Friday, December 11, 2015

Review of Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May and the Burning Man

Bryant & May and the Burning Man, by Christopher Fowler (Bantam, December 15, 2015)

The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s decrepit offices are located in the City of London, that ancient square mile that was home to London’s original settlement and is now jammed full of the skyscrapers housing the metropolis’s financial institutions.

Hardly anybody lives in the square mile anymore, which makes the P in PCU seem like it should stand for Precarious at times. The PCU has very little in the way of modern technology; nothing like the kind of assets that would allow it to combat the financial crimes that are headquartered in the square mile.

But as this twelfth book in the series begins, a case arises that is right up the PCU’s alley. Financial shenanigans in the banking world have led to increasingly large and violent protests in the City. One bank is firebombed, killing a homeless man dossed down under cardboard boxes in its entryway.

The PCU suspects this was murder, not accident, and their conviction is cemented when there are more murders; seemingly unconnected killings, executed in bizarre ways reminiscent of punishments common in more ancient times. As each day passes, demonstrations against the bankers and other presumed-to-be-corrupt wealthy people escalate. Arthur Bryant suspects that the mystery killer will take advantage of the upcoming Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day to pull off even more spectacular murders.

As always, the PCU gets no support––or even respect––from other police units. This time, their particular nemesis is Darren “Missing” Link, who hamstrings them, ostensibly to prevent their interference with an ongoing fraud investigation. Like everybody else, all Link sees in the PCU is a ragtag bunch of misfits, led by the spectacularly untidy and decidedly eccentric old man, Bryant. Like the rest of the force, he just doesn’t understand that Bryant’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of London is what will make all the difference in the investigation.

Each member of the PCU faces a crossroads in this book, which gives it a bittersweet, even elegiac feel. After 12 books, the PCU members are like old friends. I hope to see them again, but if not, I wish them well and thank Christopher Fowler for letting us know them.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Gift Shopping for Books: The Golden Age

No matter what winter holiday you celebrate, this is the gift-giving season. This week, I'll give you suggestions for some book lovers on your list. We'll start today with so-called Golden Age mysteries, which came into prominence during the 1920s and '30s. Some of the best-known Golden Age authors are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer, Josephine Tey, John Dickson Carr, and Patricia Wentworth. (Sister Mary mentions more in her November 28, 2015 post.) If you're not personally familiar with these writers, don't dismiss them out of hand as being too old-fashioned to bother with. Golden Age books can be witty or charming and are also great for readers of more modern traditional mysteries inspired by the Golden Age, such as those by Simon Brett, Peter Lovesey, and Sarah Caudwell, in which violence is mostly off-stage. (We'll talk about traditional mysteries on another day.)

There are many terrific books a Golden Age fan may not have read, and you can find them in a good used bookstore or online. On the list below, I've starred books for people who have oodles of Golden Age mysteries under their belts; they probably haven't read these unless they're connoisseurs of the period. Needless to say, I haven't tried to be comprehensive. If you want more recommendations, I'm happy to supply them. I've also included some other gift suggestions, if you want an accompaniment for your book.

Margery Allingham
More Work for the Undertaker features Albert Campion and the eccentric Palinode family, now reduced to poverty and further reduced by murder.
Accompany with: a word game such as Scrabble (poison-pen letters feature in this book)

Francis Beeding
*Death Walks in Eastrepps recounts one unexpected murder after another in a quiet English coastal village, Old Bailey proceedings, and a surprise ending.
Accompany with: trivets in the shape of fish or boats

Nicholas Blake
Shell of Death (APA Thou Shell of Death), set on Christmas weekend in an English country house, involves a suicide staged to look like murder.
Accompany with: the vintage card game Authors (Blake is the pen name of poet Cecil Day-Lewis, father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis)

Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None (APA Ten Little Indians) features strangers on a private island dropping like flies, one by one.
Accompany with: something that also disappears, one after another, such as a plate of homemade cookies (Maida Heatter's recipes are sensational) or some delicious artisan chocolate from Portland, Oregon, Seattle or New York City. (If you were born in Europe, clutching French candy or a Swiss chocolate in your hand, you don't need help from me.)

