Saturday, April 12, 2014

2,223: The Gift of Darkness by V.M. Giambanco

If ever I receive a free copy of a book (whether solicited or unsolicited), I’m pretty scrupulous about disclosing the fact in my review of it but I don’t necessarily make a point of disclosing right at the beginning of the post.  I do feel, however, that with The Gift of Darkness, V.M. Giambanco’s debut thriller, I should be very open about the fact that Mrs Falaise knows the author, that the author and I have been known to communicate on Twitter and that my copy of the book was given to me by her. 

Given this, I was actually half-hoping that there would be some flaw in it that would enable me to hand down some righteous constructive criticism and, thereafter, point to it to demonstrate my simon-pure character.  Unfortunately Ms Giambanco has signally failed to oblige and has delivered an excellent police procedural which promises to be the first of many.

Detective Alice Madison has only been on the Seattle Police Department Homicide squad for five weeks when she and her partner, Sergeant Brown, are called to a crime scene.  It’s not pleasant.  Inside, an entire family has been murdered, the father being forced to watch his wife and two young children being shot.  Each of them has been blindfolded and a cross drawn on their foreheads in blood.  The words, “Thirteen Days”, have been scrawled on the wall of the bedroom, also in blood.

The father, James Sinclair, is also a survivor of the Hoh River kidnapping 25 years earlier, in which he and two other boys had been kidnapped.  Only two of them survived – Sinclair and John Cameron, a man now wanted for numerous murders.  There are sufficient clues at the scene to make it a seemingly open and shut case but Madison and Brown soon begin to have doubts.
It does need to be acknowledged that The Gift of Darkness is a doorstopper of a book, clocking in at a touch over 500 pages and around 143,000 words.  It is sufficiently heavy to have made it an uncomfortable read on the Tube but the length allows Ms Giambanco to fill in the back stories of the main characters and to set the plot up in detail.

Arguably, the first half or so of the book could have been pruned a little as Ms Giambanco gives highly detailed scene descriptions, probably due to her background in the film industry - but which could have left more to the reader’s imagination – and the nature of the police procedural sub-genre.  Having said that, I quite enjoy seeing a satisfying plot reveal itself little by little and it certainly allows for a steady increase in tempo as the story builds to its climax as well as a gradual ratcheting up of the tension.

Many of the tropes of the genre appear in The Gift of Darkness and it’s much to Ms Giambanco’s credit that she stops well short of falling into cliché territory – in fact at one point I groaned as she dangled a classic genre plot device that made me (a lifelong half-wit at guessing the identity of the killer) think both that I’d spotted the murderer very early on and that the book was about to become quite dull.  Foolish me, as it became apparent shortly after that my guess couldn’t possibly have been correct.  What the reader actually does get is some interesting twists on the tropes she uses and a story that flows naturally from whodunit into whydunit and keeps firm hold of the reader’s interest by some ingenious plot devices and hooks.

Aside from the plotting, Ms Giambanco’s main strength appears to be in characterisation.  The central protagonists all have rich back stories and are satisfyingly nuanced – there are no cardboard cut-outs or characteristics dressed as characters here – although I would say that Ms Giambanco is better at bad guys – they tend to the cold and creepy and John Cameron, in particular, is one of the more intriguing villains I’ve come across recently.

It’s also noteworthy that the large cast of detectives, crime scene technicians and prosecutors are also drawn so as to give them individuality and the promise of development into a real ensemble in the future.  Holding it all together is Madison, a gutsy and determined cop, and her relationship with her partner and mentor, Brown.

I don’t suppose The Gift of Darkness will convert non-crime fiction fans but it’s a highly accomplished debut that I thoroughly enjoyed and would unhesitatingly recommend (unless you’re a fan of “cozies” who struggles with anything darker.

Madison and Brown have all the hallmarks of series protagonists and there is a pretty elephantine unresolved issue at the end of The Gift of Darkness that practically screams for at least one sequel and probably more so I hope that Ms Giambanco’s publishers do the decent thing and sign her up for more – I for one will happily blow the cobwebs from my wallet and shell out for more of this.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

2,224: Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I feel as if I should open this post with a caveat, as a sort of health warning for anyone who may feel an inexplicable urge to treat my opinion as something worth paying attention to.  If you remember, in July 2010, The Times, Caitlin Moran’s employer, decided to erect a paywall to prevent non-subscribers (such as me) from accessing its online coverage.  I was outraged and swore an oath of utmost fearsomeness that I would never, ever be prepared to pay to read a newspaper online and that henceforth The Times would be a stranger to me (unless I found a copy on the Tube or in the loo at work).

