Wednesday, 30 December 2020

ROBERT B PARKER'S GRUDGE MATCH BY MIKE LUPICA

Grudge Match is Mike Lupica’s second novel continuing Robert B Parker’s Sunny Randall series, and it is a large step forward from the first, Blood Feud, which I reviewed not so long ago.I liked that book’s tight and complicated plotting (if it’s resolution depended on a deus ex machina kind of good fortune) and Lupica handled the Sunny/Richie relationship with considerable sensitivity. He was also good when Sunny was interacting with characters already established by Parker’s own first six novels. Where it bogged down was in Sunny’s ping-ponging between characters and set-ups, which sometimes gave way to a kind of Boston travelogue as if Lupica, a Noo Yawka, was trying to establish his Bosstown chops.

Grudge Match is also tightly plotted. Tony Marcus is a Boston gangster inherited from the Parker oeuvre, and at the end of Blood Feud Sunny put one over on him. Now Marcus’ girlfriend Lisa, who’s also his business partner, has disappeared, and figures Sunny owes him one, and he wants Sunny to find her. Sunny takes the job, with obvious equivocation; after all Marcus runs hookers as one of his entreprenurial activities, but when someone she questions about Lisa is murdered, Sunny finds herself in for more than she might have bargained.

This plot moves on a couple of parallel lines, and though a couple of the twists are predictable, Lupica is very good at retwisting the second one, to make it something different than what it looked to be. Sunny’s own conflicts are amplified by her ambiguous position vis a vis the lawless Marcus, especially since Richie is now dealing with the return of his ex-wife and their son from Britain; the boy’s presence changes the nature of his and Sunny’s considerable relationship dilemmas. And again, Lupica handles this well: always a problem because as I pointed out in my previous review, Sunny is to some extent a female Spenser. It’s a considerable upgrade on his first effort, and I’d say Lupica is already proving the best of the Parker pastichers, short of Ace Atkins, so far. Worth a read if you miss even a sense of Parker.

Grudge Match by Mike Lupica, No Exit Press, £9.99, ISBN 9780857304025

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 28 December 2020

JORN TIER HORST'S CABIN

The Cabin is the second of Jorn Lier Horst’s Cold Case Quartet, and I read it soon after reading and reviewing the third (and most recent in English) of the four, The Inner Darkness. In many ways, I preferred The Cabin, although it’s a less “flashy” thriller than the one that followed, which had an escaped serial killer and his unknown accomplice at its core. But The Cabin begins with a great hook: Bernard Clausen, a senior Labour Party politician is found dead in his cabin by the sea, and along with his corpse is a well-wrapped haul of dollars, pounds and euros, to the tune of some 80 million Norwegian kronor.

The body was found by the party head, and soon the Director General of the police has brought Wisting in to head his own investigation—not of of the death, which appears to be natural causes—but of the money: where it came from, why Clausen had it, and what he may have done to get it, or planned to do with it.

From this unlikely start, the story grows; the disappearance of a young man in the same locality some 15 years earlier might be related, and soon Wisting has uncovered a possible link to another crime. Behind all this is the political intrigue: it may be a mark of Norwegian politics that Wisting is given the leeway he needs for his investigation, but there are sensitive areas for both the party and the government, and Wisting’s small team soon expands to include Adrian Stiller, of Kripos, the national criminal service, roughly the equivalent of the Special Branch. Stiller is a recurring character, one who’s got his own agenda—Wisting tends to see it as personal, rather than political, but often they can be the same thing.

Also on his team, inevitably, is his journalist daughter Line, in this case for her research ability, and from her point of view the mystery might be the jumping off point for the sale of a big story or crime podcast. Line is an interesting character, but she tends to be filled in with rather less detail than we might like because she is more a vital part of the plotting: namely to be the damsel in distress. She is Jamie Lee Curtis babysitting and having to open the cellar door; she is the heroine tied to the tracks waiting – capable of fighting back but inevitably needing rescue. Which creates a real idiosyncrasy in this series: Line is often calling her father, usually in relation to his granddaughter; they live close by. But when Wisting thinks he sees someone leaving her house, and she feels like someone indeed has been there, there’s no follow-up. And as is the case in both the novels I’ve just finished, when Line calls in a real emergency, Wisting is always too busy to take the call. Which keeps the suspense moving, but you would think that he wouldn’t ignore his own phone only when the call is crucial. At least the odds are against it. He also reacts the way many characters in Nordic crime tend to, by ignoring the quickest way of sending help in favour of his own progress. This appears to be a pan-Scandinavian, pan-media quirk which I cannot explain.

