Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Something a bit different from the great Tana French.  Instead of following detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, in The Witch Elm we have the perspective of the victims.  And perhaps the suspects (I'm still reading).  When some detectives do arrive, they sparkle.  I'm willing to say that no one writes a more captivating detective than she does.  (And the interrogations!  They remind me of the intensity of some of the scene in the box back on Homicide: Life on the Street, the great TV show.)

Normally I tear through every new book French writes but this time it has been slow going.  This book gets off to a slow start (it's good but it takes a long time to get to where we're going) and it's only at about the 33% mark that it starts to pick up speed.  (I am reading an advance digital copy and the formatting is terrible, one of my Kindles keeps starting me over every time, and the Adobe reader for iOS is perhaps the worst piece of software ever written.)  These technical glitches are breaking the spell that French normally puts one under.  But I can still tell The Witch Elm is magic.

Friday, July 27, 2018

I think I'm afraid of Stephen King

I have a confession to make: I'm a big fan of Stephen King but I've only read one Stephen King novel, The Dark Half.  I used to enjoy his column for Entertainment Weekly.  His Twitter feed is fantastic - full of good recommendations and interesting opinions.  I admire how his books have permeated the culture.  And he seems like a good guy.  But aside from reading the one book, a novella, a short story or two, and an unfinished experiment with electronic publishing he tried a long time ago (The Plant) I haven't read much of his work.

King is so popular that one does not necessarily need to read the books to know about them.  I know all about It, The Stand, Cujo, Carrie, Misery, Under the Dome, The Shawshank Redemption, and many others, all by osmosis.  For several years now I have been REALLY wanting to read him.  No more FOMO for me.  So I tried.

He has a new novel out called The Outsider.  I skimmed a review or two and it looked like a good crime novel (which is what I really love to read) so I thought I would give it a try.  I got a nice, fat, clean new copy from the library and tore into it.  Thought it was great.  I mentioned to a friend who is a big King fan what I was doing and she told me that I had to stop reading The Outsider and go back and read Mr. Mercedes, the first of a three book series he wrote about a retired detective named Bill Hodges, because it ties into The Outsider.  I was miffed but this person knows her stuff so I complied.

I got a grubby, yellowed copy of Mr. Mercedes from the library and started.  And it was pretty good.  Until I got to the part where Mr. Mercedes, a mass murderer, accidentally kills his mother with gopher poison-laced ground hamburger and I had to stop.  I thought people were having fun reading Stephen King novels.  This was terribly disturbing.

I put Mr. Mercedes to the side and will go back to it in a few weeks.  I suppose it is a testament to King's skill that he could provoke such strong feelings in me.  And I guess I can't say I wasn't warned, I mean, all of America knows he's the king of horror.  But still, it threw me for a loop.

PS: I just found out Mr. Mercedes is now a TV show.  And I just heard a review of another Stephen King TV series, Caste Rock.  Castle Rock is sort of a mash up of dozens of Stephen King villains and properties, sort of like the BBC did with Dickensian a few years ago.  It's truly amazing that King's body of work is so vast and so well known that it is not possible to create a new show out of parts of his books.  And it makes me wonder if 150 years from now Stephen King will be remembered the same way or as well as Charles Dickens is now.  This makes me want to go back to the books, as soon as I recover from Mr. Mercedes.

The Spy's Wife by Reginald Hill

All this talk about Russian spies (the Novichok attacks in the UK, the daily revelations about Trump and the Russians, the Putin summit, the arrest of a Russian spy in Washington who infiltrated the NRA, and the final series of the Russian spy drama The Americans) has made me want to read about spies again.

Not too long ago I picked up Felony and Mayhem Press's reissue of Reginald Hill's The Spy's Wife (which was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1981, though it lost out to Dick Francis's Whip Hand) and a few Sundays ago I sat down with a cup of tea and started it.  I know Hill is best known for his Dalziel and Pascoe series of police procedurals but I had never read him before.

The book opens with a housewife doing the dishes one morning when her journalist husband suddenly returns home from the train station, runs upstairs, returns with a small case, and drives off again, only saying to her, without any context, "I'm sorry."  She does not know what to make of this.  Half an hour later, a man rings her doorbell looking for her husband, Sam Keating, the defense corespondent for The New Technocrat.  This is when she learns that her husband is a spy and has probably defected.  This is a complete shock to her as she had no knowledge her husband was a Soviet spy.  The agents questioning her don't believe she could be married for so long to a spy and not suspect it and as they are questioning her, in the second interesting twist in the book, Molly Keating discovers her inner spy and deflects these questions about her husband with skills she never knew she possessed.

