Monday, 14 December 2015

The Few by Nadia Dalbuono

Every now and again a novel comes along that is so many things: crime novel, police procedural, political thriller, conspiracy thriller, social critique. Sometimes a book tries to tick more than one box but fails, the author overreaching their talents. But when a novel like this succeeds, and does so with apparent effortlessness, the result is something special.

So it is with Nadia Dalbuono’s The Few. The novel tells the story of Detective Leone Scamarcio, the son of a Mafiosi who has turned his back on the family business. Instead he’s signed up with the Rome police. Somewhere in the back-story his history has come back to haunt him and he is now distrusted by many of his colleagues. But he’s good at his job and has earned the grudging respect of others. One day his superior hands him a file containing incriminating photographs of the foreign secretary and tells him to look into the circumstances that they were taken. Scamarcio senses that with Italy’s poisonous history of political corruption, this case will prove his undoing, but orders are orders. When one of the other men in the photo ends up dead our protagonist’s fears appear to be validated. Off we spiral into a world of rent boys, prostitution, grubby political intrigue and murder.

Just a glance at the burgeoning crime fiction section of any decent bookshop will tell you that seemingly every day a new procedural is published. Take one flawed cop, place him or her in some exotic (or not so exotic) corner of the globe, sprinkle in a serial killer with an unusual method of dispatching his or her victims and away you go. Personally I find such books a chore and try to be a little more discerning. Thankfully there are writers like Dalbuono producing books like The Few.

While on the surface it might appear that Dalbuono’s novel has similarities with some of the more humdrum variety, I’m happy to report that they’re only peripheral. While Scamarcio has a colourful background, is single, lives alone and smokes the occasional joint, he’s not “damaged goods” or “flawed” in an obvious way. Neither is the setting overdone. Some novels seem to be as much travelogue as crime thriller, the author trying to show off their knowledge of the locale. In The Few it’s just a natural outcrop of the story, geographical detail never getting in the way of narrative. Indeed, the sense of place is mainly set by the tone of the plot itself, for this is an intrinsically Italian mystery. The novel deals with the labyrinthine political manoeuvrings that plague Italian politics, the fictional Prime Minister being recognisable by any reader with even a passing knowledge of Sylvio Berlusconi’s antics. While the mafia’s tentacles, which reach into the heart of the Italian state and make that country a byword for European corruption, are deftly handled. Without giving too much away the issue of VIP child sex rings rears its ugly head, reminiscent of the allegations that swirled around Marc Dutroux, the Belgium paedophile and serial killer, and now horribly prescient in the UK, with allegations of a Westminster child abuse network. And no, there’s no serial killer in this novel, the murders committed by faceless agents of the state.

All in all this is brilliant novel, full of depth and nuance. I give it five stars.

The Angel by Mark Dawson

This isn’t the first book of Mark Dawson’s that I’ve read and reviewed. I’ve read all three of his Beatrix Rose trilogy and gave them glowing reviews. But The Angel is by far the best book of his that I’ve read.

To read the plot outline you could easily suspect it would be anything but, I know I did. Isabella Rose is the daughter of Beatrix Rose, a former government assassin who used to be employed by a shadowy arm of the British state known as Group Fifteen. In the Beatrix Rose Trilogy, Beatrix who was dying of cancer, sought vengeance on those who had betrayed her, murdered her husband, and caused her to give up her daughter to care. Now reunited with Isabella, she also trains her daughter in her mould. So in other words at the start of The Angel, fifteen year old Isabella Rose has the skill set of an uber-assassin.

You can see how this book could have been rubbish, can’t you? This could have been a dire popcorn fest, a parody of a bad eighties action movie where a fifteen year old whacks endless supplies of baddies. But to author Mark Dawson’s credit he doesn’t do this. Instead he has penned a gripping and intelligent thriller about international terrorism. In fact the first half of the book hardly features Isabella, instead describing a series of devastating terror attacks, which strike at the heart of Westminster. I found these scenes that extraordinarily well written. 

Isabella’s entrance proper comes later when Michael Pope, the current head of Group Fifteen, discovers that the attacks were financed by a Saudi billionaire who’s son is a pupil at an exclusive Swiss boarding school. Finding no other way to penetrate the Saudi’s security, he hits on the idea of planting Isabella in the school as a pupil, tasking her with befriending the playboy son and getting an invite to a party at his father’s mansion where she will plant surveillance devices.

