Monday, 30 December 2013

Sawbones - Stuart MacBride

A very short book which today would be an ebook but which back in 2008 was that rarest of publishing birds, the stand-alone novella.  Just 114 pages - and that only by virtue of many chapters and only 40 characters a line - Sawbones is off the beaten track for MacBride, a serial killer story set in Iowa with a couple of extra-violent hoodlums as our heroes.  It romps merrily along - MacBride can do pitch-black crime on either side of the Atlantic - and comes to a suitably grisly end.

Well done for publishing novellas in the first place.  Extra congratulations for being a publishing house dedicated to books designed for children and adults who have difficulty reading.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Scent of Death - Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor has to be one of the best writers of historical crime.  His strengths lie in the unusual choice of setting - in this case New York City in the limbo period when it was briefly the last British outpost in post revolutionary America - brilliant characterisation, intricate plotting and, above all perhaps, scrupulous research.  When a writer includes a period map, you can be confident he knows what he's talking about.

Edward Savill is a middling English civil servant who has landed himself a prestigious post in the American Department by marrying his patron's unlovely niece.  The only downside of the post is that involves being in America.  Thus we arrive in New York with our hero.  He has barely stepped ashore when he discovers his first murder victim in the Canvas Town shanty that has sprung up to provide some sort of shelter for loyalist refugees without friends or funds, tumbled in with the usual human flotsam and jetsam of shanties worldwide since the beginning of civilisation.

During his stay Savill is billeted with the Wintour family, loyalist gentry who are sliding gently towards hard times.  In Warren Street live Judge Wintour, his gently senile wife, the beautiful Mrs Arabella Wintour (wife or perhaps widow of the missing Captain Wintour) and their various slaves.  Savill's associates in official business include Major Marryot, who has a fondness for Mrs Arabella, and Mr Townley, a genteel local fixer and social gadfly with a stay-at-home wife and a growing fortune founded on the vicissitudes of a city under effective siege.

More murders ensue, Savill's fortunes rise and fall (there is a marvellous twist concerning his wife), he travels through the Disputed Lands (now upstate New York) and resolves crime and his own fate out on the frozen River Hudson.

A marvellous book, a worthy winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger 2013, and as good an introduction as any to Taylor's extensive oeuvre.  Personally I began with the captivating Anatomy of Ghosts (another winner of the Peters Dagger) and followed that with Bleeding Heart Square.  I gather The American Boy is one to look out for.  So I shall.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Kipling Sahib - Charles Allen

Anglo-Indian like his subject, Allen's subtitle says it all.  Kipling was born in India, returned there as a cub reporter and became a sensational prodigy there.  Having survived a life-threatening illness and the death of his firstborn, Kipling worked with his father on his sole significant novel Kim, and then to all intents and purposes ceased to develop at the age of 34, slightly less than halfway through his life.  He never wrote nothing important or new thereafter because, Allen maintains, Kim said all he had to say about India and his own dual sensibilities.

Kipling Sahib is, in short, a brilliant book.  Allen wears his knowledge lightly, which he can do because it's real personal knowledge, not academic learning focused through a westernized, post-modern filter.  Kipling is hopelessly old-fashioned - his attitudes to imperialism can sometimes offend contemporary ears - but they are the attitudes of his time, attitudes he in many ways created and it is important to differentiate between his early, pre-1900 writing and that of the long decline that followed.  He began as a critic and ended as a bombastic bore.

Allen tackles the man, his mind and his work in a seamless narrative.  The works are discussed with an assuredness that comes of long familiarity.  His examination of Kim itself, as an envoi to the closed narrative, is masterly and insightful.

If anyone had suggested, a year ago, that I would even open a work by or about Rudyard Kipling (known as 'Ruddy' in the family) I would have laughed in their face.  Yet Kim was one of the first books I read in 2013, and Kipling Sahib almost the last.  Kim is my book of the year, with Kipling Sahib a close second.  There is no bronze medallist.  Nothing else I have read comes close.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Templar's Acre - Michael Jecks

The thirty-first, latest, and - for the time being at least - last of Jecks' novels featuring Sir Baldwin, the crusader-turned-coroner.  Actually, Templar's Acre is not a medieval mystery but a prequel in which the teenage Baldwin travels to Outremer to purge his guilt by preserving the city of Acre, the last Christian city in the Holy Land.

I've commented before on this blog that Jecks' attachment to his hero seems to have been weakening.  One recent novel didn't have him appear at all until well into the action.  But here Baldwin is well-served and central.  Jecks knows his stuff and is not afraid to show his knowledge.  The siege is expertly handled, making us feel the tedium of days and nights on the city walls without ever subjecting us to similar tedium.

I enjoyed it hugely and hope Jecks is soon back on home turf.  It will nevertheless be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Blind Eye - Stuart MacBride

By my calculation the fifth in the Logan McRae series, Blind Eye is MacBride on top form.  There is always a temptation for writers of series to take their protagonist out of his usual setting, and MacBride gives into that temptation here, sending Logan to Poland to follow up leads.  More often that not, relocating our hero is unmitigated disaster.  Not so here: whilst the story could certainly survive without the excursion, it is probably the better for it.
Someone is going round gouging the eyes out of Polish migrants in Aberdeen.  Grampian Police find a stash of weaponry.  They find Simon McLeod, brother of Creepy and son of the appalling Ma McLeod, another victim of the Oedipus killer.  And DI Steel wants Logan to impregnate her wife.
MacBride is the darkest of Tartan Noir, saved from unremitting gloom by equally dark humour and an obvious love for the Granite City.  The very last line expresses it perfectly: "That's what happens when you fuck with Aberdeen."

Monday, 2 December 2013

Waiting for Wednesday - Nicci French

This is the third Frieda Klein novel and my first Nicci French.  My responses are mixed.  It is well enough written, with occasional passages of insight and exploration, to keep my attention to the very end, but there are far too many characters and far too much exposition from the previous two in the series.  I have absolutely no idea who Sasha is and absolutely no need to read Blue Monday or Tuesday's Gone.  From the technical point of view, the culprit in the A story is discovered by ludicrous coincidence, though the denouement of the B story is properly thought through.  The main problem is that our psychoanalyst protagonist has no business getting involved and seems to lack the sense she was born with.  Maybe a little exposition on her credentials would help - as it is, I wouldn't want an analyst this bloody gormless.

I'm not sure I will bother with the next Klein but I'll certainly take a look at some of their earlier work (I'm assuming everyone knows they are a writing duo).  Interesting - but not captivating.