LYING BASTARD

Lying Bastard by Clint Margrave.


This is a decent addition to the long tradition of humorous campus set literary fiction. Lying Bastard tackles the absurdity and farce of teaching at Long Beach Community College, California. This novel is a lot of fun but there are plenty of serious points about the state of modern higher education in the United States, (and for that read the wider western education system). If you are expecting to find more sense in the education sector than the wider world your hopes will be dashed by this novel. This is about everything from crumbling buildings to cruddy beaurcracy to claws out internal politics and is a master classes in how young minds are stifled and teachers worn down. It’s about systems that aren’t very good at recognising people’s need and their individuality. In this modern technology rich, personal time poor world everything seems more complex and confused. This satirical tale is insightful and thought provoking, you may not agree with the arguments that underpin the plot by you can engage with it. Lying Bastard is a light but erudite read, it navigates the interior world of higher education for the general fiction reader but insiders will delight in the minutae.
On page one anti-hero Berlin Saunders is to be found lying on the floor playing dead as a gunman runs amok across the campus. Readers are instantly alerted to the satirical nature of the oncoming tale from Berlin’s preoccupation with a negative performance review received for his English Composition teaching only twenty minutes before the bullets started flying. Then, while listening for the killer’s return, Berlin questions his decision to play dead. After all he’s been contemplating suicide all term, (although the note has been a problem due to writer’s block), his distress has gone unnoticed. He wonders whether the gods have taken the decision over life and death out of his hands, his fate to be decided by a ‘crazed’ murderer. Ok, so this is not totally in good taste, good satire rarely is, equally, it isn’t mocking of mass shootings, the novel questions the ‘how?’ and the ‘why?’
Berlin thinks Henry Crawford, head of department, has dubious reasons for slating his teaching at the performance review. Until the start of the current term Berlin was going out with Kathy Stone. They broke up when he admitted that he hated The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, (sexism and political correctness are themes in the novel). Stone is now seeing Crawford. Berlin thinks he knows who the masked gunman is, although admitting that, if he survives, would draw criticism for not having spotted the warning signs. Anyway Berlin thinks the killer is former soldier, now one of his students, Adam Rowan.
On the day of the shooting Berlin is only in class because he swapped a shift with Tom Corona. Tom, the younger, more ambitious, much keener lecturer, is still looking for the holy grail of higher education – full-time tenure. Tom is prepared to kiss ass and join any available committee to make himself useful to that end. Berlin has given up on ambition, knowing talent and hard work aren’t enough in the eyes of management. The novel tells the story of that fateful term from the introduction of Berlin to his new students at Long Beach Community College, including Adam Rowan:
‘The students cared even less than he [Berlin] did about being there.’
The chapter titles are entertaining puns and word plays, the crack in the liberty bell a long running metaphor, the overall tone is witty but the novel questions what’s education is for and is about the current state of things. Lying Bastard is about the lies we tell ourselves and the assumption and misinterpretations we make of other people, about what it’s like to be a professor in modern education. An entertaining and perceptive read.
Like all small independent presses Run Amok is having a hard time at the moment. The only way we can support publishers and writers is to buy books.
Run Amok Press, ISBN: 9781733352611, paperback, May 2020.

A CASE OF NOIR

A Case of Noir by Paul D Brazill


Number 8 in the Close To The Bone’s ‘Knuckle Cracking Novella’ series.


