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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Salvation of a Saint. Keigo Higashino (2008). Alexander O. Smith, Elye J. Alexander- Translation (2012). Abacus (2012)

Clever, engaging and hugely enjoyable locked room murder mystery. In Tokyo a man is found dead in his house, when it is established that he was poisoned the investigation lead by Detective Kusanagi find that they have a locked room mystery on their hands. The victim was alone in the house and there were no signs of a struggle or break in and the most likely suspect in a domestic murder, the wife, was in another city at the time. Kusanaagi finds himself having a complicated response to the victims wife, Ayane,  a reaction that leads another detective to enlist the aid of Professor Yukawa to see if he can provide some insight into the case. The story unfolds with great care and the reveals are cunningly staged and the possibilities of a locked room mystery are skilfully used.  The solution is credible and satisfying and happily unexpected.
Keigo Higashino has managed to solve the biggest problem with a locked room mystery with grace and flair, how to balance the requirements of plot mechanics with an engaging cast without loosing either. He manages this by credibly and thoughtfully aligning the motive and the plot mechanics so that the action is driven by the cast as they respond to the circumstances they find themselves in.
The cast are great, all of them are given the time and space to express themselves and engage the reader. Kusanagi is a competent, committed police officer who is finding an attraction  to  the victims wife creates a increasing pressure to protect her conflicting with a equally powerful duty to find the murderer. The way the conflict is managed is very smart, Kusanagi is aware of it as is his junior officer Utsumi who becomes concerned that it will undermine the investigation. In a wonderful piece of narrative control and direction it becomes an important part of the finding the thread that does finally lead to a solution.
Professor Yukawa is the way that the vital plot mechanics can be kept in view while not getting in the way of the cast. He takes a scientific interest in the case due to its apparent impossibility, his research is a clever way to establish the dimensions of the locked room mystery and close out each possible solution as it comes up without interrupting the parallel work of the investigation into the cast and context for the murder. He has information that ultimately is useless without the human element provided by the investigation.
The Japanese context is integral to the story, cast and plot mechanics and the transparent translation by Alexander O. Smith, Elye J. Alexander is vital to ensuring that details are not lost. The nuances and niceties are very important and they are all delivered without feeling clumsy or intrusive, the story flows in a very natural way.
Locked room mysteries are very tricky to deliver successfully, the solution must be credible without being too mundane, the perpetrator has to be as well disguised as the means used to kill the victim. This calls for a really strong control of the story to deliver s story that does not finally have to cheat the reader to gain the required effect. Keigo Higashino has managed it wonderfully, a great read, satisfying on every count.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Gone in Seconds. A.J. Cross. Orion Books (2012)

A very enjoyable and entertaining crime story. With the discovery of human bones in a woodland near a motorway the Unsolved Crime Unit of the West Midland Police are involved in an investigation. When the remains prove to be a teenager who had gone missing five years earlier the unit start to look at the case. The investigating office in that case now leads the UCU and that creates a problem for the team. As forensic psychologist Dr Kate Hanson and the UCU team investigate they start to realise that there may more victims and a much more difficult and dangerous situation than they had realised. The story unfolds very well, the reveals are well staged and the conclusion is unexpected and very satisfying.
The cast and context are very well developed and the pressures of the investigation, professional and personal are given time and space and add strongly to the weight and grip of the story. The cast are full of vigour and life, they engage the reader and the impact of the events are demonstrated with horrible clarity. One of the strong aspects to the story is the way that A,.J. Cross shows the long term impact of unsolved crime, in particular involving the unsolved disappearance of someone, on those left behind. The significant damage done by uncertainty and guilt are powerfully drawn, the responses are different they are all taken seriously by A.J. Cross.
The investigative team are a great cast, Dr Kate Hanson is competent, profession and very committed, as well as being enjoyable spiky and slightly abrasive. With an entirely accountable confidence in her analysis, backed by a willingness to  change her mind when faced with more information, she is slightly at odds with the restrictions imposed on the time by the requirements of police work.
A.J. Cross has rung a small but effective change on the genre favourite of the less than competent police superior officer, being career minded and possessing a strong sense of the bureaucratic  importance of budgets can make a manager less flexible and more defensive that is desirable. This is a more interesting conflict that is usually developed in the genre between a team and the management.
The plot mechanics are smart and sharp, they full range of the situation emerges slowly and the threads are cleverly misleading and snake back on themselves in a very satisfactory way. They way that they are gathered together as the pressure increases on the UCU team and the pattern linking current murders and past ones becomes clearer and finally start to become frighteningly close to home is superb.  Balancing a great plot with an engaging cast and strong sympathy for those outside of the investigation that have been nearly destroyed by the crimes this is a very enjoyable read that cleverly manages a fresh look at a serial murder story.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Hanging. Lotte & Soren Hammer. Ebba Segerberg (Translation). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. (2013)

