It will be a few months (probably) before the next James Burke book. Given that you’ve read all five (yes, really!) out already, you might be looking for an alternative. A series about another dashing military spy whose activities start in the late 18th century, Somebody like C C Humphreys’ Jack Absolute.
It was a really strange feeling for me, reading Jack Absolute. Absolute could be Burke’s older brother. Both are tall, slim, useful with sword and pistol, and have an eye for the ladies. Both are deeply cynical about the wars they have to fight but, in the end, are driven by patriotism to do their duty even when their duty stops them from pursuing their own pecuniary interests as much as they would like.
Burke, of course, is based on a real person whereas Absolute is based on another fictional character – the Jack Absolute of Sheridan’s The Rivals. Burke has William Brown to save him when he has got himself into a pit from which a single bound is not quite enough to free him. Absolute has Até, a Mohican Indian with a penchant for Hamlet.
Like Burke, Absolute is first and foremost a spy but he does find himself putting on a uniform and getting dragged into meticulously researched battles. While Burke is fighting the French in (mostly) Europe, Absolute’s battles are happening about 30 years earlier. He is fighting American rebels (backed by the French, of course, though they don’t actually feature in this book) during the War of Independence. There’s a lot of detail of the battle at Saratoga and Absolute spends a lot of time with General Burgoyne, so we learn plenty about the strategy of the campaign as well as the conduct of individual engagements.
Burgoyne isn’t the only historical figure to feature. Sheridan is there as well as soldiers like Benedict Arnold and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. There is a mass of less well-known people too, but you never get the impression that characters are being pushed into the book just so that Humphreys can show off. In fact, he wears what seems to me his considerable historical knowledge very lightly.
There is a satisfyingly evil villain (German, just to ring the changes) and a beautiful romantic interest. Humphreys writes well and I found the story bowled along fast enough for me to overlook some of the implausible coincidences. Até is kept busy arriving in the nick of time as our hero blunders into yet another disaster. I did find myself raising a critical eyebrow, but William Brown explained that that sort of thing happens in the best of novels and it is certainly a well-established trope for this genre.
There are various surprise revelations that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if you have been paying attention, but this does have the advantage of allowing the reader to feel rather smug. And I suppose it’s reassuring to know that even a man with a brain so sharp he can look at a line of code and read it straight into English with minimal effort can fail to spot the secret agent under his nose. And, as Lee Child has observed, every hero should have one – and only one – flaw. Given Absolute’s martial skill, courage, strength, charm, and cunning, an inability to play Agatha Christie and work out whodunnit is only fair.
I found myself reading long into the night. It’s a little before my period and I know practically nothing about the American War of Independence, so it may be riddled with errors, but if it is I certainly never noticed. I was happily immersed in the 1770s and the life of a hero even more unlikely than James Burke. If you enjoy Burke, I’m confident you will enjoy Absolute. And, if you’re reading this because you have enjoyed Absolute but have never read Burke, might I suggest you will probably like him if you give the books a go?
During lockdown I had another go at reading Proust, but I’m still struggling. (The good bits are wonderful but the bad bits are like a parody of self-indulgent French intellectualism.) I’ve been given the graphic novel version of volume 1 (yes, it really exists and it’s rather wonderful) and I’m having a go at that. Meanwhile, what I’m actually reading is detective thrillers. Here are the latest (both courtesy of NetGalley)
Death comes to Bishops Well: Anna Legat
Anna Legat is already an established crime thriller writer, but my only experience of her in the past has been through her more ‘experimental’ novels, which have been interesting because of their rather edgy and sometimes nihilistic approach. I’ve seen her writing about adventures in Hell and the end of the world so I was intrigued to see what she would do in the deeply traditional ‘cosy crime’ genre.
Death comes to Bishops Well plays by all the rules. At first I was confused by having a whole heap of individuals thrown at me to sort out into potential victims, possible suspects or would-be detectives, but that more or less goes with the territory. (I enjoy Agatha Christie but I hate the obligatory dinner party at the start with ten guests who we are briefly introduced to and then have to keep track of as we try to work out which one did it.) Legat soon establishes the individual characters who are clearly drawn and interestingly three dimensional. It was the characterisation that kept me going through the initial pages while everyone was assembled together until the big party where one person ends up dead and the others are all suspects.
There’s an interesting narrative twist as chapters alternate between the point of view of a slightly fussy solicitor and his bohemian neighbour who livens up the story by seeing ghosts. The reader needn’t worry, though: the ghosts never speak or interfere with the solution of the mystery which is eventually resolved in traditional Agatha Christie style. They do add an additional layer of fun to a tale that is punctuated by regular stabs of amusement, often at the expense of twee villages like Bishops Well. (It sounds a lovely place to visit but if I had to live there I’d be desperate to be the victim in the next of what promises to be a long series.)
