Alex Tanner is always on the lookout for work - mortgages on flats in Notting Hill do not come cheap, after all. So when TV producer Barty O'Neill mentions a particularly juicy assignment she jumps at the chance.
Barty has been asked to investigate the shooting of Lord Sherwin, a famous society murder of the 1950s. Although suspicion quickly fell on Sherwin's beautiful wife Laura the case has stubbornly remained unsolved. However Barty has a contact - Miss Potter, once governess to the Sherwin children - who is now ready to tell her story.
First in the series "The Notting Hill Mysteries" originally published in 1992, An Uncommon Murder introduces Alex Tanner is another entrant in a long tradition of accidental investigators, although working, as she does, as a freelance researcher - this time for a possible magazine article - she's got some good reasons to get herself into the situations she finds herself in.
An interesting character, An Uncommon Murder was a good investigation / character based story with a well carried out complication at the end.
IMMEDIATE ACTION - Andy McNab
Published after Bravo Two Zero, in IMMEDIATE ACTION McNab takes us back to his early life. He starts, albeit briefly, with being raised by his adoptive parents after being found as a baby on the steps of Guy's Hospital.
In McNab's very matter of fact style he relates how, as a juvenile delinquent, he decided he had a choice between jail and a nothing much of a life, and the Army. After fighting against the IRA in South Armagh McNab decides that the SAS is where he wants to be and he goes in for "Selection" as the process is known. Selection is a gruelling physical and mental test to join the SAS - you get two chances and if you fail both of those, then that's it. McNab fails the first but gets in on the second attempt. He then goes onto a number of different types of covert operations, until the book finishes, just before The Gulf War, which was covered in BRAVO TWO ZERO.
McNab is writing about a different world from the one that most of us will ever occupy. The nature of the covert operations, the sorts of training and the mindset that members of The Regiment go through their lives with is totally alien to the suburban, family orientated lifestyle that he also tries (and mostly fails) to maintain through a series of very short, sharp marriages and relationships.
As with BRAVO TWO ZERO, IMMEDIATE ACTION is written in a very matter-of-fact style. Whilst there is quite a bit of technical information that is discussed the writing doesn't drag and remains engaging.
It's brutal, but slightly less so than BRAVO TWO ZERO. It's actually quite funny in some places. Ultimately a look at why or how and what sort of person ends up in the SAS. If you like rollicking adventure style books, then the fact that this is true is just one more twist.
BRAVO TWO ZERO - Andy McNab
BRAVO TWO ZERO is the identifying sign given to an eight-man British Special Air Service patrol that was sent into Iraq to find and destroy a major land-line telecommunications link and Iraqi Scud missile launchers during the Gulf War.
Andy McNab is the leader of the ill-fated, and some would say doomed from the start patrol, which is landed right into the middle of a major Iraqi troop staging area, on foot, backed up with radio frequencies that wouldn't work and up against it from the start. When they are seen by a local child who reports them to the Iraqi army then their attempts to escape are mostly unsuccessful. They did manage to reach a designated emergency pickup point, but rescue aircraft never arrive. They then attempt to follow a 300km long escape route to Syria but after getting separated, and suffering from hypothermia and severe weather (including snow), four members of the team are captured, three die and only one makes it into Syria. The captured team members are then repeatedly tortured and interrogated by Iraqi authorities until being repatriated out of Iraq in a series of prisoner exchanges.
The Regiment (as the SAS is known) is made up of a certain style of soldier - they are tough, rough and trained to expect anything and handle everything. They call a spade a shovel and take their roles as soldiers very very seriously. Andy McNab has a certain style in his writing of BRAVO TWO ZERO that is very no-holds barred, to the point and graphic. Much like, one would expect, they would talk amongst themselves.
This is a true war story - there's no room for moral consideration of who or what is right in any of this - it's very brutal on all sides. The SAS team are tortured mercilessly and the descriptions of that are extremely graphic - but on the other side, killing people is something that they regard quite matter of factly as part of their own plans.
Definitely a book for those who like their war stories unspun.
