Reading for pleasure
The month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
All that remains: A life in death
Sue Black (Doubleday: £16.99; e-book £9.99)
It is, I suppose, possible that you may not have heard of Professor Dame Sue Black. If you have not, but if you are a fan of Scottish crime fiction, it is likely you will, indirectly, have been influenced by her work. Val McDermid in particular has cited her often as a consultant in matters forensic. Read McDermid’s excellent non fiction work Forensics – The Anatomy of Crime, and you will realise how much of an influence Professor Black has been.
In this, her autobiography, Black is anxious to point out that she is a forensic anthropologist, not a pathologist. Her background is in anatomy, but she has developed this role more than anyone else in the 20th century. She was lead anthropologist in the British forensic team charged with investigating the grisly aftermath of the conflict in Kosovo. She was one of the first foreign experts on the scene in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, assisting in the identification of victims. Appointed to a chair at Dundee in 2005, in 2008 she became head of the newly formed Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification. She has been at the forefront of using the unique patterns of veins on hands as a tool in criminal investigation, one which may well become as important as fingerprints are today.
All of these would make for fascinating reading; however, this book is so, so much more than that. Death is considered, not just as an inevitable concomitant to her work, but also in philosophical and personal terms. Her own family experiences are related, movingly but not mawkishly. Her mantra is that death is to be expected, not to be feared. It played a vital part in her own education in the form of the “silent teachers”, the corpses donated to university anatomy classes. While she sounds like a lady who can take much in her stride, she is rigidly strict on the need for respect for such people and their remains. This has motivated her throughout the many arduous projects undertaken throughout the world. An unidentified body is not just an item – it is someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother. A failure to identify a corpse found as long ago as 2011 still rankles enough for her to add an appendix to her book, in the hope of finding any other clues which may be out there.
I read that she has just left Dundee University. At a time when many might be contemplating retirement, she has taken up a new post at Lancaster University, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement, involving setting a new strategy for the whole university.
That her family is as important to Black as is her work is clear from the book. It is a testament to someone who has achieved the rare feat of combining a full family life with exceptional professional success. One must add to that, superb authorship skills. This is an autobiography which is as well written as its subject matter is engrossing – I can’t think of a better one.
The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories
Theresa Solana (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £ 5.83)
A clever collection of darkly humorous short stories by Teresa Solana, who has an established international reputation as a Catalan crime author. The short stories are filled with the author’s acknowledged surrealist touches and anarchic humour.
The book has two parts. The first, “Blood, Guts and Love”, contains sardonic references to traditional crime and horror fiction themes. The emphasis (in the first part) is on improbable situations, with a comic effect created by the deadpan delivery of the narrators. These are lighthearted, but weird tales.
In the title story, a prehistoric detective is asked to investigate a triple murder which is threatening to disrupt cave life. In the remaining stories in this section, ghosts try to keep a house to themselves, an exhibition organiser is fooled by unexpectedly realistic works of decomposing art, two nice old grannies become vengeful killers and a vampire feels out of step with the modern world.
In the second section, “Connections”, the tone shifts to noir in a sequence of stories of murder and betrayal, delivering a cynical mosaic of contemporary Barcelona life. Each story at first appears to be self-contained, but, taken collectively, a jaundiced picture of Solana’s home town emerges.
This is an unusual approach to crime stories: easy to read but with the cumulative effect of far greater depths embracing a diverse range of themes.
The Cold Summer
Gianrico Carofiglio (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £5.03)
1992. It seems like only yesterday in so many ways, but it truly was a different world. That was a year when the Scottish football team had qualified for a major championship; when mobile phones were still a novelty (of which, more later); and as The Cold Summer reminds us, a year when Italian prosecutors were still likely to be assassinated by the Mafia.
The last of these provides the factual backdrop to this crime novel. In the summer of 1992, two Italian prosecutors, Giovanni Falconi and Paolo Borsellino, were killed in separate bomb attacks. At the same time, so the historical note at the beginning of this novel tells us, furious wars were going on among the local Apulian Mafia, not to be confused with the Sicilian Mafia but just as vicious. This book is a fictitious account of one such internecine war.
The carabiniere at the centre of the story is Pietro Fenoglio, who has to investigate the killing of several members of one particular gang, culminating in the kidnapping of the young son of the gang boss, while dealing with a crisis in his personal life, his wife having left him. One gang member, Lopez, who is suspected of the killings and of the kidnapping, decides to hand himself in. Much of the interest of the book for Scots lawyers lies in the description of the Italian criminal justice system, and in particular the transcripts of the interviews of Lopez conducted by the public prosecutor, during which the plot begins to unfold. Perhaps not as pacy as, say, the interviews in Line of Duty (or, more topically, Bodyguard), but fascinating nonetheless, and strangely compelling. One would also imagine that it is realistic, given that the author previously worked as a prosecutor specialising in organised crime, and as a plot device, it works.
It’s difficult to say any more about the plot without needing a spoiler alert. Suffice to say that this is probably not the sort of book to have you on the edge of your seat, wondering where the next twist is going to come from, but it is a satisfying read, with credible, complex three-dimensional characters, particularly Fenoglio, who is realistically and sympathetically drawn and who is a decent and thoughtful man – the thinking man’s John Rebus, if you like. It also provides a fascinating insight to the brutality of the Mafia, with some detailed and graphic accounts of previous killings carried out by Lopez, described by him in the interviews in a chilling, matter of fact way, which again one imagines is rooted in reality.
