TWO KINDS OF TRUTH by Michael Connelly, Orion Harry Bosch has been known to posit observations of the ‘there are two kinds of…’ type, as this new book’s title indicates. It puts him at odds with his half-brother, Mickey Haller, though, who lives in the defence lawyer’s very different world of words. Michael Connelly, by contrast, has more room to exercise questions of meaning, intent, and how differently truths can be articulated. This most recent novel, which unites Haller and Bosch, is after bigger game. Harry is still a welcome volunteer working cold cases in the small, sometimes sleepy, sheriff’s office in San Fernando, and the first of two plots begins a tale which extends back into Harry’s past to worry his present. Called into a homicide at a local pharmacy in which the two pharmacists have been murdered, Harry finds himself leading the investigation on grounds of experience, but hands the role on to his colleague, Bella Lourdes, nominally because she is bilingual in Spanish. He sees more, and is more careful with procedure, than are the San Fernando cops; his role is in one way more that of an instructor than anything else. Along the way Connelly is able to point out the results for policing in the cuts that followed the financial crisis of 2008. This is not his only reference to the breakdown of public services. There is no mention of the attack on the poor and their healthcare, but it is tacitly evident. There are also some interesting tells in Connelly’s vocabulary: the police chief refers to the murdered pharmacists as ‘citizens’, not ‘vics’. And, along the way we learn that San Fernando is so small it depends on LA for forensic analysis. But there are darker reasons for him to keep a certain distance: one of his old cases is about to be reopened by a man who has been on death row for decades, now claiming that Bosch tampered with evidence. Bosch needs Mickey, because he will stand accused of a serious crime. That is easy enough, but the refusal of his former colleagues to stand by him is more than difficult. New DNA evidence has turned up, and it is impossible that the still-sealed evidence box can have been tampered with. While his attorney goes into action, Harry accepts an assignment to go undercover to try to find out why two pharmacists were murdered, and how the criminal empire creating false prescriptions of opioids functions. To add to the tension, Harry goes undercover without telling anybody not directly involved, including his daughter, Maddy, now away at university. Lest anyone think Connelly is boosting the press, they may wish to wait until late on in the book to get a good look at manipulations of reporters by figures at some distance from newspapers. As kinds of truth go, there are a variety of shades of grey.
THE ACCORDIONIST by Fred Vargas, trans. Siân Reynolds, Harvill Secker In the first part of her career, Fred Vargas invented two investigators, Louis Kehlweiler and the now-more-familiar Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Sans feu ni lieu (basically, ‘homeless’) was published in 1997, and seems to have been the last of the series ‘The Three Evangelists’ (though there is a graphic novel collaboration, but it remains in French). In these three books the central figure is a former detective, former member of the Ministry of the Interior, now retired, or, really, sacked for reasons unclear. He has an unusual pet, a toad, who sometimes travels with him in a pocket (this is Fred Vargas, remember, whose eccentricities are part of her DNA). Additionally, he knows another ‘retired’ cop, who shares a house with three young men in what was, in the nineties, still a rundown area near Bastille. The jobless young are Marc, the medievalist struggling to finish his thesis; Mathias, an archaeologist and pre-historian; and Lucien, a Great War historian, also struggling with his thesis (I’ll come back to him). Additionally, there’s a former hooker, Marthe, who had a role in the second book of the series, translated into English by Reynolds, as Dog will have its Day. (Oh, yes, the murderer is allowed a voice.) In addition to the trademark eccentricities, both series have jokes here and there. I’ll just mention that Vargas herself is an anthropological archaeologist who works in the CNRS (National Scientific Research Centre) and that Lucien is modelled on Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, now a renowned Great War historian who co-directs a Great War research centre. And he reappears in the bibliography of a 2016 CWA International Dagger-winning novel by Pierre Lemaitre, The Great Swindle. The missing fact in this picture is that ‘Vargas’ is a pseudonym, and Audoin-Rouzeau is her real name.
The accordionist is a new character, a sad, odd-looking man from Nevers, befriended a long time ago by Marthe, who saw that this despised simpleton was neglected by his parents and tormented at school because of his limitations. She taught him to read, to have manners, and to speak so people can understand him. He found a job as a gardener at a school, and when the school closed and all the gardeners were sacked, he learned to play the accordion, wandering from café to cafe. Now he is on the run after a series of murders and is the only suspect the police are looking at. He searches through Paris for Marthe, and, when he finds her, she calls upon Kehlweiler to help them and he hides them with the Evangelists. It is a given that he isn’t the murderer, of course, but finding who is requires a great deal of legwork, not to mention driving up and down to Burgundy. One by one the other possible suspects fall by the wayside, or appear to fall by the wayside. On the last occasion we met the Evangelists, they were younger and more in awe of Kehlweiler. This time they take their own path when Kehlweiler dismisses Mathias’s brilliant realisation that the names of the streets where the women were murdered correspond to a poem, a poem which the killer could have read on the Metro—like ‘poems on the underground’ in London. This recognition spurs them to take their own steps. Should anyone be interested in the poetry of Gérard de Nerval, here’s a link to copy and paste: https://www.etudes-litteraires.com/nerval-desdichado.php. Additionally for the curious, that page is an instruction for school children doing the famous Baccalauréat. You can see why the unfortunate Clément found school terribly difficult, not to mention showing how the law of unintended consequences explains why so many children hate poetry.
