Monday, 23 March 2015

Acts of the Assassins

This book surprised me. The blurb accompanying it led me to believe that I was about to read some form of spy thriller, but instead it turned out to be a Biblical thriller updated to the current day. This is no bad thing and I found the setting and the alternate universe the author created to be quite compelling.

The novel basically imagines an alternate world where the Roman Empire has lasted until the current time. It imagines what would have happened if Jesus and his disciples were active in the present day. All the characters are here: Judas, Pontius Pilate, etc. The book imagines how a Roman Empire, with all the benefits of modern technology, might have attempted to quash the emerging Jesus cult.

The protagonist, Gallio, is a Counter Terror operative tasked with doing just that. The early part of the book tells in flashback of how he corrupts Judas and eventually is involved in arranging Jesus’s crucifixion. But when Jesus’s body disappears and the apostles’ talk of the resurrection, things go bad for him. He is discredited, banished to far-flung outposts of the empire. Finally, years later, he’s called back and tasked with finding out what happened to Jesus.

The remainder of the novel follows Gallio around as he hunts down apostles and interrogates them, only to find many murdered in horrific ways before he gets to them.  The book is best in how it examines the disconnect between Gallio and the apostles he meets, he takes them literally when they say that Jesus is here, Jesus is everywhere, Jesus knows who you are, when it seems apparent to the reader that they are merely preaching the Gospel. Similarly, the book examines the theory that some scholars have that the current form Christianity took has much more to do with Paul than Jesus, that Paul transformed what was perhaps a revolutionary creed into a much more passive and accommodating one. According to this school of thought, this meant that Christianity no longer posed a threat to the state and could indeed become the official faith.

Paul appears in the novel as an oily figure, sly and conspiratorial. But is he the state agent Gallio finally concludes him to be, or a triple agent actually fooling the authorities and doing Jesus’s bidding? This here brings me to the problem I had with the book. The author clearly doesn’t want to make a definitive statement either way on any of the major themes in the book. Who is killing the disciples? Is it all part of Jesus’s plan? Is it Paul? Is it Gallio’s employers? Similarly, is Jesus a revolutionary planning terror outrages? Did he really die on the cross? Was his body spirited away somehow or did he really rise from the dead?

I understand this reluctance, the author obviously thought it best to keep the mystery of the Bible, no to mention the fact that answering these questions might alienate a section of his potential audience: come down on the side of Jesus as the Son of God and you alienate atheists; say that Jesus was conman and you alienate Christians. But even so, I found it incredibly frustrating and as I got near the end and realised that no answers would be forthcoming I did find myself feeling a little cheated.

That said, this is an interesting take on the Bible story and one that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of the their faith or none.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

The Devil's Detective

Readers often get excited about the setting of a crime novel, but where better to set such a story than in hell itself? That’s where Simon Kurt Unsworth sets his appropriately titled The Devil’s Detective.

The protagonist is a man named Thomas Fool, one of Hell’s Information Men, kind of like a detective with very little power. Like all of hell’s human inhabitants, he’s a sinner, damned to hell for sins he cannot recall. Hell’s human inhabitants are at the bottom of the pecking order, prey to all manner of iniquities at the hands of demons; but this isn’t hell as told in the Bible, there is very little of the burning in lakes of fire, though we are told that this used to be the case. Rather hell keeps changing, to prevent life from becoming predictable, it’s current incarnation a form of psychological torture combining grinding, mind-numbing poverty and semi-starvation, with just the slightest hope.

Not that hell has totally turned it’s back on more traditional torture and Unsworth’s tale is at it’s strongest and most shocking when detailing some of the more demonic terrors. Without giving too much away, there’s one scene in an orphanage for horrific demon/human hybrid children, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it kept me awake at night and will stay in my memory for a very long time to come.

The plot, in a nutshell, is that there’s a murder. A human has been torn to pieces, his soul completely missing. Unsurprisingly, most crimes against humans in hell are either not investigated at all or the investigation by the Information Men leads nowhere. Fool speculates that for the soul to be completely consumed, the demon that committed this crime must be very powerful indeed. He expects to be told by his superiors to leave it alone. But to his surprise, they actively encourage him to pursue his investigations.  

Where the author falls down a little bit is the exact nature of the Information Men, how they fit into hell’s hierarchy. It’s not absolutely clear or convincing. But that is a tiny quibble in a book that I found otherwise bold and original. This is a brilliant segue of traditional detective fiction and supernatural horror and my only real gripe is that it is hard to imagine a sequel

I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Jackdaw

The Jackdaw

It’s a hard decision whether to read a book in a series when you haven’t read the earlier novels. Will you feel there is something that you’ve missed? How can the author get across backstory and make his characters well rounded for new readers, while avoiding repetition for those who’ve read the earlier offerings? The Jackdaw is apparently book 4 in the DI Sean Corrigan series but it is the first of Luke Delaney’s books that I have read, so I approached it with some trepidation. But I needn’t have worried. While there were hints of events from earlier books – for example, a supporting character, Sally, suffered some kind of traumatic attack in a previous book – I never felt at a loss for not having read the earlier books. In effect this worked as a self-contained story and I felt the characters were well developed and believable.

