MARKED OFF by DON CAMERON : a review

MARKED OFF

DON CAMERON

NEW ISLAND 252 pp €13.99 e book €2.99

A killer is operating in Dublin, targeting blond women in the comfortable suburbs around Blackrock. Two are murdered in rapid succession, with the same unusual and shocking modus operandi. The Gardai are baffled. There’s nothing to link the women, the murders were well planned and there are no clues. Inspector Danny O’Neill, fighting demons from his own past, must find the killer before he strikes again. Yet lead after lead prove to be dead ends as O’Neill and his team struggle to deal with false clues, lies and corruption in the efforts to track down a troubled and evil man, one who revels in frustrating the Gardai and follows closely the detectives’ efforts to find him.

Public hysteria mounts with media revelations that the killings are linked. The killer is even given a nickname by journalists. Then, the separate gruesome murder of a junior Minister. The Minister had a past as a ladies man and as a Celtic Tiger businessman with many enemies. There are no lack of suspects and the murder appears totally separate from those of the two women. Yet the leads in this murder also dry up despite intense political pressure to solve the crime. Some are asking whether the murders could be linked, or is Dublin now stalked by two vicious killers?

When another woman is attacked pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle begin to fall into place and O’Neill realises he is confronted with an unprecedented situation. His team must delve into the seamy life of the Dublin underworld and apply wit, imagination and lateral thinking to locate their quarry as he targets another victim.

This novel won last year’s “ Get Your Book Published” competition jointly organised by RTE’s Today Show and New Island Books. It’s the first by author Don Cameron, a Dubliner who has published over forty short stories since he began writing in the mid-nineties. In an extensive interview on Writing.ie the author gives an interesting account of writing the novel, winning the competition and the process of getting it ready for publication – a process he describes as “tough, exciting, interesting, sometimes frustrating, rewarding and, above all, fun.”

15/02/15

IRELAND AND THE END OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE by HELEN O’SHEA : a review

IRELAND AND THE END OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

HELEN O’SHEA

I.B.TAURIS 288 pp €89.00

Cyprus, an island slightly larger than Co. Cork, and with a population of just over half a million, became independent in 1960 after a short, nasty, guerrilla campaign. In four years several hundred British soldiers and locally employed Cypriots were killed, nine EOKA ( Cypriot Resistance) fighters were hanged with many more dying fighting up to 40,000 British soldiers.

A bad situation was made worse by British blunders and ineptitude. They sought initially to crush EOKA by savage repression (enforced by a military Governor), deported the inspirational Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios to the Seychelles and flew the EOKA leaders to British prisons, where they teamed up with IRA prisoners. EOKA were even gifted their own Kevin Barry, 22 year old Michalis Karaolis, hanged amid protests in May 1956. As with Barry, the hanging of Karaolis proved a watershed, enflaming passions and compromising possibilities of a political solution.

The Cypriot insurgents drew inspiration from Ireland’s earlier struggle. The similarities are obvious, even if the ultimate aim of many was not independence but Enosis – union with Greece. Fears over this among the 20% Turkish minority led to bloody clashes with the Greek majority before and after independence and eventually to partition of the island and Turkey occupying the northern half.

Public sympathy in Ireland for the rebels was, unsurprisingly, considerable, particularly as Britain seemed to be repeating in Cyprus the mistakes made in Ireland a generation earlier. Yet ,as Dr O’Shea shows ,Irish involvement was not one-sided, the complicated situation reflecting Ireland’s relatively recent separation from Britain.

The British Empire may have been in decline but its bureaucracy and military still held many high ranking Irish, including the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, an early advocate of the partition of Cyprus. On Cyprus, Chief Justice Hallinan, who sentenced Karaolis to death, was from Cork, while the Attorney-General, James Henry, who refused clemency to all nine who were hanged, was the son of Denis Henry, Irish Attorney –General when twenty four IRA members were executed between 1919 and 1921.

Many other Irish were involved at various levels in the British judiciary and administration plus hundreds in the army. These included Brigadier Butler from Rathgar, and a number of other senior officers , while several Irish regiments served tours of duty during the “Emergency.” Not surprisingly many Irish ordinary soldiers served, having emigrated during the decade after 1945; some were casualties, some were decorated.

