Friday, 28 February 2020

Deep State by Chris Hauty

As someone with a great interest in politics and current affairs, I’ve found the popularisation of the term “deep state” fascinating. Originally, the term was unique to Turkey, where the nation’s military and intelligence apparatus held sway and often exerted a malign influence on events. The term didn’t really spread from there until Donald Trump ran for the Presidency of the United States in 2016, whereby his supporters, particular Steve Bannon and his colleagues at Breitbart, began to claim that there was a US deep state that was hellbent on frustrating Trump’s agenda. Since then, and despite the fact that Bannon is reported to have told people that claims of a deep state in the US are in fact bogus, the notion has caught on. The idea of a deep state has also entered the lexicon and has been claimed for other countries too, some with more validity than others.

This is all background information of course, and is not necessarily needed when reading such a novel as this, but it’s interesting nonetheless to contemplate how a concept went from regional specificity (Turkey), through conspiracy theory (Trump and his allies' allegations against their opponents), through legitimate analysis (examinations of other countries, such as former Soviet republics, that might indeed have a deep state), and finally to popular fiction.

For the notion of a deep state has indeed now firmly supplanted itself in the fictional universe. There’s a FOX drama series titled Deep State which stars Mark Strong. There are a number of other novels, TV shows and films which play with the concept. And now there’s this novel by Chris Hauty. 

When the White House Chief of Staff is found dead, supposedly of a heart attack, his intern, Hayley Chill, suspects foul play. Everyone fobs Hayley off and dismisses her concerns, but when she perseveres, she discovers an organisation buried deep in the government and a plot to assassinate the President. 

Chris Hauty is a screenwriter by trade, and it shows, in that this is a very filmic novel. One can easily imagine it adapted for the big screen. This is a high-octane novel and is well plotted and has twists galore.

An enjoyable read and certainly a page turner

3 out of 5 stars 

Thursday, 27 February 2020

The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda

There have been a number of homicidal mass poisonings in Japanese history – The Teigin Incident in 1948, where a man posing as an epidemiologist persuaded the employees and patrons of a bank to drink an “inoculation against dysentery”, which in reality was cyanide; The Sonobe Incident of 1965, where a woman poisoned a communal pot of curry prepared for a summer festival with arsenic; The Paraquat Murders in 1985, a series of indiscriminate murders where someone unknown (the perpetrator was never found) killed twelve people and injured thirty five, by lacing beverages in vending machines; the Tokyo Subway Sarin attack of 1995, not strictly a poisoning of course, but the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s release of sarin gas on the Tokyo subway has at least some similarities.

Japan isn’t unique in this, there have been such events in other countries, but in the popular culture of Japan (and Western writers writing about Japan) these incidents have certainly left their mark. David Peace fictionalised The Teigin Incident in his novel Occupied City, while the case also featured in Ian Fleming’s eleventh James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice. While an event in Nicolás Obregón’s latest novel, Unknown Male, bears similarities to The Sonobe Incident.

The Aosawa Murders is a Japanese novel, written by Japanese author Riku Onda, and is also centred on a mass poisoning event. The Aosawas are a prominent family in a provincial Japanese city. They own a medical clinic and generations of the family have treated local people’s ailments. The house they live in adjoins the clinic, and the combined clinic and Aosawa living quarters are a local landmark, combining as they do Japanese and Western architecture. One day, when hosting a large birthday celebration, drinks are delivered to the party which have been tampered with poison. Seventeen people die and there are just two survivors: a housekeeper and the Aosawa’s blind daughter. The investigation flounders and when the only suspect - a loner unconnected with the family and with mental health problems – commits suicide, it looks like the case will never be satisfactorily solved.  

This novel slowly and painstakingly expounds the events of the crime, its build up and aftermath, through a series of different writing styles: some chapters are in a semi-interview style, a conversation where we only read one side, the interviewees; a few others are in the style of newspaper clippings and excerpts. Slowly, we learn the truth of what happened and our questions are answered: Was the loner really guilty of the crime, and if so, did he have help? What role did Hisako Aosawa, the Aosawa’s surviving daughter, have in the affair?

