The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum

I decided to go back in time and read some older novels which I had read the first time they came out, and remembered fondly. This was the first and was something of a surprise.

First, I’m now convinced I had never read it before! That was one surprise. Second, it was pretty disappointing. That was another surprise. Third, I was impressed at the good job the filmmakers did with this raw material – the films are way better than this book (and presumably the rest).

The story is well known. A body, shot to hell, is washed up by the sea. He’s not dead. An alcoholic ex-pat doctor puts him back together again physically, but mentally his greatest challenge is that he cannot remember who (or what) he is. The microfilm sewn into his hip is a clue, as is the evidence of plastic surgery to his face. Oh, and that Zurich bank account with several million dollars that the microfilm leads to, that could be another clue!

Our man Bourne goes on a journey to find himself. Unfortunately, there are people out to kill him. Thus starts the adventure.

In short, the book has not aged well. Th story is not bad, but Bourne’s introspectives are turgid, and the relationship with his lover is beyond credible. The action scenes are not bad. The scene setting is reasonable, though I wasn’t convinced by the logic explaining the actions of some of the competing factions.

Yes, disappointing is a fair summary.

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Unrest – Jesper Stein

DCI Axel Steen is assigned the case of a murdered man whose hooded and tortured body is found in a Copenhage cemetery. What makes it particularly puzzling is that the area was flooded with policemen at the time of the crime, supposedly on guard and dealing with a riot. Was a policeman the killer? How did the victim’s body get to his final resting place?

As Steen tries to solve the murder, in best crime novel tradition, the body count goes up, and the case becomes more complex and less clear. Steen, another in a long line of defective detectives, drives himself too hard in his mission to get the killer. The tension is ramped up, and the climax is suitably exciting.

I liked this. It had bite, plenty of twists, and a decent main character. Copenhagen was an interesting backdrop, and made a fine accompaniment to a well told story. There are one or two rough edges, and a couple of overly maudlin scenes, but that’s just nitpicking by me. Recommended.

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The Man Who Came Uptown – George Pelecanos

This is a melancholy tale of a prison librarian Anna Byrne, a prisoner on remand called Michael Hudson, and Phil Ornazian, a private investigator with a sideline in crime.

Byrne knows the people in jail are not all good, but she knows the power of books and loves being able to bring some light into dark places. Sometimes she forgets and is drawn too close to a prisoner, like Hudson. But before things can get too involved, Hudson is released. His freedom is at a price, and he has to find a safe way around the dangerous obstacles that await his passage. Ornazian features largely in his future.

The characters are interesting, though I wasn’t completely convinced about Ornazian’s motivation. The interactions are well told with a light touch, and free flowing narrative.  The violence is not overdone, and the city backdrop is pitched just right. The story is straightforward – verging on lightweight – so the reader has to secure enjoyment from something other than plot twists and turns. On balance I would say that this novel just about delivers. I enjoyed it even though the absence of a decent, meaty plot meant I sometimes felt I was just coasting along.

The ending, when it comes, does add some spice to this simple tale. Overall, I liked it.

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Kill the Angel – Sandrone Dazieri

A train draws into Rome with a carriage full of dead people. A claim of responsibility from an Islamic terrorist group is taken seriously, and on goes the hunt by the authorities to stop the killers committing another atrocity. A misfit detective and a plain misfit (albeit idiot savant) believe otherwise. They follow their own trail – one that leads, inevitably, to more danger, deaths, and mystery.

This book is a follow up to the excellent Kill the Father and while it doesn’t quite hit those heights, it comes close. It is well written with a bevy of interesting characters, intriguing and entertaining. The central mystery is a good one, and the final twist is well concealed and delivers a real surprise.

Overall, recommended, but start with the first in the series.

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The Force – Don Winslow

This is a brutal novel about corruption in the New York police and elsewhere in society. The central character is a renegade policeman who is, in the vernacular, bent. Detective Sergeant Denny Malone and his merry men are supposed to fight to protect the citizens of New York from gangs, drugs and guns in New York. From his perspective, he’s not bent, just oiling the wheels of justice. He seems to ignore the hoard of drugs and cash he has accumulated from his just fight.

Of course, he is not the only bad apple in the barrel. And the baddies aren’t exactly noble citizens either. Unfortunately for Malone, his time may be up, as the FBI are moving in. And unfortunately for the city, at the same time there is something of a race war being threatened, arising out of a police shooting of a black man by a white policeman in suspicious circumstances. (All too familiar.)

