GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2016
The Soldier’s Curse, by Meg and Tom Keneally
In June 1825 convict Hugh Llewellyn Monsarrat is serving a second sentence in Port Macquarie, New South Wales after being transported from England for fraud and forgery. He knows he should feel grateful that he wasn’t hanged, for the fraud for which he was convicted was impersonating a solicitor, thereby bringing the whole profession into disrepute – despite the irrefutable fact that he represented his clients more conscientiously than a lot of his colleagues.
A combination of unfortunate circumstances and the malice of a particular ‘godly’ personage has seen him lose his rights, hard-won in the growing settlement of Parramatta, for a second time; now he is employed as a clerk for the new Commandant of Port Macquarie, who has been instructed to found a penal outpost in a place considered ideal for convicts to extract timber from the surrounding highlands and an excellent source of lime for the manufacture of bricks.
Monsarrat is a bitter man: his original crime of impersonating a solicitor was brought about as much by knowing that his poor origins prevented his advanced education as much as his conceit at doing the job better than those both educated and lazy – for him the words ‘if only’ are the saddest words in the world. But he takes huge pride in knowing that his peerless copperplate and superb efficiency will always stand him in good stead, especially at present with his new Gaoler, Major Shelborne and his charming young wife Honora. His undoubted talent for his labours earns him small privileges; a separate hut to sleep in and the enjoyment of the inestimable company in the Government House kitchen of housekeeper Mrs Hannah Mulrooney, herself a freed convict (transported to Australia from Ireland originally for stealing butter for her infant child).
Mrs Mulrooney is illiterate, like all poor Irish of her time but her intelligence and shrewdness are without question – and she makes a cup of tea beyond compare; a drink not just hot and satisfying, but a balm for bad and sad moods and the blessed metaphor for the comfort of hearth and home. Mrs Mulrooney’s kitchen is a vital haven for Monsarrat and various others who strive to be in her good books, and the kettle whistling on the hob is music to their ears.
Eventually all is changed by the departure of the Major on an exploratory mission, and the sudden mysterious illness of his young wife who, despite Mrs Mulrooney’s loving care sickens a little more each day, literally wasting before the housekeeper’s horrified eyes. Monsarrat, who has access to the various books and newspapers sent to the Major is shocked to read that a spate of arsenic poisonings in England and Ireland connected with a green-dyed wallpaper seem to have distressing similarities to Mrs Sherborne’s symptoms and while it is true that green wallpaper is being fitted in the Drawing Room surely that is coincidental. Isn’t it?
Until Honora Sherborne dies and Mrs Mulrooney is arrested for her murder: Monsarrat knows with utter certainty that she is innocent, and it is up to him to find out the truth. Who did murder Mrs Shelborne, and why?
The Keneallys have produced a beautifully written account of the early life in a new convict settlement which is now a lovely and bustling tourist destination in Australia. Their protagonists ring true on every page and their research is impressively detailed, but the story’s leisurely pace does not match the action demanded by its plot: having made that dire criticism, this story was still a pleasure to read, and we can look forward to meeting Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney again, for ‘The Soldier’s Curse’ is Book One of a series. FOUR STARS
Dexter is Dead, by Jeff Lindsay
Dexter Morgan, Monster Extraordinaire (and immortalised in an award-winning hit TV series) is in the worst trouble of his twisted life: he is imprisoned – so far without trial, thanks to the machinations of a Detective who regards him as Dog faeces on his shoe – for several murders that he did not commit, including that of his dear, silly wife Rita. (See October 2013 review of ‘Dexter’s Final Cut’ below). He is understandably outraged at this frightful miscarriage of justice: he has committed so many perfect crimes that it is deeply insulting to be charged with killings for which he is (just this once) completely innocent. What is the world coming to??
His situation cannot get any worse, surely – until he receives after an alarmingly long interval a visit from his adoptive sister Detective Sergeant Deborah Morgan who, contrary to his expectations, has not arrived to use her influence to free him – quite the contrary: she doesn’t care if he ROTS in prison! He is vile, unspeakable and only cares for himself (all true; he cannot deny that is a fair assessment of his character, but …. This time he’s innocent!), but what about HIS KIDS!!! Has he forgotten about Rita’s two children and his own little daughter with her? Has he given any thought to them at all??