Don’t read this review, let alone the book, if you’re of a sensitive disposition. A Case of Noir is an exhilarating gritty entertainment. This book and me was best friends for a couple of hours yesterday because for me a decent noirish pulp is like a fix. Okay, I don’t need it daily, but I don’t like the gap between hits to grow too long either – best to avoid the withdrawal symptoms, so I was glad to find this one. Some people need love and romance, (there’s sort of a bit of that here – in a lustfully twisted way), but I need cold, hard edged cynicism and bouts of verbal jousting that lead to mindless violence in a sort of satirical, belly laughing kind of way. Something to: ‘shake me up, Judy!’ What better than a heady mix of cross, double cross, murder and mayhem to do that – if A Case of Noir were a cocktail it would be a ‘pan galactic gargle blaster’. This novella is irreverent, blackly comic, dirty, grim and very well written. Old Trumpy might recommend something like a shot of coke adulterated with rat poison and bleach as a cure for Covid-19, but my vote goes to A Case of Noir – Only try the latter at home kids!
A Case of Noir opens in Warsaw’s Ajeja Jana Pawla district; cold, stormy, uninviting, unappealing unless you like a bit of sleaze with your frost bite. The narrator looks out on to:
‘Sex shops, peep shows and twenty-four-hour bars, booze shops and kebab shops were pretty much the only buildings that I could see, apart from the Westin Hotel, with its vertigo inducing glass elevator…’
Into this touching scene come two cop cars chasing a taxi, which then crashes. When the cops catch up to the fleeing driver they smack him around a bit before throwing him in to the back of a van. Luke’s attention is refocused inside the room as Tatiana pours him a drink, he tells us:
‘Her English was perfect but her Ukrainian accent was as dark and as bitter as the Galois that she deeply inhaled.’
You might think these are star crossed lovers but they just haven’t got the financial arrangements out of the way yet. Money on the table, the blow job is duly delivered, not that I’m saying Tatiana doesn’t really like Luke maybe she does? The post coital imbibe is underway when a gorilla tries to break the room door down. The only way to react is to wait out Bronek, a love sick client. Eventually he’ll go away and they can leave. Sure enough at midnight the knocking stops as the big man sets off to church before going home to the wife and kids. Luke heads for Rory’s Irish Pub and by the end of the night there’s only Rory, Sean, the disillusioned alcoholic EFL teacher, and Luke left. That is until the gorgeous blonde walks in. Crazy Jola is the wife of mid-level gangster, second hand clothes baron, Robert Nowak. He owns another Irish bar, The Emerald Isle. Sean warns him but Luke isn’t thinking with his head. The hack, (Luke is a journo), and gangster’s moll chat before heading to the tap room for a tup. As the weeks go by Luke goes back to Tatiana, she tells him about her abusive husband and her lesbian lover, they’ve got a rapport but he can’t forget Jola. Eventually he heads back to the Emerald Isle, they reconnect and then:
‘You know’, she said. ‘Life with Robert is like a living death these days. I really do want to get away. Escape. I’ve managed to save some money, but it’s not enough. Anyway…’
Now you’ve got a rough idea where this adventure is going but Brazill likes surprises and curve balls and corkscrew twists. The dialogue is sharp and the prose pared down. The people on these pages are an assortment of eccentrics, odd balls, kooks, misfits, liars, drug dealers, killers, creeps, femme fatales (plural) and a priest (of sorts). A Euro-roving odyssey take us to Seatown (where it all began), Madrid, Granada, Toulouse, and Cambridge. Chock full of cultural references from Dickens to the Fun Boy Three. This is a darkly inventive and clever entertainment, the love child of hardboiled/noir/pulp of old but this is a thoroughly modern tale.
Buying this book was the best £2.50 I spent all week and not just because it was the only £2.50 I spent this week on account of lock down, (Still available on Amazon for £2.99 as of 30/5/20). I’m off to buy Paul D Brazill’s new book: Man of the World (All Due Respect Press, April 2020).
Close to the Bone Publishing, paperback, 2017. ISBN: 9781521043998.

ROGUE

Rogue by James Swallow.
The fifth Marc Dane/Rubicon thriller.
Rogue is a high octane thriller, it’s perfect escapism because you’re not going to be thinking about anything else as you read. There’s action a plenty in this new high tech up to the minute version of a James Bond style adventure but without the misogyny and stereotyping of old. The women characters are just as tough as the men and are portrayed as rounded individuals and the team leader is African. Although I enjoyed Shadow (2019) I thought it was a little off the pace compared to Nomad and the other sequels. This is a massive return to form. Action flows into action, there’s hardly time to draw breath and it all connects up very smoothly. The story is about the survival of Rubicon itself against seen and unseen enemies who are coming for them. Once again Marc Dane and his partner Lucy Keyes are thrown into a maelstrom of treachery and deception, violence and mayhem.
A British surveillance operation in Olso on a target known to the team only by the code name Echo-One seems pretty routine. A team of five have been following her for a while, other than she has military training they don’t know a lot about her. Then Echo-One makes a break, lures the team into a trap and a simple operation becomes a nightmare.
Ten days later Marc Dane is on his way to see Lucy Keyes, she’s kicking her heals in a Portuguese clinic, going up the wall, desperate to get back to work, but six months ago she nearly died in an operation in Brussels. A biological agent ravaged her system and she’s still not fully recovered. Marc and Lucy work for Ekko Solomon, Special Conditions Division, part of Rubicon a private intelligence agency working with western governments for the preservation of democracy against terrorism, and rogue states and money. Their biggest enemy is a cartel of business and criminals known as the Combine, among them there are extremists determined to bring the West down.
Lucy accepts Marc offer of a pint in a local bar, her first trip away from the Delphi Clinic since she came here. Marc spots something odd just outside the bar but it’s too late, a well planned operation to kidnap the pair is underway.
Esther McFarlane has never been on board with Solomon’s SCD and now she has evidence about their rogue operations that she intends to expose to the Committee. SCD extracted the chief accountant for the La Noche cartel from Colombia, faked his death and used the financial data windfall for an operation, just one of the SCDs black ops. The question is who is feeding McFarlane the intel that could fatally harm it?
Turns out for Marc that Echo-One is an enemy he thought long dead. The past has come back to haunt him. The attack is from within and without Rubicon, the SCD is under intense scrutiny and it’s people are in mortal danger and that has consequences for the Brits, the Americans, the West.
Swallow proves that it is possible to write a full on action/adventure novel that thrills and is alive to modern sensibilities. The jaunt through modern-tech and across the globe is as much fun as ever. Fans will love this latest instalment in the Marc Dane series, newcomers this would not be a had place to start.
Zaffre hardback, 9781838770556, 30/5/20, £12.99.

