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Reading for pleasure

20 May 19

This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen, by the Journal's book review editor

by David J Dickson (review editor), Tom Johnston

The Horseman's Song

Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £5.01)

Beware publishers' notes. The back cover, accurately, states that this is the sixth novel in the Martin Bora series; however, the front page suggests this came after Tin Sky and Road to Ithaca, both of which have been reviewed in this column. That is completely incorrect, as these postdate The Horseman's Song by a good decade.

If I was cool about the last two, allow me to blow very hot about this novel. As hot as the post on the high Spanish sierra where Bora finds himself in 1937. In theory he is there as a Foreign Legion lieutenant on the side of Franco; in truth as an Abwehr agent. The representatives of the Internationalists are on the other side of the mountain. They frequent the same towns and share the same women. We find ourselves in the middle of a classic phoney war. What is also shared by Bora and Philip “Felipe” Watson, a war weary American who is his opposite number on the Internationalist side, is a love of the poetry of Frederic Garcia Lorca. Lorca was probably the most famous Spanish poet of the 20th century. He disappeared during the war and his remains never been discovered.

It is clear that this love of Lorca's work is shared by Pastor (real name Maria Verbena Volpi). She has taken the mystery as the plot for the novel, and the man's work as a leitmotif. She has done much more. Seventy years ago, Hemingway produced some of his best work in For Whom the Bell Tolls, his taut, spare prose evoking the people and landscape of Spain, and some of the horrors of a civil war. Pastor has built on that legacy, with some of the finest representation of that time and place I have ever read. If I find her plots slightly implausible, I'm prepared to forgive her this time.

Watson and his motley crew of Internationalists are thoroughly credible; we learn more of Bora's back story; and we meet flame haired Remedios the bruja (witch). Now may Ms Volpi forgive me if I misinterpret an influence, but I can never forget Carlos Castaneda's One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which Remedios the Beauty, after an eventful life, was hauled up to heaven by her long red tresses. Perhaps the two ladies were related in some way. Certainly the sexual spey-wifery here adds some spice to the book and intensifies the rivalry between the two main protagonists.

I counsel you to ignore the cover notes, as there's a wee bit of a spoiler, but I would suggest that you find time for writing of this quality. I didn't think I'd be writing this after reviewing the last two.

Thunder Bay

Douglas Skelton (Polygon: £8.99; e-book £1.89)

Douglas Skelton began his writing career with non-fiction. As he describes it, he focuses on the darker side: true life exploits of murderers, criminals and causes célèbres. He has also investigated real-life crime for Glasgow solicitors, most notably in connection with the celebrated “ice cream wars” case. Logically enough, he made the switch to crime fiction. Thunder Bay is his eighth novel, the first to feature reporter Rebecca Connolly, who may just become a regular. Although Rebecca is Inverness based, her father was born on the fictional island of Stoirm, somewhere north of Iona. Fifteen years earlier, islander Roddie Drummond was acquitted of a brutal murder. The not proven verdict convinced few and satisfied no one. When the island learns that Roddie will be returning to Stoirm for his mother's funeral, it is inevitable that feelings will be inflamed and past divisions reappear.

Rebecca heads to the island in defiance of her editor, and sparks a story which is intense and dramatic. Skelton drops clues, lays false trails, and in the best traditions of crime fiction keeps the tension going until the very end.

For me this is a book written by someone more accustomed to non-fiction. While he has done some research on the mindset of natives of remote parts of Scotland – the island way, as it is described at least 40 times – his characterisation is poor. With the exception of Rebecca herself, none of the protagonists is developed in any way. Some are stilted stereotypes: thus, we have the aggressive English gamekeeper, the dodgy laird, whose family are tainted by involvement in the Clearances, the conniving MP. Many fail to convince. For a bit of humour we have Ali, the wheelchair bound Sikh who runs the local hotel. I was quite enjoying his nonsense until the author had him describing a kipper as a haddock who realised that smoking was bad for you. I don't think the mistake is Ali's. Some have praised the sense of place. Again I was underwhelmed.

But if you are looking for a page turner of a tale, this novel certainly won't disappoint.

Stasi 77

David Young (Zaffre: £7.99; e-book £ 3.99)

This is the fourth book in the Major Karin Müller series. Müller is the head of the Serious Crimes Department of the VoPo (Peoples' Police) and, following similar plots, finds herself up against the MfS (Ministry for State Security, known colloquially as the Stasi). Initially sent from the Hauptstadt (as the East German authorities always referred to Berlin) to investigate a suspicious death, she finds herself removed from the enquiry, it having been taken over by the Stasi. The death is somewhat gruesome in that the victim appears to have been bound, a fire lit in an enclosed space and death caused through smoke inhalation. Several more deaths follow. A pattern of a historical connection between all four deceased emerges; their collective pasts have caught up with them, and from outwith East Germany. With her superior's support, Müller ploughs her own furrow, unearthing the truth of the deaths but also the dark association all the deceased had with the town of Gardelegen during the closing days of the Second World War. Müller's attention turns towards members of the Stasi and she has deep suspicion of her deputy's motives, echoing previous plot lines. There is convincing characterisation allied with a well plotted story. As always, the author provides an unerringly realistic description of the life and ways of the former East Germany: an utterly convincing portrayal of a watched and closed society. The only question mark is where the author will take us next with Major Müller? Superb.

 

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