Sam Berger Series – Arne Dahl

Watching You is the first book in the series.

Some crime is slow burn. Some crime is relentless. This falls into the latter category, taking hold of the reader from almost the first page, and putting on a fireworks display of a novel that fizzes and bangs as the tale unfolds.

Sam Berger thinks that there is a serial kidnapper/murderer at large. His bosses think otherwise. But as he looks for a young girl, the most recent kidnapping victim, he not only has to keep his theories to himself – because the hierarchy have told him there is insufficient evidence for his wild conspiracy idea – he has to work out why the kidnapper has left a clue behind at the scene – one that is very personal to Sam.

Sam’s main police sidekick is his assistant Deer, and she sometimes keeps him onside when he might otherwise go too far in his bid to find the girl. But, generally, Sam follows the natural trend of defective detectives and has abysmal relationships (work wise) with his colleagues and fellow officers of the law. This will come back to haunt him.

In the course of the investigation, Berger finds a common thread that links all the disappearances. When Berger tracks down and confronts this potential voyeur, witness, or killer, the reader’s perspective is drastically altered. To say more would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, it’s a big twist among many.

The characters are well drawn, believable, and interesting. The Scandinavian backdrop will have you turning up your heating. The plot will have you scratching your head.

While at times I wondered if the writer was trying to be too clever, I came to the conclusion that was an unfair criticism. The author has put in a ton of work to furnish a complex but polished tale, full of great characters, interesting twists, and pacy adventure. The ending is a stunner.

Which leads on to…

Hunted is the second book in the series.

Mentioning the plot here would give too many spoilers, so I will restrict myself to saying that it continues the Sam Berger story. Whereas the first book was smart, sassy, and sharp, this one tries to be the same but doesn’t quite reach the same (high) standard. There are some more of the great twists and turns before the reader gets to the final showdown.

The characterization is still good, with plenty for the reader to mull over. And there’s plenty of action.

Overall, well worth reading. But the first book is better, and if that doesn’t engage you, don’t bother with the second.

At the going down of the sun

In a few minutes, the sirens will pierce the evening skies across Israel as Yom HaZikaron begins, the day on which we remember those who have given their lives for Israel, whether as soldiers in combat, or as victims of terrorism.

The hope of us all is that from this day until next year’s Yom HaZikaron, there will be no names added to the list of the deceased; no more bloodshed, and no more dying. That’s our prayer. That’s our wish for the future.

Meantime, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Nobody Walks – Mick Herron

This is a sort of spook novel, with some of the characters of the author’s wonderful Jackson Lamb series, but it is intended to stand on its own with no prior reading experience required to enjoy it.

Bettany used to be a spook. He’s dropped out, doing a crappy job in France, when he is told of his son’s death in London. Bettany goes back to investigate and thus flows the action.

Inevitably with this author, there are twists and turns. Things are often not what they seem. Bettany comes into contact with drug dealers and the security services, the relationship between them being somewhat murky. Bettany is not without resources from his past, and he endeavors to leverage them as much as possible in the quest to get to the truth.

The atmosphere around Bettany is dark and oppressive. You get the impression he would shy away from a day sunbathing at the beach, preferring to lurk in a dark alley. But his spirit – certainly in his quest for his son – burns bright and keeps him going where lesser mortals would have backed down.

This is a grim tale of separation, love, betrayal, and secrets. The background is all too believable, and Bettany an intriguing character. The plot is a bit wobbly, but manages to be just about credible. As always, I knew that the disappointment felt on reaching the end meant I had enjoyed it a great deal. Recommended.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

This is a short novel about Angela, under interrogation as a suspect in the disappearance of her ex’s wife. Detective Novak would like a straight answer, but Angela is more interested in telling the story of her life, and how – from her viewpoint – she ended up in police custody, accused of murder.

Definitely falling into the psychological thriller category, the story is told with an ever increasing tension as we wonder whether Angela is a vicious killer or an innocent caught in a bungled investigation. Through it all, Angela and Novak play a bit of cat and mouse, the conversation often taking on a surreal quality as answers are spun into stores within stories that may or may not bring clarity to the situation.

