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Monday, March 14, 2016

Tooth and Claw and lots of Gore

Talking of novelists making political statements, high up in the list of gratuitous commentators must be British crime writers.  Books by Ian Rankin, Stephen Booth, and so forth, might be extremely well written, but one gets so tired of the constant griping about the current state of British policing.  So it was a relief to find a British crime novel that is free of political complaints.

I picked up Tooth and Claw because I am a fan of the TV series "Silent Witness" and "New Tricks," which feature unusual scenarios and even more unusual characters, and in this respect was not disappointed at all. 

The detective, DCI Mark Lapslie, suffers from a neurological complaint called synaesthesia, something I had never heard of before.  Apparently, it is a bizarre cross-wiring in the brain, where sensations are registered by the wrong organ.  Some people see numbers and letters as colors, while others feel tastes with their skin -- chicken might be prickly, while cucumber might be hot.  Lapslie "hears" sounds as tastes -- a knock on his front door tastes like herrings, while his partner, Emma Bradbury, has a voice with a soothing citrus tang.  A train rushing by causes such a gush of salt and caramel in his mouth that he is forced to vomit.  Very hampering.

The serial killer is described and developed just as carefully.  He has porphyria, the disease that we know best from the film "The Madness of King George."  His urine is purple, and he thinks he is being watched and followed.  He is also a remarkably savage sadist -- and that is the major flaw of the book.  His nastiness is described in just too much detail, by a writer who is an expert with words.  Some pages were so repulsive that I had to skim and skip.  On the plus side, though, he is understandable.  Read to the end to find the real culprit.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Point of Balance

Publishers and librarians make this a rather hard-to-find book.  First of all, there is confusion about the precise identity of the bestselling (published in 40+ languages) author.  His name is actually Juan Gomez-Jurado, so the book might be filed under the letter "G" but is equally likely to be found alongside books by authors whose names begin with "J."  The title of the book is also unreliable -- it has also appeared under the English title "Tipping Point," as well as its various names in other tongues. (It was originally published in Spanish, the English edition being a translation by Martin Michael Roberts, who did a brilliant job.)

Despite all these little problems, I found it.  And I liked it a lot, even if at times I wondered why I was so gripped.  The plot is melodramatic enough for any television mini-series:  A brilliant, recently widowed and deeply grieving neurosurgeon arrives home after being delayed by an emergency operation to find that his little daughter and the live-in Bulgarian nanny are gone.  His daughter has been kidnapped, and he has to commit an unthinkable crime if he is ever to get her back.

Events follow fast in this "unrelentingly suspenseful" thriller (as described in the Publishers Weekly review) -- a fruitless hunt for the child at the doctor's in-laws' is accompanied by mysterious texts on his cellphone, which has been taken over by a computer hacking mastermind with a serial killer past.  The messages are standard TV thriller style, too -- GO HOME, NO COPS.  The surgeon obeys ... to find the strangled corpse of the nanny wrapped in plastic in his basement.  Then follows a summons to meet the mastermind of the murder, who gloatingly reveals that the little girl in trapped in a hole with limited air, and that she will die if the surgeon does not flunk his next operation, which is on the brain of the President, no less.

At this stage, the story should be too incredible to grip the reader further --the mastermind has been hired by someone even more mysterious to make sure the President dies, and this is his highly complicated way of going about it.  Yet I remained riveted. There was no way I was going to put this book down.

Flip, flip go the pages, turning faster and faster as the surgeon goes through mental and physical agonies trying to find a way out of this impossible dilemma.  Luckily (and even more incredibly), his dead wife's sister is on the Secret Service detail that guards the First Lady. Naturally, she is horrified and shocked at the very idea of letting the President die under the knife, so is willing to go to all lengths to foil the mastermind.  So we see the thriller unfold from two perspectives, in alternating chapters, adding to the tension as the duo struggle to beat the deadline, and rescue the girl in time.