THE INSPECTOR OF UNEXPLAINED DEATHS

The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

This light but intelligent novel augers well for The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths series. This is exciting historical crime writing – sharp witted and enjoyable. Chevalier Volnay is a fascinating detective, the Sherlock of the ancien régime; young, contradictory and enigmatic but quite, quite brilliant. A man of his times but a passionate and revolutionary thinker with a shadowy side. Volney was made a Chevalier and appointed to the post of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths as a reward for his part in saving Louis VX from the regicide Damiens two years earlier. The would-be king slayer was a servant who stabbed and wounded the Louis XV in 1757, there is a brief recounting of his grisly torture and execution here. The story has fascinated French historians, school children and even the philosopher Michel Foucault – it appears in his book, Discipline and Punishment. Barde-Cabuçon knows what he is doing using that event as a spring board for this novel. Volney has further proven himself by solving the Pecoil affair. The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths, previously published as Casanova and the Faceless Woman (2019) gets into murky territory; the cesspit of the royal court; it’s machinations, intrigue and plotting. Volney is caught up in the clash between the religious orthodoxy, Father Ofag and the Devout Party, and the liberal challenge supporting the ideas of Rousseau, Diderot and the Enlightenment. Crucially, Barde-Cabuçon manages to maintain a light tone, The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is a real page turner. Barde-Cabuçon is a stylish crime writer and this mystery cooks up philosophy, history and murder and turns out a soufflé.
I love a playful historical novel that weaves fact and fiction but has gravitas; The Inspector of Unexplained Deaths has depth in its portrayal of time and place, this is a revealing glimpse of the past – a masterly evocation of Louis VX’s France; the politics, the early enlightenment and the growing revolutionary spirit. Dark doings mingle with clever detective work, a wonderful mix of nefarious deeds and real historical events and people. Central to the story is the self styled Chevalier de Seingalt, the notorious spy, diplomat, soldier, banker, escaped prisoner, swindler, illusionist and, of course, seducer: Giacomo Casanova.
The early exchanges between Volney and Casanova established their characters in a way that is both revealing and fun. Add into the mix Mademoiselle Chiara D’Ancilla, an intelligent and very progressive young woman: “I don’t believe in God, Monsieur, I believe in nature.” And the story is fired by love rivalry, burgeoning relationships, sparring and romancing. But beware not everyone is as they seem and trusting the wrong person could be fatal.
1759, Paris. A young girl steps down from a carriage into the darkness, a male occupant warns her to take care as she strides into the distance towards the only light to be seen, then a scream is heard… The body is discovered by Casanova, it’s an unpleasant spectacle, a girl with the skin torn from her face. Young inspector Volney suddenly appears, he has not been summoned. The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths takes charge of the crime scene. Casanova and a spy for father Ofag see Volney hide a letter he takes from the corpse. Volney is only too aware that the king is known for debauching young girls and working-class children, aided by his mistress Madame de Pompadour and his pimp, la Bal. Could this be one of the king’s girls, attacked when leaving the palace? The Devout Party, particularly Father Ofag, want to remove la Pompadour, could this be part of a plot to get rid of her? Volney knows it is too early to draw conclusions.
Later, Volney is visited by a beautiful young woman wishing to visit the morgue to satisfy her scientific curiosity. Her lady in waiting has gone missing.
Casanova also turns up at Volney’s house, both men distracted by Chiara. Casanova’s attempt to seduce her is rebuffed, redoubling his ardour, but for now he is thwarted. The murder of the faceless girl is only the beginning. These are turbulent times and the warring factions at court have their knives sharpened. Even the king is not safe.
As an avid reader of historical fiction I have come across Casanova in a number of novels and this version is a lot of fun, a very convincing sketch of the infamous lothario.
The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths is a real cracker. Published as Casanova et la femme sans visage in 2012 (there are six others adventures in French). Louise Rogers Lalurie’s translation adds to the pleasure of the novel.
For more fictional interpretations of Casanova see: Conversations in Bolzano by Sandor Marai, A Night with Casanova by Wolf Mankowitz and Casanova by Andrew Miller (all brilliant in their own way). Ian Kelly’s Casanova is a richly entertaining biography. As for Volney, you will have to stick to Barde-Cabuçon’s novels. More please.