In this type of book, the twist at the end has got to be worthy of the effort. While there is a lot of tension, there’s not much action, and you may feel like screaming ‘Hurry up and get on with it!’ When I got to the end I was underwhelmed. The writing had kept me (mostly) engaged, but the ending was weaker than I would have liked. So, for me, this one is to be filed under interesting failure.

Currently playing – Elusive Victory

About ten years after it came out, I finally have Terry Simo’s game Elusive Victory on the table. It’s a GMT game focusing on air warfare over the Suez Canal, with scenarios on the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War.

Let’s see how this goes…

(PS: For the avoidance of doubt, the fact this game is on the table now and things have gone hot in Gaza at the same time is a coincidence. I started reading the rules over a week ago. Honest!)
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The Blood Road – Stuart MacBride

Number eleven of the novels in the series featuring the one and only Logan McRae, this is a good addition which continues the high standards set before.

This time around, McRae is hit by a strange blast from the past. Detective Inspector Bell died two years ago. So why has his body turned up now in a car accident? Why did he fake his death? Where has he been, and what has he been up to?

McRae digs into the mystery, and in true defective detective fashion, doesn’t always get things right, but always kicks up a fuss and a trail of chaotic events.

The plot is solid, the writing fast, furious, and stiffened with some exceedingly sharply observed humor – despite the serious and troubling themes the book deals with.

Let’s cut to the chase: it’s a must read, though you should really do yourself a favor and go back to the first so you can enjoy them all.

Predictions and Gaza

Background: When the disengagement from Gaza was first mooted, I wasn’t in favor. However, at the time I wasn’t yet an Israeli citizen, and as part of my general principal of not wanting to be an armchair Zionist who criticized Israel from the safety of the Diaspora, I said nothing.

Smart cookie that I am (cough, cough), when the proposal became a plan that was going to be implemented, I thought I could see the vision. I thought there might be an advantage: the disengagement would give the Palestinians a chance for self government. And if they were daft enough to try any silly business, the IDF would flatten them, and nobody can say they didn’t deserve it. That was my prediction. Wrong!

It doesn’t matter what Hamas does; Israel will always be condemned for its military response. (I think that’s a prediction, too. Oh dear.) If that’s correct, what conclusions might reasonably be drawn? Tricky.

Perhaps we should consider the disengagement a mistake, own up, and accept it. Perhaps.

For now, I am going to finish here with a simple hope that the carnage stops sooner rather than later without further bloodshed. My heart goes out to the communities riven by loss and dreadful disruption – they are living in a war zone – who have learned what we all truly knew: Bibi’s deterrent does not exist. The emperor has no clothes.

Enduring the fire

Axis forces attacking north of Sidi Abdallah

I finished my second play through of the campaign scenario of Baptism by Fire. I abandoned my first after a few turns because I realized I had screwed up some of the important rules about Combat Trains and Headquarters. If nothing else, that initial run meant I was more comfortable with the rules and fairly rattled through the turns. With low unit density and lots of space, this is a nice game to look at and play.

The initial turns were an Axis whirlwind as their forces cut the defending Allies to shreds. While this was followed by a lull for a few days – representing the confusion that actually occurred as the Axis decided what their campaign goals should be – most of the game involved wave after wave of Axis attack, punctuated by the occasional Allied counter attack to seal a hole in a line, or just to give the axis something to think about.

Qualitatively, the Axis forces are better. The challenge for the Allied player is to put up enough resistance so as to delay the Axis, without hanging on too long and being encircled. The Axis challenge is to keep pushing, just Enough to keep the Allies off balance and the victory point hexes in reach, but not too much for fear of suffering a nasty counter-attack.

At the end, it as an Allied victory because the Axis failed to take enough of the victory point hexes. The lesson learned? As the attacker, you have to push your forces harder than I was doing.

Some notes.

First, the scenario includes two possible victory conditions (VC), but the Axis doesn’t know what one is relevant at the start. After a few turns, a chit is drawn to determine the applicable VC. While it’s not the best for solo play, it’s a good twist and is A simple layer of realism since the Axis seem to have gone through the same uncertainty.

