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In his previous book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012), Rankin brought together two of his series characters –John Rebus, at that time a civilian working for the Serious Crime Review Unit, and Malcolm Fox of the Professional Ethics and Standards section of the Lothian and Borders Police. They’re together in this book (2013) too. Rebus is back on the force. But he’s had to accept a demotion to Detective Sergeant, and Siobhan Clarke, now DCI, is his boss – or at least, as Rebus says, she’s under that ‘cruel delusion’. Fox has one last Ethics and Standards assignment to complete before he too returns to the CID.

Clarke and Rebus attend the scene of a car crash in which a young woman is injured. But is the crash as easily explained as it looks? ‘Why,’ asks their boss, ‘is it that nothing with you two is ever straightforward?’ Then the father of her boyfriend is found dead. Can this really be a coincidence? In the meantime, Fox is investigating a case some twenty years old where the police at one particular station, Summerhall, may have intentionally compromised the evidence so that a murder suspect got off – and one of them was the then Detective Constable John Rebus. The officers from that station called themselves the ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ – a reference to their disregard for proper procedures as outlined in the real ‘bible’ – the Scots Criminal Law. They believed in getting results – by any method: ‘get the scumbags off the street by hook or by crook.’ They promised allegiance to each other, but will that promise hold good, now that the old more brutal forms of policing are frowned on? Rebus is the only one still in the police force; will he cooperate with Fox’s investigation?

The plot is quite complex, as the police teams involved with several different crimes – both past and current – try and work out what if any connections there are between them, with Rebus floating in the middle of them, as always on his own personal crusade. The story is absorbing, with all the working parts finally fitting together – though I was perhaps a little underwhelmed by some of the mechanics of the resolution.

An important part of the interest of the story lies in Rebus’s own response to the changing culture of policing. He has little respect for modern approaches which rely heavily on computerised data collection, and sticks to his old methods. Clarke accuses him of stirring up stuff ‘for the hell of it’, but ‘sometimes that’s how we find gold,’ he replies. Besides, ‘stirring’s the fun part’. He still believes in working the streets, and is not above cooperating with dodgy characters if he thinks they can be useful. But he knows that the old ways – planting evidence, beating up suspects – are morally unacceptable. ‘Different times. Different rules,’ someone suggests. ‘It might be what we tell ourselves,’ Rebus replies. ‘I need to know whose side you’re on,’ says his former Summerhall boss. ‘Aye, it seems to be a popular question these days,’ Rebus replies. ‘We got results, if you’d care to remember.’ ‘Oh we got results,’ he says, ‘ – but at a cost. And it seems to me we’re still paying’. The resolution of the story makes it clear that the innocent are as likely to pay that cost as the guilty. Yet in a sort of prologue and epilogue, Rebus is essentially harassing a man he believes has murdered his wife, and so far got away with it …. The morality of the situation is never black and white.

I suggested in my earlier post about Standing in Another Man’s Grave that after giving him the lead in two books, Rankin was now being too hard on Malcolm Fox, presenting him as narrow and vindictive. That isn’t the case here. Rebus’s decision to work with Fox might initially have been to find out what he knows, but both characters warm to each other to some degree. Fox even begins to understand the way Rebus’s mind works. ‘Ever since I started hanging out with you, I seem to be seeing conspiracies everywhere – conspiracies, connections and coincidences.’ But he’s prepared to act on Rebus’s insights. And Rebus may not respect the role of ‘the Complaints’, but he doesn’t join in the condemnation. Asked ‘How can you hang around with this skid mark?’ he simply doesn’t answer. When Siobhan says ‘Lucky we’ve got Malcolm to keep us on the straight and narrow’, Rebus answers ‘Best place to be, Siobhan.’ But we know when he says this that he has just enacted justice in his own way; a way Fox would never approve of. It’s not a case of saint or sinner – Rebus is both. And Fox, with his conventional approach, plays second fiddle to him.

You can read more about Rebus on Ian Rankin’s interesting website here. My reviews of the Malcolm Fox books are here and here.

