Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

This is a debut novel by the author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, a Canadian Muslim with a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. The story follows Detective Esa Khattak and his colleague, Sergeant Rachel Getty, as they investigate the death of Christopher Drayton who fell to his death. Was it an accident or was he pushed? Detective Esa was formerly with Toronto homicide, then counterintelligence, and now heads up Canada’s Community Policing Section (CPS) basically a unit that takes on sensitive cases involving minority groups. So why has he been called in to investigate what looks like the simple accidental death of an unassuming businessman? Without giving away too many spoilers, it soon becomes clear that Drayton’s death might not be all that it seems and in fact is inextricably linked to the genocide that was Bosnia in the early 1990’s

I found The Unquiet Dead an odd novel in some ways, for in a sense it has two faces. In one sense, it’s an almost sedate whodunit harking back to the Golden Age. We have a relatively large cast of characters and the protagonists – Detective Esa and Sergeant Getty – must decide who amongst them might have had motive to do Christopher Drayton in. There’s very little violence in this novel and next to no gore. Even the actual murder – if indeed Drayton was a victim of foul play – is relatively benign (at least by the standards of most modern-day crime fiction). But then there’s the other “face” to the novel, the motive for doing the victim in, namely the mass slaughter that occurred during the Bosnian war. As a former current affairs journalist, I well remember the horror of Bosnia and the sense of shame at how Western governments failed to act to stop the mass rapes, the pillage, the ethnic cleansing – a mealy-mouthed euphemism for mass-killing if there ever was one - the murders. These horrors inculcate the novel from the very beginning and stand in stark contrast with the almost amiable tone the story would take otherwise.

The Unquiet Dead is about secrets and whether anyone can ever truly escape their past. In this way, the violence and brutality of the Bosnian conflict can never truly be buried. Despite the best efforts of those who would rather it went away, the conflict and its aftermath cannot fail but rear its ugly head to breach the equanimity of modern day Canadian society. On this level, the novel worked well and kept me engaged. Equally, however, it depends on what you want from your crime fiction. Personally, I prefer my crime novels to be grittier and more to the noir end of the spectrum and The Unquiet Dead, despite its grim subject matter, is too placid for my liking.

That said, this is an impressive debut and I certainly will be looking out for more from this author.

3 out of 5 stars.   

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Kompromat by Stanley Johnson

With Brexit, the election of Donald Trump to the White House and allegations that the Russian security services might have helped put him there, it is surprising there haven’t been more novels to attempt to tackle such themes. Perhaps this is the first in a new trend, that just as after 9/11 not a few novelists attempted to tackle the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, a wave of literary efforts attempting to explain the strange new world we’re faced with is just upon the horizon. If this is so, Stanley Johnson might at first glance appear an unlikely trailblazer. He is after all the father of Boris, the quirky and some might say controversial politician, Foreign Secretary and leading Brexiteer. This would be unfair however as Stanley is the author of twenty-five previous books, both fiction and non-fiction, a former Conservative member of the European Parliament, and a leading environmental campaigner. The Johnson family are also known to speak their minds, even if this might upset their most famous member, as his sister Rachel (Stanley’s daughter) did when she joined the Liberal Democrats in protest at the Conservative’s support for Brexit. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that Stanley has penned a satire of the current geopolitical environment.  But is it any good?

With such broad themes one might imagine Stanley to have produced a doorstopper of a book, certainly before I received my print copy from the publishers I was expecting something along the lines of 500+ pages. In fact, Kompromat is exactly 302 pages, which while normal for a typical work of fiction, when one considers the complex ideas involved and the fact that the book has a cast of over 100 (there’s a 5-page cast of characters listing at the beginning) might come as a surprise. Obviously, most of the characters prove to be walk-on parts, the main character perhaps being Edward Barnard, a leading Conservative Party Brexiteer. I say he’s the main character as he appears most in the novel but close on his heels are the Russian President Igor Popov, the controversial American businessman and Republican Presidential candidate Ronald C. Craig, and Mabel Killick, the UK Home Secretary and later Prime Minister.

One of the fun aspects of this book is playing guess who. Igor Popov is obviously Vladimir Putin, Ronald Craig is Trump, while Mabel Hillick is Theresa May. There’s a character based on Cameron, a Rupert Murdoch, a Hillary Clinton, and yes, a surprisingly small part for the “ebullient and charismatic” former Mayor of London, Harry Stokes. You might assume that such a large globetrotting cast might make the novel unwieldy or a mess of competing narratives, but not a bit of it. This is a novel that trots along at quite a pace. The author does an admirably good job of joining all the threads and at no point does the novel meander or the plot get lost. As befitting a satire it’s also a surprisingly light-hearted novel, not a mean feat considering the weighty topics that it addresses. There are twists and turns galore, with not a few surprises. There are also some laugh out loud moments. Despite all this, Stanley Johnson spins an all too plausible tale and while I’m not suggesting that he knows anything we don’t, one just has to watch the news after reading the book to know that some of what he portrays might just be on the mark.

