Bloody January by Alan Parks
Crime , Historical / 07/03/2018

Readers looking for gritty crime can always find their fix on the mean (fictional) streets of Glasgow. To make things a little grittier, Alan Parks, sets his debut novel Bloody January in 1973. Drugs and criminal gangs are rife, most of the police (sorry, polis) are on the take, and while there are plenty of shady no-go areas in town the whiff of development is in the air. Bloody January has an intriguing open. A prisoner with a long record asks to meet with Detective McCoy to warn him that a young woman will be killed. McCoy only half believes the tale and when he does follow up he is too late. The woman is shot, her attacker turns the gun on himself and the informant is killed in the prison. This book is not called Bloody January for nothing. The rest is what can only be described as corrupt police procedural where all roads lead to the ultra-rich and untouchable Dunlop family with whom McCoy has had run-ins in the past. McCoy himself is a complex character but one with most of the attributes readers have come to expect from Scottish crime. He has a damaging history, having been…

Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 05/03/2018

In 2016, Thomas Mullen delivered one of the crime novels of the year with Darktown. That book told the story of the first Black policemen in Atlanta, a force established in the years following World War II. Darktown showed the institutionalised racism that sat behind and around that decision. The group of eight policemen were set up in a basement of the YMCA with no vehicles and if they wanted to arrest someone they had to call the white police to do it. They were only allowed to patrol the predominantly black areas of town and while they were feted for the steps they were taking they were also feared in their own community. Darktown was in other respects a straight down the line procedural in which two of the black policemen and one white policeman work a murder case from different angles. Lightning Men picks up a couple of years after the events of Darktown. Like its predecessor it focusses mainly on the black police partners of Boggs and Smith and their former co-conspirator Deny Rakestraw but it also ranges across a broader cross section of characters. Each of the three main characters have their own problems to work…

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/02/2018

Chloe Benjamin’s new novel The Immortalists is a historical family drama with a conceit at its centre which starts as intriguing, develops as character building and then starts to drag on the whole enterprise. In 1969, four children, ranging in age from thirteen to seven and intrigued by stories running around their neighbourhood go to seek out a local fortune teller. Despite having scraped together their savings the woman, for no fee, purports to tells each of the children the exact date on which they are going to die. This event, and the knowledge it brought, will shape the lives and the decisions of the four and spark a furious internal debate in the novel between fate and free will. Each section of the book focuses on a different one of the children, in age order from youngest to oldest. When his father dies, Simon, seven when he is told his fortune and now fifteen, breaks away from his mother and the expectation that he will take over the family’s New York tailoring business. He runs away with his sister Karla to San Fransisco where he explores his gay identity in the heady days of the late seventies. This is…

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 09/02/2018

George Smiley, cold war warrior for “the Circus” (ie MI6), first appeared in 1961 in Call for the Dead. and was the character who established John leCarré as one of the masters of the cold war spy genre. Smiley appeared in seven books between 1961 and 1979. It seemed, as the cold war was coming to a close, so too was Smiley’s work and leCarré moved on, returning briefly to Smiley’s world in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim. With Russia well and truly back in the news and spycraft, arguably, not what it once was, it seems like the perfect time for leCarré to once again revisit this old stomping ground. A Legacy of Spies focuses around Peter Guillam, one of Smiley’s people. At the start of the novel he is living a quiet retired life on a farm in his native France. But the past is never far away and he is called back to England to answer for his part in the death of two people at the Berlin Wall many years before. The deaths themselves were part of an operation called Windfall, one that Smiley and his boss, Control, kept from their superiors for a very real fear…

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 15/01/2018

Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake. It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure…

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Historical , Recommended , Review / 22/11/2017

Jennifer Egan is best known for her creative, experimental Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. That book was a series of connected short stories in a range of styles including, famously, a PowerPoint presentation. A historical drama, Manhattan Beach is a long way from Goon Squad stylistically (mostly) but still demonstrates Egan’s literary flare to great effect. The book opens in the middle of the Depression, twelve year-old Anna Kerrigan is accompanying her father Eddie on business. He is going to visit a man called Dexter Styles. Eddie is a bagman for the union and his visit to Dexter is an attempt to change his fortunes. Eight years later, it is the middle of World War II, Eddie disappeared without a trace many years before and Anna, living with her mother and disabled sister, is part of a female workforce at the docks building and repairing warships. Dexter Styles, meanwhile, runs a series of nightclubs and gambling dens on behalf of a Chicago mobster. Both are haunted to some extent by Eddie’s disappearance. The plot itself is part coming of age, part mystery story, part gangster story. Egan masterfully juggles the various plot elements around the…