Moreover, this was the 1950’s, the Cold War at its most frigid, with Cyprus regarded as key to Britain’s defence of the eastern Mediterranean. Ireland, staunchly Catholic and anti-Communist, while not in NATO, was firmly in the western camp. This led to a certain wariness , for example from the Catholic Church, in support for the Cypriot cause. At the political level also there were factors at play. While committed to supporting the principle of self-determination at the UN, Ireland, a new member, was still preoccupied with Irish Partition ( the “sore thumb ”policy). There was caution about attacking Britain’s State of Emergency in Cyprus and alleged human rights abuses , when Ireland herself had a State of Emergency (including internment) to deal with the IRA border campaign. There was a delicate balance to be struck. “ Sympathy was free but a UN vote could be costly.”

01/02/15

AENGUS FINUCANE by DEIRDRE PURCELL a review

AENGUS FINUCANE

In the heart of Concern

DEIRDRE PURCELL

NEW ISLAND 358 pp. For publication early February; e book €9.99

Aengus Finucane was a big man, not just physically. For decades a towering figure in Ireland’s aid and assistance efforts for the poor of the developing world, he died of cancer aged 76 in 2009. His name will forever be synonymous with Concern, the Irish aid organisation he headed for sixteen years.

This is his story, interwoven with that of his forty year association with Concern. Deirdre Purcell, prolific journalist and author, has compiled it from scores of interviews with those who knew and worked with Aengus, including many prominent political and business figures. Sadly, most of his personal papers and correspondence, painstakingly assembled and sorted by his brother and fellow priest, Jack, were destroyed by accident soon after Aengus passed away.

The story is remarkable. Aengus Finucane was ordained in 1959 in a different Ireland, where the Church was supreme and where hundreds of young Irish men and women flocked to the religious life and, within that life, to serve overseas in the “Missions.” Aengus and brother Jack were among around 900 Holy Ghost (now Spiritan) priests sent out as Missionaries, mostly to Africa, and Nigeria in particular, spending eight years in pastoral work. The job was learned on the hoof, nothing in their training having prepared the young Irish priests for their new life.

Then, in 1967 Nigeria’s oil –rich province of Biafra, where most of the estimated 300 Spiritans were located, attempted to secede. It proved a defining moment. The resulting civil war saw an increasingly severe encirclement and blockade of Biafra, leading to widespread malnutrition and starvation, particularly among children. The television images of starving Biafran children struck a chord in Ireland, with several ad hoc groups formed to supply aid. One such was “Africa Concern” formed in early 1968 by Fr Raymond Kennedy, another Spiritan priest, and members of his family.

A heroic aid operation was mounted by several Irish relief organisations , a ship acquired and supplies flown in to the embattled province. There to receive them at Uli airstrip were the Finucanes. The first legends about Aengus began. But it was to no avail. Despite international aid, after almost three years and a million civilians dead, chiefly from starvation, Biafra surrendered. The Spiritans were imprisoned briefly and then expelled.

Internationally, part of Biafra’s legacy was the formation of Medecins sans Frontieres. In Ireland Biafra proved a catalyst in terms of public awareness, via TV and the other media, of the poverty and suffering of hundreds of millions of their fellow humans elsewhere, whether from natural or man-made catastrophe. Concern widened its net, dropping “African” as it got involved elsewhere. Trocaire, Goal and an impressive Irish government development cooperation programme emerged as the years passed. In terms of total assistance Ireland moved steadily up the league table of donors.

Concern in particular has grown. It now has 3,000 staff deployed in twenty eight countries. Aengus Finucane was involved at every strategic moment. He spent the Seventies in Bangladesh, a new country wracked by war damage and natural catastrophe, moving on in 1978 to the Thai-Cambodian border where the refugees from Pol Pot had fled. His philosophy was simple: “Do as much as you can, as well as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can.”

The question he asked in debates about immediate welfare relief or sustainable development programmes was equally simple: How could the poorest, the most unfortunate, be assisted, a helpful reality check in terms of achieving results. He became the logical choice to succeed as Concern’s chief executive in 1981. Shortly afterwards his predecessor was found to have embezzled funds. Aengus Finucane went on the road, staking his personal reputation in a host of public appearances to regenerate belief in Concern. It worked. Trust was restored. The funds were ultimately recovered .

The Eighties and Nineties saw a succession of horrific international humanitarian crises – Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda. Concern and Aengus Finucane were to the fore throughout. There are harrowing chapters reliving the horrors of each one, recounted by those who were there. His acumen and awareness that publicity was the key to persuading the public to donate was reflected in his message, hammered home to visiting Irish journalists in Ethiopia in 1984: report back what is happening. In Somalia he seized upon the tremendous publicity value of a visit by President Robinson and worked with her to secure government approval for the trip.

