Tag Archives for " Scotland Yard "
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
The phenomenon we know as PTSD has probably been around since the time roving bands of Australopithecus afarensis beat each other to death with clubs on the savannah. But it doesn’t appear to have been widely noticed for what it is until World War I, when it was given the name “shell shock.” Then, the nightmare of trench warfare on the Western Front crowded millions of men together in a stalemate, subjecting them to the seemingly endless threat of sudden death in the artillery barrages that preceded every futile effort by either side to break through the other’s lines.
In A Test of Wills, the first of Charles Todd’s excellent novels featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge of the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), Rutledge has recently been released from the clinic where he was being treated for shell shock. He has forced himself to return to work out of desperation, still haunted by the unimaginable horrors he experienced as an officer on the Front but unable to continue facing the mindlessness caused by the drugs he was forced to take. The armistice has been signed, the peace treaties are being negotiated, but the war continues for Rutledge in the person of Corporal Hamish MacTavish, a soldier who died under his command and continues to haunt him day and night. Todd’s portrayal of Rutledge’s suffering has the ring of truth.
Rutledge’s superior, Superintendent Bowles, is for some unstated reason determined to drive him from the force. When Bowles is asked to assign an officer to a difficult murder case in Warwickshire, he sends Rutledge, hoping that the Inspector will stumble into a trap that could get him fired. The trap is obvious: a highly regarded colonel in the British Army has been brutally murdered near his estate, and the obvious killer is the decorated Captain who is engaged to the Colonel’s ward; unfortunately, the captain wears the Victoria Cross, the kingdom’s highest honor, and is a favorite of the royal family, who will not look kindly on the embarrassment of finding their fair-haired boy in the dock for murder. However, as Rutledge arrives in Warwickshire to take up the case, he quickly finds that the witness who has identified the captain as the murderer is a drunkard who is suffering from an extreme case of shell shock. And he’s not the only former soldier in the area who has returned from the war emotionally crippled.
Charles Todd is the pen name of Caroline and Charles Todd, the American mother-and-son team who write the Inspector Rutledge series of detective novels set in post-World War I England. There are now eighteen books in the series. The pair have written an additional ten works of detective fiction.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
The Last Detective, published in 1991, was the first in a series of Peter Lovesey’s 15 murder mysteries featuring detective Peter Diamond. Earlier this year I read and reviewed the fifteenth, Down Among the Dead Men, which I enjoyed enough to send me back to the early days in the series.
The Last Detective begins like a traditional murder mystery but quickly veers off course into a series of puzzling discoveries. The plot is full of suspense. It’s no wonder Lovesey was encouraged to extend the series for so many years (nearly a quarter-century now).
Disgraced by a false charge of intimidating a suspect at New Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond has been sent to the sticks. He now holds forth, precariously, under continuing suspicion, from the Avon and Somerset Police; Diamond is based in the city of Bath in southwestern England.
Diamond is a large, fat man, and anything but jolly. He is, in fact, a thoroughly disagreeable person who strikes fear in his subordinates and intimidates most of the other people he comes into contact with. He distrusts computers and any information they disgorge, holds DNA testing in contempt, loathes cell phones, and disdains modern technology in general — and he makes these opinions known loudly and often. In short, Peter Diamond is a tough man to like. But there is hope for him still. His wife, Stephanie, clearly loves him, and he has a soft spot for children (though they have none of their own).
The man’s troublesome personality notwithstanding, Diamond is a brilliant detective who has solved four of the five cases that have come his way to date in Bath (the fourth is still unresolved).
The Last Detective consists of six parts. In the opening section, the author uses the third person to burrow into the heads of several characters and introduce our hero, Peter Diamond. The second part is told in the first person from the perspective of Gregory Jackman, head of the new English department at the local university. In the third section, Lovesey switches back to the omniscient third person. The fourth part is written in the first person from the point of view of the leading suspect in the murder case. Parts five and six shift back to the third person, describing Diamond’s perspective. The constant shifting back and forth is a trifle disorienting.
