Peter May. The Chess Men. UK: Quercus, 2013.
Another Isle of Lewis pot boiler. May's style is to integrate the back stories of Fin Macleod's island life with present-day troubles. As with the cormorant hunt in The Blackhouse and the Iolaire disaster in this one, May incorporates true Lewis events into the plot. Fin has a new job as security head for the Red River estate, catching poachers. That means meeting up with some old friends like Whistler who carves oversize chessmen similar to the famous twelfth century pieces. In a barely accessible part of the island the two men discover a downed airplane with the seventeen-year-old remains of their schoolmate Roddy Mackenzie inside. All three, and more, in their college days had been involved with the still highly successful Celtic rock band called Amram.
Turns out Roddy was murdered all those years ago; now Whistler comes to a sorry end for no discernible reason. The man had been facing a custody hearing for his daughter Anna. Friend Donald the minister is about to be censured by a church court. Fin's son has gone off-island to university; the renewed relationship with first love, Marsaili, is scarcely mentioned. One-time girlfriend Mairead, the iconic singer with Amran, reappears in Lewis. In the midst of all this, it's a challenge for Fin to find motives, let alone perpetrators of the murders. Classic Peter May. The Hebrides have never been so well portrayed in scenic and human terms. To really enjoy the three-part "stand alones" I recommend starting with The Blackhouse and continuing with The Lewis Man.
"It was black as hell that night, boys, and we could all feel the presence of the devil come to take us." (95)
And all the lines I had been repeating in my head disappeared in a sea of hormones. (240)
This was theatre of a kind never before seen on the island, the playing out of a human drama that the Church itself would have frowned upon had it come from the pen of a playwright and been performed by actors. (362)
Beginnings of the band:
And then there was Whistler. So-called because he played the Celtic flute as if he'd been born with it at his lips. Pure, haunting liquid music it was that poured from that flute of his. Sounds that swooped and soared with a flick of his finger, or a curl of his mouth. Strange somehow, coming from such a big brute of a boy whose temper and black moods would become so familiar to me. A boy so clever that while I spent untold hours studying for end-of-term exams, Whistler was off trapping rabbits, or pulling trout from the Red River, and still got the best grades in the school. (78)
Neglect causes outrage:
"Look!" She lifted his socks. "They're full of holes." And as she held them up I saw that they were. Worn to holes at the heels and the ball of the foot, and wafer-thin along the line of the toes, almost at the point of disintegration. "And these." She held up his underpants, stretched out between fastidious thumbs and forefingers. It took a great effort of will for her even to touch them, and there was a look of extreme disgust on her face. "The elastic's perished." She dropped them. "And his trousers. Look how he keeps them up." She showed me the safety pin at the waistband where a button had once been. The zipper was broken. "And here." She turned them over and I saw where the seam between the legs had burst open, the stitching rotted and broken.
Then she held up his coat and turned it inside out. "And this isn't much better. The lining's all torn and worn thin. And look at his trainers for God's sake." She stooped to lift them on to the counter. "You can't see it at a glance, but the soles have come away from the uppers, and it looks like he's used duct tape to stick them back together." She glared at me with accusation in her eyes. "How could you not notice?" (172)
Full circle for a day:
He had forgotten all about the gala day. The return of all seventy-eight Lewis chessmen to their last resting place for just one day. Sixty-seven of the chess pieces were permanently housed in the British Museum in London, that repository of stolen artifacts from around the world. The remaining eleven were kept in Edinburgh, but still a long way from home. He remembered Whistler's exhortation the day they had met at his croft for the first time since they were teenagers. They should be in Uig all year round. A special exhibition. Not stuck in museums in Edinburgh and London. Then maybe folk would come to see them and we could generate some income here. (335)
Ross Pennie. Tampered. Toronto: ECW Press, 2011.
Dr. Zol Szabo of the Hamilton (Ontario) public health unit investigates a serial illness at a seniors' facility. Actually, Zol's associates are more active and engaging than he is ― Natasha the lab technician and Hamish the epidemiologist. Some of the infected seniors at Camelot Lodge are dying, so the pressure is on to find the source of contamination. Zol enlists his girlfriend Colleen, a private detective. A group of seniors at Camelot also use their skills to assist. Pennie has created a tricky, clever plot with assorted issues thrown into it ― geriatrics, gayness, racism, the Balkan wars, illicit drugs, and more diseases or symptoms than you ever wanted to hear about. Zol could do with a little loosening up in character, though.
A freebie from the Boucheron Conference, this ‒ or any medical mystery ‒ is not a genre I would normally read. Medical terminology inserts itself everywhere possible and I end up examining my own manufactured symptoms of gut ailment, fierce headache, is that a fever I'm getting? Am I getting meningitis or C difficile? ... until a rash of itching makes me stop reading and go bleach my kitchen. I will never eat deli meats again. While it will be a treat for some readers, for me it's a gift horse I wanted to muzzle.
