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“What to my mind is so interesting in this case is that we have none of the facilities afforded to the police. We cannot investigate the bona fides of any of these people. We have to rely solely on deduction. That, to me, makes the matter very much more interesting. There is no routine work. It is all a matter of the intellect.”

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the filming of the ‘First Tuesday Book Club‘ at the ABC studios. The opening discussion focused on fantasy fiction. It was quite enjoyable to listen to writers debating the merits and possible disadvantages of books with elves, dragons and magic.

As interesting as all of this was, I have to say though I am sick of people discussing The Lord of the Rings exclusively when my favourite genre is the topic of discussion. Half a century has passed since that tome was published and much has happened since. No mention was made of New Worlds (which launched many a morally ambiguous fantasy novel), let alone the New Weird. One point that was made though, by Lev Grossman, was that fantasy and genre fiction in general have become more popular because they actually trade in plots – unlike novels that struggle with the literary heritage of Joyce and Woolf.

What a wonderful thing it is to read an entertaining page turner? Which brings me to today’s book, Agatha Christie’s classic ‘whodunnit’, Murder on the Orient Express.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is actually en route to England when he finds himself swept up in an unusual series of events. Firstly he is approached by a vulgar American businessman Mr. Ratchett while boarding a train from Istanbul. Poirot turns the man down, despite his claims that his life is in danger. Instead he concentrates on enjoying the train journey and observing his fellow guests. His friend Bouc, the director of the train company (and the means by which he was allocated a berth on this unusually packed train)  draws his attention to the extraordinary mixture of people on board. Hungarian aristocrats, an American widow, a German maid and an English nanny, numerous class distinctions and backgrounds arranged side by side in the small travelling compartments of the train. Then after one night when the Orient Express became delayed by large amount of snow in the ‘Jugo-Slavian’ countryside, Mr. Ratchett’s body, with a dozen stab wounds, is discovered in his room.

Bouc is desperate to save the reputation of his company and enlists his good friend the famous detective to investigate the crime. Poirot sets about interviewing all the guests in first and second class, as well as the staff. In his own irascible way, the detective indulges in his patented form of inquiry, baiting those who are reserved, placating and gaining the trust of the more alarmed travellers and generally remaining inscrutable despite the repeated pleas of Bouc to explain exactly what is happening.

Half of this book’s pleasure is seeing how Poirot unravels the mystery from such a morass of complicated relationships and air-tight alibis. What is more when the true identity of the murder victim is revealed, few can argue that he did not deserve to die. For Poirot, however, it is a question of intellect, a puzzle which requires his preceise attention.

This book is a delightful puzzle box, one which has a surprising theme underlying the action. What Christie has fashioned is an intelligent outsider’s perspective on America and its unique contemporary multicultural mix. The contrast inferred with sleepy Old Europe is wittily observed. In many senses the book is quite self-aware – often the characters scoff at how the events resemble a detective mystery from a cheap book – and ultimately resolves itself into a ‘whydunnit’, instead of a ‘whodunnit’.

A classic detective mystery with a surprisingly subversive streak.

Another beautiful Miami day. Mutilated corpses with a chance of afternoon showers. I got dressed and went to work.

My friend Linda over at Tapetum Lucidum recently challenged me to review today’s book. I guess I have been putting it off for a few weeks. Can’t think why, although I avoided the television show as well for a couple of years too. That too was only because my then-girlfriend-now-wife Stephanie insisted on my watching it with her. It has one of the most impressive title sequences of any show I have seen, and the heat and sweat of the Miami setting conspires to create an unusually manic tone to the episodes themselves.

Slowly but surely I have grudgingly come to like it. Still there is this reluctance to get to grips with Dexter on my part, which is difficult to explain to friends who are fans. Is it that I am squeamish, me, who would happily sit through a marathon session of brain-chomping zombie movies? I guess I have issues with the notion of a human monster. Monsters for me are creatures of fantasy. Psychopaths on television make a pretence at realism, all the while seeming utterly inhuman. That’s hard for me to get my head around.

