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review 2015-09-12 19:21
Herron goes hardboiled
Nobody Walks - Mick Herron

After a long career as an ops agent for MI-5, Tom Bettany had had enough.  He'd gone undercover for years to bust the McGarry crime organization, and that experience was a stain on the soul.  When his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he quit to be with her and their son, Liam.  After Hannah died, the estrangement from Liam that had begun during his undercover years turned to a complete split.


Bettany became a bit of a drifter, leaving England for France and taking strenuous physical jobs, like his latest one in a meat packing plant.  When he gets a call saying that Liam died from a fall from his apartment balcony, where he had been smoking a powerful new strain of marijuana called muskrat, Bettany comes home.  Not just to go to the funeral, but to find out exactly what happened.


It doesn't take much of his old intelligence skills for Bettany to figure out that Liam's death was no accident.  Now he needs to find out who is responsible and make them pay.  With no official sanction and a fierce thirst for revenge, though, Bettany's methods of investigation lack a certain subtlety.  In short order, he has problems with a whole raft of dangerous characters, including the muskrat distribution gang's kingpin, McGarry gang members, and the muscle for Liam's boss, a multi-millionaire video game creator.  And when he gets a call from MI-5, that's not good news, either.


I got to know Herron's writing in the last couple of years, when I read his Slow Horses and Dead Lions, books about a group of MI-5 agents who have been exiled from Regent's Park, where the real intelligence action is, to Slough House because of various screwups and misdeeds. These castoff agents are expected to resign at the sheer humiliation, but they're determined to hang on, distinguish themselves somehow and scrape their way back across the Thames.


The Slough House series books are terrific thrillers, stylishly written and with plenty of of cynical humor.  One running schtick is how the Slough House boss, the slovenly and casually offensive Jackson Lamb, is able to puncture the two top iron ladies at Regent's Park, Ingrid Tearney and Diana Tavener.


You definitely don't have to read the Slough House books to enjoy Nobody Walks.  It stands on its own and has a different style.  There is not much humor to be had in Tom Bettany's story.  This is a grim and gritty revenge thriller.  You can't call Bettany likable, but he's a riveting character and the story is both action-packed and thought-provoking, with plenty of twists and turns.  If this book were made into a movie––which would be a great idea––I could see Daniel Craig or Liam Neeson playing Bettany.


If you have read the Slough House books, I think you'll get a kick out of seeing the iron ladies, and you may wonder, as I do, whether Nobody Walks is the end of the Bettany story or if there will be a sequel.  And if there is a sequel, might the Slough House gang come along for the ride?

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review 2015-09-11 20:35
Hardboiled behind the Iron Curtain
Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street - Heda Margolius Kovály,Alex Zucker

After World War II, Czechoslovakia had a brief period of democracy until 1948, when it fell to a Communist coup and became a satellite of the USSR.  Like so many European Communist states during the Stalin era, party apparatchiks could suddenly find themselves accused of imaginary crimes against the state and lose their positions or even their lives.  State Security officials and their informants monitored and reported on activities of ordinary citizens, so that one never knew if co-workers, friends or even family members could be trusted not to be informers.


That’s the background of Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street.  Helena Novákova’s world is turned upside down when she loses her job at a publishing house and her husband is arrested and imprisoned as a spy. He isn’t, but truth isn’t a priority in the paranoid security state.


Now Helena is an usher at the Horizon cinema in Prague, along with several other female ushers, a manager, a concessionaire and a lone male projectionist.  When a young boy visiting the theater is murdered, all of the staff fall under official scrutiny.  There doesn’t seem to be any mystery about whodunnit, but all the other staff members still have plenty of secrets, veiled by layers of lies.


At the same time that we read about the dual lives of the various Horizon staff members, another thread is Helena’s attempts to find help for her husband.  These two threads come together in an unexpected way.  It’s intriguing, but the wrap-up is murky and strays past enigmatic to confusing.  In a few other places the writing lacks clarity.  Overall, though, I still found it a very readable and atmospheric story. 


It might seem a little strange to have a crime novel told in hardboiled style when it’s set in Prague in the 1950s, but I got used to it quickly, especially since the stripped-down bluntness of the style fits the bleak, paranoid time and place. When you find out that Kovály was herself a translator of Raymond Chandler’s books, it makes even more sense.


