31 January 2017

Library Limelights 125

Leif GW Persson. Bäckström, He Who Kills the Dragon. 2008. USA: Vintage/Random House, 2015.
Meet Backstrom, the total reprobate no police chief wants on his force an obliviously racist, misogynistic, hypocritical, mendacious, obnoxious, narcissistic fantasy artist. But the author cleverly handles him as a tool reflecting the varied personalities of his long-suffering police colleagues. Backstrom heads a murder investigation that branches madly in all directions. His strategy is to put everyone on his team to work while he goofs off for three hearty meals a day in spite of the diet his doctor ordered. At meetings, he issues orders, smiling beatifically at everyone while mentally berating each in turn. In fact, all his inner thoughts about other people are derogatory even as they fantasize about killing him. Backstrom has nothing good to say about anyone but himself.

The murder victim was a harmless elderly drunk eking out his pension ("your standard pisshead" in police parlance). Who could possibly want to kill such an innocuous old man? Then the neighbours are interviewed, his alcoholic friends remember a few things, and the man's past begins to surface. Not before Backstrom no stranger himself to drinking has aggravated every official in the hierarchy above and below him, especially since at least half the extended team members are immigrants to Sweden. It's a complex mystery and amusing if you like your comedy on the black side. Some of it is offensive. If Backstrom is right, the police force is run by lunatics and only he can tie together several recent cases; only he can "kill the dragon" that flummoxes his superiors.

One-liners:
It wasn't exactly the sharpest team he had led in his twenty-five years in violent crime. (21)
Toivonen had been Swedish wrestling champion on several occasions, Greco-Roman as well as freestyle, and he could easily have broken every bone in Backstrom's body without even taking his hands out of his pockets. (121)
Alm must look like a perfect bird feeder if you were a woodpecker, he thought. (248)

Initial team meeting:
Then they had started throwing ideas around. Or one single idea that Backstrom, just to be on the safe side, threw out there all on his own.
"Well, then," Backstrom said, since the others for once seemed to have the good manners to keep their mouths shut and let him start.
"One pisshead has been murdered by another pisshead. If there's anyone here who has any other suggestion, now's the time to pipe up," he went on, leaning forward and resting his elbows heavily on the table, glowering at his colleagues.
No one seemed to have any objections, to judge by the unanimous head shaking.
"Good," Backstrom said. "That's enough suggestions." (32)

Hangover shopping for the new food regime:
Evidently he must have stopped and done some shopping somewhere, because he was carrying a bag full of bottles of mineral water and a plastic pack containing a mass of mysterious vegetables.
What the fuck is this? Backstrom thought, holding up the pack. Those little red things must be tomatoes. He recognized them, and he had even eaten one or two when he was a lad. All that green stuff must be lettuce? But all the other stuff? A mass of weird black and brown balls of varying sizes. Hare shit? Elk shit? And something that mostly looked like maggots but which must be something else, since they didn't wriggle when he prodded them.
What the fuck is going on? Backstrom wondered as he headed toward the shower, dropping his clothes on the floor as he went. (37)

Mentally polling his team:
Just as the meeting was due to start, the head of the crime unit in Solna, Superintendent Toivonen, walked into the room. He nodded to the others with a grim glare before sitting down at the back of the room.
Nine people, one of whom is a proper police officer, Backstrom thought. Apart from him, one purebred bastard Finn, one idiot Lapppractically a bastard Finnone Chilean, one Russian, one pretty little darkie, one attack dyke, one retarded folk dancer, and dear old Lars Woodentop Alm, seriously mentally handicapped since birth. Where the fuck is this force heading? he thought. (96)

Rescue after being attacked:
Then he opened the door and let them in, and went and sat on the sofa with a strong drink. He poured another, just to be on the safe side. Where the hell is this force heading? he wondered. Here he was, in mortal danger for at least a quarter of an hour, until eventually he single-handedly managed to restore order and harmony around him. The best his employers could offer him was evidently five snotty-nosed kids who showed up when it was all done and dusted. Two women, two Negroes, and one poor sod who was evidently only a mulatto and probably got bullied by his colleagues. What the hell is happening to the Swedish police? Backstrom thought. (276)

