Book Review – STRIP JACK (1992) by Ian Rankin

STRIP JACK (1990) ***½
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 1992
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 304pp (279pp)
ISBN: 978-0-7528-8356-4
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

Blurb: Gregor Jack, MP, well-liked, young, married to the fiery Elizabeth – to the outside world a very public success story. But Jack’s carefully nurtured career plans take a tumble after a ‘mistake’ during a police raid on a notorious Edinburgh brothel. Then Elizabeth disappears, a couple of bodies float into view where they shouldn’t, and a lunatic speaks from his asylum. Initially, Rebus is sympathetic to the MP’s dilemma – who hasn’t occasionally succumbed to temptation? – but with the disappearance of Jack’s wife the glamour surrounding the popular young man begins to tarnish. Someone wants to strip Jack naked and Rebus wants to know why…

Ian Rankin’s fourth Rebus book sees the author maturing in his writing and the character of Rebus settling down into the one who would populate the rest of the series. The plot again is singular and Rankin delves into the world of politics as well as again exploring his favourite theme of the Jekyll and Hyde nature of his characters. Whilst the mystery elements are fairly routine – a cast of suspects all with a motive – the real pleasure here is in Rebus’ determination and resilience to see the case through and the fact that he makes mistakes along the way makes the character all the more human. It would be four more books and five more years before the series came of age and stepped beyond its police procedural roots into more complex works of fiction, but the seeds are sown here.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991) ***
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992) ***½
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – HIDE AND SEEK (1990) by Ian Rankin

HIDE AND SEEK (1990) ***
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 1990
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 278pp (261pp)
ISBN: 978-0-7528-8354-0
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

Blurb: A junkie lies dead in an Edinburgh squat, spreadeagled, cross-like on the floor, between two burned-down candles, a five-pointed star daubed on the wall above. Just another dead addict – until John Rebus begins to chip away at the indifference, treachery, deceit and sleaze that lurks behind the facade of the Edinburgh familiar to tourists. Only Rebus seems to care about a death which looks more like a murder every day, about a seductive danger he can almost taste, appealing to the darkest corners of his mind…

Ian Rankin’s second Rebus book is an interesting read when reading out of sequence in the series. Rankin was still a relatively inexperienced novelist at this point, as he readily acknowledges in his own introduction to the book, and the Rebus we see here is not yet the fully formed version that we see in later books. Here we meet Superintendent ‘Farmer’ Watson for the first time, whilst Rebus enjoys G&T and wine rather than his pint of heavy and listens to jazz rather than rock. The mystery itself is interesting and sees Rankin begin to tackle social themes as well as have the newly promoted Rebus solve the case. The book is relatively short compared to the more layered later novels and resists the temptation to expand into sub-plots. In that respect, this is a tightly written police procedural but it would be a few more books before Rankin would really find his stride.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991) ***
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992)
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – RED BONES (2009) by Ann Cleeves

RED BONES (2009) ***½
by Ann Cleeves
First published by Macmillan, 2009
This edition published by Pan Books, 2015, 406pp (392pp)
ISBN: 978-1-4472-7446-9
includes 12-page preview of BLUE LIGHTNING.

Blurb: When an elderly woman is shot in what appears to be a tragic accident, Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is called to investigate the mystery. The sparse landscape and the emptiness of the sea have bred a fierce and secretive people. As Jimmy looks to the islanders for answers, he finds instead two feuding families whose envy, greed and bitterness have lasted generations. Then there’s another murder and, as the spring weather shrouds the island in claustrophobic mists, Jimmy must dig up old secrets to stop a new killer from striking again…

The third book in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series featuring detective Jimmy Perez is a slow-burning mystery. Cleeves takes great care in growing her characters and making them feel real and this is key to the readers’ investment in the mystery. Whilst this approach can often slow the pace in a book with a relatively small cast of suspects, it does help create a sense of place. Cleeves also has the knack of cleverly ratcheting up the tension without the reader noticing it and you can feel yourself being drawn in as the book progresses. Perez is a detective who may lack charisma but has integrity and a sense of moral justice on his side. Much time is given to his sidekick, the raw and naive Sandy Wilson, whose character grows significantly through the book. The result is a good old-fashioned mystery with all the elements present.

