Colonial crime and corruption

29 06 2019

A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart

 

 

Madras in the 1920s. The British are slowly losing the grip on the subcontinent. The end of the colonial enterprise is in sight and the city on India’s east coast is teeming with intrigue. A grisly murder takes place against the backdrop of political tension and Superintendent Le Fanu, a man of impeccable investigative methods, is called in to find out who killed a respectable young British girl and dumped her in a canal, her veins clogged with morphine. As Le Fanu, a man forced to keep his own personal relationship a secret for fear of scandal in the face British moral standards, begins to investigate, he quickly slips into a quagmire of Raj politics, rebellion and nefarious criminal activities that threaten not just to bury his case but the fearless detective himself. The first Detective Le Fanu Adventure, A Madras Miasma, tells a classic tale of murder, corruption and intrigue with a sharp eye on British colonial politics and race relations. It is a story that, like its main protagonist, has its heart firmly in the right place.

A rare thing this, an erudite crime thriller written by a former Vice-Chancellor. Stoddart, whose research covers India and South Asia, wears his learning lightly but nevertheless portrays the decline of British colonial rule in a quite convincing way. It’s also a really great yarn and Detective Le Fanu is a compelling central figure. Intriguing, pacy and intelligent it is well worth reading and I’m looking forward to the next ones in the series.

four stars

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It was a very bad year

22 06 2019

Diary of a bad year by J M Coetzee

An eminent, ageing Australian writer is invited to contribute to a book entitled Strong Opinions. For him, troubled by Australia’s complicity in the wars in the Middle East,it is a chance to air some urgent concerns: how should a citizen of a modern democracy react to their state’s involvement in an immoral war on terror, a war that involves the use of torture?

Then in the laundry room of his apartment block he encounters an alluring young woman. He offers her work typing up his manuscript. Anya is not interested in politics, but the job will be a welcome distraction, as will the writer’s evident attraction towards her. Her boyfriend, Alan, is an investment consultant who understands the world in harsh economic terms. Suspicious of his trophy girlfriend’s new pastime, Alan begins to formulate a plan…

It’s not his finest work by any stretch but nevertheless still extremely well written with the  contrast between the donnish author and the vibrant Anya providing the core entertainment. There is a lot of seemingly autobiographical material in here, plenty of political critique and amusing mockery of the writer. Worth a read, as always.





What’s your poison?

15 06 2019

Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers

 

The classic mystery that first featured Harriet Vane, companion sleuth to the dashing, perennially popular private investigator Lord Peter Wimsey, from the writer widely considered the greatest mystery novelist of the Golden Age–Dorothy L. Sayers.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiance died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman’s noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to prove her innocent–as determined as he was to make her his wife.

Can Lord Peter Wimsey prove that Harriet Vane is not guilty of murder – or find the real poisoner in time to save her from the gallows? Impossible, it seems. The Crown’s case is watertight. The police are adamant that the right person is on trial. The judge’s summing-up is also clear. Harriet Vane is guilty of the killing her lover. And Harriet Vane shall hang. But the jury disagrees.

All very enjoyable in a lighthearted yet rather deadly kind of way. Plenty of twists and turns along the way too. This is the first book featuring Lord Peter Wimsey I’ve tried (once again at the recommendation of Gaby Neher – thank you Gaby!) and I really quite enjoyed it. However, for me it lacked some of the power of many Agatha Christie crime novels, which it kind of resembled, albeit with plenty of P G Wodehouse thrown in. Will nevertheless be keen to try a few more.

 





Troublesome priests and professors

8 06 2019

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies

 

 

Defrocked monks, mad professors, and wealthy eccentrics – a remarkable cast peoples Robertson Davies’ brilliant spectacle of theft, perjury, murder, scholarship, and love at a modern university. Only Mr. Davies, author of Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders, could have woven together their destinies with such wit, humour-and wisdom.

A cracking campus novel. Set in a really not that modern Canadian institution it does really have the lot as listed here. It’s finely written and really well paced and is, despite the deaths, every entertaining indeed. Looking forward to reading the next two in the trilogy.

And there are some striking contemporary resonances:

 

(With enormous thanks to Gaby Neher for lending me the book.)

 

four stars

 





Sedaris step by step

1 06 2019

Calypso by David Sedaris

 

When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it’s impossible to take a vacation from yourself.

With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Make no mistake: these stories are very, very funny – it’s a book that can make you laugh ’til you snort, the way only family can. Sedaris’s writing has never been sharper, and his ability to shock readers into laughter unparalleled. But much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future.

This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumour joke. Calypso is simultaneously Sedaris’s darkest and warmest book yet – and it just might be his very best.

I feel I’ve come rather late to Sedaris having only started reading (and hearing) him last year (see this previous post) but am trying to make up for lost time. Nevertheless, his latest recordings on Radio 4 appear to be his seventh series – I missed the previous six.

So it was a genuine delight to read one of his most recent collections, Calypso, which includes some more anecdotes about his extraordinarily ordinary family and much about holidays at the Sea Section. Then there are the lengths, literally, he goes to in order to get his steps in for the day. Most of these stories are wry, insightful, sharp and amusing. But some are genuinely laugh out loud hilarious. Very good indeed and looking forward to continuing to catch up.

 

four stars

 





Off the scent

25 05 2019

Perfume by Patrick Süskind

 

In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent . . .

It’s an excellent premise for a grim tale as the merciless Grenouille, abandoned as a child, discovers he has an extraordinary talent, his amazing sense of smell. In making the most remarkable perfumes he nevertheless has to go further to achieve perfection. Which is where the trouble really starts. Smart and sharp but really very gruesome indeed.





No country for young men

18 05 2019

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann

Walter Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli work side by side as hands on a dairy farm in northern Germany. By 1945, it seems the War’s worst atrocities are over. When they are forced to ‘volunteer’ for the SS, they find themselves embroiled in a conflict which is drawing to a desperate, bloody close. Walter is put to work as a driver for a supply unit of the Waffen-SS, while Fiete is sent to the front. When the senseless bloodshed leads Fiete to desert, only to be captured and sentenced to death, the friends are reunited under catastrophic circumstances.

In a few days the war will be over, millions of innocents will be dead, and the survivors must find a way to live with its legacy.

It’s a brilliant evocation of what feels like the end of days. The war is almost over but anarchy reigns and the horror is palpable. A grim and gripping novel which really captures the nightmares for all of the final days of the war. Highly recommended.

 

four stars








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