Living, coping and observing in the age of Covid #8
THE Pisa-like bedside tower of books looked like toppling before I got around to recording some of its content.
It was only thanks to some extended sessions of lockdown reading that it has been whittled down to a less perilous height. Sadly it might remain that way for some time. With the local Waterstones firmly bolted and barred, browsing the shelves of WH Smith (hmm) and Tesco (yikes!) are all that remain for personal shopping.
Online has become the only real choice. Fact or fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, having a laugh or seeking a thrill. A vast range, whatever your genre.
Such pre-purchase pleasures as flicking through the pages, reading the blurbs, checking the text to get a sense of theme, language, style at random have all gone. Browsing is but a distant memory.
So too is swapping recommendations and critiques with fellow browsers. Have you tried …? Thought xxxx lost the plot. Couldn’t put that one down. Can’t wait for her next ….
You don’t get that at Amazon, or at the Waterstones website.
Not really that much to choose between them except when it comes down to costs and delivery. The Big A offers rock bottom prices (no wonder authors cry poor), next day service and low cost delivery (free for Prime members and when downloaded to Kindles and the like).
Waterstones is competitive on actual book prices but adds the full Royal Mail postage – which can amount to as much as a 30 per cent surcharge to the basic cost – and can take five days or more to deliver.
So, much as I favour the plea to support our local high streets, it has been Amazon that has won my lockdown business.
This included, on release date, the much-awaited latest tale from spy thriller supremo Mick Herron. Whoo-hoo! It went straight to the top of my lockdown Pisa; the next to be read.
Meanwhile, back at the debris of my collapsed tower of completed books:
SISTER by Kjell ola Dahl: My first encounter with this long-time and much revered Norwegian author and it certainly won’t be the last. This is Scandi noir at its best. A complex but totally believable tale swirling around the country’s persistent refugee problem.
Suspended detective Frank Frolich – the hero of several other Dahl novels – is keeping his hand in as a private investigator; mundane corporate and commercial work at the low end of the excitement scale.
A chance encounter with an alluring motorway fast food waitress quickly embroils him in the case of a young woman, threatened with deportation, desperately seeking the sister who disappeared after taking the immigrant trail from Turkey.
Relationships are shattered, family loyalties ripped apart. Betrayals, deceit and lies are the norm in the dark and brutal world of people smugglers. Frolich is warned off by former colleagues guarding their own sinister agendas.
Trust is at a premium and sudden death is ever at the forefront of a story that weaves a tight plot out of a trade that treats people as currency. The tension mounts; so does the death count, brutal and unjustified killings.
Frolic’s own life is endangered as he battles unknown enemies.
An intense and thrilling read that deftly illuminates a rapidly growing worldwide problem.
THE PALE CRIMINAL by Philip Kerr: We are back in Germany in the year before world war again broke out. In the seamy, steamy. shadowy underworld of Berlin, a city that comes vividly alive in the reliable hands of Philip Kerr and his stolid, persistent detective Bernie Gunther.
This is the second in the Gunther series, continuing March Violets‘ sardonic, twisted view of a city in turmoil; its citizens not knowing who to trust (neither family nor colleagues) and in fear of those meant to protect them.
The killing starts early with Gunther’s partner shot on a routine surveillance job. It quickly escalates as he is inveigled into leading a team investigating the serial sex murders of teenage girls.
But as the relentlessly probing Bernie soon learns, you can be too dedicated, too determined to track down the villain.
It doesn’t help that his temporary boss is the devious head of the state’s security service; his team a band of hard men who operate outside the confines of the laws they are meant to uphold. Doubts soon arise about whether either can be trusted.
As always with Kerr, his portrayal of the city and its people is penetratingly precise. Gets into the shadows. Captures the doubts and fears.
The mood is thankfully lightened by Bernie’s abiding sense of humour, needle sharp and slightly warped, comments voiced with a realist’s sense of the ridiculous. Sarcasm as a shield against the false and vicious world that is his milieu.
Pacy plot, delivers many a punch, compulsive reading.
A SONG FOR THE DARK TIMES by Ian Rankin: A neat segue from Philip Kerr but pure coincidence. It so happens that Rankin is one of Kerr’s biggest fans, frequently praising the quality of his prose and the penetrating insights his crime fiction provides into Berlin through the years, pre- and post-war.
One master of the genre praising another. Hardly surprising to recognise kindred spirits. As Kerr and his hero, Bernie Gunther, are inseparable from Berlin, so are Rankin and his surly detective John Rebus indelibly etched into the fabric of Edinburgh.
For a while it was feared Rebus had surrendered his warrant card and drifted off through a haze of smoke, glass of malt in hand, never to be heard of again. Wheezing and spluttering in declining health, sunk into an armchair, listening to his esoteric music collection while flicking through old case notes more for nostalgia’s sake than any hope of finding fresh clues to pin down old villains.
But a middle-of-the-night call from his daughter, Samantha, rapidly upends any such thoughts. Her partner, Keith, has been missing for two days and she fears the worst. There has been too much simmering violence in the small Scottish community where she and her young daughter have made their home to not think otherwise.
Although the relationship between father and daughter has long been brittle, often fragile and nigh on disintegration, Rebus treasures her more than he will ever admit. Attack my daughter and you attack me. Retribution will be swift, harsh and take little regard of the laws he has sworn to uphold.
As fast as his ailing Saab will allow, the now retired Rebus is at Samantha’s side, she protesting at his presence; he immediately raising the hackles of the locals. True to form, he also gets up close and aggressive with the local police inspector checking if this is more than a missing person case; another “domestic” that’s got out of hand.
