Nightfall Berlin, by Jack Grimwood

 

Not that Grimwood needs my good words after this weekend’s note in The Times from Marcel Berlins. I’d link to it but, paywall. And I regret to say that I’ll be a bit vague, because I listened to the audio version and so can’t refer back to the actual text. The audio version was so good, it made me want to drive to the Leicester office for more listening time en route. Of course, once I got to Leicester I immediately wanted to come home again, but you can’t have everything.

Nightfall Berlin is the second novel to feature Major Tom Fox, following his first outing in Moskva a couple of years back. I loved Moskva to the extent that I bought copies as gifts for a couple of people. It’s a proper, old school, Cold War thriller, introducing Fox as a flawed lead with plenty of his own ghosts to be dealing with while he’s trying to find the missing 15 year old daughter of the British Ambassador. I wasn’t even all that interested the Cold War period, and now I’m finding it fascinating.

At least in Moskva, Fox was on official business. In Nightfall Berlin, he’s on the wrong side of the Berlin wall without any papers or allies, on the run because suspected of murder. He was sent to bring back a horrible old man who defected some years back and now wants to come home and die in peace. Or something like that – the letter the old git sends to The Times contains a deliberately mistaken classical reference linking to an old case, and the game is afoot when the man is found murdered in his flat.

The Stasi, the KGB and his own people are all after Fox at one time or another. They all want the memoirs the old man was writing and they’re willing to beat the truth out of Fox when he denies having them. Repeatedly.  There are twists, turns, failed attempts to escape back to West Berlin, shootings, meetings in the zoo, conspiracies, and cover ups. While that could sound like box ticking, that’s not at all how it reads. Comparisons with Le Carre are inevitable, and there’s a nice nod when Fox’s former handler hands him a copy of the latest Le Carre novel, intended for the KGB. The copy is returned with a book report.

Grimwood is great at representing the paranoia and bleakness of East Berlin, and the ever shifting relationships between the different sides as they carry out the behind-the-scenes dirty work that lets official policy continue. Fox isn’t being paranoid when he says ‘Trust no one’, nor even when it’s ‘There’s no one to trust’. Allegiances seem to shift on a dime, even Fox worries that the KGB uniform he ends up in at one point suits him surprisingly well.

My favourite threat (no spoilers as to circumstances): ‘… I’ll have you killed. I won’t even bother to do it myself, I’ll just look at the photographs.’ Boom.

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Things I will do when I live on my own

I have had an offer on a house accepted, so now I’m working slowly through the strangely Dickensian conveyancing process. Sending documents via the post, really? Still, at the end of it, I will have a house. I realise that I’m supposed to be more excited than I am about this sudden achievement of a long held dream, but circumstance is rather against me. Buried deep, there is some excitement, it’s just that I have to excavate down through layers of sadness, tiredness, anxiety, dislike of paperwork, worry about my job, concern about how the cats will cope with another move… Inner me may be whooping it up with champagne, to which I say ‘You go, girl!’; but outer me is knackered.

As well, this reality of becoming a home owner is still incomprehensible to me. I realise that all my thinking about where I will live is short term and assumes precariousness. So presently, I’m fighting the impulse to rush to buy curtains or blinds, or think about paintwork, or organise built in shelves. Yes, all that will need to be addressed. No, it doesn’t have to be done immediately. I’m planning on being in this house for at least 5 years. I can take my time settling in before effecting its gradual transformation into Musings Towers.

Other thoughts that come unbidden are the small mental pop ups about the difference between now and then. Inevitably, when you live with someone, you both adapt your life’s natural patterns. I have early starts, I’m gone in the morning before my partner gets up and a weekend lie in for me is 7am. This isn’t to say that I resent the status quo. I wouldn’t get up early if I didn’t have to and I quite see that being disturbed several hours before you need to be is horrible. But, this is a sad parting of the ways, prompted by a single but insurmountable difference in life choices. Instead of focusing on that, I’d prefer to look at the small sources of contentment that will follow.

