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review 2019-05-08 14:31
A masterful new Victorian mystery series.
The Head In The Ice: A Bowman Of The Yard Investigation - Richard James

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel ahead of its publication.

From the moment I read the description of this novel, a few weeks before its publication, I knew I’d end up reading it. I love mysteries, have been reading historical fiction in recent times and with my background in criminology, a mysterious murder set in the Victorian era ticked many boxes. To top it all, the main character, and the protagonist of the series, Inspector Bowman, had been in a lunatic asylum. As I’m also a psychiatrist and have read and enjoyed books looking back at the history of psychiatry, this was a further inducement, if I needed one. Of course, the title and the cover of the book worked in its favour.

I’ll try not to dwell too much on the story and the plot itself, to avoid spoilers, but I can tell you the book is a fine mystery that lived up to my expectations, and even surpassed them in many ways.

The style of the story and the way is told put me in mind of watching a movie (or a play, which I know is a genre the author is very familiar with, although here we have many more settings than in a standard play). The author uses an omniscient point of view, and that means that readers get to see scenes and events from a variety of characters’ perspectives (and not only the good guys either), and sometimes also from a neutral observer’s point of view (that works particularly well to set the scene and also to keep the mystery going, while at the same time offering readers some snippets of information that Bowman and his team do not have). That is an excellent method to avoid revealing too much while offering the readers great insights into the characters’ thoughts and motivations, but I know not everybody likes stories told this way, and I’d advise people to check a sample of the book to see if it is a good fit, in case of doubt. Personally, I did not find the way the story was told at all confusing, although due to the nature of the case and to the many characters, it is necessary to pay close attention and make sure not to miss any details. (Perhaps adding a cast of characters might help readers get their bearings quickly).

In some books that type of point of view might result in difficulty getting attached to any of the characters, but I did not think that was the case here. Although we get many points of view, the main one we follow is that of the Bowman, and because the inspector is the first character we meet, and in pretty difficult circumstances (he is a resident at a lunatic asylum just about to go in front of the board that must decide if he’s ready for his release), we quickly establish a connection with him. He is a sympathetic and intelligent character, who has suffered a personal tragedy that has resulted in mental health difficulties (nowadays, I’d say he would be diagnosed, most likely, with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), and who tries hard to get on with his life, despite his anxiety, flashbacks, and the complex and emotionally challenging nature of his work. He is not the perfect and flawless here, but a human being with flaws and weaknesses. His flashbacks, the physical symptoms he experiences, and his fragile mental state are well drawn and are, for me, one of the strongest points of the book. I also enjoyed the depiction of the asylum and its therapies, far from the ones we often see and read about in popular media that seem right out of a horror movie. There are other characters to root for as well, although not quite as fleshed out as Bowman, and even some of the baddies are individualised enough for readers to get a fair idea of who they are.

The novel also succeeds at creating a picture of the London of the era, the atmosphere of the different neighbourhoods, the asylum, Scotland Yard, the underworld, without going overboard with descriptions and details or slowing the action. It is a compelling and historically accurate portrayal of a time, and one that goes beyond the anecdotal to dig deeper into some of the unsavoury aspects of the era.

The plot is gripping, and we visit upper-middle-class locations, pubs, sewers, cemeteries, bridges, a lunatic asylum, a ship, Bengal, and we get to learn about laudanum, poisons, laws, Victorian trade, weapons, the criminal underworld of the era (including murders, robberies, prostitution…), and although we learn enough information to get suspicious about the guilty party (or parties) fairly early on, there are quite a few twists and turns, strange goings on, and we don’t get to understand how it all fits together until close to the end (we might have our suspicions but…). There are some red herrings thrown in, and even a suggestion of the supernatural. All in all, the atmosphere, the characters, and the plot, work well to create a solid story, a great opening to a new series of Victorian mysteries, and one that allows us to examine the laws, mores and morality of the era.

If I had to take issue with anything, other than the point of view that I think works well but some readers might not feel comfortable with, I felt that, at times, some of the experiences, tics, and behaviours characters engage in (clearing one’s throat, blowing smoke into someone’s face, etc.) are repeated fairly often, and that put me in mind of stage directions or business that actors have to engage in to indicate certain traits of a character, which might not be as relevant or necessary when we can share in their thoughts directly. I did not find it distracting and, like some of the side stories, I felt they helped readers catch their breath and regroup, but those who prefer stripped down and action-led plots might feel they could be slimmed down.

In sum, this is a great story that I’d recommend to those who enjoy mysteries within a historical setting (Victorian in this case), with a complex story full of compelling characters and plenty of atmosphere. I look forward to the next adventure of Inspector Bowman, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.

 

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review 2015-06-06 07:51
Drinking with the Bikies
Hell's Angels - Hunter S. Thompson

I had been meaning to read this book for quite a while; ever since a friend of mine mentioned it to me years ago. Penguin then decided to release a number of books in a new mass market format, similar to their original releases back in the early days of the company. The books that they released in this new format were inexpensive and were collected from various authors throughout history. I actually appreciated this because they selected a lot of lesser known books that I probably would not have read if I had not seen them.