I was expecting this story to develop into her tracking down her husband or something like that but what I got was far more (to me) interesting.  Instead of turning into some sort of chase, Molly leaves her home in the southeast of England and goes up north to Doncaster and her parents (where the book starts to feel like something by Alan Bennett - which I very much liked but I suppose feels out of place in a spy novel).  As she continues to deal with the British security agents who are trailing her to see if Sam makes contact, Molly finds herself having to look after her parents (her mother needs a hysterectomy and her father needs looking after as he is the sort of man who can only fend for himself at work and not at home).  She also has to fend off her old fiancee, his new wife, and a journalist who is after her story before news breaks of Sam's spying and defection .  Transformed by these events, she no longer acts like a timid housewife - she becomes something like a highly trained agent using the role of a housewife as cover. 

After spending much of the book in Doncaster, we eventually get to the foreign chase part of the book.  And a very good ending.  Can't say too much more because I don't want to spoil it.  On the whole, this was a very good book.  Hill doesn't deliver a straightforward spy novel - instead it is something much more like a detailed look of at a woman who turns out to be married to a spy and what happens when his double life comes crashing down.  I suspect most female readers would not be surprised to read a book about the domestic things women are expected to deal with but for your average male reader, this comes as a surprise. And a welcome one. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Mick Herron!

Having been born long ago enough to have lived through some of the Cold War, I was too young to have been interested in reading spy fiction of the times.  And soon enough, the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union dissolved, and most spy fiction seemed to become irrelevant.  Or implausible.  Or ridiculous.  (Invariably, one man racing against a ticking clock to prevent the destruction of the world.  And only this one man can do it.)

Maybe 20 tears after the end of the Cold War, enough time had passed for that era to become of interest again for me.  I read my first John le Carre novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and was blown away.  The vocabulary of espionage in that book was a revelation to me - some of the words I knew of, others were new, some real, and some invention.  And some having been coined by le Carre had passed into general usage:

safety signals
juju men
mailfist job

(Actually, I am no longer certain which words are real or made up or even in use.) 

But the question of what should come next had no good answer as far as I was concerned.  I'm generalizing but all of the spy fiction I saw looked formulaic or outdated.  Or farfetched.  Until I stumbled upon Mick Herron and his Slough House series.

In a nutshell, instead of having elite special agents populate a series, Herron has created a series stocked with agents from the trash bin.  If you screw up and MI5 thinks it will cost too much to fire you, you are exiled to a building called Slough House, where you are consigned to do mindless paperwork assignments until you quit.  (Denizens of Slough House are called slow horses.)  But it turns out that often these agents are not washed up - they've merely been disposed of by a corrupt or dysfunctional hierarchy or are scapegoats - and are still quite skilled. 

In the first book in the series, Slow Horses, they work to track down a domestic terror cell that is threatening to execute a hostage on the internet.  In Dead Lions, they investigate the death of an old spy whose death may have a connection to a Russian oligarch.  In Real Tigers, a slow horse is kidnapped and Slough House responds.  (There's also a novella called The List, concerning how old spies are looked after.) (And there's a great stand alone called Nobody Walks, set in the same fictional universe but not a part of the series.)

I devoured Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers, The List, and Nobody Walks way back in 2016 - which feels like YEARS ago.  Brexit and Trump's Russia scandal displaced my desire to read spy fiction for a while.  But the prolific Herron has since written two more Slough House novels, Spook Street (which I am currently reading) and London Rules.  He also managed to write another standalone thriller This is What Happened (which is waiting for me at the library).  And somehow he's had the time and energy to write another novella in the Slough House world set for this fall called The Drop.

All of these books are absolute page turners but yet are filled with fantastic detail and insight that does not bog down the reader.  The plots are all very relevant to the headlines (bad Russians, fundamentalists, sleeper cells, bad politicians, terrorisms, the internet) and make for convincing stories.

In terms of language, Herron invents (or seems to? who knows?) some new spy words: stoats, weasels, Dogs, joes, and the Enhanced Retirement Package.  And what I may love the most, that really good dialog you get in certain spy novels where they spell out how the either know things or have worked things out.  It's so cool and convincing and this trick has the reader convinced something special is happening.

In sum, go and read Mick Herron.  Just do it.  Start at the beginning with Slough Horses.  Buy a few of his books at a time as you will want to start the next as soon as you've finished your first one.

(Bonus: I was looking at the Summer reading issue of The Tablet and Herron gets recommended three times.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

Earlier this year, in the span of 24 hours, I saw two of my favorite writers, Denise Mina and Rupert Thomson, both Tweet about the Irish writer Liz Nugent.  One for her upcoming UK title, Skin Deep, the other for her upcoming American release, Lying in Wait

This is clearly a sign to pay attention and meant that I had to get ahold of these books right away.  Which I sort of did.  The library had Nugent's first novel Unraveling Oliver but I had to wait a while until I got an advance copy of Lying in Wait.  (Technically, I can't get my hands on Skin Deep until it is published in the US, whenever that is.  Next year I'm guessing.)

