Monday 17 June 2024

 

The Unwanted Dead, by Chris Lloyd (Book One)

Paris Requiem, by Chris Lloyd (Book Two)








    
     

          I have just read these books back-to-back and, amazingly, in the right sequence:  I am very proud of myself!  And happy to report that Crime Writer Chris Lloyd has produced a new, different burnt-out Detective.  Different because the First World War was the reason for his burn-out and, instead of returning to the French city of Perpignan to manage and inherit his parents’ book shop, Eddie Giral feels more of use battling – and sometimes winning – against ordinary criminals instead of the monstrous warmongers who ordered young men to legally murder each other.

            It is June, 1940, and the German Occupation has begun. Paris, the City of Light, is swathed in smoke and ashes and the only mobile traffic belongs to the German troops;  they are also the only patrons of the many Jazz clubs of Paris, and the local criminals are rubbing grubby hands together at the thought of relieving these young boys of their francs and anything else they can get:  times are hard – we’re all in this together, mates!  And Eddie agrees – up to a point, which is tested when he is called to the main railway yard to investigate the discovery of four bodies in a wagon who have been suffocated to death by the very nerve gas that killed so many of his friends:  who would do such a thing and why, especially as it is revealed that the men were Polish refugees hoping to flee the city before the Germans marched in.  They paid someone money to help them escape, but who?  And the more Eddie digs, the more is revealed about crimes of mass murder in Poland of innocent villagers buried in mass graves.  Who is going to bring this horror to the world’s attention, hopefully bringing the USA into the World fray, not to mention rumours of Jewish persecution beginning to surface?

            Paris Requiem starts a few months later;  the great city is full of thin grey ghosts, for rationing and coupons have started and no-one is getting enough to eat – except the German Occupiers.  Needless to say, they don’t have to queue for hours for a piece of bacon rind or a baguette, nor do they have to eke out for days whatever they were lucky enough to purchase.  Eddie is particularly irked by the delicious food left lying in his presence by his current nemesis, Major Hochstetter of the Abwehr, German Intelligence.  Major Hochstetter is particularly intrigued – as is Eddie – by the fact that a murder victim found in a closed nightclub was serving a two-year jail sentence:  Eddie remembers the case well, for he put him there!  Now he has to investigate his particularly grisly end.

            As a writer, Chris Lloyd is a bit rough around the edges;  he uses contemporary expressions which are out of keeping with the time, but he has created a very fine hero in Eddie, one who is weighed down by all the sorrow of what might have been, the estrangement from his family, the terrible randomness of one’s fate, but still he battles on with a suicidal fearlessness to right wrongs as he sees them, Hochstetter be damned!  FIVE STARS.  

Thursday 6 June 2024

 

Fox Creek, by William Kent Krueger.


 

            Yet again, I have driven myself mad by starting at the latest book in a series, instead of at the beginning – I have to say that I didn’t realise that I had picked up the newest book in the Cork O’Connor series, BUT!

            I am so glad I did.  William Kent Krueger has signposted clearly and concisely for new readers major events that have gone before in his series, and he is such a fine writer that ‘Fox Creek’ reads almost like a stand-alone novel, but for his obvious affection for his characters – and what characters they are:  in the main First Nations people who live in various small reservations or towns in Minnesota, a State that borders Canada and in this story, the scene of the disappearance of a successful First Nations lawyer, and the pursuit of his frantic and worried wife by unknown mercenaries.  They have already approached Cork O’Connor for information as to her whereabouts, for Cork now operates as a Private Detective – when he’s not flipping burgers. 

            And he’s astute and experienced enough as an investigator to know that nothing about these men is likely to benefit the woman if they find her, and when he discovers that she has visited ancient tribal Healer Henry Meloux for information and guidance and that Rainy, his own precious Healer wife is ‘assisting with enquiries’, he knows that this will be a life and death pursuit,  for the mercenaries have a brilliant tracker guiding them, a man almost as clever as Henry himself.  Can Cork track down these mystery pursuers and find his loved ones before innocent blood is spilled in Minnesota’s pristine forests, or will the mercenaries find and eliminate them first:  for Cork it hardly bears thinking about, and the reader is right with him, every hard step of the way – and just as horrified and repulsed when the mercenaries’ real reason for the pursuit is revealed.

            William Kent Krueger is a masterly writer:  a master of suspense, and a master wordsmith for the still-pristine environment of North America – and its underdogs, those who are still ready to lay down their lives for the Land.  SIX STARS

           

 

             

Sunday 26 May 2024

 

All the Words We Know, by Bruce Nash.

           

  
         
Rose has dementia.  She is in her eighties and lives in a Rest Home – sorry, Aged Care Facility and spends her days on her walker, patrolling the corridors of the building checking on the other occupants.  And the staff, particularly the Angry Nurse (so named, when Rose can remember, because she seems to have a very short fuse where other staff members are concerned) and the Care Manager, who seems in Rose’s more lucid moments, anything but.  In fact he seems to spend a lot of time in his office talking ‘finance’ with Rose’s son, who seems to be ‘Resetting’ and ‘Retrenching’ Rose’s Rest Home affairs, for he has her Power of Eternal, though she confesses to her wheelchair-bound friend in the room next door that she has no idea what he does with it.

