One Clique to Rule Them All…and in the Bullshit Bind Them

 

If you’ve ever wondered how someone as goofy as Boris Johnson got to be  prime minister of the UK, Chums by Simon Kuper is the book you need to read. Short, sharp and devastatingly insightful, it explains how a tiny clique of posh and semi-posh conservative aristocrats and wannabe aristos have ruled Britain on and off since 1945.

They almost uniformly attended Eton where they learned both public speaking and self-presentation as an art.  Charm, cutting wit and discoursing on subjects about which they were ignorant (or close)–and their privileged backgrounds–proved a gateway to Oxford.  Once there, they continued to be focused on style over substance.

Playing student politics in surprisingly byzantine ways prepared them for positions in Parliament and government (sometimes by way of journalism), positions which they believed they deserved.  After all, hadn’t their class historically been in charge?  More than one felt that entering Westminster was “coming home.”

Boris Johnson seems like the apotheosis of this trend, with his endless blather, his comic hesitations, and his “shambolic” hair:  a rumpled Bertie Wooster. Oxford was his dress rehearsal: In a setting that emphasized and rewarded eccentricity, he was glib, clever, entertaining–“an unthreatening funny man.”

Did he and his ilk stand for anything?  Power for themselves and a fantasy of Britain when it ruled he world or seemed to.

Brexit was something they cooked up as students and young men well before they actually had any power, and their well-documented deception and fakery around the vote to remain or stay in Europe has changed history.

For the “Brexiteers,” Brexit was the grand cause [they] had lacked all their political careers.  It would give them a chance to live in interesting times, as their ancestors had.  It would raise the tediously low stakes of British politics.  It would be a glorious romantic act, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, only with less personal risk.”

Chums is a ruthless, penetrating, and very funny indictment of a tiny class of Britons who show no sign of letting go of power no matter how hapless or wrong their policies are.  They believed, in the words of author Anne Applebaum “that is was still possible for Britain to make the rules–whether the rules of trade, of economics, of foreign policy–if only their leaders would take the bull by the horns, take the bit between the teeth, if only they would just do it.”

The clichés are deliberate mockery of a caste that has done irreparable harm to Britain and its citizens.  While some of the names might be unfamiliar to American readers, the dynamics of contempt and wanton disregard for the public good while aiding the wealthy should feel very familiar. 

Listening to the latest Oxonian PM, Liz Truss, try to explain her new economic moves that have sent shock waves through the UK and beyond, I’m reminded of lines from The Maltese Falcon.  Humphrey Bogart asks Mary Astor “Was there any truth at all in that yarn?”  Her reply:  “Some…  Not very much.”

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and several public radio stations in Michigan.

Should You Write Every Day?




Lots of authors worry about the number of words they write per day. Some even post the tally on social media as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them? How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

If that kind of system works for you, fine. But as an author, editor, and writing teacher, I think it can be oppressive.  Too many writers believe that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read online about other people’s booming word counts.

How do they get caught in that kind of dead-end thinking? It’s thanks to the endless blogs and books urging writers who want to publish and stay published to write every day.  They make that sound not just doable, but the norm. Some days, though, it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. And why should it be?

I never urge my creative writing workshop students to write every day; I’ve suggested they try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While working on my 25th book, a suspense novel, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while I was on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic, as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some major fact-checking, too, because guns were involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had a workable outline and then a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a single day on the same book.

The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found that they finally flowed, it made me very happy. I was done for the day!

And if I didn’t write a word on any given day or days, I knew I would be, soon enough. Because the book was always writing itself in my head, whether I met some magical daily quota or not.

I don’t count how many words or pages I write a day, I focus on whether what I’ve written is good, or even if it has potential with revisions. That’s enough for me.

Lev Raphael has taught creative writing at Michigan State University.  He’s the prize-winning author of 27 books in many genres and has also published hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs.  He edits and coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Image by StockSnap at Pixabay

 

“Do Revenge” is Flawed–and Antisemitic

Netflix’s popular, steamy high school drama Elite is set in a madly upscale Spanish high school where almost everyone is impossibly beautiful or handsome, impeccably dressed in various versions of the school uniform, and engaged in plots and counter-plots to hassle a classmate for one reason or another. It’s total fantasy with almost zero actual classroom scenes.  Wild partying in lavish homes and clubs, heavy drinking, sex and striking attitudes take the place of education. Oh, and there’s a murder in that first season that triggers a police investigation reminiscent of Inside Man.

