win a foolish bet made by Lily Lawrence's father with the very unscrupulous Urkaz Grope. Grope has dispatched Evelyn Crow, along with some assorted thugs, to stop Julius by any means possible. The multiple threads of the plot are explored in more detail, the reveals are nicely staged and the story is advanced in a very entertaining fashion.
The art is lovely, while Garen Ewing has a very distinctive style, he has a great range with his cast, each person is distinct and their actions are clear and crisp. The level of detail is very welcome, the physical context for the action is always very well judged and gives a great depth and weight to the story. The structure of the story is excellent, the plot lines are clearly laid out, the explanations are woven into the narrative in a very natural way.
Julius Chancer is a engaging hero, impulsive and brave, he is given a credible back story and time to have some doubts. He is not a superhero and the story gains greatly from his competent humanity. Evelyn Crow is a wonderful villain, her implacable and stylish energy creates the central tension in the story. None of the others in the cast are shortchanged, everyone is given enough space and content to make an impression without crowding the story too much. Garen Ewing has managed a very difficult balancing act between action and character, speed and plot density all delivered with sparkling art, a pleasure.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fallen Idols. Neil White. AVON (2007)

This is a gripping thriller with a superbly structured narrative, solid plot and a very engaging cast. When someone kills two top Premier League stars in public in public, and brutally kills any witnesses as well, freelance reporter Jack Garett sees an opportunity. The top Premier star, David Watts comes from the same town as Jack, Turners Fold and Jack sees a chance to write a profile of Watts and returns home to do so. At the same time David Watts is pulled into the killings in a brutally direct way and struggles to find a way out. The reveals are brilliantly set up, the pace is fast and frequently furious, the cast vivid and sharply alive.
The narrative structure of the book is superb, the shifts between the cast are cleverly calculated to push action forward in a very effective and surprising ways. The plot moves at a great pace and none of the cast lie down under their fate. All of them struggle and attempt to exert control over a situation that they are not sure about. This active cast is tremendous, it gives the story great forward momentum and allows Neil White to switch the story frequently without loosing any narrative force.
There is a slightly clunky plot device used in the book, it does not distract from the story, it undermined a reveal without destroying it. There is a slight gap in explaining the path that lead directly to the actions that drive the plot, an under explained transition from one state of being to another for a key cast member. It is a tribute to the story that it stays long enough in the readers mind for these issues to arise at all. Sharp, very violent and compelling, a pleasure.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spider Trap. Barry Maitland. EuroCrime (2006)

A very enjoyable police procedural, with a strong plot and a very engaging cast. The discovery of two murdered girls leads by accident to the discovery of three skeletons buried on some wasteland. The investigation is headed by Detective Chief Inspector David Brock and Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla. The investigation soon find that the old crime may have links to a very dangerous criminal, Spider Roach. Brock had encountered Roach before and realises just how difficult his potential involvement could make the investigation. An officer on loan from the Special Branch is making life complicated for Kathy Kolla. The plot unfurls very nicely, the reveals are cleverly staged, the violent set piece at the climax is slightly out of place with the rest of the book, the final conclusion is grimly effective.
This is a really well structured book, Barry Maitland gives his large cast a very significant problem and they attempt to resolve it is credible and gripping ways. Spider Roach is a malign shadow, manipulating events from the shadows and rarely taking a direct route when an indirect one gets a result. DCI Brock and DS Kolla are trying to manage an investigation within the constraints of the police force while not stepping on one of Roach's landmines. The threads of the two investigations, the two murdered girls and the skeletons, mix and overlap in interesting ways.
One of the pleasures of the book is the way the extended cast, including a local, black MP are drawn into the plot and the scale of Spider Roach's reach starts to become apparent.With such a ferocious, clever villain at the heart of the plot gives the book great momentum, Brock & Kolla have to be smart, imaginative and resourceful to deal with him. They and the book are all that and more, a pleasure.