Energetic, committed and gregarious, he was excellent at making friends in the right places. Under his stewardship, Concern acquired an international fund raising and leveraging capability. But his hectic lifestyle began to take its toll on his health. Bizarrely, it was a simple accident with a pen , which infected his arm with a necrotising water-borne bug , which caused most damage and enforced extended sick leave.

This proved a turning point. Methods and attitudes were changing and Aengus, at retirement age, moved on to become honorary president of Concern US. The role gave him a new lease of life as he mingled with, and opened the wallets of , numerous wealthy Americans. His final odyssey was to Haiti, where Concern is now heavily involved.

Purcell’s book is packed with fascinating anecdotes and extracts from interviews with journalists and others, including his successors in the job. Some are amusing, some make for grim reading but overall they contribute to a well-rounded portrait of someone who strove to make the world a better place.

18/01/15

IRELAND’S GREAT WAR by KEVIN MYERS ; THE GLORIOUS MADNESS by TURTLE BUNBURY : two reviews

IRELAND’S GREAT WAR KEVIN MYERS LILLIPUT PRESS 248pp €20.00
THE GLORIOUS MADNESS TURTLE BUNBURY GILL & MACMILLAN 338 pp €26.99 e book €18.44
“HE LOST HIMSELF COMPLETELY” BRENDAN KELLY THE LIFFEY PRESS 152 pp €16.95

“Not merely had people forgotten, but they’d forgotten that they’d forgotten.” This, from the opening page of Kevin Myers’ powerful book, was his comment in 1979 on the derelict state of the Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge.

Here are three different but complementary books on the four year conflict which impacted heavily on Ireland, leaving roughly 40,000 young Irishmen dead, with many thousands more wounded or scarred mentally from their experience. By comparison 1400 were killed in the War of Independence, and at most several thousand in the Civil War. Yet until recently Irish participation in the Great War was airbrushed out – except in Northern Ireland – and the dead and their sacrifice ignored or discounted.

Happily this has now changed, as epitomised most recently by Ambassador Dan Mulhall laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. This is due at least in part to the indefatigable efforts, over many years, of Kevin Myers to focus public attention on the issue and challenge the policy of official neglect. His book, a compilation of articles and lectures delivered in recent years, with one piece going back to 1980, reflects this. Myers points up the scale of volunteering in the first years of the War across all creeds and political affiliations and then recounts the ebbing of support after 1916 and the subsequent re-writing of history.

Several chapters on the impact of the war on different counties help bring into focus and humanise what was a mini-holocaust, with an average of one hundred Irishmen dying each day the war lasted, including two of the very last casualties. Taking two examples, almost four hundred Sligo men died during the conflict, while the figure for Kerry was 718, with 340 from Tralee alone. Again, all classes and creeds were affected. The impact on small communities across Ireland was huge, yet afterwards the dead were unacknowledged, those returning ignored or even pilloried. In Sligo, for example, the only annual commemorations were for the nineteen IRA men slain in the War of Independence. Selective amnesia about the Great War became the norm.

The horrors of the trenches, the squalor, the terrible deaths of the Irish are described in detail in Myers’ characteristically unsparing prose. Some of the multiple deaths among families are recounted, again across the classes. There are separate chapters on Francis Ledwidge and Robert Gregory, the Irish Airman immortalised and romanticised in Yeats’ poem.

The chapter on Gallipoli corrects a few of the myths but the reality remains equally shocking. The fate of the Dublin Fusiliers attempting to storm the Kiritch Tepe Sirt ridge, as recounted by Myers, is particularly memorable. The cull on that hillside included, among the Pals of the Footballers (drawn from the IRFU), a TCD professor of law and the chief botanist from the Botanic Gardens, killed with the others in a bayonet charge uphill against machine guns.

Myers points out that , to match the legendary – and much commemorated – losses of the 36th Ulster Division on the Somme (2000 dead) , should be set the even greater – but unacknowledged – losses (2700) of the 16th (nationalist) Irish Division. One of them, Tom Kettle, killed in 1916, his head cradled by eighteen year old Emmet Dalton, who did the same for the dying Michael Collins a few years later, is given special mention. Remembered now chiefly for his sonnet to his daughter, he was perceptive enough to comment that “Pearse and the others will go down in history as heroes and I will be just a bloody English officer.”

Tom Kettle and Emmet Dalton feature also in Turtle Bunbury’s excellent “ Glorious Madness,” which is a fitting complement to Myers’ work. The title is a quote by Woodbine Willie, a chaplain of Irish descent, later a noted pacifist, who dispensed bibles and cigarettes to the troops, and who later wrote there were “no words foul and filthy enough to describe” war.

