Book review: “van Gogh’s Ear” by Bernadette Murphy

When there is a hype, I prefer to wait till it has blown over and then see if all the fuzz was just marketing and pitching. So it took a while for me to read Bernadette Murphy’s book “Van Gogh’s Ear”, despite it being closely linked to the Amsterdam van Gogh Museum’s summer exhibition which terminates 25th of September 2016.

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Book review: “Career of Evil” by Robert Galbraith

This is the third novel of the series created by Harry Potter’s author writing as Robert Galbraith.”The Cuckoo’s Calling” was published in 2013. “The Silkworm” appeared a year later and “Career of Evil” in 2015.

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Book review: “The Baby Thief” by Barbara Bisantz Raymond

Unfortunately, this book is not fiction. This is a true story about adoption. Most of the babies and children were white, blue-eyed, blond. They nearly all came from one US state: Tennessee.

Barbara Bisantz Raymond describes events which took place between 1920 and 1950. Her story also deals with preliminaries and aftermath. It focuses on the legal – but mostly illegal – dealings of one person. It is hard to believe, at times horrifying to read, yet true. Worse: the illegal practises it describes continue in other parts of the world.

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Film review: La Isla Minima – Marshland

Her granddaughter had told her to go and watch the film. Gran had ordered her granddaughter to get her the complete first series of “True Detective”. Gran didn’t like having to wait a week for a new episode to be shown on telly. So while waiting for her granddaughter to deliver, gran had taken her advice.

We sat chatting at the back of the cinema, waiting for “La Isla Minima” or “Marshland” to start. Four Spanish-speaking people joined us, but chatted among themselves. Like gran, I was in the middle of “True Detective”, but waiting for the next episode to be shown.Film reviewers mentioned in various languages, that “La Isla Minima” was very much like “True Detective”.

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Book review: Rendell from “Doon” to “Nightingale”

The late Ruth Rendell was a prolific writer. The list of books written under her pen names of Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine is impressive. There are over seventy books. Among these are twenty-four Inspector Wexford thrillers.

Like so many other writers, Ruth Rendell had her first manuscripts refused. Not that she was an inexperienced writer, for before her marriage she worked as a journalist. She married her boss at the paper. And as was still more or less mandatory at the time: upon marriage, she quit her job to become a fulltime housewife.

Or rather: she became a housewife and mother who wrote books. For she wrote several thrillers and non-detective novels. All these attempts to break into publishing were refused. The breakthrough came with her first Wexford detective.

This first Inspector Wexford thriller was published in 1964. The last detective novel in which he solves crimes, appeared in 2013. By then, Wexford is long retired. However, his former colleague Burden regularly involves him in cases as an independent consultant.

During an interview, Ruth Rendell mentioned Wexford resembled her. But unlike Conan Doyle with his creation Sherlock Holmes, she claims never to have tired of her Wexford. This must be the reason Wexford continues to assist Burden as a police consultant in the last few of the twenty-four thrillers. Unlike other detective writers, Ruth Rendell never let him die.

This made me wonder: could developments be detected in Rendell’s creation? After all: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot changes. Rex Stout‘s Nero Wolfe also kind of evolves.
On the other hand, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple hardly changes from one case to the next. The same holds for Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver.

Wentworth’s Miss Silver, by the way, solved crimes long before Miss Marple appeared on the scene. It is interesting that Agatha Christie mentioned names of other crime writers who influenced her. However, she never referred to or mentioned Patricia Wentworth and Miss Silver. Regardless: I decided to read the first and last Inspector Wexford novel.

“From Doon with Death”
Ruth Rendell’s first thriller with Inspector Wexford is called “From Doon with Death”. As mentioned above, it appeared in 1964. The reader is not only introduced to Wexford. Burden is already his side-kick, but still has to get used to his chief.

One of Burden’s neighbours approaches him. The man’s wife is missing. Burden does not look forward to getting involved, but there is something odd about the house and the man. Sure enough, the wife’s body is found and Wexford and Burden have their first case to solve.