Otherwise, The Cabin is an excellent procedural in which following procedures is the only way to deal with a case both cold and extremely hot. It proceeds without gimmick, and there is a twist which is perhaps more obvious to us than to Line, but still is a surprise. As I said, it’s got an element of originality and a limited group of investigators, which makes everyone stand out, and now I will continue my backwards progress in Horst’s quartet, with the first volume, The Katharina Code.

The Cabin by Jorn Tier Horst Penguin/Michael Joseph £13.99 ISBN 9780241405963

Monday, 14 December 2020

JORN TIER HORST'S INNER DARKNESS

Tom Kerr is a serial killer. He has been in prison for four years, and could be facing permanent renewals of his original sentence which would keep him there for life. But he has confessed to a fellow inmate that he killed a third victim, and when that inmate deals his knowledge to the authorities, and Kerr is confronted, he agrees he will direct them to Taran Norum’s grave in exchange for a transfer to a more hospitable prison facility.

Since the killing, and the purported burial site, are in William Wisting’s district, he is put in nominal command of the security in the area. And his daughter Line, with the making a documentary film in mind, is hired by Adrian Stiller, of Kripos, the national police investigators to make a video record of the expedition.

But Kerr escapes, out-smarting the police at every turn. And at the same time, the body of another murdered woman turns out, killed in the same way as Kerr’s victims. It was assumed Kerr had an accomplice in his killings, known as the Other One, and the fear is that he is active, and he has aided Kerr’s escape, putting two killers on the loose. Not only must Wisting find the killer or killers, but he has to hurry, as the blame is being dropped on his shoulders, and his old nemesis, Terje Nordbo of Internal Affairs, thinks this time he has Wisting wrapped up.

The strength of Jorn Lier Horst’s Wisting novels, of which this is the third, is his plotting. They are police procedurals where the procedure is placed in the forefront, and the reader gets an understanding of how information is gathered and better, how the investigator makes sense of it, puts its pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of the crime. The Inner Darkness has a complex plot, as the searches for Kerr and the Other One intertwine (and you will be forgiven if it takes two tries, as it did me, to identify the accomplice). In many of the great Scandinavian police procedurals, going right back to Martin Beck, the plotting within the police force itself is equally gripping, the internal politics and of course here, with Wisting going up against Nordbo and Internal Affairs, it is central. Nordbo holds most of the cards, Wisting’s only avenue to clearing himself if to solve the case.

Wisting is an interesting character, but one who gives little away. As played by Sven Nordin in the television series, he is expressive, but keeps most of his thought processes to himself, almost to the point of passivity. This is common to Scandinavian police novels—there are few hot-headed cops in lead roles. Line, who reminds one of Linda Wallander, is Wisting’s foil: sharp, impulsive and heart on the sleeve, again played very well by Thea Greeen Lundberg with echoes of Johanna Sallstrom in the TV series. Wisting’s ordinariness echoes many of his fellow Scandinavian cops, and in other ways, as they have a penchant for making human errors, in simple things outside of best-practice, though in practice this is worse on television than in the originals novels, as the novelist has no need to add extra complications to the plot to fill a sixth or eighth episode.

The biggest shortcoming in Horst’s novel is the lack of depth to almost all the supporting cast—a couple of whom are fascinating characters: Nordbo of course, but also Stiller, from whom we get hints of much going on beneath the surface, and Kerr’s lawyer Claes Thancke, who is a sort of Norwegian Mickey Haller. You like to see them given a bit more space to be described and have more of their characters revealed. It is not a fatal flaw, ironically, because Horst’s plotting is so precise, and fast-paced, that their characters are delineated by their roles within the story—roles which Horst is very good at getting you to doubt.

It’s the kind of police procedural which gets read faster and faster as it nears the end, and not just because there’s a thriller element as well. If you might want more insight into Wisting, it doesn’t stop you being intrigued by how he works.

The Inner Darkness by Jorn Lier Horst

Michael Joseph: Penguin £14.99 ISBN 9780241389577

Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Saturday, 12 December 2020

DAVID DINKINS: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the former New York mayor David Dinkins is up at the Guardian online, and should be in the paper paper soon.You can link to it here. It's been cut somewhat from what I wrote originally--there were a lot of things that needed further explanation, and once the explanation was cut, the points themselves tended to go too. 

