Enemies at Home ~ Lindsey Davis

9781444766585Last week I asked whether or not authors of fantasy were ever successful in creating a second world with which their readers could readily identify.  I could, of course, have just as easily posed a similar question in respect of crime writers.  How well do we react when our favourite detective is ditched, even if only temporarily, for a newer kid on the block?  I don’t know about you, but however much I appreciated Malcolm Fox, I was overjoyed when John Rebus made a welcome return and while I really enjoy Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner novels, I’ve never warmed to either of the Blackstone series.  Jeffrey Deaver gets round the problem by introducing us to Kathryn Dance in the midst of the Lincoln Rhyme novels, so the two don’t seem so far apart; I don’t feel as if I’ve actually wandered into unfamiliar territory and even find myself preferring the Dance books to those set in New York. I can’t help feeling that if a writer wants to explore new territory then this is a safer approach; certainly it is the one that Lindsey Davis has taken as she chooses to refresh her crime novels set in Ancient Rome.

I have been a lover of Davis’s novels since The Silver Pigs first introduced us to that roguish but basically good egg, Marcus Didius Falco, informer to royalty and righter of innumerable wrongs in the Rome of the Emperor Vespasian.  In that series, Davis clothed her ability to construct complex plots and undertake meticulous research in a narrative alive with humour and sharp one liners and I feel that I have grown up alongside Falco and his (eventual) wife Helena and both rejoiced and suffered with them through the various triumphs and disasters that have befallen their expanding family.  Now, Davis has taken one member of that family, Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, and raised her to the status of central character as, some years after her father’s final outing in Nemesis, she undertakes her own investigations in a Rome that is not truly certain it is yet ready for a female informer.

Enemies at Home is the second novel in this new series and it reintroduces us to some of the characters we first met in The Ides of April, most notably the handsome and remarkably honest, local magistrate, Manlius Faustus.  Faustus has been charged with finding a way of circumventing the laws of sanctuary after the slaves of a couple murdered in their beds seek asylum at the Temple of Ceres.  By Roman law, all slaves who fail to save their owners’ lives under such circumstances are to be put to death and given that the local vigiles, (who have a lot to learn from Falco’s drinking pal, Petronius) have failed to catch the actual killers, they are anxious to have someone in custody to take the heat off their own backs.  Faustus hires Albia to try and discover what really did happen on the evening in question and in attempting to do so Falco’s daughter takes the reader with her into the world of the Roman slave,  revealing the true iniquities of a system that found nothing wrong in buying and selling humans as if they were no more than a secondhand piece of furniture.

In focusing on a system that is bound to sound abhorrent to the modern reader, Davis could fall into the trap of having her first century characters exhibit emotional reactions that would have been at odds with their positions in the world that they inhabit.  However, she is far too good a writer for that.  Both Faustus and Albia themselves come from families that own slaves and throughout the course of the investigation they rely on people who have no say in their own existence whatsoever to make the wheels of their lives run more smoothly.  Nevertheless, neither are happy about the more extreme slave laws and in voicing that unease they open up the way for the reader to react against the practice as a whole.  When the truth behind the murders is finally uncovered a twenty-first century reader cannot help but think that perhaps the unlucky couple contributed to their own demise, but Roman law will still take its pound of flesh and Albia knows that there is nothing she can do to alter that fact.

I was uncertain when this series began how I would take to a novel that had no Falco in it.  I kept hoping that at some point Albia would recognise that help was needed, call into the family home and enlist her father to the cause.  I can see now that if Davis had allowed that to happen it would have been a terrible mistake.  Flavia Albia has to stand on her own two feet, both as an informer and as a leading character in her own right.  What is more, it would have been difficult to insert Falco into the action without also bringing a greater level of humour to the narrative and that would have been completely inappropriate.  While neither of the books is deadly serious we are in a very different Rome to that of the earlier novels.  Vespasian is no more and the reign of his elder son, Titus, has been cut short by what may well have been unnatural causes.  Now under the rule of the younger son, Domitian, Rome has become a place of fear, where anyone stepping out of line is likely to be dead by morning.  Falco’s bluff bonhomie would not only be out of place in this world, it would be dangerous.  Helena does well to keep him tied up in the family antiques business and Albia is safer on her own.  Nevertheless, in Enemies at Home some members of the old world do make an appearance.  Albia calls on her maternal uncles, Justinius and Aelianus, for legal help and just as the novel seems to be drawing to a close Helena herself arrives at an embarrassingly inopportune moment.  Perhaps when we reach book three, with Albia well-established as the central character, we may find that Falco is no longer able to resist the lure of the investigative chase and turns his mind once more to issues of Roman justice.

