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Holiday Reading

Here’s a couple of good reads for a hot summer afternoon. Both are crime fiction, from different countries and different subgenres, but with significant similarities.

I picked up Michael Koryta’s A Welcome Grave (2009) because of the glowing endorsement by Michael Connelly on the cover. According to him, Koryta is ‘one of the best of the best’. I know endorsements don’t mean much, but I respect Connelly – here’s my review of one of his recent crime stories – and he’s right that Koryta is good. Despite the fact that he is only 32, there’s a lot Connelly can judge him on. This is his third book about private investigator Lincoln Perry – all of which were nominated for various awards – and there is one other in this series, plus six other books from a range of genres including crime, adventure and ghost stories. I’m breaking into his Lincoln Perry series – but it doesn’t matter, as the book is essentially self-contained.

Perry is a private detective operating in Cleveland Ohio. He was previously a cop, but was thrown out of the force for assaulting a prominent attorney who just happened to be having an affair with Perry’s fiancé Karen. Now that same attorney has been found murdered, and Karen wants Perry to find his estranged son. What could possibly go wrong? The story follows a structure reasonably common in crime stories where things get worse and worse for the hero as events beyond his (usually) control stack up against him until he eventually finds a way of fighting back. Koryta is slightly better at setting the conspiracy up than he is at producing a convincing resolution, but overall the story works well. I like the way he writes; Perry is a bit of a laid-back, wise-cracking Phillip Marlow sort of character. But he’s not quite the white knight that Marlow is; I like Perry’s admission at the end that he had made judgements and assumptions that he wanted to be true, and has to deal with the fact that they turned out to be wrong. I also like that Koryta’s preparation for writing private detective stories was to work as a private detective himself for a time.

The second book is The Tower (2009) by Michael Duffy, a police procedural set in Sydney. It is the first of two books featuring Senior Constable Detective Nicholas Troy. Duffy is no stranger to crime writing, having been a crime reporter (among other things, including publisher and contrarian broadcaster), and author of two ‘true crime’ books and a fictionalised representation of a Lebanese crime family in Sydney.

A young woman falls from a floor high up in the unfinished Tower building in Sydney. Is it suicide or murder? Detectives Troy and McIver are searching the unfinished top floors when the more senior of them, McIver is wounded by a gunman who flees the building. The Homicide section of the NSW police force is undermanned, and Troy has to take a leading role in the investigation. The case is complicated enough, but soon Troy finds he has to deal not only with police politics but with external power and influence. ‘Troy was not used to politics, had rarely felt its breath on his cheek. But he knew it was out there, waiting for him like everyone else.’ How well can he deal with it?

The narrative moves at a good pace, but at times I got quite confused about who was doing what to whom. Duffy says that when he writes a story, he doesn’t know how it’s going to end. Along the way in this one he introduces people smuggling, union corruption and dodgy business dealings as well as sex and drugs. Some of these are central to the plot, but others seem just there to confuse, as if the author wasn’t quite sure which bits he’d use. He says in an interview that he likes TV series such as The Wire, where ‘at first you feel a bit lost but it makes you pay attention. You have to become a detective and help solve the crime.’ So maybe he applies this to his work, and I’m just not paying enough attention. And it’s probably true that there is a deal of confusion in police work, as they strive to create a clear understanding of what actually happened. So I probably shouldn’t worry too much about loose ends. Troy is an interesting character, and I did enjoy the book – I’m just not entirely sure how it all fits together.

The differences between these books are obvious. Apart from the different settings, it is the difference between the private detective story, which seems to be the dominant detective subgenre in America, and the police procedural, which flourishes in the UK and Australia. (Connelly’s police detective Harry Bosch is an exception, but I’m not aware of very many others.) Private and police detectives work in different ways, their motivations are different, and very often the structure of the story has to be different to accommodate the private detective’s inability to arrest anyone. But these two books share a similarity I hadn’t expected. The heroes of both are not just baffled by events; they become the subject of a conspiracy. They become entangled because of the sort of people they are, and both writers have succeeded in creating heroes whose behaviour is a convincing response to their circumstances.

