Search This Blog

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Prince. Rory Clements. John Murray (2011)

An engaging and enjoyable historical thriller. In London in 1593 there is considerable discontent at the influx of Dutch (Protestant) refugees fleeing Spanish (Catholic) armies and likely death. The refugees are a disturbing element in the city, they are a focus for discontent and a series of gunpowder bombings occur that are clearly targeted at the refugees. One of the bombings kills the wife of intelligence agent John Shakespeare, however he is directed away from investigating the bombings to investigate an equally potent but much subtler threat to the peace of Elizabeth 1’s kingdom.
 A Spanish nobleman appears to have information which would be very important to the English government and Shakespeare is sent to negotiate for it. He continues to investigate the bombings as well and finds that they may have very dangerous connections. The story unwinds very neatly, the elements draw together very smartly to deliver a very strong conclusion.
Rory Clements uses the context for more than set dressing, the political and social circumstances in England and Europe in 1593 when the struggle between Protestant England and Catholic Spain was fierce as Europe started to divide across religious lines that directly threatened existing political structures, is crucial to the story. The plot arises directly and naturally from the conflict and is very cleverly structured to capture a very wide range of the forces at work.
John Shakespeare has  been given a problem, a very tight and consuming story problem, a direct conflict between his personal desires and his professional requirements. This is a staple of the genre because it offers tremendous story possibilities, if used as well as Rory Clements does. The difficulty is that the character becomes a function of the plot rather than the plot being driven by the actions of the character. John Shakespeare is a strong enough character that he is not overshadowed by the plot, the anger he feels at his loss and his genuine loyalty to Protestant England provide strong enough motivation to be the driver of the story.
The way that the various strands of the story play out, the hunt for the gunpowder plotters, the Spanish nobleman’s secret and the murder of Christopher Marlowe all are used is very impressive. The supporting cast, with one significant exception is compelling and full of life. The villain of the piece is clever, competent and very committed, he is a genuine opponent for John Shakespeare and this benefits the story greatly. There is one cast member who is a simple plot requirement, they are used to solve some plot requirements and cannot escape to independent life. Rory Clements does his best to disguise the problem but the character is trapped by the plot.
Rory Clements supports the genre requirements with care and force and uses the context to give the story addition and very welcome substance. A really good read.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Shadow Woman. Ake Edwardson (Writer), Per Carlsson (Translation) Penguin Books (2010)

A gripping and very engaging crime story that executes a brilliantly simple idea to astonishing effect. A woman is found murdered in Gothenburg and Inspector Winter leads the investigation. There is a simple and devastating problem for the investigation, the identity of the victim remains elusive. Lacking an identity for the victim the investigation is stuck in neutral gear as all the obvious lines of inquiry are locked without a clear identification. The investigation becomes a problem as the lack of a clear focus put increasing pressure on the team and Winter in particular. As the information is painstaking gathered a second story starts to emerge and the awful weight of the past returns to inflict damage in the present.
 Ake Edwardson takes a very bold step by placing a hole in the centre of the investigation, as much as it distracts and distorts the investigation it has the potential to distract and distort the flow of the story. This does not happen because Inspector Winter retains a powerful and credible focus on identifying the victim and establishing what happened to her. This focus is what provides the momentum for the story that would otherwise be provided by the natural activity of the investigation. The space created by the lack of an identity is not wasted, it is filled by the rest of the cast who have identity related problems of their own, in particular rising racial tensions in the city.
Inspector Winter is a very engaging lead character, committed, very competent and facing a crucial life choice that he would much rater evade, he refuses to abandon the anonymous victim to her fate. Crucial information is allowed to emerge in understated ways that slowly start to pull a picture into focus and make sense of a fractured narrative that finally gives considerable force to the the deeply sad and inevitable resolution.
The plot mechanics are superb, quietly building up to a gripping conclusion as the threads of past crimes start to knit with present ones and a tangled story emerges. The pieces are very carefully arranged and delivered as the scattered information starts to clearly lead in a single direction. Without fanfare Ake Edwardson develops the story in unexpected directions that never seem to be there just for the plot, they all tend to the final end.
Per Carlsson's transparent translation is invisible to the reader. The story is clearly and consistently Swedish, the English never distances the reader from this essential aspect to the story, the ebb and flow of the story are completely natural.
Understated crime is very hard to manage successfully, the possibility that the dramatic tension will drop is always present, Ake Edwardson provides a masterclass in how to to be quiet and deeply engaging at the same time while never loosing sight of the genre requirements.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Deputy. Victor Gischler. Tyrus Books (2010)

A very gripping and highly entertaining modern Western that updates and uses a classic Western story framework with tremendous skill and biting black humour. Toby Sawyer is a part-time  deputy police officer in the very small town of Coyote Crossing, Oklahoma who is hoping to be moved to a full time position to help him support his wife and baby. On a night that starts with him being assigned to stand guard over the dead body of a local troublemaker, Toby finds that there is no situation so bad that it cannot very quickly become much worse. A sharply building escalation that finally leads to a classic Western confrontation leaves Toby with nothing to depend upon but himself, something he has strenuously avoided all his life. The action is superb, the reveals are cunningly staged to reveal and conceal at the same time as the superb plot mechanics drive the story forward.
Victor Gischler makes a number of very smart story choices that allow him use a Western  story structure without  breaking it, in this way he can use the tremendous strengths of the framework to deliver the story. The first and most important aspect to get credibly right is isolation, in a classic Western setting this was easy, communication was essential limited and by simply cutting a telegraph wire, isolation was achieved. These days isolation is considerably more difficult to credibly pull off, Victor Gischler has done so with considerable and nicely understated flair. Coyote Crossing is a small town far from any major centre of commerce or communication, far enough away and small enough that it does not have mobile phone coverage. By staging the action at night in a small town that does not give its residents may reasons to be active at night and isolation arises naturally and effectively. Toby is increasingly forced to rely on himself as the already limited resources he has become steadily compromised and the requirement to grasp control rather than just respond become more urgent.
The second problem is the villain of the piece, in a small town in the middle of nowhere what could be a big enough problem to drive the story with enough credible momentum? A very neat solution is revealed, cleverly unexpected and very credible it is serious and dangerous enough to drive the action that is unleashed. This is critical as the cascade of violence that takes place over the course of the night needs a very serious motive to make it more than set dressing.
The whole story rests squarely on Toby Sawyer and he comfortably carries it as he slowly becomes himself across the events of the night. Somewhat trapped in Coyote Crossing and struggling to do his best with the situation, Toby is really uncommitted to his life, the most significant relationship in his life is to his baby son. Toby is living on the hope of better things rather than actively working for them, he is conscious of the increasing need to do so. As events drive him into a corner and he has to actively participate or die Toby finds himself considerably more resilient and determined than he thought. One of the consistent pleasures of the book is the undertow of surprise that Toby experiences as he finds himself rising to desperate challenges rather than drowning in them. Toby is not transformed, he simply asserts himself.
Toby is a likable character, quietly engaging and constantly credible and happily surrounded by a vivid cast of walk-ons and truly memorable villains. The chief villain may not be biggest reveal in the story, they do fulfill final story requirement for a Western. They are a genuine opponent for the lead character, they pose moral and physical problems for the hero, they capture the truly corrosive nature of greed. The Deputy is great fun, a great Western and a equally compelling contemporary crime story, a wonderful mix and a pleasure to read.