The plot itself revolves around a man who kidnaps bankers and people working in the financial sector and tortures and kills them on Yourview (basically a version of Youtube). While doing so he preaches and rails against their greed and portrays himself as an avenging angel of the common people. All very topical then. Without giving away any spoilers, there are various twists and turns and unsurprisingly everything isn’t as it first appears. I found the plot believable and a welcome change from the usual psycho-killer fare that seems to populate most police procedurals. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the author’s earlier work is of such ilk.  There is nothing earth shatteringly different about this book, it’s not revolutionary, it’s just that it was nice to have the motivation of the killer something different than the usual foaming at the mouth serial murderer.

That said there was one problem with this book that nearly killed it for me. This should be a five star read, but the author’s aversion to the word “said” reduces it to a four star one.  The writer Sandra Newman and the literary agent Howard Mittlemark wrote a book for aspiring writers a few years back titled How Not To Write A Novel. In it they advised that readers ignore the word “said”, they simply don’t notice it. But as soon as a writer starts to replace it with alternatives, readers notice, big time. I never really knew what they meant until now. Characters in this novel tell each other things, they explain, they point out, they argue, they complain, but never say. It’s galling and makes the dialogue odd in places. For example sometimes the detectives will be discussing the case and one of them will say something to another. But in Delaney’s world they don’t “say”, they “explain”, which immediately makes the character sound patronising. For surely the second officer would know this, he doesn’t need this obvious point of law or evidence “explained” to him.

There is one other issue that grated with me. At one point the psychologist, Anna, is talking to the main character Sean about what could possibly motivate the killer. She argues that he might not be mad, but might truly believe in what he’s doing and thus willing to commit atrocities. As way of illustration she tell Sean that the Viet Cong would chop off the limbs of children American soldiers had inoculated. Great story, the problem though is it took me just a few minutes on Google to discover that it is almost certainly untrue. In fact the allegation comes from the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. A few years back some academics that doubted the providence of the tale got in contact with the filmmakers to ask where they got such an anecdote. It turns out that there was a US Special Forces soldier advising the production company. One of the many anecdotes he regaled them with was the story of the Viet Cong amputations of inoculated villagers. But that is the sole record the academics could find of this event. One US soldier advising a film crew. No record could be found from the time, no media reports, no files in the archives, no other witnesses. You would think that if the Viet Cong did this the American military would have paraded this atrocity for the world’s media, after all it would be a PR coup, a chance to show the world how brutal their enemy could be. But nothing. This took me literally seconds on Google to discover. Does this matter? Afterall, the Jackdaw is just a novel, right? Well actually, I think it does. Firstly, in the context of the story, one has to ask whether a psychologist advising a police inquiry really would use such a tale of questionable providence to make her point. But secondly there’s an issue here for writers more generally. That is in the internet age you simply can’t get away with this kind of thing anymore. In the past author’s didn’t have to contend with Google. But in today’s world, somebody will always check. So if you are going to use reports of atrocities and war crimes to illustrate your novel, you best make sure to get it right.

On the whole I liked this novel, despite the two faults I outline above and my harsh critique of them. It is a solid police procedural that keeps the reader interested throughout. The characters are well rounded, the villain has a believable motive, and there is a real air of menace. Just can the author please learn to love the humble word “said”.     

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Final Minute

I’m a big fan of Simon Kernick. He writes fast paced thrillers, which generally start off at a breakneck speed and don’t let up until the high-octane conclusion. The Final Minute pretty much sticks to this winning formula – a man is in a room with a dead woman covered in blood, he can’t remember what happened but is pretty sure that he killed her. Without giving away any spoilers, cue lots of violence, chases and thrills.

One criticism I have heard of Simon Kernick is that all too often his books are forgettable; that a few days after you’ve put them down you’re struggling to recall what happened. Some consider him the archetypal airport novelist, a writer whose work will help a plane journey speed by and no more. Personally I feel that a little harsh and though I have struggled to recall the details of some of his past offerings I did not find this a problem with the Final Minute. Perhaps that’s because there’s a little more depth to the backstory in this one, the conspiracy behind it all involving political machinations and hints of intelligence services.

Some of the characters are a little clich├ęd – there is a man and woman who are contract killers and the woman is, of course, stunningly beautiful. Why do female assassins always have to be femme fatales? But on the whole he avoids such pitfalls and the main characters were well rounded and felt like real people.

I read this book in just three sittings, it really does keep you wanting to turn the page to find out what is going to happen and I would recommend it to anyone who likes their thrills fast and furious.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.