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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (sceleris poena)

Take That, Dostoevsky!

The amazingly prolific Adrian Tchaikovsky is back with another big fat novel called Alien Clay.

Life on Earth is grey and totalitarian. The Mandate holds sway over all the world. The Mandate is an ideological quasi-scientific/religious organisation that does not allow free thinking. There is only one correct way to look at the world, and that is the world as defined and circumscribed by the Mandate. It’s all rather like 1984 only more controlling...

But human nature being what it is, there are always going to be dissidents plotting in the background against the status quo. The Mandate has a unique way of dealing with them. It sends them on a one-way journey to an alien world.

Professor Arton Daghdev, a specialist in possible alien biologies, is one such political dissident. When the Mandate finally catches up with him, they exile him to Kiln, a planet infested with the ruins of an alien civilization. This is the greatest discovery in humanity’s spacefaring history. But nobody knows who the builders were and nobody knows why they left or where they went.  Daghdev should be in his element here, and to an extent he is. He burns with curiosity, eager to find out more about the builders. Unfortunately the Mandate has not entirely let go of him. His day to day life inside what is, in effect, a Soviet style gulag is very grim indeed with little or no time left over to indulge his intellectual interests.

This is an extremely dissatisfying novel because it can’t quite make up its mind what it’s really all about. Is it about the dehumanising effects of totalitarian politics or is it about the origin and eventual fate of the alien society that once flourished on Kiln? The two are really quite incompatible scenarios, so much so in fact that I eventually lost patience with both of them. The contrast between them was too extreme. No sooner did I find myself involved with one aspect than the story switched to the other one. Then it happened again in reverse. Each idea was used as window dressing for the other. Really this should have been two quite separate novels published months (if not years) apart, one novel about each of the big ideas – and make no mistake about it, both the ideas are huge. That’s why the book is so damn thick and heavy, in every sense of the word.

The novel is stuffed to the gills with fascinating speculations, both scientific and political. Grim dystopian existence and its concomitant gulags has seldom been portrayed as well as this (Solzhenitsyn eat your heart out) and the radical biological theorising is breathtaking. Also it is not impossible that intellectual parallels can be drawn between them. Probably that’s why Adrian Tchaikovsky chose to write this story as one great big novel rather than as two smaller ones...

The three novels that make up Nathan Lowell’s Fairport trilogy are a little bit of a departure for him – his major tropes are still present of course. Lots of nice people meet each other to drink cups of tea and to chat about this and that. But the plot doesn’t ramble, it has a definite point to make. There is a proper beginning, middle and end to the story and lots and lots of relevant stuff happens. Theft! Murder! Betrayal! Insurance fraud!

Tanyth Fairport has been wandering the roads of Korlay for twenty years, learning all she can about the herbs and medicinal plants that grow there. She has spent that time living with and learning from the wise women who dwell in villages scattered all over the country. Now her journey is almost at an end. She has one more wise woman to find, Gertie Pinecrest the so-called hermit of Lammas Wood, the wisest of all the wise women.

The first two novels tell of her adventures on the road as she makes her slow way to Lammas Wood. The third, naturally, tells of what happens when she arrives there. And it is not at all what she expected, though in hindsight it really was quite inevitable.

Her journey takes place in a kind of medieval setting and Tanyth herself is a personalisation of the wiccan/shamanistic tradition. The novels, despite their quasi-realistic setting (I wasn’t kidding about the insurance fraud) are definitely fantasy quest stories replete with small – and sometimes not so small – magics and mysticisms.

As always I absolutely loved every word of them. As far as I am concerned, Nathan Lowell can do no wrong.

The four books that make up William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer novel series are detective stories set in 1968 and 1969. Helen Tozer is a young police constable and Paddy Breen is her boss.

The first three novels, though they are reasonably standalone in the sense that each involves a murder and the murderer is eventually tracked down successfully, also tell one, long connected story involving the deepening relationship between Breen and Tozer themselves. When they first meet they don’t like each other at all. But by the end of the third novel they are very much an item. Really, the first three books are just one large novel split into three volumes and you would do yourself a great disservice if you read them out of order. The fourth novel, though it does have some small connections to things that have gone before, can be read in isolation – though beware, there are worrying hints that it might spawn sequels and turn into another triple decker.

There’s something very nostalgic about reading stories set in the years when I myself was a gangling teenager still finding my way in the world. I vividly remember many of the events that the novels concern themselves with. The grim, austerely black and white world of the 1950s had suddenly exploded into colour. There was brightness and optimism everywhere. The newspapers told us about beatlemania, about Mick Jagger and John Lennon being arrested on drug charges, about the death of Brian Jones and, from somewhat further afield, they reported details of the terrible wars that were going on in Biafra and Vietnam. We went on protest marches to condemn those wars.