Watching the new Netflix movie Do Revenge, inspired by Strangers on the Train, you’ll see almost all of that plus hat tips to Clueless, Heathers, Cruel Intentions, and Mean Girls with less wit and a lot more viciousness masked as comedy.  No murder, though.

The two teenage girls at the center of the movie enacting vengeance on each other’s tormentors perform nasty criminal acts which I guess we’re supposed to find funny. And they do it to an upbeat soundtrack wearing colorful outfits when they’re not in uniform.  Even the scholarship girl who’s ashamed because her mother is a nurse and she doesn’t live in a mansion manages to look like a model in one scene after another.  Perfect clothes and jewelry, perfect hair, perfect makeup.

Adding to the overall unreality is the fact that as one Chicago film critic pointed out, most of the leads are in their mid-to-late twenties and they definitely look it. And there are some unbelievable plot twists that seem dreamed up by someone who was stoned at the time. 

But most egregiously, the writers update old anti-Semitic tropes: the movie’s villain is a Jew hater’s fever dream.  He’s vengeful, super-wealthy, politically connected, psychopathic, soulless, manipulative and bent on destruction just because it’s sport to him.  He’s even a sexual predator which is right out of the Nazi playbook.  His identification is teased before the end when he starts going totally off the rails and we now very clearly see that this monster has been wearing a Star of David. In case you missed it early on.  And even though it’s tiny, the camera keeps it central as he’s unmasked as a master manipulator and freaks out.

Oh, and before he does, he perversely uses a Yiddish word, kvell, the verb that expresses pride in something good, when he brags about all the misery he’s caused. 

That’s totally gratuitous, and the bond the two female leads form after having savaged each other profoundly just adds to the generally sour fantasy.  As they drive off at the end, maybe we’re meant to think of Romy and Michelle’s friendship, but they lack the charm and depth of those characters.

Do Revenge can be very funny in spots and has some good crisp dialogue, but as it got nastier by the minute, it felt as if the writers were more interested in indulging their bigotry and mining other people’s work than writing something truly original.   What’s sadder is that not one major film critic has noted the ugliness at the core of this film.

 

 

 

“Zero Fail” Tells Some Great Stories, But–

Carol Leonnig has done a good job tracing the roots and the routes of the Secret Service in what’s unfortunately an overly long and very choppy book. 

On the plus side, it’s fascinating to learn that the Secret Service was formed in 1865 in the Treasury Department as a group fighting massive counterfeiting.  It’s also intriguing to see how different presidents and First Ladies over time have placed unique demands and restrictions on the agents protecting them–or treated them in special ways.  Who can forget Barbara Bush giving agents leftovers from White House events or LBJ speaking to his agents while he was on the toilet?  How many of us knew that the Secret Service was so tradition-bound and arrogant that it interfered with their mission to protect the president?

That being said, the book is slow, gossip-filled, and profoundly repetitious as the author explains terms and events way too many times, sometimes even repeating information a few pages apart or less.  The sloppiness is matched by the apparent political bias. Republican presidents (and their wives) seem to get more favorable reporting than the Democratic ones, especially when it comes to the Clintons.  Did Leonnig really need to devote 20+ pages to Monica Lewinsky?  And why is Betty Ford absent and Carter’s presidency barely covered?

Then there’s the way Leonnig shades certain events.  She notes, for example, that when Obama beat Romney he got “slightly more than 51% of the vote” without mentioning the impressive Electoral College vote of 332 to 206.  Or that Obama won 5,000,000 more votes than his opponent.

The drumbeat through this book is bureaucratic infighting, trouble, shocking surprises, scandal, and dramatic, overdue change. The Secret Service is time and time again forced to improve security around the president when there’s an assassination attempt or terror attack. It seems to have been oddly reactive, not very forward-thinking, and often inept in trying to get increased funding from Congress. 

Just as problematic, its leaders worked hard to keep outrageous sexual scandals and problems with racism and sexism under wraps, sometimes lying to Congress.  Chapters where Leonnig describes massive failures by the Security Service and seething intra-agency rivalries have plenty of power and read as if they’re material for a miniseries.

