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Preview: Bookends


"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon. De Scribe's addition: "All books that are tasted, swallowed, or chewed and digested shall be reviewed."

Updated: 2014-10-03T08:27:34.222+01:00


Inspector West Regrets: John Creasey


Anthony Kelham, son of shady financier Andrew, is found murdered in his father’s library. Was the son killed accidentally; was the father the real target? The senior Kelham’s secretary Blair is fiercely loyal to his employer though his father was apparently ruined by the financier. So did the ‘butler’ do it in revenge? Griselda Fayne, Anthony’s now-off now-on girlfriend was off at that stage. And she had attempted to shoot Anthony before. So is she the real culprit? The plump Mr. Alexander looms as a mysterious figure for Andrew Kelham, Griselda Fayne and Inspector West himself (not to mention his wife and infant son). What is his role in the murder? And did he commit the follow-up murders to cover his tracks? Andrew’s wife seems to be so seriously ill that she can’t even be told of her husband’s accident, let alone her son’s murder. Where does this figure in the picture? These and more questions are what Chief Inspector West and his New Scotland Yard colleagues answer in Inspector West Regrets. A complete compendium of John Creasey’s works perhaps does not even exist (he apparently wrote more than 600 books under multiple pseudonyms), but it can be said with some certainty that Chief Inspector / Superintendent West was one of his more significant series, with more than 60 titles featuring Roger West. And while there is a certain aura that seems to justify the characters of the Baron and the Toff, the success of West is perhaps the most surprising, considering he is but a regular cop, the rather superfluous tag ‘Handsome’ notwithstanding. Regrets is another example of this role of West. Yes, he faces some dangers, yes he is courageous and relentless, but when you realise on closer inspection that many of the breakthroughs in the case are not quite West’s doing (except getting kidnapped perhaps), you wonder what makes him the hero. Of this book and more than 60 others. [...]

Help from the Baron: John Creasey


Sergeant Worraby of the River Police, Westminster Division, could have ranked right up there along with some of Creasey’s and Edgar Wallace’s best characters; he kick-starts Help from the Baron in classical fashion.Many things are said about Worraby, the most persistent being that he needs only to glance at a corpse beneath the demoralising light of the launch’s searchlight to be able to say—as he invariably does:“Obvious case of felo de se, my lad”, or “Homicidal victim, no one ever did that to himself”, or “Lay you ten to one that wasn’t dead when he hit the water.” Like a doctor diagnosing childish complaints, one glance is all that Worraby needs. He is seldom proved wrong. At public expense, doctors who are already far too busy with the living are nevertheless employed to dissect certain parts of the anatomy of the corpse, write out extensive reports, then give evidence at long and often wearisome inquests; and the verdicts almost invariably concur with Sergeant Worraby’s original: “I can tell you what happened to him, my lad—hit over the head and thrown in. Give you ten to one they tossed him in from Gimble’s Steps.” Or Fisherman’s Bottom, Tickerton’s Wharf, Moss Lane or any of a dozen romantically-named places.The man, who discovers the first ‘body’ in Help, is a character who could’ve carried an entire book, if not a series on his broad shoulders. Unfortunately, not for John Creasey, as the good sergeant disappears after the first 30 odd pages, making but a brief insignificant appearance towards the end. The rest of Help is pure John ‘the Baron’ Mannering and Lorna, Superintendent Bill Bristow, diamonds, fences, murders, kidnappings and smashed skulls, naïveté and romance, and the inevitable build-up of the Baron’s image.One man could take a car engine to pieces and put it together again, another could invent explosives, a third could amass fortunes, a fourth could grow onions; Mannering could open doors and force locks of all kinds. He had once been an expert par excellence. He had, in fact, once been a cracksman extraordinary, to coin a phrase, and in those days he had won much notoriety and not a little fame as the Baron, who always worked strictly incognito. He regarded them as the good or the bad old days, according to his mood, and always remembered them when, as now, he turned the lock with hardly a sound.The Baron is perhaps Creasey’s best character. And Help is typical Baron fare. It takes a Creasey fan to recognise the compliment in that sentence.But a serious character is lost in the form of Sergeant Worraby, who had only to sniff the river breeze a laden cargo-boat passed to say where she came from and what she carried, what her tonnage was, whether her crew were lascars, Chinese, Malays, white men, Dutch or Greek, French or Madagascan.Ironically, even a Google search for ‘Sergeant Worraby’ today threw up precisely one result.[...]

Kappa: Ryunosuke Akutagawa


When the cover proclaimed Ryunosuke Akutagawa as the author of Rashomon, I picked up Kappa immediately. Then I turned to the back of the book. Patient No. 23 tells his story to anyone in the asylum who will listen: on his way home through the valley, he fell into a deep abyss while chasing a nimble creature with a face like a tiger and a sharp beak. The creature was a Kappa, and when he awoke he was in Kappaland. I almost put the book back. But Rashomon won and the book accompanied me home. It turned out to be a good decision after all. Kappaland is Akutagawa’s metaphor to comment on humankind and on Japanese society in particular. It is a Gulliver’s Travels from Japan, if you will. And just as satirical. For the large part, Akutagawa uses the Kappa as an anti-man, a simple inversion. The most puzzling of all was the confusing Kappa way of getting everything upside down: where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and, similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest. Like this one on clothing. The one thing that struck me as really amusing was the fact that the Kappa does not wear any form of loin covering. On one occasion, I tried asking Bag about this practice. He threw his head back and guffawed so loudly and so long that I thought I’d never be able to stop. His reply—once he’d managed to restrain himself enough to be able to talk—didn’t make matters any better. ‘I get just as much amusement from the way you cover yourself.’ There are similar takes on birth control, gene mixing and the relationship between man and woman, among others. On other occasions, Akutagawa exaggerates typical human practices. Like the rather grotesque reference to unemployed workers being killed and eaten (by other Kappas) to ensure zero unemployment. Or the references to politics, war and unscrupulous businessmen. Or when he dwells on concepts like ends justifying means, life beyond life and organised religion. The section where the poet Tok, who commits suicide, resurfaces as a ghost in a séance is perhaps the highpoint of the book. In particular, his responses to two questions: why he came back as a ghost, and what he will do if he wearied of the spiritual life. This slim, brilliantly translated work (Geoffrey Bownas) is definitely worth a read. You will need just one sitting to finish it. [...]