  1. I will put the lights on the morning when I get up. Well, not overhead lights because who can face that cruel blinding brightness at 5.30am? In fact, I might not have any overhead lights at all because I’ve always hated them. Give me the soft, reflected glow of uplighters. But the main thing is I will not be navigating around by torchlight.
  2. I will get a really good reading lamp in the bedroom, and stay up late at weekends, to read in bed.
  3. I will go back to bed on weekend mornings with a novel and a pot of coffee.
  4. Or, I will get all my cleaning done by 9am so it’s out of the way, and then I can sit down with the novel and the coffee.
  5. I will buy a beautiful, colourful rug. We have never managed to agree on a rug for this house, so there are none.
  6. I will have music throughout the house. Or The Archers. Or audiobooks.
  7. I will buy more pictures, and put them up on any walls that don’t have bookcases and I won’t have to leave space for a TV because there won’t be one.
  8. I will scent things my airing cupboard with lavender and rosemary.

Reading roundup January – March

Technically, also a listening round up as I’ve been getting through audio books so fast I keep buying extra credits on Audible. The hard part is finding anything – as with Amazon, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, browsing on Audible is a horrible experience.

Wins of the year so far:

London Rules – Mick Herron. Inevitably, because I am such a fan of the Jackson Lamb series. In this one, hopeless Roddy Ho has been giving out secrets to his girlfriend, which explains how he even got a girlfriend, and someone is trying to kill him. The only reason Lamb objects is because if someone is going to kill one of his Slow Horses, he’d prefer it to be him. Meanwhile, a terrorist cell is making use of the plans Roddy inadvertently passed along, the minister who engineered Brexit is gunning for higher office (and hoping his cross-dressing won’t come out), while the PM is hoping he can retire and write memoirs from his shed. Shed. Got that? Definitely not shepherd’s hut. Can Jackson’s motley crew save the day? Can Jackson get any more objectionable? You betcha.

Brilliance, A Better World and Written in Fire – Marcus Sakey. Seriously, I don’t understand how these haven’t been optioned into a Netflix series already. Picture a world in which 10% of people have abnormal abilities. Could be maths, science, pattern recognition, you name it. In the US, the government has responded by putting the most brilliant in concentration camps schools, where they are routinely de-humanised and driven to be dysfunctional. Nick Cooper is an agent with the Department of Analysis and Response (DAR), which hunts down criminal abnorms, and he’s one of the best. Nick finds out that DAR isn’t what it seems, the factions within the government, society and abnorm society start to follow up on their independent objectives, and the world is heading for a showdown.

The Smiling Man – Joseph Knox. I loved Knox’s debut, Sirens, which i also listened to, and which introduced us to extremely flawed DC Aidan Waits. In this follow up, Aidan is clean but back on the night shift with his partner Peter ‘Sooty’ Sutcliffe, who could give Jackson Lamb a run for his money in the being deeply unpleasant stakes. Aidan is investigating a dead body found in a disused hotel, while also battling his own demons in the return of the brutal father figure who traumatised and criminalised his childhood. There is a nightmarish, hyperreal quality to Aidan’s life, helped by the narrative being from his point of view and the fact that he barely seems to sleep. I’ve seen Knox’s novels described as ‘Manc noir’ and it’s certainly the dark underbelly of the city that we get to see.

The Ruth Galloway series – Elly Griffiths. I’m not going to name all the individual titles, but having read the first four novels in this series, I suddenly got addicted to them in audio form and listened to the next six. All the individual mysteries are strong and compelling, but almost more than that I like the overarching story of the difficult relationship between Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. That’s what keeps me coming back, as with Susan Hill’s Serrailler series. Just as you think something might come of it, another blocker ends up in their way. Which may not be a bad thing, because try as I might I can’t see Ruth and Nelson actually living together with any degree of success.

