Philip Oakes

Crime Round Up October 2003

  • James Lee Burke, 
  • Barbara Cleverly, 
  • Henry Porter, 
  • Marcello Fois (Trans Patrick Creagh), 
  • Morag Joss, 
  • Ruth Rendell, 
  • Karin Alvtegen (Trans Anna Paterson)

Last Car To Elysian Fields

By James Lee Burke

Orion 352pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

 

BAD times for recovering alcoholic Dave Robichaux, Burke's New Orleans detective - sadly a widower once again , doing battle with the booze that promises relief and haunted by old loves, and by old crimes that are unresolved, unsolved and begging to be laid to rest. Bloody exhumation of long-gone yesterdays, beginning with a simple-seeming enquiry into what became of brilliant, uppity blues guitarist Junior Crudup, who vanished after riling white supremo of notorious black jail, the infamous Angola. Parallel inquiry into booming local porn business and roadside sales of hard liquor to vumerable teenagers. Cleanup operations waged like a war by Robichaux and manic cohort Clete Purce!, ex-cop still justice-driven, described wonderingly by Robichaux as 'a human moving violation, out of sync with both lawful and criminal society, no more capable of changing his course than a steel wrecking ball can alter its direction after it's been set in motion'. Consequences both comic and cataclysmic once the ball is set swinging. What's overwhehning, though, is the sadness that keens through the narrative like a blues guitar as the grieving Robichaux tries to turn his life around while ahnost suicidally edging himself into the firing line. Heart-wrenching stuff which Burke renders soberly, stoically and with no trace of flim-tlam. Increasingly, his novels have become vehicles for a talent which is still changing, still growing. Look carefully at what's on offer. What we are seeing is a good writer becoming a great one.

The Damascened Blade

By Barbara Cleverly

Constable & Robinson 287pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

MUCH ado about the mysterious murder of a Pathan prince1 while supposedly safe behind the walls of a British- manned fort on the Afghan border in jittery 1922. Can Commander Joe Sandilands, DSO, ex-Royal Scots Fusiliers, ex-Military Intelligence discover whodunit or will hostages suffer and the frontier erupt into war? More formulaic than Cleverly's two previous Indian novels, with Christie-like quizzing toning down local colour. Characterisation a touch on the broad side, with an Annie Oakley-style American heiress leading the field. Solidly plotted though, with lots of energy and all period accoutrements up to scratch and true to the Raj.

 

Empire State

By Henry Porter

Orion 402pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

PAINFULLY prescient espionage thriller in which the United Nations is fingered as an inevitable target for today's international terrorists. Credible, multi-layered plot with seemingly random events - the assassination of the US President's special counsel at Heathrow, the slaughter of a group of migrant workers in Maces-Jonia, the murder of an airport emplO'yee in Uxbridge, the arrival through a smart New York osteopath's letterbox of two postcard views of the Empire State building dispatched improbably from Turkey and Iran by a friend - linked in a mosaic of politics and lethal planning. Inspired reading of the runes by US and - more usefully - British Intelligence, including sparky young Isis Herrick (rising star of Ml6), throws light on the situation. But what is revealed gives hope for no happy ending, 'Just a long, cruel war between civilizations' . Porter underlines the horrors with repeated scenes of interrogation and torture. The truth is almost an irrelevance. There are no good guys. Everybody does it. 'What we are dealing with is a profound, undermining evil that threatens everyone', clain1S one of the practitioners (on our side, as it happens). 'Torture is understandable. And forgiveable.' But is it really? Porter's cool and compassionate book begs to differ, and you are urged to make up your own tn.ind. Empire State is plausible, scary and exciting with unstressed know-how and espionage tactics that sound authentic. There's 'reverse camouflage' in which the more dressing up you do, the less attention you draw to your face, and 'cascade surveillance' in which the quarry's path is filled with watchers 'like water falling over a boulder'. And if disposal is called for, hitmen must decide whether their target should simply be taken off the street, ie 'lifted', or 'stiffed', which would make their disappearance permanent. In more ways than one, Porter's excellent novel extends our education.