            And speaking of her friend, why is she sprawled on her back in the carpark, two floors down?  How could she have gotten out of her chair, let alone onto the windowsill, then launched herself into space?  And by the looks on the faces of the gathering crowd below, they are all wondering the same thing:  Did she fall, or was she pushed?  Which is exactly what Rose is asking herself whenever that phrase enters her mind only to depart just as quickly, especially as she ends up being shifted from her lovely room with a view of the garden (so many memories, if only she can keep hold of them!) to her friend’s room with nothing to look at but the carpark.

            Things have to change, thinks Rose, before the thought skitters away, but she has to enlist help from others whose memories are more reliable, like the Nice Trans Boy Who Mops the Floors, and the other resident Who Doesn’t Live Here, before she becomes the next victim.  (That’ll teach her to say ‘Im not afraid of you!’ to the Angry Nurse, for Rose is afraid, very afraid).

            And when Rose is not frightened, she reflects on her son and daughter, dutifully visiting day after day with her granddaughters who have the fastest cell-phone thumbs in the universe;  what good children they are to care about an old lame-brain like her, and how she wished she’d been a better mum when it counted, instead of the selfish cow that she actually was.

            Life is full of regrets, but Paul Nash has given us a gem of a character with which to explore them and the wrong end of life – and she cheats shamelessly at Scrabble:  Zbtosmty.  That is really a word - Rose will swear to it!  FIVE STARS.   

Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Hunter, by Tana French.

 

            Tana French – Thank you!  It’s about time that we had a sequel to ‘The Searcher’, her spellbinding story of seething, age-old enmities in the tiny village of Ardnakelty, new home of ex-Chicago detective Cal Hooper.  He has been a resident of the village for two years now and in that time has made some firm friends of the locals, has Lena, a ‘lady friend’ (a fact that the village rumour-mill reports on with all the alacrity of a Sunday tabloid), and a foster-daughter, Trey, to whom he is teaching his considerable knowledge of carpentry and furniture restoration.  Life is pretty damn fine, thank you – until a bad apple turns up to taint the barrel.

            Trey’s dad Johnny returns to Ardnakelty, much to the amazement and horror of his deserted wife and children, and Trey as the eldest, is furious that he can just swan back to his tumbledown home as though he’d never left, this time bringing a posh British mate with him, who is very fascinated with his Irish roots – ‘yes, his dear old Granny came from Ardnakelty, and with her she brought tales of Gold in Them Thar Hills’, and pretty soon Johnny has stirred up everyone with tales of gold-bearing seams on their farmland, if only they’d like to invest with him and his posh mate.  And people seem to fall for it, to Cal’s amazement – but as the weeks pass and Trey’s dad talks faster and faster with less success, the ugly side of Ardnakelty begins to reveal itself:  threats both veiled and plain are made if Johnny’s scheme doesn’t show a profit soon, but what’s most troubling to Cal is that Trey seems to be at the heart of them – on purpose. 

            It becomes very obvious that Trey wants her father gone – by any means necessary, and she’s smart enough to orchestrate proceedings:  Cal and Lena find that they have to get up awfully early in the morning to be ahead of her to avert a tragic outcome, for Ardnakelty is a pagan force unto itself;  old crimes and grudges are never forgotten and a 15 year-old must not be allowed to sacrifice herself on an altar of hatred and revenge.

            Ms French as always dazzles us all with her warts-and-all depictions of village life, her lyrical descriptions of breathtaking country, and her singular characters, from Bobby Feeney who believes in aliens to Mart Lavin, Cal’s neighbour who also seems to be the Ringmaster of Threatening Events:  someone does die, but the victim and killer are a complete surprise – as they should be.  And the Craic is first-class, so!  SIX STARS. 

Monday 6 May 2024


 

 

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett.

              Tom Lake is not a person, but a place – a place that was known as Tom’s Lake, until people’s love of abbreviation shortened it.  It was a small community on the northern shores of Lake Michigan, renowned for its summer stock performances, perfect venues for up-and-coming young actors to make their mark and go on to greater things – or fade out under the relentless competition.

            It’s also a place of memories, both wonderful and awful, as Lara Wilson works with her daughters picking cherries on their fruit farm forty years later;  they are all back home for the summer – and the pandemic:  the farm is horrendously short-staffed as all their usual pickers are in lockdown, and Lara’s beloved girls have all returned to spend lockdown with their parents, and are now demanding a story of Lara’s past, that summer she spent at Tom Lake starring – yes, STARRING! – in Our Town by Thornton Wilder opposite Peter Duke, now a world-famous movie and TV actor. The fact that she used to date him has been a never-ending source of delight to the girls, always up for a good story since childhood:  cherry-picking is hard, monotonous work and they need a diversion.