THE BOMB MAKER by Thomas Perry, Mysterious Press Los Angeles has plenty of room for the variety of crime writers who stake their claims, various, for the Serve and Protect agencies. Thomas Perry’s LA has the usual run of cops and detectives, firefighters and other specialists, but his basic subject here is the bomb squad’s extraordinary men and women whose job it is to detect, neutralise, defuse, or, detonate the improvised and crafted killing machines that have become a feature of modern life. The title of the book is a direction, and its triple opening contains what comes to seem almost banal when juxtaposed with what follows: first, the anonymous bomb maker, proud of his abilities. He is expecting to earn many millions of dollars from his new campaign. Then, a change of venue, as the call comes to the Bomb Squad, deployed to an uninhabited house, and the carnage of a bomb. The third strand is a different modern scourge, a mere kidnapping, in the course of which the security expert, Richard Stahl (who will become central male character) has to execute criminals in order to lift a victim from what might have been thought to be the kidnappers’ safe house. So one might think Stahl belongs to another story altogether, but not at all, and not because his success in Mexico reveals that the local police are taking their cut of the ransom money. Stahl returns home, then goes to work, and a whole other part of his life returns, because of the horrible incident in which an anonymous bomb maker displays his skills and his intent. It is far from the last we see of him, but it is a long time before we see him. Perry has the story-teller’s great gift of knowing what not to tell: what little we know of the bomb maker we learn through the intricate detail of his work, just as we learn from the Bomb Squad–and Stahl in particular–the minute movements that attempt to keep them alive. In England after the Grenfell tower fire, in Europe more generally, sentences which contain ‘so if I die you’ll still know what I was thinking’ cannot help but resonate. There is a long breath-holding description of Stahl, still strong at 44, walking fifty pounds of Semtex held against the front of his body, to the concreted emptiness of the LA River to detonate it. Stahl takes no notes, but he’s observing what the bomb maker’s habits are. Suspense arises from these slow surveys of creating and evading death, including descriptions of the robots, the suits, the equipment, and, above all the choices. What explanations we get come at some distance from the events we might want explained. What we don’t get explanations for remain mysteries. Short-sentence accumulation of detail is characteristic thriller territory. There is much more, not necessarily in such great detail, but, like the best writers, Perry’s extravagance of invention is always serving his overall purpose; that is, some writers write too much, thinking they solidify background, but Perry’s ability to see from different characters’ points of view makes his apparent superfluities always relevant to his story. That includes his ability to mix humour and tragedy. One fine example in this book riffs on news anchors: Perry has many of the same reservations about cable news that many people do. I can’t expand on that statement, but I will mention two things: one, that there’s a leak about what’s happening in the department which complicates Stahl’s temporary position. Second, the pompous and self-serving Mayor of LA and the police attitude to this powerful man who refuses to take any chances on this temporary appointee who has been saving lives because the leak makes him—this mayor—potentially liable to suits, even years ahead. The convergences with Amazon Prime’s Bosch series suggest attitudes to bureaucracy that are familiar everywhere, especially in the self-deception of those in power.
THE END OF THE WEB & THE LAST BEST FRIEND by George Sims, British Library Press The British Library’s initiative to bring twentieth-century crime fiction back into print (in association with Poisoned Pen press in the U.S.) has kick-started a large movement. In the UK, Martin Edwards introduces many of the books in the British Library Thrillers series. These two, he argues, are unusual in their dark plotting and darker characters. Well, yes, and The End of the Web is full of false starts, false trails, and unsolved deaths right to the last page. ‘Web’ here means a web of extreme-right figures brought together by a pro-Hitler aristocrat, and The Last Friend involves more Nazi sympathisers trying to cover up their looting at the end of the war. The books are characterized by central characters who just happen to get involved, rather in the vein of Eric Ambler, but littered with loose ends. Much of the early parts of The Last Best Friend are not much like crime fiction, because they concentrate on a Lothario, Balfour, who has left his wife for adventure, and only pulls himself together when he receives a telegram from a good friend begging for his advice about a terrible decision he must make. Balfour’s engagement with the friend and his decision changes his life. In fact, it changes more than one life. The great strength of Sims’s writing is his ability to catch a character, and to write of that character so convincingly that the reader is quite likely to forget that there doesn’t seem to be a reason for him (it’s usually a him) to be there. Sims made a living as a bookseller, and was what one might call a Sunday author; his colleagues claimed to recognize versions of themselves in his books.
SOMEBODY AT THE DOOR by Raymond Postgate, British Library Press Somebody at the Door was published in 1943, by Michael Joseph, who produced well-written novels for a discerning public of crime fiction fans, very open to distractions from the dangers and misery of the blackouts and rationing. The Home Guard and the A. R. P. (air raid precautions) are part of daily life in a small town north of London. So, too, are the police, and there’s a proper Inspector trying to solve a murder case. By the time we get to Chapter Two Mr. Holly has sketched a list of suspects in which a majority of those involved might have had cause for murder. Lists are always fine, but trying to find them again isn’t always easy. Postgate provided a list of ten names at the opening of many of the following chapters, with a dot by the name of the character who’s the focus of each chapter. Along the way Postgate gives a quietly detailed view of an England which still bent under habits of deference. He is alert and satirical about the ways the lucky treated their own class and those below. Allow me to recommend the plot that an aspiring young author proposes to his boss. With G. D. H. Cole Postgate wrote The Common People, 1746-1946. This title reminds us of an era when authors didn’t have to include the word ‘British’, because the penning of such a book—intended to be a popular reader—took for granted that it was about Britain. I have to say I laughed out loud several times in the course of Verdict of Twelve, so good are Postgate’s quick sketches of the characters. Both books are introduced by Martin Edwards, whose habit it is to tell the story, so if you want to avoid spoilers, you’d be well advised to leave reading the introduction to the end. You have been warned.