Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Dan Brown (Bantam: £20; e-book £7.99)
Professor Robert Langdon returns with his photographic memory, symbols and codes. His former student Kirchner is about to launch his answer to the questions “Where do we come from? Where are we going?” Brown superbly sets the action in devoutly Catholic Spain, with the King on his deathbed and his untested son due to succeed him. Church and state may be one, but the young prince may alter the monarchy. The young heir apparent has taken the director of the Guggenheim museum, Vidal, as his fiancée. She colludes with Kirchner to make his announcement at the museum. The launch is delayed. Thereafter Langdon and Vidal set off on a journey to track down the programme and release it to an increasingly expectant world audience. We are held in suspense about the discovery made by Kirchner and its impact on all religions. Along the way, Brown shows us the power of AI: its potential beneficial use as well as manipulation of our ordinary understanding. There is much of an unsettled world, marred by religious violence. However, the core question remains unanswered – nature can create patterns but how, from where, do the underlying, essential codes derive?
True Tales of Trying Times: Legal Fables for Today
Bob Rains, illustrated by E A Jacobsen (Wildy, Simmonds & Hill Publishing/Willow Crossing Press (2007), available at this link: £12.95)
This must be the funniest law book ever published, and thus a suitable candidate for review immediately before Christmas. It is a law book: it concludes with a list of 52 case citations for each of the “True Tales” recounted by Professor Rains. And it is funny: I defy any reader to avoid starting to laugh on reading the dust jacket, or to stop laughing until well after reaching the end of the book. But it is more than funny: as the foreword by (then) Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J Michael Eakin points out, the dictionary definition of a fable is a story used to demonstrate “a useful truth or precept”. Starting with that dust jacket: “We throw our self-made problems into the judicial cauldron, which often just mixes them up and throws them right back at us”.
The author describes himself in the third person. He “had been practising law for about a decade when he decided to make the world a better place by: (1) leaving private practice, and (2) creating more lawyers”. However: “After many years, he is still trying to understand his fellow members of the legal profession and why they do the things they do”. He also describes himself as “giving us a collection reflecting the wide range of predicaments created by the human species and other nonrational creatures”.
Practitioners in many branches of our profession will identify with his comments. What family law practitioner would not yearn to come to the point as bluntly as in the following example? A couple got married. “They shouldn’t have”. She “had achieved fame… performing in a certain type of movie which does not have a wardrobe budget. They had a son. They shouldn’t have”. The fable mentioned the international custody battle, but the case described concerned the level of fees incurred. The last word rested with the judge. A court should “not police the conduct of wealthy litigants who choose to share their wealth with counsel through extravagant litigation”. Each fable is followed by a moral in verse.
This is a book probably best read by lawyers rather than others. Only lawyers can routinely cope with the stretching of credulity as in the case of the bartender’s failed plea of entrapment. She was accused of providing alcoholic beverages to a minor. “It’s your own fault, the courts told Karen. You should have paused a moment in your haste to slake the public’s thirst and taken the time to read the inscription on the lad’s cap, which proudly proclaimed: ‘Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Office Alcohol Compliance Team’”.
However, don’t rely on these snippets. Get someone to buy you the book, and when you next feel like beating your head against the wall, instead read a few more of Bob Rains’s fables!
Adrian D Ward
Peter May (River Run: £7.99)
Peter May has rightly secured worldwide fame through his Lewis based books, which first appeared eight years ago. A relatively recent phenomenon, then? Well, no. Some basic research discloses that his first novel, The Reporter, was published in 1978, and that after a number of years as an award winning journalist. Basic research is something that May does not do. The huge amount of preparation is obvious in all of his work. One of the many strengths of his novels is his ability to make you feel you are in the area of the drama, be it Lewis, China, or, in the case of the Enzo Macleod books, western France.