Ian Rankin. Strip Jack. UK: Orion Books, 1992.
An oldie but goodie (of course!) ... an overlooked early Inspector John Rebus gem. Twenty-five years ago Rebus was a bit livelier and less pessimistic about his fellow man. Also, imminently about to share living quarters with his doctor lover, Patience Aitken. The wife of Gregor Jack MP has been murdered so naturally Rebus spends all his waking hours on it, having developed a certain empathy for the public figure. His superiors like a vagrant confessor as the killer, but Rebus strikes out on his own investigative path, believing someone unknown is trying to smear and destroy the MP.

Jack's marriage had hidden depths. Turns out the wife was part of a hard-partying group of friends close-knit since childhood. One of them killed his wife. One of them hates her own husband. One of them is having a secret affair with another one. Or two. Why was Gregor Jack caught in a raid on an Edinburgh brothel? It's always sheer pleasure following Rebus' adventures and his colleagues' reactions.

Words: (with allowance made for Scots usage)
moggies - mixed-breed cats
haar - a cold sea fog
verrucas - plantar warts

One-liners:
He didn't make waves exactly, but by Christ he splashed like hell. (9)
He had a voice like a peat bog and eyes that gleamed like crystal. (21)
In religion, he might be more Pessimisterian than Presbyterian, but in some things John Rebus still clung to faith. (78)
Watson looked like a kindly uncle suddenly tiring of a precocious nephew. (104)

Moving in?
But the flat itself was what interested Rebus. It was like a shelter, like a children's encampment. You could stand in either of the front bedrooms and stare up out of the window to where feet and legs moved along the pavement above you. People seldom looked down. Rebus, whose own flat was on the second floor of a Marchmont tenement, enjoyed this new perspective. While other men his age were moving out of the city and into bungalows, Rebus found a sort of amused thrill from walking downstairs to the front door instead of walking up. More than novelty, it was a reversal, a major shift, and his life felt full of promise as a result.
Patience, too, was full of promise. She was keen for him to move more of his things in, to 'make himself at home'. And she had given him a key. (27)

A wild ride:
" ... So I'm enjoying my lucky break. That's all I'm doing."
It was not quite all Tom Pond was doing. He was also crossing the Forth Road Bridge doing something in excess of one hundred miles an hour. Rebus daren't look at the speedo.
"After all," Pond had explained, "it's not every day I can go breaking the speed limit with a policemen in the car to explain it away if we get stopped." And he laughed. Rebus didn't. Rebus didn't say much after they hit the ton.
Tom Pond owned a forty-grand Italian racing job that looked like a kit-car and sounded like a lawnmower. The last time Rebus had been this close to ground level, he'd just slipped on some ice outside his flat.
"I've got three habits, Inspector: fast cars, fast women, and slow horses." And he laughed again.
"If you don't slow down, son," Rebus yelled above the engine's whine, "I'm going to have to book you for speeding myself!"
Pond looked hurt, but eased back on the accelerator. And after all, he was doing them all a favour, wasn't he? (204-5)

Dog eat dog:
"It sounds plausible," said Lauderdale. Rebus raised half an eyebrow: having Lauderdale's support was a bit like locking yourself in with a starved alsatian ...
"What about Mr Glass?" asked Watson.
"Well, sir," said Lauderdale, shifting a little in his seat, "psychiatric reports don't show him to be the most stable individual. He lives in a sort of fantasy world, you might say."
"You mean he made it up?"
"Very probably."
"Which brings us back to Mr Steele. I think we'd better have him in for a word, hadn't we. Did you say you brought him in yesterday, John?"
"That's right, sir. I thought we might give the boot of his car a once-over. But Mr Lauderdale seemed convinced by Steele's story and let him go."
The look on Lauderdale's face would remain long in Rebus's memory. Man bites alsatian. (247
)


