Friday, 9 March 2018

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

Anyone who’s seen the hype around this book will know it’s being compared to the work of Stephen King. If I recall correctly, even the great man himself compared it to his own work on Twitter. Point is, it will be the most unoriginal comparison I can make, if I say The Chalk Man is comparable to something that Stephen King might write. Well, apologies, but I’m gonna, for the comparison is apt.

CJ Tudor has written a coming of age story that can easily stand aside the master’s work. In Anderbury, we have a small market town in England, comparable with those King conjures in Maine. In Eddie, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo and Nicky, we have child protagonists the like of which King populates his novels, such as IT. And in the chalk man drawings that sinisterly litter the narrative we have the kind of fiendish motif he might have conjured.

Unlike King’s writing this is a crime novel, rather than horror, but like IT we have child protagonists trying to solve the mystery and plagued by evil. It’s not a straightforward crime novel, this is no police procedural, psychological thriller or serial killer tale. Rather it is both a coming of age story – the narrative is split between alternating chapters set in 1986 when the protagonists are ten, and the present day when they are adults – and chiller/thriller, if that makes sense. Both narrative strands work well, though those chapters set in 1986 are by far the best, the author perfectly encapsulating a child’s eye view and managing to conjure up how it felt to grow up in the 80’s.

What’s the central crime the plot revolves around? I really don’t want to say - albeit the book’s description gives that away, telling the reader that the children find a body. In many ways however, this misses the point. A plethora of crimes, both hinted at and explicit, occur in this story; there are multiple characters who may or may not be involved. I want to resist divulging spoilers because this is a MUST read, a really enjoyable experience; there are twists galore and a really eerie sense of foreboding that seeps from each and every page.

Read this novel. You really won’t regret it.

5 out of 5 stars


London Rules by Mick Herron

A group of gunmen drive into a rural English village and go on a shooting spree. Various other terrorist outrages follow. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the populist MP who led the Brexit charge is looking to usurp the Prime Minister, while a Muslim politician with the popular touch is looking to become Mayor of a major city in the West Midlands - but does he have something to hide?

This is the fifth in Herron’s  series of satirical spy thrillers based around the activities of the slow horses of Slough House. I’ve read all the previous novels int he series, though this is just the second I’ve reviewed. It can be read as a standalone, though reading the series is so much better. The novels centre around Slough House, a satellite station of MI5 where the Service’s misfits and disgraced members - so called Slow Horses - are sent to serve out their time until they retire or resign. Lording it all over them is Jackson Lamb, an overweight, flatulent bully of a man, albeit one who deep down cares for his underlings. The Slow Horses themselves are a selection of well-drawn characters, who the author imbues with individual character flaws and foibles. Each is loveable and repellent in his or her own way.

Once more, the Slow Horses are thrust into the centre of things, becoming embroiled in the various strands of the plot.  As with the previous books it’s all good fun, though once again the plot is rather weak. It’s something I’ve noticed about this series of novels, the plots are pretty forgettable. What makes the books enjoyable and well worth reading are the character’s antics and the fact that this is subtle satire; it’s not laugh out loud funny, but it makes the intelligence services and the whole war on terror seem slightly ridiculous. As with all the best satire this is subversive stuff and one can’t help but wonder how accurate it might be- after all, while most of what the intelligence services get up to is hidden from view, what little gets into the public domain isn’t always so complementary and the spies aren’t strangers to blunder.

4 out of 5 stars

Spook Street by Mick Herron

This is the fourth in Herron’s  series of satirical spy thrillers based around the activities of the slow horses of Slough House. I’ve read all the previous novels int he series, though this is the first I’ve reviewed. It can be read as a standalone, though reading the series is so much better.

The novels centre around Slough House, a satellite station of MI5 where the Service’s misfits and disgraced members - so called Slow Horses - are sent to serve out their time until they retire or resign. Lording it all over them is Jackson Lamb, an overweight, flatulent bully of a man, albeit one who deep down cares for his underlings. The Slow Horses themselves are a selection of well-drawn characters, who the author imbues with individual character flaws and foibles. Each is loveable and repellent in his or her own way.

