Camera by Eva-Marie Liffner; The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin; Somebody Else by Reggie Nadelson; Born Under Punches by Martyn Waites; Terror on Tuesday by Ann Purser; The Fiend In Human by John Machlachland Gray; The Scholar of Exortion by Reg Gadney - review by Philip Oakes

Philip Oakes

Crime Round Up June 2003

  • Eva-Marie Liffner, 
  • Boris Akunin, 
  • Reggie Nadelson, 
  • Martyn Waites, 
  • Ann Purser, 
  • John Machlachland Gray, 
  • Reg Gadney




By Eva-Marie Liffner

Harvill Press 199pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

OLD, secretive, seemingly blameless Swedish photographer Jacob dies in Gothenberg, leaving notes, photographs and a flat on Frigga Street to nosy niece Johanna, whose life becomes instantly consumed by a quest to discover what her uncle was really up to in the hidden years of his youth. In London, in 1905, he turns but to have attended Theosophist siances held by Madame Blavatsky at which young children were murdered by a cbrrupt churchman, Charles Leadbeater, and a photographer to whom Jacob was apprenticed was hired to snap the souls of the children departing their bodies. Heart-renchng discoveries when Johanna pursues her enquiries in old Blavatsky HQ in Ladbroke Grove. where life and death experiments went on with fashionable free-thinkers including Annie Besant and journalist W T Stead standing hopefully on the fringes. Narrative shared between the inquisitive Johanna and the increasingly appalled Jacob (whose posthumous journal comes to light), with time past being hauled pungently into the present day. 'The past cannot be undone but it can be reassembled', a photographic researcher tells Johanna, and from documentary fragments a chilling record of exploitation (child pornography, for starters) and inhumanity (bodies are dumped in the flooded excavations for the new Victoria Line) comes together. First-time novelist Liffner pursues her story, almost literally, by following her nose (the action is steeped in sweat, grime and rot both nice and nasty) and her dstillation of old evils and new insight is evocative.. Dotent and memorable. L She takes a sideways approach to history, nudging her way towards a vantage point from where she can observe, account for and - hopefully - understand. Her book is original, unsettling and quite brdliant.

The Winter Queen

By Boris Akunin

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 249pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

HISTORICAL frolic - at different stages a detective story, a thriller and a whodunit - which sets ambitious young Erast Fandorin, civil servant 14th class in Moscow 1876, on the trail of international conspirators plotting the death of the old regime. Very lively, with a flamboyant and mysterious suicide in Moscow's sunny Alexander Gardens for openers and subterfige (a network of secret agents reared and cosseted by an Enghsh m'lady's charity) and sudden death to follow. Done with a dash and uncommonly light-hearted und the shadow falls on page 248. A huge success in Russia (six million copies sold) and Europe (twenty-two countries already in the bag).


Somebody Else

By Reggie Nadelson

Faber & Faber 274pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

MISTRESS of magazine gastroporn, 51-year-old food photographer Betsy Thornhill, responds to lover's idle enthusiasm for old portrait ('You were some dish back then') by agreeing to major facelift, which takes fifteen years off her looks. Goodbye wrinkles, hello sex. But bad news when someone loolung like her is accused of murdering a man who's been pursuing her. Could it be her daughter who's done the deed? And is it a crime to be obsessed with youth and age? An ingenious, unhappy book, haunted by the prevailing post September 11 mood that now grips New York. Betsy visits Ground Zero: 'It looked like Pompeii was all she could think. Everything the way it was since that morning when time stopped.' Utterly stoical though, with some caustic, wounding dialogue and enough pace to burn the bodywork.


Born Under Punches

By Martyn Waites

Simon & Schuster 405pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

NOT so much a crime novel as a furious study of the social spoilage which makes crime inevitable. Grimy north-east setting, with the mining town of Coldwell under the hammer in 1984; pitched battles between police and striking miners; family life destroyed and society (that state of mutual care which Mrs Thatcher so memorably derided) being laid to waste. Change and decay over the next twenty-five years with jobs gone, marriages falling apart, gangsters and a drug culture on the rise and teenage prostitution infesting the streets. Reminiscent of the BBC's fine drama series Our Friends in the North, but in no way a carbon copy. Waites's book has a reckless energy which demands attention and respect. What he has learned, as someone else once observed in other circumstances, is a style from a despair.


Terror on Tuesday

By Ann Purser

Severn House 246pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

SECOND episode in ongoing series of rural whodunits investigated by inquisitive firm of village home cleaners, New Brooms. Its proprietor, the enterprising Lois Meade, is also an amateur sleuth. No need to seek out crime. Bodies fall into her lap: the first corpse, a phoney major with straying hands, turns up in a knight's tomb, wearing a full suit of armour; the second is found trussed to a tree close to where Lois has gone to meet her police contact. Suspend your disbelief. Purser is far less cosy than you might suppose, casting a cold eye on most of her locals and offering a less than flattering view of life in the East Midlands.


The Fiend In Human

By John Machlachland Gray

Century 342pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

London horrors circa 1852 when public executions still draw the crowds and a celebrated strangler - William Rv,a n., known as Chokee Bill - is protesting his innocence from behind bars. He is championed by Edrnund Whitty of the Falcon, one of London's leading investigating journos, and considering a proposition by balladeer Henry Owler, who knows he can make B fortune &m a so-called True Confession by the killer. Not guilty, insists Ryan. The real Fiend is still out there and more people will &e. Plot and counter-plots all upholstered in wicked London weather, particularly the fog ('now a thick buttery syrup, impregnated with the smell of soot, so heavy that it sinks to the street and crawls the gutter'). Inmates of The Steel, a notorious jail close to Mount Pleasant, drive a gigantic treadmill positioned over a massive cesspool, while elsewhere enforcers encourage debtors to pay what they owe by dropping a starving rat into their breeches. Superb scene-setting and ripe characterisation, but the present tense in which the narrative is delivered lessens the urgency and puts brakes on the action. A hugely ambitious book and endlessly intriguing, even when it dawdles. Criticism largely irrelevant. The text rolls out grandly, taking its own good time. Ths is a spectacle as well as a novel. Savour it as you would London itself.


The Scholar of Exortion

By Reg Gadney

Faber & Faber 384pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

GADNEY tries his hand at demonology with a pitch-black portrait of the kingpin of Far East piracy - Klaas- Pieter Terajima: Japanese/Dutch parentage; deeply and creatively cruel, endlessly filing his fingernails, whose steely tips he uses to gouge out victims' eyes; a sexual athlete who educates his young mistresses in Olympics-style routines; a merchant seaman, qualified helicopter pilot, pharmacist, anaesthetist, physician and terrorist whose style is total wipe-out of target and related evidence. Gadney sets hun against Alan Rosslyn, veteran Brit investigator specialising in shipping security, and at first it would appear that Rosslyn hasn't a chance. Not so. Amid murders, sabotage and assassinations in which the innocent perish horribly, the balance shifts. When last seen Terajima is swimming strongly for the horizon while Rosslvn and his mistress (dunked in the ocean after escaping from a burning helicopter) are being winched to safetv. The action is brisklv handled: the Sex is eventful; realism' is kept at arm's length. Techno-crime has rarely looked so glossy but Gadney's supreme villain is a bogeyman whose lineage reaches almost a century back. He may have a smart new name but style is the giveaway. Dr Fu Manchu, This Is Your Life! Gadney makes recycling into a fine OTT art.

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