Small Vices, by Robert B Parker

Summary: Spenser on sparkling form

Spenser’s pal, the high-flying lawyer Rita Fiore, hires him to look into the conviction of a black man, Ellis Alves. Alves, a petty criminal with a history of sexual violence, has been sent to prison for the apparent sexual murder of a young student. The thing is, Alves, unpleasant a human being as ever there was, might not have actually done it.

Spenser starts poking about in the case with his usual mixture of insight and irreverence and finds the cases against Alves to be a bit on the fishy side. All the more so when folk start showing up threatening to do him violence for asking questions in the wrong places. In this instance, however, the violence that they are threatening may, for once, be more than Spenser can handle, even with the capable assistance of his buddy, Hawk.

Parker’s Spenser is a great creation – smart, kind and tough in equal measures, in the mould of the classic knight errant of American gumshoe literature, dwelling amidst a great community of characters, cops and crooks alike. This is a particularly satisfying episode in his literary career, when he finds himself faced with an opponent who may be his martial superior. All in all, a  great episode in the Spenser canon.

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The Pale Criminal, by Philip Kerr

Summary: A bleak tale of serial murder as the Nazis prepare to liquidate Berlin’s reputation for toleration

It’s 1938 and Bernie Gunther is enjoying a decent living in Berlin as a private detective, blackmail and missing persons a speciality. Unfortunately Reinhard Heydrich has not forgotten him. He press-gangs Bernie back into the police to oversee the investigation into an apparent serial killer, one who is butchering Aryan schoolgirls in a manner that bears striking resemblance to what anti-Semitic propaganda portrays as Jewish ritual blood sacrifice.

I didn’t enjoy this particular outing of Bernie Gunther as much as others in the series. Perhaps it was the bleakness of the subject matter. Perhaps it was the violence of the plot. Perhaps it was that the portrayal of life in the tolerant capital of a state that has set itself on a path to self-destruction through its surrender to atavistic racism felt a bit close to the bone in post-Brexit London. Perhaps it was the way the recurrent invocation of “the will of the people” by the Nazi characters as justification for their every squalid deed that bothered me: it was like spending my leisure time with a bunch of moronic Brexiteers invading my reading. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things.

Aside from this there is still much to recommend the novel, its labyrinthine plot reflecting the tortuous descent into evil of the nation in which it is set; its detailed historical research and well drawn characters, even the monster Heydrich is recognisably human. And of course it has at its centre Bernie Gunther as our guide: morally compromised, lonely, and striving to be decent. In spite of all he remains likeable and with a firm grip on his flawed humanity. Still one of the greatest literary detectives.

Lamentation, by CJ Sansom

img_1225Summary: Henry VIII really wasn’t a nice man. What could possibly go wrong if you upset him?

Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer protagonist of Sansom’s series of Tudor detective novels, is asked by the queen, Catherine Parr, to help with a most delicate matter. A book she has written, Lamentation of a Sinner, has disappeared from her private apartments. The book contains some ideas that the king, Henry VIII, might find heretical and hence could lead to her death, possibly by fire as a heretic.

Shardlake, smart, a bit grumpy, and tolerant is a compelling guide through the insanity of Tudor London. Here the idea of freedom of conscience is little known and life and death depend on being seen to be slavishly devoted to the whims of the king’s religious pronouncements. In this book Shardlake guides us through a labyrinthine plot involving multiple cases, complicated by suspicions of religious orthodoxy and multiple murderers with opaque motives and loyalties.

There is a pervasive sense of dread to this book. It is clear from the outset, a horrific multiple execution by burning, that even well-liked characters from earlier books are not safe, and skill, intelligence and decency are faint protections from the capricious cruelties of tyranny.

One bonus to this book is a detailed historical note at the end in which Sansom speculates on a range of historical issues – from the cause of Henry VIII bloating and death (untreated type 2 diabetes, Sansom reckons) to the fate of Catherine Parr. In this Sansom notes that Elizabeth I, as a child, was sexually abused by Thomas Seymour, Parr’s last husband. Disturbingly this sordid tale was turned into a romantic drama, Young Bess, in the 1950s. This led me to wonder what sort of sick mind would ever wish to turn the story of a child abuser into that of a romantic hero played by Stewart Granger?

The Shardlake novels are a fine portrayal of life in a theocratic police state, inviting us to imagine what life in such places may be like in the contemporary world, and reminding those of us lucky enough to live in the secular and more tolerant West, that we are not so far removed from the less tolerant societies that still disfigure our planet.

The Red Moth, by Sam Eastland

Summary: So, apart from the genocide, tyranny, and the purges, Stalin really wasn’t such a bad old stick

As the German Army is approaching the gates of Leningrad, a light aircraft is brought down by Russian troops. The couriers on board are carrying a painting of a red moth.

