When I was a child we had this work on our bookshelves, in three volumes, just like the one in the illustrations, but they disappeared in several move...moreWhen I was a child we had this work on our bookshelves, in three volumes, just like the one in the illustrations, but they disappeared in several moves, when my mother got rid of a lot of surplus possessions. I read many of the stories but my favourites, the ones I reread many times, were those in the "horror" section, and it was this book that gave me a taste for horror stories.
It was more than fifty years ago now, but the stories that made the biggest impression on me, that I read and re-read, were "The Wendigo" by Algernon Blackwood and "Couching at the door" by D.K. Broster. After the books disappeared I sometimes wanted to read them again, but I could only remember the titles, and not the names of the authors, and I thought I would never find them again.
And then along came the Internet, with its access to knowledgeable people, and other resources. A web search engine quickly found the authors of both these stories, and "The Wendigo" was available in downloadable form. (less)
I rinished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it's a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword was...moreI rinished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it's a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword was written by Elizabeth George, whose crime novels also feature an aristocratic detective and his love life.
In this story the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, has married Harriet Vane, and their honeymoon is complicated by the discovery of the corpse of the previous owner.
I've read a couple of other whodunits by Dorothy Sayers, and while I've enjoyed them, I would not say that they are the best detective fiction I have read. Sayers is sometimes linked with the informal literary group the Inklings, and though not actually a member, she was a friend of some of the members, and they sometimes read her work at meetings.
When I read Sayers's novels, I am very conscious of the period they are set in, and in which they were written, and so I'm very conscious of it being another age, almost another world. It is the world of Downton Abbey. Indeed, perhaps seeing Downton Abbey enables one to appreciate her stories more.
But contrast, when reading books by Inklings Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis I'm not so conscious of the period in which they are set. Though Lewis's descriptions of Mars and Venus are nothing like what we now know them to be, one can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. And even though Williams's novels are set on earth, there is nothing quite as dated as the descriptions in Sayers, perhaps because she gives more details of everyday life -- characters smoking, ordering food, taking care of wine and the like.
There's also a lot of erudite literary wordplay between the amateur and the professional detective, which is a bit spoilt by the slightly patronising tone. If course back then being patronising was regarded as a good thing, noblesse oblige and all that. But there's another thing -- the characters keep breaking into French, with no hint of a translation. I suppose back then educated Englishmen (of both sexes) could be expected to converse freely, if not fluently in French, but that too just makes one aware of how much times have changed. (less)
As I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy Gra...moreAs I read this book, I kept thinking that I had read it before, but then wondered why so much of it seemed quite new.
Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is called on to investigate a serious hit-and-run motor accident, where the victim is an American student whose family have Mafia connections, promptin fears that they might take revenge on those they see as responsible.
Roy Grace has worries at home, however, as his girlfriend Cleo is having a difficult pregnancy, and has to spend some time in hospital. These were the bits I thought I had read before, and, having reached the end of the book I realise that that is because I must have read the next book in the series before this one, and in that one the pregnancy and its problems continue.
This is a police procedural rather than a whodunit, as you know who is going to do it even before it is done, but I think it is very well done, and is one of Peter James's best books I've read so far. (less)
Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidna...moreDetective Sergeant Barbara Havers tries to help her neighbour Taymullah Azhar, whose nine-year-old daughter Hadiyyah has disappeared, apparently kidnapped by her mother Angelina Upman. Since Azhar is not registered as Hadiyyah's father, it is not a matter for the police, so Havers puts him in touch with a private detective.
Angelina makes a reappearance when it turns out that Hadiyyah had been kidnapped from her mother, this time in Italy, and the action moves to that country, where a new detective hero emerges, Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco, who has to battle with an obstinate superior who wasnts a suspect, any suspect, to get the media off their backs. He works with Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard to search for the missing girl.
It is a long story (over 700 pages), with many plot twists, and at several points the reader's credulity is strained as Havers breaks one rule of police procedure after another.
A student is murdered in "The Maze", a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. Hi...moreA student is murdered in "The Maze", a rundown area near the centre of Eastvale, and Detective Superintendent Alan Banks is looking for the killer. His colleague Annie Cabbot, seconded to another division, is called to investigate the murder of a disabled inmate of a home in the coastal town of Whitby. Subsequent investigations reveal links between the two cases, which have historical roots going back to previous cases, and events in described in some of Robinson's earlier books.
