There really should be a health warning or spoiler alert printed on the cover of this book. It is the third of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series of detecti...moreThere really should be a health warning or spoiler alert printed on the cover of this book. It is the third of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series of detective novels to be translated into English. The first was The Devil's Star, but actually The Devil's Star turns out to be the third in the series and very much the sequel to Nemesis. For some reason, the novels have been translated and published in the UK out of sequence (I guess the reason is they published the best one first to test the water . . .). Unlike most detective series novels, you really do need to read Nesbø's Harry Hole books in the correct order to get the most from them. While each novel stands alone to a certain extent, there is a thread running through them that is best followed chronologically. So if you haven't read the first in the series, The Redbreast, maybe you should do so before you read this book!
Nemesis begins with grainy CCTV footage showing a masked man walking into a bank and putting a gun to a cashier's head. He tells her to count to twenty-five. When he doesn't get his money in time, she is executed. No forensic evidence is recovered, but the Oslo police treat the incident simply as a bank robbery gone wrong and the investigation is assigned to Rune Ivarsson, the arrogant Head of the Robbery Unit. Maverick detective Harry Hole, however, has spent the whole weekend studying the CCTV videotape and believes the case should be treated as a murder, which means it should be investigated by the Crime Squad (of which he is a member). As a result, Harry is temporarily attached to the Robbery Unit in a semi-detached role with a brief to pursue the case in parallel to the main investigation.
Lurking somewhere at the back of all this is an event that took place in Nesbø's earlier novel, The Redbreast. In The Redbreast, Harry's partner and close friend, Ellen Gjelten, is beaten to death with a baseball bat. As a result, Harry had an alcoholic relapse, something he is still recovering from at the start of Nemesis. In Harry's opinion, the case of Ellen's murder had never been cleared up satisfactorily. Harry had found incriminating evidence against a suspect, but before justice could take its course Inspector Tom Waaler had shot the suspect dead in an alleged fire fight. Harry doubted Waaler's story, and felt the dead suspect's motive for killing Ellen was never satisfactorily explained.
But Ellen is dead, and Harry needs a new partner. He is assigned another female detective Beate Lønn, whose father had been an Oslo cop shot on duty during a bank raid a few years earlier. When Harry first meets Beate she reminds him of a corpse Ellen and he had once fished out of Bunnefjord. Is this a foreshadowing of events to come? Will history repeat itself?
Meanwhile, Harry's girlfriend is away in Russia, sorting out a messy divorce. While she is away, and the investigation into the bank robbery/murder is just beginning, Anna an old flame gets in touch with Harry. He meets her for a drink and goes for a coffee back to her house, where he admires a series of paintings Anna is working on. She has called the paintings Nemesis, after the goddess. A few days later, Harry goes back to Anna's for dinner, but the next morning he wakes up at home with a terrible hangover and no memory of the past twelve hours. The same morning Anna is found shot dead in her bed. Harry investigates the case without revealing his association with the dead girl, but then he begins to receive threatening e-mails by someone who seems to know there is more to Anna's death than the police suspect. Is someone trying to frame him for Anna's murder?
This is a very complex (or maybe that should be complicated) novel. There are several plots and sub-plots, clues and red herrings, and many a twist and turn. It is very well written (and the translator should get an honourable mention here) and on the whole an enjoyable read. But it is a very long book at nearly 500 pages. Around about page 300 I was beginning to wilt under the complexity of it all. But just as I was starting to run out of stamina, Nesbø introduced a shocking new element relating to Ellen Gjelten's murder and reinvigorated the story.
The ending is a puzzle, and I scratched my head over it for a while before discovering that all is revealed in the third book in the series, The Devil's Star. (less)
George Smiley is arguably one of the best known fictional British spies. He made his first appearance in Call for the Dead in 1961. The book also laun...moreGeorge Smiley is arguably one of the best known fictional British spies. He made his first appearance in Call for the Dead in 1961. The book also launched John le Carré’s career as a novelist. So if you’re new to le Carré and/or George Smiley, this is definitely the place to start.
In many ways, Call for the Dead is a book of its time. It opens with a chapter setting out ‘A Brief History of George Smiley’, something a modern novelist might find difficult to get away with. But the ‘backstory’ of Smiley is interesting and, in part, important to what follows. Smiley is described variously as ‘breathtakingly ordinary’, ‘short, fat and of a quiet disposition’, ‘a shrunken toad’ and so on (and that’s just on page one!). So, if it’s Bond or Bourne you’re after, you'd best look elsewhere.
