A LIFE WORTH LIVING by MICHAEL SMURFIT a review

A LIFE WORTH LIVING

MICHAEL SMURFIT

OAK TREE PRESS, 314pp, hdbk, €32.50

What makes a tycoon? One of the best places to find the secret surely must be the newly published memoir of Michael Smurfit. This gives a fascinating account of how he developed his business over the years and, as an obiter, an equally fascinating insight into the mind of a seriously successful alpha male.

It’s not a catechism on how to become a tycoon, however. There’s not quite enough detail for that. But it should be required reading for any aspiring young business man or woman in Ireland.

What is particularly interesting is how much of his success was down to doing the obvious, like cutting costs, managing stocks, etc, something that other Irish alpha male Michael O Leary is also good at (will he ever write a book, I wonder?). What is also interesting is how Smurfit took a small Irish company to the top of the world in the area of wood and wood products, beating off rivals from countries with significant wood and native paper industries.

The book is not just about Smurfit’s business life, of course. It’s his life story and he certainly has led a full life. The first Irish mega tycoon, he built a small family business into Ireland’s first multinational company and one of the world’s largest paper and packaging companies, particularly spectacular when coming from a country with no indigenous wood industry to speak of.

This autobiography is an account of his life and of the company he built over three decades and is in many ways a primer on how to succeed in business. As well as cataloguing his step by step progress there are revealing insights into his business philosophy, with chapters on the Smurfit culture and the Smurfit system, both bearing his indelible signature.

Michael Smurfit, however, was and is more than just a successful businessman. While building the Smurfit empire he served as Chairman of Telecom Eireann from 1979 to 1991, supervising the transformation of an antiquated national telephone system, an essential foundation for the development of the Celtic Tiger. He also served for six years as Chairman of the Irish Racing Board, where he brought his business acumen and organisational skills to develop an important national industry. Separately, his vision led to the development of the K Club and the bringing of the Ryder Cup to Ireland in 2006. He has been decorated by a number of countries and received a Knighthood from the Queen in 2005. He is Ireland’s Honorary Consul in Monaco, where he resides.

Yet it could have been so different. He was born in 1936 in St Helens, Lancashire, the family moving back to Ireland during the war. His father, a tailor by trade, acquired a small box factory and mill in Dublin through his Belfast in – laws. He was moderately successful and Michael and his brother were sent initially to Clongowes before being taken out when Michael was sixteen and put to work in his father’s Clonskeagh factory to learn the business from the bottom. As time went on he became bored and frustrated and at nineteen was poised to emigrate to Canada with a workmate. At the last minute his visa application was refused – “a bombshell” – on medical grounds.

He was diagnosed with T.B. and entered Peamount Sanitorium the day he had been scheduled to depart for Canada. He spent ten months there, learning that had the condition not been discovered when it was he would have been dead within six months. There he was shocked to learn also that his former workmate had been paralysed in a traffic accident in Toronto; he could have been with him. The brush with mortality proved sobering. He realised how lucky he had been and returned to the family firm determined to succeed, this time to the office rather than the factory floor.

There followed a spell in the USA working with Continental Can, one of Smurfit’s paper suppliers. Here he honed his growing expertise in the practicalities of business, but getting his father to apply his ideas was another matter. It was to be a decade before he was able to put them into practice. Meantime he met Norma during a six month study stay in Richmond. Norma Triesman was a hairdresser, a Jewish girl from London’s East End. They met at a dance where he “asked the owner of the best pair of legs to dance.”

They married after two years, in 1963, moving initially to his Lancashire birthplace, where he set up his own first factory in Wigan. Their sons, Tony and Michael, were born there. Norma he described as “ the perfect partner,” “a wonderful woman” and “a tower of strength.” He gave up his early passion for racing cars and motorbikes ( his first car had been the iconic E-type Jaguar).His Lancashire business began to prosper and in early 1966 his father asked him to return to Ireland to take over the family business. He grasped immediately that, with Ireland’s tariffs coming down after the 1965 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, Smurfits, worth roughly £1 million, had to expand or die.

Expansion meant takeover. The Irish paper and packaging industry consisted of many small businesses and was ripe for rationalisation. Smurfits cut their teeth on this, devising and refining tactics over time. The Irish dominoes tumbled in turn. It was the era of family businesses, with management often dominated by Protestants, many amateurish and hostile. Smurfit fought to take them over. “My motto was I must, I can and I will; and I did.”

The approach involved complete forensic analysis of the targeted company, based on a thorough knowledge of every aspect of the paper and packaging industry, something many competitors and targets lacked. This knowledge was developed all the way back to Michael’s period on the factory floor and his subsequent years of business apprenticeship up to 1966. Meticulous research, full knowledge, and better preparation than the opposition, was the key. The same tactics were repeated over and over again on an ever increasing scale in Ireland, in Britain, in the USA, in Europe. Sometimes there were setbacks, but very few.