You can read more about Michael Koryta here, and Michael Duffy here.

PS I’m surprised by one thing in The Tower, and it’s that a Detective Constable would be given so much responsibility in a case. In most British TV police procedurals, constables seem very much the lower orders (though admittedly that isn’t true of Detective Constable Rachel Bailey in Scott and Bailey).  Maybe it’s different in Australia. Having been a crime reporter, Duffy would presumably get such details right.

 

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In my last post on Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, I was wondering about the differences between science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy. This book falls squarely into the fantasy category, exhibiting what I think could be considered its defining characteristics: an imagined society where some element of magic, or paranormal power, is at work in everyday life.

Though by no means Robin Hobb’s first book, this is the first she wrote under that name, and published in 1995, is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. Since then, much of her extensive further writing has been set in the ‘Realm of the Elderlings’ which she first created in this book, with many of the same characters, including the hero of this one.  Fitz is the illegitimate son of Chivalry, a prince of the house of Farseer, rulers of the Six Duchies. This is a realm somewhere in the North, a bit reminiscent perhaps of Scotland, or Alaska, where Hobb lived for a time (and may still live). The society is quasi mediaeval, with a ruler, nobles and commoners, built around trade and crafts, but with an emphasis on defence against the Outislanders known as the Red-Ship Raiders. The ‘Elderlings’ are little discussed in this book, but seem to occupy a space above humans but below gods – some kind of mythic ancestors.

The story is about Fitz’s coming of age. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of a much older, more damaged Fitz – I was reminded of Merlin, though Fitz is not precisely a wizard. At the age of six he is left at a castle by his grandfather, who no longer wants to be responsible for Prince Chivalry’s bastard. From there he moves to the court of King Shrewd, where he begins his training – as an assassin – which seems to be a conventional – if secret – role in this society. Fitz is to learn ‘the fine art of diplomatic assassination’, or in other words, ‘the nasty, furtive, polite ways to kill people’. This training has nothing to do with the two sorts of paranormal power that exist in this society. Fitz clearly has the first – known as ‘the Wit’, an ancient and now discredited form of telepathy with animals. Such communication is an enormous comfort to a lonely boy, but is dangerous because the mind of the person exercising it can become one with the animal. The second power is ‘the Skill’. Skilling is a process whereby people can transfer thoughts. This capacity is usually inherited, but can be acquired by training, and the skilled practitioner can get inside anyone’s head, given the right conditions. (Think occlumency in Harry Potter.) Fitz clearly has some power of mind, but is it the Skill, and can he be taught to use it?

Hobb is a very good story teller and the tale of Fitz’s attempt to find a place in the world is interesting in itself. The court is full of intrigue; Fitz finds he has powerful enemies and few friends, and he faces the psychological dangers of loneliness and depression as well as physical ones. The Six Duchies are troubled by the Red Raiders, particularly after they have found a way to draw the humanity out of those they capture in their raids. Stripped of what makes them human, these people are left to terrorise the countryside. Then there are court politics, and Fitz’s role in them, making for a surprisingly exciting story. Why surprising? I guess it’s partly a dissonance between the rather courtly language and the level of ruthlessness and violence. It’s not exactly Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit closer than I expected it to be.

I’m sure Hobb wrote this book with the intention of making it the first in a series, and that may account for all the loose ends – they will be taken up in later books. The main loose end I was concerned about was the nature of the dehumanising power of the Red Raiders, which isn’t addressed at all until near the end of the book, and then inconclusively. I found the power of bonding with animals was well handled, but can see the potential, only just avoided, for sentimentality. Who can resist being friends with a puppy?

One measure of the success or otherwise of the first book of a trilogy is whether the reader wants to go on to the second one. I think I will, but not for a while. Hobb is considered one of the best fantasy writers around, and her achievement can only be assessed if the scope of her work is taken into account.

You can read more about Robin Hobb – born Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden – here. She initially published under the name Megan Lindholm, and these books seem to be more science fiction than fantasy. However since 1995, under the Robin Hobb pseudonym, she seems to have stuck exclusively to fantasy. But I noticed that she was Guest of Honour at a recent World Science Fiction Convention; maybe I should just give up on the distinctions.

