Andreas Pflüger, In the Dark, tr. Shaun Whiteside  Head of Zeus         This is a thriller (translated from the German by the able Shaun Whiteside)  that should please the RNIB, not because the central character lost her sight during a botched special-police manoeuvre, but because Pflüger has done a lot of homework. As the dust jacket indicates, hers is a world of braille, of clicks and sticks, of trying to retain memory and experience in a new world empty of light. I taught one summer at a school for advanced blind or partially-sighted students hoping to find their ways to university, where the second thing I learned was basic braille; the first thing I learned was my utter helplessness under an eye-covering mask, as in artificial ‘NLP’. That’s ‘no light perception’; my brief training was in the hands of a blind colleague, who introduced me to many coping strategies in not much time: just two days before the arrival of the students.      Some are born to endless night, but Jenny Aaron is not one of them; she is an adult whose injuries are—as the current euphemism has it—life-changing. Her sweet delights are few and far between, not to mention that she is deeply invested in Japanese martial arts and the literature of Bushido. She sometimes quotes famous Bushido poems; the best I can do in English is Keats:

I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme
To take into the air my quiet breath.

Aaron’s mentors are, by and large, other, more experienced, officers whose respect for her exemplary interrogation skills mean she is on call throughout the service, a largely male institution. The previous director was (of course) a man, though the current one is not just a woman, but a woman of Turkish descent. Beyond that, however, this novel is all over the place, and only just about holds its thriller plot (read, ‘an updated boys’ own fantasy’) together. The villains are two brothers whose lives were wrecked by a sadistic father, what we now call ACE: adverse childhood experiences. The older one is a brilliant psychopath who nonetheless honours the same martial arts Aaron does. He is completely preposterous, though not as sick as his younger brother, of the kill-for-pleasure persuasion. Aaron’s target practice is also preposterous.

            Pflüger is a screen-writer, and the habits of the story-board world are evident throughout, as he ratchets up the excitement. He plays fast and loose with the love interest, if that’s what we should call it. Close to the end, Aaron, attempting to cross a road, loses her stick, finds herself trapped between a truck and its trailer, manages to stay upright, and live to fight another day. I could feel the camera angles. At 550pp., the book is very long for what it does; a good editor could have made it more taut, less repetitious, and less peppered with sadistic violence (it is not easy to keep all one’s ducks in a row when trying to figure out how everything fits). Still, I read the whole thing, and didn’t skip very much. You may find you want to reverse those two phrases.

Rtr. Shaun Whiteside

Head of Zeus

            This is a thriller (translated from the German by the able Shaun Whiteside)  that should please the RNIB, not because the central character lost her sight during a botched special-police manoeuvre, but because Pflüger has done a lot of homework. As the dust jacket indicates, hers is a world of braille, of clicks and sticks, of trying to retain memory and experience in a new world empty of light. I taught one summer at a school for advanced blind or partially-sighted students hoping to find their ways to university, where the second thing I learned was basic braille; the first thing I learned was my utter helplessness under an eye-covering mask, as in artificial ‘NLP’. That’s ‘no light perception’; my brief training was in the hands of a blind colleague, who introduced me to many coping strategies in not much time: just two days before the arrival of the students.

            Some are born to endless night, but Jenny Aaron is not one of them; she is an adult whose injuries are—as the current euphemism has it—life-changing. Her sweet delights are few and far between, not to mention that she is deeply invested in Japanese martial arts and the literature of Bushido. She sometimes quotes famous Bushido poems; the best I can do in English is Keats:

I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme
To take into the air my quiet breath.

Aaron’s mentors are, by and large, other, more experienced, officers whose respect for her exemplary interrogation skills mean she is on call throughout the service, a largely male institution. The previous director was (of course) a man, though the current one is not just a woman, but a woman of Turkish descent. Beyond that, however, this novel is all over the place, and only just about holds its thriller plot (read, ‘an updated boys’ own fantasy’) together. The villains are two brothers whose lives were wrecked by a sadistic father, what we now call ACE: adverse childhood experiences. The older one is a brilliant psychopath who nonetheless honours the same martial arts Aaron does. He is completely preposterous, though not as sick as his younger brother, of the kill-for-pleasure persuasion. Aaron’s target practice is also preposterous.

