Crime Fiction Alphabet: G is for A Good Hanging

My choice for the letter G in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is  A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin. I first wrote about this book when I read it in April 2008. It was one of the first books by Rankin that I had read, although I was familiar with Rebus from the TV series.

A Good Hanging is a collection of twelve short stories featuring Inspector John Rebus, set in Edinburgh. All the stories are concise and I think convey the character of Rebus; he is cynical and analytical, a lone worker, who drinks and smokes too much. None of the stories pose complex mysteries and are easily solved by Rebus.

A Good HangingFirst published in 1992 it’s one of the earlier Rebus books. The first story in this book is called ‘Playback‘. It’s a bit dated now with Rebus impressed by being able to phone your home phone ‘from the car-phone’ to get ‘the answering machine to play back any messages.’ As the title indicates, solving the crime in this story hinges on phone messages. The police receive a phone call from the murderer confessing his crime. He panics and tries to flee, only to be caught as the police arrive on the scene of the crime. He then insists on his innocence. Rebus disentangles the puzzle even though this seems to be ‘the perfect murder’.

In ‘The Dean Curse‘ Rebus is reading Hammett’s novel ‘The Dain Curse‘, which he tosses up into the air disgusted by how far-fetched and melodramatic that book was, piling on coincidence after coincidence ‘corpse following corpse like something off an assembly line’, when he receives a phone call with news of a car bomb that had just gone off in Edinburgh. He cannot believe it has happened. It seems as though this is the work of terrorists, the bomb having all the hallmarks of an IRA bomb and it had gone off seconds after the car had been stolen. It seems to Rebus as if the coincidences in the Hammett story have nothing on his case. But there is more to this case than at first meets the eye.

My favourite in the book is the title story ‘A Good Hanging‘ in which Rebus solves the crime through his knowledge of ‘Twelfth Night‘. It’s set during the Edinburgh Festival period, when the city is full of young, theatrical people. A Fringe group, comprising a number of students are staging a play called ‘Scenes from a Hanging’ promising a live hanging on stage. The story starts with the discovery of a young man found hanging from the stage scaffold in Parliament Square. It appears to be suicide according to the note in his pocket ‘Pity it wasn’t Twelfth Night’. But Rebus investigates and finds that all is not as it seems.crime_fiction_alphabet

The other stories involve the discovery of a skeleton buried beneath a concrete floor, a Peeping Tom, and blackmailers. One story I particularly like is ‘Being Frank‘ about a tramp who overhears two men talking about a war that’s coming. He is well known for making up stories and informing the police of numerous conspiracies so they just laugh at him. But fearing the end of the world Frank confides in Rebus who eventually begins to suspect that this time Frank is not lying.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: The Falls by Ian Rankin

My contribution this week for Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet meme isletter F

F is for The Falls.

The Falls (Inspector Rebus, #12)

I first  wrote about The Falls by Ian Rankin last March. Since then I have watched the TV version which was very different. I wonder why I bother to watch dramatised versions after I’ve read a book because they very rarely live up to my expectations and this version was particularly bad because it completely changed the story. Instead of investigating the disappearance of university student Philippa Balfour, known as ‘Flip’ to her friends and family, the TV version starts when a retired doctor gets killed in his home, tied to a chair, his wrists slit, bleeding to death.

The book is so much better.  DI Rebus and his colleagues have just two leads to go on – a carved wooden doll found in a tiny coffin at The Falls, Flip’s home village and an Internet game involving solving cryptic clues. Rebus concentrates on the tiny coffin and finds a whole series of them have turned up over the years dating back to 1836 when 17 were found on Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano within Holyrood Park, east of Edinburgh Castle. DC Siobhan Clarke meanwhile tries to solve the cryptic clues.

There are many things I liked about this book – the the interwoven plots, throwing up several suspects; the historical references to Burke and Hare, the 19th century resurrectionists; the spiky relationship between Rebus and his new boss Gill Templeton; Siobhan Clarke whose liking for doing things independently matches Rebus’s own maverick ways; and above all the setting in and around Edinburgh. All the way through I kept changing my mind about ‘who did it’ and it was only just before the denouement that I worked it out.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Featuring the Letter ‘E’

crime_fiction_alphabetInstead of concentrating on one book or one author I’ve picked a mixture of books and authors for this week’s featured letter E in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet Community Meme.

First up is Martin Edwards, who is one of my favourite authors and bloggers (click on the links to go to his website and blog). I  ‘discovered’ him when he commented on one of my posts. I’m so glad he did.  He’s written several novels, short stories and non-fiction books as well as edited a number of anthologies. Click on the titles to see my posts on his Lake District series:

Another author who used to be a great favourite of mine is Ed McBain. I haven’t read anything of his for many years.  He was born Salvatore Albert Lombino in 1926 and changed his name to Evan Hunter, writing under the pseudonym Ed McBain from 1956. He died in 2005. He wrote an enormous number of books – from 1958 until his death he wrote one or two books a year as Ed McBain. The first one in his 87th precinct series is Cop Hater. You can read the beginning of chapter one on the Ed McBain website. Writing under his own name Evan Hunter, he wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, based on Daphne Du Maurier’s short story (which is very different from the film). I think it’s time to re-read some Ed McBain books!

