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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dublin Dead. Gerard O'Donovan. Sphere (2011)

Very entertaining Irish crime story with very smart plot mechanics and an engaging cast. A request from the Spanish police regarding a murder victim starts Detective Inspector Mike Mulcahy on an investigation leads to unexpected places. Journalist Siobhan Fallon, recovering from a horrifying attack, is covering the funeral of a suicide when she picks up the threads of another story regarding a missing woman. Both Mulchay and Fallon pursue their investigations separately and find that they may have unexpected and very dangerous connections. The reveals are very cleverly staged, the action is tense and satisfying and the climax is gripping and very satisfying.
Along side the very well thought out plot mechanics Gerard O'Donovan makes a number of very smart choices in the book, all of which pay off. The first is that Mike Mulcahy has no serious personality defect nor any dominant flaw that both drives him and is the source of his effectiveness at his job. He is a committed, professional police officer who works really hard with his team to push forward with his investigation. While he does stretch his bureaucratic constraints to a satisfying maximum he does so for an entirely credible reason. Also his boss is competent, generally supportive and smart, pretty much what someone who becomes a senior professional officer would probably be.
Siobhan Fallon is a very well realised recovering victim of an enormous trauma who is trying to restore her life and finds that work is the best way to that. It gives her investigation a personal edge and urgency which allows her to pursue the story past the point where it has become dangerous and not seem to be driven by plot requirements. Her search for a missing woman is a search for her missing self, made clear with a light touch that gives a necessary urgency without poking the reader in the eye.
Gerard O'Donovan uses the plot a chance to have a sharp look at the greed that tumbled Ireland in political and economic austerity, the clever knot at the heart of the book is woven from huge, criminal  greed, the lesser versions also get a look in. This sharply realised context provides a great platform for the action. Top notch crime fiction.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Rounding The Mark. Andrea Camilleri. Stephen Sartarelli (Translator) Picador (2006)

Wonderfully engaging Sicilian crime story that is drenched in atmosphere and with superb plot mechanics. Inspector Salvo Montalbano takes a swim to shake off the depressing feelings that have been plaguing him. He bumps into a dead body and bring it ashore. The body proves to be a murder victim, the identification is very difficult and the only likely possibility was already dead before the likely murder date for the watery body. Montalbano assists at the processing of a  boatload of illegal immigrants and helps return one to his mother. A short while later the immigrant boy is the victim of a traffic accident and the misgivings that Montalbano had at the time return in full force. The quiet investigation he launches leads to some very brutal criminals and some unexpected revelations. The reveals are superbly stages, the plot mechanics cunning constructed and the conclusion satisfying.
Andrea Camilleri has managed the very difficult feat of delivering a wholly satisfying crime story that is also a biting commentary on politics and society in Italy and Sicily. The story carries off both with wit and grace thanks to the glorious Salvo Montalbano, a man who is utterly a professional policeman and a man with a open heart. Montalbano as vivid and forceful as the Sicilian context he works in. The countryside and the atmosphere of Sicily pervade the book, they ground it wholly and give the actions of the cast force and weight.
The action is delivered with a light touch and Montalbano is never dour or grim, he is too busy enjoying his friends and relishing his food for that. This lightness cleverly hides the chilly darkness of the plot that slowly comes into view and as Montalbano's anger develops in response to it the reader is drawn into the human scale of the brutality. This is the strength of the story, the crimes have a ordinary scale, carried out by humans who have no care for others only for greed. The victims are remembered by Montalbano and they are contrasted with the society and systems that failed them. The anger is controlled by Montalbo's professionalism. Andrea Camilleri can see and enjoy the splendor and generosity of Sicily without ever forgetting the dark veins that run close to the surface. The balance he achieves makes this outstanding book a serious pleasure.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Golem. Chris Kent (Writer & Artist). Graphite Fiction (2013)