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I might as well say straight up that I’m not suggesting that anyone else reads this. After a discussion with friends about what constitutes science fiction, as opposed to speculative fiction and to fantasy fiction, I remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). It was one of the first of what I then called ‘science fiction’ stories that I had read, and, I thought, an impressive one. So I read it again. And it is impressive. It’s also a heavily Roman Catholic treatise on original sin. What was I thinking? And the re-reading didn’t really help with the science/speculative/fantasy fiction distinction either.

The book is in three sections. It is set somewhere that is just recognisable as North America in 3000 and something, the second section coming some hundreds of years after the first, and the third more hundreds after the second. In the first section, the world is barely surviving after a nuclear holocaust sometime in the past, the great ‘simplification’ that followed it – ie a purge of scientists and intellectuals – and the destruction of all but the most basic technology. An abbey in the desert founded by Father Leibowitz, a former technician, has a mission to preserve and propagate what little scientific knowledge remains; it has a meagre store of scraps of unrelated technical information, blueprints and manuals that no one now understands. An apparently chance meeting with a pilgrim leads Brother Francis to a buried fallout shelter, where further documents are found. Will this help or hinder the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz?

In the second section, small independent waring states have emerged, with a vestige of civil society. There are now a few secular scholars, and one of them wants to examine the memorabilia held in the abbey. Thon – a title a bit like Dr – Taddeo is a brilliant young natural philosopher. The abbey’s mission has been the preservation of literacy and learning. What possible danger could there be in his examining the abbey’s holdings? Taddeo says that he seeks ‘truth’, but he clearly represents technology designed to serve the power of the secular state. We get a hint of the incompatibility of church and state beliefs, more strongly developed later, when Taddeo looks at a peasant and sees a man who is ‘illiterate, superstitious, murderous.’ The cleric with him sees the ‘image of Christ’. Back at the abbey, the monks have deduced the idea of electricity from the fragments of information they hold, and have built a dynamo; they are apparently not opposed to technology as such. But for them, secular might and power count as nothing in the face of religious truth. The abbot welcomes Taddeo to the abbey, hoping a bridge can be built between the secular and the religious vision of knowledge. But is this possible?

In the third section, major powers have arisen capable of space travel, and again armed with nuclear weapons, this time located in space. But surely they have learnt the lessons of the past?

For all that the subject matter of this book is grim, Miller mostly writes with a light, even humorous touch. Readers are invited to smile at the superstitions of the monks, and to sympathise with the dilemmas of the abbots. We are given both sides of the debate, as in the rightness or otherwise of euthanasia in the third section. But the secular view is never allowed to win and underneath, there is a hard line Roman Catholicism at work. The themes of the rise of technology, the meaning of Christianity and the lust for secular power – the result of unrestrained original sin – tie the sections together. The mysterious pilgrim also plays a part in all three sections.

The book needs to be read in the context of Miller’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1940s and the ramping up of the Cold War in the 1950s. His war service also left him traumatised, particularly his part in bombing the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, as a result of which he embraced pacifism. The possibility of nuclear annihilation now seems less urgent than other threats to the world and its environment, but in the 1950s the crazy danger of the MAD policy – Mutually Assured Destruction – practised by both the Soviet Union and the West was a daily threat. Talk of fallout shelters and how they could be used was commonplace. Miller’s diatribe against the horrors of nuclear war may appear a bit over the top now, but would have seemed perfectly rational when the book was written, and when I first read it.

So is this science fiction? As I’ve noted before, Margaret Atwood makes a distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction where the latter is an extension of existing technical capabilities taken to their logical extreme. This leaves ‘science fiction’ as fiction dealing with wholly imagined physics and/or technologies. But what might have been only imagined in 1959, like the possibility of wholesale space travel, is merely ‘speculative’ now. (The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, so it wasn’t entirely ‘new’, even then.) And where does the ‘dystopian’ label come in? I think perhaps that labels aren’t much use after all, and certainly not in books like this where the genres meet.

You can read a little more about Walter Miller here.