A very gripping and engaging crime story with stunning plot mechanics and a great cast. Five men are found mutilated and hanging in a school assembly hall. The men have had their faces and hands removed which hinders identification which gives the investigation lead by
Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen a significant problem to begin with. The problems become significantly more acute as the motive behind the killings become clear and a very carefully considered plan starts to bear fruit. The plot unfolds with superb timing, the reveals are very well staged and the depth and range of the plot emerges with force. The conclusion is smart, credible and satisfyingly bitter.
Lotte and Soren Hammer use the plot mechanics in a very engaging and unexpected way, the five murders are not the conclusion of something that is investigated by the police team, it is the start of something that deliberately is running alongside the investigation. This means that the investigation is constantly having to deal with new events that complicate their work and create tremendous pressure on all the members of the team. The people who are running the events leading out from the hanging are under severe pressure also, for very different reasons. The plans they are managing are hugely ambitious and need considerable concentration and work to manage, having started an avalanche they are trying to ride it.
This dual track means that there are three main groups of people involved in the events as they unfold, the police team, the people responsible for the hanging and crucially the public at large. The way that the actions and responses of all three groups overlap and interact is deeply engaging and gives the very large cast room to make an impression on the reader without the focus of the story ever being lost.
DCS Simonsen is a great character, deeply competent and determined he finds that he has a personal stake in the investigation which challenges his professional training very nicely. He is counterpointed by his ex-boss Kasper Planck, who is included in the investigation and whose semi-detachment from the police force and the investigation proves to be vitally important.
The group behind the hanging are given the room to individually emerge as characters, they share a common motivation and plan but respond to the tremendous forces they have unleashed in very different ways. They are not masterminds or super-villains, they have had the time to plan and the willingness to act and they know that the investigation will be focussed on the dead men they will have a space to implement their true plan.
The greater context is vital to the story and Lotte and Soren Hammer have managed to develop a horribly effective picture of how public opinion can be captured and directed, how this goes from mass events to much more small scale ones, all driven by the dangerous power of outrage.
With a great framework that alows them handle serious issues without ever compromising the genre requirements, this is a superb read. The translation by  Ebba Segerberg is transparent, the Danish context is clear all the time without any stumbling or word choice that would throw the reader out of the story.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Casebook of Carnaki: The Ghost Finder. W.H. Hodson. Wordsworth Editions Limited ( 2006)