I’m not sure it entirely works as a crime mystery. I can’t say why without major spoilers, but I found the ending unsatisfactory. I’m not sure that Legat’s heart was entirely in finding out whodunnit. She’s much more interested in the people and the fun she can have with their situation – ghosts and all. If you go with the flow (easy enough – she writes well) you’ll have fun too.
A Slow Fire Burning: Paula Hawkins
I ‘read’ this as an audio book. I love crime thrillers on audio (how else would I get the housework done) and this definitely hit the spot.
I wasn’t sure at first. In fact I nearly gave up in the first few minutes as it started with one of those horrific ‘woman about to be raped/murdered’ prologues that linger a little too much on the misogynistic detail. I suspect Paula Hawkins may lose readers with this, which is a shame, because the book isn’t like that at all.
It’s a confusing, messy start, switching from the over-written prologue to a woman bleeding in her bathroom having been injured in some unspecified way. We quickly establish that she is a disturbed young person with unsympathetic parents and then we are away again to another woman and a detailed account of the trials of emptying the chemical toilet on her barge.
By the time we got to the murder I had almost decided not to listen to any more. I’m glad I stuck with it, though. It’s a very good (if deeply depressing) book.
It takes a while to get all the characters sorted out. What links the best-selling author and the miserable middle aged woman on the barge? And how are they linked to the alcoholic who, in turn, links us to the bloodied woman at the start of the book? And what on earth does the prologue have to do with any of it?
It is, as you may imagine, a twisted and tangled tale: twisted in both senses of the word. Almost all the characters are deeply flawed. All have some redeeming feature or, at least, some excuse for being simply awful people, but the truth is that, except for one utterly lovely person, all are very unpleasant – and one, of course, is a murderer.
To tell the truth, I didn’t really care whodunnit. I was carried along wondering how this wretched bunch of people were going to get their lives together or – more realistically – how exactly they were going to crash and burn. It’s not exactly an edifying spectacle but, like any car crash, their stories have an awful fascination.
In the end we do find out who did it. There are twists and turns along the way and the resolution is satisfying, but it’s not really crucial to the enjoyment of the book. It’s just a bloody good read – or, in my case, ‘listen’ – and Rosamund Pike’s narration is spot-on perfect.
I usually write quite long reviews because I have been asked to review a book by somebody or because I think that there is a lot that can sensibly be said about it, but this week I’m doing two very short reviews simply because I really enjoyed these books and would like to share them with you.
‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’: Ann Swinfen
Elizabethan spies. Mary Queen of Scots. All those plots you read about at school (if you are old enough to have done history when Good Queen Bess was what you got taught about).
Absolutely gripping stuff in stunningly well-written novel by someone who certainly knows their Elizabethan history. Brilliant characters, (largely) convincing plot, loads of lovely period detail.
I wish I could write nearly as well as this. It’s a model of how to do it.
Buy on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Secret-World-Christoval-Alvarez-Chronicles-ebook/dp/B00JC30J2A
‘Shadow on the Highway’: Deborah Swift
This has a YA feel to it and the story seems a little too fantastical, but the Historical Note suggests it’s not nearly as fantastical as it might be. Two strong female characters, a suitably chilling villain and a story that positively romps along, helped by fluid prose that’s a pleasure to read. I seem drawn to English Civil War stories almost despite myself. This one holds up well on the period detail. There’s the odd bit of military stuff I wasn’t entirely convinced of, though that could well be my ignorance showing. The life of a servant back in the 17th century seems suitably grim with lots of description of domestic chores, miserable accommodation and doubtful diet.
It’s a light read but served very well for a holiday break. It’s a lot of fun.
Buy on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-Highway-Trilogy-Book-ebook/dp/B071Y47KLC
And one by me
A quick reminder that The White Rajah is available again on Amazon with a shiny new cover. Now seemed a good time to republish a novel based around James Brooke’s adventures in Borneo as a film on the man’s life (End of the World) is coming out on 21 June. It’s got pirates and battles and derring-do, but it’s mainly a reasonably thoughtful novel about colonialism and good and evil and suchlike. It’s not as easy to read as, say, Shadow on the Highway, but there is a lot of excitement as well as an exploration of what happens when Europeans take responsibility for the development of what we would now call Third World countries.
Buy on Amazon at https://mybook.to/WhiteRajah
I have only kept in touch with one person I was at school with. It turns out that he is an extraordinarily good copy editor, so now he has been raked in to read all my books before they are released on the public. Just remember that if you keep in touch with old school friends, one day this could happen to you!