The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
Historical , Literature , Review / 08/11/2017

Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle (translated by Darryl Sterk) is only the second of his books to be translate into English. Wu Ming-Yi is a Tawainese author, described as an artist, designer, photographer, literary professor, butterfly scholar and environmental activist and many of these concerns and interests emerge in The Stolen Bicycle. The Stolen Bicycle is pitched as a companion piece to another book written by the book’s narrator about workers from Taiwan who went to work in Japan building fighter planes during World War 2. He included in that earlier book a scene where an ancient bicycle was left propped against a sign at the entrance to a forest. The narrator thought nothing of it until a reader wrote to him to ask him what happened to the owner of that bike. From this inquiry sprung The Stolen Bicycle, the story of one man’s search for origins of a machine that might have a connection to his missing father. Due to a close family history involving bicycles, used and stolen at various times, the narrator of The Stolen Bicycle, Ch’eng,  is obsessed with the machines. The narrator starts with the various terms for the vehicle – his preference is for the Taiwanese…

Munich by Robert Harris
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 19/10/2017

Robert Harris has long had a fascination with the events surrounding Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich in 1938 to negotiate with Hitler. That meeting, which ended with Chamberlain famously returning to Britain waving a piece of paper and declaring “Peace in our time”, has long been seen as the epitome of the appeasement policy that presaged World War II.   In 1988, on the fiftieth anniversary of that meeting, Harris was involved in a documentary called God Bless You, Mr Chamberlain. As the name of his documentary suggests, Harris has a more grey interpretation of Chamberlain’s actions than the popular historical account. And this view of the man and his actions informs much of his latest novel about these negotiations.  Early on in Munich it is clear that in 1938 the British were not ready for a war. Chamberlain is told that that the country needs at least a year to recruit, train and arm their forces. So that while Chamberlain honestly strives for peace, desperately trying to avoid a repeat of Word War I, he is also aware of a need to stall for time. As he observes: “The main lesson I have learned in my dealings with Hitler is that one simply can’t play poker with a gangster if one has no cards in one’s hand.” In Harris’s telling, Chamberlain does everything he can to box Hitler in to an agreement, knowing it…

City of Crows by Chris Womersley
Historical , Literature , Review / 27/09/2017

Chris Womersley’s first novel, The Low Road won the Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime fiction. His second novel, Bereft was short listed for the Ned Kelly for best crime fiction and while it didn’t win that award it did go on to win a slew of others that year. But Chris was never going to let the trappings of genre (not that either of these two books were classic crime genre) hold him back. Now, with his fourth book, City of Crows, Womersley takes a sharp turn away from anything he has done before. And the results are no less impressive. Set in 17th Century France, City of Crows opens in the village of Saint-Gilles. Charlotte Picot has already lost three children and has a young son surviving when her husband dies of plague. She flees the town with Antoine but he is kidnapped while they are on the road. Charlotte is wounded and in the book’s first detour into the occult, ends up being healed by the local witch. At the same time Adam du Coeuret, a galley slave imprisoned for practicing magic is unexpectedly freed and renames himself Lesage. The two end up travelling together to…

Her by Garry Disher
Historical , Recommended , Review / 14/09/2017

Garry Disher is probably best known for two crime series – the Peninsula Crimes books centred around the police in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and the Wyatt books, recently rebooted, which focus on a career thief. But he has other strings to his bow, with both contemporary and historical “literary” novels in his long career. Her, a historical novel set in the northern Victorian countryside in the years following the turn of the century, gives a blunt and confronting look at of the time.   The main character of Her does not even have a name for the first third of the novel. In 1909, at a young age the protagonist is sold by her family to the local scrap man and for years she is only known as “You”. The scrap man already has a wife and a teenager (known as Big Girl) who he possibly acquired in a similar way and who he later gets pregnant. You is put to work, catching rabbits, making items out of scrap and rags for sale and learning how to be a pickpocket and a thief. Life is already tough for the three women and the abusive, manipulative actions of the scrap man towards them make it even tougher.   Disher follows You as she grows up in this environment. When she is older she names herself Lily and goes travelling with the…

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Stephenson and Galland

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O is the new hefty tome from the pen of Neal Stephenson. But this is not a tech or maths heavy read like Seveneves or Anathem. This time he has brought along fellow author Nicole Gallard who manages to considerably lighten the tone. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O can best be described as a romp. It is science fiction that never takes itself all that seriously. Even the acronym provides a cute running gag in the early part of the book. In 1851, witchcraft died in the world. In the present day, a group of American military scientists are trying to bring it back using quantum theory. When they manage to do so, they use witchcraft to send their operatives back in time and manipulate history. And then their problems really begin. D.O.D.O is narrated in a documentary style. Much of it is the memoir of Melisande Stokes, one of the early operatives of the organisation, stuck in 1851 as witchcraft is dying and writing for future prosperity. But there are also plenty of other diary entries, emails, memos and letters and even an ancient Viking Saga entitled “The Lay of Walmart”. There is…