When news of this peculiar cargo reaches Stalin, his suspicion is aroused. So he summons his best investigator, Inspector Pekkala, to enquire into the meaning.

Inspector Pekkala is something of a literary cousin of Philip Kerr’s inspired creation Bernie Gunther, another honest detective in the midst of a monstrous system. However unlike Gunther, who is believably worn down over the years by violence and compromise, Pekkala seems almost superhumanly incorruptible: undiminished and undaunted, even in the face of Stalin’s rage.

The interplay between Pekkala and Stalin is very entertaining, but it did bother the history student in me. In these books Stalin comes across more as a stern police captain rather than the genocidist whose paranoid purges of his own military and bureaucracy brought his country to the brink of ruin. Yet both Pekkala, and his side kick Kirov, manage their intimate service to this psychotic in a way that keeps their hands clean, the consciences clear, and their integrity as human beings undimmed. This aspect of the story does demand that whatever structure the reader is suspending their disbelief from has to be stretched a bit further to cross this historical chasm.

This quibble aside, The Red Moth is a hugely entertaining excursion to the battlefields of the Eastern Front, and Eastland’s familiarity with the milieu of Stalinist Russia does paint an engaging portrait of life in those bloody times.

The Black House, by Peter May

A man is found murdered on Lewis, in the Scottish islands. The modus operandi of the killer is similar to that of a case that Fin McLeod, a Lewis native now a Detective Inspector, is investigating in Edinburgh. So Fin is sent North, returning home for the first time in 18 years, to see if he can be of any assistance to the police team investigating the Lewis case. What he finds reawakens a whole series of long suppressed memories. 

The Black House starts routinely (“There’s been a MURDER!”) enough as that classic trope: a police procedural with a flawed, troubled detective at its centre. But it quickly turns into something else. In significant part the book is about growing up, and a major portion of the book is told in the first person as Fin reminisces on his childhood, and the days leading up to his departure to university in Glasgow. This reminded me a lot of Seamus Deane’s sublime novel of childhood, family, politics and war in post-partition Derry, Reading in the Dark.   
Interspersed with this is the procedural part of the book, in the “present”, which is told in the third person. It is not at all clear until close to the end of the book just how these two parts relate to each other. But they ultimately merge very elegantly.

The Black House is the first part of a trilogy, and it is a hugely entertaining novel of life and crime, with a strikingly unusual setting in the Western Islands. I look forward to the rest of the series.

The Other Side of Silence, by Philip Kerr

It’s 1956 and Bernie Gunther, social democratic Berlin detective, and former whipping boy of Heydrich and Goebels, is living incognito on the French Rivera, working as a hotel consierge with only a regular bridge game by way of diversion. However, as usual, trouble, in the form of a former Gestapo acquaintance intent on blackmailing the English novelist, Somerset Maugham, finds Bernie.

While the main action in this novel relates to the Cold War, significant parts of what happens find their origin much deeper, in Nazi era Germany, and in particular the 1945 Battle of Königsberg that has featured in other novels of the series, in which Bernie was captured by the Soviets. For Bernie “the past is not dead, it is not even past,” as William Faulkner put it elsewhere.

The same can also be said for the character of Somerset Maugham in this novel, whose clandestine life as a British agent and as a homosexual comes back to haunt him.

The Bernie Gunther series is a particularly rich and wry meditation on history. This instalment is no exception, and as always Bernie remains an engaging guide though Europe’s shameful past. True he has become morally diminished by years of war and bloodshed, but he still struggles to hold on to a sense of humour and some modicum of basic human decency in the midst of it all. And that, sometimes, may be the best any of us can hope for.

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

img_0957A package is delivered by courier to Robin, the assistant of private detective Cormonon Strike. It contains not the wedding-related paraphernalia that Robin had been expecting, but a human leg.

When the police arrive they ask Strike whether he can think of anyone who would want to send him a human leg. No, answers Strike, I can think of three.

And so begins the third of the adventures of Strike and Robin, the protagonists of JK Rowling’s superb “Robert Galbraith” authored detective series. Strike and Robin remain compelling characters with their evolving friendship and work relationships as intriguing as the crimes they are investigating. But this particular investigation gets rather too close to home for comfort, stirring up elements of their personal histories that still haunt them.

It is at times a frightening and grizzly affair. In a series of chapters that intersperse the main narrative Rowling attempts the distasteful task of getting into the mind of a misogynistic serial killer. It is a brave and unsettling thing to do, and also, necessarily, deeply unpleasant. I was at times tempted to skip these chapters because of that. But they are important inclusions as Rowling seems determined that this book should not be simply a hugely entertaining procedural, but also one that does not allow the reader to lose sight of what disgusting things violence and misogyny are. In this there is a strong echo of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, though with a much less overt political agenda to Larsson.

Overall a great addition to a series that I hope will run and run.