Category Archives: crime

Souvenir de temps perdu

Two very different novels, both revisiting France in World War II.

Manda ScottA Treachery of Spies is a thriller, as well as a police procedural that starts in March 2018 with a ritualized killing. Manda Scott has revived her detective Captain Picaut, last seen in an extreme trauma unit having suffered burns to the right hand side of her body. [Into the Fire]

Picaut has reported back fit for duty just as a new crime scene emerges in an Orléans car park. In a stolen, or borrowed, Citroën BX there is a hideously mutilated, but still obviously beautiful, elderly woman of about ninety five; killed by three shots, one to the head and two to the chest, and with her tongue cut out.

She has identification papers, elegant (but not French) clothes and apart from the grotesque manner of her death, there seems to be no reason why she is where she is, or indeed who attacked her.

The thriller switches between present day Orléans and the search for answers to this and other killings and 1940-44 in Occupied France and the activities of the Résistance and SOE As one might expect from this talented writer the plots, double crossings, red herrings and altered identities are numerous. The team on the ground in 2018 have to follow leads that reach right back to a period in France even before some of them were born.

The chapter headings make it quite clear which period we are in, but the many different identities that were taken up by members of the Résistance and SOE makes it important to keep a firm grasp of who everyone is, at which point in time – for all is not what it seems.

Captain Picaut is struggling to see the direction that this investigation is taking, and one of the hazards lies in the very people who seemed to be helping.

The second novel by Sebastian Faulks is in familiar territory for him, though a very different and blistering novel, quite unlike Birdsong and Charlotte Grey.

FaulksTwo characters descend on modern day Paris. Tariq from Morocco, in pursuit of his mother’s family, and Hannah, an American, who is doing some post doctoral research into the lives of women in Paris during the Occupation.

We meet Tariq first, just at the point at which he makes the decision to go to Paris, he has no money and therefore goes under the radar; his first encounter once in France is with Sandrine and together they hitch-hike to Paris, and find somewhere fairly insalubrious to doss down.

Next we meet Hannah, just arrived and with an address to find, a small flat which she is renting for a few months. She later finds Sandrine, weakened and feverish, who she takes in temporarily out of sheer kindness.

Once Sandrine is better, she goes back to where she thinks Tariq is, finds him and brings him back to Hannah’s flat. Thus far, so simple.

But Paris Echo is about re-membering (literally putting flesh upon ghosts). Hannah uses the audio recordings of women who lived in Paris during the Occupation, two in particular –  Mathilde Masson and Juliette Lemaire. Juliette died in 2001, so the record says but it appears that Mathilde might still be alive, though now about eighty five. Hannah listens to their accounts of what life was like for them and goes for a revealing interview with the old lady.

Meanwhile, Tariq keeps looking at women, and for people who might be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of his mother’s family. He does discover something, from a man who claims he is Victor Hugo, though it is not quite what he was expecting.

With two first-person narrators, it can sometimes takes a few words to work out who is speaking, but it quickly becomes apparent, for both Tariq and Hannah have very different pursuits and voices.

There are many and wonderful characters in this novel: friends (or ghosts) that Tariq makes and follows; lines of enquiry that Hannah follows and her friends in Paris and beyond. This is also a poignant love story, a journey of self-knowledge and an exploration of a period in France which was temporarily buried in shame and is slowly rising again to the surface.

There is one character, though, who is not fiction. One of the best and bravest SOE women of the betrayed Prosper circuit, Andrée Borrel. Caught, tortured and executed in the only concentration camp in France, the terrible and notorious Natzweiler-Struthof. Hannah takes the train from Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg, very probably the very train that took Andrée and her three companions, to the camp. There she has a very out-of-body experience and from which she returns, changed and aware of something she has missed.

It is also, in passing, a salute to the Paris Metro, very decidedly one of the more interesting characters in this sublime novel.

