Eyejaybee is back for the Challenge for 2021

Snak100 Books in 2021 Challenge!

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Eyejaybee is back for the Challenge for 2021

Redigeret: maj 26, 2021, 3:17 am

Hello, everyone.

I am James, a 58 year old widower working in the UK civil service, and theoretically based in Whitehall (if we ever actually return to the office).

I am glad to be back for another year's reading challenge, and I am very grateful to Hemlokgang for setting up this Group. I am also looking forward to seeing how everyone fares, and hoping to pick up loads of book bullets as we progress through the year.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2021, with a feast of great reading.

Here are my counters for the Challenge:

Redigeret: jan 11, 2021, 12:49 pm

Before I plunge into the challenge for 2021, I thought I would look back over my reading throughout 2020. In the end I managed to read 104 books (falling short of my target by twenty-one). Perhaps counter intuitively, and from what I understand markedly counter to the prevailing trend, I actually found myself reading a lot less than usual during lockdown. There was a practical aspect to this in that as I worked from home for three quarters of the year, I ‘lost’ two hours of commuting time each working day, which I had generally treated as valuable reading time. I did, however, also initially find it difficult to get into the right frame of mind for reading, and realise that I ended up re-reading far more old favourites than would usually be the case.

My highs and lows for 2020 (listed in chronological order of reading for each category, rather than in any measure of preference) were as follows:

New-to-me fiction read during the year:

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
Here We Are by Graham Swift.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel.
The Truants by Kate Weinberg.
A Single Source by Peter Hannington.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell.
Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz.
A Song For The Dark Times by Ian Rankin.
Trio by William Boyd

If I had to pick one out of those, I think it would probably have to be either The Glass Hotel or Where The Crawdads Sing.

My favourite Non-Fiction books of the year were:

Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith
Midnight at Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
Who Dares Wins by Dominic Sandbrook.
Parisian Lives by Deirdre Bair.
Notre-Dame: The Soul of France by Agnes Poirier
Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro

My overall favourite among those would be Who Dares Wins, very narrowly topping Parisian Lives.

My favourite re-reads of the year:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell (Non Fiction)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

And the books I enjoyed least during 2020:

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller.
Doctor Slaughter by Paul Theroux.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe.

Redigeret: dec 31, 2021, 2:53 am

01. The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili.
02. The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths.
03. Lockdown by Peter May.
04. Lying in State by Julian Rathbone.
05. Secret Service by Tom Bradby.
06. No one Writes To The Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
07. Those People by Louise Candlish.
08. Prince of Spies by Alex Gerlis.
09. At the Existentialist Cafe* by Sarah Bakewell.
10. The Janus Stone by Elly Grifiths.
11. Slough House by Mick Herron.
12. Red Corona by Tim Glister.
13. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.
14. Skin by Kerry Andrew.
15. The Kindly Ones by Anthony Powell.
16. The Curse of the Arctic Star by Carolyn Keene.
17. The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish.
18. The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths.
19. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
20. The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo by Franklin W. Dixon.
21. Double Agent by Tom Bradby.
22. Strangers on a Train by Carolyn Keene.
23. A Shock to the System by Simon Brett.
24. Russian Roulette* by Richard Greene.
25. Piranesi by Susannah Clarke.
26. Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths.
27. The Rock and Roll A level* by David Hepworth.
28. Our House by Louise Candlish.
29. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré.
30. The House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths.
31. A Fresh Start by Various Authors.
32. The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington.
33. Mozart’s Women* by Jane Glover.
34. The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths.
35. Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy.
36. The Guest List by Lisa Foley.
37. Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester
38. Waypoints* by Robert Martineau.
39. A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming.
40. What Men Say by Joan Smith.
41. A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths.
42. Slow Horses by Mick Herron.
43. Full Stop by Joan Smith.
44. Close Call by Stella Rimington.
45. The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths.
46. Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin.
47. Blue Genes by Val McDermid.
48. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell.
49. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith.
50. Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths.
51. Cry Baby by Mark Billingham.
52. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
53. Mr Norris Changes trains by Christopher Isherwood.
54. Capital by John Lanchester
55. London, Burning by Anthony Quinn.
56. The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths.
57. Love Like Blood by Mark Billingham.
58. John Macnab by John Buchan.
59. The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel.
60. The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths.
61. The Outsider by Stephen King.
62. Box 88 by Charles Cumming.
63. A Cursed Place by Peter Hanington.
64. The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths.
65. Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn.
66. Other People's Secrets by Louise Candlish.
67. Blood Line by Mark Billingham.
68. That Will be England Gone by Michael Henderson.*
69. The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths.
70. Diamond and The Eye by Peter Lovesey.
71. Dead Beat by Val McDermid.
72. From the Dead by Mark Billingham.
73. A Colder War by Charles Cumming.
74. Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.
75. Good as Dead by Mark Billingham.
76. A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz.
77. 1979 by Val McDermid.
78. Different Class by Joanne Harris.
79. The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards.*
80. Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré.
81. Death Message by Mark Billingham..
82. Testkill by Ted Dexter and Clifford Makins.
83. The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin.
84. A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris.
85. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.
86. The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths.
87. So Much Blood by Simon Brett.
88. The Whistle Blower by Robert Peston.
89. The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman.
90. Star Trap by Simon Brett.
91. Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer.
92. The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham.
93. The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths.
94. The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell.
95. Judas 62 by Charles Cumming.
96. In The Dark by Mark Billingham.
97. Silverview by John le Carré.
98. The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths.
99. The Appeal by Janice Hallett.
100. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz.
101. The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes.
102. Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths.
103. Slough House by Mick Herron.
104. The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly.
105. State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.
106. The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths.
107. Dolphin Crossing by Mick Herron.
108. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles.
109. The Soldier’s Art by Anthony Powell.
110. Ascension by Oliver Harris.
111. The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths.
112. Postmortem by Patricia D Cornwell.
113. Still Life by Louise Penny.
114. The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell.
115. Trio by William Boyd.
116. What Bloody Man is That? by Simon Brett.
117. Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell.
118. Mike at Wrykyn by P. G. Wodehouse.
119. Star Struck by Val McDermid.
120. A Series of Murders by Simon Brett.
121. A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny.

dec 29, 2020, 5:54 pm

Wishing you a year of rewarding reading.

jan 1, 2021, 2:03 pm

Happy New Year and I look forward to following your reading again in 2021!

jan 2, 2021, 1:47 pm

Good health and good reads in 2021!

jan 2, 2021, 4:09 pm

Happy New Year!

Redigeret: jan 12, 2021, 8:49 am

1. The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili.

Absolutely wonderful, and easily worth 5 stars. I will write a proper review shortly.

jan 12, 2021, 8:49 am

1. The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili.

I really don’t know where to start discussing or describing this novel. As this is my first review of 2021, I might ease in to things gently by pandering to my constant inner flippant schoolboy, and declare that it is far and away the best book by a Georgian writer that I have read all year (or, indeed, all this century). To be honest, however, I am now wondering whether it is quite simply the finest book of any provenance that I have read this century. I finished it a few days ago, but have only just started to try to capture my thoughts about it, and am pretty certain that I will lamentably fail to do it justice.

It has drawn a lot of media attention, and has been nominated for several awards, including the International Booker Prize. I have also seen it described as a Georgian War and Peace. To my shame, I haven’t read Tolstoy’s classic so I can’t comment on that comparison, but the glowing encomia that are strewn over the cover, and occupy the first two or three pages are all entirely merited.

At the simplest level, it tells the story of Georgia throughout the twentieth century. And what a story! The novel casually encompasses the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the civil strife that ensued, the establishment of Stalin’s regime (although, apart from one heart-breaking yet curiously apposite joke delivered in a moment of extreme stress by one of the principal characters, neither he nor his brutal sidekick Lavrenti Beria – both Georgians, of course – are ever mentioned by name), the Second World War, Stalin’s continuing terrors, the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev’s perestroika, the dissolution of the USSR and, eventually, a return to some form of independence.

Yet it is so much more than a simple procession through the cataclysmic stream of events that beset the various characters peopling the pages. It is a powerful saga, following six generations of one family, covering the whole of the twentieth century, but switching its focus between characters as their respective stories predominate.

Ms Haratischvili manages a huge cast of characters, all of whom stand out in clear relief with their own finely drawn personalities. Stasia, born with the century, initially appears as the favoured daughter of a local chocolatier, who had learned his art in Budapest but returned to his native Georgia, where his luxurious product ensures a certain prosperity. From her first appearance as an over-indulged teenager, Stasia sees her adolescent dreams flourish then disintegrate as war and revolution intervene. But she has a deep reserve contends with serial adversities and emerges as a matriarchal figure, revered, and perhaps feared by the rest of her family.

I won’t even try to offer a synopsis of the story. There are so many different, intricately interlaced threads, each beautifully constructed, that I would fail utterly to do them justice. They do all cohere into a marvellous tapestry, and I am still reeling from the vivd pictures it paints.

I am also intrigued by the translation. Ms Haratischvili has lived in Germany for much of her life, and writes in both German and Georgian. This novel, however, was written in German. I have often felt a certain trepidation about reading such a huge work in translation, but the English version that I read flows seamlessly, so I would also extend a shout out to the translators (with a further nod to the author for whom this masterpiece was written in what is at least her second language).

jan 12, 2021, 11:30 am

2. The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths.

This novel introduced Dr Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist working at the University of North Norfolk. Ruth lives in a small cottage on the edge of a coastal marsh. She had first visited that area ten years ago when, as a postgraduate archaeology student she had participated in the excavation of a local henge. She had fallen in love with the area, and had decided that she wanted to stay there permanently, and had been lucky enough to purchase the cottage shortly afterwards, and has lived there ever since. She never anticipated that events from that dig would still resonate so strongly in her life after a span of ten years.

She is consulted in her professional capacity when a woman walking a dog finds what turn out to be human bones … more particularly, the bones of a young child. As it happens, a child has recently gone missing in the area, and the police are naturally eager to establish how old the new found remains might be. Ruth is quickly able to identify the body parts as ancient, and almost certainly from the Iron Age . She is, naturally, excited about the new find, although she is equally concerned about the plight of the missing girl. Through her contact with the Detective inspector leading the search for the young girl she learns that there had been a similar case about ten years ago, close to the time of the archaeological dig. After that first girl went missing, the policeman had started to receive taunting anonymous letters, strewn with biblical and literary allusions.

All of this may sound deeply cliched, but Elly Griffiths’s writing raises the story above any such each stereotypes. She has clearly researched archaeology in great detail, and shares her knowledge, but not in an obtrusive way. I found myself completely hooked within a few pages. She also captured the bleakness of the marshy landscape effectively, and I seemed to feel the chill myself when characters were assailed by wind and rain out on the mudflats.

I am looking forward to taking on the rest of this series.

jan 12, 2021, 1:58 pm

>9 Eyejaybee: Sounds right up my street, Ian, thanks. Hope you're well.

Redigeret: jan 17, 2021, 8:49 am

>9 Eyejaybee: Your review makes the book sound fascinating, James. I’ll put on the Wishlist for future reference.

>10 Eyejaybee: I enjoyed The Crossing Places very much; Griffiths’ ability to paint an atmospheric scene is wonderful, I think. But I don’t like romances in general, especially when either party keeps making the same mistake, trusting the wrong person or whatever. So the series paled for me. But I’m in a small minority there, and I’ll be interested in how future books in the series work for you.

jan 18, 2021, 8:36 am

3. Lying in State by Julian Rathbone.

I seem always to have struggled with Julian Rathbone’s books. He manages to come up with some great plots, but there is something about his writing that always manages to alienate me. I am certainly conscious that, as I have aged, my tolerance for books that I am not enjoying has eroded. More than thirty years ago I read Rathbone’s A Spy of the Old School, which offered a slightly different twist on the concept of a mole infiltrating the higher echelons of the establishment while working all the time for a foreign intelligence agency.

To be honest, I am not sure that I exactly enjoyed that book, but I did find the plot well-constructed, which prompted me to buy his historical novel, A Very English Agent, as a faux de mieux option when finding myself unexpectedly at Manchester Piccadilly without a book but facing a long journey, and with only a very meagre selection on offer at the station newsagent. I found that hard to get into, but having persevered through dint of necessity, I eventually found it fairly amusing, offering a humorous insight into various incidents throughout nineteenth century history.

It was the recollection of that serendipitous discovery that led me to choose this book when I found myself in similar circumstances, facing an unplanned journey without my usual emergency reading supply to hand. It had been left in the ‘book exchange’ pile at Arundel Station.

The book opens in Madrid in the 1970s, in the immediate aftermath of the death of General Franco. The ‘generalissimo’ is lying in state for a grieving public prior to his state funeral. This was a period of uncertainty for Spain: not only was it unclear whether the monarchy would be restored, but if so, would the returning monarch be Juan Carlos, or his father, Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona.

Impoverished radical bookseller, Roberto Fairrie, born and raised in Argentina, whence he fled from the agents of Juan Peron, is relieved that Franco has died, but has no confidence that the restoration of the monarchy will represent a significant improvement. He is approached by a flamboyant British journalist who has a lead on some recordings purportedly made by Peron shortly before his death. These touch on a range of subjects, including insights into Peron’s relationship with Evita (his late wife, who had been virtually canonised in their native Argentina following her early death). Even more significantly, the tapes include discussions about Martin Bormann, senior figure in Hitler’s regime, suggesting that he was alive and well in secret exile in Argentina. (I certainly remember from my boyhood that rumours of Bormann’s survival and exile in South America used to circulate widely during the 1970s.)

The journalist recognises Faiirie as one of the leading independent experts on the life of Peron, and asks him to authenticate the tapes. Fairrie is reluctant to do so, but even so finds himself suddenly at the recieiving end of unwelcome attention from members of the Spanish authorities, as well as neo-Nazis eager to ensure that secrets surrounding the fate of Bormann and his like remain secret.

This all sounds promising, and I was expecting to enjoy a high-paced thriller steeped in intrigue, with perhaps some passing references to the Hitler Diaries, and similar high-profile historical scams. Unfortunately, the book never quite developed that way. I suspect that Rathbone saw himself a ‘literary’ writer, and one who was, perhaps rather disdainful of the page-turning thriller. Unfortunately, while he was clearly capable of writing with a certain elan, he seems to have concentrated rather more on demonstrating his literary credentials, at the expense of the story itself.

Right from the start, Rathbone leaps backwards and forwards in time. There are some magnificently written passages, but unfortunately these impede, rather than assist, the flow of the story.

Redigeret: jun 4, 2021, 5:38 pm

4. Lockdown by Peter May.

In his preface to this book, Peter May explains how, back in 2005 when he wrote the novel, the idea that a pandemic might be so serious as to throw modern societies into lockdown was seen as too ridiculous. As a consequence, publication was abandoned, and May put the manuscript aside for a while. Well, unfortunately history has proved those prospective publishers’ prejudices to be entirely misfounded, and we know all too clearly how devastating a pandemic can be.

I have read and enjoyed several books by Peter May, who has been one of the most prolific writers of recent years, although most of his early output was in the form of television crime shows. That apprenticeship has been very valuable, because it has taught him how to grab his viewers’ or readers’ attention right from the start.

Like Michael Connelly, May does not worry about literary frill. He just tells a story, and tells it well. Which is not to say the books aren’t well written. Again like Connelly, May writes with clarity and drive, and the reader is drawn into the story immediately.

In this instance, the scenario has the added savour of currency. London is in the grip of a serious outbreak of bird flu. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and the public have been subjected to curfew with people only allowed out for limited reasons. Urgent construction work is under way to convert a building site into a temporary hospital. While foundation piles are being sunk some human bones are discovered. Even the most cursory examination shows that they are of a child, and one who died only very recently. Harry MacNeil, who is on the cusp of retirement, is tasked with leading the investigation which is hampered rather than assisted by the emptiness of the London streets.

Macneil is a troubled man, with a broken marriage behind him, and a heavy burden of guilt weighing him down. His woes soon become far worse, although that serves merely to sharpen his focus.

As mentioned above, May’s writing is sharp and clear, which helps the reader’s suspension of disbelief. There are no diversions into consideration of characters’ personalities – the focus is on action, and the story moves rapidly forward. I don’t really have much more to say about this: it was a competent, page-turning thriller.

jan 28, 2021, 1:00 pm

5. No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I don’t relish the role of literary iconoclast, but I found this novella decidedly underwhelming. If this is representative of the writer’s oeuvre, then once again I have to question how the Nobel committee arrive at their decisions – perhaps in years gone by, they have modelled themselves on FIFA. The only virtue I have identified for this book so far is that it was very short.

The basic premise is simple. A retired colonel and his wife are living in deep poverty, waiting patiently (but in vain) for the delivery of a letter confirming the colonel’s pension. They struggle through each day, with their meagre savings diminished further, barely stretching to cover the basic staples for survival. Their neighbour, a doctor, tries to help as far as his own limited means allow, and shares his newspapers with them. The colonel pores over these, reading every word of every article, partially as a means of filling in time, but also scanning them for news of when his pension, now some fifteen years overdue, might be conferred. We gradually learn that there is a harsh regime governing the country, and that the colonel had served faithfully many years in the past. Details are sparse, however.

Basically nothing happens. Of course, I appreciate that the lack of action is deliberate, designed to help the reader feel some semblance of the lethargy and despair that the colonel and his ageing wife felt. Well it worked. With each new page I felt a further dose of taedium vitae, and it was only through an unusual effort of will that I managed to persevere through to the end

jan 28, 2021, 6:43 pm

>15 Eyejaybee: I haven't read this one, but enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of the Cholera and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

If we were to have a vote on whose Nobel Prize to remove, I'd go for Bob Dylan and Sinclair Lewis.

jan 29, 2021, 2:30 am

>16 pamelad:. I think I would agree about Dylan being a poor choice for the Nobel, and his complete lack of grace in acknowledging the award was inexplicable, too. I have read a couple of books by Sinclair Lewis, and enjoyed them, but I agree that he seemed to fall a long way short of Nobel status, too.

jan 31, 2021, 10:25 pm

I was shocked and disappointed when Dylan received the Prize.

That said, I agree with >16 pamelad: about Marquez. I loved all three books she mentions.

feb 1, 2021, 12:39 pm

6. Secret Service by Tom Bradby.

Kate Henderson is a senior officer in MI6, and has even been tipped by C, the current Head of Service, as a possible successor to him. As the book opens, she is engaged in ‘recruiting’ Lena, a young Serbian woman, to act as an agent on a high-level operation being mounted against the family of a Russian oligarch with extensive and powerful contacts. At first everything seems to go well, and the operation garners what seems to be some devastating intelligence, suggesting that a mole has penetrated the higher levels of the British establishment – not merely within the intelligence community but right to the top levels of government.

However, the operation suddenly goes wrong in the most dramatic manner, and Kate and her colleagues are left wondering whether any of the information they have garnered can be relied upon. They are in a fraught dilemma, not knowing whether to proceed on the basis of what they have learned, and risk everything backfiring in the most damaging way, or to leave things as they are, not knowing whether all the country’s gravest secrets are completely compromised.

Tom Bradby focuses on keeping the plot moving, rather than laborious development of his characters. That is not, however, to say that his characters are two-dimensional. Kate is a well drawn figure, constantly striving for some semblance of work-life balance, managing the demands of two teenage children and a fractured relationship with her ageing mother. Her husband is also a high flyer, working in the Private Office of the Secretary of State for Education. I worked briefly in that office myself, and I was impressed by how closely Tom Bradby caught the internal politics that bedevil such a role, and the constantly fluctuating relationship between ministers and officials.

Bradby is not a viable challenger for John le Carré’s throne – he does not attempt the same exploration of the vagaries of the human condition – but he is quite definitely a writer of engaging and gripping spy stories.

feb 2, 2021, 11:55 am

7. Those People by Louise Candlish.

I don’t want to tempt providence with a sudden outpouring of famous last words, but I have always felt very fortunate about my neighbours. To date there have been no major rifts in my road, and we all seem to get on fairly well. That is not always the case, and the concept of the neighbour from Hell has become a staple feature of soap operas.

Louise Candlish has built on that concept very adeptly in this engaging thriller. Lowland Way has been an idyllic place to live: large houses occupied, predominantly, by settled, ambitious families, all of whom are happily co-existing, with shared aspirations and common pastimes. One of the greatest achievement has been a community spirited move to introduce a traffic-free ‘Play Sunday’ for the road, which even draws attention in the local press.

But things are about to change. As the novel opens, No. 1 Lowland Way has been empty following the death of is long-term owner. Having no children of her own, the house ins inherited by Darren Booth, who moves in with his partner Jodie. Right from the start it becomes clear that they have a different lifestyle to anything seen on the street so far. Darren and Jodie play their heavy metal music loud … very loud … and they seem to own several vehicles of great age and dilapidation, which they park all along the street, taking places hitherto seen as sacrosanct from the other residents.

Darren is not amenable to reason, either, and the established residents find themselves increasingly frustrated as the newcomers almost effortlessly destroy the previous feeling of communal wellbeing that had existed beforehand. Before long, their veneer of moderation cracks, and tempers boil over.

The writer manages the plot very adeptly. We know from very early on that a serious incident occurs, as we are shown transcripts from witness statements taken by the police from various inhabitants of the street. However, we do not find out until well through the book what the precise nature of the incident was. There are several sub-plots that are all managed with great dexterity, each of which lends a particular savour to the overall tension that pervades the whole street.

This is a very capably constructed and well written story, that sucks the reader in pretty much from the first page, and delivers a series of great surprises, without ever compromising its alarming plausibility.

feb 2, 2021, 12:34 pm

8. Prince of Spies by Alex Gerlis.

Alex Gerlis has given us an entertaining story, set in the Second World War and following Richard Prince as he endeavours to discover crucial information about the Germans’ V1 and V2 programmes in their embryonic stages. Prince was formerly an ambitious and accomplished police superintendent from Lincolnshire, and had a sparkling record which explained why he had been promoted so far at a relatively young age. He finds himself recruited into MI6 following his helpful contribution to an operation to find an undercover agent who has been helping German spies to infiltrate the country.

Life in MI6 is markedly different to the provincial police force, and Prince initially struggles to adapt. He is, however, particularly well suited to the operation for which he has been selected, being a fluent Danish speaker (having had a Danish mother). After minimal training he is despatched to Denmark where, after a few adventures and enar misses he establishes contact with Agent Osric (just one of many allusions to Hamlet scattered throughout the book), who will prepare him for the more substantial aspects of the operation.

The plot fairly rattles along, and there are several up and downs, and surprise developments. Gerlis writes more in the tradition of Richard Hannay than John le Carre, but that is fine by me – I am a devotee of both schools of spy story.

feb 4, 2021, 8:40 am

9. At The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell* (re-read).

I found re-reading this book as delightful and engaging as it was on my first encounter with it.

Sarah Bakewell writes with a charming lightness of touch, and has the happy knack of conveying interesting and often complex ideas with a charming simplicity and clarity. Her book is, essentially, a potted history of existentialist thought with some illuminating biographies of many of its leading proponents. Her principal focus is on Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, though it extends to some of their contacts and counterparts, with interesting sections about fellow philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Bakewell recounts how Sartre and de Beauvoir were drinking in the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris in early 1933 with Raymond Aron, a school friend of de Beauvoir. He had recently returned from Berlin where he had been studying phenomenology, a new branch of philosophy of which the leading proponent was Husserl. Sartre was so impressed by what Aron told him that he immediately decided that he had to go to Berlin and discover more for himself. This was, of course, an unpropitious time to be going to Berlin, with Hitler’s National Socialist party have just been ‘jobbed into power’ through what Lord Bullock termed the ‘backstairs intrigue’. This was to prove more than a little significant in the life of Martin Heidegger, who would become one of the leading existentialists of his time.

Bakewell’s depiction of Sartre and de Beauvoir is intriguing. Though in their own long-term relationship, they both took other lovers with a remarkable frequency, but always swore to keep the other informed of their various sexual exchanges. They were both prolific writers, seemingly capable of producing non-fiction books, novels, plays, journal articles and semi-political tracts almost at will. The world of philosophy, or at least the community of philosophers, through which they moved was not always a sociable environment, and disputes about specifics could lead to deep, irreparable rifts. Bakewell captures this marvellously, though she never lets the detail of the various fallings out obscure her narrative flow.

Informative and entertaining, without ever succumbing to the risk of dumbing down, this is a highly rewarding book.

feb 13, 2021, 11:39 am

10. The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths.

Dr Ruth Galloway, lecturer in archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, is accomplished, and respected in her role. Indeed, her work has led to her involvement with the local police, who called on her forensic archaeology skills when an old body had been found on a historic site near her cottage. Consideration of those remains had become entwined with the search for a young girl who had gone missing in the area, with clues suggesting that her disappearance might be connected to a similar crime several years earlier.

She is also pregnant, following her unanticipated liaison with Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, who had led the two investigations. Nelson is another complicated character - superficially surly, and inclined to moroseness. Ruth had initially dismissed him as just another blunt norther copper (he had grown up in Blackpool, and professed to hate North Norfolk, whither he had moved on promotion at the urging of his glamorous and ambitious wife. He does, however, have hidden depths, as Ruth discovers after she becomes better acquainted with him as the investigastions move forward.

As this novel opens, Ruth has been called to the discovery of a body of a child on the site of a former Roman Catholic orphanage, which was being redeveloped as part of an ambitious housing scheme. It is clear that the bones uncovered by the workmen were old, but from initial consideration it isn’t clear whether their age is to be reckoned in decades of centuries. The police review records for the orphanage, and find that around forty years previously two of the children from the orphanage had disappeared, never to be seen again. It is at this point that Ruth starts receiving threatening message.

Elly Griffiths manages to blend themes of history, myth and modern police work successfully, and also manages a rich cast of characters (including the local Druid leader, Cathbad, who works by day at the university’s chemistry department as a laboratory technician). I realise, having just glanced over what I have written so far, that I am making it all sound very chaotic. That is far from the case, and I found myself caught up in the novel right from the start.

I see from the inside cover of my copy that this series now extends to at least twelve novels. My first response to seeing this was pleasure, thinking of some engrossing reading to come, but I do have a slight worry about whether there is likely to be sufficient variety in plots to sustain so many books. There were, to my mind, strong similarities between this and the previous book, although that may have been because I read them fairly close together. I also worry that the following books might veer increasingly heavily into the fantastical, which I fear I might find irksome.

Still, it is not fair to speculate about other books that I haven’t read yet while trying to revie this one, so I should reiterate that I enjoyed it, and will certainly be moving on to the next in the sequence, although I think I shall wait for a few weeks.

feb 13, 2021, 3:33 pm

>10 Eyejaybee: yes, I get mixed feelings sometimes when I see a novel I like is part of a long series; do I want to commit myself to 10+ novels, unless I am really keen. 4-6 is probably the optimum for a good series.

feb 15, 2021, 8:55 am

11. Slough House by Mick Herron.

Jackson Lamb is back, and even more uncouth than previously. Mick Herron plunges us back into familiar territory here, with the ‘slow horses’ finding themselves unexpectedly drawing the attention of their Russian counterparts.

The slow horses are named for ‘Slough House’, their office base situated near the barbican. Slough House is a backwater of the intelligence world, and has come to house those officers who are deemed too incompetent to be trusted on genuine operations. They have been farmed out to Slough House, under the control of the awful Jackson Lamb. Lamb is a grotesque figure: coarse, crass, dishevelled and generally disgusting. Political correctness has passed him by, and he revels in his unreconstructed and prejudicial outlook on life. He is also exceeding ly funny.

There is a certain formula to a Jackson Lamb story: there is a brief episode in which one of the slow horses finds themselves attacked (and often killed), followed by a brief description of Slough house itself (always beautifully written). The plot then develops, with bitter exchanges between senior figures within the Service and their political chiefs, with some well-observed character assassination of scarcely disguised statesmen, and a fair amount of collateral damage among the horses themselves. Yes, it is formulaic, but no less entertaining for that.

feb 15, 2021, 9:01 am

12. Red Corona by Tim Glister.

I chose this book on the basis of a recommendation from Charles Cumming, whose books I have always enjoyed for their compelling plots and generally empathetic protagonists.