Knowing Kovály’s own story isn’t necessary to appreciate this stark story of pervasive falsity and fear, but I think it does add something when you know how close this was to home for her.  She and her first husband were Holocaust survivors who made it home to Prague, where her husband became an enthusiastic Communist.  He was caught up in the infamous Slánský show trials and was executed.  When you know that, Helena’s thoughts and actions are especially moving.


If you’re interested in knowing more about Kovály, her memoir is stunning.  Its title is Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, and I highly recommend it.


Note: I received a free advance copy of this book for purposes of review.

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review 2015-09-11 20:20
The PCU battles fire, murder, anarchy, corruption–––and time
Bryant and May and the Burning Man - Christopher Fowler

The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s decrepit offices are located in the City of London, that ancient square mile that was home to London’s original settlement and is now jammed full of the skyscrapers housing the metropolis’s financial institutions.


Hardly anybody lives in the square mile anymore, which makes the P in PCU seem like it should stand for Precarious at times.  The PCU has very little in the way of modern technology; nothing like the kind of assets that would allow it to combat the financial crimes that are headquartered in the square mile.


But as this twelfth book in the series begins, a case arises that is right up the PCU’s alley.  Financial shenanigans in the banking world have led to increasingly large and violent protests in the City.  One bank is firebombed, killing a homeless man dossed down under cardboard boxes in its entryway.


The PCU suspects this was murder, not accident, and their conviction is cemented when there are more murders; seemingly unconnected killings, executed in bizarre ways reminiscent of punishments common in more ancient times.  As each day passes, demonstrations against the bankers and other presumed-to-be-corrupt wealthy people escalate.  Arthur Bryant suspects that the mystery killer will take advantage of the upcoming Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day to pull off even more spectacular murders.


As always, the PCU gets no support––or even respect––from other police units.  This time, their particular nemesis is Darren “Missing” Link, who hamstrings them, ostensibly to prevent their interference with an ongoing fraud investigation.  Like everybody else, all Link sees in the PCU is a ragtag bunch of misfits, led by the spectacularly untidy and decidedly eccentric old man, Bryant.  Like the rest of the force, he just doesn’t understand that Bryant’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of London is what will make all the difference in the investigation.


Each member of the PCU faces a crossroads in this book, which gives it a bittersweet, elegiac feel.  After 12 books, the PCU members are like old friends.  I hope to see them again, but if not, I wish them well and thank Christopher Fowler for letting us know them.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2015-09-11 19:25
Plotting D, characterization B
The Slaughter Man - Tony Parsons

I was so impressed by Tony Parsons’s first Max Wolfe novel last year (titled The Murder Man in the US and The Murder Bag in the UK) that I couldn’t wait for the next one.  I love Tony Parsons’s writing style and his main character, but I had a lot of problems with the plot of The Slaughter Man.


When I began listening to the audiobook of The Slaughter Man, I smiled to hear, once again, Colin Mace’s perfect voicing of the first-person narrative.  The Detective Constable Max Wolfe character is such a good one.  A copper who knows how bad the world can be but hasn’t become completely cynical; a single father devoted to his little girl, Scout, and their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Stan; a guy who loves boxing as the sweet science, not for its brutality.  Refreshingly, Max Wolfe is an interesting guy without being an alcoholic or drug abuser.


As with The Murder Man, The Slaughter Man begins with a prologue that graphically describes a horrific crime.  In the current book, the crime is the murder of the wealthy Wood family, including father, mother and two teenage children, and the abduction of their young son.  The book’s plot takes two paths: the solution of the murderers and the attempt to find the little boy, Bradley.


As a fan of police procedurals, this plot often made me crazy.  I can’t say too much without spoilers, but I can say that it depends way too much on the fact that several (yes, several!) of the characters don’t tell what they know, and on the cops being just plain thick.  There is some fundamental sloppiness in procedure, and on multiple occasions Max wades into danger without calling for backup, even though there is time.  He escapes impossible situations and injuries that should have killed him or at least hospitalized him but, unbelievably, somehow he’s on his feet and even boxing in nothing flat.  Sheesh.


Again, I can’t say much without spoilers, but almost nothing about the Bradley plot makes sense.  On top of that, the direction that investigation takes Max is lurid and repulsive.