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/3

This time an American. I am unconvinced about the inclusion of American writers in the Man Booker Prize, I think it was a bad idea but accept that it is irreversible. You cannot allow a group in for a few years, then exclude them again when they win all the prizes. Which is what has happened.

2018 BLL KushnerThat said, Rachel Kushner has written a crackingly good novel, one that anyone might want to read. The Mars Room is set in an American woman’s correctional facility with a main character, Romy Hall, who is in for two life sentences.  We meet other inmates, some on death row whose lives intersect with hers simply because they are in the same serious, life-denying circumstances.

The same routine, the same people, the same food, the same problems. It is hard to imagine what is meant by “correctional” in these places. Those on death row sew sandbags – to be filled by male prisoners in other “correctional facilities”; those less threatening, but serious criminals – murderers, grievous bodily harmers and the like –  can get on to the workshop programme where they are trained in carpentry – to make the furniture for the courtrooms of the United States judiciary: the witness box, the bench, the judges’ chairs – some irony there?

Then there is the educational programme, once a week, for basic numeracy and literacy. Romy joins the class of G Hauser, who starts with some easy to answer questions that amount to adding three plus eight, or two plus five. Romy is having none of it; finally he gets the point and begins to send her interesting books via Amazon – after a first mis-step sending her To Kill a Mocking Bird, I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing and one other, all of which she read when she read thirteen!

Throughout the book we learn about the background to Romy’s situation, what she did before – she was a lap-dancer in the eponymous club – The Mars Room – a sleazy, San Franciscan low-life club. And what she did to end up in this prison. We learn about her son Jackson, living with his grandmother and what happens when that goes wrong.

This is not alone about women, for we also meet a rough, crooked cop who has been sold up the water by one of the death row women, and is now in his own hell: a men’s prison. Stuck there hoping that no one will discover his career option – but Blanche LaFrance has other ideas and our friend G Hauser is persuaded to post a letter for her, with near fatal results.

As an eye-opener it is not without its surprises, but the brutality and the sheer unpleasantness is not easy; especially for the trans-gender inmates. One in particular that moves from the male prison where Doc the cop is, to the female prison – where ‘they’ are not made welcome.

TylerMy shadow book is also by an American, a writer that you will be familiar with because I have read everything she has ever written. Anne Tyler‘s new title is Clock Dance.

It starts with a young woman, Willa Drake, selling candies to make money for her school orchestra trip; it jumps quickly to her college years and to her first marriage. She has two sons Sam and Ian, they appear as late teenagers and then we jump further on to her second marriage.

At this point, the turning point of the whole novel, she is summoned suddenly to Baltimore, and we are straightaway back in familiar Tyler territory. We feel the heat, the dust and the small bedraggled houses; the long streets with close knit communities and we meet over time all the neighbours, their quirky otherness.

This quixotic decision is regarded by her husband as unnecessary and ill-considered, but he goes with her anyway. Peter is dismissive of her good intentions, and fairly contemptuous of the people that she ends up with: Denise, who has been shot in the leg, her daughter Cheryl, who Willa has agreed to look after, and pretty much the whole caboodle. Eventually, when Denise is finally released from hospital, Peter goes home.

The clock dance of the title is described thus:

Later, crossing the upstairs hall with a basket of laundry, Willa glanced into Cheryl’s room to see what they were up to. Patty stood facing her, both arms extended from her sides, with Laurie and Cheryl directly behind her. All that showed of Laurie and Cheryl were their own arms, extended too so that Patty seemed to possess six arms, all six moving in stiff, stop-start arcs in time to the clicking sounds that Willa could hear now punctuating the music. “It’s the clock dance!” Cheryl shouted, briefly peeking out from the tail end.

Willa stays on, and on…

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If we throw away the key…

Two legal volumes hit the top of my TBR pile together. In Your Defence by Sarah Langford and The Secret Barrister (author unknown for obvious reasons).

