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Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Golden Calf. Helene Tursten. Laura A. Wideburg (Translation). Soho Crime (2003)

A very enjoyable Swedish police procedural. A man is found murdered in a his very expensive house, his wife was a partner in a very high profile failed dot com enterprise. When two further victims are found the connections to among all of the the victims start to accumulate. Inspector Irene Huss is assigned to the case and the investigation leads directly into the welter of greed and pursuit of massive financial returns that underlay the dot com bubble. The investigation is very well set up, the leads are plausible, the reveals are very well staged and the final unraveling is thoughtful and satisfying.
The plot mechanics are really well set up, the excesses of the dot com which seem so astonishing in retrospect were entirely self perpetuating in the heat of the scramble for the new frontier of commerce and consumers money. Helene Tursten uses this background very convincingly to draw a very tight plot around an group of sufficiently unscrupulous people who rode the wave of investment money for all it was worth. The consequences of the the bursting of the bubble and the way that so much money simply evaporated are neatly followed through.
The cast are a pleasure to spend time with, Irene Huss is competent, confident, successfully married and a working mother. She is making all the aspects of her life work with the support of her family and a willingness to get on with her life as it comes to her. The rest of the cast are given room to breathe and express themselves, their professional and domestic lives are not spectacular, they provide enough detail to lift them up and give them enough depth to engage the reader.
With a central character as calmly competent as Irene Huss the book is rather low key, the internal conflict in an investigation that is a feature of the genre is absent. The reader has to be pulled into the story by the suggestive details of the plot and the cast. Helene Tursten has considerable confidence in her writing that lets the story work for itself and the reader is quietly and very firmly engaged by the writing without ever being battered by it. The story is never slow, it is always in motion either professionally or domestically and the balance between the two is natural and strong. There is room for the reader to slip fully into the story and enjoy the unraveling of the plot as it twists and uncoils in a unexpected and satisfying way.
The translation by Laura A. Wideburg manages the tricky task of appearing to be both the first language of the story and keeping it clearly and naturally a Swedish context. First rate crime fiction.

Relics of the Dead. Ariana Franklin. Bantam Books (2009)

A very engaging and enjoyable historical mystery. In 1176 two skeletons are discovered in Glastonbury, one of the holiest sites in England and reputed to be the burial place of King Arthur. Henry II needs to establish the truth about the skeletons, they could provide a rallying point for the Welsh against his expanding rule. Henry sends Adelia Aguilar, the woman he calls his Mistress of the Art of Death to investigate. Adelia travels reluctantly and in the company of a friend who is trying to secure her inheritance from her husband's family. Adelia arrives at Glastonbury, which had  suffered a  recent major fire and starts her investigation. The reveals are cleverly set up and the plot uncoils in happily unexpected ways. The threads are deftly pulled together to a sharp and deeply satisfactory conclusion.
For any historical mystery context is critical, it has to be convincing and not obtrusive, Ariana Franklin manages this with tremendous confidence and skill. She spends very little time explaining anything, confident that the reader will pull the information from the context. This brings the reader very quickly into the story and the cast make the context work for them. The plot mechanics are in tune with the context, they could not simply be transferred to an alternative context. They catch the political and social dynamics of the time and this gives them weight and impact. The multiple threads of the story are all used imaginatively and carefully, each has a pay-off that does not distract or side track the story.
The cast are tremendous, they are full of energy and down to the smallest walk on part all demand the readers attention. Adriana Franklin takes an enjoyable risk by having a female lead, one who was trained in a foreign university and who travels with a Arabic attendant. This gives Adelia enough distance from the context to be able to investigate it with fewer preconceptions, it also creates the risk of plausibility. A woman challenging powerful men in a such a context could just feel like wishful thinking. Adriana Franklin avoids this due to her talent and craft, the precarious situation that Adelia occupies is always clear, her strength of character is also vivid and carries her forward. She is smart, competent, brave and frail all at the same time, she has the warmth and strength to make her utterly believable and to bring the story to glowing life.
With such a strong central character, the rest of the cast have the room to push forward as well and the dangerous situations that arise have a menace and force that they need. A pleasure to read.