When he read Something Wicked he asked me if I had read Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London. When I told him that I hadn’t, he said that Something Wicked reminded him of Aaronovitch’s book so I had a look at it on Amazon. What I saw made me very pleased I could honestly say I’d never read it, because there was definitely more than a passing similarity in the opening pages and I didn’t want people to say that I had copied his approach. It’s a humorous urban fantasy which combines a police procedural with things that you would never expect to see in Dixon of Dock Green. (Younger readers: ask your parents. Or Google it.)
Last week I got round to reading the rest of the book and it’s rather wonderful. And, yes, there are definite similarities to Something Wicked. Perhaps Aaronovitch’s familiarity with the supernatural (the story does suggest quite a lot of research) means that he read Something Wicked and then moved back through time to write Rivers of London. (Not an entirely original thought: I recommend Morley Roberts’ story The Anticipator.)
Like Something Wicked the story starts with the discovery of a body that has been the victim of an unusual murder. In this case it has been decapitated. There follows a lot of detail of police procedure but the appearance, fairly early on, of a ghost as a witness to the crime suggests that things are going to get very weird very quickly. While my detective finds himself working alongside Chief Inspector Pole, a vampire from the mysterious Section S, our hero here, Chief Inspector Nightingale, is a wizard working for Economic and Specialist Crime. Pole and Nightingale share a preference for working alone from their homes and both seem to take an unhealthy interest in mortuaries, but while Pole’s brief sticks to the vampiric, Nightingale covers all the ghosties and ghoulies London has to offer – and Aaronovitch’s research has turned up more strange things than Nightingale can shake his mysteriously powerful silver-topped cane at. To be honest I got a bit lost in the ghosts, the genii locorum, demons, revenants and assorted other phantasmagoria. It’s a complex plot (and the first of a long series) but it makes sense as you read along, though I must admit to waking up at 4.00 am worrying at some of the details. It doesn’t matter, really. Our narrator is a probationary constable whose natural curiosity and somewhat eclectic skill set was unappreciated by the Metropolitan Police generally but fits right in with Chief Inspector Nightingale. He’s a beautifully rounded character, whose constant amazement at the world he finds himself in massively helps us suspend our disbelief. “Of course he’s being possessed by a revenant,” I found myself saying. “Good heavens, man, isn’t it obvious?” And obvious it somehow became, however barking mad the characters, the plotline and the twisted logic. It’s helped by a wonderful sense of place, with lots of details of London geography that pin it firmly to reality (though how he managed to put Teddington Lock downstream of Richmond I have no idea – a careless copy editor, I suspect).
Above all the book is funny – often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a wonderful mix of horror and humour and glorious British eccentricity at its best. I do recommend it.
And when you’ve read it, do you think you might like to take a peek at Something Wicked? Proof, if proof were needed, that two authors can independently turn up with the same idea. Unless, of course, Aaronovitch has read The Anticipator and figured out how to work that trick in real life. Actually, given his familiarity with magic, perhaps he has.
I bought Rivers of London for Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004K1EC1S
Something Wicked is available as an e-book or in paperback: https://mybook.to/Something_Wicked
I’ve just been reading Larry Beinhart’s latest. It’s a lot of fun.
I’m always interested to read how other writers approach things I’ve just written (or am writing) about. So I was fascinated to see Loren Estleman tackling the idea of anti-Napoleonic agents in Paris because that’s exactly what’s going on in the next Burke book. And now I can look at how a well-established author updates a traditional fantasy genre to make it work in the “real” world. In Something Wicked I took a new look at vampires so that we could imagine them living “normal” lives in London (and dancing a lot of tango, as it happens). Larry has created a thoroughly 21st century monster but one that behaves exactly like traditional zombies. I think he’s made it work.
There’s a not particularly subtle (not at all subtle really) sub-text that comes from a clearly left-field political perspective. It will put off some readers but I enjoyed it. Big business is bad and pharmaceutical companies are not to be trusted. Larry’s targets range across underfunded police departments, private military contractors, the war on drugs and dumping toxic waste in third world countries but they do all come together to create ‘the School of Tomorrow’. Here children are fed behaviour modifying drugs to produce perfect high-achieving pupils taught by staff who have been similarly pharmaceutically “Optimized”. All goes well until the drugs are polluted with poisonous run-off from a toxic waste dump (I told you it all fits together) to produce children with massive cravings for more drugs (I told you it wasn’t subtle). Once they’ve taken all the pills, they start trying to extract the drugs from the bodies of teachers and others who have them in their blood stream. Yes, these are now zombie children! All locked in a school!! With just a few drug-free individuals trying to save them!!!