THUD! - Terry Pratchett
The origins of the Battle of Koom Valley between the Trolls and the Dwarves is obscure and the subject of much debate, but every year, the anniversary celebrations of the battle spark off tensions between the two communities. This year, this celebration, tensions are rising in Ank-Morpork.
Dwarf extremists are undermining (literally) the city and the Watch is starting to fall apart. When extremist leader Hamcrusher is murdered deep underground in the mines, seemingly by a Troll, Vimes must hold together the Watch; investigate the murder; prevent an outbreak of war between the Trolls and Dwarves of the city; keep the peace between Angua and a new Watch Member who just happens to be a vampire; and be home by 6.00pm every night to read "Where's My Cow?" to his young son Sam. Just to complicate matters, not only has The Patrician forced Sam to take on Sally, the vampire, he's also called in a pencil pushing bureaucrat to audit the Watch's operations. Needless to say Sam Vimes is on a pretty short fuse and it's not helped one tiny little bit when matters escalate and his own family is threatened.
In the true nature of any Terry Pratchett novel, there are more twists and turns than there are windy passages in dwarf mines in THUD!. Commander Vimes is a dedicated commander who takes his position in Ankh-Morpork very very seriously and his management of the Watch is part inspiration, part perspiration and part sheer lunacy. All the supporting cast of Watch members are here in all their assorted oddness, although, to be honest, as you read these books these characters are less odd and more realistic and endearing.
Whilst it almost seems impossible for Terry Pratchett to write a bad entry in the Discwold series, THUD! is undoubtedly one of the best books to come out of the eccentricity that is the Discworld recently.
THE GRAVE TATTOO - Val McDermid
THE GRAVE TATTOO is a standalone book from the prolific and well-known author of, amongst many others, The Wire In The Blood series.
When a tattooed, 200-year-old body is uncovered in the peat bogs of the Lake District, local girl turned Wordsworth Scholar Jane Gresham is instantly reminded of a local legend about Fletcher Christian, the man who led the mutiny on the Bounty, said to have returned surreptitiously to England from Pitcairn Island. Returning to her childhood home she is on the trail of a connection between the Wordsworth and Christian families and is intrigued by the meaning behind a letter which she discovers in the archives from Wordsworth's family home. Back in London, on the council estate where Jane lives, a local teenager that Jane has befriended is dealing with a heap of problems of her own, and despite Jane's attempts to help her before she leaves, Tenille finds herself in big trouble. Despite being only 13, and having never travelled far from the council estate in her life, Tenille sets off to meet up with Jane.
The police are looking for Tenille and to add to Jane's problems, her ex-boyfriend, now Historical Document Dealer, is stalking Jane through the Lake District trying to get a lead on the important and valuable documents from Wordsworth that everyone believes exist.
The chapters of the book are interspersed with extracts from Christian's secret diary that all appear to be confirming firstly the theories about who the body is, and the existence of documents or memoirs written by Wordsworth about the mutiny. There are friendships and family relationships that drive Jane and her reactions to the people around her. No sooner have Jane and her coterie of supporters devised a theory about where these memoirs could possibly have gone, then elderly people, interviewed by Jane, start dying.
THE GRAVE TATTOO is quite a change in direction for McDermid, especially for those used to her more confrontational and frequently gory well-known novels. This is more of a plot combined with character study that doesn't pay particular attention to one component over the other. The characterisations were, in the main, reasonably detailed and solid, although some of the motivations for actions were tenuous. The setting was excellent with a great feeling for the Lake Districts and the landscape. The suspects were fairly introduced to the reader, although they were a few over obvious attempts at portraying sinister actions which just didn't quite seem to work, plus it seemed that some of the supporting character roles were too detailed in some places and too sketchy in others.
THE GRAVE TATTOO has a very unexpected setting and environment for a crime fiction book than much of the standard offering these days. In attempting to provide a grand and sweeping theory with a grand and sweeping story it did seem to fall a little flat on occasion.
THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE - Rennie Airth
The mutilated body of a young girl is found hidden in a wood by ex-Scotland Yard Detective Inspector John Madden. Her face has been brutally battered and she has been raped. Whilst the local police are concentrated on searching for a tramp known to be in the area at the time, Madden is not convinced this is a one-off opportunistic killing.
THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE is the second book in a series based in the 1930's, incorporating now retired DI Madden and his wife, Helen. John Madden now works as a farmer and his wife has a local GP practice in the small village just down the road from where the girl's body is recovered. Scotland Yard, and Madden's old colleagues are bought into the investigation and more bodies are discovered far away from this location. The investigation moves from the local police and villages to a much wider area across England and into Europe with Scotland Yard taking responsibility and focus ultimately shifting to the Diplomatic Service.
In this book John Madden discovers the body, has his doubts about the direction that the local police take and is ultimately in at the conclusion. Other than that, the investigation centres around the Scotland Yard team. The steps taken by the Yard detectives to identify a likely suspect were just a nice old-fashioned piece of strong detective work, without the availability of wiz bang forensics and resources that would be available in this day and age. The timeframe of the book sets it between the wars and there is a general feeling of menace with the build up towards the Second World War being felt in relations between England and Germany. The tramps and people's reaction to them adds a level of complexity.
The plot showed attention to detail and, in particular, the Scotland Yard personnel were an interesting cast of characters. The old fashioned detecting method of solving a crime was a refreshing change and very well handled. The involvement of Madden and his wife seemed a little opportunistic, designed to keep them in the story to maintain the feeling of the series. Whilst everyone is aware that Helen Madden is very protective of her husband, a few times she was in danger of just being a carping spoilsport, but ultimately the only minor quibble is that the Scotland Yard team did most of the work and Madden got the final glory.
MR CLARINET - Nick Stone
In Nick Stone's debut book, MR CLARINET, ex-cop, ex-PI, most recently convicted of manslaughter, Max Mingus is contacted whilst still in jail by the desperate father of a child kidnapped in Haiti. Despite offering millions of dollars as a reward, Allain Carver, part of the powerful and rich elite of Haitian society, has to pester Mingus in jail and after release, to take up the search for his son. Mingus has a reputation of getting to the bottom of kidnappings and disappearing children, and of taking those searches very much to heart. Carver has been trying, with various other PI's for 3 years, to find his missing infant son. Charlie Carver is not the only child to go missing in Haiti, and a lot of previous investigators have died or been left scarred trying to work their way through a violent and dysfunctional society.
Stone's Haiti is a country very much on the edge, with occupation forces patrolling streets and gangs controlling others, society conventions are disrupted, there is economic meltdown and increasing slum living conditions, confrontational voodoo practices and rituals are being openly used and discussed, and drug lords enforce their brand of tribal law.
This is a big, elaborate thriller of a book, with action, violence and ritual liberally interspersed throughout. A little judicious editing would have been of some benefit as some of the middle sections of the book drag slightly, and some of the voodoo rituals, whilst perhaps thought to add some colour, came across as pointlessly gratuitous.
All round, a good thriller which, despite showing some weaknesses, indicates promise for a second book.
THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS - Matt Beynon Rees
From the Book: Omar Yussef is a school master in Bethlehem. When a favourite former pupil, George Saba, is arrested for murder, Omar is convinced that George has been framed and is determined to uncover the truth behind his arrest. But in the process he falls foul of his headmaster and the local police-chief, and time begins to run out for this teacher-turned-detective. His classroom is bombed and members of his family are threatened. But with no one else willing to stand up for the truth, it is up to Omar to act, even as bloodshed and heartbreak surround him.
As implausible as it sounds Omar Yussef is a man in the middle of an awful situation that you want to meet. Spend some time with. Drink some sa'ada coffee. Talk to about his Bethlehem. Omar brings a unique perspective to murder, to power games and to fanaticism whilst simultaneously providing a human and humane view of life in his Bethlehem. That Bethlehem is a world of conflict within and from without his own society; and the tension that changed viewpoints between generations brings. Where once he intermixed happily with all people in the town, now there's a very different feeling and he's horrified by what he sees happening around him.