The phrase coined for the Smurfit approach was “logical opportunism.” There was never over-reach, something many companies were guilty of, with too much borrowing and over investment. Sometimes the target could be part of a conglomerate, but not part of the core activities, or an adjunct to the main business. Once acquired there was further forensic investigation, of staff and stock levels, of management technique and of how the new acquisition could best be assimilated.

There were six and seven day weeks, long hours, interminable dinners – up to 200 in a year – and much travel, with every mill and plant visited. Yet there was a private life also. His sporting interests are chronicled, including the successes of his racehorses , as well as his interest in skiing and yachting. There is a chapter on the K Club and the 2006 Ryder Cup. The book is generally sparse on personal details, though he does deal with the painful end of his marriage to Norma. When he revealed over dinner on April Fool’s day 1985 that there was someone else, she threw a glass of wine over him and stormed out. He has only kind words to say about Norma.

There is advice, in particular in the chapter on the Smurfit System, with emphasis on cost controls and ensuring up to date information on cash flows and on how each business component is functioning, as well as a section on the anatomy of a deal. And, with a keen eye on the present and future in a changing business environment, advice to any one starting out to master computer skills, find a market niche, and why you must never, ever, give up.

As befits a tidy and organised mind, the contents pages helpfully include separately named sections within chapters, while there is an appendix detailing the staggering History of the Jefferson Smurfit Group.

Insightful. A book worth reading.

5/4/14

SOLO by WILLIAM BOYD a review

SOLO

WILLIAM BOYD

William Boyd is one of my favourite writers. Try “ A Good Man in Africa” – a hilarious book which became an excellent film. Or “ An Ice Cream War,” set in East Africa during World War I . He has now become the latest writer of note to be presented with the potentially poisoned chalice of attempting to write another James Bond novel, following in the footsteps of Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver.

It’s important to mention here that there is a James Bond Mark One and a James Bond Mark Two. Bond Mark One is the popular Bond of film, portrayed over half a century by a succession of actors, from Sean Connery to the current Bond, Daniel Craig ( not to forget Bob Simmons, the stuntman who featured in the early Connery 007 movies as the figure in the gun barrel sequence at commencement as the Bond theme played). Most people have their own favourite James Bond ( mine is a mixture of Connery and Craig) while the Bond character has become a modern cinema icon.

James Bond Mark Two is the hero of a dozen books written in the fifties and early sixties by Ian Fleming, a journalist and former naval intelligence officer, from an upper-middle class background (Eton, Sandhurst and two universities) who died in 1964. The books inspired the first films and were classics of their genre for their time. I can recall as a schoolboy the impact they had. They provided technicolour images for a generation of schoolkids growing up in the era of limited choice black and white television. Fleming was a master craftsman, writing for his time. The Bond books, their place in British fiction, their style, have been parsed and analysed at length by writers as distinguished as Anthony Burgess and Umberto Eco. There is a particularly informative and incisive Wikipedia article on James Bond and his creator which is well worth a read.

But, and it’s a big but, the novels were written over half a century ago, pitched at an audience eager for escapism and glamour as Britain and Europe slowly emerged from the devastation and relative poverty of the post war world. Part of the challenge faced by any writer tasked or invited to write “ another Bond” is whether to situate it back in the 60’s – before most of the current reading public were born – or update it to the present or more recent past. The past is very much another country, and, given the speed of technological change, the farther back the more alien that country. An era before the Internet, no mobile phones, no personal computers. And either way, the additional shadow cast by the Cinema Bond will be long and deep.

Boyd has chosen the sixties, and has made a very commendable job of it, but has cautioned readers also to remember it is the book Bond, not the film one, that they should keep in mind. “Solo” is a very good, very well written and entertaining thriller. It has been well received critically with more than one commentator observing that the book is better written than were the original James Bond novels. And it is; it’s by William Boyd rather than Ian Fleming.
It portrays a somewhat softer, more socially aware Bond, now 45, with something of a conscience, shocked at his own savagery when he eventually does snap. That aside, he smokes drinks and womanises like the Bond we know, though he has swopped his Aston Martin for a Jensen Interceptor ( Anyone remember them? An in-law of mine drove one). The novel is set in Africa and the USA in the late Sixties. Boyd knows West Africa well. He was born and grew up there and it is the setting for several of his best novels.

The plot of “Solo” is interwoven with one of the major tragic events of the second half of the 20th Century – the Biafran War in which the oil rich province of Biafra sought to break away from Nigeria. The secession was crushed over several years, and featured a severe economic blockade of the breakaway province, with images of starving and malnourished children pricking the conscience of the world. The Irish Aid agency Concern was born out of the conflict, founded on the initiative of Irish missionaries moved by the Biafrans’ plight.