 

Both books, written by professional barristers have a desired agenda: to present to the general public a picture of the justice system from the point of view of the prosecuting or defending bench.

These two books are not Scandi-police procedural novels, they are a genuine attempt to get us, the benefiters of a good, honest and just legal system, to understand better what is actually happening in court.

The Secret Barrister is a cry of alarm, using many exhaustively detailed reasons why our justice system is being steadily undermined, the author is desperately trying to get us to wake up. Fuelled by lurid newspaper reports we spend an unusual amount of our attention devoted to complaining about the National Health Service while at the same time our Justice system is being financially squeezed out of existence.

A country in which justice is eroded and enough people cannot see that justice is being done, will eventually take matters in its own hands: vigilante groups; rag-tag revenge gangs; summary local justice may follow, and that will mean anarchy.

In a single stroke of the Chancellor’s pen, the tax on beer was reduced by a penny, while the tax on cider and spirits was held level at the same time that the budget for the Justice system was slashed by an more or less equal amount. This does not make any sense.

The Secret Barrister asks why that should matter to us? The answer is that one day it might be you or me. If we were prosecuted, whether innocent or guilty as charged, we would want to have proper representation. But that, especially in the civil courts is becoming exceeding expensive, and beyond the reach of a growing proportion of the population. This book, though, deals specifically with the criminal courts, where legal aid is also steadily being eroded so that even middle income people are having to find the wherewithal to defend themselves privately.

In Your Defence, heartily endorsed by Helena Kennedy QC, is of a different kind. This is a book which, using an amalgam of disguised cases, demonstrates examples of how the law deals with different situations. Each chapter begins with an extract from different Acts of Parliament which are effective in law. For example: Children and Young Persons Act 1933. In this chapter, we look at a particular trial (which is not one trial but a simulacrum of many similar) from the defence barrister’s engagement, through to the trial itself and its outcome. The amount of time is takes to mount a defence, to defend and as well as to counsel the defendant. Each chapter has one defendant standing for many, and disguised so that there is no possibility of true identification.

But read in tandem with The Secret Barrister, it is a window on to a world that most of us hope never to visit.

Just as the NHS is there for those in need from the cradle to the grave, so the justice system should be also, and is not. If your chosen (or unchosen but real) lifestyle has led you to rely on the health service to get you back on your feet, you would not be impressed if the doctor was able to say, on your arrival in his surgery, “this injury/illness is a direct result of your actions, pay for the remedy yourself”. But as The Secret Barrister points out, this is very much the case in the courts. You may well find yourself funding your own defence, and if you have enough but not a huge amount of money and few assets you may find yourself in the claws of a very inadequate level of professional assistance, of failing that have to defend yourself (litigant-in-person) which might be disastrous, all because you and your spouse of partner are not eligible for legal aid.

Everyone should know about this and this is one way to find out. The next step is to do something about it. Letters to your MP, anyone?

 

 

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To go to the sea in ships

There are plenty of fictional accounts of London’s Thames waterside, Charles Dickens to name just one, so it is rather wonderful to read this account by Margarette Lincoln detailing the lives and trades of real people involved in commissioning, building, provisioning and manning the great ships that traded and fought for Britain in the age of Cook and Nelson.

M LincolnTrading in War is a fully examined look at the maritime adventures of Britain through the lens of the people who lived, worked and sailed from the Port of London. It is hard to reconcile the picture of London’s Dockland two hundred years ago with how it is today; yet interestingly, the parallels between 1718 and 2018 are not hard to find.

The book traces the history of shipbuilding on the Thames from about the 1760’s through to a period shortly after the defeat of Napoleon. It covers all the trades associated with the river, from watermen, lightermen and sailors through to sawyers, caulkers, shipwrights, to the land based trades of chandlers, biscuit manufacturers and sailmakers.

Largely centred north of the river in Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse, the south banks do get an also-ran mention, sadly especially in terms of crime. But this is not to forget the shipbuilding docks in Deptford and Greenwich.

