Book log: 82) Victor Canning — The Whip Hand

1965 thriller, the first of four featuring private eye Rex Carver. Carver accepts what is presented as a straightforward job of tracing a young woman, and ends up chasing around Europe in a murky plot where he’s working for at least three different masters who may or may not be on different sides, and include at least one official intelligence organisation. Definitely a product of its time, in more ways than one, but good fun and well worth a read.

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book log: 73) Dick Francis — Reflex

Jockey Philip Nore isn’t too impressed when a young solicitor turns up at the weighing room, asking him to go and see his estranged grandmother. They’re estranged because his grandmother threw his mother out of the house when she became pregnant. Nore doesn’t know who his father is, hasn’t seen his mother in years and has good reason to believe that she’s dead, and was brought up by a succession of his mother’s friends who were asked to look after him for a few days that turned into a few months. He lost the one set of involuntary foster parents who wanted to keep him. So he’s more than a little bitter on the subject of family. Only being told that his grandmother is dying persuades him to go and see her — only to find that she isn’t dying just yet, and that she wants him to find a sister he never knew he had.

Another mystery drops into his lap when one of his friends suffers a series of misfortunes. Steve’s father dies in a car accident, his mother is burgled and then attacked. George Millace was a professional sports photographer, and it becomes clear to Nore that Millace had photographed more than horses. Nore’s haphazard upbringing has equipped him to dig up the dirt someone thought they’d buried along with Millace, because Nore’s best loved foster parents were also professional photographers, and Nore knows darkroom techniques inside out.

Nore slowly works his way through George Millace’s legacy, uncovering a network of corruption and blackmail — and getting too close to the final truth for somebody’s comfort.

It’s a beautifully constructed thriller, with the first strand intertwining with the second to provide the final resolution, even though there’s no direct link between them. And as ever with Francis’s novels, it’s an enthralling story of a man discovering himself and what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

book log July 2012

67) Francis Durbridge — Tim Frazer Gets The Message [audiobook]

Abridged on 2 CDs and read by Anthony Head. Another case for engineer turned spy Tim Frazer. British intelligence agent Miss Thackery was last heard of in Asia, so why has she turned up dead in the Welsh countryside? And is her murder linked with the disappearance of a German scientist who was working at the British government? Another enjoyable 1960s espionage novel, splendidly read by Anthony Head.

68) Mary Stewart — The Moonspinners

1960s romantic suspense. A young woman working at the British Embassy goes to Crete for an Easter break with her cousin, and walks into a cover-up of a murder and a witness in hiding. The mystery is not in whodunnit, but why. An excellent romantic suspense with a vivid sense of place.

69) Dick Francis — Flying Finish

Lord Henry Grey holds down an ordinary office job, to the horror of his family who think that he should solve the family financial problems by the traditional method of marrying an heiress in search of a title — or as he calls it, prostituting himself. He hasn’t told his family about his other activities — amateur jockey, and semi-amateur pilot. When he shifts jobs into working for a bloodstock shipping agent, nobody thinks he’ll stick to it. But Grey not only sticks with the job, he inconveniences other people by doing so, and by being bright enough to notice that there’s something very odd going on.

Another solid suspense novel from Francis, as ever tied into the world of horse-racing, and with a good romance sub-plot.

69) Paul Doherty — Corpse Candle

Thirteenth of the medieval mystery series starring Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the King’s Seal. I’m not familiar with the series and this one’s a long way into the run, but I found that Doherty does a good job of introducing his characters to new readers. Corbett is sent by the King to investigate the death of Abbot Stephen of St Martin’s-in-the-fields, an abbey in a remote area plagued by bandits. It’s a locked room murder mystery that leaves Corbett initially baffled, but then he finds himself with more murders to investigate, providing both more clues and an incentive to find the killer fast. Very enjoyable, and I’d like to read more of the series.

70) PD James — Cover Her Face [audiobook]

Full cast dramatisation from BBc Radio 4 of the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery, on two CDs. Very well done, and with the original novel being fairly short, this one doesn’t have to leave out large chunks of the book, even if if it is still abridged.

71) Mary Stewart — This Rough Magic

Another romantic suspense from Stewart, this one set on Corfu and themed around Shakespeare’s Tempest. I enjoyed it a lot, but felt that the heroine was rather more blatantly collecting plot coupons than in some of Stewart’s books.

book log: 65) Ian Rankin — Watchman

65) Ian Rankin — Watchman

An early one from Rankin, a standalone spy novel written between writing the first and second Rebus novels. As it’s the first book by Rankin I’ve read, I can’t say how it compares with his series or later work, but I found it an enjoyable read in its own right. It was written in 1988 and is very much a period piece, not least because the setting is London during an IRA bombing campaign. The titular Watchman is a member of MI5’s Watcher Service. His job is to do just that — watch people and note where they go, who they talk to and what they do. A watching brief goes wrong and someone is killed. Miles gets a large part of the blame, and a shift to a punishment operation. But there’s something slightly off about the scenario, and Miles suspects that there might be a mole. With retirements and promotions due in the upper ranks, the upper ranks don’t want a scandal, and Miles is offered a “last chance” assignment — in Belfast. It’s clearly intended to force him to resign quietly, but Miles is too stubborn. And so he finds himself tipped from his quiet role of professional voyeurism into a far more violent and dangerous game.