This part of the story is perfectly written for the character of Isabella, enabling her to use the skill set her mother taught her (as well as the more violent methods, she was taught surveillance and counter surveillance, subterfuge, etc) without turning her into an adolescent Rambo/superwoman. The author’s descriptions of the school, it’s haughty student body, the bitchiness of some of Isabella’s classmates are exquisitely  realised and quite unusual in this kind of novel.

All in all I was thoroughly impressed by The Angel, yet another great novel from an author whose prodigious output I am frankly in awe to. As an unpublished author myself, I can only hope to one day be publishing books at his rate and can’t wait to see where he takes Isabella next.

I give this 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 7 December 2015

Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies by Gordon Corera

A highly revelatory work, Gordon Corera’s Intercept has a lot to say. Ostensibly a book about the use of computers by the espionage agencies (while he touches on other nations, primarily this book looks at those of the US and UK) it also has much to add on debates concerning the balance of power between the state and the individual, personal privacy, and economics.

An exhaustive history of the dawn of the computer age through the lens of the development of modern espionage, Intercept takes us from the censors tapping telegraph cables during the First World War, through the Enigma years of the Second, the dawn of cyber spying during the Cold War, and onto the age of hackers, zero day exploits, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. Throughout revelations come thick and fast. We learn that during World War 1, Britain severed the telegraph cables into Germany; effectively isolating the enemy from the world and thus instigating the first ever act of sabotage against a nation’s communications infrastructure. Later we learn that most of the world’s telecommunications still travel via undersea cables, with most of the UK’s traffic landing in Cornwall. This has allowed GCHQ to simply sit on the wires collecting metadata on most of the transnational communications coming into the UK. Or how about the facility in London whose sole purpose is to reverse engineer all the components Hauwei plans to install in the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure? The Chinese telecommunications giant won the contract to modernise the system and such is the extent of the West’s paranoia concerning Chinese cyber spying and/or sabotage, every single circuit board has to be checked and double-checked.

Each revelation is more startling than the last, but there are hidden depths to Corera’s book. For example, we learn how the development of computers was pushed and even funded in part by the espionage agencies interests in them as tools. Would IBM have grown as large or as quickly if it weren’t for contracts from the NSA? We’ll never know for certain but the author outlines a strong case. In effect he argues what others have more explicitly elsewhere, namely that the idea of a completely free market is a myth. Rather than develop in a vacuum from the state, or worse, the state act as a hindrance, it is often state subsidies in the form of research grants, favoured status over competitors, intelligence passed on to aid in the winning of contracts, that has allowed industries and companies to flourish. There is certainly enough evidence here to demonstrate that the birth of the computer age was at least hastened by the largess of the defence and espionage agencies.

But perhaps the book’s greatest strength is when discussing the issues surrounding the power of the state versus that of the citizen and issues around personal privacy. I don’t know what Gordon Corera’s personal views on all this; he’s careful to remain neutral. For all I know he might be mortified to learn that for me his book acted as a reassurance. The Edward Snowdens of the world would have you believe that the mass collection of data by the NSA and GCHQ are the thin end of the wedge and that our civil liberties are at stake. But within the pages of Corera’s book is a strong explanation of why this material is needed. A strong argument is made that the agencies concerned have no interest in the average person’s data, but merely need to scan the data passing through the wires as a whole in order to look for the patterns criminals and terrorists leave behind. Should the agencies be stymied in this, we might all be more at risk. An analogy is made that in order for the security services to find the needle in the haystack (the needle being paedophiles, organised criminals, terrorists) they need to be able to gather and see the whole haystack.

All in all this is a great read and one that left me far more informed about the world we live in and the risks facing us as individuals and citizens in the digital age.
I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars

Lineup by Liad Shoham

Every now and then I read a novel that has garnered critical acclaim that just leaves me cold. On occasion this is twinned with the frustration of not being able to see any discernible reason for this. So it was with Lineup, the first novel from this acclaimed Israeli writer to be translated into English.

