Monday, 29 July 2013

An Uncertain Place by Fred Vargas

You can tell a lot about a character from how they handle a simple event such as making a journey. Fred Vargas's novel, An Uncertain Place, begins with Commissaire Adamsberg late for a train. He has ironed his shirt for once as he is to attend a conference in London.
    While his sidekick, Danglard, paces the platform waiting for his boss, impeccably attired as always, Adamsberg is bailed up by his neighbour, a one-armed Spaniard, demanding help with the birth of a cat's kittens in the garden shed. It's all a bit messy, and makes Adamsberg even later.
    On the train, while the Commissaire remains unperturbed, Danglard is unnerved by the train's passage through the Chunnel, resorting to drinking champagne and telling stories - he turns out to be amazingly erudite - while their wide-eyed young sergeant, Estalere, listens with amazement.
    The conference gets barely a mention, but a tour of the sights by English policeman, DCI Radstock, turns up a weird mystery outside the entrance to Highgate Cemetery, where someone has deposited a collection of shoes, seventeen altogether, complete with severed feet.
    At first this seems an odd digression, for soon the French police are back on their home turf, investigating the particularly brutal murder of a rich and unpleasant elderly man, Pierre Vaudel. His body has been completely reduced to blood, splinters of bone and viscera. Initial investigations point to two suspects: the gardener and odd-job man, Emile, who has a record for GBH, and Vaudel's son, who was for many years disowned by his father.
    However, we all know that there must be a more convoluted solution to the mystery, one that will take in the dismembered feet from Highgate. There will be a conspiracy at a very high level of the judiciary system, Adamsberg will make another journey, into eastern Europe this time, to uncover the importance of the name 'Plog', and a rogue young man known as Zerk will intrude on Adamsberg's usual nonchalance in a way he could never have foreseen. Meanwhile, Danglard becomes distracted by the unusual interest he has aroused in a woman he met at the conference and there will be several cats and dogs that are key to the plot.
    If that isn't enough to keep the reader entertained, there is Vargas' wonderful dialogue, which makes her characters so interesting and often laugh out loud funny.  Danglard is the Commissaire's go-to man for his encyclopaedic knowledge of history, old cases and who's who in the police force. But other police officers are just as gifted, such as the former Vietnamese colleague who talks in Asian proverbs, often made up, or Veyrenc with his striped hair and habit of breaking into poetry.
    Somehow all these attributes become important to Adamsberg and his way of making odd connections to solve a very unusual series of crimes. One can only sit back, enjoy the ride and marvel at the intricate mind that has created the story - and look forward the next Fred Vargas novel, of course.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell writes two kinds of novel: dark and moody detective novels, usually featuring troubled Swedish policeman, Kurt Wallander, or stories set in Africa. I've read quite a few of the Wallander books, which are never anything short of terrific, but A Troubled Paradise is the first I've read of Mankell's Africa books.
    As a historical novel this seems a new departure for this author. It is set over a hundred years ago in Mozambique, at that time a colony of Portugal.  But there is at the heart of the book, a kind of mystery, which is based on a little known fact that Mankell came across: that a Swedish woman was for a brief period the owner of a flourishing brothel in the port of Lourenco Marques -  now Maputo. Where she came from and what she did after that, no one seems to know.
    Mankell teases this out into the story of Hanna Renstrom, a teenage girl from an impoverished rural family in the north of Sweden,  sent by her mother to the city to make her own way in life. After a stint as a maid, Hanna is given the opportunity to work on a steamship as cook. Soon after, she is married to the third mate, only to be widowed a short time later when her husband dies of an unknown fever off the coast of Africa.
    Unable to contain her grief, Hanna decides to stay at the port where her husband is buried at sea, escaping her ship by night and making her way to what appears to be a hotel. Hanna suffers an illness here herself, is cared for by the exotic looking female staff and only realises a few days later that the hotel is really a brothel. As the weeks pass, Hanna feels unable to leave, the decision to return to Sweden is too difficult to make, but no obvious alternatives appear either.
    Fortunately Hanna has some money, a widow's pension given her by the shipping company, so no immediate departure is necessary. This gives Mankell the opportunity to describe through Hanna's eyes the environment created by the white Portuguese colonists, where blacks far outnumber the whites who have all the power and use harsh measures to maintain control.
    There is an intense discomfort in this relationship, and Hanna is appalled at the treatment of blacks by their bosses, their lack of rights and the brutal punishments that meet the merest of misdemeanours. But making friends with the black prostitutes and other native staff also creates distrust and uncertainty. Many of her efforts to help backfire, and she is shocked to find she reacts violently when one of the prostitutes drops a tray.
    Mankell creates some wonderful characters: the unpleasantly evil nurse, Ana Dolores; the lovely and worldly prostitute, Felicia, who becomes as close to Hanna as any of the girls; the wise yet volatile brothel owner, Senhor Vas; the crocodile farming, guard-dog breeder, Senhor Pimenta, who makes a fortune out of people's fear. Even Vas's pet chimpanzee, Carlos, has loads of personality, and Hanna recognises in herself his same the sense of displacement.
    Over the course of the novel, Hanna has to grow up. She has come from an incredibly sheltered background, but learns to read and speak Portuguese, to run a business, to figure out who she can trust and who she cannot. She gains enough confidence to champion the cause of a black woman who murders her white husband, and this doesn't earn Hanna any favours.
    There is certainly much to think about here, but the extraordinary setting, the engaging character of Hanna and the events that happen to her provide a very absorbing story. There is as much pace in the book as any of Mankell's gripping detective novels, with the bonus of taking you to a very different place and time, albeit a grim and tragic one.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R King