Peter Lovesey has been writing professionally since 1968. He published his first novel in 1970. In addition to the 15 Peter Diamond novels, Lovesey has written dozens of other novels and short stories. He was born in England in 1936.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
On a superficial level, A Banquet of Consequences is a simple whodunit. Inspector Thomas Lynley and his brilliant but exasperating sidekick, Sergeant Barbara Havers, must identify the murderer among several suspects. But the novel is anything but superficial. Author Elizabeth George, who earned a graduate degree in counseling and psychology and is a former teacher, has instead written a penetrating tale about relationships that sometimes defy simple logic — between husband and wife, mother and children, father and sons, and seemingly every other possible combination of human beings. It’s a fascinating tale that transcends the limitations of the conventional detective novel and explores the varieties of human experience in 21st-century Britain.
As Lynley opines in the story, “I find that people aren’t all one thing. One rather wishes they were for simplicity’s sake, but isn’t the truth that people are good and bad, simple and complicated, happy and sad, frightened and courageous? It’s all a mix. We learn to take in everything about a person as disparate parts to the whole, and it’s the whole that we love, even at moments when the other isn’t who we wish her to be.” That insight is well illustrated in this intelligently written novel.
In A Banquet of Consequences, the 19th installment in the Inspector Lynley series, the mystery swirls around the Goldacre family: Francis, Caroline, their two sons, William (Will) and Charlie, and the two daughters-in-law. The central event that triggers the action unfolding in the novel is Will’s suicide. The murders that follow — this book is, of course, a murder mystery — embroil Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers of New Scotland Yard in the lives of the famous feminist author who employs Caroline as her assistant, the author’s publisher, and the current spouses of the four Goldacres. While working the murder case that comes to light early in the story, Lynley and Havers wrestle with their own demons: Lynley is still reeling over the death of his wife, Helen, seventeen months previously, and Havers is struggling to escape from the straight-jacket of rules imposed on her by Lynley’s boss, who has gained a poisonous dislike of the younger woman.
Elizabeth George long ago established herself as one of the world’s most accomplished writers of detective fiction. Born in Ohio, she was educated in California and lives there now. Though her biography doesn’t mention it, she clearly spends a good deal of time in the UK. To understand this, all you have to do is note the peculiarly British vocabulary that leaps out of the pages in the dialogue among her characters: knickers, dogsbody, kip, cow, kit, and gash are just a few examples. If you can translate these terms into common American English, go to the head of the class. I’ve learned what they mean, but I would be hard-pressed to work them into intelligible dialogue.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
With The Holy Thief, William Ryan joins Martin Cruz Smith (the Arkady Renko Series) and Tom Rob Smith (the Child 44 Trilogy), whose compelling crime novels have illuminated the dark recesses of the Soviet Union (or, later, Russia).
However, Ryan’s new contribution is set not in the 1950s, the 80s, or more recently, as are those of the two Smiths, but in the 1930s during the peak of Stalin’s wide-ranging purges of the Communist Party and the military. It’s unusual for a novel to include a list of sources, but The Holy Thief ends with a long one, testament to the thoroughness with which Ryan approached his subject. The picture that emerges is much darker than those painted by the two Smiths — which is only natural, since untold millions died on Stalin’s orders in the 1930s.
What’s most distinctive, and most rewarding, about this engrossing novel is the adroit way Ryan conveys a sense of the pervasive paranoia fostered by Stalin’s reign of terror. The abject poverty of the USSR comes through clearly as well. Yet all of this is shrugged off by all but a handful of freethinkers. Virtually everyone else is convinced that the Soviet system will triumph under the brilliant leadership of Josef Stalin and all will be well in a future Communist state. Judging from the popularity of Vladimir Putin in today’s Russia, it’s not hard to believe the acceptance of Stalin’s lies. Putin doesn’t have on his hands the blood of millions, and his government falls short of totalitarianism, but the kleptocracy over which he presides matches the scale of Stalin’s regime.
