22 Dead Little Bodies – Stuart MacBride

This is a contemporary crime collection including:

  • 22 Dead Little Bodies – a short novel
  • Stramash – short story
  • Bad Heir Day – short story
  • The 45% Hangover – novella

All feature the author’s creations, DS Logan McRae and DCI Roberta Steel.

If it’s not a contradiction too far, although there is not much to them – by comparison with the full length novels – they are well put together, and feature some of the trademark snappy dialog, shocking violence, and stories of suburban murder and mayhem. There are also moments of high comedy, though you my wonder if it is appropriate to laugh given the whole circumstances.

I enjoyed all the stories. Bad Heir Day was the most poignant, and 22 Dead Little Bodies the most complete.

If you are a McRae fan, you must read them. If you haven’t encountered McRae, I would recommend starting with one of the novels, because these don’t quite have the same punch and pacing that the novels do.

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Artificial Condition – Martha Wells

After reading the first Murderbot book, I said I would keep a watching brief. That didn’t last long. I was looking for something short and easy to read that would be guaranteed to be entertaining. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed with this, the second in the series of novellas about a security specialist robot that has achieved some form of sentience and independence. But Murderbot has a bloody past, and his – OK, this is an assumption of male identity by me – ongoing, self imposed mission, is to find out what actually happened.

This time around, another party enters the fray. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say Murderbot is not sure if the new party is friend or foe, and part of the edge of tension in this story is not knowing, as Murderbot attempts to travel to the mining facility where the old massacre occurred.

On the plus side, the story rattles along, with a good side plot involving some clueless humans, and another robot character complicating matters. The Murderbot character continues to develop, and there’s more to find out for sure.

However, once or twice in the action, I felt that Murderer’s capacity to overcome security systems was too much of a super power like ‘get out of jail free’ card, and suggested a certain laziness in the author’s approach. That is not to say I could instantly think of other ways around these systems, but it did mean that I was starting to think Murderbot was becoming invulnerable, and the sense of danger was substantially diminished.

After reading two books in the series, I am not convinced that the overall plotting is any good. The general level of writing is interesting enough, with some nice observations and touches of comedy. And it was a fast, easy read, that did exactly what I was looking for, and no more. But is the whole package worthy? Is this a series of cut down novels, or over-inflated short stories that should not be stitched together? The jury’s out. Maybe I am going back to my watching brief.

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Down Cemetery Road – Mick Herron

Mick Herron wrote the Slow Horses series of books, featuring spy master Jackson Lamb. Reading this precursor, you can see where he got the inspiration from.

Think suburbia. Think domestic normality. Think, home sweet home. It’s all about to end.

A businessman has some people for dinner, and his wife (Sarah) has to play the faithful hostess to support her husband’s drive for more business. The guests do not mix well. Verbal blows are exchanged with only the explosive demolition of a nearby house preventing actual fisticuffs. Sarah becomes obsessed with the little girl who lived in the bombed house, and that sets her off on a terrible trail. She tries to find the girl herself, recruits a private eye, and things go from bad to worse. Sarah is digging herself deeper into a matter of national security, though little does she know it.

This is not a read for those who like to see only the sunny side of things. This is for those who will not shy away from good men becoming corrupted, and bad men becoming successful and powerful.

Although the tale loses its way on a couple of occasions, overall it’s a suspense filled tale, with plenty intriguing characters, action, violence, and food for thought. Sarah’s journey from bored housewife to adventurer is not quite credible, but maybe that’s my cynicism in full flow.

The story itself is not bad, though there were a few loose ends, and the ending seemed to be there only because the author had written enough words to allow him to call a halt. To put it another way, I’m interested enough to want to read the next part. But for now, I’ll withhold judgement.

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The Burial Hour – Jeffery Deaver

Regular hero Lincoln Rhyme stars in this transatlantic hunt, as the forces of law and order seek to find the Composer, responsible for snatching a man from a New York street in broad daylight, leaving behind on the pavement a noose as some sort of clue. The snatch is followed up by an online video displaying the victim’s dying breaths for all to see. Can Rhyme and his newly wed wife, investigator Amelia Sachs, find their man before he strikes again?

This is a strange book, because although it has all the hallmark Deaver features – forensic detail to blow your mind, twists and turns to match, and an off the wall baddie – it never quite delivers the tension and suspense that usually results. For example, one of the support characters is a certain policeman of high rank who writes things down in his little black book. The word is that he is noting those who have crossed him, so he can exact his revenge at a time of his choosing. But, as regular Deaver readers, we know it must be something else. And when the explanation comes, it rather underwhelms, like much of the book. The tension threatens to build, but never quite gets there. It’s as if Deaver is testing his readership, to see how much they will take.

