Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Information Officer by Mark Mills

You could easily pass off The Information Officer as just another pacy World War Two thriller. It has all the standard requirements. First off we have a young, intelligent investigator in the form of Max Chadwick. Max's step-mother has supposedly got him a cushy number for the duration, handling press releases for the military on the isle of Malta. It's propaganda really, aimed at maintaining morale and good relations with the islanders. As it happens it hasn't turned out to be such a safe billet with Malta the target of an ongoing bombing campaign by the enemy, which only adds to the suspense.
    Next there's an evil malefactor at large - in this case a rapist/murderer is stalking sherry queens, the women who work in the bars in an area known as the Gut. His previous killings have looked like accidents, with nothing to suggest a connection between them. But the most recent girl has bled to death from a wound that could have been caused by ack-ack shrapnel, or was it made to look that way?
    Max's doctor friend, Freddie, is alarmed when the latest victim is found with vestiges of a submarine officer's uniform clutched in her hand, and calls in Max to investigate. With relations between the British forces and the Islanders fragile at best, Max will have to move swiftly to find the killer before the details leak out and cause even more resentment.
    And of course it wouldn't be your classic thriller without a love interest for the hero. Max has a couple of options here. First off there's Mitzi, stuck in a loveless marriage with Lionel, an officer in the submarine corps. Mitzi works tirelessly for a service sorting the affects of dead RAF personnel, packaging them up for their families and writing heartfelt letters to accompany them.
    Then there's Lilian, half Maltese and half English, who is as smart as she is beautiful. Her job as deputy editor of a local newspaper brings her in contact with Max and the two are good friends.
    Max zips around the island on his motorbike and his easy manner means he has many acquaintances, some of whom are suspects. Lionel is a possibility if only because he wears the right kind of uniform and taking him out of the equation would free up Mitzi for Max, or is this too obvious a plot twist? Questions also hover over Elliott, an American pilot, temporarily grounded after an accident.
    Meanwhile the reader is treated to snippets of the perpetrator's own story through his eyes which are chilling and fortunately brief. It is all fairly classic stuff except Mills is a better than average writer. He captures the snappy dialogue of servicemen desperately keeping chipper while the Germans give them more than they can possibly return. The characters and camaraderie are all vividly brought to life, while the plot builds up to a terrific showdown as history is made in the air above.
    But what I really enjoyed was the picture Mills creates of Malta - an island with a long tradition of being under siege. With its distinctive architecture, amazing harbours and sunny Mediterranean ambiance - it is as much of a character in the book as Max.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Household Spirit by Tod Wodicka

The Household Spirit is a story about neighbours - two very different neighbours, each with a peculiar problem. Fifty-year-old Howie Jeffries lives next door to Emily Phane on Route 29 in New York State - two solitary houses adrift on a road on the way from somewhere to somewhere else and not in itself a destination.
    The Phanes and the Jeffries have never been neighbourly in all the thirty odd years Howie has lived there. His wife's baking was rebuffed when the Jeffries first moved in, and the Phanes' odd household, an elderly couple that didn't get on, and then old Peter Phane on his own bringing up his granddaughter, has long been a source of speculation.
    Howie's solitude is disturbed when Emily Phane returns from her studies in Boston to nurse her dying Peppy, and after his death is unable to return to her former life. Emily has a night-time affliction, a sleeping paralysis which brings her disturbing visions from which she is unable to wake.
    She drifts through her days, filling her house with plants, losing weight and looking unkempt. When Howie rescues her after she sets fire to her house, he finds he can help her with her problem, while Emily helps him with his.
    Born with a face described by his ex-wife as 'the last face on earth', Howie had learned early on that his smile could make children cry, the kind of face not uncommon on a Nazi war criminal. As a result he has always been extremely shy, living a quiet life doing shift work for the local water company. Divorced for twenty years and only in occasional contact with his ferocious artist daughter, he spends a lot of his spare time fishing and dreaming about the sailboat he will buy one day.
    This could seem a quirky feel-good novel about two awkward characters, but Widicka's lively dialogue and original storyline add a ton of drama. There's a cast of interesting characters: Peter Phane who was in his day a well-respected journalist and has a string of elderly girl-friends; Harriet Jeffries the daughter Howie accidentally took to a Maroon 5 concert; Ethan, Emily's sort-of Korean, but not really, boyfriend, a solid brick of a bloke who won't ever let her down. There are plenty more.
    Wodicka's prose adapts cleverly to capture his characters - the youngsters' tone is hip New York with interesting use of social media; Howie is so little used to talking to people he makes up his own idioms that sit oddly on the page by comparison. As he opens up to people, his conversation slowly becomes more natural.
   The story builds to a curious denouement in a snowed in New York City which can be read more than one way or perhaps it is just a little to clever for me. Anyway I recommend any reader to make up their own mind about the ending, which is like the novel as a whole, utterly original and thought-provoking.

