Sunday, December 30, 2012

and speaking of conspiracies....Thursday at Noon, by William Brown

kindle edition
sent by author (thanks!)

Thursday at Noon is one of three books written by William F. Brown, along with Amongst My Enemies  and The Undertaker.  While the action-packed thriller/suspense kind of story isn't my usual thing, I agreed to read the book and discuss it here. Actually he had emailed me back when I was in the middle of trying to read through this year's Booker Prize longlist when I really didn't have the time to read much of anything, so it got put on the back burner until a recent email nudge reminded me that I said I'd give it a go.  A promise is a promise, so over Christmas, while sitting on a hotel balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico,  I pulled out my kindle and got going on it. 

Set in 1962, CIA agent Richard Thomson has recently arrived in Egypt after having  screwed up bigtime in an operation in Damascus.  He's sort of persona non grata in Cairo at the moment, so he spends a lot of time in a bar drowning his sorrows.  One night while downing the booze he's approached by an Egyptian guy who has something to sell him.  It seems that this stranger was told to find help from another CIA agent,  but the instructions never said how to locate him.  Anyway, the man has an envelope filled with photos that he tries to sell to Thomson, who, suspecting a set up after his poor showing in Damascus, refuses to have anything to do with the guy.  The other man is frantic and highly agitated, and it isn't long until he is found dead. Now the police get involved, as does Egyptian state security and Thomson finds himself embroiled in  in a nightmarish situation.  When he starts putting two and two together and figures out that something really bad is going on, no one believes him -- not his fellow agents, not the ambassador, and especially not the police.  It is up to Thomson to try and stop a catastrophe that could affect the entire world.  He has until Thursday at noon -- and time is running out.

There is truly never a dull moment in this novel, and the book is aimed at an audience of readers  inclined toward the "what if" fast-paced, explosive political thriller/conspiracy genre.  I had to finish it to see what happens, and for a lazy day of  reading it was easy to get caught up in the story.  The premise is different and considering that it was set in 1962, with a few changes it might be set in our modern-day world, making it approachable to today's readers.  It also expresses the animosity felt by many living under the thumb of their British colonial minders prior to Egypt's independence; a point the author captures very well.  He's also established and evoked a realistic sense of time and place.   At the same time, it has more than its share of over-the-top moments -- Nazi scientists, the SS and  an improbable love affair are but a few that really made me do the inner eye roll -- which spill over the floodgates of anything remotely resembling credulity, so prepare to suspend any measure of disbelief while you're reading it. But I suppose that's the nature of the beast in these types of books and maybe what makes them sell so well.  I also wonder if we really need any more books about wayward Muslim brotherhoods and nationalist fanatics right now.


While it's an easy way to spend a day, and while I was engaged and had to know what else could possibly happen to this poor guy,  it was a little too over the top for my taste, especially incorporating the  Nazis and the SS.  I get why the author did this, but it's asking way too much. To be very fair, I think I'm just not the right audience for this book. However, people who are fans of this genre will probably really like it -- it has pretty much every kind of bad guy there is, lots of action and the inevitable hapless, Cassandra-like character who knows what's coming and can't get anyone to believe him.  It's a definite roller-coaster ride that should keep thriller fans entertained.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

*A Temple Twosome: Bad Debts and Black Tide by Peter Temple

Bad Debts
McAdam/Cage, 2005
originally published 1996
318 pp

".... the system is not about fairness. It's not about good and bad. It's not about right and wrong. It's about power...You should know that."

A newcomer to the Jack Irish series by Peter Temple,  a couple of days ago I finished the first novel Bad Debts, became instantly hooked and slid right into the second, Black Tide.  Number three, Dead Point,  is winging its way across the Atlantic as we speak. Heck, I probably should go order #4, White Dog, while I'm thinking about it.  With only a couple of issues regarding Black Tide, I really like this series so far, and I love the writing.

Set mainly in Melbourne, once a criminal lawyer, Irish is now making his way out of a dark period of life that he drifted into after the death of his second wife who died at the hands of an unhappy client.  Trying to deal with his pain, Jack drowned his sorrows in alcohol and became a collector of "serious debts," as well as a gambler betting on the ponies. He does some odd work for a couple of men in the horse racing business. But there's another side to Jack -- as a sort of therapy, he also helps a friend make furniture, finding a bit of peace and pride in his work, and he has a huge heart. He's a dad to daughter Claire.    He tries to stay on the side of law and order, but there are moments when he sometimes has to cross over that border.