Dexter has no such confusion in his life. He is a monster. He even enjoys it. Throughout his adult life his bloodlust has been spurred on and contained by two competing presences in his mind: the entity he refers to as his ‘Dark Passenger’, and Harry, the worldly wise cop who took him in as a child and taught him the rules of how to hide his murderous nature. Harry gave him a code, one that would allow him to sate the urge to kill, while at the same time only directing him to target other murderers. He is a human-monster slayer, if you like, on the hunt for paedophiles, abusers and killers much like himself. Think an apex predator who is fiercely territorial of his ‘patch’.

He has even found a profession that gives him an additional outlet for his compulsion, working in a Miami police department crime lab. His expertise is blood analysis. Except for the lab’s latest case, there seems to be nothing for him to work with. A new serial killer has hit town and is carving up prostitutes. The bodies are left in public spaces, dismembered, with no traces of blood. Dexter finds himself fascinated with the methods employed by this new challenger to his title, even curiously excited at the prospect of meeting someone as good as himself.

Meanwhile his foster-sister Deborah is desperate to solve the case and make sergeant. Unfortunately she has no head for local politics, despite Dexter’s attempts to guide her through the choppy waters of backstabbing superior officers and the station pecking order. She recognizes that her brother’s strange hunches often tend to land the case, pushing down any concerns as to how it is so easy for him to think like a murderer. Before the case is closed, Dexter will find his loyalties to the memory of Harry and Deb, his only remaining family, tested as never before, as the killer’s behaviour seems so close to his own. Perhaps he is the killer, the Dark Passenger having finally won?

What I enjoy about this book is how well Jeff Lindsay employs what I call the ‘Humbert Humbert effect’ (as with Love in the Time of Cholera). We are invited to share the same headspace as a monster, who charms us and attempts to win us over with deadpan humour. He seems honest, revelling in his torture and murdering of other ‘monsters’, but in fact how he presents his actions to us is subtly leavened – he becomes the hero. At one point he even self-applies the word ‘avenger’.

Then there’s his delicate relationship with Rita, a battered woman who is looking for an emotional relationship, but too afraid to take the next step. As Dexter has no real sex-drive, this suits him perfectly. To again emphasise this inverted notion of a murderer-as-innocent, he finds himself pulled between three demanding women. His eagerness to meet this new slasher is described as being comparable to a teenage girl waiting for a boy to ask her out.

As all of this is framed by Dexter himself, the reader cannot trust any of it. With lashings of gallows humour and perversity, this is a quirkily entertaining read.

He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”

I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.

Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.

This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence.  The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.

One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.

Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?

Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.

I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.

Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.

It was ten feet tall and topped with a single strip of wire, and something about the sight of the wire got to Teddy. He felt a sudden pity for all those people on the other side of the wall who recognized that thin wire for what it was, realized just how badly the world wanted to keep them in.

Dennis Lehane is my literary nemesis. I have never met the man, he never made a statement that insulted my god, countryman and/or parentage – but I have had occasion to be exasperated at the sight of his name in raised lettering.

You see as a Joe R. Lansdale fan the first thing I do whenever I visit a book store is gravitate to the ‘Fiction’, section of the shop and peruse the alphabetical listings of authors. Lehane and Lynda La Plante (I also bear her some irrational resentment) are usually present and accounted for, but never my favourite creator of good ol’ boy amateur detective novels. If ever you are passing the ‘L’, section and hear a long drawn out sigh – that is probably me.

Ashecliffe Hospital is the gothic setting for Shutter Island, a mental hospital situated on a bleak and isolated island, designed to treat some of the most violent mentally ill patients in the American psychiatric system. The story begins with the arrival of two Federal Marshals to the island in September of 1954. Teddy Daniels has been assigned to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient at the facility who reportedly vanished from her cell in the middle of the night. While he usually works alone, Teddy has been assigned a partner for this case, the gregarious and good-humoured Chuck Aule, a recent transfer from Seattle. Where Teddy is haunted by his past, Chuck is warm and charismatic. The two men bond despite their differences, both veterans of WWII, although Teddy is still traumatised by his war-time experiences, including the liberation of Dachau.