The Twentieth Man by Tony Jones
Crime , Historical , Review , Thriller / 07/08/2017

ABC journalist and host of Q&A Tony Jones put the cat among the pigeons last year when he suggested that there was Croation terrorism in Australia in the 1970s. There was fierce debate at that time around this suggestion about Croatian extremists and the involvement of the Communist Yugoslavian Government in potentially creating or manipulating the threat. In The Twentieth Man, Jones doubles down on his claims, in a historical thriller that gives Australian its own Day of the Jackal. The Twentieth Man opens with a historical bombing in the heart of Sydney in 1972. The bombs are planted by an anonymous Croatian terrorist seeking to destroy targets associated with the Yugoslavian government. Jones uses this opening to introduce a range of characters and it is a while before the narrative settles down around a few key players, particularly Anna Rosen, junior ABC journalist and daughter of a known Communist, Al Sharp, with the Federal Police, and rogue ASIO agent Tom Moriarty. Later in the book the action moves to Yugoslavia where a group of twenty Croatians have infiltrated the country with the aim of creating a popular uprising against the Communist Government. The Twentieth Man of the title is the survivor of this mission. Jones has crafted a fine historical thriller. The threat, when it emerges, is…

Half Wild by Pip Smith
Crime , Historical , Review / 25/07/2017

In 2005, the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney had an exhibition of police photographs from the early twentieth century. One of these that caught the eye of author Pip Smith was of a man called Harry Crawford, arrested for murder. It turned out that Crawford was actually a woman, Eugenia Falleni, who had been passing herself off as Crawford since 1899. Crawford/Falleni was arrested and convicted for the murder of one of his wives, although the circumstances surrounding this case were vague and sensationalised by its protagonist, known in the media as the “man-woman”. Pip Smith has taken the bare bones of this story and contemporaneous transcripts and newspaper articles to fashion a captivating version of Falleni’s life. Half Wild works in four distinct sections. The first, and most successful of these is the first person narration of Falleni’s childhood in New Zealand. Falleni was one of a brood of Italian children literally running wild on the streets of Wellington and even then battling with her identity and sexuality. This section of the book is rambunctious, sometimes surreal, and utterly engaging, although disturbing in parts. The short second section is Falleni’s reinvention of herself into the Scottish immigrant Harry…

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Plenty of modern authors have taken their hand to mythology. Neil Gaiman and AS Byatt have both had a go at Norse Mythology and recently Margaret Atwood retold the story of Penelope. Now Booker Prize winning Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, possibly better known for more sedate novels such as the recent Brooklyn, takes a turn at some bloody Greek mythology. House of Names retells the story of Clytemnestra and her children Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, known for winning the Trojan wars. But it was not an easy start to his campaign, the gods prevented his ships from leaving and he was told that he would need to sacrifice his oldest daughter Iphigenia to appease them. Tricked into bringing Iphigenia to the camp to be married to Achilles, Clytemnestra has to watch as her daughter is taken for sacrifice. She spends the next years plotting her revenge against her husband, allying herself with the slippery Aegisthus to do so. But the killing of Agamemnon puts in motion another round of revenge and retribution when Orestes is taken captive and, on his return, plots with his sister Electra to kill their mother. Tóibín uses different narrative techniques for Clytemnestra,…

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter, explores the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine and the impact on its Jewish population by focusing on one small village.  There is always a question whether we need more books set in World War II. But in an age of continuing Holocaust denial and ongoing genocidal wars, reliving, remembering and investigating this time becomes more and more important. When the book opens two small boys are running through the night, it will be some time before Seiffert catches up with them again, by which time they will be truly on their own. The next morning, the SS and the Ukrainian police round up all of the Jews in the village and march them to a holding area. In keeping with the sharp focus of this book, the process is told through the eyes of the elderly school master and his elderly mother who are beaten as they are herded through the town. The rest of the local populace does nothing but watch through shuttered windows as their former neighbours are taken from their homes. Seiffert’s narrative ranges across a diverse cast of characters. One is Otto Pohl, an engineer who has been employed by…

