Archive for review

The Tailor of Panama

Posted in book, review, thriller, UK writers with tags , , on August 8, 2010 by richardkunzmann

John le Carré, Coronet Books (1996)

I picked up a tatty copy of the Tailor of Panama because I’d been feeling rather ashamed for never having read a John le Carré novel. And reading just a few pages, I immediately knew I’d like the rest of it. The conversational language, the peppy tongue-in-cheek descriptions – here was a confident writer patient enough to allow a good story to unravel on its own. He doesn’t feel compelled, as many thriller writers do, to barrel from one action sequence to another, to the detriment of the characters and setting.

Harry Pendel is the proprietor of Pendel & Braithwaite Limitada, previously of Saville Row, London, and through his doors pass all of Panama’s elite. They come to have the best suits in Panama fitted and to hear the latest gossip about each others’ mistresses and the political climate. Harry also owes one of these men a lot of money and has no means of paying it back. Enter Andrew Osnard, a voluminous and manipulative British Intelligence officer, who coerces Harry into providing information about all the gentlemen he fits, particularly those who might have some stake in the US hand-over of the Chanel to the Panamanian government. As Osnard’s demands for evidence of a conspiracy grows, Pendel feels obliged to invent increasingly bizarre plots to overthrow the government and shut down the Chanel.

I have it on the authority of my friends who religiously follow le Carré that this isn’t his usual offer. It’s not so much a thriller as a satire of the West drunk on its own victory over the rest of the world. If you loved Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havanna, you’ll appreciate this book – in fact, it seems like le Carré wrote it as a sort of homage to Greene.

There are a few sequences I especially liked. We are introduced to Harry Pendel as a meticulous man: he receives new clients in circumstances carefully orchestrated to make them feel like kings; he cuts their suits to precision in a secret room where he is his own master. Yet as the conspiracies grow larger and the lies devour his life, the tailor’s attention to detail slips. le Carré misses no opportunity to link the metaphors attached to a tailor — the clothes maketh the man, the story of the king with no clothes on, etc. — to great effect. The plots and sub-plots of the various actors are a joy to unravel. The more depressed and withdrawn Pendel becomes, the more convinced his wife is that he is having an affair with a younger woman. The vodka-fuelled scene in which her suspicions finally comes to a head is masterfully told – until that point the female figures in the novel are but bit-players, sidelined by the machismo of the men. But from then on, we realise that they are the only ones not consumed by their own egos.

The Tailor of Panama hangs together well on so many layers, it is a great read as a satirical spy thriller as well as good literature exploring our human immoralities.

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Review: Ashes to Ashes, Barbara Nadel

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Ashes to AshesIt is 29 December 1940, and London is in the grips of the worst bombing conflagration of the Battle of Britain. Hitler has ordered the razing of London and the main target of the attack is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Knowing that the pride and fighting will of his entire nation are at stake, Winston Churchill personally orders all hands to defend the church, come what may. It is a terrible night as incendiary bombs rain down and spark fires wherever they fall, followed by high explosive bombs to fan the flames.

Francis Hancock, a half-Indian shell-shocked Great War veteran, takes cover from this barrage in St. Paul’s. Claustrophobic and on the verge of panic, he listens to the sirens howl up above, the bombs thud into the City, buildings splinter and collapse, while his fellow Londoners in the crypt whisper about a foul-mouthed girl who has gone missing in the church. It’s not long before he volunteers to find her, more to get out of that cramped crypt than anything else. Except, when a night watchman tells him of a terrible secret surrounding the girl’s disappearance, and is himself thrown from the highest point in the building by an unseen murderer shortly thereafter, Francis Hancock’s life is suddenly in greater danger than if he tried to venture out into the immolated streets. St Paul's Cathedral

Last week I reviewed River of the Dead, and if I had some reservations about that book, I have few about this novel. Ashes to Ashes is a triumph of atmosphere and setting. Not only does Barbara Nadel bring World War II and the battle to save London alive in the most vivid way possible, the brooding mystery at its heart is rendered all the more unsettling because we see it from the viewpoint of a physically and mentally broken man. Francis Hancock is as peculiar as he’s likeable, an unlikely hero who easily endears himself to the reader. What fascinated me most, though, was how Barbara Nadel took such an iconic building and turned it into a place of cramped murderous possibilities. The tight scenes, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the very real paranoia of a frightened man who can’t tell friend from foe, evoke the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful films.