John Dickson Carr
The Three Coffins (APA The Hollow Man), a "locked-room" mystery, contains Dr. Gideon Fell's famous "Locked-Room Lecture."
Accompany with: a charm bracelet that carries a tiny key; a lockable box for little treasures

Cyril Hare
Tragedy at Law takes place as Judge Barber receives threatening letters while traveling the English Southern Circuit and is told from the viewpoint of down-at-the-heels lawyer Francis Pettigrew.
Accompany with: some beautiful stationery and a snazzy pen
[Note: Sister Mary previously mentioned Hare's An English Murder, a winter must-read due to its snowed-in English country house setting. I'm mentioning it again here because I love it, and it would be perfectly accompanied by a pair of warm slippers or a beautiful little snow globe.]

Georgette Heyer
No Wind of Blame assembles an oddball cast of characters at the English country house of a good-natured, wealthy American widow and then kills off the most likely candidate for being murdered.
Accompany with: a bottle of Russian vodka (one of the characters is an iffy Russian prince)

Richard Hull
*The Murder of My Aunt is told from the viewpoint of a satisfactorily unpleasant young man who plots to kill his aunt, no great prize herself, for an inheritance.
Accompany with: a board game that requires strategy, such as Monopoly or Risk

Michael Innes
Hamlet, Revenge! involves an amateur production of Hamlet during a house party at the Duke of Horton's palatial home, and a young Inspector John Appleby investigates the murder of one of the players.
Accompany with: a DVD of Hamlet, of course

Paul McGuire
*A Funeral in Eden (APA Burial Service) features a stranger found with his head bashed in on an idyllic island beach.
Accompany with: ingredients for piña coladas, tiny paper umbrellas, and appropriate glasses

Dorothy L. Sayers
Murder Must Advertise takes place at a London advertising agency full of clever ad writers.
Accompany with: a T-shirt carrying a famous advertising jingle or the maker's name on the front
The Nine Tailors, an exceedingly atmospheric book, finds Sir Peter Wimsey and Bunter stranded at an East Anglia rectory in time to help bell ringers usher in the New Year.
Accompany with: some homemade muffins (trust me, the reader will need some when reading this) or some English stout

If you haven't yet read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, a crime fiction classic, buy it for yourself. This is the one in which Inspector Grant, confined to his hospital bed, decides to tackle the guilt or innocence of Richard III in the deaths of the two princes in the Tower. For proper reading, you'll also need a bed tray for reading in bed, but don't feel you need to eat jello or other bland, hospital-like food. I suggest accompanying this book with hot tea or hot chocolate and cookies.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

There's no rapture for these crime fiction characters

I'm home from work with the flu. My coughing and sneezing are too much for my dogs, who have disappeared under the bed, leaving me alone to binge watch The Leftovers, whose characters live in a world after a Rapture-like event caused many people to vanish. I can't tell if I'm running a fever or if this TV series, based on Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name, is just downright weird. I'll see if I can collect my thoughts enough to tell you about a couple of books whose characters have their hands full sans a mass disappearance.

A man who's falling from his fifth-floor window windmills his way to the ground in the opening of Maurizio de Giovanni's The Bottom of Your Heart: Inferno for Commissario Ricciardi (translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar; Europa Editions, November 2015). It's a beautiful piece of descriptive writing in a book replete with lively descriptions of life in the sweltering summer of 1939 Italy under Mussolini. The point of view leaps among various short first-person narrations, but it focuses primarily on a third-person omniscient narrator's account of the investigation of Commissario Luigi Ricciardi and Brigadier Raffaele Maione into the death of Professor Tullio Iovine del Castello, chair of gynecology at a university hospital in Naples. There is no shortage of suspects if Dr. Iovine was pushed or thrown; the victim repeatedly flunked an old professional rival's son in his medical school classes, was having an extramarital affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter, and had enraged a ferocious gangster who swore revenge.