The field of contemporary spy fiction is currently rather crowded with the likes of Cumming and Mick Herron securing loyal followings. Tim Glister’s book is, however, set in the past, and focuses on the development of the Cold War in the early 1960s. it is an interesting, and fertile period to choose: the Soviet Union had unsettled American complacency by managing to be the first superpower to send a man into space, and both sides are eager to explore the potential of the spy satellite.

The principal character here is Knox, a dogged senior operative within MI5. As the novel opens, he has just been suspended for disciplinary issues. Having been a bit of an outside, unable to call on the connections afforded to most of his more affluent colleagues through the old boy network, his own progress had been achieved mainly by merit, although he did have a powerful mentor in the shape of Holland, the former Director General of the Service. Holland has, however, succumbed to a sudden stroke, and his acting successor, Manning, is far from a fan of Knox. That antipathy is mutual, and Knox is becoming increasingly convinced that Manning is a Soviet mole.

Meanwhile, in a closed city in the northern reaches of Russia, in the arctic wastes near the Finnish border, accomplished scientist Irina Valera is engaged in experiments to test new means of radio communication between the earth and orbiting satellites, while struggling also to overcome the prejudices and inequalities that her gender cause for her. Disaster will soon befall Valera, driving her to turn her back on her past and seek freedom, at whatever personal cost. Valera’s and Knox’s paths will soon cross in the most devastating manner.

This is a fast paced story, and Glister focuses on the plot. It would not be fair to say the characters are two dimensional, but he does not tarry overlong to develop them. The plot is sufficiently robust for this not to detract from the novel. I may have been a bit spoiled in the past, having grown accustomed to the purple prose of le Carre, or the bawdy hinterland of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb, but this brisk tale, perhaps more grounded in the tradition of John Buchan (although without his beautiful prose) offered a welcome temporary change.

feb 17, 2021, 12:09 pm

13. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.

I imagine that most people are familiar with the plot of this story, either from the book itself, or the famous film that it spawned. The idea of ‘swapping murders’ (I really don’t think it is straying into unwarranted spoiler territory) has almost developed into a standard trope in television crime series.

I did, however, find the book heavy going, which surprised me. I think that almost everyone else I know that has read it had commented on how well written it was. I beg to differ, having found the characters not merely unempathetic, but also utterly implausible. Highsmith’s prose, which I have also heard eulogised by people who should know better, is far from welcoming.

To be fair, the principal theme of the plot is very clever, while also so simple, yet it was not strong enough to salvage the rest of the book.

feb 23, 2021, 1:42 pm

14. Skin by Kerry Andrew.

I had eagerly awaited the publication of this book, having thoroughly enjoyed Kerry Andrew’s previous novel, Swansong. At first, I thought my high expectations had been more than satisfied. The first part of the book follows the experiences of Matty, who, as the story opens, has just finished his last day at primary school in London’s Golders Green in the summer of 1985. Ms Andrew captures the feel of London at that time marvellously – by the time the story starts, I had lived in Muswell Hill (just a couple of miles from Golders Green) for about ten months, and I recognised her depiction with great nostalgia.

His last day of primary school also turns out to be the last day that Matty saw his father. When Matty returns home, there is no sign of Joe. At first Matty imagines all sorts of reasons to explain his father’s absence, but it gradually become clear that he is not going to return. Matty’s mother calls the police, and two officers come to the house and interview Matty, but offer little optimism that the errant parent will reappear. Throughout the rest of the summer, Matty spends much of his time at the Men’s Pool on Hampstead Heath, where he meets some interesting characters, and become obsessed with swimming. The book then moves on fourteen years, and follows an adult Matty who is roaming around Ireland, swimming in every lough he comes across.

Sadly, having loved the first hundred pages or so, I found myself overwhelmed with utter apathy about the rest of the book. Kerry Andrew is marvellous at descriptions – she has an acute observation, and is particularly adept at capturing nature (that was one of the joys of Swansong). Sadly, I found that that skill was not enough to sustain this book, once the story had lost my attention, which it never regained.

feb 23, 2021, 1:48 pm

15. The Kindly Ones by Anthony Powell.

Re-reading this marvellous novel was immensely entertaining. This sixth volume of Powell's majestic Dance to the Music of Time sequence starts with a recapitulation of memories of Nick Jenkins's childhood, and in particular the suitably apocalyptic events that occurred in Stonehurst, the remote bungalow a few miles from Aldershot in which he grew up, on what proved to be the day on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

We are reintroduced to both General Conyers and Jenkins's meddlesome Uncle Giles, and also at last have some insight into Jenkins's family life. We also encounter Dr Trelawney, self-styled thaumaturge-cum-alchemist, whose presence in the neighbourhood cast pangs of fear into the young Jenkins's mind.

After a glimpse into Jenkins' childhood, with a brief but characteristically disruptive cameo from Uncle Giles, we are brought back to the months leading up to the Second World War, and the struggle to eke out an economic subsistence during an aesthetically unsympathetic time. Hugh Moreland plays a big role, as does the menacing Kenneth Widmerpool, who is as pompous and odious as ever.

In this particular volume General Conyers, old, venerable and seen by many as a relic from a bygone age suddenly establishes himself as one of the pivotal figures in the sequence. and is unmasked as an innovator and conduit for modern thought.

feb 23, 2021, 2:06 pm

16. The Curse of the Arctic Star by Carolyn Keene.

There was a certain serendipity about my reading this book. After reading Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson, I had a discussion with a fellow reader about Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, which is mentioned several times in Swanson’s book. My friend very kindly tried to order a copy on Amazon, but, not paying sufficient attention, managed to order another book with the same title, which turned out to be the second instalment of the Nancy Drew Diary stories. Remembering how much I had enjoyed some of the Hardy Boys stories when I was younger, I decided to see what it was like, and whether my great nieces might like it. To do the job properly, I went back and read the first book in the series.

I was impressed by how enjoyable it was. The plot fizzes along pretty quickly, and Nancy and her friends are very engaging characters. It came as a welcome diversion from some of the rather gory detective novels I have found myself reading recently, and was far more enjoyable than the Patricia Highsmith book that I had been expecting. And yes, my great niece enjoyed it too.

feb 25, 2021, 1:22 pm

17. The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish.

I bought this book on the strength of having recently enjoyed another of Louise Candlish’s novels Those People, which I had picked up by chance at a railway station, needing something to sustain me on the journey home. That book had proved to be very gripping, right for the start, so I had high hopes for this one, and they were not disappointed.

This is a great thriller, and had me caught literally from the first few pages. Jamie Buckby seems to have a charmed life. We learn fairly early in the book that Jamie lives in a marvellous, enviable property in one of London’s thriving, ‘gentrified’ areas. This is, however, owned entirely by Clare, his partner of ten years. Clare comes from a wealthy family, and has a high flying job as director of a leading estate agency with a portfolio of spectacular domestic and commercial properties around Docklands. Jamie, nearing fifty years of age, was made redundant from his job in the hi-tech communications world some time ago, and for the last year has worked as a junior barista in a coffee shop near Waterloo. He commutes each day by river bus, and over the last few months has taken to travelling with Kit, boyfriend of the gorgeous Melia who works for Clare’s firm.

Kit and Melia are considerably younger, and live in relative poverty compared with Clare and Jamie, and are eager to improve their circumstance, whatever it takes.

Louise Candlish sets this scenario far more deftly than might be surmised from my synopsis. The narrative unfolds through recollections from Jamie, starting in late December 2019 and looking back with various flashbacks over the past year, in which he and Clare have come to know Kit and Melia.

The tension is carefully managed, and the plot has sinuous twists, all of which are perfectly plausible, yet also utterly surprising. I fell for each twist along the way, absolutely hook, line and sinker!

mar 3, 2021, 4:24 pm

18. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

I first read this novel several years ago, shortly after its publication, and was entranced by it then Re-reading it now, knowing what happens and how the novel works, I still found it just as extraordinary.

It is, however, very difficult to know where to start describing it. The book consists of six separate though related stories, arranged in what is almost a concentric structure, that leaves the reader unsure as to what is meant to be real and what was in the imagination of the characters.

The first story, recounted in chapters one and eleven, takes the form of a journal composed by Adam Ewing, an American lawyer travelling back from Polynesia to San Francisco. Ewing is a Christian and appalled at the godless behaviour of the ship's crew and officers, and has as a consequence been more or less ostracised, finding relief only in the company of his friend Dr Henry Goose. Before setting sail, Ewing goes exploring Chatham island and sees a Moriori slave being lashed by a Maori. Their eyes meet briefly, and the slave recognises both pity for him and disgust at the spectacle in Ewing's eyes. After the homeward voyage begins, it transpires that the Moriori slave has escaped and stowed away in Ewing's cabin, throwing himself on the latter's mercy. Ewing gradually succumbs to an ailment, manifested through dizziness and fainting, which Goose diagnoses as the consequence of a virulent parasite, and which he starts to treat with a potion of his own devising. Ewing seems to suffer increasingly worse attacks as the voyage continues.

This section ends in mid-sentence.

The second story, told in chapters two and ten, is related through the medium of a series of letters sent in 1931 by Robert Frobisher, a prodigal, indigent young musician who aspires to be a great composer, to Rufus Sixsmith, his former gay lover. Cut off by his affluent and aristocratic family, and sent down from his Cambridge college, he flees his creditors to Belgium where he manages to inveigle his way into the household of ageing and ailing English composer Vyvyan Ayrs who lives with his ennobled Belgian wife Jocasta. Frobisher manages to secure the role of amanuensis to the older man. Frobisher starts to work on a piece that he calls the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", in which he tries to capture an air that he seems to have heard before, though he can't remember either where or when he had encountered it. Oddly, Ayrs also seems to know the piece. In between his work on the music Frobisher peruses the library in the house where he finds, and becomes captivated by, a copy of Adam Ewing's journal.

The third story (covering chapters three and nine) then kicks in, taking the form of a crime novel set in California in 1975 and featuring Luisa Rey, an investigative journalist who is looking into the furore surrounding the impending launch of a nuclear power station constructed by Seaboard. Local environmentalists are protesting against the power plant and claim that critical reports have been suppressed. By chance Luisa has met Rufus Sixsmith when the lift that they were sharing ground to a halt during a power cut. Sixsmith had recently completed a report which identified a number of flaws with the power plant, but he has not yet been able to publish it, and fears that Seaboard will attempt either to suppress the report or discredit him. Shortly afterwards, Sixsmith is found dead in his hotel room where Luisa finds a bundle of Frobisher's letters which Sixsmith has treasured for the last forty years. While driving across a causeway from the power plant another car forces Luisa's VW Beetle off the road and into the sea.

The novel then moves to the fourth story (in chapters four and eight) which takes the form of a memoir by Timothy Cavendish, a literary agent. Having spent most of his career avoiding any semblance of success, he suddenly finds himself making a mint from "Knuckle Sandwich", the ghost-written autobiography of an East London criminal. Unfortunately, this success brings its own difficulties and Cavendish has to flee London to escape the criminal's family who are anxious for their own cut of the profits. Among the random papers that he takes with him is the manuscript of the novel "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery", which he finds entertaining and contemplates publishing when things calm down. Through a series of comic misunderstandings Cavendish ends up an inmate of a brutal retirement home near Hull.

We then move to the fifth story (chapters five and seven), set in the 22nd century in a dystopian society. This story is presented in the form of a lengthy interview by an official archivist of Somni-451, a "fabricant" (i.e. clone) who had been instrumental in sparking off a revolution against the totalitarian consumerist society in which she lives. At one stage Somni-451 describes how her happiest hour had been when she had watched the opening half of an antique film called "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish".

The sixth story, called Sloosha's Crossin' and Ev'rythin' After, which forms the central section of the novel. This is set in a post-apocalyptic future and is recounted by Zachry, a tribesman from what the reader gradually infers is Hawaii. His community scratches out a living through simple agriculture and hunting, but is troubled by attacks from violent neighbouring people called the Kona. Twice a year they are visited by the Prescients, members of a more advanced race who have retained their knowledge of science and technology. Zachry and his tribe have a simple faith which features a goddess-like figure called Somni, though little is known about her deeds or past.

David Mitchell weaves the connections and echoes between the six stories very deftly, creating a very rich tapestry, and the overall effect is astounding. My only slight cavil is that the sections dealing with Somni-451 and Zachry's story are slightly longer than necessary, but the depth of the story ensures that the reader's attention doesn't flag.

This is one of my favourite books of all time.

mar 3, 2021, 4:25 pm

19. The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths.

Elly Griffiths demonstrates her dexterity again, combining a well crafted contemporary whodunit with a homage to traditional Gothic horror stories.

Glamorous English teacher Clare Cassidy has been working on a book about R M Holland , a Victorian writer of ghost stories, best known for his short tale, The Stranger. Clare had always been interested in Holland’s work, but is particularly driven now as the school she teaches at is situated in Holland’s old house by the Sussex coast. As the novel opens, she learns that her closest friend has just been murdered in her own flat, apparently by an intruder. There are, however, a few odd aspects about the crime, and the police are convinced that the assailant was known to the victim.

The investigation is led by Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, who defies the crime fiction stereotypes, being both Sikh and lesbian, who at thirty-five still lives at home with her parents. She is a powerful and very empathetic character.

Griffiths develops the plot with great assurance, moving between three different narrative – one in the form of Harbinder’s thought, while the others take the form of diary entries from Clare and her daughter Georgia, a pupil at the school. I don’t want to say much m ore for fear of compromising some of the dexterous plot twists, but this is a highly entertaining novel, very different from Elly Griffiths’s series featuring Ruth Galloway, but just as rewarding for the reader.

mar 3, 2021, 7:18 pm

#32 James I heartily agree with your thoughts on Cloud Atlas and I must get to reread it soon, cheers !

Redigeret: mar 4, 2021, 6:15 am

>32 Eyejaybee: This is on my TBR list so I haven't read your review in detail, though I think I might find the structure a bit annoying - think I will need to be in the right frame of mind when I tackle this!

mar 8, 2021, 7:47 am

20. The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo by Franlikn W. Dixon.

This represented another outing into nostalgia territory, prompted by having mistakenly received one of the Nancy Drew Diaries stories. I remember buying a copy of this book while on holiday in Ullapool with my parents, almost fifty yesrs ago. At the time I thought that this was almost as good as adventure stories could get.

Looking back from the jaded perspective of my late fifties, I still found it entertaining. The story fairly races along, and the characters are simply drawn, but no more two dimensional and hollow (although can something be both two dimensional and hollow?) than a lot of grown-up books (I felt that to say adult books might take us into all together different territory!) that I have read recently.

There is an overpowering wholesomeness about the books, which seems somewhat risible to me now. Even the crooks play by certain unwritten rules - no one is killed, and Frank and Joe Hardy represent the finest qualities of conscientious compliance and service to the community. And why not.

I doubt if I will pursue this particular brand of nostalgia any further down this route, but I am glad to have revisited this book, and would certainly recommend it to young readers who enjoy a good adventure story.

mar 8, 2021, 2:55 pm

21. Double Agent by Tom Bradby.

I was very impressed by Tom Bradby’s earlier novel, Secret Service, which also featured Kate Henderson. She is a very empathetic character as she struggles to juggle the conflicting demands of her job as a capable and ambitious senior officer in MI6 with bringing up two teenaged children. Her husband has an equally high-pressure role, as principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Education.

I was, therefore, looking forward to reading this sequel. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Somehow the novel never quite gelled in my mind. Kate remains a powerful, if challenged, character, with the fallout of the previous novel having added significantly to her travails. Sadly, however, the strength of her as a character was not sufficient to counterbalance what I found to be too implausible a plotline. While the previous novel had felt fresh and intriguing, I found that this one failed to build on that start, with no cliché about the Whitehall corridors of power knowingly overlooked.

mar 10, 2021, 10:20 am

22. Strangers on a Train by Carolyn Keene.

There was a fair amount of serendipity about my reading this. I would not, ordinarily, have had any interest in reading one of the Nancy Drew books. However, my niece overheard me discussing Patricia Highsmith’s better known book of the same name, and kindly tried to buy it for me on Amazon, but didn’t look sufficiently closely as she placed her order.

To be honest, I preferred this version to the more famous Highsmith book, which I found almost unreadable. Nancy Drew is very wholesome and resourceful, and an engaging character. Aimed primarily at teenagers, and probably more specifically at teenage girls, the plot fairly fizzes along. It never strayed entirely beyond the bounds of plausibility, though.

I was also impressed that Nancy Drew is not infallible, and has to reassess her approach to the case in hand a couple of times. I remember enjoying similar books when I was a child (there was no such thing as a ‘young adult’ back in that distant era), and am glad that they still seem popular today.

mar 10, 2021, 10:53 am

23. A Shock to the System by Simon Brett.

I have been a great fan of Simon Brett’s novels featuring the down at heel actor, Charles Paris, recently so well portrayed on Radio by Bill Nighy. That sequence of books, now extending to around twenty volumes, is merely one string from Brett’s capacious bow. He has also written several television and radio programmes (including After Henry which straddled both media) and two other sizable series of novels.

This is one of his rare ‘stand-alone’ books, and follows the travails of Graham Marshall as he pursues a career in the unglamorous world of personnel and human resources. All is going well, and more or less to plan, until a cataclysmic encounter with a vagrant while on his way home from work.

Graham is a finely drawn character, and his parents’ obsessive emotional investment in his success has possibly caused him to develop excessive aspirations within the ambit of work and family life. It also becomes apparent that he has developed an obsessive sense of his own worth, and his entitlement. It also becomes clear that he is prepared to take steps to fulfil that sense of entitlement.

There is little of Brett’s customary humour in this novel, but it does not suffer for that. It is a fairly straightforward tale, which leaves one in the unaccustomed position almost of rooting for the bad guy. It appears from the cover of my edition that this was made into a film, starring Michael Caine, which I would be interested to see, but it would appear to have sunk entirely without trace.

mar 10, 2021, 12:16 pm

24. Russian Roulette by Richard Greene.*

The title of Richard Green’s comprehensive biography of novelist Graham Greene refers to the writer’s efforts as a young man to combat the melancholia and ennui that frequently threatened to engulf him. On the first occasion, he had ventured onto Berkhamsted Common with a revolver he had chanced upon in a drawer in the family home (as one does), and loaded one chamber with a live round and set it spinning. The relief that this brush with death brought tided him over several months before succumbing to the need to take a second dose.

The struggle with boredom was to be a defining characteristic of Graham Greene. One of the leading British writers of his generation, Greene was never satisfied that he received the recognition to which he was due. I think it is fari to say that he did not make things easy for himself. Richard Greene’s account delivers several instances of his querulousness, and his infinite capacity to fall out with people who could have helped him … indeed, frequently already had helped him. He was also the victim of a capricious conscience, that did not stop him from behaving in ways that hurt people close to him, but did punish him severely for it afterwards.

Greene’s was a full life, encompassing work as a novelist, playwright, occasional spy, writer of films and political polemicist. It was also one that was frequently tinged with controversy. As his politics moved increasingly leftwards, he found himself ostracised in America as a consequence of his perceived support for Castro’s Cuba. His novels are set in countries all around the world. The Quiet American is set against the early phase of the Vietnam War, at a stage when American involvement was still under guise of advisers to the French regime, while The Comedians takes place in Haiti, against the backdrop of Papa Doc’s brutal regime. Our man in Havana, perhaps my favourite of his novels, is self-evidently set in Cuba, while The Power and The Glory takes the reader to a terror-stricken Mexico. I could go on. Greene’s capacity to capture these differing locales reflects his work as a journalist, and his acute observer’s eye.

Richard Greene documents all of this in pleasing, yet not obsessive detail (perhaps learning from the error’s of Norman Sherry whose two volume biography of Graham seemed to try to catalogue everything that the subject did, and every conversation that he had). He also refreshingly avoids becoming bogged down with some of the more scandalous aspects of Greene’s life.

I came to this novel already knowing a lot about Graham Greene, having read most of his novels, and his various volumes of memoirs, and as much of Norman Sherry’s biography as I could stomach. I still found this enjoyable, and fresh, which I think is a testament to the clarity of Richard Greene’s writing, and his clear empathy and understanding of his subject. This was one of the best biographies that I have read for a long time.

mar 13, 2021, 4:09 am

25. Piranesi by Susannah Clarke.

I don’t propose to say much about this awful book, having already sadly squandered more than enough precious time and mental energy reading it.

It does, perhaps, represent a clear affirmation of the dictum that one should not judge a book by its cover, as this is a beautifully presented book, with lovely designs on the hard cover beneath the dust jacket, as well as sumptuous endpapers. If only the text had had a tithe of their value ...

Redigeret: mar 15, 2021, 1:49 pm

26. Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths.

While the principal protagonist of this novel is Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, he is eclipsed in my recollection by his friend, Max Mephisto, the famous conjurer, who finds himself in the role of Abanazar in the production of Aladdin being staged on the Brighton Pier. Max Mephisto is constantly telling his friend to beware of falling prey to misdirection, which is the bedrock of the magician’s art. Elly Griffiths is, herself, a dab hand at misdirection, and even as a seasoned reader of mystery stories, she completely sol me the dummy at various stages throughout this story.

Set in 1951, in a Britain still subject to post-war rationing, the story starts with the disappearance of two children, a boy and a girl, who go missing after having last been seen on their way to the local sweetshop. Winter has an icy hold over Brighton, and the pre-Christmas snow, and the disruption it causes to traffic and other aspects of life, lends a powerful sense of gloom to the story.

The two children are far from normal. Both in early years at their respective grammar schools, it turns out that they are keen on drama. The young girl has been writing plays for the neighbourhood children to perform, while the boy seem entirely in thrall to her. The girl’s plays are alarmingly grown up, recounting familiar fairy tales, but emphasising the dark nature of their earliest forms – far closer to the version collected by the Brothers Grimm than the cheerier works of Hans Christian Andersen.

There are several sub plots, and while serving perfectly well as a stand-alone book, it does build promisingly on the previous volume, The Zig Zag Girl.

The themes are so bleak that I am not sure I could exactly say I enjoyed it, but I was completely engrossed, and having started reading it, was eager to push through to the denouement, even though I failed utterly to see the eventual solution.

mar 15, 2021, 2:04 pm

27. The Rock and Roll A Level by David Hepworth.*

I have always been a bit of a quiz junkie, and having been both a lifelong fan of rock music, and a keen reader of David Hepworth's previous books, this book was always going to be right up my alley.

Hepworth has that happy knack of imparting knowledge about his favourite subejct without ever seeming to preach. Here there is a veritabl;e compendium of questions, and some fascinating answers, each with a sagacious gloss.

Highly entertaining and informative.

mar 22, 2021, 12:22 pm

28. Our House by Louise Candlish.

Louise Candlish has developed a fine knack of creating gripping thrillers out of circumstances with which everyone can identify. In Those People, the residents of a quiet road in a prosperous suburb of London find their lives disrupted beyond breaking point when a new neighbour moves in, and demonstrates a completely different set of values and expectations. In The Other Passenger, a group of commuters who travel by London’s Riverbus (one of the more spacious and comfortable forms of commuting that the capital has to offer) get to know each other through their shared daily routine. To the brief descriptions of both of those novels, one might easily add three telling words ‘with disastrous consequences’.

The starting point of Our House is (thankfully) less immediately recognisable, although there is almost a ‘there but for the grace of God’ feel about the nature of the shock that Fiona Lawson receives on the first pages of the book. She fleetingly returns home one afternoon, a day earlier than expected, and finds that a new family has moved into her own house. It soon becomes evident that this is not a prank, and the newcomers have paid a substantial sum to buy the property, and all the paperwork seems to be legitimate.

The story is told in the form of real time narrative interspersed with Fiona’s contribution to a real crime podcast, made some months afterwards, and a sprawling narrative by her estranged former husband. As so often with this sort of book, my attempts to provide a synopsis have probably made it sound very trivial and implausible. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the story unfolds it all seems frighteningly credible, and the characters’ behaviour is all too easily understood.

Louise Candlish is also brilliant at weaving sinuous tales with numerous, utterly unforeseen twists, and there were very few that I foresaw at all. This was very entertaining, yet also rather frightening in the way it showed the vulnerability of all that we think is most valuable to us.

mar 22, 2021, 12:27 pm

29. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré.

This is one of the great spy novels, and is clearly modelled in no small degree on the story of Kim Philby, the 'Third Man' who not only tipped off Burgess and MacLean in 1951 and allowed them to escape before they could be arrested for leaking secrets, but then escaped himself in 1963 after his guilt had eventually been uncovered. Set at the height of the Cold War it recounts the search for a 'mole' within the upper echelons of the Secret Service.

George Smiley, 'an old spy in a hurry' is brought back from the involuntary retirement into which he had been pushed just a couple of years previously. He reluctantly accedes to be commissioned to investigate an allegation that one of the four officers at the head of MI6 might in fact be a long-established Russian spy.'It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies? Who can smell out the fox without running with him?' This is the question put to Smiley by Oliver Lacon, 'Whitehall's head prefect', after he has explained the evidence that has finally convinced him of the existence of the mole.

There are four suspects: Percy Alleline ('Tinker'), dour Scotsman and acting Chief of Service; Bill Haydon ('Tailor'), flamboyant wunderkind, alternately mentor and hero to the Service's younger generation of aspirants; Roy Bland ('Soldier'), would-be academic and ultimate self-seeking pragmatist; and Toby Esterhase ('Poor Man'), opportunistic Hungarian émigré desperate for promotion and convinced that no-one shows him the respect he deserves. Control, the former head of the Service, had reached managed to reach this far before, acting entirely on his own, but as his health rapidly failed he embarked upon one wild last throw to flush the traitor out. This was the venture subsequently known as 'Operation Testify', alluded to throughout the book though the full extent of its disastrous nature is only revealed near the end.

The reverberations of Operation Testify echo through the Service for years afterwards. Control is forced into retirement and dies almost immediately. In the reorganisation that followed Smiley was also pushed into retirement. Alleline takes over, with Haydon as his deputy, and the new world order seem to have begun. On the other side of the world, however, Ricki Tarr, a rough and ready member of the Service, accustomed to infiltrating gun-running gangs, meets Irina, a Russian agent in Hong Kong. Their affair is hectic and hasty, and she tells Tarr of the greatest secret that she knows: there is a Soviet mole, with the code name 'Gerald' in the highest echelons of the Service. She does not know many details but does have enough facts to convince Tarr that she is telling the truth. He passes the information back to the Circus, but receives no reply. However, Irina is almost immediately rounded up by her Soviet minders and shipped back to Russia. Tarr goes underground and eventually makes his way back to London where he contacts Guillam, and through him Lacon. The witch hunt has begun. Smiley has to track them down through the paperwork, secured through deft chicanery by his one ally on the inside, the redoubtable Peter Guillam whose own career was truncated.

Le Carre offers none of the glamour and fantasy world cavortings of Ian Fleming's 'James Bond' novels. Smiley and his associates have to grapple with the shabby and entirely mundane underbelly of the espionage world, working back through the files, and eye-witness accounts of previous failed operations. There is absolutely no glamour or sparkle about the story at all, though that serves to boost its compelling nature. It is also immensely redolent of the early 1970s. All the way through the book characters are freezing cold, huddled in their coats and struggling to generate any warmth at all. The enigmas and moral dilemmas, though, remain timeless.

This is a fascinating and engaging novel, that improves with every re-reading. The excellent BBC television series captured the feel of the novel very well,though the book (as is so often the case) is even better. Don't bother with the Gary Oldman film though - I haven't seen such a dreadful screen adaptation of an excellent book since they butchered The Bonfire of the Vanities.

apr 6, 2021, 5:47 am

30. The House at Sea's End by Elly Griffiths.

This is the third volume in Elly Griffith’s series featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, lecturer in forensic archaeology at the University of North Norfolk and occasional consultant to the local police, and I am now a committed fan. Dr Galloway herself is an appealing character; intelligent, independent, resourceful. As this novel opens, she has just given birth to her daughter, Kate, and is returning from maternity, balancing childcare with the demands of her job, and finding her self with little time to herself.