If the reminders to the reader of why a particular act was committed are as annoying as the occasional devilish monologues by the bad guys – à la Arthur Conan Doyle and his Inspector Sherlock Holmes – the moral dilemma that Barbara Nadel poses at the end of the book isn’t. It’s a question I’ve frequently asked myself in this post 9/11 world of ours, that is: to what extent must evil be left to flourish in order to preserve the greater good? It’s a question I’ve thought about many a time; as for the answer – it’s a horrifying thing to have to admit, but evil is as much a part of being human as is the good, and this duality makes me cringe when I wonder what I might do when driven to the extreme.

What did you think of the novel? Drop me a line and let’s compare notes. It’s always great to have a second opnion.

Interview with Barbara Nadel
Keep an eye out for the next blog, which will be an interview with Barbara Nadel about her two leading men, Cetin Ikmen and Francis Hancock.

Review: Barbara Nadel’s River of the Dead

Posted in crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, police procedural, review, UK writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2009 by richardkunzmann

River of the deadThis book was my first visit to Istanbul, and I have to say I’m dying to go back and see the city again … only this time for real. Barbara Nadel does an exceptional job evoking its streets, the sights and sounds, the smells and textures, its denizens. When I finished reading this latest instalment in the Inspector Cetin Ikmen series, I had to remind myself that my memories of that city came from a book.

Isn’t that the best thing about reading, though?

Yusuf Kaya, a jailed psychopathic drug-dealer, has escaped from custody and left no witnesses alive. The jailbreak is a particularly heavy blow for Inspector Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s trusty sidekick, as he was the one who first brought Kaya to book. Soon the investigation is torn in two: Ikmen continues to pursue leads in the capital, while Suleyman gives chase into the far eastern corners of Turkey, the wild tribal homeland of the powerful Kaya family, long known for their links to drugs and weapons smuggling. Istanbul

Ikmen and Suleyman are two detectives on the opposite ends of a spectrum: one is a chain-smoking father of a large Turkish family, an intuitive investigator whose mother was a well-known witch, while the latter is a straight-backed descendent of Ottoman princes, a calculating thinker married to a half-Irish woman. It’s a duality that probably works very well in other novels, but on this occasion they’re very much apart. Instead, Suleyman hooks up with Edibe Taner, who at first impresses us as a tough modern woman in a patriarchal world, but then it comes to light that she has links with an ancient snake-Goddess cult.

I struggled to find my way through many parts of this book because of the endless plot reversals that frustrated rather than intrigued me. Often our experienced detectives unnecessarily summarise for us what has come before, and then strangely take a direction that seems to clash with what they’ve just deduced from the evidence. Someone once said about red-herrings that they can only be called that when they’re obvious; in this novel there was a shoal of them. I also found it difficult to distinguish between the characters, because they all seemed to speak in the same voice – the dialogue is littered with language that seems more at home in a Hercule Poirot story than a modern gritty city like Istanbul, and the statement “but of course” emerged as a verbal tick of virtually every character. But let this not be a condemnation of Barbara Nadel’s work in general. Next week I’ll be reviewing her second novel for the year, Ashes to Ashes, which I found much more compelling, both for its setting and characters. Ashes to Ashes

River of the Dead truly takes flight when Barbara Nadel settles into her narrative. She takes us as easily through the backstreets and markets of a modern Istanbul, passed the mosques and churches that date back to Byzantine times, as she shows us the vast plains around Mardin, a place so steeped in history and mysticism that your heart aches to stand at the spot where Suleyman first sees that green landscape stretch out beneath him. I enjoyed the descriptions of the Scorpion clan that is Yusuf Kaya’s family, the snake-goddess worshipped by the locals, the jailed living saint – all of which is part of a Cob-webbed world that is grossly at odds with Suleyman’s digital age. The best part of this novel was Nadel’s understanding of the complex push and pull relationship between an ancient culture and a world of glass and plastic that tries to bury it.