The Botom of Your Heart is the seventh book in this series, and characters from previous books reappear. Ricciardi, who fears for his sanity and keeps himself aloof since "the Deed" that allows him to hear the final thoughts and to see the ghostly shades of people who have died by violence (see Maltese Condor's review here), is still single in his 30s and is living with his beloved tata, now in deteriorating health, and her niece, Nelide. The lonely Commissario also has the affections of Enrica, the shy teacher who lives with her family across the street; Livia Vezzi, a beautiful social butterfly and widow of Italy's most famous tenor; Dr. Modo, the irascible medical examiner; and, of course, his loyal and tireless Brigadier, whose own secrets make him particularly impatient with his informant, Bambinella, a transvestite prostitute. This entertaining series is for people who enjoy crime fiction with a literary bent, keeping track of an ensemble cast of characters, and an Italian setting that's brought to life by its characters' concerns and the author's vivid writing. A reader can begin anywhere in this series, but for the full backstory, start with the first book, I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi.

The Italians in de Giovanni's series are natural philosophers. Even sassy private eye Kinsey Millhone is becoming more reflective in Sue Grafton's X (Marian Wood Books/Putnam, August 2015), the 24th book in the alphabet series set in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. Unlike other titles in the series (see my review of W Is for Wasted here), this "X" doesn't specifically stand for anything; however, one can find all sorts of Xs (symbolic and real), in the book: Teddy Xanakis, kisses, ex-husbands and wives, mistakes, the missing, a place locator, and unknowns.

In reading X, one gets the sense that things are beginning to wind up for Kinsey. The woman who trims her own hair with a fingernail scissors and has one dress hanging in her closet is financially secure, at least for a while; she can pick and choose her cases. Kinsey agrees to find an ex-con just released from prison only when Hallie Bettancourt says she was referred by one of Kinsey's friends, and Kinsey becomes involved in Pete Wolinsky's old case only when his widow, Ruthie, asks for help in locating financial records for an IRS audit. This isn't one of Grafton's strongest books; the plot feels somewhat contrived, and I was at times annoyed by Grafton's excessive attention to detail (Kinsey doesn't just make coffee, she turns on the machine, adds the coffee, watches the water heat...). Still, it's worthwhile to revisit Santa Teresa to see how one of mysterydom's most likable female sleuths is doing, and we won't have many more chances. Grafton does a great job of conveying what it's like to live on California's Central Coast; here, in 1989. Kinsey still goes to the library to look for old records and composes her case summaries on a Smith & Corona typewriter. She and her 89-year-old landlord and neighbor, Henry, are dealing with some new neighbors and the drought. (Was this timely reading!) In this 24th book, Kinsey seems less inclined to get into trouble, but when the searches for the ex-con and the financial records open cans of worms, she can't help but start digging. By the end, she's learned a thing or two and made her peace with the fact that justice isn't always cut-and-dried.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Mystery Reader's Thanksgiving

As long as we're expressing our thankfulness this week, I'm thinking of a special list of thanks for my mystery reading.

T is for traditional mystery. Today's mysteries are fine, but modern technology ruins a lot of the fun. Give me an English country house with an ill-assorted group of guests forced to fend for themselves when their host is murdered during a blizzard that takes down all the phone lines. (Cyril Hare's An English Murder is my favorite of these.)

Murder by complex electronics is a popular theme today, but I'd much rather read about a fiendishly clever way of poisoning with arsenic (Dorothy L. Sayers's Strong Poison) or even a leg of lamb (Roald Dahl's short story "Lamb to the Slaughter").

H is for Hill, Reginald, may he rest in peace. Years ago, the Material Witnesses participated in an online mystery discussion forum. The members were quizzed about their favorite authors and Reginald Hill came out on top. It's still hard to believe we'll never read a new Dalziel and Pascoe adventure. Though I love that series, I'd have to say my favorite Reginald Hill is a standalone, The Woodcutter. You could call it a very different sort of fairy tale.

