Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley

This is a superb piece of literature, superlative writing, great plotting, wonderful characterisation. Written by Noah Hawley, the man who adapted the Coen Brothers' Fargo into a smash hit television series, that all might come as little surprise. Just as that series defies easy genre characterisation, so does Before the Fall.

Scott Burroughs is an artist just emerging from a lost decade of alcoholism and womanising. Perhaps he's rediscovered his mojo, he's not altogether certain, but he's kicked the booze, started swimming again (he won numerous medals in his youth) and his new work is drawing the interest of agents and galleries.

Burroughs has rented a fisherman's cottage in Martha's Vineyard where he lives a simple existence, painting, looking after his three-legged dog, visiting the farmers' market. It's there that he befriends Maggie Bateman, wife of David Bateman, the CEO of a populist and right wing television network (obviously based on Fox News). She invites Scott to fly back to New York, where he is scheduled to meet with gallery representatives, on the Bateman family jet. He accepts, the plane crashes into the sea, killing all aboard with the exception of Scott and the Bateman's young son, JJ.

The plot of Before the Fall follows from there (the crash occurs in the first few chapters) and explores events leading up to the tragedy, and the repercussions afterward. As mentioned above this novel belies genre. In part it is a thriller: was the plane brought down by mechanical failure? pilot error? a bomb or act of sabotage? But it is also a meditation into the nature of the media, wealth, celebrity and society, Scott and to a lesser extent JJ, struggling to cope with their new found infamy as the only survivors.

Hawley is excoriating in his depiction of the press, not just of the Fox-like network (though they come off worst) but of the whole insatiable, 24/7, edifice that the modern world has designed for itself. Scott Boroughs is a throwback, a man who eschews social media, who has minimal digital footprint, and he struggles to navigate the landscape of inanities and easy answers that he is suddenly exposed to.

The author spins his yarn from the perspective of a large cast of characters, ensuring that his world is nuanced and three dimensional. While Scott Burroughs is the closest we have to a central character, Maggie and David Batemen and their friends Ben and Sarah Kipling are also central. Maggie is a former teacher and has never been completely comfortable with the lifestyle her husband's money has brought them. Ben Kipling is a financier who has helped launder money for brutal regimes (North Korea and Sudan amongst their number) and is facing indictment. Sarah is unaware of her husband's troubles, and while more comfortable than Maggie with the trappings of wealth, wishes her husband wasn't so dismissive of those with less than them.

If I have one criticism it is how easily Noah Hawley wraps up his tale at the end, but whereas a small number of reviewers have expressed disappointment in this, I feel it misses the point. In a sense the plot of the novel is an aside. The real strength of Before the Fall is as an introspective of modern society and in that it does its job admirably. Almost all the characters are sympathetic and invoke the reader's empathy and the author avoids the preachiness a lesser writer might have brought to such a story.

Powerful, compelling, and with a real emotional punch, Before The Fall is one not to miss.

5 out of 5 stars 

Soldier Spy by Tom Marcus

This is reportedly the first biography to be penned by a former MI5 surveillance officer. It's been vetted by the Security Service who gave it their blessing, so I guess no secrets have been divulged. That said there's much here that in the context is surprising, the Security Service not always coming off well.

Tom (not his real name) was unusual in that he was recruited direct from army special forces - the unit is not divulged but one gets the impression that it was not the SAS but some type of surveillance unit. The Security Service has moved away from the tap on the shoulder to a more open recruitment process, jobs and careers advertised online and in recruitment brochures, and most of his colleagues had come via this route. Right from the off Tom describes feeling like an outsider, that his team were always suspicious of him. He's extremely honest about his part in this, in that he was headstrong and quite aggressive. On one training exercise he dislocated the shoulder of one of the trainers, while on a follow he risked compromise by venturing into a target's place of work to find out where they were heading to.

The bulk of the book is taken up by anecdotes of operations and many of these are eye opening. A good example is the time he was nearly abducted by a jihadi counter-surveillance team who had a flat prepared, complete with plastic sheeting and a video camera. Apparently they intended to behead one of the team and show the film on the internet. Another example is when they followed a jihadi who was found to have a trunk full of explosives and assault rifles, his intention to massacre school children. It all makes for thrilling stuff, but these stories are sometimes difficult to follow as he uses a lot of surveillance speech with little explanation for the lay reader.

There are numerous biographies now by former CIA spooks, and special forces veterans from both sides of the Atlantic, and the vetting can make for a rather odd reading experience. Soldier, Spy suffers from this also. Stories and anecdotes are often truncated or cut short, the reader left with the impression that there is much left unsaid. While I understand that this is necessary to protect secrets and operational methods, it can be incredibly frustrating when a story seems to end on a cliff-hanger.

With Soldier, Spy the best example of this is when Tom's mentor, the man who recruited him to MI5 from the army suddenly dies. Tom is told that it appears to have been suicide, to which Tom reacts sceptically. According to his telling, Tom was told not to ask questions and to leave well alone. As an avid crime fiction reader, this sounds to me like the setup for a conspiracy storyline, the protagonist investigating suspected foul play despite his bosses trying to stop him. Of course, this is a biography not fiction.  Tom left it and that was that. I'm not for a moment suggesting that there was a conspiracy of silence, or that Tom’s mentor was murdered. I’m sure it was as simple as a tragic suicide. But the way the book’s narrative just moves along left me with the impression, almost certainly unfair, that there was more to this story. As I say, I imagine this probably had to do with the restrictions he was under when writing the book, that for whatever reason, to protect the man’s identity or whatever, he just couldn’t write more. While understandable it makes for very disjointed reading.