The story is complex. It’s 1936. A young woman turns up the victim of a gruesome murder in one of the few churches left standing in Moscow. Detective Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division is called to the scene. (The Militia, the Soviet counterpart to Scotland Yard, is the junior partner to the much-feared NKVD — predecessor to the KGB — within the state security apparatus.) Shortly after undertaking his investigation into the baffling crime, Korolev is approached by a Colonel Gregorin, one of the most senior officers in the NKVD. Gregorin volunteers the information that the murdered woman is of Russian birth but American citizenship. She is an Orthodox nun, Gregorin explains. It soon transpires that the nun was apparently part of a conspiracy to steal a highly prized icon and spirit it away to the US, safe from the predations of the Soviet government. Then a second murder victim, a Thief, surfaces at a soccer stadium, clearly butchered by the same person. (The Thieves are a tightly knit network of murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals who essentially run the prisons in the Gulag and lord it over lesser underworld figures in Russia’s cities.) Somehow, the two murders are connected — and Korolev must figure out how.
The Holy Thief is suspenseful and full of surprises. Any fan of crime novels, detective fiction, or thrillers — or, for that matter, historical fiction — will likely find this book rewarding.
A review of Half a Crown (Farthing Trilogy #3), by Jo Walton
Alternate history can illuminate the present.
Recently I reviewed the first two books in Jo Walton’s alternate history of England after World War II, the Farthing Trilogy, Farthing and Ha’penny. I found them to be both intriguing from an historical perspective and adeptly written as novels of suspense. Half a Crown, the concluding volume, is less satisfying, if only because the ending is contrived and entirely too neat. I expected better.
The premise of the Farthing Trilogy is disturbingly realistic: that Germany and England signed a peace agreement in the spring of 1941, before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR and the US entry into the war. Had it not been for Winston Churchill’s ability to bolster British morale, and the skill that Franklin Roosevelt displayed in steering aid to Great Britain while keeping America neutral, it’s not entirely far-fetched to imagine a scenario like the one in these novels.
In each of the first two books in the trilogy, the protagonist is a young woman from a famous aristocratic family who rebels against the strictures of her family and her caste. In Half a Crown, Elvira Royston is a clever young woman who has been adopted by lesser aristocrats and has learned to conceal her Cockney background. Each of these three comes face to face with the evil of England’s steady shift toward fascism and plays a pivotal role in resisting it. All three books work well both as thrillers and as speculation about an alternate past.
At eighteen, Elvira is preparing for her debut with the Queen along with Betsy Maynard, the natural daughter of the family that has taken her in. Both are preoccupied with dresses, dances, and boys, with no room for concern about politics. Then a handsome young man, Sir Alan Bellingham, the scion of a wealthy family and a dedicated fascist, persuades the two to join him at a pro-Government rally “for fun.” There, a riot breaks out. Nine people are killed, Betsy is wounded, and Elvira is dragged off to jail by unsympathetic and brutal police. Elvira manages to free herself from their clutches because she has an ace up her sleeve: her “Uncle Carmichael” is the head of the Watch, England’s Gestapo. And Carmichael, introduced in Farthing as a homicide inspector at New New Scotland Yard whose sidekick was Elvira’s late father, is both a closeted gay and a passionate anti-fascist who uses his position to smuggle thousands of Jews out of Britain.
What is most engaging about the Farthing Trilogy is its portrayal of the ease with which England slips into fascism, anti-Semitism, and official brutality. Given the rise of anti-immigrant movements in England (and all across the Continent), and the emergence of a rigid and intolerant Right in the US, it’s not difficult to imagine how this might have come about. When democracy comes under pressure, government creates scapegoats for its failures (Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, immigrants), begins the march toward totalitarianism (mass surveillance in the US, ubiquitous CCTV cameras in England), and edges ever closer to a complete rejection of the values on which its Constitution is based.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Here’s a thought-provoking new take on Nazi Germany and World War II that combines a murder mystery with science fiction.
