Sunday, May 20, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

A couple of weeks ago I started a short run of reading books that had race as a central theme. They proved to be emotive and often difficult set of stories, with their casual and often times brutal racism. One of the attractions of crime fiction is their social commentary and how they create reflection on persistent injustices and these books certainly cast a fascinating light on past and contemporary racial divides and discrimination: Paris Trout by Pete Dexter; Dark Town by Thomas Mullen; White Butterfly by Walter Mosley; A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner; Slumberland by Paul Beatty; and Capture by Roger Smith.


My posts this week
Review of Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
Review of The Bombers and The Bombed by Richard Overy
Watching the wedding

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Watching the wedding

‘Will you be watching the wedding then?’

‘What wedding?’

‘Harry and Meghan.’

‘Is that the racy couple at number thirty two?’

Mac took a gulp of his Guinness.

‘Are you taking the piss? The royal wedding. Prince Harry and his American girlfriend.’

‘I thought he was a chip off the old block.’

‘Charles? He’s been married twice.’

‘No, the other one. Captain whatever-his-name was.’

‘Steady on.’

‘What? That apple didn’t fall far from the tree.’

‘That apple is sixth in line to the throne.’

‘He would be round ours as well if he wasn’t out of bed by eight o’clock.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review of Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (Penguin, 1988)

Cotton Point, Georgia, just after the Second World War. Paris Trout and his hired muscle shoots a black woman and a fourteen year old girl. The latter dies a few days later. Trout admits the killing, but argues that he had every right as he was collecting a debt from her brother and she was fleeing instead of cooperating. His colleague, a former policeman, argues she was armed. Trout is well-known in the town, running the local store and also an informal bank for black families. In a place where racism is endemic and Jim Crow antics common he is bemused as to why such a fuss is being made over the death of a black girl and cannot understand why the case is heading for court. As the case unfolds he becomes increasingly paranoid, accusing his wife of poisoning him, and his lawyer of conducting a shoddy defence. Used to getting his way, he’s not going to let the law and shifting social relations stand in his way.

Paris Trout is social drama built around the murder of a black girl in a small Georgia town just after the end of the Second World War. The hook is that Trout, a white shopkeeper and loan shark, does not deny the killing and has no sense of guilt or shame. To him the girl’s death is entirely her own fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and acting in a way to provoke his violence. He is genuinely mystified as to why the case is heading to court and fully expects proceedings to be halted or to win. Dexter tells the tale from a handful of perspectives: Paris Trout, Rosie Sayers (the girl that is killed), Harry Seagraves (Trout’s lawyer), Hanna Trout (the wife), and Carl Bonner (Hanna’s lawyer). Seagraves, Hanna and Bonner are all repulsed by Trout but are ensnared in his evolving madness. Trout is a hideous figure, a caricature of Jim Crow, and Dexter uses the shifting perceptions of Trout to explore the inherent racism and social norms of a society divided by race and class. There are no great surprises or twists, rather the story acts as a morality play, sliding to a somewhat inevitable end. It’s an interesting, if somewhat flat read, that peters out a bit of the end. More problematically, the black family disappears entirely, as does the black community of Cotton Point, from the trial onwards – it’s telling and troubling omission; written out of the fiction of a terrible crime committed against them. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Review of The Bombers and The Bombed by Richard Overy (Penguin, 2014)

Prior to the Second World War there was a believe, especially amongst the air forces of the various belligerents, that bombing could determine the outcome of wars, curtailing land campaigns. The subtitle of this book is ‘Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945’ and it focuses on the Western allies attempts to test this hypothesis, charting the bombing campaigns over Germany in particular, its Axis partners, and occupied countries such as France and the Netherlands from the perspective of the bombers and those who were bombed. To a large degree it is academic in its approach, setting out a rather dry and dispassionate account based on the historical archive of documentary evidence, presenting events at a distance and with memos and statistics rather than personalities and experiences. Overy argues that the bombing campaign not only did not achieve its aims, but cost more in lives and material than it gained in strategic and tactical advances. That is not to say that the bombing campaign had no effect – it certainly led to much destruction, lives lost, disruption, and some influence on the distribution of resources, but rather than collapsing morale it often reinforced resolve and it had little impact on industrial production until near the war’s end.  While the book provides a broad overview of the politics and practice of bombing, from both Allied and Axis perspective, it gives little sense of the key people involved who are rather one-dimensional, or the experiences of those undertaking bombing raids or being bombed. Moreover, it provides very little coverage of the Eastern front and that of the third major allied party, Russia. I was expecting the book to circle round to a wider systemic analysis of the effects and ethics of bombing at the conclusion, but that didn’t materialise. Overall, an interesting read concerning the politics and effects of a bombing campaign.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