The Dead Ground ~ Claire McGowan

w357776At the back end of last year I stumbled on Claire McGowan’s second novel, The Lost.   This was the first book featuring Paula McGuire, a forensic psychologist who returns to her childhood home in the borderlands between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to look after her injured father only to find herself seconded to the PSNI’s Missing Persons Response Unit to help in the search for two teenaged girls.  At the time, I said how much I was enjoying the book and that I hoped McGowan would stick with Paula and develop a series that would continue to look at some of the very particular social problems that still beset the Province in the wake of the Troubles.  Well, sometimes you actually do get what you wish for and here, in the shape of The Dead Ground, is that second novel and what is more a novel that ends in such a way as to pretty much ensure at least a third.

The Dead Ground explores a subject that is likely to cause heated debate in any community but which, in the highly charged religious atmosphere that still exists in Northern Ireland, is one that might explode into violence at any moment, namely the subject of abortion.   This is not, however, a problem that would naturally come to the attention of the MPRU.  It does so here because McGowan couples it with a case of the abduction of a new born baby from the local hospital and thus allows herself to widen her focus to consider the many ways in which the birth of a child can be viewed: from something totally joyous through to the result of an act of terrible violation, with any number of possible scenarios in between.

The search for the individuals behind the abduction and the subsequent attacks on women who have decided to go through with their pregnancies after consulting a doctor prepared to help them obtain an abortion in England is particularly relevant to Paula.  This is no spoiler, because it is apparent from the very first pages that she herself is in the early stages of pregnancy and as a result of the circumstances behind the conception finds herself considering whether or not she should keep the baby. More important immediately is keeping the knowledge of her condition from the people with whom she works, something that proves difficult as there are those involved in the investigation who seem to have second sight.

One of these is the faith healer, Magdalena Croft, brought in at the request of the parents of the missing baby to attempt to discover where the child might be.  Croft, on the strength of her claims to have visions from the Virgin Mary, has gathered a large following of people who believe that she can heal them of their fertility problems.  As many of these couples have then gone on to have children she has had no difficulty in amassing large sums of money, although none of it appears to have gone into the building of the church that she has promised to construct. Croft’s part in the narrative allows McGowan to explore the manner in which desperation forces individuals away from the material world and into a search for answers from less tangible forces. Unfortunately, this can often mean that they fall prey to charlatans, the sort of people whose evil leaves me speechless.  The question is whether or not Magdalena Croft falls into that category.

In discussing recent crime fiction I’ve frequently commented on the way in which the lead investigator’s back story has seemed either implausible, has muddled the main narrative or both.  Paula does have a back story but unfortunately there is nothing implausible about it.  Her mother Margaret is one of the Disappeared, those members of the Irish community who vanished from their homes without trace during the Troubles, in most cases to be killed by paramilitaries and buried in an unmarked grave. Whether this was the case with Mrs MacGuire or whether she simply had enough of living with the tension of a husband who was a member of the RUC and walked out, is unclear both to the reader and to Paula and her father, PJ.  Seventeen years after the event, PJ is ready to move on, but Paula, particularly given her condition, still feels the need to search for her mother.  However, this is never permitted to get in the way of the main story.  If it is relevant it is allowed to seep in, but it is in no sense a driver of the narrative.  This is one of the ways in which I think McGowan stands out amongst the many young authors who are trying to make their way in the field of the police procedural.  There is a sense of total integration of the strands that make up the novel. What is there is necessary and I don’t feel that I am being presented with a dramatic back story to make up for deficiencies in the main tale.

I promised myself at the beginning of the year that I wasn’t going to add any more crime authors to the list of those whose works had to be read as soon as they were available.  Claire McGowan has made me break that resolve.  She already writes well, but I think that eventually she is going to write very well indeed and if you enjoy crime fiction I urge you to get into this series right from the beginning.

With thanks to Headline who made this book available for review.

A Lovely Way To Burn ~ Louise Welsh

a-lovely-way-to-burn-33911-p[ekm]141x220[ekm]Lousie Welsh’s first novel, The Cutting Room, was one of the great successes of 2002 with both of my reading groups and we all looked forward with eager anticipation to subsequent books.  Unfortunately, for me at least, none of her later work has quite lived up to that first chilling novel.  However, in A Lovely Way to Burn, the first of a trilogy about a plague ridden world, Welsh is back on form as far as I’m concerned and my only serious gripe is that I’m going to have to wait to find out how things turn out in a London where most of the population are falling like flies due to a mysterious disease rather unimaginatively called the sweats.

Stevie Flint, a tele-marketing presenter, contracts the illness early on and becomes of immediate interest to the medical world when she pulls through.  However, she is much more concerned with the death of her boyfriend, Simon, especially when it becomes apparent that rather than being one of the first victims of the contagion he has in fact been murdered.  Simon has been working on a possible treatment for children with cystic fibrosis and after his death Stevie finds he has left her data on a laptop that he says it is imperative be delivered only to a specifically named colleague. Taking the information along to the hospital where Simon worked, Stevie not only discovers that Dr Reah is already dead but also alerts others amongst her boyfriends’s co-workers of the laptop’s existence and thus begins a chase across the growing chaos of the capital as she tries to discover the nature of the data in her possession whilst evading those people who are determined that it will never be made public.