Margarette Lincoln identifies the families, follows their fortunes and outlines in particular the stresses of such a fluctuating profession. For example, in peace time – maritime adventures were mostly about trade, the two largest companies The West Indian Company and the East Indian Company both used private shipbuilding docks for their ships; though probably for provisions and chandlery they would use the same companies as the Admiralty. Meanwhile the Admiralty shipbuilders might languish; the reverse became true during the American War and the war with the French, when navy vessels were at a premium and both Admiralty docks and private docks were occupied at full stretch. as many as 54 warships were outfitted in any one year from a single dock in Deptford.

There are startling parallels between the eighteenth and 20th centuries though. The construction of West India Dock and The London Dock were fiercely contested, so that it was some several years before either could be constructed; similar to the competition between Gatwick and Heathrow, the expansion of docks, as opposed to open river docking was fought over, and then there was further rivalry between the construction of the two sites, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs. The Wapping site required the destruction of several areas of residential and commercial buildings, around 2,200 in all, putting many families out of their homes and businesses while the Isle of Dogs had other problems; but once built the docks altered completely the nature of the districts surrounding them, not least by tearing the heart out of the community. Furthermore, these developments, by displacing so many people led to changes in the populations of areas further east and north, like Shoreditch and Hackney.

The building of the docks altered the livelihoods of many people on the river in much the same way as containerisation in the 1970s and 80s emptied the Port of London of any trading ships, thereby leading to the domestication and gentrification of much of the area, both north and south of the river all the way from London Bridge to beyond the Isle of Dogs on the north and down to Deptford and Greenwich on the south bank.

I loved this book. I loved learning about the wives and widows of famous explorers and sailors like Captain Bligh (he of the Mutiny) and Captain Cook and the lives of the Barnard families (shipbuilders) and of merchants like J Robinson who had a carpet and furniture warehouse in the Ratcliff area.

The term “warehouse” only entered general use in this period to denote a superior type of “shop”. I wonder what J Robinson would have made of a department store!

It is in the nature of a seafaring community that many women, wives as well as widows feature more prominently that in other walks of life. The menfolk being away, pressed or serving in the navy, for long periods; lives and livelihoods had to be maintained, and these women mastered the art magnificently. Frances Barnard took over the Deptford shipyard on the death of her husband and continued to manage it until the ages of her sons meant that a man could take over again. However, it says much for her that when she did hand it over some ten years later, it was still a profitable business. One has to respect these women, who in an age when they had absolutely no power, they thrived.

 

 

 

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Read on, read on

To find a new voice on the crime scene is generally a pleasure and in this instance double the pleasure for me because it comes from Australia. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne.  Her debut novel, The Dry, was written at a time when the state of Victoria had suffered several years of drought and the book is set in Kiewarra among the farming community.

HarperFederal Agent Aaron Falk, normally in the department chasing the money, returns to his home town to attend the funeral of a family: mother, father and son – all shot by the same gun – leaving an eighteen month old baby daughter. Aaron has a personal history with Luke Hadler, the dead man, going back to their teenage indiscretions and he has not been back to Kiewarra since he and his father left when he was about fifteen.

Old stories, old suspicions and old rumours burst to the surface when the townspeople find him amongst them again. Luke’s father and the father of another person, long dead, both want to see him; one to talk to him and one to threaten him off.

The police have seen this as an open and shut case of murder by the father, followed by suicide but the rookie cop, the one actually in the town who only took up his post a couple of months before the shooting, is not completely convinced.

Aaron is persuaded to stay around for a few days to dig into the case a bit more; an investigation which throws up some revealing and disturbing results…

The new offering from Jane Harper, Force of Nature, finds Aaron called in to look into a disappearance. He is only there because he received a fractured and indistinct mobile phone call early in the morning from the girl who has vanished. This is the last known contact.