That all said I did have a couple of issues with Kompromat and strangely it’s that what makes the book so good also does it an injustice. Its fast pace, multiple international settings and global cast of characters, while enjoyable, mean that there’s little depth here. Apart perhaps from Edward Barnard and his wife we never really get into the heads or hearts of any of the other characters. Similarly, there’s a feel of frivolity to the novel, which while in some senses is refreshing in a political story – the genre can all too often be dauntingly heavy or preachy – can at times come across as trite. Finally, due to its broad scope, the author can’t help but neglect aspects which depending on the reader might feel strange. An example of this is that Simon Henley (a thinly disguised Nigel Farage) hardly gets a mention. I’m not a fan of UKIP, but a novel that tackles Brexit while hardly featuring the party and its most famous leader, in my opinion makes a very odd oversight.

So back to my original question, is Kompromat any good? Well yes, it is. All in all, it’s an enjoyable satire, a romp if you will, while still being all too scarily believable.

4 out of 5 stars 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Force by Don Winslow

Don Winslow has long been a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction. Novels such as Savages and The Winter of Frankie Machine have been hailed to much acclaim. To my mind though it was his duo of titles on the Mexican drug wars that elevated him into the A-list. The Power of the Dog and its sequel The Cartel, were rightly seen as masterpieces, sagas that chronicled the rise of the drug cartels, the narcotic border wars, the corruption and devastation they wrought on Mexican society. It’s no surprise to learn that The Cartel is set to be made into a film, with Ridley Scott as director and Leonardo di Caprio as lead. Nor does it come as a shock to learn that Winslow himself is now one of the hottest writers around. For example, the director Michael Mann is now in collaboration with Winslow to write a novel about the relationship between the infamous organised crime figures, Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana.

In the meantime, we have The Force. If anyone thought that Winslow would rest on his laurels after the success of The Cartel, then The Force should rudely strip them of that notion. Denny Malone is a legendary NYPD detective sergeant, he’s “the King of Manhattan North”, the unofficial leader of The Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite squad of officers whose job it is to keep a lid on crime in the city, allowing the wheels of commerce to keep turning in the post-Rudy Giulliani, zero-tolerance era. He’s a corrupt officer, as most of his squad are, but they’re not wicked as such. Their corruption has a pragmatic quality, a weary knowingness that all around them others are profiting – drug dealers, most obviously, but also politicians and property developers – and they’re own skimming is just a means of looking after their families, supplementing their meagre incomes.

Throughout though, there’s a sense that the situation as it stands is ephemeral, that Denny and his squad are living on borrowed time. Winslow is a master plotter and is adept at building tension. Obstacles and adversaries mount: the rival taskforce detective who wants Denny’s crown, the approaching drug war between two rival syndicates, the boss who knows he’s corrupt but wants results, the investigators breathing down his neck. The novel starts with Denny in a cell having been arrested, so we the reader know this is all going to come a head, the questions is how and will Denny and his squad emerge the other side?

Some might read this review and think that there’s nothing original here, that TV series such as The Wire and The Shield, films and other novels, have covered similar ground before. To an extent, they would be right. But Winslow elevates The Force above much of the competition, through both his skill as a storyteller, and his original slant. There are two aspects that make The Force special. The first is that this novel is set very firmly in 2017. Black Lives Matter and the tensions caused by police shootings across the Unites States are constantly in the background. But perhaps more importantly for the story’s narrative is the modernity of the City of New York. Gone are the crime ridden days of the 1970’s and 80’s where New York was almost written off as a bankrupt hellhole.  2017 New York is a place of million dollar condos, gentrification, with the poor and disenfranchised firmly kept in their place. In fact, Winslow creates the firm impression that the NYPD’s job as whole, that of Denny’s taskforce in particular, is exactly to enforce this status quo so that the wealthy can continue earning and enjoying the lifestyles that they’ve grown accustomed to.  This brings me to the second aspect that elevates this novel beyond the norm and that’s the sense of place Winslow conjures. Normally, when a writer talks of sense of place, they mean setting. So, an author will set a novel in New York, describe streets, smells, vernacular, etc. At its worst this can take a form of tick box travelogue. In Winslow’s novel on the other hand, we get a sense of New York not just as a physical locale, but as a socio-political environment. There’s simply nowhere else this novel could be set. Winslow’s The Force is more than just a crime novel set in the city of New York, it’s a critique of what makes that city tick.

In conclusion, I’ve read quite a few of Don Winslow’s novels. Some I’ve enjoyed more than others, some have been better than others. I loved The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, thought them both crowning achievements, but the Force is his best yet. The Force is also Winslow’s most subversive book to date, it’s imbued with subtle but ever-present anger and outrage, something which is even more effective in a crime novel. Where a ‘literary’ novel which wears its social conscience on its sleeve might be wearying, when done well, as Winslow does here, a crime novel can distract with the obvious crimes – the drug dealing, the robberies, the murders – while feeding the reader a steady diet of indignity at the more insidious crimes of the powerful. This Winslow does with aplomb. I read recently that The Force too has been optioned by 20th Century Fox. This is yet something else to not come as a surprise. For truly, The Force is to date Winslow’s magnum opus.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 17 July 2017

Girl Zero by A A Dhand

This is the second novel by A A Dhand, an author who exploded onto the crime fiction scene back in 2016 with his novel Streets of Darkness. So impressed was I with the author’s debut that I rated it as my book of 2016, so I couldn’t wait to get hold of Girl Zero. So, was it any good? Did it live up to Streets of Darkness? Or would Dhand succumb to the dreaded Second Book Syndrome, where the expectations from the first novel were too much and the second novel failed to compare? Well, I’m pleased to say that Girl Zero is a brilliant follow up to Streets of Darkness and Dhand has secured his place as one of the most impressive new voices to appear on the crime fiction landscape in many a year.

