Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sirens by Joseph Knox

I had heard a lot about Sirens upon its publication, read quite a few rave reviews, but hadn’t got around to reading it. Eventually I picked up a copy, mainly because it’s main character was an undercover police officer infiltrating an organised crime ring - undercover policing and organised crime being issues that I’m interested in. And wow. 

Sirens is an amazing book and deeply original. Our protagonist is Aidan Watts, a deeply troubled Detective Constable who’s been suspended from duty. As such he’s been thrown a lifeline by his superior: go undercover in the seedy backstreets of Manchester to infiltrate the operation of a drug lord, Zain Carver. So far, so average one might conclude. But the author elevates what might be a familiar plot through several original threads.

For one, the author is not a former police officer himself. These days readers are exacting in their demands for accuracy, unforgiving when an author makes a mistake in police procedure. Faced with this an author can go one of two routes: conduct copious research or find another way. The problem with research is unless the author is a police officer themselves, they still might make a mistake. Alternatively, as some authors do, they might fill their books with pages and pages of mind-numbing detail. Joseph Knox, the author, takes the other route. By having his protagonist suspended and recruited off the books, for a deniable operation, he’s able to tell his tale while avoiding getting bogged down in all that tedious detail. This isn’t a criticism, far from it, for what we have here is a slick, fast moving tale, full of tension where Aidan is at risk from nearly everyone he meets and has none of the safety net an undercover officer run in the traditional way might have.

A second interesting strand are the “Sirens” of the title. Zain Carver attracts troubled young women, runaways and those from broken homes and these he uses to collect the proceeds of his drug distribution from Manchester’s bars and clubs. Aidan meets a few these women who are all fragile and vulnerable in their own way and these characters add a certain frisson to the narrative. They also lead to a major sub-plot, for one of these women is the daughter of a leading politician who pulls strings to undermine the drugs investigation and have Aidan watch his daughter instead. This leads to an intriguing foil of tension between his boss in the police, who wants him to focus on the drugs, and the politician who wants his focus elsewhere.

A rival gang made up of vagrants and drug addicts adds yet another layer of tension, but it’s the Manchester that the author conveys that really brings this novel alive. There’s a cliché about crime fiction that it’s all about a sense of location. I don’t believe that myself, I’ve read many a good crime novel that could have been set anywhere, while similarly I’ve read many that attempt to instil a sense of place and come off no better than cheap travelogue. When crime fiction gets sense of place right however, it can be magical. The author of Sirens gets it right; Manchester here is a bleak place, its austerity inflicted wounds still to heal.

All this said, I’ve often struggled to define in my own mind what makes a good book, how one author will write a novel that seems original and fresh and another will write something that seems pedestrian and humdrum. As I’ve written before in other reviews, I think in the end it comes down to a certain fairy dust, a magical ingredient that is hard to put one’s finger on, that is in the quality of the author’s writing itself. So, in conclusion, I’m saying that Sirens has that magic fairy dust and it’s for that reason I recommend it.

5 out of 5 stars

Rubicon by Ian Patrick

Both police corruption and undercover policing are subjects that I’m very interested in. As a former current affairs journalist with Channel 4 Dispatches I didn’t work on any programmes which touched on these subjects myself, but I have had the great honour over the years to get to know several journalists who have, not least Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn who wrote the masterpiece that was Untouchables, a book that blew the lid on corruption in the Met in the 1990’s. So, when I saw that Fahrenheit Press, one of the finest small independent publishers in operation today, were bringing out a novel written by a former Met undercover officer, I was more than intrigued. When I read the book’s blurb and saw that it also addressed issues of corruption, I knew I had to get myself a copy.

Rubicon’s protagonist is Sam Batford, a veteran undercover officer with Met. He’s been seconded to the National Crime Agency (NCA), onto a team run by DCI Klara Winter, which is targeting an upper echelon crime figure called Vincenzo Guardino. Guardian is bringing in a large shipment of cocaine and Mac-10 machine pistols and Klara is determined to bring him to justice. She is not happy with Sam Batford’s deployment, suspicious of the Met’s motives - are they trying to claim the glory of Guardino’s demise for themselves? - and wary that he might not be answerable to her but to his masters in Scotland Yard. 

A lot of other reviewers writing about this book have focused on Batford’s corruption, portraying the novel as quite a straightforward contrast between his moral duplicity and Klara Winter’s rectitude. For me Rubicon was more nuanced than that. While I started off believing Batford to be corrupt, as the narrative span out I quickly found myself in a hall of mirrors unsure just how much of his actions had been sanctioned by his superiors and why. Even at the close of the narrative, while I had concluded that he was corrupt, was he so out of greed or due to fear that he would be hung out to dry, that he needed a nest egg so to speak? Rubicon is written in contrasting styles - first person for Batford and third person for Klara, whose narrative thread is also told through the official reports she logs. Batford’s strand is by far the strongest, Klara being a more straight forward character, but this works for the majority of the novel is told through Batford.