Five women and five men, all from the same company, go into the fictional Giralang Ranges for a team building weekend.  They are split into two groups – men and women – and are given two separate routes to follow. The men make it back first, the women are late, in fact nearly a day late when they stagger out of the bush minus one of the walkers, Alice Russell.

The odd coincidence is that Falk and his team have been investigating this company, and Alice is their inside mole…

If I have any criticism of these novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed in spite of this complaint, it is that this is an all-white Australia. In The Dry, since it is set in a farming community and small town, one would have expected to have at least one or two Indigenous Australians working on the farms, most of the homesteads might be expected to have them as sheep-hands or domestics – nary a one. OK the community was going through a very bad patch, but total lay-offs seems a far cry. In Force of Nature I would have expected there to be at least one, if not more Indigenous trackers, especially in such wild and rugged terrain as the Giralang Ranges, a densely forested region some hours drive from Melbourne.

Kiewarra and Giralang are both invented places, but the author demonstrates a very accurate understanding of Australia’s wilderness and its isolated farming communities – small places with big characters and Jane Harper absolutely nails this in these books – so where are the original inhabitants? I know for a fact that the police regularly use indigenous trackers when some idiot backpacker strays off into the bush and frantic friends and parents ask for help.

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Wild about Wilde

Not Oscar, but Thomas. Rory Clements has abandoned his Elizabethan hero, John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous William, in favour of a period a little closer to hand: specifically Britain in the late 1930s.

Clements - CorpusThe first volume, Corpus, of a promised three, is set in the short period between King Edward VIII’s accession to the throne and his abdication. There are moves afoot to prevent the abdication, championed by among others Winston Churchill, but also a much more sinister group who looked kindly upon National Socialism in Germany, and felt rightly that King Edward with his wife beside him, whether Queen or no, was also mightily in favour of Herr Hitler’s regime.

Reading this book brings forcibly to mind the months of crisis that eventually led to The Abdication. Historical facts bleed seamlessly into this fictional narrative which centres on Cambridge and an American history professor, Thomas Wilde and his neighbour Lydia Morris.

At the start of the novel, there is an unexpected death, heroin overdose or something more sinister? Lydia’s friend, Nancy Hereward is found with a syringe by her side, slumped on her bed. To all intents and purposes, this looks like a simple case of one dose too many; but Lydia is not quite sure.

A second more horrifying murder site is found, and this one has links to Nancy through her father, Sir Norman Hereward who is close friends of the victims. A third murder points sickeningly towards involvement with Russia, but maybe all is not what it seems.

Lydia and Thomas, with the connivance of a Times Correspondent, Philip Eaton follow an increasingly dangerous and contorted trajectory of intrigue and conspiracy, while at the same time we are following the tense machinations going on between Edward and his government regarding the possible marriage to Wallis Simpson, twice-divorced American wife of the industrialist Ernest Simpson.

It is hard, possibly, for readers very much younger than me, to recognise a world in which newspaper magnates could be asked by Buckingham Palace and the Government not to report on The Situation. David, Prince of Wales (now Edward VIII) was hugely popular; debonair, handsome and easy-going, the ordinary people loved him; the aristocrats played at his court in Fort Belvedere, aware that he was loose in his morals, flagrantly cuckolding at least two well-born husbands, but that he was good fun and a great host. But the arrival on the scene of the glamorous, stylish but cold schemer, Wallis Simpson changed the climate. Many close friends of the King distanced themselves from the ensuing debacle; courtiers and officials made efforts to curb the excesses but without much success. Meanwhile, Edward, in many ways a weak man, fell completely and unequivocally in love with Wallis Simpson and insisted that he would marry her.

As I said, the historical background blends seamlessly and importantly into this gripping saga.

It is worth remembering that even without The Abdication, we would still have Elizabeth II on the throne, but Britain would have been a very different place, a protectorate island of Germany possibly, or a satellite state of the USSR, like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Not a happy thought!