This is by no means the first work of fiction to imagine an apocalyptic plague capable of wiping out the vast majority of a population.  I was in Sheffield when Barry Hines Threads was being filmed and Welsh references this and other works in her acknowledgements.  The idea is nevertheless still one that grabs the imagination if only because of the type of scare that we have witnessed in recent years in respect of the likes of Sars and Bird Flu.

In this novel the infection itself is really just the background against which the struggle to suppress the information in Stevie’s possession is fought.  It fits into the overall theme only when it allows Welsh to explore how the desire for scientific immortality can override a researcher’s basic humanity.  In the race to be the first person to find a cure (for anything) those who have to be sacrificed along the way become nothing more than casualties of war- real victims of friendly fire.  I assume that at some point in the next two books the causes behind the sweats is going to be come a focus and that the two medical strands will intertwine.  I hope so, because if there is a weakness in this novel it is that there is no indication of any interest in where the plague-like illness has come from and at times it begins to seem like convenient setting rather than something of focal importance.

With that as my only real caveat, I would happily recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good thriller and I will certainly be looking out for the forthcoming books in the trilogy.

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for making this available.

Someone Else’s Skin ~ Sarah Hilary

w504876Recent months have seen a plethora of new police procedural series coming onto the market and one of the titles which has been most loudly heralded has been Sarah Hilary’s first novel, Someone Else’s Skin.  Featuring London based DI Marnie Rome and her DS Noah Jake, the storyline is particularly pertinent given that I am writing on a day when the police have been criticised yet again for their failure to act in respect of cases of domestic violence.

The action begins as Rome and Jake visit a refuge in the hope of persuading one of the women there to testify against her brothers, who have partially blinded her in an acid attack.  It isn’t the attack itself with which they are primarily concerned.  Rather they are looking for corroborating evidence in respect of the violent nature of one of those brothers so that they can nail him for another crime altogether.  However, as they arrive, they are alerted by frantic screaming to an ongoing situation and walk in on the aftermath of a knife attack by one of the women on her husband who lies dying before their eyes.  All the women appear to support Hope in her claim that she acted out of self-defence and that her husband, Leo, had bought the knife with him, concealed in a bunch of yellow roses, in order to kill her.  Leo’s life is saved by Noah Jake, but he is in no condition to give his own version of what has happened.

For Marnie Rome, the sight of the knife brings back memories of trauma in her own life and she finds it difficult to remain professional in the light of what she has witnessed in her past.  Her immediate assumption that Leo is guilty as charged is questioned by Noah and one of the strengths of this novel is that it also forces the reader to question their own assumptions where domestic violence is concerned at the same time as dealing with the truly horrific mental and physical damage that results whoever the perpetrator and victim might ultimately turn out to be.

When Hope runs away from the hospital where she has been treated for shock, taking with her Simone, another of the women from the refuge, it very quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it appears on the surface and resources are deployed in order to find the two women before even more human damage can result.

The novel has many strengths, not least the two main characters, Rome and Jake who are very well fleshed out and a good contrast to each other.  In tackling domestic violence Hilary has addressed a social issue that doesn’t find its way into fiction that often and is certainly something that needs bringing to public attention far more frequently.  As the story unfolds, the way in which such violence is bred by earlier episodes of ill-treatment is explored and there is a sense of real depth in terms of the research that has gone into the novel.

I think there are weaknesses.  The book is far too busy.  There are too many story-lines for the reader to deal with in too short a narrative space, especially given that they are presented in different timelines as well.  The main reason for this is the need to fill us in on DI Rome’s back story, which is almost identical to the back story of the lead detective in another first novel I’ve read this year.  Is our police force really staffed by so many damaged individuals with such traumatic pasts?  And if they let those pasts get in the way of their doing their jobs in a fair and measured way, should they actually be in post?

With thanks to Headline for making this novel available for review.

Ah! you can see the soapbox coming out again, can’t you?  I’ll put it away for the moment because this is a good book and certainly one that suggests that the author and her characters have far to go.  I will look forward to the second in the series, especially if a growing awareness on the part of the reader of the characters and their history means that those back stories can take rather more of a back seat.

Long Way Home ~ Eva Dolan

w495038Given the number of posts I’ve written recently about crime fiction I (and, I suspect, you) have to ask whether there really is room in the market for yet another police procedural.  However, having just read Long Way Home, the first novel by Eva Dolan and publicised as the first in a new major series, I would have to say yes, because what Ms Dolan offers is not just a well written and extremely readable story but also one that does what the very best of crime fiction always does, that is throw a light on a social situation that is current, pressing and, to be honest, one that many of us would rather not acknowledge.