Inspector Imanishi Investigates: Seichō Matsumoto


Considering the feet-on-the-street nature of a typical police procedural, it tends to afford a good view of the city where the crime (and the corresponding investigation) takes place. With Inspector Imanishi, it gets even better. Since the investigation takes the inspector (and his assistant in some cases) to different cities in Japan, the book gives the reader a broad sweep of Japan. Particularly evocative is the town of Kameda, famous for its cloth (the Kameda weave) and its dried noodles. The two detectives visited the dried noodle shop. Next to it, bamboo poles were set with noodles draped from them. This made the noodles appear like white waterfalls when the sun shone on them. Another reason to read Inspector Imanishi is the window it gives into Japanese society. (Though it is important to keep in mind that the book was originally written in the early 1960s, and hence be aware that some of these may have changed, especially the portrayal of the woman in a rather submissive role.) The habit of pouring tea into one’s rice I found particularly fascinating. As also the innate hospitality of the Japanese, even to strangers. Purely from the perspective of the police investigation itself, Inspector Imanishi throws up a few surprises. There is absolutely no pace or urgency in the investigation. Which, contrary to what you may expect, seems to work in the book’s favour. After the initial flurry of activity, except for Inspector Imanishi, no one else seems even too interested in unravelling the murder. So while there is no real cooperation extended to the inspector (except at a very peripheral level by Yoshimoro Hiroshi), there isn’t too much expectation and pressure either. Perhaps this ensured that the investigation team did not cut corners, did not commit mistakes on account of time pressures. The personality of the murderer is another interesting aspect of the book. Even when he starts sniffing the investigation, he doesn’t target Inspector Imanishi. Moreover, apart from the core murder, for which he has a good motive, the murderer is forced into some of the other murders just to cover his tracks. Which he does, without coming across as particularly bloodthirsty. Cold-blooded? Hmm, no. Logical is more the word that comes to mind. Only when Inspector Imanishi starts holding things back from you does the book sag a bit. Until then, you are with him at every stage (even though, amusingly, Yoshimora never seems to be). Ultimately the pieces fall together and you are with him again. The film version of this book, Vessel of Sand (also the Japanese title of the book), is considered one of the classics of Japanese cinema, and it is not hard to see why when you read the book. All things considered, Inspector Imanishi Investigates is a world-class police procedural on many counts – worthy of comparison with the best in the business.[...]

The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels: Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg (ed.)


The name of Leslie Charteris jumped out from the cover: it was both attractive and worrying. Attractive because any Saint adventure is unlikely to be uninteresting; worrying because the Saint is more a detective than a spy. The suspicion got stronger when I opened the book and noticed that the first story was The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans – one of those rare stories featuring the Holmes brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft. I succumbed nevertheless, or more truthfully, because I saw these names. Add to Charteris and Holmes Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, a bit of James Bond and Modesty Blaise and an Erle Stanley Gardner piece (though not featuring that crack lawyer Perry Mason), and I reckoned it fair to expect some reasonable pulp here, even if I hadn’t read anything from any of the other authors featured in this collection. To begin with, my suspicions were not misplaced. None of the twelve stories featured in the collection involve espionage, at least in the sense you would perhaps expect in the full-length Ashenden novels or the John le Carré ones. Yes, most of the stories involve a spy, but they don’t involve spying. And in the case of Holmes, the spy is not even the protagonist. If Octopussy is not the weakest Bond adventure ever, then I would be hard put to understand the legend of 007. I remember the film being very different from the short story featured here, and the reason is not difficult to see. There is just no action worth a spy in the tale – Bond hardly does any spying, any racing or any death-defying stunts. And, horror of horrors, 007 doesn’t even kill Major Dexter Smythe. The anti-climax in the Modesty Blaise starrer The Giggle-Wrecker, while funny, is just too daft to be believable; The Danger Zone suggests that Erle Stanley Gardner is clearly lost without Perry Mason; the Ashenden tale, The Traitor, is almost a family drama in its poignancy; and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans is certainly not one of the better Holmes adventures, notwithstanding the presence of the almost unbelievably impressive Mycroft – the villain is captured and exposed a bit too easily. The biggest disappointment of the collection has to be the Saint caper, The Sizzling Saboteur. But for the absence of techno-gadgetry and the aggressive cavorting with women, I rate the Saint a more interesting character than Bond. But in this novella, the real Saint just doesn’t show up. And the bartender being the “butler” as it were, while admittedly a nice twist, did bring down the intensity of the narrative, lacking as the bartender did the organisation to be a real threat to the Saint. And then there are the one that make up the numbers. John D. MacDonald’s Betrayed is unbelievably amateurish, Cornell Woolrich’s Tokyo, 1941 too full of maudlin patriotism and Edward D. Hoch’s The People of the Peacock just has too many elements to make for a coherent tale. Three tales in the collection could perhaps have progressed to a passable level if they had been treated as full-length novels: Bruce Cassiday’s Deep-Sleep, John Jakes’ Dr. Sweetkill and Michael Gilbert’s The Spoilers. However, the format (more short story than novella in most cases in the collection, except perhaps the Charteris one) makes them hurried, and all three fall into the same trap: a weak villain organisation though an unmistakeably strong villain. Bill Pronzini and that other great aggregator, Maxim Jakubowski, did for a living what people like me do on the side – read crime fiction. They have spent most of their working life providing such collections. The usual trend with these collections is that they tend to be a mixed bag – some average works from well-known names, some hidden gems and some indifferent authors peddling some inane ware. But Pronzini and Greenberg are much more consistent in their pick here – all the selections are consistently disappointing. [...]

Travels with Herodotus: Ryszard Kapuściński


Struck by a desire to cross the border, even if to just cross it and come right back, Ryszard Kapuściński tells his editor in chief Irena Tarlowska that he would like to go abroad, perhaps to Czechoslovakia. As fate would have it, he is identified to go slightly further than that: to India. At the end of our conversation, during which I learned that I would indeed be going forth into the world, Tarlowska reached into a cabinet, took out a book, and handing it to me said: “Here, a present, for the road.” It was a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, The Histories. A simple and rather uneventful start to a great friendship. Kapuściński arrives in India and let alone the sundry Indian languages, he doesn’t even know English. So he reads Ernest Hemingway, yes, Ernest Hemingway, to learn English. And as he gets going on that, he marvels (or should that be shudders?) at the power of language. Language stuck me at that moment as something material, something with a physical dimension, a wall rising up in the middle of the road and preventing my going further, closing off the world, making it unattainable. This fear of language persists with Kapuściński as he moves on to China and to some of the other countries he travels to as well. Thankfully, it didn’t deter the man who had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences according to his Wikipedia entry. The key to Kapuściński’s success perhaps lies in his curiosity. Even as he encounters Herodotus, he wonders about how he was as a boy, what his toys were, what his father did, even what his memories of his childhood were. Curiosity naturally leads to observation, a trait manifested when, after going through India and China, he wonders about the faces of Hindus and Chinese. The face of the Hindu contains surprise: a red dot on a forehead, colourful patterns on cheeks, or a smile that reveals teeth stained dark brown. The face of a Chinese holds no such surprises. It is smooth and has unvarying features. It seems as if nothing can ruffle its still surface. It is a face that communicates that it is hiding something about which we know nothing and never will. Kapuściński’s readings of Herodotus are as interesting as his discoveries in this travel. His profile of Herodotus indicates his veneration for the Greek historian. He is a consummate reporter: he wanders, looks, talks, listens, in order that he can later note down what he learned and saw, or simply to remember better. And his verdict on The Histories? The Histories is the product of natural talent but also an example of writerly craft, of technical mastery. Kapuściński’s insight on the Greeks of Herodotus’ era suggests that he follows Herodotus’ approach as well. They are far from being born killers. They do not have a taste for soldiering. If there is an opportunity to avoid a clash, they eagerly seize it. Sometimes they will go to great lengths just to avoid as a skirmish. Unless the opponent is another Greek, of course—in which case they will wrestle with them furiously. Herodotus believes that history is the narrative of conflict. Kapuściński layers that by wondering: if reason ruled the world, would history even exist? Kapuściński’s adoration of Herodotus perhaps emerges because of the latter’s view of the subjectivity of history. …however evolved our methods, we are never in the presence of unmediated history, but of history recounted, presented, history as it appeared to someone, as he or she believes it to have been. This is precisely what Kapuściński does for a living – listening and recounting. So when he asserts that reportage comes from travel, people you meet and homework (from his Lettre Ulysses Award Key Note Speech 2003), he is referring to history as well. Travels with Herodotus i[...]

