LAST GREAT READS FOR MARCH, 2018
Now We Are Dead, by Stuart MacBride
Mr MacBride’s archetypical burnt-out but brilliant copper Logan Macrae features only peripherally here; instead the floor is given to Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel, proudly gay and relentless enemy of Aberdeen’s bad guys – until her illegal efforts to put rapist Jack Wallace behind bars result in exposure, a court case, and demotion to Detective Sergeant. And an insatiable desire for revenge against the Motherfunker who dobbed her in – Logan Macrae. (See review below).
To add awful insult to terrible injury, the brutal rapes are still happening, and with each new crime, the ‘raping wee shite’ she put away (now released from prison and trumpeting his innocence all over the media) cannot resist sending a video of himself and ‘friends’ going to the movies, having dinner, clubbing – all at the exact times that the rapes occurred: Roberta knows Wallace is behind each crime, but proof is impossible to come by and it is not long before she is in trouble with her superiors – again! – for surveilling the Wee Shite’s house, much to his delight; he has a video of her doing just that and he has made an official complaint of harassment to her boss. Just what she needs. To make matters even worse, she is told that if she keeps up with the harassment, she won’t just be losing her job, but her behaviour will be terminating the job of her long-suffering but protective assistant Detective Constable Tufty, in her opinion a ‘useless wee spud’ – but her useless wee spud. She’s on a final warning.
There is an element of Keystone Cops to the opening chapters of ‘Now We Are Dead’; there is lots of comedy, clever repartee, not to mention cheeky young kids training to be tomorrow’s crims, but Mr MacBride brings us all back to cruel, stark reality with Steel and Tufty’s efforts to prosecute a debt collector for ruthlessly beating an old lady and cooking her little dog in her microwave, and the discovery by them of an eight month old baby left in his cot with a tin of dog food while his mother died from an overdose on the filthy mattress in front of him. In both cases, the neighbours refuse to give evidence: in the baby’s case the neighbours got out the air freshener when the smells got worse. Which proves that such is Mr MacBride’s storytelling skill he can take readers anywhere he likes on the emotional spectrum that he chooses, and it is not always a comfortable journey.
It is clear too, that Steel and Tufty are in line for a very messy showdown with Raping Wee Shite Jack Wallace; once again it isn’t pretty, but again Mr MacBride demonstrates his effortless mastery of the Crime genre. My only criticism is that he doesn’t write his stories quickly enough: there should be one every six months, not a measly one per year! FIVE STARS.
In the Cold Dark Ground, by Stuart MacBride
Logan Balmoral MacRae is back, and about time, too, I say! In the tried and true genre of Crime fiction – you know; burnt-out detectives with shattered private lives but an uncanny knack for solving the most difficult crimes – well, Burn-Out Logan makes his recent experience of demotion to Police Sergeant in a small but dreary town in North East Scotland entirely credible. Yes, he – and his team of fellow reprobate law-enforcers - all suffer from varying degrees of exhaustion and burn-out, but policing anywhere is a tough job: someone has to do it and they’ve put their hands up. More fools them.
Not much has changed since Logan’s last appearance in ‘The Missing and the Dead’ except to worsen: his beloved girlfriend Samantha has been in a coma for five years (truly!). She will never wake and he has been told by hospital staff that it is time to say goodbye, a situation he has been dreading and shying away from even though his rational mind knows it is inevitable. Another death is imminent: wee Hamish Mowat, crime boss supreme of Aberdeen is in the terminal stages of cancer. In a last conversation with Logan, wee Hamish informs him that he wishes Logan to take control of his empire for he knows that upon his death all the other crime lords from near and far will be circling like vultures, ready to break up his ‘life’s work’: he is convinced that Logan (despite the fact that he is a Police Officer – how I wish I’d read all those earlier books!) will be the only one strong enough to hold it all together. All this under the homicidally jealous eye of Reuben, the Reubenator, wee Hamish’s wing man who has the intimidatory strength to keep things going – but not the brains. Reuben hates Logan, and Logan knows it is only a matter of time before the Reubenator mounts an attack.
He is almost relieved when a conventional murder rears its ugly head: a man’s naked body is found in the woods, hands bound behind his back and a rubbish bag taped over his head. Despite the classic imitation of a local gangland-style killing, Logan is not convinced that the Bad Guys actually did this – for once, they are innocent – of this crime, anyway, and when the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen (still run by his old boss and friend – and proud lesbian – DCI Steel) mounts an investigation, his suspicions prove to be correct.
Sadly, Logan’s week from Hell doesn’t end there: he is also asked by the Police Internal Professional Standards division to covertly investigate DCI Steel: there is suspicion that she manufactured evidence to send a sexual predator and rapist to jail. As much as everyone abhors his crimes (for which he was never convicted) Scottish justice has to be SEEN to be done: who better to investigate Roberta Steel, than her trusted friend and confidante, the turkey-baster father of her children, Logan Balmoral MacRae. Yes, let’s add betrayal to the list of Logan’s Lousy Week.
Last but not least, a new Superintendent from the Serious Organised Crime Task Force is visiting and seems have taken an inexplicable and irrational dislike to him, thus making his life doubly miserable. Could anything else go wrong? Well, of course it can and it does, at a breakneck pace that this reader could barely stand – I wanted to yell ‘Slow down, slow down!!’ – and all because I didn’t want this mighty episode in the hapless (but not entirely hopeless) life and times of Logan to end. Stuart MacBride is a storyteller Extraordinaire, a superb wordsmith who is in the enviable position of being unable to write fast enough to supply his readers’ demands. FIVE STARS
Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
This is the second volume of stories concerning Lucy Barton, that damaged little girl who managed to escape her horrific upbringing in a small Midwestern town to make a name for herself in New York as a writer – not without more damage on the way; her first marriage is over; her girls are grown and have their own lives (in fact they barely get a mention in this volume), and she has married again: now, because she is on a national tour to promote her latest book and has reached Chicago, not far from her birthplace, she feels it is time to be brave, bite the bullet and make contact again with the surviving members of her family, her sister Vicky and brother Pete.