Book Review – THE FALLS (2001) by Ian Rankin

THE FALLS (2001) ****
by Ian Rankin
First published by Orion 2001
This edition published by Orion, 2011, 498pp (475pp)
ISBN: 978-1-4072-4759-5
includes an introduction by Ian Rankin and Reading Group Notes.

The Falls (A Rebus Novel)Blurb: A student has gone missing in Edinburgh. She’s not just any student, though, but the daughter of well-to-do and influential bankers. There’s almost nothing to go on until DI John Rebus gets an unmistakable gut feeling that there’s more to this than just another runaway spaced out on unaccustomed freedom. Two leads emerge: a carved wooden doll in a toy coffin, found in the student’s home village, and an internet role-playing game. The ancient and the modern, brought together by uncomfortable circumstance…

The 12th book in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series is an intriguing mystery that confirmed Rankin’s position in the premier league of crime writers. Four years and four books on from the breakthrough Black and Blue, this is confidently written and demonstrates Rankin’s total mastery of his characters. He even manages to give Rebus a love interest in this story who is also integral to the plot, which adds an additional dimension. The book also sees Gill Templar’s promotion to Detective Chief Superintendent, creating a different boss/Rebus dynamic, given their involvement together earlier in the series. Rankin also gives a greater role to DC Siobhan Clark and highlights her inner turmoil at balancing career aspirations with her leaning toward Rebus’ maverick methods. Rankin also brings DC Grant Hood and DS Ellen Wylie more into the mix with a subplot surrounding their competitiveness in advancing their careers. The characterisations are given depth and motivation, which is explored to the full. Slimy journalist Steve Holly, however, is maybe a tad stereotypical.  At 475 pages, the novel may seem a little over-extended, but it allows the characters to develop and the intricacies of the plot to unfold at a steady rate. The book is never boring as even in its slow passages the writing and introspection are very strong. Only in the finale do we see Rankin fall into more conventional territory.

The Rebus Series:

Knots and Crosses (1987) ***
Hide and Seek (1991)
Tooth and Nail (original title Wolfman) (1992) ***
Strip Jack (1992)
The Black Book (1993) ***
Mortal Causes (1994) ***
Let it Bleed (1996)
Black and Blue (1997) ****½
The Hanging Garden (1998) ****
Dead Souls (1999) ****
Set in Darkness (2000) ****
The Falls (2001) ****
Resurrection Men (2002)
A Question of Blood (2003) ****
Fleshmarket Close (2004) ****
The Naming of the Dead (2006)  ****½
Exit Music (2007) ****
Standing in Another Man’s Grave (2012) ***½
Saints of the Shadow Bible (2013) ***
Even Dogs in the Wild (2015) ****
Rather Be the Devil (2016) ***½
In a House of Lies (2018) ***½

Book Review – ONLY TO SLEEP (2018) by Lawrence Osborne

ONLY TO SLEEP (2018) ***
by Lawrence Osborne
Hardback published by Hogarth, 2018. 250pp.
ISBN: 978-1-7810-9057-2

Image result for Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe NovelBlurb: The year is 1988. The place, Baja California. Private Investigator Philip Marlowe – now in his seventy-second year – has been living out his retirement in the terrace bar of the La Fonda hotel. Sipping margaritas, playing cards, his silver-tipped cane at the ready. When in saunter two men dressed like undertakers. With a case that has his name written all over it.  At last Marlowe is back where he belongs. His mission is to investigate Donald Zinn – supposedly drowned off his yacht, leaving a much younger and now very rich wife. Marlowe’s speciality. But is Zinn actually alive? Are the pair living off the spoils? 

