THE MIDNIGHT SWIMMER by EDWARD WILSON ; a review

THE MIDNIGHT SWIMMER by EDWARD WILSON

This is the first novel I’ve read by Edward Wilson. It won’t be the last. Written in 2011 it is a stylish spy thriller set in the early 1960s and focuses on the build up to the Cuba Crisis.

As this was part of my master’s dissertation – way back in 1969 – I was immediately interested. I’ve always maintained a keen interest in the Crisis, particularly as fresh material became available after the Soviet Union collapsed and as Western documents were declassified . This book answers at least one of the questions that long puzzled observers – why did Kruschev take the gamble to seek to install nukes in Cuba. Back in the Sixties the assumption was that he was by nature a gambler and that his rhetoric about “burying” the West necessitated him taking risks. His great agricultural plan – the “virgin lands” – had flopped and, faced with growing economic problems at home, the reality of the Missile Gap in the USA’s favour, and the growing disapproval of the Politburo, the common assumption was that he felt he had no option but to gamble.

The novel has an interesting slant on this based on actual events which were only finally confirmed in the Glasnost era of the late Eighties. I won’t reveal it as it would be too much of a spoiler to do so but it certainly casts Kruschev’s actions in a different light .The book also advances a completely fictitious answer (I think) to another of the questions, but again I will not spoil the enjoyment of readers by revealing it. There’s a fascinating interweaving of known fact and real personalities of the era in the story which hang together well and, for me at any rate, at least pose the question “Could it have been like this?” No more can be asked of any work of historical fiction or “faction.”

The book is the third of a series (five to date) featuring a British intelligence agent, Catesby, who, together with his boss, Bone, must tread a delicate line between double dealing and betrayal at a time when suspicions abounded between the CIA and MI6 about possible traitors even as the international situation teetered on the very brink of nuclear conflict. One critic has commented on an earlier Wilson novel as showing governments and their secret services as “cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless.” The same is certainly true here. The action moves between Britain, the USA, East Germany, and Cuba as tension mounts. There are conflicts of conscience. The book’s blurb notes: “The author poses the fundamental question that few spy novelists answer: What is the greater crime? Betraying your country or betraying the person you love?” The blurb could have chosen to add: “Betraying your country or acting as you saw fit to help save humanity?”

Edward Wilson was born in the USA and served with US Special Forces in Vietnam where he was decorated. He subsequently wrote what has been described as the best novel about the Vietnam War, “A River in May” published in 2002, when he was in his mid -50s. He left the USA for Europe in the seventies, eventually settling in Britain in 1976, renounced his US citizenship in 1983, becoming a teacher and full time writer. He is a socialist. The fifth book featuring Catesby, “A Very British Ending,” was published in April 2016.
I would highly recommend the book, and, on this evidence, the writer.

S.F.
25/9

THE HUMAN FLIES by HANS OLAV LAHLUM

THE HUMAN FLIES by HANS OLAV LAHLUM

This is the first novel in a series by Lahlum a young (43) Norwegian writer, with several biographies already to his name. Lahlum is a National Chess master (rating 2204) in the country that boasts world champion Magnus Carlsen. Published in English in 2014, it was the recent choice of my local Murder and Mystery book club.

In some ways this quirky novel is structured like a chess puzzle. Not just “White to play and mate in three,” but rather the totally artificial construct of most chess puzzles, which postulate positions rarely if ever arising on the chessboard.

The setting is Oslo in 1968 when a hero of the Norwegian Resistance during World War Two is found murdered in an apartment building. All the residents of the building are suspects. The narrator, Detective Inspector Kristiansen, is lost for inspiration and is prevailed upon to seek assistance from an intellectually brilliant wheelchair bound woman, daughter of an influential wealthy family friend. He provides her with details of the case and she points him in the directions to go. There follows a painstaking sequence of interviews, repeated as necessary, with the building residents and other people the investigation turns up, to narrow down the search for the killer, including a gathering together of the suspects for the reading of the murdered man’s will.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This is classic Agatha Christie, with a good dose of Conan Doyle thrown in for good measure. And intentionally so, with both quoted several times in the novel. They’re all there: the thick policeman, the brilliant and wealthy amateur sleuth (who’s also quite a nasty snob), the near country house setting with all the suspects conveniently located together, the dash of romance and skeletons abounding in the various cupboards of the suspects. Even the title itself reflects some of this; human flies are people whose life is forever altered by one event – or non-event – and who are forever defining themselves with reference to that event, like flies forever circling over a carcase.

