Tag Archives: Harvill Secker

For the Joy of Reading: The Long Drop

Denise Mina is a phenomenal writer.   She can take a subject as unpleasant as Peter Manuel’s killings and turn it into a compulsive read.   She just hooks you in and convinces you that you must read the next page.   If you think that you are going to be able to put this book down, you are very much mistaken.

So who was Peter Manuel?   He was a multiple murderer, who committed his crimes in Glasgow in the late 1950s.   He does not fit the usual profile of a serial killer in that there was not always a sexual motive in his crimes.  Some people he murdered for the sheer pleasure of it.   Some he raped and murdered.   It seems to me that his motivation was to make himself important, to boost his own self-esteem by bullying people and making them afraid of him.   He was a nasty little man, both in his physical and mental stature.

What is extraordinary about this book is that Denise Mina convinces you that you want to read it.  She introduces you to the Glasgow of the 1950s, a city that was still hankering to be the “second city of the empire”; a grimy, dirty declining industrial city; a city of hard men and long-suffering women; a city riven by sectarian violence; a city of slums, where inside toilets were unheard of, and a city of wealth, and merchants and lawyers and power.

This was the city in which Peter Manuel grew up, the son of a Glasgow hard man and a devout Catholic mother.   He grew up and went from bad to worse, graduating from petty crime and robbery to rape and murder.  This is the story of his progress through the Glasgow underworld.   But he is no Jack Shepherd, cocking a snook at the authorities, nor does he have the charm of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.   He is someone who aspires to be important in his own vicious way.

Denise Mina takes us through the story, introducing a Rogues’ Gallery along the way – bent lawyers, gangland bosses, thieves and petty criminals.   Then there are the authority figures – priests and policemen and politicians who are certainly no better than they ought to be and probably not as good.   And casting its shadow over all of this is Glasgow itself, from the tenements of The Gorbals to the wealth and power of Trades’ House and Merchants’ House.

Peter Manuel could have been born and brought up anywhere, but he was a Glaswegian and this is a Glaswegian story.   I am not sure that the Glasgow Tourist Board will be too happy with Denise Mina.

But you as the readers have a treat in store.



For the Joy of Reading: Montpelier Parade

This is either the story of the sexual awakening of a heterosexual teenager, or the story of the sexual abuse of a teenage boy.   You will have to make that decision.   There is no doubt that he is willing, but there is a question about whether or not Vera should have taken advantage of his willingness in this way.   There is also a question about whether or not any harm is done.   Clearly, he cannot get pregnant so there is not the risk of becoming a teenage mother or having to face a termination.   Our society has less concern about psychological damage, even when it considers that such damage can be done.   And let us be honest, the usual response is that “he’s got lead in his pencil” or something similar to that.   You may or may not think that any damage has been done.

We are not told Sonny’s age.   All we know is that he is old enough to consider leaving school to start an apprenticeship, but that he is not old enough to go into a shop to buy a bottle of wine.   Vera does that for him.   So he may not be underage, but Vera is still considerably older than him, and whether or not she is exploiting him is an open question.   Vera has her own issues to consider, and is clearly facing up to her own situation with great difficulty.   When you find out her situation, you may or may not consider it to be an explanation of her behaviour.   You may or may not consider that it justifies what she does.

Karl Geary is too good a writer to force his moral judgements onto his readers.    He lets the issue arise through his characters, through Sonny’s mother who wonders why Vera is taking an interest in her son. through Sharon, supposedly Sonny’s girlfriend, who decides that he will come to nothing, through Vera herself, who thinks that Sonny will come to hate her.   And Sonny is no paragon of virtue.   He steals.   He fights.   He is essentially a working class boy, who sees no future for himself that he can deliver.   The key moment here is when he tells the school counsellor that he wants to be a painter and she assumes that he means a decorator, not an artist.   And when the word “artist” is raised in the conversation, he abandons all hope of ever becoming one.

