Adam Lebor (Head of Zeus: £18.99; e-book £5.03)
Kossuth Square in Budapest is directly in front of the Parliament building, which evokes the Palace of Westminster. The square becomes the focal point of the denouement in this fast paced, absorbing and intelligent thriller. As with many writers, the author takes current events and using those as his foundation, builds up the story, slightly expanding and developing the present into a believable narrative.
Detective Balthazar Kovacs is called to the scene of a murder at a brothel operated by his brother. It becomes all too clear that the deceased, an Arab financier, is a guest of the Government and had been anticipated to be involved in a significant financial project that would set a future roadmap to revitalise Hungary. Kovacs' girlfriend, Eniko, works for a local newspaper which exposes the truth. Pal Dezeffy has been replaced as Prime Minister by his former justice minister, Reka Bardossy, who has been able to sidestep deftly her involvement in political scandal and shift responsibility onto Pal. However, both are from Hungarian political dynasties and Kovacs uncovers much as he investigates the death of the financier, as well as that of his cousin, many years previously. He does so with the assistance of the Hungarian Secret Service, but that is a service which is at loggerheads with other arms of the state, which support the former Prime Minister.
All of this is painted upon a canvas of political turmoil, people trafficking, terrorism and an increasingly unstable Government against which the forces mustered and loyal to Pal seek to regain power. This is a gripping, complex thriller. One of the best books of this year.
Well of the Winds
Denzil Meyrick (Polygon: £8.99; e-book £1.89)
Denzil Meyrick is now a well established figure on the Scottish crime fiction scene. The cover notes to this novel proclaim, if you like Rankin, MacBride and Oswald, you’ll love Meyrick. This is the first chance that Mr M and I have had to get acquainted, and I have to say I like him well.
The central character is DCI Jim Daley. In this case perhaps I should say one of the central characters. The Daley books are set in the fictional town of Kinloch, loosely based on Campbeltown, where Denzil Meyrick was educated and where he worked as a distillery manager after leaving the police. In Well of the Winds, the action flashes between the present day and 1945, when Daley’s predecessor is the solid and dependable Inspector Urquhart. The careers and investigations of the two become intertwined when Daley begins an investigation into the very sudden disappearance of the Bremner family, immigrants who settled on the Isle of Gairsay in the Second World War. Special Branch are soon on the scene; there is dodgy business in Whitehall; and even murkier goings on in closed rooms in Europe.
The whole work is fast moving and suspenseful. Towards the end you may think everything has fallen into place; however, I wasn’t sure if I was missing something or trying to overanalyse. There are a lot of deaths. If it is dangerous to be a resident of Midsomer, living on Gairsay certainly lowers the average life expectancy. Meyrick writes well, though there are a few avoidable errors to annoy a pedant such as your reviewer. Thus, I was surprised that a former police officer would describe a procurator fiscal in a small town as a junior member of the rural judiciary. And a soldier who, like Urquhart, had last seen active service at Dunkirk would almost certainly not be having flashbacks to the beaches of Normandy.
Verdict? A very good read, with a slightly disappointing ending. Great holiday reading. I will certainly be sampling more.
Grab a Snake by the Tail
Leonardo Padura (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £5.01)
This column first encountered the work of Leonardo Padura a couple of years ago with The Man Who Loved Dogs. That was a longish, thoughtful, well researched work of fiction, one which clearly set him above the potboiler school of crime writer. By then he had already become famous for his Havana Quartet featuring Inspector Mario Conde. The last of these was produced, in the original Spanish edition, in 1998. Having carried out, at roughly the same time, research into the history of the Chinese quarter in Havana, Padura explains that he wanted to add a fifth book to the Conde Quartet. This is it.
I feel that in translating Padura's works into English, someone has tried to sensationalise things overmuch. Take the titles, for example. Pasado Perfecto (Past Perfect) became Havana Blue; Vientos de Cuaresma (The Winds of Lent) became Havana Gold, and so on. The cover of the current novel features a 1950s Cadillac, and the strapline in a font redolent of 1950s American cinema reading, INSPECTOR MARIO CONDE INVESTIGATES A MURDER IN HAVANA'S CHINATOWN.
Compare this with the author's own preface. He tells us, here, behind the police business that pulls Mario Conde towards the Barrio Chino, is the story of an uprooting... that of the Chinese who came to Cuba (originally with labour contracts that almost reduced them to a state of slavery), similar to so many migrants in today's world. Loneliness, contempt and uprooting are then the subject of this story...
The character of Conde is a complex one. With more sensitivity than your average police officer, and a voracious reader to boot, he is still first and foremost a cop. On one level, this could be read as no more than a whodunnit. It describes the solving of the murder of a Chinese man in bizarre circumstances, marks carved on his chest, and strange tokens left in his hands. But there is another stratum, as the author himself points out. I am now keen to find out more about the good Inspector and his views on life. The only real shocker for me was to discover late on in the book that this world weary character is only 35. It’s a hard life in Havana; however, if it’s being written about by Leonardo Padura it’s well worth the reading.
Unto Us a Son is Born
Donna Leon (William Heinemann: £20; e-book £4.99)
Readers will probably have noticed that we live in turbulent and uncertain times. We need a few things we can rely on, and one of those is Donna Leon’s ageless Venice detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. The city might have changed over the years – Leon is characteristically unsparing about the “migration paths of the herds of tourists” – but in his 28th outing Brunetti is, as ever, still ascending the stairs to his apartment to enjoy leisurely meals with his academic wife Paola, still sparring with his egregious boss Patta, and still hovering for perhaps longer than is strictly necessary at the desk of Patta’s assistant, the radiant and enigmatic Signorina Elettra.
It should be said that, for the genre, Brunetti is something of an outlier. If you want a cop with a complicated private life and a substance abuse problem, he’s not your guy; one character tells him that he’s “surrounded by love”. Nor is this a typical case: at the start of the book it’s not entirely clear, in fact, that there has been a crime at all. His aristocratic father in law, Count Orazio Falier, asks him to make discreet enquiries about the intentions of his old friend Gonzalo: a gay, childless art collector who wishes to adopt a much younger man. At first Brunetti is understandably reluctant to get involved in what looks like little more than a source of juicy gossip for Venetian high society. But then Gonzalo dies, apparently of natural causes, and another of Gonzalo’s friends is murdered, finally triggering Brunetti’s legitimate interest.
So those hoping for an inventive serial killer or multiple twists will be disappointed: there’s only one murder, it happens two thirds of the way through the book, and it’s reasonably obvious who the perpetrator is. But the real subject of Unto Us a Son Is Given perhaps isn’t crime at all. It’s about love and human frailty, explored with Leon’s customary empathy and light-touch irony; and, like all of her work, it’s a low-key delight.
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