This was my first foray into this author’s work, but he clearly draws on his past experience as a prosecutor to good effect, and the book is well translated. It is well worth a read for anyone into crime fiction.
Back to mobile phones. A running gag in the book is their novelty in 1992. Was there really a time when people had mobile phones only for the purpose of receiving calls, not making them? Apparently so. In 2018, that sounds almost as far fetched as… well, as Scotland qualifying again for a major championship.
The Year of the Mad King
Sir Antony Sher (Nick Hern Books: £16.99; e-book £12.23)
In 1982, Antony Sher played the role of the fool in King Lear at the RSC in Stratford. In 2016, with a raft of Shakespeare roles behind him, married to the Greg Dorran, artistic director of the RSC and while appearing as Falstaff around the world, Sher finds himself preparing the play the title role of King Lear.
Lear is often described as the most challenging role in the genre, with the King appearing so often in the play. Some may have seen Sir Iain McKellen's recent performance at an age not far short of the four score of the character. As with previous books, Sher kept a diary. This sees him perform Falstaff in China and New York as part of the RSC 400th year celebration of the Bard's death. We read much about the uncomfortable backstage life of an actor in modern theatres, and his use of a former under-stage toilet in New York converted to the “Elaine Stritch Suite” for use by actors to save them an arduous under-stage walk to the dressing room. However, interwoven are poignant moments of the author's family in South Africa, in particular the death of his sister. The crescendo is the performance of the play heralded as “a crowning achievement in a major career”.
This is a very readable, engrossing insight into the life of a leading actor but, perhaps more importantly, the sheer effort that goes into the preparation of a role. Sher suddenly sees “his” Lear when, in the middle of the night, he finds himself in the bathroom of his hotel suite, and looking in the mirror sees the King reflected back. “Lear learning”, as he calls learning his lines, takes 18 months before rehearsals. Very enjoyable.
Mick Herron (John Murray: £8.99; e-book £5.99)
This fifth outing for Mick Herron’s gang of misfit MI5 operatives, known contemptuously as the “slow horses”, opens with a frighteningly plausible terrorist attack on a small, quiet English village, and is followed by other atrocities which, it turns out, have been lifted from a secret British intelligence playbook. Meantime, it will come as no surprise to fans of the series that someone wants to kill the rebarbative Roderick Ho, one of the Horses, because everyone always wants to kill him. However, this time someone is actually trying to do it, and this is the sort of interference which Jackson Lamb, the monstrous, foul-mouthed, yet astute and surprisingly adroit boss of the Horses, will not tolerate. The attempts on Ho’s life are, of course, connected to the terrorists; and as the MI5 bosses are spending as much time on infighting and jockeying for prominence as on protecting the nation, this means that Lamb – who really just wants to be left alone to torment his staff – will need to step in.
Readers of Herron’s novels will know that he has set the bar very high, and can be reassured that London Rules clears it with style: the dialogue is, as ever, salty, snappy, and laugh-out-loud funny; the plotting is compelling; and Jackson Lamb continues to be a remarkable character, a fictional creation for the ages. (The moment – and it is only a moment – when Lamb expresses genuine concern for a colleague is remarkably moving.) There’s something a little different here, though: the tone of the previous books – a mild, almost ironic, somehow British irritation at the state of the world – has been replaced by the unmistakable thrum of Brexit-related fury. The tousle-haired populist Peter Judd, who we’ve met before in Herron’s work, gets no more than a mention in passing. But we’re introduced to Britain’s leading Eurosceptic MP, Dennis Gimball, who is described as trying to “get the country out of the European Union and back into the 1950s”; and to his tabloid-columnist wife who describes refugees as “earwigs”. Herron would probably disdain the idea that his novels are supposed to convey a message. But if London Rules has one, it might be that things are falling apart in a way from which not even Jackson Lamb can save us. If that’s where we’re going, though, I want to be reading Mick Herron on the way. This is absolutely outstanding.
Enlightenment Edinburgh – A Guide
Sheila Szatkowski (Birlinn: £12.99)
This book is for the armchair explorer who can then, armed with the rich detail provided by the author, set off to view the numerous buildings of Enlightenment Edinburgh. The city of Hume, Ferguson, Adam Smith and Robert Adam shines in this evocation of the buildings with which they were familiar. Inevitably, much is devoted to the centre of Edinburgh, in particular the New Town. However other areas from Calton to Duddingston are considered. The author takes us through the streets pointing out the buildings, who lived there, the design adorned with numerous photographs. Who knew that John Hunter WS was the first person in 1787 to receive approval to instal an iron lamp standard, or Anchor Close was where the Encyclopaedia Britannica was first published in 1768? This book is a joy.
A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories
Georges Simenon (Penguin: £7.99; e-book £4.99)
This delightful three part offering of Simenon is perfect for Christmas. The opening story sees the great detective at home on Christmas Day when two women from the apartment block opposite cross over to report a man seen in the room of a young child, scratching a hole in the floor, whereupon he left the young girl a doll. Only in the hands of Simenon can a story of deceit and familial tension develop and unfold into a complete narrative of a crime. The final story is more akin to a short morality tale which should be circulated to all before the office Christmas party. A young woman finds herself alone, naively wandering the bars of Paris until she is spotted (and followed) under the careful, anxious gaze of a more knowing female. You'll have to buy the book to enjoy the third in this slim volume. Perfect.