The author has won several Pulitzer Prizes for her reporting in the Washington Post, so perhaps her publisher didn’t think editing and copy editing really mattered: the assumption was that the book would sell no matter how badly it was produced.  That’s too bad, because this could have been a gripping narrative, but at almost 500 pages it feels ponderous and overstuffed. 

As it stands, Zero Fail is undercut by constant repetition, like noting who someone works for twice in two pages, and by annoying descriptions of people that don’t match up: one Secret Service director is six feet four and then six feet three a few pages on.  When an author is that careless about a minor detail, can you really trust her on major ones?

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, The Huffington Post and other publications and several public radio stations in Michigan.  He’s the author of 27 book in many genres, one of which has sold 300,000 copies, and has seen his work appear in fifteen languages.

Sarah Perry’s Debut Novel is Wonderfully Bizarre

 

It’s a blistering summer in London after months of drought. Birds are dying in the street and people are fleeing the city for anyplace cooler. One of them is bookseller John Cole whose business has either collapsed or never been successful from the beginning. 

Unable to bear the heat, Cole leaves London, but he forgets his directions to his brother’s seaside home, has no GPS, gets lost and ends up at a house that is so creepy it might as well be haunted.

That house is dilapidated and inhabited by a motley assortment of people who could be refugees from the drought or former patients of a mental institution–or both.  One of them is obsessed by the possible collapse of a nearby dam and inspects it nude at midnight, another is a pastor who has lost his faith in God–or so he says.  Then there’s the mystery woman whom Cole instantly loathes and someone else who tries corrupting the pastor as if it’s a game.  Everyone there seems to see the world and themselves askew–or have some kind of secret.

The house is filled with strange rooms, strange packages, and these strange people, but the strangest of all is probably the man writing about his experiences among them: Cole.

Wandering from his abandoned car, he’s been cheerfully greeted as if he was expected but soon realizes that everyone’s mistaking him for someone with a similar name. Questions proliferate: What was the peculiar assemblage waiting for? Why does Cole continue to pretend to be someone else? Why not go back to his car and drive home?  What’s causing his crippling migraines? Does he really have a stutter and memory problems? Or is he actually mentally unstable?  Can we believe anything he says or is he hallucinating?  After all, when he comes upon the house that seems hidden in the woods, he says “It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat.”  Cole keeps referencing the heat and his exhaustion as if they’re inimical and malignant forces bent on torturing him.

The author has said she’s delighted that the book raises so many questions and has so many possible interpretations. 

This eerie, hypnotic novel is not as large in scope as Perry’s later books Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, but it’s just as captivating. And she’s as masterful a creepy story teller as Patrica Highsmith and Stephen King, both of whom seem to be just around the corner on every page.  It’s a gripping, haunting puzzle, mixing mystery and surrealism in beautiful proportions.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and three Michigan public radio stations, one of which hosted his author interview show.

“City on Fire” Has Big Aspirations

In my many years as a book reviewer I’ve seen publishers wildly hype their books as if the whole publicity department was on coke, but the jacket copy for Don Winslow’s latest book hits a new high for hyperbole.

His publisher lauds the book as “a towering achievement of storytelling genius” and “a contemporary Iliad.”  I guess they had no choice about the latter label since the author heads each section of the book with an epigraph from that poem.

But City on Fire is not an epic and doesn’t deserve that kind of adulation.  It’s a fairly clichéd story about warring Irish and Italian mobsters that feels as if the author binge-watched The Departed, GoodFellas, The Godfather and The Sopranos (and possibly Casino) before hitting his laptop

Familiarity isn’t the only problem. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and Winslow introduces too many of them too quickly, without enough identifying traits to make them clearly individualized.

One Amazon reviewer tartly observed that too many characters in the book have similar names: “You need a note card to keep track of who is on which side.”  Why didn’t Winslow’s editor suggest more variety?  That would have fixed passages like this one:

“They walk out onto the beach, where Pat’s helping Pasco dig clams out from the pit, and Peter and Paulie and their crew are standing there watching them.”

There’s a seemingly endless series of hits and counter-hits that can make you feel trapped in a violent Groundhog’s Day. And who thought it was a good idea to have several chapters of flashback after the opening chapter?  Or later on, dedicate almost twenty pages to one character’s backstory? 

As for the upper-crust femme fatale Pam who’s the catalyst for escalating violence, she’s way too bland and her Greenwich, Connecticut background too clichéd.  There’s also something comical about her being described as wearing a bikini “that does more to accentuate than conceal” her body.  Aren’t bikinis revealing by definition? Doesn’t the publisher employ copy editors?