Well, that lasted all of a fortnight or so before I grumbling input my debit card details and signed up for an online subscription.  It wasn’t for the news; after all I can get that anywhere.  No, it was for the columnists and the features and, if I’m being totally honest, for Simon Barnes and Caitlin Moran.  Put simply, I valued the enjoyment I get from reading their pieces enough to plonk down cash on a regular basis.

And so, it will come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed Moranthology which, as its name suggests is a collection of some of her Times columns.  In fact, I enjoyed it more than I expected as I would have already read most of the pieces when they first appeared in the paper.

The collection is a positive cornucopia of Moran’s thoughts on subjects as diverse as Sherlock, Dr Who, Downton Abbey, Gay Moon Landings, austerity, libraries, Aberystwyth, Paul McCartney, Boris Johnson, trolling, the Eurozone crisis, drug abuse, the Royal Wedding and Pollock.

My favourite Moran columns tend to be those that deal with popular culture where she takes a subject and then riffs on it in a deceptively effortless and hilarious fashion.  I’m also a big fan of her imagined late night conversations with her long-suffering husband, rock critic Peter Paphides (himself a highly talented journalist).

Indeed, if that was her limit, that would be sufficient but, in addition she is an excellent interviewer as shown in this collection in pieces about Keith Richards and a manically wonderful trip to a sex club with Lady Gaga.  These pieces are almost worth the price of the book on their own.

And there’s yet more.  Over the years, Ms Moran has become more confident and vocal about speaking out on social issues, often linking them back to her own childhood in the West Midlands.  In this book, there are serious pieces on benefits cuts, the closure of libraries and the nature of poverty.  I can’t say that I always agree with her views but they are expressed here clearly, cogently and persuasively.

I believe that good humorous writing comes across as apparently effortless but needs huge skill from the author and I’d hold Ms Moran’s serious pieces up as evidence of her talent.  As well as the columns I’ve mentioned above, her obituaries of Elizabeth Taylor and Amy Winehouse are poignant and deeply moving and demonstrate real quality.

Although I’m not entirely sure that Caitlin Moran would approve of me, I’m a huge fan as you may have guessed by now.  In summary, she’s funny, bright and a deceptively serious social critic and I can do no better than to urge you to go out and buy this book (or borrow it from the library!).  You really won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2,225: By Its Cover by Donna Leon

When I come across a crime series I enjoy, there’s a certain pattern to my reading.  At first, I devour instalments one after another until I’ve eventually caught up with the author.  After that, there’s usually one or possibly two instalments that are due out shortly after I’ve caught up and then, finally, I slip into a tormented pattern of longing for the next one to be published and cursing any diversion by the author into writing books that don’t form part of the series.

And so it has been for a long time with Donna Leon’s Brunetti series.  I eagerly anticipate each new book and pre-order them so as to get my grubby mitts on them as soon as possible.  Recently, however, I’ve noticed a certain unevenness in the series, with some episodes seeming a little lacklustre.

I would guess that part of this is down to the sheer longevity of the series.  With a central cast that rarely changes (the rise in prominence of officers Pucetti and Griffoni being the only additions of recent note), there’s a limit as to how fresh the books can be and, if truth be told, I do appreciate the familiarity that long acquaintance brings.  One of Leon’s hallmarks is the centrality of Brunetti’s family life to the stories and so the regular passages set around the dinner table or in their living room are very much like settling into an old pair of slippers - comforting and to be luxuriated in.

The other “Leon factor” if you like is her concern with the social and political issues Italy, and Venice in particular, is faced with.  At her best, Leon brings these out and debates them by means of plot elements, subtle dialogue and background cameo scenes.  At her worst (and, I suspect, most enraged) they end up being either a little bit ranty or thumpingly didactic.

By Its Cover, the 23rd Brunetti novel, sits somewhere towards the better end of the Leon range.  At its beginning, Comissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police is contemplating the onset of spring whilst dealing with an altercation between two water tax drivers.  He is interrupted by a phone call requesting his presence at the Biblioteca Merula, where it soon becomes clear that a thief has been at work, stealing valuable works and even cutting pages out of other rare volumes.  Suspicion soon falls on an American researcher who has been working at the library, although Brunetti is also intrigued by the library’s other regular, a former priest known as Tertullian for his apparent love for the writings of the fathers of the Church.