A wonderful set of ghost hunting stories, some of which reveal ghosts some of which expose other forces at work. The framework for all the stories is the same, Carnaki invites a number of friends to dinner and tells them about some investigation he had carried out. Carnaki is an investigator of the possibly and actually supernatural, curious, skeptical and very competent. He is always aware of the possibility that human agency is at the foot of the problem while being prepared for other explanations. His scientific approach to the investigations and his credible fear in the face of considerable threat makes the stories gripping and enjoyable. He manages to bring the supernatural within the bounds of credibility by a scientific approach without ever stripping it of its essential mystery.
"The Thing Invisible" is the first story in the book and concerns a haunting in a chapel attached to a castle which always had the reputation of being haunted, with a near fatal attack on the butler, it was becoming dangerous. Carnaki's investigation is smart and thoughtful, the explanation is effective.
"The Gateway of the Monster" has Carnaki called in to investigate a haunted room, he does so by staying the night and the account of what passes is gripping and sharp. The menace is superbly built up and the precautions that Carnaki takes to protect himself and how they are used are very effective details. The monster is serious and dangerous, the whole story is pleasure.
"The House among the Laurels" is a very smart piece of storytelling, the set up is great and the unfolding of the events economical and forceful. A clever and intrepid piece of investigation.
"The Whistling Room" is the stand out story in a great collection. The tone of the story moves very naturally from the apparently foolish to the darkly dangerous without ever loosing its footing. The  problem as it becomes revealed is nasty and very creepy, the source and cause of the trouble is suitably bleak. The whole story is a masterpiece of effective compression, a great deal happens in a very short space without any confusion or loss of focus in the story.
"The Searcher of the End House"  is the closest to a standard ghost story in the collection.
"The Horse of the Invisible" highlights the force of Carnaki's scientific thoughtful process of investigation and that there can be more than one process at work behind a supernatural event.
"The Haunted Jarvee" is a haunting at sea and gives the room for W. H. Hodson to describe trouble at sea and the sheer helplessness of sailors in the face of a storm.
"The Find" is a smart little puzzle that uses clear thinking to solve a problem.
"The Hog" is the weakest story in the collection, the story tries to hard and is overwhelmed by the details, the tension and foreboding essential to the story get swamped by the process that Carnaki is using. There is just too much going on that has the be explained for the story to maintain its moment.
W.H.Hodson is a master of the ghost story, even the lest story in this collection has force and tension galore, the best are simply astonishing. The mix of scientific inquiry and supernatural is creatively used to bring the reader further into the atmosphere, the threats have weight and force and Carnaki is a great guide, willing to take a risk and never too stupid not to be afraid. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Opera Ghost (1-2). Steven P. Jones (Writer), Aldin Baroza (Art), Caliber Press (1994)

An engaging and very enjoyable Sherlock Holmes mash-up. Dr Watson, sorting his life after the death of his wife has visitors from France. The new managers of the Paris opera are having a problem with the Ghost of the Opera and the Compte De Chagny is concerned about his brother, concerns tied directly to the Opera. In the absence of Sherlock Holmes , Dr Watson travels to France where he is witness to a very strange scene and is lucky to survive it. Sherlock Holmes who had been investigating the case from a different angle joins again with Dr Watson as the pursue the Ghost to his home beneath the Opera. The story is very well set up and and the action is suitably operatic, the conclusion is both a credit to Holmes and to Watson.
Steven P. Jones gets a number of critical elements exactly right in this story, he maintains the balance between Sherlock Holmes and the Ghost of the Opera without undermining either. He gets the essential aspect of any follow on Sherlock Holmes story perfectly, Dr Watson is pitch perfect, he is crucial to the story without ever taking anything from Sherlock Holmes, he provides an essential context for the story. The Opera Ghost is given due room to be someone, he is brilliant and demented and also fatally in love. He is given enough space and consideration to become someone other than the Ghost, the conclusion does him sad justice.
Aldin Baroza's scratchy black and white art is very engaging, it suggests details with shadows and outlines and when required delivers action and tension. The cast are very well defined and move through the context with confident assurance, the principals, Sherlock Holmes and the Ghost are both given classic looks that they wear very nicely. The scenes set below the opera are superb, the sense of a separate kingdom blow the floorboards is created, big enough and wild enough to be suitable for an operatic Ghost and mastermind.
I have a very strong dislike of lettering designed to mimic handwriting  such as Aldin Borza uses here. This time it does have the virtue of being more readily legible than it often is. I do understand why it would be used, any Sherlock Holmes story is supposed to be from the journals of Dr Watson and the handwritten style of lettering draws on that. I find it distracting to read, it takes too much effort and pulls me out of the story rather that allowing me to sink into it. In this comic it worked reasonably well, my reservation remain.
This is a smart, enjoyable Sherlock Holmes story, well worth reading.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dodger. James Benmore. Heron Books ( 2013)