It’s 1949. Eight years earlier, Rudolf Hess had made his way to the United Kingdom to offer a peace settlement — and a British Cabinet member known as Lord Thirkie followed up with a flight to Berlin to meet Hitler personally. His mission led to a quick agreement in the spring of 1941, before Hitler’s planned invasion of the USSR and nearly a year before the USA would have entered the war. Nazi Germany, now unchallenged in the West, occupies the Continent from Gibraltar to Kiev, as fighting rages on between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union — eight years after the invasion.
In Britain, the effects of the peace have been profound. Anti-Semitism reigns, enthusiastically promoted by the country’s leading newspapers. Winston Churchill has been voted out of office and replaced, not with a Socialist, but with another Conservative. With elections looming again, the question on everyone’s mind is whether Lord Thirkie’s circle — a tightly knit cabal of titled Right-Wingers known as the Farthing Set — will capture 10 Downing Street. Even before the election, they’re championing a bill in Parliament that would allow only university graduates to vote.
Surrounded by a battalion of servants, Lord Thirkie and his “set” are gathered for a country weekend at the country home of Lord and Lady Eversley, located near a village that gives the Farthing Set its name. Suddenly one night Lord Thirkie is murdered — and suspicion points to a Jewish banker married to Lucy, the hosts’ rebellious daughter.
Farthing tells the tale of the investigation undertaken by Inspector Carmichael and Sergeant Royston of Scotland Yard. In alternating chapters, we view the action through the eyes of Lucy and the Inspector. The plot appears to be a straightforward drawing-room whodunit — but it’s not.
If you enjoy reading English murder mysteries — or if you’re simply attracted to the alternate history, as I was — you’re likely to love this book.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Every five years now the former South African journalist Rennie Airth brings out another novel about John Madden, an English police detective whose life spans the two World Wars. In The Reckoning, Airth’s fourth book, Madden has long since retired to his farm in the south of England with Helen, his devoted physician wife. It’s 1947, with much of London still in ruins from the Blitz, rationing of food and gasoline remaining in place, and the new Labour government preparing legislation for the National Health Service.
Not for the first time, Madden is drawn out of retirement into a baffling new murder case in the countryside. His former protege, Billy Styles, now a Detective Inspector himself, has turned up a letter on the desk of the victim that mentions Madden for no discernible reason. Naturally, the reason lies hidden at the heart of the tale, slowly coming into focus as Styles, Madden, and their colleagues pursue the investigation. It soon becomes evident that a link exists between this and a homicide hundreds of miles to the north in Scotland, and, quickly thereafter, a third murder extends the pattern. As the inquiry unfolds, more and more police resources are brought into play, including not only Styles’ boss and his boss’ boss at Scotland Yard but Madden’s own former “guv’nor” and friend there, retired to a neighboring property.
The plot, with roots in both World Wars, is suspenseful and fascinating, but even greater rewards in The Reckoning are to be found in Airth’s meticulous description of the methods employed by the police in that era. Unlike so many police procedurals, which are typically written to lionize law enforcement, Airth describes the investigation, warts and all, with sometimes lazy and incompetent officers, weasel-like superiors, slow-moving bureaucracies, and other inevitable features of a complex, real-world case.
The Reckoning works as historical fiction, too. Airth, who lived through much of the time about which he writes — he was born in 1935 — succeeds in conjuring up the concerns and preoccupations of post-war England and of the wartime scenes that are central to the tale.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Consider the challenge facing a writer who sets out to write a series of detective novels. How can he (or she) develop a protagonist who will stand out from all the other fictional detectives, lodge himself (or herself) in readers’ minds, and enter the Detectives Hall of Fame along with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Inspector Thomas Lynley, Kinsey Millhone, Jules Maigret, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Miss Marple? (See brief descriptions of these ten famous characters here.)
