Philip Oakes

Crime Round Up March 2004

  • Robert Stone, 
  • John Malcolm, 
  • Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Trans Benjamin Moser), 
  • N E Genge, 
  • Jenny Siler, 
  • Lee Child

Bay of Souls

By Robert Stone

Picador 256pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

EXOTIC, erotic thriller seemingly set in the here and now, but trapped in an emotional timewarp which yearns for hippiedom and good times gone. Michael Ahearn, youngish, sexually voracious professor at cosy rural US college, seeks time off from strongly Lutheran wife, Kristin, after meeting new faculty member Lara Purcell, who claims to be in thrall to a voodoo spirit, keeper of her soul in the haunted Caribbean. Ahearn agrees to accompany her on a trip to the island of St Trinity (a folksier neighbour to Haiti) to reclaim her soul and make contact with her brother, who died of AIDS the previous year. It's no simple thing. Both flesh and spirit have a hard time of it, with drug deals and Third World corruption adding to the travail. Ahearn takes on a dangerous night dive to salvage cocaine that was lost in a dealer's drowned plane. Romance comes to a bad end. 'You took me to hell,' Ahearn tells an unrepentant Lara and, sympathetically, Stone gives their breakup more than a whiff of sulphur and souls at risk. But the formula fails to engage. Disenchantment is the theme that is meant to carry the narrative but it is not a tune with much staying power. At one point in the book Ahearn reflects on his changing society: 'Since he had briefly considered resuming smoking he was discovering it was no longer possible to smoke anywhere.' Stone's novel is filled with a host of similar droll regrets but too often they sound smug rather than wise. He's a writer I have long admired, but by the final page I felt like urging him to move on and get a life. BOISTEROUbSla ck comedy in which Tonio - the Paris-based son of Italian immigrants - rediscovers his roots when he inherits a run-down vineyard, east of Naples, left to him by his gigolo 6iend Dario, who was murdered with a single bullet to the head. Could the vinegar have anything to do with it? The one 's undrinkable, but both the mafia and the Vatican have an eye on the property. Plots and shots ensue. Funny and good-hearted, with much incidental and expert enthusiasm for se food and drink. You may like to avow that Merent rules apply to cooking pasta above and below sea level. At higher altitudes water has a lower boiling point and doesn't boil hard r fast enough to cook really fine pas before it turns to glue. Welcome t+ the publishers, offering new crome fiction from Europe, Africa and Latin America. Benacquista gives them a good start.

Mortal Instruments

By John Malcolm

Allison & Busby 265pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

BIG-MONEY scam coffee-rich South America where the market is stood on its head when a new Brit-invented 'beanometer' - designed to detect a potentially fatal coffee fungus - is hijacked by a consortium of crooked financiers and politicians who realise that the function f the machine can be reversed and the device can actually cause the mischief it was meant to prevent. Huge profits for all men of ill-will. Leading the opposition: Johnny Barber, financer and international business whizz whose pleasure it is to outsmart the bad guys while firming up his own financial position and maintain an on-going sexual relationship with the deliciois Katie Gonzalez, whose favours he has uncomplainingly shared for a decade or so with the chief villain. Adroit, entertaining, savvy and tough, with a formidable hero in Barber - snugly blunt sadly domiciled in a flat in chilly St Leonards (the apartment block is shaped like a land-locked ocean liner) where he lives alone after being dumped by his ex-wife, with a dull British sea winking through the window and a sea breeze stroking the ferro-concrete. Narrative punctuated by memories of his father - a straight arrow technical sales rep in the 1930s - whose example of unfussy decency sets the benchmark for strength and good sense. 'So often', muses Barber as the story gathers pace, 'action replaces thought'. Not here though, where the brain is still the busiest, most important muscle in the operation.

