Archive for the ‘Crime Fiction’ Category

I’ve lost count of how many Detective Inspector Wexford stories Rendell has written, but I think No Man’s Nightingale (2013) is the second since his retirement from the Kingsmarkam police force. You can read my review of the first, The Vault (2011), here. I thought that was perhaps not her best effort, but this one is vintage Rendell.

The vicar of St Peter’s Church is found strangled in the vicarage. Being female, of Irish and Indian parentage, socially liberal, a moderniser of the liturgy and a single mother hasn’t made Sarah Hussain universally popular, but Detective Superintendent Burden is nevertheless struggling to work out who could possibly have committed such a crime. Wexford, still a close friend of Burden’s, is happy to assist, finding that his reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while stimulating, is not enough to fill his retirement. There is also a sub plot, very loosely linked to the main one, about the family of Maxine Sams, who is the Wexfords’ cleaner. The reader knows that the murder must have been committed by one of the characters in the story – Rendell would never stoop to a deus ex machina ending – and there are certainly clues. But I only recognised some of them as such when I found out who dun it, and was intrigued right to the end.

Wexford not still being a policeman, this is not strictly a police procedural. He misses having his former police powers: ‘When for years you have had authority it is very hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stay disappeared’. ‘Not for the first time, but perhaps more positively and tellingly than before, he was realising how insignificant he had become in the great scheme of law and order, of lawmaking and law implementing, of having nothing to do in a society where doing things was all-important.’ But Rendell cleverly contrasts Burden’s orthodox police approach with Wexford’s more intuitive one; he doesn’t need powers other than those inherent in him. Burden discounts the search for causes: ‘We are not going to identify any recognisable sort of motive here,’ he says. ‘And searching for a motive such as jealousy or envy or gain, is only going the hinder any progress we’re making.’ But it is Wexford’s observations of people and what drives them that ultimately solve the puzzle – though not without a few false starts. The ‘possibility [that] had been building up in his mind, increasingly until it had become a conviction … had nothing to do with reason, it was some kind of intuition.’ ‘Ridiculous, he told himself. Like some nineteenth-century novel. Wilkie Collins maybe. But if it was an illusion, it was one he couldn’t get out of his head.’ Ultimately, Burden has to agree that Wexford’s instincts are correct. ‘I hate having to admit it but I think you’re right,’ he says. Rendell comes down decisively on the side of perception and insight into human behaviour over the more limited assessment of means and opportunity.

This is not a fast paced thriller; it at least as much a novel of manners as it is a crime story. Indeed a good deal of the interest for me lay in characters and situations not directly related to the original murder. There is a good slice of English social reality in this book. The issues of sexism and racism inevitably arise; in terms of the latter there is both overt and what Wexford calls ‘apologetic racism’ – defined by one reviewer as the ‘ironic recognition that one has said something inherently open to the charge of racism but can find no way of not saying it’. Themes in the sub-plot echo those of the main story, in particular the question of what people will do out of love for their children. What a woman will do to have a child is also a theme that is explored. ‘People are weird,’ says Burden, and this is true of a number of the characters in this story. But Rendell through Wexford is unwaveringly compassionate, even to those who might not deserve it. ‘We judge people by ourselves, Wexford thought, and by our own beliefs, customs and prejudices.’ His seem based in kindness and empathy, though this is not true of various other of the characters. His reading of The Decline and Fall is an exploration of human behaviour, just as is his everyday observation of those around him. It is no coincidence that Rendell quotes the following passage that he is reading: ‘It is the religion of Zingis [Genghis Khan] that best deserves our wonder and applause. The Catholic inquisitors of Europe, who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy, and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration.’

A minor quibble. As I noted in my review of The Vault, Rendell makes use of ‘teasers’ such as ‘Although they didn’t know it, the laughter was due to stop’, or ‘She turned out to be right’. I’m not sure why she does this, as I don’t think it adds anything. But I can forgive her.

Ruth Rendell doesn’t seem to have a web-site, but you can read more about her here. Her latest book – a crime story but not a Wexford one – called The Girl Next Door, came out this month. Now if I could be a quarter as productive as she is at 84 …..


