Atkinson, Kate. One Good Turn. Boston: Little, Brown, 2006.
Jackson Brodie, first seen in Case Histories, is back — and Edinburgh had better look out. That last novel was her best yet, but this one is even better. Jackson is in town (from his retirement farmhouse in the south of France) with his girlfriend, Julia, an actress in one of the Edinburgh Festival’s many mediocre plays. He becomes involved with Martin Canning, who writes cozy mysteries under the name “Alex Blake,” who is stuck with a house guest, fading stage comic Richard Mott, who has a disastrous run-in with Terence Smith, a thug in the employ of Graham Hatter, a fraudulent housing developer, whose wife, Gloria, is fed up after forty-odd years of marriage to him. When violence ensues (several times), we meet Louise Monroe, newly minted detective inspector, who lives in a shoddy Hatter Homes tract house, and whose son, Alex, is skating on the thin edge of the wrong sort of life. Not to forget “Paul Bradley,” who doesn’t actually exist. And the murdered Lena, who does exist, but no one except Jackson believes in her. Then there’s Favors, a company of house cleaners, or maybe they’re prostitutes — or maybe they’re both. Circles within circles, or actually dolls within dolls, as Russian matrioshka are a recurring motif. Atkinson’s characters are marvelous and her dialogue is frequently hilarious. Even her casual asides are worth remembering, like “Even the word ‘dissembling’ was a way of dissembling, of not just saying ‘liar’.” And the action often has a certain Hiaasen-ish over-the-top flavor that would make this a terrific film in the right hands. (12/30/06)
Cherryh, C. J. Brothers of Earth. NY: DAW, 1976.
I first met Carolyn Cherry (as she was in real life) a few months after the publication of this first novel. She was my age, still an Oklahoma City public school teacher back then, and had journeyed down to Texas A&M at a friend’s suggestion for AggieCon, one of the livelier regional science fiction conventions. She wasn’t a “fan” in the con-attending, filksinging, masquerading sense (even though her brother was well-known sf artist David Cherry) and seemed a bit bewildered at being lightly mobbed by those who had read her book and recognized her nametag. The story starts with the crashlanding on a backwater world (galactically speaking) by Kurt Morgan, only survivor of a warship destroyed by the Hanan, an enemy (also human) with whom Morgan’s people have been at war for two thousand years. This world turns out to be inhabited not only by a not-quite-industrial native culture but by a degenerated group of humans as well. The city of Nephane is run by the only other civilized human around — who happens to be a Hanan sole survivor. Morgan is adopted into a local, very powerful family and finds himself walking a tightrope between his new friends (with whom he develops great empathy) and the boss lady — who has no reason to trust him, but she’s lonely. The plot involves the contending ethnic cultures of Nephane and the city’s rivalry with the metropolis across the sea from which its original colonists came. (Think Greek vs. Persian and Doric vs. Ionic, which is reasonable because Cherryh has a strong background in the classics.) But the real theme is the nature of society, civil vs. religious culture, and recognizing The Other — or even just accepting its existence. This is anthropological science fiction of high quality, remindful of Ursula LeGuin, and I think it’s still one of her best works. (12/19/06)
Niven, Larry. Playgrounds of the Mind. NY: Tor, 1991.
Niven is one of the best known and most successful hand-science sf authors of the 1970s and ‘80s, especially in his several collaborations with Jerry Pournelle. This is the second selected collection (sequel to N-Space) of his short works, essays, and excerpts from novels, and it’s a useful introduction to the whole body of his work, from the “Known Space” series and the Draco Tavern tales to the semi-funny time travel stories featuring the reluctant Svetz and the mysteries of Gil “the ARM” Hamilton. I’ve read all of these before, though some not for many years, and most are enjoyable. I could have done without the novel excerpts, though; if you haven’t already read the whole book, you’ll have no idea what’s going on. (12/18/06)
Holland, David. The Devil’s Game. NY: St. Martin, 2005.
