Saturday, 22 February 2020

Down the River Unto the Sea, by Walter Mosley.

           Walter Mosley has a huge body of work to his name and, as always, I have been shamefully ignorant of his accomplishments until now:  his stand-alone novel featuring brilliant, world-weary and jaded Afro/American Private Investigator Joe King Oliver follows all the rules of classic crime fiction as laid down by Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler et al, but lends a 21st century perspective to crimes and corruption as old as civilisation itself.
            Joe wasn’t always a PI;  he used to be a hot-shot, ambitious Detective in the New York Police Department, until he was mercilessly framed by anonymous colleagues:  he was unwittingly getting too close to some of their horrifying scams and he needed to be removed from the scene.  This involved luring Joe into the embrace of a beautiful, supposedly wronged woman whom he was sent to arrest and he was videoed by hidden cameras used to provide ‘evidence’ when she screamed RAPE.  He was incarcerated for several months in the infamous Rikers prison;  his wife could have bailed him out, but was shown the ‘rape’ video by colleagues supposedly meant to be his friends;  now his marriage is in ruins;  he is irreparably damaged by his time in Rikers, not to mention physically scarred and, if it hadn’t been for one of his old work mates who set him up as a PI, he would be on the streets:  his life is one big grudge – except for the existence of his teenage daughter, literally the light of his life.
            She works for him after school as his receptionist and one afternoon ushers in a young woman on a mission:  Willa is a lawyer who has recently been working for attorney Stuart Braun, who has been crusading with great fanfare to free black radical activist Leonard Compton.  Compton killed two police officers he said were drugging and trafficking young, poor women and he is now on Death Row, but Braun’s zeal and enthusiasm to appeal for justice seems to have waned:  he is no longer interested in the case.  Could Joe read through the files she has brought and consider finding out what happened to make Braun lose interest?
            And Joe does, embarking on a dangerous, almost fatal journey to dig through layers of corruption so thick he thinks he’ll never reach the bottom – until he does, starts to ascend and realises that he’s climbing into the heights of wealth, gentility – and power. 
            Mr Mosley’s story is well-constructed, smart, funny and peopled with great characters, including a spectacularly evil man who is thoroughly engaging and charges Joe a dollar for all the mayhem he alone can create (he owes Joe a favour from long ago).  For lovers of Crime Noir (and there are so many of us) he cain’t be beat!  FIVE STARS.      

Monday, 10 February 2020

Silver, by Chris Hammer.

           Chris Hammer’s second crime novel is a sequel to ‘Scrublands’, his epic, page-turning tale of drought, bush fires and murder in a remote little town in Australia’s New South Wales (reviewed January 2019):  now he follows it up with ‘Silver’, a sequel blessed with all the elements that made ‘Scrublands’ so successful – strong characters, marvellous evocations of time and place, and shrewd journalistic assessments of Australian reaction to foreign investment on a federal and local government level.
            Sacked journo Martin Scarsden is once again the main protagonist;  he is joining his new love, Mandy Blonde and her baby son Liam in Port Silver on the NSW coast.  Mandy has inherited a large property there and she thinks it’s the perfect place for a new start for them all – time to put the horrific events of the past year in their proper place:  behind them.  The only problem is that Martin hasn’t been completely honest with Mandy:  unbeknownst to her, he was born in Port Silver and when he was eight, suffered the terrible loss of his mother and twin sisters in an accident;  then he had to watch his father drink himself to death.  The day Martin left Port Silver was the happiest day of his life, and he doesn’t know how he will settle back into normal living (doing what?  He is no longer a journalist) when he has so many ghosts to haunt him.
            Their new life is off to a very shaky start, he thinks – until he calls round to the townhouse Mandy has rented, only to find her with hands bloodied, shaking with terror, and a stabbed and dying man stretched out in her hallway.  To make a horrendous situation even worse, Martin recognises the victim as that of his old school friend Jasper Speight who, presumably, had called round particularly to see Martin:  he had damning evidence of local corruption and wanted Martin to investigate.  Now he is dead and Mandy, of all people, is a suspect.  The situation could not get any worse, thinks Martin, and God hears that and laughs.
            Mr Hammer has written a big novel – some 560 pages – and it’s chock-full of minor characters and situations, a lot of which feels like unnecessary padding:  there are more murders and even more suspects:  when the final unveiling is flourished I have to say that it’s almost an anti-climax.  It’s true that I never suspected whodunnit, but I nearly drowned with all the red herrings.  Having said that, ‘Silver’ is still a fine, suspenseful read.  (You just have to have strong wrists!)  FOUR STARS. 

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood.

            It has been thirty five years since Margaret Atwood’s brilliant Dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published, a tiresomely lengthy time for her myriad fans to wait for answers to What Happened Next to the Handmaid Offred and her precious children:  now, our curiosity has been satisfied by Ms Atwood at her most sublime:  ‘The Testaments’ has it all - a gripping plot, magnificent characters, and a heroine who was forced into villainy but redeems herself utterly:  Vengeance, Thy Name is …..  nope, no spoilers in THIS blog!
            This book was worth waiting 35 years for, especially after the wonderful TV series. It centres on Offred’s daughters – Agnes Jemima, who started life in freedom as Hannah before a calamitous Civil War transformed the United States into Gilead, and Baby Nicole, Offred’s child of bondage in the new totalitarian society, planned to be given to ‘pretend’ parents, Fred and Serena Waterford to raise. 
Agnes remains in unhappy thrall to her Gilead parents;  her loving first ‘mother’ Tabitha has died and her ‘father’ Commander Kyle wastes no time in taking another wife, who wants Agnes out of the house, and the best way to achieve that is – marriage.  Marriage to the elderly but immensely powerful Commander Judd, who enjoys a worrying propensity for very young wives, all of whom eventually become sickly and die.
            Agnes’s fate appears to be sealed, until in desperation she applies to Aunt Lydia, one of the Founders, to be an Aunt, a so-called guardian of the various classes of women in Giladean society.  It is not an ideal fate;  she will never have children, the sacred destiny of all Gilead women, but at least she will still be alive.
            By contrast, her unknown little sister Baby Nicole has been abducted from her pious family and spirited off to Canada, where she becomes Daisy and grows up with foster parents, unaware of her origins and in an atmosphere of freedom unimaginable to any Gilead inhabitant – until her foster parents are cruelly murdered by those over the border who have never stopped looking for Baby Nicole.  It’s time for Daisy to grow up, and return to Gilead – not as Baby Nicole but as Jade, a homeless street kid who wants God in her life:  she has had a crash course as a spy and is expected to bring back vital information from an important inside source to American revolutionary groups in Canada – if she can pull it off.
            Ms Atwood pulls it off in spades.  This is an astonishing, masterly sequel to her most famous and beloved novel, and is a fitting testament to today’s 21st century ‘democracy’.  SIX STARS.