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The Alhambra (titled Tales of the Alhambra in later editions) was published in 1832, and now forms Volume 14 in the standard edition of Washington Irving’s complete works – and there are at least ten more volumes in the set. But who, these days, has heard of Washington Irving – except maybe to remember that he was the creator of Rip Van Winkle? Yet in his day, he was considered a major – possibly the major – American literary figure. A travel writer, a writer of tales and histories rather than a novelist, he fitted the now rarely used category of a writer of ‘belles lettres’, and his work was popular in both Europe and America.

Born in 1783, and named for a hero of the recently successful American Revolution, Irving travelled extensively in Europe, and lived in Spain in 1826-9. There he wrote a book about the life and journeys of Christopher Columbus and a history of the conquest of Granada by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1829, he lived for some months in the Alhambra, and as a result, produced this mixture of journal, social commentary, history and legend.

The Alhambra palace and fortress complex was constructed in something like its current form in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, a place, Irving says, ‘of grace and beauty’. When Irving saw it in 1828, and lived in it in 1829, some of it was in ruins and much of it was deserted. According to him,  it had been saved from the ‘absolute ruin and desolation that were overwhelming it’, not by the Spanish, but by the French forces that occupied it during the Peninsular War of 1808 -14; they had fixed leaking roofs and restored the water supply, the fountains and the gardens. On leaving they had also blown up some of the watch towers around the walls, which is perhaps why some Spanish commentators blame the French for all the decay. Irving also gives credit to Granada’s governor of the day, who was beginning the restoration which would slowly bring the site back to life. But it is in their very dereliction that Irving sees the abandoned halls and gardens as full of ‘poetry and romance’.

The tales Irving tells about ‘this Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land’ are written with a light touch, with humour and acute observation. Some of them are about his day to day experiences, such as his journey to Granada, moving into what had been the Governor’s quarters, exploring the halls and gardens and the country round about; he finds the Alhambra to be ‘an elegant memento  of a brave, intelligent and graceful people’. There are a number of legends, which he embroiders from the tales told to him by the locals. There is often a touch of magic to them, reflecting the fancies of the locals who view the faded magnificence of the Alhambra with superstitious awe and believe that there must have been magicians involved in its creation. These legends echo the Moorish tradition of tales such as the Arabian Nights. My favourite is ‘The Legend of Ahmed al Kamel’; I like how Ahmed can’t control his magic horse.

Some of Irving’s ‘tales’ are musings on the history of the Alhambra; for example he traces the route taken by the ‘unfortunate’ Boabdil, the last Emir of Granada, when he left his beautiful palace to go into exile after the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. ‘You do well to weep as a woman,’ his mother said, ‘over what you could not defend as a man.’ By Irving’s account, this was an unfair comment; the Moslems that still remained in Spain were fighting among themselves as well as against the Christians, and Boabdil’s only option other than surrender was to die in a losing battle. Perhaps that was his mother’s point. But Irving sincerely feels for poor Boabdil. ‘He was personally brave,’ writes Irving, ‘but wanted moral courage … [and this] deprived him of the heroic grace which would have given grandeur and dignity to his fate, and rendered him worthy of closing the splendid drama of the Moslem domination of Spain.’ Again, a very romantic view of these events.

In fact, Irving is a thorough-going Romantic. He sees Spain in general and the Alhambra in particular as almost part of a fairy tale; ‘there is a romance,’ he says, ‘about all the recollection of the Peninsular dear to the imagination.’ It might be thought from this that his interest in the exotic remnants of Eastern culture he found in Spain were part of the movement in nineteenth century Europe that has been called Orientalism. Following the thesis of Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism, critics have claimed that the nineteenth century western visitors and writers who established that the East was glamorous but outlandish, played to the idea that the East was both ‘other’ and ‘inferior’, indeed by definition, the opposite of the West. It’s true that Irving does occasionally slip into the common stereotype whereby the east is supine and impractical, as when he talks about the ‘voluptuous lords of the Alhambra’ indulging in ‘that dreamy repose so dear to the Orientalists’. But for the most part, he admires the Moors far more than the Spanish peasants who have replaced them at the Alhambra. His aim, he says, is both ‘to record the regal and chivalrous traditions concerning those who once trod its courts and the whimsical and superstitious legends of the motley race now burrowing among its ruins.’