Otherwise, there is no character development.  They are all unchanging, and there are basically only three of them -- the surgeon, the sister-in-law, and the mastermind.  There are others, but they are sketched so briefly that they remain extras -- all of them, that is, except one, a senior surgeon, Dr. Hochstetter, who is supposed to be a nasty, but is probably the most convincing character in the book.  Not only does he ensure that the book is catalogued as a medical mystery, but he provides the best description of a cancer growth a layman could hope to read -- the route of a rogue cell through its first division into a tiny astrocytona into a monster that feeds on the host's blood and lymph, taking over the entire organism in the dreaded process of metastasis -- a process that is doomed, because with the killing of the host the cancer has lost its own battle.

As Hochstetter blithely concludes, "So these dumb cells that wanted to be immortal wind up killing the organism that supported them.  That's it, folks."

Good stuff.

Interestingly, like Frederick Forsyth, Gomez-Jurado likes making political points -- in this case the obscenity of a medical system that aims to make a profit from the patient; where hospitals satisfy their shareholders by making money out of human misery.

But he certainly gets away with it all -- the melodramatic made-for-film plot, the shallow characters, and the paragraphs of commentary -- because of his powerful, perfectly crafted writing.

I will certainly be looking for more.   

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Kill List

What better than a thriller to pass away a train ride?  A Frederick Forsyth would seem to fit the bill to perfection. As the sales and film adaptations prove, he has produced a core of engrossing page-turners, and some of these have certainly helped long flights zip by, for me.

Yet, I approached this book with caution. There have been times when his books have been deeply disappointing, and those, unfortunately, are the ones that I remember.  But, despite reservations, this was the book I chose for this particular journey -- not because of a resurgence of confidence, but because Forsyth is a man who intrigues me.

He is supposed to be ultra-conservative, but he is nevertheless outspoken in his criticism of those Conservatives who have disappointed him.  Right now, he is campaigning to have Tony Blair impeached for warmongering and telling blatant porkies.  You can read all about it on the Daily Express

"On March 18th 2003 Prime Minister Tony Blair entered the House of Commons, marched straight up to the Despatch Box and told a series of lies for which he has never been challenged by a cowardly House, let alone punished," he begins.

"That same house is waiting for Sir John Chilcot to do its job for it, but he too does not seem to have the bottle.

"Of course, the lies did not look like it at the time for Blair is probably the most plausible rogue to have entered British public life for at least a century.

"What he said was that he had proof positive that Saddam Hussain of Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that were a menace to us all, that he could launch them in 45 minutes and that he had made no commitments to anyone but sought the say-so of the House to send our troops to intervene.

"A trusting or perhaps just gullible House, speaking in our name, gave that permission.

"Two days later our troops, massed in Kuwait, moved on the Al Faw peninsular, southern gateway to Iraq.

"One hundred and seventy-nine of those young men never came back, save in coffins."

Bravo!  Well said, say I.

Yet, in his books, Forsyth has no hesitation in demonizing Saddam, and his ilk.  It's an interesting contradiction.

Like The Afghan and The Fist of God, the premise of The Kill List relies on a savage depiction of evil plotting in the North Africa and the Middle East.  The Bad Guy in the story is a radical Moslem who posts videos on the internet urging the faithful to go out and slaughter the infidel, in silver-tongued "sermons" that are delivered in perfect English, and succeed all too well.  He is known as The Preacher, while the Good Guy is an elite soldier, known as The Tracker, who is given the job of hunting him down.  It is no spoiler if I tell you that after a lot of detective work and dashing about exotic parts of the world, he does manage to nail him (with the enthusiastic contribution of a squad of ultra-elite British soldiers) because its the unfolding of the hunt that keeps the pages turning.  Vintage Forsyth, it is so studded with acronyms that some of the pages look like alphabet soup, and is replete with well-researched facts; the characters (save, mystifying, one important fellow who is the hostage who must be saved at all costs) are described in such intricate detail that you almost get to know them, despite the utter lack of character development; it is topical and interesting, and taken altogether it is a bloody good read.