Murder in Memoriam: Didier Daeninckx


It’s October 1961, and the Algerians are rebelling against the French, and one such demonstration is in progress in Paris. But that shouldn’t really matter to the Latin and History teacher, Roger Thiraud. His wife is pregnant, a situation that induces in him a passion for the history of childhood. Sure he has a guilty secret, but a love for horror movies, even in the 1960s, is hardly something that will attract the attention of the French government, or the Algerian rebels for that matter. As the demonstration gathers momentum, Roger stops just outside his home, and watches both fascinated and horrified by what was taking place in front of him. That is when a man armed with a gun walks up to Roger Thiraud and shoots him dead. Twenty years later, Roger’s son Bernard Thiraud and his fiancée Claudine Chenet stop over at Toulouse for a couple of days en route to Morocco. In those two days, Bernard spends all his time rummaging through the archives at the town hall. As he wraps up his research on the second day and heads to the hotel and to Claudine, a man armed with a gun shoots Bernard Thiraud dead. The first murder is brushed under the carpet of the demonstration, with Roger Thiraud being considered an accidental albeit unfortunate victim. Inspector Cadin in Toulouse investigates the second murder. And that is the crime fiction part of Murder in Memoriam. The Algerian demonstrations of 1961 form the searing sub-plot. What happens when there is political unrest in the country? How does it impact the men in power, the men in authority and the common man? That’s the underbelly of Murder in Memoriam. As a murder mystery, it is tempting to poke holes at some aspects of the investigation. Like how Muriel Thiraud, Roger’s wife, comes out of her twenty-year reverie and helps Inspector Cadin rather effortlessly. Like how Inspector Cadin almost misses as simple a trick as the killer taking an alternate, longer escape route from Toulouse to Paris. In the absence of the political sub-text, those slips would have mattered more. But not in Murder in Memoriam. The power with which Daeninckx lays bare the events behind events of 1960s France overpowers all other aspects of this book. And if that doesn’t satisfy you, the denouement should – as chilling as any I have come across in a long long time. And then there is the post-script. I’d already been told to soft pedal it. At the Ministry they were drawing up a version more in keeping with the idea that the citizenry had of the guardians of public order. [...]

The Uncommon Reader: Alan Bennett


The old saying about ill winds came back to me when I was on a bus in central London. As is their wont, this bus decided to stop midway through its route. So all of us had to get down, at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. As I stepped on to the road on that rainy summer evening, I saw the Waterstones bookstore across the street, and decided to duck in there for a few minutes before chasing my next bus. It was in this unexpected visit to the bookstore that I picked up The Uncommon Reader. A chance incident also provides the premise for the book. While tending to her dog, the Queen accidentally bumps into a travelling library. This sets her off on an unusual royal pursuit: Reading. What happens when the Queen of England starts reading books? In a breezy 100-and-a-few pages of this ironic parable, Alan Bennett manages to weave in many threads in a simple linear narrative. Well, I suppose the premise lends itself rather effortlessly to a multitude of angles. On writing, Alan Bennett has a lot to say. Some preachy, some funny, all believable. None more so when an unnamed Scottish writer is asked by the Queen where his inspiration comes from, and he replies fiercely, “It doesn’t come, Your Majesty. You have to go out and fetch it.” Oh well, the naiveté of the question suggests a dig on the royalty, except that there are more delicious examples of that. Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy. Notice how upbringing becomes philosophy in the space of three sentences? The less initiated may wonder why the royalty is not known for its reading, and why the courtiers of the queen worried about her reading even before it started affecting her royal duties. Well, the answer is provided rather brilliantly by the Queen herself as she reflects on reading. The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading or whether one read them or not. All readers are equal, herself included. Gasp! The queen equal to the Commoner? As the Queen ploughs through a range of writers starting with the obscure Ivy Compton-Bennett and moving on to, among others (and in no particular order), Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan, A S Byatt, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Henry James, WM Thackeray, TS Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Samuel Pepys and Alice Munro, her reading style develops as well. To begin with, it’s true, she read with trepidation and with some unease. The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had not idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another, and often she had two or three on the go at the same time. The next stage had been when she started to make notes, after which she always read with a pencil in hand, not summarising what she read but simply transcribing passages that struck her. It was only after a year or so of reading and making notes that she tentatively ventured on the occasional thought of her own. With a subject like this, you wouldn’t expect any other significant characters in the book – it’s perhaps even an element of the plot that the queen dominates every page of the book. However, two characters clearly had potential for a meatier characterisation: Norman Seakins, the kitchen-boy-turned-amanuensis and Sir Kevin Scatchard, the Queen’s private secretary. A lesser author might have succumbed to temptation and given these people more in the book. The Queen’s transition from reading to writing is not surprising and therefore the book’s ending is a bit of a clichéd surprise, if you will pardon the oxymoron.[...]

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam: Chris Ewan


This is what the back of the book had to say about its plot. In Amsterdam working on his latest novel, Charlie is approached by a mysterious American who asks him to steal two apparently worthless monkey figurines from two separate addresses on the same night. At first he says no. Then he changes his mind. Only later, kidnapped and bound to a chair, the American very dead, and a spell in police custody behind him, does Charlie realise how costly a mistake he might have made. The police think he killed the American. Others think he knows the whereabouts of the elusive third monkey. But for Charlie only three things matter. Can he clear his name? Can he get away with the haul of a lifetime? And can he solve the gaping plot hole in his latest novel? The most interesting aspect of Chris Ewan’s debut work is the profession of the protagonist: Charlie Howard doesn’t just write books about a career thief, he also happens to be one. And this case, he also solves the crime. The characterisation brims with possibilities. Of intersecting and diverging plots, parallel narratives, common characters, a Lhosa-like spillover from the story to the street and vice versa, and much more. May be Chris Ewan will make capital of these in future (this book claims to be the first in a series). May be that’s why he has defined the protagonist the way he has. With such a protagonist, I suppose one should not be surprised at the use of the first person narrative. Except that it comes with its own inevitable bit of navel-gazing – that this is a first novel of the author comes through in this – the protagonist, like the author, appears to be too conscious of himself at times. There are but a handful of characters in the entire book, and all of them are suspects. And then there are the cops. With enough crime fiction under your belt, you should know where this is heading. Shades of Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders here, including the identity of the real criminal? Oops, did I reveal too much? I find crime fiction set in different countries and cities to be more interesting than travelogues and guide books; the crime makes a good backdrop and the process of investigation affords a good sense of the country / city – the geography, the people, the politics and economics of the country, the corruption, the weather, etc. Maj Sjöwall / Per Wahlöö and Henning Mankell are my local travel guides for Sweden; Georges Simenon serves as a good Lonely Planet for France; Arlandur Indridason shows you around Iceland; and scores of writers lay bare the towns, cities and villages of England and the US. Unfortunately, except for the odd walk through the city roads and a few anonymous restaurants, The Good Thief’s Guide doesn’t provide so much as a picture postcard of Amsterdam; this book could’ve been set just as well anywhere in the world. Well, I suppose it’s my fault really, the key is to pick up a work by a native writer: Chris Ewan is an Englishman. There were a few unmistakable alert signals with The Good Thief’s Guide. To begin with, the title itself. It’s one of those that suggest that the book can only sit in the extremes. The tagline that goes with the title (Three Wise Monkeys. One Baffled Thief.) offered no reassurance either. Then there was the fact that author-signed copies of the book were freely available in the High Street in London. Especially considering it is a debut work, this surely is a staggering exhibition of arrogance, confidence or desperation? On the other hand, these factors together perhaps reduced my expectation when I went into the book – I found the book to be racy and witty, notwithstanding the warts and all. [...]