Second, this game in the Battalion Combat Series introduces a new rule: Screening. It’s used by recon forces to delay attackers. It’s quite handy, but the Allies only have one such unit on hand, so the application is likely to have more effect in other games in the series. Cool rule, though.

Third, I used one of the system’s optional rules: Unit Traffic. This means that units can only use the road rate if the road hex they move through is clear of other units. Since the Axis forces are leapfrogging attacking formations in a forward direction, and the Allies are leapfrogging defensive formations in a backwards direction, it had an extensive impact. It also slowed play. I like the historicity, but am less keen on the added time it took.

Closing

I like the system a lot. I like the mix of unit capabilities, the effects of fatigue, the chaos, the fortunes of war, and the simple supply rules which combine to give an entertaining and challenging gaming experience. (My post about the first game in the series is here.) The minor niggle about Baptism by Fire is that I wasn’t able to get hold of a decent book on the campaign.

The next in the series is Brazen Chariots (the Brevity, Battleaxe, and Crusader battles in North Africa during WW2) and I have ordered it even though the game’s three maps mean some of the scenarios will be too big for my game table. (There’s always Vassal.) I am reasonably knowledgeable about these battles, but will probably do a bit of top-up reading before I play it.

Now, what game to play next?

Never again, or always the same?

It’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in Israel. Always a difficult day.

Here’s one perspective:

Israel HaYom, May 2, 2019

The article (from Israel HaYom ) connected to the pictures is entitled:

“Europe was anti-Semitic and will remain anti-Semitic – the answer is a strong State of Israel”

The text then goes on to add:

“The Europeans like to put the responsibility for the Holocaust on the Germans alone, and to [conveniently] forget how the rest of the “enlightened” continent cooperated enthusiastically with the Nazi extermination machine. They did not give up hatred of the Jews, but instead camouflage it as hatred of the State of Israel”

Or, to put it another way, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

The bottom article reports on President Rivlin’s speech last night. He commented about how Europe was haunted by the ghosts of the past.

And of course Bibi’s speech got a mention, too. He said that contrary to what happened in the Holocaust, this time around Israel is building alliances against a dangerous regime (Iran).

(In Bibi and Rivlin’s speeches, there were undercurrents and some give and take about Israel’s ties with some less than pleasant regimes, but that’s for another time.)

Bibi’s speech underlines why some (emphasis is on “some”) people see him as the only one who can defend Israel. The not so small irony is that the violence around Gaza escalated last night. First the peace loving residents of Gaza launched friendly firebombs into Israel (at least one destructive brush fire was started). The IDF responded with air attacks. Then the pacifists of Gaza upped the ante by launching a couple of rockets. It certainly doesn’t look like Bibi deserves his reputation on that score.

While we remember the victims of the Holocaust, contemporary events force us to look into the future and wonder if “never again” is a certainty, or a possibility. Has Europe got over its anti-Semitism? Will it ever?

Israel is strong, but the struggle is never-ending.

Body Count – Barbara Nadel

Another evocative murder mystery set in Istanbul, this decent crime novel mixes the hunt for a serial killer with the personal ponderings of Inspector Ikmen and Commissioner Ardic. Both are getting old and retirement is on the agenda. Their internal musings – occasionally verbalized to the supporting cast – are a strong part of the fine characterization on show. Both are rounded, interesting, and complex individuals who act as the author’s voice, delivering some nuanced (and some not so nuanced) observations on life in Turkey.

The plot involves a clash of old and new Turkey, with views of the underclasses and the downtrodden to remind us that outside the warm and hospitable homes of the heroes, there are many places a lot less friendly and pleasant. The gritty realism portrayed is matched by the no nonsense approach to the violent acts which interrupt the stalled investigation.

At times the book slows down too much and seems to lose its way. Just at the point where it starts to get annoying, the pace picks up again. I couldn’t decide if this was intentional or otherwise, and maybe reflected the need to make the narrative more realistic given real life police work is jam packed with long boring stretches of slogging. The writing is no slog, but the pacing means that you do have time to enjoy the view.

You could read this as a standalone novel and enjoy it. If you do, there are many more to read and also enjoy – perhaps even more than this one. If you are a serious reader, I recommend skipping this for now, and starting with