And, quite wonderfully, the author grabs the chance to have a stab at another conscienceless rightwing politician -- of the US variety, this time.  I quote from page 48.  (If you are as ignorant as I was when I started this book, you will appreciate me telling you that J-SOC is the Joint Special Ops Command.)

"The first transformer of J-SOC was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  This ruthless and power-hungry Washington insider was resentful of the power and privileges of the CIA.  Under its charter the Agency needed to be answerable only to the President, not Congress. With its SAD units it could conduct covert and lethal operations abroad on the Director's say-so. That was power, real power, and Secretary Rumsfeld was determined to have it.  But the Pentagon is very much subject to Congress and its limitless capacity for interference.

"Rumsfeld needed a weapon outside Congress's over-sight if he was ever to rival George Tenet, Director of the CIA. A completely transformed J-SOC became that weapon.

"With the agreement of President George W. Bush, J-SOC expanded and expanded, in size, budget and powers.  it absorbed all the Special Forces of the state.  They included Team Six of the SEALs (who would later kill Osama bin Laden), the DELTA Force or D-Boys drawn from the Green Berets, the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Air Force's Special Ops Aviation Regiment (the Night Stalkers, long-range helicopters) and others.  It also gobbled up TOSA."

Don't ask me what TOSA stands for.  But, according to Forsyth, it is "the very small department, based in Northern Virginia, tasked with hunting down those terrorists who seek to hide themselves from American retributive justice."

Does it exist?  I haven't a clue.  But I bet Forsyth has fun imagining it commissioning a Good Guy (who is an elite soldier, of course) to wreak "retributive justice" on a few well-chosen political figures.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Culture clash in Korea

BRITANNIA’S SPARTAN, by Antoine Vanner

Britannia's Spartan.jpg
This, the fourth in the enthralling Dawlish series, fulfills all the promise of the previous books, then delivers even more.

Beginning with a flashback to an early and character-defining episode in Dawlish’s naval career – one that, incidentally, is the best description of a desperate and doomed attack on a coastal fort I have ever read – the story reaches forward to Dawlish’s latest assignment.  This, the collection of signatures on diplomatic papers from the weak Korean emperor, seems simple enough. For Dawlish, the aim and pleasure of the job is a test run of his crack new command, the ironclad Leonidas

The voyage to Hong Kong goes very satisfactorily indeed, but from then on matters deteriorate very quickly. The anchorage in Korea is run by corrupt Europeans under the sway of a territory-hungry Japanese breakaway society, and the journey to Seoul is marked by scenes of appalling treatment of the local peasants.  Unsurprisingly, Seoul turns out to be the arena of a brutal civil rebellion. Street battles follow, as Dawlish struggles not only to save his little band of gallant men, but to rescue the empress as well. Firstrate battleships of competing Japanese and Chinese forces arrive, along with menacing torpedo boats, and then the whole is enveloped in the destructive whirl of a typhoon – and that is only the first half of this page-turner of a book.

Vanner is a master of the descriptive phrase, whether portraying battles on land at sea in every shocking detail, or uncovering the thorny tangle of dealing with utterly foreign peoples. Some of his characters, whether British, Chinese, Korean or Japanese, fairly jump off the page. The British-trained Japanese navigator, Takenada, is particularly well-drawn, and his role in the unexpected and dramatic denouement is very satisfying indeed.

While there are scenes that are not for the faint of heart, this book is recommended to all readers. It is not necessary to have read the previous books in order to enjoy Britannia’s Spartan, but I predict that those who are new to Vanner’s work won’t take long to turn to the others in the Dawlish series.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Great maritime speakers

A featured author is Old Salt Press's own ANTOINE VANNER, whose latest book is reaping rave reviews.