This was a real letdown after The Murder Man.  I like the Max Wolfe character enough to give the next book a try, but I hope Parsons will do a much better job of plotting.  I’m also hopeful he can go for a less sensationalistic murder plot, and one with less sexual violence.


Below, I’m going to post some VERY spoiler-y notes about things that bothered me in the book.  Don’t read further if you don’t want to read spoilers.


It took way too long for the police to figure out that Peter Nawkins wasn’t the murderer.  I’m not saying they should have known who the murderer was, necessarily, but that they should have doubted it was Peter.  Sometimes they seemed to realize that it probably wasn’t Peter, but then in the next scene they’d be back to being convinced he was the guy.  That was frustrating and sloppy.  And hey, since Mary Wood was raped, why was there not even a mention of a DNA screening of the sperm in her body?


Parsons makes a lot of the fact that the Wood family had recently had their driveway asphalted, but nobody else in the Garden community did.  But he never explains why they had the work done.  Was it for the sole purpose of Niles Gatling and Sean Nawkins setting up Peter for the later murder?  But how would that work?  It would be Brad Wood who would arrange for work to be done at his own house, not his brother-in-law or Nawkins.  It didn’t make sense.


I can just barely accept that Mary and Charlotte never told anybody about their brother Niles’s sexual assaults, but what I don’t believe is that the grown woman Charlotte, as Parsons depicts her, would associate with Niles.  It didn’t ring true.


Rocky is supposed to be a gifted boxer.  He knows that his girlfriend Echo’s father, Sean Nawkins, is abusive, but he does absolutely nothing about it.  Speaking of Rocky, why doesn’t he take Max to Savile Row, as Max asked?  It was dawn, he could have done it.  But even if he didn’t want to go to the police station, why not drop Max at a hospital?  Why go to Oak Hill, when Rocky knew Sean was responsible for nearly killing Max and would most likely be there?


Why was Bradley at the Bishop’s Road house if he wasn’t being abused?  Why did Niles Gatling spare him?  Parsons himself doesn’t seem to know, since he has Max ask that question and Niles doesn’t answer it.


When Max finds Bradley at the old Gatling family home, he also discovers that the patriarch is there, deep in dementia and being abused by his caretakers.  Supposedly, Mary and Charlotte loved their father, and he was a very wealthy man.  So why is he left to the care of a couple of low-life staff who abuse him?  Did his daughters have such terrible memories of what happened to them at their childhood home that they wouldn’t even visit their beloved father?  Did Niles set up the situation and purposely allow the abuse?  We never find out.  Instead, we just get this gratuitous bit of nastiness.

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review 2015-09-11 19:09
A clever and entertaining thriller
The Truth and Other Lies: A Novel - Sascha Arango

Henry Hayden is one of those very successful writers who pumps out one best-selling thriller after another.  His success saved the publishing house that discovered his first manuscript, he’s charming to the fans who seek him out in the coastal village where he lives with his quiet wife, Martha, and he is modest and generous.  Now, which of these things isn’t true?  As we find out right off the bat, it isn’t Henry who is the writer, but Martha––though not a soul besides the couple knows that.


When Betty, Henry’s editor and mistress tells him she’s pregnant, Henry’s carefully-arranged life threatens to unravel.  Henry’s quick fix goes awry and he has to engage in more and more complex schemes to avoid exposure of his current misdeeds––and the revelation of his past by an old acquaintance who promises to turn into a nemesis.


You might have figured out by now that Henry is a sociopath and this is one of those books (like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, for example) that invites us to identify with the amoral lead character.  It was hard to do that at first; Henry is just too cold.  But as we learn more about Henry, a bit of a thaw comes.  Even if it’s only admiration of Henry’s skill at constructing complex schemes to wriggle out of trouble.


This short novel moves along quickly and I kept turning the pages as fast as I could to find out what happens to Henry––and to the manuscript Martha has been working on when the novel opens.  I enjoyed the plotting, and the translation from the original German is well done.  There isn’t much sense of place; in fact, I couldn’t tell you where this is supposed to be set, other than that it’s a coastal town and it’s somewhere in Europe.  I would also say that it’s not nearly as skilled in roping the reader into “sympathy for the devil” as Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling, but it’s a quick and entertaining read.

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