The Last Lecture: Randy Pausch


The concept of the last lecture is as interesting as it is doomed to fail. It is all very well to ask professors: What wisdom would we want to impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy? But if a professor is faced with such a question, what are the odds (s)he would not get maudlin and sound like a badly written motivational book full of such gems as “speak the truth”, “get your priorities right” and “be humble”? In the case of Professor Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the situation is even more poignant than the last lecture just being a hypothetical “last”: he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had been given just a few more months to live. So he treats the last lecture as his opportunity to download everything from his head; it is his “how to” guide for the world. This book is serves as a companion volume for the actual lecture, put together by Professor Pausch himself through Jeffrey Zaslow. When you are faced with a lecture title like “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” you know what to expect. And Professor Pausch does not disappoint. A collection of poignant childhood stories, a series of courageous statements about why he wants to live on not for himself but for his children, some cries for honesty and truthfulness, and glowing tributes to his wife, his children and his colleagues. Well, to be honest, the professor makes a clear disclosure in the book itself, when he suggests: If at first you don’t succeed, try a cliché. And he certainly walks the talk. It may not always be a cliché in expression, but it almost invariably is in thought. Professor Randy Pausch is known to be one of the best in the field of computer programming and virtual reality, and his greatest contribution to mankind is well likely to be Alice, an educational software that teaches 3D computer programming to kids – it a non-profit project from CMU that he has pioneered from the beginning. This book, as Pausch himself admits, is his legacy to his children. So it’s not fair for anyone else to judge it but his children. May be it shouldn’t have been made commercially available. The actual lecture can be found at the end of this post, but considering it lasts more than one hour, you really need to have a lot of time to view it. The book, on the other hand, because it has been written as 61 semi-independent pieces, enables you to dip and dip out whenever you get small time slots. Tailpiece: Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer some time in October 2006. In August 2007, he was told that he had about 3-6 months of relatively good health. But the good news is that as recent as 10 June 2008, he seems to be fit enough to even blog about his latest success – a letter from none other than George W. Bush. You can access the professor's blog here.[...]

Hangman’s Holiday: Dorothy L. Sayers


The re-issue of this collection of short stories by one who, the author introduction in the book claims, was the greatest detective novelist of the golden age (a claim that can be contested, perhaps successfully, considering one of Sayers’ contemporaries was a certain Dame Agatha Christie), proclaims loudly on the cover: Featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Lord Peter Wimsey was the famous detective created by Dorothy Sayers, a character not unlike Hercule Poirot, a rightful occupant of the front row in the list of illustrious amateur detectives, and one, who Sayers once commented was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, so it is not unnatural for the publishers to use the Lord’s name as a marketing vehicle for the collection. However, as you read the twelve stories that comprise the collection, you realise that only four of them feature the aristocratic sleuth. And they are not the best stories in the collection either. Pride of place should perhaps go the story titled The Man Who Knew How, a light satire on the genre itself – truly brilliant stuff. It is one of the two stories in the collection that don’t feature either Wimsey or the intriguing Montague Egg, a travelling wine salesman by profession who does some crime-busting on the side. Montague Egg features in six of the stories, solving crimes by virtue of simple thinking and common sense. Modest when it comes to accepting too much credit for his final achievements, Egg’s otherwise persistently and mostly self-referential chatter is interesting in itself, as is his tendency to quote from the seemingly encyclopaedic Salesman’s Handbook, a collection of (mostly) rhyming aphorisms for people in that profession. Ranging from the philosophical “Discretion plays a major part in making up a salesman’s art, for truths that no one can believe are calculated to deceive” to the more practical “The salesman’s job is to get the trade – don’t leave the house till the deal is made.” Like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers also wrote, apart from a few other things, what one may call “puzzle fiction”, as opposed to crime fiction. It’s a genre in which the plots are precisely carved, the characters are neatly etched, the detective is a memorable character, the motives are clearly established, the settings are picture-perfect and the endings are pleasingly well-rounded. To achieve all this, you need space, time and sufficient events to build up the plot. This is something the short story format does not afford, and it shows in Hangman’s Holiday, particularly in the stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey aristocracy, his stately pace of working, his detailed approach, evident in some of Sayers’ full-length novels (Murder Must Advertise comes to mind) just don’t get a look-in in the works of this collection. The story titled The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey is a particularly terrible tale. The Egg stories are relatively better, because of the light touch. Overall, there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction when you read the stories, a sense of something hurried, a sense of there being too many loose ends, a sense of glibness in the detection; in sum, a sense of artificiality permeates the collection. And yes, I must confess I didn’t understand the title.[...]

The Tenant & The Motive: Javier Cercas


Mario was a fanatic for order; when he went out for a run each morning he followed an identical itinerary. Álvaro took his work seriously. Every day he got up punctually at eight. He cleared his head with a cold shower and went down to the supermarket to buy bread and the newspaper. When he returned he made coffee and toast with butter and marmalade and ate breakfast in the kitchen, leafing through the paper and listening to the radio. By nine he was sitting in his study ready to begin the day’s work. With protagonists like this, the plot typically tends to go in one of two directions – the routine of the protagonists gets disrupted and breaks them or their obsession with order starts ruling them. Javier Cercas, however, breaks the mould and offers these two exquisite satirical novellas. The Tenant is centred on Mario Rota, a professor of linguistics who twists his ankle while out on his morning run, which leads to more than just a few days off from the university. The Motive follows the efforts of Álvaro, a writer seeking inspiration and meat for his next novel from his neighbourhood, thus leading to disastrous consequences for his neighbours. What makes these novellas worth a read or two? To begin with, perhaps the format itself. The relative shortness compared to a regular novel-length, enables a tight narrative and a sharp focus on the central characters, so much so that while The Tenant has at least two (if not three) other characters who have a significant impact on the storyline, the narrative never focuses away from Mario Rota. In The Motive, all the other characters are really as much characters of Álvaro as they are of Javier Cercas. On the other hand, by not writing these two pieces as short stories, Cercas gives himself enough to breathe, to bring out the character of the protagonists, to provide enough events to give the narratives some solid dimension. The level of detail grips without distracting. Another noticeable feature of these two novellas is the contrast between the bleakness of the situations faced by the characters and the lightness of the narrative tone (a nod to the translator as well – Anne McLean). While this may appear to come in the way of building empathy with the characters, it works because it creates a sense of irony, a good and ubiquitous ally when satire is the object. However, the most important reason these novellas merit high praise is the way Cercas has ended them. As you race through the narrative, many possible endings come up in your mind, and one of them does actually turn out to be Cercas’ ending as well. So it’s not so much a surprise ending, as it is a logical and realistic one. And a brilliant one, in both cases. Note: In the unlikely event this review comes to the notice of someone who has read Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis, I would appreciate some views on it.[...]