Pushkin Vertigo, paperback, ISBN 9781782276234, 2/4/20

GRAB A SNAKE BY THE TAIL

Grab a Snake by the Tail

All good fiction reflects the character of its country of birth. This is very true of Cuban literature; religion, sex, politics, superstition, machismo, beauty and a dark soul born out of a turbulent history. There is no writer speaks to this more truthfully than Leonardo Padura. He has been described as the most important living Cuban novelist, not the kind of plaudit normally proffered to a crime writer, but Padura is a rare kind of crime novelist. His tools are those of the Noirist but honed with such an acute perception, a gritty intensity, and a deep understanding of the character of Havana, his homeland and the people of Cuba. Padura’s writing is as insightful as anything you will find in a contemporary literary fiction. Mario Conde, his central character, undergoes a journey in this detective series as profound as most self-explorations.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is the investigation of the brutal ritual murder of a Chinese man in the Chinese quarter of Havana. Detective Mario Conde has to crack a wall of silence and mistrust to solve the crime. There’s an impenetrable gulf of trust between the Cuban authorities and the minority Chinese community, outsiders are unwelcome. This novel is about cultural difference, perceptions of race and racism, both overt and unconscious. Padura has a way of presenting a stereotype operating on a shallow level before exposing the trope to great effect:

“At the end of many a sweaty day in Chinatown, the most painful part for Conde would be his realization that the typical, exemplary chino of his imaginings would become an unfathomable being plagued by open sores,…”

Conde realises the people of the Barrio Chino are as complex as the Cuban population with as many reasons for murder too; revenge, ambition, greed, jealousy, misguided loyalty. This case is as complex, (not stereotypical), and commonplace, (human motivations are universal).

Conde is a detective, and a would be writer, he gives new meaning to the term ‘existential angst’. What we learn about him is as fascinating as the case itself. He is driven by an overactive love life and the entwined fear and desire it brings, and by the macho temptation to resist growing up, particularly where women are concerned. But Conde is savvy enough to have an insight into his own condition, he drinks too much, loves too much and is not totally in control. He has a sense of humour that gets him through the day but manages to rub other people up the wrong way.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is set in Havana in 1989, however, some of Conde’s observations come in retirement many years later date. It adds a different perspective but the complexity is a little disjointed. In the introduction Padura explains that the Chinese quarter is all but gone now, these are only a few decrepit signs of the old Chinese shops and businesses. In the novel Conde discovers this for himself when he reflects on the past, he is no longer a policeman but for his own curiosity is investigating the 1950s disappearance of bolero singer Victoria del Rio.

1989 is on the cusp of the great economic crash that came with the collapse of Russian support while the Americans stuck to their punishing, punitive embargo. Havana is a city in decline, fading colonial houses and crumbling apartment blocks from the 1920s and 30s. The small Chinese enclave is a slum and when a man is hanged in a boarding house at the heart of that quarter Conde is brought in to investigate.

Padura’s view of Havana/Cuba is born of love for the people and the country but it’s brutal, realist, unromantic and all the more human for it. The retired Conde has long since stopped seeing the communist state as a socialist idyll, the country’s new rulers are; corrupt, cynical, nepotistic and devoid of morality. Yet life goes on, Cubans are stoic; Conde has his friends, his books, his bottles, and his writing, he is a keen observer but more than anything he wants to feel, to experience life.

In the Barrio Chine they cook great food, they smoke opium from a bamboo pipe, they play mah-jong, they endure, they withstand adversity. In examining his own prejudices and judgements Conde realises that he won’t solve the case unless he can understand the community. Pedro Cuang’s death is rooted in history and culture. Cuang has been left hanging from the beams of his ceiling in his small room, two arrows and other symbols have been carved into his chest and a finger has been severed. Cuang is said to have had money, he was a 73-year-old man who emigrated here as a child, he returned to China only once, last year. If he had money, why did he come back to this squalor?

Grab a Snake by the Tail is pitted with black humour, this is noir as the gods intended it to be. It isn’t the best of the Conde novels but it is intelligent and insightful, it will have you examining your own prejudices and assumptions. Conde is a compelling character and this is a very satisfying read.
The other books in the Mario Conde series: Pasado perfecto (1991, translated as Havana Blue, 2007), Vientos de cuaresma (1994, Havana Gold, 2008), Máscaras (1997, Havana Red, 2005) and Paisaje de otoño (1998, Havana Black, 2006).