As a police procedural/whodunit it is up to Peter Robinson's usual high standards for the most part, though it seemed to get off to a rather shaky start. Having been a student myself, albeit a long time ago, I'm pretty sure that if one of my friends had disappeared after we'd been to pubs in town, we would have been very concerned about it, and would have been anxious to contact the police before they contacted us (though in South Africa in those days we might also have considered the possibility that the police themselves might have been responsible for the disappearance). So there is an air of unreality about the first few chapters of the story, where the friends of the missing student seem quite uncaring, and even after discovering that she was murdered, seem reluctant to get involved.
Though Peter Robinson lives in Canada his books, set in Yorkshire, have generally seemed fairly authentic to me. But in this one I noticed a transatlantic drift. He used "momentarily" in the American sense of "in a moment" rather than the more usual one of "for a moment", and also used "moot" in a transatlantic sense of "not worth debating" rather than "debatable". Most notably several of the characters are described as rolling their eyes.
Now it's quite a long time since I lived in the UK, and for all I know people there have adopted eye-rolling widely, and similarly the other modes of expression, but it struck me as a bit out of place.
One of the early scenes is a funeral. At first it is not clear who has died or how, but then there is some reference to "the accident". I'm now 120 pages into the book, and there have been several more references to "the accident", but I'm still not sure what happened, who was involved in it, or how it affects the plot of the book, other than that it seems to have resulted in the protagonist, detective Patrik Hedstrom, not being able to work full time. Though at times it seems that that may have been the result of illness rather than "the accident".
Perhaps all this is made clear in the previous book in the series, but to find out would mean going out searching bookshops for a book that may by now be out of print. This seems to be becoming a trend, and a rather annoying one. I noticed it when reading the books of Louise Penny, where there were references to things that had happened in previous books of the series, but in those it did not affect one's understanding of the book one was actually reading. In The lost boy, however, it simply makes Camilla Läckberg another author to cross off my list. Unless I get very, very bored, I'll probably never finish it. (less)
This is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the on...moreThis is the sixth detective novel about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and the third I have read, and also the best I have read so far, It was the one we bought first, because of the blurb, and only after getting it did we discover that there is a metastory that runs through the series, with the same characters popping up again and again.
Chief Inspector Gamache is on leave in Quebec, recovering from injuries received in an earlier shoot-out, and is asked ny the local police to help with a case -- an amateur archaeologist, notorious for his obsession with finding the grave of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, is murdered in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society, an English-speaking institution. The murder could increase tensions between the French and English-speaking communities of the city, and Gamache is asked to help because he speaks better English. He has also been doing some historical research of his own in the library.
I suppose one of the reasons I like books like this is my own interest in historical research, and so mysteries of the past that have repercussions in the present are the kind of thing I like reading about. Added to that is that my wife Val's great great grandfather, William John Green, was born in Quebec in 1790, so the city is the setting of a historical mystery that has exercised many members of the Green family for more than a century. The period is entirely different to that of the story in this book, but the setting is the same, and the book gives a feel for the city and its present inhabitants.
In addition there are some more historical threads in this book. Gamache keeps having flashbacks to an earlier case, where he feels he failed, and he sends his second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, to have another look at yet another case, which he thinks may have gone wrong, in the village of Three Pines, which seems to crop up in all these novels. These cases may have been covered in a couple of the books that we haven't read, so mentioning too many details may be spoilers for the books we haven't read yet.
There are a couple of things about the series that become slightly annoying -- Louise Penny seems to be more given to detailed descriptions of every meal the characters eat than Enid Blyton and I, for one, get a bit tired of reading yet another description of maple-cured bacon and other Canadian delicacies. But it is generally a good read. (less)
This is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache....moreThis is the second crime-mystery book by Louise Penny that I have read, though it is the third in the series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The first one I read, Dead Cold, is the second in the series, and this one features many of the same characters in the same setting, the small village of Three Pines somewhere south of Montreal.
I'm beginning to feel that there is not much I can say about this book until I've read more of the series, and get a picture of where things are going. I'm beginning to wonder if Three Pines is about to rival Midsomer Worthy as the murder capital of the world, despite its small size, with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache trying to overtake Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby of the Midsomer Murders. Tom Barnaby's exploits are chronicled in books like Written in Blood by Caroline Graham.
The other reason for wanting to read more is that in the two books I have read there seems to be a metaplot that carries over from one book to the next. In addition to solving the case at hand, Chief Inspector Armand Gamashe has to watch his back because some of his colleagues are out to get him because of an earlier case.