When we recently visited the Alhambra, our guide told us that Washington Irving’s interest in the Alhambra, and the interest in it generated by his book, helped persuade the Spanish government to pursue its restoration. It seems that the move to restore it began before Irving’s book was published, but I like to think he may well have contributed to the impetus that has produced the magnificent World Heritage site that exists today.

You can read more about Washington Irving here. The Wikipedia entry for the Alhambra is here, and if you want to follow up on Washington Irving and Spanish Orientalism, try this and this.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) is Robert Galbraith’s first crime thriller in what is to become a series featuring the private detective Cormoran Strike, a surname which he correctly identifies as deriving from the old English occupation of verifying measures of corn. The book was initially turned down by at least one major publisher, and though it was favourably reviewed, it didn’t have much commercial success – until it was revealed that Robert Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling. Then is shot to the top of the charts. So does the book have intrinsic value or is its popularity just a result of her fame?

The story begins with a prologue in which a young model, Lula Landry, falls to her death from a balcony. She has a history of mental instability; the police decide it was suicide. The action then moves three months later to Robin Ellacott’s arrival at Strike’s office to take up a position as temporary secretary. Only then do we meet Strike himself – large, hairy, overweight and unfit – and homeless, having just split from his glamorous girlfriend Charlotte. Strike is an ex-military policeman who lost the lower part of one leg in Afghanistan – though he doesn’t want to talk about that. He also doesn’t want to talk about the fact that his father is an ageing but well known rock star. His detective agency isn’t doing well, and he is in debt; Robin doesn’t think she’ll stay longer than her designated week. But then he gets a client. The brother of the model who fell to her death doesn’t think it was suicide, and will pay Strike well to investigate.

The plot is relatively standard in structure, using the device of multiple possible suspects with a denouement at the end that invokes another device, but I’m not going to spoil the story by saying what it is. Strike is trained as a military policeman, and proceeds very like a civil one, reworking the police case, looking for flaws or inconsistencies in the evidence of a range of people with whom Lula came into contact in the days before her death. He seems to have a particular facility for asking incisive questions, getting people to talk and drawing logical conclusions from the evidence.  Overall, I think the plot is very well handled. Strike says at one point that the killer (I’m not telling you anything, you know it’s murder) has had ‘the luck of the devil’, and this is true; there is also a degree of chance and coincidence in Strike’s investigation. But as I’ve noted before, that’s true of just about any crime story. I guessed some of what was going on, but not all of it. And though it is not a book built primarily on suspense, I really wanted to find out what would happen. Galbraith/Rowling is a great story teller.

What equally brings the story to life are the characters and the setting. The relationship between Robin and Strike is nicely drawn; cleverly, it isn’t a case of unresolved sexual tension – not in this book, anyway. Robin has a passion and an aptitude for detection – lucky she got sent as a temp to a detective agency. In the tradition of many private detectives, Strike’s private life is in disarray, but he doesn’t let this get in the way of his work. His relationship to his ex-girlfriend Charlotte is a counterpoint to his professional dealings with Robin. The setting is London 2010, in the tacky A-list celebrity world of high fashion, film, popular music and drugs. This produces such characters as Guy Somé, fashion designer, who makes expensive but bad taste T-shirts glittering with bits of glass and beads, Evan Duffield, a grungy actor and Lula’s on-again off-again boyfriend, and the rich and unpleasant women Tansy Bestigui and her sister Ursula May. The relationships between all the characters are thoughtfully drawn, usually with humanity, but sometimes with well-deserved bitchiness. I like the description of one of the shops the rich frequent, its window filled with ‘a multitudinous mess of life’s unnecessities’.

Running through the story are the themes of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, and of good and bad parenting and family life. Most of the couples in the story are unhappy, unfaithful, or actively contemplating divorce. Lula’s and Strike’s families are dysfunctional, though in different ways. Lula is adopted; is it being spoilt by her adoptive parents or her genetic inheritance from her ignorant and greedy birth mother that has damaged her? Strike’s mother died of an overdose, and he rarely sees his father. While he has learnt self-discipline in his working life, his emotional life is chaotic.  Family and personal relationships are not just padding; they are important in the story.

