02 December 2016

Library Limelights 120

Alafair Burke. The Ex. USA: HarperCollins, 2016.
Happy dance – to hook up with Alafair after years of absence. And what a potboiler this is. A man accused of shooting down three people in a park hires his ex-lover, lawyer Olivia Randall, to defend him. Jack Harris presents the most bizarre explanation for his innocence, but evidence is sorely lacking. One of the victims was the aggressive father of a young man who gunned down numerous bystanders in a previous mass killing; one of those victims was Jack's wife. Convicting Jack looks initially like a slam dunk for the prosecution. The story, and tension, unfold from Olivia's narration and her certainty that she knows Jack better than anyone. Until ... is it possible Jack has a dark side she never suspected?

Evidence piles up against Jack, including incontrovertible gunshot residue. Guilt over her shabby treatment of him in their past relationship is a recurring, twisting undercurrent for Olivia. She calls in favours and risks losing professional credence. The author has the facility of drawing the reader right into the middle of it. DNA wins out: she is the daughter of crime-writing master James Lee Burke. I've missed several Alafair novels in the past; time to stockpile for the future!

One-liners:
When white noise fills my room, I can be anywhere, which means I'm nowhere, which is the only way I can sleep. (9)
The lobby of her apartment building would be up to any discerning New Yorker's standards, even Charlotte's, with overstuffed furniture, gleaming white tables, and fresh flower arrangements the size of beach balls. (57)
I think being able to use one little four-letter word to convey a hundred different thoughts is pretty fucking creative. (96)

Convincing her partner:
"Don, I have a feeling."
"A feeling? Dear girl, you pick today of all days to suddenly have feelings?"
"Oh come on. I've heard you say a cop feels hinky. Or a new client feels like the real deal, truly innocent. This isn't just me believing in an old friend." I heard Don scoff at the choice of the word "friend," but I pressed on. "His side of the story is just too bizarre to be fabricated."
"Are you listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth? You're basically saying it sounds too much like a lie to be a lie. You need more than that kind of logic to vouch for a client." (38-9)

Her assistant:
Charlotte and Buckley were with me in the entryway when I let him in, but he didn't bother with introductions. "Are you trying to get us both fired? Don's been riding my ass all day, asking me where you are, making me promise to loop him in. I don't know what you're working on, or why Don's pissed, but I feel like one of those little kids caught in the middle of their parents' divorce."
Coming up for air, he registered the presence of a teenager and the small dog smelling his pant leg, and looked at me as if I'd led him into an Ebola outbreak. (70)

Self-examination:
On one side were my suspicions. I had been so convinced from the second Buckley called me that Jack had to be innocent. But what grounds did I have for my assumptions? On the other side was my guilt. This was Jack―good, honest, and decent. Who was I to suspect him of something so heinous?
And then there was a voice trying to reconcile the two sides. Maybe he was guilty. Maybe he was an angry, vengeful psychopath. But if he was, who had made him that way?
Me. I did that. (155-6)

Legal tactics:
When I walked into the courtroom, Scott Temple was already at a counsel table. He shot me a sideways glance as I crossed the bar, and then continued to look at his notes.
"Can we talk about why we're here?" I asked. I wished Don was here to ask the question, but he had texted me to say he was stuck in Judge Gregory's courtroom and might be a few minutes late.
"The way you talked to me before pulling me in here on a so-called Brady violation? The frog and the scorpion, Olivia. No more side deals."
Scott had always been one of my best resources at the DA's office. I may have resolved to continue working for Jack, but I did regret burning a friend on his behalf. (257)


Graham Hurley. Turnstone. UK: Orion Paperback, 2001.
A turnstone is one type of bird that DI Joe Faraday likes to watch on his time off, in the greater Portsmouth environs. Shared bird-watching with his deaf son J-J helped them communicate and learn from each other. But J-J is an adult now, in flight from home to Joe's profound dismay and worry. But Joe's work schedule keeps him searching for a missing man despite his superiors' disapproval. Meanwhile, his colleague and nemesis, Paul Winter, is up to his usual underhanded tricks, withholding police evidence and trying to force a murder witness into becoming a snitch.

Winter runs into drug-related activities, in his gleeful quest to control the lowlifes. Joe begins to uncover a sinister plot hatched during the Fastnet yacht race. Both detectives meet women who fascinate them. Juanita is a real piece of work while Ruth reminds Joe of his long-deceased wife. Portsmouth itself is a deeply embedded character; its natural beauty and man-made deterioration are equally compelling. A bit much of the bird and boating details for me but Hurley's novels are far too well-crafted to complain. Since this book, Hurley went on with the same police characters to create more, several of which I've eagerly consumed.

