Monday, 24 November 2014

Reading the detectives 3: The Dr Siri series, by Colin Cotterill

You stumble across good books in all sorts of ways, don’t you? Often, people whose judgement you trust recommend them to you. Sometimes you read about them in reviews, or on blogs like this one. Sometimes a cover catches your eye in a bookshop.

I’m actually mystified as to how I came to have a copy of one of Colin Cotterill’s series about the reluctant chief coroner of Laos, Dr Siri Paiboun. I found it in a pile of books in my son’s old room. I thought perhaps he’d left it behind after a visit home, but he denies all knowledge of it. It was published in 2007 – perhaps I bought it in a 3 for 2 promotion, and then decided I didn’t like the look of it after all.

I don’t know. Anyway – reader, I read it. And loved it. And then I read the one that preceded it – for some reason I had bought the second in the series – and most of the ones that followed it. (I’m trying to keep one or two in reserve, in case a time comes when no other book will do.)

The books are set in the late 1970s, when a communist government has just taken power in Laos. Dr Siri has been a freedom fighter and doctor in the jungle, and his close friend Civilai is one of the men in power. Siri is in his late 70s and looking forward to retirement – but: ‘There was nothing frail about Dr Siri… His short, solid body still scurried hither and thither like a curious river rat. Younger men were hard pressed to keep his pace… His mind, resplendent with his newly honed skills, had become even keener of late… For reasons he was still trying to fathom, he’d been delegated Laos’s honorary consul to the spirit world.’ (Oh yes - his body is host to a long-dead shaman called Yeh Ming, which doesn’t sit easily with Siri, as he’s by nature a cynic and a realist.)

So he’s an unusual character - as are the other regulars in the series. Take his nurse, Dtui, who assists him at the morgue. She longs to be a doctor herself. She’s plump, clever, and funny. Then there’s Mr Geung, the other member of the morgue team. He has Downs syndrome, but he has been trained by Siri’s predecessor, knows the procedures better than either Siri or Dtui, and is an essential member of the team. Civilai shares Siri’s wit and cynicism. This core group is joined later by a policeman called Phosy and by another ex-revolutionary, who becomes Siri’s second wife.

This bunch of wise-cracking misfits prove to be incredibly good at deciphering mysteries and righting wrongs, and they are the central, dazzling attraction of the series. The dialogue crackles, and the books are very, very funny. On the cover of the first one I read, they are compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s Ma Ramotswe books, but they’re much edgier and, particularly as the series progresses, also much deeper. As with many series, the context is at first quite shadowy, but it becomes more sharply focused as the series goes on; in one book, for instance, Siri finds himself a prisoner in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime – and there’s nothing funny or whimsical about the way that experience is described. Gradually, we find out more about the recent history of Laos – Siri meets the deposed king in a surreal encounter in an orchard; although they have been on opposing sides in the struggle for the country’s future, they spend a happy night getting drunk together. Later, Siri finds himself involved in the plight of the Hmongs, a tribal people who have few rights and whose ancient way of life is being trampled in the name of progress.

These books are absolutely delightful. They have so many of the prerequisites of a good book – they transport you to another place that you knew little about; they’re funny; they have moments of high drama; the dialogue is sharp and witty; the characters earn your affection, and the narrative is cleverly handled. If you haven’t come across them yet, you’re in for a treat.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Winter Horses, by Philip Kerr: Walker Books

Philip Kerr is the creator of the Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther - one of those ironic characters who hides his heart of gold beneath a cloak of cynicism. He doesn’t like the Nazis, but he doesn’t see himself as hero material; he’ll do what he must to stay alive. As the Nazis grow more powerful, and when the war breaks out, he increasingly finds that he has to make compromises with which he’s often not comfortable – but he does his best to be a decent human being. I like the Bernie Gunther books, particularly the earlier ones – and if you are planning a visit to Prague, Prague Fatale, in which Bernie gets tangled up with Reinhardt Heydrich, is a great companion read.

The Winter Horses, a book for children/teens, operates in similar territory, where allegiances are not always obvious and survival is not a given. It is set in 1941 on a nature reserve in the Ukraine, where an old keeper, Max, is left in charge when his boss flees before the German advance. Before he leaves, the boss announces that Max must shoot all the animals, to stop the Germans using them for meat. Max does no such thing. Although he is Russian, he rather likes the Germans; his mentor, and the founder of the reserve, Baron Falz-Fein, was German, and Max speaks the language well.

