Fiction Reviews

Smoked

by Patrick Quinlan

(Headline Review)

Barbara Ludman

Patrick Quinlan channels Quentin Tarantino in this thriller, which moves along at a good pace with a cast of weird and occasionally wonderful characters. Smoke Dugan is an ageing assassin who has salted away the $2,5million he neglected to hand over to his employers after his last job, preferring to take early retirement instead. His gorgeous girlfriend Lola Bell has spent the decade since a gang rape in her teens learning martial arts, and as the book opens she disables a couple of pornographers.

Young professional killer Denny Cruz, sent by the Mob to retrieve the money and bring Dugan back dead or alive, is losing interest in his craft.
Perhaps suspecting his hesitancy, his employers lumber him with a couple of assistants: an idiotic car thief and a huge bear of a fellow who loves to kill people—anybody, he’s not choosy. The pornographers, meanwhile, are on Lola’s trail. The rest is inevitable: a chase story through the small towns and backwoods of Maine.

This is Quinlan’s first novel, and perhaps because of that it’s replete with more sadism and gore than it needs. Still, it has a lot going for it, including a lightness of touch and the humanity one finds in the work of Elmore Leonard, whom Quinlan declares is his hero. It is lacking only the humour that distinguishes Tarantino films and Carl Hiaasen novels. Perhaps that will turn up in the sequel, due out later this year.

The Murmur of Stones

by Thomas H Cook

(Quercus)

Pat Schwartz

The fine line between genius and madness is the theme of this gripping story of a frighteningly dysfunctional family. Part detective story, part psychological thriller, it explores the nature of obsession and the seductive power of fanaticism.

Diana Sears grew up caring for and in thrall to her cruelly brilliant schizophrenic father. When her only son, Jason, also diagnosed as schizophrenic, drowns, she refuses to accept the inquest verdict that it was an accident and sets out to find the perpetrator—fixating on her estranged husband. In the process of her search she draws in her brother David, the book’s narrator, and, dangerously, David’s beloved daughter.

Thomas H Cook, a compellingly intelligent writer, creates a cast of characters whose multi-dimensionality demands attention. The result is that the “whodunnit?” becomes the “why?”, even the “if”—sometimes a far more fascinating question.

The Scent of the Night

by Andrea Camilleri

(Picador)

Darryl Accone

Salvo Montalbano’s sixth outing is something of an interlude. Andrea Camilleri, his creator—though co-conspirator might be a better appellation—acknowledges this in an author’s note at the back of the book, describing Montalbano’s investigation here of a financial crime as “sort of a divertissement”.

Nothing wrong with a change of pace in the series, and of course that doesn’t betoken a lack of Sicilian violence. But it is rather odd watching Montalbano tackle what at first seems a purely white-collar crime. It’s also becoming odd to wade through the over-exuberant mouthings of Catarella, the hyper-excitable and over-adrenalinised desk officer. Perhaps it’s a flaw in the otherwise engaging renderings by Stephen Sartarelli, who has translated all the Montalbano books.

In this story, Camilleri skilfully weaves together present expedience and the inescapably formative experiences of the past. Emanuele Gargano, the honey-tongued head of King Midas Associates, one day fails to turn up for a meeting with investors. Later it transpires that his young right-hand man Giacomo has also disappeared. Billions of lire have gone with them.

Montalbano approaches the case with the elliptical methods loved by his fans, if not his boss, Commissioner Bonetti-Alderighi. (How one misses the sage, cultured and well-read former commissioner, now retired.) There are other impediments. The fate of the inspector’s favourite place of rumination, the ancient Saracen olive tree, for one.

Then there is the brazen eroticism of Michela, one of Giacomo’s co-workers, whose attentions Montalbano must divert. The long-distance difficulties of his relationship with Livia continue, as do their worries about Francois, the young boy they tried to adopt after the adventures detailed in The Snack Thief (the third Montalbano).

Deploying his sympathetic understanding of human nature, the inspector realises that this financial crime has its roots in the human heart, which leads him to a denouement of great pathos. This is Camilleri not only in his usual splendid pomp, but also with a deeper humanism at work.

Nature Girl

by Carl Hiaasen

(Bantam)

Darryl Accone

Environmental advocacy doesn’t come more effectively than in Carl Hiaasen’s novels. His particular blend of humour and satire has probably done more to raise consciousness about the destruction of Florida fauna and flora than a thousand earnest protests.

He has had other worthy targets: the cosmetic surgery industry was pilloried and parodied in Skin Tight; the opportunists who follow in the wake of natural disasters were nailed in Stormy Weather, which is eerie to re-read after Hurricane Katrina.

In his latest, Nature Girl, Hiaasen turns his merciless gaze on the telemarketing industry. Disturbed at dinner for the umpteenth time, and by a telemarketer (or should that be telemarketeer?) who vilifies her to boot, the bipolar Honey Santana plans an elaborate and exquisite revenge: a re-education trip to the Everglades for the abusive caller.

This being the world according to Hiaasen, there are multiple stories that finally intersect on a mosquito-infested island on which there also just happen to be Honey’s ex-employer, in lust for her; a young Seminole lying low after a drunken tourist died on his boat; and Honey’s ex-husband and her son, anxious to save her from herself, among others.

It is hallmark Hiaasen, but I can’t escape the feeling that ever since Stormy Weather and Sick Puppy he has been over-egging his plots (if such a thing is possible, given his screwball and over-the-top baselines). Nature Girl might be a little too self-consciously riotous to be convincing, though given that Florida has twice elected George W Bush, just about anything is possible down there.

The Heavens May Fall

by Unity Dow

(Double Storey)

Percy Zvomuya

he arid landscape of Botswana High Court Judge Unity Dow’s fourth novel is peopled as much by wronged and oppressed women as it is with reckless men who cannot keep their flies closed.

That may seem a rather harsh reading because not all men in the book are evil. The female narrator’s father, for one, raised her after the early death of his wife. But literally a few good men aside, the novel is an indictment of a patriarchal justice system that keeps women in conditions that a 19th-century Eastern European serf would find fleetingly and oddly familiar.

The Heavens May Fall starts slowly, only picking up halfway through. It is about Naledi Chaba, an ambitious lawyer working for Bana Banhle Agency, a children and women’s advocacy non-governmental organisation.

The first half explores the murky politics of the NGO world with its peculiar intrigue and rivalries. Equally central is Botswana’s patriarchy, which refuses to countenance lesbianism: “What can women do on their own?” one parliamentarian sniggers.

The sluggish start to the plot is jolted when Naledi takes on the case of a 15-year-old girl who has been raped by a sub-tenant at her grandparents’ home. The ambitious Naledi takes the judicial system on, and it is then that the secret past of one of the high court judges suddenly becomes central to the plot.

Before this I sometimes felt that the novel read like whole chunks of court records excised and dropped into its pages, which made it somewhat stodgy but at the same time lent a certain authenticity.

Furthermore, as I read, it felt at times more like a piece of advocacy than a work of art—but, then again, the book is narrated by a lawyer for an advocacy agency.

In the end, all this does not make the book any less gripping. It manages to break down into accessible language the legal complexities that continue to make the law as alien as it is oppressive. The book also shows how in Africa and elsewhere the law has been used as a tool to perpetuate the hegemony of the strong over the weak, men over women and, in Botswana, the majority Tswana over the San.

The Heavens May Fall is a readable book that manages to be informative without being pedantic, anti-chauvinist without setting a lynch mob against men, and populist without being banal.

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