Book Review: The Lighterman

The Lighterman, by Simon Michael, is the third book in the author’s Charles Holborne series of crime thrillers (I review the first two here and here). Set in 1960s London, in and around the historic law courts at the Old Bailey, Holborne is once again working as a barrister from chambers where his Jewish heritage is disdained. Family background is an important backdrop to the story. The key case being dealt with involves Holborne’s cousin, Izzy, with whom he worked on the Thames during the Second World War.

Following events from the previous intalments in the series, Holborne is on the Kray twins death list. The metropolitan police are unwilling to help as they still believe Holborne was complicit in the murder of his wife and therefore deserves whatever comes his way. With blackmail and bribery rife on both sides of the law he must risk all to save Izzy and himself.

Holborne is in a relationship with Sally who is unhappy with being sidelined when work continually demands her lover’s time and attention. Despite a tentative reconciliation with his family, his harpy mother’s continuing complaints about his life choices remain a thorn in Holborne’s side.

I began to understand some of the bad feeling harboured against Jews, that it is their rejection of assimilation, a refusal to accept a different way of living for the next generation, just as is the case for many other orthodox religions. Holborne chose to break away but cannot shake the feelings of guilt this has caused, stoked by his mother’s criticism. These personal conflicts are well presented within the context of a fast moving plot.

With Ronnie Kray determined to punish Holborne and a judge eager to support the river police, one of whom Izzy is accused of murdering, Holborne is forced to take matters into his own hands. He puts his career in danger to gather his evidence and must then go to court and give the performance of his life. This representation of a barrister’s role and thought processes remains a highlight as in the previous books.

The writing throughout is slick and engaging, the plot well developed with a strong sense of time and place. The ending sets up an interesting dilemma for subsequent intalments in the series to explore.

On a personal level I struggled to warm to the protagonist. Holborne is described as strong and muscular, able to hold his own in a fight. He works out by running and boxing. He has a high sex drive. Although portrayed as a tough, east end lad made good, with a moral compass that isn’t as strong as he would like where justice, as he sees it, is involved, his exploits reminded me too much of the typical male, all action hero. I had to remind myself that this was 1960s Britain and women were even more objectified than today. Sally is no shrinking violet but Holborne’s interest in her appears largely sexual and selfish.

An enjoyable read for those who like their heroes physically strong, their justice warriors slightly flawed. It is a well written page turner strengthened by its setting within the rarefied world of the courts of law.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

This post is a stop on The Lighterman Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Western Fringes

Western Fringes, by Amer Anwar, is a crime thriller set within the Asian community of West London. There is a strong sense of place in an area of the city not normally portrayed in popular fiction. It is this which gives the story its edge.

The protagonist is Zaq Khan, recently released from a five year prison sentence, now trying to keep his head down and put his life back together. With his criminal record he struggled to find work so is eager to hold on to his job as delivery driver at a builder’s yard. When his boss, the volatile Mr Brar, needs someone to do a private job for him quickly and discreetly, he threatens Zaq with false accusations of theft in order to bend his employee to his will.

Mr Brar’s daughter, Rita, was to be forced into an arranged marriage so has run away from home. Mr Brar suspects she is with Kasim, a Muslim man her brothers claim she was dating. Such would be the alleged dishonour to Brar’s Sikh family if this became known, he requires Zaq to discover Rita’s whereabouts before the community realise what has happened, that she may be brought back and dealt with in a manner that her father deems appropriate. His strong armed sons, Parm and Raj, are eager to get to their sister first.

Zaq has dubious skills and contacts from prison, and also good friends he can call on for help. The Brar brothers are well known in these circles for their violence, although they are not the only ones keeping an eye on Zaq’s movements. The closer he gets to Rita, the more criminal activity he uncovers. He also finds himself ambushed and beaten on a regular basis, the details of which are graphically described.

The plot is engaging although at times the writing explained more than I felt necessary. The window into a culture I am unfamiliar with was interesting even if it was depicted in a largely negative light. The men seemed intent on gaining the upper hand in every situation through violence and intimidation. The only woman of note appeared to be victims despite their supposed intelligence.