As with any novel written by an author who’s “been there and bought the T-Shirt”, there’s a fair amount of authenticity here. There’s good detail on surveillance - for example, the unmarked cars that one sees racing up the motorway with the light’s blaring from their grills? Quite possibly a surveillance vehicle leapfrogging from one mainline train station to the next. But the best detail is broader brush.  Rubicon is set in the near future, “at a time of austerity and police cuts” as the blurb says, and the narrative addresses how this has impacted the work of undercover officers - how they have less support, less back up. Reading the novel, one has a sense of the author’s anger, that he’s experienced this himself in his own deployments or knows of people who have. Equally the relationship between the police and the NCA is telling. A few years back I read an interesting biography - The Interceptor by Cameron Addicott. Addicott was a former Customs investigator who had been hired by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the NCA’s predecessor. In The Interceptor, Addicott detailed his growing disillusionment with SOCA, which eventually led him to resign in disgust. While that was a biography and Rubicon is a novel, I sense a similar theme here and wonder whether Ian Patrick hasn’t had bad experiences of the NCA when working as an undercover for the Met. Certainly, the NCA don’t come out of Rubicon very well. 

All in all, Rubicon is a fantastic novel and one that I would recommend to anyone looking for a good crime thriller. 

This is a 5 star read.

Unforgivable by Mike Thomas

This is the second in the author’s DC Will MacReady novels, and if anything, it’s better than the first, Ash and Bones, which I also reviewed. Set against a backdrop of a Cardiff on edge - a white boy has been murdered by a gang of smirking Asian youth, cue lots of EDL types protesting every morning on the court’s steps, Antifa opposing them, the police stuck in the middle - a series of bombs explodes across the city. The first hit’s a souk, an annual celebration of multiculturalism held in one of the city’s parks. The second strikes a mosque. There are multiple casualties at each location, fatalities and maimings. Is this the work of far-right extremists? A cell of bombers or a lone wolf like Anders Breivik, or the Brixton bomber, David Copeland? 

I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I will avoid too much discussion of the plot, but needless to say, everything is not all that it seems. What I will say is that MacReady and the other characters in the novel are well drawn and the book itself is tightly plotted. While this is the second in the series, it can be read as a standalone, though you will miss a little of the back story.

Mike Thomas is a former police officer and as such this novel has a real air of authenticity. While Will is the main character, Thomas is obviously aware that a police investigation is a team effort and consequently the supporting cast play big roles. Some writers aiming for authenticity overwhelm their readers with the minutia of their research but Thomas is careful not to do this, so while the novel does have the ring of accuracy to it, this is not laboured.

Unforgivable is a police procedural and we all know that the bookshelves groan under the weight of such titles. I would say though that the author’s skill as a writer elevates his novel above many of its competitors. For a start this is not a serial killer novel. Also, while MacReady has got a troubled personal life, the author writes well enough to avoid the usual cliche’s. In fact, that’s a feature of the book full stop. Numerous journalists have pontificated in the past over what makes a great book or film, what makes a great crime thriller. For my own part I think it’s a magic ingredient that is difficult to put one’s finger on. So, if one thinks of The Wire, or The Killing, it’s easy to think that it might be a sense of place, or a killer twist. But many books and films have a sense of place or a knockout twist and aren’t so good. Which brings me back to that magic, the elusive fairy dust. Unforgivable is one such novel; while the plot is original enough, there have been books before that have dealt with terrorism and terror-like atrocities, similarly, as noted above, there are innumerable police procedurals with troubled protagonists. But the author writes well and imbues his novel with that something extra.

In short this is a great novel and one that I heartily recommend. Mike Thomas is an author to watch and I look forward to future novels in the MacReady series. But his previous novels (standalones, not Will MacReady novels, and indeed, not police procedurals) are also well worth digging out. In particular, I would challenge anyone to read Ugly Bus and not think it a cult classic. 

5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

BLOG TOUR! House of Spines by Michael Malone - BLOG TOUR!