In this book a group of people in Three Pines decide to hold a seance, and when it proves to be a bit of an anticlimax they decide to repeat the exercise in an abandoned house that is believed to be haunted. One of the members dies during the seance, apparently of fright, though it in the post mortem examination there are indications that it could be murder.
One of the interesting things about the book is that, like the novels of Phil Rickman there are hints of supernatural forces at work. Rickman started off writing horror stories that gradually moved towards becoming whodunits. Louise Penny's novels seem to have the same mix.
That's enough for now -- I'll need to read more to see where the series is going.
This is the first detective story I've read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, an...moreThis is the first detective story I've read for a long time that seems to be a true whodunit, inviting the reader to interpret the available clues, and try to solve the mystery. Most of the others these days withhold such clues from the reader, perhaps to resist spoilers, and the detective protagonist trots out the solution at the end, revealing for the first time the clues that enabled him to solve the case. Perhaps that's because most of the crime fiction publishjed nowadays are police procedurals or psychological examinations of the criminal mind -- the whydunits.
In any case, I managed to work out the identity of the perpetrators about halfway through, because the clues were available.
Of course crime fiction is not true life crime. The author can go around scattering clues for the detectives (and the readers) to pick up, but in real life criminals rarely do that.
Dead cold is the second of a series of books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, We actually bought the sixth one (Bury your dead) on a sale, and discovered references to earlier books featuring some of the same characters, and tried to get the first one, but it was not available, so I've started reading the series with the second book.
Chief Inspector Gamache is dealing with two murders -- one of a homeless woman in Montreal, and the other of an interior designer in the village of Three Pines, 100 km away. The first case is not really his, but one that he is giving a second opinion on, by an informal arrangement with a friend in the Montreal police. One of the biggest difficulties is to find the identity of the victims.
A minor mystery is that [Book:Dead cold] was originally published under the title of [Book:A fatal grace], and one wonders why the title was changed. The most notorious example of this was the change of [Book:Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone] to [Book:Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone], but it seems to be a confusing and unnecessary practice. Is it done for copyright re4asons, or just because publishers like to confuse readers, or perhaps dupe them into buying two copies of the same book, thinking that, becxause it has a different title, they haven't already read it? (less)
Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can the search for...moreDetective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can the search for the killer if they don't know who the victim is? And then a film crew want to use the Brighton Pavilion for a new film on King George IV and his mistress, and Roy Grace is put in charge of security for the film set and the star Gaia Lafayette, whose temperamental fans can turn adoration to detestation in an instant, and has already received several threats to her life. There are others too, with grudges against the producers of the film, who are planning to disrupt it. Some of the threats are known, but some are unknown to anyone other than the plotters.
Peter James has written several whodunits featuring Roy Grace, and I think this is one of the best. As with many such books it is not easy to say much about it without giving away too much of the plot. But this one is definitely a good read for lovers of murder mysteries.
Are there flaws?
Yes, it is difficult to write a book that has none. But in this book the most obvious flaw does not affect the plot and is peripheral to the story, though it could quite easily not have been. And that is that I can't imagine any circumstances in which one would take a newborn baby home from the hospital in a car seat. (less)
According to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so...moreAccording to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so pages he had only made one very brief appearance. It also seemed to be a rather highbrow intellectual whodunit, aiming to be more a work of literature than a light read.
It is set in the pre-war Vienna of the 1930s, in the world of music and the arts, a young girl learning to play the cello in the shadow of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. There are a couple of shifts of scene to a British internment camp for enemy aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.
When the detective finally appears on the scene, he is a bit of a puzzle. There is clearly a backstory to this, and it turns out that Lily of the field is only the first of a series of novels with Inspector Troy as the main character. And, like many British fictional detectives, he has an unusual characteristic that distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. Like Inspector Morse, he is a Musical Policeman, and this enables him to solve a mystery that baffles his colleagues.
But it seems that it would probably be better to begin with one of the earlier novels in the series, as one learns who Inspector Troy is through allusions to them, which are not completely clear if you haven't read the other books.
The book is set in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the author, John Lawton, seems to have been quite careful to avoid or explain anachronisms in the settings. There are a few, which I would never have noticed, yet he includes some rather interesting notes on them.
Unfortunately he does not seem to have been quite so careful about anachronisms in language, and he uses some expressions and turns of phrase that would not have been used in the 1940s. I spotted two on one page that I am fairly certain were anachonisms, and a couple more that may have been. On page 215 of my edition, it is said of someone that he "went ballistic". "Ballistic" was a technical term used by military gunnery specialists, police forensic scientists and rocket scientists, but probably only entered the consciousness of the general public in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I. The most significant thing about Sputnik I, the media told us, was that it showed that the USSR could launch an ICBM -- an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. And I'm sure it took a few more years before the term "went ballistic" was applied metaphorically to human beings.