A is for Anglophile, that's me. When I was growing up, my mother was a mystery addict, but I didn't understand why anybody would want to read about murder. Then, when I went to college and haunted all the used bookstores in the neighborhood, I was drawn to those green spines of the Penguin mysteries. Of course, most of them were the classic British titles, by authors like Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Leo Bruce, Christianna Brand, Josephine Tey, Cyril Hare, Edmund Crispin, Nicholas Blake, Anthony Gilbert, Michael Innes, Patricia Wentworth and Colin Watson.

I devoured those green Penguins, moving on from the Brits to other European writers, like Georges Simenon, as well as American masters like Donald Westlake and Dashiell Hammett. But I always come home to the British crime writers, over the years adding to my old Penguin green friends by falling in book love with the likes of Reginald Hill, Peter Lovesey, John Lawton, Barry Maitland, Sarah Caudwell, P. D. James, Colin Dexter, Robert Barnard and Ian Rankin.

Would you like to become addicted to Penguin green crime titles? Here's a good place to get started: Vintage Penguins.

N is for new beginnings, as in established novelists deciding to have a go at crime fiction. I'm thinking of two in particular: J. K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith, and Tony Parsons.

Rowling's series began with The Cuckoo's Calling, which introduced us to PI Cormoran Strike, a large, untidy man with a prosthetic leg, courtesy of service in the British armed forces in the Middle East. After he nearly knocks her down a flight of stairs, Strike takes on a secretary, Robin Ellacott, whose role slowly morphs into detective partner. I wasn't crazy about the serial-killer plot of the third book, Career of Evil, but the development of the characters is so good I can forgive the plot.

Tony Parsons is not as well known in the US as in the UK, but he has had a longtime career there as a journalist and novelist. He decided to give crime fiction a try, creating the Max Wolfe character. Wolfe is a single father to a delightful little girl (and I usually really dislike kids in crime fiction) and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Stan. That sounds too cute for words, but there is plenty of hard-boiled and gritty crime in Max's job as a homicide detective with London's Metropolitan Police.

The Max Wolfe series begins with The Murder Man (titled The Murder Bag in the UK), which I reviewed here. The second book, The Slaughter Man, suffered from some truly terrible plotting, but this is another example of a series with such good characters that even a serious mis-step won't turn me off . . . yet.

K is for Kerr, Philip, author of the long-running Bernie Gunther series. Gunther is, variously, a homicide detective for Berlin's Kriminalpolizei in the 1930s, a private detective when the Nazis force him out, a reluctant investigator for the German army and some top Nazi officials, and so on.

I eagerly await each new Bernie Gunther novel, many of which I've reviewed here. (Check it out!) One of the things I most enjoy about the series is that Kerr is no slave to continuity. He's jumped all around the timeline and to a lot of different countries. You never know where (or when) Bernie will be next. I'm reading that the next one, The Other Side of Silence, coming in the spring, will be set in the French Riviera in 1956.

S is for spies. I can't get enough of espionage. Well, actually, that's not true. If the setting is after the Cold War, the subject loses a lot of its appeal for me. I can't get excited about cyberterrorism, nuclear weapons, technological whizbangery and all that kind of modern-era stuff. I prefer your old-fashioned dead drops, coded radio messages, and skulking down mist-shrouded streets somewhere in Central Europe.

To me, John le Carré will always be the master. But add in plenty of Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Frederick Forsyth and Joseph Kanon, please. Oh, and nonfiction, with large dollops of Ben MacIntyre and anything about the Cambridge Spy Ring or Churchill's Special Operations Executive.

G is for gumshoe. If your definition is any private detective, then my favorite would be Lord Peter Wimsey, who is about as far as you can get from the classic fedora-wearing, tough-talking American guy who takes and gives regular beatings. But if you insist on the more traditional type, then I'd have to decide between Nick Charles and Philip Marlowe.