The story begins at chapter two. Set in a London I remember from my youth at the start of the Cold War, the novel still has half an eye on the Second World War, when Smiley was a field operative. Now confined to routine security clearance work, he is summoned to ‘the Circus’ to explain why a senior civil servant he recently interviewed should have committed suicide. Smiley felt the man posed no risk despite an anonymous tip-off to the contrary, so he is as puzzled as his superiors. With the help of a retired policeman, Smiley sets out to solve the mystery. In that respect, this is more a detective novel than a spy story.
As with all Le Carré novels, there are twists and turns in the plot and, although I managed to guess the answer to the mystery a little sooner than I would have liked, I remained involved and interested enough to read to the very end to see if I was right. And I rewarded with an exciting set-piece climax on Battersea Bridge to round everything off. Set in a London of yellow fog and of a River Thames that smells of tar and coke, this is a novel that paints a brilliant picture of post-war Britain. I read this immediately after Sarah Waters’ latest, The Little Stranger, and Call for the Dead similarly has as much to say (albeit unconsciously, to a certain extent) about the nature of the class system as it was in this country, barely fifty years ago, as well as the murky world of post-war espionage. But it is also about the human condition, as all truly good books are.
Reminded of Jonathan Franzen for some reason, a sort of MFA-literary crime novel, but with a cracking who-done-what plot. Very clever, very twisty, ra...moreReminded of Jonathan Franzen for some reason, a sort of MFA-literary crime novel, but with a cracking who-done-what plot. Very clever, very twisty, rather twisted.(less)
Carne School, with its cloisters and woodworm and a line in the Doomsday Book, is one of the Great Schools, where the rich send their sons to be instr...moreCarne School, with its cloisters and woodworm and a line in the Doomsday Book, is one of the Great Schools, where the rich send their sons to be instructed. And it is from Carne that Miss Ailsa Brimley, editor of the small Christian Voice newspaper, receives a letter for the paper’s problem page. The writer of the letter is Stella Rode, the wife of one of the school’s junior masters. Previously, Stella had written about cake mix for the ‘kitchen hints’ competition. This time, she asks for help because she fears her husband intends to kill her during the ‘long nights’.
Miss Brimley decides not to go to the police (reasoning that if Stella Rode had wanted that she would have gone herself). Instead, she consults her former colleague from the war-time secret service, the retired agent George Smiley. By this time, of course, Stella has indeed been murdered. Smiley takes the letter down to Carne, promising Miss Brimley to make sure it arrives quickly in the right hands. When Smiley speaks to the investigating officer, Divisional Superintendent Rigby, he discovers there is a ‘big gap between the Town and Gown’, a gap which seems to prevent the police investigating the murder fully. Smiley offers to help out by making his own discreet enquiries.
As with the first Smiley novel, A Murder of Quality explores the post-Second World War class system through the eyes of the recently-retired Smiley. And even more than Call for the Dead, this is a pure murder mystery with not a single spy in sight. In setting, it is more like an Inspector Morse mystery, in delivery more like Agatha Christie or Marjory Allingham. In execution, though, A Murder of Quality falls below the standard of these crime specialists. I found the ‘set up’ chapters a little pedestrian, and the characterisation a little flat, so I had trouble differentiating between the suspect dons and their wives. I also found the plot a bit creaky, and there’s less tension than one would like or expect from a story of this kind. But remember, this was only le Carré’s second book, and he was still learning his craft. There is some excellent writing in here, and flashes of the sort of thing that is to come later in his career.
All in all, A Murder of Quality is a bit of an oddity, and only recommended if you’re a Smiley (or le Carré) fan. But it’s an easy, entertaining diversion, nevertheless.
A cracking thriller with a tight, twisting plot. This reissue of Ira Levin's 1954 debut is an object lesson in how to write a tense and pacy crime/mys...moreA cracking thriller with a tight, twisting plot. This reissue of Ira Levin's 1954 debut is an object lesson in how to write a tense and pacy crime/mystery novel, but more importantly it's an immensely enjoyable read. Highly recommended.(less)
The Redeemer is the latest thriller from the Norwegian Jo Nesbø and once again features his alcoholic maverick cop, Inspector Harry Hole. It begins wi...moreThe Redeemer is the latest thriller from the Norwegian Jo Nesbø and once again features his alcoholic maverick cop, Inspector Harry Hole. It begins with a rape at a Salvation Army summer school, then leaps forward twelve years and two seasons, to freezing cold Oslo at Christmas. The Salvation Army is doing good works among the lowlife junkies of the Norwegian capital. One of them has slipped through the safety net, and Harry Hole is investigating his apparent suicide when one of the Sally Army officers is executed by a professional hit man. The assassin, a product of the war in the former Yugoslavia, realises he has murdered the wrong man but by now the indomitable Harry Hole is on the case . . .