PS. Comparisons are probably as futile as labels, but I can’t help myself. Where else do we find monastic communities preserving learning after ‘sackings’ (read simplifications), while secular societies rise and fall around them? These same elements, and others I won’t give away, also appear in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) – reviewed here. I’d love to know whether Stephenson ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

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Cutting for Stone (2009) isn’t directly autobiographical, but it has a bit of a documentary feel to it. This is because Verghese did have some of the Ethiopian and American experiences he writes about, and also because his career, other than being a writer, is as a doctor. The extensive medical detail in the book reflects his lived experience. It took a while for me to get into this book, but then I found it hard to put down.

The story begins with Marion Stone at the age of fifty looking back at his life in order to understand his relationship with his brother, and his father. Marion– named after the famous gynaecologist Marion Sims – and his conjoined twin Shiva were born in the ‘Missing’ hospital – a corruption of ‘Mission’- in Addis Ababa in 1954. Their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, an Indian nun, died at their birth, and their father, Thomas Stone, a surgeon at the hospital, fled the country for reasons that seem heartless, but become clearer as the story unfolds. The boys are brought up at the hospital by Hemlatha (Hema) and Ghosh, the doctors who separated them at birth. They grow up with an expatriate perspective on the richness and colour, but also the poverty and political instability of Ethiopia. Each goes on to pursue a career in medicine, but of completely different kinds. And then there is Genet, the Eritrean girl they have grown up with. Where does it all go wrong?

The book is divided into four parts, though parts one and two only make up a third of the book. We know from the prelude that Marion is trying to reconstruct his past, and most of the book is narrated by him in the first person. However there is only so much that he can recount from personal knowledge, so the story in the shorter parts one and two is carried by others, such as Hema and Ghosh. These sections of the story, including that relating to his mother, are told in the third person. Later is the book, Verghese relies on having another important character tell his story to Marion. I find this mixing of first and third party accounts to be an annoying device, and it probably accounts for my initial difficulty in getting into the story. Once Marion takes over in part three, I felt much more comfortable with it. (Part three is his growing up in Addis Ababa, part four his time in America.)  However there are some events which are crucial to the story – two in particular – which happen, as it were, off-stage. Marion doesn’t take part in them, so can’t possibly describe them but Verghese hasn’t chosen to give the relevant characters – Shiva and Genet – voices of their own. So we are left with only Marion’s perceptions, and the effects of others’ actions on him, rather than an understanding of why they acted as they did. I’m probably being a bit harsh here; both Shiva and Genet are fully developed characters whose behaviour is consistent with the picture Verghese has drawn of them. But their actions are ultimately a function of plot more than character; they do what they must do for the working out of the mechanics of the story. And these mechanics are to my mind just a bit artificial. I was completely convinced by Marion, Hema and Ghosh, but not quite fully convinced by Sava and Genet.

The book is very long, largely because Verghese loves detail. And much of it is fascinating. You may or may not like the attention given to surgical procedures – it got a bit much for me sometimes – but it certainly gives a strong sense of reality to the book. Attitudes to medicine and its practice are central to the story, summed up when Marion thinks ‘Surely you couldn’t be a good doctor and a terrible human being’. Verghese’s own surgical practice has been very patient orientated – in the sense that you can learn more about patients’ needs by talking to them then you can by looking at data about their condition. The question ‘what treatment in an emergency room is administered by ear’ and its answer ‘words of comfort’ is important in the story. Verghese turns naturally to medical metaphors; speaking of a rift with his twin, Marion says: ‘If there were filaments and cords of yoke or flesh that kept our divided egg sticking together, I was taking a scalpel to them.’

The title, Cutting for Stone, is taken from a version of the Hippocratic oath which enjoins doctors not to operate to remove bladder (presumably?) stones, but to leave it to ‘surgeons’. This slightly enigmatic – and no longer used – formulation sounds more like an ancient demarcation dispute than a useful piece of advice, and I’m not sure of its application to the story. Certainly there are many references, or allusions, to cutting in relation to people called Stone; Thomas Stone fails to perform a caesarean section on the twins’ mother, the conjoined twins are cut apart, Marion could be said to be cutting for Stone in looking for his father, and there is other cutting which I won’t mention because it gives away the story. There is also division and conflict in Ethiopia. Perhaps the point is that cutting is one side of the coin and healing is the other – just as Marion is the mirror image of Shiva.  Both of the twins, Hema, Ghosh and Thomas Stone all seek to heal, which is what I guess this book is ultimately about. Marion cannot heal the rifts in Ethiopian society, but he does what he can to heal its inhabitants.

