Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Philip Kerr (Hachette: £20; e-book £11.48)
In the final outing for Bernie Gunther, the late Philip Kerr takes us back to where and when it all began – Weimar Berlin. Bernie is promoted to the murder squad and has two investigations: Dr Gnadenschuss, who, with a single coup de grâce, murders ex-servicemen, and Wittenou, who murders female prostitutes and scalps them. The solving of the crimes takes Bernie into the dark and unstable underbelly of Berlin where organised crime mixes with high society and glamour. We see the young Gunther find his feet both in the art of investigation but also in how to handle his senior colleagues. They empathise with the cause of his heavy drinking, the sleeves having seen the death and chaos of the First World War, but emphasis the paucity of comfort that booze brings. In his inimitable style allied with his careful research and intertwining the likes of George Grosz, Kerr transports us back to the heyday of Berlin, but through the endless hedonism one glimpses the ever increasing threat of the rise of intolerance. Through the reviews of the Babylon Berlin series by Kutschner, readers have become more familiar with that era of intra-war Berlin. To finish at the beginning, completes the arc.
This Is Going to Hurt
Adam Kay (Picador: £16.99; Kindle £5)
Adam Kay was the latest medical graduate from a family of doctors. After six years' study he knew the name of every bone, muscle, sinew and vessel in the human body. This is no mean feat. I shared student flats with medics. I know the effort involved. Sadly, this stood hIm in no stead whatsoever when, as a junior houseman, he found himself facing his first breech delivery. The book narrates episodes from his six years of practice, before he gave up the unequal struggle.
It's a book which both amuses and appals. I had not idea that the 90+ hour week still existed; that the authorities have so little disdain for employees that they remove beds from the rest spaces; or that a junior doctor calling in sick is expected to arrange her own replacement.
Amusement? This is the funniest book I have read in a long time. It will come as no surprise to learn that Adam Kay is now a comedian and scriptwriter. I should warn that some of the humour is not for the squeamish. As I used to lunch with the said medics immediately after their practical anatomy classes, I am immune to most of this, but you have been warned. His specialisation is obstetrics and gynaecology, or obs and gobs, as my chums knew it. The more naive among you might think this is all about babies. I'll leave Mr Kay to amuse you with endless tales of things removed from orifices. Suffice to say that the one involving a marriage proposal and a Kinder egg is particularly sweet.
I have no idea whether things are better or worse in NHS Scotland. I hear from both sides of the border that our health service is both underfunded and badly managed. If Adam Kay's book is anywhere near reality, then both it (and his open letter to the Health Secretary) should give us all cause for concern.
The Killing Habit
Mark Billingham (Little, Brown: £8.99; e-book £4.99)
The 15th outing for Tom Thorne, Mark Billingham’s curmudgeonly London detective, starts with a series of crimes which should really have nothing to do with him: the killing of dozens of cats, probably by the same person. Thorne can see why people might be upset, but it doesn’t immediately strike him as a job for the Homicide Unit. (“Tomicide?” his boss muses.) Aware, though, of the received wisdom that many serial killers start out by torturing or killing animals, Thorne agrees to look into it. Assisted by new partner DI Nicola Tanner, he quickly reaches the conclusion that their cat killer has already graduated to human victims. Meantime, Thorne is helping Tanner out with one of her cases, in which the investigation of what looks like a straightforward murder – one drug addict killing another – leads to something much more complex. Billingham is one of British crime fiction’s most consistent and reliable writers, and as with all of his work, The Killing Habit offers something of a masterclass in pacing, plotting, coal-black humour, and pungent dialogue. Interestingly, the book was partly inspired by a real life case, the investigation of which was closed in 2018 when the Metropolitan Police concluded that there is not, in fact, a serial cat killer at large. In a coda which in some ways is as chilling as the end of the novel itself, Billingham offers his own thoughts on that decision.
The Department of Sensitive Crimes
Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown: £18.99; e-book £10.99)
In this hard edged and cynical age, the gentle writings of our fellow lawyer Sandy McCall Smith have resonated worldwide. He has been at it for a very long time. In the mid 1970s we at Edinburgh University laughed at the coincidence that our amiable young jurisprudence lecturer shared a name with the author of a children’s bestseller entitled The Perfect Hamburger.
His international reputation was made through his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, his thoughts on human kind laced with whimsy. That can be in the form of simple tongue in cheek stuff. For example, his advice in a recent newspaper column to potential boat owners. They float, if put in the water the right way up. That is something you should perhaps be certain of before you put your newly acquired boat in the water. Or it can at times be so wonderfully and ludicrously surreal that the whole notion makes you laugh before you begin to read. The premise of My Italian Bulldozer is that an author arriving in Tuscany rents a bulldozer for several months because the hire company has run out of cars. There is more to it than that, of course, and lovers of Montalcino wines should take note, but you get the point.
Sandy is at it again in The Department of Sensitive Crimes. Featuring detective Ulf Varg (the name translates as Wolf Wolf), this has quickly been dubbed Scandi Blanc. Do I need to tell you more than the fact that Varg’s dog is deaf and has been taught to lip read in Swedish? What is the remit for the eponymous police department? I have no idea. The novel covers a few cases which have more than a passing resemblance to those handled by Precious Ramotswe in Botswana. I forget the details. Fittingly for us, the last chapter is entitled “Nihil Humani Mihi Alienum Est”. I’d counsel waiting for the paperback edition before investing, but that should be out in time for some light holiday reading.
William McIntyre (Sandstone Press: £7.99; e-book £4)
William McIntyre has given us yet another terrific outing for Robbie Munro.
“Genghis” McCann is charged with theft by housebreaking and finds himself in custody. However, as a matter of law, has the property been stolen and was the crime of housebreaking made out, notwithstanding entry was gained through a side window? The house from which the property was taken belongs to an elderly Holocaust survivor, Mrs Glowacki, who is helped out by Mr Reuben Berlow, a former business partner of the now deceased Mr Glowacki. Robbie comes into possession of the property, which includes a painting. He hooks up with Holliday, who encourages Robbie to invest with him in seeking a valuation of the painting, which he believes may make them rich. Robbie’s overdraft shows deep red! Is it a gamble worth taking?
As if that’s not enough, Robbie is an expectant father, his brother has a new partner and he finds himself defending snooker’s premier player on charges of match fixing.
The author brings his wealth of experience of the Scottish criminal courts to the page and enlivens it with sharp, dry wit. His observations on counsel will be familiar to many. Did a Jackson QC jury speech really amount to a shrug?
We are left with the tantalising prospect of Robbie and his brother embarking on a new venture. Let’s hope we don’t need to wait too long.
Fast paced and witty.