This is the third early Victorian mystery featuring the Rev. Tuckworth, dean of Bellminster Cathedral in the English midlands. Only this time it’s not so much a whodunit — we know who the culprit is almost from the beginning — as an examination of what Tuckworth is going to do about it. The setting is a by-election, caused by the fact that the local Member of Parliament has gone up in flames with Westminster itself. All’s fair in politics, especially in those days when the suffrage was extremely limited and the Tories (who largely control Bellminster’s establishment) are determined to beat down the reform movement generally, and the Whigs in particular. The latter have sent an agent to town in the dwarfish person of Jo Smalley, a thoroughly amoral provocateur. But there are other elements in contention, including several factions among the Tories, and none of them balk at organizing riots and vandalism to advance themselves. Tuckworth is disgusted with the whole thing and wants no part of anything political, but the death by a savage beating of an innocent bystander draws him in whether he likes it or not. Holland is very good at character development, not only of Tuckworth but of his daughter, the young artist, Rafael, Chief Constable Hopgood, the aging Lord Granby, and Jo Smalley himself. A first-rate series with a very believable take on the place and the times. (12/13/06)
Scalzi, John. The Ghost Brigades. NY: Tor, 2006.
Wow, this is only his third novel — the second in this series — and Scalzi just keeps getting better and better. This one is a semi-sequel to Old Man’s War, with (mostly) different characters but set in the same future a few years later. The “Ghost Brigades” are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces; no matter how different and how efficient CDF soldiers are, the Special Forces are even more so. This is largely because, unlike the “ordinary” CDF, they aren’t old personalities in new bodies — they’re created totally from scratch, based on the genetic makeup of those elderly CDF enlistees who died between enlisting and actually joining their unit. The body is force-grown and a more-or-less adult mind is poured into it; a two-hour-old Special Forces soldier is a fully-functioning member of a training squad. Just not a very emotionally mature one. How the author presents all this, plus the training they undergo, is completely fascinating and completely logical and believable internally. The plot itself is complex, involving a civilian scientist who has turned traitor and is working with several alien species to bring about the downfall of the CDF, the colonial system, and humanity in general. He’s not a sympathetic character, obviously, but his motivation is convincing. Balancing the Bad Guy is a very naive young Special Forces soldier created to house the traitor’s recorded personality, in an effort to stave off the looming disaster. And Lieut. Jane Sagan, the intelligence officer from the previous book (who was built from the genes of the protagonist’s late wife), is back and with a much larger role. But the most humane character in this book isn’t human at all, but a captured alien scientist who is being kept on an extremely short leash (through very inhumane means, be it noted). As before, Scalzi’s dialogue is terrific (especially when the various generals get together to discuss policy and strategy over lunch), his techno-gimmicks are not only neat-o but have important parts to play in the plot, and his action scenes are first-rate. I mean, wow again — talk about a cinematic climax scene! But just as important is what the author has to say about the nature of intelligence, the nature of morality, and the ways in which humans relate to The Other. There appear to be at least two more novels coming up in this series and I shall be awaiting them anxiously. (12/11/06)
Holland, David. The Devil’s Acre. NY: St. Martin, 2003.
This second installment in the mystery series starring the Rev. Tuckworth, now Dean of Bellminster Cathedral in the English Midlands, thoroughly lives up to the promise of his debut work. The cathedral was burned down by the villain at the end of the first book, leaving only the walls, and Tuckworth’s job now is to raise the funds to rebuild. To this end, and accompanied by the extremely irritating Rev. Mortimer, the new rector, he goes off to London to try to squeeze some money out of Hamlin Price, a rather mysterious charitable benefactor. But a murder is committed during Price’s dinner party and the Dean, naturally, finds himself involved. Price has a very dark side, as well, but Tuckworth is more interested in saving the man from himself than in hanging him. Holland does an excellent job of depicting the social mores of England in the 1830s, both of London and of rural towns, and of painting an entirely believable portrait of an extraordinarily humane human being. (It’s also refreshing to see someone present an enlightened view of the cause and nature of pedophilia, considering the medieval-style witch hunts now common in modern America.) And, just for fun, the Dean’s sidekick is none other than poet and seminal critic Leigh Hunt. A first-rate novel. (12/05/06)
Holland, David. The Devil in Bellminster. NY: St. Martin, 2002.