Translated by Peter Bush

Bitter Lemon Press 9781912242177 pbk May 2019

A SHOOTING AT CHATEAU ROCK

A Shooting at Chateau Rock by Martin Walker
Every avid crime fiction reader has glaring gaps in their library, the Chief Inspector Bruno novels of Martin Walker are one of mine – until now. As the Dordogne mysteries reach a baker’s dozen I make my first foray into the crime world of the Périgord region of France and find myself wishing I could be there for real – murderer/criminals on the loose or not! Covid-19 aside the Dordogne tourist board must be thankful for Walker’s novels for their love of place and beautiful descriptions of local life, (this is Walker’s own home). The setting is superb; the sense of community and camaraderie, of small town friendships and interconnectivity, feels very authentic and genuinely warm. The novel has a very easy, almost laid-back style and the way the mystery plays out fits snuggly into that and yet there is depth here and the tension and darkness do ramp up significantly. There’s a wonderful contrast between the beauty of the landscape and nefarious dealings that surface through Bruno’s investigation. This is consummate storytelling, a highly entertaining read.
It all begins with suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Driant, a local farmer. Notaire Brosseil has handled the Driant family business for years but when their father dies Gaston and Claudette find out that he travelled to Perigueux to make a new will only a few days earlier, using the expensive services of a notiare new to the region. He sold the farm to an insurance company below market value and then gave all the money to a five star care home for the elderly – the place he apparently intended to live out his life. When the post man found the body of his friend Dr Gallereau certified a heart attack, Driant senior had an ongoing condition and the doctor had recommended a pace maker so it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. When the Perigueux notaire informed Gaston and Claudette of the new will disinheriting them they became suspicious. Gaston Driant came to see Chief Inspector Bruno Courrèges at the Mairie in St. Denis to discuss his concerns. Even if his father was to go into a retirement home this hardly seemed the kind of place he would choose. As Driant was in his seventies a new will would have to be witnessed and his competence established. There’s no doubt for Bruno some questions need answering: Were all the formalities followed? Why didn’t Driant use notaire Brosseil? And, who was the young woman seen around the widower’s farm just before he died? As Bruno looks into the matter it seems to link to a Russian oligarch already on the national police radar.
Bruno also learns that Chateau Rock will soon be on the market soon which comes as a surprise because he is a good friend of the owner former rock star Rod Macrea and his wife Meghan. Together with their two children they and been part of the community for two decades. The children are now grown up and the couple are getting divorced. The Macraes are planning one last family get together for the summer before moving on. Son, Jamie arrives from London with his new girlfriend Galina. But Galina just happens to be the daughter of the very same oligarch Bruno is already investigating. Now isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?
This is a gentle but also substantial murder mystery, a rough one for Bruno. Nothing is forced, the early signs of darkness are masked by the idyllic setting but nonetheless its brewing away. This is a seductive and engaging read. It’s a satisfying mystery that almost appears to be giving too much away at the beginning as we find out more about farmer Driant death but there is much more going on. Some way in A Shooting at Chateau Rock readers will realise that it hasn’t actually happened yet, the story is building to it, engendering a sense of anticipation. A complex and relevant modern mystery unfolds slowly. Martin Walker was a superb journalist and it turns out he’s a very good crime novelist too. Highly recommended fun.
Quercus hardback, ISBN 9781787477681, May 25th.

THE WAITING ROOMS

The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith.

Normally I would wait for the paperback release but I really thought you might want to know about this title available as an eBook now:


Eventually the Crisis came and nothing ever returned to normal:
‘Twenty years after they were imposed, emergency border controls and trade embargoes will remain in place for the thirteen countries who do not yet meet the international health risk standards…’
In The Waiting Rooms everyone in the post Crisis world lives in fear. The world has become a very dangerous place, antibiotics are rationed and no one over seventy is eligible, a simple injury or infection could spell death. A few mutations, an uncontrollable pandemic and this future could become a reality.
This novel might have been a greater feat of imagination for readers if it weren’t for the real tragedy of Covid-19 and the lock-down which has revealed just how different our world could become in a very short space to time. If ever a book hit the zeitgeist it’s this one. A few months ago I could imagine readers enjoying The Waiting Rooms but seeing it as pure fiction rather than possible reality. Reading The Waiting Rooms is very different experience now, this dystopian world isn’t far fetched at all, it’s scarily plausible! Covid-19 shows how prescient and grounded this novel is.
What happens if antibiotics no longer work? The possibility is very real, it’s a problem that is slowly being addressed recently after years, if not decades, of medical science and governments burying their heads in the sand. Eve Smith has used this urgent debate as a catalyst for a gripping ‘what if?’ scenario that will chill your bones as you read:
“No one touches each other’s hands anymore. Not unless they’re intimate.”
The Crisis, twenty years on. Kate takes a call from one of the nurses, they often refer the difficult ones to her, number fourteen is due to die today, he signed the assisted dying release, his daughter knows that but she’s distraught. She and her husband reason, beg and plead but her father has T4 cancer, it registers nine on the Gleason scale, he will die in any case. James Casey will want his daughter in the peace chamber, he’ll want a calm death. The drug is Whisky flavoured, he passes.
Lily will be seventy soon, she lives in a care home. For her there will be no antibiotics under draconian laws and there’s no sign that will change, even so long after the Crisis. There are protests, of course, some say it’s genocide of the elderly, then there’s Equality Above All, terrorists? Lily walks in the gardens, she sees one of the residents being taken away in an ambulance, they won’t be coming back.
It’s a brave decision to have a child post Crisis; a risky time for the mother and the early years of any child are fraught with dangers. Kate and Mark have Sasha. Kate was adopted, she hasn’t thought much about her birth mother but now that they are burying Pen, the woman who brought her up. Kate has to tell her daughter Sasha as she goes searching for her own mother Mary.
Twenty-seven years before the Crisis, South Africa. Mary manages to nearly get herself killed by a Rhino before scuttling up a Marula tree. An angry Boer starts shouting at her about her recklessness but it’s the beginning of a relationship between the two. Mary is a scientist, more than ever they need people like her in this continent. Diseases long since eradicated in Europe and America are coming back with a vengeance in Africa, it won’t end there:
‘As the TB death toll tops twenty thousand, the prime minister urges people to obey curfews and remain in their homes.’ [during the initial Crisis]
The Waiting Rooms is such a good title, it sounds innocuous, conjures up images of boredom, and is so typical of the human need to hide the real meaning of something terrible, as if that normalises it. The use of language in the novel is very clever. Smith creates two fascinating time lines, pre and post Crisis. The characters and their personal stories are emotional and very relatable. This is a novel set in an extraordinary landscape, dystopian and frightening but it deals with age old issues of grief and loss, even euthanasia and most of all what makes us human. I don’t accept the premise that people want fluff in times of crisis, personally I want real and I want challenging. This novel is dark and may make you uncomfortable but there are some essential truths best not ignored.

