MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2017
A Dark so Deadly, by Stuart MacBride
Callum is being investigated by a disciplinary committee on a fictional bribery charge; his live-in girlfriend is due to have their baby in two weeks; his precious privates have been squeezed to a pulp by a fleeing criminal, and two feral children from a particularly noxious part of the city have stolen his wallet, dropped in his pursuit of the aforementioned fleeing criminal. His day surely couldn’t get worse – could it?
Never think such thoughts while God’s listening: when Callum eventually drags his wounded pride and body back to GHQ, it is to find that he has a new partner whether he wants one or not, DC Franklin, a beautiful black woman transferred from the South because she assaulted her boss. And she assaulted her boss because he grabbed her backside; he was just a sexist pig, and she’ll do the same again to the next grabber if she has to. Get the picture?
Yep, loud and clear. All Callum wants to do is go home to be tenderly looked after by his beloved, but before he leaves he must endure various remarks about his ineptitude – delivered haiku-style – by his boss DI MacAdams, himself in the Misfit Mob because he is dying of bowel cancer, and MacAdams’s offsider DI Malcolmson, currently recovering from a heart attack. Yes, everyone in their sorry little band has a story to tell, but it doesn’t stop them from longing to be back in the action again, doing REAL police work. If only…….
A capricious God decides to grant their collective wish: mummified remains are found in a landfill, followed by the discovery of two more ‘mummies’, one in the boot of an abandoned car, the other on the coffee table in the flat of an ex-felon who drowned in the river in his attempts to flee from police: the Misfit Mob is a-tremble with delight and anticipation – until they find that the clues they so eagerly pursue lead to the cleverest dead ends ever. The more they investigate, the less they find.
This is a mighty book, in weight, size (596 pages) and scope: there are plenty more shocks ahead for Callum, especially on a personal level and none of them are good, for Callum was deserted by his family as a child and bought up ‘in care’; he unearths clues from his past that he would rather not know, and evildoers that he thought he had forgotten forever. Meantime, the Mummies lie in the morgue, silently waiting for their murderer to be revealed, and I defy ANYONE to figure out Who Done It. Mr MacBride’s plotting is intricate and masterful and his characters are, as always, honest and entirely credible. I am unsure if this latest book is stand-alone or the introduction to a new series, as in the Logan Macrae novels (see review below); either way it was unputdownable, despite its weight. FIVE STARS
In the Cold Dark Ground, by Stuart MacBride
Logan Balmoral MacRae is back, and about time, too, I say! In the tried and true genre of Crime fiction – you know; burnt-out detectives with shattered private lives but an uncanny knack for solving the most difficult crimes – well, Burn-Out Logan makes his recent experience of demotion to Police Sergeant in a small but dreary town in North East Scotland entirely credible. Yes, he – and his team of fellow reprobate law-enforcers - all suffer from varying degrees of exhaustion and burn-out, but policing anywhere is a tough job: someone has to do it and they’ve put their hands up. More fools them.
Not much has changed since Logan’s last appearance in ‘The Missing and the Dead’, except to worsen: his beloved girlfriend Samantha has been in a coma for five years (truly!). She will never wake and he has been told by hospital staff that it is time to say goodbye, a situation he has been dreading and shying away from even though his rational mind knows it is inevitable. Another death is imminent: wee Hamish Mowat, crime boss supreme of Aberdeen is in the terminal stages of cancer. In a last conversation with Logan, wee Hamish informs him that he wishes Logan to take control of his empire for he knows that upon his death all the other crime lords from near and far will be circling like vultures, ready to break up his ‘life’s work’: he is convinced that Logan (despite the fact that he is a Police Officer – how I wish I’d read all those earlier books!) will be the only one strong enough to hold it all together. All this under the homicidally jealous eye of Reuben, the Reubenator, wee Hamish’s wing man who has the intimidatory strength to keep things going – but not the brains. Reuben hates Logan, and Logan knows it is only a matter of time before the Reubenator mounts an attack.
He is almost relieved when a conventional murder rears its ugly head: a man’s naked body is found in the woods, hands bound behind his back and a rubbish bag taped over his head. Despite the classic imitation of a local gangland-style killing, Logan is not convinced that the Bad Guys actually did this – for once, they are innocent – of this crime, anyway, and when the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen (still run by his old boss and friend – and proud lesbian – DCI Steel) mounts an investigation, his suspicions prove to be correct.
Sadly, Logan’s week from Hell doesn’t end there: he is also asked by the Police Internal Professional Standards division to covertly investigate DCI Steel: there is suspicion that she manufactured evidence to send a sexual predator and rapist to jail. As much as everyone abhors his crimes (for which he was never convicted) Scottish justice has to be SEEN to be done: who better to investigate Roberta Steel, than her trusted friend and confidante, the turkey-baster father of her children, Logan Balmoral MacRae. Yes, let’s add betrayal to the list of Logan’s Lousy Week.
Last but not least, a new Superintendent from the Serious Organised Crime Task Force is visiting and seems have taken an inexplicable and irrational dislike to him, thus making his life doubly miserable. Could anything else go wrong? Well, of course it can and it does, at a breakneck pace that this reader could barely stand – I wanted to yell ‘Slow down, slow down!!’ – and all because I didn’t want this mighty episode in the hapless (but not entirely hopeless) life and times of Logan to end. Stuart MacBride is a storyteller Extraordinaire, a superb wordsmith who is in the enviable position of being unable to write fast enough to supply his readers’ demands. FIVE STARS
A Necessary Evil, by Abir Mukherjee
Book Two of Abir Mukherjee’s series recounting the adventures of Captain Sam Wyndham of the Calcutta branch of the British Imperial Police Force and his trusty ‘native’ sidekick Surendranath Banerjee (called Surrender-not because his name is far too difficult for a chap to pronounce) is off to a flying start when the two men are asked to attend in their official capacity a vitally important meeting of the most rich and powerful state rulers and the top administrators of the British Raj. Surrender-not’s invitation to attend is on the strength of his boyhood acquaintance with Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai of Sambalpore – they both attended Harrow – and it is felt by the Viceroy that a familiar native face may soften the initial stance the Prince has taken, which is a reluctance to follow the Raj line of economic thinking.