Glorious Madness is splendidly illustrated with fascinating period photographs and reproductions . It comprises a collection of detailed anecdotes on scores of the more prominent Irish involved in the war , including chaplains and airmen, together with accounts of some of the battles and skirmishes in which they participated. Of particular note is Tom Barry, who fought in Iraq, honing the skills he would later impart to training the West Cork Flying Column after 1919.

There’s even a chapter on Captain “Hoppy” Hardy, British ace escaper, later ace interrogator, who earned notoriety subsequently as the probable torturer of both Kevin Barry and Ernie O’Malley and as the murderer of comedian Brendan O’Carroll’s grandfather in 1920. Hardy escaped Collins’ hitmen on Bloody Sunday.

Brendan Kelly’s book is a reminder that many returned from the front physically unscathed but mentally shattered. Written by one of Ireland’s most eminent psychiatrists, the book charts the treatment of 362 shell shocked soldiers in Dublin’s Richmond War Hospital between 1916 and 1919.From the anecdotes in the final chapter, including one quoting Gay Byrne on his father’s nightmares, it is clear that many thousands more were profoundly disturbed and haunted throughout their lives by that terrible conflict.
07/12/14

T.K. WHITAKER by ANNE CHAMBERS a review

T.K. WHITAKER

PORTRAIT OF A PATRIOT

ANNE CHAMBERS

DOUBLEDAY IRELAND 449 pp €26.99 e book €17.99

On 21 March 1957, his first day, the new Irish Minister for Finance, James Ryan, received an outspoken and blunt analysis of the Irish Economy written by his Departmental Secretary, T.K. Whitaker. No punches were pulled. “Without a sound and progressive economy political independence would be a crumbling façade.” Policies of protectionism were condemning “the people to a lower standard of living than the rest of Europe.”

Unless there were new policies, Whitaker wrote “it would be better to make an immediate move towards re-incorporation in the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent.” Strong words from a civil servant to his political master, but words that needed to be said.

Few would dispute his right to be regarded as the greatest living Irishman. Indeed in 2001 Ken Whitaker was voted Irishman of the Twentieth Century. Now rising ninety eight, and happily still with us, the modest and brilliant architect of modern Ireland is the subject of Anne Chambers’ latest absorbing book.

Despite those quotes, T.K. Whitaker was no Sir Humphrey. He defined his approach as giving Ministers the best possible unbiased advice when policy was being considered, and, once decided on, carrying out that policy to the best of his ability, regardless of personal views.

In 1957 he was just forty and already acknowledged as Ireland’s most brilliant civil servant. His advancement through the ranks from clerical officer upwards had been meteoric, culminating in his appointment as the youngest ever Secretary of the Department of Finance. On the way he had found time to acquire a Master’s Degree in Economics from London University as well as the admiration and appreciation of his opposite numbers in other countries.

The state of Ireland’s economy in 1957 was both serious and critical and heading towards becoming terminal unless a new approach was taken. Between 1949 and 1955 Ireland’s GNP increased by just 10.5%, compared to 36.5% in the rest of Europe. In 1957 2% of the population – almost 60,000 people – emigrated. Yet De Valera, still clinging on at seventy five, was on recent record as stating that despite this terrible economic and social situation, the restoration of the Irish language was “Fianna Fail’s greatest national objective.”

Something clearly had to give. And it did. The strong man of the Cabinet, and heretofore leading advocate of protectionism, Tanaiste Sean Lemass, recognising how critical things were, performed a volte face and threw his weight behind Whitaker. The rest is history. Lemass became Taoiseach in 1959 by which time, Whitaker, given the green light, was proceeding with reforms.

First up, in 1958, was the seminal “Economic Development “ document, written by Whitaker and a small dedicated team in Finance, eventually published, unusually, under Whitaker’s name. The paper analysed the principal deficiencies in the economy sector by sector, and was followed soon after by a white paper, the Programme for Economic Expansion, in which the Government endorsed Whitaker’s ideas and proposed policies for growth up to 1963 including export- oriented expansion, the encouragement of inward investment and movement towards free trade. The modest targets were achieved, critically boosting the country’s morale by showing that things could improve. Further programmes followed. The economy, and Ireland, were never the same again.

Chambers’ book is packed with fascinating detail on the political and economic events of the years that followed as Ireland grew economically and, with Ken Whitaker’s sure hand at the tiller, opened up towards Northern Ireland, to international organisations and towards the emerging EEC. He was never afraid to speak his mind and rapidly became the close confidant of both Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch.