In the past, I have found Nesbø's Harry Hole novels gripping and highly entertaining. The Redeemer has attracted equally high praise elsewhere, but I found it a slightly odd book. Nesbø spends a lot of time examining the formative years of the assassin, to such an extent that the reader becomes increasingly sympathetic to him as a character, especially after his mission goes awry and his situation becomes increasingly dire with the police closing in. The same approach of examining in some detail the nature and nurture of many of the other characters, while interesting to a point, seems a little out of place in a book purporting to be a fast-paced thriller. The effect, on this particular reader at least, was to promote a kind of universal empathy, to the extent that I wasn't particularly rooting for one side over another. To take a football analogy, reading a thriller should be like watching your team playing a much better team in an important cup tie – and eventually winning. But by the end of The Redeemer I had the feeling I was watching an International friendly. Technically, it was all very good, but although I was entertained I had no interest in the eventual outcome.
With too many themes and too many sub-plots it felt to me that Nesbø was trying too hard. In places, too, the book read like a film script, with an over-abundance of 'cut-to' scenes (the whole of chapter two, for example), and while the sudden jumping from scene to scene might work in a movie, on the page it had the counter-effect of diluting the tension. On the positive side, there were a number of well-worked set-piece scenes (a vacuum cleaner used as an instrument of torture, for instance) and Harry Hole's fluctuating relationships with alcohol and the opposite sex is always interesting. (less)
A good read, as usual with Mankell's Wallander books, but not one of his best in my opinion. The story seemed a little over-padded to me, and once or...moreA good read, as usual with Mankell's Wallander books, but not one of his best in my opinion. The story seemed a little over-padded to me, and once or twice I found myself urging Mankell to 'get on with it'. Having said that I never lost interest in the story or, more especially, the principal characters. Despite my minor gripes, it was still an enjoyable read.(less)
Although I've followed the adventures of Dalziel and Pascoe on TV, this is the first Reginald Hill book I've read. It's alleged that, unlike Colin Dex...moreAlthough I've followed the adventures of Dalziel and Pascoe on TV, this is the first Reginald Hill book I've read. It's alleged that, unlike Colin Dexter with John Thaw's Morse, Reginald Hill does not approve of Warren Clarke playing Andy Dalziel in the TV adaptations of his novels (he isn't fat enough to play the Fat Man for a start). Hill denies it, of course (or at least he denied it in a recent interview I read), but his latest book represents a formidable challenge to the TV adapters. For the eponymous hero spends most of the book lying in a coma in intensive care, until finally . . .
Of course Dalziel won't die, you're thinking. Will he? Well, the clue is in the title. I won't give away the ending, but I have to confess I was shocked.
The story isn't your usual police procedural type of tale. It is a story with a complex plot about an extremist plot against extremist plotters, with a multi-layered counterplot. The introduction of the Security Services adds to the mix and takes the story off in unexpected directions. It's a book about belief (in truth, in God, in self, in right and wrong) and about identity and division (Yorkshire/Lancashire, Anglo/Asian, Christian/Muslim, cops/spooks). The novel is perfectly structured, but it's the development of the characters (especially Peter Pascoe without the support and guidance of the comatose Dalziel) that brings the story to life. (less)
A guest at the opening of a Shetland Isles art exhibition breaks down in tears as everyone else looks on in embarrassed horror. Jimmy Perez, on his fi...moreA guest at the opening of a Shetland Isles art exhibition breaks down in tears as everyone else looks on in embarrassed horror. Jimmy Perez, on his first real date with one of the artists, Fran Hunter, helps the man to his feet, feeling it is his duty as a policeman to do so. The man, who is English, claims to have no memory of who he is or why he is there. Perez thinks that it has something to do with the light, the fact that the sun never quite slips below the horizon even at midnight. Here in the Shetlands they call it the 'simmer dim'. Everyone in the Shetlands goes a little crazy at this time of year. In the morning, though, the Englishman is found dead, hanging from the rafters of a fisherman's hut.
Who is the mysterious southerner? Why was he found with a clown's mask over his face? Why had he tried to ruin the art exhibition opening? More importantly, who strangled him and then tried to make the death look like a suicide? There are so many questions, but one thing is certain: there is a killer at large in the small island community of Biddista, and unless they are tracked down soon they will surely strike again.
At this point, the second of Ann Cleeves' quartet of Shetland crime novels follows a similar pattern of the first, with a team of detectives being flown in from Inverness to lead the investigation and local man Jimmy Perez having to play second fiddle to bluff Yorkshireman Roy Taylor. In the first book, Raven Black, the two very different detectives struck up an odd-couple kind of friendship. This time, though, the relationship between the two men is more strained.