Put yourself in his (her) place. For starters, you could give him experience of some sort that provides the basis for a career as an investigator — say, for example, years as a cop in the Army. You might want to spice up the story by making him the comeuppance of a liaison between an A-list rock star and a druggie woman gone off the rails. Some sort of distinguishing physical characteristic might help, too, perhaps a prosthetic leg as a result of an encounter with a land mine in Afghanistan. The backstory also needs to explain why your detective is living alone in his shabby office; let’s say his crazy, gorgeous, on-again, off-again girlfriend has finally pushed him over the edge with her lying and her antics after sixteen years of misery. Finally, your newly-hatched detective will need a memorable name, so he might as well be called Cormoran Strike, his first name snatched from a giant in Welsh legend in the land of his boyhood, his surname . . . well, let’s just say it calls to mind a process similar to whatever it was that gave an actor the screen name Rip Torn.
Strike and his eager young assistant, Robin Ellacott, are mired in the rush of routine investigative business — mostly, tracking unfaithful husbands and cheating wives — that followed their headline-grabbing success in solving the murder of a supermodel. So, when a dowdy middle-aged woman wanders into the office asking for help in finding her husband more than a week after he disappeared, Strike jumps at the chance even though he can see no prospect of getting paid for the work: it’s a relief simply to be working for someone with seemingly pure motives.
The missing husband turns out to be a famously eccentric novelist named Owen Quine. (Where does she get these names?) Quine has a reputation as a misanthrope with never a kind word to say about anyone. He is also an unrepentant womanizer who has disappeared for days on end in the past. However, this time Quine’s disappearance has followed on the delivery of his masterwork, a novel with the confounding title Bombyx mori (the Latin name for the silkworm). Convinced that Quine’s disappearance is somehow connected to the novel, Strike dives into the web of tense relationships that defined the writer’s life: his formidable agent, his editor, his publisher, his girlfriend, and a famous writer with whom Quine was close early in his career. Eccentricities abound in this literary showcase, affording the author numerous opportunities for satire of a realm she knows too well.
Fearing the worst, Strike stumbles across Quine’s mutilated body, and the stakes multiply. Scotland Yard strongly believes that Quine’s widow is the killer. Strike can’t convince the police that murder is entirely alien to her character and circumstances. Working with Robin and with assorted friends and family members, Strike must identify the killer. As a reader, you know he’ll do so — but what fun along the way! You’ll be kept guessing until the end.
When more than 450 million copies have sold of your first seven novels, what can you do for your next act? That’s easy, right? You tackle a different genre under a pseudonym! What could be more natural?
Eschewing the fame she gained with the Harry Potter series, and sidestepping the disappointing reception for her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, Rowling created Cormoran Strike and published a story about him, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Even before her identity as the author was revealed, the book gained strong reviews but the praise gushed and sales spiked only after a software analyst working for The Sunday Times unmasked her by studying the word usage and syntax of her writing.
My review of The Cuckoo’s Calling is posted here. The Silkworm is the second in what Rowling says will be a series of seven detective novels.
As I followed private investigator Vish Puri and his team through the streets of Jaipur in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, it suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of what I’ve learned about life and culture in other countries has come from my reading of detective fiction. And, given the depth of research conducted by so many of my favorite crime writers, I suspect this isn’t such a bad way to learn about the world around me. So, apart from Puri’s engaging series set in India, here are some of the other countries I’ve visited through the skills of mystery writers.
After excursions to Australia and Thailand, Jo Nesbo‘s brilliant, alcoholic detective, Harry Hole, sticks to home for most of his career, depicted in a series of masterful crime novels set in Oslo. To start with one of the best, read Nemesis.
Alexander McCall Smith immerses the reader in the laid-back civility of Botswana through the continuing exploits of Mma Precious Ramotswe in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, providing a fascinating vantage-point on the only former colony in sub-Saharan Africa to have avoided military coups or civil war. The 14th novel in the series, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, is an excellent effort.
The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill introduces the first of the nine fascinating tales of the investigations undertaken by Dr. Siri Paiboun, the #1 (and only) coroner in the Communist government of the People’s Republic of Laos — in 1976.
To my mind, much of the best work from the popular thriller writer Olen Steinhauer appears in his five-novel cycle set in a mythical Eastern European country during the five decades of its life under Communism, with one book per decade. 36 Yalta Boulevard is the third in the series. They’re all great.