Without giving too much away, in the book Biafra is thinly disguised as Dahum, Nigeria as Zanzarim. 007’s role is to get close to the secessionist leader of Dahum and kill him ( Britain backs the Federal Government). When he fails and is almost killed himself, he resolves to pursue his assailants, who have surfaced in the USA after the collapse of Dahum. Bond acts alone, without official sanction – hence “Solo.” This is vintage Bond, but interwoven with the usual escapist heroics are thoughtful and disturbing portrayals of the bloody conflict with images of massacres and starving children, as well as the involvement of mercenaries, including East European pilots hired to drop napalm on villages.

Furthermore there is no evil international organisation or master criminal with which Bond must do battle on behalf of the forces of good. His task is more prosaic, the reason clear and not particularly edifying. Bond is to kill “ the African Napoleon” because Britain wants the civil war ended to ensure the future safety of Zanzarim’s oil. So too do the Americans, confirmed to Bond late on by his old CIA friend Felix, who speaks of an apparently limitless subterranean ocean of oil in the country . Felix refers to the West’s need for security of supply and the desirability of steering away from dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

There are echoes of the present day here though it is unlikely that CIA (and MI6) strategists were all that prescient in 1969. OPEC had yet to flex its muscles, Gaddafi had just come to power and the Middle East, though definitely a powder keg, was nothing like it has become. Realpolitik, however, just as the crushing of Biafra was real. An unsavoury touch, though one that adds spice to the novel and prompts reflection.

A satisfying read and well recommended.

4/4/14

INNOCENCE by DEAN KOONTZ a review

INNOCENCE by DEAN KOONTZ

HARPERCOLLINS 338 pages

Dean Koontz is one of writing’s heavy hitters, in or just outside the top ten dollar earners ( $ 20 million or so last year). He writes suspense, horror and supernatural thrillers. His output is prodigious, at least sixty five novels under his own name and a further canon from the past, including some disputed ones, under a variety of pennames. He is sixty eight and continues to churn out novels, fourteen of which have topped the New York Times bestseller lists. Most people will have read at least one of his books; I’ve read quite a few, though none recently before I tackled his latest, “Innocence.”

Koontz is very much a “what you see is what you get” writer. His books are good, attention holding, page turners, well plotted. Some critics have pointed to an underlying moral tone in his works in which right normally triumphs, suggesting that links can be traced to Koontz’ personal life. He and his mother were abused by his father, an alcoholic, which undoubtedly influenced his writing, as did his admiration for his mother and his early conversion to Catholicism. Yet despite his very considerable financial success, Koontz has never really received the critical acclaim accorded to his contemporary, Stephen King, with whom he is often compared. I’m not sure if “Innocence” will do much to redress the balance.

I was reminded at the outset of “Innocence” of the great H.P. Lovecraft short story about a ghoul which lives deep underground, surfacing at last, craving human company only to be shunned in horror by humans, so dreadful is its appearance. The book’s hero, Addison Goodheart, is a freak, a young man with a facial appearance so terrible that any person who sees him reacts with horror and violence, seeking to kill him. Goodheart lives in a secret windowless apartment deep in the bowels of a large city ( taken to be Manhattan) from where he ventures forth only in the dead of night, masked and muffled, to forage for food and, occasionally to explore the city library.

One winter’s night in the library he encounters a beautiful young woman, Gwyneth, fleeing a malevolent evil man, the murderer of her father, intent on raping her. Addison befriends her and together they set out to frustrate the villain, their pact being that she does not look and he does not touch. On the way they encounter strange, supernatural, or at any rate non-human, entities: Clears, positive or good spirits, but nonetheless not to be approached, and Fogs, evil and malevolent wraiths which feed and interact on humans’ basest desires.

The story is obviously allegorical, with echoes of Beauty and the Beast, but with exquisitely written passages which make for easy reading. The book appears to be grinding along towards the inevitable conclusion – the triumph of good, after much travail – until, with about seventy pages left, there is a gear-change. A philosophical interlude on the nature of time in the universe is followed by quite a breath-taking build up to the novel’s climax. It would spoil it for the reader to reveal too much. Suffice to say that there is an all too plausible scenario suggested towards the end, something that gave me food for some uncomfortable thought, something I’m pretty sure other readers will share.

11/3

THE ALMOST NEARLY PERFECT PEOPLE by MICHAEL BOOTH a review

THE ALMOST NEARLY PERFECT PEOPLE
The Truth about the Nordic Miracle

MICHAEL BOOTH
JONATHAN CAPE 406 PAGES €18.60

Think Finland and chances are you’ll think “ Nokia.” Think Sweden and it’s “IKEA.” Norway? Oil . Think Nordic? Five countries, advanced, prosperous, peaceful, tolerant, egalitarian, progressive and educated. From whom Ireland can possibly learn a lot. In this book, English travel and food writer Michael Booth takes an affectionate and perceptive look at all five.

The picture which emerges is more nuanced. Much to admire, certainly, but with darker corners and significant flaws. Yes there are lessons for Ireland. The main one is that we beat up on ourselves too much. The second that there is no simple Nordic template we can lift and apply here. Each of the Nordics comes with its own baggage and we can learn best by studying these less than nearly perfect societies.