An archaeological survey team is working on the beach at Sea’s End, measuring the impact of the rapidly accelerating process of erosion as the sea reclaims must of the coastal land. They are surprised to discover the remains of several bodies (eventually confirmed as six separate corpses), but at least they appreciate the importance of preserving the scene, and arranging for appropriate retrieval. Ruth is called to the scene in both her professional capacities, and makes an initial estimation that the bodies are old, but have probably been there for less than a hundred years. Further investigation shows that the bodies are most likely of German origin. Investigations focus on the Second World War, and rumours of an attempted Nazi invasion. A few members of the local Home Guard are still alive … or were, although they start dying very suddenly, too.

As always, Elly Griffiths manages the plotlines very capably, and continues to flesh out her principal characters’ stores. There is a core cast who have featured in all of the novels so far, and their diverse but connected personal histories give a strong verisimilitude to the stories.

Gripping, chilling and utterly credible.

apr 6, 2021, 5:55 am

31. A Fresh Start by Various Authors.

I don’t have a lot to say about this collection. I have never been a big fan of short stories, feeling that they tend to be over just as one is starting to get the measure of them. Of course, that is a ridiculously sweeping judgement, and there have been some glorious examples of the form. Sadly, none of them seem to have been contributed to this volume.

apr 6, 2021, 6:04 am

32. The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington.

This is another efficient novel from Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, once again featuring her immensely plausible and likeable protagonist Liz Carlyle.

This novel lives up to Rimington's normal high standard and boasts a plot featuring numerous twists and red herrings, and the action moves from Geneva to Marseilles, with a brief foray into an American missile test base in Nevada, and with significant interventions from MI5 and MI6 in London.

Is there really a mole in the higher reaches of Operation Clarity, which governs the development of a new remote control system for drone missions? If so, for whom are they working?

Rimington obviously knows the background to these issues in intimate detail, and gives a roller-coaster novel with frequent twists and turns but in which the plot and characters are always believable. Not as substantial or engrossing as John le Carre's or Charles Cumming’s books, but no less entertaining for all that.

I am always intrigued by her renditions of the tensions between MI5 and MI6, and the stuffiness of their Whitehall counterparts, which presumably are informed by her own experiences. It was also amusing to read her descriptions of the various Whitehall buildings, a few of which I have worked in myself, and which she captures admirably.

Redigeret: apr 6, 2021, 3:15 pm

33. Mozart's Women* by Jane Glover.

Dame Jane Glover is renowned for her work as conductor, but she should be equally esteemed as an author. I read her Handel in London just over a year ago, and was utterly enchanted, revelling in the joy with which she wrote about the music and the musicians. The same is true of this book, which paints a vivid picture of the all-too-short life of the prolific composer, and sets his rich oeuvre against the context of his family life.

The basic facts are well known (although I have to confess that, before reading this book, my own understanding of Mozart’s life was formed essentially through the prism of the film Amadeus): the child prodigy who grew into one of the most gifted and prolific composer of his, or indeed any, time. Because of my familiarity with the film, I had known that his father, Leopold, was a major influence on Mozart’s life and output. I had not, however, appreciated how talented his sister, ‘Nannerl’ was, or that the two of them had been touted around Europe. I didn’t even know that the Mozart family had visited England as part of the tour showcasing the two child stars, and lived in London for the greater part of a year. Indeed, I was amused to read that, during an outbreak of plague with all the stark resonances that brought as a book read during lockdown while the Mozarts were living in London, they decided to move out to the country, relocating to a house that is now in Ebury Street, Chelsea.

Beautifully written, and (I presume) exhaustively researched, this book is a joy from start to finish: highly informative, but supremely accessible.

Redigeret: apr 15, 2021, 5:31 pm

34. The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths.

I am very impressed by Elly Griffiths’s ability to write two (well, now three, I suppose as Harbinder Kaur, who features in both The Postscript Murders and The Stranger Diaries seems to be emerging as another recurring character) series of novels that are so different from each other, yet remain so satisfying in their respective styles.

This is the third book in the series featuring accomplished stage magician, Max Mephisto, and Detective Inspector, Edgar Stephens. Set principally in Brighton of the 1950s (although Stephens does spend some time in America, and is amazed at the relative opulence compared to his homeland which was still at that time subject to extensive rationing).

Stephens and Mephisto had become acquainted while serving in a specialist army unit during the war, and are intrigued when a high-ranking soldier advises them that their former commander from those days has been murdered. Meanwhile, there are local crimes in Brighton to investigate, too, although Stephens has to leave these to his team while he is despatched to America.

Griffiths keeps the story moving swiftly. As always, the characters are immensely plausible, and the plots watertight. This is another very welcome addition to what is proving a highly enjoyable series.

Redigeret: maj 3, 2021, 3:55 pm

35. Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy.

When I read Nino Harataschvili’s The Eighth Life (For Brilka) early on in the year (I think it may have been back in January), I was worried that the rest of the year might be a literary anticlimax, and that I would not encounter anything else anywhere near as good. Well I can relax again now, as Vesna Goldsworthy's 'Gorsky' has served to herald the onset of spring, and give a new zest to the year's reading.

It is important to stress that Gorsky is a wondeful novel in its own right. It is also, however, a glittering homage to 'The Great Gatsby'. Goldsworthy might not quite ascend to Fitzgerald's effortlessly poetic narrative well, who could? I first read 'The Great Gatsby' as part of my A Level English course and even as an emotionally callow Leicestershire lad, it was immediately apparent to me that Fitzgerald's prose was infinitely more poetic than even the best of D H Lawrence's verse, which formed another part of the syllabus but she does often come close. A laudable achievement for any writer, this is altogether more remarkable for Ms Goldsworthy as English is, I believe, her third or fourth language.

Gatsby's 1920s dazzling New York and New Jersey is replaced by a twenty first century London peopled by east European émigrés, ranging from Russian multi-millionaires who are left left feeling humble alongside their neighbouring billionaires, Bulgarian former Olympic gymnastics medallists and impoverished Serbians. Nick Carraway has morphed into Nikola "Nick" Kimovic, a Serbian who escaped the troubles of his homeland in the 1990s and wound up in London, working for a pittance in Fynch's antiquarian bookshop in the back streets of Chelsea. Here he first encounters the dazzlingly beautiful Natalia Summerscale who comes in seeking works on Russian art.

Shortly afterwards, Ramon Borisovich Gorsky comes into Fynch's and deposits a huge cheque with a request that the shop track down remarkable books to populate the library he is including in the new mansion he is having built in Chelsea, Gorsky is the richest of the superrich Russians who have made London their playground, and Nick gradually fills us in about some of his exotic history. Like Gatsby, no-one really knows where Gorsky came from. He was suddenly there, with his billions behind him, owning properties all around the world and throwing the most amazing parties, attended by society magazine 'A listers' from all over the world (though not always by Gorsky himself).

Like Jay Gatsby, Gorsky is a driven man, one who has achieved limitless commercial success of dubious moral provenance, but one for whom something remains missing, seemingly unattainable despite the wealth and power at his behest. He is in love, and desperate for fulfilment.

Goldsworthy's plotting is immaculate, and the books fairly fizzes along, supported by beautiful descriptions of London: the city is almost a character in its own right (even though it is a London with which I am wholly unfamiliar myself, despite having lived her for nearly forty years!). She seamlessly mingles a little bit of everything: politics, murder, love, art and social observation, though the melange is managed impeccably.

maj 9, 2021, 8:31 am

36. Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester.

John Lanchester has, I believe, written five novels to date, all markedly different from each other in tone, and three of them (The Debt to Pleasure, Capital, and this one) would all rank very highly among my all-time favourites.

Fragrant Harbour is a superb novel spanning seventy years in the history of Hong Kong, told through the differing perspectives of four principal characters who each recount their own story.

Tom Stewart's narrative forms the backbone of the novel and tells the story of a young man, born in Kent in 1913, who decides to try his luck in Hong Kong. While on the long voyage he meets two Eurasian nuns (Sisters Benedicta and Maria) and various British men on their way to pursue careers in the Far East. Following an argument between one of the other passengers and Sister Maria, a wager is held to test whether Tom can be taught the rudiments of Cantonese within the time span of the voyage. This is to prove immensely useful for him when he lands in Hong Kong and gradually determines to spend the rest of his life there. His idyll is interrupted by the onset of the Second World War and the Japanese invasion. Tom survives, and returns to Hong Kong where he becomes a prosperous hotelier.

Meanwhile Sister Maria has been working for the various Catholic missions spread throughout the colony and also in mainland China. Her path continues to cross with that of Tom.

The third character to provide a narrative is Dawn Stone, an ambitious British journalist who comes out to Hong Kong shortly before it returned to Chinese rule. She begins by investigating the origins of the wealth of the richest members of Hong Kong society, working on the premise that with such billionaires the interesting question is where the first millions come from (- the latter wealth is easy to generate in relatively open and legal ways, but how did they get their start-up capital?).

The fourth narrative is that of Matthew Ho, a thrusting young entrepreneur who makes a cameo appearance early on when he sits next to Dawn Stone on her first flight to the colony.

I recognise that this description might make it all sound rather cumbersome, not to say predictable. Lanchester, however, is a master storyteller and he succeeds in uniting all the various threads of the story with seamless ease, and evokes the reader's sympathy for all of his principal characters. He also manages to impart a huge amount about the history of Hong Kong, though this never impairs the flow of the novel.

maj 25, 2021, 4:07 am

37. The Guest List by Lucy Foley.

I had enjoyed Lucy Foley’s previous novel, The Hunting Party, which I had picked up by chance when it was on offer very cheaply in my local supermarket, so I had high hopes of this, and I was not disappointed.

In fact, this is very similar in style and format to the earlier book, being offered to the reader in a succession of narratives from different characters, and leaping backwards and forwards in time. That sort of split narrative can easily become annoying if not deftly applied, but Foley manages it very effectively.

The action takes place at the wedding of Jules, who publishes a successful lifestyle magazine, and Will, celebrity presenter of a reality television show in which he is regularly left out in the middle of rough country with no phone, money or supplies, and has to fend for himself and make his way back to civilisation. Jules is determined that her wedding will be perfect, and has hired a hotel on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. The hotel is a relatively new venture, and is keen to break into the special events market, so the approach from such a renowned couple to host their wedding seems like a great marketing coup, and they agree a generous reduction on the expectation of the free publicity that the event will attract.

The guests gradually assemble, although it soon becomes clear that there are more personal tensions seething below the surface than might reasonably be expected. Nearly all of the guests seem to have a devastating secret, and a reason for barely veiled hostility towards various other guests, including the happy couple themselves.

The island is remote, and the hotel is the only permanently occupied building on it. Access to the island is by boat from the mainland. This is wild country, however, frequently beset by gales, and as the wedding guests are ferried over to the island, weather forecasts predict an imminent and violent storm. Well, that all seems to be more than enough pathetic fallacy to start with!

Lucy Foley manages the tension with great dexterity – the divided narrative, witching between narrators and times works very effectively, and I have to confess that there were several plot twists and turns that I didn’t spot coming at all.

maj 25, 2021, 1:42 pm

38. Waypoints by Robert Martineau.*

Having gone through the trauma of seeing someone he loved suffer serious illness followed by protracted recovery in hospital, Robert Martineau felt moved to undertake a life-changing adventure. He drew up some new rules for life, including limiting the number of his possessions and imposing somewhat Spartan parameters for what he should eat and drink. He also undertook to do a lot of walking. He also decided to undertake the challenge of a long (very long) walk through Ghana, Togo and Benin, ending at an ancient spiritual centre at Ouidah.

I found his approach initially appealing, and enjoyed reading about his trek through Ghana. I did, however, find my interest waning as the book progressed, and I started to wonder what the point of it all was – both with the walk itself, and with the book. I have read a lot of accounts of people’s wanderings, and even when the journey may have been aimless, in the stronger examples there has always been a sense of mission to the book. That was wholly absent here. When I have enjoyed a book, I often feel that reader’s quandary, caught in the dilemma of wanting to find out how it is all resolved, while not wanting the enjoyment of the book to finish. With this book, finishing it almost came as a relief, like being let out of school early.

maj 27, 2021, 3:52 am

39. A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming.

Charles Cumming has been heralded by many critics as the likely successor to John le Carre as master of the espionage novel. I can see why, because his stories are well crafted, and show great insight into the workings of the intelligence services, but I don’t think he can match le Carre’s wonderful prose. Still, who can?

This is certainly a strong novel, and one that I feel took Cumming onto a different plane. His previous books had been good, but he changed gear here, with far greater development of his characters.
The principal protagonist is Thomas Kell, who has recently ‘retired’ from his post as an officer in MI6, and is currently awaiting a subpoena to appear as a witness in a prosecution arising from alleged incidents of ‘extraordinary rendition’.

Out of the blue he receives a call from a former colleague asking for help tracing the woman who has been chosen by the powers that be as the next head of MI6, as she appears to have disappeared while on a holiday visit to the south of France. Having nothing better to do, Kell agrees to help, flying down to Nice to try to pick up her trail. Cumming gives a fascinating insight into low level spycraft, much of which will certainly lead me to change my own habits when staying in a hotel!

The novel has numerous twists and turns, but never loses its basic plausibility. It did, however, keep taking me by surprise, and I found it an immensely enjoyable read. There is a more serious element to the novel though, with Kell’s departure from the Service allowing for detailed consideration of the various sides of the argument around extraordinary rendition.

maj 27, 2021, 6:54 am

40. What Men Say by Joan Smith.

I had greatly enjoyed Joan Smith’s three previous books featuring academic Loretta Lawson, who also seems to find herself caught up in unusual murders. I have always enjoyed novels with an academic setting, and the independent and resourceful Loretta is a very empathetic character. Unfortunately. Although I enjoyed it, I felt that this book did not live up to its predecessors.

It opens with a party at the house of Bridget Bennett, Loretta’s close friend, who recently married an American businessman. The marriage has signalled notable changes in the relationship between Loretta and Bridget, the latter now moving in elevated social strata, and enjoying a lifestyle that contrasts markedly with Loretta’s near penury. Bridget is also heavily pregnant with her first child.

Loretta is not enjoying the party, having found few people whom she knows, and none apart from Bridget with whom she has any shared interests. She is on the point of making her excuses when her attention is caught by the screams of some of the children at the party, who have found the decaying remains of a woman’s body in one of the outhouses. A police investigation ensues, and Loretta becomes concerned at the strange, even hostile behaviour of Bridget.

The mystery is duly resolved, with Loretta playing her part, but I felt that the story never quite got out of third gear.

maj 27, 2021, 8:28 am

41. A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths.

This book represents the fourth instalment in the series featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist. Her principal role is as lecturer at North Norfolk University, but she is frequently called upon by the local police to assist whenever bones or other human remains are discovered (which seems to happen a lot of the time). Ruth is a very likeable character: independent, resourceful and often almost scarily honest about herself.

On this occasion, the human remains that spark the investigation are right up to date, and rather than having to conduct a careful excavation, Ruth almost stumbles over the still warm body of a museum curator. Ruth is in the museum to attend the ‘installation’ of the coffin of a medieval bishop, one of whose descendants owns the museum itself. Indeed, there are plans for the coffin to be opened and the remains subjected to various tests. This has prompted stories in the local press about an old curse placed on anyone who might disturb the bishop’s resting place. To add to the mix, the museum also contains a collection of skulls of indigenous Australians. Activists have recently protested about this, and demanded that these remains be returned to Australia for proper burial, so that their owners’ spirits can rest.

As ever, Elly Griffiths manages the threads of the various plots and subplots very deftly, also weaving in Ruth’s complicated personal life which renders problems of its own. Her cast of characters may seem bizarre, featuring surly detectives, arrogant landowners and Cathbad, a modern-day Druid, but they are all finely drawn, and rendered utterly plausible.

maj 27, 2021, 8:38 am

42. Slow Horses by Mick Herron.

I heard a radio programme over the weekend in which an established journalist offered some advice to aspiring cub reporters. One of his key tips was never to ‘bury the lead’, as many readers have a relatively short attention span. One should, instead, pitch your key message as near the start of the piece as possible. As someone who spends his days drafting replies to correspondence on behalf of government ministers, I often find myself relying desperately upon that waning attention span. Still, let’s try it the other way. Here goes …

This is one of the best spy novels I have ever read (and I have read a lot of spy novels). What made it even better was that I initially came across it entirely fortuitously in my local bookshop, so I had an enjoyable feeling of serendipity, too.

Jackson Lamb heads up a branch of MI5 based in Slough House in East London. His officers are not, however, engaged on active operations, and instead spend their time on repetitive strands of background research. The truth is that they have all messed up previously in their careers, and have been consigned to Slough House as a form of internal exile, and have come to be known throughout the rest of the Service as the ‘slow horses’. They are a disparate bunch, too, each of them seeming to have their own dysfunctional aspects. These are difficult times, however, and even the slow horses gradually become immersed in the sidelines of a major developing crisis as a young man is kidnapped and held hostage, with his captors threatening to behead him in forty-eight hours.

Jackson Lamb is a marvellous character: perpetually angry and crushingly impatient, he shows a relentless disdain for the officers under his charge. He does, however, have operational pedigree. He needs it: internal intrigue is about to rip the service apart, and Lamb will have to dig deep into his long experience to try to hold things together.

The plot is elaborate, but always plausible, and holds together despite the many twists and turns. Herron writes with great immediacy – the reader is gripped from the start, and is immediately completely engaged.

maj 27, 2021, 8:45 am

43. Close Call by Stella Rimington.

I suppose it is no surprise that Stella Rimington's novels seem so credible - she was, after all, head of MI5 for several years before retiring and embarking on her career as a novelist. This is her eighth book to feature Liz Carlyle, rising star of MI5, and given that it was published back in 2014, it had a chilling topicality, centring as it does on jihadist action in Paris and London.

The action move much more rapidly than with authors such as John le Carre, with whom Rimington is often compared, and while her books may not quite be as substantial or engrossing as his, she does not allow the faster action to compromise the story's credibility.

Rimington gives us an immensely plausible espionage procedural, taking the reader with great care through the MI5 operation as it develops. Liz Carlyle is certainly a very empathetic protagonist, and one who's character become increasingly more credible with each new volume.

maj 28, 2021, 4:09 am

44. Full Stop by Joan Smith.

This proved to be a major disappointment. I had enjoyed Joan Smith’s previous novels featuring the engaging Loretta Lawson, the earnest, feminist academic with an alarming penchant for finding herself caught up in murder cases, and consequently was looking forward to this one.

Written in the mid-1990s, it marked a bit of a departure from her earlier cases as Loretta is in America, having spent a year as visiting professor at a university in California (unspecified, but readily identifiable as UCLA, one of my own alma maters). As the novel opens, she has just arrived in New York, where she will be spending a few days flat sitting for a friend before departing back to the UK. Right from the opening of the book, she finds herself oppressed by New York. It is the height of summer and the city is unpleasantly hot, and seems relentlessly noisy. People’s tempers are ragged, and there is an irrepressible undercurrent of agitation. Once established in the friend’s flat, she tries to relax, but finds that she is soon beset by nuisance phone calls, that become increasingly disturbing. She also start to feel as if she is being watched as she wanders around the city, trying to take in some of the sights, and visit various galleries.

Smith builds the sense of tension effectively, and the reader can easily empathise with Loretta’s response to the growing sense of alarm. Unfortunately, the actual plot is not sufficiently strong to live up to this scenario setting. While her previous novels had been soundly constructed, with immensely plausible characters and storylines, this one relied too heavily on coincidence, flimsy conjecture and a host of characters with little hint of plausibility at all.

I see that this was Joan Smith’s last Loretta Lawson novel, which is a shame in some ways, although in other ways I might have preferred for her to have bowed out with the previous novel, rather than having it end with one that lets the series down.

maj 28, 2021, 5:01 am

45. The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths.

Elly Griffiths is very prolific, and now has three separate series of novels on the go. She is perhaps best known for the sequence featuring forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway, who frequently finds herself called on by the North Norfolk police to help with their investigations into unusual murders, generally involving old remains. She has also written a couple of very engaging novels set on the south coast, featuring Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur.

This novel forms part of her third series, set in Brighton in the 1950s and featuring the earnest Detective inspector Edgar Stevens and his close friend the acclaimed stage magician, Max Mephisto. This unlikely pairing had become friends when serving in the war as part of a secret group known as ‘The Magic Men’, and their friendship had survived the transition into peace and their separation following their respective careers.

The story opens with the discovery of the body of a beautiful young woman who had been murdered in the boarding room in which she has been living for the last few months. Her body has been arranged in a strange manner, which is subsequently recognised by one of the police officers investigating the murder as a replica of a tableau of the death of a noted historical figure. This strikes a particular chord with the police, as two other residents in the boarding house are appearing in a similar set of tableaux in a show currently on at the city’s principal variety theatre. As it happens, the artist at the top of the bill for that show is Max Mephisto himself, who has been developing an act with his daughter Ruby who, in addition to being an accomplished magician in her own right, also happens to be Edgar Stevens’s fiancé.

Elly Griffiths catches the feel of the age very adeptly, and is also very deft in her drawing of the characters. The relationship between Edgar and Max is delicately handled – they are friends and old comrades, but Edgar’s relationship with Ruby risks causing tension between them. Max is, as after all befits a magician, a highly enigmatic character. He has been a star for years, and has accumulated considerable fortune from his years on the circuit. Less well known to his fans, however, he is also a member of the gentry, his estranged father being a lord.

Griffiths has the knack of drawing the reader in right from the start. I found myself hooked within the first three or four pages, and then just wanted to read on and on. If inconvenient interruptions such as work had not intruded, I would probably have read this at one sitting. The mystery unfolds effectively. Although all the clues are there, I didn’t spot the killer until very close to the end.

maj 28, 2021, 5:40 am

46. Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin.

This was Inspector Rebus's second foray into the world of politics following his earlier brush with the corridors of power in 'Let it Bleed'. This time, the political context is the run up to the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament, and DI Rebus finds himself with three mysteries to investigate

As part of the preparations, Rebus has been co-opted onto the Police and Parliament Liaison Committee, more as a means of keeping him out of trouble than because of any deep political insight he might bring to the role. During one of the meetings of that Committee the members are shown around Queensberry House which will, when refurbished, house some of the parliamentary proceedings until the new, purpose-built home is completed. During their tour of Queensberry House, the Committee party discover a corpse hidden in one of the rooms that is undergoing renovation.

Shortly afterwards, a homeless man plummets to his death at Waverley Station. Among his meagre possessions is a building society passbook that shows his account had a balance of over £400,000.

Roddy Grieve, New Labour candidate for one of the Edinburgh constituencies in the first Scottish parliament is found murdered, not far from the building site at Queensberry House. Grieve is a member of a prominent Scottish family: his elder brother is a Conservative MP at Westminster, his mother is a celebrated artist, and his sister was a leading model in the 1970s and is married to a formerly successful progressive rock star. Their brother Alastair went missing some twenty years earlier.

As always, the city of Edinburgh itself looms as a significant character in the story, and Rankin captures the atmosphere perfectly. This time, in addition to his own demons (and there are always more than enough of them to be going on with), Rebus has to contend with Derek Linford, a fast-track wonder boy based at Fettes, headquarters of Lothian and Borders Police, who, as a fellow member of the Liaison Committee, is assigned to the investigation of the murder of Roddy Grieve and, though equal only in rank to Rebus, nominally put in charge.

The political context is important, and Rankin plays it well, with Rebus frequently thinking back to the referendum in March 1979, which saw the onset of the fatal cracks in his marriage to Rhona, who had been a passionate advocate of independence.

Longer than its predecessors in the series, for me this book marked Rankin's progression to a writer of serious novels that happened to be about crime, rather than a mere crime novelist.

maj 28, 2021, 5:44 am

47. Blue Genes by Val McDermid

This is the fifth novel featuring Kate Branigan, the Manchester based private investigator, and probably the best one so far (which is saying something as the previous books had all been very strong). As usual, Kate finds herself investigating several cases simultaneously, carefully balancing her time and skills, and somehow managing to keep a grasp on all of them.

The principal storyline, however, which gives the book its name, revolves around the apparently mindless murder of a doctor engaged in extensive research into subfertility and IVF. She was murdered in her own home, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary the police are treating it as a case of an attempted burglary that went wrong. Among her patients at the time of the murder were Alex and Chris, Kate’s best friends, who had been referred to her for help with a baby. It is only after the murder, however, that they realise that the docto had been working under a pseudonym. As there are a lot of sensitivities about their treatment, Alex retains Kate to investigate further, and also to ensure that their records are safe.

As usual, McDermid develops the plot quickly, but plausibly, quickly enfolding the reader in the story. Branigan is an immensely plausible protagonist – capable, occasionally stubborn, and overwhelmingly logical, she knows her limitations, but is not afraid to push herself absolutely to them. In this outing there are additional domestic and work-related challenges that she has to address, and she takes them on adroitly

maj 28, 2021, 9:51 am

48. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell.

The two great artistic passions of my life have been books and music (particularly rock music), and it has long been a source of some bemusement that so few novels have successfully managed to engage both. There are lots of books with characters who clearly love their music, or that are littered with musical allusions, but I haven’t come across many that the career of a singer or a band. Indeed, when I read Taylor Jenkins Reid’s marvellous Daisy Jones and The Six last year, I wondered if it was the first good novel that I had read which successfully evoked the world of a working band.

I was, therefore, delighted, when I learned that David Mitchell’s latest novel was to be just such a book. Rock music played a significant role in the background of his earlier novel, The Bone Clocks, and his ability to craft a powerful story is beyond question.

The Utopia Avenue of the title is the name of a band formed in the mid-1960s, and subject to arrange of different influences. The band members are drawn from very different backgrounds … Bank Manager’s daughter, Elf Holloway, has had some success on the folk scene, and a song that she had written had been a major hit for an American singer just a couple of years earlier. Dutch-born but English educated Jasper de Zoete is a guitar maestro, whose instrumental pyrotechnics ably complement the accomplished, if more prosaic, bass-playing of Dean Moss, who had grown up on the rough side of the tracks in Gravesend. Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin, from Hull, is a professional Northerner, hewn from the ‘You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much’ school, and has made a name for himself as a great jazz drummer.

Four discrete characters, and four diverse routes into the music world. They might well have carried on along their separate routes if they had not been spotted by ex-pat Canadian Levon Frankland, who has just established his own music management company and is eager for a new act to promote. London is buzzing. The Beatles have just redefined popular music, having released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, kicking off the summer of love and endorsing psychedelia. The time is ripe for a new band, and the air is heavy with optimism.

Of course, nothing is quite that straightforward. All four of them … well, five of them, as Levon is as fundamental to the band’s success as the musicians themselves … have their respective personal and emotional baggage. Elf has just split up from … well, been dumped by … her Australian boyfriend and musical partner; Jasper is highly intelligent but socially dysfunctional, with a history of inadequately-diagnosed mental health issues; Dean has overcome personal tragedy, having lost his mother at a young age and become alienated from his abusive father, and has no concept of monogamy; Griff is perhaps the most down to earth member of the band, and broadly satisfied with his lot, despite occasional chips on his shoulders about perceived southerners’ privilege and sense of entitlement; Levon is gay, which has led to him being complete estrangement from his straight-laced Canadian family.

While all four of the musicians are initially dubious about Levon’s vision of them as a band, they do experiment playing together, and find that there is, after all, an indefinable musical bond that brings them together.

Of course, with this being a David Mitchell book, their musical bond is not the only indefinable element. There are also a lot of pleasing allusions to characters and events from other books. Dean Moss’s early musical experiences include attending gigs at the Captain Marlow pub in Gravesend, which twenty years later will be home to the disaffected fifteen year old Holly Sykes, whose abrupt departure from home kicks off the feast of weirdness that is The Bone Clocks. Similarly, Crispin Hershey, reminiscences of whose literary life form such a rich platter within The Bone Clocks, is encountered as the five year old son of one of Dean’s amatory encounters. Suave, self-opinionated, and self-aggrandising critic, Felix Finch, who appears peripherally in both The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas turns up at an after-gig party, and investigative journalist Luisa Rey looms large and welcome, too.