Daniel Silva. The Black Widow. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2016.
Silva's popular novels feature the Israeli superspy, Gabriel Allon. This time he carefully orchestrates a black widow infiltration of an ISIS network; such women are committed to killing infidels, even suicide bombing, because their husbands or boyfriends were killed for the cause. French Jew Dr Natalie Mizrahi is recruited to become Dr Leila Hadawi, Palestinian convert to ISIS. It's a long, circuitous way to achieve a new identity and the goal, with scenes typically moving back and forth from Europe to the Middle East over months of time. Mizrahi's dangerous mission to learn ISIS plans is not successful enough to stop a massive terrorist attack on Washington DC. Actually, the attack is a huge fail by intelligence agencies of several countries. Coincidentally, both Mizrahi and the arch-villain called Saladin survive all the disaster.

Silva does not let us forget that Israel is on the front line of defence when it comes to Middle East warfare. He dextrously takes us through the politics of international spying and guerilla tactics with his usual attention to detail. His personification of ISIS recalls the prophecy of a victorious caliphate when two great armies meet in Dabiq (Syria). Descriptions of ISIS and its "capital," Raqqa, seem authentic and current. But I found the book in want of tightening up; losing some pretentiously repetitive slogans and mission statements would have been preferable. A few holes in sequence had me asking myself "huh? how did he/she know/find that?" Ultimately Gabriel takes his designated place as head of Israel's intelligence service, a plan that's been unfolding over the last few novels.

One-liners:
There is no worse feeling for a professional spy than to be told something by an officer from another service that he should have already known himself. (95)
An assassin had been placed in charge of Israel's intelligence service. (509)

Two-liners:
"I am a soldier of Allah, but a great admirer of Winston Churchill. And it was Winston Churchill who said that in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." (463)
Na'eem Square, once beloved by Raqqa's children, was now filled with severed heads, not stone but human. They stared mournfully down from the spikes of an iron fence, Syrian soldiers, Kurdish fighters, traitors, saboteurs, former hostages. (269)

The current nemesis:
Navot remained in his office long after Mikhail had taken his leave. The desk was empty except for his leather-bound executive notepad, on which he had scrawled a single word. Saladin ... only a man of great self-esteem would grant himself a code name like that, only a man of great ambition. The real Saladin had united the Muslim world under the Ayyubid dynasty and recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. Perhaps this new Saladin was similarly inclined. For his coming-out party he had flattened a Jewish target in the middle of Paris, thus attacking two countries, two civilizations, at the same time. Surely, thought Navot, the success of the attack had only whetted his lust for infidel blood. It was only a matter of time before he struck again. (39)

The courage begins:
"Why am I here?"
"First, we have lunch. Then we talk."
"And if I want to leave?"
"You leave."
"And if I stay?"
"I can promise you only one thing, Natalie. Your life will never be the same."
"And if the roles were reversed? What would you do?"
"I'd probably tell you to find someone else."
"Well," she said. "How can I possibly turn down an offer like that? Shall we eat? I'm absolutely famished." (133)

Lying in wait:
Qassam was now beholden to a man of far greater ambitions. He did not know the man's real name, only his nom de guerre. He was the one from Iraq, the one they called Saladin.
Not surprisingly, Qassam's journey had begun in cyberspace, where, his identity carefully shielded, he had indulged in his unquenchable appetite for the blood and bombs of jihadist pornan appetite he had developed during the American occupation of Iraq, when he was still at university. One evening, after a miserable day at work and a nightmarish commute home, he had knocked on the cyberdoor of an ISIS recruiter and inquired about traveling to Syria to become a fighter. The ISIS recruiter had made inquiries of his own and had convinced Qassam to remain in suburban Washington. (357-8)

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