Sweetheart: A book that’ll have you sweating in more ways than one

Posted in book, crime fiction, police procedural, review, serial killers, thriller, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Sweetheart“Can you feel that your spleen is gone? Does it hurt?”
“Not any more,” Archie answered.
“I think about that,” Gretchen said dreamily. “Having my hands inside you. You were so warm and sticky. I can still smell you, your blood. Do you remember?”
Archie ran a hand over his face. “I lost consciousness,” he reminded her quietly.
She smiled. “I regret that. I wanted to keep you awake. I wanted you to remember. I’m the only one who’s ever been that far inside you.”

These are exactly the lines I’ve come to expect from Chelsea Cain after meeting her and reading the Gretchen Lowell series a year later: funny, sensual and intense, all at the same time. Chelsea Cain’s books might lack thorough police investigations, and the serial killer they depict does stretch belief, but few other crime writers execute their work with such flair. In fact, if the series wasn’t the parody it is – and I’m talking a hefty touch of Quentin Tarrantino here – showing up all the oh-so serious monsters that litter the crime genre today, Chelsea Cain’s thrillers wouldn’t be as wisecracking good as they are.Chelsea Cain

Sweetheart follows Heartsick and delves into the aftermath of that obsessive love affair between Detective Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell, the porcelain-skinned serial killer who very nearly tortured him to death. Our detective is finally out of hospital and back home with his wife and daughter. The scars are healing, his trusty sidekick Henry is keeping a close eye on him, and so things should be as rosy as that first flush after hot sex.

Except they’re not.

HeartsickArchie’s hitting the pills so hard his liver’s about to explode. He can’t look his wife in the eye because he’s too damn busy imagining sadistic sex with Gretchen. As for work … well, all of a sudden a fresh pile of bodies is appearing in Gretchen’s old dumping grounds. Just when we think Archie’s internal world can’t be wound any tighter than the noose he’s pulled around his own neck, Gretchen Lowell escapes from jail and shoots straight for his daughter.

Cain’s timing is on the money, whether it’s comic relief or closing a chapter on a real cliff hanger. Intercutting between the Gretchen Lowell escape and an investigation into the murder of a girl who could potentially finger a sleazy politician for statutory rape, the story keeps us flying downhill at breakneck speed. It’s fast-paced stuff, even if a few plot threads are left hanging, but my appreciation for the book has very little to do with any of that.

Central to the story is the seduction of Archie Sheridan by Gretchen Lowell. Despite the horrible trauma she’s inflicted on him, he can’t stop thinking about her. This is the kind of love story where you know the other person is bad for you, she’ll destroy your soul, but for some reason that’s exactly what you want. In other words, Gretchen is the ultimate succubus.

Layer after layer, Archie is wrapped in the soft velvet of a rapture he knows he won’t survive. Like Pauline Reagé’s O, he realises what’s happening to him, he can see the self-annihilation that lies ahead and yet he goes willingly. The master-slave allusion isn’t an unwitting one, but at times we don’t know who’s who, as Gretchen exposes vulnerabilities of her own. It’s Cain’s sensuous portrayal of this state of mind that is most gripping. As much as this story is a thriller, the taste that remains on your lips long after is not the violence and gore, but forbidden love.

Read this book to the sound of:
Alice Cooper – Poison
Lou Reed – This Magic Moment

Look out for Evil at Heart, the third book in the series, which will be released in September.

Giveaway:
Chelsea has offered to dedicate and sign a hardcover copy of Sweetheart for a giveaway. Leave a comment on the review or series and you’ll be entered into a raffle.

Interview with Chelsea Cain!

Evil at heartKeep your eyes open. I’ll be posting an interview with Chelsea Cain before the close of the week, talking about her books, her writing, and the highly anticipated Evil at Heart.

Check out what others think of the book at Goodreads and Amazon.

The Hard Graft: An Interview with Martina Cole

Posted in book, crime fiction, interview, mystery, police procedural, review, UK writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , on May 30, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Martina ColeThere are many things you can call Martina Cole, arguably the queen of contemporary British crime fiction, but pretentious she is not. I believe first impressions last, and mine of Martina Cole could be summed up as follows: attractive, outgoing, down-to-earth, and oh so friendly.

Though Martina is the author of fifteen bestselling novels, she didn’t have an easy time growing up. Born in Essex in 1958, Martina was raised in an Irish Catholic family and educated at a strict convent school. Unhappy with the place, she left school with no qualifications. By the time she was nineteen she was crashing in a rundown, carpetless council flat, fending for herself and her new-born son. She knew early on what extreme poverty is and what it can make people do.

