One of the mystery genre’s core magics is immersion in specialized locales or milieus. Ex-journo A.C. Fuller sets his series around his former profession, and “The Last Journalist,” the fifth featuring Alex Vane, is fascinating for its insider status. When one of America’s most revered newsmen plummets to his death after dining with Alex, the race is on to find out why. The protagonist is an engaging hero, as is his co-star for this outing, a feisty independent investigator, and all the many characters are pleasingly portrayed. Seattle comes to life in the novel’s pages. My only grizzle by the end of a satisfying read was a rather humdrum plot denouement. A strong instalment in a strong series.
“Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” by Geoff Dyer [6/10]
Geoff Dyer is a wickedly highbrow-yet-lowbrow cultural critic with a huge range of interests and consummate writing skills. Anything he writes is inherently sweet to read but much of his purview is not to my taste, so I hadn’t read anything of his for ages. “‘Broad sword Calling Danny Boy’: Where Eagles Dare” attracted me because the Alastair Maclean novel and movie were childhood favorites of mine. This short book is structured as a scene-by-scene walkthrough of the film, with Dyer mostly taking the piss out of the actors, the scripts, any damned thing at all, with polymathic asides thrown in seemingly at random. It’s a tour de force of cultural examination and I cannot express too much admiration for Dyer’s central achievement, which is to criticise the film (and even more so the book) but eventually bringing the reader along to a position of admiration. And here I am in complete agreement: if I were to watch the film now, surely I’d wince and cringe, yet it was one of the most thrilling movies of my early life, as it was of Dyer’s. This book won’t be for everyone, but lovers of film, especially action film, and lovers of exquisite dissection of a film will swoon.
London Rules by Mick Herron [8/10]
Years of panting prematurely over spy thriller writers anointed as the next “Le Carre” have left me blasé about such claims, and that’s my excuse for somehow overlooking Oxford author Mick Herron. By “overlooking” I’m signalling, that yes, Herron is the genuine article, a brilliant stylist with a cynical wit that imbues his books with unexpected gravitas. And boy, can he plot! I stumbled across and then reviewed a recent novella, “The Drop,” and then went hunting for the full Jackson Lamb series. “London Rules” is Number 5 and if it’s not quite as stunning as a couple of the earlier ones, it’s still a magnificent novel. This time England is rocked by weird, savage terrorist acts at the same time as one of Jackson Lamb’s “slow horses,” webhead Roderick Ho, finds himself a target. All the series characters seem particularly beset by their demons and Lamb rampages in his usual gross, feinting way. The storyline rockets along and then shifts and shifts again. As ever, the scene setting is sublime. Herron’s dialogue has never been more scabrous. It’s taking a long time to unpeel the onion skin layers around Lamb but I’m in it for the long haul, relishing every tricksy, pulled-right-out-of-the-headlines story.
Hotel Mumbai directed by Anthony Maras [7/10]
Anthony Maras has a firm grip on the momentum of “Hotel Mumbai” and from the opening scenes, it’s clear we’re in for terrorist mayhem in Mumbai, courtesy of Pakistanis directed by a shadowy figure. And quickly it’s plain the movie is to be brutally factual detailing the wanton destruction of life that actually happened. I spent the first half of the film almost soured of what I felt was terrorist porn. The key actors are solid, with Dev Patel particularly strong as a Taj Hotel waiter, but the narratives of the key characters are circumscribed. Fortunately, the last half hour introduces a new character, the majestic colonial hotel itself, depicted in wonderful panned scenes, and Maras manages to render a form of tragedy and triumph from the final scenes. Overall, the killing, though no doubt accurate, deadens the drama but the final crowd flight scenes restores an intriguing grandeur. Not recommended for squeamish viewers but a cut-glass depiction of modern terrorism that works well.
The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth [5/10]
Author of four previous well-regarded novels sometimes labelled as “women’s fiction,” Sally Hepworth branches out stylistically with “The Mother-in-Law.” Roughly alternating chapters in the first person present tense explore the rocky relationship between hesitant Lucy and her determined, principled mother-in-law Diana, ricocheting between flashbacks and the fraught current situation where Diana has been found dead. Hepworth is a lovely stylist and the individual scenes are evocative and nuanced, but the trappings of a suspense thriller – what really happened to Diana and what did the supporting cast of characters really do? – make for a reading experience that never gets beyond vignettes. Towards the end I found myself whispering that the latest plot twists weren’t credible, and even the two main characters lost power as the plot buckled under their feet. Final result: much to recommend here, and a likeable read, but somehow sapped of depth.