Orenda Books, paperback, July. Isbn 9781913193263, available as eBook now.

THE BODY ON THE SIDEWALK & THE RELUCTANT MURDERER

The Body on the Sidewalk and The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey
I’m going to start with something I said in my review of Stark House Press’ 2019 Bernice Carey double header The Man Who Got Away With It and Three Widows* which still seems apt. Reading these two novels I get the same vibe I did with last year’s brace, Carey is a top notch psychological crime writer who holds her own with the best, such as Dorothy B. Hughes:
‘The two novels here illustrate that Bernice Carey was an original writer, her career in crime writing was woefully short and her output limited, but there’s real quality here, fantastic storytelling. These psychological hard-boiled novels plough their own path… Bernice Carey is well deserving of a new audience and to be restored to the pantheon of crime writing history.’

The Body on the Sidewalk (1950) and The Reluctant Murderer (1949) are subversions of the country house mystery that was so popular in the ‘golden age’ era of British crime writing before WWII, epitomised and immortalised by the work of Agatha Christie. There’s even a hint of JB Priestley’s collective guilt:


‘they were all simple fundamentally innocent people meaning no harm only trying to find a way to live comfortably with themselves and with other people so where they all wound up beaten and bruised on that one moment when xxxxx’s feelings, which they all helped to create, went out of control?’


When Carey adds her own twists the tropes and scenarios have a new frisson. In The Body on the Sidewalk the country house becomes a city tenement, in The Reluctant Murderer it’s a family gathering in the mountains. It’s about family, about class and race and social status, as well as mystery.
In the Body on the Sidewalk a cast of suspects is assembled, their actions and attitudes examined; the complex family relationships seethe with tensions and motives for killing the man on the sidewalk surface. It’s fun, specifically urban, working class, it’s an acute analysis of societal norms and physical and emotional boundaries.
The Reluctant Murderer is an altogether different beast. The would be murderer, Vivian, identifies herself as such immediately so the question becomes; who does she want to kill? That’s not at all clear, even after her first tentative failure to commit murder. Soon a new element is introduced to the story, Viv believes someone is also trying to kill her. Even later in the novel when the name of the potential victim is revealed the reader is still not fully aware of what is really going on. Over the weekend tables are turned, misunderstanding proliferate, relationships are exposed, characters laid bare. For a debut this is remarkably accomplished, sharp, complex and emotionally engaging novel. Anyone thinking the psychological novel with the devious twist was invented in the twenty-first century would soon see it’s origins here. The Reluctant Murderer would make a great film even now. A little about the scenario of the books:
The Body on the Sidewalk, 1950.
A body is discovered on some house steps in a city street, a passer-by fetches the police. San Francisco PD sergeant Ferris takes charge. The guy has been shot in the back, the body’s been there hours, how did nobody hear the shot? Ferris rouses the households, matriarch Mamie Grady opens the door, she realises the dead man is Hank Grueber. Ferris assembles the family – Mamie, her three daughters, Maureen, Peggy and Pauline, their step father Frank, and her son, Don and his wife, Lola and their children. As the story progresses there’s also the extended family to consider, Mamie’s ex-husbands, one, Ramon, is still in touch with the children. When a gun is found in a drawer, one round fired, everyone realises the murder is in the family.
Hank had been seeing recently divorced Peggy, they were out last night, got back about one, others in the house were still up at the time. Don worked with Hank, they hated each other. Don and his wife were entertaining Ernie and Nell, a black couple, yesterday evening, something they don’t want the cops to know, they are sure to be suspected. Pauline hates the thought that the scandal might reveal that her brother has black friends, it would harm her career, that bothers her more than the fact that one of them is a killer. The politics of the workplace, social climbing, race and family relationships are all under the microscope. The family question themselves:
“If you should prove to your satisfaction then that it was, say, one of the girls, or your mother, would you expose them to save yourself?” [Ramón asks Don]
This is a social drama in which motives emerge as relationships become strained, its claustrophobic:
“Oh, Don, I don’t like this, having to suspect your own people-almost hoping it’s one of them, to save yourself.” [Lola to Don]


The Reluctant Murderer, 1949.


“It came to me while I was reading Anne’s letter. That murder was the answer.”