Long Way Home is set in Peterborough, a city so far from most people’s day in, day out, conscious experience that when I told an acquaintance about this book I had to explain to her where it was.  It is, however, a city that has seen considerable change over the past decade: change I have actually witnessed because I have friends who live nearby and it is their closest shopping centre. Always a hub of transient immigration because of the demand for agricultural workers in the nearby fen country, in more recent times it has seen this population grow and be augmented by immigrants, both legal and illegal, who are being lured here with false promises of jobs and homes by people bent only on exploiting them and treating them with unspeakable cruelty.  It isn’t, however, only those who deliberately set out to abuse these workers who have difficulty accepting them as valid members of society.  Many of those who have lived in the area for any length of time are also resentful of their presence, even if they only show it by moving away from the city centre into local villages. Consequently, while the crime that is being investigated at the start of this novel is that of murder, it is not a murder squad that is investigating it but rather Peterborough’s Hate Crime Unit, because the victim is thought to be an eastern European immigrant and the motive for his death one of racial hatred.

DI Zigic and DS Ferreira are called in when a burnt out shed proves to have been both home and final resting place to a body that is identified as Jann Stepulov, an itinerant worker who has been sleeping in the outhouse much to the anger of the Barlows on who grounds it is built.  DS Ferreira, herself an immigrant, is satisfied that the Barlows are responsible for the fire, seeing it as the simplest way to get rid of their unwanted tenant.  However, Zigic, of Polish stock but far less quick to judgment, is not so easily convinced and sets about looking for alternative evidence.  The further they dig into Stepulov’s background the more it becomes apparent that there are other people, both British and immigrant, who have reason to want him out of the way.  What they uncover is a network of gang-masters willing to exploit anyone who is seemingly friendless and without the resources to stand up for themselves, to the point of starvation and, if expedient, murder.  What they uncover is the type of situation that was brought forcible to public notice in the wake of the Morecambe Bay tragedy several years back when at least twenty-one immigrant cockle pickers were caught out by the incoming tide.

Brought to public notice, and yet, it still goes on.  The strength of Dolan’s novel is that she forces her reader to address a situation that is one I suspect many would rather just pretend isn’t happening and if it is, certainly isn’t any concern of theirs.  Initially I found myself bridling at Ferreira with her insistence that the British couple must be guilty because all Britons are prejudiced against immigrants.  “Excuse me,” I wanted to say, “er, pot, kettle, black.”  As the novel progress, however, all the characters, and the readers as well, have to question the easy assumptions that we make when we lump groups of people together and fail to treat them as individuals, and to accept that both great good and pure evil can reside in any human regardless of skin colour, creed or background.

This is a very strong first novel with leading characters who walk off the page already fully formed.  It has already excited the praise of critics and with good reason.  If I have one concern it is that Dolan may find it difficult to bring variety to the cases that she has Zigic and Ferreria investigate.  But, if she can avoid that issue then this has the potential to be the first in a series that will run and run.

With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing who made this available for review.

Love Story, With Murders ~ Harry Bingham

Love story with MurdersThe police procedural has long been the home of some of the most dysfunctional cops in the land.  They seem to gravitate toward whichever force our crime writers choose to write about.  You have to wonder sometimes how they manage to survive and indeed some of the more notable have been demoted as a result of the way in which they have bent the rules, if not the law itself, in pursuit of the nation’s baddies. But, of course, they always do eventually catch the baddies, which is why, ultimately, they are forgiven their peccadilloes and allowed to continue in service.  They may be bad police officers but they are outstanding cops.

Harry Bingham offers us one of the more recent examples of the breed in the person of DC Fiona Griffiths, whom we first met in Talking to the Dead investigating the death of a young woman and her daughter.  Thought, initially, to be only related to drugs and prostitution, the murders ultimately prove to be the tip of a much more far reaching web of intrigue that threatens to undermine many of Cardiff’s less savoury members of society.

Fiona Griffiths is certainly not one for doing things by the book, but in her case there is good reason for her episodes ‘off piste’.  Her own back story is one of trauma and serious ill health and maintaining any sort of equilibrium is difficult for her.  Indeed, as is so often the case in current crime fiction, following the development of the main character can be as fulfilling as unravelling the intricacies of the investigation and I, at least, welcomed the steps that she takes towards moving to a more stable relationship with the world, her colleagues and, most importantly, herself.