As the novel opens, Jack checks his answering machine to find a number of messages from a client, Danny McKillop, who Jack once defended in a hit and run accident.  He pleads with Jack to meet him, but Jack doesn't remember him at the time and the last message was left a couple of days earlier.  Now curious, Jack digs into the case files, where he discovers that McKillop had been accused of the death of Anne Jeppeson, a young activist some ten years earlier. McKillop had pleaded guilty after a witness positively ID'd him as the driver of the car. McKillop had pleaded guilty and received ten years for his crime. Now out, it seems that he really wants to talk to Jack.  As Jack pokes around, he starts thinking that perhaps McKillop wasn't the one behind the wheel; little does he know that he is opening a veritable Pandora's box of an investigation, helped along by a gorgeous journalist named Linda Hillier. It isn't long until he discovers that someone is willing to kill to keep Jack from getting to the truth.  In a story that is part hardboiled noir with added bits of action-packed conspiracy thriller, Jack has to navigate between bullets, explosions and a host of shady people to get to the truth. The problem is that Jack has no idea who to trust.

My first experience with Peter Temple is with his The Broken Shore, which I loved and which has much more of a literary feel to it than does Bad Debts.   Having said that, Bad Debts really kept me on my toes and kept my brain engaged trying to figure out the 10 year-old mystery of Danny McKillop.  And while I'm normally not a huge fan of the fast-paced variety of thriller/conspiracy novel, this one I liked, not only because of the writing in which Temple has crafted a very tightly-woven and controlled story despite the number of crazy twists and turns,  but also because of the characters, especially, but not limited to, Jack himself.  Rarely do I like a first series novel this much, but I was sucked in from the beginning and just couldn't let it go.


Moving on, the second novel in the series is Black Tide, another noir/conspiracy/action-packed combo set mainly in Melbourne.

MacAdam/Cage, 2005
originally published 1999

In this second installment, Jack Irish returns to do a favor for an old friend of his father, Des Connor.  Des shows him pictures of his father and mother, and regales him with stories about his father, the dad Jack grew up not knowing.  Des also has a son, Gary, and loaned him some sixty grand which Des now needs back to repay the bank for a mortgage Gary took out on the home, where Des now lives.  If he's not able to pay the bank, Des will be homeless; Gary defaulted leaving it up to Des to clean up the mess.  But Gary seems to have disappeared, and bighearted Jack decides to go find him to get the money for Des.  As was the case in the previous novel, Jack's search for the missing Gary leads him into a very messy and complex situation -- this time involving money laundering, other missing people, hush-hush organizations and once again, finding someone to trust is becoming harder and harder.  While Jack tries to get to the bottom of Gary's disappearance -- no easy task --  Linda has moved on to Sydney, where she has not only a new job, but apparently a new man, leaving Jack wondering about any kind of future with her.

As with its predecessor, Black Tide not only takes on a complicated tangle of shady operations that keep you guessing as to who's trustworthy and who's not, while the author manages to keep his well-crafted plot under a great deal of control.  Temple holds the reins tightly as the disappearance of one man slowly begins to branch out into even more nefarious dealings, so that everything that Jack uncovers fits into the main plotline without going off into tangents.  The author also weaves in different facets of Melbourne's population, from the very wealthy who prefer that the tradesmen use the back entrance to the aging Aussie rules football club fans who've lost their local team, to people who buy sandwiches on plain white bread, no focaccia sold here.  The problem with this book is that in terms of the basic setup, it's much like Bad Debts, but sadly I can't disclose why without giving away important details.  Let's just say that there seems to be a pattern that follows from book one to book two that made it easy to figure out something important;  I'm hoping that with book three the author will fall out of that trap and move on to something slightly different. All the same, even with this most annoying matter of personal contention, Black Tide managed to hold my interest to the last action-packed minute and beyond.  Considering, as I said above, that I tend not to like this sort of fast-paced rockem-sockem type thing, I'm drawn to the main character and his immediate circle enough to where I can't help but want more.

I can definitely recommend both novels -- the plots appeal to the mystery solver in me, and the writing makes these books intelligent reads that don't fail to engage.

crime fiction from Australia

*part of this month's focus on novels from Australia.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Words Without Borders December Issue -- Crime

Today's email brought the December issue of Words Without Borders, one of my favorite literary websites.  The focus this month is on Crime, and inside is an interesting article from Bitter Lemon Press (my favorite publisher of crime fiction) jumping in late to the Scandinavian crime game.  You'll also find an article taken from Andrea Camilleri's nonfiction Voi non sapete, "a mafia dictionary of sorts."  A nice issue all around.