It seems we just can't get enough of Sherlock Holmes. Along with countless movies and TV series, there are plenty of literary reinventions of the great detective - among these are the Mary Russell books by Laurie R King. There are twelve titles in the series, so I thought I'd start off with the first one, which explains how Russell is introduced to the great Holmes, now retired and in his fifties, slowly mouldering away in the country, writing tomes on various forensic topics and keeping bees.
    That is until fifteen-year-old Russell almost trips over him while ambling across a field in Sussex, reading a book, dressed as a boy with her long yellow plaits tucked up in her cap. Russell lives at the adjacent farm with her aunt - she inherited the farm from her mother, her parents are dead along with her little brother and, like Holmes, she is damaged. The sharp-tongued dialogue that passes between the two quickly reveals to each of them that they have met their intellectual match, and they repair, engrossed in conversation, to Holmes's house for tea prepared by Mrs Hudson.
    Over the following years, Holmes becomes Russell's mentor, while Russell's intellectual banter breathes life into the old boy and Dr Watson and Mrs H couldn't be happier. Pretty soon some cases come along. There's the case of the Barkers, oddly enough they keep a huge menagerie of dogs, but it is the recurrent illness of Mr Barker that has his wife seeking help. Russell takes the lead on the next case, the theft of a cash box and several hams from a village pub, which is quickly wrapped up and helps her prove her worth.
    The case of a kidnapped senator's daughter, stolen from their encampment during a rustic tour of Wales, is much more sinister and indicates the work of an evil criminal gang. There can be no room for error in this one or a young girl will be killed. Holmes and Russell enter the scene of the crime heavily disguised as gypsies complete with horse and caravan.
    It looks like the book will be a series of stories each dealing with a particular crime, but after this Russell heads back to Oxford, where she is studying theology and chemistry. Suddenly her life seems to be under threat, her college rooms have been broken into, and Holmes has saved her from a bomb going off. He too has had a near miss, which has left him with lacerations on his back, and the two must go into hiding.
    This last case takes up the remaining half of the book, as the two play an elaborate and time-consuming hoax in order to bring the master criminal out of his lair. It is all cleverly done, but somehow I felt the change in pace meant the plot seemed to wallow. There is a lengthy stretch where Holmes and Russell visit Palestine, for no obvious reason other than to give the criminal the slip and attend to some business for Holme's brother Mycroft, which is not explained.
    Fortunately the pace picks up again towards the end, there's an exciting showdown and the scene is set no doubt for the next book in the Holmes and Russell series.
    King has done a very good job of recreating the style of the original Holmes and Watson books by Conan Doyle, for a modern audience. However sometimes she tries just a bit too hard and there are clunky usages. Perhaps this is because Russell is the narrator and as such, an occasional pedantic tone comes through from her character. Like Holmes, she can be very irritating. For this reason and the uneven pace of the plot I feel I am in no hurry to read the rest of the series - a pity.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