Friday, 11 September 2015

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Bingham

I'm not sure I've ever read a crime thriller set in Wales before, but This Thing of Darkness is the perfect introduction. It's a brilliant police procedural and as plots go it has much going for it, including a particularly nasty bunch of crims who are determined to make a lot of money and don't care what they have to do to anyone in their way. There's plenty of danger for its plucky detective, including being abducted and interrogated with a picana and going under cover as a ship's cook. Then there's some exciting stuff to do with rock climbing and a spider-man sort of criminal nick-named Stonemonkey.
    But what really grabs you is the main character. DC Fiona Griffiths suffers from something called Cotard's Syndrome, a mental disorder that can cause depression and a kind of psychosis which leads sufferers to believe they are dead. Maybe this is why Fiona is quite relaxed about throwing herself into dangerous situations.
    We first come across the detective having time off to study for her sergeant's exam. Her attention becomes riveted on a couple of cold cases: the death by accident or suicide of a security guard who had fallen from a steep cliff on his way home; and the seemingly impossible burglary of some art - how did the burglars manage to break in through the top storey?
    Fiona spots a connection to do with a dodgy insurance company run by one Galton Evans, who is as slimy as he is crooked. It is his ex-wife's home that was burgled and as the art was returned, it doesn't seem like a major crime, but Fiona smells a rat. She has a knack for reinspecting crime scenes and discovering things her colleagues have missed. Making friends with a handsome climber, she recruits him to check out the possibility of scaling the smooth exterior of the house.
    Mike shows how it can be done and gives her a clue to the death of the cliff jumper as well - both suggest the involvement of a top-level climber, soon given the moniker of Stonemonkey. Could there be more cases where fearless climbing was required?
    All the while Fiona is meant to be working on something else, which doesn't impress her superior officer, DCI Jackson, who likes to thump the desk a lot and talks in a bass-baritone - very Welsh, in fact. Relegated to working as the exhibits officer of a rape case, Fiona finds a huge amount of forensic evidence but no leads.
    But her mind keeps going back to the Stonemonkey case and she enlists the help of ex-cop, Brian Penry, recently released from prison. He's happy to do a bit of surveillance and breaking and entering on Fiona's behalf in the search for evidence.
    Bingham assembles a terrific cast of characters in support of his gutsy investigator, all of them well rounded and interesting. But that never slows down the action - there always seems to be another tight corner for Fiona to extricate herself from. The work of the Stonemonkey adds a brilliant bit of plotting and the varied settings - Welsh mountains, central London, a storm-tossed fishing trawler and sunny Spain - all add plenty of atmosphere.
    With snappy first-person/present tense narration, you just about inhale this novel. There is so much to enjoy about This Thing of Darkness, I shall be checking out the previous Fiona Griffiths books - Bingham doesn't put a foot wrong.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

In 1921, larger than life figures in history - including Winston Churchill, Lady Gertrude Bell and T E Lawrence - gathered in Egypt to thrash out the Cairo Peace Treaty, the building blocks for a modern Middle East. It was from here that the nations of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan would come into being following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Imagine being a fly on the wall when that was happening!
    Well, actually, in Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day, we have a kind of fly on the wall in the form of American spinster Agnes Shanklin. Agnes is forty and has led a sheltered life, at first under the thumb of her mother and then as a primary school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. When the Spanish flu that followed the First World War robs her of her family, she finds herself bereft. But the need to take care of three estates pulls her back to reality and when she finds herself of independent means, she quits her job and goes shopping.
    Slowly her mother's admonishing voice in her head is replaced by shopgirl Mildred, who not only sends her home with the new shorter dresses of the twenties, a bob and a bundle of confidence, she also encourages her to travel. Agnes's destination is the Middle East because her sister and brother-in-law worked at a Christian mission near Beirut, and she has always wanted to see the Nile and the Pyramids.
    When she reaches Cairo, both the too-short dresses and her little dog cause mayhem at the hotel she has booked, but T E Lawrence comes to her rescue. When she reveals that he knew her sister, the two become friendly. Next thing you know she's invited to dine with the dignitaries, and Winston Churchill, who admires her North American frankness, invites her to accompany him on a jaunt into the desert where he brandishes his paintbrushes.
    She gets chatty with Clementine Churchill and Gertrude Bell and is soon adding her pennyworth about how one country dominating another through colonisation only causes grief for both parties. Lawrence eggs her on and enjoys the stir caused by her no-nonsense opinions.
    Agnes also befriends the dashingly handsome German official, Karl Weilbacher, who likes to walk her dog, takes Agnes to the tourist traps and encourages her to tell him all about her encounters with the diplomats. As Agnes becomes more and more besotted with Karl, there are niggling fears that perhaps he is a German spy and is simply using Agnes for political reasons. But Agnes is eager, for once in her life, to live for the moment and throw caution to the winds.
    Dreamers of the Day captures a hugely important moment in history through the eyes of an ordinary person. The foibles and peculiarities of historical figures are richly described - Russell notes in her acknowledgements that where possible she has used their very words and there is no doubt the novel is meticulously researched. Agnes is smart and educated enough to give wise and eloquent assessments of these people and their deeds in a way that is both informative and entertaining. This is another terrific read from an author who breathes life into history.