The 1830s was when what we now think of as “modern” Britain first came together, a mix of reform on one hand and rapacious capitalism on the other. Bellminster is a fictitious small city in the Midlands with both an ancient, deeply affecting cathedral and a new mill turning out the cheapest cloth possible at the cheapest wages possible. Rev. Tuckworth, the vicar, is retiring after some thirty years of service to the community, but he’s secretly glad to be going because he’s largely lost his faith (I won’t reveal why). Then a particularly brutal murder takes place and becomes a “wonder” for quiet Bellminster. But then there’s another murder, and another. Pretty soon, Detective Inspector Myles is sent up from London (from Bow Street, not Scotland Yard, not yet), but his interpretation of how he can best do his job is jarring. Justice doesn’t enter into it, nor very much truth, either. Tuckworth finds himself drawn more and more deeply, and very reluctantly, into the investigation — but he’s not a “Father Brown” sort of amateur sleuth. He’s just an aging priest who’s trying to look after his flock, and especially his somewhat naive daughter. Holland has a real ear for proto-Victorian dialogue and (though he tends to wax over-lyrical in describing clouds and forests and such) and he’s obviously very knowledgeable about the period. This is one of the best mystery series debuts I’ve read in quite some time. (11/29/06)
Guttridge, Peter. The Once and Future Con. Denver: Speck Press, 2006 (published in the UK, 1999).
This appears to be the fifth in a series of mysteries featuring Nick Madrid, freelance journalist and something of a wimp compared to his unofficial partner, Bridget. In this one, the pair are drawn into investigating a series of deaths relating to the rediscovery of the supposed tomb of Arthur and Guinevere, stolen from Glastonbury Abbey after the Dissolution. Conveniently, it’s located on the property of a Somerset lordling who plans to build an Arthurian theme park on the investments of old college chums and with the assistance of a heavily clichéd American PR man. While Guttridge has a nice, dry wit, and while he has some deservedly acerbic things to say about the distinction between real history and the “heritage industry” in Britain, the mystery plot itself is pretty lame, pretty thin, and wasn’t able to hold my attention past the halfway point. Maybe if I had begun with the first volume, I’d get it — though a series author ought not to rely on such consideration by the reader, and most successful ones don’t. (11/27/06)
Scalzi, John. Old Man’s War. NY: Tor, 2005.
There’s a long, long tradition of military adventure in science fiction and it breaks into two types. The type worth reading examines motivation among soldiers and the deeper issues of the life they lead. (The other type is basically GI Joe and Sgt. Rock in space and may be ignored with no loss.) Probably the two most influential military sf novels of the past half-century — to which the rest all the others are automatically compared — are Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (written specifically as a response to Heinlein). I’m pleased to say that Scalzi’s first novel jumps him right up into that rarified company. It’s several centuries in the future and Earth has become something of a backwater (which may be an explanation for the fact that the small-town American Midwest seems not to have changed a bit . . .). The Colonies are where the action is — but Americans aren’t allowed to emigrate to them, only (apparently) South Asians. Well, the U.S. tried to destroy India and its neighbors in a nuclear war, so that’s only fair. But if you really want to leave, you can always enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces — once you reach the age of seventy-five. The CDF will transfer your consciousness into a heavily modified clone of the young you, complete with SmartBlood and a BrainPal, and they’ll give you an extremely intelligent rifle and teach you to use it to kill all the alien species who are in competition with humanity for lebensraum. John Perry is such an enlistee, a recent widower with no reason to stick around and get even older. Though his opinions about war are equivocal, he turns out to have an unexpected talent for it. The casualty rate is quite high in the CDF but Perry not only survives, he becomes something of a hero as well as an officer. Even more, he runs into a Special Forces lieutenant created from the DNA of his late wife, though the six-year-old personality inhabiting the body is decidedly not her. Scalzi has a genius for dialogue of the dryly witty sort and he avoids all the cliches of the less readable type of military sf. There’s a sort of sequel out now and I’ll be looking for it. (11/25/06)
Heinlein, Robert A. To Sail Beyond the Sunset. NY: Ace, 1987.