The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle: John Creasey


To many people, characters like the Baron may sound straight out of scripts of low-brow entertainer movies, centred on superheroes who can achieve whatever they set out to, be irresistible to every woman they meet and escape every seemingly fatal situation virtually unscathed. So they may be, but they are entertainment unlimited for lazy Sunday afternoons and for train journeys.

It was in one such longer-than-anticipated train that I read The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle. This very clearly is one of the later pieces involving the Baron, because he also used to be a Robin Hood of sorts earlier, stealing precious stones from the undeserving rich. I like that Baron better: The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle is a bit too tame by those standards; it does not feature the Baron, just John Mannering.

But Mannering is a superhero, isn’t he, so the plot requires superhero-dom as he goes off to Hong Kong, originally to attend an exhibition of rare jewels, but, as it turns out, to broker peace between two warring political factions in China. Why does he do it?

The truth was, he wanted to. It was not that he thought he should, conscience had nothing to do with it. He responded to such a challenge as this as other men responded to the call of the high mountains, or the great oceans, or great causes. It was the same call that made him the Baron.

So Mannering does, and succeeds, with the usual mixture of foiled attempts on his life, the odd red herrings, his impeccable disguises (he changes himself to look and talk like an American, and fools everyone, including those at the American embassy) and the inevitable not-so-surprising twist in the end.

Honestly, I think Creasey should have stayed inside the British isles (or restricted himself to the odd adventure into the mainland European continent). Asia is not his comfort zone, and it shows. The stereo-typing is un-missable and the touch of exotica, inevitable. But the real let-down is the absence of even some minimum research to get the facts right.

“The woman approached me as I walked here, and I gave her five twenty-anna notes.”

This is a dialogue mouthed by Mannering to the police in Bombay, India. Never in the history of India have they had currency notes denoted in annas. Even if one assumes a printer’s devil and substitute notes with coins, it doesn’t stand up, because twenty-anna coins never existed in India either. Two printer’s devils and you get twenty-paisa coins, which may just pass muster, but then that’s too much blame to apportion to the editors and to save the author.

Will this stop me from reading or re-reading more from my John Creasey collection? Reading Creasey has perhaps become too much of a habit for me to give it up completely, but I reckon I certainly will think twice before reading another of his books set outside England.

The Book of Murder: Guillermo Martínez


My records tell me I read Guillermo Martínez’s The Oxford Murders almost exactly two years ago. My memory tells me I was not overly impressed with it. Nevertheless, I still picked up the author’s second book, The Book of Murder. And read it. And I don’t regret it. The plot is interesting. A series of seemingly accidental deaths occur in the family of Luciana B, a “girl who took dictation”, as she is quaintly described. Her boyfriend gets drowned, her parents die after consuming some poisonous mushrooms and the care home where her grandmother lives is set on fire as part of a series of arson attacks in the town. So what is mysterious about these deaths? For starters, Luciana’s boyfriend is a lifeguard, and he gets drowned on a fairly normal un-stormy day, with no evidence of any other weather-related quirk or personal disability. Possibly his coffee was drugged? Her parents pick mushrooms from the same spot every year for their anniversary, for the same mushroom pie her mother considers her special recipe, her father endures and the rest of the family suffer. This ritual has been going on for years. So how did the mushrooms change character this time round? The series of arson attacks in the town were all targeted at small furniture stores through the town. With one exception: the one on the care home where Luciana’s grandmother lived. And Luciana believes that her sister Valentina is the next target. Target of whom? Is there a connection at all between the different incidents? Yes, reckons Luciana. She is sure she knows the murderer: her one-time employer and famous author Kloster. What convinces her of this? Because she believes she was in a sense responsible for the death of Kloster’s young daughter. And this was Kloster's way of extracting revenge. Luciana worked with Kloster in the past, taking dictation for his books. For quite a while, the relationship was purely professional and they didn’t even touch one another. And then one day, Kloster cannot resist the allure of Luciana’s neck (as much a character in the book as anyone else, more on that later) and makes an advance. For reasons best known to herself, Luciana resists, makes a row and leaves Kloster’s service. On the advice of her mom and an overzealous counsellor, Luciana initiates legal proceedings against Kloster (and gets ample monetary recompense). When Kloster’s shrew of a wife gets to hear of it, she gets a divorce from Kloster and takes away their daughter. And the daughter dies in her bath because of the mother’s carelessness. What’s the truth? That’s the climax in the book. So what makes The Book of Murder worth a read? Brief in presence, significant in impact and charming and unique as a mannerism, Luciana’s neck deserves the first slot. . . . this was her pattern from then on: a kiss on arrival, her little bag dropped, almost thrown, beside the sofa, two hours of dictation, coffee and a brief smiling conversation in the narrow kitchen, two more hours’ work, and, at a certain point, unfailingly, the bending of her head to one side then the other, half painfully, half seductively, and the sharp crack of her vertebrae. Guillermo Martínez, the author, is a PhD in mathematics. This aspect perhaps stood a bit more pronounced in The Oxford Murders. Here, however, he seems to find his literary voice. That he managed to carry the entire book through with just three characters of significance is ample testimony to this. It has helped him pace the narratives, define the characters sharply, warts and all, and enabled a tight focus on the action. Not least of all is the character of the narrator, another albeit less-successful author for whom Luciana had worked brief[...]

Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans: Luis Fernando Verissimo


It breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction, if such rules are indeed sacrosanct. (No, I’m not telling you which one it breaks, lest I be accused of a similar act.) The plot is almost entirely dependent on the misinterpretations of the narrator, and those are more than a touch amateurish. The style is epistolatory, which means there is a bit too much of the narrator in the narrative. Despite all that, Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans is a delightful read. A simple linear locked-room murder mystery on the face of it, Borges is in the form of a series of letters from the narrator (identified just as Seňor Vogelstein) to Jorge Luis Borges, who also plays the “detective” and solves the mystery in the end and “writes” the last letter, the classical denouement. Edgar Allan Poe is an integral element of the book and forms the backdrop and “contributes” to the references. The narrator, a wide-eyed admirer of both Borges and Poe (in that order), is a fifty-year old who has led a cloistered life, “without adventures or surprises”, who has had a “sheltered life spent among books.” He gets an invitation to attend the 1985 Israfel Society Conference, a meeting of Edgar Allan Poe specialists. There he bumps into, among others, Borges, and then, more significantly (at least as far the plot of this book is concerned), into the corpse of a murdered man. The deciphering of this murder forms the rest of the book. So what makes Borges such a delightful read? For one, there is the richness of the inter-textual references, dominated, surprise surprise, by Borges and Poe. Including the obvious ones of the orang-utan and the raven of Poe and the labyrinth, the mirrors and most significantly, the tail, of Borges, Verissimo goes deep, especially into Borges’ writings, making it clear what the objective of the book is: an unashamed tribute to the Argentinean great. These references, especially when they appear in the conversations, both about the murder and otherwise, form the backbone of the book and its raison d’être. The light-hearted tone that prevails throughout is another reason that contributes to the success of Borges. Here, the narrative style adopted by Verissimo comes in handy. A letter lets you be personal, opinionated and expressive, and that is what Verissimo is in this book. The result: you get the feeling you’re listening to a fireside story. Of course, the tenseness of a murder investigation is missing, but then, this is not your typical murder mystery – the unravelling of the crime is almost incidental to the overall objective of the book. A third, possibly related aspect of the book is the role of the narrator. Apart from being the reporter on the scene, he also is one of the main investigators (such as they are); he acts as Borges’ mouthpiece; and he is a bit more than all that. Luis Fernando Verissimo is not exactly a household name whereabouts I live or come from. So why did I pick up Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans? Was Borges the attraction? Was it Poe? Or was it a wild hunch? Whatever it was, it was a worthy pick. Few things in life are more pleasurable than a chance pick turning out to be a riveting read. And Borges was precisely that. If only Verissimo had used a different technique than the narrator confusing the position of the dead body successively as X, O, W, M and ◊, Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans could well have become a real classic.[...]