The crusty lesion was perched at the crest of the tattooed waterfall Zol could see cascading down Nick's forearm. (32)
"Albert Schweitzer said that happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory." (75)
Phyllis stopped him with her I'm speaking look, then bestowed Myrtle with her smile of approval. (115)
Fire lit Art's face, the patches of rosacea on his cheeks glowing more crimson than ever. (197)
Two-liner: "Old age is contagious, you know. The more you let people do for you, the less you can do for yourself." (74)
Not Martha Stewart's kitchen:
Natasha pulled a large plastic bag from the bottom of a chest freezer. She grunted at the effort of dislodging it. Frosty condensation obscured the bag's contents, but Zol could just make out what appeared to be a jumble of vegetables — corn, celery, broccoli, and a couple of beets.
"What's this?" Natasha asked. "This stuff should be labelled and dated."
"Hey —" Nick chuckled "— we use everything up so fast we don't waste time with dating."
"But what is it?" said Zol. "At least the bag should be labelled."
Nick shrugged. "I can tell they're veggies." (33)
Chewing it over:
Phyllis pulled a hanky from her sleeve and dabbed the drops of watery dribble from the tip of her nose. Her eyes narrowed and her hand jerked as she clutched her chest. "How's Betty?"
"Just the same, I'm afraid," Hamish said.
The others helped themselves to the bagels while Hamish washed his hands in Art's sink. There was no bottle of hand sanitizer anywhere in sight. Hamish took the unclaimed muffin and broke off a mouthful, taking care to leave the paper wrapping intact.
"Maybe you don't have the correct diagnosis, Doctor," said Phyllis. "My sister's pulmonary embolism was misdiagnosed by four different doctors before somebody got it right."
"For heaven's sake, Phyllis," Art said. "Of course Dr. Wakefield has got Betty's diagnosis right."
Hamish chewed on the muffin and said nothing. Maybe Phyllis was correct. (105-6)
Job description interferes:
"Do you believe them?"
"They say they've got pictures. Phyllis's camera. And part of a licence plate. SJJ something."
Public health involved far more facets of modern life than Zol had imagined at the start of his training. But one thing was for sure: kidnappings were not part of his mandate. "Sorry. I'm drawing the line right here. I can't let myself —"
He suddenly noticed Max's quizzical stare, pupils wide as hockey pucks. The boy was an unrivalled listening machine.
"Just a sec, Hamish," Zol said, then cupped his hand over the phone and told Max to fetch a roll of paper towels from the kitchen. As soon as Max shuffled out of earshot, Zol whispered to Hamish, "For God's sake, I can't get involved in an abduction." (273)
Christopher Brookmyre. A Snowball in Hell. UK: Abacus, 2008.
Curious about this author's style after a previous novel (LL142) led to this find at Bouchercon, and yes, he's different! Here, Brookmyre savagely does black satire on the world of celebrity. The arrogant criminal, Simon Darcourt aka Black Spirit, retires from contract killing to kidnapping Brits of various claims to fame culminating in a special game contest. Broadcasting to the nation, he skewers the popular entertainment genre, not without some torture and killing. His motive is unknown to police, including super detective Angelique de Xavia. Intense complications ensue as Angelique finds herself in an impossible personal dilemma; she's secretly forced to betray her colleagues, co-opting the aid of her former lover Zal, a thief and magician.
Lonnng contempt-laden rants by Darcourt against society's superficial values and inadequate human beings are brilliantly expressed but so over the top the self-righteousness becomes tedious. Nonetheless, there's that hard core of black humour. He's fond of quoting others, and also makes good use of staging and technology that some may find hard to follow. Or swallow. Zal is not the only one practising deft sleight-of-hand activities. His relationship with Angelique is totally up in the air — oh no, more desperately inarticulate feelings once again! The cerebral Brookmyre is effortlessly ingenious if you appreciate invective-laden rage against modern inanities.
Word: zoetrope - also called thaumatrope (Oxford Dictionary).
But as Voltaire put it: once you can get people to believe absurdities, you can get them to perform atrocities. (39)
Jack Nicholson once remarked that when people said they wanted to be rich and famous, he'd suggest they try just being rich, and see how that works out for them. (72)
Angelique thinks about three adolescents gasping like landed fish, surrogate outlets for one narcissistic, self-obsessed psychopath's jealous rage. (171)
This sexually repressed little backwater of a country needs to undo a few buttons and confront reality. (331)
It was one of the most enduring truths of human deception: the harder it is to come by certain information, the more credibility you attribute it. (343)
Cynicism of the narcissist:
Al Qaeda is usually described as a network, but with 9/11 it was obvious that they had discovered global branding, corporate synergy and vertical integration. They would not be outsourcing any more, would not have dealings with anyone who was not a fellow fundamentalist headcase. and had in any event no need for mercenaries when there were thousands of idiots willing to do the work for free.
My skills were not only redundant, they were arguably anachronistic. Any fucking lunatic can take out a target if he's prepared to sacrifice himself to do so. But never mind the skill, where's the fucking fun in that? (8)
Hazard of the job:
She hadn't actually announced her intention to quit before, but she'd been through the feeling that she couldn't go on, couldn't recover from what she had just been through sufficiently to pick herself up and head back into the fray. Yet every time, she had: no matter what she had witnessed, no matter what she had been required to do, no matter the danger or pain she had endured. The scar tissue, she knew, would soon form over what happened at the mosque like it had formed over so many previous wounds. Each time she went through something like this, she emerged just a little bit tougher, which meant that she was able to feel just a little bit less. (58)