Clements - NucleusIn the second book, Nucleus, war still has not started and we are back with our two friends Thomas and Lydia in another intrigue of devastating consequences, if successful.

Scientists and physicists in laboratories Germany and Cambridge are close to the realisation of creating nuclear fission, and the chain reaction which would, they think, lead on to great energy and possibly an atom bomb. Germany in particular needs to know quite how near Britain is to mastering this force.

The Nazi regime has forced the mass exile of many Jewish physicists and others, most of them have entered laboratories in Cambridge or in Princeton, America. German warmongers need information about the extent and success of their research. So, once more, against an historical background, our story, with Thomas Wilde and Lydia Morris in its meshes, outlines this uncomfortable stand-off with a convoluted plot that involves several different strands.

There are many aspects of this novel that bring to the fore genuine acts of heroism by real people. One strand in the novel follows the path of a little German Jewish boy put on the Kindertransport, he is to be met from the train by Lydia Morris – but he is not there.

The book names many real people involved in the race to save as many Jewish children as possible, an undertaking by the Society of Friends led by the astonishing and brave Bertha Bracey. She deserves a whole book to herself.  With The Society of Friends and volunteers she was responsible for soup kitchens which were set up in Germany after the First World War to feed starving children, that effort alone must have saved thousands and then when it became clear, after Kristallnacht, that things in Germany were going to be deathly for the Jews, she persuaded the British Government to allow 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children into this country. The Society of Friends funded and managed this evacuation just in the nick of time.

The other real person in this book, apart from those in the German high command, is Frank Foley who was an official at the British Passport Office in Berlin. Against all the codes of conduct, he handed out exit visas to many Jewish families trying to leave the country.

Another strand intertwined with the nuclear problem is the possible involvement of the IRA, who were being funded and supplied by Germany and who hoped that as a result of co-operation with the Nazis, would finally succeed in uniting the island of Ireland. But you need a long spoon if you sup with the Devil.

It is all grippingly told, page-turning-un-put-downable stuff. Can hardly wait for volume three, I hope it does not take as long as the one awaited from Hilary Mantel.

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Not such sweet dreams

Two rather hallucinatory novels here.

The Room by the LakeThe first is a new novel by Emma Dibdin, daughter of the slightly more famous Michael. A young girl flees from a dire situation in the UK to New York. She has never been before and it soon becomes apparent that she is pretty lost, pretty and lost actually, and ripe for plucking …

She gets unsuitably plucked by the fascinating and seductive Rory and ends up in a mysterious cult. She does not at first realise the situation she is in, and so continues to imbibe some heavily doctored cider which messes with her mind.

So fight or flight? Be careful what you wish for.

This is a bit of an airport/beach read but if that is what you want, go for it because it does work even if the true situation dawns on the reader many, many pages before it dawns on Caitlin, it can still take you to some pretty uncomfortable places.

Broken RiverThe second novel in this posting, the eighth novel by J.Robert Lennon is also set in the USA, it is far more satisfying, although equally gruesome in its way. The hallucinatory aspect is an outside “Observer”. This is a literary jiggle in order that the connecting tissue of the story can be told without too much logistical improbability.

The central locality is a house near Broken River, where a double murder has occurred. The house stands empty, or occupied by vagrants and vandals, until a sculptor from New York arrives to purchase it; while he is fully informed of the reason for its low value, he chooses not to share this immediately with his family.

It does eventually come out though, and both the wife and their daughter secretly become obsessed with the story, both scanning online reports and then blogging about their findings. That neither realises that they are actually communicating with each other, plus scores of other readers who have joined in the internet search, including incidentally the original murderers, leads to the rest of the novel…

The existence of the Observer has its uses and is not over-worked, but while it gives the reader a fuller picture of the various different threads, it does at the same time slightly weaken the central core of the book.

But do not let that put you off. It is a book that might keep you up at night to finish it.

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