21 May 2014

Review: The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

This is the second of Cornell’s series featuring James Quill and his team of paranormally aware London police officers – or rather, the fact that there is a second volume means, I suppose, that now there is a series.  “London Falling” certainly deserved a follow up, and this is as good or better.  There is a bit of recapping at the start, necessary because details from the earlier book matter quite a bit here, but Cornell prevents that making the story drag – rather we’re into violent action from the start, with the team racing to stop a supernatural killer who acts very much like Jack the Ripper – except that his victims are not poor women but rich men.

This tales place against a background of cuts, austerity and protest. Even the police are about to down truncheons and strike. London is suddenly full of demonstrators dressed (and masked) as “Toffs” – among whom the killer can slip unnoticed.

As with the previous book, the investigation has Quill’s team – Ross, Sefton and Costain – strained to the limit (or way beyond).  They have the Sight, the ability to see that other, magical London, but they’re not wizards, they can’t control it or protect themselves or others except by applying their policing skills, working methodically and deductively – and putting themselves in the line of fire.  There is a real feeling of danger in this book, of sulphur and brimstone, as the team take risks.  Probably, some of them go too far.  The plot they’re investigating is a heady mix of politics, ancient power, mixed motives (not least from some of the team themselves) and a clash between old and new ways in the magical community.  Cornell holds this together superbly, conveying the sense that there is order to what’s happening, there is a pattern, it’s not just one thing after another, even when events get very bizarre indeed.

It is becoming clear that behind the immediate events of the books there is a deeper story unfolding, involving the Smiling Man who turned up in London Falling.  Something is wrong in London, connected with the absence of the “Continuing Projects Team”, leaving the magical side of things unpoliced.  Quill’s team, answering to the enigmatic Lofthouse, seek to fill this gap, but they don’t know the rules – a tricky situation for police to be in.

It’s a superb story which builds tension and gets harder and harder to put down. I’m looking forward to the next!

8 May 2014

Review: "Murder" by Sarah Pinborough

"Murder" is a sequel to Pinborough's Mayhem, and it is a worthy sequel. (If you haven't read Mayhem - and why on earth not? - be warned there are spoilers below for that book, and you should look away now, go and get a copy and read it first).

The earlier book manages to simultaneously about crimes (the Ripper and Thames Torso killings in the 19th century) but not a crime novel, Victorian and dark, but not a gothic pastiche, and horror-laden, but not a Bram-Stoker-a-like. It is also thoroughly modern in sensibility, forging soemthing quite new and I think unique in tone and outlook.

Well, "Mayhem" isn't unique now because Sarah Pinborough has done it again - indeed I think she's surpassed the earlier book, whose hero, Dr Thomas Bond, could seem slightly stilted, compared with his foil, the fantastical Jewish Russian refugee Aaron Kosminski. Here, Bond is more fully realised, more human and very much the centre of the story.

Several years have passed, and the evil that menaced London - which was ended when Bond murdered James Harrington, in league with Kosminski and the mysterious Argentine priest - has faded. Bond has finally lost the air of dread that overtook him, and Juliana, Harrington's widow, is bringing up their son in peace. Bond even has hopes of marrying her, despite the difference in their ages. But the past will not lie. The ripples of Harrington's cursed life spread outwards, and an old friend of his comes calling. Then Pinborough does something very daring, and quite brilliant - while steaming horror slowly cooks in the depths of the book (hinted at by the various press cuttings reporting gruesome discoveries and deaths), on the surface a love triangle plays out with dollops of jealousy, duty and - yes - sensuality which get all mixed up with the horror underneath.

There's no pastiche Victoriana in this book. While absolutely rooted in the time and place described, and convincingly so, the author is happy to use "modern" terms or have her characters behave in "modern" ways where it suits her (and where it suits the story). It might annoy the pedants (what doesn't?) but it works surprisingly well - perhaps, as I said above, even better than in the first book, possible because Bond is here a much more rounded character, and the centre of things. Again, he is forced to confront the possibility of the supernatural - or the alternative, that he's losing his sanity - but there are no easy answers, no Van Helsing to sort things out.

It's a rattling good read, though parts aren't, perhaps, for the squeamish.

7 May 2014

Reviews: "The Voices" and "The Axeman's Jazz".

I seem to be following a vein of horror reading at the moment, having been lucky enough to be sent a copy of FR Tallis’s new book “The Voices” by the publisher and to pick up a copy of “The Axeman’s Jazz” by Ray Celestin from Amazon Vine.  (Axeman isn’t really horror, it’s crime, but the steamy New Orleans setting and the slightly surreal nature of the plot give it elements of horror).

Both of those books are reviewed below: to complete the trinity, I’m now reading Sarah Pinborough’s “Murder’ – more horror! – which I’ll report on soon, but it is deliciously scary, sensual and creepy.