Another example is a character who is a forestry official. We all know he is going to be involved, and the part of the story that develops around his character is neither surprising nor particularly enthralling. In this case it’s a minor character promoted out of his depth to the detriment of the story.

There are parts of the book that are quite good. For example, I was impressed by how the author handled the topic of immigration, and integrated that into the story with a heavy does of realism but without taking away from the main plot line. That part went well. So it would be misleading to say the whole thing is disappointing, but the overall effect doesn’t match expectations from an author – especially a suspense author – of this standing and quality.

If you are a Deaver fan, you may well lap it up. For others, I would recommend you pass on this.

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SF in Israel

The current issue of Locus (a monthly science fiction and fantasy magazine) has a chunky part of it dedicated to the scene in Israel. There’s an introductory piece from Shedlon Teitelbaum, one of the editors of the newly released Zion’s Fiction, a good range of interviews (Shimon Adaf, Yael Furman, Guy Hasson, Aharon Hauptman, Keren Landsman, and Ehud Mainon) and a short review of ICon, the genre convention held in 2018.

I have zero involvement in the scene here, so the information was all new to me. Beyond being a reader of such genre fiction, I have rarely had the inclination to get involved in fan activity. I did attend one convention in Glasgow, but it was largely forgettable. My bucket list might include a visit to a World Science Fiction Convention at some point, but for now I am happy just being a reader and keeping (relatively) up to date thanks to Locus.

So far as the interviews were concerned, most mentioned what you might call the special situation of living in Israel. Presumably that is also reflected in the Hebrew language science fiction and fantasy output, though it will be a while before I want to delve into those and confirm for myself. However, Keren Landsman’s The Heart of the Circle is coming out in English in 2019 from Angry Robot (great name for a publisher) and that’s a must-buy, if only to support the author.

On the whole, if you want to know about the SF scene in Israel, the material is a good primer, and regardless is another opportunity for people to find out more about the country from other than the usual suspects in the media.

For my part, Zion’s Fiction is somewhere in my ‘to-be-read’ pile. I’ll get to it, sometime.

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London Rules – Mick Herron

Number five in the excellent Jackson Lamb spy series, this novel keeps up the quality and panache of those that came before, and is a terrific read.

The story this time around involves a terrorist plot that seems to have the authorities stumped. In addition, there’s a suspicion that the intelligence branch know more than they are letting on. Can Claude Whelan, top spook, find the best solution? He has to deal with a loose cannon politician and his troublesome media darling wife, and Whelan’s own number two is on his shoulder ready to swoop on any misstep.

So far as the Slow Horses are concerned, one of their number (Roderick Ho) seems to be the target of a less than deadly killer, the rest of the crew think their latest recruit is a psychotic individual prone to acts of murder, and Jackson Lamb has his hands full keeping his team intact, and their participation in the game free from Whelan’s meddling.

If I have a criticism, it is the underlying formulaic structure of the plot. I knew early on how this would work out. [Spoiler alert!] Since there are more Jackson Lamb books, you are curious to know how he survives, not whether he does.

That apart, simply great fun. There are moments of comedy gold here, with some dialog that deserves the big screen treatment. To cut to the chase, this is highly recommended. But do start at the first book and read them in order.

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Space Carrier Avalon – Glynn Stewart

This is space opera with an emphasis on the spaceship Avalon, in its day the flagship of the Castle Federation. Now, some twenty years later, the much decorated warship is on one final trip before being decommissioned.

The book starts with the arrival of new commanders of the flight crew, and from there on in, it’s action and excitement.

Or, at least it was supposed to be that way. Unfortunately, I was totally unconvinced. I found the characters lacking in appeal, the dialog to be wooden, and the writing a veritable deluge of tell, tell, tell.

There’s a corruption thread that has potentially huge consequences, but simply disappears. The fight sequences are not too bad, though you have to suspend disbelief a fair chunk to get over the techno babble terminology on which the science fiction part is grounded.

This simply did not work for me. Stay away.

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The Trespasser – Tana French

This was an impulse buy from the local Steimatzky’s (bookstore) that turned out to be a surprisingly good read.

Detective Antoinette Conway is part of the Dublin Murder Squad, and she hates it. Primarily, she’s being harassed by some – if not most – of her colleagues. Think college hazing with a bit more spite. The poor girl is at war in her daily work, and it’s a wonder she continues to stick it out.

