Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Helen Fields (Avon: £7.99)
In the world of popular music, among bands which have made the breakthrough, there is something called “that difficult third album syndrome”. Some leap the hurdle; others falter.
I received Helen Fields’ first two novels with great enthusiasm. Her hero, the half French, half Scottish, Luc Callanach has enough of a character and a past to make him of interest. Fields, a former criminal barrister, knows enough about crime and police to inject some credibility into her boys and girls in blue. I therefore opened this, the next in the series, with great anticipation. Is it just familiarity which bred a different response, or is it third novel syndrome?
In an unbelievably crowded field, it is important to be different. There is a fine line between an original storyline, and an overstretching of belief. Much depends on your backdrop being convincing. What do we have this time? An uneasy on-off relationship between the hero and a fellow officer, preferably one promoted above her? Well, Rebus was doing that 20 years ago. A tyrannical superior officer – who doesn’t have one of those? Maverick cops following hunches and breaking rules – yup, read that before. Friendly journalists getting involved in unexpected ways – oh, there’s always a journo, isn’t there?
And that’s before we get into the baddies and their relationship with the victims. Sadly, the dialogue of anyone under 30 just didn’t sound credible. Nor did the attempt to develop Callanach’s back story, which produced a shock element halfway through, then fizzled out. If in the past Fields’ Edinburgh police were the solid foundation for her tale, this time some cracks appear. She also has to decide which legal system she is writing about. Someone is likely to be charged with culpable homicide, we are told, but within a paragraph this has become manslaughter. Another Scottish villain has a conviction for ABH on his record.
Fields is a fine storyteller. That talent can override much critical analysis, but not always. Her first two books I read in a hurry because I was enjoying them so much; this one I read in haste as I wanted it to end.
The Serbian Dane
Leif Davidsen (Arcadia: £8.99)
Set in Denmark, Croatia and Iran, Leif Davidsen (Danish author and journalist) wrote this thriller in 1996. Twenty two years have passed, but the plot remains topical, weighing a Muslim fatwah on an exiled Iranian author against freedom of speech.
In a world of secret deals and private passions, organised crime and uncontrolled media frenzy, plans are made for a feminist, secular, Iranian author to defy a fatwah and make a public appearance in Copenhagen. The three disparate, troubled and lonely lives of the central characters (an assassin, a dedicated detective inspector and an arts journalist) are drawn together by the fatwah – which offers $4 million for the Iranian author’s life.
Davidsen introduces the right-wing euro-populist view that the flaws in the welfare state have been caused by generous immigration policy, before subtly dismissing it. He confronts the ethnic cleansing that created assassin, Vuk – the (mixed race) “Serbian Dane” of the title – who is haunted by nightmares of the Balkan conflict and who hopes that killing the Iranian author will be his last assignment.
The Serbian Dane is a literate and compelling story with enough twisted angst in the private lives of the three central characters to prevent the plot from disintegrating into cliché. From its terse beginning to its blood-splattered climax, this is a taut political thriller.
Death of the Fronsac
Neal Ascherson (Apollo: £18.99; e-book £5.03)
Perhaps money is to be made by selling an e-book for about the price of two puff pastry discs of three cheese puff roulade, as described by Mr Johnston in his most recent restaurant review (ormidalels.com/tom-eats/; look for Forgan's, March 2018) but for a book of such exquisite writing as Neal Ascherson has produced, gives one food for thought.
Maurycy Szczucki, known as Mike, is a Polish officer attached to the French navy based at Greenock, during the phoney war but after the Nazis had occupied Poland. A French warship explodes in the Clyde just as young Jackie puts her key in the front door of the house she shares with her mother Helen and paternal grandmother, Mabel, leading her to believe she is responsible for the explosion. Her father, who was working on the ship, is reported missing. Mike and Helen form a loose sexual relationship. Helen moves to Canada. Jackie is brought up by her granny, Mike a constant presence.
Written from the perspective of Mike reflecting on his life, Ascherson develops a tremendous narrative of the life in Scotland experienced by the Polish community. Ascherson has written extensively on Poland. The close historical relationship between these two states is long and rich, going as far back as the 17th century. However, it is also a narrative about the state of Europe, the relationship and integration of nationals to the life of another country and, in essence, belonging and place. Tremendous.
Volker Kutscher (Sandstone Press: £8.99; e-book £ 3.79)
Set in the hedonistic days of Weimar Berlin, Kutscher introduces us to Inspector Gereon Rath, who has, with the assistance of his father, transferred from Cologne to Berlin. He finds his way initially working in the vice department, and with “Uncle” ensnares his first tout. A car goes off the road into the Landwehr canal, the driver dead with his hands and feet beyond recognition. A story develops that takes Rath into the nightclubs and underworld characters that populate the city. The atmosphere of Berlin, on the cusp of the ascent to power of Hitler, leaps off the page. The narrative truly reflects the time, with the communist demonstrations and little hints of the Nazi takeover of the authorities. There is a Russian countess, Russian gold, police corruption, and Rath is not himself beyond some uncharacteristic police behaviour. A terrific debut in English, and we look forward to the remainder of the series being translated.