In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’
There are some writers who you’d like to read but just never seem to get around to. Until I’d read Transcription, in my case Kate Atkinson was one of those authors. For crime/mystery fans Kate Atkinson wrote the Jackson Brodie novels which were adapted for television as Case Histories with Jason Issacs in the lead role. Having enjoyed Case Histories, I’d planned to read the Jackson Brodie novels but just never did. Even with Transcription I’d picked it up a few times but put it down because there was something else which caught my eye. Happily, I did finally purchase Transcription and I’m certainly glad I did, I just may also get around to those Jackson Brodie novels as well.
Transcription begins in 1981 with Juliet Armstrong lying on a pavement having just been hit by a car after attending a Shostakovich concert in Wigmore Hall, London. She’s thinking of the rest of the Shostakovich series she’ll miss, her son in Italy, the impending royal wedding and, at 60 years of age, had her life been long enough or was it an “illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else”. From there Transcription takes us back to two important periods in Juliet’s life, 1950 when she’s working for the BBC in London and 1940 when she was recruited to work for MI5 during the Second World War, those periods are about to collide.
There are a number of aspects to Transcription which I enjoyed. The first of these is the strength of Juliet Armstrong as a character and first-person narrator. This style of novel is often difficult and although the narration does grate a little towards, especially in the 1950 sections of the book, there is always a gem of a thought which reminds you just how enjoyable this book is to read. Secondly, Kate Atkinson is a master at highlighting the mundane parts of life. The sheer boredom of Juliet transcribing secret meetings with German sympathisers, and yet almost getting to know them personally through their voices, is expertly captured. Also, there’s the unexpected sacrifices which war brings like being no longer able to get a good coffee because the Italian owner of her favourite café is now interned and the embarrassing task of going to the toilet in Wormword Scrubs, which MI5 used as a headquarters during WW2, because there’s no doors on the cubicles. Lastly, Transcription is also a very good thriller which carefully builds Juliet’s sense of doom that the things that she, and others, did during the war are now coming back to haunt her and she doesn’t know the price she’ll need to pay.
I started this review with a quote from Winston Churchill. It’s the epigraph at the beginning of Transcription and it perfectly encapsulates this beautiful book. Now, I must do something about those Jackson Brodie novels.
THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME - ed by Maxim Jakubowski
Leading editor and reviewer Maxim Jakubowski has compiled another beguiling collection of the year's best new short crime fiction from the UK. Ian Rankin's perennially popular Edinburgh cop, Inspector Rebus, makes an unexpected comeback in a short but intriguing story 'The Very Last Drop', and the collection closes with another Rankin story 'Driven'.
Mammoth by name, mammoth by nature - this collection has 42 stories in total, many of which come from well-known names, with a good sprinkling of new and emerging writers. Exactly the sort of thing short story fans would be looking for.
Preferring the darker side of the genre, there was lots to satisfy this reader in this collection, but there's also entries from the lighter side - how could there not be with writers like Alexander McCall Smith. In this collection you'll find a couple of entries by Ian Rankin and Peter Lovesey and others from Mick Herron, Denise Mina, Edward Marston, Marilyn Todd, Kate Atkinson, Stuart MacBride, David Hewson, Alexander McCall Smith, Nigel Bird, Robert Barnard, Lin Anderson, Allan Guthrie, A.L. Kennedy, Simon Kernick, Roz Southey, Andrew Taylor, Sheila Quigley, Declan Burke, Keith McCarthy, Christopher Brookmyre, Gerard Brennan, Matthew J. Elliott, Colin Bateman, Ray Banks, Simon Brett, Adrian Magson, Jay Stringer, Amy Myers, Nick Quantrill, Stephen Booth, Paul Johnston, Zoe Sharp, Paul D. Brazill, Louise Welsh, Liza Cody, Peter Turnbull and Nicholas Royle. You can probably imagine with a lineup like that, just how good each of these stories is to have been included. The range is wide, the subject and handling different, and frankly, this is just a terrific collection.
Just a quick warning - a few stories in this collection are duplicated in the little collection CRIMESPOTTING I read a while ago. No big deal - they were all well worth reading a second time.
CRIMESPOTTING - Introduced by Irvine Welsh
All the short stories here are brand new, specially commissioned and from a unique mix of bestselling crime writers. Each author was asked for a story which features a crime and is set in Edinburgh. The results range from hard-boiled police procedural to historical whodunit and from the wildly comic to the spookily supernatural.
I think I'll just keep saying this until I run out of breath completely - but really, the world needs more quality collections of Crime Short Stories. CRIMESPOTTING, a fabulous little volume put together as a fund raiser for The ONECITY Trust, is subtitled "An Edinburgh Crime Collection". It features stories by lesser and well known authors including (in alphabetical order) Lin Anderson, Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood, Christopher Brookmyre, John Burnside, Isla Dewar, A.L. Kennedy, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and James Robertson. (There are some stories here which go on to be included in the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime which I'm going to mention in a review soonish). The requirement for inclusion was that the story included a "crime" and was set in Edinburgh. The results are remarkedly diverse.
Needless to say I've been reading a few short story collections recently. Mostly because I find them such a fascinating form of writing, although I also find them almost invaluable for filling in the dreaded "waiting time" that seems to go with life these days. One thing I'm increasingly becoming aware of is that a really really good short story can't be as easy to write as you would think. A Crime short story in particular still has to provide a reader with some of the elements of the genre that you expect - a crime / investigation / resolution / explanation / consideration / illumination and so on.
What was immediately obvious in CRIMESPOTTING is that there is an incredibly high standard of story-telling in each of these entries - although there are obviously also absolute standout entries. To be honest I'd have a bit of trouble voting for my specific favourite as a lot of them appealed immensely. Luckily, there's probably something for fans of all sorts of different sub-genres.
For this reader, CRIMESPOTTING (and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime for that matter) really were a master class in short story reading. Good enough to go back and reread many of the entries, CRIMESPOTTING became a permanent resident of the car glovebox a while ago. It will head back there after this review has been written as flicking back through the book there's a couple of entries I'd like to read again.