Saturday, 30 January 2021

A Song for the Dark Times - Ian Rankin


Rankin's latest Rebus is as good as ever.  Late phase Rebus, of course, means retired Rebus getting involved, one way or another, in crimes being investigated by Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox.  And there's no change here.  What I would say, though, is that in A Song for the Dark Times the potentially tricky mix is done better than in some of the others.  The cases are separate but involve some of the same people.  Rebus is called up to the rural North when his estranged daughter's partner is murdered and Samantha is a prime suspect.  Meanwhile in Edinburgh Fox joins the team led by Siobhan's partner DCI Graham Sutherland, investigating the murder of wealthy Saudi student and James Bond fan, Salman Bin Mahmoud.  Fox has been seconded from MIT because Salman's father is being detained by the Saudi authorities and the Foreign Office want oversight of the case.  The connection between the two cases is that the Meiklejohn family owns the former PoW camp in which Sam's partner's body was found, and Lady Isabella Meiklejohn appears to be Salman's girlfriend.

It's very clever - beautifully written, of course - and eminently satisfying in the resolution.  Rankin on top form.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

The Chemistry of Death - Simon Beckett


The Chemistry of Death is the first novel in Beckett's series about the forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter.  We begin with Hunter on the run from his high-pressure job following the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash.  Hunter understands better than anyone the processes of death and decomposition but has no idea how to cope with simple human grief.  So he reverts to his original profession as a GP and joins the rural practice of wheelchair-bound Henry Maitland in the sleepy Norfolk village of Manham.  Three years on and David has almost assimilated into the community.  Then a local woman goes missing, turning up dead several days later.  Routine inquiries bring police to the local surgery and DI Mackenzie discovers David's past.  David tries not to get involved but inevitably gets drawn in.  He knew this woman - they flirted briefly - and the clues, such as they are, are most definitely in David's area of expertise.  Then another woman disappears, and a third - the young schoolteacher Jenny, the day after she and David became a couple...

The level of scientific detail is impressive, capitalising on the novel's USP.  The characterisation is good, the writing style just right, but what makes the book is the plotting.  Anyone in the village could be the killer and Beckett manipulates us into considering the most likely suspects one by one.  The actual killer is fair game but then comes a killer twist.  Eminently satisfactory.

Beckett has written other books and is by no means a beginner.  He risks what many beginners often stumble over - occasional switches from the first-person narrative of David Hunter to third-person accounts of two of the women who disappear.  He just about pulls it off.  These episodes are not essential to the novel but they do add to the horror quotient and one towards the end is a clever red herring. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Haunting of H G Wells - Robert Masello


A fantasy adventure featuring HG versus the nefarious Hun in World War I.  The great man has embarked on his latest and greatest affair with Rebecca West when Churchill invites him to visit the trenches to write some morale-boosting pieces for the Home Front.  This leads to the haunting and a facet of trench life which I didn't know existed but probably did.  Meanwhile Rebecca visits the London home of the satanic Aleister Crowley who is sheltering the said Hun.  This leads to a showdown in St Paul's cathedral.

Masello writes in a well-practised style, easy and pacey, albeit I would have liked a touch more artistry.  What he does really well is keep the fantasy on the right side of credibility.  Overall, great fun. 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

The Third Ghost Book - Lady Cynthia Asquith


A classic collection from 1955, this is very much about comfortable, middle class ghosts.  The writers reek of middle-classness, their prose overdone and their imagination limited.  Lady Cynthia herself is by far the worst.  There are, however, some gems amid the dross - a story by Robert Aickman I hadn't come across before ("Ringing the Changes"), Marghanita Laski's solitary classic ("The Tower"), and one by a writer unknown to me ("The House in the Glen" by John Connell).  Otherwise, I'm afraid to say, not worth the bother.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Neverhome - Laird Hunt


Late last year I stumbled upon Laird Hunt and was blown away.  I began with The House in the Dark of the Woods, then went on to American Midnight, and now this, his first novel to be published this side of the Atlantic.

Neverhome is the first-person story of Constance Thompson, who goes to war because her husband Bartholomew isn't up to the task.  Disguised as a man, she becomes a legend - "Gallant Ash."  Her fellow troops even devise a song about her.  Her colonel wants her to become a sharp shooter.  But then things start to go wrong.  She ends up in a mental hospital, then becomes the love object of a local widow.  Ultimately, she walks home.  But this is Laird Hunt and there is no happy ending.