A Northerner from Rostrevor, he developed a close personal relationship with Northern Ireland Premier Terence O’Neill in the course of a number of transatlantic voyages to attend IMF meetings. This led to the ground-breaking O’Neill Lemass meetings in 1965, which initiated a dialogue between the two parts of Ireland and which continued under Lynch. He also fostered the beginnings of official cross border cooperation, some of which have now found institutional expression. He thought long and hard about how relations between the two parts of the island might be improved.

This stood him – and Jack Lynch, and Ireland – in good stead when O’Neill’s reforms withered and the North began to slide towards chaos. A passionate opponent of violence, he presented a thoughtful position paper to Lynch as early as November 1968 pointing clearly to the ruinous costs of any reunification and advocating a long term strategy of good neighbourliness. By then he was clashing with his Minister, Haughey, and shortly afterwards moved to become Governor of the Central Bank. The book describes him as reticent over why he left Finance aged fifty-two, so we can only speculate.

When chaos became widespread violence, his support for Jack Lynch in facing down Haughey, Blaney et al was crucial – another reason for his country to thank him. And, for a generation, he continued to provide thoughtful and reasoned contributions to the search for peace. The sections on Northern Ireland in the book are among the most fascinating. Yet there are chapters also on his family, including his personal bereavements, which affected him deeply, and on his love for and work on the Irish language. There are plenty of passing references to our economic debacle of recent years. There’s a catch-all chapter also, entitled “A Man for All Seasons” which is clearly one image the author has of her subject.

Ken Whitaker was born in the Year of the Rising. It would be fitting if he were there to celebrate its centenary. No one deserves the Centenarian Bounty more. A book worth reading.

12/10


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DISOBEYING HITLER by RANDALL HANSEN a review

DISOBEYING HITLER

RANDALL HANSEN

FABER & FABER 442 pp, €23.99, e book€12.53

Last week Paris celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its liberation, largely intact, from the Nazis. How and why this occurred is one of the themes explored in this book on the resistance, at various levels, by Germans to Hitler during the last year of World War Two.

Hitler, “a maniac of ferocious genius” in Churchill words, continues to fascinate, with hundreds of new books on his era appearing annually. The Second World War – his war – was the most destructive in world history. By its close, at least sixty million were dead, millions more displaced, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe obliterated, and hundreds of European cities destroyed.

Could it have been even worse? Taking the failed July 20 Assassination Plot as a starting point, Randall Hansen explores some of the legends about the last months of the War. Did Prussian General von Choltitz “save” Paris? Did Albert Speer (as he claimed) almost singlehandedly frustrate Hitler’s instructions to destroy Germany’s industry and infrastructure as its enemies closed in? Did the German armies in the west “give up”, concentrating instead on fighting the Soviets?

As Hansen notes, it could all have been different. Had the stock market not crashed in 1929 the Nazis would have been a footnote. Had Hitler lingered longer in a Munich pub in 1939 the war would have been over swiftly. And, had the July 20 meeting taken place underground, as originally intended, Stauffenberg’s bomb would have killed Hitler, possibly sparing – even then – millions of lives, and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination.

Hitler survived, wreaking a savage vengeance on the plotters and purging the Wermacht. Yet by then the writing was on the wall, with all but the most fanatical Nazis realising that defeat was inevitable. For the German generals, as their armies retreated the issue became increasingly whether and how to surrender, a dilemma that would become more acute as they were pushed back into Germany itself. Any compromise, any withdrawal, ran contrary to the insane instructions from Berlin to fight to the end and destroy everything in the enemy’s path, and, moreover risked death also for family members.

Many commanders chose to fight. In the remaining nine months a brutal defensive war saw more Germans killed and more German cities destroyed than in the previous five years. But many also chose compromise, by different methods, sometimes by surrender, sometimes by rapid withdrawal, sometimes citing lack of men or equipment to carry out any scorched- earth policy. Their varied reasons included calculated self-interest, growing disenchantment with the regime’s brutalities and a wish to limit Germany’s destruction. Increasingly also, within Germany itself, they cooperated with local civilians to frustrate Hitler’s designs, with cities like Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Heidelberg surrendering easily, even as Nuremberg and other cities were destroyed.

The major test of this approach came in occupied France. Liberating Paris was very much an Allied priority, and Hitler was well aware of its symbolic and strategic significance. His instructions to the new military governor were clear: Paris was to be a fortress, defended to the end “from the rubble.” The governor, Dietrich Von Choltitz, came with good credentials, his actions in Rotterdam in 1940, and later in Sevastopol, suggesting a penchant for brutality and blind obedience, whatever the orders.