Tom finally left the Security Service with PTSD, in part no doubt due to seeing another surveillance officer, a motorbike rider, accidentally killed in a traffic accident while following a suspect. This is one of the most moving passages of the book and one can't help but feel for the author. After leaving MI5 he of course could not tell future employers what he had been doing for the last few years and so was reduced to working in call centres and flipping burgers. This seems absurd, surely the Home Office could have provided him with fake references?

In conclusion, Tom Marcus was clearly a very brave and capable person who did much in the service of his country. His book Soldier, Spy is eye-opening and compelling but suffers much from the restrictions he was under when writing it. There is a hint at the end that he might have other writing projects in the works, who knows, perhaps a novel? If so I wish him well.

3 out of 5 stars 

The Devil's Evidence by Simon Kurt Unsworth

This is the second novel in Unsworth's series about Thomas Fool, an Information Man in Hell. The novel is set in THE Hell, the domain of Satan and all his demons, and the information men are human's, condemned souls, who for whatever reason Hell has allocated the task of investigating murders and crimes. Humans are the lowest of the low in Unsworth's depiction of Hell, prey to the predatory depravities of demons and other unspeakable horrors. Fool and his information men are never quite sure of their footing, of what crimes they should be investigating, of what perpetrators they should be pursuing.

This second novel starts with a number of unexplained fires, humans dying in great numbers trapped in the infernos. There are also unexplained massacres, the humans ripped limb from limb. Fool is getting nowhere in his investigations and is soon co-opted onto a diplomatic delegation to heaven. In part this is due to Heaven's gratitude to Fool for events that occurred in the last book, the first in the series, The Devil's Detective, where Fool helped bring a freshly fallen angel to justice. Fool travels up to heaven only to find that there's trouble in paradise, saved souls being murdered also. There are indications that this is all due to something new and he wonders whether the perpetrator is something from outside of Heaven and Hell, perhaps one of the strange monsters he saw trying to get in when travelling between the two.

Like The Devil's Detective, at heart The Devil's Evidence is a police procedural/detective novel, albeit with a unique setting and characters that are the epitome of good and evil: demons and angels. Purely on those terms it works well, constantly keeping the reader guessing and turning the page. But it is Unsworth's depiction of the afterlife that is so compelling. As with the first book, Hell is to put it bluntly, Hellish. It's not just the horrors and the deprivations that make it so, it's the sheer unpredictability, and the author is particularly good at conveying the sense of nervousness, paranoia and fear that all its human inhabitants have to live with.

But it's his depiction of Heaven in this book that is most unsettling. For while it seems like paradise at first, it soon becomes apparent that it's flawed, even before the murders and massacres that have recently come to afflict it. The saved souls are permanently unconscious, in a dream state, engrossed in their own personal heavens while the angels that tend to them feed on their joy like parasites. It all makes for a deeply unsettling vision. The evil in this book, the thing committing the murders in heaven and hell, is also disquieting. In fact, I found myself more disturbed by this novel than I did the first. There's something really creepy about it which at times had me putting it to one side.

All in all, this is a great read if you like horror and proof that the genre can be constantly reinvented despite all the books, movies, computer games, that compete to give us the chills.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Two O'Clock Boy by Mark Hill

I was really looking forward to this novel as its author is someone who’s blog I used to read regularly. In a past life Mark Hill ran the Crime Thriller Fella blog, a book reviewing blog like this one (though I imagine he had far more readers than I). The best part of his blog was a section he titled the Intel where he interviewed authors and asked them for advice on writing. For again, like myself, while Mark reviewed books, what he really wanted was to be the one writing them. Well Mark is now a published author, whilst I’m still an aspiring one, so what did I think? Did his debut live up to expectations? Did he take on board all that advice, or did it all go to waste?

Well I’m happy to say that his debut hits the spot nicely and he clearly was listening when all those writers he interviewed spilled their secrets. The Two O’Clock Boy is a tense serial killer thriller, with a good undercurrent of noir. While it’s theme, firmly rooted in the abuse and casual violence of a 1980’s care home, couldn’t be more current, what with the ongoing inquiry into historical child abuse.

Now readers of my reviews will know that I’m not really a fan of the serial killer genre. Too often they descend into crude schlock, if not torture porn. Pleasantly the author avoids this, and while there is a high blood and gore quotient, it’s never overdone, one never gets the feel that the author is just upping the ante for the salacious pleasure of his readers. Perhaps more importantly, he avoids the usual trotting out of the tired old psycho serial killer tropes. Our killer doesn’t come up with myriad exotic ways to keep his victims alive before dispatching them with Heath Robinson ingenuity. Nor does he appear out of nowhere, as if psycho serial killers live around every corner. Rather the author anchors him firmly in the past of care home abuse, so that we understand how his psychological and moral growth became so stunted. This is both more realistic and performs that feat that many an author tries and fails at, namely eliciting some empathy for the villain.

And it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the killer, given all that they suffered as a child. With what we now know of the abuse that many suffered in the care system in the 1970/80’s, the predatory paedophiles with links to the establishment, the Jimmy Saviles, it’s little wonder that many are scarred by their experiences. And this is another strength of this book. Many of the other characters are victims of the care home system, not least our protagonist DI Ray Drake. Some of the best scenes in this novel are those set in the care home, where the author writes powerfully of broken childhoods and emotional neglect.

Drake himself is dark horse with many secrets and without divulging spoilers it’s not clear by the end of the novel whether he’s expunged them all. For example, who is the boy in the prologue who kills his parents? Is it Drake? This is never answered. I imagine that this is with a view to a sequel. I hope so. I for one will be reading it.

5 out 5 stars.