There are cameo appearances from a huge range of real figures, too. The band are entranced by Jimi Hendrix, and meet the various Beatles at different stages of their own rise to fame. Jasper keeps bumping into am elfin figure with different-coloured eyes who is desperate to make a name for himself, but struggles to succeed. His name, then, is David Jones, although he will achieve that yearned for success after changing his name to David Bowie.

I am still a, little uncertain about my overall response, however. I enjoyed the book, as I was confident I would, but I can’t help feeling that something … I don’t know what … was missing. I think that I somehow expected a little more of the literary pyrotechnics that normally attend a David Mitchell book. I acknowledge that this is probably unfair – if anyone else had written this book, I would probably be awarding five stars without a moment’s hesitation, but now I am havering simply because I expected that little bit more. Still, it is beautifully presented, too, with a lovely psychedelic cover, so, what the hell, I am going to give it five stars anyway. That is what Crispin Hershey and Felix Finch would have done, and if it is good enough for them, it is more than good enough for me!

Redigeret: jun 2, 2021, 4:51 am

49. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith.

I remember from when my nephew and nieces were eagerly devouring each new Harry potter book that the latest one always seemed to be bigger than its predecessor. That theme seems to be continuing with J K Rowling’s crime novels featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. This latest weights in at 928 pages of fairly small type, and having bought it in hardback, I genuinely found it difficult to read at times simply because my wrists didn’t seem up to the task in hand. Fortunately, my wrists weren’t subject to prolonged torment because the story was so gripping that I read through it very quickly.

The story opens about a year after the events recounted in Lethal White. Cormoran Strike is spending much of his time down in Cornwall, visiting the aunt who brought him up, but whose health is now failing as she succumbs to terminal cancer. Robin is now a partner in the firm, rather than merely one among several of Cormoran’s employees. She is, however, far from settled in life, finding herself being dragged through an increasingly acrimonious divorce from husband Matthew, who seems to be going out of his way to make the separation as difficult and expensive (both financially and emotionally) as possible. She is also working longer hours than ever as she tries to cover up for Cormoran’s unavoidable absences.

They have several long-running cases on their books, and the two of them, and the various investigators whom they retain as subcontractors, are fully stretched. They do, however, agree to take on the strange case of a doctor who disappeared one Friday evening nearly forty years ago. At the time, the police assumed that she had fallen victim to a serial killer who had abducted, tortured and then murdered a long string of victims, although they never found anything solid evidence to connect the doctor to the convicted murderer, and he never confirmed that she had been among his victims. Cormoran and Robin are commissioned by the doctor’s daughter to see whether they can uncover any clearer idea of what might have befallen her.

Rowling/Galbraith dexterously weaves this sad tale in and around the other cases that the agency is pursuing. Her plot management is amazing, and there seems to be no limit to the number of plates she can keep spinning atop their respective poles. All of the cases being undertaken by Cormoran Robin have their own idiosyncrasies, but they are all followed assiduously. Similarly, Rowling/Galbraith is an acute observer of relationships, and captures the tensions and misunderstandings that close working and long hours can bring to a small business.

The principal plotline, concerning the fate of the doctor, is a masterpiece in its own right, featuring tensions and rivalries within the surgery where the doctor was based, and also highlights the stresses that police officers feel when following high profile cases amid the crucible of media attention.

This is a well-constructed, well written and very entertaining novel, whatever it might have done to my wrists!

jun 2, 2021, 5:48 am

50. Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths.

I suppose we are all familiar with the scenario, thinking back to our time at school or university and the circle of friends we formed, and from whom we imagine we will never drift apart – it just couldn’t possibly happen. And then it happens. Time races by, and suddenly you look back and realise that another handful of years has slipped by, and you still haven’t managed to get around to contacting old so and so, despite all your resolutions and recurrent vows to be better organised and catch up with old friends. But then, they haven’t managed to look you up, either, so perhaps you can put it aside for the moment and maybe get around to it later in the year.

I am slightly reassured to find that I am not alone in this. Forensic Archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway seems to be in the same boat, and if something is good enough for her, then it is certainly good enough for me. She is brought up short when she hears from one old university friend with whom she has kept in touch, who calls her to let her know that another of their fellow undergraduates, Dan Golding, has died, having been caught in a fatal house fire. Dan had been one of the brighter stars in their undergraduate firmament, and like Ruth had continued to work in the field of archaeology, ending up at Pendle University. Ruth is shocked by the news that such a vivacious man is now dead, and is amazed that she hadn’t made any effort to contact him in the twenty years since their student days. She is, therefore, even more surprised when a couple of days later she receives a letter from Dan, that had been sent via her university address. This letter tells her of a potential tumultuous discovery that he has made on a recent archaeological dig, but also lets her know that he is scared by something relating to it.

Ruth casually mentions Dan’s death to DCI Harry Nelson, whose past investigations into historic murders she has helped, and mentions that Dan had seemed to be scared. Pendle falls within Nelson’s old patch, and conveniently, he and his wife have returned to Blackpool for a few days on holiday, visiting old haunts. Nelson casually contacts his counterpart on the Blackpool CID unit to enquire whether anything further is known about Golding’s death. His former colleagues advise him that the death is being investigated as murder, as the fire appears to have been started deliberately, and the house had been locked from the outside.

Meanwhile, Ruth has been asked by Dan’s head of department at Pendle if she can spend any time to look over Dan’s find, and apply some of her forensic archaeology skills to the remains that had been excavated. As it is the middle of the student vacation, Ruth is able to accept the invitation, not knowing what she is getting into. Pendle University is a struggling institution. Funding is tight, and it has also been subject to a spate of white supremacist attacks.

I could say a lot more, but to people not already familiar with this series, my attempts to explain some of the deeper context behind the novel might serve mor to confuse than to enlighten. I am confident, however, that this book would work well for any reader who is not familiar with the principal characters and the particularly complicated web of relationships between them. For those of us among the cognoscenti, it is just as good as we have come to expect, and additionally entertaining.

jun 3, 2021, 7:16 am

51. Cry Baby by Mark Billingham.

I think it takes a lot of confidence for a writer of an established series of books to go back to write a plausible prequel, and it must be particularly challenging in the crime milieu. Mark Billingham has pulled it off successfully here, presenting us with an earlier case from the career of his jaded, tenacious protagonist, Detective Inspector (although here still a Sergeant) Tom Thorne.

I have actually lost touch with the Thorne series, although I certainly enjoyed the early volumes (especially Sleepy Head and Scaredy Cat), not least because several of them were set in areas of north London with which I am familiar. I can confirm the accuracy of Billingham’s description, and found the contrast between Muswell Hill and Highgate on the one hand, and Archway and Holloway on the other to be especially poignant.

This book takes us back to 1996, with football coming home (or not as the case might prove to be) in the shape of Euro96. Mobiles are described as ‘portable phones’ and are still far from common (or even particularly portable), and email is still in its rudimentary stages. Everybody seems to smoke … all the time, and anywhere.

Even this early in his career, Thorne is haunted by past cases. Ten years previously he had been instrumental in identifying a serial killer, but had been unable to apprehend him before he killed his wife, their three daughters and then himself. Those memories become additionally vivid when he finds himself working on the case of Kieron, a young boy who had disappeared while playing with a friend in Highgate Woods, even though his mother was close at hand.

Billingham is always adept at building the tension. In this case, there are additional factors to be considered. Kieron’s mother has her own secrets, and her husband is currently in prison serving a sentence for a serious assault. Some of her neighbours have their own secrets, too. The investigation is far from straightforward, and there are strong tensions among the detectives, which become more taut when it becomes obvious that someone is leaking stories to the press.

This shows Billingham back on mid-season form, and it is a worthy addition, or rather, introduction, to the Thorne series.

jun 3, 2021, 8:32 am

52. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

I really enjoyed this book. I hadn’t known quite what to expect, having picked it up on the basis of having enjoyed the author’s Daisy Jones and the Six last year. This is very different, but just as good.

Essentially it takes the form of a biography of Evelyn Hugo, a beautiful Hollywood actress who had enjoyed a long and successful career on screen, but had also been through what seemed a very tempestuous personal life, including the seven marriages alluded to in the title. It is, however, far more than that, and Taylor Jenkins Reid brings Evelyn Hugo and all her other characters vividly to life. She also manages to throw in wry observations about the celebrity-driven press, with frequent excerpts from Hollywood gossip columns. As the years go by, the novel also renders an insight into gradually shifting public perceptions

Reid knows how to keep the reader hooked, too, with frequent twists and turns throughout the story, few of which I saw coming. Highly entertaining and engaging!

jun 4, 2021, 3:33 am

53 Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood.

Christopher Isherwood is now best remembered for his stories set in Berlin during the demise of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. This book, the novella 'Sally Bowles' and the collection of stories published as 'Goodbye to Berlin' inspired John van Druten's play, 'I Am a Camera' which in turn inspired the memorable 'Cabaret' which so poignantly captured the simultaneous decadence and political volatility of Berlin in the early 1903s.

The book is narrated by William Bradshaw, a young Cambridge graduate who has moved to Berlin where he survives by teaching English to a succession of pupils. On the train from The Hook of Holland he meets and befriends Arthur Norris, a larger than life opportunist who has been living off his wits in Berlin for some years. Norris is a superb creation, a cheery amalgam of Arthur Daley, Falstaff and Mr Pickwick. At first sight cripplingly effete, he is on occasion prepared to live fairly dangerously, although he also suffers from a crippling squeamishness about some of the bleaker realities of life. Like Pickwick, he is slave to an incurable vanity about his appearance, thinning his eyebrows three times a week and revelling in his selection of wigs. I don't, however, recall Pickwick being addicted to robust flagellation delivered by a red-booted dominatrix (though perhaps it's just that my school favoured a bowdlerised version of Dickens's novel to protect our simple country boy innocence).

The novel is clearly drawn from Isherwood's own experiences, catalogued more factually (though less entertainingly) in his memoir 'Christopher and His Kind'. Interestingly, while other aspects of the character remain essentially unchanged, William Bradshaw does indeed become Christopher Isherwood in the subsequent stories.

He pulls off a masterly performance. The story is by turns hilarious, sad and chilling, against the backdrop of bitter street fights between the Nazis and the Communists, with episodes of ghastly anti-semitism in the background. Bradshaw relates events in a manner similar to Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell's saga 'A Dance to the Music of Time'. Although he tells the story, we learn almost nothing about him apart from the odd hint gleaned from other characters' passing comments. Events happen around him rather than to him, but his observation is clear and wry.

Isherwood writes with an attractive simplicity - his prose is clear and engaging, and a joy to read.

jun 8, 2021, 10:09 am

54. Capital by John Lanchester.

As I grow older, I seem to find myself re-reading a lot of books, and there are some favourites that I have now read almost too often to keep count any more. This novel is very rapidly becoming one of those. I think that this was the fourth time I have read it, and I am pretty sure that it will not be very long before I turn to it again.

In many ways it is similar to another recent favourite of mine, A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. Both feature the world of banking in the immediate run up to the international financial crisis of 2008, and both touch on aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. There are many more similarities, although there are also considerable differences, and both books stand as fabulous tours de force by novelists at the peak of their game.

Capital opens in late 2007 and revolves around Pepys Street, a small road in south London where house prices, from a modest start over hundred years ago when the road was first built, have rocketed to well over a million pounds. The residents are a mixed bunch and include Roger Yount, a merchant banker with Pinker Lloyd, one of the more successful trading houses in the City, his spendthrift wife Arabella, Freddy Kamo, a highly talented seventeen year old footballer who has just been brought over from his native Senegal to play for one of the London Premiership teams at £20,000 per week and Petunia Howe, an elderly widow who was born in the street over eighty years ago and has lived there ever since.

As the novel opens, Roger Yount is desperate to find out how large his bonus for that year will be - he is hoping for at least one million pounds and, in fact, can't imagine how he will manage to make ends meet with anything less. On his way to the office he finds a card has been pushed through his letter box bearing a picture of his own front door with the logo "We want what you have". It turns out that all his neighbours have received similar cards, each of them bearing a picture of their respective houses. At first, they all assume that this is merely a marketing gimmick by a local estate agency, but the cards keep coming, followed by DVDs showing footage of the street taken at different times of the day, but never with anyone in shot. And then things start to get nasty ...

In the meantime, Zbigniew, a Polish builder, has been making a decent living from the street. The quality of his building work is excellent, and his jobs are always completed on time to a high standard. Consequently, as soon as he finishes one project, he is quickly snapped up by another household with a new task to take on.

In fact, everyone seems to be getting on with life very happily until Petunia collapses in the local newsagent's shop, and then everything seems to start to unravel.

There are some fantastic set pieces - the scene where Roger is called in to see his boss to hear about his bonus, and Freddy's first appearance in a Premiership match stand out particularly, though there are dozens of other beautifully crafted vignettes. Similarly, the characters, including some of the less central figures, are beautifully drawn, including a shadowy anonymous street artist, clearly modelled on Banksy, and Quentina, a Zimbabwean asylum seeker who is illegally employed as a traffic warden.

The author spent a long time researching the financial background for this novel, as a consequence of which he was able to write Whoops: Why Everyone Owes Everyone, and No-one Can Pay, a fascinating analysis of how the banking crisis occurred, written with great clarity. Two of Lanchester's previous novels, The Debt to Pleasure and Fragrant Harbour were already among my favourites (the latter particularly so), but I think that Capital utterly eclipses them.

jun 11, 2021, 5:58 am

55. London, Burning by Anthony Quinn.

I have clear (if not universally fond) memories of 1978. I was fifteen and living in what I now recognise was considerable opulence, in a hamlet in the close hinterland of a small provincial town in North Leicestershire. Like many teenagers, I lived in a fairly solipsistic manner, with most of what I needed fairly readily to hand, and living my life in a daze of books and progressive rock.

In Britain at large there was far less of a sense of satisfaction with life. The British economy was struggling, and the Labour government was sinking into crippling inertia. Over the four years since it had secured a parliamentary majority in the second election of 1974, the government had seen its leader resign for health reasons, and, through a series of by-election defeats, its majority had been eroded. As always in any period of economic and political strife, extremist groups had briefly flourished, and the hard right National Front, forerunners of the British national Party, held frequent rallies, which would provoke passionate counterdemonstrations from far left organisations, which inevitably descended into pitched battles in which the police generally came off worse than either faction. Meanwhile, the troubles in Northern Ireland were going through one of their most virulent phases, with bombings … or at least bomb scares … on the mainland becoming increasingly frequent. It is not surprising that such conditions should have seen the meteoric rise of punk rock, with groups like The Clash and The Sex Pistols catching and distilling the zeitgeist of youth disaffection.

Stuck in my bucolic retreat, access to punk music was limited, but I certainly loved what little I could find, and while I never went as far as sporting safety pin earrings or a Mohawk, I spent many hours imagining my self as a committed acolyte of the counterculture. Whenever I look back at those times, it is the punk rock that I recall first. This is deceptive, however – this was also the golden period of disco I apologise - I realise I shouldn’t conjure such grim thoughts without some sort of warning for the faint of heart, and Abba were at the peak of their success,

Anthony Quinn captures that atmosphere marvellously in this novel, in which several seemingly discrete threads are effortlessly woven together into a striking tapestry. His characters are compelling: Callum Conlan is an Irish academic from Newry, who has relocated to London where he lectures at London University in early twentieth century literature; Vicky Tress is an ambitious young police constable who, as the book opens, contributes significantly to the arrest of the Notting Dale rapist who has been terrorising women in West London; Freddie Selves is Director of the National Music Hall, and lives high on the hog on his seemingly unlimited expense account: and Hannah Strode is a successful journalist with her own masthead photo above her regular column. Quinn weaves links between their very different lives, while also portraying the gloominess of the times as immediately recognisable news stories unfold in the background.

There are several intricate plotlines that are all brought together deftly, and the story is engaging and very satisfying.

jun 12, 2021, 11:39 am

>71 Eyejaybee: Not heard of that author before. Will definitely give him a try!

jun 12, 2021, 3:26 pm

>72 Tess_W: I hope you enjoy his books, Tess.

jun 28, 2021, 7:25 am

56. The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths.

Elly Griffiths’s series featuring Dr Ruth Galloway continues to deliver. I have often wondered whether there is an optimum number of books for a series, beyond which it starts to tail off, and loses its ability to keep loyal followers calling for more. I think that ate definitely befell both P D James and Ruther Rendell whose series featuring Commander Adam Dalgleish and Chief Inspector Wexford respectively both fell from their very high early standards. It is not always the case, and Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin have both managed to sustain their series featuring the similarly morose and pragmatic Detective Harry Bosch and (former) Inspector John Rebus well beyond twenty instalments, without any noticeable loss of quality. Perhaps the secret is in letting their protagonists age in real time. Both Bosch and Rebus have had to cope with the relentless creep of time, and are now retired, although still doing their bit to fight the good fight.

Now in her sixth outing, the estimable Dr Ruth Galloway, lecturer in archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, and frequent consultant to the local police, shows no sign of losing her way, and this book is as good as its predecessors (which is worthy praise indeed). Back at home in North Norfolk, after the sortie to Blackpool in the previous novel (Dying Fall), Ruth is invited to participate in the making of a television programme looking at the case of a local woman who had been hanged in the nineteenth century for the murder of various children in her care. Meanwhile, a child is abducted from its own home, prompting a massive police operation. Another child soon goes missing, and this time there are personal links for the local police.

Elly Griffiths is adept at unfolding separate narrative strands, keeping the story of the police hunt and Ruth’s engagement with the television programme well measured, unfolding steadily as they go. Is there an over-dependence upon coincidence? Possibly, but at the time one is reading it, the story is sufficiently robust to cope with it.

One of the strengths of the series is the strong cast of characters. Griffiths does not just focus on Dr Galloway or Chief Inspector Nelson, but has built up the various supporting police officers and Ruth’s colleagues at the university with equal depth. And Cathbad, leading light in the local druid community is back, and as colourful as ever. Just reading that last sentence I realise that people new to the series might be rolling their eyes in a dismissive way. He is, however, a strongly drawn character, and entirely plausible and credible within the context of the story.

jun 28, 2021, 12:38 pm

57. Love Like Blood by Mark Billingham.

Tom Thorne is a hard-bitten, cynical detective, hewn from similar material to Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch or Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. He has put in long years on the job, honing his detection skills and cop’s intuition, while simultaneously developing a cynical carapace. Bosch’s mantra is that ‘everyone counts or no-one counts’ – if ever the police reach a point where the plights of powerless or status-less victims of crime are overlooked, or lost in the margins of cost-effectiveness spreadsheets, then they might as well stop bothering. Thorne follows a similar approach, never losing a degree of empathy with the victims of the crimes he finds himself investigating.

In this novel, there are several victims with whom to empathise, including fellow detective inspector, Nicola Tanner. She had been leading a unit looking into suspected honour killings among London’s Asian communities, and had felt that she was making headway, until her partner is murdered in their home Tanner is convinced that her girlfriend, who had borrowed Nicola’s car on that day, had been mistaken for her. Although she is ordered to take compassionate leave, she reaches out to Thorne and persuades him to help her out.

One of the aspects of Billingham’s novels that I have always enjoyed is his choice of locale. The action always takes place in North London, not far from the area where I live, and Billingham’s descriptions are always spot on. He captures the feel if the different areas, many of which have their own village-like feel (just villages with no open country between them). Tanner is another strong character – almost as taciturn as Thorne, but where he is a maverick, going his own way and following his intuition, wherever it might lead him, she is a stickler for procedure. Surprisingly, the two contrasting methods work well together.

This is a well-constructed and (sadly) all too plausible story.

jun 28, 2021, 12:43 pm

58. John Macnab by John Buchan.

This is one of my favourite novels, ever, and I seem to re-read it just about every year. Like so much of Buchan's prolific output, it might nowadays at first sight seem rather archaic, with characters romantically hankering after a Corinthian past largely of their own imagining. It does, however, espouse simple values that effortlessly stand the test of any time.

The novel opens on a summer day in the mid-1920s with Sir Edward Leithen, accomplished barrister and Member of Parliament, visiting his doctor seeking a remedy for a dispiriting lethargy or ennui that has recently befallen him. His doctor is unable to identify any physical source for Leithen's discomfort and recalls the bane of the intellectual community in the Middle Ages who were plagued with tedium vitae. His brutal prescription to the beleaguered barrister is that Leithen should endeavour to steal a horse in a country where rustling is a capital crime.

Later that evening Leithen dines in his club and meets an old friend, John Palliser-Yates, an eminent banker, who has been similarly smitten. When the two of them are joined for a glass of restorative brandy by Charles, Lord Lamancha, Cabinet Minister and general grandee, who also claims to be suffering from this disturbing listlessness, and Sir Archibald Roylance, general good chap about town, the four of them hit upon the idea of issuing a poacher's challenge, writing to three landowners and stating that they will bag a deer or salmon between certain dates and inviting the landowner to do their best to stop them. They decide to base themselves at Sir Archie's highland estate, and proceed to challenge three of his neighbours. Seeing a half-empty bottle of John Macnab whisky on the next table they adopt that name as their soubriquet.

As always with John Buchan's works the prose is beautiful - clear and sonorous - and his love of the Scottish landscape comes shining through. Though I have no love of hunting, the descriptions of the stalking manoeuvres are described in close, though never overwhelming details, and the characters all appear entirely plausible. Buchan has often been dismissed as writing stereotypical characters wholly lacking in political or social conscience. This novel triumphantly decries that charge. It positively rattles with social conscience, often dispensed from unexpected sources.

It also offers a heady mix of out and out adventure, humour, and even a love story. A little bit of everything, conveyed in Buchan's unerringly gifted prose. A heart-warming paean to a better ordered time.

jun 28, 2021, 12:53 pm

59. The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel.

Emily St John Mandel’s last novel was the excellent Station Eleven, which completely enthralled me after I picked up by chance while on holiday. I had, therefore, been eagerly awaiting her next novel, although there is always the associated worry that the new one might not match up to my high expectations. Well, there were no issues on that front. It may have been six years since Station Eleven was published, but it was well worth the wait.

I had been struck by the fact that while her previous four novels had all seemed very good, they were also markedly different from each other, as if she is determined to defy genre. That applies equally to The Glass Hotel which combines a number of different themes, and crosses several genres.

The principal character is Vincent, a young woman whom (apart from a very brief opening chapter) we first encounter as a troubled teenager in the early 1990s. Her mother had disappeared, presumed drowned in the seas off Vancouver Island. We also meet Paul, her older half-brother, who has his own challenges, principally in the form of substance abuse.

The story follows Paul as he studies finance at the University of Toronto (although really, he just wants to write and play music). After a disastrous encounter with a rock band that is on the cusp of breaking through, Paul almost becomes a recluse, but hooks up again with Vincent and her best friend Melissa to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium.

Five years later, Vincent is established as a bar attendant in a luxurious hotel on the remote island in British Columbia where she had grown up. Paul, following one of his periods of detox and rehab, has just returned there, and is also working at the hotel. Late one night, one of the few guests is suffering insomnia, and spends most of the night in the bar, sitting by the hotel’s signature picture window. Having briefly left his seat, he returns to find that someone has written a threatening message on the glass. It soon becomes apparent that the ‘someone’ is Paul, and his employment there ends that night.

Vincent’s own employment at the hotel ends a couple of nights later when she leaves in company with a wealthy guest, who is, as it happens, its owner. He is head of a successful finance house, and within weeks, they are living together as husband and wife. Vincent does her best to fit in with life in the exalted circles in which she now moves, but never relinquishes her grasp on the realities of life. That is just as well, because within a few years that new lifestyle will come to an end in the most dramatic manner.

The characters are all finely drawn, and very plausible, with their respective emotions (and especially their resentments against each other) being completely convincing. As always with her books, there is a very cleverly managed interlacing of storylines. What goes around definitely seems to come around, but this does not hamper the reader’s complete acceptance of the story.

This book might not be quite as spectacular in its impact as Station Eleven, but it is just as powerful and haunting.

jul 9, 2021, 11:17 am

60. The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths.

I am becoming intrigued by this series, and wonder how long Elly Griffiths can maintain the high quality. In too many other series that I have initially enjoyed, the writer seems to have run out of steam or fallen back on simples rehashing of the interplay between characters, leaving me frustrated after a few volumes.

Certainly this book, which I believe is the seventh in the sequence, is just as gripping and enjoyable as its predecessors. Once again, she manages to achieve a joyous blend of strong characters, vivid settings, engaging plot and what I presume is accurate archaeological context (and if it isn’t then I suppose she earns more marks for convincing fabrication!).

The ghost fields of the title are the disused airfields from the Second World War that were strewn all over East Anglia and the fens. When a tract of open and is bought by a local property developer, the initial land clearing work uncovers an almost intact American fighter plane from the War. More surprisingly still, the plane contains a body, but it soon transpires that, firstly, it is not the pilot, and secondly that, rather than dying from wounds sustained in the crash landing, he had been shot at fairly close range.

As a consequence of her occasional consultative work with the local police, Dr Ruth Galloway, lecturer in archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, is called in to look at the remains, with a view to dating them. Meanwhile, she is engaged in a more conventional archaeological dig which has uncovered an ancient body. Intriguingly, a DNA check as part of a much wider project shows that the old body shares a significant amount of genetic material with the long-established local family on whose land the more recent body has been found. Similar tests on the body in the plane throw up more unexpected results.

As always with the Ruth Galloway books, much of the enjoyment derives from Elly Griffiths’ management of the various tensions between the central characters. New twists emerge on that front, as well, and I was pleased to find Cathdbad, local Druid leader, still playing his part, turning up when least expected, despite falling prey to a degree of domesticity arising from his complicated family position

I am looking forward to the next instalment.

jul 10, 2021, 3:55 am

>78 Eyejaybee: Just finished up a series, so I think I will read book #1 in this series.

jul 12, 2021, 11:07 am

61. The Outsider by Stephen King.

It is now well over forty years since I first started reading Stephen King’s books – indeed, I probably started relatively early in his career. The first of his books that I read was the original version of The Stand, the paperback edition of which had just been published in the United Kingdom. Having devoured that, I then went back and read its predecessors, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, and The Shining, all of which I enjoyed. In fact, I even read Night Shift, although I have never been a fan of short stories. Thereafter I read his next few books pretty much as soon as they came out, probably up until Pet Semetary. Somehow at that point I began to lose interest in horror as a genre, opting instead for ‘straight’ crime, but also an increasing concentration on the more literary end of the market. I hadn’t realised quite how prolific King had been – I suppose that prolific authors are frequently asked where they find their ideas, but I am perplexed by a more fundamental question of where does he find the time?

As a consequence of my changing tastes, I had not read anything by Stephen King until a few years ago when I caught up with (and ‘enjoyed’, if that is the word) Misery, and then found that he had branched into the field of more mainstream crime writing with Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers. I thought that those last two were very strong, although I was less keen with the finale of that series which seemed to stray back into supernatural territory. Which brings us to The Outsider. For the greater part of the book, it is essentially another crime story, with supernatural undercurrents, and I found the mixture worked well, not least because the characters themselves show reluctance to believe in what is happening.

The story is gruesome. As the book opens, the police in Flint City, Ohio, are about to arrest the local Little League baseball coach for the gruesome, sexually driven murder of a young boy, on what appears to be incontrovertible evidence. The arrest could not be more public, leading to a public outpouring of hatred against the suspect and his family. The seemingly incontrovertible nature of the evidence is soon called into question as the suspect is able to provide what appears to be a watertight alibi. The baffled investigators find themselves forced to ask how a man could be in two places at the same time. Then something else happens which raise the stakes even higher.

King has always been masterful at driving plots, whether sited in the real world of day-to-day life, or the netherworld in which horror stories unfold. He also draws immensely plausible, recognisable characters, and has a sharp ear for dialogue, all of which help the reader when any suspension of disbelief is required. These skills are once again to the fore here, and the story fairly fizzes along.