All of these events are woven seamlessly into the plots of the novels – indeed many of them provide important clues that eventually point Breen and Tozer towards the murderers they are pursuing. William Shaw has done a superb job of bringing those seminal years back to life, and Breen and Tozer themselves are fascinatingly complex characters. I fell in love with both of them.

Ironically, these novels could not actually have been written during the years in which they are set. A major theme that weaves its way in and out of the story is the corruption, misogyny, racism and sheer brutality of the Metropolitan Police and (to a lesser extent) other police forces as well. We knew nothing about that at the time, though some of us had our suspicions. By and large, back then the police were still a respected institution, more or less, and we certainly did not know what was really going on behind the scenes. The novels themselves spend some time documenting the antics of Norman Pilcher, the head of the Drug Squad, the man who arrested Jagger, Lennon and many other prominent rock stars on drug charges. When these arrests were gleefully reported in the newspapers we had no idea that Pilcher himself was a corrupt publicity seeker who gloried in the stellar names that he was bringing to court. It never occurred to us that he had actually planted drugs on all the celebrities he arrested. But he had.

It would be years before the truth came out, years before Pilcher himself was arrested and sent to prison in disgrace. I have no idea whether the charges against Jagger, Lennon et al were ever removed from the record (they certainly should have been), but given that Mick Jagger was eventually awarded a knighthood it seems clear that Pilcher’s actions had no significant long term effect. I have no doubt that, had he lived, John Lennon would have got a knighthood as well. At least he got an airport named after him. Jagger never managed that...

But Norman Pilcher was only the tip of the iceberg. By the end of the first novel WPC Helen Tozer has resigned from the police force, disgusted by the casual misogyny she experiences every day. The sensitive among you who find such things upsetting to read about would do well to avoid these novels. Almost every page requires a trigger warning for sexism, racism and brutal behaviour. But that’s what life was like back then. The novels are simply accurate reportage.

DS Cathal Breen, Tozer’s direct boss, (known to one and all as Paddy because nobody can pronounce his Irish first name) is somewhat less guilty of this kind of thing than are his colleagues but he is not completely whiter than white either. He does feel very much out of place in 1968, he doesn’t understand it, he’s too old to be properly in tune with the times (he’d rather listen to jazz than to rock and roll). But nevertheless he’s a good policeman who understands people. He knows that underneath the gloss and the glitter and the hedonism people (and their motives) remain the same as they always were.

His colleagues are not so understanding or forgiving and they mock him for his softness. Many of them are simple thugs and bullies, personality traits that the police force tends to attract. They are short term thinkers, who often fail to recognise that actions have consequences because, generally speaking, their own actions don’t have consequences. In one horrendous scene that even I found a little bit difficult to read, a police constable actually beats a suspect to death while interrogating him. But it is all swept under the carpet and the constable suffers no punishment for what he did apart from having a promotion delayed for a short time.

Eventually, in the 1970s, a half-hearted attempt was made to purge the corruption and brutality from the Metropolitan Police. By that time corruption among detectives was so endemic that the police commissioner, Sir Robert Mark, famously declared that the measure of a good police force was that it "catches more crooks than it employs". An ambivalently cynical remark if ever there was one. He himself set out to clean up the Met but even though hundreds of officers were eventually disciplined, sacked or sent to prison, he failed to change the police culture in any significant way. His efforts came far too little and far too late. Pilcher’s own downfall, one of the most highly publicised cases, really only happened because Pilcher himself got overconfident and his transgressions became too blatant to ignore. In the years since then, the Met has continued to cover itself in (well documented and well publicised) shame and disgrace to such an extent that these days it is a mere shadow of its former self, untrusted, unloved and largely sidelined. Almost all the publicity it gets is bad publicity – even as I was writing this review, news feeds all over the world were reporting that at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London a Metropolitan police officer threatened a demonstrator with arrest because he was "openly Jewish" and this was causing a "breach of the peace". Both the UK Prime Minister and the Police Commissioner have since apologised for what they each referred to as the policeman’s appalling treatment of the demonstrator. But the damage has been done yet again and all the apologies in the world are not going to make it go away.

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

To an extent, the Breen and Tozer novels are wise with 20/20 hindsight. If we’d known back then what we know now perhaps things might have been different? Shaw makes a convincing case that they probably would not. Dylan told us that "...the times they are a-changin’..." and he wasn’t wrong. But the people didn’t really change with the times (except on the surface). They never do. So even with the extra dimension given to these books with the wisdom of hindsight there is no doubt that the Breen and Tozer novels still perfectly capture the Zeitgeist of the late 1960s.