Each novel in the series takes on the same format: something happens, a plot or disaster, and against all the odds the Slow Horses become embroiled and have to save the day. In Spook Street it’s a suicide bombing in a shopping centre, a flash mob having been organised only for the organiser - the bomber - to blow themselves up amidst the crowd. In a seemingly unrelated event, the grandfather of River Cartwright - perhaps the most “normal” of the Slow Horses -  a MI5 legend has an attempt made on his life and River takes it upon himself to find out why. Needless to say, these two plot threads link up and soon the Slow Horses find themselves in the middle of the investigation into the bombing. I won’t give away spoilers but needless to say that the bombing is not all it seems either and there’s a fiendish plot behind it all.

Supposedly there’s a distinction between “plot driven novels”, often dismissed as “genre” novels, and “character driven novels”, which are supposedly “literary”. This series of novels shows such a distinction to be meaningless. I’m sure most critics would class them as plot-driven, but to my mind the plots are always rather weak. Spook Street is no different, the plot is almost a MacGuffin, a device just to get the characters running around the place, chasing their tails. The fun is had in seeing the Slow Horses themselves, reading Jackson Lamb’s latest outrageous, non-PC statement. This isn’t a criticism at all, but an observation.

All in all this novel, as with the rest of the series, Spook Street is good fun and fresh take on the spy genre.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 9 February 2018

Blog Tour! The Extremist by Nadia Dalbuono Blog Tour!

This is the fourth book in Nadia Dalbuono’s Detective Leone Scamarcio thrillers, and I’ve been lucky enough to have read and reviewed them all. This means that I’ve seen Leone Scamarcio grow as a character, and have followed his story arch throughout the series. While this undoubtedly heightens my enjoyment of the series, each book is a self-contained story in its own right, and unlike some series, you don’t have to have read the previous outings to enjoy each book. 

The Extremist begins with coordinated jihadi attacks on the streets of Rome: gunmen storm a McDonalds, a school, a coffee bar near the coliseum, taking hostages at each location.  Leone Scamarcio works in the Rome Flying Squad, nothing to do with terrorism. So it’s a shock to him and his colleagues, all gathered around the television watching the horrific events unfold, when a phone call comes in to say that the hostage takers have demanded to talk to him and him alone.

Scamarcio is whisked to the scene of the coffee shop where he’s hustled inside. There a young terrorist, Ifran, demands he travel to a villa in a town thirty kilometres outside of Rome, go to the end of the back garden and dig up a box. He’s then to bring the contents of the box back to Ifran. Oh, and have a CNN film crew in tow to witness the handover of the contents which can be beamed to the world.

This is an intriguing premise and sets up the rest of the novel. Scamarcio is suspicious of the Italian intelligence agencies for reasons made clear in the previous novels. The reader of The Extremist doesn’t need to know the specific reasons for this, but it is made clear that it’s due to previous cases he’s worked on. The Intelligence agencies are crawling all over the scene and he decides to go it alone.  What follows is a pursuit thriller where Scamarcio tries to find out what’s in the box, why Ifran wanted him in particular to bring it to him, all the while evading the police, the Carabinieri and the intelligence agencies who’ve listed him as wanted.

A criticism of this novel might be that’s it’s unrealistic that Scamarcio would go it alone, that it would have been easier for him to alert his superiors to what Ifran wanted, that they could have collected the box. Perhaps the siege could have been brought to a close, special forces dressing as a CNN film crew and launching  a raid to rescue the hostages. This criticism would be valid and to be sure that’s how things would probably play out in real life. But Nadia Dalbuono writes very Italian thrillers, where conspiracies are around every corner. Her previous books have tackled the infiltration of Italian society by organised crime - the Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta; Operation Gladio, the stay behind armies set up by the CIA in the case of a Soviet invasion which soon morphed into far right terror; VIP child sex rings and more.