I did wonder, as I have with a lot of King’s novels, whether it was not unnecessarily long, which would, of course, lay additional weight to my question about where he finds the time. I did feel as if I had been reading this book for weeks, although in fact I took me just one week to finish it. However, the overall impact was very favourable, and I expect to be delving into a few more of his books (and there are certainly a lot to choose from) over the coming months.

jul 12, 2021, 11:09 am

62. Box 88 by Cahrles Cumming.

Following the sad news of the death a few months ago of John le Carré, the search is on to identify his successor as leader in that literary field. I have always felt that the tendency to describe le Carré as one of the greatest writers of spy fiction rather misses the pojnt - I think he is, quite simply, one of the greatest writers, regardless of genre.

There are some strong candidates for the mantle of le Carré’s successor. William Boyd is already acknowledged as one of the finest writers of his, or any other generation, although he does not confine himself solely to the field of espionage. Over the last few years, Charles Cumming has also emerged as a leading aspirant to that title, and this novel will certainly help to strengthen any such claim. Indeed, while reading this novel, I found myself recalling what was perhaps le Carré‘s most autobiographical novel, A Perfect Spy.

Like A Perfect Spy, the action moved between a threatening present and various stages in the protagonist’s earlier life. The protagonist in this case is Lachlan Kite, brought up between public school in England (with an uncanny resemblance to Eton) and the hotel in West Scotland run by his mother. Kite finds himself recruited into the intelligence world while still at school, in the late 1980s, Kite is soon exposed to the dilemmas that such a life carries with it, leaving him torn between loyalty to his service or to his friends.

That dilemma remains with him throughout his career. As the novel opens, he has apparently left that world, and established himself in business. He is, however, under surveillance by an extensive team of officers from MI5 ... but that is not the only team keeping tabs on him. He suddenly finds himself snatched and taken hostage, and struggling to work out what complex element from his past has come back to haunt him.

Cumming balances the twin threads of the current story and the gradually emerging insight into Lachlan’s past very adeptly. As with all of his previous novels, his intelligence officers rely on sound tradecraft, rather than riding on the luxury of technological wizardry, all of which lends to the credibility of the story. His characters are all plausible, too. Lachlan Kite is very empathetic, and convincing. The child in this case is father to the man, and there is a strong consistency between the young Lachlan in 1988, and the character he has become by 2020.

A very convincing novel, which makes a strong foundation for what I understand is to become a series.

jul 20, 2021, 11:54 am

63. A Cursed Place by Peter Hanington.

Like his protagonist (really a more accurate term in this case than ‘hero’), William Carver, Peter Hanington is himself a veteran reporter for the BBC Radio 4 flagship news programme Today. He is, as a consequence, able to give a clear insight in to the vnaities and internal hierarchies that beset a leading news broadcaster. The infighting with the programme staff is less evident in this novel than it was in the previous books, A Single Source and A Dying Breed, which featured tautly plotted thrillers set against the respective backdrops of the Arab Spring risings in Cairo and the aftermath of the War on Terro in Afghanistan, but is still lurjking in the background.

Carver is a report of the old school, primarily concerned with nailing facts and getting the story right than with making a self-aggrandising splash. However, after a stressful couple of years, as this novel opens he is back in London, giving lessons to the BBC’s new intake of apprentice reporters. Meanwhile, jis long suffering sound recordist, Patrick, is in Hong Kong, helping other BBC correspondents to report on the student riots against the Chinese authorities sparked by the threat to democracy. While seeking interviews, and capturing useful background sound recordings, Patrick meets the students’ leader. He has clearly given some thought to his role, and is eager to tap Partick for any insights he can give as to why other risings around the world, such as the Arab Spring, might not have worked.

Meanwhile, the story follows the leading figures of a global hi-tech company that has almost cornered the market in search engine technology, and is keen to diversify into as many other areas of daily life as it can. It has a network of local operatives who are prepared to take drastic steps to oil the wheels of commerce. One such, Jags, is flitting between Chile, where he hovers around a rural mining community, and California, where the tech giant is based. The depiction of the hug corporation is terrifying, and has certainly made me wonder more closely than previously about the trails I leave all over the cyber world every day.

As always with Peter Hanington’s novels, there are multiple threads to the story, all seamlessly woven together. I shan’t try to offer a synopsis of the plot – it is far too intricate to describe, although it is so convincing that the reader is quickly absorbed. All together , the book offers a pleasing mix of sound plot, very plausible and empathetic characters, and a sinuous storyline that never fails to surprise.

I hope that this is going to continue as a series.

jul 20, 2021, 11:58 am

64. The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths.

Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is not a conventional policeman. During the Second world War he had been in the army, and then transferred into the Secret Service where he had formed part of a group known as 'The Magic Men', whose role had been to explore different means of fooling the Germans. Now, in the early 1950s, he is in CID based at Brighton. It is in that capacity that he attends the scene of a gruesome murder in which a young woman has been cut into three sections. Her hed and legs are found in two separate black chests. Beguilingly, only the upper and lowest parts are there. The midriff is delivered to the police station a couple of days later, addressed specifically to Stephens, though quoting his former military rank rather than his police title.

Meanwhile, another former member of 'The Magic Men' is also in Brighton. This is Maximillian Massingham, known professionally as Max Mephisto, one of the leading stage conjurers of the day, and he is top of the bill in one of Brighton's theatres. Recognising the black chests as similar to those used by conjurers, Stephens makes use of this coincidence to seek Max's advice about the murder. They renew their friendship and start investigating the crime together.

This may all sound like fairly ordinary fare for crime investigations, but Elly Griffiths delivers her story with style, and holds the tension admirably. The period descriptions of post-war yet still austerity-bound Brighton give a suitably grim backdrop to the story, and the vignettes of music hall life are entertaining. I see that there are furthr novels in this series, and I shall certainly look forward to them.

jul 20, 2021, 1:34 pm

65. Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn.

This came tantalisingly close to being a splendid novel. The characters were very well developed, the historical context finely drawn and the plot was engaging and convincing.

The story is set in London in the 1930s, against the backdrop of constitutional uncertainty as the King's relationship with Mrs Wallis Simpson became more widely known. When not stirring public outrage about the King's dalliance, the tabloid papers are full of prurient coverage of a series of murders perpetrated by a villain dubbed 'The Tiepin Killer'.

Stephen Wyley is a successful painter who has been establishing himself as a society portrait artist. He is having a secret affair with up and coming stage actress Nina Land who is currently starring in 'The Second Arrangement' at the Strand Theatre. While leaving after having enjoyed an illicit liaison in a hotel in Russell Square, Nina hears screams coming from a room on the lower floor. Her knock on the door seems to interrupt a vicious attack, and a woman manages to escape from the room and run away. Nina realises that she may have disturbed the Tiepin Killer.

Meanwhile ageing theatre critic Jimmy Erskine is living beyond his means, caught up in a cycle of decadence reminiscent of his great hero, Oscar Wilde. The vignettes of his grotesque entertainments are hilarious, though they also leave Erskine exposed to danger as he darts between the higher echelons of society down to the darkest back alleys. His secretary and majordomo is Tom Tunner, a shy epileptic who has been trying for years to disentangle himself from Erskine, although somehow, he never quite manages to escape. As the story develops Tom meets and falls in love with Madeleine Farewell, who turns out to be the victim saved by Nina Land's fortuitous intervention. Like everyone else in this novel, Madeleine has a closely-guarded a secret.

The plot moves forward very deftly, and the story is strewn with vignettes of historical people such Oswald Mosley and William Joyce (who would later become infamous as Lord HawHaw). Quinn weaves a very effective story, and has a fine ear for history.

Redigeret: jul 22, 2021, 8:26 am

66. Other People's Secrets by Louise Candlish.

Having never been aware of her until fairly recently, I have now read a few books by Louise Candlish this year. She has a great knack of relating a story from different, even conflicting, perspectives, and of identifying fragilities and tensions within relationships. I have found that she is also adept at creating a wide cast of characters who are all difficult to like, without making the reader reluctant to continue.

This book focuses on two families who end up in close proximity to each other on holiday in the Italian lakes. Adam and Ginny Trustlove, who have booked the lodge house for a large villa estate, are hoping that some time away will help them cope with a resent personal tragedy. Meanwhile the wealthy Sale family, owners of a multinational clothing franchise, have taken the villa itself. As the book progresses it becomes clear that all of the characters have their own deep secrets, and related vulnerabilities, and as the family groups become closer, these sensitivities are probed.

This is one of Candlish’s earlier books, and while there are some familiar aspects, it is clear that she had not yet honed her skills to the pitch shown in later works such as ‘The Other Passenger’ and ‘Our House’. That is not to say that it is not a good book – it is, and I enjoyed reading it. There were slightly fewer surprises than in the more recent novels, but she builds the tension very effectively.

jul 26, 2021, 12:36 pm

67. Bloodline by Mark Billingham.

This is another strong instalment in the series featuring the likeable if careworn Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. Of course, in recent years we have come to expect fictional detectives to have their own idiosyncrasies. For instance, Chief Inspector Morse had his vintage Jaguar, love of opera and penchant for real ale, while John Rebus has his classic rock music and whisky to fuel this ‘thrawn’ nature. Thorne is less querulous (just), and his personality manifests itself through a bright yellow BMW and a love of melancholy country music. Ah, well, each to their own.

I particularly like the Thorne books because, in addition to the sound plots and plausible denouement, they are largely set in North London, in areas which I know very well. From that local knowledge, I know that Mark Billingham is excellent at catching the local colour of his settings, which gives me confidence in the verisimilitude of those sections and settings with which I am not familiar.

In this particularly chilling case, it gradually emerges that someone is murdering the children of victims of an earlier serial killer. As Mister Kurtz might have said, ‘The horror, the horror!’ As if that were not enough, Thorne finds himself with his own personal loss to contend with.

While elements of the story may be grim, Billingham doesn’t luxuriate in the horror, and he manages the bleak story with great sensitivity.

jul 27, 2021, 5:03 am

68. That Will Be England Gone by Michael Henderson.*

When Denis Healey died, one word that appeared in a lot of the obituaries and tributes was ‘hinterland’, in that context conveying the breadth of his life beyond the contentious world of politics for which he was principally known. Much was made of his interests in literature and music, as well as photography, in which he was especially accomplished, to the extent that he might have made a living from it if he had not succumbed instead to the political life.

In this marvellous book, Michael Henderson, known primarily for his years as cricket correspondent writing in most of the leading newspapers at one time or another, displays his own extensive hinterland. In addition to a cornucopia of glorious cricketing memories, he takes the reader along with him in tangential forays into opera, literature, art and history.

In his regular articles on cricket, Henderson was seldom reluctant to express an opinion, caring little for established conventions if he felt they needed to be challenged. Yet even when I found myself disagreeing with him (which, I now realise, happened far less frequently than I might have expected), I was always impressed with what Sir Humphrey might have termed his ‘refreshing directness’. I could always follow his reasoning, too.

In this book, any residual reluctance to express his views has evaporated entirely, and he bemoans the impact of the relentless search for popularism on the noble game of cricket. It is easy to dismiss naysayers to new forms of cricket simply as knee-jerk reactionaries, opposed to change as a matter of principle. More than most sorts, cricket has a bedrock of Adullamites, constantly looking to a Corinthian past largely of their own imagining, and impervious to any hint of change. I don’t think that Henderson’s dismay falls into that category. He certainly makes no secret of his dislike, even scorn, at the recent trends in cricket, such as the predomination of the T20 format, which has almost driven out the long-established first class county game in England, or, even worse, the hullaballoo surrounding the imminent introduction of ‘The Hundred’ (still some way off in the future at the time Henderson was writing, but now launched). He does, however, offer soundly constructed arguments as to why he believes that these are dangerous developments.

Although a lifelong lover of the game, I am not sufficiently qualified to offer a worthwhile opinion as to whether he is right (although I strongly suspect he is). I can, however, expand on the joy of reading this book. I bought it for his insights and memories about cricket, but cherished it for far more. In between his reminiscences prompted by his last tour of the country as a working cricket correspondent, he weaves rich tapestries about a wealth of other subjects. And what a diverse selection!

In different chapters we are given a whistle-stop tour of the multifarious glories of Vienna; a potted biography of Robert Peel, who as Home Secretary founded the police force, before going on to form the modern Conservative Party; marvellous depictions of most of the great cricket grounds around the country, and a wonderful homage to Nobel laureate and famed cricket lover, Harold Pinter.

As a professional journalist of long standing, Henderson conveys all this was a wonderful economy of prose, with not a word wasted or without impact. I bought this as a cricket lover, but it is really a paean to British and European culture.

jul 27, 2021, 9:31 am

69. The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths.

I think this is the eighth novel featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, lecturer in archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, and I am impressed at how successfully Elly Griffiths has kept the series moving forward. Her characters are very strong, with a highly plausible frisson of antagonism between them.

Ruth herself is an excellent protagonist, balancing the demands of her professional life with those of a single parent, living in a fairly remote cottage by the sea with Kate, her five-year-old daughter, and Flint, her trusty cat. In addition to her academic role, she has helped the local police on several occasions when old bones have been unearthed, helping to date them, and provide any other forensic evidence that might emerge. Despite this, her relations with the local police are awkward, not least because the head of DID, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson is also Kate’s father. While this has never been publicly acknowledged, a growing number of people, including most of Nelson’s colleagues are aware of it.

Also on the fringes of the police circle is Michael Malone, sometime laboratory assistant at the university, but more prominently known as Cathbad, leading light of the local Druid community (more extensive than might be imagined). For reasons too complex to expand upon here, Cathbad has become close to both Ruth and DCI Nelson, despite the strong scepticism initially felt by both of them. In a further complication, Cathbad is also living with Judy Johnson, one of Nelson’s Detective Sergeants.

In this story, Ruth is contacted by Hilary, a friend from her own student days. Although they had both been studying archaeology, Hilary is no longer involved in this field. She has, instead, become an Anglican priest, and when a theological conference brings her to North Norfolk, she re-establishes contact with Ruth. It turns out that Hilary has been receiving some hate mail, including a couple of recent letters that have featured threats if she should choose to attend the conference. Having read of Kate’s previous involvement with some highly publicised cases, Hilary asks for her advice, and the letters are passed on to DCI Nelson and his team.

They take on additional significance when, as the conference approaches, a young woman is found murdered outside the venue in which the conference will be held. As if this were not enough, one the conference begins, one of the delegates who bears an unusually close resemblance to the murdered woman, is also murdered by similar means.

Elly Griffiths’s success with this series lies in her ability to blend her plausible, well drawn characters with soundly constructed plots. The clues are all there for the observant reader … well even for the less observant ones such as myself – I didn’t spot the murdered this time. The tensions between the principal characters, and the challenges that they face in their respective domestic situations, are all very delicately and cleverly moved forward.

aug 2, 2021, 8:38 am

70. Diamond and the Eye by Peter Lovesey.

Over the years Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, head of CID in Bath, has become one of my favourite fictional coppers. Frequently impulsive and often bad tempered, he is an essentially empathetic character, struggling to curb his frustrations at the relentless stream of new management initiatives that hius superiors (whom he considers to be woefully lacking in frontline experience of the job) keep trying to introduce.

In this latest outing, he finds himself (reluctantly) investigating the disappearance of Septimus Hubbard, a flamboyant antique dealer who has not been seen since his shop was broken into a week earlier. A missing person case is not something that Superintendent Diamond might normally become involved with, but he is goaded into action by Johnny Getz, an aspiring local private detective, who has been retained by Mr Hubbard’s daughter. Diamond is reluctant to acknowledge that a serious crime might have been committed, until people involved with the case are shot at by a mystery gunman.

The Diamond novels have always tended more towards the whimsical end of the crime fiction genre. Ostensibly police procedurals, they do not tend to labour the grimmer aspects of urban crime, and one of their principal attractions is the heavy smattering of local colour that Lovesey adds. The Bath setting is, after all, particularly well-suited to this. In fact, I am surprised that the books haven’t been picked up for television, as I am sure they would have the same broad international appeal as the Morse series (with a similarly querulous, although perhaps less intellectually elevated protagonist).

This book takes the form of two separate narratives. The main one is a standard third person account, unfolding the action of the plot, but this is interspersed with occasional first-person contributions from Johnny Getz. To be honest, I found those sections very annoying. I think that Peter Lovesey was aiming for a jocular, slightly tongue in cheek approach, but I felt that it didn’t really come off. In fact, although I enjoyed the book overall, it was a bit weaker than most of the Diamond series, and I wonder whether it might be time for the Superintendent to be pensioned off, before any further weakening compromises the series as a whole.

aug 2, 2021, 8:40 am

71. Dead Beat by Val McDermid.

Val McDermid is probably best known for her gritty, gory novels featuring Detective Inspector Carol Jordan and psychiatrist Dr Tony Hill, televised as 'Wire in the Blood' (taking the name of the second novel in the series). By the time she published the first of those novels, however, she had already written two separate series, each featuring engaging female protagonists. Her first three novels revolved around Lindsay Gordon, lesbian journalist who solved fairly traditional whodunit style mysteries. Then, in 1992 in 'Dead Beat', McDermid introduced her feisty, Manchester-based private investigator, Kate Brannigan.

As the novel opens, Kate is in drawing towards the conclusion of an investigation into traders in counterfeit goods (raging from high end watches to designer leisurewear). She finds herself accompanying Richard, her music journalist boyfriend, to a gig by Jett, a local boy who had made good after having grown up in straitened circumstances in Mossside. At the after-concert part Jett commissions Kate to find Moira, his former partner (both musical and romantic). They had parted several years ago and Jett was conscious that his career had been declining ever since. After leaving Jett, Moira had fallen on very hard times, and subsided into a life fuelled by drug abuse and financed by occasional prostitution. This sort of investigation is not in Kate's normal line of business but, as a special favour to Jett she agrees.

McDermid's great quality is her ability to construct plausible and convincing plots, and this is evident here. Brannigan's investigation into Moira's disappearance is detailed, and gripping, but never stretches the reader's credibility. Her later novels are noted for their grimness, with each new murder seeming to surpass all its predecessors for macabre qualities. This is not evident in the Brannigan novels where the crimes, and the attendant investigations fall within the bounds of familiar experience. They are related in the first person, and Brannigan has a wry, self-deprecating wit that keeps the reader fully engaged. I am surprised that these novels have never made their way onto television.

Redigeret: aug 7, 2021, 6:43 am

72. From the Dead by Mark Billingham.

DI Tom Thorpe has been investigating murders around his native north London for a long time, and it is starting to get him down. He is a dogged detective, and generally an adherent to the approach adopted by Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch in Michael Connelly’s excellent series set in Los Angeles: either everyone counts, or no one counts.

When this story opens, Thorne is giving evidence in the case of Adam Chambers, who has been charged with abducting and murdering a young woman who had been a member of his self defence class. Thorne performs well in the witness box, and he and his colleagues are fairly confident of a guilty verdict. It is far from cut and dried, however, not least because the alleged victim’s body had never been discovered. This does not preclude the possibility of a guilty verdict, but it does make it a little bit harder, and the case has to be watertight.

He soon finds himself drawn into a markedly different case. Ten years earlier, Donna Langford had been convicted of conspiracy to murder, having paid an associate to murder her abusive husband, Alan, a key participant in local organised crime. A charred body had certainly been found in her husband’s burnt-out Jaguar, and as she capitulated at the first challenge from the police, she had been convicted, along with the hired hand who actually committed the killing, and the case seemed closed. However, shortly before her release, she starts receiving anonymous messages including photographs suggesting her husband is still alive. Her first thought is to hire Anna Carpenter, an aspiring private detective, who in turn contacts Thorne, as one of the officers involved in the original investigation. Initially sceptical, Thorne becomes convinced that Langford may indeed still be alive, a view that seems to be confirmed when various people associated with his past are killed.

I recognise that my synopsis may seem somewhat turgid, although the book is far from that. Billingham has always known how to engage his readers, and draw them in right from the start. Several of his books are set in locations near where I live, and I am always struck by how well Billingham describes them, often capturing aspects that I hadn’t noticed before, but which when I come to inspect them, are absolutely spot on.

aug 11, 2021, 10:09 am

73. A Colder War by Charles Cumming.

This book marked the welcome return of Thomas Kell, who first appeared in A Foreign Country. In that book he had been languishing in a sort of limbo, awaiting a possible court appearance as Officer X for his role in the ‘extraordinary rendition’ of a terrorist suspect. He had, however, been instrumental in the successful rescue of the son of the head of MI5, which had led to his gradual rehabilitation back into the Service.

As the sequel opens, an operation involving MI5 in Turkey had gone awry, with an agent crossing into the country being intercepted in the most brutal manner. Soon afterwards the officer supervising the operation dies in a crash while piloting a hired private plane. Then a highly valued intelligent asset is murdered in the street. It becomes very difficult to believe that these might all be coincidental.

The dead MI5 officer was Paul Wallinger, who in addition to having been a close friend of Kell had also been MI5’s chief representative in counter espionage operations in Turkey, as well as the occasional lover of Amelia Levine, Head of MI5, known officially as ‘C’. Amelia commissions Kell to investigate Walliger’s death, as aprt of the gradual rehabilitation process back onto the books of MI5 following the rendition incident.

Kell had known Wallinger well, and was shocked to learn of his death. He is even more astounded to learn from ‘C’ that there seems to be a leak and that intelligence operations out of Turkey might have been compromised. Kell’s investigation is, therefore, partially to exonerate Wallinger. Of course, being Kell, it is not long before he has managed to embroil himself in additional complications, including starting a relationship with Wallinger’s daughter.

The plot is well constructed, and Cumming gives intriguing insight in intelligence tradecraft. Charles Cumming always delivers a very sound plot and pleasing characters – I find Thomas Kell one of the most empathetic characters in spy fiction, although that may simply be because he seems to share so many of my own literary tastes. Still, it is always gratifying these days to find any protagonist who values reading as a pastime!

I think that Cumming is rapidly assuming pole position ion the jockeying to take on John le Carre’s mantle as greatest living spy novelist.

aug 12, 2021, 11:17 am

74. Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris.

This book is a marvellous study of revenge set against the background of St Oswald’s, a minor public school that dominates its local area. It is narrated in part by the principal character, curmudgeonly Classics teacher Roy Straitley, who is embarking on his ninety-ninth term teaching at the school (of which he is, himself an old boy), and is dead set on achieving his century. He does, however, feel beset by the various members of the school's Senior Management Team, all of whom advocate glitzy new ideas which they communicate to the common room using a jargon-strewn lingo that Straitley can scarcely understand. He is also besieged by colleagues in the Modern Languages department, who clearly have designs on his classroom, which occupies a prime location in the school’s bell tower.

The new school year brings with it a crop of new teachers, one of whom writes a second narrative which is intertwined with Straitley's. We learn that this new teacher had grown up in the school's gatehouse as their father had been the School's Porter, although they had been sent to the local sink estate comprehensive school. While growing up this teacher had formed an overwhelming obsession with St Oswald’s, to the extent that they frequently masqueraded as one of the junior boys.

As a new member of staff this teacher sets about a Machiavellian scheme to undermine the body of the school, with devastating (though often humorous) consequences.

The book is absolutely spellbinding, with alarmingly (deliciously?) close echoes of my own old school. i have always loved stories set in old fashioned schools, and this is one of the best of the genre that I have encountered.

aug 23, 2021, 5:17 am

75. Good as Dead by Mark Billingham.

This is the tenth novel in Mark Billingham’s series featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, and marked a departure from the customary format. As the novel opens, Helen Weeks has stopped off at her local newsagent to buy a paper and some chewing gum, as she does almost every working day This morning proves very different. While she is on the shop, three youths enter and start abusing the Asian shopkeeper. Before Helen can even think about intervening, the shopkeeper has produced a pistol and brandished it at the boys. They run off, but the newsagent then takes Helen hostage, along with another customer who had just entered the shop.

It turns out that the shopkeeper’s son had been imprisoned. He had a friend had been at attacked in the street by a (different) group of youths. During the ensuing fight, one of the attackers had been fatally stabbed with his own knife, and the shopkeeper’s son had been charged with, and convicted of, manslaughter. While serving his sentence in a Young Offenders’ Institute, he had died, apparently from a self-administered drug overdose.

His father is convinced that the truth behind his son’s death has been covered up, and wants a full investigation. Paradoxically, the officer who most trusts to secure this outcome is DI Thorne, who had led the investigation into the street fight, which had concluded with the shopkeeper’s son’s imprisonment. Even Thorne and his colleagues had been surprised at the severity of the sentence imposed, given the circumstances, In a further twist, it turns out that the hostage Helen weeks is her self a police officer, and known to Thorne who had investigated the murder of her partner and father of her son the previous year.

With police in attendance at the shop, and with the Armed Support Unit eager to intervene to bring the situation to a close, Thorne has to try to unravel what happened to bring about the shopkeeper’s death.

This may all sound rather chaotic, with a morass of loose ends. Billingham does, however, manage all the various story threads admirably. With his history of unconventional detection methods, and his complete lack of reluctance to ruffle his superiors’ feathers, Thorne is certainly a strong choice to conduct such an unorthodox, and urgent, investigation, and within a very short time he has managed to stir up a terrific mare’s nest.

Billingham moves the perspective between the hostages and their captor in the shop, Thorne’s own investigations, and the efforts of his long-suffering colleagues, Sergeant Holland and DI Kitson, to unravel background material. He brings it all together in a very tight, and highly plausible manner.

aug 25, 2021, 12:35 pm

76. A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz.

With each new book of his that I read, I am increasingly impressed with Anthony Horowitz’s flexibility. In recent years he has probably been best known for writing the popular and enduring television series, Foyle’s War along with several episodes of Midsomer Murders. He is also the author of the very successful series of children’s novels around the character Alex Rider.

But over the last few years he has also branched out into fiction for adults (I know that is a rather awkward construction, but I feared that the phrase ‘adult fiction’ might give people altogether the wrong impression of his writing, and, indeed, my reading habits), in which he continues to demonstrate a constantly innovative approach.

The first of his novels that I encountered was The House of Silk, which he was commissioned to write by the Estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, and which recounted a ‘lost’ Sherlock Holmes adventure which, for reasons which become evident as the story progresses, Dr Watson had undertaken to defer from publication until all the protagonists were dead. Horowitz captured the feel of Conan Doyle’s original stories admirably, and the book represented a valuable addition to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Following that success, he was commissioned by the Estate of Ian Fleming to write a new James Bond book, which came to fruition as Trigger Mortis. Once again, he captured the feel and style of the original books – far more capably than Sebastian Faulks managed in The Devil May Care, and to my mind almost on a par with William Boyd’s excellent Solo. Indeed, I suspect that writers as accomplished as Boyd and Horowitz probably found it painful to have to rein in their own laudable style to try to recapture what I have also seen as the relentless mediocrity of Ian Fleming’s prose.

He followed this with another venture into the world of Sherlock Holmes territory with his excellent Moriarty, which recounted the exploits of that arch criminal and featured a major twist that I certainly didn’t see coming, and then addressed the traditional whodunit with a homage to Agatha Christie in The Magpie Murders, one of the finest examples of meta-fiction that I have read recently.

In his next novel, The Word is Murder, Horowitz returned to meta-fiction but with a different twist, casting himself as one of the leading characters, which allowed him to offer an insight into the modus operandi of a busy professional writer. In that book Horowitz was more or less appropriated by Daniel Hawthorne, a former Detective inspector from the Metropolitan Police. Hawthorne had previously acted as an adviser on some of the programmes with which Horowitz had been involved, and also occasionally acts as a consultant for the Met on some of their more unusual murder investigations. Hawthorne approaches Horowitz, asking the writer to catalogue some of his investigations with a view to their eventual publication in book form. The relationship between Hawthorne and Horowitz was fractious but eventually productive, and they do eventually identify the perpetrator of the first murder that they investigate.

This novel is the third to feature that uncomfortable pairing, and sees them flying to Alderney to attend a new literary festival, with a view to promoting The Word is Murder, which was then on the point of publication. They are accompanied by a selection of other writers who will be promoting their latest works at the festival. These include a television celebrity chef, the writer of some successful children’s adventure stories, a French performance poet who writes in a rare regional dialect, and a blind writer who has acquired apparent spiritual powers as her physical vision faded.

