Sunday, March 22, 2015

Nobody Walks

Thank you, Soho Crime Club, I knew you'd come through!  Finally, an offering from this good group that I didn't want to put down.  Mick Herron's Nobody Walks (Soho Crime, 2015) is a knockout.  Short, taut, dark, and well-written, this standalone tale of a former MI5 agent loaded for bear is a great read.

Herron is best known (by me anyway) for his Slough House trilogy about washed-up rejects from MI5's Regents Park headquarters.  I've only read two of them, but you'll note that I've enjoyed the characters, and the plots, even if they were occasionally so twisted as to be deeply confusing.  You are never quite sure who came out ahead, however that is construed, in a Mick Herron tale.  That's a good thing because it means you keep thinking about the book after you've finished it.

Our Antihero, Tom Bettany, is a man with a past, and while it takes a little for that past to be revealed, his character has a psychic weight that indicates dark depths, right from the get-go.  He is informed early on of his estranged son's death, and sets out on what seems to be a bull-headed and futile search for whomever is responsible.  I had a hard time getting at his motivation, but I finally figured out that this, like other Herron stories, is basically an indictment of MI5 and their methods for training, using, and discarding personnel.  Bettany may just be responding to latent guilt over his interactions with his family when he was an active agent - or he may have been so programmed by MI5 that he can't reign in his hunting instinct when primed.  There are several references to Bettany's being locked and loaded, a victim himself of the British government's efforts to combat crime and terrorism.  In other words, this is a story to delight the conspiracy-theorists among you.

I love Herron's writing style.  Sometimes he waxes almost poetic, but darkly so:
  "In the morning London exhaled, and its breath was foul.  It swam upwards from drains and gutters.  It formed pockets of gas in corners, and burst in noxious clouds from cars' rear ends."  (67)
That'll cure you of your Anglophilia!

Herron is also a master of the toss-off detail, that isn't particularly relevant to the story but sets a character so completely.  Consider this description of Dame Ingrid Tearney, head of MI5:
  "Despite the publicity, she was never recognised, of this she was certain.  She'd never been an agent - her route to the head of the Intelligence Service had been largely via committee - but she had her smarts, and few illusions about herself.  She sometimes drew a second glance, and knew full well why.  But if she ever drew a third it would be someone realising who she was, and that never happened.
  It helped, of course, that her hair alternated between the iron grey, a much curlier black and a really quite buttery blonde.  Her wigs were expensive, age-appropriate, and functional  From the age of fifteen, Ingrid Tearney had been completely bald."  (69)
It's totally irrelevant to the story, and never appears again, but the early baldness bit really cements the idea of a woman who from an early age, has gotten ahead solely on brains.

You don't need to have read Herron's other books to get this one, although some characters do have a passing mention here.  But you should start reading some Mick Herron soon.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More international crime fiction!

This just in from Euro Crime:  Pushkin Press is launching a new crime imprint in the UK and North America, featuring international crime classics from the 1920s to the 1970s.  Sounds like my cup of tea!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Proof of Guilt

Charles Todd is a tease.

I don't mean his/her redoubtable Hero, Ian Rutledge, one of my favorite early-mid 20th c. fictional detectives. In Todd's Proof of Guilt (2013, HarperCollins) Rutledge remains his sternly compassionate and competent self.  No, it is the rest of the story that just does not deliver on many of its promises.

Funchal, Madeira is the setting for a terrific opening scene, when it is shelled by the Germans in December, 1916.  An English firm that creates and imports the eponymous beverage is damaged in the event, and the principle partner immediately enlists in the British forces.  Ooo, think I, spirits, how marvelous.  And, the War, of course, even better.  In our next scene, a body washes up on a Sussex beach four years later.  Excellent, a coastal setting to top it all off!  Then we settle into business, wherein Rutledge, investigating a John Doe hit-and-run in London, connects that body to the family which runs the importing firm, French, French, and Traynor.  But that's the end of the spirits.  I'm not sure anyone even has a drop of Madeira in this entire story.  And other than finally connecting the body to the story, there's no coastline, either.

It turns out that one, and maybe two principals of F, F, & T are missing.  Rutledge, drawn in by the first body, apparently has to drive from London to Sussex to Essex and back again and again and again in order to sort this all out.  He doesn't like trains, understandably avoiding claustrophobic situations after his war, but really, couldn't this story have been a little more localized?  The constant to-and-froing is quite a distraction, if you are not paying very close attention.  Perhaps it is there to demonstrate the authors' mastery of local geography, but otherwise it doesn't really serve the story.  Geography may also be their version of red herrings but really, it is just confusing because few of the secondary characters (who may be the actual killers or disappearers) have any depth.  By the point of the weak resolution you can't necessarily recall who is who, and you don't really care that much.

Even Hamish is barely a presence in this installment of Rutledge's post-war saga (except for a few predictable "'ware!"s), but Rutledge has a new sounding-board in Belford, a resident of the street where the hit-and-run is found.  Belford, like Rutledge, had "an interesting War" and is clearly a person with Connections.  But what are they, and why does he help Rutledge, and what happens to him?  Who knows, because this is yet another of the loose strings that dangle from this book, and another character who just sort of fades away.  Even the bodies are hard to find in this story, and by the end of it, I'm still not entirely sure that we've found all them.

If you like to read reviews online you'll find that I am not the only one who is disappointed in this latest outing for a favorite investigator.  Come on, Charles and Todd (we know you are two people), give Rutledge - and your readers - a little more to work with!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Do you like Nordic Noir?

Then you will be interested in this re-post over on Mystery Fanfare.  Barbara Fister picks at Scandinavia's upstanding World War II reputation, examining how stereotypes have been reinforced and pulled apart in Scandinavian crime fiction.  Worth reading, and thinking about.