Thursday, 29 November 2012

Scotland Yard - Sir Harold Scott

 True crime classic Penguin greenback.  Scott (1887-1969) was a career civil servant appointed Commissioner of Scotland Yard in 1945.  He continued in office through the coronation of Elizabeth II and then retired in 1953.  A year later the hardback version of this memoir appeared, followed by this Penguin in 1957.

There are accounts of classic murders here - Christie, Heath and Haigh were all brought to justice on Scott's watch, but perhaps more important is the reminder of just how damaged British society was in the immediate aftermath of the war.  Crime boomed as never before and there was a desperate shortage of police officers to try and contain it.  It was not until Scott that such radical innovations as women police constables and police dogs became standard.  Even so, Scott makes it clear that policing in those days was about crime reduction rather than counting arrests.  It was also on his watch that traffic cops came into their own but, amazing as it seems to us now, advice and warnings were prioritised over collecting convictions.  There was more crime and more civil liberty - if only such a concept troubled our modern legislators.

I personally enjoyed the chapters about the river police and horse patrols, both of which predate the Met and were subsequently absorbed into it.  But as a pure period piece, how about this sentence from the Flying Squad chapter?  "The next piece of information the police received was that a certain bookmaker, known as Poofy Len, might be worth their attention."  Poofy Len - ah, those were the days...

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Chimney Sweeper's Boy - Barbara Vine

Ruth Rendell is the greatest of contemporary female crime writers and is never better than when she writes as Barbara Vine.  This, however, is by no means Vine at her best.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation and back story deep and immersive.  There is clever play with the levels of storytelling, which I particularly liked.  But the mystery upon which all this is hung is no mystery at all.  I'm afraid I figured it out from the get-go and I am usually hopeless.  So it was an enjoyable read but ultimately failed to satisfy on the key trope of its genre.

One of the blurbs on the back of the paperback describes it as frightening.  A conclusion I find inexplicable.

Monday, 19 November 2012

In the King's Name - Alexander Kent

The twenty-sixth and latest Bolitho novel, published last year.  Kent is really Douglas Reeman, also a best-selling author under his real name, and was born in 1924.  To be still writing at 87 is a remarkable achievement, but to have maintained the standard over so many novels in a sequence written over forty years is truly extraordinary.

The Bolitho here is Adam, formerly Pascoe, nephew and heir of Admiral Sir Richard, whose career we followed since To Glory We Steer back in 1968.  Richard is dead, killed in action, and it has to be said Adam is not quite the man his uncle was.  Then again, a different kind of captain is needed for the post-Napoleonic peace.  The enemy here are the blackbirders, outlawed slave-traders and the shadowy figures who finance them.

Always a tricky move for a series writer to switchto the next generation.  It's rarely entirely successful - Galsworthy couldn't manage it with The Forsyte Saga, and he won the Nobel Prize.  Kent certainly does better than the similarly aged Winston Graham with the later Poldarks.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Random - Craig Robertson

Craig Robertson, formerly of Scotland's Sunday Post cleverly puts the press at the heart of this, his first novel.  Just how cleverly, we don't realise until the very end.

Plotting is exceptional here.  It's a serial killer first-person narrative, never easy to do, and we are never told our protagonist's name (we get his surname, indirectly, again towards the end).  By incorporating the press reports, which the killer studies assiduously, we gain the indispensable counter-view.  Motivation is also a problem - most serial killers kill for kicks of one sort or another and Robertson has, after all, called his novel Random.  Again, superior plotting saves the day.  It's not the purpose of this blog to give the game away but, suffice to say, when we realise what our killer's motivation is, we start to empathise.

The writing itself is brisk, propulsive, and spiced with Glasgow dialect.  The book is consciously Tartan Noir - our killer is not the worst or most violent character involved - with the extra twist of some truly innovative means of murder.

My only criticism is that it goes on maybe thirty pages too long.  Some wrapping up of loose ends is essential but not the final denouement, which trips over the obstacle intrinsic in first-person narrative and which, in this instance, really isn't worth the risk.  In detective novels it is customary to restore the world to balance.  This, however, is a psycho killer novel and the world of our protagonist can never return to balance.

