DEAD PEOPLE by EWART HUTTON : a review

DEAD PEOPLE by EWART HUTTON

The cover describes this as a Glyn Capaldi mystery. It is in fact the second in the series. A friend reviewed the first book, “ Good People” for Writing .ie last year.

It’s not hard to see the series evolving with a common link in the book titles of “people” rather as Peter James has done with “dead” in his Roy Grace series.

Glyn Capaldi is a detective sergeant, exiled from Cardiff to Dinas in rural Wales after a cock-up in the city. The local crime is rural, not too serious until a pilot wind farm project uncovers a skeleton – minus head and hands. Further exploration leads to the discovery of two more skeletons similarly mutilated. The remains are dated to at least eight years earlier.

Then, close to the wind farm, the freshly interred body of a young woman is discovered, similarly mutilated. She is identified as a local teen who ran away from home two years earlier. Where has she been in the interim? Is her body connected to the skeletons.? The answer of course is yes – and the rest of the novel is given over to establishing the link and finding out the identity of the killer. On the way Capaldi has to take orders from his mortal enemy from Cardiff, DCI Kevin Fletcher and has time for a brief romantic interlude.

The book is well written in an easy style with some throwaway humorous lines and at least one neat twist. One reviewer thought the style reminiscent of R.D. Wingfield’s Jack Frost, which was something that had occurred to me after about 20 pages. Yet whereas Frost always seemed to get the better of Horn rimmed Harry, Fletcher seems to be his nemesis.

The only problem I had with the plot was that the later murders seemed pointless in the context of the earlier ones and were certainly less justifiable, even to the twisted mind of the murderer. (There was a somewhat analogous discordance in one of the last Wallender DVDs in which murder and cover –up are carried out to thwart a prosecution for far less serious crimes.)

All in all, though, the author has created a plausible likeable detective who is likely to feature in a number of sequels.

17/7

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FEVER by MARY BETH KEANE : review

FEVER
MARY BETH KEANE
SIMON & SHUSTER 306 pages €15.99

Typhoid Mary was a figure in the popular folklore of the USA during the early decades of the Twentieth Century. A carrier of typhoid, to which she was immune, she worked as a cook and infected considerable numbers of people in New York, some of whom died. This novel tells her story, fleshing out the few stark known biographical details about her.

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown in 1869 and emigrated to the USA in the mid-1880s. From 1900 on she worked as a cook for wealthy families in New York. In 1907, when members of several families for whom she had worked contracted typhoid, investigator George Soper established that typhoid had broken out virtually everywhere she had worked since 1900, with several deaths.

Soper was convinced Mary was a carrier and eventually, despite her angry protestations, she was tested and Soper’s theory confirmed. Using obscure provisions in the Greater New York Charter, the authorities held her in isolation for three years on tiny North Brother Island, off Manhattan, where a special cottage, 10 foot by 12, was built for her. She was released in 1910, on condition that she did not work again as a cook. By then, also, other carriers like Mary had been identified, but not locked up.

However, in 1915, after 27 patients in Sloane Maternity Hospital contracted typhoid, two dying, Mary was discovered there working as a cook under an assumed name. Public sympathy was conspicuous by its absence. “ Before was carelessness; this time it’s criminal.” She was again removed to the island, where, incredibly, she was kept until her death in 1938.

She appears to have been the only typhoid carrier isolated in this fashion without much in the way of due process. That she was a woman, working class, difficult, even that she was Irish are among the reasons popularly advanced for her treatment.

Mary Beth Keane has woven a skilful and largely sympathetic novel around the bare facts of Mary’s life, without pulling any punches about her often difficult personality. She has also painted a vivid portrait of tenement life for New York’s poor at the time. The description of North Brother Island, all 20 acres of it, during Mary’s first confinement is particularly memorable.

The book concentrates on the period 1900 – 1915 with the final 23 years meriting only a few pages. But then what was there to say about those last lonely decades marooned on a tiny island with only a TB hospital, a small leper colony and the medical staff, who commuted, for company.

April 013

CROCODILE TEARS by MARK O SULLIVAN : review

CROCODILE TEARS
MARK O SULLIVAN
TRANSWORLD IRELAND 362 pages €13.99

“Crocodile Tears” is a clever play on the similarly named medical syndrome denoting a constantly weeping eye – an affliction of the book’s hero – and the sentiments expressed over the murder victim in this, the debut crime novel by Mark O’ Sullivan, already well known as an author of children’s books.