So does this book, which would probably have sold just a few thousand copies before being shunted onto the remainder shelf deserve its best seller status? Is it only because Robert Galbraith is JK Rowling? I wouldn’t have recognised it was her work from the writing, which is highly competent, but not distinctive. Close reading has suggested that Rowling’s liking for nouns qualified with adjectives and verbs with adverbs is present here as in her earlier books, but I would never have noticed this. It’s a good book, but so are lots of others that do less well. I think the truth of the matter is that there are many books out there that never get the publicity they deserve, and languish through no fault of their own. Robert Galbraith is lucky to be JK Rowling.

Robert Galbraith’s homepage can be found here. His new book, The Silkworm, is due out in mid June. And if you really want to know more about JK Rowling, you can find her homepage here.

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This book was published in 2003, but its subject matter remains only too relevant in Australia today. It is a bitter indictment by Keneally of Australia’s policies towards asylum seekers.

The story begins with the narrator visiting a detention centre – one of the ‘double-walled gulags’ established to house refugees who arrive in Australia without having observed the proper migration protocols. Keneally doesn’t name the centre, but it is clearly Villawood in western Sydney. And he doesn’t try and hide his contempt for the way Australia deals with asylum seekers: ‘a tyranny of chance to match the tyranny of intent or danger they had run from, floated or flown away from’. Keneally’s narrator is there to visit an asylum seeker from an unnamed country which is obviously Iraq. This man is in limbo – ‘the government would neither give him asylum nor send him back to his country, for fear of what the regime would do to him.’ After several visits, the man tells the narrator how it was he came to seek asylum, and his story forms the body of the book.

The asylum seeker chooses to be known as Alan Sheriff. This is not really to protect friends back in Iraq; rather it is a device Keneally has adopted to remind the reader that asylum seekers are no less human than Australians or other westerners. As Alan says, how different might things be if the prefix to asylum seeker names was Mac rather than Ibn? The book was written at a time when the Australian government was actively seeking to dehumanise asylum seekers in the aftermath of the Tampa affair, when the government refused permission for the Norwegian freighter Tampa, carrying 438 rescued refugees from a distressed fishing vessel, to enter Australian waters.The device is maintained throughout the story Alan tells; everyone in it (except for the dictator, who is only ever called the ‘Great Uncle’) has an Anglo name. Alan, furthermore, is a writer who comes from the intellectual elite of his country. He and his friends have a social life very like any group of intellectuals anywhere: dinner round the pool, coffee and discussion of the World Cup. Of course life isn’t the same; they live in a brutal and arbitrary dictatorship. But they have the same hopes and fears as anyone else.

Alan’s story is set in the mid to late nineteen nineties – at the time of telling, he has spent three years in Australia in various detention camps. He had fought as a conscript in the war against the Iranians, called here ‘the Others’. He made his reputation as a writer of short stories about that war, though he chose to empathise bravery and endurance rather than the reality – including the use of poison gas – which he reveals to the narrator. He has also written a nearly completed novel about the effect of the sanctions imposed by the West after the first Iraq war. Unsurprisingly the sanctions had a detrimental effect on ordinary poor people – ie most of the population – and were routinely evaded to the enrichment of the dictator’s family and friends. ‘The book,’ Alan says, ‘was intended as a paean and an elegy for the valour of those who maintain the dignity of their hunger in the face of crazy international measures, aimed to undermine Great Uncle, but cutting like a buzz-saw through less elevated people whose chief politics were … endurance.’ The sanctions also play an important part in Alan’s own story. Keneally makes his view of them pretty clear.

Alan says the story of why he had to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere is the ‘saddest and silliest’ story imaginable. Sad it certainly is, but not silly. There are a number of factors that force the decision upon him. It is his position as one of the relatively privileged members of the society that initially puts him in danger from the intolerable demands of the Great Uncle. Others who displease the regime are more summarily dealt with, but that doesn’t make Alan’s position any easier or safer. The fact that there is a preposterous humour in his situation just shows how clever Keneally is being. But Keneally is too subtle a writer to show Alan fleeing purely because of direct actions of the tyrant; his own conscience ultimately decides his destiny. Alan sticks with his judgement of sad and silly, compared to the stories of other refugees, who, he says, ‘have been involved in genuine tragedy’. Readers might not agree with his assessment of his own situation.