The Restorer by Michael Sala

When The Restorer opens, Richard, a neighbour, is watching a family move in to the burnt out wreck of the house next door. From the outside this is a nuclear family – father Roy, mother Maryanne, an eight year old boy Daniel and a teenage girl Freya. But both Richard and the reader can sense from his first interactions with Roy that something is not quite right. Michael Sala’s new novel, part coming of age story, part (recent) historical fiction centres around abuse within a family. Domestic violence is emerging as a theme of some recent Australian literature. Not long ago we had Katheryn Heyman’s Storm and Grace which focused on an abusive, destructive relationship. But domestic violence has also raised its head in recent debuts by Holly Throsby and Cassandra Austin. As the family move their possessions into the house a storm is brewing. The narrative that follows reflects that on coming storm. Roy is trying to be the man that his wife desperately wants him to be. He throws himself into the restoration of the house as if it is his personal metaphor and that its renewal will be enough to demonstrate his fidelity and love. But as the…

Spoils by Brian van Reet
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 28/04/2017

In Spoils, Brian Van Reet returns to the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. By following the lives of two US soldiers and one of the mujahideen, he creates a visceral but nuanced exploration of that conflict. The book opens with a firefight at a road crossing outside an Iraqi village which the American troops have nicknamed Triangletown. Specialist Cassandra Wigheard, a female gunner is wounded and captured by the mujahideen. Van Reet then flicks back in time to explore how she and the mujahideen arrived at that point, including the view of a second soldier, Sleed, who fails to support Cassandra’s platoon as he was too busy looting an Iraqi palace. About half way through, van Reet returns to this present and the plight of Cassandra and her two crew mates captured by the mujahideen cell and occasionally on the army’s hunt for them. Inside the mujahideen cell itself there is dissent around what to do with the prisoners, their new leader seeing opportunity for propaganda. This is a small story in the context of the broader war. The initial conflict is a limited roadside firefight and the characters are a long way down the chain of command….

Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty
Crime , Historical , Recommended , Review / 27/03/2017

It is a common trope in crime fiction that the protagonist detective often finds themselves in some sort of mortal peril. So much so that it starts to feel like a bit of cliché.  But for Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in a mainly Protestant police force in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, mortal peril is just a fact of life. From the first book in this award winning crime series Sean has been checking under his car for mercury tilt switches every time he leaves his house. So it comes as no surprise to long term fans that book 6, sporting the mouthful name Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, opens with Sean being marched to his execution through a remnant patch of Irish forest. But, being Sean, as he puffs his way asthmatically through a bog he still manages to keep his mordant sense of humour: “A bullet in the head will fix an incipient asthma attack every time.” Flashback to Sean visiting his parents with his girlfriend and new baby Emma and being relieved to be called back to Carickfergus to investigate the murder of a small time drug dealer. From the start his…

City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan explores the world of terrorists and terrorism in a historical context in City of Secrets. Set in Jerusalem in 1946, O’Nan focuses on the exploits of Jewish resistance fighters, working to end the British Mandate of Palestine. The central player in City of Secrets is Brand, a Lithuanian survivor who lost his wife, parents and sister in the Holocaust. Brand only survived himself due to his mechanical skills and a survival instinct that saw his fellow prisoners die while he stood by, a failure that still haunts him. Washing up in post-war Palestine he joins the Haganah, a group of Jewish resistance fighters and takes on a false identity as Jossi, a taxi driver in Jerusalem. The Haganah was a more moderate resistance force and had joined with the British during World War Two, while the more extreme groups Irgun and Stern Gang continued their bombing campaign. Now, with the war over and the British turing away Jewish refugees, Brand and his fellow activists are drawn into the Irgun. As the violence of their campaign escalates so do the risks of getting caught. At the same time Brand is in a desperate relationship with Eva, a fellow survivor…

The Jekyll Revelation by Robert Masello
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 17/02/2017

The Jekyll Revelation is a strange hybrid of a novel. It constantly flicks between the diaries of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, and the struggles of a present day environmental scientist tracking coyotes in Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles. In the process deep secrets are revealed. The Robert Louis Stevenson story line is told in diary form. It starts with a murder then flashes back to Stevenson’s sojourn with his family in a Swiss health retreat while he writes Treasure Island. Stevenson was seeking (and received according to his diary) radical treatment for a chronic lung condition. The story of Stevenson’s stay at the sanitarium and his bizarre treatment is told in the best tradition of gothic horror. The results provide more than the inspiration for the novel about Jekyll and Hyde which, once published and adapted for the West End stage, draws Stevenson into the Jack the Ripper investigation. The Jekyll Revelation leans heavily on historical record to create a fictional Stevenson. And Robert Masello effectively manages to blur the line between what is likely to be the truth, fictional licence and out and out fantasy. Meanwhile, in the bright sunshine of Topanga Canyon, Rafael Salazar is dealing with…