Dark Fire, by C J Sansom

In the course of an apparently hopeless effort to defend a young woman on a charge of murdering her cousin, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake receives some unexpected help from Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief minister: a 12 day postponement on the case to allow him time to marshal a proper defence. In return Cromwell, requires Shardlake to undertake an investigation on his behalf: to locate the formula and means of making Greek Fire, the legendary incendiary weapon of the Byzantine empire. This is rumoured to have been discovered in the library of a monastery that Cromwell’s philistine policies have had vandalised in the course of the Dissolutions.

C J Sansom, the author, is both a historian and a lawyer, as well as a novelist. So this book, the second in his series about Shardlake, is rich in detail both of the political and religious controversies and the legal practices of the time. Shardlake, and so presumably Sansom himself, considers Cromwell as the lesser of evils that could befall the English state, but doesn’t skip over the atrocities the man was capable of: Shardlake’s memory of how Cromwell had a Catholic priest slow-roasted to death is a particularly chilling passage in the book.

In spite of the careful attention to historical detail Shardlake is the very model of a modern Londoner: humane and rational, his best friend, Guy, a Catholic physician and apothecary of Moorish origin, his side kick, Barak, a secular Jew. As such he is a companionable guide to the mad slaughterhouse that was Henry VIII’s London, a place more like a European Saudi Arabia, or Islamic State (DAESH), than the place we are familiar with in the 21st Century.

The result is a gripping and unusual crime novel, as Shardlake and Barak grapple with the parallel mysteries of a child murder and Greek Fire. I look forward to the rest of the series.

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The Red Coffin, by Sam Eastland

imageInspector Pekkala is an honest cop in Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. So Stalin gives him the job of finding the truth behind the grisly death of the head of the Soviet programme to develop a new tank, the T34, or, as the test drivers have begun to call it, the Red Coffin.

The idea of the honest investigator in a corrupt world is not a new one: Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe was conceived of as a knight errant updated to his contemporary Los Angeles. More recently Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, JK Rowling’s Commoran Strike, and Martin Cruz Smith’s great creation Arkady Renko walk similar paths.

What makes Pekkala different is his milieu, that of Stalinist Russia, and Eastland clearly knows this subject well: One comic-dreadful moment is when Stalin sends for an officer he desperately needs only to discover he has already forgotten that he has had the man liquidated.

The resulting book is highly entertaining, but I am not sure wholly convincing. The notion that Stalin would keep a few honest men about is not completely beyond the bounds of credibility: Stalin tolerated Zhukov, for example, because he knew he needed his genius to fight the Nazis.

So the idea underpinning this book is that in the increasing paranoia and terror of Stalin’s purges Pekkala, formerly a special investigator for the Tsar, is kept about for the moments when Stalin needs the truth, not just scapegoats. I am not sure that the relationship between the two would develop to such an extent that anyone would ever feel comfortable about carrying out a practical joke on the psychotic tyrant though.

The resolution of the mystery is also a bit disappointing, arriving in an series of unforced confessions. However a confrontation with a tank on the Polish border at the climax does redeem the book somewhat.

Overall it’s an entertaining book, and the characters of Pekkala and his sidekick Kirov are engaging enough to want to return to the series.

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

IMG_0259The Silkworm is the second in “Galbraith’s” Cormoran Strike series, following the investigations of the disabled ex-military police investigator as he establishes his private detective practice in central London.

In this book Strike is approached by the wife of an author who has gone missing. Having become somewhat jaded by his caseload of shadowing cheating spouses and corrupt city folk the challenge of a missing person case piques Strike’s interest. So, despite limited prospect of payment, he takes the case.

The milieu of literary London is clearly one that Rowling knows well and much of the plot of the book hinges on an unpublished roman-a-clef by the missing author who has decided to settle a few personal scores by taking swipes at those who have done him wrong over the years. One wonders if Rowling herself has included a few zingers at folk she has taken umbrage with in the past. Whether she has or not, as with her Harry Potter series, she doesn’t let anything get in the way a satisfyingly twisty plot with healthy dashes of humour and an elegant resolution.

It was good news when JK Rowling mentioned the other week that she has seven novels planned for the series. I look forward to seeing how it, and the relationship between Strike and his sidekick Robin develops. Strike, shopworn, world weary, grumpy and wry, is already threatening to become London’s answer to Moscow’s Arkady Renko, or Berlin’s Bernie Gunther

Comfort to the Enemy, and other Carl Webster stories, by Elmore Leonard

IMG_0183Comfort to the Enemy is a book of two short stories and a novella, all focussing on Leonard’s character Carlos Webster, United States Marshall, and star of another Leonard novel, The Hot Kid.

This book starts with a short story recounting Webster’s first encounter with hoodlums in his teens and ends with the novella, Comfort to the Enemy, in which he, sort of, investigates a killing at a German prisoner of war camp in Oklahoma.