The two men are introduced the director of the facility, Dr. Cawley, who explains the circumstances of the case. Rachel Solando was delivered to her room by an attendant. There was another member of staff present in the hallway outside her room monitoring that evening. On the floor beneath a game of poker was being played by several of the attendants. There was nowhere in the room where she could have hidden and so when her cell was checked and she was not to be found, everyone from the attending staff up to the board of Ashecliffe are baffled as to what happened. However, one clue was left behind. A cryptic note written in code that refers to a ‘rule of four’. Teddy has some facility with code-breaking and sets to trying to decipher the meaning of this note, while he begins interrogating the staff and patients.

The two marshals are convinced that this is an inside job, but they have no way of proving it. Slowly Teddy becomes convinced that something much larger than a simple missing persons case lies behind his being called to the island. After all while no one can give him any insight into Solando’s vanishing, what little they can tell him is remarkably similar in wording. There are hints of radical surgery being performed in secret at the facility, perhaps within Ward C, which the two men are forbidden from entering. Dr. Cawley is effortlessly polite, but refuses to give Teddy access to any of the files belonging to patients, or staff. Then there are the headaches – crippling, numbing migraines that have begun to afflict Teddy with increasing intensity. Is there a cause for this affliction that is somehow connected with Ashecliffe? Teddy, however, has an ulterior motive for coming to the island. There is another patient here, someone he has been looking for for years. A man named Laeddis – the killer of his wife.

This is a dark and intensely paranoiac thriller, a rich concoction of grand guignol and ‘Reds under the Bed‘, era suspicion. Conspiracy theories are exchanged like conversational tidbits, psychiatry is regarded with fear for its desire to fix the human mind as one would a car engine. Lehane plays on these pulp fiction tropes to build the narrative to an explosive finale.

If I had a complaint it would be that the characters’ voices were for the most part indistinguishable. However, that is a moot point.

This is a book of taut and effective thrills, that will leave readers chilled. Well executed.

Before an envelope is opened, you don’t know what’s in it, and you aren’t committed to a course of action. So far as the contents of the envelope go, you’re an innocent. The contents may be true, false, incomplete, irrelevant, or stone-cold proof of wrongful intent. But whatever they are, they aren’t yet inside your head. They aren’t bothering you. They don’t affect your sleep, your self-perception, or your faith in the universe. But once the envelope is opened, the contents zap into your brain, where you have to deal with them.

Yesterday afternoon I was enjoying a nice glass of wine at a Christmas party and having a conversation with a very informative fellow on a topic I never would have suspected would be of interest to me. Namely insurance.

Hurm. Road not taken and all that.

Still there was something intriguing in how much day-to-day activities  need to be protected against potential risk. Furthermore, insurance covers everything from corporate espionage to fraud, from white-collar criminals to terrorists. Fascinating stuff. Then I picked up this book by Mr Colin Harrison and oo look, synchronicity kicks in once again.

George Young is our hero, an insurance lawyer happily settled into a middle-class existence paid for by years working in the trenches of New York corporate law. He enjoys a loving relationship with his wife Carol, is a proud father to his daughter and likes going to Yankees games. He knows that in the greater scheme of things he was never especially successful, but in his time working for the firm Patton, Corbett & Strode he has earned a reputation for being a man who got the job down. He is also thankful for managing to survive the Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed.

It was Wilson Corbett who hired him for the firm and gave him the opportunity to make something of himself. Now his widow has requested that Young do one last favour for his former mentor. She is an old lady doubly haunted by the loss of her husband and the recent death of their son Roger, killed in a freak traffic accident moments after leaving a bar. She requests that Young find out what her troubled son was thinking about in the last few days of his death. Both the police and a private investigator named James Hicks have failed to give her any sense of resolution for the tragedy. So she has turned to Young, for isn’t he a man who can get results?

What he discovers is a case far less simple than it first appears. It emerges that Roger, broken by divorce and his failure to live up to the business reputation of his father, may have been involved in something quite serious. There are hints of fraud, an unusual relationship with a Czech hand model and even Hicks tries to convince Young not to continue with the case.  Even his wife questions the extent to which he is willing to pursue the last wishes of a dying woman. What exactly is he getting involved in?