In the Inspector Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh, you can view the workings of politics in Scotland’s capital and the interplay of the criminal underworld with the city’s establishment — noting in the process just how different is Scottish society from the English. Saints of the Shadow Bible is the most recent.
Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the creation of John Burdett, guides us through the rotten underbelly of Bangkok, with its ever-present sex for sale and police officers moonlighting as drug kingpins. Start with the first in the series, Bangkok 8, which I read and enjoyed immensely before I bought a Kindle and began writing reviews for this blog.
Benjamin Black (in reality, the celebrated novelist Irish John Banville) made news recently with the publication of The Black-Eyed Blonde, bringing Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, back to life. However, to date, his principal foray into crime fiction are the six books in his novels about Quirke, the coroner of Dublin in the 1950s. Check out Holy Orders to sample Black’s superlative prose and immerse yourself in the life on Dublin’s streets.
Racing through the streets of Moscow, Senior Investigator Arkady Renko explores crime-ridden post-Soviet Russia in Martin Cruz Smith’s superb and beautifully researched novels. To engage with Renko at his contemporary best, read Wolves Eat Dogs.
Henning Mankell’s alter ego, small-town police detective Kurt Wallender, probes the dark recesses of Swedish society, exploring the widespread racism, alcoholism, and depression. The Troubled Man was the tenth and last entry in this supremely satisfying series.
Elizabeth George’s series of novels about Inspector Thomas Lynley provides a window on English society, both in London, where Lynley is based at New Scotland Yard, and in the countryside, where he and his investigative team are called so often to tackle the country’s toughest murder cases. Just One Evil Act is George’s latest effort in the series. It’s set in Tuscany as well as England.
Well, not present-day Turkey but one of its imperial predecessors, the Ottoman Empire of the mid-19th century, the setting for Jason Goodwin’s award-winning series featuring Yashim the Eunuch. I started with The Bellini Card. Every one of these series of detective novels is well worth reading for sheer enjoyment. Yet they all help illuminate the world we live in.
If, like me, you’re a big fan of detective fiction and other mysteries and thrillers, you might enjoy 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Picking up a new entry in the Inspector Thomas Lynley series is like revisiting an old friend — in fact, a whole coterie of old friends, with all their quirks and characteristics intact. In Just One Evil Act, the eighteenth novel in the series, Elizabeth George affords us a long yet none too leisurely visit with Lynley, but even more so with his long-lasting partner in crime investigation, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.
Havers is a piece of work. With a body shaped like a barrel, and a wardrobe that any self-respecting Salvation Army store would be likely to reject out of hand, Havers is anything but a typical police officer. She also swears freely and routinely disregards orders — not just those from Lynley, who has proven to be endlessly forgiving, but from Lynley’s boss, Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, who is decidedly less so.
Havers’ life revolves around her job with Lynley and, in any time that’s left over from work, a bright and charming nine-year-old girl named Hadiyyah Azhar, who lives with her father in an adjoining house. Now Hadiyyah has been spirited off by her mother to a place unknown, and Barbara is as frantic as the little girl’s father. Disregard for procedure leads to insubordination and ultimately to outright rebellion as Barbara enters upon a search for the girl that takes Lynley and later her to Lucca, a picture-book medieval town in Tuscany in northern Italy. Along the way she finds herself figuratively in bed with an unscrupulous tabloid reporter (is there any other kind?), an English private detective with the morals of a fruit fly, and a brilliant Italian police inspector.
Elizabeth George, who is after all a Texan and not English, does a terrific job conveying the way of life at New Scotland Yard. She appears to put on an equally creditable performance in showing how the very quirky Italian justice system works. But she uses Italian rather more freely than an English-speaker with no knowledge of Romance languages might like. My Spanish helped me some, but I found a lot of the dialogue in Italy just as confusing as it was for Barbara Havers.
Just One Evil Act isn’t the very best of George’s Inspector Lynley novels, but it’s a worthy addition to the series. The characters behave in believable ways, lending depth to what we’ve previously known about them, and the suspense holds until the end. It’s a good, solid read.