Saturday, 29 September 2012

A potpourri of murders

I'm so behind on blogging at the moment that I thought I'd better do one of those round-up posts, before I try to make my brain function properly long enough to do last month's Alan Garner reading justice. This month's reading has mainly involved murder - it's the time of year, both in that R.I.P.VII is running until Hallowe'en, and the darkening nights seem to predispose one to drawn curtains and delicious frights. So here goes:

Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm: the librarian recommended this when I returned Moon Over Soho (which is very nearly as good as Rivers of London, I'm glad to say). Our protagonist is a Collector, sent to harvest the souls of evildoers. Despite the fact that he does this because he made his own pact with the dark side, he's not entirely irredeemable. For a start he doesn't much like taking over living people when he needs a body in which to carry out his orders, preferring to find someone as recently dead as possible, and when his next victim is someone he's pretty sure is innocent of the crimes she's been accused of, he starts to wonder whether there is something going on. Conflict with both demons and angels ensues and of course we learn how Sam got to be a Collector in the first place. This is gripping stuff: there are plenty of bodies, lots of haring around the streets of New York, some excitement with a helicopter and the start of a series.

Skulduggery by William Marshall: I love Marshall and his Hong Kong detectives, and this one gets into my Century of Books, being published in 1981). As usual in the Yellowthread books there is more than one crime under investigation: Auden is in an apartment block trying to catch a mugger who attacks people who arrive on the third floor, despite the fact that the elevator doors won't open on that floor. Spencer is staking out Mr Fan's shop, mostly to the irritation of Mr Fan the money changer, who doesn't think he's much use. Inspector Christopher O'Yee is holding the fort in the Detectives' Room of the Yellowthread Street Police Station, and battling the cold with his Exploding Radiator, when a call comes in to say that a body has been found floating on a raft in Hong Bay, a 20-year-old skeleton with a hole in its skull and a set of false teeth. DCI Harry Feiffer, aided and abetted by the pathologist who examines the skeleton, is determined that this is not going to be shelved as an unsolvable crime. Will the dead fish which accompanied the skeleton on the raft prove to be a red herring? Auden and the elevator provide one of the most delectable subplots I know (this was a re-read).

Jerusalem Inn by Martha Grimes (1984): the Richard Jury series is slightly odd in that they are set in England but written by an American. They are quite enjoyable, though, and all named for pubs (some of them very exotically so, viz. I Am the Only Running Footman). This one was set in the north-east, suitably snow-bound, though some of the local detail made me raise an eyebrow. I don't think buttered beer has seen the light of day in Britain for some years (fifty or so?), and I've never heard of "bunty sandwiches". Did she mean "butty"? They are certainly popular up here being essentially something nice and unhealthy (chips - french fries, nice thick ones - or bacon), between two slices of white bread, and they are indeed very good for keeping the cold out. Perhaps some northerner could enlighten me, if there's a local delicacy that I've somehow managed to miss. Anyhow, nice Mr Jury meets nice woman at Washington Old Hall while he's visiting his cousin in Newcastle, but then there's a death and he's itching to get involved. Fortunately the local constabulary is amenable. His friend Melrose Plant turns up too, for a chilly country weekend, with ghastly hanger-on Aunt Agatha inevitably in tow. She can't bear that Melrose has renounced his title and is provided with lots of opportunity to loudly bewail his decision when they meet a young man who'd really rather not be a marquess. Good clean fun, as they say.

I think that's enough for now. More shortly. These count towards R.I.P.VII as well.

R.I.P.VII: Down on the Farm by Charles Stross

After years as a lowly technical support officer, Bob Howard is newly-qualified as a field operative at The Laundry, "that branch of the British secret state tasked with defending the realm from the scum of the multiverse, using the tools of applied computational demonology". He's been sent to investigate "something odd" which is going on at the Funny Farm, aka St Hilda of Grantham’s Home For Disgruntled Waifs And Strays, aka the place where Laundry employees who couldn't take the heat any more end up. In their incarceration, the asylum's patients remain a dangerous bunch:
The thing is, magic is a branch of applied mathematics, and the inmates here are not only mad: they’re computer science graduates. That’s why they came to the attention of the Laundry in the first place, and it’s also why they ultimately ended up in the Farm, where we can keep them away from sharp pointy things and diagrams with the wrong sort of angles. But it’s difficult to make sure they’re safe. You can solve theorems with a blackboard if you have to, after all, or in your head, if you dare. Green crayon on the walls of a padded cell takes on a whole different level of menace in the Funny Farm: in fact, many of the inmates aren’t allowed writing implements, and blank paper is carefully controlled — never mind electronic devices of any kind.
I'd love to tell you about Matron and the Sisters, but it would be spoiling the pleasure of the story for you. But you can read "Down on the Farm" for yourself on the Tor website - if you enjoy it, you'll find the first of Bob's adventures in The Atrocity Archive, which comes bound with novella The Concrete Jungle, and which pretty much follows on from it. If you're allergic to techspeak and computer nerd jokes they may not be for you, so this story is an excellent way to see if you'll like it. Yes, there are some jokes/references in the story you won't get if you haven't read the books, but it stands on its own as an introduction both to Stross's sense of humour and an approach to story-telling which stands somewhere between Len Deighton and H.P. Lovecraft (both influences the author acknowledges). The writing style is very much the former, though I think Bob is a little more appealing that the narrator of The Ipcress Files (but that may be just me); the monsters are definitely from the latter. Stross is clearly a Neal Stephenson fan too, but then, what computer geek isn't?

In a postscript to The Atrocity Archives (plural for the book, singular for the novel - still with me?) Stross has some interesting things to say about spy fiction, inspired by the Cold War, and horror fiction, which took off rather earlier, and the possible role of the computer nerd in both as a trickster character. The Laundry Files themselves date back to the very end of the last century (talk of palmtop computers may make you snigger) placing them at the beginning of a wave of urban fantasy that's become very fashionable (think Ben Aaronovitch, for instance), and I like them, and this story, for their slightly clunky feel, and their glorious ragbag of technology. There's something very British about them.

Read for R.I.P.VII.