 

One of the books that I grabbed was Junky by William Burroughs, and the other was this one. The reason I grabbed them because not only were they short, but they also fell into the category of 'dodgy'. I say 'dodgy' because in many ways they are not the sort of books that the average middle class reader would pick up and read, but then again the average middle class reader is likely to pick up and read airport trash (though this is not strictly the case, particularly with some of the avid readers that I know at work).

 

The opening sentence of this book captivated me, and I cannot remember it strictly especially since I do not have a copy of the book on hand. Hold it, isn't that what the internet is for? The description of the Hell's Angels rider 'like Gengis Kahn on an iron horse, a monster steed with a firey anus' simply captivated me to a point that I could not put it down. I had read Thompson before (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and I must admit that I found that book really amusing, however this was the first time that I had decided to return to his writings to see what he was like with his other books. I must admit that his style of journalism, called Gonzo Journalism, is different and refreshing.

 

Thompson takes us on a tour through what he considers to be a 'misunderstood part of American culture'. This book was written during the Vietnam War so at this stage the bikie clubs had not had their ranks filled with returning vets. However, at one point he does describe the 'Linkhorns': the indentured labourers and poor people who had come over to the United States in hope of finding a better life but never actually doing so. As such they continue to move off to the west in an attempt to better their life, which never actually comes, and instead of finding a new land and wealth for themselves, they simply fall into the dark undercurrents of the society that is developing.

 

In many cases people suggest that the Hell's Angels of this book and the Hell's Angels of today are two different organisations. I cannot vouch for that statement as my interaction with bikie gangs have been limited at best. I have known people who have been connected, and I have spoken with them about things, but myself, I have never really been involved. It is interesting though because our government seemed to take a disliking to the bikie gangs above and beyond the normal distrust. There was a section of Adelaide where they used to congregated, but the bulldozers moved in, flattened the suburb, and put up new, and more expensive, townhouses in their place. They also enacted laws (since struck down by the High Court of Australia) banning the groups and any such associations. Thank God that the High Court intervened, because I can assure you that while today it is the Hell's Angels, tomorrow it is the Greens, the Christians, and the Liberal Party Supporters.

 

It is a bit of a shame that I cannot remember this book too well, but what Thompson tries to paint is that all they really are is a misunderstood subculture. Okay, at the end they go to town on him, but as it turns out it was because he never actually told them that he was going to write a book about them and that he was researching their lifestyle. Throughout the book we are reminded of how the police go out of their way to persecute and harass, so they will be cautious nonetheless. Thus when it comes to light that Thompson is writing about them no wonder they are pissed.

 

We do go on a journey with them, and meet the bikie girls and enjoy a weekend at a lake. In many cases there seems to just be an awful lot of alcohol, but the drugs do come into the scene. We meet Ken Kesey at the end of the book having one of his massive drug parties, and in a way I was surprised to encounter this side of Kesey. I remember reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in high school and was stunned to discover that the writings of this drug fiend is being promoted in our schools. Hey, I don't particularly care, and as one friend of mine said, if 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is the worst book that schools are forcing children to read then she would be happy.

 

This is a short, well written, and entertaining book. I cannot vouch for whether it is relevant today in that much has changed over the years. I cannot even say if it is relevant to Australia. While Thompson does try to open up a 'misunderstood' subculture in America, I still note that it is a violent subculture, and I must admit that I am a delicate person who really does not like to get into fights, or at least physical fights. However, I guess this is simply the nature of males, in that when angry they lash out in anger but two days later they will be back in the same pub drinking beer. However, I'm not entirely convinced of this description, as males are also more than capable of holding grudges, and I suspect that the higher up the food chain you go, the more likely they are to hold grudges (I know I do, even though I paint it over with the veneer of respect and trust, but that is an argument and discussion for another day).

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/316584899
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review 2013-12-23 08:24
An 18th Century parody of the Italian Opera
The Beggar's Opera - John Gay

I want to give this play a high score simply because of it's context and content, and as it is one of the only satirical operas that has survived from the early 18th Century should also give this play, or more properly opera, some credit. Now, when we hear the word opera we usually thing of 'it's not over until the fat lady sings' (and then Bart Simpson going 'is she fat enough for you?') and you would actually be quite correct, because that is the type of opera that we would be thinking of in this context. In the early 18th century we see the rise in the popularity of the Italian Opera, which was mostly fat ladies singing, and dealt with heroes, villains, and mythical stories. They were basically the Hollywood blockbusters of the era.

So, along comes John Gay with an idea (which he apparently stole off of Jonathon Swift, of Gulliver's Travels fame) of making a satire of the ever popular opera. So instead of having heroes and mythical scenes, and stories dominated by the rich and powerful he instead delved into the dark and dirty streets of inner London to take us for a satirical journey through the criminal underworld. The problem is that on the page much of the satire does not actually come out, and further, since we are not familiar with the songs (though I am sure we will be familiar with the tunes) the parodying of the operatic style does not evidently come about (and while I have seen a couple of musicals – five to be exact – I have never seen an opera).