Keneally’s novel, published in June 2003, was perhaps overshadowed by the invasion of Iraq by the ‘coalition of the willing’ – including of course Australia – in March 2003. It became official that Iraq was a rogue state. But identifying Saddam Hussein’s regime as a cruel dictatorship (no weapons of mass destruction having been found) didn’t improve the situation for Iraqi refugees in Australia, where their stand against the dictatorship counted for nothing. And though for a time, the processing of refugee claims and their resettlement were speeded up, Australia has now reverted to an even more draconian approach, with further attempts by the current government to dehumanise and even criminalise refugees. For all its passion, The Tyrant’s Novel seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears.

You can read more about Tom Keneally here. And if you’d like to read something more about the fate of asylum seekers in Australia, try this.

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Craven (2014) is the second crime thriller by Adelaide-based writer Melanie Casey. Casey uses a crime-writing device that I wouldn’t normally accept, but she uses it well, and overall I enjoyed the book.

This is a stand-alone thriller, but it would probably have been a good idea to read Hindsight (2013), the first in the series, before tackling this one. It sets out the circumstances and relationships of the main players, and these continue into this story. But Casey has done a good job of filling in the back-story, so it’s not really a problem.

What is more of a problem for me is that the main character, Cassandra Lehman, is a psychic, and comes from a family of psychics. I assume the name Cassandra is a joke – the mythical Cassandra had the power of prophecy but it was her fate never to be believed. This one has a psychic ability that enables her ‘to experience how people died when they passed suddenly or violently’. Her mother is ‘precognitive’, and her grandma is a ‘healer’. In the previous book, she used her power to help the police solve a murder and nearly died in the process.

This time she has moved from the country town where she was living to Adelaide to take up a job as a tutor at Adelaide University. She just wants to get on with her life. But even while she’s looking for a place to live, she has a vision of someone being murdered in the apartment she is looking at. And when her students find out about her ‘gift’, she is instantly notorious. Some of the attention she receives is most unpleasant.

The second strand of the story is essentially a police procedural, carried by Detective Ed Dyson from the previous book. He has moved to Adelaide for a stint in the Major Crimes Unit, and he is soon involved in a death that may or may not be murder. The man who has died left a list of names; could they be in some way connected with his death? Is he going to ask Cass to help him again? How will that go down with his colleagues? And what does he feel about her?

The two strands of the story are woven together cleverly, and Casey develops enough suspense to keep me reading on quickly to find out what happens. The baddie is quite well concealed for most of the story.  And not all of the detection depends on Cass’s gift. Casey writes well, in a lively modern idiom. There are some writers whose powerful language has me in awe of their talent, and there are some who write perfectly competently, but not that much better than I can myself. Casey is one of the latter – though admittedly I haven’t actually written a book, and she has written two. Her characterisation is good, which is important because sympathy with the characters is as important as suspense in keeping my interest.

I think Casey gets away with the psychic device because she presents it as a problem for Cass. She has accepted that her ‘visions’ are part of ‘who I am’, but it’s not a comfortable part. ‘I was a disaster when it came to being normal,’ she reflects.  Cass is overall an engaging young woman and the reader is on her side, which makes her psychic ability if not fully acceptable, at least less problematic. It’s part of the story, not just a way of solving the crime. But when Ed says at one point that for the first time he ‘fully appreciated how hard it was for Cass to try and make people believe in what she could do’ I had agree that it would indeed be hard, and had to cling to my willing suspension of disbelief – though I managed to do so.

As I noted in a post on Knitting, by another Adelaide writer, Anne Bartlett, it is pleasant to be able to visualise the setting of the story, all of which is very familiar to me. But I still wonder how a non-Adelaidean would react, and whether knowing the location makes me lazy about drawing out the setting from the description given. I know what the disused wool sheds at Port Adelaide look like – a great place to set a scene in a crime thriller. But am I seeing that, or is the writer putting it there? On the less pleasant side, Adelaide has been – unfairly of course – called the murder capital of the world, and Casey has reprised some famous Adelaide murders in her story – the method, not the actual case, though fortunately the Snowtown murders aren’t there.

I’ve been writing this post as if everyone else agrees with me that believing a psychic can solve crimes is farfetched. I don’t know what Casey really believes, but here’s a thoroughly debunking entry on psychic detectives.