There is tension and intrigue but I was not fully drawn into the tale. I could empathise with Zaq’s predicament but there was what I regard as a bleakness to so many of the lives. This may be a story more appealing to those who gain a vicarious thrill at comeuppance served through fighting. I prefer my princesses to save themselves with bravery and wit rather than relying on the arrival of a sword wielding knight.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Block 46

Block 46, by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski), is the first book in a proposed new series of crime thrillers featuring protagonists Emily Roy, a Canadian profiler working for Scotland Yard, and Alexis Castells, a French true-crime writer living in London. Dealing as it does with a suspected serial killer who preys on young boys, and with a backstory that graphically details the horrors of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the tale is dark and raw in places. It studies circumstances that can allow for the normalisation of evil.

The story opens with a group of high-end friends coming together for a launch in London of a bespoke jewellery line created by Linnéa Blix, who is one of their number. When she does not show up for the event they are gravely concerned as this was a much anticipated highlight in her career. Three of the group – her partner Peter, and old friends Alba and Alexis, opt to fly to Sweden where Linnéa had been on retreat. As they arrive they are informed by the local police that Linnéa’s mutilated body has been found on a small marina near her holiday home.

The short chapters jump around in time and place which took me some time to engage with. A body is being buried in a wood in 2013; a German medical student is experiencing dehumanising treatment in a crowded train on his way to Buchenwald in 1944; the Swedish police call in a talented profiler to assist with their investigation into Linnéa’s murder in 2014. The London based friends experience intense grief at their loss and I was somewhat perplexed by how emotionally invested they appeared to be. Perhaps this is simply that I struggle to empathise with such relationships.

Of the key protagonists, I found Alexis weak initially but enjoyed the way Emily’s character was being developed from the off. Both harbour tragedies from their pasts that are gradually revealed. This promises to be an interesting literary pairing.

The presentation of the thought processes of the killers, both contemporary and at Buchenwald – the pleasure they derived from their actions and the way they justified what they were doing – is chillingly portrayed.

The tension picks up as the threads are expanded and the murder investigation progresses. The twists and turns ensure that the reader cannot easily guess the next reveal or where it may be leading. The denouement was deftly handled although not all my questions were answered. I am left wondering if I missed clues along the way.

I enjoyed the reactions of the characters to each other. For example: the policeman Olofsson generates annoyance amongst colleagues with his actions and attitudes yet is genuinely trying to fit in; Emily changes persona when she deals with interviewees as she has been advised what manner can be effective, something that perplexes the more emotional Alexis who has only previously experienced Emily’s natural brusqueness. I was drawn to Emily, her innate abilities, honesty and social distancing.

The author has based the Buchenwald sections on the experiences of her grandfather and these are a strong if disturbing addition to the story. In weaving a contemporary plot around how certain inmates may have been affected long term by interactions within the camp, and the cost of their survival, the reader is challenged to consider personal actions and justifications.

Despite a lingering degree of ambivalence there is much to ponder from this tale. It developed into a gripping if sometimes harrowing read. I will look with interest for the next book in this series. The author’s astute and uncompromising style suggests she is one to watch.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on the Block 46 Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Block 46 is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Quieter Than Killing

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Quieter Than Killing, by Sarah Hilary, is the fourth in the Marnie Rome series of crime fiction novels. Each new release has gradually upped the author’s game and this offering proved no exception. Its taut prose and dark imagery encapsulates the chill of the action and setting. The personalities of key characters are vividly portrayed whilst never detracting from the plot.

DI Marnie Rome’s crime unit are dealing with a series of vicious assaults which she believes may be connected. Each of the victims has a criminal record and Rome suspects the perpetrator may be some sort of vigilante. Not all of her team buy this theory but it gives them something to work with given that none of those attacked have provided a description of their attacker and no witnesses have yet been found. When one of the victims dies from his injuries the investigation escalates to one of murder.

A separate team dealing with gang related crime reports that Rome’s old family home has been broken into and turned over, the innocent tenants hospitalised. Young kids, probably carrying out orders, are suspected yet no valuables appear to have been taken as would be more typical of such a crime. When a box of trinkets is recovered Rome intuits the involvement of her foster brother despite the fact he is in prison. When confronted he offers his usual smattering of accusatory riddles and hard to believe allegations.

A potential suspect goes missing as does his mother, a kindly neighbour raising the alarm. The team recovers fresh evidence and witness statements but their new boss, Ferguson, instructs them to focus on the murder. With conjecture rather than proof linking the various cases Ferguson will not prioritise Rome’s hunch that all these crimes may somehow be linked to her.

The battle for survival fought by those living in the run down estates of ignored and dirty London are brilliantly evoked. There is a brooding violence lurking within the twists and turns. Each new scene oozes menace. Those investigating get caught up in this dangerous world, not least because some of what is going on touches close to home.