Even seventy years on the tangled weave of family relationships in The Reluctant Murderer are electric. Viv has worried and brooded for weeks, never thought about murder before, it just flashed into her head, the only answer to a long vexing problem. Of course, it’s a repulsive idea, but she can’t be squeamish, Anne has poison in her garden, perhaps that’s the answer, it’s a relief for Viv to have made a decision.


‘I have never cared for detective stories, and for a moment I regretted it. If I had read more of them I might now be familiar with different means of doing away with people.’ [nice little in joke]


Anne’s letter said Aunt Maud is staying so she has organised a family get together for the weekend. Her new beau Johnny will be there, Maud might not approve as Anne is only three years divorced, and Culbert can come with Viv. An old family friend, Culbert and Viv reconnected when he came to San Francisco a year ago.
On the way to Anne’s house in the Santa Cruz mountains above Los Gatos Culbert proposes to Viv, she replies; ‘we-ll, if you insist’. They can announce it this weekend.
Aunt Maud has money, she thrived during the crash, Anne and Viv’s parents are dead, Anne husband also died during war, now she has Johnny. Maud has brought her assistant, Miss Pringle, and her chauffeur, Alphonse, with her. Who will be the target? Anne’s feckless boyfriend, the gold digging servants, the rich aunt Viv isn’t close to?


‘Any northern Californian knows that the southern part of the state is populated almost exclusively by screwballs, and I do believe Aunt Maud to be the epitome of southern California crackpotism.’


The novel explores class, the way people pass judgement on each other, how misunderstanding can come from honest intentions, how people jump to conclusions, how family secrets poison relationships, and where guilt exists but it shouldn’t. There’s plenty of sleight of hand and red herrings in The Reluctant Murderer.


Both novels are tightly plotted and tense, but often relieved with moments of humour, Carey expertly draws on the readers sense of anticipation and foreboding. The themes are still potent today. This is classy writing, The Body on the Sidewalk, eminently readable, a fun mystery with plenty of turns and a serious edge of social critique. The Reluctant Murderer is nothing short of a masterpiece.
There’s also a very useful and interesting introduction to both by Curtis Evans.
*That review can be found here: https://nbmagazine.co.uk/the-man-who-got-away-with-it-and-three-widows-by-bernice-carey/.
ISBN 9781944520946, Stark House Press, paperback, 25/5/20

WOMAN OF STATE

Woman of State by Simon Berthon
This is a novel I picked up on a hunch a couple of years ago not being familiar with the author. The setting for Woman of State was right up my alley because it’s a thriller about Ireland, the Troubles and British politics which always intrigue me. I put it aside and it didn’t make the top of my tbr pile until now but if I’d known how enjoyable it would be, how good it is, I’ve have got to Woman of State much sooner. This for me is a perfect beach read, plenty of excitement and a bit of depth – exercise for the grey matter. There are a lot of good thrillers based in and around the Troubles and this one is good enough to hold its own; it’s original and stylish. Woman of State is loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and real world grittiness. The story, although it’s in familiar territory, is unpredictable and layered, complex but very easy to follow. A few chapters in it becomes unputdownable.
July ’91, Belfast girl Maire Anne McCartney has just blitzed her ‘A’ levels and will soon be heading south to Trinity College in Dublin. She makes love to her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy, and in the tender moment that follow he says:
‘The movement needs your help.’
Maire is committed politically but she’s not sure about the bloody struggle. There’s a Brit Special Branch officer, Haliburton, drinks at the Europa, eyes up the girls, before heading back to Castlereagh. Joseph wants Maire to be a honey trap. Bring him to a flat where the IRA can talk to him. Just that, an interrogation and then they’ll let him go, the worse for wear but alive. In her heart Maire can’t believe that but let’s Joseph talk her into it. The clincher is when he tells her that her big brother Martin OK’ed it, he’s a big shot in the IRA. The following Saturday she bumps into Haliburton at the Europa, he invites himself back to her place, the flat Joseph arranged. As she sneaks out four masked men descend on the randy cop. Maire walks home, next day the news is all about a Brit Special Branch officer lured to his death. A couple of days later Maire is arrested, the Brits know she was involved but she won’t give up Joseph. Eventually the Brits let her go, perhaps there’s not enough evidence, perhaps they want to follow her. Martin didn’t know but he doesn’t have time for her regrets and her naivety. He arranged for Maire to go to Dublin immediately, never to see Joseph again.
That was supposed to be the end of it but Joseph and Martin and the IRA come back into Maire life a couple of years later. Her English boyfriend raised their hackles.
What happened in Dublin? Twenty-five years later Anne-Marie Gallagher, respected lawyer is elected MP for the seat of Lambeth West, her acceptance speech draws attention:


‘No human right has been more trampled,’ she resumed, ‘than the right to live our lawful lives unobserved in the privacy of our homes, our meeting places with our friends, with our families.
Under the cloak of fear, of exaggerated threats from terrorists and other convenient enemies, technology – and the lost the control – has created the surveillance state.’