This is the first-person story of Maureen Johnson Smith, red-haired Missouri beauty and free spirit, and the mother of Woodrow Wilson Smith, a/k/a Lazarus Long (among many other aliases), the longest-lived member of the human species. The first three-quarters of the book isn’t really “science fiction,” but it’s all 100% Heinlein. It’s also the author’s last-written work before his death in 1988 and in many ways it almost reads as if Heinlein knew that would be the case. The Johnson/Smith family is rather unusual, even for one of the early Howard families, and they’re all surrogates, in one way or another, for the author’s fully developed social ideas and opinions — but every reader of Heinlein knows that will be the case. Read Time Enough for Love (which its narrative line largely parallels) before you tackle this one. (11/17/06)
Heinlein, Robert A. Time Enough for Love. NY: Putnam, 1973.
Lazarus Long, a/k/a a very long list of aliases was born Woodrow Wilson Smith in 1912 in southwest Missouri. Several thousand years later, thanks to a particular genetic mutation, he’s still going strong. Well — he has thought about allowing himself to die a natural death. It’s hard to keep up enthusiasm for life after all those centuries, probably a score of wives, and maybe a couple hundred children. This fat novel picks up the events, themes, and some characters of Methuselah’s Children, one of Heinlein’s most popular earlier books (it was serialized in the early ‘40s), about the Howard families, a vast experiment in selective breeding for longevity. There’s not really a plot here, as such, just a narrative thread upon which the author can hang a number of side-stories about how families ought to function, how pioneering works, and why so many 20th century American mores (especially those relating to sex — and especially consensual incest) are nonsense. The thread consists of Lazarus’s memoirs, or at least those possibly true memories he’s willing to share. It’s all pure Heinlein and should be read with that in mind. I.e., younger readers weaned on endless (and generally mindless) fantasy series probably aren’t going to get it. For the thoughtful reader, however, there’s a lot here to enjoy. After this one, read To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) for another view of some of the same story. (11/11/06)
Heinlein, Robert A. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. NY: Putnam, 1985.
I suspect not many younger SF readers really “get” Heinlein. You really have to be an early-phase Baby Boomer, one of those (like me) who got hooked on his juveniles in the early ‘50s, when rolling roads and unlimited solar power and a working lunar colony seemed not only possible but very likely. Those “Future History” stories were the stuff of dreams for geeks of my generation. Personally, when I was about twelve, I had every intention of being the Chief Archaeologist on the first flight to Mars. Ah, well.
As actual history moved in different directions from what Heinlein’s fiction had predicted, he had the ingenuity to explain the divergences away by postulating parallel time lines — in one of which Mycroft the lunar computer managed the Lunar Revolution, in another of which Mars was inhabited, à la Stranger in a Strange Land, etc. More than that, in his later works, he came up with the idea of “World as Myth” — the notion that any fictional location or character that has had a significant influence on our culture thereby really exists as a parallel universe. So there really is an Oz, and a Skylark Duquesne, and a Jubal Harshaw. This novel starts out as a galloping adventure — not unlike Friday and Job, which also were written in this later phase of Heinlein’s long, prolific career: Dr. Richard Ames (the classic Heinleinian “philosopher/soldier/rogue,” as the jacket copy says) is having dinner in a restaurant in a space habitat orbiting the Moon, when an uninvited stranger sits down at his table and is assassinated five minutes later. Within a few hours, he’s on the lam from a variety of authorities and organizations, accompanied by his new bride, Gwen, who has just as many alternate identities as he does. In fact, as their adventures through the Wild West atmosphere of lunar society lead them from one dangerous situation to another, introducing many classic characters along the way, she turns out to be Hazel Stone, of The Rolling Stones, one of the author’s best early juveniles. The latter part of the book — in which we finally meet a cat named Pixel, who does indeed walk through walls — becomes an exercise in World as Myth, as well as a sort of “old home week” for many of Heinlein’s earlier characters. By this point in his career, RAH also had learned to tone down the over-the-top writing style, especially in dialogue between the sexes, that make some of his mid-career books occasionally excruciating, so the whole thing flows very nicely. But I wouldn’t recommend this book as anyone’s first Heinlein novel — you have to serve your apprenticeship just like the rest of us, with three dozen earlier novels, plus a few score short stories, or you won’t catch half the references. (11/03/06)
Harrison, Kim. A Fistful of Charms. NY: HarperCollins, 2006.