Eight Lives by Susan Hurley [5/10]
A thriller set in the fascinating, high-stakes world of immunotherapy drug research sounds like winner but “Eight Lives” is more a multi-character drama and it suffers from a busy plot that is modulated confusingly. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to like here, and if the topic zings for you, as it did for me, this debut novel is an engaging read. The milieu of pharma drug testing is interesting and the background of immigration offers an interesting twist. The basic plotline – a refugee surgeon who invents a new wonder drug dies a baffling death that ignites a quest for the truth – is sound but Hurley tells the tale through five interlocking characters, with such copious ongoing explanation, that the exoskeleton of the plot blurs, as does tension. The convolutions at the end would serve a better book well. Flawed but a topical diversion.
Insomnia by Marina Benjamin [8/10]
In her slim but punchy memoir “Insomnia,” Marina Benjamin tackles an affliction (or is it? That’s a question she asks) that bedevils many of us, me included. This is not a How-To or praise for a curative process, but a rumination of intelligence and breadth. Exploring philosophy, art, literature, and her own experiences with tackling her sleeplessness. No plot spoilers here but she meanders down a number of fresh, imaginative alleyways, picking away at notions of sleep and the lack of it. Benjamin writes beautifully – insomnia reveals “just sometimes, just maybe, the faintly detectable buzz of a cosmic hum that was there before human beings came into existence and will be there until the end of time.” In the end, she arrives at a conclusion that I think I’d also come to, during my years of reading about insomnia, but a conclusion I had never been able to explicate. Now I can. Highly recommended.
The Breakthrough by Charles Graeber [8/10]
The hottest topic in cancer research and treatment has been tackled to thunderous effect by journalist and writer Charles Graeber. If you know or knew someone with cancer (I do), read “The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer” to get a glimpse into this formerly controversial but now mainstream field. We’re all familiar with what the author calls “cut, burn, and poison” methods of tackling the Big C but immunotherapy is different. Hugely complex, it involves revving up our own immune system to massacre cancer cells, at the same time as cancers mutate to hide and to trick our immune system, all the while ensuring we don’t tip our body over into autoimmune diseases as savage as cancer. Graeber is an exceptional plain-English explainer and storyteller and he plots the thrilling history of immunotherapy’s many debacles and seeming rise from oblivion. Stories of survivors and non-survivors sit alongside the “hunt for the Holy Grail” tales of researchers and cancer specialists. If I remain bewildered by T cells and CAR-T and “checkpoint inhibitors,” at least now I can sense this cutting edge of medical science, and for that I’m immensely grateful.
Self-titled by Better Oblivion Community Center [8/10]
“Better Oblivion Community Center” brings together the Zen poet of modern rock, Conor Oberst, and talented newcomer Phoebe Bridgers. It’s a quintessential indie package of varied songs, the garage band feel only thinly disguising the huge intelligence and songwriting smarts of this pair. Her reaching tones line up in perfect harmony with his quavering, familiar voice, and they swap leads and mesh choruses as if they’ve been playing and singing together for decades. I can’t tell who contributes how much to the lyrics, but to me the tales of despair or hope could have jumped right out of Oberst’s songbook. It’s hard to select standout tracks but here they are: “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” headlines Bridger’s plaintive hues; check out the lovely dual-voiced plaintive folk-rock of “Dylan Thomas; “Big Black Heart” begins in ruminative form, then roars off into combined grungy cacophony. Splendid, splendid, splendid.
Hit Me by Peter Thompson [7/10]
What a premise! Hitman Charley Fieldner unveils his next assignment… and it’s to kill himself. His world careens wildly and “Hit Me,” a wildly entertaining thriller, zooms off into the stratosphere. I lapped up this wholly immersive thriller, written in a smooth-as-butter kinetic style, in little over twenty-four hours, and I’m confident you’ll do likewise. Author Peter Thompson employs the close-up first person style, which has the advantage of placing us there, in the thick of things, but distances us a little from more profound reflection or any sense of irony. Charley Fieldner is portrayed as living flesh, and all the supporting characters are well drawn, and the locales in city and suburb come to evocative life. The action scenes are to die for. Charley is a worthy successor to Westlake’s Parker or Disher’s Wyatt, and I hope he returns soon. A wild ride.