The second such anachronism is where someone is described as "a scrounger living low on the food chain". Again, while the food chain may have been a concept familiar to biologists, I don't think that the general public became aware of it before environmental concerns came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people began writing books with titles like Diet for a small planet.
Another possible anachronism, on the same page, is where someone speaks of "blows coppers away". That one I'm not sure of, but I don't think people would have used such an expression in the 1940s.
Lawton goes to some trouble to set the scene of the dreariness of postwar Britain, to remind readers who weren't around then about things like rationing, almost making too much of it, but then spoils it somewhat by using language that seems out of place.
In spite of that, it's still a good read, though the beginning promises more than the author actually delivers, and there are some poor patches, especially in the second part. But it whetted my appetite for more, and I'll look for the first of the series to see if I can find out who Inspector Troy is, really. (less)
This is Jo Nesbø's best novel yet -- the only problem is that it is his first.
Nearly four years ago I read The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.I thought it was t...moreThis is Jo Nesbø's best novel yet -- the only problem is that it is his first.
Nearly four years ago I read The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.I thought it was the best Scandiwegian whodunit I'd read till then, and it was the first one I'd read by Nesbø. But the later novels of his that I read were rather disappointing (see reviews here). Perhaps if one reads them backwards, there will be a steady improvement.
In The bat Norwegian detective Harry Hole is sent to Australia to help with the investigation of the murder of a Norwegian citizen in Sydney. The book is therefore quite an interesting guide to Australian geography and culture, which Nesbø explains to his Norwegian readers, to whom it would be unfamiliar. Books set in Australia and written by Australians don't generally do this, since the authors no doubt assume that their readers will be Australian, and therefore familiar with the social demographics of Sydney suburbs, and the appearance of the Queensland countryside. I found that Nesbø's explanations of these added to the interest of the book
There are also some Australian folk tales (the title of the book is based on one of them) and more about the different cultures in Australia -- as seen through Norwegian eyes. I found all this far more interesting than the lengthy descriptions of Harry Hole's hangovers, which seem to take up more and more space in the later books, though even in this one they are not entirely absent. One of the plot holes of this one is that one is never told when he stops drinking and is able to function again.
A child is kidnapped and within minutes the local police, the New York State Police and the FBI are on the case, along with several other experts from...moreA child is kidnapped and within minutes the local police, the New York State Police and the FBI are on the case, along with several other experts from groups with various initials. But despite all their effort they are unable to find any trace of the missing girl.
The desperate mother then calls in the private team of Forensic Instincts, and these are all joined by another detective who investigated the kidnapping of the mother's twin sister 32 years previously, but had failed to solve the case.
It's not a bad read, in spite of the fact that one begins to suspect whodunit about a third of the way through. It is also rather tiresome because the good guys are presented as perfect and super competent, and never make mistakes -- not only the team of Forensic Instincts, but the members of all the other law enforcement agencies involved in the case. This begins with the first officer on the scene, who, within twenty minutes of the alert being sounded, not only has secured the scene and interviewed witnesses, but has information on what everyone else involved in the case is doing, and one wonders how he managed to get this information when he spends most of the available time explaining it.
With such perfect investigators, the only thing that can prevent them from solving the case instantly is the machinations of the bad guys, or unforeseen failures of equipment, or rash and panicky actions on the part of the victim's family. The good guy investigators do everything right, though not always by the book.
But in spite of being rather unconvincing, it's not a bad read, and one reads on to see how it all turns out in the end. (less)
This book began pretty well, and I thought it was one of Peter Robinson's best. Perhaps that was because i had not read one for a long time, or had re...moreThis book began pretty well, and I thought it was one of Peter Robinson's best. Perhaps that was because i had not read one for a long time, or had read too many Scandinavian whodunits in between. It felt real and believable.
It's more of a police procedural than a whodunit, since you have a fair idea of who did it in the first chapter. It's more a matter of gathering evidence and tying up loose ends, and the story does not lose interest.
It's only in the last couple of chapters that the story seems to come unpicked, with a kind of deus ex machina ending. If the ending had been better, I would have given it four stars, but it felt as though the author had lost interest at that point and just wanted to finish it off quickly. (less)
Over the last 10 years or so Scandinavian crime fiction has come to dominate the genre in the English-speaking world. Many of the books in the genre h...moreOver the last 10 years or so Scandinavian crime fiction has come to dominate the genre in the English-speaking world. Many of the books in the genre have a gloomy boozy divorced (or about to be) detective as protagonist. This one is different.