It’s definitely got the feel of an early work by a good writer. The characterisations are solid and the plot draws you in, but there were a couple of places where I had a major suspension of disbelief problem, and they were key elements of the plot. So a little disappointing part way through after a good start, but still a satisfying ending. Probably not a keeper for me, but I’m glad to have read it.

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book log: Leslie Charteris – Enter the Saint

50) Leslie Charteris – Enter the Saint

Second book in the Saint series, a trio of novelettes/novellas rather than a novel. Simon Templar continues in his adventurer ways, a moral criminal who only targets immoral criminals, bringing a little justice to the world a la Robin Hood and taking a 10% fee to cover his expenses. These stories introduce the Saint’s gang of like-minded honest crooks, and one of the stories is largely about Dicky Tremayne. Great fun from the 1930s.

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Book review: Ruth Rendell — Portobello

Book 13 for 2010.

The scene is the Portobello Road in London, home to a sprawling market and to people from all walks of life, the wealthy middle class and those with no hope of a job. A middle-aged antiques dealer finds some cash dropped in the street, and rather than hand it to the police, advertises locally for the owner. Half a dozen lives cross and are entangled as a result, some knowing and some unknowing; setting them all on a path that will change some forever, and leave others dead.

Rendall starts with stock stereotypes, and then draws their lives in intimate detail, showing them as rounded characters with a mix of good and bad in their personalities. This is a psychological thriller, but it’s about ordinary people living ordinary lives; and how everyday pressures and events can lead into, and out of, tragedy. It has a mostly happy ending, and even the dead get some justice in the end, but these things depend on the small coincidences of ordinary life.

There’s a very strong sense of place in the book, excellent characterisation, and an engaging story. My own reaction to it was that I thoroughly enjoyed it and am glad I read it — but I have no desire to read it again, and no urge to go out and buy more by the same author. I’m not quite sure why this is so, as the book certainly doesn’t rely on the shock value of seeing the events unfold for the first time.

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book review: James Coltrane — Talon

Joe Talon is an anachronism. He’s a hippie ex-surfer with a James Bond complex working for the CIA, barely conforming at work and not hiding it. But Talon is very good at his job of checking anomalies in satellite photos. Too good. Talon spots an anomaly where no anomaly was marked for his attention, and starts digging into it. Talon’s attention to something nobody was supposed to notice focuses attention on him–the sort of attention that has him running for his life.

Talon’s choices are simple–die, disappear for good, or find a way to expose the conspirators within the Company while he’s on the run. All three look like good choices to him at various times during the course of the novel, but Talon’s final choice is to fight back.

Talon isn’t a trained spy, just a highly specialised clerk; but he’s bright and desperate and he’s stolen some interesting goodies from work over the years. The ensuing chase makes for a thrilling read, with a lot of careful world building going into making the story feel realistic. The book was first published in 1978, so the technology is very dated now, of course; as are some of the social attitudes. But it’s still a good read, even today.

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Talon at Amazon UK
Talon: A novel of suspense at Amazon US

Book review: Peter O’Donnell — Modesty Blaise

Modesty Blaise started life as a cartoon strip, but O’Donnell then put his creation into novel form, and did a superb job in both formats. This is the first novel in the series, and introduces the setting and most of the main characters.

Modesty Blaise is a former refugee and survivor of the terrible disruptions caused by the war, and as a child drifted across Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the company of an old professor. She had to be tough to survive; but her companion instilled in her a strong moral code. She took over a small criminal gang and built it up into a powerful criminal organisation infused with that moral code–they never touched drugs or vice, and occasionally co-operated with the police and intelligence services to help clean up such crimes. She retired a wealthy woman at the age of 24.

As the novel opens, Modesty and her friend and former second-in-command Willie Garvin are finding that retirement is boring and adrenaline an addiction they cannot shake. Sir Gerald Tarrant, the head of British Intelligence, exploits that addiction to recruit them for an intelligence operation for which they are peculiarly suited. What follows is a thrilling caper novel pitting Modesty and Willie against a bizarre criminal mastermind. Tight plotting and wonderful prose make this a very entertaining read, with a unique pair of heroes. It’s wonderful to see Souvenir Press reissuing the novels, making them available again to both a new generation of fans and those with fond memories.

Modesty Blaise at Barnes & Noble
Modesty Blaise at
Modesty Blaise at
Modesty Blaise at Powell’s.