And so ends a long week of events - two workshops and a three day conference. The workshops were the final events of the Programmable City project, which I've been running for the past five years. It was great to get all the present and past members of the team together for an event in the Mansion House in Dublin. The Conference of Irish Geographers is always a nice event, catching up with colleagues and hearing what they are working on. Caimh McDonnell's Angels in the Moonlight is now helping me detox from all the learning and socialising with some hearty belly laughs.


My posts this week
Integrity

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Integrity

Logan ended the call. He wasn’t sure what was worse – Cronin’s intimidation, his guilt, or that he was going to lose the case. He was defending a man who had raped and murdered an elderly woman.

The door cracked open. ‘Charlie?’

‘Sometimes I hate this job.’

‘But only sometimes.’

She ghosted into the room.

‘I’m defending a monster; if I win it’ll be a miscarriage of justice.’

‘Many innocents get convicted.’

‘And I hate that as much as I hate to lose.’

She slid onto his lap.

‘Quit.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Then coast.’

‘I’ll lose.’

‘It’s called integrity.’

‘I’m a lawyer.’


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

I used to do a half-decent job at keeping up with Irish crime fiction, but I realise I've got a little out of touch over the past year. Besides not keeping up-to-date with on-going series, I've neglected reading new authors or new to me. I have Caimh McDonnell's Angels in the Moonlight on the to-be-read pile and plan to read the following sometime over the summer: Dervla McTiernan, The Ruin; Steve Cavanagh, The Defense; Cormac O'Keeffe, Black Water; Jo Spain, With Our Blessing; Gerard O'Donovan, The Long Silence; and Clar Ni Chonghaile, Rain Falls on Everyone. All my reviews of Irish crime fiction can be found here.

My posts this week:
Review of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan
April reads
Review of White Butterfly by Walter Mosley
Review of A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner
Always ruining everything

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Always ruining everything

The bed was covered in clothes. Cassie looked over her shoulder at the mirror. This dress wasn’t too bad. All she needed now was a matching pair of shoes.

‘Kaiser!’ Ted yelled from outside. ‘Incoming!’

The door flew open and a muddy dog bounded into the room.

‘Out!’

Kaiser tipped his head, then coiled his body.

‘No!’

The dog shook himself vigorously.

Ted skidded into the room.

‘Out!’

‘Sorry, Cass.’

‘Sorry isn’t going to get these clothes cleaned! Nor me washed and to my job interview on time! He has to go.’

‘Woof!’

‘Or you do. Men! Always ruining everything!’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Review of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (2015, Mulholland Books)

After a heart attack, Inspector Ashwin Chopra is forced to retire from the Mumbai police force. On his last day at work he inherits two mysteries. The first is the seeming suicide of a young man, found drowned in a puddle. The second is the delivery of a young elephant, an inheritance from an uncle. His superiors are not interested in investigating the first, and the building manager is opposed to letting him house the second. Chopra was always an honest cop and he knows what he’s going to do with respect to the dead man – complete the investigation as a civilian. He’s less certain what to do about the elephant, though his wife Poppy is adamant the building manager is not going to get her way. Warned off by senior police officers, Chopra keeps digging, navigating the bustling city and it sharp social divisions, following the few clues that he has. It soon turns into his most dangerous case to date and to his surprise, his new elephant, Ganesha, proves to be an adept sidekick.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is the first book in the Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation set in Mumbai. Ganesha is a baby elephant and is Chopra’s unexpected inheritance. The book fits into the loose genre of somewhat mystical, charming cozies, such as Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri series and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Lady Detective Agency series. The tale follows Chopra’s attempts to solve a murder of a young man despite being officially retired from the police and to work out what to do about looking after Ganesha. It’s a light and light-hearted read, despite the corruption and violence underpinning the case under investigation. Chopra and his wife Poppy make for a charming couple, Ganesha is an interesting twist, and the story picks up on Indian themes of storytelling, with its nod to the use of mystical gods and Bollywood story structure. However, the charm and sense of place doesn’t fully compensate for a linear and straightforward plot and a tale that lacks substance and depth. Overall, an entertaining tale with a nice hook and lead character.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

April reads

My read of April was Thomas Mullen's historical police procedural set in Atlanta in 1948, Dark Town, following the exploits of the cities first black cops.