            Pflüger is a screen-writer, and the habits of the story-board world are evident throughout, as he ratchets up the excitement. He plays fast and loose with the love interest, if that’s what we should call it. Close to the end, Aaron, attempting to cross a road, loses her stick, finds herself trapped between a truck and its trailer, manages to stay upright, and live to fight another day. I could feel the camera angles. At 550pp., the book is very long for what it does; a good editor could have made it more taut, less repetitious, and less peppered with sadistic violence (it is not easy to keep all one’s ducks in a row when trying to figure out how everything fits). Still, I read the whole thing, and didn’t skip very much. You may find you want to reverse those two phrases.

The Usual Santas: a Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers, Soho Crime

There are often, indeed, there are usually, lots of ‘taster’ books on sale at this time of year. Soho Crime’s is one of those which collects short stories. In fact, they claim in their publicity that as soon as they announced their intention to produce a collection, they were inundated by submissions. Oddly, though, all the short stories in this collection appear to be by their house authors, as one can easily see in the back of the book, which names no editor. Let us be clear: Soho are a good publishing house with an excellent list. I am calling attention to their pretence that their Christmas collection is intended to sell their authors.

            There are eighteen of these, including a number of luminaries such as Mick Herron and Peter Lovesey; some of the stories (particularly those by the eight women in the book) use the conventions of ghosts and ghouls that are characteristic of Christmas tales. By contrast, most of the American male authors do what they do, but at shorter length, including noir violence and not much by way of recognizing Santa; they are often men with experience of America’s foreign wars. There’s not a lot of peace on earth, and too much that’s about revenge. There’s not much of the kinds of ironies that make short stories such challenges to concise writing.

            However, the book’s title is taken from a story by Mick Herron (UK), whose wild ironies and stylish writing are worth the price of the book. Imagine a huge mall at the end of Christmas shopping, with a group of Santas in full kit settling down to enjoy themselves as the mall closed and they were at last finished ho-ho-hoing. But, of course, they’re not, as—incognito as they remain, out of a sense of professionalism—there is one more Santa present than there ought to be. How this is to be solved is the workers’ revenge; I know where my sympathies lie.

            Martin Limon (US) also deals with the ordinary Joe’s experiences of being part of the PX culture in Korea, and how the cadre of staff sergeants find justice for the weak and deserving. Timothy Hallinan shares Limon’s views from below; in this story a Bangkok street-child (who turns out to be an exceptionally gifted artist) tries hard to take care of a much younger but loses sight of her. There is something here that is linked to O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi. One should find oneself sniffing at Christmas. And one should think hard about reasons for law enforcement professionals to bend the law in order to give survivors ways to cope with the deaths of their murdered children and grandchildren by giving them a story they can live with, as Tod Goldberg does with compassion. By contrast, Henry Chang tells a story of revenge in New York’s Chinatown, which has more or less nothing to do with Christmas, but something to do with the end of the Chinese New Year rites.

            Meanwhile, the women offer stories in which Christmas has some role, including Sujata Massey’s (US, among other national possibilities), which is set in 1920s Bombay and deals with charlatans; a story that uses the Nina Borg series (Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis [Denmark]), which deals with a baby coming to early as an African refugee tries to find the man she has travelled (‘such a long journey’) to find. And Helene Tursten (Sweden) turns what appears to be a pointless and boring tale of an old lady living alone. Where is this going (one might ask) and why does an abandoned zimmer frame seem to be the centre of the piece? The suspicious reader will wonder if Maud (the central character after the zimmer frame) once killed her sister by pushing her down the apartment building’s stairs, but there is much more of Maud’s everyday life. She has herself been subject to her mother and sister, and knows about being trapped. And she does have a penchant for violence, as well as The Problem: the violence of the hard-drinking husband who has moved in upstairs, whose abuse of his wife Maud can hear. Do not succumb to boredom: freedom is just over the first step. Sometimes release is just beyond the first step.

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