With the exception of Norway, with its oil, the other Nordics in recent years have all experienced severe economic downturns, similar to Ireland’s. We are all familiar with the banking collapse in Iceland, where the three main banks borrowed ten times the country’s GDP before total collapse. We are less familiar with the Finnish economic collapse of the early 1990s, when a property bubble burst, GDP declined by 13% and unemployment rose from 3% to 18%. This in Finland, a country often held up as an example for Ireland to follow.

Sweden had a major banking crisis and recession in the early 90s also , after ITS building bubble burst, though it has successfully, and painfully, restructured since. Denmark’s household debt, at 310%, is the world’s highest, well above Ireland’s, following the 2008 collapse of a property boom fuelled by cheap credit and the introduction of interest only mortgages in 2003 ( sound familiar?). Indebtedness and negative equity are rampant, particularly among those aged thirty to forty, a generation the author describes as “screwed.”

Finland has recovered, and today is one of the EU’s most prosperous states, boasts very significant gender equality and has a superb free state education system, a world leader. Finland has Nokia, a native manufacturing industry and more electronics besides, though critics fear the country is over reliant on this sector (again, sound familiar?). Finland has the fewest immigrants, but also has the highest murder rate in Western Europe, consumes anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs in large quantities, and has a major problem with binge drinking.

Denmark has a comprehensive welfare state but also punitive tax rates. These exist in tandem with a massive black economy, which is tolerated semi – officially as part of an unvirtuous circle under which the private sector is sustained by the black economy, enabling it to fund, in taxes, the cost of the public sector and welfare benefits. Denmark tops the world cancer rates and has a significant carbon footprint, wind energy notwithstanding. Denmark’s third largest party, with 12% of votes and seats, espouses an anti –immigration platform.

Sweden, the Jewel in the Crown of the Nordics, has the largest economy and population, is front runner in gender and class equality, and is renowned for a comprehensive cradle to grave welfare state. Sweden boasts native multinational giants like IKEA, H&M, Tetra Pak, Eriksson and Volvo. It is, moreover, at the cutting edge of a huge multicultural experiment – 15% of the population was born elsewhere and with their children comprise almost one third of the population ( though, curiously, relatively few migrated from the new EU states after 2004).

Sweden was never conquered and has long pursued a policy of neutrality. It actually prospered during World War Two, supplying vital strategic materials to Germany until quite late in the war. The Swedish economy and society developed steadily during the Twentieth Century, thanks largely to a unique social partnership between big business, the Social Democrats and the unions. Yet in this Stepford Wife of a country, youth unemployment is pushing 30%, despite its neutrality Sweden is the world’s eighth largest arms exporter and it also faces rising anti-immigration sentiment.

Norway has oil in abundance, and continues to discover more. The Dubai of the North, it pumps it out at pace, belying its clean, green image. The revenues have been invested wisely, but cracks are starting to show, with Norway having proportionately the highest number of welfare claimants in Europe and a worsening trend in educational standards. Norway also has a worrying strain of right wing extremism, epitomised not only by Anders Breivik, but also by the rising support for the anti-immigrant Progress Party (16% in last year’s election). Not surprisingly the integration of non-Western immigrants has become the current major challenge facing the Nordic democracies.

Despite these and other “fissures and flaws” Booth (a Denmark resident) is an unashamed admirer of the Nordics. He points up the countries’ shared positive aspects, the trust and social cohesion, the economic and gender equality, the well balanced political and economic systems, the enduring high levels of social mobility. For him the alternative to the rampant capitalism which has ravaged the West in recent years, is not Brazil, Russia, or China. “ The Nordic countries have the answer Even when they get it wrong, they soon figure out how to get it right without any blood being spilled.” Another lesson here.

A satisfying and informative book.

March 3 2014

THE FARM by TOM ROB SMITH a review

THE FARM
TOM ROB SMITH
SIMON SCHUSTER 351pp €14.99; e book €11.30

Tom Rob Smith burst on the scene in 2008 with his debut novel, Child 44. The book, the first of three set in the 1950s Soviet Union, featured the hunt for a serial killer and was loosely based on the real life mass murderer Andrei Chikatilo, the Rostov Ripper. It was a publishing sensation, won several prestigious awards and is now being filmed.

There are no Rippers in his latest book, a taut and atmospheric psychological thriller which keeps the reader guessing until the very end. With “The Farm,” Rob Smith breaks new ground, geographically and stylistically. The Soviet Union is abandoned to the rubbish bin of history. The setting here is present day rural Sweden.

Anyone acquainted with Swedish and Scandinavian Noir will recognise many familiar elements : the hauntingly beautiful but bleak landscape and climate, rural isolation, the dour religious beliefs and biblical references, the social taboos. Rob Smith writes of it all with assurance – his mother is Swedish.

The narrator, Daniel, in London, is phoned from Sweden by his distraught father to be told his mother, Tilde, is ill, committed after a psychotic episode. As he prepares to fly to Sweden he is contacted by Tilde, released and en route to London. She claims everything his father has said is a lie, denies she’s insane and asks that he meets her. She arrives, agitated but coherent , and demanding a hearing.