I is for international. I'm so grateful that the crime fiction market in the US has opened up to books from all around the world. It's a leap of faith to buy a foreign-language title and take the time and resources to have it translated and marketed to an American audience. If publishers and editors hadn't taken this leap, I'd never have read Fred Vargas's marvelous Commissaire Adamsberg series (France), Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series (Italy)  or the many Nordic titles that have become so popular here.

V is for violence, but the right kind. Graphic descriptions of dismemberment and serial killer rituals? Nix!  I can't read with one eye closed, the way Georgette does, and even if I could, I don't think I'd sleep a wink afterward. I prefer my violence to take place off the page and for the author to take violent death seriously, not as a way to jangle nerves.

I is for investigation. Sure, that's what your gumshoe does, and I've already talked about that breed. But how about those other investigators, the ones we see in the police procedural? Of the many sub-genres in crime fiction, that's way up near the top for me. And I can't think of police procedurals without thinking of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse series. For so long, I waited impatiently for each new title. I bemoaned just how nasty Morse could be to Lewis, but it was always the price to pay for the investigative prowess.

Despite his propensity to put himself in danger needlessly and break rules all over the place, Ian Rankin's John Rebus has been a good exemplar of the police investigator. In Harry Bingham's Fiona Griffiths you get a much more unconventional approach, but Fiona's definitely still part of the sub-genre, and a welcome one.

N is for Nordic, those mysteries set in the Scandinavian countries and northern Europe. Like most longtime mystery readers, my first foray into the Nordics was with Henning Mankell. My favorite, though, is Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series. I'm excited to see that more German crime fiction is hitting our shores, like Ferdinand von Schirach's The Collini Case.

Since I've already given my thanks more than once for Eurocrime, I thought about making N be for Noir, but if you're a stickler for precise definitions, I'm more of a fan of hardboiled than noir––though I do like Jean-Patrick Manchette, who is classic French noir.

G is for my longtime mystery-reading buddy, Georgette. Nobody knows mysteries from every time period and sub-genre like she does. Go ahead, ask her for a recommendation of a book about, oh, say, death by ocelot or other exotic animal, and see what she comes up with.

I wish I also had a P for publishers like Minotaur, Mysterious Press, Open Road, Poisoned Pen, Europa Editions, Soho Crime, Severn House, Bitter Lemon Press, No Exit Press, the big houses, and others who feed our crime fiction addiction with new titles, translations of foreign-language crime fiction and republications of old gems.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of Daniel Palmer's Constant Fear

Constant Fear by Daniel Palmer (Kensington, May 2015)

I hope your Thanksgiving preparations are going smoothly. My own are chugging along. I got a little panicky when I realized my list of things to do before I leave Wednesday morning won't all fit onto one page, but, hey, I can sleep on the plane. Right now, I'm going to take a break to talk about Daniel Palmer's Constant Fear. I'll tell you about an Italian police procedural a little later.

Why is it bad action movies can still be entertaining, but poorly written action thrillers are annoying? Finding a decent thriller to read is tough. When I saw Strand Magazine's Top Ten Books of 2015 (see Note below), I was hopeful about the books I hadn't read because I'd already enjoyed some of the others. (I recently showed you Chris Holm's The Killing Kind, in which you root for a nice-guy hit man (see review here.)

In Palmer's Constant Fear, we meet a man who has suffered some debilitating losses. Jake Dent's promising pro baseball career ended when his drunken car accident injured his pitching arm. After their young son, Andy, was diagnosed with diabetes, Jake's wife left. Jake, who found comfort in taking up survivalism and teaching these skills to Andy, has brought his life under control. He's slowly developing a romantic relationship with a cop in Winston, Massachusetts, and is head custodian at the elite Pepperell Academy, where the 16-year-old Andy is a student.