After reading this interesting first Wexford detective, there were a few things which struck me. Keeping up (outward) appearances is still extremely important. But then: this story takes place during the early sixties. Yet, appearances are also important to the plot. This is still fairly simple as Wexford and Burden have to solve one murder case.

Most of the story is told from Burden’s point of view. The reader experiences his irritations, his exasperations, his interpretations. Wexford reaches conclusions just ahead of Burden. This first detective story also describes a lesbian love, which in the early sixties, must have made quite an impression. Yet Rendell and Wexford are not judgemental – on the contrary.

“No Man’s Nightingale”
The last crime novel with Wexford and Burden is “No Man’s Nightingale”. Wexford is retired and finally reading the book(s) he has been wanting to read for so long. But he is only too glad to be invited by Burden to have a look at another murder scene.

For Dora and Wexford are regularly terrorized by their efficient cleaner. Husband and wife try to be out of the house whenever they can. Even when it turns out their cleaner found the first murder victim: the local vicar.

As is so often the case in her books, Ruth Rendell took current themes and interests and wove these into the story. In this detective, a few of the contemporary themes and views range from female vicars, a changing Church of England and people’s attitude to these changes; donorship, single mothers, paternity; gold-diggers, divorce, misuse of social housing and benefits and relationships between parents and children.

Interestingly, where Ruth Rendell writes about lesbian love in her first Wexford thriller, her last has a homosexual couple. This couple might well become the in-laws of Wexford’s grandchild. The Wexford family makes no big deal about this. But this does not mean that there are no bigots and narrow-minded people in Inspector Wexford’s world.

There are certainly differences between this and the first Wexford thriller. This time, the reader mostly experiences events through Wexford’s eyes. The most striking difference is, however, the plot. Burden and Wexford have to deal with several dead bodies, different cases and more than one murderer.

So this is clearly a book written by a mature author. Ruth Rendell deftly weaves the murders and cases into her story. She does all this without loosing control of story, links, plot, characters – and keeping everything highly plausible and realistic.

Both the first and the last of the twenty-four Wexford detectives are interesting and absorbing reads. But what about Wexford and Burden? Have they greatly changed?

They have aged and readers get an insight into their past and current private lives. Moreover: their world has considerably changed. There are budget cuts, mobile phones, internet and computers, databases and software. Society and solving crimes have certainly changed since the early sixties. Yet both main characters have more or less remained the same.

Guardian Ruth Rendell: a life in writing

Book review: Galbraith’s Silkworm

It used to be a Christie’s for Christmas. This stopped when Agatha Christie died and her famous characters Poirot and Miss Marple with her. There are the recent pathetic attempts at resurrecting Poirot – for the money – by less successful authors. (See Poirot)

So the hole Agatha Christie left, was until recently filled by a Morse detective and the Lewis’ series for Christmas. Or a Daziel and Pascoe thriller and the series based on these – though the tv series and Reginald Hill’s books differ considerably. Of course, I read practically everything by the late P.D. James, as well as murder and mayhem written by other crime novelists.

When the first Cormoran Strike novel appeared on the scene, I did not read it. Only after the hype died down and the author’s true pseudonym – Robert Galbraith being the same as J.K. Rowlin of Harry Potter fame – had been revealed, did I manage to get a copy. After reading “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, I could not wait for the next in this series to appear.

Nor, apparently, could a great many other people. The list of reservations by readers of over five different libraries was so long, it took months for a copy to become available. The day before Christmas, I finally managed to cart home a copy of “The Silkworm”.

It took me the two days of Christmas to tear through it. With Christmas dinner and other obligations intervening, I was unable to read it non-stop. But managing to read close to 460 pages in 48 hours, gives you an idea of this crime novel’s hold.