You can read more about Melanie Casey here. Her book is published by Pantera Press, and will be released on 1 June.

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This memoir (2006) is a sequel to Godwin’s earlier book – Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (1997) – about his childhood and coming of age in Rhodesia – later Zimbabwe. This one covers the years 1996 to 2004, with flashbacks to 1924 and 1940. Godwin is now a reporter living abroad, mostly in New York, and the book records his experience of going back to Zimbabwe on assignment and/or to visit his family. It is thus an account of his observations on the state of the country, and of his relationship with his family, particularly his ageing father.

His view of the state of country under the rule of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party is easy to sum up: it’s terrible, and getting worse, with the fastest declining economy in the world. He argues that at the time that black majority government was achieved in 1980, when the new Prime Minister Mugabe welcomed white settlers to stay in Zimbabwe and help build the nation, there was a hope of creating a prosperous multiracial society. But that hope has vanished, as Mugabe has increasingly used attacks on ‘Western imperialism’ and incitements to racial hatred to defeat opposition to his progressively more tyrannical government. It is, for example, a crime to bring the President into ‘ridicule or disrepute’. Zimbabwe is in effect a one party dictatorship.

At the time of majority government, the land of some white farmers was seized by so called ‘war veterans’ who may or may not have fought in the war for Zimbabwe’s independence.  I noted in an earlier post on Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight (2002) by Alexandra Fuller, that though her family lost their farm at this time, by 1990, 70% of arable land was still owned by whites. Godwin identifies Mugabe’s defeat in the 1990 constitutional referendum, and the rise of Morgan Tsvangirai’s multiracial Movement for Democratic Change, as the catalyst for unleashing a virtual war on white farmers, using the so-called war veterans. And he argues that increasingly, it was cronies of Mugabe who ended up with the land. Corruption is endemic. The examples that he cites are many and distressing. The land taken from farmers in his examples is wantonly wasted. As a consequence of the disruption of commercial farming, he sees widespread unemployment among the thousands of black farm workers, food shortages and scarcity of just about everything. To call inflation rampant is an understatement: by 2004, a local stamp costs $2,300 in the Zimbabwean currency.

Why do his parents stay? His father is a retired engineer, his mother a doctor. They see their friends killed or driven away, and experience violence and extortion at the hands of armed intruders. The police do nothing; the rule of law seems to have broken down completely. Godwin’s sister has left, in fear of imprisonment or worse. But to his parents, Zimbabwe is home. Just exactly how far this is true is one of the most interesting aspects of the memoir, and accounts for the flashbacks to 1924 and 1940. Godwin’s father George has always been a little remote, and scarcely ever talks about his past. He does not tell his son until 2001 that he is in fact not English by birth. Rather, he is a Jewish Pole, who happened to be in England when World War II broke out, and thus was not swept up in the Holocaust that killed his mother and his sister, his father only surviving through the kindness of a Polish friend – his former barber. Godwin’s mother is English – his parents met at university after the war, which George fought in as a member of a Polish regiment based in Scotland. Africa seemed a good place to make a new start, so he became George Godwin, not Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb. Now there is nowhere to return to, even if they wished to do so. After his father’s funeral – we know from the prologue that he dies during the period of the memoir – Godwin realises that ‘finally, in this most unpromising of places, where he [his father] could never be regarded as truly indigenous, finally, he belongs’.

There is little overt comparison between the situation of the white settlers in Zimbabwe and the Jews of Poland, but including the stories of the brutalities suffered by both in the memoir makes comparison inevitable. Godwin is not saying that the scale of the disasters is remotely similar, but I think he is saying that dictatorship and racial hatred produce misery and injustice where ever they exist. But he ends on a note of something like hope: through his dictatorship, Godwin says, ‘Mugabe has managed to create something hitherto so elusive; he has created a real racial unity … a hard-won sense of comradeship, a common bond forged in the furnace of resistance to an oppressive rule.’ Let’s hope he’s right, though current divisions within the MDC don’t give much ground for optimism.