The story follows Malone and his crew and their misadventures. It’s violent, fast paced and tense. The city backdrop is authentic, and the characterizations are good. The plot has less surprises than you might want, but is tight and does bring all the strands together. There are moments of pure pathos, and some of dark comedy. But above it all is the dark, dark cloud of corruption.

It’s not a book I would rush to recommend unless you like your fiction dark. Bad things happen to good people. But I enjoyed it, though I hope and pray it’s truly fiction and far removed from the reality.

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Dark Sacred Night – Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly has a great track record as one of the finest crime writers of all time. This is not his finest hour. (If you are looking to start on a Connelly book, don’t start here!)

The problem is that the book features one of his oldest and finest characters – long in the tooth angry old detective Harry Bosch – and one of his newest – newcomer Detective Renée Ballard. What comes across is that the author is tired of Bosch and wants to finish him off. However, it appears he doesn’t feel confident enough that Ballard is a strong enough character to generate the same loyalty. So, Connelly is keeping the pot boiling. Unfortunately, to do that this time around, he delivered a decent enough tale but one that lacked the fire and passion I would have expected.

The story, such as it is, involves Bosch dragging Ballard into a cold case. (Is there any other kind, he half-joked.) Both are trying to find out who murdered Daisy Clayton, a 15-year-old runaway, back in 2009. The back story is good, as is the characterization on an individual basis. But it lacks sizzle. The plot doesn’t excite, rarely surprises, and sort of limps along. One red herring takes up an inordinate amount of time and space to no great effect. Bosch seems to be less of a whole character without his daughter. And Bosch and Ballard don’t spark the same atmosphere when they are working together. It lacks chemistry.

The ending was a bit of a disappointment. Rarely would I have thought that was even possible for Connelly.

All in all, it was OK, but not up to the standards I would expect from this author. Good, but not good enough.

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Scrublands – Chris Hammer

This is a terrific novel which packages a complex plot, finely observed characterization, decent dialog, and a well crafted (albeit stark) backdrop and produces as fine a novel as you are likely to read. It’s simply wonderful.

Set in the Australian outback, the background is that one year previously the priest in small town Riversend shot dead five of his congregation before one of the local policemen shot and killed the priest. As the novel opens, a somewhat bedraggled and PTSD suffering journalist, Martin Scarsden arrives in town to do a follow up feature. Scarsden’s work discloses something different from the previously reported version of what went down. From there on, matters accelerate out of control as Scarsden discovers his mission to get to the truth has ignited some serious opposition.

Scarsden has his own personal issues, but he also suffers from business challenges given that his employers are looking to cut costs and keep their media outlet operating. I get the impression Chris Hammer is campaigning a wee bit for the journalism profession, but in a way that does not detract from the authenticity of the portraits nor the entertainment value of the story. In other words, he does not overdo it – it’s simply another fine feature among many.

The author constructs such a clear sensation of the oppressive heat and the listlessness of the environment that you may find yourself drinking lots so as to keep cool! The realities of life in a small outback town, struggling with drought, unemployment, and the challenges of just getting through day-to-day life are sympathetically displayed. Similarly, the characters draw you in so that it doesn’t take much imagination to put you in their place.

It’s also noteworthy that despite the intricacies of the plot, the author never loses control. Each strand is distinct, logical, and well thought out. The coming together of all the loose ends is handled with aplomb. I found it a thoroughly immersive experience.

One of the best books I have read, ever. Yes, it’s that good.

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Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – K. J. Parker


Do you like fantasy fiction? Yes? Then buy this book. You will love it.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a great city and the less than great man who becomes responsible for saving it from the besieging forces camped outside. But this is no normal siege, and this is no normal tale. It’s bursting with humor (mostly dark) and invention, and changes of plot direction that can momentarily lave you dazzled. It’s great entertainment, with a fascinating main character anti-hero, and an onslaught of supporting characters that add to the developing tension, and the need to keep on turning the page.

Primarily, the narrative is the thing. Parker is a top class storyteller, and the story is one deserving of his skills. It helps that – despite the fantasy setting – what is on show is a panorama of all too realistic human behavior; there’s good, bad, and indifferent. Fate intervenes. Things do not always work out. But it’s always enthralling.

Just great.

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