Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
Standing in Another Man's Grave
Ian Rankin (Orion: £18.99; e-book £9.99)
Rebus is back after a five year absence while Rankin brought us a new character, Malcolm Fox of the Complaints, the professional standards department of Lothian & Borders Police. Rebus and Fox collide and inevitably cross swords in this tense, taught, police procedural.
Rebus returns to work in a civilian capacity with L&B, working in the Cold Case Unit. He takes a call which eventually leads to his transfer to the missing persons department, where he engages with his old stablemate, DI Siobhan Clarke, in the investigation of the disappearance of a number of young women on the A9. He finds himself under scrutiny from Fox for his occasional associations with Caffrey, an old adversary. Rankin takes Rebus on a road trip up and down the A9, Pitlochry, the Black Isle and Inverness until he gets the target of his investigation.
Rankin has always written incorporating current events. This book is no less and includes the transfer of police business to the recently established Cold Case Unit. Rankin has written Rebus in "real time", and the detective ages through the books. He's just turned 60, but we are left with the prospect of Rebus returning and facing a new, younger, tougher, ruthless criminal who seems to be steps ahead of those Rebus has crossed before now. Tantalising.
Jens Lapidus; translated from the Swedish by Astri von Arben Ahlander (MacMillan: £12.99; e-book £6.08)
There is more to Swedish crime fiction than Henning Mankell. While I am a fan, his slower paced, measured style is not to the taste of every lover of the genre. The arrival of Jens Lepidus on the scene will certainly keep the latter satisfied.
A criminal defence lawyer to trade, Mr Lepidus has crafted an intricate tale of the Stockholm underworld. The fortunes of Jorge, Chilean jailbird, and JW, would-be socialite turned coke dealer, are intertwined with some heavy duty organised criminals from the former Yugoslavia. Add in a jail break, JW’s quest for his missing sister, and some excellent advice on how to launder money, and the mix is a potent one. Is there such a thing as easy money? Does crime pay?
The attention is held right to the end, with the strands coming together in a satisfying manner. Criminal lawyers do not have a great pedigree as authors of crime fiction. Jens Lepidus is a standout exception to that rule. This is a debut novel – let us hope there are more to follow.
Ross Raisin (Penguin: £8.99; e-book £5.49)
The descent of a man. This is the harrowing (and all too believable) story of the life of a Clyde shipbuilder following redundancy and widowerhood, through estrangement, homelessness and possible redemption.
Let's start with the quibbles. A young Yorkshire author who chooses to write about Glaswegians in Glasgow dialect is in need of a Scottish sub-editor. Yes, Mr Raisin, we do use the word "greet" meaning to cry, but the past participle is not "greeted". And Ladbrokes would give you very long odds against a dyed in the wool, Proddy bluenose born in Govan c1950 being christened Mick, as is your leading character.
But these minor irritations wear off quickly, such is the quality of the writing, and the sensitive treatment of the subject matter. This is a very fine book indeed. Sad, but not sentimental, moving but not mawkish. Mick Little is holed, but not below the waterline.
Not Me: Memories of a German Childhood
Joachim Fest (Atlantic Books: £20; e-book £10.38)
Joachim Fest, who died in 2006, was a well read, artistic youth who became one of Germany's most notable historians of contemporary history, a role he describes he rather reluctantly fell into. He was most noted for relentlessly holding his fellow countrymen to account for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, a phenomenon that he explained arose through "the great fear" from Bolshevism felt by the middle classes and in face of rapid modernisation – a longing for the past epitomised through the strength of leadership offered by Hitler, with his rhetoric of German folklore, greatness and violent opposition to the political left, as opposed to the view that Hitler's rise came through economic circumstances.
Fest absorbingly describes his childhood within an ordinary German family, blighted when his headteacher father lost his post for failing to comply with the demands made by the regime. It is the utter ordinariness of the seeping stretch of the regime, its rules and demands leading to the disintegration of common decency and civil society which is most affecting in this book. There are no harsh scenes of brutality, but rather the determined visit by Fest senior with his sons to see the burning remains of the Reichstag, to reinforce the father's fear of what lay ahead for Germany, or the slow withdrawal of Jewish friends into their homes until one day Dr Meyer cannot be contacted.
To avoid conscription into the Waffen SS at the age of 18, Fest joined the army, but was taken prisoner. He befriended the US camp commander but after a failed escape attempt, described as the duty of every detained soldier under the Geneva Convention. He witnessed brutality by fellow Polish POWs on captured Germans. His brother was killed in the war; his mother and sisters mercifully but narrowly escaped the brutal, sexual violence on German women by the advancing Soviet forces; and his father eventually returned from the Russian front, a frail, slender shadow of his former ebullient, fearless self. Only later does Fest confront and receive confirmation that one of the Nazis on their block had been the source of tipoffs to his father before the war, which protected his father's profound opposition to the regime being discovered. This offers a redemptive view that even in the most desperate of times, some decency remains among the rottenness.
The Cleaner of Chartres
Salley Vickers (Viking/Penguin: £16.99; e-book: £9.99)
A mild social drama in a relatively small French town. A fey heroine from the outside who comes through in spite of her social disadvantages and a cool reception from some of the locals. We could of course be talking of Joanne Harris’s Vianne in Chocolat. That would, however, be a disservice to Salley Vickers, as she is an author of infinitely greater subtlety.
But whisper it in the cloisters – there are significant similarities between the two books. In Chartres, the priests are friendly, and the old women are not: the mirror image of Harris’s fictional Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Both books start somewhat one-dimensionally. Both have strong and highly individual leading ladies with uncertain pasts. There the comparisons must end, though both writers are in danger of becoming slightly formulaic.
Agnes Morel, named by the farmer who found her for the saint’s day upon which she was discovered and his favourite mushroom, has tangible serenity. Her story, intertwined with much of the history of the cathedral which she cleans, radiates gently and certainly to a satisfactory ending.
This is not Ms Vickers’ finest book, but her average is better than many authors’ best.