Like its predecessors, The Extremist tackles big subjects. There are innumerable thrillers which deal with terror attacks, but without giving away spoilers, this book is more than that, a conspiracy thriller which dares to ask big questions. It’s one of the reasons that I’m such a fan of Dalbuono’s work, her books are head and shoulders above the usual run of the mill police procedurals. They dare to look beyond the headlines and question what we take for granted. While I’m not a conspiracy theorist myself, to be sure the theories she posits in her thrillers all have a kernel of truth. There really was an Operation Gladio ( a central theme in her novel The American), Italian organised crime really is a pernicious influence on Italian politics and society, while VIP child sex rings have been investigated in a number of countries. The conspiracy at the heart of The Extremist has a similar basis in fact, whether or not it really has the influence portrayed here.

So would I recommend The Extremist? Yes, absolutely. While it’s not strictly necessary, I would also recommend readers get hold of copies of the earlier books in the series. They won’t be disappointed.

5 out of 5 stars 

Friday, 2 February 2018

Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding

The murder of Allan Chapellow is arguably one of the strangest and most compelling cases in recent British legal history. An elderly and reclusive man, Chappelow lived in a dilapidated house in Hampstead, on a street where properties sell for millions. A writer, he had penned biographies of George Bernard Shaw, though he hadn’t produced much in his later years. Sadly, he was to meet a violent end, bludgeoned to death in his house, his body dripped in candle wax and buried under a heap of his own manuscripts. The man convicted of the murder, Wang Yam, is a Chinese immigrant who claims to be a descendent of Ren Bishi, a leading member of the Chinese Communist Party at the time of Mao. Indeed, the man Wang Yam claims is his grandfather was Mao’s right hand man. But what really sets this case apart, is that a section of the trial was heard in camera, behind closed doors, on the grounds of national security. Not only is this the first murder trial in UK history to be held partly in secret on the grounds of national security, but a remarkable court order is in place that prevents the media, not just from reporting why this might be, but from speculating as to the reasons behind it.

Harding’s interest in the story stems from the fact that he grew up on the street and knew the victim as the odd character who lived a few doors from him. An author and journalist, Harding has written for national newspapers and has published a number of titles on recent German history. I haven’t read any of his previous work myself, but they were well received. This is important because Blood on the Page has come in for some criticism.

In Blood on the Page, Harding details the murder, delves into Allan Chappelow’s life and that of Wang Yam, and follows the investigation to trial and eventual conviction. He details the various appeals that Wang Yam and his lawyers have mounted and tells us how he has acclimatised to prison life. In all of this he does a good job and he’s certainly talented as both a writer and biographer.  Where this book falls down somewhat is in the injection of his own voice into the narrative, for throughout, Harding’s views and opinions come off the page to an unusual degree.

Wang Yam was convicted of Allan Chapellow’s murder on the strength of purely circumstantial evidence. There was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime scene. There was however compelling evidence – CCTV images for example – of him using Allan’s credit cards and accessing his bank accounts in the days after his death. Wang Yam claims that this was because he had fallen in with Chinese gangsters who had provided these to him and that he did not murder Allan. The problem with this however is that Wang Yam quickly proved himself to be a fantasist, at least he seems to have a difficult relationship with the truth. When questioned by the police, and later in court, he couldn’t identify the gangsters he was supposedly in hoc to. In fact, his whole life’s history appears to be uncertain, it’s not even clear that he’s telling the truth about being related to Ren Bishi.

That said, there is some evidence that he might be telling the truth about the murder of Allan Chapellow, or at least that we ought to pause before declaring him guilty. Apart from the fact that there was no forensics to tie him to the scene, cigarette butts littered the room that Allan’s body was found, the DNA from which matched neither Allen nor Wang Yam. A neighbour came forward to say that weeks after Wang Yam was jailed, he was threatened with a knife by a man on his doorstep rifling through his mail. While a witness gave evidence at his appeal that he had met a man matching Allan’s description, using the same name, cruising Hampstead Heath for sex. Might Allen have been murdered by someone else, perhaps someone he brought back from the Heath? If so, Wang Yam is only guilty of theft and fraud.

