An Evil Eye, by Jason Goodwin

 An Evil Eye is the fourth book in Jason Goodwin’s series about Yashim, an official in the Ottoman Court of the 19th Century with a particular penchant for investigation. A eunuch, butchered as a teenager by the enemies of his father, his status means he is privileged access to the harem as well as the city and so is frequently entrusted with some of the Court’s more sensitive enquiries.

In this book a body is found in the water tank of an Orthodox monastery outside of Istanbul bringing with it the suspicion that perfidious Christians have murdered a Muslim. Yashim is sent to investigate and hopefully stave off an ugly incident. Of course the body is merely the tip of a much more dangerous and labyrinthine plot that threatens the entire stability of the Ottoman State.

Jason Goodwin is an historian. He has written an earlier history of the Ottoman Empire, and so knows his stuff. This is one of the greatest pleasures of his books – he transports the reader to bustle of 19th Century Istanbul and Yashim is an elegant and erudite guide through its diversity. Yashim is not only a man of action but also a polyglot and cook – I was inspired, with modest success, to attempt three of his culinary efforts over the course of reading this book.

 In his investigations Yashim is assisted by his close friend Palewski, the Polish Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Of course at the time in which the book is set Poland doesn’t exist, subsumed by the empires of the “Great Powers”. But the Ottoman Empire insists on maintaining the embassy of its old enemy. At the very least it annoys the Russians. Palewski also has one of the best lines I’ve come across in while: “If you go on saying and believing the same things for long enough, the world will eventually come around.” That should be a motto for anyone who has ever strived for a more humane world.

I must confess that for the fourth time reading one of Yashim’s adventures I am still not very clear on what happened. I think this, to an extent, is a result of quite complex plots with a myriad of characters and various strands running from the harems to the Court, to the international embassies and their spies and diplomats, to the back streets and waterfronts of Istanbul. Perhaps I should simply be paying closer attention to the final pages of the book.

In spite of these reservations I will be picking up the next instalment of the adventures of Yashim and Palewski. They are tales of escapism like few others.

The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnston (Walt Longmire #1)

Walt Longmire is a mess. Three years widowed, he lives out of cardboard boxes in the house he half-completed with his wife. And he is marking time until his term finishes in his job, sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming, Cheyenne Country.  

Fortunately for Walt, his friend Henry Standing Bear decides to take him in hand and help him get his life back together. This happens just as the body of a kid, Cody Pritchard, shows up dead, killed by a gunshot that could, maybe, have been the result of a hunting accident. But when the death is recognised as no hunting accident a further problem arises: the abundance of folk who had a motive to kill the wastrel, a convicted and unrepentant rapist of a young Cheyenne girl, who got away without serving much time because of his youth. Furthermore, as the Cheyenne girl in question is Henry’s niece, and the gunshot in question was one that only maybe half a dozen folk in Absaroka County, including Henry, could manage, Walt has to start considering, reluctantly, just how well he knows his friend.

The Cold Dish is about a lot of things, not just murder and investigation. It is about depression and ageing. It’s about the relationships between the Native American and settler communities in the West. It’s about friendship and spirituality. It’s about the legacies of the conquest of the Cheyenne and their dogged resistance. And its about revenge, the dish best served cold, or not served at all maybe.

Along with Walt and Henry the cast of characters in the book are particularly well drawn and there is great warmth and humour in the midst of the bitter winter vistas in which much of the action takes place. It is a potent combination of narrative, reflection and character that has made the Longmire series such a success. Once visited, it is difficult to imagine not wanting to return to Absaroka County.

Sixkill, by Robert B Parker

IMG_0424 Ah Spenser! We have been too long apart!

This time he is corralled by his police captain buddy, Martin Quirk, to investigate a suspected rape-murder by a Hollywood actor, Jumbo Wilson. Quirk is worried that Jumbo is being unfairly railroaded for the killing, and constrained by police politics from investigating more properly he asks Spenser to have a look. In spite of the fact that Jumbo is an A-list arsehole, Quirk baulks at the thought to imprisoning an innocent man.

Okay! So the premise for this Spenser story is a mite implausible. But that is not why you pick up a Spenser novel. No: Spenser is one of that long tradition of gumshoes who owe more to La Morte d’Arthur than Serpico. He is an honourable man of violence fighting for justice in spite of the cost even though no one else particularly cares. And the ensuing events prompted by Spenser’s investigation provide a violently entertaining excursion through a nexus of Hollywood and criminal underworlds.

In this novel Hawk is off in Central Asia for no apparent reason (I presume his own series?) so Spenser picks up another side kick, Zebulon Sixkill of the title (“Call me Z!”), a young Cree at rock bottom in his life but looking to be better. The warmth of the ensuing friendship and their humorous philosophising are a particular pleasure: when warning about the risks associated with a confrontation with a notably homicidal gangster Spenser tells Sixkill “he may bring others.”

“So did Custer”.

Sixkill is another great chapter in the Spenser pantheon, one of the most addictive detective series I have ever come across.

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.

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!