December Heat

By Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Trans Benjamin Moser)

Picador 273pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

CURIOUSLY snug picture of Rio de Janeiro's underworld, with detectives, prostitutes, street kids and the killers who prey on them sharing the build-up to a rain-soaked Christmas, darkened by murder. Several deaths, beginning with that of obliging whore Magah, companion and comfort to retired cop Vieira, whose grief is assuaged by sumptuous Flor, who assures him that Magah instructed her to take over all her R & R duties should she be unavailable. Murder investigated by Vieira's friend. veteran detective Inspector Espinosa, who is also seeking the killer of two street children - one burned to death in his cardboard crib, the other brained against a seaside boulder. Busy detective work, but very low-key 'and domestic. Roza uses Espinosa ('He felt like a computer from an earlier generation running on outdated software') to emphasise the atmosphere of times past. Lots of gun play, but crime - even violent crime - seen largely as a misunderstanding between friends. Slightly odd translation by Benjarnin Moser, whose fondness for the word 'gotten' ('He wondered where Flor had gotten the lawyer') adds to the note of lit antiquity

The Forensic Casebook

By N E Genge

Ebury Press 319pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

ALL you could possibly want to know about the science of crime scene investigation (the publishers call it a reader's guide) from an analysis of blood spatters to facial reconstruction, with informed asides on which crime writers you can trust to deliver the real nitty gritty - Michael Connelly comes out on top with his description of a 'point-blank shot' which, says Genge, 'draws approval from both savvy readers and medical examiners'. A note too on ear prints, far less reliable than finger prints ('there is currently no general acceptance of ear identification'), but accepted by some courts as su5cient evidence for identity and conviction. It may be a case of forensics going a step too far. Only weeks before this book's publication Mark Dallagher, who was jailed at Leeds crown court in 1998 on the strength of an ear print which allegedly placed him at the scene of a woman's murder, walked Gee on appeal: a DNA profile obtained from the print proved that it did not come from him. A pity it took seven years to set the man free. Will Genge's casebook help reform attitudes and procedures for cases to come?

Flashback

By Jenny Siler

Orion 250pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

SILER'S fourth and best-yet novel is a pounding, precisely- plotted thriller which begins with the massacre of a convent full of nuns whose misfortune it was to have been the carers of an unknown girl they chose to call Eve, who they found in a Burgundy field with a bullet in her brain. Eve was at the doctor's when the assassins called. Clearly they wanted her dead. But why? Who is she? How did she get there? Nobody knows. Siler brilliantly explores the nature of amnesia, portraying it as a condition to be feared, understood and overcome: 'To live with amnesia is to live with a suspect mind, a renegade piece of yourself that cannot be contained. Dreams may be memories, memories may be dreams and neither one is to be trusted.' Eve starts on her voyage of self-discovery when she finds a crumpled Tangier-Algeciras ferry ticket in a coat pocket. It takes her back to a high-risk life in North Africa and Europe with criminals and arms-dealers, replete with false passports and wads of illicit cash. Pursuing the hunt demands courage. There is a price to pay for finding things out and Siler's skill here lies in how she measures longed-for truth against the inevitable consequences. She writes well about violence, fear and betrayal (all constituents of the climate she explores) and her sense of place (with musky Marrakech replacing her familiar Montana barrens) is acute and exciting. Flashback is a terrific read. On present form Jenny Siler is showing the competition a clean and perfectly-shaped pair of heels.

The Enemy

By Lee Child

Bantam 412pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

FLASHBACK to l990 when Jack Reacher (ultra-macho hero of Child's seven previous novels) is still serving as a major in the US Military Police and history is about to take a momentous turn. The Berlin Wall is ready to fall. The Cold War is ending. The army, it appears, is running out of enemies to fight. But, as Reacher discovers, when a soldier found dead in a sleazy North Carolina motel turns out to be a two-star general, far from home and far from his presumed state of innocence, there are enemies all around and the good fight is still there to be fought. More of a detective story than Child's customary fare, with whodunwhat the question under consideration and Reacher presented as the hard man in the making, taking on all corners, whatever their rank or status, in his search for the truth. Glimpses into the family album: a gallant French mother, dying of cancer; the pressures and loyalties which create an heroic loner. Child has spillled the bare minimum of beans about Reacher's past, but this first sample indicates rich pickings for the future. Interesting to guess which way he'll go. Intelligent, exciting, more experimental than you'd have ever guessed.

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