A major theme in the novel is trust in a family. Daniel is gay, something he has kept from his parents. His secret becomes an irrelevancy as he realises how little he actually knows about them. For Tilde has secrets also and Daniel is presented immediately with the dilemma of which parent to believe or trust.

Much of the novel is a monologue, Tilde’s chilling account of what she claims happened to her since arriving in Sweden. Her dream of an idyllic retirement to a farm in the country of her birth soon falls apart. She is an outsider and feels ostracised by the locals. There are hints of incest, of trafficking , of sinister crimes and conspiracy by a rural community closing ranks. Worse, Daniel’s British father appears to collude and fall under the malign influence of a wealthy and powerful neighbour.

Tilde is committed but escapes and turns to Daniel for help. Her story is plausible, but totally circumstantial and could be viewed very differently. Daniel becomes unwilling judge and jury.
The story is compelling, well-crafted and gripping . Daniel in turn believes, then doubts, his mother’s story. There are several twists and sub plots, with the suspense maintained up to the surprise ending.

An excellent and unusual thriller. It will do well .

THE SECOND DEADLY SIN by ASA LARSSON a review

THE SECOND DEADLY SIN
ASA LARSSON
MACKLEHOSE PRESS pp 395 £18.99

A wounded bear is pursued through the forest wilderness of Northern Sweden. When finally cornered and shot by an expert marksman, its stomach contents are found to include human remains. Some months later, in a village in the same area, a woman is murdered in a frenzied attack, her young grandson missing. This is the tense and gripping opening of Asa Larsson’s novel, which won the 2012 Best Swedish Crime Novel award.

Scandinavian crime fiction has become immensely popular internationally over the past two decades, spearheaded by the cerebral Wallender books of Henning Mankell and the gritty Norwegian novels of Jo Nesbo , before the mega-success of Stieg Larsson’s “ Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, which first appeared in 2005. Yet these are only the first among many equals of what has become a formidable genre of writing and which has now spread to the small screen via quality TV dramas, including, in addition to Wallender, “ The Killing” and “ The Bridge.”

Both sexes are well represented. Sweden alone has produced a number of first rate female crime writers including, in addition to Asa Larsson, Camilla Lackberg , Kerstin Ekman, Inger Frimansson, and Lisa Marklund. Norway can point to Karin Fossum and Anne Holt, Finland to Sofi Oxanen, Iceland to Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Denmark to Agnete Friis and Lena Kaaberbol. All well worth reading.

Various theories have been advanced to explain this popularity. Mankell suggested recently that in part it was because the outside world had put Scandinavian society on a pedestal because of its affluence, its comprehensive welfare systems and its progressive and liberal views and was fascinated therefore at novels and incidents that revealed a seamier side of this society ( If they can’t get it right, who can?). Others have pointed to the stark contrast the books present between the pristine and clean environment and the tawdry nature of the crimes, many with sexual , religious or racial undertones.

Asa Larsson, the “Other Larsson,” as she wryly comments in an extensive and revealing interview on YouTube, suggests that it was rejection in the 70s of the classical Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the middle class affluent detective portrayed by Agatha Christie among others, that led to the emergence of uniquely Swedish detective writing, very much tied to real life and this has been well received everywhere. Some writers, her namesake being one, have also clearly had a political agenda to expose various unsavoury aspects of Swedish society including right wing extremism, the behaviour of big business and misogyny.

Her own writing is distinctive. “ The Second Deadly Sin” is her fifth novel featuring prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, all based in or around Kiruna, the most Northerly city in Sweden, where she grew up. Her first novel, “The Savage Altar,” won best debut prize, while the sequel, “ The Blood Spilt” won Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2004, before any of Stieg’s books had appeared. Another Martinsson novel is planned, after which she will move on (she is in her late forties). Judging by this one it would be a pity to let the series lapse.
The series setting is fascinating. Kiruna, population 20,000, lies in Norbotten County, within the Arctic Circle close to where the borders of Sweden Norway and Finland come together. Norbotten is bigger than the island of Ireland but has only 250, 000 inhabitants ( Sweden itself 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. There is some local resentment at what is perceived as economic exploitation by the south, particularly Stockholm.
Martinsson, like her creator originally a successful tax attorney, has returned to her roots from Stockholm, leaving her mystified partner behind and has acquired a reputation for lateral thinking sometimes at odds with the locals. In this novel she is the first to sense a connection between the recent murder and the remains devoured by the bear. She gradually unravels a complex plot with at its centre a formidable and painstaking serial killer. She uncovers a link also to a love story and a murder of a century before, the historical episodes treated with just the correct level of pathos. The pace and the tension increase to a dramatic climax.
The writing is of the highest quality. The confrontations with the bear are electrifying. Later there is a sympathetic and credible treatment of a traumatised child. The other characters, including the several tragic figures, are also well drawn, the overall effect being to create a lasting and believable scenario long after finishing the book. Her descriptions of the dogs and their interaction with her humans is especially memorable. A worthy winner of the Award and eminently suitable for a film or a T.V. series.
Asa Larsson has no need of horrendous detail, or ritual killings, nor indeed of a single tattoo. She is simply a very good writer. There is no doubt in my mind who is the “other Larsson.”