The role of Von Choltitz in saving the city has been disputed since, with the 1960s book and film “ Is Paris Burning?” painting him as saviour, a claim rejected strongly by members of the resistance. Hansen suggests the truth was somewhere in between and more complicated.

Paris was, after all, a jewel of a city, liked and admired by many German officers. Von Choltitz lacked the capability and resources to carry out Hitler’s instructions. Equally importantly he lacked the will, seeing no military purpose in destruction per se and accordingly made only token attempts to fight. Later, in captivity, he condemned the destruction of Brest by its defenders as a war crime – hardly the words of a diehard. Marseilles and Toulon, with their vital ports, similarly fell to the Allies after minor resistance.

On the domestic front Hitler issued a number of orders culminating in the infamous Nero Decree calling for total destruction of Germany’s non-military industry and infrastructure, as part of his nightmare vision of a Gotterdammerung to engulf Germany. The intervention of Albert Speer, Hitler’s former architect and later Minister for Production, was key in heading off much of the threatened catastrophe.

Here again the truth was complicated. Speer could not have done it all on his own as he later claimed. Nevertheless he acted bravely in countermanding or delaying orders, often substituting “paralysis” for “destruction” in re-interpreting the Fuhrer’s commands. He argued successfully to Hitler, who continued to babble on or believe in ultimate victory, that it made no sense, therefore, to destroy utterly what would be needed again when Germany drove the Allies out! Speer’s role, however positive in terms of German recovery after 1945, did not save him from a twenty year sentence at Nuremberg for war crimes.

On the eastern front, what Joachim Fest has called the Third World War, the fighting remained intense to the end. Breslau fell after a mighty siege while Greifsfeld, which surrendered peacefully, endured the usual orgy of rape and murder by the Red Army.

Did this resistance matter? The author is in no doubt. The July 20 resisters provided “ a moral framework of reference for post-war political life in Germany. The post-20 July disobeyers helped ensure that there was a Germany that could be economically, physically and morally rebuilt.”

30/8

ECHOBEAT by JOE JOYCE a review

ECHOBEAT

JOE JOYCE

LIBERTIES PRESS 343PP €14.99

Veteran journalist and accomplished author Joe Joyce has written another winner.

Echobeat, a compelling and evocative thriller set in neutral Dublin as the Second World War rages, is the sequel to last year’s widely acclaimed Echoland. Paul Duggan, now a captain in G2, Irish Army Intelligence, is back, together with his Special Branch sidekick, Peter Gifford.

The time is the end of 1940 and the stakes have rarely been higher. The world is at war, and Ireland is maintaining a precarious neutrality. Britain has its back to the wall, battered by the Blitz and in danger of being starved into submission as U Boats sink large numbers of its ships. Britain is demanding use of the Irish ports and threatening to cut off vital supplies if refused, with the ultimate sanction of invasion. There are no easy options. With German bombs falling on Dublin and Carlow as 1941 dawns, the choice appears increasingly stark – not whether to fight but who.

A dangerous political tightrope has to be walked if Ireland is to stay neutral and the task of Army Intelligence is to provide the best information it can so that “ whatever happens doesn’t happen by accident,” as his boss tells Duggan. This involves tracking the source and evaluating certain highly sensitive documents about Britain’s predicaments and intentions which have become available, as well as finding Germany’s most active agent in Ireland, Hermann Goertz, on the run and protected by republican and Nazi sympathisers.

Duggan’s duties include monitoring the Liffey Street café frequented by German POWs on day parole. His life gets complicated when he becomes romantically involved with his intermediary, a Jewish refugee, Gerda, who waitresses incognito in the café. Her role becomes central when she is approached by a young Englishman, source of some of the documents. Is he a pacifist, an agent provocateur or a Nazi sympathiser?

The other documents have been supplied through Duggan’s uncle, Timmy, a scheming Fianna Fail T.D., who romances about the war of independence and Ireland’s ability to see off the Germans as they did the British, but who could be the key to finding Goertz. Timmy’s naïveté is pointed up by Gerda when she declares to Duggan that the Nazis would “ put a stop to your guerrilla war very quickly” by shooting twenty or fifty Irishmen every time a German was attacked.

Echobeat is an exciting read and more than just a page turner. The Dublin of the period is portrayed superbly. It was a time of severe petrol rationing, few private cars as a result with people relying on bikes or public transport. Shortages abounded. There was a thriving black market for coal, tea and other rationed items . Smoking was universal, the aroma of cigarettes and burning peat ubiquitous.