The Aosawa Murders is a slow burn novel, but it is a very compelling read. This novel was winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Fiction and I can well see why.

A great find, this is a 5-star read

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 10 February 2020

Death Deserved by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger

This is a new police procedural series written by a collaborating writing team consisting of two, well established names in Nordic noir. I’ve read a number of novels by Thomas Enger and they’ve always been very good. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never read a book by Jørn Lier Horst.

A prologue which details a disastrous police operation sets up one of the main characters, damaged police officer Alexander Blix, who’s career, and mental state is unduly affected by the outcome. The other main character is celebrity blogger Emma Ramm. In today’s world Emma happens upon the scene of a celebrity’s disappearance, all indications being that it’s through foul play. Blix is put on the police investigation into the case and the two are soon more or less working together. They soon discover that this is the start of a series of events that indicate that a serial killer is targeting celebrities and the famous, and that's when things get truly interesting. 

This is a well plotted novel that tackles various concerns of the moment, not least celebrity and our fame-obsessed culture. It is a good, solid police procedural, with plenty of twists and turns. The characters are well-developed, and while this is especially so for Blix and Ramm, it’s also true for the supporting cast. The authors make a good team.

A solid take on the police procedural, this is the start of a new series and fans of the genre could do much worse than get in at the start with this, the first book.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Beast by Matt Wesolowski

This is the fourth novel in the author’s Six Stories series and once again we’re with podcaster Scott King as he investigates a mysterious event over six episodes, in each one speaking to someone with a different perspective of what occurred. 

King has journeyed to the small town of Ergath on the north east coast of England, to investigate the grisly murder of Elizabeth Barton, a beauty and lifestyle YouTube vlogger. Elizabeth was participating in a viral internet challenge, the Dead in Six Days challenge, where participants were set a dare by a vampire. They had to do the dare and then pass it on, or the vampire would own their soul. But Elizabeth refused to pass on the dare, wanting to do each dare herself until the sixth day when she would supposedly meet the vampire herself. 

Ergath has a local legend of its own vampire, supposedly brought to the town during the Crimean War and imprisoned in a tower, the ruins of which still stand on the seafront. Elizabeth’s involvement in the Dead in Six Days challenge takes place to the backdrop of the town’s mythology and occurs during the Beast from The East – the frozen weather front which came in from Siberia in 2018 and froze sections of the UK. Each of the dares that Elizabeth is set during the challenge becomes a little more extreme until she is meant to meet the vampire in the tower. It is here that she is locked inside by three local young men, dies of hypothermia, and then one of them beheads her.

Throughout King’s investigation it is never really in doubt who killed Elizabeth Barton. The evidence against her killers is overwhelming. But the questions that King wants to discover is why they killed her, and if possible, the men’s differing levels of culpability. To do this, he is soon looking into both killers and victim and discovering that not everything is what it seems. The story has always been that Elizabeth was a beautiful, popular, and kind person involved in charity work; her killers’ oddballs and loners. That Elizabeth’s killers murdered her at least in part due to jealousy (the other reason being that one of them believed her to be a vampire). But King soon finds other perspectives, that Elizabeth had secrets and that the killers were not the cardboard cut-out villains they had been portrayed.

Beast is a complex novel. There are elements of horror with the legend of the vampire, but that is not what this novel is really about. Rather, Beast is about social media, the pressure to conform, the pile in and witch-hunts that can occur on social media platforms, the challenges and games people can play on social media (and how sometimes these are hyped up in press scare stories). It is also about small towns hollowed out by deindustrialisation, and how the poverty and lack of services that plague such places can lead people to spiral out of control.  

This is a great read and the Six Stories series continues to impress.

5 out of 5 stars