Once again, we’re with Detective Inspector Harry Virdee, a Sikh police officer estranged from his family after he chose to marry a Muslim woman. The novel opens with his arrival at the scene of a murder, only to discover the victim is his niece, the daughter of his brother, a drug lord who runs Bradford’s narcotics trade. This is only the start of the narrative however and without giving away too many spoilers, the story soon branches out to encompass the sex trade, the exploitation of vulnerable young women by traffickers, drugs and corruption.

As with the previous novel, Streets of Darkness, in some ways the plot of Girl Zero is beside the point. Streets of Darkness received rave reviews with some (including, but not exclusively, myself) comparing it to The Wire. This comparison is equally valid to the sequel, Girl Zero. The two novels transcend much contemporary crime fiction, for they don’t just have a sense of place, rather they elevate that place – the city of Bradford – into a character in and of itself. Girl Zero takes this further than Streets of Darkness with the characters often referring to Bradford as they might a dark, malignant force. They talk of the city corrupting people; one character even talks of feeding someone to the streets of Bradford and letting the city “do what it does best”. This is never overdone however, it’s not shoehorned into the story, rather it fits with the carefully crafted atmosphere that Dhand has drawn, both in Girl Zero and Streets of Darkness.

As with David Simon’s treatment of Baltimore in The Wire, I can see a criticism being levelled at Dhand here. Some will say that he’s not doing much for Bradford’s image, that he’s bad mouthing the city, hyping its dark side while downplaying its strengths. While that’s a risk with any crime novel or thriller that’s set in a particular locale, I feel it would be unfair here. Bradford does have its problems, ravaged by riots in 2001, plagued by racial division and blighted by poverty. As with David Simon’s television series The Wire, Dhand’s novels focus on these issues – they are crime thrillers after all. But as with The Wire, there’s also a strong sense of good people battling to make their city a better place for ordinary people to live. Whereas David Simon’s series had Dominic West’s character Jmmy McNulty, Dhand’s novels have his protagonist, Detective Inspector Harry Virdee.

Furthermore, while there might be some residents of Baltimore and Bradford who don’t recognise their respective cities in the work of these writers, I suspect there will be others who do. For doesn’t every city have its dark underbelly? And isn’t this always unseen to the well-to-do? As a former journalist, I certainly learnt how to see the darkness hidden in plain sight and there were many times while working for Channel 4 Dispatches that I went to one place or another to find the ugliness that was just beneath the surface. More often than not, when I looked, I found.

Finally, for those who worry about Bradford’s image, there might be one silver lining. Apparently, the success of The Wire has led to a tourism boom, with fans of the programme taking tours of Baltimore’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. Similarly, Breaking Bad led to an influx of visitors to Albuquerque, New Mexico. While in Scotland, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus can take walking tours of Edinburgh dedicated to the character and the locales that appear in the books. If AA Dhand gains the success I think he truly deserves, Bradford may well find itself next on this list and local business may be more than a little grateful.

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, 15 July 2017

BlogTour! The Other Twin by L V Hay

As readers of my blog will know I’m not really one for psychological thrillers, preferring my crime fiction grittier, more noir. That said, this book appealed to me because of its title. My better half being an identical twin, I thought I really had to get my hands on this. I had images in my mind of identical twins suspected of some crime, one innocent one psychotic, the police stumped as to who’s who. I must stress here that neither my wife or her sister conform to this picture – neither are villainous murderers as far as I’m aware – but there you go.

L V Hay’s book isn’t the plot I outline above. In fact, I was surprised to find that the twins aren’t the major characters as such. Nor are they identical. Instead this book follows Poppy investigating the death of her sister, the twins of the title being important, but supporting cast. As befits a psychological thriller, The Other Twin is more nuanced than the one line synopsis I just outlined, instead the author has crafted a tale of hidden lives and the perils of social media. Poppy discovers that her sister had built a whole new reality through a blog, that there are secrets to her sister she never realised.

The Other Twin is a well-crafted novel, in some ways it’s less a psychological thriller than a whodunnit. While the police believe Poppy’s sister to have committed suicide, I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers in saying there’s more to it than that. Poppy’s quest is to discover what this is and who’s responsible. As I say, psychological thrillers and whodunnits aren’t my normal fare, and if I’m being honest, The Other Twin isn’t a book I would naturally reach for. That said it’s well written and compelling. It’s well plotted, the characters are believable and the social media aspects are quite chilling.

3 out of 5 stars