Carl is a Western archetypal ideal: taciturn, polite, smart and extremely gifted in the art of violence. He is strikingly similar to another Leonard character of a later era, Raylan Givens, the marshall protagonist of the glorious television series Justified, though with an altogether more settled family life – one could never imagine Carl’s upright and sympathetic father Virgil ever trying to kill him – and a less fraught relationship with booze.

The two short stories, Showdown at Checotah, and Louly and Pretty Boy, and the novella Comfort to the Enemy, are lovely exemplars of Leonard’s spare and laconic storytelling style, gently compelling, funny and exciting by turns. Great stuff!

The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen

keeperIn 2007 Copenhagen a post-traumatically stressed cop who is getting on the nerves of his colleagues is kicked upstairs (actually to an office in the basement) to head a new cold-case unit for all of Denmark. The unit is comprised of himself, a car and an assistant, a refugee Arab, ostensibly from Syria, called Assad.

So as to be seen to be doing something the cop, Carl, with the encouragement of Assad, who begins to display remarkable initiative as well as unexplained investigative talents, start looking into the disappearance in 2002 of a young female politician. Their motivation is that of all the cases they could look into this is the only one they vaguely remember.

The book alternates between this apparently hopeless 2007 investigation, and the experiences, beginning in 2002 of the politician, Merete, and her efforts to survive and stay sane in the face of an apparently senseless kidnapping.

The three central characters of Merete, Carl and Assad are well drawn and hugely likeable. And so as the two stories converge in 2007 worry for how things will turn out for them builds considerable tension.

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a gripping and hugely satisfying piece of work, the start of a series featuring the cold case unit, nicknamed Department Q. It is a series I look forward to reading more of.

My introduction to Spenser: A Savage Place, and Sudden Mischief, by Robert B Parker

I picked up the first of these novels on my holidays in Massachusetts because I wanted to read something associated with the place I was staying.

That was my first mistake. Robert B Parker’s Spenser novels are the most addictive reading this side of Harry Potter, and the other side as well. Each novel rapidly pulls the reader via a threat of elegant, uncluttered writing, into a tangled plot, generally set somewhere in the dark underbelly of the American dream.

My second mistake was picking up A Savage Place, in which Spenser travels to Los Angeles to provide protection to a TV reporter investigating corruption and racketeering in the movie industry.

So I had to start reading Sudden Mischief immediately after I finished A Savage Place, because it is set in Spenser’s more traditional Boston milieu where he is asked by his lover, Susan, to look into the tangled affairs of her ex-husband.

That was my third mistake: By this stage I had become so uncommunicative with my nose stuck in a Spenser book at every opportunity for days on end that my travelling companions threatened grievous sanctions on me if I didn’t declare a moratorium on reading them until I got home.

Spenser, a man with only one name, is a gumshoe in the classic traditions of Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer and the rest, a contemporary knight errant (or ronin if that’s your bag), smart, tough as nails, wise – many of his ruminations on life contain a genuine profundity – an incorruptible being in an otherwise venial world… and funny: not Abe Lincoln but a droll wit particularly when chewing the fat with his buddy, Hawk.

Robert B Parker died in 2010 but he left behind 40 Spenser novels: I sense they may lead me to ruin other people’s future holidays.

The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane

This book is something of a departure for Dennis Lehane: while still set, primarily, in Boston and in a police milieu, it is an historical novel rather than a crime one: Calvin Coolidge, Jack Reed, Jim Larkin and Eugene O’Neill, amongst other historical characters have walk on parts, with Babe Ruth acting as something of a comic chorus on the real events described.

The novel follows a Boston cop, Danny Coughlin, through the Spanish ‘flu pandemic and an investigation into anarchist bombers at the end of the First World War in parallel with the efforts to establish a police union and improve working conditions for the police of the city. The irony of the police role in strike breaking during this era, while themselves being dreadfully exploited and demanding improved labour rights, is explored in some detail.

After years writing African American characters on The Wire, this is the first Lehane novel, to my recollection, with a major black protagonist: Luther Laurence. His travails over the course of the year when the book is set give some insight to the nascent civil rights struggle and throw a stark light on racist violence in the US at the beginning of the Twentieth Century: some of the descriptions of anti-black pogroms during this period foreshadow later atrocities in Eastern Europe, (such as many of those described in Timothy Snyder’s magisterial “Bloodlands”).

The novel further echoes The Wire in its multi-dimensional portrayal of a city from its ordinary black citizens, to the beat cops and their commanders, to the feuding between the mayor’s office and the governor’s mansion.

Luther, Danny and Nora, the Coughlin family housekeeper, are hugely likeable characters and their personal stories help illuminate a little known part of history, with the warmth between them softening some of the bleakness of the historical events. This is a gripping novel, beautifully written, and one of Lehane’s finest.