The other interesting thing that came out with this play, or at least the commentary, is how much London has changed since these days. Take for instance this place:

 

 

or this place:

 

 

which for those of us who know London know that these days is a very fashionable area, and also a very expensive place to set up residency. However, back in the days of the Beggar's Opera, this could not be farther from the truth. In fact the area around central London was a crime ridden cesspool that would result in you risking your life if you even considered wondering about after dark (or even not so much after dark). This, however, was almost three hundred years ago, so it is not surprising that London has cleaned up its act a lot, with the rise of the middle-class (as well as the establishment of John Wesley's church, whose mission was targeting the lower class residents of this area at the time).

Another thing that comes about, which I knew about anyway, but this play emphasised it so much more, is the popularity of Gin. Now, I'm a beer drinker, and as such I am generally not that well disposed to spirits, however back in those days spirits were exceedingly cheap. In fact, to some, Gin was the 18th century version of methamphetamine (though it was not illegal). The upper classes simply did not touch it (it was too cheap) and the lower classes would get excessively drunk drinking it. Also, like meth, it would be distilled in basements and apartments, and some of the product that came about was virtually poison.

The other aspect we hear about is the life of the criminal underworld. A bulk of the play takes place in Newgate Prison, and the version that I read had copious amounts of notes explaining a lot of the slang that was used. For instance, unlike today, it actually cost the criminal money to stay at Newgate, and in fact Newgate was one of the most expensive prisons in England in which to be locked up. Obviously nobody had listened to Thomas More when he wrote Utopia because the death penalty was still being imposed at the drop of a hat (though if you could quote a verse from Psalm 21 you could get off because it would suggest that you were literate). They also introduced a system of rewards for various criminals, however this led to the rise of a class known as the thief-catchers who would purposely go out and set people up so they could get the rewards (which would be paid once the thief was hung, in much the same way that rewards are offered by the police on a successful conviction).

It is interesting how there is still this belief that penal penalties (including the death penalty) deter crime, and all we have to do is to look back at this period of English history to know that this does not work. If theft brings about the death penalty, then technically nobody would steal, however a lot of people still stole, and even though it was clear that you would be hung if you were caught stealing, people would still keep on doing it (probably because they either believed that they were too smart to get caught, or they had nothing left to lose). Anyway, this is a whole field of criminology, which I don't really want to go into here because I have written enough already and want to get on and do something else now.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/794399059
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review 2012-04-26 08:54
A look inside the world of a police officer
What Cops Know - Connie Fletcher

When I saw this book I bought it because it looked interesting and when I got around to reading it I discovered it to be really interesting, though we must always remember that it is written from one point of view, and that is from that of the Chicago Police. Even then I found it remarkably enlightening to learn about law enforcement from the side of the enforcers and the dangers that they always seem to face in their job. Okay, the book is focused only on the Chicago Police Department, but it is most likely because the author had access to a number of Chicago cops who were willing to talk to her, noting that what she says at the beginning is that the police tend not to speak to outsiders about the gritty nature of their work.

The reason that I decided to write a commentary on this book was, not just because I have read it and that it had not yet been put on my list, but because after finishing a Conan story there was a passage in that particular story that triggered my memories of this book, and the since passage was of some importance that I believe I need to quote it for you to understand where I am coming from.

'You dare ask...' she begun angrily, when she felt herself snatched off her feet and crushed to the hetman's muscular breast. She fought him fiercely, with all the supple strength of her magnificent youth, but he only laughed exuberantly, drunk with the possession of this splendid creature withering in his arms.

He crushed her struggles easily, drinking the nectar of her lips with all the unrestrained passion that was his, until the arms that strained against them melted and twinged convulsively about his massive neck. Then he looked down into the clear eyes, and said 'why should not a chief of the Free People be preferable to a city-bred dog of Turan?'

She shook back her tawny locks, still tingling in every nerve from the fire of his kisses. She did not loosen her arms from around his neck.

What is happening here is that Conan is forcing himself onto a woman that is not interested in him, but by forcing himself onto her she stops resisting. While the Conan stories are set in an ancient pre-historic world, this is still what we would call rape. One may ask what does the above passage have to do with this book, and my response is 'quite a lot'. There is a chapter in this book on rape and it said a number of things that I already know about the subject (since I did study it in criminal law, and also had exposure to it when I worked in a criminal law firm). One of the ideas is that most of the rapes are done by people that the woman knows, and one of the reasons is that the rapist believes that by forcing himself upon her the woman will fall in love with him. Usually this is the result of unrequited love where the woman is rejecting the male and the male simply does not want to take no for an answer. In these cases the male believes that he is the best person for this woman and is convinced that the woman does not realise it at that time, but if he continues to pursue her and force himself onto her then she will 'wake up' and realise that he is the only guy for her. This may be true, but it does not mean that the male should try to prove it to her by physically forcing himself onto her. Sometimes in situations like these (and I know how hard it can be) the b