Right from their first meeting, at Southampton Airport, tensions are clearly apparent within the group, and these intensify once they land in Alderney and meet some of the other participants in the Festival, along with prominent members of the local community. That community is currently riven over plans to develop a power line from France, which will be extended to the British mainland. Many islanders see this as a source of commercial benefit to Alderney, while others see it as a disfigurement of the island’s charm.

Against this backdrop the various writers attend a session at the house of the island’s most wealthy resident, an especially unpleasant man who seems to have encountered several of the writers in the past. Almost predictably, he is found dead at the end of the evening, in circumstances that leave no ready explanation. As Alderney lacks its own resident police force, officers are dispatched from elsewhere in the Channel Islands, and they immediately call up Daniel Hawthorne’s past experience, commissioning him to lead the investigation.

Horowitz manages all of this with his customary dexterity, self-deprecatingly making his own character the butt of much derision. As always, the plot is watertight. The clues are all there, although I contrived to miss most of them! The tension between Horowitz and Hawthorne (wo is a decidedly difficult and generally unempathetic character) is very deftly developed, and the addition of some clever humour all makes for a very entertaining and rewarding book.

And while one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the endpapers are very appealing too,

sep 1, 2021, 8:04 am

77. 1979 by Val McDermid.

Val McDermid has been one of our most prolific crime novelists, and has now published more than forty books, including four series focusing on different protagonists. However, she has not allowed the sheer volume of her output to compromise its quality, and she is known for her watertight plots, finely drawn characters, and empathetic lead protagonists.

This novel marks the start of a new series, following Alison (“Allie”) Burns, a young reporter on a Glasgow-based newspaper. McDermid’s career also featured a period as a crime reporter, and her insights into the chauvinistic attitudes proliferating throughout the press corps in the late 1970s emerges very clearly. As the novel opens, Allie is on a train travelling back to Glasgow after her visit home for Christmas. She notices that a fellow passenger is Danny Sullivan, one of her colleagues from the paper. Having previously only had a nodding acquaintance, following an unusual incident on the journey, they become friends, and end up working together on a couple of major stories: one arising out of an investigation that Danny had been following in his own time for months, and the other from a lead and suspicion that Allie had allowed to ferment for a while.

I was just sixteen back in 1979, but remember it very clearly. Now it is most frequently thought of as following the ‘winter of discontent’ when the government, led by Jim Callaghan, was beset with strikes across much of the country, unemployment started to rise, and the economy was still fragile after the bailouts from the IMF. McDermid captures the feel of the time admirably, with casual references to the popular hits of the time, and the stilted fare available on television (just here channels back then, of course).

One of the big stories brewing at that time was the referendum in Scotland over the possibility of devolution. The Scottish National Party at that time had nine MPs in Westminster. While this is a mere fraction of their current parliamentary presence, at that time it marked the peak of their success, and was enough of a cabal to prove significant when the party withdrew its support for Callaghan’s government after the result of the referendum was announced.

The two principal journalistic stories develop powerfully as the novel progresses, and Allie in particular emerges as a very empathetic character I won’t say much more for fear of inadvertent spoilers, but I was very impressed with the book as a whole, and am looking forward to the next episodes in the series.

sep 1, 2021, 8:15 am

78. Different Class by Joanne Harris.

I have always loved stories set in schools, and this is one of the finest in the genre. Joanne Harris first introduced us to St Oswald’s, a minor public school located in the fictional Yorkshire town of Malbry, ten years ago in Gentlemen and Players. That was a rattling good yarn, teeming with themes of revenge and bitterness played out against a backdrop of an ancient school that a new management team is striving to modernise.

Different Class picks up where Gentlemen and Players left off, at the start of the following school year. As with the earlier book, the story is told in alternating narratives, one delivered by Roy Straitley, curmudgeonly Classics teacher now with one hundred terms of teaching at the school under his belt, while the other comes from one of his former pupils, recounting events from the early 1980s.

After the events of the previous book a ‘Crisis Team’ has been installed in the school to help the newly-appointed headmaster, John Harrington, himself an old boy of the school whom Straitley vaguely remembers. Harrington’s time as a pupil had coincided with a difficult spell for the school (indeed, the school seems to have lurched from one challenging period to another), and his return as headmaster seems set to herald a period of relentless modernisation. This frightens Straitley who is a great advocate of traditional methods.

It has been clear from all of her previous novels that Joanne Harris is masterful at telling a story, and the two entwined narratives in this book complement each other beautifully. She also has a conjuror’s gift for misdirection. She suckered me completely in Gentlemen and Players, and even though I was expecting something of the sort she did so again here.

This is clearly a book I will be reading, and enjoying, again before very long.

sep 1, 2021, 10:35 am

79. Agent Running in the Field by John le Carre.

John le Carré was widely fêted as one of the greatest writers of spy fiction. Well, that is undeniable, and I wouldn’t question that judgement for a moment. I feel it does, however, rather miss the point John le Carré was simply one of the finest writers, regardless of genre. No other author whose works I have read has come close to matching either his dissection of the tortured byways of the human psyche, or his majestic, wholly unique mastery of English prose.

He was remarkable, too, for his literary longevity. When this novel was published, it was nearly sixty years since his first novel, Call for the Dead, which introduced his most famous character, George Smiley. Shortly after this novel came out he celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday. But age did not weary him, and nor did the passing years seem to condemn. While this novel might not quite match up to the brightest jewels in his sizeable crown, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or A Perfect Spy (much of which struck a close resonance to events in his own upbringing), that still leaves more than ample scope for it to be a very good book, which it is.

Nat, a middle-aged employee of MI6 has been brought back home to London after a series of postings abroad. Concerned that he might be put out to grass, he is relieved to find himself assigned to run a minor outpost of the Russia Division, located in Camden Town. One of his great passions in life has been the game of badminton, and he is currently the undisputed champion at his local club in Battersea. As the novel opens, Nat is enjoying a post-match drink with his latest opponent when he is approached aby a rather gauche young man who wants to challenge him. This proved to be Ed Shannon, and as the novel proceeds, and their badminton rivalry grows, Nat discovers that he is a bit of a lost soul, but one who is riven by concerns over the state of the world, and in particular the plight of Britain as Brexit draws closer. He is also deeply opposed to the policies of President Trump, and scared by the rise of the populist right around the western world. Seldom able to control his passion on these subjects, Ed delivers two or three simultaneously vitriolic and eloquent rants. Nat is naturally reserved, but clearly does not disagree too strongly. I suspect that le Carré also probably feels he couldn’t have put things better himself …

Meanwhile Nat is working hard, supporting Florence, an ambitious and accomplished protegee, who has devised an operation aimed against a flamboyant Russian oligarch who lives in London. While this is nearing fruition, one of his old double agents, on standby for a couple of years, suddenly comes back onstream, raising fears of an extensive Russian network at work in London.

As always, le Carré manages the various plot threads dextrously, weaving strands in and out, beguiling the reader with his customary ease. By le Carré’s standards, this is a fairly short novel, weighing in at 280 pages, but it packs a solid punch, and shows that he is as capable as ever.

sep 8, 2021, 8:06 am

80. The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards.*

I found this absolutely fascinating. Steve Richards has looked at the last ten British Prime Ministers, starting from Harold Wilson who first came into office in 1964 (as it happens, the year after I was born). Interestingly, he was the only one of the ten who served non-consecutive terms as Prime Minister.

It is certainly intriguing to consider the vast changes in the nature of political coverage in the media throughout that period. Harold Wilson was one of the first Prime ministers to recognise the importance of television as a means of connecting with the electorate. For his predecessors, there had been relatively little media coverage of, or interest in, politics beyond the printed press. That started to change as we moved into the 1960s, fuelled by the onset of greater public affluence, the spread of television (not least because of the unprecedented impact of television satire programmes such as That Was The Week That Was), and the additional fuel arising from scandals such as the Profumo Affair.

Steve Richards is a political journalist and observer of long vintage, though not long enough actually to have been reporting on the terms in office of Wilson or his successor, Edward Heath. He does, however, share a personal recollection of a public meeting he attended at which Wilson showed great adroitness in managing the audience.

Richards is known as a man of the left, but his accounts seem well balanced. I certainly enjoyed his reminiscences of crises and episodes that I recall from my own youth, although several of them had been long buried in my memory until he nudged them back to life. His chapter on the ill-fated premiership of Theresa May is particularly poignant, in its portrayal of the insurmountable ranks of opposition lined against her, on all sides of the party delineations.

Overall, this was an informative and entertaining account. The contrast that Richards draws between the respective skills and talents of the different Prime Ministers, and their suitability (or not) to the office that they took on, is enlightening.

sep 8, 2021, 8:50 am

81. Testkill by Ted Dexter & Clifford Makins.

I was prompted to read this novel following reports of the recent death of Ted Dexter, one of the great post-war English batsmen, and a powerful force in the game of cricket. A natural athlete, he was also a notable tennis player, and was reckoned to be within a whisker of securing his Blue at Cambridge for both rugby and tennis. I remember enjoying his contributions to the coverage of Test matches during the 1970s and 1980s, not least for the frequent distant stare that settled on his features in the afternoon, following what had presumably been a liquid lunch.

Alcohol seems to be almost as prominent a feature of this novel, set during the Lords Test in the middle of the Ashes series, as cricket. Scarcely more than a few minutes elapse without one character or another reaching for a drink.

Overall, this book was disappointing. While the depictions of the cricket match against which the story is set are glorious, and resonant with Dexter’s expert insight, the story and the characters are woefully inadequate.

sep 8, 2021, 9:27 am

82. Death Message by Mark Billingham.

Life is never easy for Detective inspector Tom Thorne. This novel opens with him receiving a picture sent to his mobile phone from a number that he does not recognise. The picture is hazy, but it is soon apparent that it shows the head of someone who has been battered to death. He passes the phone on to the police’s technical experts to see if they can draw any further information from the photo. In the meantime, the body of a second-hand car dealer is found, severely battered. Closer inspection shows that the victim is the person shown in the picture. It transpires that the dead man was also a member of a local biker gang. Thorne receives another photo, and shortly afterwards, another member of the biker gang is killed.

This sets the scene for a complex case in which Thorne finds himself under scrutiny. Of course, being Thorne, it is not long before he goes off on a tangent, departing from the rule book as is his norm.

That may all sound like standard crime thriller fare. Billingham always rises about that, however. His characters are always well drawn, and very credible. The relationships between the principal police figures is also entirely plausible. Thorne is a difficult and often demanding officer, but his colleagues trust him, and are often prepared to go the extra mile for him. Meanwhile, colleagues from Internal Affairs are hanging around rather more often than is comfortable.

Billingham is a master at weaving different narrative threads, and isn’t afraid of leaving the odd loose end. I enjoyed this, and find that nine or ten books in, the series shows no sign of flagging.

sep 9, 2021, 7:37 am

83. The Darkness Remains by Ian Rankin and William McIlvanney.

I seem always to have had a bit of a blind spot about William McIlvanney’s books featuring 1970s Glaswegian cop, Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw. The consensus among the critics, and also amongst contemporary writers of Scottish crime fiction is that he was one of the finest, and that he might be considered as having created the ‘Scottish Noir’ genre. I have tried to read his novel Laidlaw a couple of time, including just prior to reading this book, but have never summoned the strength of spirit to complete it.

I am, however, generally a great fan of Ian Rankin, and had been intrigued to read that, having consulted with McIlvanney’s widow, he had undertaken to write a prequel to the Laidlaw books, working from preparatory notes that McIlvanney had left. The critics seemed to welcome this collaboration, although a few of them seemed to suggest that Rankin’s prose fell short of the mark set by McIlvanney. I beg to differ. One of the key factors that I seek in a writer’s style is accessibility. I want to be able to read the narrative without unduly labouring to deconstruct what the author might be trying to say. To my mind, Rankin writes with a great clarity, and I found myself immersed in the book almost immediately, with none of the sense of running up an increasingly steep hill that had accompanied my attempts to read McIlvanney’s unassisted prose.

The story is standard Scottish Noir fare. It is a cold winter in Glasgow in 1972, and a young couple emerge from a halting date in a small pub to find a dead body in the alleyway. When the police arrive, the corpse is identified as a missing lawyer, known for his association with one of the larger gangs struggling for supremacy in Glasgow’s criminal underworld. As the pub is located within another gang’s turf, it appears that there may well be a gang war simmering beneath the surface.

One of the policemen assigned to the case is Detective Constable Jack Laidlaw, recently assigned to his current nick, and something of an outsider, as evidenced by the books of philosophy to be found among the case papers on his desk. Of course, Rankin is excellently suited to recount the trials, tribulations and exploits of a ‘thrawn’ and unconventional police officer – he has ploughed that furrow very productively for the last twenty-odd years with his own Detective Inspector Rebus.

I enjoyed this book, and raced through it in just a couple of days. I don’t know where within the text McIlvanney ends and Rankin begins, but I did enjoy the manner in which the atmosphere of the city seemed to be caught, and in which the plot unfolded, much of which seemed to suggest to me that Rankin’s had been the upper hand.

I do, however, hope that Rankin returns to deploying his considerable talents keeping his loyal reader’s up to date about that other thrawn loner, John Rebus.

sep 14, 2021, 10:11 am

84. A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris.

I wonder if this book stands as evidence that one can take the pitcher to the well once too often.

I enjoyed Joanne Harris’s previous novels featuring ageing Classics teacher Roy Straitley and the troubled St Oswald’s School: Gentlemen and Players, and Different Class.. Indeed, I re-read both of them prior to starting this, and enjoyed them just as much the second time around. Unfortunately I found this latest addition to the canon rather a bind, and, having lost momentum about half way through, I struggled to finish it.

As with its predecessors, the story is recounted through two separate narrative: one from Straitley, who has somehow manged to summon the energy to return to start teaching teach for yet another academic year; the other from Rebecca Buckfast, who has emerged from the problems left at the end of Different Class, to take on the headship as St Oswlad’s first female headteacher.

The new year sees some significant changes at the school. Not only is there a female head teacher, but the school has now gone coeducational, and Straitley finds himself required to teach girls. At first I found this worked well, and it was amusing to follow his struggles to adapt to the ‘new normal’.

Sadly, however, I started to find the rest of the book rather annoying. The various experiences that Ms Buckfast underwent during her teens and twenties simply failed my verisimilitude test, and I found the credibility gap simply too wide.

The book was well written, as Joanne Harris’s novels always are, but I just felt that the substance and plot did not live up to the promise of the style.

sep 14, 2021, 10:24 am

85. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.

Is Rendezvous with Rama the greatest science fiction novel ever written?

It is certainly the best one that I have read, and its impact remains undiminished after several re-readings. Arthur C Clarke's supremacy as a writer of science fiction lies, to my mind, in his ability to describe fantastic events, scenarios and phenomena in clear, accessible prose that enables even the scientific layman (such as myself) to appreciate the marvels he describes.

Clarke also had a gift for mingling the magical with the almost mundane, which always lends that extra verisimilitude to his books. Rendezvous with Rama is set in 2130, and opens with the discovery of what appears to be a new asteroid trundling through the outer reaches of the solar system. This is, in itself, of little moment until astronomers notice that it appears to be perfectly symmetrical, and moving abnormally quickly. As every available resource is directed to studying this celestial visitor it becomes apparent that it is not a natural object at all but a huge cylinder, fifty kilometres long and thirty kilometres across. The human race finally has to come to terms with the fact that it is, at long last, about to encounter another civilisation.

The manned solar survey vessel Endeavour, under Commander Bill Norton, is sent to study Rama, as it is the only ship close enough to do so during the brief period that Rama will spend in our solar system. Endeavour manages to rendezvous with Rama one month after the spaceship first comes to Earth's attention, by which time the alien ship is already within the orbit of Venus. Norton and his crew find it surprisingly easy to gain entry to Rama through one of a series of triple airlocks. Indeed, they soon come to realise that everything in Rama is done in threes.

Once inside, they are faced with a vast internal landscape laid out across the internal surface of the cylinder, including a band around the centre of the craft which they soon recognise as ice. This is dubbed the Cylindrical Sea. One bonus is that the atmosphere within Rama is breathable, which facilitates wider exploration. Their time in Rama is limited as there is no way that the Endeavour could survive going too close to the sun, and will have to depart within about a month of landing there.

The nature and purpose of Rama, and the identity and home of its creators remain enigmatic throughout the book. The astronauts discover several features, including "cities" (odd blocky shapes that look like buildings, and streets with shallow trenches in them, looking like trolley car tracks) that actually served as factories and seven massive cones at the southern end of Rama – believed to form part of the propulsion system.

Clarke maintains the reader's sense of awe throughout the book, partially because it is matched by that of the characters themselves as they continually discover new aspects of the wonders of Rama. Clarke also investigates the political and religious impact of this sudden manifestation of other civilised life elsewhere in the universe, with the colonies on Mercury, the Moon and Mars all having different responses to the presence of Rama. He even manages to throw in a fair amount of humour, and captures it all in just two hundred and fifty pages. An excellent novel, that was as compelling now as when I first read it mor than forty years ago.

okt 8, 2021, 9:28 am

86. The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths.

Elly Griffiths’s series of novels featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, goes from strength to strength. I often worry when reading a sustained series of novels featuring the same cast of core characters that the author might succumb to a formulaic approach, rehashing similar plots and having the characters go through new versions of the same old interactions. This is (I think) the ninth novel featuring Ruth Galloway and her circle of friends, colleagues and police associates, and there is no sign yet of any weakening of the quality.

One of Griffiths’s strengths is her ability to interlace separate plot strands. In this novel, the principal story revolves around the murder of two homeless people in Norwich while other homeless people seem also to have disappeared. Meanwhile, bones have been discovered during preparatory work for a new construction development, and Ruth is called in to review them, to consider whether they are of historic or recent vintage.

There is a lot of emotional hinterland in the novel, with many of the principal characters involved in a complex web of relationships – indeed, it may be best for readers to work through all the books from the first instalment (The Crossing Place) rather than starting in mid- sequence. The complications and unavoidable awkwardnesses that arise from this all add to, rather than detract from, the power of the novel.

All very enjoyable, and it left me looking forward to the next instalment.

okt 8, 2021, 9:35 am

87. So Much Blood by Simon Brett.

One of the most intriguing aspects about reading a series of novels that features a continuing protagonist is the opportunity to see how the author allows the character to develop. Those changes are, of course, even more evident if one chances to re-read some of the novels in the sequence. This was the second of Simon Brett’s books featuring Charles Paris. Later on in the series Charles will metamorphose into an almost terminally unsuccessful bit-part player, reduced to accepting the offer of almost any cameo role, regardless of whatever lack of dignity it might entail. In Murder In The Title, for example, he will play the part of a corpse discovered in a cupboard in the first scene of a traditional whodunit, although he will subsequently sink even further down the thespian pecking order to represent a man who is believed to have been abducted in a reconstruction for a programme of the Crimewatch ilk in A Reconstructed Corpse.

At the stage of So Much Blood, however, Charles is still portrayed as a fairly successful figure, recognised by several other characters from work he has done on television, and renowned for his work as a director. As the novel opens he is heading north to Edinburgh to join the Derby University Dramatic Society (which revels in the unfortunate acronym D.U.D.S.) which has secured several slots in the Festival Fringe. Owing to an unfortunate accident to one of the troupe there is now a vacancy which has been offered to Charles to perform his one man show, So Much Comic, So Much Blood, a selection from the works of Victorian poet Thomas Hood. To help enlighten the reader about Hood's works (and I have to admit that I knew very little beyond the frequently anthologised "I remember, I remember the house where I was born" and 'No-vember') Brett uses quotations from several of his poems as chapter headings.

After some brief scene-setting (Hey! I can pun with the best, or worst of them) we realise that D.U.D.S. is seething with tensions between over-inflated egos and artistic sensitivities. Consequently it really comes as no surprise when, during a publicity photo-shoot, Willy Mariello, who was to play Rizzio, lover of Mary, Queen of Scots, in a new play which was to be the centrepiece of D.U.D.S.'s contribution to the Festival, is stabbed. But was it an accident, or was it a carefully orchestrated murder? And if the latter, then orchestrated by whom? Charles worries over this and, as we all knew he must, he starts to delve more deeply.

This novel is engrossing, with affectionate (and accurate) descriptions of many favourite locations around Edinburgh, and captures the dynamism of the city during the Festival, neatly contrasting traditional theatrical ideals with the wealth of avant-gardism that has always been rife across the Fringe.

The relative success of Charles Paris is not the only difference from the later books in the sequence. This is still a straight crime story with a theatrical setting. Later instalments would move towards the comic (although Brett was always careful to ensure the integrity of his plots). Even without the humour that pervades the later books in the series, the theatrical insights are all there, and Charles is as self-effacing and vulnerable as ever.

Very enjoyable all round!

okt 8, 2021, 10:26 am

88. The Whistle Blower by Robert Peston.

Robert Peston has been one of the United Kingdom’s leading political journalists for several years now. I firs became aware of him during the protracted coverage of the financial crisis of 2008 through his earnest reporting for the BBC as its Business Editor, and then Economics Editor. Thereafter he moved to ITN as its Political Editor.

His first novel is set in 1997 during the run up to the general election which would see Labour returning to government after eighteen years of Conservative power. The protagonist is Gil Peck, political editor of a broadsheet newspaper that is part of a larger media group. He comes from a politically literate background: his father was a professor of politics and had been a prominent adviser to the Labour governments in the 1970s; his sister is a prominent, ambitious and highly capable senior civil servant in the Treasury. Gil is, however, largely estranged from his family. His parents seem oblivious to any of his achievements, which, Gil believes, pale into insignificance alongside those of his sister. Having been very close to his sister during their early lives, he has been estranged from her after using information that she had passed to him in confidence to steal a major scoop. She feels betrayed by this, and has not spoken to him since.

The plot is very intricate, and excellently constructed, involving a heady mix of political and business interests that collide in an explosive fashion. The story includes some pen portraits of plenty of political figures whom I felt I recognised from the time, although they have been sufficiently altered to avoid risk of libel cases. (I presume that the publisher’s lawyers will have gone over the manuscript with a very fine toothcomb.) I won’t say anything more about the plot, for fear of inadvertently dropping spoilers, but I felt it was watertight and plausible, and I was certainly sucked in to the story right from the start.

I enjoyed the plot, but also especially liked the insight into the role of the political correspondent. One of former my drinking partners, now sadly deceased, had been Political Editor of The Guardian for several years, and Gil Peck’s experiences as he rushes to file stories remotely chimed closely with what my friend had recounted in the past. After all, 1997 predated the ubiquity of email and the internet for most people, and one of the features I particularly appreciated (and felt that Peston captured well) was the sense almost of excitement when characters beyond the Westminster bubble see Peck taking calls on his mobile phone.

It is strange how time moves on. I feel that I remember 1997 and the rise of New Labour very clearly, but was still amused to see some of the stories to which Peck refers in passing that prompted memories that had been more deeply buried than I would have expected.

From his journalistic background, Peston knows how to write and to capture the reader’s or audience’s attention, and I found this book very enjoyable.

okt 8, 2021, 10:59 am

89. The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman.

Richard Osman’s first novel, ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ was a runaway commercial and critical success, selling over a million copies and drawing plaudits from reviewers from all corners. It would be easy to dismiss this as unwarranted success, deriving principally from Osman’s celebrity status as the immensely likeable presenter of television gameshows. To do so would, however, simply be wrong. The book has been successful and popular because it is very good. Yes, it tends towards the so-called ‘cosy’ end of the crime fiction market, but why not?

This new novel follows on from ‘The Thursday Murders Club’, with the group drawn into a complicated sequence of events involving MI5 and organised crime following the reappearance in her life of the long-estranged ex-husband of Elizabeth (leader of the Thursday Club). As with the first novel, there is an intricate plot which allows for a rich blend of action and humorous observation, some directly from Osman as narrator, others from the journal entries by Joyce, a retired nurse who tends to play Watson to Elizabeth’s Holmes.

Is the story plausible? Probably not, but, what is more important, it engages, and retains, the reader’s attention. As I was reading it, I was eager to know what happened, and how it could all be resolved. Resolution, when it came, was highly satisfactory.

Redigeret: okt 8, 2021, 11:03 am

90. Star Trap by Simon Brett.

Star Trap is set in 1975 and represents one of the earlier episodes in the investigative career of Charles Paris, down-at-heel journeyman actor.

Charles is recruited to appear in Lumpkin!, a musical loosely based upon Oliver Goldsmith's classic play She Stoops to Conquer. This production has been devised primarily as a vehicle for Christopher Milton, the enormously popular star of one of the leading television comedy series of the time.

Charles, however, has not won his role through the customary path of attending an audition and being deemed the most suitable actor for the part. He had instead been contacted by his urbane solicitor friend, Gerald Venables, one of the 'angels' investing in the show, who has been concerned about some odd incidents which he thinks might be part of a greater plot to sabotage the musical. Knowing of Charles's success in solving a couple of previous theatrical mysteries, Venables thinks that he might prove to be a helpful asset to the company management as their man on the inside.

As ever, Simon Brett demonstrates his detailed knowledge of the theatrical world, conjuring an authentic context for the escalating series of incidents that continue to bedevil the show. Personalities and egos clash, and Christopher Milton appropriates more and more of the body of the show to his part, leaving the rest of the cast bereft of any funny or worthwhile lines. He is, however, as Charles continually has to concede (often through gritted teeth following yet another of the star's dreadful tantrums), exceptionally talented, and though he may be hogging ever larger portions of the work to himself, his decisions do seem to make theatrical sense.

As usual with this entertaining series, the plot is well-constructed (and the relevant clues to the eventual denouement are all there), but delivered with a light touch, and Charles Paris remains a very engaging lead character (I think he is too self-effacing to be called a hero).

okt 8, 2021, 11:13 am

91. Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer.

Nearly forty years ago (though sometimes now it feels more like one hundred) I began my career in the UK Civil Service and found myself working in Bloomsbury Tax Office. Despite the name, it was neither situated in Bloomsbury nor included that area in its ‘parish’ It did, instead, cover London’s Inns of Court, and the greater part of the self-employed taxpayers who fell within my domain were either barristers (no baristas back then) or partners in long-established solicitors’ firms working out of chambers that seemed to have changed little since Dickens described them in Great Expectations. Among my allocation of taxpayers was a certain John Mortimer QC, who retained a place in chambers although by then he had more or less completely given up his practice at the bar, having established himself as one of the most successful writers of his generation. His literary dexterity was such that he seemed capable of switching between novels, short stories, plays and television or film scripts more or less at will. It was back then that I first started reading the Rumpole stories that have proved a source of huge entertainment ever since.

This was the original collection of six short stories that introduced the querulous, self-opinionated yet also strangely endearing Rumpole to the world. Of course, it is difficult now to imagine Rumpole without seeing and hearing Leo McKern, who immortalised him in the long-running television series.

Mortimer was clearly a very accomplished barrister, having (unlike Rumpole) taken silk as a Queen’s Counsel, and also having 'sat' occasionally as a Recorder (one of the various grades of judge within the English legal framework). Rumpole never prosecutes, always choosing to work for the defence. He also eschews legal jargon, and even the technicalities of the law itself, preferring to pepper his summation with quotations from Wordsworth, and relying on a pleasing blend of theatricality and pragmatism to win his cases.

The stories are certainly a joy to read, beautifully written and mixing carefully crafted humour and satire against the pomposity of the legal system (though Rumpole himself is, in his way, possibly the most pompous of them all. The cast of supporting characters is also finely drawn, ranging from Rumpole’s frosty, long-suffering wife, Hilda (generally referred to by him as ‘She Who Must be Obeyed’), the feeble commercial lawyer Claude Erskine-Browne and smug head of Chambers, Guthrie Featherstone QC MP. They all complement each other admirably, allowing Mortimer to poke fun at all aspects of the legal profession.

