Review Catch-Up – McBain, Berthon, Ishiguro

Driving Lessons by Ed McBain

McBain is most famous for his many 57th Precinct novels, but he has written many other books too. This slim book from 1999 was part of a series of novellas from Orion called Criminal Records. Some were published separately, the others anthologised in one volume edited by Otto Penzler.

A sixteen-year-old girl goes for a driving lesson which ends in tragedy when she fatally injures a woman. It would appear to be a cut and dried case, but there are puzzling inconsistencies. It begins thus:

The girl looked sixteen and blonde, and the man looked thirty-two and dazed. The responding blues were questioning the girl and try to question the man who’d been in the vehicle. There weren’t expecting much from the man, not in his condition.

They thought at first he was drunk even though he didn’t smell of alcohol. The girl was cold sober. Hysterical because she’d just run somebody over, but cold sober nevertheless. She was the one who’d been driving the car.

It gets further complicated when the victim is revealed to be the driving instructor’s wife!  This short novella has some great plotting as you’d expect from McBain.   (7.5/10)

Source: Own copy.  

Ed McBain, Driving Lessons (Orion, 1999) hardback, 72 pages.   BUY from AMAZON UK (affiliate link).

Woman of State by Simon Berthon

This dual timeline thriller is set during the early 1990s in Belfast and Dublin, and the present day. It begins in Belfast in 1991, before the peace process begins. Maire Anne McCartney is persuaded by her boyfriend to be part of a honey trap IRA operation to let an undercover British policeman that they’re onto him. She reluctantly agrees on condition that there is no violence, but the man is murdered. She has to flee across the border and lie low while continuing her studies taking a law degree at Trinity College, Dublin. It’s there in the library that she meets the love of her life, David Vallely, an Englishman, whose father served in the army and had died in the Falklands.

In the present, Anne-Marie Gallagher is a human rights lawyer in London, a rising star in the legal world who is persuaded to stand as an MP.  Elected, her skills are immediately in demand and she is given a junior ministry at the Home Office as Minister of State for Security and Immigration. An intensely private person with a new name, she never expects her past to catch up with her. But when an anonymous call to the Belfast police tells them where to find a body, and later Anne-Marie gets a call from her old boyfriend, she will need to tread very carefully if her life is not to collapse around her.

This is a solid political thriller, with a suitably complex plot in which the only person you ever feel you can trust is the Belfast policeman who is investigating the body. He is a dogged seeker of the truth, which gets more and more twisted as various layers of the security services are involved. However, even DCI Carne has his weaknesses – of that I shall say no more. Maire/Anne-Marie is another matter – it is surely impossible to believe that her history could remain secret in today’s culture where we insist on knowing everything about those elected to office.  I could understand her initial naivety as a teenaged hanger-on to a group of very young men, but once she’s in office, I found it very hard to believe in her as a credible character.

This is all teased out by alternating between the two time-lines over the book’s 400+ pages.  Some of the developments were obvious, but I kept on reading, wondering if – or when – Anne-Marie’s murky past would be revealed. Berthon has used his experience as a documentary maker of films about the situation in Ireland to good effect, especially in the sense of place and the tension in the Belfast settings. Ditto for protocol inside the Home Office in a smaller way – I liked Hinds, Anne-Marie’s driver, a man of discretion, and contacts.

In summary, this was an interesting debut that would probably transfer well to the small screen. I enjoyed it even if I didn’t like Anne-Marie. (7.5/10)

P.S. For the paperback edition out this week, this novel has been retitled as A Secret Worth Killing For (a good move I think).

Source: Review copy

Simon Berthon, Woman of State (HQ, 2017) – paperback, 432 pages.  BUY at AMAZON UK (affiliate link)

My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs by Kazuo Ishiguro

A long title for a short little book of some 36 pages, this is the published text of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture delivered in Stockholm last December. In it, he discusses his own personal development as a writer, his arrival in East Anglia to take part in the Creative Writing course at UEA, complete with long hair and bandit style moustache, his personal influences, how his heritage has affected him and his writing, and more.

I shall leave you with a quote from his closing appeal to the audience:

… if we are to get the best from the writers of today and tomorrow, I believe we must become more diverse. I mean this in two particular senses.
Firstly, we must widen our common literary world to include many more voices from beyond our comfort zones of the elite first-world cultures. We must search more energetically to discover the gems from what remain today unknown literary cultures, whether the writers live in faraway countries or within our own communities. Second, we must take great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature.  We must keep our minds open to them [the next generation], especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. … Good writing and good reading will break down barriers.


Source: Own copy

BUY at AMAZON UK (affiliate link)


5 thoughts on “Review Catch-Up – McBain, Berthon, Ishiguro

  1. alison41 says:

    Enjoyed the final paragraph IK’s finale to his speech. Whenever I read translated fiction I generally encounter something fresh, new and/or wonderful.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      He’s absolutely right. I’m loving translated and world fiction too … my general trend is up, this year I’ve already read books from Sudan, Nigeria and Latvia as well as French/German/Italian/Scandi – doing well.

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