Andy and a few geeky friends have formed a group they call "the Shire." They've been running a Robin Hood operation by hacking into accounts of Pepperell parents so wealthy they don't notice the theft. But now there's a problem. It's as if the Shire has cast a fishing line into a mud puddle and hooked Moby-Dick. They've stolen millions in bitcoins that need to be returned immediately, but the money has somehow disappeared. None of the kids will admit to knowing what happened to it. They realize they're in big trouble––but they have no idea. The bitcoins don't actually belong to that Pepperell parent. Some very bad men come to Winston, hellbent on getting that money back. 

Try this contraption while thriller reading
The mouth breathing you need to do while reading this book is kinda hard when you're also gulping at some fairly grim scenes. Constant Fear isn't actually as brutal a book as one I told you about yesterday, Jason Matthews's Palace of Treason. The tension feels almost unbearable, though, because of Palmer's skill at conveying the threat of violence. Despite some curveballs the writer throws us, the plot is sometimes predictable, and the characters, physical setting, and events very contrived. I actually found myself exclaiming, "Oh, c'mon! What are the odds?" But those occasional objections to unreality really didn't matter. I liked Jake and the relationship he has with his son. Palmer had me staying up late, breathlessly turning those pages, and I didn't once feel like throwing the book across the room.

Note: Here is Strand Magazine's Top Ten Books of 2015. (Don't ask me why there are twelve on the list.)

The Killing Kind by Chris Holm (Mulholland Books)
Solitude Creek by Jeffrey Deaver (Grand Central)
The Fixer by Joseph Finder (Dutton)
Broken Promises by Linwood Barclay (NAL)
Dark Places by Reavis Z. Wortham (Poisoned Pen)
A Pattern of Lies by Charles Todd (William Morrow)
Constant Fear by Daniel Palmer (Kensington)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead)
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer (Minotaur)
The Stranger by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
The Hot Countries by Tim Hallinan (Soho)
Dead Student by John Katzenbach (Mysterious)

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Thanksgiving Sampler

Thank God we're talking about test driving,
not our own disastrous driving tests.
A friend and I have been tasting champagne this weekend, because that's what Hubby and I have been asked to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. After we methodically worked our way through several bottles, we felt festive enough to sample pumpkin pie coupled with various flavors of ice cream she had in her freezer. We agreed on the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label and concluded it's best to stick to a good vanilla.

The holiday season is full of figuring stuff out: the gift for your best friend, the guest list for your winter potluck, how to ship cookies to your far-flung kids. You also need to find some books to read to keep yourself sane. An excellent way to ensure a book matches what you're in the mood for is to stock up on a variety. Let's test drive some possibilities.

During the winter holidays, one hones one's cloak-and-dagger skills hiding gifts at home and diplomatic talents charming colleagues at the office party. Surely, this is the season for reading espionage.

Something British and cynical might hit the spot. Former BBC correspondent Adam Brookes has followed up his compelling Night Heron (Redhook/Hachette, 2014) with Spy Games (Redhook, September 2015). Freelance journalist Philip Mangan is a decent guy with more than his fair share of restlessness and curiosity. After a dabble into espionage necessitated his fleeing Beijing, Philip is in Addis Abba, investigating the Chinese presence in Ethiopia. Then three things happen: an MI6 asset dies in Hong Kong, Philip barely escapes a café bombing, and he is offered some classified Chinese military documents. Thus are Philip and Trish Patterson, his MI6 handler, drawn into a power struggle that is playing out primarily in Ethiopia; Oxford, England; and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It's not necessary to read Night Heron first, but I'd suggest you do that simply for the pleasure of understanding exactly why MI6 isn't thrilled to find "Philip Mangan," "China" and "spy" again in the same equation, and why Philip is feeling a bit cross about it, too. At 437 pages, Spy Games could benefit from some tightening up; however, if you like an intricate plot woven with separate threads, colorful characters, and beautifully drawn exotic locations, this is for you.