I love the author’s writing. Her use of language is masterful – I hope she takes pride in the sentences she crafts. Put together they create a roller coaster ride of a story, heart stopping in places yet every aspect enjoyed. This is crime fiction to satisfy even the most discerning aficionado.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Ragdoll

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Ragdoll, by Daniel Cole, is a fast paced, tightly written crime thriller set in London. It introduces the reader to DS William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, whose temperament and determination to achieve justice has landed him in serious trouble in the past. Four years ago he was commited to a psychiatric institution following his attack on a man he had been pursuing for the so called Cremation Killings. Recently permitted to return to duty, he has now been assigned to a case that looks to be just as challenging.

A body has been found in an otherwise empty apartment. It has been strung up from hooks, carefully posed and illuminated. This grotesque installation would be shocking enough on its own, but the body has been created from the dismembered parts of multiple victims. Wolf recognises the crudely attached head. It has been taken from a man who should be safely locked up in prison.

The team assembled to identify the remaining body parts includes Wolf’s former partner at the Met, Detective Emily Baxter. She is mentoring Edmunds, a recent transfer to the Serious Crimes Unit from Fraud. Edmunds is determined to leave no stone unturned in his thorough investigations. With the body count rising and manpower fully stretched his dogged persistence, against orders, is not appreciated.

Wolf’s ex-wife, Andrea, is a reporter working for a sensationalist TV station. When the murderer sends her photographs of what is soon being referred to as the Ragdoll she approaches her ex-husband. Included in the package is a list. On it are names and beside each is a date. It would appear that the murderer intends to strike again.

The team divide their resources between protecting those threatened and trying to find links between all involved. Meanwhile Andrea broadcasts what she knows to the nation, much to the delight of her boss. Whatever happens next it will happen within the glare of maximum publicity, and he understands that the more horrific the footage the higher his ratings.

Six people were killed to create the Ragdoll, six more are threatened. The murderer has the ability to strike in protected locations. To find him the team need to understand why he is targeting this apparently disparate set of people. And the clock is ticking.

I was hooked from the beginning (no pun intended). The tightly written narrative is brutal and shocking, populated with characters willing to break the rules. The collatoral damage is high, the body count grows. Working out how the murderer strikes is as darkly enjoyable a puzzle as why he has selected his targets.

Although running with familiar tropes – the damaged cop, the alcoholic, the family man, the close to retiree – this somehow transcends the formulaic. Alongside the brutality there is wit and gently mocking humour. The author has pitched the pace perfectly, added twists but retained the plot’s integrity. An intriguing and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Trapeze.

Book Review: Slow Horses

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Slow Horses, by Mick Herron, is the first in a series of modern day spy novels featuring members of the British intelligence service put out to grass in a unit nicknamed Slough House. Their banishment to this premises is a punishment for a variety of on the job cock-ups and misdemeanours. Amongst them is River Cartwright, a young man harbouring bitter resentment at being shouldered with the blame following a failed operation. The unit is overseen by Lamb Cartwright, an overweight and often repellent individual who is not as incompetent as he encourages people to think.

The inaccurately named operatives of Slough House are incensed when one of their number is tasked with covertly obtaining information from a disgraced journalist. It is understood that they are given only the most menial and mind-numbing tasks, although each hopes that eventually they will be permitted a return to active service at Regents Park. River regarded his most recent job, collecting and investigating the contents of a rubbish sack, as simply another unpleasant test of his willingness to follow orders. When it ties in with what looks like real spy work he determines to find out more.

All attention then turns to the abduction of a young man whose bound and hooded image is uploaded onto the internet alongside a threat to behead him within forty-eight hours. River sees this as a chance to redeem himself but is denied the opportunity to become involved. Wondering if the abduction could in any way be related to the journalist, from whose home the rubbish sack was taken, he takes matters into his own hands. When his actions go catastrophically wrong each member of Slough House becomes involved.

Unsurprisingly, there is nepotism and corruption at the highest level. It is still shocking how far certain powerful people will go to further their personal agendas. The slow horses are not slick and efficient spies, but they are capable of using their training and wits. Their manoeuvrings are often unexpected but gratifying to read.

This is a tightly written, sardonic and grimly prescient work of spy fiction. It is also rather fun in a stylishly mordacious way. The author ensures that readers get behind his flawed and often flailing creations. This was my first foray into his work; I hope it won’t be my last.