There is no protagonist. We are given glimpses into the lives and loves and hates of members of different branches of the Swedish police as they are touched in some way by the apparent suicide of an American journalist who fell from the 16th floor of a student residence.
The book is not well-written; in many ways there seems to be too much irrelevant detail. Describing in detail how a single protagonist spends Christmas is one thing; doing it for five or six different characters seems to be overdoing it. Some of the problems in the writing may be problems in translation rather than in the original. The writing sometimes seems stilted.
One of the more disconcerting things is that it takes one a while to work out the period the story is set in. The book was first published in 2002, so one expects it to be at around the turn of the century, but the technology doesn't fit -- there are no personal computers, only typewriters. No cell phones. The technology used would seem to date it to about the mid-1970s, but the story also concerns the investigation of a possible plot to assassinate the Swedish prime minister, which links it to the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. Though the prime minister in the book is not named, there are sufficient resemblances in the story to make that a possible period as well.
One of the minor characters is a South African student with an improbable name, and there were stories of South African connections to the assassination of Olof Palme, and in Totale aanslag by De Wet Potgieter this is presented as historical fact. As an aside (this is not mentioned in the story, and is rather a personal anecdote), in 1988 my wife worked in a factory and the office next door to hers was used by a company that was indirectly linked. Sometimes she could not help overhearding conversations in the next door office, and she got the impression that they were involved in some shady business -- money laundering, illicit diamond buying, or something like that, and possibly the assassination of the Swedish prime minister. At about that time we had a break-in at our house, and the house was thoroughly ransacked, cupboards and boxes were emptied, but the only things that were taken were the cheap loudspeakers for our radiogram, which had been carefully unscrewed from their cabinets (the cabinets themselves were left behind), and some food. We had the impression that the thieves were looking for something very specific, which they didn't find, and the usual things that thieves took, cameras, computers etc., were left behind.
But, to get back to the book, in spite of its deficiencies, it was an interesting story, even if it was not well-told, and ultimately worth reading.
A series of short stories, mostly about crime. Some, but not all, feature Alan Banks, his main detective character, and the last one, "Like a virgin",...moreA series of short stories, mostly about crime. Some, but not all, feature Alan Banks, his main detective character, and the last one, "Like a virgin", is a kind of prequel to the Alan Banks series, with him in the London Metropolitan Police, thinking about applying for a job in Yorkshire.(less)
I've recently read two of Henning Mankell's books one after the other (bought on a book sale). The previous one, The man from Beijing was not one of t...moreI've recently read two of Henning Mankell's books one after the other (bought on a book sale). The previous one, The man from Beijing was not one of the Detective Inspector Kurt Wallander series, and I did not enjoy it as much as this one, which does feature Wallander.
It seems to me that Mankell is, in a way, dominated by his own creation. When he tries to write books without Wallander, they seem to be patchy, with the plot not hanging together, and the characters become unconvincing.
In this book Wallander is involved in a case that affects his own family -- his daughter Linda's boyfriend's parents. The boyfriend's father, who lives in Stockholm, is a retired naval officer, who disappears, and, because of the family connection Wallander gets involved in the case.
Quite a large part of the book is devoted to Wallander's own reflections on the aging process, as he nears retirement himself. He reviews his life, wonders what happens to people he was at school with, wonders if he is becoming like his father and so on. I can understand that, since I am ten years older than Wallander is in the book, and I too wonder what happened to people I was at school or university with. I tend to use things like Facebook for that, but that doesn't seem to occur to Wallander. He has a computer, but doesn't seem to use it much.
The main story also recalls the past, with its roots in the Cold War. To say much more than that would reveal too much of the plot. If you like your whodunits to get on with the story and not have much introspective reflection, then perhaps you'd better wait for the Readers Digest condensed edition to come out. But I thought this was one of Mankell's better books. (less)
When I read the first couple of hundred pages or so, I was thinking that this was Henning Mankell's best book ever. Judge Birgitta Roslin is on sick l...moreWhen I read the first couple of hundred pages or so, I was thinking that this was Henning Mankell's best book ever. Judge Birgitta Roslin is on sick leave, and visits a village in the north of Sweden where a horifying mass murder has recently taken place, because her mother's foster parents had lived there. She discovers that they had been killed, and also discovers some clues to the killer that the local police seem to be ignoring. The trail leads to China, which she visits with a friend.