Force of Nature, Jane Harper

I listened to The Dry on audio last year, and loved it for the characters, the sense of place and the finely drawn claustrophobia of going back to a small town where everyone knows you. Aaron Falk was a great character, so I grabbed a copy of The Force of Nature as soon as I saw it in the bookshop. I read it in an evening and I almost wish I’d gotten it on audio as well so I’d enjoyed it in a more leisurely way. On the other hand, give it a while and I can get the audio anyway. Not that I’ll forget the story but audio is a different experience so it doesn’t always matter.

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A Force of Nature kicks off with a woman going missing. Alice Russell disappeared on a hike with others from her company when they were all on some ghastly team building weekend. What gets Aaron Falk involved is that Alice was a whistleblower for her company, BaileyTennants, who seem to be heavily involved in all sorts of financial irregularities. Without Alice’s information, the trail goes cold, so Aaron and his partner, Carmen, have a vested interest in finding out what happened. Plus, Aaron has a frustratingly incomplete message on his phone from Alice, that must have been made not long before she died.

The story switches between two narratives, day by day of the investigation into Alice’s disappearance, as well as day by day of what actually happened on the hike. There’s also a sub-narrative, because the area the team is hiking in is notorious for some murders that happened 20 years back. The last body was never found, so the fact of another woman going missing is enough to raise old fears.

None of the women on the hike is particularly likeable, and for all that the point of the exercise is team building, no one is really trying. They’ve been dumped together for a variety of different reason: Bree is considered to have potential so she’s building her career, whereas her twin sister Beth is at the ground floor at the same company. Alice herself has been accused of bullying, Lauren has been underperforming. Jill is one of the owners of the business, along because it’s the right thing to do. It’s exactly the sort of ‘resilience building’ bullshit you can see a corporate pulling on its staff.

The schisms reveal themselves pretty quickly. Bree, who has been stuck with the navigating, gets them lost early in day 2, and the fragile relationships start to break down almost immediately. The woman are out of food and water, both of which they’d have picked up at their campsite for the night if they’d made it. They lose the stove they’d need to cook with when it falls in a river. Alice impatiently takes over navigating, insisting that they’re heading west, west, west, until Beth points out that the sun is setting in completely different direction. The squabbles aren’t serious, but for a bunch of women who don’t like each other anyway, it doesn’t take much for it to escalate to physical violence. And it is a serious situation, as they’re off the trail in a vast territory where they stand a real risk of not being found.

Did Alice head off on her own and get lost? Or did one of them kill her? Any of them could have done so and it would have been pretty understandable. Meanwhile, Aaron and Carmen are interviewing the four women who did finally make it back from the hike, and figuring out where the stories fall apart…

There was such a lot going on in this novel, that the mystery isn’t anything like the whole of it. All the relationships are complicated, with a level of toxicity to them. Bree and Beth, despite being twins, have some real negative history that affects their behaviour. Lauren and Alice also know each other from schooldays, while Alice’s daughter has been dating Jill’s son. What ultimately happens in the bush is the result of a whole lot of bitterness, anger, resentment, fear and love. This is the same trick that Harper pulled off in The Dry and it’s what makes the novel so gripping, and ultimately, tragic.

New Year reading

There are two main things that are driving my reading at the moment. The first, the positive, is that I’ve started a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and glory be, it gives me access to a bit of an academic library. The course is at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education, and the library has only a small classics section. Still, I will happily take the academic crumbs that come my way, so I scooped up some basics and have The Cambridge Companion to Ovid to play with.

It’s only a 10-week course and we aren’t reading all of Metamorphoses, so the tutor has given out a reading plan that allots us a section or two each week. It’s about 20pp maximum, so I’ve put together my own supplementary reading list to complement the selections from Met. 