So when, a couple of weeks later, the Germans arrive, Max is not particularly worried; and in fact the officer in charge, Captain Grenzmann, takes to him – they share a love of horses.

But not of all horses. The reserve is the home of a small group of Przewalski’s horses, almost the last surviving members of an ancient race dating back to prehistoric times. These are tough, wild horses which do not like to get too close to humans, and certainly don't allow themselves to be mounted. Max loves them, but the Captain regards them as an ugly, inferior species with no place in today’s world, and he wants them to be hunted to extinction. As he explains to Max, this should be the fate of any inferior species...

Which brings us on to Kalinka, a girl who Max finds hiding on the steppe. Kalinka is Jewish. She has seen her family, her friends and neighbours being shot by the Germans. She is completely alone, until she happens to meet up, first with two of the Przewalski’s horses, and then with Max, who helps her and hides her. She develops a strange bond with the horses: can they help each other to survive?

Although he hates almost everything Grenzmann stands for, Max, like Bernie Gunther, is prepared to go quite a long way to keep on his right side. One night he’s asked to dinner – and he knows that horsemeat will be on the menu. Kalinka cannot understand why Max if friendly with the Captain, but Max points out that there is good reason to keep onside with him; he can destroy them all. Grenzmann draws very good pictures of the horses he likes to ride, and he gives one to Max: ‘…every time the old man looked at it, he marvelled that an artist of such great sensitivity should be capable of such diabolical cruelty.’ No-one is entirely bad – though Granzmann comes pretty close, despite his friendliness towards Max.

The climax of the hunt has a mythic quality. It’s not an ending that would work in an adult novel, and I'm not sure that it entirely works here, but it’s certainly a joy to be able to finish a novel set in such a place at such a time on a high. There is something of the fairytale about this book. It’s set in a forest, it features a child who is helped by wild animals, there’s a cottage in the woods… in the prologue Kerr tells us: ‘… even if there are some parts of this story that are not exactly true, they could be, and that is more important.’ It’s harrowing in places, but somehow this sense that we are reading something that is part fable keeps the horror at a distance.

There’s something about the dialogue that doesn’t quite work for me. It’s often used as a means of getting across information, so that characters speak rather gravely and in considerable detail about what’s happening around them. And they all speak in a similar way. So here’s Max, an old peasant: ‘I can’t argue with that, Kalinka. But all the same, your plan is founded on the assumption that the horses will do what you say…’ And here’s Kalinka, a young girl, talking about the horses: ‘I seem to have developed a bond with them. I’m not exactly sure why…’ They speak in exactly the same way, and it’s a little stilted - although perhaps that hint of unreality also adds to the sense that this is a fable, that although the tale is a bleak one, it has a gloss of enchantment.

It's an absorbing book, and it takes us into a little-known corner of the Second World War and indicates the difficulty of surviving in a world which is physically and morally uncompromising. It seeks to do this in a way which offers hope that good will ultimately triumph - and it goes a long way towards achieving this difficult aim. Interesting!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Reading the detectives 2: Harry Hole

'Harry Hole' isn't the title of the book I recently read - that's Police, and it's by Jo Nesbo. But Harry Hole is the star, even though he doesn't actually appear till quite a long way into the book. He's one of the most charismatic detectives in the history of crime writing, and even though he doesn't actually appear in this book till a good way through the book, he's without doubt its star.

Harry Hole is tall, thin and blonde, with lots of scars and burning blue eyes (so not unlike Nesbo himself, who, unlike Hole, is unfairly talented not just as a writer, but as a footballer, musician and financial wizard). Hole is an alcoholic and a phenomenally talented investigator, whose addictive personality means that he'll do whatever it takes to catch a killer. He's deeply in love with a lawyer called Rakel Fauke, and she loves him too, but understandably, she gets a bit fed up of being put in mortal danger whenever he's on a case, so theirs is a bit of an on-off relationship.

In this book, the tenth of the series, there's a serial killer whose victims are police officers. If you've read a Harry Hole novel, you'll know that Jo Nesbo is a great teaser. He is constantly leading  Harry and/or the reader up the garden path - a path with endless twists and turns and some very nasty characters lurking round every bend. The tension builds until you know that something really, REALLY terrible is going to happen - and then sometimes he lets you off the hook. But be wary if this happens, because pretty soon, just as you think you can breathe a sigh of relief, something much, much worse happens. There are endless false leads, and you will very rarely have a clue as to the real culprit until the last page.