Of course not. Dexter’s priorities are centred entirely on getting out of the pokey. He has not spared a single thought for their health or welfare: his own is much more important. Fortunately, Deborah is more family-minded, as she scathingly reminds him: she wants him to sign custody papers, then never, EVER contact her or the children again: he is unfit to be in their lives.
Dexter is reeling from this shocking (and cruelly unjustified) attack. How can he possibly think of the children until he is released from these trumped-up charges? At the very least Deborah’s logic is fatally flawed, but if she won’t help him – as she has made painfully clear – then he seems destined to spend a long time in his mini-cell, arranging his toothbrush.
Until ….. until he receives a visit from a lawyer for the rich and infamous, someone he couldn’t possibly afford, who promises to ensure his rapid release from prison: evidence has suddenly come to light (how?) that the arresting paperwork has been tampered with. Dexter is a free man. Oh, joy – there must be a God of some kind after all! But no. Especially when Dexter is collected from the prison gates by his brother Brian, instrumental in gaining Dexter’s release, but also requiring his very urgent help. Dexter has always known that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but anything to do with Brian (a person of equally monstrous urges) usually poses a risk to Dexter’s well-being, not to mention life and limb.
Dexter, as always is right: Brian, hired assassin – ‘best job I ever had!’ – for a notorious Mexican Drug Lord, has offended his employer and is now on the run; he needs Dexter’s undoubted expertise at enemy removal to help rub them all out. What’s not to like about that job description for dark, daring, deadly Dexter (who loves alliteration) and badass brother Brian. They are going to have SUCH fun!
And they do, until Dexter’s children are kidnapped by the Drug Lord and Deborah demands that he resume his fatherly duties and ‘do what he does best’: rescue the kids and finish every one of the f*ckers off. As painfully as possible.
So he does; he, Brian and Deborah, that unholy trio of vigilantes go to the children’s rescue knowing that survival for all of them is slim or non-existent, and I have to say that Dexter’s demise is a sad day for crime fiction. I still can’t believe that this excellent series is finally at an end, for Jeff Lindsay has created the perfect anti-hero in Dexter Morgan; brilliant, witty, wise (let us not forget handsome!) and monstrously homicidal. Dexter’s millions of fans are going to miss him – me too: I can’t believe he’s gone. FIVE STARS
Dexter’s Final Cut, by Jeff Lindsay
Ah, Dexter. Dark disciple of drastic solutions to dreadful problems; lover of alliteration; pseudo-pillar of society, proud possessor of wife and ready-made family and respected blood-spatter expert for the Miami Dade Police Department: could the latest book in this excellent series be Dexter’s final, fatal foray into murder and mayhem?
OK, I’ll stop right there with my attempts at alliteration – they’re not a patch on Mr Lindsay’s, but I do hope that this won’t be the final Dexter adventure. If a cold-blooded, relentlessly efficient and remorseless killer can endear himself to millions of readers, then anti-hero Dexter is a riotous success, a total knock-out - because he’s funny. And brilliant. And up until now, entirely unable to feel any emotional response to anyone he knows, including his family.
When this story begins Dexter is just boogying along in the same old groove, going to work, going home to the family, and sometimes departing from the norm with late night trips to find a ‘playmate’, someone who has committed a terrible crime for which he cannot be punished by the law – until Dexter decides that it is time for the miscreant to sin no more.
Life is uneventful, until a new TV crime series starts filming in Miami, and Dexter and his grumpy sister Detective sergeant Deborah Morgan are seconded as technical advisers to the production, Deborah being the ‘inspiration’ for TV star Jackie Forrest’s character, and Dexter’s expertise in forensics as a guide for Robert Chase, former megastar who is nearing his use-by date. Needless to say, the novelty of explaining his work to his handsome but dim pupil palls very quickly for Dexter; besides, Robert (call me Robert, not Bob) doesn’t seem to have the stomach for the latest grisly murder, that of a young woman found savaged, raped and carved up in a dumpster. Robert’s definitely a workplace hindrance but one that Dexter has to cart around like a large colicky baby – then another young woman is found, defiled in the same heinous way and disposed of in another dumpster, and when the third blonde corpse is discovered it becomes obvious that the beautiful Jackie Forrest has a stalker, one who is killing women who resemble her, and he states that she will be next.