  • Euripides’ Medea
  • Mr Heracles – Simon Armitage
  • The Odyssey – transl. Emily Wilson
  • The Aeneid – transl. Robert Fagles
  • Euripides’ Ajax
  • Lavinia – Ursula LeGuin

I’m really liking the look of that mix of original text and reception. I’ve got Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid  and Simon Armitage’s The Odyssey as well, so I may throw them into the mix too, if I have time.

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The painting is Apollo and Daphne, by Antonio del Pollaiolo. In one of many rape or attempted rape scenes in Met., Apollo chases the nymph, Daphne. She prays for help to escape him and is turned into a laurel tree. Apollo promptly declares that the laurel will be his symbol, because even though the woman is turning herself into a tree to avoid him, he still can’t bloody well take no for an answer. Plus ca change, and all that.

The second driver is that I’m in that state of mind where it’s an effort to get myself to work every single day. I’m very actively job hunting and let’s hope something comes up soon. Anyway, audiobooks to the rescue: instead of getting in the car to drive to work, I get in to listen to the next instalment of my audiobook. It’s a small mental trick, but it works. I don’t have the same anxiety when I’m working from home – don’t know why it’s all so much more focused around the physical location when it’s the job itself that is the problem, but hey. More crumbs of comfort.

I’ve been chain listening to Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist at the University of North Norfolk, and DCI Harry Nelson is the local copper. Ruth helps him out on cases sometimes, and they also had a very brief affair that resulted in Ruth having a daughter, Kate. While Nelson will never leave his wife, Michelle, he loves Kate and has very mixed feelings for Ruth. How all three of the adults navigate this scenario makes an interesting backstory to the murders or mysteries of the individual volumes.

I’d read a few of them but it’s one of those series where the next book is never on the shelf in a bookstore when I go in. (Unlike Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, when the next book is nearly always there. Spooky.) The individual books just about last me a week on audio, but I’ve now spent so many hours listening that I’m addicted. Plus, I find myself getting a bit confused as to whether Ruth and Nelson are real, and thinking back on things they’ve said and done before remembering that in fact, I don’t know them.

I’m also starting to really want to visit Norfolk again. Ruth’s cottage is set on the edge of the salt marshes, which sounds like a wonderful, liminal landscape. I can’t shake the longing for a blustery, sea-salty walk amid lots of sea and sky. What I’m really craving is mental space, of course, but I always think that a geographical open space will clear my head as well. Sometimes it does.

10 years of musings

I only realised as I was re-ordering the ‘Books read’ pages that I’ve had the blog for 10 years.

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Blimey. Although, it must be said that for the past few, I’ve done the absolute bare minimum. Well done those four or five people who still rock up on occasion. I’m not joking – the stats are genuinely pathetic so you are all part of a very small, and incredibly discerning group. Maybe I should get you all badges?

10 years feels like a good innings, and I’ve been wondering if it’s time to let the blog slip quietly into that dark night. But, it seems a shame not to see this tenth year out, so instead, I shall try harder and see how it goes this year. I’m not making any resolutions but, I suspect in common with most people, it won’t do me any harm to put my phone down and focus more on what I’m reading instead.

And on that note, I kicked off the year by reading A Very Short Introduction to Classical Mythology by Helena Morales. This is because I’ve had the full week off work over Christmas and now I’m panicking about going back and my brain atrophying again. So to stave that off, I signed up for a short course at the local university’s continuing education department. Of course, this being Oxford, I’m doing a short course on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Of course, being me, I immediately high tailed it to Blackwell’s to buy the reading list, deaf to all warnings that if the course gets cancelled you still have to pay your debts at the bookshop…  So far I’m on to Book III of Metamorphoses, and I’ve also read one of the essays in  the Blackwell Companion to Ovid.

So, the VSI was a quick romp through to the tune of ‘what have myths done for us and what are they anyway?’ Answer, ooh, loads, and they’re fluid so open to interpretation, re-use and misuse. Because current mood = feisty, I particularly liked the bit where Morales discussed what might have happened if Freud had chosen the Antigone story rather than the Oedipus story on which to found his whacko theories. What if psychoanalysis had had more space for strong female characters and a foundation myth that explored the nature of right and wrong?