Then, she is assigned a new case that seems like it’s open and shut, and so should take away some of the tension. A young girl is found dead in her home, the table set for a dinner for two. It has to be the boyfriend. But what are these nagging suspicions Antoinette has, and where does she recognize the deceased from?

The book is dark and desperate in places because that’s the spot that the heroine occupies, as she tries to work out her angst and find a way out of the troubles. Inevitably, she is under pressure to wrap up the case quickly. It doesn’t help she appears to be being stalked, and she is not sure if she can trust her partner.

About half way through, I would have said the only material weakness in the book is that the central character is the only one with real depth. But the second half piled up more on other characters, to the extent there was quite a crowd of them at the end.

The plot is straightforward enough with no real depth, but the atmosphere and the writing is splendid. The tension is real, and the world is all too believable.

I was less than impressed to find this is part of a series – and not the first. I plan on starting again at the beginning. (I do wish publishers would make this more explicit on the cover.)

Good crime fiction, with a spicy, clever female lead character. What’s not to like?

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The Accident on the A35 – Graeme Macrae Burnet

I bought this because of the publicity material. For examples, see after my review. Everyone said it was a great book, and the author was a wonder. Well, I disagree.

I found it to be a gentle, calm, crime novel. Sort of Agatha Christie set in France without the plot twists or an accumulation of dead bodies. In other words, calm as in flat. (Dead flat?)

The central story is Gorski’s investigation into the apparent death in a road accident of a fine upstanding member of the local community. Gorski is smitten with the grieving widow, and goes out on a limb somewhat.

Gorski, is well drawn and interesting if somewhat feeble in places. His matrimonial situation is not material to the plot, but we get to experience that too. The resolution did not seem realistic to me, and that whole part of the novel was unsatisfactory.

The dead man’s son, Raymond, goes off the rails, and his actions following his father’s death are a parallel thread to Gorski’s investigation. Raymond’s travails are more interesting, but truly that is not saying a lot.

In short, not much happens, the plot is a wispy nothing, and the end was a major let down. On the plus side, there’s Gorski’s character, and not much else.

I was so disappointed. Do not waste your time.

And now for some of the (frankly unbelievable) promotional quotes:

“Highly accomplished, The Accident on the A35 works on several levels… The narration has the simple momentum of classic crime writing… It has a denouement like something out of Greek tragedy but delivers as a proper police procedural too… Burnet’s cleverness doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment but playfully adds levels of meaning.” Anthony Cummins, Observer

That was not a proper police procedural, Mr. Cummins.

“[A] truly superlative tale… fascinating… one of the most clever and compelling novels to be published this year.” Lesley McDowell, Herald

Not a big reader, Lesley?

“Elegant, craftily written and frequently funny.” Phil Miller, Herald

Were the Herald on commission?

“Extravagant talent.” Mark Lawson, Guardian

Were you reading the same book, Mr. Lawson?

“Both a classy detective story and a stylish meditation on agency and existence. If Roland Barthes had written a detective novel, then this would be it.” Philip Womack, Literary Review

Pretentious bollocks.

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If We Were Villains – M. L. Rio

The plot here revolves around Oliver Marks, sentenced to ten years for the murder of one of his fellow students at a prestigious arts institution, a murder he may or may not have committed. On his release, somehow – and this is the weakest part of the novel – Marks is persuaded to unburden himself, and tell the man who was the policeman who investigated the crime and led to Marks’ incarceration, the whole story.

The color and backdrop is Shakespearean in all its glory, because Marks and his fellow students were thespians, craving success, fame, and fortune on the stage. So, for example, much of the group’s chat is peppered with Shakespearean quotes. What’s worse, from my perspective, is that some of the scenes are – literally – scenes, with the reader forced to wade through line after line of more Shakespearean language. Horrible. It is well done if you are a Shakespearean nut, but otherwise it’s overdone.

On the plus side, the group are well sketched, and the dynamics between them – if not the dialog – are well illustrated, and sharply observed. For example, the shifting of perspectives with the changes in anticipated casting as the group move from play to play, were especially fine, as was the gradual peeling of the onion skin of each character, so we could see what parts of their performance were actually performance, and which were their real character. The life of an elite arts institution seemed authentic, and the storytelling – theatricals aside – was good.

For me, the book was too full of its arty drama world to be fully engaging. I am not a theater fan, and Shakespeare is a torture that should never darken the door of modern educational establishments. So, there were chunks that I might as well not have read. But despite that, I was taken enough by Oliver Marks to want to get to the end. And the end is well worth getting to.

If you like the theater – especially Shakespeare – go for it. You will love it. Otherwise, probably best avoiding.

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