Because this is Laird Hunt the first-person voice becomes so persuasive that we are sucked into Constance's dreams, perhaps even her madness.  A comparatively short book takes on the scope of an epic journey.  I loved it.  I have to have more.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

A Presumption of Innocence - Ludovic Kennedy


Last month I read and reviewed Denise Mina's Field of Blood.  The heroine of that novel was Paddy Meehan, taking her nickname from the real victim of a famous Scottish miscarriage of justice from 1969 which I had never heard of.  This surprised me: miscarriages of justice were already a keen interest of mine at the time (mainly prompted by the Guilford Four).  Naturally I had to find out and I knew from Mina that it was one of Ludovic Kennedy's crusades, which I first learned about around 1969-70 when they made the movie of 10 Rillington Place.

So, inevitably, I hit ebay and got myself a copy of A Presumption of Innocence.

Now, this paperback is an updated edition issued after Meehan was pardoned.  I may yet feel obliged to try and access the original, because the only reason Meehan got pardoned was because of the furore caused by Kennedy's book.  Things in the original that can only have been conjecture appear here as fact (which they might not be, given that Meehan was pardoned, not exonerated at appeal) and any leads which led nowhere have probably been excised.  One of the latter, I suspect, is Meehan's frankly bizarre claim that he - a Glaswegian safe cracker - had been a spy in East Germany, which is reduced here to a frankly meaningless stub.  To be even franker, this paperback was obviously a rushed job issued to capitalise on Meehan's brief moment of fame, and it shows.

Meat cleaver editing, however, cannot hide the facts of the case, which are truly alarming.  Meehan effectively put himself in the frame by ringing the police with information about the murder of Mrs Ross in Ayr in July 1969.  Mrs Ross's husband, who survived, said the attackers called themselves Pat and Jim.  Meehan's story was that he had been out of town sizing up a proposed crime in Stranraer with a friend and fellow criminal who just happened to be called Jim.  On the way back to Glasgow in the early hours he thought he might have come across the Ross killers, hence the call.  He didn't actually give his mate's full name because Jim Griffiths was on the run.  It took the police only hours to find out who he was - resulting in an armed siege in which Griffiths was killed by police. having shot and killed one officer and injuring several more.  Thus Meehan eventually stood trial with a dead man whose record could be revealed to the jury.  This tended to obscure the fact that Mr Abraham Ross, himself Glasgow born, was sure his attackers both had Glasgow accents whereas Jim Griffiths was from Lancashire and had a strong Northern accent.

Kennedy infers that the police rigged Meehan's identity parade and planted incriminating evidence in Griffiths' car coat after his death.  This might have come out at appeal and caused a scandal - hence the pardon.

Meehan had, however, spent seven years in prison by the time the book came out and had used up all his appeals.  One of the grounds of appeal - and one of his lines of defence at the original trial - was that someone else had killed Mrs Ross.  Not the usual person unknown but a named individual, Ian Waddell, who (unbelievably) was a defence witness at the trial and who (not the sharpest knife in the box) had regularly confessed to the Press over the years since.

Given all that, I still cannot understand why Paddy Meehan hasn't become a byword for police malice and injustice south of the Border.  I can't find anyone (and as a member of the judiciary I know a number of the right people) who has even heard of the case.  An armed siege in the centre of a major city in which policemen are shot at?  Imagine if that had been London, Manchester, Birmingham or indeed anywhere in England!  Remember for example the wall-to-wall coverage of Harry Roberts, four or five years before Griffiths.

It's a must-read if you are at all interested in the justice system - but make sure you get a first edition.

Cry Baby - Mark Billingham


The seventeenth Thorne novel is a prequel to the first, Sleepyhead.  It is 1996, the year football was supposed to be coming home, with the European Championships in London.  A seven year old disappears from a London park.  Thorne is a newly separated DS.  On a hunch he suspects one of the mother's neighbours.  The suspect's name is leaked to the press and he ends up killing himself, shortly before his alibi was proved.  Thorne suspects his DI, Gordon Boyle, of being behind the leak.  Certainly he blames Boyle for easing up on all other suspects.  At the same time Thorne knows full well that he made the same assumptions about the suspect - because he looked like a paedophile.  Thorne, however, does not ease up.

Billingham really is a master of his craft.  He leads us towards the real culprit and then misleads.  There is a terrific red herring involving the boy and his best friend, and a twist at the very end that I never dreamt was coming.  The climax itself is terrifically exciting.  I shall have to take it to pieces to find out how Billingham did it.  I mean, I read a lot of crime fiction and I am getting frankly cheesed off with the current crop of Jamie Bulger plotlines - yet my heart was genuinely thumping and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.

Much fun is also had with Thorne's first meeting with the punk pathologist, Phil Hendricks.

A great start for my reading new year.