This is essentially a sad tale, about the loss of aspiration and the hopelessness of life for so many people.   The writing is spare, beautiful, considered.   There is no careless choice of words.   Each sentence has been carefully constructed with poetic thought.   This story is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

You will have to decide what Geary is trying to tell you.   You will have to make your own judgements about both Sonny and Vera.   You will have to decide whether this is a book about sexual awakening, sexual abuse or possibly both.   This is a book that will make you think, and you will have to decide how to react.   You will even have to decide whether or not you should cast the first stone.

For the Joy of Reading: A Necessary Evil

Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not Banerjee are back.   For the readers of “A Rising Man” this will be enough for you to know that this is a “must read” book.   The rest of you need to discover the joy that is Abir Mukherjee’s writing.   It is a discovery that is worth making.

The story begins with the assassination of the Yuvraj, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai, heir to the princely state of Sambalpore at the start of the festival of the Lord Jagannath.   [This is the festival that gave English the word juggernaut because of the size of the chariot, bearing the image of the god, being pulled by thousands of devotees through the streets.]   Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not have the misfortune of being in the car with the Prince when he is shot by a devotee of the god Vishnu.   I should also explain, and this point is as good a place as any, that Surrender-Not is not Sergeant Banerjee’s real name.   It is Surendranath, but Surrender-Not is the closest that the officers of the Raj can get to pronouncing a Bengali name.   So the book is off to a rip-roaring start, and Sam and Surrender-Not inevitably get dragged into the investigation.

From this moment, the pace does not slacken at all.   This is a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery set in Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, but with a fine understanding of the inherent and racist politics of the British Raj.   The relationship between Sam Wyndham and Annie Grant has echoes of John Masters’ “Bhowani Junction”.

We enter the world of the princely state of Sambalpore, where the intrigues of the court are Byzantine in their complexity, with a dying Maharaja, a scheming Prime Minister, a revolutionary teacher, squabbling princes and, looming over it all, a Viceroy who needs the assistance of Sambalpore in his scheme to ensure the continuation of British rule in India. The murder of the Crown Prince throws all this into confusion.   Suddenly there is everything to play for, and Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not take it upon themselves to find out who was behind the assassination of the Crown Prince.

And this is one of the strengths of the book.   The characters are well-drawn.   Sam Wyndham was traumatized by his experiences in the trenches during the First World War.   He has developed his own strategy for dealing with this, and it is more than a little unorthodox for someone working as a police officer for the British Raj.   Even more unorthodox is his relationship with Annie Grant, an Anglo-Indian.   Nowadays, of course, we would not bat an eyelid, but this is British India in the 1920s.   Then, there is the fact that he shares his accommodation with Surrender-Not.   So Sam Wyndham is a truly unusual man for his time.   All you have to do is think of Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” to realise just how unusual he is.

Surrender-Not is also unusual.   He comes from a Brahmin family wealthy enough to have him educated at Harrow.   This is how he came to know Prince Adhir, who was a few years above him at the school.   As you may imagine, his family are not too happy about him working as a police sergeant and it is a sort of running joke between him and Sam Wyndham that his mother is searching for a potential bride.   This would be a sort of Holmes and Watson pairing, except that it is Surrender-Not who has the eye for detail.

Annie Grant is not the caricature love interest either.   She is a woman of ambition, with a mind of her own, and knowing perfectly well what she wants from life and how she is going to achieve it.   She is quite aware that Sam is infatuated with her, and she is quite capable of exploiting that.

So you have strong characters and a fast-moving plot.   What else could you require from a thriller?   Oh yes, a motive for the murder that explains the title “A Necessary Evil”.   You get that as well, but telling you what it is would involve giving away the plot, and that would spoil it.

So give yourself a real treat and read this book.

For the Joy of Reading: A Rising Man

Meet Captain Sam Wyndham and Sgt. Surrender-Not Banerjee, of the Imperial Police.   [Surrender-Not, of course, is not his real name but the Sahib Log officers cannot pronounce Surendranath].   They will become as familiar to you as Inspector Rebus and Jack Parlabane if there is any justice.