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A while ago now I wrote a blog about Thrones, Dominions, the unfinished 1936 Dorothy Sayers mystery that Jill Paton Walsh successfully completed in 1998. For all that the world of Lord Peter Wimsey could be called dated and snobbish, I enjoyed the clever story and the continuation of the love theme between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. It seems that lots of other people liked it too; now there are three more Vane/Wimsey novels from Paton Walsh, A Presumption of Death (2002), The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) and The Late Scholar (2013).

In Dorothy Sayers’s novels, the recovery of the Attenbury Emeralds is occasionally referred to as Peter’s first case, but she never wrote about it. This Attenbury Emeralds is set in 1951, though nearly all the first half of the book concerns the fate of the emeralds, lost twice and retrieved both times with Peter’s involvement in the 1920s. The rest of the book is about his third involvement with the jewels post World War II, and relates back to their earlier history. The emerald that is important in the story was once owned by an Indian Maharaja; now he would like to buy it back. But it mysteriously disappears at an upper-class house party. Shades of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (which I wrote about here)? Well yes, Paton Walsh makes the connection, though this jewel wasn’t stolen from India; ‘Attenbury owned it with a clear conscience … it was no moonstone.’ The second loss echoed the first. But it is the third involvement that creates the real mystery in the story, and I’m not going to tell you what that’s about –it’s a genuine puzzle story of the ‘golden age’ variety. There are clues scattered throughout, though mostly of the kind I only recognised after I found out what happened.

I think Paton Walsh must enjoy writing as if she were Dorothy Sayers, as she certainly seems to have some fun doing it. Because the earlier history of the emeralds is being recounted to Harriet, Peter and his assistant Bunter are telling her what they remember happening – meaning there is a lot of dialogue. Harriet asks my favourite question about how people can remember long ago conversations so accurately. ‘Unless you have been making half this up, you have an extraordinary memory,’ she says. ‘Of course I’m not remembering everyone’s remarks verbatim,’ Peter replies, ‘I’m making a good deal of it up, but the drift … is all right.’ Well, nice to have that admission. Peter expects to have to run ‘the gauntlet of literary criticism’, and Harriet, a detective novelist herself, is well placed to notice that they have reached ‘the Little did they know juncture’ – a ‘good teaser’. She also comments on coincidence: ‘You can’t have coincidences in detective stories … Readers simply can’t accept them.’  But she goes on: ‘Though in real life they do keep happening’ – as they do in this story. ‘Clever readers,’ says Harriet of her own work, ‘would have seen through the whole thing’; as noted above, I didn’t see the main twist coming in this story, though I’m not sure even a ‘clever reader’ would have done so. Peter is right; in puzzle mysteries, ‘when you know how you know who.’ And I loved Paton Walsh’s faintly self-mocking comment when Harriet is complemented as having ‘the finest mind in detective fiction’; she replies ‘I can’t compare with Conan Doyle, or Agatha Christies, or Dorothy Sayers …’

Peter at sixty and Harriet, who is a bit younger, are very much the same characters as they were in the original Dorothy Sayers stories of the 1930s, though marriage and parenthood have mellowed them. There is however, a considerable change in the world they live in. ‘That vanished world … all seniors talk so fondly about’ is the time before World War I, rather than between the wars. Paton Walsh has Wimsey talk quite bitterly about the lack of real change post World War I: ‘the fact was,’ he says, ’that all the suffering and death had produced a world that was just the same as before. It wasn’t any safer, it wasn’t any fairer, there were no greater liberties or chances of happiness for civilised mankind’. The real change, for the upper classes at any rate, seems to be occurring as a result of World War II (which is dealt with in A Presumption of Death). Death duties are breaking up the old estates, social relations are changing: ’the iron age of distinctions between servants and family was over’. ‘I think I can feel the social weather changing as we speak’. This doesn’t mean that there is a change in the relationship between Wimsey and Bunter: they still ‘sound like a script by Noel Coward.’ But Bunter wants a different life for his son – including a degree from the London School of Economics.

Paton Walsh says at one point that Peter and Harriet’s old fashioned habits are a form of ‘affectionate nostalgia’ for the old ways. I rather think my fondness for the book is rather similar. Who writes puzzle mysteries these days? Who has an aristocratic detective with a supremely resourceful and self-effacing servant? This is comfort reading. And after all, who wouldn’t like a Bunter of their own?