This is the fourth in the series about Rachel Morgan, Cincinnati earth witch and PI, alpha female in a werewolf pack (mostly for insurance-break reasons), sharing an ex-church with Ivy, a living vampire who yearns for her sexually and otherwise, and a belligerently dangerous pixie who looks after the garden. She used to be involved with a human who has since turned out to be a thief, and is now dating another vamp who manages things in the local underworld for the imprisoned capo Rachel managed to put away. If that sounds complicated, it is — and don’t even think of trying to start reading this series anywhere but at the beginning because you’ll be lost in less than ten pages. The author has gotten much better at plotting and character development, but she still doesn’t provide much in the way of backstory from one book to the next. This time, Rachel and Jenks, the pixie — whom she has spelled into a temporarily six-foot-four chick-magnet hunk — have gone off to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to rescue Nick, the old boyfriend, and Jax, one of Jenks’s kids. Turns out Nick managed to acquire a Were artifact which, in the wrong hands, would allow the normally fragmented Were packs to unite under a single alpha, thereby leading to a very bloody vampire-werewolf power struggle. Rachel, who has done battle with demons before, not always entirely successfully, has now found it necessary to mix in the black arts herself, which has contaminated her aura and her soul. The story of how all that works in a world not quite like our own is fascinating. And the emotional struggle between Ivy (and the vampire psychology) and Rachel, who care deeply about each other but don’t know how to deal with it without destroying one or both of them, rings true. As I said, Harrison is getting pretty good at this. On the other hand, she’s still badly in need of a copyeditor. Even though her grammar has improved even since the previous volume, she still regularly commits howlers — like Rachel going to the local museum to look up some property details on “the old plot map,” and shrugging off the inevitable because it’s “a mute point.” I mean, c’mon, people! (10/31/06)
Harrison, Kim. Every Which Way But Dead. NY: HarperCollins, 2005.
This is the third in the Rachel Morgan series about an earth witch private eye (sort of) in an alternate Cincinnati, where Were-creatures, vampires, elves, pixies, fairies, and more (and in several varieties of each) are part of the everyday world. Rachel is becoming a witch to be reckoned with, not least because of her close but uneasy relationships with her partner and her new boyfriend, both vampires. She’s also a member of a Were’s pack — but only on paper and only for the insurance benefits. That’s much of the fun, actually — the ways in which non-humans deal with mundane American life and business. And vampire politics is fascinating. Her boyfriend is front-man for the criminal master vampire she managed to defeat to have sent to prison, so things aren’t so cut-and-dried in her world. And her demonic connections are getting waaaaay out of hand. Harrison is finally getting the hang of character development and her plotlines are much more interesting than in her earlier work, I’m happy to say. There’s a fair amount of torrid sex, too. On the other hand, she’s still badly in need of an editor. “Precedence” does not mean the same thing as “precedent,” and “conniving” and “contriving” are quite different words. Nor are “pained” and “painful” equivalent. A decent copyeditor would have caught all that. She also makes strange word-choices with some regularity, such as describing a room as “twenty feet tall” instead of “high.” She says she never took any writing classes, only the usual English courses in school — and I believe it. She must have been paying close attention, though, the day they discussed present participles because 80% of her verbs appear in that form. She also ought to declare a moratorium on the word “from” — “my hands fell from him,” “a gasp came from me,” etc. Actually, it’s almost as if English weren’t her first language. Finally, you really have to treat this series as a single, very long novel because Harrison almost never gives you anything in the way of a backstory to explain something in a later volume. It wouldn’t hurt to explain in passing why most humans can’t stand ketchup. Very annoying, and it gets in the way of a good story. (10/26/06)
Twelve Hawks, John. The Traveler. NY: Vintage, 2005.