Is it as good as the first one? Don’t know about you, but the solution of the first Cormoran and Robin thriller came as a surprise to me. This time, however, I guessed fairly early in the book what had happened to the missing body parts. Once you solve this one, the number of suspects dwindles considerably. Nevertheless, this did not break the hold of the story.

The solution still did come as a bit of a surprise. Apparently, I found one or two candidates more likely culprits and one or two possible solutions more probable. Maybe this was caused by the Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and chestnut puree?

Moreover, I was also taken aback, that the culprit most likely responsible for the suicide of one of the other suspects’ wife … turned out to be totally innocent. Blame this on the wine – or perhaps Galbraith’s expertise in red herrings, twists, and turns.

So: the story and plot are gripping, the pace fast. It is nice to become more acquainted with several main characters. But towards the end, my impression was that family members and friends of Robin and Cormoran were pulled out of a top-hat to help bring the book to an acceptable close. Compared to the first thriller of what is now the Cormoran Strike series, this second whodunnit seemed contrived.

What slightly annoyed me, was all the unnecessary information used to place this novel in a specific period in a specific year. This detective story would have worked without the reader being told Kate and William got engaged. Is the reader really interested and this? Does he or she needs to know the action takes place eight months after the first adventure? Sure: it’s nice to know that everybody is off to celebrate a happy Christmas in the end, but does it matter in which winter?

As for the theme: a reader is unable to miss it is revenge. Nearly each chapter has a quote from a Jacobean revenge tragedy. Before the novel even starts, the scene is set by a few lines from Thomas Dekker’s “The Noble Spanish Soldier”. There are quotes from “The White Devil”, “The Dutchess of Malfi”, “The Revenger’s Tragedy” and similar plays. In fact, we’re even told Robin’s mum is taking an Open University course in this genre.

Galbraith dropped out of university and so have the two main protagonists. I also suspect Galbraith mischievously used experiences and personal knowledge about the publishing world in this novel. While trying to locate the missing author, Cormoran and Robin come across succesful writers, the lesser ones, and downright failures. There are fans and hangers-on. There is the rivalry between publishers, editors, authors, and publishing houses. The dwindling number of readers – and good authors, according to one of the characters – is mentioned. But it is also made clear how much money is made from novels, or even writing an introduction to a dead author’s manuscript.

Is it a good read? Personally, I think “The Cuckoo’s calling” is better than the bombyx mori one. But as I tore through “The Silkworm” in 48 hours, this one still falls in my category of “unputdownable”. So if like me, you’ve read both of Galbraith’s detective novels: let’s hope the third one will be out in time for Christmas 2015.

“The Cuckoo’s calling”, Robert Galbraith, Sphere, 2013. Also available as audio and ebook.
“The Silkworm”, Robert Galbraith, Sphere, 2014. Also available as audio and ebook

The author’s official page: Robert Galbraith. Facebook page for Cormoran Strike fans: CormoranStrike

Book review: Robert Harris’ award winning “An Officer and a Spy”

Most of Robert Harris’ novels are excellent reads. “An Officer and a Spy” is no exception. His interpretation of the famous Dreyfus Affair, a real nineteenth century French scandal, quite rightly tots up one prize after another. It was awarded the Walter Scott Prize. The CWA called it this year’s best thriller. It recently won the American Library in Paris Book Award: more prizes will probably follow.

Robert Harris did a lot of research. He read contemporary accounts and other background material. (You will find a list at the back of his novel.) This enables him to bring to life 19th century Paris; from its stench, to society’s double standards, it’s shocking anti-Semitism (rampant throughout the rest of the world as well) and its corruption. Though a fictional interpretation, this book is based on facts. It is not only a thriller, a detective, a spy story, but also a historic novel.

Its main character is Colonel Georges Picquart. He is one of many Alsace people who personally experienced France’s humiliating defeat during the Franco-Prussian war. Though opting for an army career, Picquart is a kind of refugee. Like Dreyfus, he is and is not part of French society.