It’s been a long, long time since I read Ovid. I know I studied some of Metamorphoses for my degree, but that was about a billion years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve got Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid hiding on a shelf somewhere, so that will be a good companion piece as well. The course starts on Jan 22 and I’m going to be prepared. You might say over-prepared. I couldn’t possibly comment (yes, I read most of the House of Cards trilogy over Christmas, did Michael Dobbs originate that formulation for FU, or does it pre-date him?)

Smoke and Whispers, Mick Herron

It’s the Jackson Lamb books that are getting displays in bookstores at the moment, as Spook Street has just come out in paperback. And it is a great series, doing something different with the spy genre, undercutting any notions of James Bond or even Le Carre. The only character who can see round the corners and through the corkscrew twists of the latest internal machinations is Jackson Lamb himself. The rest of his spooks, flawed and failing, stumble through the action with such good intent and lack of understanding that it sometimes gets them killed. Slough House isn’t kind to its denizens.

And Mick Herron isn’t kind to Zoë Boehm either. She is the heroine, or anti-heroine, of her own series of books, of which Smoke and Whispers is the last. It starts with a body, that could be Zoë’s, floating down the Tyne. The body has Zoë’s belongings and Zoë’s clothes, and it’s a testament to the strength of the preceding books that the reader can both fully believe that yes, Zoë could have ended up face down in a river, and yet not want that to be the case. It would be an unsurprising end, but not a fitting one.

Zoë Boehm is an independent detective, based in Oxford. You’d think that Morse had Oxford covered, but Zoë’s city is not one in which a Jaguar could stay safely parked. Over the several books, her own car gets stolen and torched by an ex-policeman, she gets beaten up in Jericho and nearly drowned in the canal (and now I’m wondering if that was foreshadowing). Her Oxford is one in which the nice jeweller’s is fencing stolen goods, and the nice hotel is the starting location of a clever woman’s campaign to present herself as an abused wife before knifing her husband in the heart. No quadrangles here.

Unusually for me, I read the first book in the series and then I’ve listened to the rest. I’m listening to Smoke and Whispers at the moment and I’ve been trying to work out what makes Mick Herron such a good writer. So far, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fact that every sentence is crafted. There’s no makeweight in a Mick Herron sentence, each word lands with direct authorial intent. One paragraph can contain more observation than lesser writers display in entire novels.

And he’s great at writing female characters. Zoë is a detective first and foremost. She doesn’t get home at the end of the day and start maundering about the size of her thighs or the fact that she hasn’t got a boyfriend, in order to signal to the reader that she’s also a real, relatable woman. She is not primarily defined by her physical characteristics or what she wears: Zoë just puts her jeans on, they don’t cling enticingly to long, elegant legs that are tanned and toned from her early morning runs. Her black jeans, red top and black leather jacket may be identifiably hers but about all they say is she doesn’t pay enough attention to bother dressing to impress. She also doesn’t have a phone full of specifically skilled, male mates who can help her out when a case gets difficult. It is, frankly, a relief to read a female character who is allowed to get on with her job without also having to perform being a woman at the same time.

So far, most of the investigating in Smoke and Mirrors is being done by Sarah Tucker, someone whose life Zoë saved in the first book in the series (Down Cemetery Road) and who is now her only friend. Sarah has identified the body found in the Tyne as Zoë, but that’s based more on the conclusive leather jacket than on recognition. Something isn’t stacking up for Sarah. Maybe at first it was just unwillingness to believe that her friend is dead, but she’s now beginning to think that an old case caught up with Zoë and might be reaching out to entangle Sarah herself as well…

In Down Cemetery Road, Zoë didn’t get introduced until the endgame. I’m hoping that’s what happens here too, and maybe Sarah saves her. Then again, maybe Mick Herron isn’t going to be kind to his readers, either.