Prince Adhir recognises his old school friend immediately, calling Surrender-not ‘my dear Bunty!’ to ‘Bunty’s’ huge embarrassment and Wyndham’s glee, and proposes that they leave the boring ceremonies and drive to his hotel: there is a troubling matter he wishes to discuss and as they are renowned police officers, he feels that his meeting with them today is indeed a sign from God.
But as all will know, God moves in mysterious ways: on a very circuitous drive back to the hotel to avoid a huge religious procession, the Prince is assassinated by a Hindu Holy man who eventually makes his escape in the crowds of devotees. Wyndham and Surrender-not are horrified and appalled to think that such a crime could happen RIGHT UNDER THEIR NOSES, and both are determined to bring the killer to justice. Easier said than done.
Their trip to Sambalpore for the Prince’s funeral reveals secrets and biases that should never have seen the light of day: it is a well-known fact that the British would never approve a liaison between a white man and a ‘native’ woman (thus producing despised Anglo-Indian children), but congress between a white woman and an Indian, particularly a PRINCE, cannot be countenanced. The threat of such a union must be removed by the most permanent means possible: a trip to the funeral pyre. But WHO has given the order to kill? As more is revealed, the path to the truth becomes murkier.
Surrender-not is a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste; he has always been familiar with the extremes of Hindu society, its savagery and beauty: consequently he is more sanguine than Wyndham who is predictably appalled by what he discovers – possibly because he lusts after a beautiful Anglo-Indian woman called Annie Grant, and knows that he shouldn’t because he’s British.
Mr Mukherjee does an excellent line in witty dialogue and smart characterisation, through which he paints a colourful and three-dimensional portrait: that of a colonial power nearing the end of its ability to subdue an ancient people who are starting to believe in themselves again. Despite perfunctory treatment of some initially intriguing characters, I still look forward with pleasure to Book Three: I feel sure that by then Sam Wyndham will have discarded enough of his prejudices to see Surrender-not as his friend – not just his trusted ‘native’ sergeant. FOUR STARS.
A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee
Now. Here’s a Whodunit with a difference – the setting, for a start: the great British-established capital of Bengal, Calcutta, in 1919; a time when the sun had not yet set on the great British Empire, but the twilight is lowering as objections and unrest fomented by that seemingly innocuous little lawyer Mohandas Ghandi are starting to be felt.
Into this gathering disquiet arrives First World War veteran Captain Samuel Wyndham, recruited from Scotland Yard by Commissioner Lord Taggart, head of the Imperial Police Force in Bengal. Taggart hopes that Wyndham’s superior Detective skills will expose those shadowy beings who are bent on sabotage, sedition and terrorist acts in a bid to drive the British from India, and the situation is worsened by the discovery of the body of a burra sahib, a British civil servant of high standing lying in the gutter outside a Calcutta brothel with his throat cut.
A speedy solving of the crime is required ASAP, especially to demonstrate to ‘those natives’ that British Law and Order reigns supreme, and is executed with accurate and unswerving efficiency: Wyndham is expected to find the perpetrator post-haste, despite less than stellar backup from his new colleagues, a white sub-inspector called Digby, already sulking because he feels Wyndham’s job should be his; and a ‘native’ Sergeant, Surendranath Banerjee, called ‘Surrender-not’ because it is easier to say. Digby is also scathing of the reason Banerjee has a position in the police force, stating contemptuously in the Sergeant’s presence: ‘Sergeant Banerjee, is, apparently, one of the finest new additions to His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force and the first Indian to post in the top three in the entrance examinations. He and his ilk’, continues Digby, ‘are the fruits of this government’s policy of increasing the number of natives in every branch of the administration, God help us.’
Which Wyndham finds is a telling example of the Raj’s opinion of the people it rules. After having survived the cauldron of trench warfare, his feelings towards the ‘natives’ are ambivalent; besides, he has secret shortcomings of his own to conquer and sorrows that refuse to stay buried. He hopes he can survive his past experiences and present alien surroundings, not least because the deeper he probes into the burra sahib’s murder, the more obstacles are thrown in his way, as in a spectacular lack of co-operation from his supposed colleagues in British Military intelligence, a severe beating administered by thugs employed by same, and an almost successful attempt on his own life – by whom?
Mr Mukherjee writes with great verve and humour. His characters for the most part ring true, but he can’t resist going for the florid and torrid approach when he reveals the identity of The Murderer: the Villain has centre stage for more time than is strictly necessary to explain How, Why and Where hedunit; in fact I think the only reason he didn’t twirl his moustaches at the end was an oversight by the author. But!
This is Mr Mukherjee’s debut novel, and the first of a series. I am sure it will succeed because of the time in which it is set, and Mr Mukherjee’s intelligent and reasoned analysis of events exposing the jingoistic approach of the Raj, perpetuated in literature and deed by all those burra sahibs, those ‘Rising Men’ whose rule created the reason for their expulsion. FOUR STARS.