You can read more about Jill Paton Walsh, who, by the way, is 77, here, and an interview with her about channelling Sayers here.

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I’ve done here what I often advise against and have picked up a book that is the most recent in a series. The Dead Season (2012) is the fifth of Kent’s Sandro Cellini stories. I guess it doesn’t really matter; there’s probably nothing you really need to know about what has gone before, though some of the characters are ongoing. Cellini has fairly recently been forced to take early retirement from the Polizia dello Stato in Florence; I think he may still have been in the force in the first book. This may have told the reader more about the work he did as a police officer; what is said here suggests he was a first responder rather than a detective. But he’s a detective now – a private one. And the circumstances of his departure may have shed light on the kind of police officer he was.

This story takes place in Florence in the middle of a heat wave, and the oppressive weather is a constant element in the story. Kent, who has lived in Florence, is probably thinking of the summer of 2011, when Florence experienced its hottest day on record – 42.1°C. Sandro’s friend (from a previous book?) and sort of part-time assistant Giuli brings him a client she has met at the Women’s Centre where she also works. Anna Niescu is eight months pregnant and her fiancée has disappeared. Can Sandro find him? Alongside this we meet Roxana Delfino, who works as a teller in a bank. A regular client doesn’t come in to deposit his takings; Roxana feels ‘a minute, sudden unexpected nudge of panic’. Then the manager of her branch is found dead. We know that there will be a connection between the two strands of the story; the interest of the book is in part how this is worked through. I really like clever plotting, and overall, this is pretty good.

Part of the interest is also in the characters. A review I read of an earlier book suggested that the pace was too slow, but I didn’t find this one dragged. Either it is better paced, or the characters are well-drawn enough in their own right to carry the story. For a start, Sandro makes an interesting private detective. He is uneasy about his new role: ‘he couldn’t go on like this, apologizing for himself, telling himself how low he’d sunk,’ he tells himself. ‘There had to be a way of being a private detective that he could live with.’ He still is friends with his former partner in the police force, which gives him access to rather more information than the ordinary private investigator is likely to have. But he is aware that the interests of his client may not always be the same as those of the police: ‘whose side was he on, exactly?’ he wonders. He is in his sixties – unusual in itself – and needs to be clever rather than brash and pushy – the modus operandi of many younger private eyes. ‘Oh Jesus. I’m too old for this’ he says at one point. But being clever isn’t easy in the heat: ‘there was information in his head, but unfortunately it hadn’t come in the shape of facts arranged in useful, neat columns: more like a swarm of wasps, circling and scattering, forming and reforming.’ He isn’t into high tech stuff: ‘there’s no substitute for getting out there and talking to people’. He operates partly on an assessment of people that is almost instinctual, but are instincts sometimes ‘the wrong thing to pursue’? He does so, nevertheless; his ‘wobbly, imprecise … lopsided building of a theory’ about the case is constructed on instinct. This is because at heart, he is on the side of ‘the defeated, the not quite competent, the stupidly soft-hearted’. You can’t not like him.

There are of course a range of other characters, most of whom are also well drawn. Kent is good on personal relationships and the tensions within them. Relationships between parents and children – or substitute children – are important, as is the ability to have them; pregnancy is a sub-theme in the story. Not all characters can be fully fleshed out, because someone has to be the hidden villain, but Kent does quite a good job of keeping the reader guessing.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about this book, but I enjoyed it more than many crime stories. I think this is partly because I like the way Kent writes. It’s hard to say what beyond a general competence is good about her writing style, but for me, she rarely puts a foot wrong.  On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly moved – frightened, elated or thrilled – by it, so there’s probably an element of safety or comfort in reading it. Sandro is a safe and comfortable hero.

I can’t help noticing that there are quite a lot of Italian detectives – mostly police – around at the moment. As well as Sandro Cellini, the is Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti in Venice, the late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, who seems to get posted all over Italy,  the late Magdalen Nabb’s Marshal Guarnaccia, who spends at least some time in Florence, and Timothy Williams’s Commissario Piero Trotti, who operates in an unnamed city in the north of Italy. There are no doubt many Italian crime writers as well. But I also can’t help wondering if somewhere in Italy there is a writer beavering away on a series in English about a detective in Halifax or Huddersfield.