Mankell reveals to the reader, though not to the protagonist, that the crime has political implications, and is linked to power struggles in the Chinese Communist Party.
While reading, I realised how little I know about China now. Like the protagonist, Judge Birgitta Roslin, I was quite interested in China in the 1960s. My interest was sparked by reading a book by Felix Greene, The wall has two sides, and one of the things that caught and held my interest was the mention of the fact that there were trolley buses I had a thing about trolley buses back then, and still interested in them even today, though there are now none left in South Africa.
When I was in England in 1966-68 there were bookshops in Tottenham Court Road, one called Colletts in particular, that sold magazines with pictures of China, and during the Great Cultural Revolution I acquired a copy of the "Little Red Book" of the thoughts of Chairman Mao, with cheap plastic cover, and read about paper tigers and bean curd tigers, and wondered what bean curds were. I didn't go as far as Birgitta Roslin in ideentifiying with the Red Guards, but nevertheless rather liked the idea of fat-cat bureauscrats who had betrayed the revolution being sent to be re-educated by working among the peasants. Since I'm writing this on May Day, it seems an appropriate sentiment. I even made a couple of attempts to do things like that myself, with some other city friends.
When I returned to South Africa in 1968, that annus mirabilis of student power, I somewhat sadly left my copy of the "Little Red Book", and a book on guerrilla warfare by Che Guevara, with a college friend, Alan Cox. It would have been crazy to bring them back to South Africa, as I fully expected my luggage to be searched on my return, though it wasn't, and it would also not have been a good idea to have the SB find them in a raid, though they never raided me. The SB visited to take away my passport, and later to give me a banning order, but did not search the house, so I could have brought them back and kept them with impunity. Alan Cox was murdered in Pakistan a few years ago, so I'll never discover what happened to my books.
I was still interested in China when I visited Hong Kong in 1985, taking a long bus ride and a long walk through paddy fields to climb a small hill from where one could look out over China, and see Guangdong, which is mentioned in Mankell's book with its older transliteration of Canton. But after that, and especially after the Tianamnen Square massacre in 1989, I somehow lost interest.
Nineteen eighty-nine was another annus mirabilis, with freedom breaking out all over, and in many countries liberal ideals were beginning to be realised. In China, however, the liberalism extended only to economic liberalism, and any manifestations of political liberalism were brutally crushed. And so I lost interest in China. And I realised, reading Mankell's book, that I would not be able to name the president of the most populous nation on earth, and still know nothing about him or his career.
I was interested in Mao, and somewhat less in Chou, and the Gang of Four I remember, but now I find China slightly distasteful -- communist moralising combined with capitalist greed, even worse than Russia, where at least they have abandoned the pretence. But padding out pet food with melamine to enhance the protein levels seemed to me the most unscrupulous capitalist trick of all, and made me lose all interest in Chinese trade, Chinese goods, or even China itself.
Henning Mankel brings this struggle out in his book. It is part of the background to the story, yes, but at some points I think the story gets overwhelmed by Mankell's didacticism. But then I suppose that I am not alone among his readers in being largely unaware of what has been happening in China in the last 25 years, and needing to be brought up to speed in order to follow the plot.
The plot also involves Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa, and at one point it seems to me that Mankell might be using his novel to make propaganda for Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe. Of course it is always risky to assume that the views expressed by a character in a novel reflect the views of the author, but coming after the rather heavy didacticism of the preceding pages, I rather suspect that this does reflect Mankell's view.
And I half agree with him. The Western condemnation of Zimbabwe by the likes of George Bush II and Tony Blair was indeed cynical and hypocritical. Mugabe liked to blame all his (and Zimbabwe's) troubles on them, and on the sanctions that the Western powers imposed, and it seems that Mankell tends to agree.
But Mankell tells only half the story. Western sanctions were imposed after Zimbabwe's economy crashed, and there was nothing that the Western powers could do to damage it more than the Mugabe regime had already done. Mankell also fails to point out that most of the opposition to the Mugabe regime came from the trade unions, a fact that Mugabe's bombastic rhetoric about Western imperialism is caclulated to obscure, though it is recognised by Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions), a delegation from which was refused entrance into Zimbabwe. I might not have gone into all this detail in reviewing Mankell's book, but since I'm writing this on May Day, it seemed worth doing.