There are certainly questions to answer in this case and looming over it all is the national security concerns, whatever they might be, which led the trial to be heard, in part, in secrecy. We are likely never to know what these were, what they relate to, or how this knowledge might alter our understanding of the case. Some reviews have said this absence makes the author’s task impossible and that Blood on the Page suffers as a result. I think that’s unfair and that Harding has produced a compelling and readable account of the case regardless.

More problematic to my mind is his seeming determination to believe Wang Yam’s account. Again, other reviewers have accused Harding of naiveté, even gullibility. While this might be a little harsh, he does seem to be blind to Wang Yam’s deeply flawed character. To Harding’s great credit he recounts Wang Yam’s erraticism faithfully. For example, he tells us Wang Yam’s lawyers don’t believe much of what he said, while when he contacted his supposed cousin, she told him that Wang Yam was not related to her.  But despite this, he presses on with his faith in his subject regardless. This is most apparent in these odd sections of the book at the end of each chapter, which he titles “case notes” where he outlines his thoughts as his investigations unfold. These are totally superfluous to the text as a whole and serve nothing more than to give the impression Harding’s a bit of a naïf.

In conclusion, this is a well written book and a good account of a very strange case indeed. It’s a complicated case and this review can’t possibly do justice to all the evidence that Harding has marshalled, and to be fair to him, presented to the reader in a thoroughly readable and accessible manner.  Wang Yam might or might not be innocent of Allen Chapellow’s murder and after reading this book I certainly have been left with some doubts. But equally, Harding’s is not a sympathetic portrayal. Wang Yam appears dishonest and a compulsive liar. While this in itself does not mean he’s guilty of murder, equally I did not reach the end of this title as sure as the author of his innocence.

3 out of 5 stars

Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen

This is the first title by Gunnar Staalesen that I’ve read and apparently part of an ongoing series, featuring his PI hero Varg Veum. You don’t have to read previous titles to enjoy this, but it would undoubtedly help. The love of his life, Karin, was killed when investigating a previous case (presumably in a previous title) and he has sunk into a fog of alcohol abuse and drink-fuelled blackouts. While enough of this back story is given and explained in this title, I feel I would have appreciated the character’s pain more had I been more familiar with the events described.

Wolves in the Dark starts with Varg Veum being arrested in an international round up of online paedophiles. It quickly transpires that someone has planted child pornography on his computer and is framing him for this heinous crime. The question is, why? Veum escapes from custody and goes on the run to get answers. He wracks his mind for people who might have a grudge against him and the computer skills necessary to tamper with his computer and send him to prison. This is a task made difficult by the fact that he has no shortage of enemies, and that much of the past few months were spent in a boozy haze.

There’s much to like about this book, it deals with issues that are incredibly current: computer hacking, the dark underbelly of the internet, online child pornography. In that sense it’s a gritty, nourish tale, the kind of thing I naturally like. That said, the author is clearly influenced by the classics of American gumshoe like Chandler. Indeed, on the front cover is a quote from Jo Nesbo calling him “A Norwegian Chandler”. Unfortunately, I found this influence to be a little dated and not a little at variance with the dark subject matter of the plot. Veum travels around, tracking down those who hold a grudge against him and interrogating them. Despite the fact that they are under no obligation to do so, that he has no legal authority whatsoever, they answer his questions. Even those who know he’s wanted by the police talk with him. While this might have worked in Chandler’s day, this struck me as incredibly unrealistic. Equally, the Chandleresque snappy dialogue just grated a little.

That all said, this is all very much a personal opinion. Chandler is still popular; his books still sell, and if the golden age of noir is your thing then this book is definitely for you. It’s well written and despite my misgivings it kept me turning the page and wanting to know what happened next. It ends on something of a cliff hanger, so be prepared for feeling compelled to buy the next title in the series.

3 out of 5 stars.