You can read more about Abraham Verghese here, and note the places where his experiences, and those he gives to Marion, coincide. And here is an interesting TED video in which he talks about the need for the human touch in medicine.

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John Carey’s autobiography (2014) is subtitled An Oxford Life in Books. It is, as he explains in the foreword, ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it,’ a case study in ‘what kind of upbringing produces a preference for some books rather than others’.  One of the things that came of it is one of my favourite books, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) by John Carey, so naturally I was interested to see the upbringing and outlook that produced it.

While it is true that the story of a life that is utterly different to one’s own can be fascinating and challenging, I tend to agree with Carey’s somewhat ironic comment that the autobiographies of ‘people who share your own views, are of course, the best.’ Not that Carey’s life has been anything like mine – for a start, he was way cleverer, which is why he gets to write an autobiography people might want to read and I don’t. But I was fascinated by the comparison of his student life at Oxford, and mine at a provincial university in the colonies, where Oxford set standards that were never quite lived up to. Though maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Carey was a scholarship boy, the product of a good grammar school classical education; no one was exposed to that sort of education in post-WWII Australia, so a restrictive Oxbridge syllabus was fortunately never possible here. 1960s university Arts curricula may have cast wistful glances back at Oxbridge, but thank goodness we didn’t end our idea of ‘English Literature’ in 1834, as Oxford did when Carey was an undergraduate in the early 1950s. In later years he did much to change this, to the great annoyance of some of his colleagues. He also tried to ensure that students received better teaching, in terms of how to read, what to read and how to criticise – an area where some Australian academics might have benefited from following his lead.

Carey researched and taught at a number of Oxford colleges during his long academic career. From the first, he was aware of the class distinctions that operated in most of them, Balliol being an honourable exception. Of Christ Church, ‘just walking through it was an object lesson in how architecture can be used to make people feel small.’ At Keeble, he encountered one academic whom he loathed, seeing him as ‘a symbol of the monstrous injustice of Oxford, its crooked admissions policy and its shameless favouring of wealth and privilege.’ Of course he met with much intellectual honesty and generosity, as well as friendship. But it was the sense of superiority evinced by many of the academic staff that was the seed that germinated as The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Carey comes from a solid middle class background, of parents who had no particular aspirations towards high culture. His father was an accountant, understandably proud of his clever son. It occurred to Carey that people like the snobbish don he met at Christ Church – who pointedly refrained from ever addressing the young Carey – would despise his parents, and that thought eventually turned into The Intellectuals and the Masses. This is a study in cultural history of writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who created what is now called ‘modernist literature’. Carey argues that many intellectuals resented the ‘semi-literate masses’ produced by the compulsory education reforms of 1870. In response, they excluded them from high culture by creating a literature which the masses couldn’t understand, because it ‘cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions.’ Carey is not saying that this literature was necessarily bad; indeed he very much admires some of the work of D.H. Lawrence, one of the writers he uses as an example. Others he comments on are T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and H.G. Wells.  Needless to say this analysis was met with howls of fury, but I found it wonderfully liberating.

Most of Carey’s early academic work is high quality commentary on Milton, Donne and Marvell; later he wrote about Dickens, Thackeray and William Golding. But he is more broadly known for his collections of reportage and science writing. More recently he again shocked his academic colleagues with a small book entitled What Use Are the Arts? (2005), in which he considers what is a work of art, and whether exposure to works of art makes you a better person? The answers he reluctantly arrives at are that anything can be so considered, and unfortunately ‘no’. But he concludes that what matters is whether a book – or a painting, a piece of music – gives ‘joy and satisfaction’, and surely there could be no better test.