However, Fiona’s personal growth doesn’t detract for a moment from the investigation she finds herself caught up in as South Wales is plunged into the worst winter in living memory.  Two bodies are discovered within days of each other and in close proximity.  They are further bound together by the fact that they have been disposed of in a very similar manner – dissected and then their various parts distributed around the neighbourhood.  What mitigates against their being connected in any way is the fact that one of them has been dead for at least five years, while the other died within the previous week.  Furthermore, the more recent victim has been scattered around a local beauty spot while the older body has been concealed in a number of different outhouses and garages.  The first necessity is for the police to discover who these two people are and whether or not there is indeed any link between them.

In attempting to unravel this mystery, Fiona is forced to examine her own family’s past.  Her adoptive father, who swears he is now going straight, has been a central figure in the Cardiff underworld and still runs certain establishments that Fiona knows it is better that she keeps well clear of.  But, it seems that if there is a link between the victims then it may well lie in one of those less than savoury nightclubs.  However, she also can’t afford to ignore where the second victim worked and the possibility that what looks like a perfectly ordinary engineering company may in fact be involved in distinctly less than legitimate dealings with the arms trade.  As the story develops the plot takes a decidedly political turn and it isn’t that much of a surprise to read in the end papers that it is based on events that actually took place.  Unfortunately, the type of underhand dealings that are revealed at the book draws to its close have all too authentic a ring to them.

Bingham starts a lot of hares in this novel and it is to his credit that he never leaves the reader in any way struggling to keep up.  Furthermore, he is very good at characterisation.  Despite the fact that this is only the second in the series, the main players are already clearly defined in my mind and I am convinced both by them as individuals and by the trajectory their relationships are taking.  While I wouldn’t class this as literary fiction in the way I might with something by William Brodrick, for example, I do think that Bingham is amongst the best in his field and I look forward to the next in this series, which I believe is due later this year.

With thanks to Random House Publishing Group – Bantam Dell, who made this available for review.

Bet Your Life ~ Jane Casey

41Cthj4Rr3L._Bet Your Life is the second book in Jane Casey’s Jess Tennant series for the YA market.  Most readers of this blog will know Casey best for her Maeve Kerrigan novels and will therefore already respect her as an extremely good writer.  If you put aside any prejudices you might have about fiction aimed at teenagers and join Jess in her search for justice in the small West Country town of Port Sentinel you will find that the author’s storytelling skills and ability to draw deft and believable character portraits transfer extremely well into a new genre and in Jess herself discover a heroine every bit as feisty and determined as Maeve.

Jess and her mother, Molly, whom we first met in How to Fall, have come to live in Port Sentinel with Molly’s family after a disastrous divorce makes living in London impossible.  In the first novel Jess, who finds it hard to fit in with the high living and overly fashion conscious youth of the the sea-side community, digs away until she discovers what really happened to her cousin Freya, whose apparent suicide has left her family in disaray.  In so doing she lays bare a cyber bullying network that reveals the extent of the damage that can be done to those who are targeted by the cowards behind this insidious practice.

In this second novel it is the issues of date rape that features most strongly when Jess sets out to discover what has actually happened to Seb Dawson, who has been found with serious head injuries after most of the town’s young people have been attending a firework display.  The adults, especially Seb’s stepmother, seem content to put it down to a hit and run incident, but Jess is certain this isn’t the case.  Having no time for Seb himself, a blackmailing bully who thinks the world revolves around his needs, Jess would be happy to let the matter drop, but Seb’s half sister, Beth, begs her to find the truth.  In so doing she uncovers a network of youths who think they can take whatever they want and destroy as many other people’s lives as it takes in the process. Indeed, if there should be another theme lurking here it is that of the danger inherent in a certain type of man who thinks that his will is law and whatever it takes to get what he wants, justified.  Some of the males in this novel should have been put down at birth for the sake of the whole community.

This aspect of the book is picked up again in the appearance on the scene of Jess’s father intent on talking his ex-wife into coming back to him for the convenience of his latest money-making scheme.  If the novel has a weak point it is the way in which Christopher Tennant is allowed to abuse both his wife and daughter over a meal with the rest of Molly’s family.  I can’t imagine that the other adults present wouldn’t have at the least objected to his behaviour.  I would have quite simply have told him to leave.  But this is the difficulty of YA fiction.  If your heroes and heroines are going to be teenagers what do you do with the responsible adults who ought to be taking charge?  If you’re Enid Blyton, or if you’re writing anything with a whiff of fantasy about it, you kill them off.  Casey, whose depiction of teenage life is all too real, doesn’t have that option.  In fact, I think the writer deals better with this aspect of the world she has created in this book than she did in the last.  Molly is beginning to develop a bit of bite and the police inspector, who previously had seemed at best incompetent and at worst indifferent, is becoming a more rounded and easier to understand individual.  Nevertheless, I did come away from this novel wanting to take some of the so-called grown ups into a quiet corner and ask them just what they thought they were playing at.

