07 February 2014

Library Limelights 49

Mons Kallentoft. Autumn Killing. UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012 (originally Höstoffer, 2009).
I said I would try Kallentoft again; Autumn Killing comes after Summertime Death. Sorry to say I found minimal plot, no leavening humour, and the voices of the dead again — so many voices we can't be certain who is speaking when. I had trouble the last time with the voices she creates (and we hear) as a literary device. This time it became tedious, seemingly a replacement for lack of any clever plot development. The greatest mystery in the book lies in Kallentoft's moody, tiresome? delivery of half-formed thoughts. Images of lawnmower blades and snakes recurring in the minds of more than one character may be greatly symbolic, I suppose, but failed to enhance my experience.

Two murders in a Swedish city reveal father-son conflicts, and much is made of class distinctions: landed aristocrats and clever upstarts. Detective Malin Fors is considered the most skilled cop on her squad; she is also endowed with intuition verging on extra-sensory perception. Her dedication to her job and inability to express her feelings are ruining contact with her daughter — is she duplicating her own mother's behaviour? Many pages are devoted to summaries of police evidence which scarcely changes from one meeting to another. Of more interest than the flat plot is Malin's battle with alcoholism and that's where the author excels at description. On the other hand, such a depressing topic doesn't redeem the novel. No surprises, no thrills here. There's no doubt in my mind that a Kallentoft Winter is coming; could it possibly get darker? I'll pass, thanks.

Daughter Tove thinks to herself:
Bloody Mum.
The least she could have done was call back. She doesn't even seem to be considering coming back to the house tonight. Now the pain in her stomach is growing again, below her heart, growing impossibly large. She sounded abrupt and businesslike, it was as if she wanted to finish the call as soon as possible, she didn't even ask how I am, why did I even bother to call? She probably just wants to go and have a drink.
I know why I called.
I want her to come home. I want them to stand in the kitchen having a hug, and I want to watch. (112)
Self-medicating:
Malin crawls up into a sitting position. She pushes away the bag of clothes that she must have managed to bring home from the pub in spite of everything.
IT Millionaire Murdered.
The newspaper's type is restrained.
She slithers to the kitchen, looks at the Ikea clock. Half past seven. A working weekend.
If I concentrate I can still make it to the morning meeting, she thinks, but I'll have to hurry.
She gets up, close to falling, fainting, and there's only one solution. The bottle of tequila is still on the floor of the living room where she left it the day before yesterday. She gets the bottle, takes seven deep swigs, and by the second she can feel the aches and pains and nausea leaving her body. (154)  
David Baldacci. Simple Genius. New York: Columbus Rose, Ltd., 2007.
Reading this at sea, it took a long time to finish at odd moments. Not quite the rough-and-tumble of his Stone books (and not a bad thing), featuring partners Michelle Maxwell and Sean King as operatives for hire. As the book opens, one is clearly dysfunctional and it takes a receptive psychiatrist to work it out. Meanwhile, the two get entangled with the FBI, the CIA, local police, and who knows what else, investigating a murder at a semi-secret laboratory facility. The lab is developing elements of nondeterministic polynomial time that's explained in some detail, guaranteed to put both sides of my brain to sleep. However: it does not spoil the overall novel, nor do the codes and cyphers a borderline- autistic young girl may be able to unravel.

Maxwell and King have a delightful relationship and their wisecracking charm extends to all the characters they encounter. We just know they will finally have to infiltrate the very secret CIA training ground across the river in Virginia. This is Baldacci at his best, no wasted words. The only fly in the ointment, in my opinion, came with the spurious introduction of Lord Dunmore's treasure.

Sean watches his partner exit:
As she disappeared into the night underneath a truck, Sean lay all alone smack in the middle of the CIA's most secret facility and seriously wondered if he was having a heart attack. He finally seized an element of calm, from where he didn't know. He put Michelle's backpack in his, and started to slide on his belly back toward the ancient Porto Bello. By water it was less than five hundred yards away. It might as well have been five hundred miles. (450)
UPDATE: The real-life Alan Turing has a small role in the novel; he was a genius mathematician and cypher expert in the Second World War, renowned for his part in breaking the German "Enigma" code. "His code breaking prowess helped the Allies outfox the Nazis, his theories laid the foundation for the computer age, and his work on artificial intelligence still informs the debate over whether machines can think." (Raphael Satter, The Associated Press, 23 & 24 December 2013). At the end of this year Turing received a (posthumous) royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for homosexual activity under a since-repealed British law. 

Greg Iles. Black Cross. New York: Signet/New American Library, 1995.
Having forsworn books about the Second World War for a while, I also happen to be a great fan of Greg Iles, so I picked up this novel in case I needed diversion from the pleasures of sea air, desert air, and compelling new companionship. I didn't. Finished most of it at home and it was a great diversion from the self-pity of holiday hangover. Black Cross has possibly the most bizarre plot ever, intended to foil the Nazis. Iles renders it in absolutely credible detail from the two diametrically opposed heroes to the concentration camp leaders, and from Churchill to Himmler.

The morality of using gas as a warfare agent is not in dispute. The plan to prevent it is. An extremely complicated plan. In 1944 Mark McConnell is a pacifist American doctor with a specialty in chemistry. Jonas Stern is a fearless soldier from the Jewish Brigade. They are co-opted to carry out an extraordinary British attack on a German laboratory where nerve gas is being experimentally developed on concentration camp victims. Pretty straightforward, ... you see what's coming, right? Wrong. Multiple subplots ensure that everything that can go wrong does go wrong. It's one of those books where your hair begins to stand on end from the rapidly escalating tension and split-second timing. Not "just" a pure action thriller but a thoughtful, fascinating read.

News of a death:
This time the grief washed over him without warning. His brother was dead. His father was dead. In his entire family, he was the last male McConnell left alive. For the first time since returning to England he felt an almost irresistible urge to go home. Back to Georgia. To his mother. His wife. The thought of his mother brought a wave of heat to his scalp. How was he going to tell her? What could he possibly say?
When he kicked the window latch this time, the ironbound panes crashed open and a cutting wind stung his face. Slowly, his throat began to relax. He could breathe. He gazed out over a snowy scene that appeared much as it had four hundred years before. Oxford University. His island of tranquillity in a world gone mad. What a pathetic joke. He felt the telegram slip from his hand, watched it brush the window casement and then flutter down to the cobblestones three stories below.
The first sound that escaped his throat was a great racking wail that burst from the depths of his soul. (100)
The hand of death:
Suddenly Miklos Wojik's eyes focused with an intensity of pleading Anna had never seen in her life, not even in the eyes of the victims of Brandt's experiments. "I am a dead man," he whispered. "Nothing can change that. But if you don't do what I ask, you and your friends will be dead too."
An electric tingle raced across Anna's scalp and shoulders. What Miklos said was true. If he talked, they would all died. She would be tortured. How long could she hold her silence if Sturm were allowed to do whatever he wished to her? And if she somehow survived the ordeal, there was always the Ravensbruck camp for women—She opened the black medical bag and scanned the neat rows of ampoules and glass syringes lying in their fitted slots beneath elastic bands. Antiseptics, local anesthetics, sulfa drugs, insulin— Was that the answer? No, it would take a massive overdose to kill, and as his blood sugar plummeted Miklos would experience cramps that would panic the guard. There—She reached into the bottom of the bag and palmed a vial of morphia, then leaned down and put her head on Miklos Wojik's chest as if listening carefully. (374)
  

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