The novel starts with Picquart witnessing the public humiliation of Dreyfus. Picquart firmly believes that Dreyfus, his former student, is a German spy. While Dreyfus is deported to Devil’s Island, Picquart is promoted to manage France’s 19th century version of MI5. There he comes across the first signs that something is wrong with Dreyfus’ conviction. Picquart turns from a firm supporter of the official government version, into someone doubting it. Ultimately, he will become one of the people willing to take on the government, politicians, the army – to uncover the truth.

Robert Harris manages to make not only Picquart but many of his characters totally convincing and human. The pace of the story is very fast. Developments force you to continue reading. Though the plot’s twists and many of the revelations are hard to believe, it is quite chilling to realise that everything is based on facts and real events. Worse: affairs very similar to the Dreyfus one, still take place throughout this world, while there are not that many people as brave as Picquart.

Often, when a novel produces a hype, this has more to do with publishers wanting to increase profits than true quality. This time however, “An Officer and a Spy” lives up to expectations. It is a brilliant story – provided you like a detective, a thriller, a spy or historic novel.

“An Officer and a Spy” by Robert Harris, first published 2013; paperback 624 pp; Arrow 2014.
Telegraph interview with Robert Harris: the Dreyfus Affair.
Interested in a few 19th century novels Robert Harris read as background material: English and French versions of Emile Zola’s “J’ accuse” and “La Debacle” are available through Amazon and Gibert-Joseph.

Book review: “Poirot, The Monogram Murders” by Sophie Hannah

Agatha Christie died in 1976 and ensured her two most famous detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, died with her. However, publishers Harper Collins and author Sophie Hannah contacted the Christie estates and were granted permission to resurrect money-spinning Poirot. So in September, a new Poirot case called “The Monogram Murders” was released in over fifty countries.

The driving force behind such recreations, resurrections, rewrites is profits. For why would a publisher and an established author with enough inspiration and creative talents – one hopes – and at least one original money-spinning thriller, bother to use characters, plots, themes, titles, novels written by anyone else?

Recent cases include P.J. James’s “Death comes to Pemberley” and Val McDermid’s “Northanger Abbey” based on Jane Austen’s novels including “Northanger Abbey”. Someone somewhere obviously hit upon the bright idea, that with all the reprints, tv-series and films based on Jane Austen’s novels, anything based on her writings ensures a decent profit.

As Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple are also huge money-spinners, Sophie Hannah and Harper Collins hit upon resurrecting Hercule Poirot. Undoubtedly not once, but for a very long new series of cases, spinning an awful lot of money. One suspects Agatha Christie’s wishes for her characters to die with her will soon be totally brushed aside, with Miss Jane Marple also receiving the kiss of life.

Unfortunately enough, “The Monogram Murders” is definitely not a Christie. To recreate Poirot, with all his mannerisms, little obsessions, vanity, and other characteristics, is not that difficult. But Sophie Hannah already manages not to pull this off convincingly. Moreover, Poirot’s side-kick is worse than Japp or captain Hastings. And it does not stop with the side-kick.

There are far too many highly contrived situations, twists, and turns. Take for instance Poirot being “en vacances” and not living in his comfortable apartment. No, he is not in Nice. He rents a room and is staying with a landlady who is rather irritating and not the best of cooks. As she does not cook on Thursdays, Poirot has found a small nearby coffee-house (!) where the coffee, food, pastries, are heavenly. So we have a sleuth who was unable to find place which serves decent coffee and pastries near his home. Things do not end here: Poirot’s landlady lives across the road from Poirot’s apartment. Poirot rents a room with a view of his own comfortable home. This is not only totally absurd and unconvincing; it is totally out of character, even totally unnecessary for the plot and story.

Then there is the main plot, which is just too absurd to believe. Many of the twists and turns between murders and solution also seem only to be there to ensure this book tots up a couple of extra pages. Whoever hit upon the idea of victims accepting to be murdered because they suddenly decide they feel remorse – over a decade after having behaved vilely? Why should two women in love with the same man plot together to kill off three people and have the spurned boyfriend of one of them totally willing to assist in the murders?