As in many of the other books, Nesbo is ruthless about killing off characters we've grown fond of (in some very gruesome ways, too). He does this, and then he sets it up so you think another one's about to get the chop - but when you turn the page to start the next chapter, you find that lo and behold, it was yet another tease.

But there's an extra tease this time. Nesbo has hinted that this may well be the last Harry Hole book. Well, if what happens on the last page isn't an unmistakable hook, then I'm a best selling author with a Hollywood film in the pipeline. And it's a really, really mean hook at that. (And come on, Mr Nesbo: haven't any of those clever policemen - particularly Stale Aune, the psychologist - remembered that Valentin is still on the loose? Really?)

If you like detective novels with some extremely dark corners, then you should try the Harry Hole books. But be warned - they're addictive. And really not good if you have a tendency towards insomnia. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Reading the detectives 1: Inspector Montalbano

I’ve enjoyed reading detective series for a very long time. I was trying to think for how long: I certainly remember ‘discovering’ Agatha Christie, probably in my late twenties after a colleague proudly showed me his collection of ancient Penguin editions. I borrowed one and that was it, I was hooked. Then I went on to Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham etc, and later, I crossed the Atlantic (in spirit) to enter the super-cool world of Raymond Chandler.

But actually I think it started way before then. A lot of the series I borrowed from the children’s library were, in a way, detective stories – the Famous Five and the Malcolm Saville books, for example, both centred round a mystery – and usually a dastardly criminal – who had to be investigated by sleuthing children.

Recently, though, having a Kindle has moved my enjoyment of the genre up to a whole new level. It began when a friend recommended the Montalbano series, by Andrea Camilleri. (Incidentally, Camilleri wrote the first of this massively successful and much-loved series when he was 69. I find that curiously comforting.) I downloaded the first and loved it. For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard of Montalbano, he is an eccentric, short-tempered but very lovable Sicilian detective inspector. He lives in a house right on the edge of a beach, and often goes for an early morning swim to clear his mind. Probably the most important thing in his life is food – and woe betide anyone who interrupts his enjoyment of a good meal, or who serves him up a bad one. Other objects of his affection are his team – lascivious Mimi, loyal Fazio and the utterly bonkers Caterella; his long-distance girlfriend Livia, and his best friend Ingrid, the utterly beautiful six foot Swedish blonde, who helps him out in so many ways.

Catarella, Montalbano (aka Luca Zingaretti), Fazio and Mimi - from the Italian TV series

Like all the best detectives, Salvo Montalbano is very much his own man. He’s left-wing, cynical, and a natural rebel who loves to wind up his superiors and lives in terror of being promoted. He doesn’t toe the party line, and he certainly doesn’t follow procedures. He’s a maverick who inspires loyalty and admiration – even from the criminal fraternity.

So – I read the first one. Then his publishers did a very clever thing. They put the first chapter of the second book at the end of the first one. So, just at the point where you are reluctantly dragging yourself away from the sun-drenched shores of Sicily, you’re offered another chance. What harm can it do? You read the first chapter. You realise that not only are you being offered a brand new adventure – you are also being given the chance to pick up the threads left dangling in the first. And that’s it – you’re hooked. You don’t even have to get out of bed. With a few taps on the screen, it’s done: the second book is there. And so it goes on.

Young Montalbano, played by Michele Riordano

This cunning ploy certainly helps the publishers – but it helps you, the reader, too. You don’t have to waste time till you can get to a bookshop or till you can order the next book from the library – you can read the whole series end-to-end. So there’ll be none of that forgetting what happened earlier on in the series (well, you’d better hope there isn’t, because one thing it isn’t easy to do with a Kindle is to flick back through the pages to check on something). You get a clear sense of the series arc; of how the characters are developing, how they are affected by their experiences. In the case of Montalbano, you also begin to get a sense of the social and political context of the books, and of Camilleri’s own concerns about Italy and how it is governed.

But every good series comes to an end, so what did I read next? Well, for that you’ll have to wait till next time.

But meanwhile, PLEASE tell me about your own favourite detective novels in the comments. I'm on the lookout for my next series.