GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2015
The Party Line, by Sue Orr
Nicola Walker has never married, for a variety of reasons. She is now in her mid-fifties and is travelling back to Paeroa, a small town in the central North Island of New Zealand, to attend the funeral of one of the figures of her childhood, Josephine Janssen, who with her taciturn husband Hans were sharemilkers on her parents’ farm in the little farming settlement of Fenward. When Nicky’s parents died, the hardworking Dutch couple stayed on at the farm and eventually bought it, before moving to a retirement village; now, there is only Hans left to start within Nicky a rush of childhood memories from 1972: the year Ian Baxter, a widower, and his daughter Gabrielle came to fill the sharemilker position on neighbour Jack Gilbert’s farm; the year the tight-knit community rose up to protect its own – for better or worse.
Gabrielle Baxter is thirteen going on thirty, precocious and forceful in expressing her opinions about everything. Her mother has just died of brain cancer and Dad’s not managing very well, so she has to be assertive and confident in her decisions: to that end she wears make-up and nail polish, perfume and clothes never before seen in 70’s Fenward – all belonging to her late mother Bridie. Nicky aged twelve has never met such a glamorous creature in her life: it’s as though Gabrielle has suddenly descended from another planet – and she has chosen Nicky for her best friend! - much to the consternation of Nicky’s parents, good upright Catholic members of the small community. They also worship rugby, smokes, a beer or three – and they believe in keeping Fenward’s business in Fenward, even if Jack Gilbert beats and rapes his wife regularly: that’s his business. Everyone turns away from Audrey Gilbert’s bruises, because it is none of theirs.
Ms Orr delights the reader with beautiful little character drawings that personify exactly the traditions and the solidarity of a small farming community bound together by the steel bonds of ‘mateship’ - helping each other out through every season, good or bad – and the prejudice and suspicion engendered by those who don’t fit the mould, like Ian and Gabrielle Baxter, especially when they see injustice and try stop it.
Clearly, Gabrielle’s loud questioning (with Nicky as her reluctant henchman) of the status quo (don’t look, don’t tell) is not something that goes down well with the locals: they do not like a mirror being held up to them, a mirror that shows them to be kind and helpful, but cowardly, small-minded and insular and dominated by the greedy attention paid by everyone to the party line, which everyone in Fenward shares. They love gossip and scandal, but only amongst themselves. Anyway, everyone knows that Audrey Gilbert ‘isn’t the full quid’; can’t be easy being married to someone like her. No, those Baxters are troublemakers: they’ll have to go.
My only criticism of this fine story is that I never did find out what happened to the Baxters or where they went. Nicky’s return to the troubling memories of her girlhood doesn’t tie up the loose ends for every character – nevertheless, Ms Orr has created a superb portrait of a time and a place where ‘two girls tried to do the right thing but nobody else thought the right thing was the right thing to do’. Magic. FIVE STARS.
The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier
Swedish Noir has been at the forefront of thriller writing for the last decade: now, a worthy challenge to its dominance has emerged from France. This is the second novel (the first being Michel Bussi’s ‘After the Crash’) I have read recently that employs all the tried and true elements necessary for the success of Nordic dread; lowering skies, brooding mountains (the Pyrenees), and a labyrinthine plot, solved brilliantly by the archetypal burnt-out detective – but in this case, Martin Servaz is more fallible than usual: he is a lousy shot, and frequently leaves his police weapon in the glovebox of his car when he most needs it; he is constantly on the receiving end of all sorts of criminal attempts on his life and survives only because other people fortuitously appear to rescue him; BUT! His saving grace is what makes every excellent investigator above the norm: an incisive intelligence and intuition and an incomparable ability to think outside the square.
And he certainly needs to after being despatched from Toulouse to the small ski resort town of Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees, there to investigate the killing of …. a horse. A horse?? Yes, but not just any horse – this animal was a thoroughbred belonging to one of the richest men in France, a powerful man who demands answers after his beloved animal was beheaded, then partly flayed before being strung up on a ski-lift. It is a grisly crime, the ultimate in animal abuse, but hardly worthy of the huge numbers of police seconded to investigate – except that Servaz feels that this crime will be the start of worse things to come, especially when his enquiries lead him to a secluded psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the district, jam-packed with any number of likely candidates for the atrocity, if only the building and grounds weren’t as impregnable as Fort Knox.
His worst fears are confirmed when the first human victim is discovered hanging from a bridge, then another is murdered almost in front of his eyes in a carefully engineered trip on another ski lift: his job is getting more impossible by the minute, especially when political pressure is exerted from high places. The longer these crimes remain unsolved, the worse it looks for those in power.