Time's Arrow: Martin Amis


After the not-so-satisfying experience with Night Train, what prompted me to pick up another book by Martin Amis? Well, a good friend whose judgment I trust recommended it to me. And I was not to be disappointed. Using a different narrative technique is like using a double-edged sword – you can lose the plot if you get too absorbed in the technique and forget the narrative. Thankfully, Amis retains his focus when he architects a book where the story flows backwards. And in a neat kill of two birds with one stone, it also enables Amis to get rid of one area he seemed weak at, at least on the evidence of Night Train: how to finish a book. The challenge with reading a book of this nature is to be constantly aware of the chronological flip, especially considering the heaviness of the plot: the life and times of a Nazi war criminal, and a doctor to boot. Thankfully, the linguistic control, precision and tightness of Amis help in countering this challenge quite easily. Another fear that crept into my mind when I realised the reversal of the clock was this: how gory can descriptions of personal activities get. Here’s Amis’ response. All life, all sustenance, all meaning (and a good deal of money) issue from a single household appliance: the toilet handle. At the end of the day, before my coffee, in I go. And there it is already: that humiliating warm smell. I lower my pants and make with the magic handle. Suddenly it’s all there, complete with toilet paper, which you use and then deftly wind back on to the roll. Later, you pull up your pants and wait for the pain to go away. The pain, perhaps, of the whole transaction, the whole dependency. No wonder we cry when we do it. Quick glance down at the clear water in the bowl. Then the two cups of decaff before you hit the sack. The next paragraph is even better. Eating is unattractive too. First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher, which works okay, I guess, like all my other labour-saving devices, until some fat bastard shows up in his jumpsuit and traumatises them with his tools. So far so good: then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skilful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon. That bit’s quite therapeutic at least, unless you’re having soup or something, which can be a real sentence. Next you face the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage, before the return of these foodstuffs to the Superette, where, admittedly, I am promptly and generously reimbursed for my pains. Notwithstanding the automatic humour that the technique affords, the poignancy of the plot does not get diluted, especially in those pieces in the concentration camp. Rather, the narrative forces you to linger a little more, and absorb the magnitude of what happens there. Therein, I reckon, lies the triumph of Time’s Arrow.[...]

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Dr. Oliver Sacks


What’s the feeling you get reading Dr. Oliver Sacks? It’s not unlike sitting around the fireplace along with ten other kids, listening to stories from our favourite Grandpa Ollie. The only difference is that Grandpa is not telling us mythological stories, but stories from his own life as a neurologist, of the different interesting cases he has been involved in. And what is the essence of these cases? We have five senses in which we glory and which we recognise and celebrate, senses that constitute the sensible world for us. But there are other senses – secret senses, sixth senses, if you will – equally vital, but unrecognised, and unlauded. . . . Yet their absence can be quite conspicuous. If there is defective (or distorted) sensation in our overlooked secret senses, what we then experience is profoundly strange, an almost incommunicable equivalent to being blind or being deaf. If proprioception is completely knocked out, the body becomes, so to speak, blind and deaf to itself – and (as the meaning of the Latin root propius hints) ceases to ‘own’ itself, to feel itself as itself. And while one is able to imagine what a person without one of the core five senses could possibly feel and experience (Dr. Sacks himself dealt with one such in Seeing Voices where he dealt with the blind), people with a defective / distorted / missing sensation of the secret senses certainly seem to be beyond our regular imagination. Dr. Sacks uses the same case history approach in The Man . . . as he used in his other books, including that marvel, An Anthropologist on Mars. The book is categorized into four sections – Losses focuses on people who have lost one of their secret senses; Excesses dwells on those who have a significantly overactive secret sense; Transports takes you into the lives of who have an altered views or perceptions, a different inner vision if you will; and The World of the Simple comprises four poignant tales of people who were children in many senses but amazingly adult in others. Each story in the book is as riveting as the next, as insightful as the previous. Of course, different stories may resonate better with different people, depending on their dominant secret senses, I suppose. My personal favourite is the short piece titled The President’s Speech under Losses. (Just so we get our context right, remember this book was written in early 1985 and the author is based in the US.) The President, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal, was giving a speech in the aphasia ward. And the response? Convulsive laughter. The explanation? Over to Dr. Sacks. He [the aphasiac] cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all to easily . . . As Nietzsche pithily writes, “One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.” Can aphasiacs be used as lie detectors then, I wonder. And then there are those two stories towards the end of the book – one on the autistic twins who can calculate and remember virtually any number or date without being formally trained to be mathematicians, and the other on an autistic artist who does not see the world as a conceptual or abstract entity, rather as a concrete, particular, discrete agglomeration of things. They may, in a manner of speaking, miss the forest for the trees, but they really see the trees in gr[...]

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders: Gyles Brandeth


I remember reading Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary many moons ago. It is one of the many tributes paid to the man still recognised as the first name in detective fiction. It was very difficult to take a position on the book – should you view it as Carr’s work or should you compare it with the original? Little wonder then that it was one of the few Sherlock tributes I read. Until I picked up Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders recently.

What made the book intriguing enough to pick up was the combination two legendary names – the narrative is Sherlock Holmes, the detective is Oscar Wilde.

The hagiographical tone on Wilde was unmistakeable, in terms of the content and the characterisation – his famous statements, a glorification of his skills of detection, his acuity, his sangfroid. . .

The tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle is total and complete as well, in terms of the narrative style, the constant exaltation of Sherlock Holmes, the methods followed by Wilde as Sherlock, the open admission by Wilde that he is playing Sherlock, the carefully planted red herrings, the surprise denouement (except for Wilde himself, another Sherlock staple) . . . the comparisons are obvious through the book.

Which is what put me in the same position as when I was reading Caleb Carr. What am I reading (and reviewing) here? Thankfully, the Wilde part proved to be the differentiator. The insights into his character – the homosexual undertones that are fairly heavily present in the narrative and the characterisations, among other traits you read about here and there about the man – are so convincing (Gyles Brandeth is a Wilde scholar) you feel that’s about the best return you can get from the book.

So there you are, a new reason for reading crime fiction. It’s a darn sight better than reading a biography, even an unauthorised one.