The story is set in Calcutta [and I use the spelling chosen by the author because that is the spelling used in the period concerned] and it is set just after the First World War.   Sam Wyndham has come out to India, having worked in Scotland Yard before the war, because he has nothing left and is looking for a new start.   Surrender-Not is a Bengali, and a law graduate for Cambridge seeking an honourable career.

They are brought together because a sahib, a very high ranking civil servant, is murdered outside a brothel in a very insalubrious part of town.   His throat has been cut and he has been stabbed in the chest, and there is a note with a very clear message in Bengali stuffed into his mouth.   And so we are introduced to the bloody underbelly of the British Ray at a point between “Plain Tales from the Hills” ,”The Raj Quartet” and “A Passage to India”.   It is a time of when an Anglo-Indian woman can be excluded from a restaurant because of her  parentage.   There are echoes of “Bhowani Junction” here.   It is a time when a Mrs Tebbit (I wonder if that name was chosen deliberately), the landlady of Captain Wyndham’s boarding house, can refer to “darkies” without a shadow of embarrassment.   It is a time of casual racism.

Abir Mukherjee presents all this as part of the fabric of everyday life.   These people are not villainous, apart from the murderer.   And there are some wonderful characters.   Mrs Bose and Mrs Hauksbee would have understood each other very well.   The two central characters are people that you will like, with their foibles and weaknesses supported by their determination to do the right thing.

The book has an acerbic wit, with one-liners that will make you laugh out loud.   It is written in a way that makes you want to know what happens next.   It does not avoid the major political events, such as the Amritsar Massacre which plays an important part in the story.   Abir Mukherjee weaves these events into his story with a deftness that is to be envied.   He is obviously a writer to watch.   This is his first novel, and he has set the bar very high.   I am looking forward to the subsequent adventures of Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not Banerjee.

For the Joy of Reading: The Comet Seekers

I have to be honest.   I have known Helen Sedgwick since she began working for Cargo Publishing and I was responsible for Reader Development in East Dunbartonshire Libraries.   Helen was an editor with very high standards about the quality of writing that she considered to be acceptable for a book that she was going to be involved in publishing. She has transferred those standards to her own writing, and has produced a story of astonishing quality.

And now that I have got the caveat out of the way, I can write about the sheer joy of reading this book.   It is a love story, but not in the normal sense of the word.   The love affair is with the universe, and especially with the comets that burn through our night skies.   This is not a book that expects you to have a detailed knowledge of the astrophysics involved in a comet tracking a path across the night sky.   It does, however, expect you to look in awe and astonishment at the sheer wonder of a comet, at the incredible beauty of such a thing happening visibly and in our lifetimes.

It takes that central comet of our history, Halley’s Comet that roared across our skies in 1066, following the death of Edward the Confessor, which appeared to announce fundamental change.   We are introduced to Elfgifu, the first in a long family line of comet seekers, culminating with Francois and Roisin, who meet in Antarctica at a scientific station dedicated to the watching of comets.   The problem for these comet seekers is a simple one.  We meet them through our two contemporaries, which means that all the rest are dead.   They are ghosts.   They are still seeking comets.    And they invade the lives of their descendents because they are still seeking comets, and wish to pass this obsession on.

One of the ghosts, Brigitte, has to deal with the sheer horror of her death, and this is to haunt Severine, Francois’ mother, and plays a part in the development of the story which I am not prepared to reveal.

But, as i have said, this is a love story.   So we learn about Roisin and her cousin Liam, and about Francois and Helene.   I am not going to tell you what happens, except for what I have already said.   The whole story hinges on this.   And it is a story that ranges from Bayeux, through North America, to rural Ireland.   It is a story about people being rooted to where they are because of the people they are descended from.   And it is also a story about people escaping because they want to.   It is a story that recognises that whatever you do, there are consequences.   It is a story you must read for yourselves.

What I will tell you is that this book is beautifully written and the story is enthralling.   It spans the history of France, England and Ireland from the 11th century to the present day.   So all you have to do is settle down and wait to be dazzled by this comet trailing across the sky.