Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Scarred - Thomas Enger

Scarred is the third Henning Juul story and Enger has unfortunately slipped into the trap facing all series writers.  It's not a Henning Juul mystery at all: Henning does virtually none of the crime solving and can't get directly involved in the scandal element because the subject of the scandal is his own sister.  More daring writers would have their hero break the rules, but Enger doesn't.  When it comes to the culmination of the main crime story Juul is ordered from the scene by his friend Inspector Bjarne Brogeland and meekly goes.  Worse, even we are denied the moment when the door is broken down and the armed response unit flood in.

Theoretically, I suppose we are supposed to be kept interested in Juul by his spasmodic quest to find out who torched his flat back in the first novel.  Perhaps readers who have followed the series from the beginning are interested.  Personally, there isn't enough here to get me interested.  Juul isn't developed enough to evoke empathy.

Check out the red 'sticker' on the cover.  It's a telling and fatal admission.  Not for fans of The Killing  or aficionados of Jo Nesbo, but for followers of Borgen, a series about a female politician who keeps risking her career over her frailties as a woman.  It's a fair enough parallel.  The murders start well but get dull very quickly, and it's actually a novel about Trine Juul-Osmundsen, not her brother.

On a positive note, I really enjoyed the use of the present tense and short chapters.  If you are determined to divide your narrative between three protagonists, short, punchy chapters is the way to go.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Zero History - William Gibson

I say it so often, I'm probably making an idiot of myself: I DON'T LIKE SCIENCE FICTION!  I also don't like the exaggeratedly hip contemporary novel and I especially don't like conspiracy novels with nothing world-shattering at their core.  Zero History is all these things.  AND I LOVED IT.

Why?  Well, it turns out William Gibson is a genius.  He writes like a dream and his embellishments to 21st century reality are casually dropped into the narrative rather than the other way round, which is so often the case with less skilled visioneers. His realistic world is ever so slightly augmented.  Secondly, this is not some po-faced conspiracy about the bleeding obvious (yes, Dan Brown, I mean you, not that you need to care).  This is satire.  Gibson is filleting the sort of worthless wonk for whom insider knowledge is all that matters.  I won't reveal what the maguffin actually is but be assured, it is scarcely possible to conceive of anything less important to human life, yet Gibson's characters are prepared to risk life and limb to control it.  And then, when they can't, they just move on to the next fad.

In one way, the characters are cyphers, as then tend to be in the sci fi genre.  Mercifully, though, Gibson gives them just enough personality to hold our attention without slowing down the narrative.  One key character, whose name says it all, doesn't even appear.

I am now, officially, a Gibson fan.  Zero History is one of those books that, once started, I would have been happy to read for weeks or even months.  Of it's type, inarguably a masterwork.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Mission to Paris - Alan Furst

Furst really pins all his colours to the 'eve-of-war' scenario.  We know The Spies of Warsaw is 1938, Midnight in Europe was definitely 1938 (see my earlier review) and now Mission to Paris is set ... guess when?  And it's also set in Paris, so no surprises there.

In this case, our hero is Frederic Stahl, a Viennese adventurer turned Hollywood star - a sort of cross between Anton Walbrook and Gary Cooper.  He has been loaned by Warner Brothers to Paramount who want him to star in a European feature about the aftermath of World War I.  Stahl lived in Paris as a young man and is more than happy to revisit.  Equally keen to renew old acquaintance are his colleagues from a brief stint in the Austrian Embassy in Barcelona.  Now, since the Anschluss, part of Greater Germany, they ostensibly want Stahl to chair the judging panel for a German festival of mountain films (a neat and historically accurate touch).  Of course, they also want to claim him as a fine specimen of Aryan manhood.  Stahl is repelled by Nazis and flatly refuses, but is then persuaded by American diplomats to act as their go-between with agents high places in the Reich.  Thus Stahl is launched on the other Furst trope, spying.

It's a cracking read.  One advantage of Furst's narrow canvas is that you can be sure he really knows his period material.  As a much-travelled man, his geography and cityscapes are equally reliable.  Most importantly, he manages to bring so much that is new to each 1938 European spy novel.  Here we are completely misled, not once but twice, as to the girl Stahl will really end up with.  Furst manages to keep the tension going until the very last page and still tie up all loose ends, which is pretty damn clever.

For me, the highlight was the movie Stahl is making, Apres la Guerre.  This could so easily have been embarrassing, but Furst gets it more or less pitch-perfect.  This is exactly the sort of movie second-string American leading men were making in non-Nazi Europe in the late thirties and precisely the way the Europeans made them.

I liked Midnight in Europe a lot.  I liked Mission to Paris a lot more.  Top quality.