January 13 2014

COCKROACHES by JO NESBO a review

COCKROACHES
AUTHOR: JO NESBO
HARVILL SECKER 374 pages €15.99

Another Jo Nesbo, though not a new novel. As with many other Scandinavian crime writers recently popular in English, this is an earlier work. First published in 1998, and now available in translation, Cockroaches is the second in Jo Nesbo’s popular Harry Hole series, all ten of which are now available in English.

For those who haven’t encountered him, Nesbo is known for his gritty thrillers featuring his take on the stereotype of the dyspeptic alcoholic and quirky detective. His strength is in exposing the seamy side of life in Norway, whether present day Nazi sympathisers extolling racist ideology – some of the dialogue in Redbreast (2006) could have been lifted from the pronouncements of Anders Breivik – or the heroin plague on the streets of Oslo outlined in Phantom (2012). He is by now arguably the most popular Scandinavian crime writer, with hero Harry Hole rivalling Henning Mankell’s Wallender.

Nesbo’s books tend to be unsettling. Cockroaches is no exception. The setting is Thailand, where the Norwegian ambassador – and friend of the Prime Minister – has been found murdered in a seedy motel. Harry, fresh from his success in Australia ( The Bat, which launched the series) is grappling with his alcoholism when he is handpicked to investigate and to minimise the scandal.

Harry arrives in Bangkok and quickly discovers the situation is more complex than it had appeared. He soon realises that he was sent in the expectation that his liking for drink would mean the investigation would not get very far. Some of the local Norwegian expat community, from the Ambassador and his family on down, have secrets and few are willing to talk. There is clearly a cover –up, but to what end, and who to talk to, who to trust? Harry refuses to give up and slowly, after a number of hair raising experiences, he unravels the mystery.

Nesbo picked on Bangkok as an exotic location with which most readers would not be familiar and where literally anything can happen. The cockroaches of the title are symbolic of the different issues not immediately apparent which Harry encounters – where there is one cockroach you can expect to find a hundred. This against the background of a city notorious for its sex industry, catering for every taste and a lodestone for foreign paedophiles. There is the startling assertion that the Norwegian police abandoned an attempt to set up a database on Norwegian paedophiles in Thailand because it lacked the resources to keep up with the numbers!

Nesbo spent several months in Bangkok, where he was well received by the local Norwegian community, who introduced him to the highs, and some of the lows, of the Thailand scene. The result is another excellent thriller, the most popular among his earlier novels and one which casts a cold eye on the reality of expatriate life of some Europeans in Asia.

December 8 2013

THE CITY OF STRANGERS by MICHAEL RUSSELL a review

THE CITY OF STRANGERS
AUTHOR: MICHAEL RUSSELL
AVON 486 pages £7.99

Michael Russell has done it again. A year after “City of Shadows,” he has produced a second excellent historical thriller featuring his Irish police hero Stefan Gillespie.

After a chilling introduction, an atrocity committed during Ireland’s civil war, the story fast forwards to the spring of 1939, as the world slides towards war. Stephan, a young widower and station sergeant in Baltinglass, is recalled to Headquarters to handle a sensitive issue.

A woman has been murdered, brutally. There is evidence that she had been embezzling money from the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes – an earlier version of the Lotto and of near iconic significance among the Irish American community, which bought most of the tickets. The sweepstakes, moreover, are politically connected. The chief suspect, her son, a young, gay, wannabe actor, has travelled to New York by boat with the Gate Theatre Company.

After agreeing at first to return voluntarily to Ireland, the suspect flees. With the New York World’s Fair set to open, in which Ireland has an important showcase pavilion, the instructions to Stefan are clear – to repatriate the suspect with minimum fuss.

This proves easier said than done. Stefan travels to New York on one of the first flying boat flights from Foynes. On the flight he encounters a wealthy Irish American, who proves to be the US head of Clan na Gael ( the IRA front organisation) . Later he encounters an old Irish army friend , attached to the Irish World Fair pavilion, as well as another femme fatale, intent on rescuing her sister from a psychiatric hospital.

As his search for the murder suspect continues the plot becomes more complicated , with a mysterious death and Stephan’s realisation that he is being drawn into a complex conspiracy involving Nazi agents, IRA sympathisers and elements of the New York underworld. The pace is hectic, the body count mounts, the civil war past is revisited as Stefan finds surprising allies and grapples with issues where the stakes are high, not just for him but for Ireland.