This is the first novel by Michael Malone that I’ve read, an author who from what I gather used to write gritty noir and has now moved into psychological suspense. House of Spines is more than psychological suspense however, the author blending the genre with the gothic supernatural. Ran McGhie is a young man with mental health issues, suffering from bipolar depression. The nature of his illness is such that his moods swing from the deepest, darkest despair to manic elation. Sometimes he becomes delusional, even hallucinates. He’s also a man who has suffered devastating family trauma. At the start of the novel he has just learnt that he has inherited Newton Hall, a huge house, from his mother’s side of the family. A relative Ran had never met has left him the property complete with extensive library. As a struggling writer, this is a dream come true. He moves in but almost immediately feels that there is something wrong, the house having a disquieting atmosphere. Coupled with meeting unpleasant relatives for the first time – Ran’s been told that they’ve been generously compensated in the will and have no designs on the house, but can he be sure that this is indeed the case? - and already struggling with burgeoning loneliness having separated from his wife, it isn’t long before his precarious grip on sanity is feeling the strain.

As mentioned this is a bit of a mash up of genres. We have psychological suspense complete with unreliable narrator and we have gothic horror complete with a haunted house, a woman’s spirit stuck in a mirror trying to claim Ran’s soul for her own, or is she? The two elements complement each other well and the author does a good job of building the tension as the story unfolds. The characterisation is spot on too, I certainly warmed to Ran who cuts a fragile and tragic figure, while some of the antagonists – two in particular - are shocking in the lengths they’ll go to get what they want. But really, it’s Newton Hall itself which steals the show, the property itself taking on a life of its own and making its presence felt on every page. This result is a creepy and atmospheric tale.

Psychological thrillers are currently all the rage but as with any new trend in the literary world, the danger is the marketplace gets saturated. I would recommend House of Spines to fans of the genre as something that dares to push the boundaries and be a little different from the competition.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, 4 September 2017

Crime and the Craft by Mike Neville

Freemasonry is a subject that divides a lot of people. Depending on who you ask it is either a benign fraternal organisation that is often involved in much charitable work, an outlandish pastime where grown men roll up their trouser leg and perform silly rituals, or a sinister and secretive cult that fosters corruption and usurps democracy. Oftentimes people see it as a mixture of the three, its features encompassing the full scale depending on time, place, and individual member. There is certainly no shortage of books critical of Freemasonry. On the pulp-fiction end one has writers such as Dan Brown, who’s third novel in the Robert Langdon series features the Masons in the same way his more famous title, the Da Vinci Code,  featured Opus Dei. On the non-fiction end there are authors such as Stephen Knight and Martin Short, both of whom published works that were extremely critical of Freemasonry. Concern over Freemasonry has on occasion been a matter of public debate, too.  This has most often centred on Freemasonry in the police. For example, in 1999 the Labour Government attempted to implement a voluntary register of Masonic police officers, but the measure failed as more than two thirds of officers refused to respond. More recently, London mayor Sidique Khan has ruled out a register in the Met, saying such a measure would be illegal.

Mike Neville, the author of Crime and Craft, is both a former Metropolitan Police Officer (retiring as a Detective Chief Inspector) and a Freemason. This is perhaps surprising when one first gets hold of this book as its full title reads “Crime and the Craft: Masonic Involvement in Murder, Treason and Scandal”. So is he ashamed of his Freemasonry? Is his book an expose of some grand conspiracy which proves the Craft’s critics right? Well not exactly. The title isn’t so much misleading as broad brush. While it might imply that all the Masons mentioned within its pages are villains and gangsters, in actual fact many were on the side of the righteous. So, “Masonic involvement” might mean Masons as wrongdoers, but equally it might mean Masons as those enforcing the law, bringing villains to justice, or even as victims. 

Masonry has certainly been widespread amongst the aristocracy, within government and the police, and so this book touches upon many of the more famous events of British political and legal history. From the English Civil War, through Jack the Ripper, to the bringing down of the Kray Twins, there are few events that haven’t been touched upon in some way by Freemasonry.  Reflecting this, the author has penned a potted history, each chapter focusing on a different event, giving a general overview and detailing the Masonic link. This is no anti-Mason tract and the author is carefully fair and even handed. That isn’t to say that he glosses over or makes excuses for Freemasons who’ve done wrong. Quite the reverse in fact. For example, in the chapter on corruption in the Met’s vice squad in the 1970’s, Neville is excoriating about the infamous Chief Superintendent Bill Moody, a keen Mason, and surely one of the most corrupt, dishonest and greedy officers ever to serve amongst the Met’s ranks. However, whereas Knight and Short have pointed to officers’ like Moody as evidence of the Mason’s intrinsic rottenness and capacity to corrupt, Neville points to other officers who helped bring Moody and others to justice who were themselves Masons. A good example of these is Deputy Assistant Commissioner Ron Stevenson (himself a Mason) who after helping to bring Moody to justice went onto head up A10, the Met’s internal affairs division. To be sure Short mentions honest Mason’s in his own work, but Neville is much more even handed.