Fair enough – except that the higher-ups aren’t at the coalface, and Servaz and his offsiders are faced with many more questions than answers – until random clues start falling into place, and the eventual shocking outcome reveals villains that no-one could have suspected at the start of the investigation. Which is as it should be: the recipe for a superior thriller/crime novel is that (obviously) the reader shouldn’t figure out the solution until the end, and the pages should turn at a furious rate before one gets there. ‘The Frozen Dead’ ticks all the boxes. There could be a sequel , too, because the most homicidal villain escapes the long arm of the law, so I live in hopes of reading that he gets what he surely deserves in Book #2. FIVE STARS
Career of Evil, by J. K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith
This is Ms Rowling’s third novel involving Private Detective Cormoran Strike, a military investigator until an incident in Afghanistan deprived him of his leg and his chosen career. Now he makes his living investigating civilians, with the able assistance of his P. A. Robin Endacott, and since he had considerable success solving two high-profile murders in his first two adventures (see review below) – much to the anger of the police, who were NOT amused at him stealing their thunder – he and Robin are feeling that their combined talents have made a successful business team.
Until a parcel sent to Robin by courier reveals that instead of pre-ordered wedding bits and bobs (yes, the nuptials with handsome but jerky boyfriend are still planned) a young woman’s leg is in the package, amputated just below the knee, like Strike’s.
Their shock is absolute. Strike is convinced that despite the gruesome parcel being addressed to Robin, it was really meant as a warning for him: at some stage in his military past he has made an enemy, but which one? He can think of at least three men who would hate him enough to destroy him: he has never hid his contempt and outrage at the evil visited on others by the scum of the earth and was delighted to put some of them behind bars; he is convinced that one of the trio is responsible, but which one, and where is the rest of the body?
True to form, once the media have gotten hold of the story Strike’s business takes a nosedive – notoriety has replaced celebrity; all except two of the bread-and-butter clients have headed for the hills, and Strike has no idea how he will continue, much less keep Robin employed, minuscule though her salary is. Robin doesn’t care: she wants to keep working with Strike – this is the best job, the most energising and intriguing work she’s ever done, and despite jerky boyfriend’s thunderous objections, she would do it for nothing, so there!
All they have to do (SO easy-peasy!) is find the killer, now known as the Shacklewell Ripper- there have been more crimes - before he ruins the business and their lives, for a huge professional and personal affection has built up between them: neither wish to lose that – and neither wants to see it for what it really could be.
Ms Rowling takes us through Strike’s and Robin’s tribulations at the perfect pace; the energy never flags and each newly introduced character is true blue, from the auld Scottish biddies in the picturesque North to the dirty crackheads in London squats: she has really hit her straps with ‘Career of Evil’; it is the perfect combination of horror, humour and suspense, leaving us all clamouring for the next episode. FIVE STARS
The Silkworm, by J. K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith
Ms Rowling is getting much better at writing about Muggles. In the second book featuring her private Detective Cormoran Strike and his winsome assistant Robin Ellacott, Rowling/Galbraith hooks the reader in from the very first pages, and despite prose that from time to time is better suited to fruity melodrama and a very convoluted plot, she manages to sweep us all along into the bowels of her story – and bowels play a big part, for a hapless character is deprived of his – to very few people’s dismay.
Cormoran is still untidy, overweight and often sleep-deprived, but since he solved the Landry murder, business is booming to the extent that he can even afford a tiny flat above his office, and Robin at last has enough work to see her through the day – much to her jealous boyfriend’s annoyance; he knows her talents are wasted with Strike and he is furious because she won’t seek a position more commensurate (read higher paying) with her efficiency. There is trouble in paradise! Made all the more difficult because wedding invitations have been posted: they will be man and wife in a matter of weeks, but Robin wants to do the unforgiveable and invite Strike – how COULD she??
Effortlessly, that’s how. Robin admires her boss more than she can say,( or is willing to admit) and she wants him at Her Big Day.
Enter Leonora Quine: she has read of Cormoran’s feats and has decided that he will be the ideal person to find out the whereabouts of her husband Owen, a writer who has managed with no problem at all to alienate everyone, from his publisher to the local grocer with his boorish behaviour: he owes money everywhere, sleeps around and has produced next-to-nothing since his first book. He is a One Hit Wonder but has been trumpeting lately about his latest opus, guaranteed to shut up all the doubters – yes, he’ll show ‘em, those bloody critics who trashed his great writing, pandering instead to other writers, his contemporaries who have been unfairly advantaged over him: he’ll show them!
Unfortunately, he has neglected to inform Leonora of his plans or his whereabouts and she is frantic: apart from the fact that he left her without money (as usual), they have a handicapped daughter who misses her daddy very much. Strike MUST help – even though she has no money to pay him.
Eventually, her husband IS found, disembowelled and ringed by dinner plates as if he were the main course in a grisly meal.
The plot moves thereafter at a headlong pace; Owen Quine had so many enemies in the literary world that Strike doesn’t know who to investigate first – much to the displeasure of the police, who warn him to stay away: they know who the killer is so sod off, Strike!
Once again Ms Rowling has constructed a labyrinthine plot: the reader has to pay attention at all times, but the rewards are great; her characters, from Strike and Robyn to lesser players are enormously engaging; no writer is more acutely observant of the publishing world’s foibles than she, and how well she writes of London, that great, dirty city and its diverse social strata. She has revealed more of Strike’s past, and introduced new family members whom I hope will play a part in the next book. And surely, surely, the tremulous admiration that Robin and Strike feel for each other might grow into something more by Book Three? The boyfriend really is a jerk! Highly recommended.