To be honest, I enjoyed this first volume in the projected trilogy more than I expected to, or intended to. The writing style is rather amateurish and the author is badly in need of editorial coaching, but the complex plot is addictive. Character development is spotty, though Maya comes through in three dimensions, and so do Hollis and Vicki to some extent. Gabriel and Michael, the two Traveler brothers, possibly the only two remaining, are pretty flat. And none of the Bad Guys is very well developed. However, the real point here is not what Twelve Hawks (whatever his real name is) lacks in professional experience but what he has to say about the way our world is becoming more and more authoritarian, and less and less democratic — and not just in George W. Bush’s United States either. Most of us ignore the omnipresent surveillance cameras on the streets and on rooftops, in ATMs, in almost every public place in the Western world, but after reading this book you’ll find yourself discovering them everywhere you look. Nobody in this country seems too concerned about the government’s campaign for mandatory citizen ID cards. And if you thought supposedly paranoid accusations against the political Right, that they’re making the rich richer and more powerful at the expense of everyone else, you’ll have to rethink that, too — or you should. There’s a lot less fiction in this book than you might think: Try going to Wikipedia and looking up “Carnivore” and “RFID.” And there are some very quotable lines, like “when people discard their notions of privacy, they permit a peaceful society,” that sound like Republican tee-shirts. Or, “The Tabula worshiped the idea of political and social control, the illusion that everything should remain the same.” Serious insights, if you care about where our world is headed. (10/22/06)
Stephenson, Andrew M. The Wall of Years. NY: Dell, 1980 (published in the UK, 1979).
Stephenson is one of those sf authors who seems to have produced one (or maybe two) superior novels and was never heard of again. (This is his second; his first was Nightwatch, which I’ve never been able to locate.) In any case, I’m a sucker for time travel and alternate history plots, and this beautifully constructed and highly complex yarn has both. Jerlan Nilssen is second-in-charge of the bubble-protected City, a refuge for the extremely few who escaped the collapse of our world by time storm. The elect fled the early 21st century for the 26th, which is a desolate and ruined place, and have survived by raiding parallel lines for their resources. But the commissariat that was responsible for the original disaster was insufficiently liquidated and its ex-director has escaped to England in the 9th century, a few years before Alfred of Wessex beats the Danes at the Battle of Edington. Okay, this is a difficult book to explain. I can only say that (1) the characters are fully realized, in great depth; and (2) the milieu of Anglo-Saxon England is depicted with great accuracy (this is a period I happen to know a lot about) and in amazing detail, both politically and socially. A difficult book to find, but worth the effort. (10/15/06)
McDevitt, Jack. The Hercules Text. NY: Ace, 1986.
“First contact” is a very old trope in science fiction, but this is one of the better recent riffs on it. More realistic, too, in that a signal is picked up by the Goddard Space Center in Maryland from a pulsar a million and a half light years away — in fact, the pulsar is the signal — so there’s no chance whatever of a two-way conversation, much less a face-to-face meeting. McDevitt astutely explores the problem of a more advanced civilization coming into contact with a less developed one, the human race being the “South Sea Islanders” in this case. Virtually free energy could solve many of the world’s most pressing problems — or destroy the world’s economy. After-the-fact gene-tailoring could wipe out disease, genetic defects, even postpone death indefinitely — but who gets to benefit from immortality? (Just the politicians?) One of the cosmologists involved in the translation team is a Catholic priest, which gives the author the opportunity to examine the shaky interface between religion and the real world. But the main POV character is an administrator, not a scientist, with a much more practical perspective. McDevitt’s characters and descriptions are excellent, as always. There are several subplots involving personal relationships, too. In fact, the only problem with this book is that the political background — which is essential to the plot — presupposes continued tension between the U.S. and the USSR into the early 21st century. And we know that didn’t happen. When I first read this book, back around the end of the Reagan years, I thought it was a fantastic piece of work. In theory, I still think that, but present political realities make it a little strange to read. (10/12/06)
Robinson, Peter. Wednesday’s Child. NY: HarperCollins, 1992.