One-liners:
After their recent run-in, Faraday sensed at once that his uniformed boss was in the mood for building bridges. (162)
It was several minutes before Faraday realised that the small, ghost-like, Asian-looking woman who'd let them in was in fact Oomes's wife. (189)

Meeting with the boss:
" ... They think there might be a stress problem."
"Who with?"
"You." He frowned, peering hard at Faraday with his muddy little eyes. "Is there a stress problem?"
Faraday wondered where to start. Should he tell him about J-J? About the lad's fantasy affair with some French social worker? Should he tell him about the nights he lay in bed, listening to the lap-lap of the tide, trying to work out where the last two decades had gone? Should he describe the moments when he sometimes paused on the stairs, frozen by the memories behind one of Janna's photographs? Should he share the bewilderment and disgust he increasingly felt, tidying up the wreckage of other people's lives? Should he confess, just occasionally, to an anger so intense and so deeply rooted that he felt capable of murder himself? (53-4)

Always on the edge:
Getting out of the car, Winter smiled. These were the kinds of strokes he enjoyed pulling most, stepping outside the system, turning his back on the paperwork, running private informants, inching his way into the heart of the action without anyone – anyone – being any the wiser. Then, at a time of his choosing, he would cash in all that information, all those carefully harboured secrets, step into the spotlight and take the applause he so richly deserved. (58)

The big picture:
From here, the view of the harbour was uninterrupted. He loved this place, not simply the waterfront but the city itself. He loved its busyness and its blunt, unvarnished ways. He loved the rough pulse of life that pumped through the pubs and endless terraced streets. Portsmouth wasn't the city you'd choose for sparkling dinner parties or dainty conversation, and for those two blessings Faraday was eternally grateful. In a country which had largely sold its soul, it remained uncursed by money. (266)

Deborah Campbell. A Disappearance in Damascus. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016.
This is not fiction. Subtitled A story of friendship and survival in the shadow of war, it's a graphic reminder that here in the first world we have no idea what desperation feels like. In 2007 Canadian investigative journalist Campbell had already spent years reporting on Middle East conflicts; her in-depth articles for major news magazines required periods of social immersion locally, sometimes undercover. Then in Syria, she sought interviews with Iraqi refugees from the post-Saddam Hussein chaos of warring militias; flooding Damascus, the only country that would accept them, they clearly portended the tidal wave to come toward Europe and the West. Ahlam, the independent, whirlwind facilitator in the Iraqi refugee community (among countless humanitarian tasks she undertook to help her people) was Campbell's "fixer" and interpreter. The two became close, so much time together witnessing the plight of overwhelmed people targeted for death if they returned to Iraq, under suspicion by Syrian authorities, desperate for employment or acceptance by another nation, endless examples of political-social-cultural clashes and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The general fear among Syrians was don't being your war to our country. (But we know what happened, right?) Ahlam was finally, inevitably arrested in 2008 on serious but false charges. Campbell and others became desperate to find her, try to get her released. Catch-22 ― enlisting assistance or intervention from NGOs could achieve the opposite: reinforce the lie that Ahlam was a spy, a traitor, an undesirable. And Campbell had to examine whether she herself, by being watched, had unwittingly endangered her friend. It's not possible to summarize the webs of bureaucracy, fear, deceit, stress, angst; I would have to quote the entire book. A powerful, must read: we owe it to ourselves to gain insight into today's Middle East:

About Ahlam:
She had been, when I knew her in Damascus, more alive than anyone I've ever known. (311)
She is one of those influential fixers and local experts, seldom visible despite their importance, who have done so much to show the world to itself. (325)
"Wherever you are, begin," she often said, quoting her father. "Begin and the rest will follow." (192)
That hard lump of grief, which she took out from time to time, usually alone, fired her public activity, her obsessive drive to solve problems that had no lasting solutions. (89)
Accusations that were laughable but extremely dangerous: rumours have an afterlife because rumour is soon treated as fact and becomes fact through repetition. (275)
[prison] "You can stay there for years," were his final words, "and nobody will know where you are." (283)

About Campbell:
The Middle East fashioned a century ago has become what the Ottoman Empire was before it: fragile, quaking, rife with rebellions. (104)
I could not have imagined that I was witnessing a final act―that this age-old tradition of pluralism would shortly disappear, adding millions of Syrians to the millions of Iraqis seeking refuge in the outside world. (189-90)
Only now was I coming to understand the sense of fatalism so common in the East, where most of what happens is determined by forces beyond one's control. (209)
The sense of powerlessness was humbling. It is how most of the world lives. (288)

Immersive journalism:
And so it begins. The paranoia. The fear. It spreads out in waves and infects everyone around you. It infects your mind, your thoughts. You begin to monitor your actions, your words, to see how the watcher might view them, and it is always the same way: with suspicion. You begin to regard others in the same paranoid fashion. Is that person asking me questions, so nonchalantly, seeking information on behalf of someone else? Am I replying appropriately, reacting in a way that could be construed as having nothing to hide? (187-8)

Uprooted young people:
They were all of an age when they should have been assuming the mantle of adulthood, learning a trade or cramming for university exams, looking around for a mate, but the war had frozen them in time. The society that raised them no longer existed; its values and expectations no longer made sense. (172)And:"They aren't being educated anymore, they see nothing but violence. They've become easy to brainwash and they are caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran." (215)

A veteran of the Gulf War:
I said something often said about the war: "This will end badly." He fixed me with an unblinking gaze, as if to compel me to remember, and answered: "This. Will. Never. End." (289)

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