Given the subject matter we get some insights and information on the occupation of Norway during the Second World War, in particular concerning the hiding of fugitives from the Nazis and smuggling them across the border with Sweden.  The Second World War continues to haunt certain memories in Scandinavia and the Baltics and is a constant in fiction across the region, hardly surprising in the light of collaboration, armed resistance, cooperation, and the participation of volunteers from all countries fighting with the Nazis on the Eastern Front. All outside the scope of this novel except in so far as one of the suspects had a Nazi past while the victim was a Resistance hero.

Does the construct work? Yes if you can suspend belief and transport yourself back to the genteel circumstances and lifestyle of the middle classes of Agatha Christie’s heyday and if you believe that murders can be solved by the application of brainpower alone. This plus the total omission of any reference to normal police work or involvement of other policemen, no mention of forensics,  scene of crime preservation, or how and by whom other lines of enquiry are carried out. Plus the involvement in and the transmission of case details to an untrained member of the public.

No, otherwise. As noted earlier it’s like a chess problem but with at best a tenuous relationship with the real world. Aficionados of Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt and others will not be impressed.

S.F. 19/9

 

 

“THINK OF A NUMBER” : THE NOVELS OF JOHN VERDON

THINK OF A NUMBER: THE NOVELS OF JOHN VERDON

John Verdon is the author of four bestselling crime /thriller novels. He is now seventy four ( his birthday was on New Year’s Day) and he has, since 2010, published four best -selling and critically acclaimed mystery thrillers. His first novel was published when he was sixty eight – no mean feat – and one therefore of particular significance and relevance to me and any other aspiring writer of advanced years. He is also an interesting character, to put it mildly; his website is well worth a visit.

There’s clearly a story there and the biographical information on his website makes interesting reading. Verdon’s c.v.,in so far as we get one, is impressive. He has worked/been employed/pursued interests including early spells as a theme park stunt man and a martial arts fighter before going into advertising in New York as a copy writer, a career he pursued “from the alcoholic sixties to the workaholic nineties.” Then, in an abrupt change of career, after 32 years and aged 56, Verdon took up woodworking and spent a decade making Shaker-style furniture, acquiring in passing a commercial pilot’s license. Together with his wife he moved out of the city to the western Catskill mountains in upstate New York, where inter alia he began serious reading and eventually turned to writing. Almost a modern Renaissance man.

His website is tightly controlled, but reasonably informative. The biographical section includes a brief essay on “Why I write Thrillers” and a useful and informative FAQ section. There’s also an album of images of the Catskills, which provides a pictorial backdrop to the location for his novels. His Facebook page ( 13,000 plus followers – including, recently, me) contains a link to a lengthy and revealing radio interview conducted after the release of his fourth novel “Peter Pan must Die” in July 2014 as well as to a couple of reviews of his novels. A quick trawl of the Internet reveals few other reviews or interviews though there are many more extracts from reviews of all four books in the Books section on the website. Most reviews on Amazon are favourable, many highly so ( consistently four or five stars) though there are some criticisms of his portrayal of female characters (I’m not sure how serious or relevant this criticism is – “Women are from Venus, Men from Mars”,etc. For me that’s not far from complaining that villains are portrayed too one-dimensionally as bad).

Verdon writes that, after moving to the Catskills and having more time on his hands, he began stepping up reading fiction, becoming interested in and absorbed by crime fiction – “fascinated by the form itself, the mechanics of constructing the hidden crime and gradually exposing it.” Eventually, prompted by his wife, he began to write his own crime novel ( starting at age 65, as he confirms in his radio interview). The result, after two years was “ Think of a Number, ” which proved an astounding success. He has followed this with three further successful and bestselling novels in what has become a series in real time featuring, as hero, a retired New York cop, Dave Gurney.