When an author becomes successful, his hitherto little known back catalogue suddenly sees the light of day. This is the sixth book to feature Enzo Macleod, forensic scientist turned amateur detective. Fascinated by a book of seven unsolved crimes, Macleod makes a bet with its author that he can solve them all. There were five down by 2011, when May turned his focus elsewhere. But, as meticulous as his central character, May, who once spent a year working as a private detective, dislikes loose ends. The half Scottish, half Italian Macleod returns to finish the job.
I enjoyed the first five books. The author is, and always has been, a wonderful storyteller: the sense of place is terrific. The story lines don’t bear close scrutiny and the penmanship is a notch or two down on his current work. Yet, the writing style must somehow for May be allied to the scene of the action. This book is pretty much the same as the others, for good and for bad. The love affairs, the sporadic unexplained attacks on our hero, and the scarcely believable plot twists are not new. By all means acquaint yourself with Mr (or should that be Signor?) Macleod. You will enjoy the acquaintance, though it will make a little more sense if you read the books in order. This is fine as a standalone, but it’s not a patch on Coffin Road, May’s previous book. Sadly, we are now used to everything which this very fine author produces being five star standard, whereas this is just about a four.
Val McDermid (Little, Brown: £18.99)
Carol Jordan and Tony Hill are together on another case, their 10th, I think. Bodies are being found in burnt out cars. The first one initially has the experts fooled into declaring it a suicide: but soon we discover the victims have been murdered pre-incineration. As is often the case with the sinister, not to say insidious, suspense which permeates every one of Val McDermid’s books, we will soon know more. More, obviously, than the Bradfield police; more, perhaps, than most of Carol Jordan’s ReMit team; but nothing more than will eventually be fathomed by the remarkable Tony Jordan, psychologist and reluctant profiler.
Once upon a time we had a whodunnit. Tediously, we can also have a why-did-he-do-it. Val McDermid provides neither of these things. She has become an expert at allowing us simultaneously to share the minds of the perpetrator and the hunters. Her bad guy is one of the smoothest, most ingenious ever, and when you consider the number of rank bad yins created by our Val, that’s quite something. If this lady ever takes to real crime, her detailed knowledge of forensics (a subject on which she has written a masterly non-fiction work) and police procedures will keep her out of jail for some time.
Sadly, the glue which usually binds her novels is missing from this one, especially if you have read the Jordan/Hill books in sequence. In essence, the same personal and interpersonal issues which they had last time round are repeated, but not developed. How much further can they go? There is a clue in one of the most dramatic endings which Val has written. This column prides itself on avoiding spoilers – you’ll have to read the book to discover more.
The Spy of Venice
Benet Brandreth (Twenty7 Books: £8.99)
A subtitle on the cover declares this to be A William Shakespeare novel. For anyone concerned that this might be too literary for your reading for pleasure section, let me say at the outset that I have read James Bond books with less action.
There is a period of about seven years in Shakespeare’s life which is unaccounted for. Benet Brandreth has produced a witty and just about believable account of how some of that time might have been spent. Falling out with a local nobleman in Stratford, our Will legs it to London. Refining his art (if little else) with a band of travelling players in the capital, he finds himself roped into an expedition to Venice. This always has the possibility of peril, given the state of play between England and Spain, Venice and the Vatican. And so it proves. No more details from me, other than to say you may recognise certain of his exploits from some of his better known plays. Suffice it to say that if this novel were to be made into a film, it would be no surprise to see Daniel Craig being considered for the principal role. This is a terrific read, both fast moving and funny.
There is probably no one better to write this than Mr Brandreth (son of the more famous Gyles). In the brief foreword we are told he is exhausted from all his efforts at becoming a Renaissance man. He has better claim to the title than most. A barrister specialising in intellectual property, a rhetoric coach, performer of sellout shows at the Edinburgh Festival and a martial arts instructor. Oh, and most relevantly of all, an authority on Shakespeare who works regularly with the RSC.
I am finding it hard to believe that I am singing the praises of a work of historical fiction. A first time for most things. Will there be more WS novels to fill the rest of those seven years? I sincerely hope so.