Darkness, take my hand (Kenzie/Gennaro No. 2), by Dennis Lehane

In the second of the Kenzie-Gennaro series Patrick and Angie are hired by a psychiatrist to keep an eye on her son, against whom the boyfriend of a client has made some unsubtle threats. What starts as a relatively straightforward babysitting job quickly degenerates into something much more nightmarish.

Key elements of this story, not least Patrick’s prison cell confrontation with a serial killer, are reminiscent of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon – but this is Red Dragon from the perspective of the hunted with none of the risible anti-hero worship that became a central theme of the treatment of Hannibal Lecter in that series. Here the killers and their sub-Nietzchean notions are treated with the contempt they deserve.

There is a welcome reduction in wise-cracking in this novel compared to the first novel of the series, A Drink Before the War: a consequence, perhaps, of the characters aging disproportionately as a result of having survived their experiences in the earlier novel. Like its predecessor this novel is underpinned by Catholic notions of good, evil and redemption in situations where even hope is hard to see amid the violence.

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A Drink before the War (Kenzie/Gennaro No. 1), by Dennis Lehane

Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are Boston private investigators operating out of an office in a church belfry in Dorchester. They get hired to undertake a seemingly easy case from three Massachusetts politicians: find a former cleaning woman who has stolen some sensitive documents from them. Of course the case turns out to be considerably less straightforward and vastly more dangerous than it initially appears.

This is the first of the celebrated Kenzie/Gennaro series and its voice, and that of Patrick, the narrator, is noticeably younger, certainly more wise-ass, than later novels of this series and later of Lehane’s other novels. In spite of this the novel offers a serious consideration of racial tensions in the Boston of the early 1990s in the guise of a very satisfying crime thriller. Typical of Lehane’s work it is run through with a strong sense of place and a Greene Catholic sensibility contemplating right, wrong and trying to discern the lesser of the evils in the midst of the routinised violence of poverty and criminal activity.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you – Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane

Two US marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, arrive at Ashcliffe hospital for the Criminally Insane on Shutter Island in Boston Harbour to search for an escaped child murderess, Rachel Solando. Teddy has a personal reason for wanting to be on the island: He knows this is where the man who killed his wife, Andrew Laedis, is imprisoned.

In Shutter Island Lehane uses a similar device to one he previously used in Gone Baby, Gone: the first three quarters of the book are a procedural as Chuck and Teddy conduct their hunt for the missing Rachel. In the final quarter the true nature of what has been going on is revealed.

There is some debt to Sophicles’ Oedipus Rex in this novel as Teddy finds his investigation coming closer to home than he could possibly have imagined. The result is a compelling novel with the final twists elegantly delivered.

A story from behind the statistics – Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French

In 1937 the body of a young western woman, Pamela Werner, was found brutally murdered in Peking. An investigation was launched by Chinese police with British support but the murderer was never arrested and the crime was soon forgotten in the midst of the cataclysm of the second world war that engulfed China and the world thereafter.

Paul French, the author of this book, in the course of researching the case found that after the police investigation wound up, having been obstructed throughout by a combination of bureaucratic corruption, racism, sexual hypocrisy and imperial pretensions, Pamela’s father conducted his own enquiries. These uncovered significant new evidence including, almost certainly, the identity of the murderer and the circumstances of Pamela’s death. The resulting book is a gripping non-fiction procedural which gives fascinating insight into Peking, and particularly its foreign community and foreign underclass of white Russian emigres and multinational adventurers and criminals, in the last days before the Japanese take-over.

Pamela’s death was, of course, just one of millions that would occur between the invasion of Manchuria and the bombing of Nagasaki. But the author is right to single it out: in focusing on the life and horrific death of one fiesty young woman we are reminded that her story is a dreadfully ordinary one and representative of tens of thousands of others who in peacetime fall victim the way Pamela did.

To say more would be to give too much away. Suffice to say that Paul French has produced a fine narrative of a single criminal case of the sort that remains horrifically commonplace over 70 years since Pamela’s awful death on a cold Peking night.