Yet life went on. For Ireland was at peace – “ Neutral with a certain consideration for Britain,” to quote Dev. Maintaining that neutrality was akin to a diplomatic chess game. Echobeat shows just how difficult that game was.

Excellent.

10/8

LAST KISS by LOUISE PHILLIPS a review

LAST KISS

LOUISE PHILLIPS

HACHETTE BOOKS 437 pp €14.99 e book €8.99

A man’s body is found in a luxury Dublin hotel, stabbed repeatedly and posed in a ritualistic way. The victim is tied similar to the image on the Hangman Card from the Tarot Cards, and with traces of lipstick on his mouth, suggesting a bizarre last kiss.

Called in to help, criminal psychologist Dr Kate Pearson profiles the killer as highly intelligent, suffused with anger and, unusually, female. The organised nature of the murder suggests the killer has struck before, but when, and where, and why. The victim, a shady art dealer, used escorts and frequented a bondage club. Are there clues in his background to the killer? Or is the answer to be found in the Tarot?

Separately, Sandra, a Dublin housewife, becomes convinced her husband is having an affair and that the other woman is stalking her. Her friends offer her sympathy, but little else. She resolves to track and confront her stalker. But Sandra has a past also, as does one of her friends. The murder investigation, and that past, come together in this fine psychological chiller, the third to feature Kate Pearson and her collaborator, Garda Detective Inspector O’Connor.

The pair are thrown together again, and their developing love interest is clear, though very much secondary as the trail leads them to two similar cold case killings nearly a decade earlier, in Paris and Rome. The link identified by Kate is the Tarot, together with the sexual inclinations of the other victims, promiscuous and into S&M, as well as the luxurious staged settings for the murders. When it emerges the Parisian victim was known to Sandra and her friends, the investigation begins to focus.

The case uncovers dark secrets in the past, rooted in a small Wicklow town, with hints of incest and paedophilia haunting the memories of childhood friends. Meanwhile the killer, stalking her next victim, is comfortable and assured as she narrates tracking down her prey and describes her previous murders. As the book builds towards the climax, it becomes a race to see whether Kate, O’Connor and the Gardai can prevent another murder, with the Tarot Death card the motivator.

Louise Phillips goes from strength to strength. “The Doll’s House” won the 2013 BGE Crime Book of the Year. “Last Kiss” is superior and takes her writing to another, more intense level. The pace is excellent, the characters, familiar and new, well drawn and believable. The author explores the powerful effects early contact with evil can have on a child and how a personality can be shaped or perverted by its environment. The book flows well and airs skilfully some of the disturbing themes laid bare in Ireland in recent years.

Highly recommended.
31/7

THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST by CLAIRE NORTH a review

THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST

CLAIRE NORTH

ORBIT BOOKS 405 pp €14.99 e book €9.99

Reincarnation has been “done “ before , many times, but not like this. Harry August is a Kalachakra, born on New Year’s Eve 1918 in the washroom of a railway station in Northern England. He lives a normal life, but when he dies he is reborn, on the same date and in the same place. His fate is to repeat this forever but with the complete memories of all his previous lives, so he can build on and change each later existence.

This is a superb novel, part thriller, part science fiction involving time travel and part a serious and reflective look at our times. Harry August is a wonderful character, easy to empathise with. In his various incarnations and using his accumulated knowledge, Harry becomes a doctor, a weapons scientist, a lecturer, a multimillionaire and a master criminal. He dies prematurely, commits suicide, murders ( albeit a serial killer), is murdered, and, where he lives a normal span, normally succumbs to cancer in his late sixties.

He is not unique; there are others, like him fated to be reborn with prior knowledge, but unable to alter history. Their self-regulated role is to be passive spectators of the “lineal” lives and events of their times. To interfere would risk collapsing the whole of existence. Hitler cannot be killed in 1932, JFK cannot be persuaded to cancel Dallas, Hiroshima cannot be saved. There can be some tinkering at the margins – the odd forecast on the horses – but nothing to make waves – no Euromillions mega win.

Harry’s lives, their highs, their lows, his loves, his friendships, his righting of wrongs where he can, are recounted sympathetically and make for an extraordinary story. But then a game changer which threatens his very existence. Near the end of his eleventh life a little girl visits his bedside. She delivers a message “from a thousand years forward in time.” The message is that the world is ending and only Harry can prevent it because only Harry can reach back far enough in time to eliminate the problem.

The threat is real. Harry discovers that many of his fellow Kalachakras are being eliminated permanently or their prior memories wiped. Harry must respond and the novel develops into an enthralling page turning thriller as he chases down his quarry, not just across the world but through several lifetimes before the shattering climax in his fifteenth life.

Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author with several successful novels published, all completely different to Harry August. No further information on the writer is available but judging by this many will want to know North’s identity. A really different book which will get people talking. Highly recommended.

13/4

P.S. I wrote this review for the Irish Independent last April. I learned subsequently that Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, author of a number of novels for young adults and fantasy novels for adults under the name Kate Griffin.
Still under thirty. What talent!

THE SAVAGE ALTAR by ASA LARSSON a review

THE SAVAGE ALTAR
ASA LARSSON
PENGUIN/VIKING 307 pp

This is the fourth thriller by Asa Larsson which I’ve read, though actually the first in the series introducing Rebecka Martinsson, her heroine. It was first published in Sweden in 2003, in Britain 2007. In January I reviewed, and was tremendously impressed by , her latest, the fifth in the series, The Second Deadly Sin, the second of her novels to win the Best Swedish Crime Novel award.

The Savage Altar won the Best First Crime Novel award. It’s not hard to see why. For a debut novel it is superb, with finely drawn characters great atmosphere and pace, an excellent, dark plot and a unique setting . Kiruna, population 20,000, where Asa Larsson actually grew up, lies in Norbotten County, within the Arctic Circle close to where the borders of Sweden Norway and Finland come together. It is 600 miles north of Stockholm, with an estimated driving time of fourteen hours. Flight time is 1 hour 40 minutes.

Norbotten County itself is bigger than the island of Ireland but has only 250, 000 inhabitants (think the population of Galway in an area over sixteen times the size; for comparison, Sweden is six times larger than Ireland, with a population of 9,500,000). Finnish and Sami are as widely spoken as Swedish and the populace have retained their own customs and culture. The area is rich in natural resources, with Kiruna famous for its iron ore. The town was developed to take advantage of a vast iron ore deposit which makes up much of a mountain towering over Kiruna.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that Asa Larsson’s first two novels were published before Dragon Tattoo Larsson had appeared on the scene. Many of the themes running through the Millenium Trilogy are to be found here – the gloomy religious and biblical obsessions, the brutal ritualistic killings – linked to old testament tales- the savage rape, the hints ( or actuality) of incest. The only major dimension missing is Stieg Larsson’s portrayal of the evil wealthy capitalist family, which is very much in the Southern California tradition of Chandler and Ross MacDonald. There is, however, a theme of exploitative tax fraud, which in part provides if not motive, then certainly catalyst for the first murder.

The novel introduces also two very strong, very appealing and very human female characters, Rebecka and the policewoman Anna-Maria Mella. Whatever qualities Lisbeth Salander – she of the Dragon Tattoo – might have, appealing is not one of them . The Kiruna characters – the two already mentioned and a number of the others – recur in later books and develop, since, like Wallender, the series is set in real time. The only character that grates is the prosecutor von Post. He crops up also in the Second Deadly Sin, where his incompetence, ambition, lack of judgement and self-importance are again demonstrated. Overall, however, he is a caricature and is probably based on some fool the author has encountered.

The plot centres on the murder of a charismatic clergyman from one of the number of fundamentalist churches and factions that seem to abound in Sweden. It’s sobering and somewhat depressing to note that the type of religious fundamentalism and flat earthism we identify with the American south and, internationally, where others of that ilk are to be found, including some of the sects in Northern Ireland, are alive and well and flourishing in twenty-first century Northern Sweden (this book, after all, is set post Nine Eleven, not post – 1945). Our until very recently monocultural and overwhelmingly Catholic society, rarely encountered at first hand people who actually believe – or profess to believe – in the literal truth of the bible.

The dead clergyman, known cynically as “ The Paradise Kid,” has been murdered and mutilated. His sister turns for assistance to Rebecka, an old friend from school, now a tax lawyer in Stockholm. Rebecka returns to her childhood home in a claustrophobic rural society where religion still rules. People not only quote the bible, they believe it! Rebecca’s memories of there are of religious indoctrination, sexual exploitation, seduction and worse. Now, with her friend charged with murder, Rebecca is drawn into help, her only ally, of sorts, a heavily pregnant local policewoman.

A triumvirate of powerful clergymen, and their wives, acquaintances and adversaries of old, seem determined to hide the truth about the murder. Rebecka digs, and discovers why. She is now the quarry and the book builds to a nail biting ( rarely has the phrase suited better) and violent climax.

Asa Larsson has commented that the sixth book in the Rebecka series will be the last. As with Mankel’s Wallender, it will be a great pity if this is the case.

12/3/14