You can read a little more about Professor Carey here, including a list of his major works, and an interesting profile of him here. If you don’t fancy the autobiography, try the Faber Book of Reportage (1987) – eyewitness accounts of history – or the Faber Book of Science (1995). Or, of course, The Intellectuals and the Masses.

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OK, it’s a young adult book. But it’s holiday time, and I can be forgiven for a fun and easy read. Which is what Percy Jackson and the Olympians, subtitled The Lightning Thief (2005) is. It’s also the first of a series of five Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, which have further morphed into a related series called The Heroes of Olympus, the whole oeuvre being entitled the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles. To say nothing of two films, and over three million Facebook likes. (To put this into perspective, Harry Potter, with whom Percy Jackson is inevitably compared, has over seven and a half million.)

The Olympians are not athletes. They are gods. Riordan is playing with the idea that the old Greek gods, and their entourage of heroes, satyrs, naiads, dryads and assorted monsters never disappeared, and have on occasion, taken a hand in human history –(eg Prohibition was a punishment imposed by Zeus on Dionysus). Early in the story, which is set in present day New York, Percy – short for Perseus – finds out that he is the son of a god – though he doesn’t initially know which one. He is sent on a quest to find Zeus’s ‘master bolt’ – the symbol of his power – which has been stolen. He is helped by Annabeth, another half-god, a daughter of Athena, and Grover, a satyr who hides his hairy hind quarters and hoofs under baggy jeans and sneakers. Together, they have a series of adventures, some of which resemble those of Perseus, some call Hercules to mind, and one even seems to come from The Odyssey.

You can read this book – and I’m sure that this is the case for most of the young adults who read it – without any knowledge of Greek mythology. Riordan has published a sort of handbook on this mythology – Percy’s personal take on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece – called Percy Jackson’s Book of Greek Gods (2014), but this is for fans, not novices. This book can be read simply as a coming of age story of a boy capable of magic in some form – as in stories by authors as various as Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman or Alison Croggon to name but a few. And as in most of these coming of age stories, Percy has to learn how to use his magic gifts.  As one blogger puts it, it’s about ‘what it is like to come to grips with the utterly fantastical and impossible in what was previously a very ordinary life; about how it feels to have destiny thrust upon you, and how one goes about making that destiny for oneself.’

Alternatively, you can enjoy picking up the references to the feats of the mythological Heroes. If you’re like me, and read all that stuff too many years ago to really remember it clearly, half-remembering can be a bit annoying, but there’s always Wikipedia, or Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls (1853) by Nathaniel Hawthorne, available from the Guttenberg Project. It’s a clever device by Riordan to call upon an ‘existing’ source of magic power, rather than have to make one up, and the associations do make it more fun. Percy’s god relatives wrangle among themselves like the gods of old; they are jealous, capricious and proud. As Percy says of the gods of old: ‘If you like horror shows, blood baths, lying, stealing, backstabbing, and cannibalism … it definitely was a Golden Age for all that ’ – and it still is.

One criticism of the book is that it has rather too much in common with other stories about magic, particularly the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter has Hogwarts, Percy Jackson has Camp Half Blood. Harry has Hermione, Percy has Annabeth. In both, the magic world exists alongside the ordinary one, but cannot be seen by normal humans. Percy’s magical sword only works on monsters, but disasters caused by magic can harm ordinary humans and have to be explained away– think of the destruction the death eaters cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And so on. But it’s probably sufficiently different, particularly in its American setting, with its gods rather than wizards, and different adventures, to appeal to a similar market.

Riordan seems to mass produce Percy and the various other spinoff series, and it shows in his episodic plotting and rather stereotyped characterisation. It’s all a bit too easy for Percy, and he can be annoyingly ignorant and brash. But some of the imagery of the underworld, and the role of the Harpies there, are good. They resonate for me not with scenes from Harry Potter, but with Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass (2000), where Will and Lyra descend to the underworld. Pullman’s book – the third in the trilogy His Dark Materials – is a much more polished and literary work than Riordan’s Percy series ever tries to be. But in this section, the books bear comparison.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, this is holiday reading, and perhaps something to tempt the children or grandchildren with, once they’ve finished with Harry Potter.

You can read more about Rick Riordan here.