Dark Town by Thomas Mullen ****.5
The Twilight Warriors by Robert Gandt ***.5
Slumberland by Paul Beatty ****
The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 by Ian W. Toll ****
Capture by Roger Smith ***.5
The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager ***

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Review of White Butterfly by Walter Mosley (Pocket Books, 1992)

Los Angeles, 1956. A man is torturing and murdering black women. The police turn to Easy Rawlins for help; a man used to digging around for answers and who knows the city and its dark underbelly. However, Easy, recently married and with a young baby and school-aged child, is trying to keep on the straight and narrow. When a fourth victim dies, this time a white woman, the police won’t take no for an answer, threatening to jail his best friend and make his life hell. Reluctantly he starts to piece together the last days of each victim. Easy was always a man with secrets and those, his investigation, and his drinking is placing a strain on his marriage. Whether he helps catch the killer or not, it seems he might lose something precious in the process.

White Butterfly is the third book in the Easy Rawlins series set in post-war Los Angeles. In this outing Easy is hustled by the police into helping to track down a serial killer preying on women in the city. It’s the most personal of the books so far in the series, as much about his private home life and him as a person as it is about the case (the first focused more on his history and social circle, the second on his business interests). Easy is a conflicted, flawed, complex character, with secrets that he guards from everyone, including his new wife; an ability to lie, cajole and hustle; a weakness to stray; and a questionable loyalty to a psychopathic friend; yet he also is loving and has his own moral compass he uses to navigate a fraught social world and everyday racism. He exposes all these characteristics as his marriage disintegrates as he searches for the killer. The case isn’t overly complicated, though it has a nice twist, but Mosley tells the tale through an engaging, affective voice and sparse prose that has the cadence of classic hardboiled noir. As with the other books in the series, there is nice historical and social contextualisation and sense of place. The result is a dark, somewhat bleak, but evocative story.


Monday, April 30, 2018

Review of A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner (2017, Down and Out Books)

1952, the American Mid-West. After a bar brawl, former Chicago cop Elliot Caprice wakes in the holding cells under the St Louis courthouse. Caprice is embittered and disillusioned, a Second World War veteran who is now on the run after killing two cops while working undercover for the Feds in the Chicago police to root out corruption; a mixed raced, educated man living in a world of overt and casual racism. Using his one phone call he asks old friends from Southville, Illinois, to come to his aid. Returning to his old town he finds the family farm in foreclosure, his adopted father living in a local flophouse, and the local mobster he used to run with fending off a new gang. Determined to save the farm, Caprice finds work as a runner for a local attorney, tracking down people and serving notices. One of the attorney’s clients is a rich Chicago family who are fighting over the estate after the untimely death of the patriarch. After meeting the beautiful gold digger at the centre of the fight, Caprice decides to enter into a private venture and return to Chicago and resolve the mess, knowing that it’ll drag him back into the underbelly of the city and potentially his own downfall.

It’s fair to say that there’s a lot going on in Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay. At the core of the story is the conflicted life of Elliot Caprice, the light-skinned child of a black man and white woman, brought up traversing the black and white Jewish communities of Southville, Illinois; college educated, a military veteran, a former cop, and on the run after killing two cops when his cover as a Fed informer was blown. The tale follows Caprice’s attempt to save himself, his uncle and their farm after it is foreclosed by the bank by becoming involved in trying to resolve a battle over a rich Chicago family’s estate, which has been built on crime and corruption. At the same time, the story provides social commentary on racism and anti-Semitism pervading life in 1950s America. Caprice’s personal issues and the case are somewhat convoluted and both are a strength and weakness of the story. The strength is an engaging, flawed character fighting personal demons whilst dealing with a handful of simultaneous battles which ensure there’s a non-stop flow of action. The weakness is it is sometimes tricky to following what is happening, often amplified by Gardner’s pared back scenes that sacrifice detail for pace, which led to me re-reading passages to pick up nuances that seemed to skip by. The result was a story that seemed to hurtle along through a maze, when a little less pace and some embellishment at times would have given the reader a better sense of the journey. Nonetheless, there’s plenty to like, especially Caprice and the historical window into 1950s race relations in the US, and the tale is hopefully the start of a series.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lazy Sunday Service