As before, Russell captures the time and the mood superbly, from the novel and exhilarating experience of flying transatlantic, then, to the atmosphere in the USA as war beckons . It is a period when the USA, and New York in particular, harbours tens of thousands of Old IRA and many more exiles and sympathisers opposed to De Valera’s Ireland and all it stands for.

As pro-IRA, pro-German and isolationist groups increase pressure for the USA to remain neutral in any conflict, the World’s Fair itself is dominated physically by the rival pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both offering different and unappetising visions of the future. The sense of Ireland, as a small and vulnerable nation, alone in this situation, is very well conveyed.
An excellent and thoughtful window on the past. Highly recommended.

November 24 2013

A CRUEL AND SHOCKING ACT by PHILIP SHENON a review

A CRUEL AND SHOCKING ACT
PHILIP SHENON
LITTLE, BROWN 625pp €20.99

There is no doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. The doubts since are whether Oswald acted alone or was front man for a conspiracy, whether there was another gunman, and whether the Warren Commission, set up by President Johnson to investigate the assassination, discovered the whole truth of what happened. Additionally, could the assassination have been prevented?

In 2008 Philip Shenon, a veteran investigative journalist, published an expose critical of the report of the Commission set up to investigate Nine Eleven. Soon after he was approached by a former staff investigator on the Warren Commission, now an eminent lawyer, who urged Shenon to tell the story of the Warren Commission investigation “ to explain what really happened.” Five years of dogged and painstaking research followed.

What was to have been an inside history of the Warren Commission evolved into an account of how much had not been told about the assassination and how much of the evidence failed to reach the Commission, some covered up, some destroyed. What emerges overall is a picture of various agencies and individuals acting in their own self-interest, shifting blame and suppressing information. The Warren Commission was flawed from the beginning, hurried, understaffed, under resourced, politically manipulated, deceived and misled by the CIA and the FBI, both of which conducted extensive cover-ups.

The approach taken by Commission Chairman Chief Justice Earl Warren compounded matters. Warren, convinced from the outset that Oswald had acted alone, was keen to wrap up the report as quickly as possible, certainly before the 1964 Presidential campaign started, and aimed to minimise any further distress to the Kennedy family. He originally envisaged the Commission holding few hearings, having no power to compel witnesses to testify, conducting no independent investigations and doing no more than reviewing the evidence already gathered by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies.

The other Commission members baulked at this and the mandate was broadened, but the auspices were not good. The junior staffers, who did the work, including some brilliant lawyers, dubbed Warren as “Grumpy” or “Dopey” among the “Seven Dwarfs” of the Commissioners (Marina Oswald was Snow White!). Warren took shortcuts which left the field open for later conspiracy theories. To achieve consensus he insisted on language in the report which left open the possibility, contradicting the physical evidence, that a separate additional bullet had wounded Governor Connolly. When the Commission was wrapped up he even favoured destroying its internal files.

From the outset there were rumours of a cover up. The naval surgeon who presided at JFK’s autopsy destroyed his original notes – stained with the President’s blood – lest they became grisly souvenirs. He had already bowed to pressure from the Kennedys to suppress evidence that JFK suffered from Addison’s Disease. Later, Warren refused to allow anyone else view the autopsy photos and X-rays, provoking a near rebellion among the Commission staff.

The FBI, with J. Edgar Hoover bent on damage limitation, suppressed or destroyed vital evidence, while leaking material in attempts to steer the investigation. The night Oswald was shot, the FBI Dallas office, which had been monitoring him for months, destroyed a threatening note which Oswald had hand delivered several weeks earlier. They also failed to place Oswald’s name on the Internal Security Index provided to the Secret Service prior to the President’s visit. Hoover, while publicly denying FBI failures, sometimes under oath, secretly authorised disciplinary action against several dozen agents for dereliction of duty.

The CIA tried to bury the full story of Oswald’s five day visit to Mexico City from 27 September – of critical importance to investigating any possible conspiracy or Cuban connection to the assassination. While there he visited both the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, ostensibly to apply for visas. Attempts to investigate claims that Oswald was seen receiving $6500 from a Cuban agent during his visit were frustrated or glossed over by the CIA, as was another story that Oswald had a brief affair with an embassy employee who introduced him to Cuban agents.

Kennedy after all was dead. The CIA seems to have been at pains to keep secret the widespread and comprehensive surveillance operations it was conducting on the Soviet and Cuban embassies and staff in Mexico City. The damage limitation, orchestrated by the CIA’s eminence grise, James Jesus Angleton, worked. The Commission was heavily dependent on the CIA for information and its final report was far less critical of the CIA than the other agencies involved.

Bizarrely, the FBI learned later from Fidel Castro, indirectly through a double agent that, while in the Cuban Embassy, Oswald made threats to several agents to kill Kennedy . A top secret memo from Hoover to the Commission on the incident ,written in June 1964, never arrive, though decades later a copy was found at the CIA. Another cover – up?

More bizarrely, Castro, clearly anxious to distance Cuba from Oswald, met secretly with a representative of the Warren Commission , denying strenuously any Cuban involvement in the assassination, remarking that he actually admired JFK!

