Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
A Best Defence Mystery
William McIntyre (Sandstone Press: £8.99)
Robbie Munro is back. Hooray! I think it was Clive James who wrote, I thank heaven for small mercies: the first of these is Rumpole. Now I think that Willie (if I may make so bold – I’ve never met the gentleman, but I believe that’s what his chums call him) might be a tad embarrassed by the comparison, but my heart lifts when I hear there is a new Robbie book heading my way.
Our Robbie is a lawyer whose life is never simple. The earlier books have seen him resolve custody of Tina; he is now at last happily married to Joanna; he hasn’t had a visit from the Scottish Legal Aid Board for at least two books. What could possibly go wrong with his life? Well, up until now the convolutions generally involved the normal dramatis personae you might expect from a small-town solicitor – gangsters, heavies, murderers, you know the type. This time it goes a little wider.
Hands up, how many of you knew about Jill? The one who chucked Robbie for a billionaire Olympic skiing champion. No? You lot missed that too? Ah well, she bounces back into his life. The billionaire is dead, and she wants Robbie to investigate. Naturally, this causes many a problem, not least because our hero, with Tina in tow, has a variety of encounters in Edinburgh’s swishest new boutique hotel. All of these – usually involving gorgeous women, whether born or made that way – are ambiguously relayed back to Joanna, who just happens to be away prosecuting some war criminal in The Hague.
Did I happen to mention that convicted child killer Ricky Hertz has been released on bail by the Appeal Court? Now that happens only if they’re thinking his conviction might just have been a wee bit dodgy. And who was one of the principal investigating officers? Step forward Alex Munro, Robbie’s dad. You’re one jump ahead of me, aren’t you? The significance of the title has just dawned. It wouldn’t be a Robbie book with merely one strand. This latest vehicle (the official publication date is 16 August 2018) rattles along at the usual breathtaking pace. I can tell you no more: all I will say is, don’t do the old Agatha Christie trick of reading the last page first.
Salley Vickers (Viking: £16.99; e-book £9.99)
The first thing that strikes you is the elegant appearance of this hardback volume, its Arts and Crafts style cover featuring an Aleksndr Aleksandrovich painting of "Young Woman with Book". It’s a beautiful beginning, and it continues to improve. Salley Vickers has been delighting us since the start of the century when Miss Garnett’s Angel marked a triumphant debut. Miss Garnett was a retired spinster who retired to Venice. Her encounters with young artists blended smoothly but surreally with the Apocryphal story of Tobias and the Angel. While many of Ms Vickers’ subsequent novels have featured solo female protagonists, no two are the same.
The central character of this novel is Sylvia Blackwell. In 1958 she takes up the post of children’s librarian in East Moal. This is a community with a rich mixture of people, including those who had been employed at the former foundry and a typically English middle class cast, WI members, the library committee and all. The stars are the children: Lizzie, whom Sylvia mentors to pass her 11+ exam against all expectations; Sam, the troubled boy next door; and Marigold, daughter of the love interest, Dr Bell.
Part One covers the short period of Sylvia’s tenure, during which she makes a dramatic impact on a few young lives through introducing them to the world of books. It ends all too soon. Part Two doesn’t start until 60 years and 339 pages later, by which time we are demanding to know what happened next. The surprise is not of a cliffhanging nature: one would describe it rather as gentle and warming, in keeping with the rest of the book.
The author’s note at the very end tells us that there was a real life Miss Blackwell. Blackwell was in fact her surname, though Salley Vickers tells us that her first name, as was common enough at the time, was never known to the children whom she influenced. The delight of a dedicated woman who encouraged her to read has clearly never left; however, it is stressed that the rest of the book is a work of fiction. For me, Vickers in the past has produced some novels which are of the finest, and some which are merely very good. This, however, is the former, from the Salley Vickers who gave us Miss Garnett. There is a perfect but not idealised sense of the time, place and morality of the 1950s. The book does not shirk from alluding to the darker things that lurked in the background then as now, but does not dwell on them. This librarian enhanced the lives of many as much as this novel enhanced mine during the brief day it took me to read it.