As in ‘Olive Kitteridge’, (my Fave! see review below)Lucy’s tale is continued in a short story format, introducing characters who knew her family and her as a child, like Tommy Guptill who originally employed Lucy’s father on his dairy farm until the night the barns burned down and he and his family were left with nothing: he got a job as janitor for the local high school and was sad to see that Lucy Barton was always the last to leave the classroom; in fact he came upon her there one night as she slept: she was there because it was warm. Now he is trying to coax her brother Pete out into the world again, for Pete has become a recluse and needs to see that the world is not as frightening as Pete believes. Unfortunately for Tommy’s hard-won peace of mind, his overtures of friendship reveal a secret that should have stayed buried.
And the Nicely family – the Pretty Nicely girls, the town called the daughters: they looked down on Lucy’s family and rightly so, them being so dirt-poor, but the girls’ Mama used Mrs Barton from time to time for sewing and alterations: it was the least she could do – until it was eventually revealed that Mrs Nicely lived in a Glass House, and her days of throwing stones were over. Her behaviour and subsequent divorce for adultery had such an impact on the Pretty Nicely girls that their small town lives were changed forever, especially Patty Nicely, who has taken refuge in food and is known at the high school where she works as a Guidance councillor as Fatty Patty. Unfortunately too for Fatty Patty, she has to advise Lucy’s niece Lila, daughter of Vicky, on future career options: Lila is feeling rebellious and insulting, especially about Patty’s weight and the meeting degenerates into a horrible slanging match – which doesn’t surprise Patty; it’s typical of that family! Until she decides to buy a copy of Lucy’s latest book, prominently displayed in the local bookshop – and unexpectedly finds optimism and positive truths that she can apply to her own circumstances.
Lucy’s meeting with Vicky and Pete takes place, but produces such a flood of awful reminiscences (like the time their mother came home to find that Vicky was crying over something that had happened at school; she couldn’t stand the children to cry, so when Vicky couldn’t stop she got her shears and cut up every piece of Vicky’s clothing – then sewed it all back together like horrible patchwork so that Vicky had something to wear the next day) that she has a panic attack and is forced flee back to Chicago and the safe anonymity of her other life. Her brother and sister have to stay where they are: they have nowhere to flee to.
Ms Strout has produced another small masterpiece of connections near and far, with characters as finely wrought as a Vermeer painting and prose as lucid and clear as the light he painted so beautifully: how fortunate are we to enjoy such literary wealth. SIX STARS!
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.
Lucy Barton is languishing in hospital in New York, the victim of an infection that has turned a short stay for an appendix operation into a hugely expensive nine-week-long endurance test for her, especially when the family friend entrusted to look after her two daughters brings them to visit her with grubby faces and dirty hair. Even worse, her husband hates hospitals and each visit by him is an obvious feat of will: the situation is not conducive to promoting rest and the return of strength necessary for Lucy’s discharge.
Until she wakes one day to find an unfamiliar figure seated at the foot of her bed. At Lucy’s husband’s request and subsequent expense, her mother has flown from her small town in Illinois to spend time with Lucy – which she literally does, not leaving her bedside for the five-day duration of her visit. The nurses offered to provide a cot for her, but Lucy’s mum preferred the chair, she said.
Mum’s visit would be the norm, indeed expected in any extended family, except that Lucy’s family were not given to normal displays of emotion; indeed it was imperative for the survival of Lucy, her sister and brother that they ask for nothing, expect nothing – and when they got nothing, not to be surprised. The family’s poverty was abject, even though her parents worked every daylight hour to keep the family fed, and because they all lived in a garage, the family was also known as dirty as well as poor, labels that, had Lucy stayed in that town, would have branded her for life.
Fortunately for Lucy, she had secret dreams, dreams of being a writer which were nurtured by a sympathetic teacher who was instrumental in helping her get a scholarship to a college in Chicago: Lucy is on her way, ready to leave her brutal past behind. She gradually transforms her life, falling in love with William, her husband, and giving birth to her beloved daughters. She has success as a writer, too, which she hopes will make her parents proud, but who would know? Their reactions to her academic success and marital stability are decidedly low-key; she has not seen them for years and they have never seen their grandchildren. Therefore, her mother’s presence at her sickbed, welcome as it is, is a surreal experience for Lucy. Why is she here?
Ms Strout has constructed, as always, a story of great power encapsulated within the pages of a very slim volume. She describes the rocks and shoals of familial love – and conflict – painfully and honestly. We readers cannot turn away from the many truths revealed, nor should we want to.
Initially, I was confused by Lucy’s revelations, some of them huge, that were dropped like bombshells casually into the narrative; it was only at the end that it was announced that this is the first book of a series called ‘Anything is Possible’. Presumably, more will be revealed of the bombshells (and their craters) in subsequent volumes, for Elizabeth Strout is a writer sublime. My introduction to her was ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (see review below) – I became her Biggest Fan (along with the many millions of others) after reading that gem, and I haven’t changed my opinion. FOUR STARS.
AN OLDIE BUT A GOODIE!
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.
Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman. She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial: she makes a positive difference to many lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting: her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories; each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake; the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’ Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.
Which begs the question: why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?
Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers. And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character; outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice; an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence. Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon. SIX STARS!