But, and this is surely what matters, a teenage reader isn’t going to feel that way at all.  A teenage reader is going to be there cheering Jess on and at the same time, hopefully, taking note of the way in which she refuses to be caught up in the games that these youths play, even though at times she is still all too vulnerable to the consequences of their malignancy.

This series is amongst the best of current YA fiction and it is really good to see a writer such as Casey targeting her talents towards this market.  Not only does it mean that when her audience leaves the world of YA literature behind she is likely to retain them as readers of her own adult fiction but they are also likely to want to go further and explore other writers from the same and eventually different genres.

With thanks to Random House Children’s Publishers UK who made this book available for review.

The Outcast Dead ~ Elly Griffiths

the outcast dead_72ppi.jpg{w=239,h=363}.thAt some point in 2009 someone must have recommended that I read Elly Griffiths’ first novel, The Crossing Place. Perhaps I read about it on a blog, maybe it was a newspaper review, it may even have been word of mouth. However that first meeting with forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway, came about, from the moment I read the opening words I was completely sold. Why? Because of a narrative voice which is surely unique. Ms Griffiths could have been writing a shopping list and I would have gone on reading just to spend longer in the company of the quirky third person present tense form of story telling which means however harrowing the events that are being described the reader is always distanced slightly by the unexpected asides of a narrator who doesn’t mind admitting they see life in a less than orthodox way.

And the events in The Outcast Dead, the sixth full-length outing for Ruth and Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, are often very harrowing indeed because the primary concern in this novel is the death and disappearance of small children.  From the opening question as to whether or not Liz Donaldson is guilty of killing at least the youngest of her three sons, through the abduction of two toddlers and the link with Ruth’s excavation of the body of a Victorian woman hung for the murder of a child she was minding, the distress of the weakest and most vulnerable in society is never far away.  Neither are we allowed to forget the anguish of the parents of these children, most especially as we watch the least emotional member of Nelson’s team disintegrate before our eyes when her young son vanishes.  We have, of course, been here before in the last of Griffiths’ novels, A Dying Fall, when it was Ruth’s daughter, Kate, who was abducted, but somehow this novel works the theme more convincingly, perhaps because the various elements of the story – the police investigation, the excavation and what is happening in Ruth’s private life – all come together to support the same concern.

The storyline will also speak to many of its readers because of what it has to say about the issues that face the working mother.  Kate certainly doesn’t seem to suffer from Ruth’s return to the university, indeed Ruth’s only concern is that her daughter will love the childminder more than she does her.  But not everyone we met in the book is convinced that returning to work is an acceptable thing for a mother to do and while the story behind the university’s current excavation makes it clear that the problem is nothing new, the question of whether it is a decision that is always taken in the child’s best interest is definitely raised.

As is the question of how far you should go to save a marriage that appears to be floundering. Ruth has (almost) accepted that Nelson is never going to leave his wife and live as a family with her and Kate.  Indeed, in her more honest moments she knows that this is a relationship she would find hard to sustain.  But there are other marriages strained to breaking point in this story and Griffiths explores the extremes to which some people will go in order to bolster up a relationship that has, in reality, become toxic for all concerned.

This is the best that Griffiths has been for some time.  Bringing a fresh face in in the person of DS Tim Heathfield has allowed her to offer new insights into characters that might just have started to become stale and my concern that in exiling Cathbad (Ruth’s druid friend) to the wilds of Lancashire she was losing one of the strongest elements of her stories proves to be unfounded.  Cathbad knows how to make an entrance.

And, there is still that wonderful narrative voice.  Who is the observer who recounts these stories to us?  Despite the fact that she shares her outlook on life, it isn’t Ruth because there are times when the point of view shifts.  Does it matter?  Not really, because whoever it is shares my outlook on life too and I will go back to this and the other novels in this series time and time again to enjoy not only the story but the storyteller as well.

With thanks to Quercus Publishing, who made this book available for review.

The Discourtesy of Death ~ William Brodrick

brodrickIt is a commonplace that no crime writer is ever going to be considered for a major literary award such as the Booker.  Whether this is strictly true or not might be debatable, but in practice it is hard to dispute.  However, it has to be acknowledged that some crime writers consistently produce novels every bit as well written as those that do go on to harvest the glittering prizes and that a smaller sub-set of those authors also deal with topics as demanding of society’s serious concern as any Booker, Costa or Orange winner.  One of these is William Brodrick, the monk, turned lawyer, turned novelist, who first came to notice with his debut novel The Sixth Lamentation and then secured his claim to be considered as one of our finest writers with his third novel A Whispered Name.

Having already considered such issues as how we should approach those considered guilty of war crimes committed over fifty years ago and the fate of young soldiers condemned to death for desertion during the First World War, in this, his fifth novel, Brodrick turns his attention to the question of mercy killing and then expands his focus to ask whether or not taking the life of an individual could ever be considered acceptable even if it could be proved that one death would save the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, possibly millions of others.