If the book had fulfilled the promise it showed in the beginning, I might have given it five stars, but it has several serious flaws. One, as I have pointed out above, is its didacticism verging on propaganda for an oppressive regime. Another is that there are some serious unexplained plot holes.
In a whodunit, a murder mystery, one does not necessarily expect all the loose ends to be tied up, all questions answered, and the detectives to have all the answers in the end. But when some of the mysteries in the case are never solved, one at least expects the author to say so at the end. If the author does not mention them at the end, then one suspects that the author himself is unaware of the inconsistencies in the story.
I can't be specific about the biggest plot hole, because that would give away too much of the plot and spoil it for the reader, so I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out. (less)
If, in the field of crime novels, one distinguishes between sub-genres like whodunits and police procedurals, this book definitely falls into the latt...moreIf, in the field of crime novels, one distinguishes between sub-genres like whodunits and police procedurals, this book definitely falls into the latter category. Whodunits usually have lots of suspects, and the search is to find which one committed the crime. In this book, however, the emphasis is on how the police go about gathering evidence, first of all to charge, and then to convict a suspect.
In this story a young woman is murdered, and her body is dumped beside a motorway. It seems similar to some earlier cold cases, and the police try to find whether the same person committed all the crimes. There are no real surprises in the story, and much spaces is taken up by the police reinterviewing witnesses who did not give full information the first time they were interviewed. It all gets a bit tedious after a while, and the book (at 501 pages) is about 200 pages too long. (less)
Like most of Elizabeth George's crime novels, this one has the usual cast of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, his partner Barbara Havers, and his fr...moreLike most of Elizabeth George's crime novels, this one has the usual cast of Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, his partner Barbara Havers, and his friends Simon and Deborah St James. Lynley is asked to travel to Cumbria for a semi-official investigation of the death of Ian Cresswell, which had been ruled accidental by an inquest. Cresswell was accountant in the firm of his uncle, Bernard Fairclough, who had asked for the investigation.
It transpires that lots of people, including some members of the family, could have quite strong motives for wanting Cresswell dead, but misunderstandings and deliberate deception make the investigation difficult.
The story is told from multiple viewpoints of the various characters involved, so the reader is one step ahead of most of the characters in knowing what is going on, but generally only discovers things with one or other of the characters. So this is a good mystery tale, well told. (less)
I think this is one of Henning Mankell's best crime novels. Four nuns and a fifth woman are murdered in an unnamed African country, and there is an at...moreI think this is one of Henning Mankell's best crime novels. Four nuns and a fifth woman are murdered in an unnamed African country, and there is an attempt at a cover-up, which is torn open by a police officer with a conscience.
The killing sparks off a chain of murders in Sweden, which are investigated by Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team, and as their investigation proceeds they find that they are also investigating crimes that have apparently been committed by some of the victims.
To say much more than this would probably reveal too much of the plot.
P.D. James is known mainly as a writer of detective and other crime stories, though she has occasionally ventured into other genres like fantasy. In t...moreP.D. James is known mainly as a writer of detective and other crime stories, though she has occasionally ventured into other genres like fantasy. In this book, however, she combines her main genre, crime fiction, with two others -- the historical novel and fan fiction, or fanfic for short.
It is not often that established writers venture into the field of fan fiction, in which people write their own stories about the characters and settings created by other authors. In this case the author is Jane Austen and the characters are taken from her novel Pride and prejudice.
I thought I'd better re-read Pride and prejudice before reading this one, since this is a sequel and I'm glad I did so. P.D. James manages to keep the characters fairly faithful to Jane Austen's originals. The setting is reproduced faithfully too. The plot is believable as a follow-on to Pride and prejudice so one of the purposes of fan fiction is fulfilled -- it enables readers to read more about characters they like and to follow their adventures.
What is missing, however, is the style and wit of Jane Austen. In contrast to Pride and prejudice, Death comes to Pemberley is a bit pedestrian. It's even a bit pedestrian compared with P.D. James's other novels. And perhaps that is why fan fiction rarely gets published; it seems easy, but it is actually more demanding if it is to be satisfying for anyone other than the person who wrote it. There seem to be several anachronisms, especially in vocabulary. I doubt that Jane Austen would ever have used the word "lifestyle", for example. I don't think the word even existed in her time.
So it is pleasant reading, and faithful to characters and setting, but no substitute for the real thing.