 

A Bookish Tour of London

I wrote the following article for Structo Magazine as a contribution to their ‘tour’ series. After some consideration the editors decided it did not fit with their ethos: “Structo is dedicated to small independent presses, works in translation and writing that may not always be covered elsewhere.” I  support this ethos and hope to write for Structo in the future. In the meantime, I post my article here.   

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Excitement in my rural Wiltshire village is rare. A mobile library visits once a month. To buy a book I must travel five miles to the nearest small town. This town also boasts a mainline railway station. It is my gateway to city life, to London and beyond.

My knowledge of London has been gleaned from books. Their stories paint pictures of places I dream of visiting, and it is to these that I am drawn when I plan a tour. My interest lies in the lives of the ordinary. History may be told by the victors, but it is made by the masses. If I visit a landmark it is to consider not the benefactor but those who built his pedestal.

Let us travel then to London as I view it through literature. I will avoid the tourist trails and the better known books. Others may seek out Shakespeare and Dickens, or the power hungry world of Wolf Hall. Included here are a mixture of more ordinary works, so if you harbour prejudices, set them aside.

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Like Paddington Bear, I arrive in the capital via his eponymous station, empathising with his feelings of excitement and anticipation at the adventures ahead. Stepping down from the train into the melee of commuters, tourists and students, I am carried by the crowd to the ticket barriers. From here I descend into the bowels of the city. The warm air of the underground rushes up to meet me. Where to first?

Travelling the underground is an adventure in itself. I glimpse abandoned stations through flickering lights and wonder at their demise. I could read of this in Ben Pedroche’s Do Not Alight, one of the few non-fiction books to grace my shelves. I prefer instead to imagine Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, his monsters and saints, murderers and angels. I think of the tunnels explored in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. I can almost hear her music in the whoosh and scream of train on track.

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I travel first to Highgate Cemetery. Since reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Perfect Symmetry, I have been eager to take the tour detailed in her book. On east side and west I seek the graves of writers – Douglas Adams, George Eliot and Karl Marx are all here. The sense of history and the spirit of the place bring peace from the bustling, traffic-filled surrounds.

A short walk through Highgate and I may explore Hampstead Heath, scene of so many fictional murders. My most recent happened in Aga Lesiewicz’s Rebound, a chilling tale that causes me to glance anew at the Lycra-clad runners passing by. I visit Ladies Pond, climb Parliament Hill and admire the city stretched out below. I avoid the dark and quiet woods. The bushes may keep the cruiser’s secrets.

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When I think of London I see the Thames. Travelling to the Embankment, I marvel at the feats of civil engineering which have reclaimed this marshy land, enclosing the busy waterway. I walk alongside the river and time travel to the eighteenth century. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River evoked a London life hard to imagine today: raw sewage-strewn alleyways; overcrowded and freezing lodgings; watermen working the muddy riverbanks ferrying the wealthy for a few small coins, becoming sodden so that delicate slippers may be kept clean.

M.D. Murphy’s Dark River Melody encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the Georgian period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time. It is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets.

I look across the water to Battersea Power Station and consider the continuing inequalities of today. Sarah Hilary’s Tastes Like Fear tells of run down estates just beyond the luxury flats that now grace this iconic landmark. I pass the beggars, the troubled who sit ignored. Since reading Richard Butchin’s Pavement, I wonder at their thought processes, how they channel anger at so much conspicuous wealth when they struggle to find food enough to live. We must hope that they will not choose to become serial killers as Butchen’s protagonist did.  

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Travelling east I visit Greenwich Park and the locations so vividly portrayed in Alan WiIliam’s Blackheath Séance Parlour. I see no great winged creatures lurking overhead but may still view the Ranger’s House, the Royal Observatory, St Alfege’s Church, and enjoy a drink at a recently refurbished Hare and Billet. I find that a Dartmouth Terrace still exists but it is not where the sisters would have lived. The original terrace was demolished last century following war damage.  

All cities exist in a state of flux. There are still many blocks of ordinary looking houses to admire, although priced now beyond the reach of the families for whom they were built. I think of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, how the blitz of the Second World War destroyed so many homes and lives. I note the modern proliferation of luxury apartment blocks and ponder what it would take to drive these into the chaos depicted in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.

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I end my journey on Charing Cross Road. There are still many bookshops to enjoy but it is the site of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road to which I am drawn. It saddens me that this no longer exists. I take comfort in a visit to Foyles.

And then west to catch the train home. As I pull away from the station I pass back gardens and become Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. All journeys offer potential for a story, and all stories for a journey.

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