There is remarkably little on the internet about Christobel Kent, but here is an interesting blog she wrote about Florence.

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After complaining in a recent post that too many police procedural crime stories are about psychopaths and serial killers, the next one I pick up isn’t like that at all. Beams Falling (2014) is Newton’s second novel in a series featuring Detective Nhu Kelly (inevitably known as Ned) of the NSW Police. Like the first one, The Old School (2010), it is firmly set in the burgeoning underworld of gang and drug crime in Sydney. If you are going to read either of them, read The Old School first, as this story follows on from the end of that one. And don’t read any more of this review, as I can’t help giving away some of what happened in the first book. Here’s the link to it.

Ned is slowly recovering from being shot in the line of duty. Physically she is well enough to return to ‘light duties’, but she is still suffering psychologically from the trauma. She feels an overwhelming need to take her gun everywhere with her, though this is against police procedure. But is she in a fit state to carry a weapon? She is also driven to return to policing by the belief that she knows who killed her parents in an execution style shooting when she was a child. She is sure that Old Man Liu, a rich crime boss turned ‘respectable’, and his son Sonny are responsible, but they seem to be beyond the reach of the law, protected by members of the very police force Ned works for. (I like her comment: ‘Sydney. You were only a crook until you made enough money, then you were promoted to ‘colourful local racing identity.’) She is disappointed to be assigned to a task force dealing with Asian crime in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, as this is the home of Vietnamese, rather than Chinese gangs. But maybe they will lead her back to Chinatown and the Lius.

The story is set in 1993, though there is little to indicate this apart from a mention of a federal election and the absence of mobile phones. As in the previous book, the action takes place against a backdrop of internal police politics and external and internal investigations of police corruption. But they play a much smaller part in this story than they did in The Old School. Shades of bending the rules, ‘playing a bit rough’ and even of corruption, do add to an air of suspicion and mistrust that makes Ned feel an outsider. ‘Secret fucking squirrels,’ she thinks. ‘Last thing she wanted to do was to get sucked into whatever that lot were up to. Even so, being excluded, making it so obvious, it touched a nerve.’ Here the focus is much more on Ned herself, and her battle to deal with the effects of her injury. There is also more exploration of police culture, with several minor sub-plots designed both to illustrate and to undermine the idea of the force as a family that looks after its own – what she calls ‘the false sense of intimacy of the Job’. I guess this is where Newton’s own experience as a police officer comes in; she spent over a decade as a detective in Sydney, and must have a pretty good idea of what it’s like – particularly what it’s like to be a female police officer. Nhu of course has the further ‘difference’ of being part Vietnamese. I also wondered if Newton sets her stories in the early nineteen nineties because she feels more comfortable putting a bit of distance between policing then and now.

One of the strengths of the book is the daily round of police work which Newton is well able to describe. But the story is told from Ned’s point of view, so this means that she only sees scraps of the whole. Perhaps because of this, I found the plot a bit confusing at times, and though it did eventually come together, I thought the book lacked the narrative drive of Newton’s first one. The role of Detective Sean Murphy, from under-cover police operations, is vague, perhaps deliberately so, but you really need to have read the previous book to understand Ned’s relationship to him. There are lots of characters; I couldn’t always keep track of them. Several characters have a role – in either the action or the police culture – but then just disappear. The relationships between the various branches of the police are a bit befuddling too. Some things are left open-ended; it could be argued that life, particularly as far as police investigations go, is like that. It could also be that Newton will take them up in later books.

I thought at first that the emphasis on Ned’s state of mind had come at the expense of the social comment I valued in The Old School. But thinking about the book, I realised that Newton’s depiction of the drug wars in the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta is itself social history. There is a poignant picture of the fracturing of Vietnamese families and culture in collision with the unpleasant realities of crime and drugs. The young gang members – the ra choi  – which literally translates as ‘coming out to play’, but here means the foot-soldiers of the drug wars – are the children of Vietnamese migrants who struggle to give them a better life; the sound of the sewing machines of Vietnamese outworkers can be heard in the streets. Why have they rejected their parents’ values and chosen to ‘play’ with drugs and guns? Newton’s questions are well worth asking.

