This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

The Aosawa Murders

Riki Onda (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99)

We are in the 1970s. In a city somewhere in Japan at a party given by a well known local family, 17 people die of poisoning. The whole Aosawa family is eliminated, with the exception of Hisako, the blind daughter. The man who delivered the drinks commits suicide, which encourages the authorities to close the case; however, in the mind of the lead detective, the murder remains unsolved.

A local girl who knew the family writes a book on the affair, with the incongruous title, The Forgotten Festival. Some decades later, the story of this novel begins. The tale is tortuous, told by numerous narrators, many of whom seem convinced of Hisako's guilt. According to the sleeve notes, “several decades later the truth is revealed through a skilful juggling of testimony by different voices”. You have to be paying quite close attention to identify whose voice you are hearing. Now, who am I to judge the Mystery Writers of Japan, who recently gave this novel their award for fiction? All I can say is that I found the content repetitive, the pace turgid, and I still don't know whodunnit. And having reached the end, I’m really not minded to open it again to find out.

Unto Us a Son Is Given

Donna Leon (Arrow Books: £8.99; e-book £5.99)

Anyone who reads crime fiction will have encountered Donna Leon and her Venetian hero Commissario Guido Brunetti. He first came to our attention investigating death at La Fenice in 1992. This novel is his 28th appearance.

If you were not a fan of Leon’s, it would be easy to find a peg or two on which to hang a criticism. Brunetti’s world does not change significantly. His home life, with his Anglophile wife and two normal children, would be unremarkable were it not for his taste for the history, myth and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome. His place of work, the Questura, is populated by the same small dramatis personae. There is his boss, the pompous and hapless Vice Questore Patta, and Patta’s few acolytes. Brunetti has his own loyalists, most notably fellow cop Vianello, and the enigmatic and desirable Signorina Elettra, with her designer clothes, fresh flowers and computer hacking skills. Brunetti describes her as a woman of endless and instinctive deceit. He himself has no beef with authority, no hidden past, no psychological scarring. He even goes home for lunch, for heaven’s sake. And the pace of the novels is closer by far to that of a gondola than to that of a Lamborghini. So why are her books so well loved?

For starters, there is Venice itself. Leon lived there for 30 years and knows the place, the people and the customs. There is the inherent decency of Brunetti himself (even though he’s not averse to a bit of trickery). But mostly it’s the quality of the writing, the subtlety, the nuance. Were she to work with plaster, Leon would be dealing with intricate cornice work, in contrast to many crime novelists who can but lay it on with a trowel.

This book starts with a meeting between Brunetti and his aristocratic father-in-law Count Falier. The latter is concerned about his elderly friend Gonzalo, who intends to adopt a much younger man to inherit his significant estate. Soon Gonzalo is dead – of natural causes. And that’s where it starts to get interesting. Looking back after a satisfactory ending, we become aware of the little clues which have been strewn, unnoticed, along our path. For those of us who are the wrong side of 60, writing offers inspiration. Le Carré has just served up a masterpiece at 88; Leon is 77. Hope for us all.

The Lawyers

Iain Campbell (Austin Macauley Publishers: £9.99)

In Hollywood there is an annual ceremony to present the Golden Raspberry Awards, honouring the very worst that the film industry has produced each year. Were there to be a literary equivalent, this book would sweep the board. In every category. And, in the fullness of time it would probably receive a lifetime achievement award for complete and utter awfulness.

We are told that the author has spent 25 years “in a legal environment”. Whatever that means, he certainly is a complete stranger to anything involving reality. Let’s put to one side his bad guy (a win-at-all-costs lawyer) being unspeakably bad – he even dyes his hair black, and his (blonde of course) good guy being a paragon. But should we overlook the dodgy similes (shining like a newly varnished beach) or the awful use of grammar (his heart sunk)? What about his odd approach to capitalisation – a Company Lawyer, but the law society? Or the haphazard use of exclamation marks in a way that most of us get out of our system in second year at school.

His description of his female characters is just creepy. Their skirts always cling, the dresses are body hugging, and a lady QC attends a consultation in tight designer jeans. The legal descriptions are farcical, the dialogue stilted, and the whole plot completely over the top. The get-them-off-at-all-costs man is hired by an African dictatorship to write them a new constitution. Need I say more?

Well, yes. For the first time in about 15 years of reviewing, I’m going to quote one of my heroines, Dorothy Parker. This is not a book which should be put down lightly. It should be hurled away with all the strength you can muster.

Westwind

Ian Rankin (Orion Fiction: £20; e-book £9.99)

Why, you may ask, are we only now getting around to reviewing a book which was first published 30 years ago? As the author reminds us in his introduction, in 1990 we still had Filofaxes, floppy disks and cassette tapes. People smoked on aeroplanes and Germany was still divided into East and West. And, he replied with disarming honesty in an interview in December 2019, “It’s nearly Christmas.”

It’s not uncommon to find the early, previously overlooked, works of a successful author suddenly being shown the light by cynical publishers and cash strapped authors. Although I suspect Ian Rankin may not fall into the latter category, his Jack Harvey novels were published a few years ago, to less than wild acclaim. Many of these things were overlooked for good reason. This novel, however, is in a different category. In more ways than one, as it happens.

We know Rankin for his police masterpieces. But, as he tells us, his main aim when setting out as a writer was to be successful. Fat page turners on the shelves of airport bookshelves would have satisfied him. John Rebus had emerged onto the streets of Edinburgh, but was as little known internationally as many of the dark parts of Edinburgh where he plied his trade. Westwind is a spy novel involving cutting edge science about satellites, surveillance and the like. It is fiction – or is it? The Americans are pulling out of their occupation of Britain – OK, it is fiction – and Martin Hepton, geek at one of the observation stations, is witness to a couple of minutes’ unexplained activity in earth’s orbit. From that point there follow about 300 pages of breathless action, mayhem and suspense. “Page turner” is the apposite phrase.

Mr Rankin could tell a rattling good yarn 30 years ago. I am surprised it’s taken all this time for it to be reissued.

 

 

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