On reflection, I reckon Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders is not quite in the same mould as the Sherlock-in-the-hands-of-lesser-authors. A closer comparison seems to be Mathew Pearl’s first book, The Dante Club, which focused on nineteenth century Boston and a clutch of Dante scholars – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell – investigating a series of murders that are straight out Dante’s works. Pearl’s subsequent novel investigating the murder of Edgar Allan Poe, The Poe Shadow is another comparable piece, as is Arturo Pérez Reverte’s The Club Dumas.

Gyles Brandeth is yet another author I picked off my hat recently (along with the supremely impressive Jean-Patrick Manchette), and it wasn’t quite a waste of money, all things considered.

Of Time and Stars: Arthur C. Clarke


Science fiction was part of my growing years, as much as crime fiction, adventure, fantasy and the like were. However, over time, I gravitated away from it for the same reason I did with fantasy: if I cannot imagine it happening to me, I cannot relate with it. Recently, one of my friends put me at ease about science fiction by a simple definition of the genre: take normal life and twist / invert / change one aspect of it, and that’s science fiction for you. I was taken by the definition. So after a long time, and not with a bit of trepidation, I picked up a science fiction book: Arthur C. Clarke’s Of Time and Stars. The short story format reassured me – I can’t lose the plot for too long. Different worlds, the moon, stars, aliens, plants, animals and birds (oh yes, and humans) – all this and more make up this collection of 18 very short stories. As with any diverse collection, you are bound to like some and not be too impressed with others. Of Time and Stars had more stories I liked than ones that left me cold. If the nifty play on gravity in Green Fingers chills you, the back-to-the-basics simplicity of Into the Comet cannot fail to impress you. The Reluctant Orchid grips you; All the Time in the World freezes you; An Ape About the House sweeps you off your feet. Then there is the philosophical angle in The Fires Within and the religious touches in Encounter at Dawn (Why does this remind me of a story on the Magi by Roald Dahl?) and The Nine Billion Names of God. If the cat and mouse game in Hide and Seek is riveting, the kitten in Who’s There? is cute, as is the canary in Feathered Friend. And then there is Security Check, easily the most stunning story in the collection: every time I think of it my spine tingles. The collection is rounded off by The Sentinel, the story that was the genesis of 2001: A Space Odyssey later on. Arthur C. Clarke died earlier today. The world of science fiction (and science) loses of one of its most significant voices and minds. I recall Clarke’s Three Laws from Profiles of the Future, published as long ago as 1962. 1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” 3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.[...]

Three to Kill: Jean-Patrick Manchette


I begin reading Three to Kill in a pub. The initial few pages almost make me forget my pint of Guinness Extra Cold. The tight and brief first chapter introduces the main character, and a potentially interesting one, Georges Gerfaut, though the “fact that Georges has killed at least two men in the course of the last one year is not germane.” The tight but not-so-brief second chapter ushers in Alonso Emerich y Emerich, who “had also killed people, a good many more than Georges Gerfaut.”

The tightness and the narrative style remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The prose is sparse, the focus is on an impending act, the time shifts are subtle and almost impalpable, there is a sense of inevitability about events that are about to take place. Simply put, you sense you are on to something very different indeed.

The plot is deceptively straightforward. Georges Gerfaut stops to help an injured motorist on the road, and three days later . . . hold on, let Georges himself summarise it.

“Until last summer I was a middle manager in a company in Paris. I went on vacation, and two men tried to kill me, twice, for reasons unknown to me. Two complete strangers. At which point I left my wife and children and, instead of informing the police, I fled. I found myself in a freight car crossing the Alps. A drifter knocked me down with a hammer and threw me off the train. I injured my foot, which is why I limp now.”

The narrative style is where Three to Kill triumphs. It particularly reaches its peak when Alphonsine, with whom Georges has a brief dalliance, is shot and killed. It is not a very significant incident in the plot really (it’s not insignificant either, just in case you wonder whether the narrative rambles, it certainly does not), but its suddenness and directness are chilling.

The different slices of life the book deals with – that of a travelling salesman, that of a rich and retired officer from a banana republic, that of a recluse in the forests deep in the Alps – are as different as they are enchanting.

There are times you gamble on authors you’ve never heard of and hit the jackpot. Jean-Patrick Manchette is one of those for me. If Three to Kill is anything to go by, he is an author whose books I’d want to read more of.

One Step Behind: Henning Mankell


It’s about a quarter of the way into One Step Behind. Kurt Wallander is interviewing Eva Hillström, the mother of one of the murdered teenagers. It’s a routine enquiry, one of many that dot a typical police investigation. Wallander shows Eva a photograph of a suspect; Eva doesn’t recognise the person. Then Wallander shows Eva a photocopy of a group photograph, one member of the group being Eva’s daughter, Astrid. Quietly, Eva goes in and comes back with an original copy of the picture, hands it to Wallander, and says, rather dryly I’d imagine, “Photocopies are never as good as the original.” Wallander questions her on the photograph, and finds out the name of one of the people in it. Immediately, he whips out a notebook and jots down the details. When I read this sequence, all of two pages long, I almost let out a loud “yoo hoo”. Now this investigation did not quite lead (at least not directly) to a very significant breakthrough. Nor was it an exhibition of exemplary intelligence. Of course, it was no stroke of inspiration – inspiration does not have much of a role in a real police procedural. So what led to my exhilaration? I think it kind of drove the point in, the real charm of a police procedural – a series of routine activities, with information and clues hidden within, which need to be identified and mined further till you get to the bottom. A quiet digging into the recesses of the unknown until the crime unveils itself, almost as a matter of course. That is what One Step Behind is – a typical good police procedural. The plot is simple enough – three teenagers disappear; foul play is suspected; Wallander and his cohorts are called in; seemingly unrelated, a police officer turns up dead; the bodies of the teenagers surface later; a fourth friend of the three teenagers is also murdered; the police plough their way through amidst pressure from their bosses, from the families of the victims, from the press and from the public; finally they cotton in on the murderer. What makes One Step Behind (and as an extension, many of Henning Mankell’s works) so gripping is that it manages to capture the mode and mood of police investigation through the language and tone of the narrative (mention must be made also of the splendid translation by Ebba Segerberg) – the matter-of-fact reporting of the murder with no fuss or dramatics, the precise and detailed descriptions (even if much of the detail does not quite further the investigation), the sudden-yet-subtle changes in tempo as the police close down on the suspect, and the frustrations of the job, as evidenced in this splendid summing up. It had often seemed to Wallander that police work was characterised by a series of expectations that were inevitably disappointed. And in this insightful, truthful but essentially not-so-useful comment. A murderer is always crazy. But he can also be cunning and cowardly. He can be like you and me. Of course, One Step Behind is not without its gaps, especially one particularly gaping one. Wallander manages to catch hold of a suspect, but lets her slip by allowing her to visit the ladies’ room unaccompanied. It does take the sheen off an otherwise great book. For me, the most alluring charm of One Step Behind is one of its more insignificant details – Kurt Wallander has diabetes. No, as he says, he has excess sugar in his blood. It lends a certain mortality and frailty to the character and thus raises the book a notch or two. The more impressive aspect of it is that Ma[...]