The Advocate

By Marcello Fois (Trans Patrick Creagh)

Harvill Press 118pp £10.99 order from our bookshop

SHORT, savoury account of how Bustianu, an advocate in rural Sardinia a hundred years ago, takes up the case of Zenobi, a young shepherd falsely accused of both sheep-stealing and murder, and proves him innocent, enabling him to make a modest marriage to the beautiful Sisinnia. A powerful period-flavour to its descriptions of the people and the place which make you imagine it all happening in sepia. But a touch self-conscious here and there, with a translation which depicts Bustianu in humid heat 'with his clothes stuck to him like clingfilm'. As sold, one assumes, by the nineteenth-century supermarket.

Half Broken Things

By Morag Joss

Hodder & Stoughton 295pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

QUIRKY, rueful tale of three social misfits - Jean, a professional housesitter; Michael, a professional conman; and Steph,-a battered runaway girlfriend - who come together by chance at a secluded country house which Jean is minding as a representative of the upmarket agency, Town and Country. Joined in a makeshift alliance they reconstruct a past on which they can reshape the present and face an unimaginable future. Their ways and means of transforming themselves from have-nots into counterfeit haves include larceny, fraud and even murder. But, however accomplished the crime, their innocence remains unassailable. Uninvited, the reader becomes a willing accomplice. Raif Broken Things is sad, funny, original and wise. There's a telling moment of truth when Jean 1s studying photographs of the owners of the house they've hijacked and notes how 'safe and polished and pleased' they look. 'I suppose I mean rich', she tells herself. It is a punch line to be proud of.

The Rottweiler

By Ruth Rendell

Hutchinson 342pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

DISTINCTLY odd thriller, with genuinely chilling serial murders set amidst comic goings-on at a Marylebone antique shop run by lonely Inez, widow of a telly detective. The shop is also staffed by exotic Zeinab, who's secretly devoted to her partner and children, but engaged, sort of, to two separate money-bags whose stupendous gifts of jewellery she's selling to buy her dream-house. Meanwhile, the murderer - who rents a flat above the shop - randomly garrottes young women without any apparent motive and steals trinkets from their bodies, which he leaves amongst the bric-a-brac sold by Inez. He in turn is blackmailed by local teenage gang boss (also living a secret life, unknown to his indulgent family); while in the room next to the murderer is a sweet and simple young man whose innocent yearning for the good life destroys the happiness of his conscience-stricken aunt. What Rendell has assembled here is not living tissue, but the stuff of a major TV soap. Each ingredient is good for several story lines (with the serial killings being the best of the bunch) but their connections with each other, are completely arbitrary. They join up at the whim of the storyteller and not because they are propelled by some coincidental or visceral attraction. Rendell's professionalism is one of the touchstones of crime fiction. But here it is something she summons up because she can and not because she must. Admirers will doubtless be entertained. But this strikes me as a crude and self-indulgent caper which signals its intentions by a scattering of woefully unfunny names, eg a policeman named Crippen and a besotted lover named Morton Phibling. Good, clean fun may be intended. But the moment you read it out the joke is already over.

 

Missing

By Karin Alvtegen (Trans Anna Paterson)

Conongate 249pp £9.99 order from our bookshop

PRIZE-WINNING Swedish fiction (winner of the Best Nordic Crime Novel) in which 32-year-old Sybilla, long estranged from her stuffy family, lives on the streets - scheming, skiving and hoarding a small allowance with which to buy a home of her own. One scam goes dangerously wrong when wealthy businessman she has conned into buying her dinner and funding bed for the night is found murdered and mutilated next morning. Sybilla is named as chief suspect and when another man is found murdered, she becomes public enemy number one, with her picture on the front pages of the tabloids. Her flight becomes more desperate, iritensifying her estrangement from society until - a touch abruptly, you may think - the guilty party is revealed. Seriously intended, decently done, but heavy going because the prose spills on to the page as if the writer's typing in thick, woollen gloves.


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