Up until a week ago I’d never heard of Garry Disher. But then I serendipitously stumbled across an article which was headlined Garry Disher – The Crime Writer Other Crime Writers Read.  I learned two things from the article. Firstly that Garry Disher is Australian and secondly that his novels bring Australia so brilliantly alive that that you can see and smell the crowded city suburbs, the small outback townships, the merciless heat of the empty red heart of the country. And he fills all those places with real people, heroes and villains (sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart) all interacting with each other in complex plots, full of red herrings that somehow manage to work themselves out, and along they way shining a light into some very dark places indeed.

Sounds good, I thought, and I settled down to read some Garry Disher books. I’ve read four of them now and I completely agree with every single thing the article said about him. Just as a skilful artist can draw 6 charcoal lines on a piece of paper and convince you that you are looking at a kangaroo, a cup of coffee, or a desert landscape so too can Garry Disher write six well chosen words on the other side of that same piece of paper and convince you of exactly the same things. He is one of the most evocative writers I’ve ever come across as well as being a master of complex plotting. That’s an unbeatable combination.

Bitter Wash Road  is the first book in a series about Constable Paul Hirschhausen ("Call me Hirsch."). Hirsch is a recently demoted Adelaide detective – we eventually learn that in Adelaide he was a member of a drug squad all of whom (apart from Hirsch) turned out to be on the take. Hirsch’s colleagues assume that since he was not prosecuted along with the rest  of the team, he must be a whistleblower (a "dog", a "maggot" in the vernacular). His reputation is in ruins, the pressure of the accusations have destroyed his marriage and he has been reassigned to run a one-man police station in Tiverton, a tiny, dusty township three hours outside of Adelaide. His nearest backup is his immediate boss, Sergeant Kropp who, together with two constables called Nicholson and Andrewartha, run the police station in Redruth, which is 40km away from Tiverton. Local rumour has it that the Redruth police amuse themselves by beating up Indigenous youths and, when the mood takes them, raping indigenous girls. Hirsch knows he can’t depend on them for anything and he is well aware that they, in their turn, despise him. He is very much on his own…

A report of shots fired on Bitter Wash Road introduces Hirsch to two young children taking potshots at jam tins with a little .22 rifle. Recent news stories have reported on two serial killers who are on the run in a stolen black Chrysler station wagon. The children claim to have seen the wanted vehicle recently and they are practising with the rifle in order to be able to defend themselves should the need arise. Hirsch reassures them that they haven’t seen the killers’ car – that had been found, a burned out wreck, many hundreds of miles away. The killers have definitely not been driving down Bitter Wash Road.

But this incident, minor and unimportant in itself, will later come back to haunt him. There really is a black Chrysler cruising up and down Bitter Wash Road and both it and the little rifle the children are using will have important roles to play towards the end of the story, but in a completely unexpected and very shocking way. This kind of thing is quite typical of Garry Disher’s technique – the ordinary incidents of day to day life often turn out to be far more important than they seemed to be at the time. Minor characters and events morph into major ones and major events and characters fade into insignificance.

Hirsch’s next call out takes him to a real crime. The body of 16-year-old Melia Donovan has been found dumped by the side of the road. It looks like a hit and run, but Hirsch is not convinced that it is. Her bra is fastened with only one hook and her knickers are inside out. Did someone dress her clumsily after she died in an attempt at misdirection? His investigation of Melia’s death eventually leads Hirsch to uncover a complicated web of cronyism, corruption, racism, infidelity, misogyny, rape and murder involving some very surprising people.

What makes this story so involving is Hirsch’s own beautifully evoked and very painful sense of isolation within an already isolated community. He’s a lone cop in a small town, a situation that defines him as a protector – he is the only authority figure for people to appeal to when things go wrong in their lives. Almost as a side effect of this, he is also seen as a bit of a father figure by the younger members of the township. The children and young adults who populate the story are beautifully realised characters in all their naivety and hormonal surliness, and Hirsch’s interactions with them show a different, gentler side to his character. He never stops being a cop, but he is a very understanding one when it is necessary for him to be.

Hirsch is a compelling and complex character and the plot of the novel has as many dips and turns and twists in it as does the eponymous road itself. Bitter Wash Road makes for splendid reading.