Friday, July 29, 2016

First Frost. James Henry. Corgi Books (2011)

A very enjoyable and entertaining crime story. Denton, a town in England in 1981 is facing a series of armed robberies and the threat of IRA bombs. When a Detective Inspector goes missing, Detective Sargent Jack Frost is assigned the case of a young girl who goes missing from a department store. The investigation is pursued in an unpredictable fashion as Jack Frost follows the leads in his own fashion. When the missing Inspector is located the problems increase and the the threads of the story are neatly pulled together.
This is billed as a prequel to the DI Jack Frost stories written by R.D. Wingfield, the problem is that this is not really true. The cast have the same names and the same context, they are also appreciably not the same cast as those in the original stories. This is not a problem, the cast, context and plot all stand clearly on their own and are strong enough to support a new direction. R.D.Wingfield's Jack Frost had a dark spark, there was a genuinely sharp edge to him, it was part of the striking confidence that R.D.Wingfield had a writer that his leading character was essentially unpleasant and unsympathetic. James Henry's Jack Frost does not have the same shadows, he is scruffy and undisciplined, sharing much more in common with the character from the television series than from the books.
The plot mechanics are very well constructed, the rabies alert sub plot is superb, an apparent dark joke that subtly become something much more substantial. The bigger plot regarding the missing police inspector and the armed robberies is very well paced, the reveals are cunningly set up and the criminals are tough and competent. The IRA bombing campaign in the UK is used with care and smart timing.
Jack Frost is an engaging character, in the throes of a failing marriage and a significant problem to his superiors, he is also a capable and thoughtful investigator. The supporting cast are all given the time and space to make an impact, Superintendent Mullet is not played for laughs or as entirely incompetent. He takes all the opportunities to be ridiculous that he is given, at the same time he is treated with a degree of sympathy that allows him to breathe. There is a large cast in the story and it greatly benefits from the multiple perspectives. They create possible story possibilities that can be explored further and develop the individual context for the series very strongly.
This is a book that should step out of the shadow of the Detective Inspector Jack Frost and embrace the career of Detective Sergeant Jack Frost (no relation) and strike off on its own path. It has the depth to do.

Death at the Priory. Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England.James Ruddick. Atlantic Books (2001)

A very engaging and enjoyable study of a famous,unsolved, murder in April 1876. Charles Bravo died at his home, The Priory in in Belham, south of London, he had been poisoned and suffered days of agony before he died. The murder could only have been committed by someone in the house at the time, no one was identified, charged or convicted. The death of Charles Bravo has retained the enduring appeal of unsolved mysteries and James Ruddick examines the details of the case and offers a solution.
Florence Campbell married Alexander Ricardo in 1864 , Alexander died in 187 leaving Florence a wealthy widow. Florence married Charles Bravo, a barrister, in  December 1875, he was dead five months later.
James Ruddick carefully fills in the details of the context for Florence Campbell's life as a woman in Victorian England, as a daughter and a wife she was essentially always someone else's property which a very limited say in the control and management of her own life. When her marriage to Alexander Ricardo broke down in 1870 and she returned to her father's house, he insisted that she return to her husband. Control of her money was a key problem in her short marriage to Charles Bravo.In the interval between the death of Alexander Ricardo and her marriage to Charles Bravo Florence had an affair with a very prominent doctor, James Gully, that was discovered and created very considerable social problems for Florence.
James Ruddick then looks at the details of the death of Charles Bravo, he took some days to day and was attended by some of the most famous doctors of the day as well as the inquest which followed his death, which was followed with enormous interest by the public as the scandalous details of Florence's affair with Dr Gully were revealed. No one was found to be responsible for Charles Bravo's murder.
The second half of the book is the investigation that James Ruddick undertook into the case and the conclusion that he came to. The details are very well laid out and the new information that he has uncovered very interesting. The conclusion that he reaches is very plausible and well considered. The only problem with it is the certainty that James Ruddick delivers it with. The events in the murder of Charles Bravo are too far gone to allow for anything more than a decision based on the balance of probability, on that basis his conclusion is very strongly possible and is very persuasive. James Ruddick pushes a little too hard for his proposal, in am imperfect world there should always be room for doubt.
This is a fascinating and very sympathetic account of the life of a very unfortunate woman who found that her limited life choices had very severe consequences, for herself and for others who were trapped by the events at the Priory. The historical and social details of the context are clearly explained and the investigation itself is thorough and intriguing.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Chess-Masters 1 & 2. Bradley Golden, Gary McClendon (Writers), Marcelo Salza (Art & Letters), Geraldo Filho (Colours). Insane Comics (2015/2016)

