“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Reviews: Irish Times Crime Fiction Column, August 2016

Already a four-time winner of the CWA’s International Dagger, A Climate of Fear (Harvill Secker, €19.50) is Fred Vargas’s ninth novel in the Paris-based Commissaire Adamsberg series. The apparent suicide of an old woman leads the Zen-like Adamsberg and his team to investigate a bizarre double murder on a remote Icelandic island ten years previously, although the team soon realises that their murderer is intimately involved with a cult devoted to enacting the speeches of Robespierre, Danton et al during the post-Revolutionary years of ‘the Terror’. Quirky doesn’t even begin to cover the plotting and characters here, but Vargas – the crime-writing pseudonym of French writer, historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau – is a veteran of 14 novels of total and remains in complete command of her bizarre investigation. The tone may be offbeat, and the affectionate bickering between the members of Adamsberg’s extended team amusing, but Vargas is assured in the way she marshals her narrative elements around a fascinating exploration of how a corrupted group dynamic can parlay historical horrors into contemporary crimes.
  Seamus Smyth’s Quinn (1999) is one of Irish crime fiction’s lost classics, a story narrated by a lethal charmer who has much in common with Red Dock, the anti-hero in Smyth’s – now writing as J.M. Smyth – Blood for Blood (Black and White, €9.99). A successful criminal based in Dublin, Red survived growing up in an Irish orphanage, although his brother Sean wasn’t so lucky. Now in a position to take his revenge on those responsible for Sean’s death, Red sets in train a diabolical plot that includes kidnap, blackmail and murder – but even a meticulous planner like Red couldn’t have anticipated the intervention of a serial killer who prides himself on the purity of his artistic vision. A snarling, anarchic yawp of a crime yarn, Blood for Blood is a novel that revels in its contradictions, the jaunty tone and blackly comic narrative regularly interrupted by grand guignol descriptions of violence and mutilation, while the increasingly improbable plot is firmly rooted in the harrowing abuse suffered by the inmates of state-run institutions. Crude, brutal and appallingly funny, Blood for Blood is like nothing else you’ll read this year.
  Robert Thorogood is best known for creating the BBC TV series Death in Paradise, which is set on a fictional Caribbean island and originally featured DI Richard Poole (since replaced by DI Humphrey Goodman), an uptight British policeman struggling to adapt to the idiosyncratic rhythms of Saint Marie. Thorogood revived Poole for his debut novel, A Meditation on Murder (2014), and Poole returns again in The Killing of Polly Carter (Harlequin, €19.50). World famous supermodel Polly Carter announces her intention to commit suicide before leaping from the cliff near her home on Saint Marie, her death witnessed by Polly’s twin sister, Claire. Poole’s suspicions are aroused, however, and soon he is leading his team in a murder investigation. Despite the contemporary setting, the Death in Paradise mysteries are deliciously retro Agatha Christie-style whodunits, with Poole trawling a shoal of red herrings as he interrogates his list of suspects. Much of the pleasure, meanwhile, is derived from Poole’s fish-out-of-water helplessness as he flops around trying to cope with Saint Marie’s heat, cultural quirks and easy-going pace of life, all the while wondering if ‘his entire existence as an Englishman was no more than Pavlovian conditioning.’
  The Last One (Penguin, €16.99) is Alexandra Oliva’s debut, in which we first meet ‘Zoo’ as a contestant on a TV wilderness survival reality show. Forbidden from contacting the outside world, Zoo has no way of knowing that a global catastrophe has laid waste to the human population: as she treks through the vast forest towards home, her survival grows increasingly unlikely. The narrative is split between an on-line commentary on the early episodes of the TV show and Zoo’s own account of her worsening conditions, although the chronology is out of kilter: the on-line conversation relates to events that occurred days before Zoo’s personal experience of those events, which interrupts and stilts the narrative flow. Meanwhile, Oliva deliberately creates a distancing effect by referring to her characters according to their reality show tags – ‘Zoo’, ‘Tracker’, ‘Engineer’, ‘Biology’ – a conceit that works as a commentary on our disconnection with reality in a media-managed world, although the flipside of employing archetypal titles is that it mutes our instinctive emotional response to the characters’ plight. Overall, though, The Last One is a smart and timely story about what it means to be human at a time when humanity is hanging on by a thread.
  The Unfortunate Englishman (Grove Press, €19.50) is John Lawton’s 10th novel and the second to feature Joe Wilderness, who first appeared in Then We Take Berlin (2013). A thief co-opted by MI6, Wilderness is a reluctant spy, a man motivated by personal concerns – i.e., pulling scams in the conman’s paradise that is Cold War-era Berlin – rather than ideology. The title refers to two unfortunate Englishmen: Geoffrey Masefield, a geologist who travels to Moscow by MI6 as an amateur spy, and Bernard Alleyn, a KGB mole who has spent so long playing the role of the English gentleman that he barely remembers his original name. Charged with negotiating a swap of Masefield and Alleyn in Berlin, Wilderness learns that the deal involves heisting a fortune in vintage wine looted during the war from a Jewish family destined for the gas chamber. The tone of unsentimental realpolitik means that The Unfortunate Englishman earns the right to that le Carré-esque title, even if Wilderness himself is reminiscent of Len Deighton’s spy Harry Palmer. The result is a complex and beautifully detailed tale, a full-blooded Cold War spy thriller given an added dimension courtesy of Wilderness’s quirky humour and his pragmatic take on morality and honour. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

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