You can read a bit more about P.M Newton here. To understand the title, try reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929).

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Peter Robinson is a very competent writer of police procedurals.  There are sixteen stories featuring DI Alan Banks before this one (2007), and three more after it. You can read my review of one of the newer Banks stories, Watching the Dark (2012), here. I enjoyed Friend of the Devil, but not as much as I usually do police procedurals. I don’t think this is Robinson’s fault; it’s rather that I’ve perhaps overdosed on the sort of story that seems a natural fit for the police procedural, and this one is a perfect example of it.

DI Banks works out of the imaginary town of Eastvale in Yorkshire. His former sergeant and occasionally on but mostly off again girlfriend, Annie Cabbot, now also Detective Inspector, has been seconded to a neighbouring force. Both are dealing with murder cases. These get alternate treatment until eventually they run together. Banks’s case is the rape and murder of a young woman. Cabbot’s case is more bizarre; a woman in a wheelchair with quadriplegia is found at the top of a cliff with her throat cut. If this sounds familiar, it may be because the book is the basis for one of the episodes in the successful TV series, DCI Banks (2010-14). It is also links back to an earlier book Aftermath (2001), which was the pilot for the main TV series.

Both cases are about sexual violence and murder. I’m not for a moment suggesting that such crimes aren’t horrific; they deserve the maximum of police resources to solve. But I am suggesting that psychopaths and serial killers are becoming the staple of British police procedural crime fiction. There are several reasons for this, all exemplified to some extent in this book. Such crimes are more suitable for police procedurals than they are for stories about private detectives. Police are the ones immediately on the scene. They have extensive scene-of-crime resources, giving them access to DNA testing, and post-mortem results. All these factors are important in this story – though Robinson is clever, and not all is as it seems. In Britain at least, there seems to be an extensive web of CCTV which can be checked for the movements of people and vehicles. This is also important here, and again, Robinson uses it well.  But these resources aren’t usually available to private detectives, so they often need to look at different sorts of crime – ones that the police have missed, or crimes in the past that reverberate into the present.

The psychopath is also useful for the police procedural writer because there is less need to provide a credible motive for the murderer. Murder is what psychopaths do. There are usually a range of suspects, all of whom could be the murderer; none of them can be drawn in any great depth, because giving them depth of character is difficult without giving away too much about possible motive. But any smiling face can hide a psychopath. And so it proves here. I’m not saying that Robinson doesn’t do a good job of hiding the identity of the killer; even after he has identified that the motive is revenge, he still has to make a lot of connections – which of course DI Cabbot is also making – to identify who the killer is. It’s a cleverly put together story – it is just limited by the police procedural form.

Part of what I miss in this form of crime fiction is the ‘state of society’ emphasis that I find in some crime fiction that has a private detective, or is simply a mystery involving someone outside law enforcement. The police procedural usually only does this through the private lives of the police involved, and their formal interactions with the public as witnesses or suspects. We learn quite a bit about Banks and Cabbot; Banks, for example, is reading Tony Judt’s Postwara very good choice. Robinson makes implicit social comment, but of only a limited kind. A writer such as Kate Atkinson, for example, is able to write much more explicitly about the society her characters operate in, to the point where in her hands, the crime novel is subsumed into a general literary category.

A further result of concentrating on the psychopath is that other forms of crime are neglected. Where is the police procedural about corporate crime, like large-scale financial fraud, or illegal environmental pollution? Presumably there’s not much of a story in going through bank statements and mobile phone records. A few police procedural writers have however brought such issues alive. DI Rebus has had run-ins with crime that is closely linked with politics. Gangs, drugs and people trafficking also make an appearance in Rankin’s work – which are technically police procedurals. Michael Robotham has also ventured into some of these areas, though the majority of his books aren’t really police procedurals and are anyway often about serial killers. Police forces can investigate only when they know there has been a specific crime; they aren’t usually the ones who identify the systemic problem. This is much more likely to be done by a private detective working for a concerned individual; Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski is easily my best in this area.

Readers can no doubt supply a list of police procedural crime stories which are not about serial killers and psychopaths. Probably I’ve just read too many that are in too short a time.

You can read more about Peter Robinson and DI Alan Banks here.