FR Tallis’s new ghost story The Voices is set during the notoriously long, hot summer of 1976 – when roads melted, reservoirs dried up and it was impossible to sleep at night under one’s nylon sheets.  Against this background – and amid rumbles of economic failure and national crisis – a small, apparently gilded group of trendy artists suffer their own, more private crisis.

There is Laura Norton, ex-model and trophy wife to the older Christopher. He was an avant-garde musician who found fortune (if not acclaim) writing music for films.  Christopher seems to be getting tired of Laura; she is wondering is there’s more to life than being Christopher’s wife and baby Faye’s mother, and beginning to discover feminism.

Then there’s Simon and Amanda.  Simon, who kept the faith and is now a “serious” modernist composer, a power at Radio 3. Amanda, who retains 60s-ish, hippy leanings. The group face a changing world which they don’t much comprehend: we see Christopher’s agent commend him for not getting involved with that obvious trainwreck of a film, Star Wars and – amusingly, after a scene in which Simon heaps praise on prog rock as a coming movement, there is an uncomprehending encounter with an early punk.

All this is helpful in setting a scene of unease and showing how fragile are the lives – lives of some comfort and ease – which the main characters share.  So that at first, the threat that begins to develop – whether in voices heard over the baby monitor by Laura, sounds recorded on tape by Christopher in his studio or the distress of Faye – is unfocussed, out of shot, so to speak.  Some of the elements may be conventional – the house which has stood empty for years, the strange collection of junk in the attic, the cryptic figure of a stage magician who seems to be important – but Tallis uses them skilfully.  By keeping them mostly in the background and making the centre of the story a very 70s one of infidelity, depression, sexism (that patronising doctor!) he’s able to produce real frights and shocks when the supernatural erupts, as it inevitably does. 

He also cleverly leaves just enough unexplained – we know what has happened, but not quite how or why, and a few mysteries remain.  What exactly does Sue know, and how?  What is the reason for Loxley’s sudden interest in Maybury?  Does somebody, somewhere understand more than poor Laura and Christopher?

This is a book that was hard to put down, great entertainment, with a great sense of reality.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin is  debut novel that completely beguiled me.  Set in New Orleans in 1919 it focuses on a real series of murders by a killer who terrorised the city that summer.

Assigned to investigate the killings is Lieutenant Michael Talbot of the city police. Talbot needs a success: he is unpopular in the force, after exposing a corruption racket years before, and his personal circumstances also make him vulnerable.

Also looking into the crimes are Luca d"Andrea, recently released from prison, and Ida, a young secretary at Pinkertons detective agency, who dreams of moving on detective work and hopes that cracking the Axeman case will make her name. Ida is assisted by her musician friend Lewis (later known as Louie) Armstrong.

The three investigations run in parallel, rarely intersecting (although there is some interaction between Luca, working for the all-powerful mafia, and Talbot). Celestin manages to tell three tales in one, as each of the three "detectives" finds a solution of sorts to the deaths - though only we, the readers of the book, get to see the full picture and understand how the various forces at play in New Orleans have combined to create the demon Axeman and set him loose.

It's a compelling story, blending racial prejudice (between white and black, Irish and Italian), political and police corruption, child trafficking and abuse, the legacy of slavery and the machinations of the Mob into a rich mixture of a book. Nobody in this book is wholly innocent - the crimes of the Axeman arise from a corrupt past, but they are manipulated and used by a corrupt present with which it's impossible not to collude. As the city fills with vagrant ex-soldiers back from the Great War, and Prohibition looms, there seems to be no way to release the building pressure that Celestin skilfully evokes. The city is subject to "a system of organised malice" with a degree of racial separation comparable to that of apartheid, and even though Armstrong is applauded wildly when playing in his band on the riverboats or in the clubs, he can be set upon the next night for being in the company of a white woman.

It's a great book, on many levels, and without being over didactic, draws some nice parallels between New Orleans then and now. Perhaps the only respect in which it didn't (perhaps) quite fulfil what I expected was that while the title of the book perhaps hints at some kind of musical aspect to the Axeman's terror, there isn't one. There is a sympathetic and mature exploration of the early life of Armstrong, including a marvellous sequence where his music really catches fire, and there is an episode where, in response to a taunting letter form the Axeman, the desperate citizens "jazz it up" en masse to avoid "getting the Axe". But the rhythm of the murders and the dance of the Axeman himself come from something else entirely, so the music isn't as central to the story as the title might suggest. But that is a small quibble really.

Perhaps the last word should go to the corrupt mayor, speaking after a hurricane has brought chaos to the city: "The Mayor finished his report by promising residents that this type of disaster would never befall New Orleans again". Indeed...