Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Jane Harper (Abacus: £7.99; e-book £3.99)
In this fine debut novel by Melbourne-based author Jane Harper, big city financial crime policeman Aaron returns to his hometown, Kiewarra, a small farming community in the state of Victoria, brought to its knees by an apparently interminable drought. Falk is back for the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, who seems, while in the grip of financial difficulties, to have shot his wife and son before turning his gun on himself. The inhabitants of Kiewarra are generally prepared to regard the case as closed, but local cop Raco suspects that there might be more to the story and, soon enough, Falk joins him in an off-the-books investigation of the death of the Hadler family. But it isn’t just the locals who have secrets they want to hide: Falk and his father were effectively chased away years before, when Falk, then a teenager, was suspected of involvement in the death of one of his friends. In the manner of small towns, no one has forgotten about it; and Falk is keenly aware that, at the time, he and Luke provided each other with a false alibi.
Fans of classic crime fiction will find much to love in The Dry. Although its setting is contemporary, its virtues are old fashioned ones: crisp plotting, strongly drawn characters, taut dialogue, and a range of plausible suspects. The parched landscape – in many ways a character in itself – is depicted in language which is evocative and precisely descriptive but never unnecessarily elaborate. The Dry is a terrific read, and it suggests that, in Harper, we might be witnessing the arrival of a major new crime writing talent.
Worlds from the Word’s End
Joanna Walsh (And Other Stories: £8.99; e-book £4.74)
Meet the mistress of the metaphor. And poignancy and precision. And also a sharp commentator on our times. This group of thoughtful stories has all of these and more. Some, to be honest, I don’t get. I wasn’t blown away by “Two”, the opening story, apparently about the disposal of a pair of dolls. Things soon pick up, however, some of a writer’s emotions spilling out in “Bookselves”, where bookshelves, the home of a writer’s bedrock and inspirations, become human and enjoy a tumultuous relationship with the writer. After a few drinks together both parties conclude that “after all, perhaps you do not really like books”.
Love, in the form of lost love, features. The poignant “Femme Maison” will affect even the most cynical, while the masterly one page “Exes” is laugh-out-loud funny. But perhaps Ms Walsh is at her finest when musing on societal issues. These may be minor matters such as office politics (“Two Secretaries”), or may be thoughts on Freud and feminism in “Like A Fish Needs A…”: “But too much freewheeling leads only downhill. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Some parts of the world described in this book are very strange indeed. The measurement of everything, for example, in “The Story of Our Nation”. And is “Me and the Fat Woman – Joanna Walsh” really about black holes, or is it some sort of decline and fall metaphor, to accompany the memento mori of the one page “Dunnet”? One has to leave the last word to the titular story, “Worlds from the Word’s End”. This is a wonderful reductio ad absurdum of the development of language, moving from the loss of grammar, through the teenager style monosyllabic grunt to a world where words have disappeared altogether. That tale is as clever as it is disturbing, a phrase which, I suppose, might sum up this masterful collection.
Philip Kerr (Quercus: £18.99; e-book £9.49)
This book opens in Nice, 1956, when Bernie Gunther is brought to meet Erich Mielke, head of the East German Ministry for State Security, otherwise known as the Stasi. Gunther is instructed to kill Anne French, who had appeared in a previous outing in a Stasi plot to discredit Roger Hollis, deputy director of MI5. The deed is to be done by Gunther administering the deadly Prussian Blue poison. Mielke's henchmen reinforce the command, one of whom Gunther had worked with on a murder investigation in 1939 at Hitler's Bavarian retreat the Berghof in Berchtesgaden.
The story flits back and forth, as Gunther avoids the henchmen in 1956 France as he seeks refuge in Germany while the story of the investigation into the 1939 murder unfolds at the time the Eagle's Nest is being built for Hitler's 50th birthday, having been commissioned by Martin Bormann. The Berghof had originally been Haus Wachenfeld, purchased by Hitler in 1933 with the proceeds of his book sales. However, it was expanded and, ultimately, the whole mountainside became a Nazi enclave with senior Nazis such as Goering, Bormann and the architect Albert Speer having houses built. Farms were forcibly possessed; the owners turned out. The area became the centre of Nazi power and administration, as Hitler had no love for Berlin and, indeed, Berliners who had not voted in large numbers for him.
Against this background, Kerr delivers a fast paced story which sees Gunther consume amphetamine to keep him going as the pressure increases to find the murderer as the Führer's birthday approaches, all infused with historical accuracy and intrigue. The story delves into the reality of life on the mountainside, the corruption, the intolerance, the fear, the vast military presence. There is a delightful irony throughout the narrative, but read it and all will be revealed.