A Man Without Breath, by Phillip Kerr

Bernie Gunther reckons that his life should be marginally easier now that Czech and Slovak patriots have done him, and humanity, the great favour of assassinating his erstwhile boss, Reinhard Heydrich, a recurrent source of his prior misadventures.

However in the forests of Katyn on the Eastern Front the German Army has stumbled upon a set of mass graves. Remarkably these don’t appear to be the work of the Nazis, but rather might answer the vexing question of what has become of all the Polish officers captured by the Nazi’s former Soviet allies when they dismembered Poland between them in 1939.

So Goebbels, intent on pinning these murders on Stalin and showing the world that it is not just Germany that has the programme of war crimes and genocide, needs a detective to help sort out the evidence and make sure that the bodies they are digging up are indeed the right ones. Hence Bernie is shipped out to the German army halted for winter in Belarus while it awaits an oncoming Soviet offensive in springtime.

Things are complicated further by Bernie stumbling into the machination of some anti-Nazi officers in the German Army trying to put an end to Hitler, and person or persons unknown trying to put an end to Bernie.

Gunther would be a compelling character in any novel but the effect is considerably enhanced in the context of the German State and Army in the midst of the Second World War: much as Bernie would like to be a decent man it becomes increasingly difficult in the bloody lunacy of war and the evil bureaucracy of the state. The series reinforces the point, chillingly detailed by Timothy Synder in his history of the Bloodlands where this story occurs, that atrocities, then as now, are committed by ordinary human beings abandoning their consciences, the constraints of law, and ordinary human decency, to supposed higher ideals. This philosophical seriousness combined with the nightmarish setting, a twisty plot and the wry observations of Bernie make the book a delight from start to finish.

A henchman’s eye view: Prague Fatale, by Philip Kerr

pragueAfter the sprawling odyssey of Field Gray, the previous novel in this series, this book takes on the more intimate template of an Agatha Christie “country house murder” – except this country house is owned by a mass murderer, filled with mass murderers and the victim himself is a mass murderer.

The country house is Heydrich’s and he is hosting a weekend party for a group of senior SS officers. Into this mix he draws the narrator, Bernie Gunther, a Berlin detective of Social Democratic and anti-Nazi sympathies, who has managed to keep (relatively) clean hands despite his time in the killing fields of the East. Heydrich wants Gunther to join his bodyguard when the murder occurs, and, as Gunther acknowledges, he is not really a man you can refuse. Hence, as well as investigating a murder amongst murderers, Gunther becomes witness to the beginnings of Heydrich’s reign of terror in the Czech lands (before his just dispatch by the Czechoslovak patriots Kubis and Gabcik, as detailed so brilliantly in Laurent Binet’s stunning novel HHhH). prague night

Gunther is an attractive narrator – wryly witty and historically knowledgeable, though morally questionable, as he himself painfully recognises. Hence as well as being a compelling thriller this book (as does Field Grey) offers some detailed insights into the Nazi regime and Germany’s prosecution of the Second World War. Its a fine, exciting and, at times, poignant novel that, importantly, tries to show the human face and nature of some history’s monsters.

Hard boiled all the way through: Where The Dead Lay (Frank Behr series No. 2), by David Levien

indy-downtownFrank Behr, Indianapolis private investigator and protagonist of David Levien’s previous novel “City of the Sun”, investigates the murder of one of his few friends, Aurelio, a jiu jitsu trainer and former mixed martial arts champion. The investigation leads him into contact with a local family of criminals with ambitions to establish themselves, through ferocious violence, in the big leagues.

Behr has many attractive features as a character – courage, loyalty and intelligence to start with, but he is also morose, humourless, angry, emotionally distant and rather inarticulate on any subject other than armed or unarmed combat. These are believable and understandable characteristics for a person with his life history, but they do not make him the most enjoyable protagonist to spend a novel with.

The plot is some consolation, and there is a significant compulsion for the reader to see how all the pieces fit together. However there isn’t that much else: one learns little of the city (Indianapolis) in which the novel is set, or contemplate few moral dilemmas that may be associated with the investigation of violent crime perpetrated by professional criminals. Still its an entertaining, though violent, crime novel, good for a bleak holiday.