When an Englishwoman arrives in the small Croatian town of Gost with her family, she surprises the locals with her delight in the blue house she has bought as a summer retreat, a cottage that hasn't been lived in for over a decade. With her husband stuck at work in London, Laura will need someone to help with repairs - and luckily, her neighbour, Duro Kolak, is soon on hand to help out, becoming the hired man of the title.
    Duro lives alone in a shack nearby with his two dogs, making ends meet by doing odd jobs and hunting, though really he can turn his hand to anything. He can speak English too, which is just as well for Laura, who is surprised when shopkeepers cannot understand her requests.
    Over the weeks that follow, Duro helps renovate the house, fix the roof, and organise an electric water pump. In the outbuildings the family discover an old car, a red Fico, which Duro resuscitates much to the delight of bored teenager, Matthew. Laura's daughter, Grace, uncovers a mosaic on the outside front wall of the house and a tiled fountain which Duro encourages her to restore.  He takes the family to the waterhole he swam in as a boy and on outings to nearby towns.
    On the surface, the story seems to be about the relationship, often awkward, between the English family and this helpful local. One can't help but wonder why this intelligent, middle-aged man continues to live in a town which his own family have deserted. He doesn't really have any friends either - he chats tensely with Fabjan, owner of the local bar whom he patently despises. There is an obvious rift between Duro and his old schoolmate, Kresimir. Duro seems too genial to be an obvious loner. And why are the local people of Gost so curiously unhelpful towards the English family, who bring a little extra money to a town with little economic viability?
    Just as the mosaic's picture emerges, so too does Duro's own history, a story bound up in events of the war for independence of the early 1990s when Gost was surrounded by Serbian forces. The war took its toll on many families, including Duro's own, as shells were lobbed at houses and snipers took potshots at innocent people. It also brought out a simmering resentment which turned ordinary people against their neighbours, leading to unspeakable acts of violence.
   The truly awful nature of these events is slowly revealed, interwoven with the experiences of the English family, and the restoration of the blue house, which becomes a stark reminder of things the people of Gost would rather were left dead and buried. Everyone except Duro, that is.
    While he is an easy character to scoff at - Laura's husband calls Duro her 'pocket Romeo' because of his short stature, and he is certainly vain with his daily regime of chin-ups, press-ups and stomach crunches - Dura turns out to be a real hero. Perhaps it is the tragic events that have dogged his life, but instead of becoming bitter, or running away, Duro stands watch, waiting and daring to remember.
    Animatta Forna has written a wonderful novel about the lingering effects of war, what it can do to a community and how individuals carry on with their lives afterwards. She is a stunning writer, creating the place of Gost in the reader's imagination, a summer landscape full of flowers, odours and heat. The serious nature of the story leaves you wanting to know more about events that you may dimly remember being played out on TV screens twenty years ago. It is as if, like Duro, she is daring you not to forget. On top of this The Hired Man is a terrific piece of storytelling - I found it really hard to put down and will be eager to read Forna's previous books.