This is the fourth attempt to continue Raymond Chandler’s legacy of private investigator Philip Marlowe. None of these works has come anywhere near to replicating the best of Chandler’s work. First, there were two books by Robert B. Parker – Poodle Springs (1989) and Perchance to Dream (1991) – the former completing an unfinished Chandler manuscript, the latter a disappointing sequel to Chandler’s first Marlowe novel,  The Big Sleep (1939). Then in 2014, John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) produced The Black-Eyed Blonde, which was a pretty good sequel to Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye (1953). Now we have Lawrence Osborne’s take on Marlowe with Only to Sleep. Osborne has taken the brave decision to write about an ageing Marlowe, 72-years old here. This gives him the opportunity to introduce even more world-weariness into the character. A physically spent force, Marlowe now needs a cane to help him get around. Coaxed out of retirement to investigate a suspicious insurance claim, Marlowe goes to Mexico to find the truth. The book has a slow, deliberate pace which allows Osborne to share Marlowe’s anachronistic view of the world. However, his observations are merely those of a tired old man and lack the bite of his younger self. That may have been Osborne’s intention, to show how age has dulled Marlowe’s caustic cynicism. But much of the charm of Chandler’s creation is lost in the process. So whilst, as per convention, the story is written in the first person from Marlowe’s point of view, it doesn’t feel like this is the same man that inhabited Chandler’s novels  – or even those of Parker and Black. There is little of the biting wit we expect. The mystery itself is less a mystery and more a manhunt. There is also nothing in the unravelling of the plot elements that will surprise the reader. Osborne does, however, capture the hot, sleazy atmosphere of Mexico in the 1980s, drawing on his own experiences. Taken as a detective story, the writing is good and mercifully the page count is traditionally light and we are left with a competent detective novel, for which the only real distinction is its use of an iconic name to sell it.

Book Review – WILD FIRE (2018) by Ann Cleeves

WILD FIRE (2018) ***½
by Ann Cleeves
Originally published by Macmillan, 2018.
This edition published by Pan Books, 2019.
ISBN: 978-1-4472-7826-9

Blurb: Drawn in by the reputation of the islands, an English family move to the area, eager to give their autistic son a better life. But when a young nanny’s body is found hanging in the barn of their home, rumours of her affair with the husband begin to spread like wild fire. With suspicion raining down on the family, DI Jimmy Perez is called in to investigate, knowing that it will mean the return to the islands of his on-off lover and boss Willow Reeves, who will run the case. Perez is facing the most disturbing investigation of his career. Is he ready for what is to come?

As  I was watching the latest series of BBC’s excellent Shetland series, I was also reading what is to be the last of the novels the series was based on. From Series 3 the BBC moved away from adapting Ann Cleeves’ novels and into writing original series length stories. That lifted the TV series to the next level by expanding the universe and making the TV version feel less about an isolated community. Cleeves, meanwhile, has finished her series with a novel that is deeply rooted in that community. Themes of a close-knit and suspicious community dealing with an invasion of new residents are explored here. The case is a murder, which in method replicates an earlier suicide by a local man down on his luck, having had to sell his ideal home to a couple of immigrants from England and their family, including their autistic son. Wild Fire is both familiar and entertaining. We know the characters and we know the island very well by now. Cleeves explores her characters by slowing the pace and allowing room for development. Her writing style is descriptive and also looks to explore each of the major protagonist’s viewpoint, making for a fully rounded story that otherwise has the familiar elements of the English crime mystery.

Film Review – HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

Image result for high plains drifter 1973HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (USA, 1973) ***½
      Distributor: Universal Pictures (USA), Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (UK); Production Company: The Malpaso Company; Release Date: 6 April 1973 (USA), 31 August 1973 (UK); Filming Dates: July-August 1972; Running Time: 105m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: Mono (Westrex Recording System); Film Format: 35mm; Film Process: Panavision; Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1; BBFC Cert: 18.
      Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Ernest Tidyman; Executive Producer: Jennings Lang; Producer: Robert Daley; Director of Photography: Bruce Surtees; Music Composer: Dee Barton; Film Editor: Ferris Webster; Casting Director: William Batliner, Robert J. LaSanka (both uncredited); Art Director: Henry Bumstead; Set Decorator: George Milo; Costumes: James Gilmore, Joanne Haas, Glenn Wright (all uncredited); Make-up: Joe McKinney, Gary Morris (both uncredited); Sound: James R. Alexander.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (The Stranger), Verna Bloom (Sarah Belding), Marianna Hill (Callie Travers), Mitchell Ryan (Dave Drake), Jack Ging (Morgan Allen), Stefan Gierasch (Mayor Jason Hobart), Ted Hartley (Lewis Belding), Billy Curtis (Mordecai), Geoffrey Lewis (Stacey Bridges), Scott Walker (Bill Borders), Walter Barnes (Sheriff Sam Shaw), Paul Brinegar (Lutie Naylor), Richard Bull (Asa Goodwin), Robert Donner (Preacher), John Hillerman (Bootmaker), Anthony James (Cole Carlin), William O’Connell (Barber), John Quade (Jake Ross), Jane Aull (Townswoman), Dan Vadis (Dan Carlin), Reid Cruickshanks (Gunsmith), Jim Gosa (Tommy Morris), Jack Kosslyn (Saddlemaker), Russ McCubbin (Fred Short), Belle Mitchell (Mrs. Lake), John Mitchum (Warden), Carl Pitti (Teamster), Chuck Waters (Stableman), Buddy Van Horn (Marshall Jim Duncan).
      Synopsis: A gunfighting stranger comes to the small settlement of Lago and is hired to bring the townsfolk together in an attempt to hold off three outlaws who are on their way.
      Comment: Eastwood’s second directorial effort is an interesting supernatural Western that trades on the persona he built with Sergio Leone and is filmed with the efficiency he learned from Don Siegel. The black humour was a late addition as Eastwood looked to move the story away from writer Tidyman’s initial revenge theme to something more mysterious. Eastwood assembled a good cast and technical crew. The Mono Lake location presents a remote community and adds to the mystery as does the eerie score by Dee Barton. Eastwood would rework the theme in 1985s PALE RIDER.
      Notes: Universal Pictures wanted the film to be shot on the studio lot. Instead, Eastwood had a whole town built in the desert near Mono Lake in the California Sierras. Many of the buildings were complete, so that interiors could be shot on location. One of the headstones in the graveyard bears the name Sergio Leone as a tribute. Other headstones bear the names of Don Siegel and Brian G. Hutton. Patrick McGilligan’s 2002 Eastwood biography quotes the star as saying, “I buried my directors.”