            And this story is indeed diverting.  Lara is a truthful woman and has censored very little in her retelling of her romance with Peter Duke, the Unknown Actor, for whom she fell so wildly in love at the age of twenty-four, ‘that it felt like falling off the roof at midnight.’  But she didn’t share everything with her curious girls, especially his desire to experience fully every sensation and emotion on offer, and his penchant for self-destruction – or the particularly cruel and casual end to their sizzling affair, or how the events at Tom Lake eventually put an end to her own nascent acting career.

            Ms Patchett has created an ode to love in all its forms noble and otherwise, with characters to match:  it was absurdly easy for this reader to fall under Peter Duke’s spell, and her lesser characters are little works of art.  A vein of humour flows through the drama like a welcome drink, and it was very hard to say goodbye to Lara and her lovely daughters – and Tom Lake.  SIX STARS.    

Wednesday 24 April 2024

 

Horse, by Geraldine Brooks.

 


            Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks has excelled herself yet again with ‘Horse’, her novelised true story of America’s greatest racing stallion Lexington, illustrious sire of future generations of champions, and an essential and integral ancestor almost lost to history.  Were it not for the efforts of determined academics who were relentless in their detective work following up the clues leading from the forgotten equine skeleton labelled ‘horse’ in the attic of the Smithsonian, one of America’s finest museums, and researching the provenance of several obscure equine paintings found in unlikely places, Lexington would have remained unsung and unheralded still, and his marvellous genetic history lost, not to mention the turbulent historical significance of the times in which he lived and flourished, the 1850”s and 60’s.

            Ms Brook has reimagined that time with her usual skill:  from the time Lexington was foaled in Kentucky in 1850 he was personally cared for by Warfield’s Jarret, a young slave whose father was Doctor Warfield’s chief trainer, so essential that Dr. Warfield allowed him to buy his freedom and currently, Jarret’s father is saving to buy Jarret’s freedom, too.  The ugly face of slavery is not so evident on Warfield’s farm if one is a successful trainer of thoroughbreds and his son is following reliably in his father’s footsteps, but when the brilliant new colt is eventually sold, Jarret is sold along with him, and he and Lexington have some bitter experiences – and some great adventures, for Lexington proves his brilliance time and again:  both have such a bond that they are inseparable until one of them dies:  it is up to the modern researchers, Theo, a Nigerian Art Historian and Jess, an Australian scientist working at the Smithsonian, to join the clues and reconstruct the history, especially of the shattering impact of the Civil War and the emancipation of all those enslaved and Sold South.  Tragically for Theo and Jess, it is patently clear that racism is still alive, well and flourishing one hundred and fifty years later:  racism, overt or otherwise will never go away.

            Ms Brooks has written a fitting and loving tribute to equine beauty and genetic brilliance, and a bald and frightenly factual recitation of the tragedy of racism, inbred and otherwise.  FIVE STARS.

                   

 

Monday 15 April 2024

 

The Running Grave, by Robert Galbraith.

         

 
        
As  we all know, Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.  This is the seventh novel she has produced under this name featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott who, thanks to various fearless exploits in previous books, run a very successful Private Detective Agency. 

                Galbraith’s series also has a romantic undertone in each book:  will Robin and Strike finally acknowledge the feelings they have for each other and stop messing about with other, lesser characters?

                Sadly, the answer is a resounding NO.  And it takes Galbraith nearly 1000 pages to do it!  You have to have strong wrists and lots of patience to navigate the progress of the labyrinthine plot and a photographic memory to keep track of the myriad characters required to flesh out the latest reason for which Strike and Robin have been hired:  a prominent businessman has engaged them to find out the whereabouts of his rebellious son Will, who has disappeared (willingly) into the clutches of the Universal Humanitarian Church, a relatively new quasi-religious group operating out of various U.K. cities.  It has the requisite charismatic leader, handsome Jonathan Wace, known as Papa J., and lots of adoring followers, all living in religious freedom and bliss on a big Norfolk Farm which presumably is self-supporting.  The members donate lots of money to various charities – and to Papa J., and the best way to find out just how above-board (and safe) everyone is, is for Robin to go Undercover as a prosperous new recruit.

            And what she finds chills her to the marrow, not to mention putting her in terrible physical danger:  all is obviously not well at the Farm, and God is nowhere to be seen.  Cruelty is everywhere.  She manages to escape with Strike’s help, but what about the other ‘recruits’?  Who’s going to save them?

            There are parts of this book that are heart-in-the-mouth exciting, and others that just amble and jog along, reintroducing characters that, because of the length of the story the reader has forgotten about and has to retrace plot steps, which is a shame.  Galbraith is too good a writer to indulge in so many superfluous characters, and too good to get lost in his/her own plot.  FOUR STARS.