It’s not that this is a bad novel, far from it. It’s well written, well plotted and will keep you guessing until the end. When one thinks of Israel in thrillers and novels of this type, one automatically thinks of the conflict with the Palestinians. Lineup only very briefly touches on this subject, the plot itself concerning organised crime in Israel. Liad Shoham is to be applauded in this regard, this being an aspect of the Israeli state that few outside the country are aware of. In the past I worked in current affairs television and worked on a number of programmes that looked at transnational crime. I was surprised to learn that Israeli crime networks had been linked to the trade in Ecstasy into the United States, that Israel was a global hub for the trafficking of women and that a number of Israelis had been linked to the grisly trade in organs from South America. So I found the plot of this novel compelling.

Unfortunately however, there was something that stopped me from crossing the Rubicon from merely interested to gripped. I never felt it difficult to put the book down, that urge to just finish the chapter and to hell with what you’re supposed to be doing. Perhaps the characters weren’t fully fleshed out for me? More likely, I felt it just lacked that extra magic something that turns a book from good to excellent. That said I enjoyed the book and would certainly give the author another chance.

I would give this book 3 out of 5 stars 

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

This is a really odd book, surrealist and illusory. It's a novel based on a true story, that of Hélène Jégado, a Breton cook, who poisoned at least 30 people whom she chose at random, between 1833 and 1851. This is the first novel by the author that I have read, but apparently this is his trademark in France: novelising real crimes from history, the story often told from the perspective of the murderer, the books often courting controversy in his homeland.

So it is with this work. At the end of the novel there is an interview with the author where he describes the research he conducted and how uncomfortable many people in Jégado's hometown were with the idea of him basing a novel on her murders.

I can see why The Poisoning Angel might be uncomfortable reading for some. Told almost entirely from the perspective of Hélène, the book describes her journey across Brittany poisoning person after person, often her employers and their families, alongside any friends, relations or associates, unfortunate enough to stop by for lunch. The death of her employers leads to her putting herself out of work and she moves on, finding new employ, and conducting the process all over again.

You might wonder why nobody seems to put two and two together and indeed everyone else in the novel is incredibly naive, to the point of childlike innocence. Towards the end of the novel some townsfolk start to cotton on but even then most of the people within Hélène and her victims' orbit are remarkably blind to the obvious pattern. Don't get me wrong, this isn't an oversight by the author, but is rather a facet of the dreamlike surrealism that imbues the novel.

Throughout the novel there is a disconnected subplot about a pair of Parisian wig makers who travel to Breton to pay people for hair. Beset by mishap after mishap they eventually go 'native' smearing themselves in mud and hair. While their paths cross with Hélène occasionally, the main point of this seems to be to underline the notion that Breton is a somehow primitive, atavistic region of France. This of course underlines the main storyline, Hélène herself coming from Breton.

Having no real knowledge of France other than that gleaned from holiday travel and school history lessons, I have no idea whether this view of Breton is one commonly held in France. So this idea that Breton is somehow part of France but simultaneously seen as "other" was interesting. Similarly the novel at times is amusing and as a whole it is certainly original. But I have to admit to finding the whole thing a little tiring after a while. I found myself yearning to know the real story behind Hélène Jégado's crimes and how she escaped justice for eighteen years. There's obviously a fascinating story here but by the end of Jean Teulé's tale I was more frustrated than enlightened.

I would give this novel 3 out of 5 stars

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Theseus Paradox by David Videcette

This is an intriguing thriller from a former Met Police counter terror cop. David worked on the investigation into the 7/7 bombings and uses this as the starting block for his novel.

The main character, DI Jake Flannagan, is a maverick cop with a failed marriage and a fondness for the drink. This might not sound unusual; plenty of crime fiction protagonists could fit such a description, but the author imbues Flannagan with a pitiful self-loathing that at times is difficult to read. For Flannagan doesn’t just drink, he also tends to end up in bed with random women he’s met in bars and clubs, meaningless cold sex which send him into spirals of guilt.

The maverick element of DI Flannagan’s character is also differentiated from the usual tropes of crime fiction by the author’s knowledge of UK police procedure.  Too often in crime fiction, the hero or heroine singlehandedly saves the day; the rest of the police force/security or intelligence services, seemingly sitting around without a clue. The author deftly avoids this mistake by grounding his protagonist’s actions within a solid bedrock of real police work. So we’re introduced to the HOLMES computer system and the various investigative actions that it tasks the investigations teams to do. While Flannagan does go off and do his own thing, he does so within the confines of the wider investigation, a much more realistic proposition that one finds in many novels of this kind.

