Friday, 21 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: A MAN'S HEAD by GEORGES SIMENON


I read three Maigret novels while I was in France at the beginning of the month, each of which provided me with lots of the mood and atmosphere I was after. None of them disappointed, but they did vary between good and great.

I’ll start at the good end of things with A Man’s Head (US).

In this one, Maigret stakes his career on his instincts and arranges the escape of a prisoner from death row. The idea is that by following the prisoner, the true facts of the murder case concerned will come to light. Things don’t go entirely to plan when the prisoner ends up falling asleep for most of his first day of freedom.

Maigret hangs around in a bar full of well-to-do travellers from around the world to get his head round the murder. In doing so, he encounters a young man who taunts and goads the chief inspector by hinting that there is more to the case than has been understood thus far and that Maigret is unlikely to put the pieces of the puzzle into place.

This had echoes of Crime and Punishment as the elements of guilt drive the culprit to their downfall, yet it lacks a crisp punch or any real sense of weight. The strong opening loses some momentum and the conclusion, though almost perfectly dark, misses a beat or two.

My favourite section here was the insight into the backrooms of the Palais De Justice and the detailed obsessive forensic work of Moers.

Well worth a read, as always, but not top of the form.


While I’m here, I’ll point out that readers can pick up a very different kind of mystery story for free today . Recluse (US) looks at a creative genius during the sixties and the high cost of that free love. 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: DIE OF SHAME by MARK BILLINGHAM



Here’s one that made it onto the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year long list. It may not have made the cut into the final 6, but it was certainly a worthy contender.

For personal reasons, it took me a while to get into the spirit of this one. I spent seven years visiting hospital on a weekly basis to attend group therapy sessions. They were hard years and being reminded them of some doors that I prefer to keep shut. It meant that to watch another group working through their issues with their own sets of boundaries and dynamics wasn’t easy.

During my own therapy years, it occurred to me from time to time that the closed group setting of the situation would be perfect for a crime novel. Mark Billingham’s novel proved me right on that point and he’s written a far better piece than I would have managed in the process.

Die of Shame (US) explores many facets of life and death, with addiction taking centre stage. Here we have a group meeting weekly in North London. The tensions and alliances between the clients and the therapist are slowly revealed and then constantly reset while we get to know them. The therapist has his hands full when it comes to keeping his charges straight. His hands are also when it comes to keeping his family, a distant wife and an out of control daughter, afloat while dealing with his own drug fuelled past and his addictive nature.

When one of the group members is murdered, the police get involved and put pressure on all the survivors in turn, hoping to get them to break the rules of confidentiality and the trust that they’ve built up over time. Nicola Tanner is the DI charged with solving this one and the addiction aspect of the case resonates with her own personal life. Her sidekick, Dipak Chall, is a wonderful creation and I’d be more than happy to spend time with this pair in the future.

There’s a whiff of Agatha Christie to this one which is even flagged by the author. The list of suspects is finite, the group setting closed and each has their own motivation for getting rid of the victim, whether that’s being too close, blackmail, hatred or simply the crossing of boundaries. Billingham keeps the pot simmering for each of them as the information is slowly and expertly revealed. As the climax is reached, the interplay and the conclusion are perfectly handled.


I really enjoyed spending time with another group and reckon you will enjoy doing the same if you give it a go, regardless of your own personal experience. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

One Man's Opinion: THE CARTEL by DON WINSLOW


I chose Don Winslow’s The Cartel (US)to take as a holiday read with every confidence that it was up to the job. Its reputation is huge and, weighing in at 600 plus pages, it seemed big enough to keep me busy. We left on Saturday lunchtime and the book was finished before lunch on Wednesday. I think that says a lot about the book. It’s been a great companion and was responsible for some very late nights. I also got to work out by carrying my copy down to the Med and back, so it wasn’t just an emotional workout.

The scale of The Cartel is huge. It follows a feud between US agent Art Keller and the super-powerful drug king Adan Barrera as each tries to pin each other down. This battle forms the body of the plot, but there are many tentacles leading from there. Key characters are introduced and within pages of meeting them we have their complete history nailed and understand their connections and motivations. There are journalists, politicians, agents, beauty queens, lovers, fighters, killers, soldiers, doctors and prostitutes among them and each plays their part with distinction.

There’s something circular about the way the story travels. Eras are defined by political intrigue, and violence. Body counts are listed. Torture and murders are graphically described. Negotiations and double-dealings map out treachery and devious intention. Like the Cartels, the cycle is relentless and seems unbreakable. As a reader, I became immune to the brutality of it all and if this was a deliberate attempt by Winslow to demonstrate how easily people can become numbed into submission by utter barbarity then he was totally successful. This, in some ways, made the journey a little tricky. At certain points, the prospect of another repeated history was rather uninviting. Overcoming that sense of déjà vu was always worth it, however. None of the plotlines lead to cul-de-sacs (although there a plenty of dead ends, I can assure you) and the author is skilled at bringing things to an emotional boil just when that’s required.

The plot here is huge. The characters are enormous – you could probably write a PhD on each, though you don’t necessarily always feel the warmth of their blood or the rate of their pulse. The sense of history brings added weight. Some of the detail feels unnecessary, but I believe that others will relish these elements of over-description. The world with the pages is total chaos – Hell, perhaps. The worst part of the whole piece is that it’s all so bloody real. The book is dedicated to journalists murdered or disappeared in Mexico during the decades covered by the novel and the list goes on forever. That speaks volumes about the world Winslow has fictionalised with such power.

And is it purely coincidence that a writer named Don has written a piece with the fingerprints of The Godfather all over the keyboard? Methinks not.  


Thanks Mr Winslow for the experience and the education.