GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2015
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
I had to read this book through my fingers, in the manner of watching horror movies where one is too scared to look, but doesn’t want to miss anything. It is a brutal, horrifying epic, told so compellingly that it will stay with me whether I want it to or not, for Mr Flanagan is a teller of hard truths; a bard of sorrow and regrets, but he has produced a singular work of terrible beauty.
Mr Flanagan’s story operates on several levels: it is primarily a love story between two highly disparate characters but serves also as a record of one of the most brutal periods in the history of the Second World War; the building of the infamous Burma Railway by the slave labour of Australian prisoners of war. Their Japanese captors expected – demanded that the p.o.ws work literally until they dropped (and died), clearing jungle, shifting enormous piles of rock with few tools and even less food, no rest, and frequent sadistic beatings from the guards. For all Japanese soldiers believed that it was the ultimate in dishonour to allow oneself to be captured: to surrender displayed a cowardice that revealed the prisoners as less than human, therefore entirely expendable.
Colonel Dorrigo Evans, a doctor, is the senior officer of the prisoners and accorded enormous respect by his men, for he has led by example, caring for them selflessly to the very best of his ability – which is considerable, for Dorrigo was a rising young surgeon at the start of the war and given officer rank as soon as he joined the Australian Army. He is known in the camp as ‘The Big Fella’, a tribute to his physical size as well as his huge spiritual stature – but Dorrigo is a conflicted man.
During Dorrigo’s medical training he made important connections among the privileged of Melbourne society, including a romance with a view to marriage with Ella, daughter of a prominent solicitor. His future seems assured – until he meets entirely by chance the new wife of his uncle Keith: the resulting affair with Amy is incendiary and unforgettable, and Dorrigo’s comfortable future is turned on its ear. He is almost relieved when war intervenes so that he may leave all his romantic problems behind, but he still makes Amy a promise ‘that he will come back to her’. Ella receives no such assurance.
The capture of Australian troops in Java after the fall of Singapore to Japan sees Dorrigo and his men transported to Siam to begin work on a railway that Western engineers said would be an impossiblility: their Japanese counterparts are eager to prove them wrong, and with expendable slave labour they intend to finish the job in record time.
Mr Lanagan paints terrible pictures of cruelty and privation with his luxurious prose, stressing always the unity and fellowship that such suffering engenders, even amongst those men who actively dislike each other; conversely, he also presents the Japanese view of their prisoners, from Camp Commander Nakamura to a sadistic Korean guard the prisoners call The Goanna. The Goanna is a monstrous character, a terrible vehicle of cruelty, faithfully following every order.
No-one, Japanese or Australian, who survived those camps emerged unscathed, least of all Dorrigo, who, after receiving a fateful letter as a POW descends into a fatalistic acceptance of his future as a war hero (spurious), glittering surgical career (why couldn’t he save those boys in the camps?) and a comfortable, (loveless) marriage.
And while I would have given anything to have avoided the brutality, the barbarism and the horror of Richard Flanagan’s superb Man Booker prize-winning novel, I am privileged to have experienced such a literary tour de force. Most highly recommended.
The Missing and the Dead, by Stuart MacBride
True to form, I have made the acquaintance of hapless detective Logan MacRae in the ninth book of his adventures – to my disadvantage, for Logan is a thriller reader’s treasure: canny; brave (well, of course!); not averse to using unconventional methods to catch the crims – to the despair of his superiors; messy private life (I’ll say: his girlfriend’s been in a coma for FOUR YEARS. Whaaaat???); and the absolute loyalty and devotion of his team in rural Aberdeenshire, where he has been posted (a demotion? Of course not, merely a ‘development opportunity’. For whom? Certainly not Logan).
Yep, Logan must have trodden on a lot of Brassy toes in the previous books to have been consigned to what is essentially scraping up drunks and druggies off the pavement on Saturday nights, and rounding up stray livestock (any old night). A change of uniform from Detective Inspector to the bullet-proof vest and black T shirt of Police Scotland is a far cry from what he is used to, but he tries to be philosophical about his new circumstances and rounds up drunks, druggies and cows diligently – until the body of a little girl is found in an abandoned swimming pool just outside one of the small towns he polices.