One thing I tried to stress was Dinkins' experience of segregation and prejudice when he went out of New York; Howard University is in Washington DC, which was still a strictly segregated city, and when he was in the Marines, Montford Point was a "separate but equal" training facility near the more famous and far better equipped Camp Lejeune. When Dinkins was not allowed on a bus because all the "coloured" seats were full, it was a Jackie Robinson type moment. But of course he didn't take action as Robinson did, and was court-marshalled for; I was trying to establish whether the bus was running between the two Marine camps but couldn't.

The obvious thing to note is that Dinkins was New York's first black mayor, and, as I mention, New York was the last of the ten biggest US cities to actually elect a black mayor. It was a difficult time for that experiment to take place, given the racial tensions in the city at the peak of a 15 year crime wave, for which Dinkins was not responsible. But to put him in context I tried to describe how he came from that Democratic party machine which pretty much had controlled the city for decades--where Koch had been elected as a reformer, Dinkins was from the very system Koch originally was trying to reform--but because he was racially an outsider, he was perceived by many as someone who could transform the city, something he was ill-equipped to do in any but the symbolic sense. 

He was potentially New York's most charismatic mayor since John Lindsay, who was Kennedy-esque in more ways than one, but that isn't necessarily the charisma the Big Apple requires; both Koch and Giuliani in some ways had that, as I allude to in my opening. I tried to compare him to Obama, but Obama was also a natural performer, a gifted public speaker, and eloquent in his ability to reach people. Dinkins, for all his other qualities, had neither Obama's fluency nor Lindsay's decisiveness, which left him caricatured as ineffective.

Politically, New York is Democratic, but it was also, especially in the outer boroughs, very much a white electorate. Lindsay was a Republican who had been elected while running on the Liberal Party line.The Liberals were a New York institution who were sometimes power brokers in elections, rather than being a kind of left conscience for Tammany Hall. Lindsay, who represented the affluent Manhattan "Silk Stocking" district in Congress, and when he was elected mayor in 1965 he beat Dinkins' mentor Abe Beame and columnist William F Buckley who ran on the Conservative ticket in protest at Lindsay's liberalism, by plurality in a three-way dance.  But the very same gestures that won him minority support in Manhattan hurt him in some of New York's white communities. When he ran for re-election in 1969 the city had been rocked by strikes (and a huge blizzard, where Lindsay was accused of prioritizing the streets of Manhattan over other boroughs). He lost the Democratic primary to the very conservative Mario Proccachino (there were so many candidates Lindsay quipped "the more the Mario"). The Republicans ran the even-more conservative John Marchi, a state senator from mostly-white Staten Island. Lindsay ran only on the Liberal line, but again won a three-way with an even bigger plurality than he had in 1965. It was a turbulent era for Lindsay, who engendered the term "fun city" (used ironically, first by writer Dick Schaap) and who was dubbed, by Proccachino, the first "limousine liberal". 

It was this atmosphere, which got worse in the Seventies as the city went bankrupt and the drugs got worse, I was trying to suggest, with Dinkins caught in a swarm of disasters which he didn't cause, but which required huge talents to overcome. In that context, Giuliani was the reincarnation Proccachino and Marchi, but the endorsement of the Liberal Party was a free ticket for 'liberals' to vote against a black candidate. The Liberals had suffered when they endorsed liberal Republican Jacob Javits for US Senator, allowing the right-wing goof ball Al D'Amato to defeat Democrat Elizabeth Holzman, but Giuliani was, for the party, a death knell, especially when he appeared to reward the Liberal boss Ray Harding with patronage.  But of course, there was no way to tell that story quickly, as you've just seen.

Equally, there wasn't space for the progress of Ed Koch from reformer to corruption: the suicide of Queens borough president Donald Manes in the midst of a huge patronage scandal was the atmosphere which Dinkins neatly managed to avoid being smeared with, a neat political trick. I also tried to compare Dinkins with Barack Obama in greater depth -- but apart from the idea of calm leaders failing to bridge party political gaps, that wasn't as viable, as Obama didn't rise up within the party machine. 

To me the Dinkins story is one of New York City at the time, and his single controversial term speaks loudly about the chaotic nature of the Apple at the time. It was ironic that Dinkins, a huge tennis fan and player, managed to keep the US Open in the city, and the Utah tourist Brian Wilkins was killed on the subway on his way to the Open, trying to protect his mother from a gang of muggers.

Perhaps it is to Giuliani's credit that things began to calm down in the Nineties, or perhaps that was just as much about outside forces, like economic growth nationwide, as Dinkins' troubles were. But it is undeniable that, had he been capable of the big gesture, in a city where gestures can be important and big is always crucial, Dinkins might be remembered differently.