Verdon gives no indication of other creative writing such as short stories or flash fiction before embarking on his first Gurney novel, nor of involvement with some creative writing course or self- help writing group. Given that he was an advertising copywriter he could plead that he was well qualified to write in any event, but that was a decade before. I would think he spent several years more than the two mentioned honing his writing skills in the traditional fashion and perhaps trying some novel prototypes – the finished products are simply too polished and well crafted. I know from my own experience that the saying about needing 10,000 hours input to become a writer has a lot of truth in it . Some advice or more detail about his development as a writer would be welcome, though this is in no way a criticism of his fine novels.

In “Why I write Thrillers,” Verdon gives an account of his approach to crime writing. His thinking is along fairly predictable lines ( at least as far as I am concerned) , containing a lot of sound common sense. For anyone interested the brief piece merits a close read. Verdon sees detective stories as essentially moral in tone in that the truth generally wins out. A crime novel has two separate but interlinked themes, the execution of the crime and the unravelling of the mystery around it by the detective. He goes on to discuss the complexity of ordinary life in general, including the difference POVs make, where there are at once two sides ( at least) to most matters – the analogy he uses is that of the different POVs between the driver of a car overtaken at speed and the driver of the overtaking car. Writing should reflect this.

Life is complicated – and complex. At another level he points out in the radio interview that , in real life, characters, including detectives, are living people with families and relationships and events happening in parallel and interacting with each other. This is/should be, reflected in a writer’s work and for example he points to the ongoing tensions between Gurney and his spouse reflected in all the novels ( a dynamic relationship which, as he points out in the FAQ answers, is very popular with his readers). He stresses repeatedly the importance of conveying in a novel the different layers of reality and their complex interactions. He practices what he preaches. His novels all present a rich tapestry of plot, character and background, skilfully interwoven. Before I knew anything about him this was something that struck me several chapters into the first novel of his I read ( “ Let the Devil Sleep” – the third in the series) and for me this is an aspect of his writing which I like very much and which I think he handles very well – certainly better than many other writers.

The four novels are written in real time, with hero Dave Gurney and his wife progressing and developing through them. To give an overall flavour, it’s worth quoting the New York Journal of Books: “ As incredible as it seems, a relatively new author with no law enforcement background, has created a protagonist with insight and skills that rival the best crime solvers of all time.” Perhaps somewhat OTT, but the novels are all extremely good, well, indeed ingeniously , plotted, thoughtful and easy to read. One of Verdon’s favourite authors is Conan Doyle, which may account for some of those well worked plots.

A point to reflect on, incidentally, about the blurb quoted, is how much is now required of a “new” writer to break through. I ‘ve recently read two books by different but well established and successful crime writers – one female, one male. Neither hold much of a candle to Verdon’s books. I’ve also been mystified as to how a recently published first novel ( with the threat of several more to come in a series) ever got to be published. The conclusion is that an aspiring writer has to be extremely good – or extremely lucky – to succeed. ( As a sub-text to this, while former law enforcement officials, or spies or intelligence agents, or even pathologists, can regurgitate their knowledge in detail, this is no guarantee of a good read. How many dreadful space filling details have I come across in less than impressive works by mediocre but successful writers. Verdon has a son a NYPD sergeant, which undoubtedly helped with some of the details and tradecraft.. But Verdon also has talent.)

To write too much about the novels would be to spoil, so I’ll confine myself to a brief sentence or two on each. There are, in any event, good introductory synopses of each on the website. In “ Think of a Number,” Dave Gurney, already a much decorated celebrity cop in New York city , has retired to upstate New York where he is prevailed upon to look into a case in which people receive anonymous letters which appear to be from someone who can read their minds. In “ Shut Your Eyes Tight” a bride is found decapitated at her wedding . There is an obvious suspect, but he has disappeared. In “Let the Devil Sleep” a serial killer – the “Good Shepherd” -reappears after a decade. Where has he been? Why did he stop, and why has he restarted? Finally, in “Peter Pan must Die,” Gurney must investigate an “impossible murder” of a politician – perhaps the perfect crime. All four plots are clever and in none are things as they seem. One common feature, which perhaps goes back to the author’s liking for Conan Doyle, is that in all four the enlightened amateur ( albeit a retired cop) , solves cases the official detectives couldn’t.