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A while back I reviewed Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl (2012). I liked it so much that I included it in my five favourite books of 2013, and decided I should read Flynn’s earlier work. Dark Places is her second book, published in 2009 – though my edition says on the cover ‘from the author of Gone Girl’, suggesting that the third book is carrying the less successful second one. I think this suggestion is pretty right, though it may be a matter of taste rather than quality. Certainly it’s a very different book from the one that followed it.

Libby Day is the sole survivor of a massacre at her mother’s debt-ridden Kansas farm, twenty four years ago when she was seven. She lost her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, fifteen year old Ben, was convicted of the murders and jailed for life; it was Libby’s evidence against him that ensured his conviction. It soon becomes clear that the family was in a bad way before the murders; Libby now lives in a state of aimless depression. She has used up the fund that was created for her from donations by well-wishers, she has no job, no skills and no motivation to acquire any. Then she receives a letter from the ’Kill Club’, a macabre organisation made up of people with obsessions about particular crimes. They believe Ben to be innocent. They will pay her to talk to them, to sell family mementos to them, and above all to find out if someone else could have committed the crimes. Libby wants the money and knows that her carefully coached testimony as a child wasn’t true, but what sort of can of worms will she open if she has to go back to that time – a ‘Darkplace’ she tries never to think about? What if Ben really is innocent? Who else might have done it?

Half of the book tells the story, with Libby as narrator, of her search for the truth, which gradually becomes as important to her as the money. Alternate chapters tell what happened on the day leading up to the murders from the perspective of Patty, Libby’s mother, and of Ben, though in the third person; a series of events is recounted that spiral into worse and worse disaster. As in Gone Girl, there are multiple voices; each has its distinctive tone. Flynn has a very good ear for nuances of region, age and gender. This is a very clever narrative structure, as Libby’s story expands the possibility of arriving at the truth and even changing her life, while Patty’s and Ben’s stories can only close in, edging closer and closer to catastrophe we know is about to happen. And of course, ‘every single person in this case lies, is lying, did lie.’

Libby is certainly no heroine struggling for freedom from her messed up life. Right from the beginning she presents herself as seriously damaged. The book begins with the sentence: ‘I have a meanness inside me. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something is wrong with it.’ This is a theme she returns to again and again. Is it an explanation? Or an excuse? Her mother feels constantly inadequate; she has done the best she can, but the farm is mortgaged to the hilt, there’s never enough money, her ex-husband, Runner Day, is worse than useless: ‘wily and dumb at the same time’, dealing drugs, always on the scrounge. Her sisters are mean and whiney, and her brother Ben is an angry and hostile teenager. But Patty loves her kids, and would defend then if she could; can Libby be blamed for only occasionally glimpsing this? Can she actually change for the better?  The only reason you don’t thoroughly dislike her is that she is very self-aware; she knows when she’s being hateful. And some of her terrible habits turn out to be useful.

What happens during the final day before the murders, and the murders themselves, is actually very nasty, so nasty that I skipped over a couple of bits. I think Flynn describes Ben’s situation very well; you can see how it could happen, even if it is a bit over the top. A fear of the devil worship he is accused of did actually sweep the United States in the 1980s, crazy as it sounds. Communities  – especially poor rural ones? – can get caught up in mindless hysteria. Teenager boys do struggle to understand how to be men; we might blame Ben for some of his decisions, but Flynn makes them understandable. I’m not so sure about Patty, though.

I took some of the social relations in Gone Girl to be satirical, though I thought the tacky mid-west landscape the story was set in was realistic enough. There doesn’t seem to me to be any satire in this book. The social relations are a real reflection of deadening poverty, greed and selfishness – with only a tiny bit of love. And the physical landscape – the run-down farm, the failed tourist town, the toxic dump and the plastic bags blowing out of the landfill – also ring true. Libby’s self-deprecation may lighten the blighted tone somewhat, but is just that; it has no wider social reference. Overall I couldn’t help thinking that Gone Girl is nasty in a clever way, whereas Dark Places is nasty in a cruel and twisted way. They’ve made a film based on the book, but I certainly won’t be going to see it.

You can read more about Gillian Flynn here, and the film here. It is to be released in September of this year.

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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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