Dexter, much against his wishes is nominated to be her bodyguard for the duration of the shoot; wife Rita and children are told by Deborah that he is away on highly secret business and Dexter moves into Jackie Forrest’s luxury hotel suite. Here the reader could be forgiven for expecting the action to proceed in an orderly predictable fashion, with Dexter, happy murderous beast that he is, finding and despatching the stalker in his usual efficient and clandestine way before Ms Forrest is attacked – or at a pinch, even after a nail-biting confrontation occurs – from which she is rescued, of course.
Mr Lindsay shocks us all with the direction of the plot, for the unthinkable happens more than once: Dexter discovers that his raisin of a heart is not completely dry – he starts to experience feelings. And because these alien emotions confound him he is not his usual sharp, analytical self. He makes several crucial mistakes, errors which have the reader screeching ‘For God’s sake, Dexter – pull yourself together. Man up!’ But he doesn’t. When the story ends he is fathoms deep in the darkest ordure ever, with no obvious way up, facing punishment for crimes that he didn’t commit. Is Dexter doomed? Will he survive to kill another day?
I can’t imagine that Mr Lindsay would pay any heed to the writer of a Library blog in far-off Hobbitland and her pleas for Dexter adventure # 8, but what about all the other millions of Dexter fans out there? It will be all Mr Lindsay’s fault if they get in a sulk, for he has created an unforgettable character in Dexter and his Dark Passenger, so much so that his literary demise is unimaginable. I have no realistic idea how Mr Lindsay can resurrect Dexter from his impossible predicament, but I have faith. I hope he doesn’t leave him in the shite for too long, though; Dexter’s fastidiousness is legendary and the suspense will kill me! FIVE STARS
Girl waits with Gun, by Amy Stewart
This action-packed account of the Misses Kopp’s attempts in 1914 to rid themselves of the fatal attentions of the Black Hand gang in New Jersey is all based on real events – even the newspaper accounts in the book are reproduced as printed at the time, but Amy Stewart has given us living, breathing embodiments of Constance, Norma and Fleurette Kopp, three unmarried sisters who live on their late mother’s remote farm outside Paterson. Constance, the eldest is six feet tall and strapping with it; she is thirty-five and is not interested in the domestic life expected of women of the day; nor is her sister Norma, several years younger but happiest in the country away from city noise and bustle; only the youngest sister Fleurette who, at seventeen wishes to experience all the joys cities promise is a girl of her time, despite being tutored at home by her mother and sisters, and sheltered as much as possible.
Fleurette is pretty, vivacious, winsome and as tiny as her sisters are the opposite; they know that eventually she will fly the coop but until then they hope to keep her protected from a hurtful world for as long as they can – until that world intrudes one day on their trip to Paterson for supplies: one of those new-fangled automobiles drives into their buggy, destroying it and frightening the sisters (not to mention their horse!) to bits, then adding insult to injury the portly drunken driver and his friends have the nerve to tell them to get out of the way – the collision was THEIR fault because their horse spooked!
The patent unfairness riles Constance and the crowd of onlookers: in the interests of fair play she requests that the person pay for the cost of destroying their buggy, and when he smirks at his mates and attempts to get back in his car, she sets in train the nightmare events to follow by herself acting the heavy: wrenching the door out of his hands, towering over him (not hard, he’s pretty short) and threatening him with the law if he does not reveal his identity so that she can furnish him with an invoice.
Sadly for the Kopp sisters, they have made an enemy of a ‘Silk man’, Henry Kaufman, whose family owns silk mills that employ a lot of people. Constance’s humiliating stand-over tactics witnessed by his disreputable mates and a huge crowd of bystanders are too much for Kaufman to forget: a bloody revenge against all three sisters is the only solution that will satisfy him, and he has the money and connections to achieve it.
Ms Stewart has reconstructed historical events superbly; her prose is as plain and no-nonsense as Constance herself, and the Kopp sisters’ origins while exotic to the point of fiction, are well-documented as fact, including a huge secret that drove the family from Brooklyn in the first place. It is one thing to write convincingly of events that occurred a century ago; it is quite another to bring the era and its characters so thrillingly to life. FIVE STARS