It’s good to see this series of British police procedurals getting generally better and better with each installment. This is the sixth and the main characters are well established: DCI Alan Banks, a tough but determinedly human ex-Londoner who moved to a small Yorkshire city a few years ago; his independent-minded wife, Sandra, and his two kids, now in their late teens (he has to struggle to turn loose of them); his boss, the usually kindly Superintendent Gristhorpe, a dalesman born; his old sergeant, now in comfortable exile to make room for up-and-comer Phil Richmond, a computer junkie; DC Susan Gay, smart and a hard worker, but still prickly in her junior status; and the market and tourist town of Eastvale itself, at the mouth of a dale filled with small villages, which themselves are filled with fascinating Northerners. The plots Robinson comes up with aren’t Agatha Christie-type “cozies,” though. In this one, Brenda, a not-very-bright single working class mother gives up her seven-year-old daughter to a couple of supposed social workers — a peculiarly British attitude toward educated authority figures, apparently. As the search for the abducted child gets under way, the body of a young man turns up who has been gutted. The two cases diverge, for not for long. Brenda’s boyfriend, Les, is a classic lowlife petty criminal, but his acquaintances include some who are considerably more chilling. The plot is well thought out and reasonable in its construction and the action is well developed. The only annoying part, actually, is Banks’s and Gristhorpe’s prejudices, which don’t seem to go with the rest of their personalities. I also get a little tired of “cop games” when it comes to interrogation of suspects; how can anyone fall for such nonsense in this day and age? Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the next volume in the series. (10/10/06)
Robinson, Peter. Past Reason Hated. NY: Scribner, 1991.
The novel just before this one in the DCI Alan Banks series, The Hanging Valley, was pretty lackluster, but Robinson springs back in this one with a major winner. A young woman is found murdered in her own parlor by her lesbian partner, Veronica, a classical recording playing over and over on the stereo. Caroline had been involved in a local amateur theater production of Twelfth Night — nice bit of irony there, and a plot-point as well if you pay attention — and the director and the other cast members are all suspects. So is Veronica’s ex-husband, so is the husband’s current girlfriend, and so is Caroline’s emotionally strained teenage brother, all with different and quite reasonable possible motives. The plot becomes more complex but it won’t necessarily stay that way, a point the author has the Chief Inspector make several times. Banks is a humane man, not ordinarily quick to judge, and his growing regard for Veronica is very nicely rendered. Also heavily involved is newly-promoted DC Susan Gay — an unfortunate surname, in the circumstances — who was only a spear-carrier in the earlier installments. She’s young and bright and has a great deal to learn, not least of which is to distrust her prejudices. The writing is smooth, the plotting holds together, the pace and the atmosphere of Eastdale in a rather bleak Christmas season are very well done, and the characterization is excellent. The best of the series so far. (10/06/06)
Robinson, Peter. The Hanging Valley. NY: Scribner, 1989.
This fourth novel in the CDI Banks series, set in Yorkshire — this time almost entirely in a small village way up the dale — is not in any way a bad novel. It’s just sort of forgettable. A body is found in a small, hidden (“hanging”) valley and Banks and his colleagues have to sort through the half-dozen or so possible suspects, which include two brothers (the local gentry) and the proprietor of a local guest house. There was another murder a few years earlier, followed very quickly by the disappearance of a local young woman, and Banks can’t help but wonder if the two aren’t connected. A side trip to Oxford leads to Banks’s first excursion to Canada, to interview the missing woman — which gives Robinson the chance to show off his present home in Toronto. The ending is a bit overly theatrical, though it’s believable, I suppose, given the mental state of the guest house owner’s wife. An enjoyable enough afternoon’s read, but it won’t win any awards. (10/01/06)