In this first volume the stories are a lot longer than most of their successors, perhaps reflecting the fact that Mortimer had not yet identified Rumpole’s potential for portrayal on television. They are, however, a glorious mix of humour and social comment, minutely observed and joyously recounted.

okt 13, 2021, 9:56 am

92. The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham.

Tom Thorne can be a very difficult character – ‘surly to rise, surly to bed’ might capture him fairly accurately. He is, however, also a very capable detective, working on one of London’s dedicated major investigation teams that usually undertake murder cases. One of his key characteristics is his tenacity, and one engaged on a case he is reluctant to let go until the mystery is resolved.

Consequently, he is initially rather surprised when his boss asks him to investigate what seems to be a spate of killings of cats. This is not as surprising a request as it might initially seem. All too often the vicious killing of cats and dogs can be the early stages in the development of a serial killer. Catching the culprit early might prevent murders further down the line. That is the theory, anyway, and Thorne takes on the case, although he has to suffer the banter of his colleagues.

This line of investigation starts to seem justified, however, when analysis of reports of such incidents seems to tie in with the deaths of several young women. Meanwhile, Thorne is reunited with fellow Detective inspector, Nicola Tanner, with whom he had worked in recent cases (and who brings her own baggage).

Mark Billingham is adept at constructing compelling plots and peopling them with believable characters. Even his criminals seem highly plausible 9within the parameters of their often twisted psyches). The relationship between Tanner and Thorne is well managed, with their different personalities generally complementing each other, although not without moments of friction.

As always with Billingham, the book comes together as an enjoyable and engrossing read.

okt 13, 2021, 12:49 pm

93. The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths.

Dr Galloway is a great character: fiercely independent, intelligent and resourceful but, lest that makes her sounds dismayingly serious and pious, she also has a strong sense of humour, and a strong atheist side. She is head of Forensic Archaeology at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk, based at King’s Lynn, and lives with her daughter Kate in a cottage by the sea.

Over the years, her academic role has brought her into contact with the police, helping their enquiries whenever bodies are discovered underground. The contact has gone beyond the purely professional, however, and Kate’s father is DCI Harry Nelson, head of the local CID, although he remains married to his beautiful wife, Michelle. There are other awkwardly tangled relationships within Ruth’s world. One of her closest friends is Michael Malone, more commonly known as Cathbad, who is a leading figure among the local druid community. I realise as I type that how bizarre it must seem to anyone reading this who is not familiar with the books. It does, however, make perfect sense within the world of the books. For all his oddness, and almost universal failure to observe prevailing convention, Cathbad is a wonderfully drawn character, and utterly plausible. He lives with Judy Johnson, a Detective Sergeant on Nelson’s team, and they now have two children. Shona, Ruth’s closest female friend, is in a relationship with Phil, head of the Archaeology department and consequently Ruth’s boss.

While the basic premise of each of the novels is fairly similar – a body is found at either an archaeological dig or a construction site, prompting consideration of whether the remains are safely to be considered historical or, if more recent, a police investigation is required – each book stands out on its own merits, and there is never any suggestion of Griffiths employing a formulaic approach.

In this instance, Ruth is invited to Italy to help a former colleague who has encountered some interesting features about a body found in a site that he has been excavating, This particular case is slightly out of the normal round of archaeological digs because it has been followed by a television crew. It transpires that Ruth’s archaeologist friend has become rather a star, having appeared in several previous programmes. It is in this capacity that he has invited Ruth to attend so that she can offer her expert opinion. What she doesn’t know at first is that foremost among the irregularities is a mobile phone found with the body.

Welcoming a chance to visit Italy again after many years, Ruth accepts the invitation and makes arrangements to go, taking Kate and her friend Shona (along with Shona’s young son) with her. Right from their arrival Ruth , although struck by the beauty of her surroundings, is aware of a sense of undefined menace,

I won’t say anything further about the story beyond this basic scene setting. As always, Griffiths develops the story with great care. One of the great joys of this series is how plausible everything is. She depicts the setting, both physically and emotionally, with great detail, lending a comforting robustness. I know nothing about archaeology, but am entirely happy to accept everything that Griffiths, or at least Dr Galloway, tell me about it.

For various reasons (perfectly rationally within the purview of the story), DCI Nelson and Cathbad also find themselves in Italy, immersed in the unfolding story, unaware that another story, equally dramatic, is unfolding back in Norfolk.

I have found in the past that some detective series peter out after a few instalments, generally because the principal protagonists are simply too flimsily or incompletely drawn to sustain frequent exposure to the reader’s scrutiny. This series is one of the few that is not just managing to keep going, but seems to become stronger with each new instalment.

okt 13, 2021, 12:55 pm

94. The Valley of Bones by Anthony Powell.

This seventh volume of Anthony Powell's majestic semi-autobiographical roman fleuve opens with Nicholas Jenkins arriving in North Wales to join his regiment in the very early days of the Second World War. Despite his age (he is by now in his mid-thirties) Nick has managed to secure a commission as a second lieutenant, and finds himself serving under Captain Rowland Gwatkin.

Before the war, Gwatkin had worked in a bank in the same area of Wales from which most of the members of the regiment’s 'other ranks' were drawn, although most of them had been miners. In all other spheres of life Gwatkin is essentially a prosaic and pragmatic man, but he is prey to a romantic fascination with every aspect of the army, although he seldom demonstrates the skill to carry his military dream through to fruition.

This is the first of three volumes of 'A Dance to the Music of Time' that cover the Second World War, and, taken together they constitute one of the finest accounts of that conflict. Jenkins does not see active service in any theatre of war, and spends much of his time engaged in routine regimental duties, but this gives him a marvellous opportunity to exercise his laconic observation. Among Jenkins's fellow subalterns are Idwal Kedward, an ambitious and capable young man endowed with an extraordinary bluntness of speech, and Bithel (we never learn his forename) a down at heel opportunist who is wholly out of his depth in the army, but touchingly desperate to perform as well as he can.

Bithel's greatest problems arise from his occasional but ferocious drunkenness and the various myths he has promulgated about himself and his background; claims to be a brother of the officer of that name who secured a VC in the 1914-18 War, and to have played rugby for Wales in his youth are just two examples. The character of Bithel is a prime example of Powell's dexterity at blending humour with an underlying melancholy (perhaps the emotion that most powerfully runs through the whole sequence). Steeped in inadequacy, Bithel somehow manages to overcome, or at least dodge the plethora of challenges that come his way.

Meanwhile Gwatkin’s idealised impression of military life is also subjected to a series of challenges arising from the sheer mundanity of institutionalised life. As with most of the rest of the novels in this sequence, nothing much happens, but the book remains utterly gripping.

Another triumph!

okt 18, 2021, 6:19 am

95. Judas 62 by Charles Cumming.

I was rather surprised to see some of the reviews for this novel saying that it was even better than its predecessor, Box 88. I felt that this must be quite an exaggeration, having thought that Box 88 was one of the best spy novels I had read for a long time (and I read a lot of spy fiction). I was, however, entirely wrong, and this novel genuinely is even better than Box 88.

It picks up not long after the previous novel ended, with lead protagonist Lachlan ‘Lockie’ Kite, London Head of Box 88 (a secretly funded intelligence organisation working under similar remits to the CIA and MI6) learning about the death in America of a scientist. He had been Russian, and had defected to the West during the Cold War, taking his expertise and insights with him. In America he had been given a new identity, and had worked out the rest of his career. He had, however, been tracked down despite the safety measures put in place, and a Russian assassin had managed to deliver a fatal dose of Novichok. It becomes clear that he had been a victim of a retaliatory attack commissioned and organised by the Russians, following on from similar outrages against Alexander Litvinencko, Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny. A highly placed Box 88 mole in the Russian intelligence servicefeeds back a copy of the so-called ‘Judas list’ setting out the names of targets of similar individuals whom the Russian authroities consider either as traitors or threats of another variety. The dead scientist had been included in the list. More alarmingly, his is not the final name in the list, and the other targets include another scientist whom Box 88 had succeeded in exfiltrating from Russia some thirty years previously, and (the last entry) the cover name used by Lockie in that earlier operation,

This sets the scene for the main action of the novel. It is, in effect, two stories for the price of one, as Cumming sets out the earlier operation in which the young Lockie went to Russia, tasked with finding, and then assisting the escape of, the scientist. Interspersed with this is the current day response, and the operation to foil the Russians pursuit of targets Judas 61 and 62. Cumming is excellent at maintaining the tension, and both stories keep the reader with bated breath. His characters are always well drawn, and his plots soundly constructed, and the book resonates with plausibility. I am now desperately hoping for a further instalment – the one downside of buying a book on publication day and reading it as soon as possible is that the wait for its successor seems uncomfortably long.

okt 21, 2021, 12:57 pm

96. In The Dark by Mark Billingham.

After having written several very successful novels centred on the cynical, yet also empathetic, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, Mark Billingham introduced a new protagonist for this book. As it happens, DI Thorne does feature, but in a very peripheral role (and not identified by name until the closing pages).

The focus of the novel moves between Theo, a member of a South London gang principally involved in selling drugs, but with other criminal activities thrown in, and Helen Weeks, a pregnant police officer who has her own domestic issues to resolve. Ordinarily their lives would ever have intersected, but when Theo is pressed to complete and initiation task, their paths become intertwined.

Once again Mark Billingham serves up an enticing story, with plenty of plot twists. The narrative is split between following Helen or Theo, with occasional other perspectives thrown in. This was a great thriller, that captivated the reader from the first page.

okt 25, 2021, 12:30 pm

97. Silverview by John le Carre.

I had mixed feeling when I heard that there was an almost finished book by John le Carré, which, after some additional work by his son (himself a successful novelist under the name of Nick Harkaway), would be published posthumously. I was glad to know that there might be one last offering from one of my favourite writers, although I was a little worried that it might not live up to the reast of his oeuvre.

To be honest, the first few pages had me leaning towards the latter. The encounter described in the first chapter lacked the flair that one has come to expect (even demand) from le Carré, and I did fleetingly wonder whether I should carry on. Fortunately, I did, and any fears that the book might be below the master’s normal standard were soon dispelled.

It is a small book, but it covers a lot of territory, with a lot of familiar characters. Julian Lawndsley has fled his successful career in the city, and has sought some sort of spiritual sanctuary in a fading seaside resort, where he opens a bookshop. Into his shop comes a quiet elderly man, who strikes up an acquaintance with Julian, and encourages him to assign the shop’s basement as a ‘republic of literature’ where people can access the finest works of literature from around the world. Reading my simple description makes this seem a very dry and unmemorable encounters … but then I am not le Carré, who infuses it with wonder and promise.

Meanwhile, Proctor, latest in a long family line of members of the intelligence world, finds himself investigating a possible breach from what had been thought to be one of the most secure air force establishment. In an episode of vintage le Carré, proctor interviews a couple of former colleagues, piercing their narrative without ever seeming to break interrogative sweat.

It is fair to say that this is not le Carré’s finest novel, but it if far from his worst, and I couldn’t tell which buts had been finished after his death.

okt 25, 2021, 1:31 pm

98. The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths.

This is yet another highly enjoyable addition to Elly Griffiths’s series of novels featuring the wonderful Dr Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at the university of North Norfolk.

Once again, an archaeological dig merges into a criminal investigations when a body is discovered. Of course, that is what the archaeologists are hoping for, but they are shocked to discover a body of comparatively recent vintage. More surprising still si the further discovery that it was transferred to that location relatively recently, but still some considerable time after the person’s death. The mystery is increased when Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson receives a note about the body. The message is similar to other such notes that he received during an investigation a few years earleri. On that occasion, he had been investigating the abduction and subsequent murder of a young girll. That had been a grim case, although it had represented the first occasion on which Nelson met Ruth Galloway, leading to all the ensuing complications.

There are further resonances to that case when Ruth is convinced that she has seen her mentor, Erik, who had died in grim circumstances toward the denouement of that investigation.

Welly Griffiths is excellent at building suspense, and she also manages her core cast or recurring characters with great dexterity. None of them are exactly orthodox, but, eleven books in, they are all so well drawn as to be entirely believable. One of the joys of the series is seeing how the characters have grown in stature. Both Ruth and Cathbad, the druid, are among my favourite characters in contemporary fiction

Redigeret: okt 28, 2021, 8:43 am

99. The Appeal by Janice Hallett.

Janice Hallett’s novel is a triumph. It is presented as a series of documents, featuring emails, WhatsApp exchanges and SMS messages from a number of characters, all of whom have been involved in the events which culminated with the death of Samantha Greenwood, a former nurse who, after working with her husband Kel for many years in sub-Saharan Africa with a humanitarian aid organisation, has returned to the UK and taken up residence in the small town of Lockwood.

The premise of the novel is that someone (we don’t discover who until near the end of the book) has been wrongly convicted of murdering Sam. The book is presented as a dossier compiled by the accused’s legal team. The barrister representing the client has asked two paralegals at a firm of solicitors to review the papers, with no prior knowledge of the case, to see whether they spot any irregularities or inconsistencies, that might be exploited in any appeal process.

The plot revolves around the actions and motives of the members of the Lockwood Amateur Dramatic Society, which in turn revolve around the Haywards and Reswicks, the community’s self-appointed leading family. Martin Hayward is owner of The Grange, a large hotel complex within the town, and has been leader of the Drama Society for years, while his wife Helen has always taken the leading female roles. As the story opens, the Society is about to start preparations for a presentation of Arthur Miller’s play, All My Sons. However, soon after preparations begin, martin announces to the membership of the Society that his two-year-old granddaughter Poppy has been diagnosed with a severe form of brain cancer, and that her only hope is newly discovered wonder drug that is only available at huge cost from America. On this news, the Society is galvanised into action, and an appeal campaign is formed.

The correspondence is cleverly presented – we don’t always see both sides of an exchange, and all sorts of sub stories emerge.

The characterisation is great, too. For instance, Isabel ‘Issy’ Beck seems very needy, and is desperate to make friends, unaware of how ‘clingy’ she appears. Sarah Jane MacDonald emerges as the lead administrator of the Appeal Fund, and is full of drive, and ideas, but not always patient with those upon whose help she comes to rely. Martin Hayward is sometimes imperious, and also prickly, likely to resent being questioned too deeply about Poppy’s condition. Almost the only person from whom we never hear is his wife, Helen, who (we learn) has studiously avoided engagement with modern communications technology, and apparently ‘doesn’t do email’.

All in all, this works wonderfully – far more effectively than my clumsy synopsis might suggest - , and all sorts of subplots and strained relationships emerge. When I first encountered the book, I had my doubts about the format, wondering whether it might simply be gimmicky. That could not be further from the truth. The drip feed of information, like an old fashioned epistolary novel, works excellently.

Janice Hallett manages the plot adeptly, too, and I lost count of the unexpected twists and turns, all of them entirely plausible.

nov 15, 2021, 7:23 am

100. The Plot by Jean hanff Korelitz.

I have always enjoyed straying into metafiction, and this novel offers a rich example.

Jacob Bonner scored a critical success with his first novel, published during his twenties, but he has never managed to follow it up with anything of similar quality. He did manage a volume of short stories, published through a university press, but he has never managed to complete another novel to his own satisfaction, far less succeed in having one published.

On the back of that early success, he has managed to establish a passable career as a teacher of creative writing, participating in various residential courses around the country. At one of these he encounters a particularly unpleasant student to whom he takes an instant dislike. He is, therefore, disappointed to find himself impressed with a sample of the student’s writing – he had been looking forward to tearing it apart and putting the man in his place. The student takes Jacob’s positive comments for granted, and explains to anyone who will listen that he has a brilliant plot in mind, and that it is a matter of when, rather than whether it will materialise into a bestseller. Before the course ends, he gives Jacob a synopsis of this allegedly brilliant plot. Jacob grudgingly acknowledges that it could probably work, and thinks no more of it.

A few years later, confronted with another equally unpleasant student, Jacob remembers that earlier encounter, and realises that the anticipated bestseller had never in fact materialised. Driven by curiosity, he does a quick internet search on his former student, and is shocked to discover that he had died, without ever bringing his novel to fruition.

A few more years down the line we catch up with Jacob on an exhausting tour across America, given talks and readings from his runaway bestselling novel, written by himself but utilising the plot that he had heard so long ago. He has just negotiated the sale of film rights to Steven Spielberg, and he is financially secure for the rest of his life. Everything is looking rosy … until he starts receiving messages from someone who claims to know what he has done.

Ms Korelitz’s novel is very powerful, and gripped me from the first few pages. This often happens, but was particularly noteworthy in this case as, having been subjected to considerable hype about the book, I was probably feeling slightly disinclined to like it. The hype is, however, entirely justified.

The plot (of The Plot) is tightly drawn and carefully developed, and the novel has as many twists as Jacob’s creation. It also offers some amusing insights into the author’s role within the publishing machine. While their creation and inspiration may be the fuel on which the whole machinery runs, they are often treated as little more than a commodity.

After a lifetime of reading thriller, I did spot some of the twists, but far from all of them, and thoroughly enjoyed the book, despite my earlier determination to remain aloof.

nov 15, 2021, 7:31 am

101. The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes.

One of my friends from university days is now an established journalist, and her most frequent advice to aspiring cub reporters is not to ‘bury the lead’, as many readers have a relatively short attention span. One should, she insists, instead pitch your key message as near the start of the piece as possible. As someone who spends his days drafting replies to correspondence received by government ministers, I often find myself relying upon that waning attention span. Still, out of respect for her, I am happy to try it her way. Here goes …

I have read well over four thousand books since I started listing them, back in January 1980, and this book would certainly rank in the top twenty or thirty. It is, quite simply, marvellous, with an alluring combination of powerful and utterly credible characters, watertight plotting, and a story that manages to encompass the full palette of emotions while simultaneously rendering an unobtrusive but enlightening course in classical Greek tragedy.

I first encountered Natalie Haynes through her engaging programmes on BBC Radio 4, in which she discusses classical literature and displays its enduring relevance, and the prism of understanding it can cast on modern life. Having been won over immediately by her radio performances, I was delighted to find that she had written a few novels, and by chance lighted upon this one as my starting point.

Another of my all time favourite novels is Donna Tartt’s debut, The Secret History, and I found myself recalling iit often as I read The Amber Fury. Donna Tartt’s novel famously recounts the experiences of a group of students at an exclusive, private college in America as they study the Greek classics and find themselves drawn ever deeper into the ancient world, seeking arcane enlightenment through Bacchanalian excess. Natalie Haynes’s novel is set in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh, where a group of fifteen-year –old pupils who have been expelled from their mainstream schools for a variety of instances of extreme behavioural problems are brought together for a final chance to gain some sort of education. As the novel opens they are met by Alex Morris, a new teacher who wants to engage them in the study of drama.

Alex has her own problems being distraught with grief at the loss of her partner Luke. Following his death she has fled her former life in London, returning to Edinburgh where she had studied drama s an undergraduate. Her early encounters with her new pupils are difficult, and their challenging behaviour, which frequently morphs into outright hostility, almost drives her to give up. She does, however, persevere, and through her odd mix of patience and empathy, she manages to hook their interest, even to the extent of considering some classical Greek plays. These pupils have, after all, been acknowledged by their respective previous schools as being highly intelligent, though their behavioural issues have prevented them achieving academic progress to date.

One of the first things that Alex asks them to do is to keep journals. She doesn’t ask to read them, but explains that the discipline will help them understand their changing responses to the plays that they study. As the story progresses, we start to read one of the journals, from which we see that one of the pupils has developed a fascination with Alex.

Haynes manages the development of the story admirably, keeping the reader hooked, intrigued to discover exactly what had happened to Luke to drive Alex to such extravagant excesses of grief. Natalie Haynes obviously loves the Greek tragedies, and is clearly highly knowledgeable about them. She happily shares her erudition without ever seeming to preach to the reader. It is, for example, completely plausible that the unruly pupils should become so enamoured of Alex as a teacher. I felt a bit that way myself!

nov 15, 2021, 7:32 am

102. Slough House by Mick Herron.

Jackson Lamb is back, and even more uncouth than previously. Mick Herron plunges us back into familiar territory here, with the ‘slow horses’ finding themselves unexpectedly drawing the attention of their Russian counterparts.

The slow horses are named for ‘Slough House’, their office base situated near the barbican. Slough House is a backwater of the intelligence world, and has come to house those officers who are deemed too incompetent to be trusted on genuine operations. They have been farmed out to Slough House, under the control of the awful Jackson Lamb. Lamb is a grotesque figure: coarse, crass, dishevelled and generally disgusting. Political correctness has passed him by, and he revels in his unreconstructed and prejudicial outlook on life. He is also exceeding ly funny.

There is a certain formula to a Jackson Lamb story: there is a brief episode in which one of the slow horses finds themselves attacked (and often killed), followed by a brief description of Slough house itself (always beautifully written). The plot then develops, with bitter exchanges between senior figures within the Service and their political chiefs, with some well-observed character assassination of scarcely disguised statesmen, and a fair amount of collateral damage among the horses themselves. Yes, it is formulaic, but no less entertaining for that.

nov 15, 2021, 10:51 am

#120/121 The Plot and The Amber Fury sound intriguing, Ian. Hope you're well.

I see you've just passed your 100 for the year - well done. I'm still in the mid 80s, but should still get there.

nov 15, 2021, 11:09 am

>122 john257hopper: Thanks, John. I am not sure where the year has gone, and can't believe we are into November already.

Good luck with your reading for the rest of the year.

nov 15, 2021, 11:10 am

103. Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths.

In this fifth instalment, Elly Griffiths’s captivating series of novels set in Brighton and featuring Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto has moved on a few years. We are now in the early 1960s, and Stephens has been promoted to Superintendent. He is also married to former Detective Sergeant Emma Holmes, and they have three children. Having relished her career as a police officer, Emma now struggles to overcome her resentment at having to relinquish it simply because she is married. Meanwhile, after scoring success in a few films, max has relocated to America where he too is married (in his case to a noted Hollywood beauty) and has two children.

The book opens with Edgar and Max being reunited for the sad purpose of attending the funeral of their former colleague and friend, The Great Diablo, with whom they had served during the Second World War. Max is staying for a little while, as he is helping a producer to find suitable filming locations for a movie in which Max has agreed to star, although he feels a little bitter that he is now being hired to play the father of the leading star, rather than as the principal attraction himself.

The Great Diablo’s wake is cut short when Edgar receives news that a young woman has gone missing. This is the third such disappearance, and this time it creates a greater stir because the girl’s father is not only a wealthy and successful businessman, but is also the local MP. The issue becomes more fraught when Max’s daughter (and Edgar’s former fiancé) is the fourth woman to disappear.

As usual, Griffiths keeps the plot rolling along very effectively. The characters in this series are as finely drawn as those in the Ruth Galloway novels, and gain even greater solidity and depth with each new outing. The historical detail seems very appealing too, with the threat of a Bank Holiday clash between the Mods and the Rockers looming over the latter half of the novel.

I also applaud the author for her ability convincingly to capture and depict the reactions and emotions of her male characters. Edgar and max seem wholly plausible to me.

Casting an eye back over my reading so far this year, I realise that this is the seventeenth novel I have read by Elly Griffiths. Ordinarily I would worry that I might be nearing the end of my patience for a single author after so much exposure within such a relatively short period, but I am now very keen to return to Dr Galloway’s exploits as soon as I can.

nov 15, 2021, 12:32 pm

104. The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly.

Michael Connelly was a crime reporter before he became a hugely successful author, and that may explain his eye for detail, and his ability to convey a vivid context for his novels. It might also explain his ability always to remain contemporary. This is one of the first novels I have read that pays lip service to the Covid pandemic: characters throughout the book are wearing masks, and aware of the proximity of other characters. The novel also refers to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, and the consequences for the Los Angeles Police department, with a disaffected public up in arms about police abuses, and clamouring for significant cuts in public funding to the force. That sense of being so up-to-date helps bolster the book’s verisimilitude.

But it is not just his settings that hold such sharp plausibility. His protagonists are always very believable. While the lead character in this book is the very empathetic Renée Ballard, there are welcome contributions from Connelly’s veteran, Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, whose character has evolved over more than twenty novels during which he has aged in real time.

As usual, there are several intertwined plot lines. Ballard is primarily involved in the investigation of a series of vicious attacks upon women in their own homes perpetrated by a team that has become known as ‘The Midnight Men’. However, while on call in case of another attack on New Year’s Eve - the Midnight Men have tended to attack on public holidays – she is called to what initially appears to have been an accidental death the forecourt of a garage. I remember from my own time living in Los Angeles, nearly forty years ago now, how the locals tended to fire their guns into the air to celebrate the arrival of the New year. It seems that just such an celebration has led to the accidental death of the host of a local street party. Ballard is called to the scene, but is not convinced that all is as it seems.

Connelly knows how to draw his readers in. His plots are always carefully designed, and his characters are highly credible. Within just a few minutes, I was absolutely hooked by this novel. Highly convincing and also hugely entertaining.

nov 21, 2021, 5:11 am

105. State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton & Louise Penny.

I must admit that I embarked on this novel somewhat reluctantly, expecting that it might simply prove to be a cynical publishing exercise, trading on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name to generate sales beyond what might reasonably reflect the book’s actual qualities. After all, having been First Lady, Secretary of State and a Presidential candidate, Mrs Clinton is a powerful draw in any context, even on this side of the Atlantic. Also, I hadn’t read anything by her co-writer, Louise Penny. I know that former president Bill Clinton has co-written a couple of thrillers with James Patterson, which probably fuelled my cynicism – although I haven’t read either of those, my brief acquaintance with Patterson’s books made me feel that his principal trait was to leave no cliché (however trite) knowingly overlooked.

As is so often the case, my pessimism was wholly misplaced. This is an excellent thriller. Fast moving, and with continual plot twists, it grabbed my attention right from the start, and never relinquished it. The plot is complex, but essential revolves around the struggle to prevent a terrorist outrage in America, after three bombs were detonated, without warning, in London, Paris and Frankfurt. The protagonist is Ellen Adams, Secretary of State in President Doug Williams’ newly formed Democrat administration, which has picked up the reins from the previous incumbent who seems to have been brash, reckless and not overburdened with an intellectual bent. Well, so far, so plausible.

One of the fascinating elements in the book was the way it depicted the tensions within the new administration. Ii have always been intrigued by how, in the presidential election cycle, the selection process for candidates for both parties initially involves a public and often highly vitriolic battle within the party. The prospective candidates pour relentless opprobrium upon fellow members of their own party, only then to have to try to unite behind whoever has emerged as the successful candidate. In this novel, there are clearly huge rifts between Secretary Adams and President Williams, the latter seeming hell bent upon exposing the latter to potential pitfalls with a view to undermining her as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

The book does race along, and he plot goes through any number of hairpin bends and tangents. There are some unlikely coincidences, but I was entirely won over by it, and will now be looking to read more of Ms Penny’s books.

dec 1, 2021, 4:44 am

106. The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths.

I would be very interested to know how Elly Griffiths does it. Twelve books in, and the series revolving around Dr Ruth Galloway, the leading forensic archaeologist formerly of the University of North Norfolk but now established in St Jude’s College, Cambridge, remains as fresh and convincing as ever. More impressive still is the relative speed with which the author produces these books – twelve in around eleven years, but accompanied by five or six others in her series featuring Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto series – without any compromising on their quality. I realise that I have now read eighteen books by her just this year, and haven’t yet found myself sated.

Two years have passed since the last book (The Stone Circle) and Ruth seems fairly settled in her new life. She and her daughter Kate (a marvellous character in her own right) are living with Frank, her American partner – another academic teaching history in the university. Ruth’s former life in Norfolk seems a long way off, although she still owns her seaside cottage, which is currently rented out. She still sees Detective Chief Inspector Nelson, Kate’s father, regularly, as he is assiduous in keeping in contact with his daughter, but having moved away she no longer becomes engaged professionally in any of his cases.