When writing about Pam, Winslow can sound like a bad romance novelist.  Describing her transformation from a plain, acne-ridden girl to a beauty, he says this:

“It would be an exaggeration to say that it happened overnight, but it seemed to have happened overnight.  Looking into the mirror to scrub her face, she saw skin that was almost clear, as if some compassionate goddess had come during the night and stripped her of her shame….Over the next few weeks, the sun turned her skin a clear tan, baked her body into fine marble, bleached her ‘mousy’ hair to a golden blond, her eyes an oceanic blue.”

On the plus side, there are intriguing and sometimes humorous details about Rhode Island, a state most Americans don’t know much about.  By far the strongest aspect of City on Fire is the tough guy voice, but it’s not enough to carry the slow-moving and overly talky story for 350+ pages.  The heavy use of the present tense makes the book drag even more. 

In the end, epigraphs from The Iliad do not transmogrify any of the criminals in this book into Greek or Trojan heroes.  They just make everyone seem puny.


Lev Raphael was the longtime crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press before moving to public radio where he had his own interview show.

The Most Famous Woman You Never Heard Of

According to the author of this fascinating biography, the three most talked-about women in the 18th century were Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth Chudleigh.

Who was she?  A luxury-loving, experience-hungry Englishwoman who was dubbed the “Duchess-Countess” because of having married a duke and an earl.  Rising “from obscure West Country gentry” and though her finances were sometimes uncertain, she eventually moved in the highest circles of London society, was a royal maid of honor–and a bigamist. 

Though her impulsive and rocky first marriage was mostly a marriage in name only, it was never legally ended when she married one of England’s richest men, The Duke of Kingston.  She eventually stood trial for bigamy, complicated by complex legal maneuvering over what she inherited from her second husband.  Where there’s a will, there’s a fray. . . .

Chudleigh’s bigamy trial when she was in her fifties was an international sensation and in England it even overshadowed the growing war with the colonies.  As described in vivid detail, it had all the ceremony and magnetism of a coronation, given how rare it was for a peeress to be on trial in Parliament.  One newspaper reported “Imagination can hardy picture a more solemn, august, and at the same time brilliant appearance, than the court in Westminster Hall.” That trial wasn’t the end of her legal troubles, and readers will be fascinated by them as well as by her taking root in Russia of all places–for a while anyway.

The book offers dazzling and sometimes bizarre insight into a world of stupefying luxury: weird do’s and don’t for those who served royalty, mammoth dinners for a cast of thousands, lavish country and city homes decorated at an unbelievable cost, clothes and jewels worth millions.  It was all part of a highly rarefied lifestyle as decorous on the surface as a minuet, but treacherous if one made a misstep.

In 18th century England, Elizabeth Chudleigh almost always managed to dance that real and figurative dance with envious grace, style, and panache.  She wasn’t just beautiful and decorative: she was smart, educated, multilingual, charming, a wonderful conversationalist, intensely charismatic.  And as famous and controversial as any Kardashian today.

It’s too bad nobody recorded her conversation the way Boswell preserved Samuel Johnson’s bon mots and observations to make them a part of history.  We hear her letters crying for help at various points but don’t get to hear her at her most relaxed and impressive.

She was a woman of great appetites, loved commissioning new homes, loved doing a Grand Tour in Europe when that was still a man’s prerogative.  She was way ahead of her time in making sure she had good publicity–or trying to.  And of course the brightness of her star earned her plenty of detractors and even enemies.  Some of the best moments in this book are the sour comments about her in letters and diaries–you almost feel you’re reading trolls on a Twitter feed.  Their criticism is often sexist but sometimes legitimate as she was impetuous, impulsive and her plans sometimes led to “drama and debacle.”

At one point when she fled England for Rome, where the pope was a supporter, “as far as the locals were concerned, the voluptuous, peculiar, emotional Elizabeth was…a one-woman carnival.” Her travels here and there across Europe, especially when she was ill, are sometimes beyond belief and the author milks them for every juicy detail.  

The book is so filled with so much richness, however, that at times you might feel overwhelmed by names, banquets, vendettas, scandals, legal actions, and above all titles of nobility. It also seems a stretch for the author to keep speculating about whether Chudleigh suffered from borderline personality.