What motivated Oswald? The Commission sat on some of its own records regarding suspicions about Oswald’s sexuality. Later, Commission member Gerry Ford thought him emotionally immature and desperately craving for attention. He suggested a possible sexual explanation, with Marina’s mocking of his impotence eventually pushing him over the edge.

Fifty years on, there are still no definitive answers. The “what ifs” remain. What if the Irish born driver of the Presidential car had accelerated immediately after the first bullet hit, which was not fatal, making JFK less of an easy target? Crucially, what if Oswald had been picked up, as he should have been, prior to the visit? For the sad postscript is the conclusion of Hoover’s successor, Clarence Kelley, that if the FBI office in Dallas had been aware of what was known elsewhere in the FBI and CIA about Oswald, “ without doubt JFK would not have died in Dallas” and “history would have taken a different turn.”

November 11 2013

BAD BLOOD by ARNE DAHL a review

BAD BLOOD
ARNE DAHL

Arne Dahl, the pen name of Jan Arnald, a Swedish novelist and literary critic, born in 1963, is one of the latest Swedish crime writers to hit Britain. He has won several awards for his crime novels and is particularly popular in Germany.

BBC Four screened ten episodes, based on Dahl’s first five novels about an elite Swedish police task force, the Intercrime Group, from April to June this year – I missed them – and an English translation of Bad Blood, the second book in the series, was launched in mid- June, presumably to coincide. The book was written in 1998 and indeed the first five novels were all written over a decade ago.

This tendency to back-publish, which is occurring with increasing frequency as “ new” writers enter into vogue, can sometimes backfire, as it does slightly with this book. The opening chapters describe the attempts of the police team to apprehend a suspected serial killer believed to be travelling to Sweden on a flight from the USA. There’s a rather unsatisfactory keystone cops- like event at the airport, but beyond this is the sheer implausibility of the episode – even pre Nine Eleven.
Essentially an intending passenger cancels – by phone – his reservation seventy five minutes before a scheduled departure from Newark and five minutes later the vacant seat is bought at the airport by a walk-up passenger with no baggage.

Post Nine Eleven this would be impossible. Homeland Security and the Airline, for a start, would not allow anyone to embark at such short notice. But even before 2001 the possibility of someone, particularly a non-citizen, gaining access to a transatlantic flight by a European carrier at seventy minutes’ notice was remote. The novel also shows its age elsewhere in terms of how e-mail and the Internet are treated – silent testimony to the incredible developments in mass communications since the book was written.

This, however, is a minor point. Bad Blood is the first of Dahl’s novels I have read. It’s certainly a page-turner with a lively plot concerning the hunt for a particularly sadistic serial killer who has migrated from the USA to Sweden. The gruesome details of the killer’s method of murdering his many victims are piled on to appal or entertain or both. The pace, the action, the twists and turns maintain the reader’s attention.

Some of the team travel to the USA to collaborate with the FBI in the hunt for someone who has suddenly recommenced killing after a fifteen year gap. Was he in jail? Was he somewhere else? Is this a copycat killer? Are there links with the Vietnam War? Is there even an old Cold War aspect to the killings? And, most importantly, why has the killer now arrived in Sweden?

The book seems eminently suited for screening as part of a TV series a la “The Killing” or “ The Bridge” and I’m looking forward to watching the repeats. I want also to read Dahl’s other novel available in English, “The Blinded Man,” since some of the action – and extreme violence – takes place in Tallinn, a city I know well.

Like several other Swedish crime writers Dahl also criticises and offers some brief comments and analysis on the way Swedish society, which on paper presents such a positive face, has changed since the 1980s. Some of the social criticism, and the violence, are echoed in the later Dragon Tattoo (2005) and other works by Stieg Larsson. Henning Mankel, through Wallender, paints up the same themes of corruption, violence and racism – I am currently re-reading “One Step Behind,” written about the same time as Bad Blood.

I don’t know enough about Swedish society to comment, but in a number of interviews, including a recent one in the Irish Times, Henning Mankel has made the point that outsiders have tended to idealise Swedish society, which in fact has much the same social problems, strains and disaffections as other countries, as witness the riots in Stockholm several months ago. Ditto with regard to Norway and Anders Breivik. Perhaps some of the international popularity of Scandinavian Noir is because we outsiders are fascinated by stories of crime in what appear, from our perspective, near idyllic societies.

A final point. Most thrillers and crime novels feature one or two central characters. This book, and the series, are about the activities of the Intercrime elite police unit, a group numbering anywhere from six to ten. It is unusual to feature a large group like this and extremely difficult to handle adequately this number of “heroes” or characters, fully fleshed out. Normally one or two are given star billing, as for example, Steve Carella in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories, with the others given supporting roles. While the book’s blurb appears to designate Paul Hjelm as chief hero, the others all have significant roles to play. I’m not sure this works all that well, but perhaps the author resolves this in later books.

October 23 2013