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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.