It's been a bit of a hectic week of travel, with a couple of days in Liverpool and London, giving talks and meeting folks. Between reading drafts of academic chapters, I did manage to work my way through Walter Mosley's The White Butterfly and Vaseem Khan's The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. Reviews soon. I also managed to pick up a copy of Philip Kerr's Greeks Bearing Gifts in Gatwick Airport, which has gone to near the top of the to-be-read pile.

My posts this week
Review of Dark Town by Thomas Mullen
Review of The Twilight Warriors by Robert Gandt
House call

Saturday, April 28, 2018

House call

‘I know he’s here, Mrs Brown.’

J.T. shifted his weight and tried to slow his wheezing.

‘And I’m telling you, he’s not.’

‘I appreciate you want to protect him, but I need ...’

‘He ain’t here!’

‘Mrs Brown, you’re a fine woman, a fine woman, but either he comes to the door or I come in.’

A pistol crept round the door frame.

J.T. swatted it aside, grabbed the wrist and pulled. Kept pulling until the young man flew down the stairs.

‘Thomas!’

‘See what comes of lying, Mrs Brown. All I wanted was to talk. Now I’m breaking bones.’



A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review of Dark Town by Thomas Mullen (Abacus, 2016)

Atlanta, 1948. The city has just appointed its first eight black policemen to patrol ‘Dark Town’, a black district, though they have no powers of arrest, having to call white officers to perform those duties. Racism in the city is endemic, no institution more so than the police department, with many white cops seeking to push the new men out or under. Lucius Boggs, a preacher’s son, and Tommy Smith, a former soldier, are finding the new role of policing a strain, viewed with suspicion by some of the black community and despised and badly treated by white officers. One evening they try to detain a former cop who has a beaten young black woman in his car. Veteran Officer Dunlow and rookie, Rakeshaw, let him go without charge. The following day the woman is discovered dead, lying in a pile of rubbish. Boggs and Smith are forbidden from undertaking an investigation, but the white cops seemingly have no interest in the case so they start to dig around. Rakeshaw is also uneasy, his partner is meant to be training him, but so far he’s mostly seen corruption and aggressive racism. When the woman’s father turns up at the police station to identify the body and is accused of murdering his daughter it prompts Rakeshaw into action. Boggs, Smith and Rakeshaw all want justice and reform, but their quest is threatening some powerful people and is in danger of ending before it has really started.

Dark Town is the first book in a historical police procedural set in Atlanta, 1948. The city’s policing is in transition, with corruption within the police force starting to be reined in and the first eight black officers being appointed. Veteran white cops are unhappy at both developments. They want the status quo maintained, the black community to be kept firmly in their place, and the black cops gone. The tension and politics of embedded, overt institutional racism and potential change pervade Mullen’s tale. On the one side are white cops, many of whom are kluxers, who rule the city through violence and corruption, who are supported by white institutions and Jim Crow laws. On the other are the eight new cops, the black community and their leaders, and a handful of white officers who might not be happy with the changes but are uncomfortable with excessive and unwarranted discrimination. At the heart of the story are two partnerships and the death of a young black woman. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two new black cops; Lionel Dunlow is a veteran white cop and Denny Rakeshaw is his rookie partner. Neither partnership is harmonious, but while Boggs and Smith trust and work for each other, Dunlow and Rakeshaw are at odds. Boggs, Smith and Rakeshaw are all secretly investigating the death, unhappy that it is being ignored by the homicide division. Dunlow is determined to bury the case and preferably Boggs and Smith as well. The three junior officers are playing a dangerous game, one that has larger ramifications than they anticipated. Mullen’s story delivers on multiple levels – strong historicisation, sense of place and contextualisation, nicely drawn characterisation, and a compelling and engaging story. It is not always an easy read, with the explicit racism and violence, but it gives a good sense of social and political relations at the time. The story seemed to run out of steam a little towards the end, and there are a couple of threads that seemed to get lost, but nonetheless this is a story of substance that extends beyond the investigation of a murder to reflect more broadly on society, power and its abuses.