Folks I have a very simple system for reviewing these books. I have a collection of book-marks that I have amassed over the months. Every time I find a turn of phrase I enjoy, or an interesting passage, I insert one of the book-marks to spur on my review later.

This afternoon I ran out of book-marks.

Harrison’s writing is lean, smart and very wry. George and Carol are a great couple and it is a huge relief to read about an investigation where the male protagonist does not discard wife and family for some ephemeral goal. In fact Carol spurs on the plot at several points, whereupon Harrison notes ‘Now and then I am reminded that my wife is smarter than I am.’

Young is also a refreshingly self-aware investigator, anticipating the usual pitfalls of femme fatals and dangerous criminal plots without any of the insistent gullibility of some detective fiction protagonists. The story itself is tautly and intelligently told, with no John Grisham-esque fat on the bone. It is no surprise to discover that this book was originally published in serial form in the New York Times.

This is smart and intriguing fare from a genre that insists on mystery, but often delivers formulaic plotting. Recommended.

That night, back in my office. I say office – it’s actually my bedroom, but I think of it as an office. It sounds better if you say to a client, ‘I’ll need to run a few tests back in the office,’ rather than, ‘I’ll have a look at this with a magnifying glass after I put my PJs on.’

From Australian children’s authors let’s skip across the planet to Ireland. If that makes you feel slightly dizzy, try to imagine how I feel! Wexford-born native Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series was a breath of fresh air when it first arrived. A modern, witty take on Irish mythology and contemporary society….with farting leprechauns, just to make sure kids paid attention. Half-Moon Investigations is a new series from Colfer and I am happy to report, is also a very successful humour book for children.

Fletcher Moon is the town joke in the small community of Lock. A twelve year old boy who likes to ‘play at detective’. He even insists on showing off a detective’s badge, which he insists is genuine. His kind parents indulge the fantasy, but hope he’ll grow up and notice girls some day. The other children are not so understanding and have branded Fletcher with the nickname ‘Half-Moon’. He’s a weirdo, a nerdy kid with delusions of grandeur.

What most people don’t know is that Fletcher is an accredited private investigator. Sure he used his dad’s birth date and credit card to apply for the two year course. Nevertheless he has a real detective’s badge and know’s the course books off by heart. He dreams of one day working for the FBI as a forensic investigator, like the kind on CSI. In the meantime he’s hoping to score a real case and maybe even a real fee. Mostly the school kids he has helped pay him in chocolate.

Fletcher soon learns to regret his ambitions when popular ten-year old April Devereux hires him to investigate a series of mysterious robberies. The prime suspect is one Red Sharkey, the heir apparent of Lock’s local criminal gang lord Papa Sharkey. He doesn’t appreciate the attention Fletcher is drawing to him and does not hesitate in letting his feelings on the matter be known. What’s more, the boy detective soon discovers the danger in becoming too involved in a case, after he finds himself first assaulted and then framed for a serious crime. Is April Devereux ten Euro retainer enough to cover his growing legal fees and bail?

This is winning, fast-paced stuff, a kiddy version of a Sam Spade mystery. There is even, in the classic detective format, two mysteries that overlap for Fletcher to resolve. In many ways this resembles an Irish take on Rian Johnson’s Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with all the tropes of detective fiction entertainingly inserted into this schoolyard adventure. There’s even a tween stool pigeon and a pink loving femme fatale.

On the weekend I happened to catch five minutes of a television series based on Colfer’s novels. Not only was the action relocated to England, but I felt the spirit of the novel was lost, with the usual generic and insipid child actors standing in for the preternaturally worldly-wise heroes and villains of this yarn. A real shame and a missed opportunity I feel for the Irish film and television industry not to have kicked Colfer’s door down for the rights (but then, that is not an unusual error on their part).

I would strongly recommend these books for children between the ages of 10 – 15 and adults who enjoy a wry chuckle. I am looking forward to gobbling down the rest of these books like I did the Artemis Fowl series.

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