Book Review – THE QUIET DEATH OF THOMAS QUAID (2016) by Craig Russell

THJE QUIET DEATH OF THOMAS QUAID (2016) ****
by Craig Russell
Published by Quercus, 2016, 376pp
ISBN: 978-178087-491-3

Blurb: Quiet Tommy Quaid is one of Lennox’s few friends in Glasgow. Lennox appreciates Tommy’s open, straightforward personality – even if he is a master thief. When Tommy is flung to his death from a factory roof in front of Lennox’s eyes, Lennox discovers just how wrong he was about Tommy’s quiet life. It seems Tommy knew a secret, and it cost him his life. But for once, Quiet Tommy didn’t go quietly. His secret concerned people above the law – people in some cases who are the law – and so now, from beyond the grave, he leaves a trail for Lennox to follow to ensure justice is done. For once, Lennox is on the side of the angels. But he is an avenging angel, and in brutal Glasgow, justice has to get bloody.

After a four-year break, this is the fifth book in Craig Russell’s 1950s Glasgow-set noir series featuring Canadian private detective Lennox (he has no first name). The book is a dark tale of sordid crimes and cover-ups. The McGuffin is a stolen ledger containing photographs of several prominent citizens involved in unspeakable acts. Lennox becomes involved through his association with the murdered thief who obtained these items. The plot involves various factions with interest in retrieving them and Lennox has to draw on his instincts, honed during WWII, to get to the bottom of the mystery and expose those who are responsible. Russell is an engaging writer whose style owes more than a debt to Raymond Chandler in his prose style, but whose hero has perhaps more in common with Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in his approach to detection. There is much wit amidst the sordidness and Russell delves deeply into Lennox’s psyche, highlighting the emotional scars he carries over from the war and their impact on his actions – despite his attempts to suppress them. It is a confident mystery with a satisfying, if a little rushed, finale, that wraps up the many strands of the plot. The spirit of the classic pulp novels is alive and well in Craig Russell’s writing.

Other books in the series
Lennox (2009) ***
The Long Glasgow Kiss (2010) ***
The Deep, Dark Sleep (2011) ***
Dead Men and Broken Hearts (2012) ****

Film Review – TWILIGHT (1998)