The new PM offers her a junior minister’s job. Of course, Anne-Marie is worried the past might catch up with her but the peace process is well established so maybe she’s safe. She’s not long in office before someone is stirring the pot. The police have received an anonymous tip off about a body buried near the border, apparently sometime in the early nineties.
The past about to come back on Anne-Marie with a vengeance. As the investigation into the body in Northern Ireland focusses on Anne-Marie she is forced to choose sides.
Avoiding the obvious road to travel this novel keeps the reader guessing to the end. It’s a plausible dirty, deadly setting, from Belfast to Dublin to Whitehall.
This is an accomplished debut novel from journalist and history writer Berthon. It was published in paperback as A Secret Worth Killing For. A second spy thriller by Berthon, A Time to Lie, is scheduled to be published in December this year.
HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, hardback, 2017, ISBN 9780008214364

THE SIRIUS CROSSING

The Sirius Crossing by John Creed
This is an intelligent spy thriller set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, with a bit of globe trotting thrown in for good measure. The Sirius Crossing is well writing and hugely entertaining. From the first page I was gripped by the dark mood and cynical edge to the storytelling; it’s hard, brutal and very real world. A story that has a satisfyingly complex plot and real depth of character but also plenty of page turning action.
Jack friend Liam says the living have a duty to the dead, for Valentine it’s a duty to the truth. A quarter of a century after it happened ex-air force lieutenant Harry Longworth gave Valentine a vital piece of the puzzle which helped him assemble the full story. Longworth didn’t know the significance of his information but he knew it what happened was ‘odd’:
Bishopsway Air Support Base, northern England, February, 1974. Longworth is ordered to collect two US servicemen from the clandestine night-time landing of a C-130, then babysit them for a few hours. The Hercules is back in the air as soon as the men are deposited with Longworth. His instructions are to keep the men isolated and hidden until they leave, neither man has any insignia or rank on their uniform. After two hours Longworth drives the men to another plane that has come for them. Without a word the men leave and Longworth’s part is over. Eighty minutes later the two men parachute near Dundalk Bay but the weather conditions are bad and the drop turns into a disaster. The first man is killed before he hits the ground, his partner is badly injured. The second man manages to bury the body of his colleague before heading to the border and into the north.

  1. The MRU tends to fly under the radar, it isn’t subject to the same scrutiny from politicians as MI5/6 as the Cold War comes to an end. Jack Valentine is tired, about ready to retire, but he’ll take one more job with the promise it’s the last. He works for Somerville:
    ‘The tag of old-fashioned to the point of being quaint would describe Somerville if you regarded Torquemada as old-fashioned and Vlad the Impaler as quaint.’
    Fair warning, the MRU is deep and dirty. Somerville’s deputy Curley is believed to be the man who perfected the CTT, (carcinogenic transmission technique). A grain of uranium in a cigar and max. three months later death by cancer – an untraceable assassination. Somerville has an unusual mission for Valentine, retrieve the documents and equipment with a long buried body in the Ravensdale forest just south of the border in the Republic of Ireland. Key instruction – bring back the package with the papers unread. Somerville says it was a failed op in the early 70s, there were two men, one survived lived long enough to give a rough location for the other’s body but then died. It should be one night’s work, just four ancient stone burial chambers to search. Valentine takes the job:
    ‘What I should really have done was reach into my shoulder holster, take out the Glock and empty it into his desiccated, evil old body. I know that now. And some part of me knew it then.’
    Valentine can’t help wondering why he’s being sent, British soldiers operate south of the border all the time, and why now, what is so urgent about this operation?
    Returning to his home in Kintyre Valentine finds his old friend Liam Mellows waiting for him. Theirs is an old friendship that has survived the two men being on different sides of the divide in Ireland. Mellows is in trouble, he’s been set up by Army Intelligence or C3 or MI5, who knows. His IRA colleagues have seen a photo of Mellows in the company of no less than the head of Special Branch border operations, Ronnie Whitcroft. Now old pals Canning and Marks are looking for Liam mellows the traitor. As Valentine and Mellows are discussing the situation a car approaches, in this remote location that can’t be good. Valentine and Mellows just about escape in his boat with shot fizzing around them…
    They sail for Ireland; Liam Mellows has his problems to sort while Jack Valentine has his mission, only there are other parties interested in the body he is searching for. This is a tense, murky thriller, never less than intriguing. The Sirius Crossing is a shady world of betrayal and violence where you can’t trust your own side and the good guys are scarce on the ground. A worthy addition to the canon of Troubles thrillers.
    There are two more Jack Valentine books which I’ve already ordered after reading this novel; The Day of the Dead and Black Cat Black Dog. John Creed is a pen name of Eoin McNamee author of several novels set in Northern Ireland with a basis in historical events and characters. The Vogue, The Resurrection Men, Orchid Blue, Blue is the Night, The Ultras (not a complete list). Eoin also writes for TV and writes children’s books.
    Faber and Faber, paperback, 2003.