A very enjoyable and engaging story about the return of the Artful Dodger to London. Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, who had been sentenced to transportation to Australia returns to London with a pardon and a plan. He has to find something or will be killed, to find what he is looking for the Dodger has to return to the people he left behind six years earlier. The search proves to be considerably more complicated that the Dodger had anticipated and involves him with a lot of people from his past. They are not always as he remember or imagined and Dodger finds that the past is a problem for his rapidly vanishing present. The set up is great, the reveals are very well staged and the conclusion satisfying and sharp.
James Benmore has taken a considerable risk in taking a character created by one of the greatest writers in English and trying to establish him away from the original context in a credible and sustainable way. He succeeds with great flair and with by cleverly using the giant shadow of Charles Dickens sparingly and effectively. They are used as grace notes in the story, they add to the enjoyment without ever being a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoying the story.
Jack Dawkins is a vivid character, brimming over with energy and personality, he drives the story forward at a relentless pace as he tries to assert himself against his opponents and circumstances. He is uncompromisingly straightforward about himself and what he is, a thief, his justifications are very well put forward. The supporting cast are all pushing forward as they should to be seen and heard,n not the least being the city of London itself, Dodger's home turf and playground. When Dodger has to leave London he is somewhat stranded out of his natural context, he still has an impact however.
The plot mechanics are excellent, they create the structure that allows the Dodger to move among his old companions with a credible reason and pushed the action ahead very well. The steady twists that they take are smartly set up and lead to a tremendous conclusion that is very satisfying and forceful.
James Benmore has created a character of his own with an independent life away from his origins and built a great story around him. Dodger is dangerous company and a highly engaging one.

Aeon Flux (1-4) Mike Kennedy (Writer), Timothy Green II(Art), Dan Jackson (Colours), Michael David Thomas (Letters). Dark Horse Comics (2005)

A very enjoyable and entertaining science fiction comic. The city of Bregna is a walled sanctuary against the fiercely encroaching jungle that surrounds it and which is kept a bay by defoliant cannons that fire each hour. Aeon Flux is an agent of the Monican Rebellion who are fighting directly against the rulers of the city. When a new defoliant is developed that would potentially eradicate all plant life outside the walls of the city, Aeon Flux and a partner are given the task of stopping the deployment of the defoliant. The story unfolds at great speed, the action is a joy to read and the conclusion very satisfactory.
The story is so slight it really is more of an extended anecdote, it does not have the dramatic weight of a full scale story. What it does have is great charm and vigor, the context is quickly established and the players and their motives are clearly established so that the conflict makes sense and has enough weight for the reader to care.
Mike Kennedy has created a wonderful character with Aeon Flux herself, there is a very strong sense that the reason she is involved in the Monican Rebellion is because she is massively enjoying the risk taking and the physical struggle of the fight. She is having a ball walking on the edge, getting into danger and pushing herself, she is not stupidly taking risks, she is enjoying exercising her talents, the cause is important but not primary. When she is given a partner, she is not happy since this is effectively a limit on her freedom of action, she is still committed enough to the cause to accept the command.
The politics of the city are neatly set up, the factions in the government and the nicely elusive Handler who leads the Monican Rebellion, both having a greater concern for their own agendas than any of the people they are fighting around. They make Aeon Flux's straightforward but not stupid engagement in the action stand out all the more by contrast.
Timothy Green II's art is distinctive and a pleasure to read, the cast are very well developed, the body language is fluid and the action is superbly choreographed. The various use of panel borders, some have them some do not, and varying panel sizes control the pace and flow of the story without every intruding.
Dan Jackson's colouring is stunning, it is bright and vivid, in particular the colours for the clothes the cast wear are great. The city is bright and crisp as the happy controlled future should be, the darkness is contained in the action and the contrast give the story force and depth. Michael David Thomas's letters are subtly effective, they give a credible emphasis and tone to the dialogue, his sound effects are a pleasure, nailing the moment with precision. Great science fiction from very talented creators.