As we talk, the poverty of the English underclasses surfaces time and again. It’s a subject that deeply affects her and the protagonists of her books. In a husky voice, spiced with a strong east-ender accent, she says, ‘Our government keeps going on about a classless society, but it’s absolute crap. There is an underclass. So many people work hard, and do the best they can for their families, but they’re still poor. My son and me, we were quite hard up at a stage, and it was difficult at times, but I think it’s done us good to be hard up.’ I ask Martina how these hardships have affected her as an author. ‘It made me an independent person, and certainly I’m one of the few crime writers that’s actually lived in a council flat.’ She laughs, thinking about those times, an edge of relief in her voice despite the intervening years of success. ‘At the end of the day, I’d like people to know what it’s like to be poor, and to be faced with difficult choices. Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of. There was a point at which my life changed dramatically, but I reached that point by working very hard.’ Martina Cole 2

What attracted her to crime writing? ‘I didn’t start out specifically to write crime, but I ended up drawing a great deal from my background. I was also always interested in what goes through a criminal’s mind. I mean, what makes them do things, why do people commit crimes?’ One of her favourite characters is Magwitch in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, because he is a rogue, but essentially has a good heart. Great Expectations

‘There’s a human side to criminals that people tend to forget about. Cosy Crime just isn’t me.’ I ask her to elaborate. ‘Cosy Crime is the simple story of a detective who solves murders and hunts down this killer who is all bad. No one is ever all bad.’

Martina is clearly a person who tries to stay true to real events, real people and the community she was brought up in. For example, Martina used the experiences of a prostitute known to her as the basis of her novel Faceless. ‘True events do appear in my books, and I think it’s that sense of reality that keeps people reading.’ Martina Cole Faceless

It’s this respect she has for reality that has earned her much adoration from criminals, prisoners and police officers alike. She laughs out loud. ‘The funny thing is my books are some of those most frequently stolen from bookshops.’ The East End seems to identify closely with Martina and her novels, and the author reciprocates that relationship. She doesn’t just write about crime, she is regularly involved with creative writing workshops in prison rehabilitation programs. She wants to offer criminals an alternative. Says Martina, ‘Some of these people have never even picked up a book much less read it. I always say to them I’m one of the few people for whom crime actually does pay.’ Her laughter is easy, natural. ‘These people have so much time in jail, and I want to help them make the best of it.’ I wonder if some of these prisoners have had successes. ‘Yeah, definitely. A few have gone on to bigger things, but it’s difficult. Sometimes you work hard to build up a bond with some of them, and then they are abruptly transferred to another prison. It’s sad and difficult loosing someone that way, because what do they do next?’The Business

I ask her how writing has affected her personally. ‘It’s an odd life,’ she says, ‘especially for women. It’s not for everyone, because it’s lonely work. Other people can’t really join in, and feel pushed out all the time.’ It’s strange comparing this intensely private author with the sociable woman she is at parties. When she’s out, she’s always laughing, touching a shoulder here, an elbow there. She radiates interest in what you have to say, and who you are.

One thing is for certain about Martina Cole, and that is that she cares. After all, she’s been there, done the hard graft, and come out on top.

Watch a clip from the new TV series The Take, based on Martina Cole’s bestselling novel of the same name on Sky.

Find Martina Cole here:
website
Goodreads
Amazon

This interview originally appeared in The Citizen.

Review & Giveaway: Looking Good Dead, Peter James

Posted in book, crime fiction, police procedural, review, thriller, UK writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2009 by richardkunzmann

I don’t easily get creeped out by books these days. Not any more. Not since Stephen King’s It permanently damaged me as a child, when I was reading it under the bedcovers late at night, torch in one jittery hand, twice frightened that my mother would catch me in the forbidden act of reading “that author with evil in his head.”

Did you know, momma, what was in mine?

Looking Good DeadSo it’s been a while that I got the willies from a book, which makes me very glad that I picked up a copy of Peter James’s Looking Good Dead. It’s a brilliant thriller. Here’s why.

Tom Bryce, a regular Joe salesman, is sitting on the train from London to Brighton thinking about his wife and kids. And like anyone who’s ever had a standard class fair, he’s stranded next to a right prick yelling into his mobile phone. So when the guy gets off the train and leaves a CD behind, Tom’s not exactly in the mood to play Good Samaritan.