In it we meet Garda Detective Inspector Leo Woods and his assistant Helen Troy, he middle aged and with a facial disfigurement, she on her first assignment as a Detective Sergeant. Together they are investigating the murder in Howth of property tycoon Dermot Brennan.

The murder takes place in November 2010, with the economic recession in full spate. There are no lack of suspects: a disgruntled, and broke, home owner from one of Brennan’s ghost estates, former business associates, an estranged son as well as two unsavoury family acquaintances. The several possible motives make the detectives’ task more difficult.

Leo Woods is a memorable character, permanently disfigured, physically and psychologically, by Bell’s Palsy, who collects face masks as a way of coping with his affliction. He smokes, he snorts, he suffers bouts of malaria – souvenir of a tour of duty with the UN – and has an uneasy relationship with his superintendent, product of a past liaison with the latter’s wife. His methods are unorthodox but he gets results.

Helen Troy for her part has personal complications as she tries to establish herself in her new position, with a waster of a brother desperate to milk his share of their father’s estate, and an ex who won’t stop pestering her. The Garda team is completed by a bright and ambitious young policeman, a constant source of annoyance to Woods, together with an accident prone Garda with a crush on Troy.

Sub plots abound in what becomes an increasingly complicated mystery to unravel, with real and suspected liaisons involving a sculptor, an American gardener and the radical German owner of an animal shelter, all with a possible bearing on the murder. Throw in political interference, a holdall stuffed with cash in the victim’s house and a disappearing Latvian housemaid and there is more than sufficient to test the investigating team’s mettle. The story proceeds at a fast pace and includes several twists, some outside the box thinking and a mounting body count before the final denoument ,all the action compressed into a single week.

The book is well written, gritty, with dark humour and some striking metaphors and is a good addition to the Irish crime fiction corpus. The author’s agent has likened it to “The Killing.” I saw enough to compare it to Mankel’s “Wallender”, in the Henriksson T.V. series. A satisfying read. There should be a sequel. Woods deserves it.

April 2013

TO MOVE THE WORLD by JEFFREY SACHS : review

TO MOVE THE WORLD
JFK’S QUEST FOR PEACE
JEFFREY D. SACHS
THE BODLEY HEAD 250pp €21.45

Fifty years ago today John F. Kennedy left Ireland after a visit regarded by many here as a watershed moment. This book is a timely reminder that the Kennedy Presidency produced another watershed moment which nearly did for civilisation itself.

As the sub-title suggests, the book, written by the renowned economist and JFK admirer Jeffrey Sachs, is a study of Kennedy’s foreign policy initiatives in the wake of the defining moment of his Presidency, the Cuba Crisis of October 1962. It was a year that saw Kennedy extend an olive branch and shift superpower relations onto a more stable footing, highlighted by the successful conclusion of the partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of July 1963.

Kennedy’s Presidency can be divided into the periods before and after October 1962. When Kennedy became President U.S – Soviet relations were already at a low ebb , and JFK, to quote Sachs, came “out swinging… in three provocative ways”. He ordered a major build-up of nuclear weapons, where the US already had vast superiority, he sanctioned what would be a disastrous CIA inspired invasion of Cuba and he went ahead with plans to install nuclear missiles, pointed at the USSR, in Italy and Turkey.

While Kennedy learned from his early mistakes, in particular not to trust the CIA or the generals, the next year saw superpower relations lurch from bad to worse. A disastrous summit, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the resumption of atmospheric nuclear tests by both parties did not augur well, though Kennedy seems to have grasped early on the depth of Russian fears of German rearmament and of a possible German finger on NATO’S nuclear trigger.

Most of this was posturing but in the autumn of 1962 came a game changer. The beleaguered Soviet leader Khrushchev, under political pressure from military hard liners, facing also domestic economic problems, embarked on a plan to install medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba, ninety miles from the US mainland. For Khrushchev it would be a propaganda coup, relatively inexpensive, a response to U.S. aggression against an ally and would also give the U.S. a taste of the sense of encirclement that Russians felt with NATO missiles on their borders.

Many books have been written about the Crisis blaming either or both parties. That Khrushchev never intended war was irrelevant. That the move did not alter the strategic balance did not matter. There was an awful political reality. Kennedy could not ignore Khrushchev’s action. The military and the US right called for air strikes or invasion. To do nothing invited rapid impeachment, with unforeseeable consequences. It was, in Kennedy’s rueful words, “ the week I earn my salary”.