Unlike most of Henning Mankell's "Wallander" novels, this one is set at least partly in South Africa, which gives it additional interest to me. It is...moreUnlike most of Henning Mankell's "Wallander" novels, this one is set at least partly in South Africa, which gives it additional interest to me. It is set in the period between the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the first democratic elections in 1994. It was a period of great uncertainty, when no one knew quite what would happen. Though the National Party had already shed its ultra right wing (to the HNP in the late 1960s), and its far right wing (to the Conservative Party in the late 1970s), the bulk of its support was still pretty much on the right, and the unbanning of the left opposition parties tended to make its supporters nervous, including many in the security forces and the army. One of the possibilities was a right-wing military coup, and attempts to create disorder in order to facilitate such a coup. And there were such attempts, by the mysterious "third force", and others.
So Mankell's main plot, which is based on the training of a South African political assassin in Sweden, is quite believable. After all, Chris Hani was assassinated in just such a plot about the time that the novel was published. Mankell does a fairly good job of showing some of the tensions and ambiguities of South Africn society at that time.
But I also have the problem that I tend to read novels set in places that are familiar to me more critically, and tend to find it more jarring when things are oui of place. Because relatively few novels of this type are set in South Africa, its not something that happens very often, but I wonder how people who live in places where lots of crime novels are set feel when they read them. It's OK with Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels, which are set in a fictional town, but when actual places are mentioned, I wonder how people who live in them feel when there are inaccurate descriptions. Perhaps I'm also more sensitive to such things than most readers, having worked as a proofreader and editor, where it was my job to detect and correct such slip-ups.
Another novel I read, set in the same period, and with a similar plot line, was Vortex by Larry Bond, which was spoilt for me because some of the action took place in locations that were geographically impossible.
At first Henning Mankell's slip-ups were relatively minor -- a car parked under a baobab tree in the Transkei (I've never seen a baobab tree in the Transkei), someone working on a mine in Verwoerdburg (I lived there in the 1980s, and there were no mines there then). These are minor errors, and concerned only minor characters, but they are jarring none the less.
But there were some things that did affect more important characters, and the plot.
One is that Mankell refers to the "Transkei Province", where it affects police looking for suspects in the Transkei. Yet at that time Transkei was an "independent" homeland, and though its independence wasn't recognised by anyone but South Africa, police procedures at that period would surely have to take some account of the "independent" status of the Transkei, and so in a novel whose genre is a "police procedural" rather than a whodunit, this is a more serious error.
Some of Mankell's descriptions of African culture also strike me as somewhat odd. South Africa is a very multicultural country, and I'm not familiar with every single cultural nuance out there, but still, I wonder what Mankell's conception of a sangoma is. He has characters talking about "my sanhoma" the way some Americans talk about "my shrink", and though there are some ways in whch a sangoma's role in South African society is similar to that of a shrink in America, I've never heard anyone speak of "my sangoma. Mankell also writes about people's relations to spirits that also don't fit, especially since the character in question is a Zulu, and one of the better books on the topic, Zulu thought-patterns and symbolism was written by a fellow Swede, Axel-Ivar Berglund.
Mankell also has urban African characters using using rural imagery of wild animals. I think he underestimates the extent of urbanisation in South African society. I once took a group of students to a work camp in rural Zululand, and one of them, from Soweto, wondered how the local people could survive when they lived so far from the shops.
Never having been to Sweden, I have no idea whether there are similar discrepancies in the Swedish settings, but there do seem to be some rather large plot holes relating to the villain-in-chief, but to say more about that would reveal too much of the plot.
In spite of these flaws, however, it is an enjoyable read.
Detective Kurt Wallander's daughter Linda is about to join him on the police force in the town of Ystad in southern Sweden, and while she is waiting t...moreDetective Kurt Wallander's daughter Linda is about to join him on the police force in the town of Ystad in southern Sweden, and while she is waiting to start work Linda re-establishes contact with a couple of old school friends, Anna and Zeba. Then Anna says she thiinks she has seen her father, who had been missing for many years, and shortly afterwards goes missing herself. Linda begins searching for Anna, and thinks her disappearance may be linked to a case her father is working on, of animals that have been cruelly killed and then a murder, that seems to be linked to a religious motive.
Untill about halfway through, I thought that this was the best book Henning Mankell had written. The point of view has shifted to Linda Wallander, and we see her father through her eyes, rather than his own rather jaundiced view of the world, and his battles with booze. There seem to be too many boozy policeman novels nowadays.
The second half doesn't hang together too well, and there seems to be too much of the deus ex machina. Perhyaps, however, that is more what real police work is like -- strokes of luck and chance happenings.
Despite these faults, however, it is still one of Mankell's better novels. (less)