Inspired by the ongoing Italian problem with art theft and by the massive theft of books from the Girolamini Library in Naples by its own director in 2012, By Its Cover is likely to engage any book lover, as well as crime fiction fans.  Leon uses the novel to explore not only her customary themes of Italian bureaucracy and institutional corruption but more esoteric issues that will probably only engage book lovers, such as whether books are valuable for themselves as objects or for the texts that they carry.  For the record, I, like Guido, am on Team Text - although a particular book may have an extrinsic value through its production or its historicity, ultimately, the book only exists as a means to transport the text to the reader.

Over the years, Leon’s books have moved from pure detective stories to explorations of social issues using the form of the detective story as the structure within which to do so.  She has also given the city of Venice itself and the personal lives of Brunetti and his circle increased prominence to the extent that there is no murder (and, like it or not, murder is the overwhelming raison d’etre of almost all crime fiction) until halfway through the book.

It’s mainly for this reason that I would recommend new readers to begin at the beginning with Death at La Fenice and carry on through.  The existing fan can be assured that this is an excellent entry in the Brunetti series, albeit one with a lightly abrupt and unusually loose ending.  There are few detectives with whom I enjoy spending time more and I must now endure the long wait for Leon’s next book.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

2,226: A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

A Man Without Breath is the ninth outing for Philip Kerr’s stained white knight, Bernie Gunther, and is closer in spirit to the darker, more morally ambiguous Field Grey than to the enjoyable but lighter detective story of Prague Fatale.

The story opens a few short months after the German disaster at Stalingrad and, yet again, Bernie has got himself a new job.  This time, although retaining his rank in the SD (the security branch of the SS), he is working for the War Crimes Bureau of the Wehrmacht which is, in essence, a German effort to portray itself in a better light by investigating alleged Allied war crimes.  Staffed by former Prussian judges, it is a small anti-Nazi enclave within the German armed forces and a place where Bernie first comes into contact with a small group of aristocratic army officers plotting to assassinate Hitler.

Being at a loose end following the collapse of his investigation into the alleged British sinking of a German hospital ship, as a result of the principal witness dying in an RAF air raid on Berlin, Bernie finds himself packed off to Smolensk in Russia to investigate claims that a large number of Polish army officers had been killed by the Russians in a nearby forest; a place called Katyn.  If such a thing could be proved, not only would it be a boon for German propaganda, but it could also be used to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its Western allies.  As such, Bernie finds himself uncomfortably backed by Josef Goebbels himself.

Unfortunately for Bernie, he finds himself stuck in Smolensk at the end of winter and the ground is too hard to begin digging at the suspected mass grave.  Indeed, it’s doubly unfortunate both because Russia in 1943 is a pretty unsafe place for a German but also because he happens to be the nearest thing to a detective available when two members of a German signals regiment are found with their throats slit.  For Bernie, life becomes more uncomfortable still as his own inimitable brand of investigation soon garners him a number of enemies, including Field Marshall Günther von Kluge, the local German commander who wields almost unfettered power in his theatre of operations.

If one were to group together books like Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series, Sam Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala books, William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev stories and Rebecca Pawel’s Carlos Tejada works, there appears to be identifiable a sub-genre of detective stories featuring honest detectives trying to do their best to seek justice against the background of repressive and corrupt regimes.  Gunther is typical of this, ideologically opposed to the Nazis but forced to operate within the state’s machinery, trying to remain as uncompromised as possible in an environment that corrupts or breaks all whom it touches.

Kerr is adept at drawing out some of the insanities of the Nazi outlook.  At one point, Bernie notes the lunacy of investigating and hanging two German soldiers for rape and murder of two Russian peasants when only a few miles away, an SS einsatzgruppen has just murdered 25,000 Russian Jews.  He also doubts whether publicising the Katyn massacre of 4,000 Poles is really going to deflect attention from the mass killings of Jews in Eastern Europe by the German forces.

As always, Kerr’s knowledge of the period and its personalities is exemplary.  One of the joys of a Bernie Gunther novel is the appearance of actual politicians and soldiers of the time, in this instance ranging from Josef Goebbels to July Plotters General von Tresckow, Hans von Dohnanyi, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Wilhelm Canaris and Rudolf von Gersdorff.  Kerr’s historical notes at the end of each Gunther novel are also fascinating, revealing the fates of the individuals he introduces as characters.

In combining historical fiction with a hard-boiled detective theme, Kerr takes the Bernie Gunther stories to a deeply satisfying level.  Morally complex and ambiguous, entertaining yet melancholy and revealing both the resilience of the human spirit and the depths to which humans can sink, they are amongst my very favourite crime novels.  Best read in order, they are “must reads” for any crime fiction or, indeed, historical fiction enthusiast and, although his most recent books are not Bernie Gunther stories, I am counting the slowly passing days until the return of Bernie, a deeply flawed but attractive hero.