Despite the arrival of a Major Investigation Team, there are no leads as to the identity of the little girl, in fact their enquiries seem to reach a dead end on every front – and the last thing they need is a maverick consigned to the sticks trying to stick his oar in.
Enter Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, Logan’s former partner, proud wife of Susan and mother of a daughter for whom Logan donated the sperm (yes, truly! I wish I’d gotten onto these books sooner, then all these revelations would seem quite normal). Regardless of her various little quirks (she is serially unfaithful) DCI Steel also thinks outside the square, and she needs Logan’s help. Which is not forthcoming, for he has been ordered to stay away from all pending investigations, on pain of dismissal. He has been accused – not entirely without foundation – of wrecking months of other peoples’ investigative work with his under-the-radar methods, so Steel will have to soldier on alone.
This is a great read. Mr MacBride has another more recent anti-hero, detective Ash Henderson in operation (see review below), which is how I was introduced to this latest opus. What makes Mr MacBride’s stories so credible is his skill at writing of the foibles and vagaries of characters so real we can recognise in them people we know – and ourselves. He is a superb storyteller, and lifts crime-writing up several notches with each book. Highly recommended.
A song for the Dying, by Stuart MacBride
As always, I found after starting this story that there was a previous work, ‘Birthdays for the Dead’. Lots of awful things happened in the first book, including the murder of protagonist Detective Ash Henderson’s daughters and his imprisonment for the murder of his brother – a frame up: to say that Ash has had a rough ride is a euphemism of the first order, and at the start of book two there is only one thing on Ash’s mind: revenge.
As this story unfolded I found myself glad that I had missed Book One: the various tragedies that Detective Henderson has to live with are almost too horrible for this craven reader to contemplate; in fact it was all I could do to stop myself from physically recoiling at the gruesomeness of the current plot, let alone roll around in the bloodbath of Plot One – I know, I know, it’s only a story, but I have never been very good at reading about cruelty and sadism, especially when it involves children: it is then that I wish that I was a fan of Mills and Boon.
Having said that, I must also state that I could not put this book down.
Mr MacBride has created a nightmare landscape in the Scottish city of Oldcastle, a classic battleground of good and evil where the goodies are sometimes worse than those who commit the crimes. In his long experience Ash sees the new order of PCness and criminals having – and knowing – their ‘rights’ as an unforgivable delay in the capture of bad guys, and a further erosion of the rights of decent people – the victims. Not that he can do anything about it from Inside, languishing on his trumped-up charges and attending futile meetings of the Parole Board. Until …..
Until he is suddenly released from Jail by the head of a new crime unit established to find a serial killer whom everyone thought had disappeared eight years before, a killer of nurses. Prior to his misfortune, Ash had had some success at investigating the killings and was known for his ability to think laterally. His skills are needed in the latest investigation, for ‘The Inside Man’ has struck again: Oldcastle is in a panic.
There are more twists and turns to this plot than a pretzel, and I admire Mr MacBride’s expertise in keeping all the balls in the air without dropping a single one. I found Detective Ash (despite his obvious bitterness and thirst for blood) to be a lot more credible than most of his counterparts in crime fiction. He is also completely professional, eventually finding the killer – and you’ll never guess, EVER, who it is! – before he goes after the people who put him in prison, which is exactly as it should be. His reluctant team mates – he is a jailbird, after all – are carefully drawn and individual delights, but if I have an ongoing criticism it is this: it rains in Oldcastle ALL THE TIME.
Couldn’t the reader have enjoyed a few rays of sunshine as relief from Mr MacBride’s Shakespearean blasted heath? A little bit of sun never hurt anyone; as it is, we must rely on the warmth and relief of clever, funny dialogue and gallows humour to light up the gloom, and that’s no bad thing; in fact in a story like this it is vital. Highly recommended.