The novels are stand -alone though Verdon recommends starting with the first. I began with the third and then read the other three in sequence ( over several weeks). The plots are intricate and ingenious. As well as Gurney, several characters recur – his wife, an offbeat unorthodox county policeman and a couple of law officers not enamoured of Gurney and his style. The villains, who are intellectually formidable and ruthless are normally presented in the third person only.

There has been little activity on either Verdon’s website or Facebook page since “ Peter Pan” appeared over a year ago, though there are references to another novel in gestation. Let’s hope so.

S.F.
3/1/16

THE STOLEN ONES by RICHARD MONTANARI : a review

THE STOLEN ONES

RICHARD MONTANARI

SPHERE 2014 455 pp

Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in the USA and was the first capital of the independent country. It’s well worth a visit, with many historic landmarks, including a superb Irish famine memorial and certainly counts as one of the great American cities. I’ve enjoyed every visit, and have friends there. Yet compared to New York, Chicago or New Orleans (and, indeed others) it features relatively infrequently in fiction, especially crime fiction, with few household names, even though it’s well up there in the murder stats. One of that few is Richard Montanari, an excellent writer of police procedurals He’s now in his sixties and broke into writing in the mid -1990s after a varied career that included a long spell in journalism.

As the name suggests, Montanari is of Italian descent on his father’s side, though, interestingly, his mother was from Estonia. Originally from Cleveland, where his first novels are set, ten years ago he launched a series based in Philadelphia featuring detectives Kevin Byrne ( a veteran cop) and Jessica Balzano (much younger and daughter of a famous Philly cop). Their adventures are set in real time so we see the characters and their families changing and evolving as time passes; Balzano’s daughter, for example, three in the first novel, “The Rosary Girls, ”is now a teenager.

Montanari never disappoints and provides excellent entertainment. “ The Stolen Ones”, published here in 2014, is the seventh in the series, most of which I ‘ve read, and is up to the usual standard. (The eighth, “The Doll Maker” – which I haven’t read – was released earlier this year.) Page turners, certainly, with some well-drawn police characters and some really creepy villains rounded off with clever plots, many with a Catholic religious element, reflecting the makeup of the city’s white blue collar community. The violence, while plentiful, is never gratuitous.

A feature of Montanari’s work is the atmospheric picture of Philadelphia which he weaves. The reader is drawn into the story and feels she knows the gritty environment in which it takes place. Not quite Gothic but getting there. This is no accident. Montanari does considerable research for his books and it shows. In “The Stolen Ones,” central to the action is the network of catacombs under the city, some two hundred years old, up to thirty feet beneath street level and connected by almost three thousand miles of sewers, many navigable by humans. Montanari went there and did that.

Central also to the plot is the Delaware Valley State Hospital, modelled on an actual institution – the Philadelphia State Hospital – a place in the folklore of the city; think Grangegorman in the case of Dublin. Here again Montanari has done his research, not only about the institution and it’s chequered history, but also about lucid dreaming and dream engineering, something central to the plot. Without giving too much away, the story features the investigation of a number of curious but linked murders which eventually point to a perpetrator who has been dead for decades. The how and why are revealed slowly. There’s a link also to Estonia where Montanari again demonstrates the fidelity and thoroughness of his research with up to date and accurate reporting on the minutiae of the structure and organisation of the Estonian police force ( having just written a thriller featuring the Estonian police I can testify to this!).

In a number of frank and interesting interviews with the author on the web he recounts how he came to write, his background, influences on him and his interest in the immigrant experience in the USA, something he will cover in his next book, “Shutter Man,” to be published later this year. He also provides some useful advice to wannabe crime writers – get the pathology of the killer right first and let the plot develop from that.

The book is well worth a read, the author well worth following.

S.F.
28/7/15