Nelson and his team have been busy, and as the novel opens, he and Detective Inspector Judy Johnson are relieved to learn that Ivor march has been convicted of the murder of two young women, whose bodies were buried in his girlfriend’s garden. Although there was supporting DNA and other forensic evidence, Nelson had feared that March might somehow evade conviction. Nelson is also convinced that march is guilty of at least two other murders. March had always vehemently protested his innocence, but, in an unexpected twist, he offers to give Nelson the location of the bodies of the two other women, if he promises that Ruth will oversee their retrieval. This leaves Ruth and Nelson confused, but in the interests of completing the investigation, they agree. This opens up a new series of events which will once again suck in all the regular cast members, in another engaging and challenging mystery.

I think that the strength of these books lies not so much in the complex plots (engrossing though they always are) but more in the depth of the central characters. They have taken on a wholly convincing solidity. Even Cathbad, the Druid, is utterly credible (however unconvincing such a statement might appear to someone unfamiliar with the books).

As with all successful instalments in a series, this one left me hungry for the next one.

dec 1, 2021, 5:54 am

107. Dolphin Junction by Mick Herron.

I am not normally a great fan of short stories, and probably would not have bothered buying this collection if I had not seen signed copies on sale at Daunt Books. I have always been a sucker for a signed copy, and combined with my enjoyment of Mick Herron’s novels, and particularly the marvellous series featuring the incomparable Jackson Lamb, it proved too tempting to resist.

There are some great stories here, including four featuring Zoe Boehm, the Oxford-based private eye who has featured in four of Herron’s novels, and a wonderful one featuring Lamb himself. I enjoyed dipping into them, reading one or two stories in between the other novels that I have been working through, but I feel that my prejudice against the format has not yet been eradicated.

dec 10, 2021, 6:38 am

108. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles.

I was enchanted by this novel, not least by the way it so comprehensively dodges any attempt to consign it to a particular genre. Set in June 1954 it follows brothers Emmett and Billy Watson who plan to leave their home in Nebraska, and travel along the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway, to San Francisco, where they hope to start a new life.

Their old life has certainly featured many tribulations. As the novel opens, eighteen-year-old Emmett is being driven home by the Warder of Salinas, a juvenile detention centre, where he had served a short sentence for accidentally causing the death of a young man (not without provocation, Emmett had punched him, causing him to fall and hit his head). He is welcomed back to the family farm by the father and daughter from a neighbouring farm. During his sentence, Emmett’s father (who had always struggled to manage the farm) had died, and eight-year-old Billy had been looked after by Sally. She will emerge as a powerful character in the book, driven by a fierce righteousness that has been provoked by finding herself constantly expected to look after men who scarcely even acknowledge her. Immediately upon his return Emmett also learns that the bank is about to foreclose the various loans that his father had taken, and on which massive arrears have accrued.

I am conscious of how much I enjoyed the book, so am anxious not to strew any inadvertent spoilers, so won’t say much more about the basic background scenario, beyond saying that, after having planned to head to the west coast, for various reasons they actually end up travelling east. Their journey will be far from smooth, with a succession of mishaps and pitfalls, but also some extraordinary encounters, and some delightful characters.

Emmett is a finely drawn character, and his attitude to life and his obligations is far from what one might anticipate from a character just released from a custodial sentence. He has a strong moral code, and is determined never again to place himself under a debt or obligation to anyone else. Billy is earnest and erudite beyond his years, but with a very literal approach to life. His understanding of the world is largely formed from his enthusiastic study of a book drawing together a series of stories about exalted traveller, both real and fictional.

Emmett and Billy are joined in their travels by Duchess and Woolly, two of Emmett’s fellow inmates at Salinas. Woolly is from a privilieged background, but has not found it easy to engage with life. Duchess has had a far harder upbring, and while he has his own moral code, it is markedly different in scope, and implementation, from that of Emmett.

Towles delivers the story through sections focusing in turns on different characters, with some first person observations from Duchess thrown in along the way. I have found that this narrative form can detract from a story’s impact, but that is not the case here. The author keeps the story moving smoothly forward, despite the various tangents on which the action frequently departs.

All in all, this is a great story peopled by marvellous characters, and I had enjoyed reading it so much that I felt sad when I finished it.

dec 10, 2021, 6:53 am

109. The Soldier's Art by Anthony Powell.

This is the eighth instalment in Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ sequence, and the second set wholly during the Second World War. As is the case with all of the novels in the sequence, Powell keeps the reader fully engaged even though very little actually happens.

Nick Jenkins's war is not one of direct and exciting engagement with the enemy. For most of this book he remains based in Northern Ireland while the Division to which he is attached prepares for deployment overseas. Jenkins finds himself working as general dogsbody for the Deputy Assistant Advocate General (the DAAG), in the person of the odious and overwhelmingly ambitious Kenneth Widmerpool, now gazetted in the rank of major but desperate to go much higher. Hitherto Widmerpool has been an occasional character - 'a transient and embarrassed spectre' as his and Jenkins's former school master le Bas might have said - but in this volume he is a constant presence, and we can almost feel the torpor with which Jenkins's spirit is ground down as, between them, they plough through the volumes of mindless paperwork.

Much of Jenkins's time is spent observing the ceaseless machinations within the internal politics of the Division. Widmerpool strives relentlessly for personal advancement and to outflank the almost equally odious Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson, a veteran officer who had seen service in the First World War and is never less than scathing of recently-drafted and generally ill-qualified junior officers. Hogbourne-Johnson earns Widmerpool's undying emnity following a splenetic outburst, provoked by an unavoidable traffic snarl-up during a regimental exercise. From that moment on, Widmerpool expends almost as much energy in trying to do Hogbourne-Johnson down as he does in pursuing his own advancement.

This novel also sees the re-appearance of Charles Stringham, who had been absent from the last two or three volumes. Here he appears as a mess waiter serving Jenkins and his fellow officers at dinner. Now seemingly sober, he is even more deeply riven by melancholy than previously, though he accepts his lowly military status with considerable equanimity.

We also catch up with Bithel, the irredeemably shabby but immensely likeable Welsh Officer who had so narrowly avoided court martial in the previous volume.

Powell retains his light and sardonic touch throughout, although the background melancholia from the preceding volumes is never wholly absent.

dec 10, 2021, 4:48 pm

>129 Eyejaybee: After A Gentleman in Moscow I decided to avoid Amor Towles, but your review suggests that he deserves another chance.

dec 11, 2021, 12:17 am

>131 pamelad: I had originally made the same decision after failing to finish A Gentleman in Moscow, but was persuaded to try The Lincoln Highway after a friend raved about it. They are very different books - I doubt whether, in a sort of blind testing situation, I would ever have guessed they were by the same author.

dec 20, 2021, 1:11 pm

Congratulations on making 100+! I loved A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway.

dec 21, 2021, 7:55 am

110. Ascension by Oliver Harris.

I was a bit hesitant about starting this novel. Unlike everyone else I know who had read it, I had struggled with Oliver Harris’s previous novel, A Shadow Intelligence, which introduced the character of Elliott Kane who is also the protagonist of Ascension. My concerns were misplaced, however, and I found this a gripping and entertaining novel.

Thea action all takes place on Ascension Island, a rocky outcrop in the South Atlantic. Its remote location lends a considerable military significance, and it has large American and British military bases. It is so remote that there are no direct flights to it – anyone wishing to visit has to travel first to St Helena (famous as the home in exile of Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo), several hundred miles away, and then take a bumpy flight in a small plane.

Kane has left the Intelligence Service after the events chronicled in A Shadow Intelligence, but is lured back to participate in an ‘off-the-books’ operation to infiltrate the island to investigate the apparent suicide of a former colleague. In such a small, parochial community, a newcomer stands out anyway, and Kane’s wish not to attract attention is further stymied when, on his first night on the island, he has to intervene when he sees a group of adults attacking a teenaged boy. He discovers that feelings are running high on the island following the disappearance of a teenaged girl, known to have been close to the boy in question.

Meanwhile, against this backdrop, there are indications that a secret operation to tap a major telecommunications node which is being established on the island may have been compromised. It is fears over the integrity of this operation (so secret that it is known to only a very few of the highest ranked officers in the service) that prompted the Service to commission Kane to return to action.

Harris is very good at keeping the tension, with the action moving between Kane’s exploits on Ascension Island and his handler’s activities back home where she shuttles between GCHQ and Thames House. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the island itself. Obviously, I have no way of determining how accurate they are, but they convinced me, and I could almost feel the relentless gale blowing across the island.

Redigeret: dec 21, 2021, 12:58 pm

111. The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths.

Dr Ruth Galloway is back at the University of North Norfolk in Kings Lynn, where she is now head of the Archaeology Department. She has returned from her spell in Cambridge to replace her former boss Phil Trent, who has taken early retirement following the heart attack that he suffered during the preceding novel, The Lantern Men. Having previously had to cope with an often-overbearing boss, she now has to deal with an overbearing junior colleague (who has, in effect, taken her old post) in the shape of David Brown, who seems to muscle in to every encounter Ruth has.

As the book opens, a group of local metal detectorists, known as The Night Hawks, have been out scouring the coastline. They appear to have been successful, uncovering what may be some bronze Age remains, although these are briefly forgotten when another member finds a dead body. Meanwhile, the police are also in attendance t what appears to have been a murder-suicide at a local farmhouse.

As usual, Elly Griffiths manages the different sections of the story deftly, interlacing Ruth’s exploration of the ancient remains with the police investigation of the current deaths. While the book works perfectly well as a standalone novel, for those of us who are devotees of the series (of which this is the thirteenth instalment), all the usual cast of characters are present. Detective Chief Inspector Nelson is as grim and curt as ever. In addition to his customary concerns, he is now facing the additional burden of his earnest and boundlessly enthusiastic boss, Superintendent Jo Archer, being bent upon discussing his retirement. Unlike Phil Trent, Nelson strongly believes that this fate is still many years away.

Ruth is clearly the central character, but there is a strong ensemble cast around her. All of the principal police officers are immensely believable. For instance, Judy Johnson may to some extent be Nelson’s protegëe, but she has secured her promotion to inspector entirely on merit. Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Tanya Fuller is fiercely ambitious, which sometimes means that she is not a great team player. Nelson is a great character – devoted to his family (with a very complicated private life) and to his job, at which he is reluctant to delegate. Striding alongside Ruth and the coppers is Cathbad (just your everyday sot of druid), who lives with Johnson, brings a refreshing ethereal perspective to things. Somehow, he always seems either to be there when anything out of the ordinary happens, or knows the people involved. Just reading that last sentence, I realise that anyone who does is unfamiliar with the books might wonder what is going on. All I can say is that while he might be a druid, he is as completely believable a character as he is likeable.

I realise that I have now read nineteen books by Elly Griffiths during 2021 (and I might just manage to sneak in The Midnight Hour before the year is out, and I am yet to find one that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. I generally try to avoid clustering books by one author in that way, however good they are, to avoid the risk of becoming overfamiliar with them, but that hasn’t proved a problem with her books at all.

dec 21, 2021, 12:57 pm

112. The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell.

Another dose of magic from The Master!

This is the ninth volume of Anthony Powell's glorious largely autobiographical novel sequence 'A Dance to the Music of Time' and opens in 1942 with laid back narrator Nicholas Jenkins working as a captain in the army, now based in Whitehall on liaison duty with the Free Poles. All of the surviving principal characters from the sequence are here on display, not least the monstrous Kenneth Widmerpool whose relentless machinations and tireless ambitions have carried him to a significant niche in the convoluted hierarchies of Cabinet Office. Jenkins has, however, secured his escape from Widmerpool's immediate circle, and now operates among the immensely more civilised and sympathetic company of the intellectual David Pennistone, who manages to manoeuvre his ceaseless consideration of the history of philosophy into even the most straightforward of official transactions.

Although Jenkins does not participate in any direct action in the traditional sense of the word, his military career is far from incident free, and he has to trace a carefully-plotted path to avoid inflaming the delicate sensitivities of the various Allied and Neutral Powers with whose representatives he has to deal. Powell also offers us fascinating cameo appearances from Field Marshalls Montgomery and Allanbrooke, together with finely-drawn depictions of the tedium of red-tape laden administration. The final section of the novel includes a beautiful narration of the service at St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the victory.

This was the first volume in the series in which the humour seems to outweigh the melancholia, which might explain why it is, I think, my favourite instalment in the whole sequence. There can be little dispute that the three war novels ('The Valley of Bones', 'The Soldier's Art' and this one) form the strongest group within the twelve. Taken together, they also represent the finest war novels that I have read, for all their lack of direct military engagement.

dec 22, 2021, 5:45 am

113. Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell.

It must be almost thirty years since I first read this novel, which introduced the world to Dr Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Virginia. For a while, Cornwell was one of my favourite crime writers, and I looked forward to the latest instalment in the career of Dr Scarpetta, along with her colleagues: surly detective Pete Marino (rather like an American John Rebus), and the suave FBI profiler Benton Wesley.

The early novels were very powerful, involving gritty plots, generally arising from the work of evil serial killers, with justice being delivered through a balance of solid detection work, insightful profiling and deft application of forensic techniques. But then something went wrong, and I found that the plots became almost laughable, and the characters dwindled to hollow echoes of their former self. I think that part of the problem lay in the rise to prominence within the books of Lucy Farinelli, Kay’s young niece, who rapidly became one of the fictional characters who most irritated me.

Still, after a conversation with a close friend about our tastes in crime fiction, I thought it would be interesting to revisit this book, to see if it still seemed as good as it had when I first encountered it/ The good news is that it did. Obviously, in the intervening decades, technology has moved on almost beyond measure, and a lot of the descriptions of what were then cutting-edge processes now seem commonplace. We have all become used to television programmes such as CSI, and probably all think of ourselves as pretty savvy in crime scene investigation. Similarly, the rather cumbersome steps that Dr Scarpetta has to go through in order to log on to her office computer system from home was once a source of awe to me, and I wondered whether I could ever partake of such magic myself.

The key point is that this remains a well constructed novel, with very plausible characters, and a substantial plot. The technology that the police and FBI might deploy in the investigation may be different, but (worryingly) everything else remains entirely credible. Sadly, that even extends to the political context against which the novel is set. Dr Scarpetta is a an accomplished and highly qualified practitioner, but while she has achieved a lot, she is still cooped in by the glass ceiling of inequal opportunities. I was also struck by the manner in which so many of the top civil positions in local government are electoral appointments, with incumbents always having to bear in mind the implications for re-election of any actions they take (or don’t take) in pursuit of their investigations. That is something that is, fortunately, alien to the British reader, although I suppose with growing numbers of Police and Crime Commissioners in post, even that is changing.

I was very glad to find that this novel still seemed as gripping and convincing as it had first time around.

dec 22, 2021, 11:36 am

114. Still Life by Louise Penny.

I was prompted to read this after having enjoyed State of Terror, the novel on which Louise Penny recently collaborated with Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Chief Inspector Gamache, the protagonist of this book, makes a cameo appearance in that.

I have to confess that I was initially taken aback, and found the first few pages with their account of meetings between several of the residents of Three Pines very irritating. I am glad I persevered, however, because once beyond that I was drawn into the story. Chief Inspector Gamache is an appealing character, with considerable reserves of empathy, and he is complemented by his assistant, Inspector Beauvoir.

One of his Gamache’s team is less amenable. Officer Nichol is desperately ambitious, and has only just been assigned as a detective. Her first case, however, proves difficult, and her burning ambition seems to dispel any common sense, leaving Gamache to try to pick up the pieces, and offer some mentoring. The relationship between the various police officers (we have a fleeting glimpse of the relationship between Gamache and his own manager) is well drawn.

I also enjoyed the insights into rural life in Quebec, not too far away from Montreal. I have no yardstick against which to consider how realistic this might be, but it convinced me.

I will be interested to see how the series develops. This was not a standout book for me, but I did enjoy it. I am also mindful that there are many series of detective stories that I have enjoyed after beginning with a book in mid-sequence, but have recognised that if I had read the opening novel first, I would probably not have progressed any further.

dec 24, 2021, 5:19 am

115. Trio by William Boyd.

William Boyd is one of our finest, and also more prolific, literary novelists, and I have been a huge fan of his books ever since I read his first novel, A Good Man in Africa, more than thirty years ago.

Many of his books have been adapted for television or cinema, usually with Boyd himself writing the screenplay. That has afforded him considerable insight into how films are made, which lies at the heart of this latest novel. Set in and around Brighton in 1968, Trio follows three principal figures in, or closely connected to, the crew making Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon, a low budget movie based upon a recent novel, all of whom have their own secrets.

Anny Viklund is the American star of the film, and has been conducting an affair with her young co-star, Troy Blaze (who, after a brief career as a pop star is trying to branch out into more serious work), although this is interrupted briefly when her French boyfriend turns up on the set. Brought in to the film to lend a touch of Hollywood glamour, the producer is worried because there had been gossip about her alleged dependency on sleeping pills and other medication. That is not her main secret, however. Anny had been married, and her ex-husband, whom she has not seen since their separation, is now on the run and being pursued by the FBI for his role in various acts of domestic terrorism. Such is the gravity of his crimes, that the FBI pursue him to Britain, where they anticipate that he will attempt to contact his ex-wife.

The director of the film is Reggie (call me ‘Rodrigo’) Tipton. Essentially a journeyman rather than an embryonic Scorsese or Kubrick, Reggie does still have some artistic aspirations. His wife is novelist Elfrida Wing … although perhaps it might be more accurate to call her a former novelist. Having experienced considerable critical and commercial success early in her career, she has been suffering from a long spell of writer’s block, which has resulted in her turning to drink. Elfrida’s early novels had been compared favourably with the works of Virginia Woolf, an encomium which Elfrida detests. Indeed, her dislike for Virginia Woolf has led her to develop a minor obsession with the earlier novelist’s death, and she is now considering writing a new novel based on the last day of Woolf’s life. Like most of her recent plans to write a new book, this project seldom progresses further than a halting attempt at an opening sentence, scrawled in her notebook while she tops up with gin. Although she and Reggie live in the same house, there is almost no connection between their discrete lives any longer.

Talbot Kydd, the film’s producer, has his own secret – he is leading a double life, His wife lives in Chiswick, but Talbot spends most of his time in Brighton on or around the set. He also rents a flat in Hampstead, where he spends most weekends. He is burdened by concerns, too. He knows that the film’s script does not really work, and is weighing up the pros and cons of bringing in a high profile writer to revise it, and give it a more convincing resolution. This would, of course, stretch an already tight budget beyond its current capacity, which has already been severely tested by Reggie Tipton’s occasional flights of artistic fancy.

This is the scenario we are provided with in the opening chapters of the book. Boyd sets his context convincingly, with chapters following the key characters in turn, although always in the third person. I was just five years old in 1968, so I can’t say how accurately Boyd captures the time. He does nail the parochialism of provincial life (and I guess that Brighton, now known for its exuberance and flamboyance – with a slight undercurrent of stifled impropriety - probably seemed pretty parochial back then). He avoids the obvious trick of clumsy references to current affiars. There is fleeting mention of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luter King, but these are dropped in almost fleetingly.

Boyd has been a master of interlaced narratives, often using the technique to stagger his story between two different periods. Here, the whole story unfolds more or less in real time, but the shifting focus works well. There are three, perhaps four, central stories unfolding, but they only intersect occasionally. This, however, serves to strengthen, rather than diminish, the sense of reality.

I felt that this novel was not quite up on a par with Boyd’s finest works such as Any Human Heart, Restless or Love is Blind but that is a bar that is hard to reach once, let alone to keep surpassing, and this was still a very enjoyable and rewarding read.

dec 28, 2021, 7:53 am

116. What Bloody Man Is That? by Simon Brett.

Charles Paris is back, this time playing a selection of minor roles in a new production of Macbeth at the Pinero Theatre in Warminster which is being directed by his old friend, Gavin Scholes. Other members of the cast include: John B Murgatroyd, an itinerant actor whose career has been almost as devastatingly unsuccessful as Charles's; George Birkett, a man who despite possessing little more than journeyman ability has encountered considerable commercial success through having played pedestrian roles in a selection of mindless situation comedies; Felicia Chatterton, an alluring yet intense actress whose career has been almost exclusively served in the Royal Shakespeare Company and who has to devote hours to think herself into her role; and Warnock Belvedere, an outrageous old ham who prides himself on being a theatrical "character" encompassing all the worst traits of old self-aggrandising stars without any compensatory talent.

Almost from the start Belvedere shows himself to be obnoxious, overriding the feelings of anyone else in the company and blatantly undermining the director. Within days of the company first coming together there is no-one whom he has not driven to utter fury. Consequently, there is an immense feeling of relief which politeness and propriety do little to hide, when he is found dead in the cellar of the theatre's bar, having seemingly fallen over and knocked himself out while simultaneously dislodging the CO2 hoses. Drunk and unconscious he succumbs to asphyxiation. This is put down as a dreadful accident, and just another manifestation of the dreadful luck that historically bedevils companies staging "the Scottish Play".

Predictably the body is discovered by Charles who, having overdone things in the bar earlier in the evening, had fallen asleep in his dressing room and found himself locked in the theatre. It is only gradually afterwards, as he struggles to reconstruct the events of the night, that Charles recognises vital clues that point to Belvedere's death as murder, and he also realises that the perpetrator must be another member of the theatre company.

Brett is always capable of weaving an intricate yet plausible plot, which he lightly peppers with humour. Charles Paris is always a sympathetic character - flawed (a virtual alcoholic and recalcitrant philanderer) yet essentially well-meaning, even to the point of frequent self-disgust. The conflicting ambitions and lifestyles of the different members of the theatrical company are also well constructed, and Brett clearly knows the theatrical milieu very well, and he is sufficiently conversant with the text and subtexts of Macbeth to throw in some convincing exegesis of the play's more obscure stretches.

Most entertaining on a number of levels!

dec 28, 2021, 8:49 am

117. Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell.

This was the second novel featuring Chief Medical Examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta, and established her working relationship with Lieutenant Pete Marino, Chief of the detective Division of Richmond Police Department, and Benton Wesley, one of the FBI’s Leading profilers. For once, Dr Scarpetta’s forensic skills in the examination of murder victims play less part in the resolution of the crime, in which she is thrown more onto her own resources as a detective.

In this case the victim is a successful historical novelist, who is found dead from a brutal assault in her own house. It gradually emerges that she had been stalked for a while before her death, and the terror caused by this was so great that she had decamped from Virginia to the Florida Keys. Running low on funds, she had eventually returned to Richmond, oinly to be murdered on her first night back in the city. What made it seem even more strange was that, despite her fear, she appeared to have let her murderer into the house.

As usual with this series, there are various political shenanigans lurking under the surface, exposing the tensions between the different elements of a criminal justice system in which senior office holders are always conscious of the need for re-election.

Scarpetta is a very empathetic character, and also highly plausible. However, I felt that the plot in this case was weaker than in its processor (Post Mortem), and I feel that if I had picked up this book first, I might not have bothered with any others in the series.

dec 28, 2021, 9:15 am

118. Mike at Wrykyn by P. G. Wodehouse.

This book may have flagged up the risk of re-reading favourite books from our childhood. It must me not much short of fifty years ago that I first read this book, and I remember think that it was marvellous.

I have always looked books set in schools or universities, and have had a lifelong passion for cricket. Originally set in the Edwardian period, this books lands in both parts of the Venn diagram, telling the story of Mike Jackson, latest of his family to attend Wrykyn Public School. (As an interesting note, the version I read was a slightly updated version of the original which was published in the 1950s. The original, published in about 1907 as Mike, included this book and Mike and Psmith, which introduced Rupert Psmith, one of Wodehouse’s most popular characters. This 1950s separated the two stories out, and also featured updated references to leading cricketers, with occasional mention of the likes of Denis Compton and Fred Truman.)

Both of Mike’s elder brothers had shown great prowess at cricket: Joe has already left school, and is playing for one of the counties, while Bob is still at Wrykyn in the Sixth Form, and on the fringes of the First Eleven.

There are some entertaining descriptions of school cricket matches, in which mike has fluctuating fortunes, but the background plot is very laboured, and not a patch on some of the better known school sagas, such as the Greyfriars cycle featuring Billy Bunter, or Anthony Buckeridge’s later canon of Jennings stories.

If this had been my first encounter with P G Wodehouse, I might never have tried his later novels, which would have been a tragic loss.

dec 29, 2021, 2:58 pm

119. Star Struck by Val McDermid.

This is the sixth (and so far the final) novel featuring Val McDermid’s appealing private investigator Kate Brannigan. In the run up to Christmas Kate has been retained to protect Gloria Kendal, one of the leading stars in ‘Northerners’, a hugely popular long-running soap opera set in the Manchester area (I wonder what that could be modelled upon!), who has been plagued with threatening poison pen letters.

Meanwhile her friend and self-defence trainer, Dennis, finds himself under arrest after a the body is found in a shop-squat he has been running. Convinced of Dennis’s innocence, despite his long track record of organised crime across the Manchester gangland, Kate undertakes to investigate to try to clear him. And it has started snowing heavily!

As always with Val McDermid, the plot is perfectly plausible and well-constructed, and the characters are utterly believable. She uses the plot to satirise the world of soap operas, and draws on her own experiences as a journalist to expose the traffic in leaked plotlines and cast members’ secrets. Brannigan is a great character: independent and tough, yet also capable of great emotional insight. Without the gory serial murders that characterise McDermid’s later works, this is a traditional detective story – well planned and well written.

dec 31, 2021, 7:08 am

120. A Series of Murders by Simon Brett.

Down at heel actor Charles Paris is surprised, and gratified, to be selected for a role in a new television detective series. He is play Sergeant Clump, a rather ponderous country policeman who acts as the slow-witted foil to Stanislas Braid, a charismatic amateur sleuth in the mould of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a taxing role, and not one that will significantly enhance Charles’s CV, but it is paid work, and likely to run for quite a while, with an initial run of six episodes.

The programmes are based on the works of W T Wintergreen, a now elderly novelist who had ceased writing several decades ago. The books are all set in that period beloved of the so-called cosy mysteries, in a rather anodyne version of the 1930. Rather than simply accepting the fee for the rights to the stories and leaving the television production company to get on with things, Miss Wintergreen and her sister regularly attend the set. Unfortunately, rather than being happy to see her characters brought to life on the screen, miss Wintergreen is appalled at how the tone of the stories is tweaked beyond recognition to accommodate the more mundane tastes of a contemporary television audience. There are significant tensions in the cast, too. The star of the show is Russell Bentley, a man with a vastly inflated sense of his own abilities and importance, which extends to an apparent inability to remember the names of his fellow actors.

All too soon a real murder occurs, with the actor playing Christina, Stanislas Braid’s beloved daughter, being crushed in what initially appears to be a dreadful accident on the set. As other mishaps befall the production, Charles begins to suspect foul play, and commences his own investigation.

As always in this very entertaining series, Simon Brett deftly mixes humour with a robust and plausible plot, while also taking the opportunity to demonstrate much of the fatuousness that underlies a lot of commercial television programming. Charles is an endearing character – far from perfect, he is a heavy drinker and incurable philanderer, although his crushing self-awareness of these faults renders him very empathetic.

dec 31, 2021, 10:03 am

121. A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has to return to the village of Three Pines when a new resident is found dead at a Boxing Day curling match attended by nearly everyone in the village. The initial assumption was that she had succumbed to a heart attack, but forensic investigation reveals that she was actually electrocuted.

Three Pines seems an idyllic spot, although it does seem to have a disproportionately high number of murders. In this instance, the dead woman had only lived there very briefly but had already established herself as very unpopular, being seen as deeply selfish and utterly dismissive of her neighbours.

Gamache is his usual, thoughtful self, and quickly sets about trying to establish the back story to the death. Meanwhile, as part of his annual ritual, he is also looking into an unsolved case assigned to one of his counterparts in a different precinct. They have done this for years, swapping their outstanding cases in the hope that a new eye might spot something hitherto unnoticed. The colleague’s case involves the death of a homeless woman on the streets of Montreal. As luck would have it, several of the residents of Three Pines had passed by her usual pitch on the day that she died.

Reading through what I have just typed I feel, as is so often the case, that the synopsis makes the book seem rather trivial, which is to do it a disservice. Through the character of Gamache, Louise Penny manages a deep investigation of the range of human emotions. The relationships between the villagers seem well observed and highly credible.