While the novel is fiction, a fascinating element is what I suspect to be it’s factual basis. For example the tension between the Security Service, better known as MI5, and the police. Flannagan bemoans the Security Service for keeping information to themselves and for throwing money at informants regardless of performance; the police apparently only paying when an informant provides information, rather than keeping them on retainer. This chimes with other accounts I’ve read of the relationship between the two services. Then there are elements that are simply fascinating and a real eye-opener. Who knew, for example, that the Blackheath Tea Hut is renowned amongst gangland as being a place where, thanks to the flat topography, police surveillance can easily be spotted?

Returning to the plot of the novel itself, and without giving spoilers, the story revolves around who organised the London bombings and why. Was it al Qaeda or was there some unexpected hidden hand? It might be tempting to dismiss such thoughts as conspiracy theory, but again, without giving away spoilers, this is no Dan Brownesque illuminati/freemason nonsense. Rather the novel suggests some frighteningly plausible and intriguing possibilities.

All in all this is a brilliant novel and an assured debut. My only fear is that having tackled 7/7, the case the author worked on in his police career, he’ll feel that he’s got the writing bug out of his system and put away the word processor. I hope not because I would love to meet DI Flannagan again.

5 Stars.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Writer's Guide to Weapons by Ben Sobieck

This is an amazing book. A brilliant book. BUY THIS BOOK!

Really, I could leave this review just there; those three sentences sum up all you need to know. But that wouldn’t really be a review now, would it? The Writer’s Guide to Weapons does what it says on the tin. You know all those action films where people do improbable things with guns? You don’t need to be a master gunsmith to know that firearm’s occasionally need reloading, or that cars don’t just blow up as soon as they’re zinged by a stray bullet. But wait, do you know the difference between a bullet, a shell, it’s casing? Why do character’s pump their shotguns in that badass way to scare the baddies/goodies? Should they even be doing that?

Then there are the practicalities. When writing a scene, just how should your character handle a firearm? Do they pull the hammer back? Rack the slide? Should they tilt their gun on its side like some gangbanger? And what gun or knife should I give to my hero or villain?

If you’re a writer and have ever grappled with these or a myriad other problems, or if you’re just a reader who’s darn well interested to know what is real and what is b*******, then never fear, for Ben Sobieck is here! Along with a few friends he’s brought along for the ride, notably Maynard Soloman and Bill Robber (more on them in a sec.) Ben, an editor on various US firearms magazines, has penned a manual for those who know nothing about knives and gun, a bolts and all account that takes the reader from the basics and on through the mechanics of guns and knives. Along the way he slays myths – no don’t pump the shotgun in that badass way, you’re just ejecting a perfectly good shell – and helps you choose the best weapon for the characters of your story.

You might fear that this is some dry technical manual, but no. Everything is explained in no nonsense and plain English. And just so you get it, hapless P.I. Maynard Soloman and his arch-nemesis Bill Robber are on hand to show you how NOT to do it. These sections are often hilariously funny and go to show just how wrong many writers of fiction can get it. Afterwards Ben reiterates just Soloman & Robber got it so wrong and just what they should have done instead, so there’s no real excuse for us writers to ever write it wrong again (Hollywood action movie script writers, take note).

But that’s just the book, there’s also an associated website which Ben updates regularly. And if all that isn’t enough there’s Ben himself. Like D.P. Lyle MD for writer’s forensics needs, Ben Sobieck is there for any writer’s queries about weapons. Example: in my novel I have a scene where the hero uses dead bodies from an earlier firefight as a physical barricade against a military SWAT team. So I emailed Ben and I asked him how long my character could survive when assailed by trained guys with military grade firearms. And Ben asks what type of body armour the corpses are wearing – military grade like the new attackers –goes away and crunches the numbers, consults colleagues. The he comes back and answers me and posts the whole thing on his blog. In other words he takes my crazy scenario seriously and the website continues to grow, a resource for all us writers. How cool is that?

So in conclusion you can see why I say this book is awesome; why I suggest writers and readers alike purchase a copy.      

Without hesitation I give The Writer’s Guide to Weapons an outstanding 5 out of 5 stars