All the same, a brilliant debut - exceptional - and a writer to watch.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Blood from a Stone - Donna Leon

Another Venetian mystery for Commissario Brunetti and Signorina Elettra to solve, this one from 2005.  Vu cumpra have become an accepted part of the scene - immigrants from Senegal, mainly, mostly illegal, flogging counterfeit Prada to the foreign tourists.  But one evening two men seem to take marked exception to one of the illicit traders.  In fact, they shoot him dead in front of a group of elderly American doctors.  It's a professional hit, silencers and all.  An awful lot of effort and expense, surely, for an illegal?

The clue is in the title, a bit too obvious for my liking.  But I love Leon's characters and style, and I especially like the way she is not so mechanical as to wrap up every loose end.  Indeed, in this one nothing is really wrapped up.  We discover the motive - in Leon's expert hands, a revelation every bit as shocking as the deus ex machina of an Agatha Christie - but are left no wiser as to who the man with the hairy hands was or even the victim.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Woman from Bratislava - Leif Davidsen

Albeit published by Eurocrime (a division of Arcadia Books) this is actually a post Cold War spy thriller - a multiviewpoint thriller, moreover, stretching to 450+ pages.

As so often with the genre, I was veered between tedium and delight.  The prologue is awful and unnecessary whereas the third strand (Irma's secret life) is necessary but deliberately unreliable.  It might have been better to use the Irma material as a prologue and ditch the self-conscious training lecture altogether.  The book really motors along when seedy lecturer Teddy (who encounters the titular woman in Bratislava) and secret policeman Per are driving the narrative.

Davidsen is a well-known Danish journalist specialising in Eastern Europe.  Boy does he know his stuff!  The book is worth reading for the info on Serbia and Bosnia alone.  His style here is more Deighton than le Carre - he really wants us to know he has seen these emerging nations first hand.  It is a clever ploy that the book isn't really about what happened after the fall of Communism.  Instead it's rooted in the shame that all occupied countries, including Denmark, have to deal with when they regain control of their destiny - what do you do with those citizens who joined the wrong side?

Apparently another of Davidsen's novels is available in English - The Serbian Dance.  I shall look out for it.  The translation here, by Barbara J Haveland, is very readable.  It could have done with better proof-reading, though.

Famous Trials 6 - James H Hodge (ed)

Another in the endlessly fascinating series, this time comprising four cases, the Regency lowlifes Thurtell and Hunt, the appalling Nodder (the one with the Hitler 'tash on the cover), IRA bomber Peter Barnes, and the so-called vampire John George Haigh.

The Thurtell case is only really of interested to those of us interested in the Regency underworld, a sordid falling out among thieves, notably chiefly for the peripheral involvement of Pierce Egan.  I've been reading the book piecemeal over the last few weeks and, to be honest, can't remember how Hunt was involved.  The case of Frederick Nodder (1937) is an early example of a murdering paedophile, revolting as all such cases inevitably are.

The collection starts to come alive with the case of Barnes, who was  one of those behind the Coventry outrage of August 1939.  Coming just a week before the declaration of World War II the incident is forgotten now but was particularly nasty.  Someone, who was never discovered, left a bomb on a bike by Broadgate, smack in the city centre, round where Primark now stands.  Five people were killed and score injured, twelve grievously. Letitia Fairfield provides a useful background to the IRA campaign on the mainland between the establishment of the Free State and independence.

Haigh, though, is the star of the show, a smalltime crook straight out of the works of Patrick Hamilton.  Haigh, of course, is the acid bath murderer, who dissolved his victims in a Croydon lock-up.  He tried to save himself from the noose by claiming to be a vampire when in reality his motive was purely monetary.  Not much of a schemer, he rather gave the game away by asking one of the interviewing detectives whether anyone was ever released from Broadmoor.

As always, great fun for fans of the true-crime genre.