Crime and the Craft is a fascinating book that sheds light on British legal history while detailing a colourful cast of characters who were Freemasons. Like the wider population,  some of these people were good, some were indifferent and some were wicked. The author stresses this throughout and his thesis is that Freemasonry is like any organisation, reflective of the wide gamut of human nature. While it is doubtful that this account will assuage the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists and Freemasonry’s various critics, Neville has produced a valuable and balanced addition to the literature on the subject.

5 out of 5 stars

Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes by Anthony Nott

Tony Nott was a senior officer with Dorset Police when he decided take a stint in Kosovo heading up the British Forensic Team. This was just after NATO’s successful intervention in the province that put an end to Serb atrocities there. Tony got the job and the second chapter in this book (the first introduces us to the author and his work in the Dorset Police) details his experiences in Kosovo. The chapter gives some insight into the harrowing nature of his work but is a little too brief for my liking. 

After returning briefly to England, Tony then took a job in Bosnia with the United Nations International Police Task Force (IPTF). The author dedicates a good four or  five chapters to his experience in Bosnia and this is a much more interesting section of the book. There is the case of Fr. Tomislav Matanovic,  taken from his house by Republica Srbska police (Republica Srbska being the ethnically cleansed enclave carved out of Bosnia by Serb nationalists), executed and dumped in well. Despite Tony’s team amassing a wealth of evidence the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. The IPTF also came across human trafficking and the trafficking of women into sexual servitude. This brought him into contact with Milorad Milokovic and the organised crime ring he ran. The Milakovic Mafia, as the IPTF investigators dubbed them, trafficked women into prostitution and bought off or intimidated any local officials who crossed them. Tony and his team had more success here, bringing the family to justice. 

After Bosnia, Tony then took a posting in Iraq. Unlike Kosovo and Bosnia where he arrived in the aftermath of war and his role was one of helping a country return to normality, Iraq was in the middle of a burgeoning civil war. This was a much more dangerous posting, yet again his job was to try to help create a functioning local police. This section of the book is the most compelling, even better than the section on Bosnia. Not least this is due to his account of the investigation into the death of Margaret Hassan, a British woman living in Iraq and working as an aid worker, who was abducted and callously executed. Tony takes us through this investigation and we learn of who was behind the kidnap, a Sheikh Hassan. Despite his best efforts the Sheikh was to evade justice.

The final chapter of the book details Tony’s last deployment, to Palestine to help train local police there. This is an uneventful chapter and really seems to have been tacked on. Either not much happened of note during this deployment or the author is keeping his counsel. Either way, this in minutia highlights a problem with the book. While on the whole I thought this a good and illuminating book, it suffers from problems of brevity and a certain stilted and dry tone. An example, in the section on Bosnia we learn of a group of apparent nuclear smugglers offering to sell Red Mercury to the highest bidder. A contingent of French soldiers goes charging off to round the smugglers up only to find it’s a con - Red Mercury being a notorious urban myth, there simply is no such substance. This is a great story, but is covered in just a few pages. Why? Is the fault with the publisher - Pen and Sword seem to like to keep their titles around the 200 page mark - or the author? Perhaps by the nature of his job, Tony simply is not allowed to tell us more than he has. Either way, this book would have been better if it had been allowed to breathe, the stories and anecdotes expanded.

That all said, Investigating Organised Crime and War Crimes is a great book and certainly worth a read. The Iraq section on it’s own elevates it above similar tomes .

4 out of 5 stars. 

Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook by David Galef

This is one for my fellow writers. Brevity is a guide on writing short-form fiction, flash fiction really. It’s not really a form I’m familiar with, as an aspiring writer I’m much more focused on writing novel length work. That said, we all need to edit, to be concise in our wordsmithery. In that vein, the same techniques that can be used for flash fiction can be utilised in writing longer, narrative fiction, namely brevity, hence the title.

David Galef’s book dedicates a chapter to various forms of short/flash fiction, from vignettes and anecdotes to soliloquies. Then there’s the stuff aimed more for people like myself, writers of longer form fiction. So there’s a chapter on character sketches, another on settings, there’s even a chapter on surrealism. 

As with many books of this ilk - e.g. writing guides - there are examples and exercise at the end of each chapter to help you refine the art. All in all this is a good book which will help writers of all striped to either produce short/flash fiction or edit their work more effectively. I recommend this book heartily, oh and if you’re wondering why this review is so short, I’m practicing!

5 out of 5 stars.

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.