Yussef is an opinionated, "difficult" teacher in a refugee camp, he says what he thinks, he likes his pupils to think and to be challenged and he genuinely loves and cares for them - even if he's a bit grumpy with them sometimes. So when an ex-student and friend of his, George Saba is accused of collaborating with the Israelis - a crime punishable by death - and nobody else seems to want to do anything to help, Yussef turns from teaching to detecting. Of course, this isn't going to be quite as big a relief as the UN appointed head of his school thinks - he's been hoping Yussef will retire for years - but he really should have been more careful about cultural sensitivity when he starts putting words into Yussef's mouth.
Mind you, Yussef is not exactly perfect. He is prone to grumpiness, he can be acerbic, he hates anointed authority, he used to have a drinking problem and he's a Muslim in a society made up of the devout and the not so devout of many religions. But he also lives in a very complicated Palestinian society - divided between factions, religions, clans, power bases and the good and the bad. So his complicated nature seems almost tame sometimes by comparison. And that complication is one of the great strengths of THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS. Incorporated alongside a complicated and complex character, there's a complex society and a series of deaths which are stark, appalling and desperately sad. Yussef is also a character that the author has allowed to make mistakes - and he forces Yussef to face those mistakes.
The interesting balancing act in THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS surely has to be that the book tells a story of Palestinian society which has such a realistic feel to it, that really gives the reader insights into the nature of day to day life in Yussef's world, but at the same time, it provides a real plot and it moves forward through the story of Yussef and of George Saba and his family - and all the other families that are dragged into what seems like day to day violence. And under it all there's a message that fanaticism comes in all sorts of different forms - and sometimes it's not directed outwards.
URBAN LEGENDS UNCOVERED - Mark Barber
As they say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. From the horror of the KENTUCKY FRIED RAT (the urban legend which was Barber's inspiration for the writing of this book) to the more modern fakery of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, UK author Mark Barber presents them all. It is not just all about the kitsch campfire stories or teen-scream "it-happened-to-a-friend-of-mine anecdotes"; Barber has detailed the modern day internet scams and spoofs right alongside the creepy or funny stories we all delight in hearing about (of course, as long as they haven't actually been personal experiences of our own).
Working on the premise that each urban legend has a contained moral message or some other reason for its creation, Barber presents his book like an investigative fact file. Many of the cases are referenced back to the author's website or otherwise readily found on the internet, should you wish to take your own investigation that little bit further. There's a lot of "eureka!" moments in the reading of this book as it is impossible not to read of at least one "legend" in each section that you recognise. Barber lists the variations on each, with the possible geographical or culturally diverse reasons for such.
ONE FINE DAY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT - Christopher Brookmyre
Gavin is a holiday tour operator turned big spending resort developer who was invisible at school. Simone, his wife, has had enough of Gavin and his philandering and wants a divorce, although Gavin doesn't know that yet. Catherine is the PR agent for the oil-rig resort and for reasons that even she doesn't even seem to understand, Gavin's latest lover. Matt is a successful stand-up comedian turned wealthy but less successful celebrity due to his part in an American sitcom, and Davie is a violent nutcase turned family-man painter.
What they all have in common is that they all went to the same Glasgow high school, and Gavin, in an attempt to rub in his success, has arranged a large school reunion on his latest project - an oil-rig turned luxury resort. Unfortunately along with the reminiscing and rekindling of old relationships, there is also the unexpected arrival of terrorist hijackers armed with machine-guns, rocket-launchers and not a whole lot of planning.
Whilst the bulk of their schoolmates are held captive, it is up to Matt, Simone, Catherine and Davie to save the day. To do that they team up with the charming and slightly mysterious security consultant Tim Vale and Hector McGregor the hapless, one day into retirement, police officer who stumbles upon the scene in his tartan pyjamas, still a little bit miffed about the local police treating him like a suspect when he was knocked unconscious by a severed arm.
This is classic Christopher Brookmyre. Social commentary, incisive and razor sharp observations of human nature and behaviour, all wrapped up in a rollicking lunatic scenario that is so over the top you have to wonder if it really did happen. Definitely gory, definitely confrontational and definitely not to be missed.