Night Train: Martin Amis


There are quite a few things wrong with Night Train, chief of which is that it is a book that should not have been written at all. An Englishman trying to write American police procedurals, an over-present self-obsessed protagonist in the form of a woman cop called Mike Hoolihan with a past (alcoholism, an abusive father, so very clichéd), a death that is but a suicide, an investigation so pointless you wonder why the police service would even agree to take it up (though Mike might have a personal reason for doing so), two bullets (or was it three?) inside the head in a suicide (tell me how that works please), a cop-out of an ending (am not too sure I even understood it; if any of you has, please illuminate), random rants on drugs, suicide, etc…

I’ve panned quite a few books on this blog, but Night Train perhaps ranks right on top for one good reason: it doesn’t give you one good reason to read. The only saving grace is that it is a slim volume, so I just wasted one Sunday on it. And I don’t even want to waste any more time putting together a structured and detailed review of the book.

The Admirable Carfew: Edgar Wallace


If Anthony The Brigand Newton made a living by gently taking some cream off the well-endowed and Jack The Iron Grip Bryce by handling difficult cases for a law firm through a combination of brain and brawn, the admirable Felix Carfew survives in spite of himself, and through extra-large portions of luck, “a man who attracted money to him by the exercise of one set of qualities, and repelled it by the employment of another set”. His broker, Parker of Parker & Parker, puts up with him as would the rich father of a benign idiot. Of course, Carfew has a different take on his life. He believes that “the division of responsibility as between Carfew and Providence was so arranged that, if things turned out well, Carfew had succeeded in spite of Providence, and if they failed, they had failed in spite of Carfew.” Starting off with a lucky break after being mistaken for a famous reporter with the same last name, Felix Carfew mostly flukes through the fifteen stories in this collection, selling a dud invention here, befriending a lord here and a rebel brigand there and generally surviving bankruptcy and his own ineptness. In The Eccentric Mr. Gobleheim, for a change luck walks into Carfew’s life in the form of the eccentric duo of Lewis & Gobleheim, who actually offer him an unbelievably good deal. And our admirable protagonist chooses precisely that moment to smell a confidence trickster. Thus losing a cool deal in the bargain. Patriots is a bit of a mini-classic, pitting the US against the UK, specifically New York versus London, in terms of their appreciation of theatre. Tobbins, Limited, the longest story of the lot, takes a dig at advertising and sales promotion, with the subtly named advertising agency, Exploitation Publicity Company. The tale is perhaps a reflection of its times, when advertising was not considered an above-board strategy. It is also one of the few tales in the collection in which Carfew actually succeeds consciously and without the benefit of accidents. One and Sevenpence Ha’penny provides a delightful ending to a largely interesting collection. It has shades of the last episode of Jeffrey Archer’s Not a Penny Less, Not a Penny More. Carfew counts his fortune and finds himself one and sevenpence ha’penny” short of thirty-five thousand pounds. So he goes out to earn it. And in the process, his close circle, his servant Villiers, his broker Parker, an old associate Wilner and his business partner May Tobbin and her father all think Carfew has gone mad. And as with Anthony Newton and Jack Bryce, Carfew gets hitched in the end. Dedicated and committed Plum fans may disagree violently, but in The Admirable Carfew, Edgar Wallace is as delightful as PG Wodehouse in terms of humour and protagonist characterisation. Carfew’s view of life was that all the past had been ordered for his comfort. Thus Edison had been born on a certain day in order that he might have his many electric appliances ready against Carfew reaching maturity. Stephenson had worked with no other object in view than that he should have railways shipshape by the time Carfew could afford to travel first class. Carfew could perhaps have been as memorable a character as Bertie Wooster. A pity, then, that Wallace did not take Felix Carfew beyond this book.[...]

The Iron Grip: Edgar Wallace


Captain Jack Bryce, inscribed in the family records as John Richard Pantagenet, but better known amongst his intimate friends as Wireless Bryce, had dropped his army title, for he had discovered that it prejudiced rather than helped his chance of securing employment. The similarity between Jack Bryce and Anthony The Brigand Newton is unmistakable. There is, however, one significant difference between Newton and Bryce: the Brigand succeeds in making a living through “the art of gentle robbery” using his brain and wit; the protagonist of The Iron Grip thwarts crime using his muscles, and, on the odd occasion, his brain and his looks. The Iron Grip is a collection of ten stories, in each of which Jack Bryce is commissioned by Mr. James Hemmer of Hemmer & Hemmer, an eminent firm of lawyers, to address cases where the lawyers were “constantly getting into difficulties from which private detectives and the ordinary resources of the law cannot extricate” them. The Iron Grip has its moments, especially in the cases where Bryce outsmarts the villains rather than batter them into submission. The story where he does the classic switcheroo by storing the Vlakfontain diamond in the pocket of the villain’s assistant is almost reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. Equally gripping is the case in which Bryce disproves a bigamy accusation by figuring out the time difference between London and Onslow, Western Australia. The one in which he forces the villain to burn a cheque (which he had fraudulently obtained) to save his life is another nice touch. The stories in which Bryce plays the romantic card are interesting as well, especially in the last story, where the role goes beyond the case, the tale and the book itself. Again, an ending not unlike that in The Brigand. However, you cannot get away from the fact that there is something lacking in The Iron Grip. Perhaps it is the glibness with which Bryce turns himself in an Australian (expertise obtained by spending “two hours reading an Australian novel to get the local colour”) in one story and a Canadian in another that dilutes his character and makes it a touch low on credibility. Perhaps it is just that Bryce tends to use his muscles so very often to sort things out, something which is not quite an Edgar Wallace staple. There is a certain charm about a typical Wallace character, a sense of sangfroid, a clever mind at work, a character that lends itself to memorable descriptions, that is conspicuous by its absence in The Iron Grip. Which absence shows itself in the plot and in the language as well. The Iron Grip would perhaps rank among the lesser works of this prolific author.[...]

The Brigand: Edgar Wallace


Anthony Newton was a soldier at sixteen; at twenty-six he was a beggar of favours, a patient waiter in outer offices, a more or less meek respondent to questionnaires which bore a remarkable resemblance one to the other.

Tony Newton struggled through eight years of odd jobs.

And at the end of the eighth year he discussed the situation with himself and soberly elected for brigandage of a safe and more or less unobjectionable variety.
The dictionary defines a brigand as a robber or a bandit, particularly from an outlaw band. But that definition is perhaps too harsh for Tony Newton; he focuses on “the art of gentle robbery.” And he succeeds, as he himself modestly admits.

The curious thing about me is that I’m never beaten. I’ve made money out of the greatest besters in town; I’ve diddled confidence men, and I’ve had money from a moneylender who went to bed Stahlstein and woke to find himself one of the proud Macgregors, and never even paid him back. I have met in single combat the Scot and the Armenian, and I have wrenched from their maws the wherewithal to live. The pup that other men buy licks my hand and develops into a pedigree show dog.
The Brigand is a collection of twelve stories, each an escapade of Tony Newton as he moves from one adventure to another, one gullible rich man to another, escaping a detection here, a marriage to a “plum pudding girl” there, a murder attempt elsewhere, even becoming a successful member of the House of Commons in one delightful episode.

The Brigand is Edgar Wallace at his best – simple storylines, a lovable character with whom you empathise even though you know that he not quite on the straight path, a bit of crime, loads of humour, some deceptively simple philosophising. Among the lesser known one-book-only characters created by Edgar Wallace, Tony Newton would probably be right up there on the top.