Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
John Fairfax (Abacus: £8.99; e-book £1.99)
The least surprising thing about the irresistible, fat-free Summary Justice is that the TV rights were sold before publication: more or less everything about it has been precision-engineered for a screen adaptation. The lead character, William Benson, is a former philosophy student turned soulful, dark-eyed barrister – to be played by Jack Davenport, maybe, or Ioan Gruffudd? – who comes with a full complement of telegenic eccentricities: the houseboat, the cat, the duffel coat, the Secret Pain. What isn’t a secret, though, is that Benson was, years before, convicted of murder in a street brawl, and sentenced to life imprisonment. (How very different, one imagines, from the home lives of our own dear members of Faculty.) Released on licence and determined to pursue a legal career, he finds himself acting in a no-hope but high-profile case, defending a woman accused of the murder of a wealthy man presumed to be her lover. His instructing solicitor is someone from his past: Tess de Vere, now working for a high-powered London firm; and, like Benson, attractive and single, which adds an inevitable, but welcome, dash of will-they-won’t-they? to proceedings.
The author, who has already published award-winning crime fiction under his real name, William Brodrick, used to be a barrister. It follows that once the action moves to the Old Bailey, and the trial starts, the courtroom scenes crackle with energy: Benson, a naturally-gifted practitioner, skewers witness after witness, while the barrister leading the prosecution tries to keep her case on track. Meantime Tess is looking into the murder of which Benson was convicted, in the hope of finding evidence which might exonerate him.
The ending is well worked, with a sequel-friendly hint that Benson might be a little more manipulative than we’ve been led to believe. And, to its credit, the book faces head-on the question of whether, brilliant as he might be, Benson should be allowed to practise law at all. As someone who regards himself as impeccably liberal on the issue of rehabilitation, even I found myself to be a little squeamish about whether a convicted murderer should have rights of audience in the higher courts, particularly given how long it took mere solicitors to be allowed in. It’s all perhaps a little less than entirely plausible, but I was having far too much fun to care.
Peter May (Riverrun: £7.99; e-book £3.99)
Since the publication of the first volume of The Lewis Trilogy in 2011, it has been impossible to visit any Scottish bookshop without seeing Peter May’s name in a prime location. Don’t let that allow you to make the mistake of thinking he is a new kid on the block. His first novel was submitted in 1970 when he was 17. It was rejected by Philip Ziegler, but with an encouraging note. Spells as an award-winning journalist and TV writer followed. His Gaelic language drama, Machair, attracted an astonishing 33% audience share.
He next produced a series of six novels, now known as The China Thrillers. His research, which included regular visits to China and making the acquaintance of many Chinese detectives and pathologists, plus his attention to detail, led to his becoming an honorary member of the Chinese Crime Writers’ Association. Following the success of the Lewis books, these have been reissued, along with the ingenious series known as The Enzo Files. I prefer the latter to the former, but both are worth the investment.
But to our tale. There may be authors who can better evoke the bleak majesty of the landscape of the Outer Hebrides, but I can’t think of any. I have a clear visual image of the opening scene of Coffin Road. Neal Maclean finds himself washed up on a beach in Harris, injured and half drowned. A neighbour helps him to his cottage, where he is welcomed by his dog and his neighbours. There is only one problem. He has no idea who he is, and has no memory of anything before that. Apparently, he is writing a book
To say much more about this would risk a spoiler alert. I can say that the other dramatis personae include a deeply troubled teenager in Edinburgh, struggling to get over her scientist father’s suicide, and DS George Gunn, whom we have met before. The other teaser is the foreword, “Scientists… submitting works on neonicotinoids or the long term effects of GMO crops, trigger corporate complaints… and find that their careers are in jeopardy.” So that is all I intend to write about this, other than to say it is by far the best thriller I have read this year, or, come to think of it, for a very long time.
A Legacy of Spies
John le Carré (Penguin: £20; e-book £9.99)
John le Carré has revisited his 1963 classic The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which saw Alec Leamas in Berlin at the behest of George Smiley, the ultimate spymaster, who is seeking to further enhance and embed his agent Hans Dietet-Mundt. Reflecting the times in which we live, le Carré envisages that Peter Guillam, Smiley's most trusted of allies, is to be front and centre in a civil suit brought for the deaths of their parents, through British Secret Service incompetence, by Leamas's son and the daughter of Liz Gold, the naive socialist, who was an innocent pawn in Smiley's game in the first novel. In addition to the civil suit is a parliamentary enquiry.
Le Carré clearly dislikes the microscopic examination of historical events through the prism of modern eyes and present day mores, denuded as they are by that eliding ability through clear eyed, 20:20 hindsight, which fails to take account of both the realities of the pressures and challenges people worked under and the enemy they faced and through espionage sought to defeat, to produce ineluctable conclusions.
Guillam has moved on and is living in France. Life is good. The company calls him back and he's to be the fall guy. He is required to revisit the Leamas events and in so doing, we gain a greater insight to the story in that terrific book. We have Guillam offering the truth as against that disclosed in the files, which his young and inspiring inquisitors require him to trawl through and interpret. Le Carré writes superbly and the story is never less than gripping. This is not a retelling of the primary book, but rather an ingenious wrapping of the primary story in a new mantle.
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
Patty Yumi Cottrell (And Other Stories: £10)
Helen, the peace-disrupting central character of this novel, is Korean born. So is Ms Cottrell. Helen was adopted and brought up in the Midwest of the USA. So was Ms Cottrell. This is a first novel. Like all novelists Ms Cottrell insist that this isn’t a memoir. Unlike most first novelists, I believe her, for many reasons.
For starters, it is impossible to believe that the self absorbed, dysfunctional Helen could concoct such a dark but eloquent, comic but ultimately sad, piece of work. Helen left home some years ago for New York, taking up the suggestion made by her adoptive parents on more than one occasion that she should go. There she works with troubled young people, who dub her Sister Reliability. When word reaches her of the suicide of her adoptive brother she returns to Milwaukee to investigate. The havoc she wreaks in three short days is epic: many other facets of her craziness are exposed, drip like, through her thoughts and monologues. Described by one co-worker as having the conscience of a metal beam, Helen and her “investigations” uncover little, but show us more of her tortured soul.
This really isn’t a book which one should enjoy, but Helen draws you in. You read of her with a fatal fascination in spite of yourself. A remarkable work.