Duchess and Countess Elizabeth Chudleigh lived amazingly large, had amazing adventures, misadventures, famous friends and allies–and famous detractors.  She was a figure of admiration and emulation, and the focus of a unique trial.  This bountiful biography is the perfect material for a miniseries–not least for the grotesque Dickensian frenzy that erupted when Chudleigh died in Paris right before the French Revolution.

Lev Raphael’s first love as an English major was literature of the 18th century.  He is the author of twenty-seven books in many genres and has taught creative writing at Michigan State University where his  literary papers were purchased by Special Archives at MSU’s library.

“Echoes” on Netflix is Dumber than Dumb

Now and then I stick with a mystery novel or series not because it’s engrossing but because it’s such a mess I keep wondering if the writer or writers can possibly fix it by the end.  And I also wonder if it’s going to get much worse, which I guess could be classified as morbid curiosity.

That’s the case with the new Netflix miniseries Echoes, which is the dumbest mystery I’ve seen this year.

The twin sisters in Echoes aren’t just close, they’re interchangeable. Or so they believe. One lives in LA, the other in Virginia and every year they have a birthday together someplace fun like Paris.  Before they leave their joint celebration, the twins change clothes and identities. Then they go back home for a year until the next birthday bash and the next switch.

Okay–without any spoilers–we’re supposed to believe that each one sleeps with the other’s husband and neither husband notices the slightest difference in how they’re touched, kissed, fondled, whispered or cried out to.  Let’s forget sex for a moment. What about how they move, smile, laugh, read, walk and every other element of being themselves?  Are we supposed to believe the husbands are stupid and grossly unobservant?

It’s not just their husbands who seem completely blind. Their elderly father can’t seem to tell them apart either, and just as bizarrely, Eli’s daughter Mattie doesn’t notice that one year her mother is Gina and the next one it’s Eli.  One twin says their mother was the only one who could ever tell them  apart.  Yeah, right.

When the switching is finally revealed, one of the people affected by it actually thinks it’s just fine and all about “self-discovery.”  That scene is laughable and psychologically ridiculous.

The whole miniseries feels badly edited, badly written and badly thought out, with Michelle Monaghan looking as vexed as viewers might be when they wonder “What?  Seriously?”  time and again.  There’s a plot, apparently, involving a stolen horse that never makes much sense because it’s not clear why the horse is in Eli and Jack’s stable.  And they have money troubles that everybody in town seems to know about but are never fully explained.  Oh yeah, Gina goes missing, sort of.  There are thugs and jarring, cryptic flashbacks too.  And a murder.  Of course.  And a third sister who is never fully integrated into the story.

Just as bad as the general vagueness and unbelievability is the obnoxious score that says “This is ominous!” every few minutes no matter what Eli or Gina are doing.  You want to say to the composer: give it a rest, dude.

The cast of Monaghan, Matt Bomer, Daniel Sunjata and Karen Robinson are wasted on very thin material that might have worked better as a 2-hour TV movie than a 7-episode miniseries.  Might have–without the totally ridiculous ending.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction review for The Detroit Free Press and author of 27 books including 10 crime novels.

How James Bond Saved Britain

Have you been wondering who the next James Bond will be after Daniel Craig?  James Norton?  Idris Elba?  Theo James?  The maddening possibilities include Richard Madden, who’s the same height as beefy Daniel Craig, and the slighter and somewhat shorter Tom Holland.  Lots of women have been suggested too, actors like Ruth Negga, Lily James, Emilia Clarke, Claire Foy, Charlize Theron and Thandiwe Newton among others.

Have you exhausted yourself re-watching every single Bond movie with every single Bond?  Even the less-than-stellar films? 

Well, there’s a great book to engross and entertain you till the revelation of the New Bond is vouchsafed to eager theatergoers and streamers: Simon Winder’s hilarious The Man Who Saved Britain.  It’s my second read and I have to report that when I first had this marvelous book in my hands, I was on an author tour across the U.S. and startled passengers on planes and in airports because I kept laughing aloud at his wit.  Luckily this time around, I’m at home and can only alarm my dogs.

Part memoir, part geopolitical analysis, part literary survey, part history, part standup routine, the book explores the role of the wildly popular Bond books in the 1950’s and 60’s a time when Britain was exhausted by WWII, broke,  and losing the empire that had given it a feeling of being a world class power.  Early on in that period, Britain lacked food and fuel and despite having won the war, there was a widespread feeling that the country was a beggar at what was becoming an American feast (with Europe seated below the salt). 