The superpowers were suddenly toe to toe . Kennedy, aware how the European powers had blundered into war in 1914 through miscalculation or misunderstanding was determined that this would not happen. He grounded U2 spy planes. He dismissed demands for military action ( the generals could not guarantee complete success) and opted instead for a naval blockade of Cuba, a strategy that bought some time for negotiations. The world watched, in horrified fascination, as numbers of Soviet ships neared Cuba. Nuclear war seemed inevitable.

At the nadir a U2 plane from Alaska strayed into Soviet air space. Soviet fighters were scrambled; the US planes sent to escort it back were authorised under their high alert status to fire nuclear warheads. As Sachs notes, “ by dumb luck the world survived. JFK’s comment: “ There’s always some dumb SOB who doesn’t get the word.” The glimpse of catastrophe proved sobering. Khrushchev, shaken, backed down and withdrew the missiles. Kennedy, shaken, gave a quid pro quo (on Turkey) and determined there would be no repetition.

The Crisis changed Kennedy fundamentally. Sachs focuses on JFK’s attempts during 1963 to forge a lasting détente. He reproduces four major speeches , including the address to the Dail, concentrating in particular on the seminal “Peace Speech” of June 10 to Columbia University, in which Kennedy challenged the US to re-examine its view of the Soviet Union.

Sensing a growing rapport with Khrushchev, he prepared to cut the Gordian knot on nuclear testing by suggesting a partial rather than full treaty ( excluding underground tests). The treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests was concluded in July and successfully shepherded through the US Senate by 81 votes to 17 – a considerable feat – in September. It proved negotiation and agreement were possible. By then Kennedy, in his final UN speech, had attempted to prescribe further steps towards improving relations and eventually ending the Cold War. A “hot line” was agreed, as well as cultural exchanges and the sale of wheat to the USSR.

A new era beckoned. Then came Dallas. It was to be decades before the Cold War ended, a period that included nasty proxy wars, a continuing nuclear arms race and spells of superpower hostility and tension. Wasted years. Yet nothing ever approached those thirteen days when the fate of mankind was truly in the balance. Kennedy showed leadership when it mattered during and after October 1962. A lesson there for politicians today.

June27 2013

ABOUT THIS BLOG

PALE OUTLAW

I set up Pale Outlaw in November 2011, but have not used it to any great extent. I intended to sound off more – and on a variety of topics – but soon after that I decided to concentrate on writing fiction and researching and reviewing books.
The blog since has since become primarily a repository and record of published material, though that may change.
The Time Capsule contains the full collection of my Irish American News pieces “ From the Motherland”, which commenced in April 2009 and now comprises fifty three pieces ( listed using Roman Numerals). As the title suggests they offer a time capsule for the period in which my take on what was happening is set out.
As the IAN audience is either ex-pat Irish or Irish American – and reasonably well informed about what’s happening in Ireland – I’ve tried to give a certain slant on what’s been in the news and occasionally point up some significant trend or development. As well as the economy and politics, which predominate, I’ve also covered relations with Europe, Neutrality, the Irish Diaspora, RTE, Demographic Trends and Immigration, the Mortgage Crisis and even the Henri Handball. The pieces are limited to 1200 words, which is a useful discipline in itself.
The Book Reviews are chiefly those published in the Irish Independent or on Writing.ie or ones I produced for the local Murder and Mystery book club. Profound or forensic they are not. Most of my private analyses of books tend to concentrate on some aspect of the work ( plot, structure, etc.) and are not publishable. I might add, by way of obiter, that, having “ been there, done that” in the sense of having written a novel and several other pieces of fiction, I have great respect and empathy for other writers. If you haven’t done it – try it. It’s hard work!
The Published Articles are just that – articles published in Irish newspapers and magazines over the past two years.
The Memoirs consist of several pieces based on my past career. It’s a category I hope to expand in the future. Right now it contains several pieces based on my experiences as a European Community Peace Monitor in Croatia and Bosnia.
The Uncategorised and Current Affairs sections contain a number of pieces, several from the IAN before I hit on the Time Capsule appellation, others in which I attempted to sound off, pieces largely unpublished but longer than the 1200 word limit of the IAN. If I do resume sounding off, it will be here.
Finally, Rated Fiction is a small category ( at present) which I plan to expand containing published short fiction where I have the copyright.