Then there is Ellery Queen – who was actually two people writing pseudonymously. They were  cousins Daniel (David) Nathan, alias Frederic Dannay and Manford (Emanuel) Lepofsky, alias Manfred Bennington Lee. They also used the pen name Barnaby Ross. Ellery Queen was also the chief character of their novels. A list of their books can be found on the Fantastic Fiction website. I first read Ellery Queen and Ed McBain as a teenager when I found them on my parents’ bookshelves and devoured them after I’d read all the Agatha Christie books I could find.

Umberto Eco wrote one of my favourite books The Name of the Rose. I read this when I was working in the Archives of the local County Council. It was recommended by one of the archivists and we spent many happy tea breaks discussing this novel. It is set in the Middle Ages in Italy, in which Brother William a Franciscan monk, aided by Adso a novice,  investigates several strange deaths. It’s a wonderful mix of detective fiction, historical fiction and religious history rolled into one, involving solving cryptic clues, secret codes and puzzles. 

Finally some books beginning with the letter E:

And on that note I shall end this look at the letter E in crime fiction.

Crime Fiction Alphabet:Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt

Letter DThis week’s letter in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet is D:

Douglas Watt is a historian, poet and novelist. Death of a Chief is his first novel.

From the back cover:

The year is 1686. Sir Lachlan MacLean, chief of a proud but poverty-stricken Highland clan, has met with a macabre death in his Edinburgh lodgings. With a history of bad debts, family quarrels, and some very shady associates, Sir Lachlan had many enemies. But while motives are not hard to find, evidence is another thing entirely. It falls to lawyer John MacKenzie and his scribe Davie Scougall to investigate the mystery surrounding the death of the chief, but among the endless possibilities, can Reason prevail in a time of witchcraft, superstition and religious turmoil?

Death of a Chief is set in pre-Enlightenment Scotland – a long time before police detectives existed.

I seem to be reading a lot of crime fiction set in Edinburgh recently with Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, but Death of a Chief is set in a different period and at times, it seemed, a different place!  One location that puzzled me was the Nor’ Loch below Castle Rock, where a second body is found – that of James Jossie, the apothecary – I just couldn’t picture a loch actually within the city. I found the answer in Wikipedia  – this area is now occupied by Princes Street Gardens, between the Royal Mile and Princes Street. How different it was before it was drained in 1759, with its muddy shoreline, and its dark dank water in the shade of the black mass of the Castle Rock!

Although I know very little about 17th century Scotland it seemed to me that this book brought that time and place to life well.The differences between the Highlanders and Scots Lowlanders are highlighted. Scougall a devout Presbyterian Lowlander has been brought up believing the Highlands to be a barbaric place ‘roamed by bands of murderers and in the grip of Popery’. The difficulties of  language also confront Scougall – he can’t speak Gaelic. As MacKenzie and Scougall travel into the Highlands to attend Sir Lachlan’s funeral and search for Campbell of Glenbeg, a notorious drunkard and gambler and a suspect for the murders, it seems that Scougall’s fears are justified when they are attacked by a group of “caterans”, men without a clan who were hired to kill them.

Although the locations are well described and MacKenzie (based on a real historical figure) and Scougall are well drawn some of the other characters are a bit sketchy and I had a little difficulty identifying them as I read. I had to backtrack to remind myself who they were. But I liked Watt’s style of writing. I enjoyed the book’s historical background and  the way he portrayed the political and religious conflict. The tension is well paced and the mystery is intriguing. I just had to keep turning the pages to find who was the culprit and I didn’t work it out until just before the denoument.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: C is for The Complaints

crime_fiction_alphabetThis week the Crime Fiction Alphabet  is featuring the letter C, which for me is Ian Rankin’s latest book The Complaints. The ‘Complaints’ are the cops who investigate other cops.

Set in Edinburgh in February 2009, Inspector Malcolm Fox works in the the PSU or Professional Standards Unit, part of the Complaints and Conducts office.  The PSU is sometimes called  ‘the Dark Side’,

They sniffed out racism and corruption. They looked at bungs received and blind eyes turned. They were quiet and serious and determined and had as much power as they need in order to do the job. (page 4) …

A lot of cops asked the Complaints the same question: how can you do it? How can you spit on your own kind? These were the officers you’d worked with, or might work with in the future. These were, it was often said, ‘the good guys’. But that was the problem right there – what did it mean to be good? Fox had puzzled over that one himself, staring into the mirror behind the bar as he nursed another soft drink. (page 5)

And there in those two quotes is the nub of this book. Who is the good guy? As Fox, yet another divorced cop with a drink problem, his father in a care home and his sister, Jude, in an abusive relationship, is drawn into an increasingly complex and puzzling investigation he has to work out just who the bad guys are.  He is asked to investigate DS Jamie Breck, a likeable young cop who is allegedly involved in a paedophile site run by an Aussie cop in Melbourne. Then Jude’s partner, Vince is murdered and Breck is the investigating officer. As Fox gets to know him it become increasingly difficult for him to know just who he can trust.