In Raven Black I much admired the way Cleeves captured the physical 'feel' of the treeless Shetlands. In White Nights she seems to me to spend less time describing the physical terrain and is more involved in exploring the psychological landscape of Biddista, especially the complex relationships that develop in a small, remote community. The inchoate relationship between Jimmy Perez and Fran Hunter, neither of them entirely sure of themselves, is cleverly done, especially when Fran catches the eye of the intense English writer Peter Wilding. The interaction between quiet, thoughtful Perez and his brash and forthright colleague Taylor is similarly perfect in its evocation. But for me, the highlights of the book are the beautifully written chapters that tenderly capture the late-blooming marriage of Biddista residents Kenny and Edith Thomson.
This is the kind of crime writing I really enjoy: there's mystery and suspense, and a clever plot, but the strength of the book is in the characterisation and the quality of the prose. Like Ruth Rendell or P.D. James at their best, Cleeves gives you so much more than your average crime writer. Highly recommended. (less)
The hero of The Lemur is John Glass, a one-time investigative journalist who has grown soft through his marriage into money. His wife, whom he married...moreThe hero of The Lemur is John Glass, a one-time investigative journalist who has grown soft through his marriage into money. His wife, whom he married for love before the love wore off, is the daughter of William ‘Big Bill’ Mulholland, an Irish-American electronics billionaire. Big Bill has commissioned Glass to write the ex-CIA man’s authorised biography. Not wanting to do too much donkey work himself, Glass hires a researcher – the eponymous Lemur.
The Lemur is a very tall, very thin young man with a head too small for his frame and an adam’s apple the size of a golf ball. His none-too-clean tee-shirt bears the legend Life Sucks And Then You Die. Pretty soon, the Lemur does indeed die, and the last person he called before being shot in the eye with a small calibre bullet, probably a Beretta, is John Glass. ‘That,’ Captain Ambrose from the NYPD tells Glass, ‘makes you the last one to talk to him alive.’ When Glass says, ‘You mean, the second last’, Captain Ambrose grins. ‘Yeah. Right.’
End of chapter.
Ordinarily, this would lead to a certain amount of dramatic tension, a hero desperate to prove his innocence, possibly a cliffhanging ending. But Glass has a cast-iron alibi, and it’s an alibi the police readily accept. So who did kill the Lemur? What does it all have to do with Big Bill Mulholland? Who cares? None of the characters are particularly likeable, and most of them are either clichés, cardboard cut-outs, or both. The story moves along to its unsurprising conclusion in a way that suggests even Banville is bored with Black’s latest offering.
I read somewhere (I can’t remember where) that Banville was specifically commissioned by the New York Times (I think) to write a Benjamin Black crime serial. This is the result. Described on the dust jacket as ‘a contemporary thriller’, The Lemur is a story in 15 episodes without a single thrill. If you want a taut thriller, don’t buy this book.
But if you are a die-hard fan of John Banville’s writing, and are in the mood for a quick light read that is enjoyable while never taxing, this one’s for you. The writing is a step or two above the usual standard of prose in genre fiction and there’s just about enough narrative drive to keep you interested, if not riveted. And it’s very short. I bought it because I had nothing to read on a bus journey, and I had nearly finished it by the time I reached my destination an hour or so later. When I did finish it, the final twist turned out to be very limp indeed. (less)
This book had been on my wish-list for ages, but having read Dominion by C J Sansom, I finally got round to buying a copy. I'd always been put off by...moreThis book had been on my wish-list for ages, but having read Dominion by C J Sansom, I finally got round to buying a copy. I'd always been put off by 'alternative history' novels (don't know why) but I really enjoyed Dominion and in my opinion Fatherland is even better. Reminded me of Gorky Park, albeit in a different setting (in both time and place) - that same sense of being in Winston Smith's shoes, and with a cracking crime/thriller plot. I've been told neither Fatherland no Dominion is as good as Len Deighton's SS-GB, so that's now on my wish-list too!(less)
By no means a 'traditional' mystery/thriller but an enjoyable read nonetheless. The quality of the writing more than makes up for the weaknesses in th...moreBy no means a 'traditional' mystery/thriller but an enjoyable read nonetheless. The quality of the writing more than makes up for the weaknesses in the plot.(less)
Another enjoyable read by John Banville's alter-ego, but another annoyingly slapdash tale. He wrote somewhere that the Benjamin Black books took him a...moreAnother enjoyable read by John Banville's alter-ego, but another annoyingly slapdash tale. He wrote somewhere that the Benjamin Black books took him a fraction of the time to write compared with his 'serious' books - and it shows. Riddled with inconsistencies, it's nevertheless a well-written entertainment.(less)