Whenever I go to East Finchley Library – usually to get something printed out, what with not having a printer at home – I invariably feel obliged to take out a book or two, if only to do my (small) bit to bump the lending numbers up in a library which seems to be constantly threatened with cutbacks or, worse still, closure. The good thing about my local library is that there’s always a really good selection, especially among the crime novels and the thrillers, and it saves me from buying books and then wondering which books on my crowded shelves I should get rid of to make way for the new arrivals. Here are some books I’ve taken out recently and enjoyed:
Dictator by Robert Harris
This one was in the library less than a month after it came out in the paperback edition. Robert Harris has always had a knack for bringing the past to life in his novels, which have touched on the code-breakers of Bletchley Park (Enigma), a Stalinist revival in modern Russia (Archangel) and the Dreyfus affair (An Officer and a Spy). He’s also written an excellent political trilogy set in ancient Rome around the life of the statesman Cicero (106BC-43BC), of which Dictator is the final instalment.
Harris’s inspiration for this is an apparently long-lost biography of Cicero by his slave and secretary, Tiro, a real person who published many of his master’s works after the latter’s death and appears to have invented an early form of shorthand. He’s the narrator in Harris’s Cicero trilogy of Roman-era political thrillers; the first two were Imperium, which dealt with his rise to power, and Lustrum, which covered his consulship and the foiling of a conspiracy against the Roman Republic. This is very much a warts-and-all portrayal of the political intrigues surrounding the decline of the Republic – insert your own parallels with the present here – and no-one, not even Cicero himself, emerges entirely unblemished (in his case, he is over-confident and his famous oratory extends a few too many times to witty remarks at other peoples’ expense; thus does he accumulate deadly enemies). The detail Harris gives is superb – there is evidence of some detailed historical research going on here.
Dictator begins where Lustrum left off, with Cicero a broken and exiled man and the Republic in decline; the backdrop to this third part of the story is that of the power-struggle between Pompey and Julius Caesar, followed by the latter’s dictatorship and the events surrounding the aftermath of his murder (which is, of course, described) and the rise of Octavian, a young man who everyone (even Cicero) underestimates.
Even people who have some awareness of what the final outcome is going to be – which I would guess to be most people, as we’re dealing with historical figures taking part in one of the great stories of Western history – will find this captivating, for Harris is a really good author who can do the historical very well, whatever the time period he chooses to write about.
The Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler
I must admit that I’ve become a bit of a fan of Christopher Fowler’s quirky series of novels about Arthur Bryant and John May, a pair of elderly detectives – hangovers from the ‘Golden Age’ of crime fiction operating in the modern day – who form the backbone of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a small and decidedly eccentric London-based police team dedicated to solving crimes of an odd nature that may impact public safety (although fictional, it is apparently based on a real-life police unit that existed during the Second World War). Locked-room murders, disappearing pubs and all sorts of London lore and locations (some well-known, others less so) all feature, along with heavy doses of urban myth, psychogeography and dark humour.
The Bleeding Heart, the eleventh book in the series, begins with an apparently re-animated corpse rising from its grave in St George’s Gardens, a little-known (but nevertheless real) former cemetery that’s now a park in Bloomsbury; the only witness to this dies in a hit-and-run the following evening, but in the minutes between when he’s last seen alive and when his body is discovered, someone has changed his t-shirt. As modern-day body-snatchers and the fear of being buried alive loom large in the investigation, there’s a sub-plot involving the disappearance of the ravens at the Tower of London.
Crimes of such as these need an eccentric detective, and the scruffy, ever-curious Arthur Bryant (with his poor personal hygiene, a marked disregard for modern police procedure, a collection of mouldy and weirdly-titled books and a contact-list that includes white witches, necromancers, ex-Bletchley Park codebreakers and retired magicians) is truly a great literary creation. Trying to keep him in line is John May, the tidy and sensible one of this crime-fighting odd (and old) couple. Naturally, they’ve got a seemingly nominal boss who tries and fails to keep them in line (many cop duos have these, although none are quite as hilariously hapless as Raymond Land), and various branches of the civil service and the Met (or, in this case, the City of London Police) threatening them with closure on a regular basis.
This is a well-written mystery that will keep the reader guessing until the last few pages, by which time several new things about London may well have been learned.
Broken Promise by Linwood Barclay
A former Toronto Star columnist, Linwood Barclay has made his name as a writer of contemporary thrillers set in the seemingly ordinary, suburban world of upstate New York where an everyman-type figure – the narrator, more often than not – gets caught up in a chain of events which usually involves him becoming a person of interest to the local constabulary and which eventually leads to the uncovering of something sinister that lurks under the surface of the small town he inhabits. It’s very Hitchcockian, in a way – the plot device of an innocent man falling under suspicion for a crime was one that the famous director would return to again and again, from The 39 Steps (itself based on the John Buchan novel) to North by Northwest and, towards the end of his career, Frenzy. Likewise, Barclay’s novel Never Look Away was about a man who was suspected of murdering his wife after she disappeared; it turned out there was a lot more to her than he’d ever known. Recently, Barclay has started revisiting some of the characters who featured in his earlier works; thus, the people who managed to survive No Time for Goodbye (not his first thriller, but definitely his breakthrough work) returned, slightly older but in some ways none the wiser, in No Safe House.
He’s doing the same with Broken Promise, a follow-up in some ways to Never Look Away (although there are also supporting characters drawn from, by my reckoning, at least two of Mr Barclay’s other novels) but one which is being billed as the first of a trilogy of its own set around the apparently ordinary, albeit economically declining, town of Promise Falls. Here, David Harwood is a widowed single parent who has lost his job and had to move back into his parents’ house. He drops in on his cousin, who’s fallen to pieces after losing her baby – only to find her with a baby which she claims was given to her by ‘an angel’; he sets off to find the baby’s parents, and in so doing he stumbles onto a murder scene. The narrative bounces, via a series of coincidental comings-and-goings and telephone conversations, between Harwood as he tries to figure out what on Earth is going on, a local doughnut-dodging cop who’s investigating the murder as well as some strange goings-on at the local college, and a few rather dubious individuals with their own agendas who are finding that the unfolding situation is not as easy to manage as they thought it would be.To be honest, there are enough clues to lead the reader to guess the big plot twist before the reveal is reached, but – this being a trilogy – not everything is wrapped up at the end. The story of Promise Falls is one that is to be continued; to judge by the teaser from the next instalment at the end, Barclay is only just getting started here.