Peace is the second of Garry Disher’s novels about Paul Hirschhausen. Following the events of the first novel, the police force has cleaned itself up a bit. Kropp and his cronies are gone and there are new people staffing the Redruth station. Hirsch is no longer as isolated as once he was. It is Christmas, and Hirsch has been nominated to dress up as Santa and judge the best decorated house competition. Clearly he has been accepted by the community. Apart from a grass fire, two boys stealing a ute, a child left locked in a car in the sweltering heat, a missing dog and Brenda Flann going into the front bar of the local pub without bothering to get out of her car first, Hirsch's life has been quite peaceful.

Things turn a bit darker when the local pony breeder has several of her show ponies slaughtered in a vicious attack and Hirsch knows he’s not going to have a particularly peaceful Christmas after all. Who would brutally stab such sweet animals and leave them to die slow, painful deaths?

Then the bodies of a woman and her son are found in an isolated farmhouse. Soon Tiverton has attracted the attention of some tight lipped and very high flying police officers from Sydney, some of whom seem to have questionable agendas of their own. Just who was this woman? There seems to be a lot more to her past life than anyone is wiling to admit.

As always, the characterisation and the sense of time and place is spot on. As a bonus, the plot is sufficiently complicated to constantly surprise. And it has snakes in it. What more could any discerning reader possibly want from a book?

The Way it is Now is a standalone novel set in a beach shack town an hour or so outside Melbourne. Charlie Deravin, a young police cadet, and his brother Liam help their mother evict a troublesome lodger. Eight days later his mother goes missing, never to be seen again, though the wreck of her car is found many miles away from her house. Twenty years pass…

Charlie is convinced that his mother’s lodger is to blame for her death. The lodger has long since dropped out of sight and Charlie has spent the last two decades searching fruitlessly for him. Liam is less convinced of the lodger’s guilt – he thinks his father was his mother’s killer. This has led to a certain coolness between the brothers.

Then two skeletons are unearthed at a building site. DNA testing reveals that one of the bodies is Charlie's mother. The other belongs to Billy Saul, a small child who disappeared, presumed drowned, on the very same day that Charlie’s mum vanished. Nobody had ever connected the two cases before. Charlie’s mum and Billy had never met each other. So why had they both been murdered on the same day and buried together in the same grave?

The book is a perfect example of Disher’s careful and complex plotting. Very little is what it seems to be and the working out of the story line depends far more upon our understanding of character and motivation than it does upon the finer points of plot coupons. This is a very slow moving book. Much of it happens "off stage" and there is a great deal of introspective analysis as people discuss what has been going on. If the novel has a theme (and I think it does) then it’s about family love and the loyalties that remain even when the families break apart under the strain of conflict and tragedy. I found this one very moving and emotional.

Under the Cold Bright Lights is also a standalone novel. At least it stands alone so far. But it leaves itself wide open for sequels and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them start to pop up soon.

Alan Auhl is a retired detective who has returned to the force to investigate cold cases. He lives in a big, rambling house with his daughter Bec (Rebecca) and a cat called Cynthia. Sometimes he lives there with his ex-wife. Sometimes he doesn’t. The remaining rooms in his house are occupied by transient guests – students, friends and casual acquaintances. One of his guests at the moment is Neve and her daughter Pia who are fleeing domestic violence from a controlling and bad tempered husband and father.

Alan has a lot to occupy him.

Every year on the 14th October he gets a phone call from the daughters of a murdered farmer who are convinced that the police did not do enough to solve their father’s killing. Alan tends to agree with them.

A frightened householder has disturbed a very large and very venomous snake which has gone to ground under a concrete slab. When the householder calls the snake catcher and a contractor to demolish the slab they find a body buried beneath it.

Dr Alex Neil has complained to Alan that his girlfriend is trying to murder him. When she later dies a suspicious death Alan becomes convinced that Dr Neil has murdered both her and his two deceased ex-wives. All he has to do is prove it.

And of course Neve’s child custody/divorce gets more and more complicated and he finds himself becoming more and more involved in it.

Eventually he solves all the situations he is involved with and brings all the malefactors to justice, one way or another. Yes, you read that right. This is a morally ambiguous story, and as a result it is both thoughtful and provocative, much concerned with the differences between right and wrong, and not always sure that there are any.

Adrian Tchaikovsky Alien Clay Tor
Nathan Lowell Ravenswood Durandos
Nathan Lowell Zypherias Call Durandos
Nathan Lowell The Hermit Of Lammas Wood Durandos
William Shaw A Song From Dead Lips Quercus
William Shaw A House Of Knives Quercus
William Shaw A Book Of Scars Quercus
William Shaw Sympathy For The Devil Quercus
Garry Disher Bitter Wash Road Text Publishing
Garry Disher Peace Text Publishing
Garry Disher The Way It Is Now Text Publishing
Garry Disher Under The Cold Bright Lights Soho Crime
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