Brodrick’s protagonist has taken the opposite path to that of his creator.  Having started out as a lawyer, Anselm is now a friar in the Gilbertine House of Larkwood.  When his Prior receives an anonymous letter suggesting that a young woman, both paralysed and suffering from terminal cancer, has been helped to her death and that her husband may well be about to take his own life, Anselm is released from his monastic duties to see if he can get to the bottom of what exactly happened on the day Jennifer Henderson died and thereby prevent any further damage being done to what is already a fractured family.  Jennifer, a rising star with the Royal Ballet has given up her vocation to marry a man her parents heartily dislike and who soon proves to be far more interested in pursuing a media career than attending to his wife and child.  With a disintegrating marriage to cope with Jennifer goes back to the world of dance to teach some of the local children only to have an accident that leaves her paralysed and the first suggestions that she would prefer to take matters into her own hands and die via assisted suicide come from her even before she is diagnosed with cancer.  However, as Anselm says

killing is always complicated [and] people’s preferences about dying complicate matters even more.

When Jennifer does die, while the law accepts that it was as a result of the cancer, there is concern on the part of at least the anonymous letter writer that Jennifer had changed her mind and that her death came about at the hands of a murderer.

Exploring what has happened takes Anselm and his collaborator, Mitch, into the heart of a deeply disturbed family.  Emma and Michael, Jennifer’s parents, make it clear that they have no love at all for Peter and would do anything to keep their grandson Timothy, away from the influence of his father.  Equally they have no familial feelings left for Nigel and Helen, Michael’s brother and sister-in-law, and it is in getting to the bottom of this dispute that Anselm begins to understand something of the ‘disease’ that is at the root of the malaise within Jennifer’s wider family.

For, while the immediate concern may be with the question of assisted suicide, Brodrick uses Michael’s service with the SAS in Northern Ireland, to widen the debate and ask whether or not there can ever be justification for the killing of an individual even if by so doing you might save the lives of many more people.  If the opportunity arises to execute the one man who seems to stand in the way of a negotiated solution, should you take it?   Would it have been acceptable for someone to have shot Hitler in 1939?  Brodrick allows all sides of this argument breathing space, exploring through Peter and Mitch the notion that a hard and rigid sense of what is morally acceptable doesn’t always answer to the justice of a situation, while allowing the old monk, Bede, to voice some of the counter arguments,

I think well-meaning people got sucked away from a simple understanding of right and wrong. Thought the rules didn’t match the situation on the ground, so they dumped ’em. Believed they could act outside of the law for the sake of the greater good. I think the fishermen forgot that one day the lion would lie down with the lamb and that the sheep would be separated from the goats… There are rules, Anselm. You can’t just forget them and run. They make the world go round.

And if, in the end he comes to a conclusion that I can’t agree with, I can at least respect the thoroughness with which he explores all the possibilities.

I throughly enjoyed this novel and can’t recommend it too highly.  There is just one other aspect to what Brodrick explores that I want to mention because I think it is interesting in the light of the fact that whatever else we have here it is impossible to deny that there is, among other influences, a religious discussion going on.  Several times the author brings up the question of grace.  At first it is just a passing mention.

Michael felt responsible for Jenny’s fall. …He’d wanted Jenny to dance again because from her first tentative steps, he’d been at her side … and being there had taken him faraway from the ugly universe of brutal, heartless movements. He’d found some grace in a graceless world and he wanted it back

but this is later expanded on as Anselm speaks of

the grace that we all come to long for … once we realise that we’ve lost it for ever.

Grace, of course, has more than one meaning.  It is generally used to describe an elegance of movement but it is also a concept within the Christian tradition that refers to the unconditional love of God.  Brodrick’s use of the term reminds me of the way in which Philip Pullman explores the concept of grace in His Dark Materials where he too is focusing on the notion of the grace of an individual that is cut down and consequently destroys their peace of mind.  But, in his case, it is the growing awareness of self-consciousness and society’s imposition of the concept of original sin that damages the young life forever.  His message is undoubtedly anti-religious whereas Brodrick stands on the side of God. I’m sure there is more going on here with the double meaning of the word grace, but I need to do some deeper thinking about it.  But then, isn’t that the mark of a really good novel, that it leaves you with more on your mind than it found you with?

Borderlands ~ Brian McGilloway

BorderlandsI know that when I was looking forward to 2014 I promised myself (and you) that I wouldn’t read as many crime novels as I had in 2013 and that certainly I wouldn’t be seeking out new authors.  However, circumstances change and as I struggle to find a medication whose side-effects aren’t worse than the symptoms it’s meant to control, comfort reading is what I need.  In fact,  if I’m honest, it’s all that I can manage.  So, the discovery of a first rate crime writer who already has seven books in print has been a real gift from the gods.