Friday, 12 July 2013

In Her Shadow by Louise Douglas

I don't often read books like this one, but every so often they're just the thing. They're not quite 'chick lit', more like 'chick suspense' and you know once you've started on page one, you're going to be hard pressed to stop reading until you get to 'THE END'. The good ones anyway. And In Her Shadow is pretty good.
   Hannah Brown works at a museum in Bristol and is retrieving an item from a display cabinet when she sees Ellen, her childhood friend. She turns and flees in shock, almost passing out, because Ellen has been dead for twenty years. Is Hannah being haunted?
    While Hannah goes through the motions of normal life, her work and her concerns for John, her colleague who is married to flagrantly unfaithful Charlotte, the past comes back to disturb her. Little by little the reader is put in the picture of what happened all those years ago.
    Hannah is a young girl when she and her friend Jago dare each other to enter the grounds of Thornfield House, the home of a reclusive old lady that all the kids in their Cornish town revile as a witch. This is the first Hannah hears about Ellen, Mrs Withiel's granddaughter, the girl who will become her best friend.
    Mrs W dies, and the house is eventually taken over by her invalid daughter, Anne Brecht, her dashing German husband and Ellen, just slightly younger than Hannah. The family welcome a new friend for Ellen, who can be temperamental. The Brechts are everything Hannah's family are not - elegant and cultured as if they stepped out of a magazine. But they are troubled by sadness too - Anne is dying, and Mr Brecht disturbed and controlling. No wonder Ellen gets uppity. Once a famous concert pianist, Anne can no longer play, and Ellen is expected to play for her for hours on end.
    Jago meanwhile is abandoned by his family and ends up living with the Browns - he was always like a brother to Hannah, but as they reach their teenage years, the three become an awkward trio when Ellen takes a fancy to Jago. It is two's company, three's a crowd for poor Hannah, but because Mr Brecht doesn't like Ellen seeing Jago, Hannah is thrown into the role of go-between. It's a bit like Romeo and Juliet, and the reader knows something terrible is going to happen, an event about which Hannah continues to carry a huge burden of guilt.
    The story of the past is cleverly woven into Hannah's present - where events lead her back to Germany to discover the truth of what has destroyed her relationship with Jago and her peace of mind. The short chapters and careful building of suspense make for gripping reading, though the denouement was for me a little forced and unlikely.
    Hannah is a very sympathetic character however and the reader is lulled into hoping for a happy ending. There's plenty of lovely descriptions of Cornwall and hazy summer days. Perhaps there is a little of Daphne du Maurier with the melodrama of a tainted family set against a coastal Cornish background. And while it was purely pleasurable and relaxing, I would be unlikely to reread a book like this - Rebecca on the other hand, is another story.


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

I'm not quite sure what it is I like so much about Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs novels. I suppose it is the kind of sensible, well-plotted story-telling that draws you in, and being set in England between the wars, there's a bucket-load of interesting social history going on.
    Maisie, now in her thirties, is a clever woman - she was spotted by psychologist and detective Maurice Blanche when she was a young maid for the rich and powerful Comptons. Blanche and Lady Compton send her to Girton but World War One comes along and before you know it she's a nurse at the front. There's a complication when she finds herself working alongside the love of her life, Simon Lynch, and both are almost killed by a stray shell.
    By the time she's learning her craft as a detective with Blanche, Simon is in a nursing home, his mind quite destroyed along with any hope of recovery. Maisie doggedly gets on with life and starting her own business, with Cockney sidekick and man Friday, Billy Beale.
    With An Incomplete Revenge, the Compton's son James is back from Canada, planning to buy an investment property and brickworks owned by the Sandermere family in Kent. A string of petty crime and arson has hounded the local town of Heronsdene, and James enlists Maisie to investigate. It is hop-picking time, a good opportunity for Billy and his family to have a break from London and earn some extra cash. Billy contrives to work on the Sandermere estate where the gypsies also set up camp and it is these transient workers who are blamed for a lot of the trouble.
    Heronsdene's history includes a terrible wartime tragedy, when a bomb was unloaded by a German zeppelin on its way home, setting fire to the bakery, and killing the Dutch family living above the shop. The locals however are strangely reticent when probed for further details. The town also has to put up with the drunken arrogance of Alfred Sandermere, who has the local constabulary lock up two youngsters from London, down for the hop-picking, when some silverware is stolen from his baronial pile.
    There's a lot going on here, and Maisie is soon busy getting to know the locals, including sparky newspaper reporter, Beattie Drummond, who wants the scoop on anything Maisie can dig up, and gypsy matriarch Beulah who teaches Maisie dowsing.
    While Maisie is getting in touch with the gypsy side of her ancestry, Simon's health takes a turn for the worse, and Maisie has to burn bridges with his snooty mother. If this all sounds a bit daft, well, yes it is a bit, but Maisie has enough gravitas to make it all work and the setting, plot and characterisation are satisfying enough to make the story reasonably entertaining.
    If I have a reservation about these novels, it is that Maisie is just a bit too good to be true, and as such, inclined to be rather superior and moralising. As a costermonger's daughter, you'd think she would be a bit more lively, with some interesting flaws and a decent sense of humour. She is, however, going along to weaving classes and is starting to wear bright colours, so perhaps by the next book, she'll be letting her hair down a bit. One can only hope.