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Watching You (2013) is Robotham’s ninth book, and the fifth featuring clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. His other series character, Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz, now retired, also has a role. Robotham seems to alternate them being the main focus of the story; Joe was central to the previous book, Say You’re Sorry (2012), and it was Ruiz’s turn in the one before that, The Wreckage (2011). The Ruiz books seem to me to address broad issues of power and authority – The Wreckage is, for example, set partly in Bagdad –whereas Joe’s stories tend to be more focussed psychological thrillers. This is one of the latter, and I do rather miss the wider reach of the Ruiz stories.

The book begins with an italicised first-person statement from an unnamed watcher, and we hear several more times from this person (presumably a male, though it doesn’t say so) throughout the book. The person he has watched from childhood is Marnie Logan. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with a teenage daughter, a young son with coeliac disease and a missing husband. He simply vanished one day, leaving his gambling debts behind him. Marnie can’t access his bank account, or even stop his direct debits. She is being threatened by the crooks he is in debt to, and the only way she can find the money is to agree to work for them as an escort. She sometimes feels someone is watching her. She is consulting Joe O’Loughlin in an attempt to come to terms with the loss of her husband, but he can’t help feeling there is something else worrying her at a much deeper level. Why is her file the one that is stolen when someone breaks into his office? And why are the police asking her questions when one of the crooks she has been working for is found dead?

O’Loughlin, banking on assistance from Ruiz, agrees that they will help Marnie establish whether her husband is really dead. But when they start looking into her past, they get puzzling responses from people she has known. The reader knows from the first-person sections some of what is going on, and may be tempted to guess the rest – but not all is as it seems. Can we really trust Marnie? This is where the psychology really comes to the fore, making it a clever, if uncomfortable read.

O’Loughlin is not a detective, but he shares with some private detectives the capacity to solve crimes by seeing things that others, including the police, miss. Ruiz says to Joe: ‘You understand more than most people. You look harder. You care more. You let things bruise your soul and question what’s wrong with humanity.’ Ruiz is prepared to help because as Joe tells Marnie: ‘He’s a good man.’ Detective Inspector Gennia takes a different view. ‘He doesn’t like psychologists. In particular he doesn’t like criminal investigations where psychology serves a purpose. Most crimes are straightforward and easy to understand …They kill for money, power or revenge – simple yet ancient motives that don’t require a psychological profile to unravel or comprehend.’ For Joe, ‘Human behaviour seems so random, yet can be plotted and graphed’ – though in this case, the behaviour is quite outside the normal range of expectations – in more ways than one. It could be argued that using psychology in the way Robotham does is cheating; it goes beyond insight and introduces factors that aren’t predictable by the average reader (well me, anyway). But surely looking at people on the psychological edge is at the heart of the psychological thriller. The other side of the coin of Joe’s psychological insight is his physical weakness, as the Parkinson’s disease he suffers from gets slowly worse.

I always enjoy Robotham’s writing. He was first a journalist and then a ghost writer of celebrity ‘autobiographies’ before he turned to crime writing. It’s perhaps this that has given him such a good grasp of the mechanics of story-telling, at which he excels. He know just how and when to ratchet up the tension, how to keep the reader on edge, never quite comfortable about how the story will develop. He’s also good at realistic characters and situations. Marnie is an excellent creation and Robotham does a good job of writing from a female perspective. ‘In terms of getting inside the head, inhabiting the skin of a woman, I’ve had to do that as a ghost writer. It’s still very challenging to do as a fiction writer as the majority of fiction readers are women. If you get it wrong, if there’s something that jars with them, if I’ve messed something up, readers aren’t very forgiving,’ he says. All the other bit part characters that make up the story, such as Marnie’s children, Zoe and Elijah, are also well drawn. I’m not so sure about the villain – you’ll have to make up your own mind on that. It is a psychological thriller after all.

You can read more about Michael Robotham here. And here’s an interesting interview with him. His most recent book, Life or Death (2014) breaks the O’Loughlin/Ruiz mould – as far as I can see, it isn’t about either of them. You can search the What Book to Read blog for my posts on earlier Robotham books.

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