Winder notes that the Bond novels’ “entire purpose can be seen as carrying forward the certainties many felt about the war into the disorienting bitterness of an ever more impotent Britain.” Winder pursues his own purpose of entertaining and skewering through sardonic humor and metaphors:

“The British governments of the 1950s now give out an overwhelming sense of weariness.  This was less true at the time because there was such a hail of events that they appeared quite busy, but it was only the seemingly busy behaviour of a corpse being dragged around by dogs.”

“James Bond can exist only because he is British.  No other country has developed an ideology over so many years that makes ever other nation so available, so pitiful and funny.  This has come from either ruling them or attacking them at various points.”

Bond’s creator Ian Fleming had an intelligence background, was part of the British elite, and created a tough hero who could save the world, or most of it, single-handedly. 

“As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed.  Bond in fact became in the 1960s pretty much the only British national capable of damaging anybody at all.”

Among many fine distinctions, Winder points out that the novels are far less gadget-focused than the movies and not nearly as flashy, but enough of them make for good, quick and dirty reads.  

And Bond in the novels isn’t as promiscuous as he is in the films, though the view of sex demonstrates what Winder calls “the male fantasy of a permanent, never-aging present in which an infinity of girls from around the world could be sampled in the manner of cigars.”

Winder is a deft analyst of every aspect of the books and the films, some of which he’s seen dozens of times.  So there’s something to ponder, deplore or laugh about on almost every page thanks to a dazzling, chatty, very British raconteur. The Man Who Saved Britain is a must-read for Bond fans and a superb window into a time when Britain was very different than it is today, though lingering animus towards Europe and general griping about its place in the world seem a flame that hasn’t died.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books including 10 crime novels.  He has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and Regents College in London.

(Full disclosure: Winder was one of my editors at St. Martin’s Press in New York thirty years ago and when I first found this book I didn’t know that he was also a writer, a comic, and a Bond aficionado living in London)

𝘿𝙖𝙧𝙠 𝙊𝙗𝙟𝙚𝙘𝙩𝙨 is a Solid Police Procedural

Soon after a body is found at a bizarre and brutal murder scene in London, we discover what the title of this police procedural refers to.  The dark objects are the “overturned and sometimes overlooked” things at a murder that may explain what happened.

However, one of the objects laid out in ritual fashion near the victim is anything but overlooked.  In fact, it’s a blaring message.  This object is a book about how to “read” murder scenes, written by Laughton Rees, the police commissioner’s long-estranged daughter.  Rees is a criminologist with “almost preternatural abilities to observe, process, and recall information.” In her university lectures, she only uses cold cases or solved cases, but she’s pulled into investigating this murder case at an ultra-chic, multi-million-pound home because of that book.

The discovery of her book opens up a whirlpool of grief and misery because years ago, her father led a high-profile investigation whose suspect ended up killing her mother.  And she saw it happen.  Rees blames her father, rejected all his offers of connection and has become obsessive compulsive to cope with her trauma.  She’s a deeply sympathetic character because it seems that her dark past “always catches up with her and swallows her whole, no matter how fast or how fast or how far she runs from it.”

Rees’s “partner” in the investigation is the resonantly-named inspector Tannahill Khan, but he’s not nearly as interesting as her or the sleazy reporter, Brian Slade, who will do anything to get a story with long legs into the tabloid he writes for.

The book’s strength is the detailed and fascinating police work and the focus on Rees’s suffering and attempts to stay stable, though a few things get in the way, including the slow pace.

It seems obligatory these days that any major figure in a mystery or TV crime series is the parent of a troubled teenager and Dark Objects checks off that box in spades. 

The writing could also have been more polished to avoid various kinds of repetition and lines like this one: “Tannahill watches, his brain trying to catch up with what just happened.” Then there’s the awkward and unattractive mix of fonts and spacing at various points. 

None of that truly damages the book and the fault lies with the editing and design, not the author.  A bigger issue is the trick ending with a wildly unbelievable confession. 

All the same, filled with biting social commentary, Dark Objects has enough for police procedural fans to enjoy on a few hot summer nights.

Lev Raphael was the long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten crime novels.