Volker Kutscher (Sandstone Press: £8.99; e-book £2.19)
Regular readers will know I remain surprised and disappointed that e-books sell for less than a cup of average coffee. This third instalment of the Gereon Rath series is even better than the first two which have been reviewed in the Journal. Not often can it be said that an author's offerings improve, but in this book Kutscher brings a strong storyline, set against an increasing buildup in 1930s Berlin between Nazi and communist factions. On the latter, the author demonstrates that within “Red Berlin” there was little public support for the Nazis, and particularly within the police. Indeed, he shows the police simply wanting to keep law and order. The book ends with a violent attack on a club, with deft description of the atmosphere both outwith and within the club and amongst its patrons, a portent of what is to come.
The story revolves around two young tearaways living rough in Berlin, but who are adept at stealing from the major department stores of KaDeWe and Wertheim and having the stolen loot fenced. However, police brutality and gang rivalry impact severely on the youths, whose relative innocence becomes clear. Meanwhile, Rath and his girlfriend continue their relationship and all seems well, but... cliffhanger number two. Rath finds himself involved with Dr Marlowe, the leader of one gang, and agrees to undertake some investigative work for him on the side. Dead gangsters, dead fences, severely injured youth. Goldstein, who gives the book its title, is a New York gangster who has unexpectedly pitched up in Berlin. Why now, and for what purpose, offer a delicious twist to the narrative. Enjoy. There are more in the pipeline for translation and, according to German news, a third TV series on the way.
A Darker State
David Young (Zaffre: £7.99; e-book £4.07)
This is the third book in the police procedural which follows Oberleutnant Karin Müller of the East German State Police (VoPo). These books are based in Cold War Berlin. Anyone who has visited the city will recognise the places described in the story, such as Strausberger Platz where Müller has her new flat, a square at the top of the Karl Marx Allee, the “wedding cake” style of socialist building which was the centre piece of the DDR rebuilding programme.
The weighted body of a young man is recovered from a lake. More bodies turn up. Speculation mounts. During her investigation, Müller crosses the Stasi, with violent repercussions. What are they hiding? Add to this that the son of one of Müller's team disappears. Müller's husband, a research doctor, seems distant and is unexpectedly absent. Müller is conflicted, but is she compromised? All of this gives us a fast paced and authentic thriller. As with Young's previous books, the narrative is based on true activity undertaken by the Ministry for State Security in the believe it would benefit the state.
Forever and a Day
Anthony Horowitz (Jonathan Cape: £18.99; e-book £4.99)
Anthony Horowitz is a very fine writer, and has succeeded in many genres. He produced his first novel nearly 40 years ago. He has found fame as an author of novels for teenagers (The Diamond Brothers, Alex Rider, The Power of Five), turned his skills to screenwriting (Foyle’s War, Robin of Sherwood, Midsomer Murders), and written many novels for adults. He is well versed in the art of writing in the style of the famous. The estate of Arthur Conan Doyle commissioned him to write a Sherlock Holmes novel. So successful was The House of Silk that Moriarty soon followed. Both excellent.
A further commission followed from the estate of Ian Fleming to give the world more of James Bond. I recall reading the 007 novels as an adolescent, mostly, it must be said, in search of the salacious bits. A couple of years ago I picked up a Penguin reprint of From Russia With Love, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing. Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis gave us another dose of Bond, and he does it again in this book. It goes back to the very beginning, when Bond first receives his Double O status. There are a lot of nice touches, explaining how his legendary tastes for the finer things in life develop, and who influences them. The writing style is smooth and true to the original. Sadly I can’t find much more to commend. The content reads like a cut and paste from many other Bond books, with some other obvious imports. There is a scene in a casino with a mysterious strange lady; there is imprisonment on the high seas with said lady and, of course, a dramatic escape. The villains are either smooth and evil or grotesque, and one piece of intended torture is a straight lift from The French Connection. It is fairly obvious that Horowitz is a screen writer – there is a clear eye to the cinematic possibilities throughout. Please don’t let me put you off his other stuff, but I would give this one a miss.