Any such ideas are quickly dispelled when Rebus starts asking questions of staff and customers at the local pub. Hints soon surface of possible suspects for a crime not yet defined.
More follow when he drops into a local commune of alternative life-stylers. Among them is a man Samantha admits to having had a short affair with a few months earlier. Another suspect for what quickly turns into a case of murder when Keith’s body – complete with bloody blow to his head – is discovered at the derelict remains of a former PoW internment camp.
The internees had included not only those captured during wartime but also numerous well-settled locals, rounded up because of where they had been born or arrived from. Post-war, several of those released stayed on, some picking up the traces of their earlier lives, others deciding never to return to their homelands.
Now deemed a place of historical interest, the camp has become the site of a dig by local archaeologists. It is also where Keith had been distancing himself from Samantha as he immersed himself in research into the camp’s former residents.
The web of intrigue and mystery rapidly grows. Rebus maybe on wild Scottish shores far from Edinburgh but the city is far from forgotten. Nor are several familiar figures from his former life. Especially when a case involving his former colleague and soulmate Siobhan Clarke throws up a connection with a nearby high security estate; its residents are already “persons of interest” to Rebus.
We’re soon back on familiar territory; brittle exchanges between Rebus and Siobhan, stalwart Inspector (and Siobhan’s bed-mate) Malcolm Fox ruffling feathers among their superiors and old standover foe Cafferty still pulling the strings of the city’s underworld – and its leaders.
The trails followed by Rebus and Siobhan mingle and merge. Then fan out, embracing Saudi diplomats, upper echelons of the police and, inevitably, politicians and corporate untouchables. A murky world. From which few emerge totally clean. Not on the gale swept northern shores where Rebus narrowly escapes death at the hands of Keith’s killer. Nor in Edinburgh’s corridors of power where mud still clings to those who squirm free of the penalties they deserve.
Cafferty among them.
Another good read from an undiminished master.
TRACE ELEMENTS by Donna Leon. Maybe it’s me who is the jaded one.
Surely it cannot be an author lauded by The Times as one of the 50 Greatest Crime Writers; one who has millions of fans around the world; a writer of some twenty-seven books of immaculate prose for nigh on thirty years.
Not one who has held me in thrall for more years than I care to remember with her deeply immersive mysteries.
Yet sadly I have to confess this latest tale featuring the urbane and chivalrous Venice police commissioner Guido Brunetti left me thoroughly underwhelmed. Close to boredom, in fact. Several times on the verge of tossing it aside for good.
The writing is as carefully honed as in all previous books from Donna Leon, the American who dotes on Venice and all things Venetian yet has made Switzerland her home. Plenty of interesting characters, too. Not those from central casting upon who so many writers depend but real people with all their quirks and foibles.
And none more so than Brunetti himself, patiently and diligently solving crimes of passion, revenge and greed while staying firmly grounded in home life. His adoring and erudite wife Paola and their now teenage offspring, Chiara and Raffi, provide the refuge he seeks from the worst that humankind can throw at him.
Familiar stuff for Leon fanatics, myself among them. But now perhaps too familiar. Too predictable; with so few upsets. Not ripple ruffles the daily routine.
Paola is the domestic goddess writ large with her endless repertoire of recipes for lunch and dinner: predominantly vegetarian, all prepared fresh and a la minute; mere interludes in her high-flying work studying and lecturing as a university professor. Eat your heart out, Nigella.
Perfection personified. And so damned boring. The template unchanged.
It is an erudite and intellectual family. Mealtime talks are earnest discussions on major issues of the day, the children vocal and opinionated. There is always a weighty book at hand. Brunetti rejects Wilde in favour of Aeschylus; the children are Green campaigners.
All of which fits in with Leon’s self-description as an eco-writer. It also underscores the underlying theme of Trace Elements which soon has the reader immersed in the rather arcane world of pollution control and the city’s water supply.
Everything kicks off with the roadside death of a member of the water monitoring staff. This is not the hit-and-run accident it first appears. Not when the man’s wife uses her last breath to gasp for police help.
Her words, “They killed him. It was bad money” are enough for Brunetti to start gentle digging. At first into why the woman cannot pay her hospice fees and from there into the “bad money” and her husband’s duties at the monitoring service.
The mundane leg work is, as usual, undertaken by the elegant Signorina Elletra in her unique – and also incredible – role as … well, what exactly; secretary to Brunetti’s boss, Vice-Questore Patta, general office dogsbody, unofficial investigator, administrator, or …. ?
Who really knows other than that she is cast as the all-knowing, string-pulling, go to person controlling all that happens at police headquarters.
She is always immaculately attired, is ferried out to buy bouquets of fresh flowers for the office and organises refreshments and meals from only the best bars and cafes. And now, because Venice is in the grip of a loathsome heatwave, she manages to have air-conditioning installed without quotes, budget or permission.
Best (or is it worst?) of all, with only a few taps at her computer or a whispered phone call, she delves deeper than any hacker into whatever official or personal record Brunetti needs to solve his case. Credibility strained to the limit.
Suffice to say the dirty deeds at the water quality control centre are eventually revealed, the “bad money” is restored to its rightful owners and the deceitful, manipulative and greedy perpetrator makes their confession.
Which consists of page after tedious page of how water quality is monitored and controlled. Too much information, as the saying goes. Far too much.
If I wanted a technical manual I would have bought one, not this plodding novel of detours and diversions. Which include, somewhere near the beginning, problems presented by a gang of Romany pickpockets and thieves.
A salutary tale of an insoluble Venetian problem in tourist season that drifts off into the distance. Leaving only Trace Elements behind.
So disappointed. So sad.