July 13 2013

LIVE BY NIGHT by DENNIS LEHANE: review

Dennis Lehane goes from strength to strength. He is best known for the film adaptation of his novel “Mystic River,” the Oscar – award winning and thought provoking film of several years back, and of the more recent “Shutter Island.” He has also won awards for his part in script writing for the cult HBO series “The Wire.”

The son of Irish parents from the last great wave of 50’s emigrants, he shot to fame in 1994 with “A Drink Before the War” the first of five highly acclaimed detective novels based in Boston, one of which, “Gone Baby gone” became yet another successful film .

Lehane has now embarked on a series of novels set around the Prohibition Era and after, of which “Live by Night” is the second; a third is promised. The earlier novel, “The Given Day” featured the Boston Police Strike of 1919 and events in Tulsa Oklahoma prior to the infamous race riots there in 1921 and was described by the New York Times as a majestic fiery epic. The story revolved around Boston police captain Thomas Coughlin and his family.

“ Live by Night” again features the Coughlins, with the third son Joseph as the central character. Joseph is a career gangster, surviving hard time in jail, to emerge and work with members of the Italian and Irish mobs in Boston and then in Tampa during Prohibition, where he masterminds the supply of liquor, including Cuban rum, north to New England. His first Irish gangster boss sets the scene early on, telling Joseph in his casino that “the people we serve…they visit the night. But we live in it. They rent what we own.”

Later, post Prohibition, Joe relocates to Cuba, where much hope is being invested in a reforming Colonel Batista who kicked out the previous dictator (that same Batista whose corrupt regime was ousted in 1959 by Castro).

There’s violence in plenty, but this is counterbalanced by love stories, one unrequited, a complex father-son relationship and an emerging different dimension to Joseph, that of local philanthropy, both in Tampa and Cuba.

The work transcends the mere gangster or crime novel and has been receiving rapturous reviews, some critics comparing Lehane with Steinbeck and Chandler and describing him as among the most accomplished and versatile American novelists. The characters are finely drawn, the era is superbly recreated with great attention paid to the historical detail.

The broader social issues of the time are explored, particularly in the portrayal of 1920’s Tampa and the impact of the Great Depression, with ten thousand bank failures and thirteen million jobs lost in less time than our own recession. Race relations loom large, particularly in Tampa’s mixed ghetto of Ybor City, where Cubans, African –Americans, and Italians, rich and poor, are thrown together, while outside, the local whites and the Klan ( providing muscle) stare balefully on.

The book is a great read and can stand alone or as part of what is shaping up to be a major historical saga

MIXED BLESSINGS by PETER SOMERVILLE-LARGE :review

MIXED BLESSINGS

Peter Somerville-Large is best known for his non-fiction books on Ireland, including “Dublin, Irish Eccentrics, The Grand Irish Tour, The Coast of West Cork.” He is now in his eighties and lives in Kilkenny. In this elegant novel he charts the life of Paul Blake-Willoughby, born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendency in 1929, product of a mixed marriage, with an aristocratic Catholic soldier father and an eccentric staunchly Protestant mother.

Surprisingly, in the era of Ne Temere, the parents agree to let Paul choose his faith. Much of the early part of the story centres on the sometimes hilarious pitches made by both churches to recruit him. At one point a priest ponders bringing in the heavy artillery of John Charles McQuaid. Enough said. Here, as elsewhere, there is a serious side to the author’s whimsical and gentle approach.

Take elements of ”The Irish R.M.”, “Brideshead Revisited” and P.G. Wodehouse and set them against the background of De Valera’s Ireland. It is all there, the 1940s and 50s, in evocative detail, or just hinted at. Ireland during World War Two; the rationing, the lack of basics, the mounds of turf in the Phoenix Park, cars modified to run on charcoal. Paul’s boarding school, with its privations, bullying and caste system will strike a chord with many. There are intimations too of sexual abuse, while the Magdalen homes are treated as a source of cheap domestic labour.

Paul’s big house, a decaying mansion too expensive to repair and renovate, is portrayed in all its awfulness: too cold to heat, a leaking roof and infested with vermin. The family share it with servants and a melange of dogs, cats and a parrot. The servants come and go, knowing their place, for class distinctions are paramount, with one hilarious exception. Friendships are confined to persons of similar class, which in the book’s case include some memorable and eccentric personalities, none more so than Paul’s mother.

The story explores themes of snobbery, bigotry and infidelity and is peppered with outrageous jokes, remarks and occurrences. The author’s eye is sympathetic but incisive. Splendid and highly recommended.