Image result for twilight 1998TWILIGHT (USA, 1998) ***
     Distributor: Paramount Pictures; Production Company: Cinehaus / Paramount Pictures / Scott Rudin Productions; Release Date: 6 March 1998 (USA), 4 December 1998 (UK); Filming Dates: 11 November 1996 – March 1997; Running Time: 95m; Colour: Colour; Sound Mix: Dolby Digital; Film Format: 35mm; Film Process: Spherical; Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1; BBFC Cert: 15 – strong language.
     Director: Robert Benton; Writer: Robert Benton, Richard Russo; Executive Producer: Michael Hausman; Producer: Arlene Donovan, Scott Rudin; Associate Producer: Scott Ferguson, David McGiffert; Director of Photography: Piotr Sobocinski; Music Composer: Elmer Bernstein; Film Editor: Carol Littleton; Casting Director: Ilene Starger; Production Designer: David Gropman; Art Director: David J. Bomba; Set Decorator: Beth A. Rubino; Costumes: Joseph G. Aulisi; Make-up: Bron Roylance; Sound: Maurice Schell; Special Effects: Larry Fioritto, Ric San Nicholas.
     Cast: Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar), Peter Gregory (Verna’s Partner), Rene Mujica (Mexican Bartender), Jason Clarke (Young Cop #1), Patrick Malone (Younger Cop), Lewis Arquette (Water Pistol Man), Michael Brockman (Garvey’s Bartender), April Grace (Police Stenographer), Clint Howard (EMS Worker), John Cappon (Paramedic), Neil Mather (Young Cop #2), Ron Sanchez (Crime Scene Detective), Jack Wallace (Interrogation Officer), Jeff Joy (Carl), Jonathan Scarfe (Cop). Uncredited: Stephanie Beaton (Beth Koski), Jennifer Tolkachev (Sunbather), Ron von Gober (Man Walking Down the Street with Boy).
     Synopsis: Private eye Harry Ross lives in the garage of his movie-star, cancer-ridden friend Jack and is attracted to Jack’s wife Catherine. After elderly Lester Ivar shoots at Harry and then dies, Harry learns that Ivar was investigating the disappearance of Catherine’s first husband.
     Comment: Modern neo-film noir tries too hard to create the atmosphere of the 1940s in 1990s LA. The result feels a little incongruous. The strength of the story is with its cast. Newman is as good as ever as the private eye who is torn between his loyalties and doing the right thing. Hackman, Garner and Sarandon all deliver quality performances. Martindale also scores as a chancer with an incompetent accomplice. Bernstein delivers a moody but derivative score. Benton’s script tries hard to be convoluted, but underneath is a straight-forward story of blackmail and murder. The character interaction keeps the plot interesting, but the ultimate solution to the mystery is a little underwhelming.
     Notes: The Ames residence is actually the former Cedric Gibbons-Delores Del Rio home, and a never-completed Frank Lloyd Wright house near Malibu served as the Ames’ ranch house.

Book Review – LETHAL WHITE (2018) by Robert Galbraith

LETHAL WHITE (2018) ***
by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Published by Sphere, 2018, 650pp
ISBN: 978-0-7515-7285-8

Image result for lethal white robert galbraithBlurb: When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic. Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside. And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been – Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much more tricky than that…

The fourth Cormoran Strike novel is a long, twisting mystery with a sophisticated plot and a colourful cast of eccentric characters. Rowling has a tendency to increase the page count in her series novels as they progress. There is certainly enough complexity in this mystery to warrant a longer novel, but at 650 pages you have to ask whether this could have been pruned back. The domestic stuff, whilst helping flesh out the central characters, does often get in the way of the developing mystery. Rowling is seemingly running story arcs through these novels as a hook for the reader to return for the next instalment.

The book initially progresses slowly through a blackmail plot against a government minister during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. Robin goes undercover to tease out information against the perpetrators. At the half-way point, the story takes a sharp turn and the plot thickens into a murder mystery. The pace quickens from here as the detective duo gradually unravel the mystery and the finale is a tense play-off.  Whilst the plot here is probably the most labyrinthine of Rowling’s novels at the same time it is perhaps the least involving. Most of the characters come across as either spoilt, rich brats or anarchists with a chip on their shoulder. The reader, therefore, would be happy to see any of them unmasked as the chief villain. The only sympathetic major character outside of the two detectives is the mentally disturbed Billy. The resolution of his story of sinister childhood memory is much more satisfactory. There is also a tendency to gloss over of the police involvement in the case. Their seeming happiness for Strike to do their job for them does not ring true and there is an absence of the conflict evident in the earlier books.

Rowling has created a likeable detective team with this series and I look forward to their next outing but hope Rowling’s editors have more of a say in its pacing.

Other Cormoran Strike novels:
The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) ****
The Silkworm (2014) ****
Career of Evil (2015) ****