While I was prepared for the hype, I was not prepared for the first lines in these books. 
Unraveling Oliver: "I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her."
Lying in Wait: "My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it."
Skin Deep: "I wondered when rigor mortis would set in, or if it already had."
Who isn't going to keep reading after opening lines like those?

In Lying in Wait, an Irish judge and his wife open the book by murdering a woman named Annie Doyle.  Why this has happened is not immediately clear.  It's complicated.  But once you murder someone, you've got a lot of work to do to get away with it, especially if you are not the murdering kind.  The story of why a judge and his wife would be in this situation and how it unfolds is told in alternating points of view from the wife, Lydia, her son, Laurence, and the victim's sister, Karen.

I too easily resort to calling things Hitchcockian (which is short-hand for a lot of tension and suspense, or anticipated fear, especially waiting to see if people are going to get caught).  But this is one of the greatest Hitchcockian things I've read in a long time.  Who will get caught?  Will they find the body? What else are these people capable of? What is Laurence thinking?

One of the other admirable qualities of this novel is that Nugent is very good at exploring the long lasting effects of trauma on people.  We learn about the mother's childhood and how it shapes her adult life.  We see how the murdering of Annie Doyle affects Laurence's childhood and early adulthood.  One gets a good understanding of why things have gone off the rails for these people - yet the suspense never lets up.  Not for a second.  And sometimes, when you least expect it, Nugent drops another surprise on the reader.  Endings are hard to do but the ending here is spellbinding.

A Double Life by Flynn Berry

The mark, or a mark, of a good writer is the ability to make one interested in a subject that one previously considered uninteresting.  In the case of Flynn Berry's new novel A Double Life, I am now interested in Lord Lucan.  

For years I routinely avoided all mention of the Lord Lucan case.  For some reason I instinctively don’t like books about aristocrats.  Or perhaps I am a bad Anglophile - I don't care for kings and queens, Downtown Abbey, dukes, lords, earls, etc.  Castles, no.  Elephant and Castle, yes.  (Corgis, I like.)

I had been reading some of a very good new biography of Agatha Christie by Laura Thompson and I noticed that one of her earlier books was about the Lord Lucan case, A Different Class of Murderer.
  So I started skimming that and it, too, is really good.  So though I was a bit skeptical about whether I would enjoy a novel that is loosely based on the Lucan case, I figured discovering and liking the biography was a sign that I would.  And in this case, that sign was right.

But first, another concern I had about A Double Life.  This is Berry's second novel.  Her first, Under the Harrow, was impossibly good for a debut novel.

So good that it seemed more plausible that she benefitted from some sort of Robert Johnson/crossroads/deal with the devil agreement than just happened to write it all on her own.  I don't mean this to be disrespectful - but most first novels are nowhere near this good (and most other novels as well) and yes, it probably was years of hard work combined with tremendous talent that produced such a good book and not a deal with the devil.  (I had the same feeling about Tana French after I read her debut novel.)  But still, she's very young and she's set the book in a country not her own.  So I don't feel I can be blamed for speculating how she could be so good right out of the gate.  And with her debut novel being so good, I cynically wondered if the new book would fall prey to the sophomore slump.  No, it doesn't. 

A Double Life is the story of a young doctor who has had to assume a new identity and lives in hiding because her aristocratic father tried to kill her common mother back when she was still a child.  The father failed to kill his wife and only succeeded in butchering the nanny.  Possibly with the help of his aristocratic friends, he has fled London and disappeared to a live a new life in exile.  Flynn tells the story of Dr. Claire Alden in flashbacks to her childhood, how her parents met, married, fell out and then ended in tragedy.  We also see the effects of this childhood trauma in her younger brother.  After an encounter with a childhood friend from before the murder, Claire decides to attempt to infiltrate her father's old social circle in an effort to learn his whereabouts.  If these people helped him flee after the murder, they may still be in contact with him.  I thought these parts of the book about how these old elites protect one another were very good.  (Really, the entire book is very good but felt learning why they would protect a murderer was fascinating.)

Since this is a novel of suspense, let's just say the constant threat of exposure of Claire's true identity as she digs for evidence of her father's whereabouts in her old life more than justifies calling this book a thriller.  And the part in the cemetery where she’s standing in the rain over a grave with a shovel brought back or created feelings and reactions that I haven’t felt since I saw Hitchcock’s Rear Window, anytime anyone was about to be caught doing sneaking into an apartment.  

I can't say much more about how things develop without giving away too much.  Maybe those who know all about the Lord Lucan case will expect what happens.  I had no idea and was floored by all that Claire does.  And how it ends.  A Double Life is a tremendous thriller and at the same time I felt it was very moving, which is a difficult combination to achieve.   The ending is fantastic and it turns out that there are two double lives in this book, one predictable and one satisfying.  I hope I see everyone reading this book later this summer.