It’s every zombie film you’ve ever seen. Bits are hilarious, much is gross. There’s zombie sex (not very good sex, but I guess that figures), spectacular amounts of violence, stupid policemen, clever stoners and evil businessmen trying to work out how to make money out of it all. The set-up is an enjoyable read and the climax had me so hooked I missed my Netflix fix. Personally I felt the middle act was perhaps a tiny bit over-extended, but then I’ve never been a huge zombie fan. There’s only so many shuffling creatures cornering people and ripping them apart that I can feel invested in, but lots of readers will love it. The fact that the evil zombies are often small children does give it a slight edge: they’re more likely to bite your calves than your neck and when people start retaliating it turns out you can throw a small child quite a distance. Definitely not a book for those of a sensitive or nervous disposition.
So does it work? Clearly I thought it did. Larry is self-publishing this, because despite his record as a best-selling author (Wag the Dog, No One Rides For Free) traditional publishers were unenthusiastic, so Larry has self-published this. I think it will do well: clearly reimagining traditional fantasy tropes is where this genre is at (he says, hoping to see a spike in sales of Something Wicked). Seriously, this book deserves to do well. It’s a great read and just £3.50 on Kindle.
Other Urban Fantasy novels are also available
Apparently this genre is called ‘Urban Fantasy’. Who knew? Certainly not me when I started writing it.
If you enjoy this sort of thing, can I point you at Something Wicked? I may have mentioned it once or twice already, but reviews suggest it is good. Vampires hanging out in the sort of tango clubs I hang out in, just trying to get by in a world they think might not be too happy if we all knew their lifestyle choices.
I’ve also written a novella, Dark Magic about a troupe of stage conjurors whose act is getting a little diabolic assistance. It does not end well but you will laugh. Surprisingly (and satisfyingly as far as I’m concerned) some people said it was genuinely scary as well as funny. No zombies, though – not even one.
It’s 2007 and Nell, stay-at-home mum to two teenagers, is still stuck in the 1980s with her shapeless Oxfam clothes and her CND pendant and her slightly other-worldly approach to material goods. Husband Trevor is rather more in tune with the times. When Nell inherits her mother’s house Trevor pushes for them to sell up and buy a place in the Home Counties which he proceeds to modernise and extend and to fill with all the 21st century gadgets that Nell has been happily living without.
Poor Nell is a fish out of water, suddenly thrown into a world of interior design, posh friends, sports clubs and casual adultery. Prodded by her new friends she upgrades her wardrobe, cuts her hippy waist length hair and develops a passionate interest in soft furnishings. She even finds herself wondering (and, dear reader, we are wondering too) if Trevor really deserves to be the only man in her life. Perhaps she could get closer to the sexy rich guy who so blatantly propositions her. Or should she stray with the bit of rough who is building her utility room and double garage. (Look, it’s 2007: utility rooms and double garages were still considered cool back then.)
Come the financial crash, the comfortable lifestyle of her new friends is threatened and their sexual peccadillos, alcoholism and eating disorders are suddenly exposed. Will Nell cope? Can she build a new life for herself? Will she find true love? Will she fly or fall?
This is far from your conventional love story. In fact, it’s barely a love story at all. It’s more like Jane Austen for the 21st century. Austen was a social commentator with a sharp and satirical eye, whose love stories conceal a lot of wicked little barbs on the state of the Regency world she lived in. (If you don’t believe me, read them again.) So Gilli Allan’s book is really about Home Counties life and the veneer of glossy success that is pasted over the misery of the relationships that struggle on behind those constantly titivated facades.
I generally hate books like this and at first I did sort of resent the time I was spending on it. Allan’s style, though, draws you in very quickly. Like Nell, I recognised the characters are superficial and unworthy of any emotional effort but, like her, I got sucked in. I had to know what happened. And you, dear reader, will find yourself desperate to know what happened too, so no spoilers. Enjoy the ride.
Highlights include the middle class house party from hell (probably my favourite bit of the book and a reminder that thanks to covid we’ve all been excused some ghastly evenings) and the detailed descriptions of décor. Each of the main characters lives in a very different kind of house. All of them are dripping with money but all are in a diverse style. Just reading about their furnishings immediately places the characters. “Oh yes,” says my beloved of one of them, “That’s the house I’d live in if I had the money.” She’s right of course: it belongs to the most sympathetic character in the book.
Strangely, although most of the characters are in many ways quite ghastly, all have at least some saving graces. Allan’s sharpness skewers but doesn’t then twist the skewer in the wound. The eating disorders, the alcoholism, the eternal lies from almost everybody – they are all the result of deep unhappiness and human weakness. It’s only because I had some sympathy for all of them that I was able to get to the end.
Will Nell navigate this mess with any of her principles intact? Will her marriage survive? Will the kids cope or will they go to the bad? And should she go for a modern fitted kitchen or a more eclectic vintage look? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Fly or Fall is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fly-Fall-Gilli-Allan-ebook/dp/B07ZR9VFFK