As I read on I grew to really like Fox. He is a good guy, he plays by the rules and looks after his family. He’s bit of a philosopher, an outsider mistrusted and hated by other cops.Then he finds he has to defend his reputation when he himself is accused  of a misdemeanor and comes under suspicion and surveillance. It’s about morality and vice. It’s up-to-date and I was absolutely engrossed in this book from the beginning to the end; one of the best books I’ve read this year. I hope Ian Rankin will write at least one more book featuring Malcolm Fox – and Jamie Breck.

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

crime_fiction_alphabetI’ve already posted my letter B in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet series, but here is a late entry for the letter A.

Among the Mad is by Jacqueline Winspear. It is the sixth in the Maisie Dobbs Mystery series. It begins on Christmas Eve in 1931 in London where Maisie notices a man sitting on the pavement. About to give him some change she becomes aware of a strange sensation of impending danger, somehow she knew that the man was about to take his life and before she can reach him there is an explosion.  This is the start of a series of terrifying events threatening the safety of not only Maisie but also thousands of innocent people.

Although the Great War had ended more than thirteen years years ago it still haunts Maisie and her assistant Billy Beale and this suicide brings all its horrors back to them. This is a dark novel as Maisie is drawn into the investigation by Scotland Yard to discover the identity of the man who is threatening to kill thousands of people unless his demands are met. It highlights the desperate conditions of the war veterans suffering still from shell-shock, unable to work and receiving no pensions. As first dogs and birds and finally a Government junior minister are found dead from some unknown chemical substance the search becomes increasingly more sinister as the mind of the madman is revealed.

At the same time Among the Mad gives agonising details of the medical treatment given to woman suffering from melancholia in the mental hospitals of the time when Billy’s wife, Doreen is admitted to Wychett Hill, or as Billy describes it “the bleedin’ nuthouse”. Doreen undergoes some kind of insulin therapy, and both Maisie and Billy are horrified to find her

lying on a cast-iron bed, her eyes wide open, her face contorted as she jerked her head back and forth on the pillow. Her wrists were secured to the bed on either side of her body, and her feet had been strapped to the bottom of the bed. Her slender wrists reminded Maisie of a sparrow’s tiny bones, set against the dark leather biting into her skin. Doreen had lost so much weight it seemed as if the sheet and blanket were flush across the bed, with slight protrusions to indicate the position of her feet, knees and hips. (pages 117-8)

I enjoy the Maisie Dobbs books; Maisie is meticulous, with great attention to detail, reflective and caring. There is so much social history which fascinated me, making me want to know more about the 1930s. There is also an interesting glimpse of Oswald Mosley:

He’s been hobnobbing with the likes of the Italian, Mussolini, and there’s talk that he’s thinking of setting up a Fascist Party here. There’s a recipe for terror, if ever I came across it. (page 103)

Crime Fiction Alphabet: B is for The Brethren

crime_fiction_alphabetKerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is running a weekly meme: The Alphabet in Crime Fiction. Each week you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week.

Kerrie explains that your post MUST be related to either the first letter of a book’s title, the first letter of an author’s first name, or the first letter of the author’s surname.

So you see you have lots of choice. You could write a review, or a bio of an author, so long as it fits the rules somehow.

This week’s letter is B and the book I’ve chosen to write about is The Brethren by John Grisham. I first read this several years ago when I was having a Grisham binge, reading every book by him that I could find. I read them so quickly and then promptly forgot about them.

This one sticks in my mind a bit more than some of the others, mainly because of its title. There are two strands to the story. The first concerns the Brethren – three judges imprisoned in Trumble a minimum security federal prison. They meet every week in the law library with the prison’s approval to hear cases and settle disputes between the other prisoners, and also, but not with approval, they’re running a gay-extortion scheme raking in hundreds of  thousands of dollars. The money is then smuggled out to their attorney and deposited in their secret offshore bank account.

Then there is Aaron Lake, a congressman talked into running for President by Teddy Maynard of the CIA.  Lake is handsome, articulate and smart, with no bad habits, clean as a whistle with a pretty dull private life since he’d become a widower: a solid candidate, very electable. But then, of course the two plots link up.

I haven’t re-read the book, but my memory of it is, like all the other Grisham books that I’ve read, that it is fast-paced, packed with legal detail, complicated and for me at least totally absorbing. I may even read it again.