If you're feeling in the mood for dueling American and Russian intelligence agencies, sex used as an espionage tool, and very sadistic villains (brace yourself), check out books written by an espionage insider, former CIA agent Jason Matthews. His writing feels very up close and personal in its focus on the characters' lives and personalities and their elaborate spycraft.

In 2013's Red Sparrow (Scribner), Matthews introduces the CIA's young hot-shot, Nate Nash, and the beautiful Russian agent, Dominika Egorova, whose job it is to get him to divulge the identity of a Russian traitor (see Sister Mary Murderous's review here). Dominika is a synesthete who perceives people surrounded by a colored aura; at the appearance of her black-haloed boss, former Lubyanka prison torturer Alexei Zyuganov, I pulled the covers over my head.

Dominika is back in Russia in Palace of Treason (Scribner, June 2015). She's climbing the ranks of the SVR, much to the chagrin of the scheming Zyuganov, and maneuvering to avoid exposure as she passes information to the Americans. Meanwhile, there's a mole at CIA headquarters passing secrets to the Russians, which creates a very pleasant symmetry (don't you think?), and jacks up the suspense. I was surprised and pleased to see Russian President Vladimir Putin appear as a minor character, as wily and enigmatic as we Westerners find him in real life. Palace of Treason can be read as a standalone, but you'll want to read Red Sparrow, too. One can never find enough good spy yarns––especially those with lovesick agents and recipes.

With all the demands of the holidays pressing, you might appreciate the comfort of an offbeat mystery with a strong sense of place, such as Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri series, featuring the Most Private Investigators Ltd. agency in Delhi, or Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana.

Vaseem Khan's quirky first book, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Redhook, September 2015), is the opening book of such a proposed series. Inspector Ashwin Chopra's heart condition has forced him into early retirement after more than three decades on the Mumbai police force. During his last day, Chopra learns of a young man who apparently drowned in a puddle. The Inspector is warned off opening an inquiry and returns home to find a baby elephant, Ganesha, bequeathed to him by his uncle.

As a policeman, Chopra was an incorruptible officer who prided himself on treating everyone equally. So he can't get the screams of the dead youth's mother––that her family is too poor for his death to be adequately investigated––out of his head. Chopra decides to look into it on his own. He must keep this a secret, because his wife, Poppy, would object, and he doesn't want his former police colleagues thinking he's one of those unfortunate people who have no life outside work. Chopra balances caring for little Ganesha, whose abilities are not entirely realistic, with a criminal investigation that takes him through various Mumbai neighborhoods. This allows the reader to glimpse a fascinating city through the eyes of a man who loves it, even though he regrets some aspects of its modernization. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is a little too consciously charming for my taste, but I wanted to tell you about it because many readers love it for its charm, and you might, too.

Tomorrow we'll look at a few more holiday reads.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Review of Simon Mawer's Tightrope

Tightrope, by Simon Mawer (Other Press, November 3, 2015)

During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the new Special Operations Executive to "set Europe ablaze" by supporting the resistance to the Nazis in occupied countries. Many young men and women who knew other languages, especially French, were sent behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and work with local resistance groups. Their chances of being captured, tortured, imprisoned and executed were very high––and they knew it from the start.

For years, I've been fascinated by the story of the SOE, and especially of the young women who volunteered for this lethally dangerous duty. In an era when it was rare for a woman to do anything other than graduate from school to marriage and children, these women were trained in the arcana of espionage, including parachute jumping, hand-to-hand combat and silent killing. What was in the minds and hearts of the women who became SOE agents?

In Trapeze (Other Press, 2012), which is the predecessor to Tightrope, Simon Mawer gives us the story of a fictionalized SOE agent named Marian Sutro. She's English and French, grew up in Switzerland and moved to England with her family as things got dangerous on the European continent before World War II broke out. She had friends in France, especially Clément, the young scientist whom she'd had a crush on for years. When Germany overran France, it seemed very black and white to her; a place and people she loved were in danger from an evil invader and she wanted to help.