All this and more ensured, I made a mental note to not ever again read anything written by Sophie Hannah. If she comes up with such dreadful pulp based on Agatha Christie’s works, whatever she has written or will write, can only be totally unreadable.

After having read this fabrication, the only conclusion was that the name Poirot had been used to ensure a less than acceptable read was going to spin an awful lot of money for those involved in its publication. Why on earth did the Christie estates ever gave permission for one of her characters to be used in this fit-to-light-the-barbecue book? Lost a lot of money during the recent economic upheavals?

The only advice regarding this resurrection attempt: don’t pay money for it! If you really must read it, head for a library. If you’re a true Christie fan, just give it a wide berth. Rereading one of Christie’s over thirty Poirot novels and short stories will be far more satisfying.

“The Monogram Murders » by Sophie Hannah, published in 2014, is available as hardback, paperback, Kindle, Audio, CD, Audiobook (and in many translations) through Amazon.

For the more positive Observer review: “The Monogram Murders

Book review: “The Golden Egg” by Donna Leon

Each new Brunetti book is an absorbing read. This one is no exception. Only during the last few pages of “The Golden Egg”, does it become clear what the title means. By then, Brunetti and the reader have been through many twists, turns, possible solutions. Yet the final one still manages to surprise.

All starts out innocently enough. Brunetti’s family share a meal and indulge in their insiders’ game: creating an absurd story using a word, a phrase, grammar, syntax. Only far into the novel, the significance of this scene becomes clear. By then it is also clear: this may be a family playing absurd games – they are a happy family.

The innocent scene is soon forgotten, when Brunetti and Paola find out about the death of someone at their dry-cleaner’s. Then the first questions start, for the commissario and his friends, and the reader. What happened? Was it really suicide?

And effortlessly, the reader becomes absorbed in this detective story. Each time, Brunetti and the reader have more clues and the mystery seems solved, the “this is what happened” is wrong. Even in the final chapters, when Brunetti has the most probable solution, he still cannot prove it. This makes it one of Donna Leon’s darker books.

Like all books in this series, it can be read at several levels. One can read it as a holiday read on the beach, in the train, wherever – as a not too taxing but excellent story. Once finished, the reader knows what happened to the golden egg: case solved.

But at another level, this book challenges readers to think hard about things. The theory used to underpin the case, for instance, is true. The examples are real and the theory is probably true for nearly all species. Something goes wrong and is not corrected in a certain space of time? You, your brain, your body will never be able to grasp it, apply it, master it.

Shocking to realise, how vulnerable development is. Shocking how much we take things for granted. Shocking, how easily the necessary pattern can be interrupted, disrupted, corrupted. No need to crack a skull: the right kind of care and you murder a soul, a being, a life.

Shocking also – again – how culpable society, acquaintances, friends, and a family can be. Culpable because no questions are asked, no actions are taken – though plenty people suspect, conclude, presume, are aware of what is going on. Culpable because it is easier to look the other way, presume but not check, demand a certain code of conduct, use non-facts and non-knowledge to draw wrong conclusions – to condone and cooperate with the blighting of lives.

Brunetti admits that he feels guilty and that this feeling is driving him on. Society, of which he and Paola and the others – including the reader – are part, has failed a vulnerable being. But as Brunetti cannot prove things, he leaves it to that same society to meet out justice.

These are just a few examples of how Donna Leon uses this book to ask serious questions. She uses all her books to force willing readers to think about present-day issues. But there are lighter touches as well. There are for instance scenes with Patta, or Brunetti thinking about his daughter’s latest crusades. All this, makes it another excellent detective novel, strongly recommended for an absorbing read.

“The Golden Egg” by Donna Leon, dedicated to Frances Fyfield, London Heinemann, 2013