This is memoir, not history. Godwin’s powerful and empathetic writing has the reader thoroughly onside, but naturally he writes selectively. He doesn’t, for example, talk much about Mugabe’s persecution of African people from tribes other than his own, which probably amounts to ethnic cleansing. Nor does everyone agree that the ‘land reform’ program has been as unsuccessful as he suggests – though even now, Zimbabwe can’t feed itself. ‘Do Africa’s problems reside principally in the continent’s underlying environment, or with imposed colonial distortions or with the travesty of Africa’s post-colonial leadership?’ Godwin poses the big questions, but doesn’t really try to answer them, except through the prism of his own experience.  Such, maybe, are the limits of memoir.

For a detailed account of Mugabe’s regime and its history, try this. Nothing seems to be getting much better – for example try this. For more information about Peter Godwin, here is his website. It advertises his new book – The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe (2011).

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The Black Box (2012) is I think the sixteenth in the series of American police procedurals featuring Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. For the last five books, not counting the one he shares with Connelly’s other series hero, defence attorney Mickey Haller, Bosch has been working in the Open-Unsolved Unit. This is a clever device, as it allows the author to place the hero outside the daily homicide detective routine, but still within the departmental setting of the police procedural. It is probably also easier to think of convincing scenarios if you can use past as well as present events.

The cold case has become a popular form of TV  crime drama over the last fifteen years – think Cold Casein the US, and New Tricks and Waking the Dead in the UK. The ostensible reason for this is that technological advances, in DNA and ballistics in particular, have given law enforcement agencies new ways of solving old crimes. But I think cold case dramas also play to the popular hope that the victims of crime will eventually be vindicated and their murderers brought to justice, thus restoring a sense of social order – and a confidence in police forces all too often lacking in reality.

Both the technological advances and the desire for justice for the dead are strong themes in The Black Box. The story starts with a preface set in 1992, amidst the riots that followed the exoneration of the white police officers who had allegedly assaulted black motorist Rodney King – here’s the footage, just to remind you. And here’s some footage of the rioting. Bosch and his colleagues in the Homicide branch are overwhelmed by the number of murders that occurred during the riots, sometimes as a direct result of the violence, and sometimes as score settling between rival street gangs taking advantage of the chaos. Bosch attends the scene of the murder of female Swedish journalist and photographer, where the only real clue is a bullet casing he finds near her. The team has little time even to document each crime scene, and do not get the chance to go back and follow up their initial investigation because this job is handed to a special taskforce set up after the riots. Few of the murders are ever solved, and this one is no exception.

When the LAPD decides that it would be good public relations to be able to announce the resolution of some of the unsolved murders on the twentieth anniversary of the riots, Bosch asks for this case, as he has always felt guilty about failing the victim. And the bullet casing he found back then might just lead him to the killer. Can he find the ‘black box’ of the title, the ‘one thing that brings it all together and makes sense of things’?  But is he even looking in the right place? And what about the politics? Does the LAPD really want the only twenty year old case to be solved to be the murder of a white woman, when all the other victims were black?

The story follows Bosch’s dictum that ‘law enforcement work is ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent adrenaline’, as he methodically follows the initial clue of the bullet casing from one piece of evidence to the next. There are also loving but sometimes inept interactions with his teenage daughter, who now lives with him – remember he didn’t even know he had a daughter until just a few books earlier, and then she was kidnapped. He is also seeing a woman he met in an earlier book, and continuing his love affair with jazzman Art Pepper. The action – the one percent adrenaline – comes with a bang at the end – ‘screaming high intensity moments of life-and-death consequence’. The threads of the story come together well, and if there is perhaps something a bit contrived about it – well, that’s pretty much true of all crime fiction. Remember John Buchan’s comment quoted in an earlier post that the detective fiction writer starts with a conclusion and then works back to invent a story that leads to it.

Many people would agree that Connelly deserves the accolade on the cover of the book as ‘the greatest living American crime writer’ not least because of his capacity to keep on turning out well crafted, satisfying crime thrillers. But as I noted in a post about the previous Harry Bosch story, The Drop (2011), some of his earlier books, such as The Narrows (2004) or A Darkness More that Night (2001) have more flare about them. Perhaps, after all, Harry is getting too cautious as he gets older.

You can read more about Michael Connelly, and the forthcoming Harry Bosch story, here. And of course there’s all the Micky Haller books as well.

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