 Very striking art and a quiet, strong story combine to deliver an intriguing comic. In 18987 Alfred Larchmont, a stage magician at a small theatre has a family and debts that are pressing strongly on him. He receives a message that he has been left conjuring equipment by a fellow magician. Alfred is set up by the theatre manager and two other performers and finds himself being blackmailed by them after his act goes horribly wrong. At the end of his tether Alfred remembers the gift and investigates it, finding a mysterious mannequin in the chest. This mannequin proves to be the Golem, a clay figure brought to life by magic, Alfred hopes that the Golem will prove to be a new act that will rescue him. The story moves quietly and forcefully as Alfred Larchmont and the Golem fight back against those who betrayed him.
Chris Kent has made a very dramatic artistic choice in this book, the art is done entirely in grey pencil, it looks a little like woodcuts at times. It is not at all fluid or naturalistic, it is explicitly flat and overwhelming. The backgrounds of the panels are filled in by pencil cross hatching, the figures are presented at odd angles, faces loom from the panels. The 9 panel grid is used throughout the story very effectively, sometimes the panels are used as parts of a bigger picture, sometimes a full pages other times two panels.
In the face of such loud art the story has a chance of being submerged, in particular as the tone of the story is consistently low key. Chris Kent had made equally bold choices with his story that allow it match with the art and  meet it on equal terms. The story is rather abrupt, with a grim slightly surreal quality  that artfully recalls the stories of Kafka without ever shouting the comparisons. The story is delivered without a context, it operates solely on its own terms and its own logic. It is this that allows the story meet the art and not be overwhelmed by it, the story is as abrupt as the art, the unsettling atmosphere needs a unsettling style to bring it out so that The Golem can work. A creature of magic, it would unbalance a more conventional means of telling the story and become the centre of the story rather than the human cast.
The motives of the cast in their actions against Alfred Larchmont seem out of proportion to what they want to achieve, they should undermine the story and any hint of realism would ensure that they do so, there would need to a more convincing set up. The art lets Chris Kent get away with very abrupt storytelling and the abrupt story telling gives the art a focus and intent it needs.
A very individual artistic imagination is at work in The Golem, Chris Kent has taken considerable risks and they have strongly paid off, memorable and unexpected, a pleasure.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Chris Kent. The Golem  can be bought at Forbidden Planet, Glasgow and Edinburgh and directly from the website,

The Stone Cutter. Camilla Lackberg, Steven T. Murray (Translator). HarperCollins (2010)

A gripping Swedish crime story that traces the impact of selfishness of every degree on a varied and engaging cast. In the small town of  Fjallbacka the body a young girl is pulled from sea by a fisherman,the postmortem reveals that it was murder not an accidental death. Detective Patrik Hedstrom leads the investigation which leads to to the girl's family, neighbors and closer to home. The plot mechanics are superb, the reveals are wonderfully staged and the final reckoning is as cold and dark as an night in the Arctic.
Camilla Lackberg has a wonderfully confident control of the story, using an extended cast and a long flashback that curl around each other until they finally touch with a savage understanding of how the past has driven the present. The cast are really well drawn, the smallest walk on part is given the same care and attention as the major player. Patrik Hedstron, a new father coping with the the complete upheaval of his life and trying to understand the new landscape he is in with his partner Erica while managing the investigation. Erica is trying to come to terms with being a mother and what it means to and for her, her friend Charlotte is the mother of the murdered child and has serious domestic problems of her own.
As the lives of the cast come under increased scrutiny and pressure they respond in very credible ways and begin to question long term choices and to re-assess their lives. Those who are capable of emotional movement are given the time and space to make new choices. Those who are set in selfishness get to follow their choices down to the bitter bleak ends they have made for themselves. Looming over the rest of the cast is an astonishing portrait of  monumental, poisonous selfishness that methodically distorts and consumes every other life that she is involved with.
The rest of the cast are measured against this character as she moved through the past and slowly into the present, her actions slowly setting the context for the events in the present. Camilla  Lackberg makes an intriguing choice with this character in comparison to the rest of the cast. She is an unbridled monster who sows destruction everywhere she goes, yet she carries the slightest of the consequences handed out to the others. The rest of the cast of fallible, weak and inherently selfish characters all suffer much greater consequences for their actions that she does. The sheer depth of her greed for self leaves no room for any sense of error or transgression, the rest of the cast have inklings, however vague, of the wrongs that have done. This gives their punishment a sharp edge that can actually cut into them.
A nice line of sharp humour keep the book from being unreadablely bleak and the way that the invincible self-regard of one of the cast is actually rewarded is a clever counterpoint to the main threads of the story. The translation by Steven T. Murray is transparent, this is clearly an Swedish story and cultural context, it reads in English without any distance, the reader is pulled directly in the lives and context of the cast.