When Tightrope begins, the war is in its last weeks and Marian is coming home. She wasn't an SOE agent in France for long. She was betrayed, captured by the Nazis, tortured and finally sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious prison camp for women near Berlin, where many real-life SOE female agents were sent. (By the way, I highly recommend Sarah Helm's masterful history of the camp: Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (Nan A. Talese, 2015).)

Back home in England, nobody knows how to treat Marian and she hardly knows who she is and how she is to live in this postwar world. Mawer evocatively portrays Marian's numbness and alienation, the way she can more easily relate emotionally to her memories of her fellow Ravensbrück prisoners than to her own family and colleagues. To help her recover from her traumatic war experiences, Marian is advised to see a psychiatrist. She tells him that life in the camp appeared to be nothing but gray, but underneath the monochrome their lives were complex, with hierarchies, networks and groups. The way a prisoner made her way through the complex meant the difference between life and death.

Queueing for rationed food in 1947
In many ways, it seemed to me that the same could be said of Marian's life in postwar England. Rationing of food, clothing and other goods continued for years, rebuilding was slow, everybody just seemed to want to keep their heads down, forget the past and get on with things. Gray. But Marian soon learns that the Cold War struggle has begun, another layered reality of complex relationships and loyalties.

Marian is offered a job and she attempts to return to some semblance of a normal life, but her past keeps impinging on the present. She has friends who are nuclear scientists, she has contacts in the intelligence services and, when she returns to Ravensbrück to testify against Nazi prison camp guards, she meets others who are in the intelligence game.

After the US drops atomic bombs on Japan, develops the far more powerful hydrogen bomb and seems to be seriously considering a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union, she wonders what was the point of all the sacrifice only a few years before, if World War III is now on the doorstep. Slowly, inexorably, Marian is drawn back into the ambiguous world of intelligence, with its agents, counter-agents, double agents and moles. Marian is once again in an environment where security and life itself depend on hierarchies, networks and groups. Will her choices lead to safety or betrayal?

Although this is a long and slow-moving novel, and Marian is a difficult character, I was riveted. Mawer makes Marian completely believable, even if often not very likable, and he immerses the reader in the tensions and uncertainty of her position, slowly upping the ante as the story goes on. Mawer has done his research, too, and skillfully interweaves real characters and events from SOE history, and British intelligence during the Cold War, into Marian's story. Details of Marian's SOE experiences will ring true to those who have read the histories. Her experiences reminded me a good deal of the description of what happened to SOE agent Eileen Nearne, which you can read about in brief here.

Former SOE agents Eileen Nearne and Odette Sansom
attend the 1993 unveiling of a plaque
at Ravensbrück, where both were imprisoned
Marian's story is told through the eyes of Sam Wareham, the son of Sutro family friends, who met Marian shortly after her return. Sam was 12 years younger than Marian and had an immediate schoolboy crush on her. His fascination for her continued for years to come, including when he became a member of the British intelligence services. The idea of looking at Marian through Sam's eyes has some benefits in telling the espionage story, but some real detriments, since his character so often has to write about events and thoughts that he couldn't know anything about.

Hayley Atwell in Restless
Though I am dubious about the use of the Sam Wareham character, in other respects I think this is a first-rate novel, and should especially appeal to those who enjoy reading about World War II and/or Cold War espionage, particularly about female agents. I liked it every bit as much as William Boyd's Restless (Bloomsbury USA, 2006), a standout novel that was dramatized by the BBC. The three-hour BBC drama, starring Hayley Atwell, Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery and the fabulous Charlotte Rampling, was just released on DVD in the US, in case you're thinking of a good Christmas gift for somebody who enjoys espionage movies.

Although I did read Trapeze before reading Tightrope, I don't think that's at all necessary. Tightrope is also a better read than Trapeze, so if there's any question in your mind about whether you'd like either of them, I'd go with Tightrope first.

Just in case you want to read more . . . 

Note: I received a free review copy of Tightrope from the publisher, through the Amazon Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.