I mentioned Brian McGilloway in my last weekly fragments’ post when I had not long since finished his most recent novel Hurt.  That was the second in a series featuring DS Lucy Black and set in and around Derry, a city that is just on the Ulster side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.  There is, however, an earlier, but still ongoing, series located on the other side of the border and built around Detective Inspector Benedict Devlin, the first instalment of which is the aptly named Borderlands.

It is the winter of 2002, a time when co-operation between the police forces on either side of the border was still tentative.  Inspector Devlin is called out in respect of a young girl who has been murdered and her body left just on the Republican side of the border.  The only clues to who she is and why she has been killed are a gold ring and an old photograph.  Once she has been identified as local teenager, Angela Cashell, rumour links her to a youth from a local travellers’ site and her family (not unknown to the law themselves) decide to take the matter into their own hands.  As a result a good number of likely suspects are locked up when the the next death occurs and the body of a young man is found in a burnt-out car.  At first investigated as a possible RTA, it very quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t the case when the charred body is brought out of the wreck and found to have a gunshot wound to the head.  Is there a connection between the two murders?  And if so, what might it be?

With all this on his plate Devlin is understandably irritated when a local grandee, Thomas Powell, demands that someone investigate the reports that there has been an intruder in his father’s care home.  The old man, who has dementia, claims that he woke up and saw someone in his bedroom although there is no other indication that this might actually have happened.  For Devlin the issue is complicated by the relationship he once had with the woman who then dumped him to become Powell’s wife.  He is unwilling to get involved, especially when it becomes apparent that the Thomas’s marriage is failing and Miriam is looking for consolation elsewhere.

Eventually the two strands of the story come together but not before Devlin has cause to look into both his own past and that of colleagues for whom he feels respect and sympathy and this, I think, is indicative of a particular feature of the crime fiction that is coming out of Northern Ireland and the borderlands at the moment.  Whilst the worst of the trouble with sectarian groups might be over, the aftermath of those times still shapes both the types of crimes the police have to deal with and the nature of the justice that they mete out and no one is likely to have a past that isn’t marred in one way or another by the violence of the latter half of the twentieth century.

This is reflected in several ways.  The nature of civic disorder is way beyond anything we would normally expect in other parts of the UK.  As one of the characters in McGilloway’s later novel, Hurt, acknowledges, a little bit of recreational rioting is both expected and accepted and in Borderlands, when one group thinks it has a grievance against either an individual or another group, they think nothing of settling that grievance with a well tossed fire bomb.  Keeping order in a situation like this is difficult and there are times in both McGilloway and Claire McGowan’s work when the morality behind the punishment handed out or the solution finally acknowledged is difficult for some members of the police to live with.  It is, however, seen as expedient in terms of the bigger picture of community peace and serving officers lower down the chain of command have frequently to bit their lips and look away.  And, more so than would be the case anywhere on the mainland, the characters we meet have to live with the knowledge that it may be better not to look too far into the past lives of the people with whom they work and socialise on a daily basis for they may not like what they find.  It must be hard to have lived in Ulster in the last fifty years without having been touched by the Troubles in one way or another.

McGilloway catches this unsettled world which he must know only too well with an ease that belies the fact that this is his first novel.  Perhaps he fills it with too many horrific incidents, especially towards the end, but having also read his most recent work it’s clear that his plotting has improved over time.  What is already apparent in Borderlands is the quality of his writing and his poet’s eye for the telling metaphor.  There is a side plot running through the novel to do with sheep worrying, a crime the local farmer would pin on Devlin’s dog.  In the end Devlin himself is almost convinced that Frank is guilty as charged and is ready to accept that the dog will have to be destroyed.

Frank had somehow escaped from the shed once again. Now he lay at the back door of the house, his body flat against the ground, the fur on his back raised, his single long ear under his snout. But he was not looking at me. I followed his gaze to his food dish, and there, in the shadows of the cherry tree near the top of the garden, stood a wild cat.

It was nearly the size of a collie, its body compact and hard, its dark fur sleek and shining in the morning light. It was poised to flee, muscles tensed, legs bent, it’s hard golden eyes trained on me. It considered me for a moment, raising its head slightly to sniff the air. Then it dipped its head again into Frank’s food bowl and ate the remains of his dinner from the previous night.

I shifted my gun from one hand to the other, considering whether I had any chance of firing a shot. The cat lifted its head again and looked at me with disdain. The dawn sun was spreading slowly across the lawn now. The animal snarled once, lightly, baring its teeth, then it turned and padded up through the hedge row and into the field beyond.

The cat is surely symbolic of those people who have slipped away into the night, unpunished while others have suffered in their stead.  The metaphor itself and the writing, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney, himself brought up in this same landscape and several decades ago a pupil at the school where McGilloway now teaches.