This is where we all collectively yell, “Why oh why, Tom, did ya have to take the CD home?”

That night our dear friend Tom watches a snuff movie. Then his computer is hacked and before long he’s running scared and fighting for the life of his wife and kids. Never mind his own.

At the same time, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called out to a gruesome discovery in a field on the same day that he’s got a hot date lined up. But what he finds out there opens up old wounds; his own wife disappeared many years ago, and since then he’s forever been wondering what happened to her and blaming himself.

This is a superb thriller in every sense of the word. Peter James drops us right into the households of every day people. He shows us that they also read the Gruffalo to their kids, watch the Simpsons, and then he tears them to shreds, and we’re left wondering exactly who this bastard is. Peter James 2James also has a great sense of place, constantly feeding us information about Brighton without overpowering us with needless description. In fact, everything about his writing is precise and to the point. He is as efficient a writer as he is a killer of characters, is Mr James.

I wish I could stop with the laurels there, but his research and deep understanding of the Brighton Metropolitan Police shines through, especially in his treatment of cyber crime and modern technologies. Here’s another great detail: I love looking out for how authors tie their novels back to the titles. In Peter James’s case, when the words “Looking Good Dead” are spoken, you don’t know if you want to laugh or slam the book shut and run.

A well-rounded novel this: great characters, great plotting, and a story that could become all too real. I’m going to commit sacrilege in the crime-reading world and say I enjoyed this book more than Michael Connelly’s The Poet.

Just do me a favour: don’t read this under the bedcovers with a torch.

Give Away
I have one signed copy of the new hardback Dead Tomorrow up for grabs. It’ll be released 11 June 2009, so you’ve got until then to share your thoughts on Peter’s writing. The winner will be drawn from a raffle. Dead Tomorrow

Some fast facts about Peter James:
He’s incredibly rich and loves showing off the cars he’s owned while still remaining a genuinely nice guy. He didn’t just get that way through hard work on his many bestselling books, he’s also a successful filmmaker, producing amongst others The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino.

Read other reviews at Amazon and Goodreads.

Best read to the music of Joe Cocker

Houellebecq’s Lanzarote: talk about a waste of time

Posted in book, Ken Barris, review, richard kunzmann, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2009 by richardkunzmann

I judge a book by its cover; I also judge it by its author and what he or she has written before, which is why I picked up Lanzarote, along with the rest of Houellebecq’s work, after reading that mind-blowing novel Atomised. Atomised

Except, in retrospect I should perhaps read some Amazon reviews first.

What an utterly shit book this is! I cannot express myself strong enough, more so because I feel betrayed by the standard I’ve come to expect from Houellebecq. I feel more betrayed than I did by the last two volumes of Stephen King’s Gunslinger series. We’re talking about simple trading standards here. When I buy a Mercedes I certainly don’t expect to have a Skoda dumped at my door.

LanzaroteLanzarote begins with an interesting take on the tourism industry: it’s not only about escapism; its existence is evidence of how sad we’ve become that we must flock to some destination to derive meaning from life. The protagonist’s life is utterly void of something to do, so he flies to Lanzarote without knowing exactly what he wants to do there either. On the island he meets Rudi, a police officer from Luxembourg, who also doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Thus, two pessimists become a pair, though they aren’t particularly fond of each, and you guessed it … they don’t really know what to do around each other.

The landscape of Lanzarote, and the cheap tourist dives along its coast, come to embody that empty inner world. When the two men meet two German lesbians who are up for a straight shag with the protagonist, one gets a sense of how far reduced all their lives have become. Like hamsters in a cage, fucking in the boring expanse of sawdust, just to while away the time. Michel Houellebecq

Fine, fine, fine. I can see all that. But if you’re going to write a novel and charge me £6 for it, please just make it’s about something. A ninety page diatribe on boredom and the emptiness of our human pursuits is, well, boring. The best part of this ridiculous novella is the colour photos.

A book that is more meaningful and in a similar vein is Ken Barris’s What Kind of Child. Not the greatest, but similar themes, a similar mood of perpetual melancholy, and oh so much more readable.

And if you don’t trust me on this one, check out the ratings on Amazon and Goodreads.