An enjoyable and engaging superhero comic. Chess-Masters are a superhero group from the 25th century pulled back to 21st century New York by a super villain, the Pawn Master. The Pawn Master has set up the Chess-Masters  as invaders and they arrive to a hostile reception, the results of which which nicely reinforces thier status with the 21 century authorities. The Chess-Masters  find a very unexpected host in New York and links to a greater enemy than the Pawn Master. A direct confrontation with the Pawn Master has a very unhappy outcome.
Bradley Golden and Gary McClendon have set up a solid superhero story with a great many possible story directions. The elements of a superhero story have all be assembled  very nicely, a superhero group is pulled out of their native context and face a consequential threat. The time travel element is used effectively to support the story structure, the supervillians are suitably smart and effective, they present a genuine problem to the Chess-Masters. The team themselves diverse enough to give some room for dynamic interactions and any story that uses Excalibur credibly has a strong creative force behind it.
What is missing is the depth of confidence that a superhero story requires to gain momentum, there is a little too much telling instead of showing. The Chess-Masters  are African- American and Bradley Golden and Gary McClendon feel no need to explain their deliberate confident choice. That confidence falters when it comes to the superheroics, they are delivered nicely, they are also glossed and explained by the cast in case the reader does not read the situation. Readers of superhero comics are expert at reading situations like this, what they want is to be trusted to do so. The writers have set up the boundaries of the story with flair, now they need the confidence to unleash stories that put the Chess-Masters  in into situations that test them severely and can be solved only by the thoughtful application of their superpowers. This is the the thrill that superhero comics deliver.
Marcelo Salza's art is a pleasure to read, the panel layouts are used with imagination and care to structure the story beats to maximum effect. There is no modesty about the Chess-Masters  or the Pawn Master, they are larger than life and they act it. They dominate the action when it is required and are suitable to the context in the quiet times. The expressions and body language are slightly exaggerated and eloquent, a superhero comic need a slight exaggerated tone all the time to allow for the crescendo of the action to fit. The art makes the context realistic for superhero action which is a considerably harder task to achieve than it might seem. The whole context has to play to the concept. Marcelo Salza has drawn the superheros and villain as recognisably human forms, they look fit and strong rather than grotesque which strongly supports the story. The lettering is quiet and easy to read, it is so naturally part of the panels that it is almost unseen which is no mean feat.
I love the sound effects, like the sound track to an action film, superhero sound effects are vital and the Chess-Masters  has brilliant sound effects. Big, loud and utterly attention grabbing that swing the action right at the reader with the abandon that superhero action needs.
Geraldo Filho's colours are a match for the story and the art, they are bold and sharp, they bring out the details of the cast and the context giving them a solid physical presence and weight.
The creative team behind Chess-Masters clearly understand the mechanics of superhero comics, if they trust themselves and their readers a little more they will make a very enjoyable comic into an superb one.
Chief Wizard Note: These are review copies very kindly sent by Bradley Golden. Chess-Masters are available from Good comics like Chess-Masters are the clinically proven origin for superpowers of increased joy in living, you should try this for yourself.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Alien Hand Syndrome 2. Justin Capello (Writer & Art) Insane Comics (2016)

An enjoyable and engaging second issue that pushes the story forward very nicely. Jet who broke into the facility was wounded by the super-soldier Twelback and is in a bad way. Twelback is annoyed and intrigued by the break-in and the action and he talks about the situation with two other visitors. Jet, Wheelie and Dr. Polaski fee in their flying Plymouth and Jet has a flashback to the start of their involvement with aliens. This issue has to solve the problem of providing a lot of information (not too much however) to the reader without losing the momentum of the story and it manages this very well.
Justin Cappello solves the problem of talking heads in a comic at the facility by having interesting talking heads and putting some bite into the conversation between the three. The action sequence where the final stages of the break-in are detailed by Twelback are very well done, the figures are a little stiff but the energy is present and the action has clear physical weight and impact on the cast. The very far from heroic previous lives of Jet and Wheelie are nicely caught as the frustration with their lives and limited circumstances start to press on them. A unexpected encounter on a dark forest road clearly marks the start of a new direction in their lives.
A enjoyable part of the story is the way that Justin Cappello hoards the information, clearly there are extensive back stories to to the cast that get alluded to without drowning the reader in information. The story possibilities are very well set up and create multiple possibilities for the future direction of the story.
The black and white art is lovely and a pleasure to read, the cast are distinctive and very expressive, the faces and body language are very strong. The background details are impressive, the problem is that they two do not fully integrate with each other, the cast can look as though they are resting on the background context rather than in it. Personally I find white lettering on a black background to be a bit hard to read, I have to pay more attention to it than I want and it can pull me a little out of the story.
Minor quibbles aside this is greatly enjoyable, thoughtful science fiction that balances action with character development and sets up story possibilities that engage the reader. There is a nice big story here that Justin Cappello is confidently delivering.
Chief Wizard Note: This is a review copy very kindly sent by Justin Cappello. Alien Hand Syndrome will be available from at the start of August. You should pick up a copy, good science fiction comics are clinically proven to increase happiness and contentment.